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They say the longer you’re under, the more you lose yourself.

The trouble is, what do you do when who you were is still merely a ghost of who you were before?

Who comes out the other side?

It starts, as so many things do, with a cup of coffee.

She watches him, this gentle older woman who’s probably closer to his age than he thinks, with an air of trepidation. Part of it, he learns after the fact, has more to do with her own hang-ups than anything else. The little wrinkle above her nose, Elliot will end up attributing to the misgivings of his fate and fortunes, but there’s a certain sort of melancholy in her eyes as she surveys the grounds, a curiosity in the eager way she begs for Reggie’s ear.

Why don’t you tell her how you feel— the person you love?

Later, when good ol’ Uncle Albi places a goddamn rocket launcher in his hands, Elliot will think of the armaments he’s placed in the hands of the men behind him, and he’ll remember the distinct pop-bang of Bell’s gun going off twice in quick succession in the hospital three months ago, bullets sinking solidly into Morales’ chest.

I need you, Wheatley had said on his behalf, and Olivia had heeded the call and come to battle at his side.

It starts, really, when Reggie follows him back to the RV he’s got set up tucked away from prying eyes so that Elliot can change into a fresh set of clothes before they head out on their next assignment. Elliot’s not sure who’s calling the shots at this point, Albi or Kosta or Webb, but it’s still early in their… partnership— and god, Elliot hates to use that word for these pieces of shit because they don’t even know the fucking meaning of the word. There’s still time to suss out which way the wind will end up blowing, and in the meantime any information he can pass along to Bell (and Brewster, he guesses) will still have value in the long run.

He can’t help lingering when he peels off his old shirt to change, fingertips grazing along the scars littered across his skin. He’s taken more than his fair share of bullets and blades over the years, and there’s still a slight bruise on his abdomen from where he’d been punched last week. These are the pieces of him he can show in the light— a fake story to go along with each one, should someone ask. But Elliot lived them, bore them, and he knows the truth buried beneath scar tissue. They’re pieces of himself he can cling to the longer he’s under, reminders of where he’s been, what he’s survived.

Who he is.

The tattoos, on the other hand, feel like a ticking time— feel like exposing himself to the elements. He hasn’t put much thought into the decisions Eddie— Ashes would have made prior to having ink embedded into his skin, but it’s an oversight Elliot feels like he can get away with for the time being. Tattoos are hardly rare amongst the Albanians— amongst the Kosta Organization, and even Reggie hasn’t bothered asking where they’re from or why he’d gotten them in the first place.

He’s halfway to tugging on a… relatively clean shirt when Reggie leans down to pick up Elliot’s fake wallet from where it had dropped on the RV floor. Elliot holds his hand out idly, waiting for Reggie to pass it over, but Reggie just… holds it for a minute, gaze trained on the inside. “This her?” he asks after a minute.


“The person Ma was talking about with your grounds— the woman you love.”

On cue, Reggie turns the open wallet toward him, the small photograph tucked inside on full display. It’s a fucking ancient photo, black and white and faded beyond belief, but it’s a favorite, and the echoes of pop-bang hit Elliot square in the chest as he takes the wallet from Reggie and runs his thumb across the width of it. It may be the actual oldest photograph left in existence he has of him and Olivia, back from that first year of their partnership— fresh-faced and at ease with one another with a determined sort of spark in their eyes. They’re not the same people they were back then — hell, that’d even been true at the time he left SVU ten years ago — but this, like his scars, his ink, is a reminder of who he’s been. It’s a piece of himself he can reach for when things start to get a little too dark— a talisman of his heart and a place to keep his love safe.

And if he’s reached for it some nights in the last few months to bless himself with more than the mere memory of her while he’s jerked himself off in earnest in this miserable fucking bed without a soul to talk to and nothing but the thoughts in his head, well, he can hardly blame himself for it.

“Yeah,” Elliot says at last, surprised at how rough his voice sounds as he pockets the wallet. “She’s— that’s her.”

Reggie cocks a bemused little smile at him and leans against the wall, arms folded over his chest. “Well why don’t you?” he asks— teases, Elliot realizes, and for a fleeting moment there’s a familiar sort of guilt that leaves his stomach churning. “Tell her how you feel?”

Elliot shakes his head and does up his buttons, nodding toward the door. “We ran together before,” he says, as close to the truth as he can get. “Things… didn’t work out. I left for a while. We’ve been talking since I’ve been back in the city, but it’s not— I don’t know. There’s a lot of history there I’m not sure we can get past.”

“Yeah, I hear you,” Reggie sighs as they emerge back out into the night.

Olivia sticks with him the rest of the night, and not for the first time, Elliot finds himself longing to hear her voice.

The sound of breaks squealing haunts his fucking dreams for the next three nights and leaves him shouting himself awake, half-gasping for air.

Why don’t you, they keep asking, and trapped in the shadows, Elliot cannot forget the piece of himself that harbors the guilt and the fear of knowing Richard Wheatley had killed his wife and tried to do the same to Olivia— twice.

It starts, definitively, after Organized Crime teams up with Special Victims and Elliot gets to see Olivia for the first time in months. Her name is the first thing on his lips when she sees him, but there’s a heat in her eyes he doesn’t know how to define. Angry would probably be an understatement, and he gets that, he does, but there’s something else there too, buried underneath.

He sees it again when they take to the streets and his vest catches an array of bullets on her behalf. Later, Fin will tell him about Detective Tamin and the errant bullet that nearly took her life, and Elliot will understand the fury-fear in Olivia’s eyes a little better. Now, though, she watches him while he swaps out the bullet-riddled vest for another, and he’s honestly not sure if she wants to punch him or hug him.

