HURT AND COMFORT, part II

Stabler turned off the car and waited for Toby to get out. Toby didn't. Stabler wondered if he'd be sitting here all night. He didn't pretend to understand all the feelings that had to be running around inside Toby's brain right now. Finally, Stabler pocketed the keys. He loved basketball, and he hadn't been to a game in forever. Pushing open the door, he was careful not to bang his cast.

"Where did you think you're going?" Toby got out and slammed the door.

"Since you're not going inside, I figured I would. I love basketball, and I can get popcorn." Stabler hit the lock button. Now at least, Toby couldn't get back inside the car. He just needed a shove in the right direction. Stabler started moving for the entrance. It was cold. A coat was a problem with his cast, and he'd left it in the car. He was going to have to buy a few new sweatshirts to make up for the ones he'd cut up.

Toby caught up with him. "I don't want you here!"

"Too bad. I can smell the popcorn now." Stabler didn't slow down. He bought a ticket and headed straight for the concession stand. Toby looked pissed, but he stayed with him. Stabler went in the side door and didn't look for Angus. That would be a mistake. No, he found a good spot about halfway up and sat down. Toby looked somewhere between full-blown panic and passing out. Poor guy.

"We're discussing this later."

"Whatever." Stabler cradled the popcorn with his cast and started eating. When the players came out, he'd have known that was Toby's boy anywhere. Harry had that same I'm-lost-and-I-know-it quality about him, and the same face, but the hair was very dark, probably Toby's wife. Stabler didn't scan the crowd. He honestly didn't want to speak to Angus.

"Shit," Toby whispered.

"Yep. He's a starter. Good for him." Stabler gave Toby a good look. "If you're gonna puke, go to the restroom."

Toby swallowed and gave him a look that could kill. "I really don't like you."

Stabler smiled. He wasn't worried, not after a day spent basically in bed.

"Angus has a look on his face like he just ate poison." Toby looked at his shoes.

"Watch your son, you idiot." Stabler didn't take his eyes off the game. "He's a forward, and he's got good hands."

Toby took a handful of popcorn. "I'm clueless. Don't they just run up and down and try to throw it through the hoop?"

Stabler sighed softly. Harvard could damage a man. He looked around. No one was too close, and he started explaining while watching. He knew Toby was listening, and he also knew that Toby would remember everything.

"So, that's a zone defense?" Toby pointed.

Stabler smiled. He had him. "Yes, in this age group, it's easier, but they may play man-to-man, which I'm sure you understand."

The coach called a timeout, and Stabler looked at Toby again. Toby wasn't going to puke now. He did look worried, but for him, it was normal. Stabler looked down at the players and saw Harry looking right at them. How did he know? Harry seemed to shake himself and get back in the huddle.

Toby groaned. "I shouldn't have come."

"Give it a rest." Stabler stared down at his empty bag of popcorn and was thirsty. "I'll be right back."

"You better." Toby brushed his hand through his hair, which he did when he was about ready to come unglued.

Stabler headed down the steps. First, he wanted to piss, and then he'd get something to drink. It was a good thing he'd come, Toby wasn't coping very well.

"Detective Stabler?"

Stabler had to turn around, and he spotted Angus immediately. "I'm going to the john."

Angus obviously didn't care. He moved quickly to intercept him. "Are you aware that Toby is a homosexual?"

Stabler frowned. "Lower your voice." He pushed open the bathroom door and prayed Angus would stay out. No such luck. "What's your problem, Angus?"

"Aren't you worried about your reputation if you're seen with him?" Angus looked angry. It didn't make a lot of sense.

Stabler took care of his business at the urinal and washed his hand before even looking at him again. "I've never asked him." That was the truth.

"He is!"

"Are you gay-bashing your brother for some reason? Do you want him beat up?" Stabler didn't understand this at all. "Anyway, I saw him with a woman three weeks ago." Another truth. Toby had gone out with a woman from work, and they hadn't discussed it, at all.

Angus put his hands on his hips. "You're a cop. I'm just concerned that you'll be labeled."

"Bullshit." Stabler yanked open the door and went out. Angus right with him. "If he is, which I'm staying out of, are you worried it'll rub off?"

"I'm concerned for the children's welfare," Angus said with all the surety of someone who is convincing himself and no one else.

"Kids are more tolerant today than we were. My girls don't think anything of it." Stabler had noticed it. "I think you're pissed, for some reason, which I don't want to know." He put up his hand. "I'm going back to the game."

"Why the hell did you come?" Angus snarled.

Stabler knew where this was going in about ten seconds. "I like basketball. A lot of my heterosexual and homosexual friends do. Later." And he walked away to get his soda and get back inside. Angus hadn't seemed like a prick when he was handling Stabler's divorce. This thing with Toby was pushing him to a bad place. Toby and Angus should probably yell at each other, but it wasn't any of Stabler's business. No sir. He was staying out of it. Going back up the steps, he nearly groaned at the sight of Toby's pensive face. Staying out of it. Right. Damn.