Probably both.

She does neither.

She does, however, track his ass down to the shitty little RV he’s been living in all summer once SVU’s got a solid case against their perp, and he thinks he’s supposed to consider himself lucky that she actually knocks instead of just kicking in the door. You shouldn’t be here is the first thing he says, like a fucking idiot, because it matters little whether Bell actually gave her the information or Olivia figured it out on her own. These days it feels like it’s one of the only things he knows how to do— to keep her at arm’s length just to keep her safe.

Olivia’s never responded particularly well to that, decade apart or not. Tonight is no exception. Somewhere between talking shop and chewing his ass out and admitting, a touch begrudgingly, that she’s worried about him, Elliot realizes he’s less focused on what she’s actually saying and more fixated on the sound of her voice. And he knows, now, that he’d been right, ten years ago, in acknowledging the hold she’d had over him back then— the hold, he’s come to realize since his return to the city, she still has, and probably always will.

He couldn’t leave her now even if he wanted to— even if he tried.

She’s mid-sentence when there’s another knock on the RV door, and they freeze in tandem, waiting. A half-moment, and this time the knock is accompanied by a voice— Reggie’s voice, insistent but friendly. “Eddie, you in there?”


“Stay back here,” Elliot murmurs, trying to tug the sliding door between the bedroom and the front of the RV out. It sticks, though, jammed in at an awkward angle, and Elliot knows his options are limited. He could take the time to finesse the door out of its slot, but the noise will undoubtedly attract attention, which defeats the purpose. If he tries forcing it, the noise will be disruptive, and he runs the risk of raising suspicion.

“Take your shirt off,” Olivia says, firm but quiet.


“Just trust me,” she sighs, clearly struggling not to snap at him, and Elliot finds himself so grateful for her simply asking it of him that he doesn’t question her further and tugs his shirt up and over his head. Her hands are at his belt, the button and zipper of his jeans before he can do anything other than blink down at her, disoriented, and she’s all but shoving him toward the door, snatching his shirt out of his hand before she retreats back into the bedroom area.

It’s not until he’s opening the door to Reggie, his hands fumbling to do up his pants and belt again, that Elliot even has some semblance of an idea what her plan is. It’s a jarring root down into their past— a twisted tale of who they’d pretended to be, once upon a time. He’d been Mike, then, not Elliot, not Eddie, but Olivia had been all warmth against him, trusting him with an ease she’s asking of him now.

“Rise and shine, Sleeping Beauty,” Reggie chuckles, forcing Elliot back as he steps into the RV. “We got merchandise to move.”

The question Elliot wants to ask — a simple now? that would really only serve to buy him time and let him finish buttoning up his pants, god — dies before it ever leaves his lips at the sound of Olivia’s voice.

“Baby?” Olivia asks, voice deliberately low with faux-sleep and fucking hell, that southern drawl is just thick enough that it pushes past the point of a bad imitation and sounds almost believable. In tandem, Elliot and Reggie turn toward the back of the RV to where she’s hovering in the doorway of the bedroom, clad in only the shirt Elliot’s just taken off.

Elliot’s mouth goes dry.

Jesus christ.

He almost wouldn’t make out whatever the fuck Reggie says next over the absolute rush of blood in his ears if not for the way Olivia meets his eyes, magnetic and steady.

Trust me.

“This her?” Reggie asks, honestly sounding a little delighted at the prospect, and Elliot can only nod, tongue feeling like cotton in his mouth. “Eddie keeps a picture of you in his wallet.”

She arches an eyebrow at him that’s all Olivia, but the accent sticks. “Does he now?”

Reggie nods, gaze flicking between them for a moment. “It’s a cute picture, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not sure it does you justice.”

“I’ll… take that as a compliment,” Olivia says, a touch uncertain. “You, uh, you work with Eddie?”

“Well, more like he works for me,” Reggie chuckles, elbowing Elliot good-naturedly, and he’s offering a hand out to Olivia without an ounce of hesitation. “I’m Reggie.”

Olivia takes his hand with only mild trepidation in her expression and flashes him a glittering smile. “Beth.”

It’s another piece of them, manufactured and temporary in the ashes of who they used to be, but he’ll take it, and Elliot is struck, all at once, with the overwhelming reminder of just how much he loves her.

Why don’t you, why don’t you, why fucking don’t you?

It starts, like so many secrets spilled, over a family dinner.

Elliot manages to continue to keep her at arm’s length (ish) for a little while longer yet: Jet slips Olivia a burner phone and, after some coaxing, agrees not to tell Bell or Brewster or anyone else about it. Elliot hovers at the edge of the water outside of his RV at night with just a proverbial telephone wire stretched thin between them— a lifeline on the nights he feels more Ashes than Elliot. He answers, every time Olivia calls, hears the breath she releases at the sound of his voice if it’s been longer than a few days. She’s been an island longer than he has, is used to treading rougher waters and Elliot—

Elliot is a sea of fire all on his own, and the question now is whether he burns or drowns.

Having the lifeline means Elliot clings to it like one, and he can only go so long answering Olivia’s— sorry, Beth’s calls in front of Reggie before he’s called out. The problem, of course, is that when Reggie does finally call him out, it’s meant as a kindness. Albi doesn’t care much who is on the other end of the line as long as Elliot— as long as Eddie keeps his promises and Reggie keeps producing results. It’s Jon Kosta who has the real problem with Eddie Wagner— Kosta who does not like him, Kosta who doesn’t trust him, Kosta who is always finding reasons to put him through the ringer under the guise of initiation.