********

Toby was relieved when Stabler made his way up the steps. He felt safer with him close by. Damn. He was a pussy. Stabler handed him the soda and sat down. "I don't want to alarm you, but your brother is on the warpath."

"I saw him leave after you." Toby took a drink. His mouth felt like it was full of cotton, and if they rang that horn one more time, he was going to pass out. He had finally spotted Holly. She was with a group of girls at the end of the bleachers. She was beautiful. God. It was hard to believe that she was his. Well, she wasn't, but she was half of him, whether she remembered or not. "Holly is the blonde at the bottom of the bleachers in a pink sweatshirt."

"She's cute. Is she smart?"

"Of course." Toby drank some more and handed it back. "You're messing with me, right?"

"Right. It's always a relief when our daughters look like their mothers, not us."

Toby smiled. He had to. "She has my hair, but her mother's good looks."

"Like I said." Stabler pushed the drink back at him and adjusted his sling. "Damn thing," he muttered.

"Hurts?"

"Not as bad." Stabler seemed to give up trying. "Okay, back to the game."

Toby listened to him. The game could be as simple or as complex as the coach made it. Harry's team played a man-to-man defense, but the other team ran a zone. Toby had no idea why. The offensive plays were a mystery to everyone but the coach and the players. The boy bouncing the ball would hold up a finger or two or three, and the other boys would shuffle around. He wasn't always sure the boys knew what they were doing. Harry did though. He was focused, and he handled the ball well, and when he scored a basket, Toby cheered. It was almost embarrassing.

"I knew you'd like the game," Stabler gloated.

Toby sat back down. "Does Dickie play?"

"Not yet, but I can take you to a soccer game." Stabler didn't take his eyes off the ball. "Will I have to explain it too?"

"Yes." Toby checked the scoreboard. It was almost the end of the second quarter. "How long does this go on?"

"How could you grow up in New York and be so ignorant?" Stabler gave him a sad look.

"This is Connecticut, which is where I grew up. Did you notice when we crossed the state line?" Toby couldn't believe that shit. It had taken them an hour to get here.

"That's right. I forgot." Stabler was such a smartass. "Four quarters, unless there's overtime."

Toby was glad. He wanted to watch his son for as long as possible.

"Why did you move to New York?"

"I had nowhere to go, and the halfway house was available." Toby could have used his considerable pile of money, but he hadn't cared one damn bit, not after the letter from Angus that he'd received right before his release. "Connecticut isn't known for its prisoner outreach programs."

"I've heard that. Oz is in New York anyway." Stabler shot him a look. "Sooner or later, you're going to have to get a driver's license."

Toby watched the game instead of answering that. He'd think of something else because after having the same nightmare for a dozen years, the thought of driving made him queasy. "What are they doing now?"

"That's a full court press, designed to force turnovers." Stabler pointed and yelled, "Go, Harry!"

Toby didn't understand it, but apparently Harry had stolen the ball and was going for the basket - an easy lay up. Wow. His son was good. "You can do that?"

"Of course!" Stabler smiled. "I hope Dickie is that good some day."

Toby stared in wonder at his boy. Good at basketball. Amazing. Was he in the Math Club too?

"Dad?"

Toby forgot how to breathe. Stabler gave him a nudge. Toby swallowed hard and managed, "Hi, Holly."

Stabler got up. "I'll be back." And he was gone. Holly stared at him for a long moment and then sat down next to him. Toby had no idea what to say. She was so beautiful, and he had missed her so much.

Her eyes were big. "It's really you?"

"Yeah." Toby edged closer so he could smell her, but he was too scared to hug her. "I'm sorry." It was all he could force from his throat.

"How long have you been out?"

Toby instantly wanted to strangle Angus. Kill him. "Six months."

She ducked her head away from him. "Why didn't you come see me?"

Toby saw so much hurt in her, and he'd put it all there. "I wanted to."

He saw her look over at Angus. "Angus told you to stay away. I know he did. He wouldn't take me to see you. I would ask. I'm sorry, Dad."

"This is not your fault. It's mine." Toby wanted to cry, and he was afraid that he would. "I am so sorry."

Holly sniffed and looked away. "Harry's pretty good, huh?"

"He does seem good." Toby saw Angus start to move. This was not the place for a confrontation that might end up with him on the floor with a bloody nose. "Holly, I will always love you. I'm sorry I screwed up so many times."

"We all fuck up occasionally." Holly flashed him a grin. "Gotta go." And she dashed off to be with her friends. Toby stared after her. She had no business cursing, and that grin was unrepentant.

"I said come, not cause a family crisis!" Angus was loud and standing in the aisle.

Toby stood and headed down. He didn't much care if Angus followed him. Angus did though, and Toby stopped in the doorway where he could still see the game, but there weren't so many people around. "What was I supposed to do? Wear a disguise?"

"Slink in and slink out! Like usual!" Angus looked psychotic. "I never should have called!"

Stabler was suddenly there. "Angus, settle down or I'm calling security."

Toby shook his head. "I don't care if he hits me. You told me that they knew, and they didn't want to see me."

"They don't care about you. I'm their father. Me!"

Toby lowered his head. He felt like his heart had been ripped out and thrown through the hoop. "I wonder what Dad would say about this."

"If it weren't for you, we'd know." Angus stood up very straight. "Don't drag your shit back into their lives. They're clean."

Toby leaned against the wall, focused on the game, and refused to answer his brother. A horn blared, and Toby flinched but managed to stay conscious. For him, it meant lockdown or lights out, but it was only the last quarter. Harry looked right at him. No smile, but not a frown either.

"Come away, Angus. We have to live here." It was Angus's wife. She was right, and Angus left, furious.

Stabler took a step closer. "It was good to talk to Holly, huh?"

"You have no idea. I finally feel free." Toby smiled. The words still tingled inside him, and he'd keep them close. Holly didn't hate him. She might be angry, but there was no hate there. "Thanks for coming with me."

"I love basketball." Stabler smiled. "Of course, Connecticut basketball isn't as good as New York, but-"

"Oh, shut up," Toby growled. He winced again when they rang the horn for what he prayed was the last time. "Should I leave?"

"Hell no. Five point spread." Stabler started back for their seats. Toby followed along. This was probably a bad idea, but he had everything to gain, and nothing really to lose. Even if Harry cursed at him, it would be words.

Halfway through the last quarter, Holly bounced over and sat down fast. "Who's your friend?"

"This is Detective Elliot Stabler. He works for NYPD." Toby smiled. "Elliot, Holly Beecher."

"Nice to meet you," Stabler said. "You shoot hoops?"

"No. Soccer." She smiled at him. "My friends think you're cute. Did you get shot?"

"Yes, he did," Toby said, "and he's old, Holly. Really old."

"But cute." Holly giggled. "Did some Mob guy shoot you?"

Stabler gave her a crooked grin. "No."

Toby was glad that Stabler spared her the truth. "Holly, aren't you angry at me?" It seemed important to ask since it might be weeks before he saw her again.

"I was." Holly frowned. "And I guess I still am, but I love you and isn't that more important than yelling?"

"Wow, she's smart." Stabler laughed. "You, not so much."

"Thanks, asshole." Toby blushed when he realized that he'd cursed. "Sorry, Holly."

Holly laughed. "You two are cute together. I gotta run. Give me your cell."

Toby pulled it out, and they exchanged numbers. "Holly, call me any time."

"I will." She planted a quick kiss on Toby's cheek. "Bye, Dad. Love ya."

"I love you, baby." Toby watched her leave. She’d called him dad, and it made him nearly giddy. He tried to watch the game. "Cute together?"

"I'm over here puking." Stabler moved farther away. "The good news is that Harry's team has got it in the bag."

Toby glanced at the scoreboard. "Ten points is enough?"

"Should be." Stabler leaned close and whispered, "Does Angus have full custody?"

"Yes, and I have no visitation rights," Toby said as softly as possible and still be heard in this madhouse. "I can't get around him."

Stabler moved away again. The game ended, they cheered with the crowd, and everyone started to leave. Toby hesitated. He didn't want it to end. Stabler gave him a tug, and they went down to the court. Harry and his team were long gone to the locker room.

"Good game," Stabler said.

"I liked the part when Harry put it through the hoop." Toby stopped and put one foot on the court. "Did you play?"

"Look at me." Stabler pulled him away. "No street shoes on the wooden floor. Come on."

Toby went with him, but regretfully. The lobby was full of people, and he saw the pep club was selling shirts. He got Stabler's attention and walked that way. Pulling out his wallet, he bought one. Stabler just smiled at him.

"Hey, it's a shirt."

"And you're not proud." Stabler winked.

"Proud? I'm astonished." Toby tucked the shirt in his coat pocket. His son was good at basketball. It was a miracle, and Harry was his son, not Angus's, damn it.

"Toby!"

Toby turned around. His heart came to a complete stop, and he could hear the blood pooling in his brain. "Harry, you're really good."

"You're out. I can't believe it!" Harry didn't look angry. He looked stunned. "Are you on parole?"

"No. I did my time." Toby wished his children didn't know about things like parole and visitation days. "I'm sorry, Harry."

"Hey, I have the coolest dad in school. No one else's father is in prison." Harry stared at his tennis shoes and shuffled his feet. "Angus is pissed at you."

"I know he's angry, and being in prison isn't cool." Toby wanted to touch him, and he stepped closer. "I know you've been angry, and I'm sorry."

Harry just looked at him, and then came close enough to speak quietly. "Toby, I never knew you. You were just a picture. I've missed having a mom and dad, but I'm lucky to have had everything else a kid could want."

"You haven't been unhappy?" Toby prayed it was true.

"Not more than any other kid." Harry smiled. "Did you see my lay up?"

"It was great." Toby smiled and brushed his hair back. He still couldn't quite believe that he was actually speaking with his son. "Are you in the Math Club?"

"No. Physics." Harry laughed. "I gotta go change. Will you come to the next game?"