It’s a test, Elliot knows, of his loyalty, and there is a part of him, buried down deep, that cannot fault them for it because he knows the bottom line better than anyone: family is everything.

Kosta’s eyes are on Elliot every time his phone buzzes in his pocket, follow him when he steps away to take Olivia’s calls, even if it’s just for a minute to hear each other’s voice and promise to call later. Elliot thinks Kosta can sense some semblance of the truth— of where Elliot’s loyalty truly fucking lies, and Kosta’s patience, his tolerance wears thin.

It’s how they find themselves in the position they’re in tonight: because Kosta had been the one to call Eddie out, and Reggie had jumped to his defense, and Elliot found himself forced to extend a dinner invitation to Olivia— to Beth that was anything but a request.

This, too, they keep from Bell— Bell and Brewster, McGrath and Moennig and anyone else who probably should know that a coveted Captain is picking up some UC work on the side. Olivia makes a pithy little comment about it being fair play, when Elliot mentions McGrath, but she doesn’t elaborate further, and he’s not sure he wants to know.

The problem is that Olivia has… dressed for the occasion. Oh it’s tasteful, and it’s hardly anything that Elliot hasn’t seen before, but Olivia had been decidedly covered up for the most part, since his return to the city. Long sleeves, long skirts and dresses and pants, jackets and blazers. Still, it’s not so much of a departure from what he’d been used to before — maybe fewer blouses, shirts with shorter sleeves — which is why her choices for the evening have caught him off guard. It’s all Beth, so different from the version she’d played all those years ago. Her skirt only goes down to her knees, and her blouse is sleeveless, v-necked, and Elliot finds himself, to a point, fucking distracted by how much skin she’s showing.

The pendant of her necklace catches against the light, draws his gaze to her chest, and for a minute the E leaves him at a loss for words.

Which version of her, he wonders, hooked that chain around her neck?

Which man does she see?

“Eddie said you two ran together before.”

It’s really the way Olivia stiffens next to him that jars Elliot back into focus, rather than Reggie’s recollection of Elliot’s vague explanation. They’d settled on a vague enough backstory for the inevitable questions, but this— this they hadn’t quite accounted for. Reggie’s clearly interpreted the explanation in a very… specific way, given the Albanians’ line of work, and judging by the way the chatter drops low, he’s clearly not alone in that assessment. It’s a vague interest for the most part — Eddie is nowhere near important enough in the grand scheme of things for his date to make much of an impact — but Elliot can sense the shift in the air.

“Really?” Kosta muses, voice piquing with interest as he gives Olivia a once-over.

Elliot drapes his arm across the back of her chair, fingertips grazing at her far shoulder in dual purpose. To her, a signal of his support; to Kosta, a warning. Olivia inhales sharply, sits up a little straighter and reaches for her fork, poking idly at the remaining scraps of food on her plate. “Yes,” she says, still sticking with that thick southern drawl, and Elliot would almost buy it this time if not for the slight tremor in her voice. He knows what she’s thinking about— who she’s thinking about, and it’s the closest Olivia has come to the surface with Beth wearing her skin. “But that was a long time ago. I don’t— I don’t do that anymore.”

There’s a smattering of conjecture as to the why: Albi’s didn’t have the stomach against Kosta’s not the sort of thing a real lady would do against Reggie’s harder to stay in the game when you don’t have a partner to back you up. Olivia catches Elliot’s eye at the last one — Reggie’s so much smarter, so much more observant than any of these assholes would ever give him credit for — and agrees, leaning into the left turn. “I was mostly on my own for a little while, after Eddie left the city last time, but I could’ve made it work if I’d really wanted to.”

“But you didn’t want to,” Kosta supplies knowingly, and he’s fixated on her now, trying to figure out what makes her tick, fuck, Elliot does not like this at all.

Olivia’s lips twist into a wry smile, and still, she doesn’t look up from her plate. “My boy deserved a mama who put him first. I couldn’t do that and stay in the game.”

Reggie brightens a little across the table. “Eddie said he’d lost a kid and his mom after he left the Marines, but I didn’t know you two had a kid.”

“We don’t,” Olivia says, setting her fork down again. “But Ollie— Oliver’s daddy isn’t in the picture, so it’s been just me and him up until now.”

“Until now,” Albi echoes, gaze flitting between them, and it takes more effort than Elliot’s proud of not to squirm under the study. “You know what he does for us, Eddie? What we do?”

“I do.”

“That’s not a problem for you?” Kosta presses, sounding unconvinced, but there’s something else there too— an underpinning of admiration, maybe.

Olivia sighs, brow wrinkling as she mulls that one over. Elliot keeps his mouth fucking shut: she’s doing so much better at handling the curveballs the others are throwing at them than he thinks he would be right now and it’s not even her fucking gig. Yeah, they’d agreed on some details about Eddie and Beth’s fake history to make sure they stayed on the same page, remained believable. It’d been easier for him when it was just Reggie and a wallet-sized photograph—a vague representation of the truth. Olivia’s managing that and then some now, details in the fabric caught in the gray of ambiguity— an amalgamation of the truth and a lie in a way that makes it hard to tell the difference between who they were, who they’d pretended to be, and who they’re hiding behind now.

Olivia’s fingers reach up and touch the E against her chest, almost like she’s grounding herself, and her voice is decidedly steadier when she finally offers up an answer. “I don’t care much what he does as long as he’s not sampling the product himself. That was my condition if he wanted to try this again. I wouldn’t let him around my son otherwise.”