Toby nodded. Nothing would keep him from it - nothing. "I'll be there."

Harry trotted off with a wave. Toby tried hard to contain the joy, but he was afraid it was all over his face.

Angus took him by the arm and pulled him around. "They're not yours."

Toby pressed his lips together. He didn't want to ruin this moment with harsh words thrown at his brother, who had done him the greatest favor ever - raising his kids.

Stabler edged between them, pushing Angus's hand away. "Angus, you can't hurt Toby any more than you have."

Angus flinched back. "He hurt us."

"There was plenty to go around. Six years without a visit? While you got to love his kids?" Stabler gave him that flash of a smile that Toby knew was false. "Tonight does nothing to hurt you, but he's going home alone."

Toby couldn't talk. Words failed him. He had to walk away, and he didn't stop until he was at the car. Breathing hard, he leaned over and told himself not to puke. It had gone well, and he felt like this? Damn. The next game had to be easier. Angus would be less angry, maybe. It was possible. Stabler had stood up for him. Defended him. Yes, tonight was something to remember.

"You okay?"

Toby leaned up and shoved his hair back. "Yeah. Did he hit you?"

"Not a chance." Stabler unlocked the door and got in. He turned on the heat and shivered a little. "It ain't cold, but it ain't warm."

Toby put on his seat belt and tried to relax. He'd made it. It was over. He could think about what it all meant, but he didn't have to talk about it. Stabler fussed with his seat belt until Toby leaned over and made sure it was okay.

"Hey Toby, you mind me asking why Angus blames you for your father's death?"

"I mind, but I'll tell you." Toby pulled the T-shirt out of his coat pocket and stared at it. He didn't want to wear it. He wanted to frame it. "Dad was killed at Oz. Schillinger had this prag, Winthrop, and he wanted out. So, Schillinger told him okay, but you have to kill Beecher's dad. Winthrop shanked my dad in a deserted hallway. The CO that usually stood guard there wasn't around."

Stabler got the car pointed back towards New York. "I'm not sure I understand, but Schillinger ordered it done?"

"Yes. It was the price Winthrop had to pay to stop being a prag." Toby rubbed his face. Even talking about this couldn't brush away his joy at talking to his children. Holly looked so good, and physics? Wow.

Stabler was quiet for a moment. "What happened to Winthrop?"

"My dad got Chris off death row, with a little help from me." Toby shrugged. "First day back in Gen Pop, Chris broke Winthrop's neck."

"And all the CO's at Oz sit around stoned? Why doesn't anyone ever do anything?"

Toby nearly smiled. "That's what I thought at first, and then I learned the truth. No one gives a damn. We're convicts, numbers, and if we die, well, it frees up a bunk for some other poor fucker."

Stabler made a huffy noise. It probably did offend the justice thing he had going, but Toby had seen his kids, and nothing could diminish that. Holly had wanted to see him. She still loved him, and Harry didn't hate him. It didn't make any sense, but it had seemed to be true. Angus had been lying, or if not lying, not telling all the truth. Toby knew he should be furious about it, and some part of him was, but tonight, he couldn't feel it.

"You defended me." It was one of many amazing things this evening.

"I did. Angus is being a pompous asshole." Stabler glanced over at him. "Your biggest mistake was trusting someone you loved."

"No that was just my latest biggest mistake." Toby leaned back and sighed. He'd worry tomorrow. Right now, he just wanted to feel good about his kids.

********

Stabler sighed. Damn.

"Elliot, have you gone for your walk today?" Toby raised his eyes from his book and frowned at him. "Because if you sigh one more time, I'm finding your gun and putting another bullet in you."

Stabler got to his feet. "I'm getting my cuffs."

"I hid them." Toby grinned. It was obnoxious. Stabler found his jacket, put it on the best he could, and made sure to slam the door behind him. He'd go to work, but Cragen would yell at him. Tomorrow would have to be soon enough, and he was sure it would be a half day at his desk. Until he got his gun and badge back, he was stuck.

Toby walked up beside him. "Hey, I have an idea. I'm going to work for a few hours. Want to come along?"

Stabler shot him a quick look. "Why?"

"Since I got fired, I'm completely disorganized." Toby shrugged. "And there's always mail to sort."

"Better than watching Steve tear out walls." Stabler controlled another sigh. "Will Lauren be there?"

Toby didn't answer until he'd called for a cab. Stabler could have driven, but a cab was fine. Toby gave him a funny look. "Lauren, the lady from work that I took out?"

"That's her." Stabler was curious. He wanted to know. "You like her?"

"You sure did wait awhile to ask!" Toby laughed at him. "She needed a safe date for a wedding. I think she's gay."

"Are you serious?" Stabler wasn't sure what he'd expected, but that wasn't it.

"Yes." Toby nodded. "There's our cab." He stepped off the curb and opened the door. "Sweet to know you were jealous."

Stabler pushed him inside, sat down carefully, and shut the door. He waited until Toby had given directions before saying, "Right. It was the conversation with your brother that got me to thinking about it."

"He said that I made you look bad, right?" Toby rolled his eyes.

Stabler wasn't sure he wanted to answer that straight on. "He does seem to have issues."

"Think of it from his point of view. He finds out his brother has taken a lover in prison. Oh, and the guy's a murderer. Let's say my credibility was pretty much shot after that."

Stabler saw the cabbie check the mirror. "What did he think about Schillinger?"

Toby slumped in the seat. "Let's discuss this later when the cabbie isn't taking notes for his novel."

Stabler agreed, but he still wondered. Toby paid the cabbie, and they went inside Victim's Services. Stabler stopped to chat with everyone he knew. He was in no rush to sort mail or watch Toby fuss with files.

*********

Toby sat down and surveyed his mess. He'd spent more time taking care of Stabler than working, and he was behind. Once Stabler got back at it, Toby would too. Toby could dimly hear Stabler making nice with everyone on this floor. He'd have to fight his way through the women to get here, and it was Sunday. On a Monday, he wouldn't have made it. Toby pushed his hair back, took a deep breath, and focused on just organizing everything.

"This isn't your cubicle!" Stabler leaned against the doorway. "I'd have been here sooner, but I went the wrong way."

"They'd already given it away, so I moved in here." Toby leaned and stretched his back.

"What was this?"

"Storage closet." Toby shrugged. "Like I give a damn. The lack of windows is refreshing."

"I worry about you." Stabler shook his head. "Need help?"

"I was given twenty new cases." Toby pointed at a stack. "Can you put them in order by the date of when they contacted us?"

"Sure." Stabler moved inside the small room. He picked them up and sat down in the small chair next to Toby's desk. "Is this six by nine?"

"Yes." Toby sat down and began to go through another stack. "Home sweet home."

"When you see your therapist next, mention this, will ya?"

"If you insist." Toby laughed softly. He agreed that it wasn't normal, but he did feel comfortable in here. "I am so behind."

"This does seem like a lot." Stabler was working.

"I usually have forty to fifty cases at any one time." Toby put that stack aside and reached for the last one. If he could review these he'd be one step from being in the game. "Getting all my clients back was fucked up."

"Translation?"

"Let's say that I knew who my clients were, but no one knew who had them." Toby shot him a quick grin. "One of these days I'll stop saying fuck."

"I doubt it." Stabler wasn't quitting.

Toby opened the first file and started reading. He didn't look up until he was five files deep, and Stabler set a soda down next to him. "Thanks."

"How many more?"

"Ten and I'll head home. You going?" Toby rubbed his eyes and sat up straighter. He wasn't quitting until he was done.

Stabler took the chair again. "Toby, doesn't Angus feel badly about the abuse you suffered in prison?"

"I honestly don't know. We all ignored it." Toby didn't understand why this was important. "I moved past it into anger and hatred."

Stabler chewed his lower lip. He looked down at the floor and back up. "Petition for visitation rights."

Toby drew his head back in astonishment. "Have you noticed that my brother is an actual lawyer? He'll cut me to shreds. The courts would probably order me to leave the country."

"It's been years since you were drunk or high. You have a good job, money, and live with a police detective." Stabler smiled slightly. "You have a chance."

Toby wasn't sure he wanted that shred of hope. "I'll think about it. It's not you that will get hurt."

Stabler nodded. "Okay. Finish. I'll go find something to do."

Toby stood and clasped Stabler's forearm. "I appreciate your support, but I haven't been sober all that long."

"How long?" Stabler's brow furrowed.

"Six years, more or less." Toby rubbed his face. "Not that long."

"Keller." Stabler just sounded sad. "Okay, finish. I want to get out of here before dark."

"Yes, sir." Toby put his mind back in the files. He wasn't going to think about his problems until later, much later, but he would always remember that Stabler didn't condemn him for loving Chris Keller, and that was something of incredible worth. It was also confusing as hell. Everyone else blamed him. Why not Stabler? Toby shut the file and gave up. He was done for the day. Standing, he stretched and grabbed his coat. Tomorrow, he'd move a few things around and make this office less of a storage closet.

Stabler was out near the exit, chatting with a security guard. "Already?"

"You made it impossible to think about work." Toby shrugged. "Let's go. I can tell you're hungry."

"I am." Stabler tugged his coat on, and Toby made sure it was around enough of him. They caught a cab and headed home. Stabler gave him a nudge. "You okay?"

"Yes." Toby rubbed his forehead. "You still bored?"

Stabler laughed softly. "No. In fact, I'm feeling pretty good."

"That's a relief." Toby stretched his neck back. He had to know that one thing. If he knew, he wouldn't worry so much. He leaned very close to Stabler and whispered in his ear, "Everyone hates me for Chris, why don't you?"

Stabler gave a small grunt. "I'll tell you when we get home."

Toby tried to pay the cabbie but Stabler beat him to it, and they shared a glare. Stabler suddenly switched to a big grin, and Toby had to laugh. There was a note on the door, and they read it together.