Another lie: Elliot wouldn’t use, although Eddie… might, and Olivia would absolutely fucking care if he pursued this legitimately. Another truth: Olivia had issued an ultimatum after she’d first adopted Beth’s southern charms in the RV that night— that Elliot would get out as soon as he could, and go back to his fucking therapist, and get his shit together before she’d let Noah get any more attached.

It’s Elliot’s turn to try and ground himself, rubbing gently at her shoulder in an old, familiar way, and Olivia sinks with him, eyes slipping shut for a half-moment.

“Awfully gracious of you,” Kosta says, but there’s an edge to his voice that wasn’t there before.

“Oh, I know he’s been working real hard,” Olivia says, all false warmth, and then her hand is on Elliot’s thigh and he almost misses the rest of her sentence, “trying to make sure he’s looking out for your best interests and all.” A beat, and then, “I just hope you’ll do the same for him.”

In his peripheral vision, Elliot can see Kosta relax, brighten and laugh a little; he clearly does not consider Beth Butler to be anything other than a pretty face and possible distraction, even with her history. But Elliot keeps his eyes, his focus on Olivia, forces himself to take measured breaths at the not at all idle way her hand sweeps up and down the length of his thigh. “Is that a request,” Kosta chuckles, clearly trying not to outright laugh in her face, “or a friendly warning?”

“Consider it a promise,” Olivia says as she looks up from her plate at last. All at once, the room stills, any remaining chatter dying out, and where promise lingers in the air, the rest of the table looks at her and hears threat. “If anything happens to him, it’s me you’ll have to answer to, Mr. Kosta, and trust me,” she says, sickeningly sweet, and there is absolute murder in her eyes as she meets his gaze dead on, “you don’t want that.”

Kosta laughs. “I like her,” he says, sounding bemused as he nods at Elliot. “Your girl’s got teeth.”

You shouldn’t have done that is the first thing Elliot says to her when they manage to get a minute alone out on the back porch between clean-up and dessert.

If looks could kill indeed, fucking christ, Elliot cannot seem to get this right.

“Oh, I think we’re well past the point of you being able to tell me what I should or shouldn’t do,” she says, and still, the accent sticks for any eavesdroppers lingering near the doorway.

Elliot works his jaw and leans against the railing of the porch, fingers gripping hers lightly. “I’m just… trying to keep you safe,” he grits out, and it’s as honest as he can make it without raising suspicion.

Honest, he knows, deep down, for Eddie to look out for the underdog, to coach punches and slide into passenger seats, ride or die. Eddie, who knows his place and scrounges for scraps to survive. Eddie, who wants stability for a kid who’s not his own. Eddie, who would rather watch the world burn than let his girl get hurt again.

Eddie, or Elliot, or both— he’s not sure there’s a fucking difference, anymore.

“Then maybe,” Olivia says, dangerously soft as she steps into his space, and it’s Beth, this is all fucking Beth, from her voice to her touch to the way she’s unafraid to push him past the point of no return, god there’s so much skin for him to reach out and just… touch, if she’d let him, “you shouldn’t have fucking left.”

In the smoke, he loses sight of the scorched earth of his own making, and Olivia rises from the ashes of Elliot’s fire.

It starts, as so many of their cases do, with a dead body.

On a practical, logical level, Elliot knows this was inevitable. The Albanians— the Kosta Organization is not at all shy about employing weapons and violence to get the job done. Hell, Elliot— Eddie has resorted to a little violence of his own when it’s been necessary. Elliot had made the executive decision, with Campbell, to prevent Reggie from doing worse, but Eddie had been the one to put Campbell in intensive care, and they do not exist without one another, these days. The Marcy Corporation isn’t immune to resorting to the same tactics, though Webb makes a point to exhaust other options first, prefers to keep things smart, clean. Still, the situation’s been escalating, the longer Elliot is under — he’d held a goddamn rocket launcher in his hands, prior to Kosta and Webb’s friendly little meeting — and it should not surprise him that eventually, the violence would reach its breaking point.

Eight years in this unit tells me that I don’t need to be married to know when an abusive man is escalating.

Elliot’s been under for four months. He’d done well over twelve years in Special Victims. He’s been a cop for a long fucking time. He has absolutely no reason to be surprised.

And yet.

The shot echoes in the woods around them before Elliot even registers the appearance of the gun, and then Albi’s tossing him a shovel before Elliot can so much as blink or breathe. Like it was simple, taking out one of their dealers for failing to keep a promise. Like they did it every day. Like they knew these woods better than the wildlife that lived out here. Like no one could meet them out here, voluntarily or not, without expecting to eat a bullet. Like digging shallow graves in broad daylight in the middle of the woods was as commonplace as mowing the fucking lawn.

Elliot Stabler was a Marine. Elliot Stabler is a damn good cop.

Eddie Wagner has done time. Ashes likes to play with fire.

He’s not sure which of them holds the shovel now, digging in the dirt to desecrate the earth.

It escalates.

The next time is less than a week later, late at night, and by the time Elliot arrives at the warehouse to meet up with the others, the bullets are already lodged into the brains of the next two victims. He doesn’t recognize them, doesn’t dare even ask their names to see if they ring a bell. Elliot would— Elliot would risk it just to track down the families and give them a little closure. Eddie, though— Eddie is merely an extension of Kosta’s arm, the veritable clean-up crew that puts his talents to good use, and Eddie knows how to keep his mouth shut.

Nobody likes a fucking rat.