Elliot, I had to move your tenant out. I put it all in Maureen's room. Be back tomorrow. Steve

Stabler took it down and unlocked the door. "You think he found your stash of dirty magazines?"

"If he did, they're gone." Toby headed for the kitchen to throw some food on the table. Luckily, Kathy had brought over a casserole, so all he had to do was re-heat it. While that was heating, he went upstairs to make sure he knew where his clothes were. He wasn't worried about where he'd be sleeping.

********

Stabler went upstairs to see how construction was coming along. He surveyed the destruction and sighed softly. This was a real commitment, and he could only hope that Toby wouldn't up and disappear as soon as the addition was finished. It was probably a mistake to turn a four bedroom house into three bedrooms and a small apartment, but he had no intention of selling. This way Toby could be comfortable and still have his own space, which he needed.

"You sure about this?"

"Will you decorate it when it's finished?" Stabler made a broad gesture. If he had to do it, Toby was in trouble.

"If you're sure." Toby swiped his hair back.

"Quit playing with your hair. I'm sure, and you're paying for it. Once Steve is paid off, your rent will drop back to what it was."

Toby shook his head. "No. I know what you pay in child support. Don't argue about it or I'll move out."

"Don't make threats that will hurt if you have to keep them." Stabler wanted to do what was fair, not what would make his life easier.

"Hurt?" Toby asked softly.

"Yes, it will hurt when I bloody your nose for trying to move out!" Stabler got right in Toby's face until he took a step back. "Triple until Steve is paid and then double."

Toby sniffed, seemed to balk, and abruptly shrugged. "Deal, but I will buy the furnishings."

"If you move out, you'll take them." Stabler hoped that never happened.

"Even if I'm eighty." Toby shot him a sly grin, edged past, and went downstairs.

Stabler didn't rush after him, but he went that direction after a quick stop in the bathroom. Dinner was starting to smell good, and he considered getting a beer, but Toby would deny him his only painkiller of the day. Instead, he grabbed a Coke and sat down at the table. Toby had his back to him at the sink when his cell phone rang. Stabler saw Toby's face light up, and he knew it was Holly. The conversation was short on Toby's end, but he listened. Stabler nearly laughed. Holly was a teenager. She could talk on the phone for hours and say nothing at all.

Stabler was glad to see it. Holly might be able to mend the fence between brothers. He flashed back to the basketball game, and suddenly he understood. Angus was afraid that Toby would petition the courts for custody. Toby might get it. He was their father, and there were a lot of judges that would award it on that basis alone.

Toby finally said goodbye and shut the phone with a smile on his face that Stabler had rarely seen directed at him.

"She's so cool."

Stabler laughed. He got up and set the table for dinner. Toby did the rest, and he ate with a smile on his face. Stabler didn't talk to him. When the food was gone, and the dishwasher loaded, they went out to the TV.

Toby sat down by the cat. "Where am I sleeping tonight?"

Stabler hesitated in turning on the TV. Tomorrow, he'd go back to work part-time, and Toby would work all the time. They'd see each other, but nothing like these past two weeks. Despite the pain and the problems, it had been good to see so much of him. They knew each other better now. Toby gave him a quizzical look.

Stabler put the remote down. "Where'd you put my cuffs?"

"I'll never tell." Toby smirked. He stroked the cat and whispered, "And the cat won't either."

Stabler stood up and stretched. "I'll get my spare set." He started for the stairs. Toby moved fast to block him, and Stabler was glad. Stabler didn't stop until their bodies were hard up against each other. Toby gave a soft groan, and Stabler kissed him. This time, he really kissed him, shoving his tongue hard. He could feel Toby's astonishment, and he wrapped his good hand in Toby's hair to make kissing him easier.

Toby yanked away. "That's not fair!"

Stabler moved past him up the stairs, but kept his hand tight in Toby's hair. "I don't need cuffs."

Toby yelped and stayed with him. "You're pissing me off!"

Stabler loosened his grip, smoothed the hair, and kissed him again. Toby's back hit the wall in the hallway. Stabler grabbed Toby's ass and pulled him close. "Toby, you can leave."

Toby made a soft sound when Stabler thrust his tongue deep again. That was definitely consent. Stabler turned him loose and went to his bedroom. "You coming?"

Toby wiped his mouth and straightened his back. "Tell me why."

Stabler knew what Toby meant. He knew that he had to tell him or Toby would never trust him, not completely. Toby stepped inside the bedroom, and Stabler sat down on the edge of the bed to take his shirt off.

"Come here."

Toby walked to him, but cautiously. When he stood directly in front of him, Stabler tugged him down. Toby knelt, but he looked as if he might run from the room at any moment. "Why aren't you angry about Keller?"

"Keller's dead." Stabler stroked his hand through Toby's hair. He liked it long, but that was his dirty, little secret. "Whatever he did that was wrong, he did one thing right."

"What was that?" Toby cocked his head to the side and licked his lips.

Stabler wanted to kiss him hard again. "He loved you."

"That doesn't make a lot of sense." Toby sighed and leaned his head against Stabler's thigh.

"It does to me. Blaming you for loving him isn't smart. What else did you have? The choices a man makes in prison aren't necessarily the ones he would make on the street. You did your best. Forgive yourself and tell the world to go to hell." Stabler was about finished talking. That was enough words to last a week or two. He smiled. "Got it?"

"Yeah. I think so." Toby scooted forward and kissed Stabler's chest. "Thanks."

"Now get up here so I can kiss you again," Stabler growled and pulled.

Toby didn't resist. "I thought we weren't into that."

"One night won't kill me." Stabler sank into it. He wanted to enjoy every part of Toby's body tonight, maybe twice. Definitely twice.

********

Toby wasn't entirely sure how to deal with this aggressive Stabler. Stabler was acting an awful lot like Chris at his very best, and it had never been awful, but it had always been intimidating. His arm must have felt much better because he hadn't even asked for a pain pill. Toby's brain melted down when Stabler thrust his tongue deep and gripped Toby's ass. Oh God.

"You scared?"

"Yeah. A little." Toby laughed nervously. "Is it all over my face?"

"Yep." Stabler started shoving the rest of his clothes off. "You can run."

"What fun would that be?" Toby put his clothes right on top of Stabler's. "I know you won't hurt me."

Stabler smiled and got comfortable on the bed. "Come do all the work."

"What?" Toby didn't hesitate to crawl up Stabler's gorgeous body, licking and kissing all along the way. If this was all that was going to happen, he could handle it. "What happened to the guy in the hallway?"

Stabler took a good hold of Toby's hair and pulled him up for a kiss. Toby liked that. He liked it a lot, but he had a feeling that saying he liked it was a bad idea. Stabler took away Toby's ability to worry about anything, and that made him anxious.

"Hey, Toby." Stabler slipped his hand through Toby's hair. "Can I tell you something?"

Toby drew his head back. He didn't understand this sudden break in the action. His cock wanted to come, and all he needed was a touch or two. "Of course."

"I, uh, bought some condoms." Stabler almost looked embarrassed. "We haven't talked about it."

Toby felt his eyes widen in shock. That was the one thing they hadn't done, and he hadn't thought that Stabler wanted to. It was no big deal. Toby didn't care if they did or not. "I was tested for HIV when I got out. I'm clean."

Stabler let out a whoosh of air. "Thank God. If anything like that happened to you, I'd-" He broke off.

Toby saw the love clearly. Stabler had been worried about him. It felt . . . so good. "What about you?"

"I don't think I'm at risk." Stabler frowned. Toby didn't think so either. Stabler wasn't the type to fool around with just anyone. "I'll get tested, if you want."

"It's up to you." Toby wasn't going to push that. "I'm sure you understand the mechanics, but do you get the fact that it can hurt?"

Stabler nodded slowly. "If you don't want to, we don't have to, ever."

"Christ, you're easy to love." Toby pushed up and sat back cross-legged on the bed. "I can tell you mean that. How the hell am I supposed to walk away from you some day?"

"That's not a question that I can answer." Stabler put his hand on Toby's thigh. "But you're easy too."

Toby snorted. He was easy to hate. Him and all his screw ups. He had no idea why Stabler liked him and made love to him. It hadn't made any sense from the first time they'd seen each other, and that had been accident, not design.

"You want to go to lunch with us?" Karl had said. "Some sunlight wouldn't kill you." 

"It might." Toby tried a small smile. "No thanks. Maybe next time." He would never go with them. He wasn't their kind, not anymore, if he ever had been. Karl seemed like he might argue, but abruptly he walked away. Good. Toby's part of the floor quieted down, and his cubicle felt much more private than it had thirty minutes ago. He took a breath and leaned back. Exhaustion had become his best friend. He'd worked here about a month, but it seemed like years. It had been a shock that they'd hire him, knowing the truth, but apparently his years as a lawyer had turned the tide. He could advise people on pending civil suits as well as try to provide a measure of comfort. The real surprise had been that he was good at it, and he wasn't bragging. He liked this job. It sure as hell was better than sitting around in the hell hole that he called home. 

"Are you Tobias Beecher?" 

Toby stood before raising his eyes. The synapses in his brain all fired at once, and he dimly felt his body hit the floor. Then nothing. Until. 

"Wake up, buddy." The guy shook him gently. 

Toby shoved at him and scrambled away, not stopping until his back tucked into the corner of his cubicle. "No! It's not possible. You're dead! O fuck." He hid his face in his hands. Tired was one thing, but hallucinating was another. 

"I can see this isn't a good time for you. I can come back later. Do I need to get someone? An ambulance?" The voice - the voice - it was the same! 

Toby flinched at every word. His vision swam in and out, and his stomach was nothing but a knot. "Please. God. Not him. Send any of them back, but not him." 

"Okay. That's it. I'm calling an ambulance."

Toby raised his head and stared. The truth, he'd learned early while in Oz, was something neither black nor white. He'd learned never to trust, never to love, and keep his hatred close to his heart, and it all had been exploded by Keller. Keller. Toby opened his mouth and forced words out. Nothing. He tried again.