On the ride across town, after Elliot’s doubled back four times and made sure he’s not being followed, he can see the smoke billowing in the air, the orange glow of flames licking at the night sky in the mirrors of his motorcycle.

Ashes follows him— and lingers.

You shouldn’t be here is the first thing Olivia says to him when she opens the door, and all Elliot wants to do at that moment is kiss her.

He doesn’t, and she lets him into her apartment.

A dead body and a shallow grave, followed by two more and a burning building is how Elliot finds himself sinking into the cushions of Olivia’s couch, fingers curled loosely around a near-empty bottle of red wine. They’ve been passing it back and forth for the better part of an hour, drinking straight from the bottle, and this too is a twisted bastardization of who they used to be. Swapping swigs of beer straight from the bottle, passing plates back and forth to split meals, ducking into the car with two cups of barely tolerable coffee just to keep them awake late into the night. Olivia opts for wine these days, red over white, and an Italian palate doesn’t make Elliot at all inclined to disagree.

It’s only after — after Elliot breaks through the Ashes suffocating him, after he laments not being able to do more to prevent the deaths from happening, after Olivia takes a long drink and sweeps her hair to the side, after she exposes the scar at the back of her neck and burns him with the embers of the terror she’d survived in his absence — that Elliot takes the bottle back and downs what’s left just to feel like he can breathe.

Maybe you shouldn’t have fucking left, and the notion of a man wanting to watch the world burn takes on a whole new meaning in the wake of William Lewis’ wildfire.

Elliot drowns, and Eddie burns, and neither of them was here— for the best or the worst.

Which of Olivia’s trauma-scars would Beth bear, he wonders: the violence of her lineage and her mother’s hand around a bottle; the sibling who sampled the product, who followed her when she walked away only to turn right back around; a devil’s obsession left lying on the cold, hard ground and an angel falling, flying without wings.

How much of Beth is a lie, and how much is Beth simply who Olivia had become in the decade he was gone?

How much of either of them is left for the other to love?

“You… can’t keep me safe, Elliot,” Olivia says, a soft, pained thing that has her reaching for the bottle only to find it empty. He watches as she picks at the label instead — old Olivia, thumbnail scratching idly at the label on a beer at the bar, a root beer over lunch while they poured over files — and feels the wine burning in his stomach, his chest, his throat, god he feels like he’s going to throw up. “That’s not who we are anymore.”

All of the breath punches out of him at once, consumed by Ashes. “That doesn’t mean I don’t want to try.”

The corner of her mouth twitches up with the ghost of an almost-smile, but her heart’s not in it. “You, or Eddie?” she muses, setting the bottle on the coffee table and meeting his eyes at last. “Because Eddie, I’d believe. Elliot… I’d want to believe, but it’s hard to do that when everything he actually ends up doing feels like the opposite.”

Elliot swallows down and around the guilt and reaches for the bottle, picking up where she’d left off, the label starting to peel off. “Eddie knows what he’s fighting for. He’s trying to be part of a family for the first time in his miserable life,” he murmurs, thumb smoothing over the faded 1983 on the label. A beat, and then, forcing himself to meet Olivia’s eyes, “You’re mine.”

“Me,” she asks, prying the bottle out of his hand and setting it back on the coffee table, “or Beth?”

“You,” he says, breath burning wet with wine, and he reaches out, grabs her hand before she can pull away. “Always, you.”

For a minute they sit in near-comfortable silence, her gaze fixed on their clasped hands. The sweep of her thumb along the back of his hand is magnetic, steady— grounding. “You can’t keep me safe, Elliot,” she says, not for the first time, “but if you don’t want to hurt me anymore, then don’t leave.” A beat, just long enough for her to meet his eyes again, and then, whisper-soft, “Stay.”

I can’t is falling past his lips before he can even think it through, and he is not at all surprised at the immediacy with which Olivia pulls her hand away.

She pushes herself to her feet and makes her way around the couch toward the front door, unlocking it and twisting the knob to pull it open. “Beth isn’t here,” she says, a hard, firm thing as he looks over his shoulder at her, “and I don’t want to see Eddie. If you can’t be here, Elliot, then maybe— maybe you shouldn’t come back.”

Olivia falters, at the end, and Elliot reaches out for her too late.

“I’m not going to be undercover forever,” he says, rising to join her at the door.

“That’s Eddie talking,” she throws back immediately, unrelenting. “The sentence is only a year, baby— less if I behave.”

Liv, I give you my word, I’ll behave.

Ten years, and three months, and Olivia has no reason to believe him if he walks out that door tonight.

He’s at a loss as to what to do here, what to say to do damage control, to fix this, but he can’t keep doing this— can’t keep up the touch-and-go, can’t keep leaving behind a scorched earth every single time he leaves. She’s already borne the brunt of that burn several times over by now — literally, she’d told him in just the last hour — and she’s clearly not in the mood to shoulder his sins tonight.

Beth isn’t in the mood, and all at once Elliot finally understands: Beth is the armor— bulletproof, fireproof, and Beth is showing Elliot the door if only so Olivia doesn’t bleed herself dry, for him.

He lingers there in the doorway, hand gripping the frame as he looks out into the empty hallway. “Why did Beth take him back?”

She sucks in a sharp breath at that. She hears him, between the lines, and maybe, he realizes, she’s not the only one with power in her voice. She’s quiet for a long minute before she answers him, her hand still gripping the edge of the door, and the edge isn’t gone from her voice but it’s decidedly less sharp than before. “Maybe he’s family to her, too.”

Their eyes meet, and again, Elliot resists the temptation to kiss her. “If it had been me,” he says, striving to choose his words carefully, “if I’d been the one to get up and open this door, what would you have done? What would you have said?”

She works her jaw at that, clearly annoyed, but the twist of her lips hints more toward a smile than a frown. “Don’t you dare walk away from me again.

There she is.

Slowly, Elliot relinquishes his grip on the door frame, reaches over to tug the door out of her grasp, and gently pushes it shut before turning the locks. “I’m standing right here, Captain.”

Olivia chews at her lip and shifts her weight from one leg to the other. “Do you still feel like you’re drowning?”

“I don’t know,” Elliot sighs, rubbing tiredly at the back of his neck, “but I’m not sure setting things on fire is any better.”

The corner of her mouth twitches into a smile, just for a second before faltering, and the immediacy with which she’s stepping into his space and fisting her hands in his shirt is enough to knock the breath out of him. “I suppose you can stay, Detective,” she murmurs, tucking her face against his neck. “You do absorb bullets better than Eddie probably would.”

He barks out a wet laugh at that, surprised, and he’s closer to tears than he really wants to be when he wraps his arms around her in kind. “Wheatley’s already tried to kill you twice,” he reminds her. “These guys are just as bad, if not worse. What if they get to you?”

Olivia pulls back just enough to meet his eyes, and somewhere beneath the Ashes, Elliot reaches for her and grabs hold tight. “I’m afraid they might get to you, first.”

It starts, like most fires do, with a simple spark.

They are both as right as they are wrong, and the foil of their own partnership gets to them both, in the end.

Of course, that partnership turns out to be so much more than between just Kosta and Webb’s organizations. That partnership turns trio once Wheatley has managed to get himself released from Rikers and placed on house arrest (which, of course, he immediately found a way around, the fucking bastard), and Elliot realizes only too late that none of them will turn on the others, in the end.

“Why would I turn on my new friends,” Wheatley poses, dripping with false sincerity as he flashes a glittering smile at the lot of them, “when we all stand to benefit quite well from this little arrangement?”

Oh, there are benefits alright: a take in the trade, and access to resources, and connections spreading as far wide and up high as some of the more influential people in positions of power— politicians, law enforcement, and corporations alike. But this? This is a perk, a fucking indulgence for Wheatley that the others are only too happy to provide as penance for Eddie breaking his fucking promise.

But Eddie Wagner has never cheated a partner, not really, and the title of traitor, it seems, belongs only to Elliot Stabler.

Wheatley’s involvement, of course, means Elliot is fucking screwed, and so, by extension, is Olivia. Wheatley seems to be taking the third time’s the charm approach with her, but he’s smarter, cleaner about it than he’s been previously— a glimmer of Richard of old, and a mirror of Webb at his side. He’d been fucking ecstatic about using his new alliances to do the dirty work on his behalf, and it’s how they find themselves here, tonight, in this abandoned fucking warehouse — it is always a fucking warehouse — tied up and facing each other, just out of reach.

It’s only after Richard’s droned on in typical fashion that the worst of Elliot’s fears rises from beneath the Ashes. Oh, they’ll die, Wheatley assures them, but only after he’s allowed his new friends to have some fun on his behalf. He’s brought toys, of course, but he angles the box he opens towards Olivia, contents on display only for her.

Olivia goes ashen, all of the color draining from her face, and Elliot doesn’t have to guess to know what has made Olivia show fear in front of a pathetic son of a bitch like Wheatley.

The only proof Beth still exists at all sits small and shining in the center of Olivia’s chest— a humble, golden E that still hangs from her neck.

Elliot is going to rip Richard’s throat out with his fucking teeth.

Eddie can handle the clean-up.

“Let me do it.”

In unison, all of them look over at Reggie who, up until now, has been quietly hovering at the back of their little group, eyes narrowed and jaw set. “Oh, a volunteer!” Wheatley laughs, clapping him on the back. “You do your family very proud, young man.”

“No,” Kosta says sharply, folding his arms over his chest. “Reggie brought this son of a bitch into the fold in the first place. I’m not trusting him with this. He’s lucky I haven’t put a fucking bullet between his eyes already.”

“Yeah, I brought him in,” Reggie counters, meeting Kosta’s gaze dead on, and it is the most assertive Elliot’s ever heard him sound with, well, anyone, quite frankly. “He worked for me. He was my partner. Which means it’s me he betrayed. He broke his promise to me. I should be the one who gets to play.”

Kosta opens his mouth to argue or protest, but Albi speaks up for the first time all night. “Let him,” he says, a hint of pride in his voice. Again, someone tries to counter, though Elliot is barely paying attention at this point, most of his focus back on where Olivia’s still tied up in her chair and struggling to breathe evenly because the fucking box is still open, fuck them, fuck them, fuck them.

Albi’s cutting them off before they can say more than two words together. “I said, let him,” Albi reiterates, his tone brooking no argument.

The others back off, even Wheatley, and even more incredibly, they leave.

It’s just the three of them now, and the shift in balance is enough to tear Olivia’s gaze away from the box long enough to meet Elliot’s eyes and try to figure out how to get out of this.

“Was any of it real?”

Together, they blink back over at Reggie. He hasn’t moved, hasn’t budged a fucking inch, hasn’t pulled out his gun or reached for the box or even so much as looked at them. “Yes,” Elliot says, hardly thinking it through. If he just keeps talking, he buys them time. The more time they have, the more likely they can figure out a way out of this. “I was in the Marines. I was married before, but it was for a long time. We had five kids together. They’re all still alive.”

Reggie works his jaw but doesn’t move otherwise, doesn’t look up. “And her?” he grits out, nodding in Olivia’s general direction.

Elliot shifts his gaze back to Olivia. “She was my partner for a long time.”

At that, Reggie looks up, but it’s Olivia he turns to, his back turned to Elliot. “That’s what Mr. Wheatley said. Another cop. He also said you loved her.” A beat, and then, “Was that a lie too, or is that real?”

Why don’t you is a haunting echo reverberating in Elliot’s head as he meets Olivia’s eyes now, and he forces himself to swallow Ashes down.

Maybe Beth wasn’t the only armor between them.

“Yes,” Elliot says, hardly able to breathe. “It’s the realest thing I know.”

That’s the thing that gets Reggie to turn around and look at him at last and still, Elliot only has for Olivia, watches the way his words cross a chasm ten years long and land.

Light sparks in her eyes, and maybe, Elliot concedes, Eddie “Ashes” Wagner was good for this one, true thing.

Perhaps he’s less of a coward than he thought.

Olivia is still braver than all of them combined, and she proves that tenfold by leaning into her power and using her voice. “You have a choice,” she says, clearly trying to recapture Reggie’s attention. “These people are your blood, but they don’t have to be your family. They don’t get to dictate what type of man you want to be.”

Reggie doesn’t turn away from Elliot, but he takes the bait, expression softening with melancholy. “Yeah, they do,” he laughs, hollow and bitter. “You think they’ll let me just leave the way you—” Here he stops, grimaces around the lie they’d spun, but he shakes it off quickly. “People don’t just walk away from Kosta’s organization. Family doesn’t break promises to Uncle Albi. It’s— I don’t have a chance, with Jozi, if Kotsa doesn’t respect me,” he says, faltering. A beat, and then, voice surprisingly even, “And he won’t, unless I do this.”

“Ask yourself,” Olivia says, “if this is the kind of man Jozi would love.”

Reggie whips too-quick to look at her, provoked. “You know what your partner’s done?” he says, and he’s baiting her, Elliot realizes, into giving him a reason to do something— to reach inside the box, or slip his fingers into his own brass, or pull the fucking trigger of his gun. “Is that the kind of man you love, or was that a fucking lie too?”

“I know better than anyone the damage he’s done,” she says, quieter than before, but her voice stays level, and she holds Reggie’s gaze. “He’s a protector, and he is always at the bottom of that list. Everything else comes first. Honor. Duty. Family. Victims. Friends. P—” She stops, swallows hard and tries again. “Partners. That’s why I fell in love with him in the first place— because of the type of man he is.”

“And you’re asking me to betray my family,” Reggie spits, “to be the opposite of that.”

“No,” Olivia says, altogether warm, and it’s all her— old and new and Beth and every last ghost between. “That’s the kind of man Jozi deserves— someone who’s willing to put her first.” A beat, and then, “That’s the kind of man you already are. If you do this, you’re already dead.”

Reggie is… unnervingly quiet for a long minute or two before venturing, “That kid in your pictures, the one with the curly hair— he’s really yours?”

Olivia softens into a smile and nods. “His name is Noah. He’s seven— almost eight, he’s got a birthday coming up soon. He’s… adopted.” She pauses, just long enough for Elliot to see the shift in her eyes before she takes the risk and leans into her own left turn. “Sometimes the family you choose means more to you than the one you were born into, Reggie. I know that better than anyone.”

Beth was right: Kosta really does not want to have to answer to her, this woman who looks death in the eyes and chooses to be kind.

Olivia Benson remains the same, and Elliot Stabler finds his heart right where he left it, in her hands— where it’s been for the last twenty-three years.

Reggie reaches out to close the box shut, and all three of them lay their weapons down.

It’s only after he’s cut them loose from their restraints that any of them notices the blinking red light in the corner— only when they’ve fallen silent that Elliot realizes they’ve run out of time.

Bullets fly. Blood runs. And Ashes?

Ashes burns.

It starts, like any new thing, once they have been made clean.

It’s been a long night— such a long fucking night between the warehouse and the hospital and IAB. It’s hardly over: that much is clear from the absolute reaming they’d both received from their higher ups for, well, everything. Elliot’s not entirely sure his own career will survive the fallout, but where Olivia should be worried about her own, she’d been decidedly... calm in the hallway at IAB earlier.

We did good, she’d murmured, leaning her weight against him and lacing their fingers together. And this time, no one is beyond our reach.

Again, Olivia hadn’t elaborated further, but this time Elliot knows he doesn’t need to ask.

Regardless of any ramifications, they’d both been too spent by the end of it to be able to do anything other than just want to go home. Elliot had options: Eli is still with Maureen, at least for tonight, and quite frankly, Elliot would rather take the extra night to get his shit together before slipping back into the skin of the Father, for his Son. Olivia had luck on her side: Rollins had taken Noah home with her and opted to keep him in the dark at first, at least until they had a better grasp on what was going on, and their abduction hadn’t lasted long enough for anyone to consider the need to tell him the truth of what had happened. It afforded Olivia the opportunity to sink into a chair for ten minutes, before they left IAB, and Facetime her son good night without doing further harm.

Elliot had offered her his hand, once she’d hung up the phone, and simply said, “Come on, Olivia. Let’s go home.”

So here they are, one quick detour to his actual new apartment and a flash visit to the drugstore on the corner later, stripped bare and standing together under the harsh, hot spray of the showerhead in her bathroom, arms wrapped around each other while the last of the soap suds circle the drain. Piece by piece, they’d shed the skin of who they’d been: Ashes and soot, and blood-stained nails. Elliot had been the one to take up the razor and shave himself clean, and Olivia’s hands had smoothed across his cheeks, his jawline, searching for any remaining stubble.

There’s a cross around his neck again, to match the one on his arm, but he’d left his fingers bare, ring tucked safe in his nightstand drawer.

That too, he finds, is a piece of who he’d been.

The E still dangles from Olivia’s neck, delicate and unassuming— a silent, shining beacon that tells him what her voice cannot: you have always been a part of me.

It’s only when the water starts to turn tepid that Olivia cushions her cheek against his chest, arms wrapped tight around his waist, and asks, so softly he almost doesn’t hear her over the rush-hiss of the spray, “Tell me something real.”

Elliot adjusts his embrace just enough to reach up and rub at her shoulder, familiar and idle. “Your son is adopted,” he says, and he feels her smile against his chest. “He loves to dance, and Lizzie gave you her discount so you could get him a spot in her winter program for his birthday.” Olivia exhales slowly and, after a half-moment, nods. “Your turn.”

“Eli made the soccer team,” she offers, an easy give and take. “You’re out of undercover just in time to be able to see his first game.” Warmth blossoms in his chest at the reminder, bright and stinging, and Elliot buries his face in her hair in an effort to stay grounded. “Another.”

“You are the bravest person I have ever known,” he murmurs, pressing his lips against her temple and relishing in the way his heart flips when she shivers.

“Because I’m not afraid of the worst of men?” she mutters, more than a little derisive.

“Because you see past the worst of them,” he says, a gentle, earnest thing, and he cannot account for the sudden lump in his throat, “in order to see what could be their best.”

You saw mine, he thinks, and here and now, when all they are is skin and bones, Elliot can’t quite tell which version of him is left standing in the Ashes, but he knows the one thing that he has to— that his heart is still safe, in her hands.

Olivia lifts her head and pulls back to look up at him, arms still wrapped tight around his waist. For a minute or two she just… takes him in, beardless and bullet-scars and all, before she offers up another truth of her own. “Your name is Elliot Stabler,” she says, “and you are brave enough.”

“To do what?”

Breath floods his lungs, holds and lingers when she unfurls her arms from around him to reach up and anchor a hand on either side of his face again, drawing him in for a kiss. “To stay.”

It starts, as so many things do, with a cup of coffee.

In the morning — later, in the morning, god knows they needed the fucking sleep — Elliot wakes in Olivia’s bed to find her curled into him, leg hooked over his and an arm thrown over his stomach. He’s loathe to move: she’s so warm, and the novelty of feeling her skin against his has yet to wear off, and his heartbeat is steady, with her in his arms. He delays leaving as long as he can, trails his fingertips along the length of her back, her arm, threads his fingers through her hair. There’s so much skin for him to touch, now that she’ll let him, and he is determined that no hand will ever harm her again— most of all his own.

Eventually, though, he does extract himself from her koala-like embrace and ducks into the bathroom to get dressed, digging a pair of underwear and jeans out of his overnight bag. She is still thankfully, blissfully sacked out when he emerges, and Elliot decides to leave her be a little while longer.

How long has it been, he wonders, since she was simply allowed to rest?

Out in the kitchen, he settles into some semblance of a morning routine if only to keep his hands busy and his mind occupied. It’s a holdover from the sessions he’d spent going over coping mechanisms with his therapist — god, she’s going to have a fucking field day with him when he finally makes another appointment with her — that had surprisingly stuck with him even undercover. Mundane chores or working out is probably preferable, though, to playing with matches and digging holes in the ground.

A goddamn fucking field day.

He checks his texts while he shuffles around the kitchen to find some coffee to brew, pauses, lingers on one Eli had sent earlier this morning, simple and unassuming. Are you still coming to my game today?

You’re out just in time.

Elliot smiles as the coffee machine sputters to life and sends back a reply: Kathleen and I will be the loudest ones there.

He adds a megaphone emoji after the fact, and he swears he can hear Eli’s groan clear across the city when he replies. I don’t care how in shape you are, Dad. Your texts make you look ancient.

I’m practically a dinosaur, Elliot throws back before pocketing his phone, knowing Eli won’t deign to respond to that.

He’s halfway to taking his first sip of coffee when Olivia wraps her arms around his middle from behind and nestles her cheek against his back. “Morning,” she mumbles around a yawn.

Elliot smiles and leans back into her a little, free hand settling over where hers are linked together. “Tell me something real.”

He feels her smile against his skin. “You’re going to spit that coffee out in the sink, you absolute snob.”

“Am not,” he mutters, taking the first sip and… immediately proving her right, fuck, it’s all dirtwater outside of Italy these days, isn’t it?

“I think this is grounds for divorce,” she teases, releasing him just enough to let him set the mug down on the counter and turn around in her embrace. “Caffeine is a precious commodity around these parts, Stabler. I’m a police captain with an almost eight-year-old running around.”

“Grounds,” he mutters, dipping down for a warm kiss, and if this is misfortune, Elliot would happily remain down on his luck for the rest of his fucking life. “I don’t remember that being in the vows, partner. Isn’t this thing supposed to be for better or for worse?”

Olivia arches up for another kiss, two, three, hooking her arms loosely around his neck. “If this is your worst, I can only imagine what your best is like.”

Hands circling her waist, Elliot breathes and breaks into the newest of his skin. “You’ll know,” he says, pulling her flush against him until the gold against her chest finds his. “You always do.”

“Tell me something real,” she asks, one last time.

“I love you,” he says. “It’s the realest thing I know.”

It ends, and they begin.