"Who are you?"

 "Elliot Stabler, Special Victims Unit Manhattan. I work out of the one-six. I'm sure we haven't met before." He squatted down. "Let me help you up, and I'll get you something to drink." 

Toby winced away. "Don't touch me for any reason. There's a Coke machine down at the end of the hallway." The guy nodded and went, and Toby stumbled up and sat down. Motherfuck. What the hell had just happened? Was it real? Would he come back? Toby rubbed his face hard and tried to think, but nothing happened. His brain was fried. 

"Here." Keller put it on the desk and backed away. "You okay? I can get a bus." 

Toby put the cold can against his forehead. "A bus?" 

"An ambulance." He pulled the lone chair to its farthest point and sat down. "I'm serious now. Fainting away like that ain't normal." 

Toby shut his eyes and opened them again. Nope. Keller was still there. "Wait. What did you say your name was?" 

"Elliot Stabler." He pulled a card out of his pocket and tossed it up on the desk. "How about an afternoon CAT scan?" 

"I'm okay," Toby lied, and he nearly giggled. He had to clamp down. "Am I drunk?"

"I can't answer that, but I think maybe so." Stabler pointed. "I came by to discuss Andrea Morton's case with you. I saw your name in the file." 

Toby tried to switch gears, but his transmission had fallen out. He popped the soda can and drank some, hoping it would jump start him. And where the hell were all these car metaphors coming from? He realized belatedly that he was supposed to say something. "Elliot Stabler, huh?" 

"I can see I'm not going to get far today." Stabler sighed and stood up. "Have you eaten? Maybe your blood sugar has tanked." 

"Uh, no." Toby pushed his chair back and away. His cubicle seemed tiny. "You a cop?" 

"Okay. Where's your boss?" Stabler stepped out into the hallway. 

"Karl's at lunch." Toby took one tentative step after him. "I could use a breath of fresh air." Wow, could he. He picked up his coat and sidled out the door, careful not to touch him. He might disappear, not that Toby would care, but it was good to keep his hallucinations right in front where he could see them. 

"How about a hot dog on the corner?" Stabler took two steps and seemed to wait for him. 

"Okay." Toby couldn't think of what else to say. "I know I'm acting insane." He furrowed his brow. He was occasionally insane, but this was more than usual. 

"At least you know it." Stabler walked next to him. Toby kept looking at him. Staring. Really. What the fuck was going on? 

"You have any brothers?" Toby watched Stabler order two of everything. He took what he was given, and Stabler went to sit down on the steps. Toby followed. Sitting was good, but if he fainted again he'd crack his head open on the marble. 

"Don't bust your head open." Stabler had thought the same thing. Damn odd. "Yes. Three brothers and two sisters." 

"Catholic." Toby drank his soda. He wasn't sure he could eat. His stomach was in his mouth. Chris had a brother? Not twins. There were differences. Small, but there. 

"Tell me what's going on." Stabler fixed him with a look that let Toby know he was facing a cop that was used to getting answers. 

"I-I-I've been in prison. I got out not long ago." Toby handed him the hot dog. He couldn't put it in his mouth. "My cellmate looked just like you." It was close enough to the truth. "He died, and when I saw you, my brain stopped working. I guess." 

Stabler's blue eyes turned cold. "Which prison?"

"Oswald." Toby took another drink. He knew he might have fucked up. Cops loved to screw people over for no good reason. "My boss knows. No lies. Okay?" 

"If you say so." Stabler ate Toby's hot dog. "You helping people or hurting them?" 

"I'm trying to help." Toby wanted to reach out and touch him. Just once. A sob worked its way up his throat, and he turned away. Shit. He was a pitiful man. Information suddenly clicked, and his brain began to work. "I don't think Andrea can win her case. The evidence is far too circumstantial, even for civil court." 

"But she's pushing ahead?" 

"She's angry. If she'd have skipped the shower, maybe her boss would be behind bars, but it's a he said/she said, and I don't think she can win." Toby gathered his courage and turned back to look at him - still there. 

Stabler wadded up the paper from the hot dog. "I'll testify. I was there right after."

Toby hadn't known that. "Your boss gives you time for civil cases?"

"Lately, I've been taking it. Justice is blind and all that crap." Stabler picked up his drink and finished it. "Let's go look it over." 

"You realize that I'm not her attorney. I can only advise her." Toby wanted to make that clear. He had no real power. 

"Disbarred?" 

"Yes." Toby drank some more soda. He felt stronger. Stabler was a cop. Nothing but a cop. Chris was still dead. The world wasn't upside down, maybe on its side, but that was okay. 

"But you meet with her attorney?" 

"I sit second chair." Toby did. Usually. "I like to think of myself as the buffer between our client and the attorney. Frequently, they need one. An advocate, of sorts." 

"Good enough. You can talk to him when we're through. I hate attorneys." Stabler gave him a grin that was heartbreakingly familiar. "Okay, Mr. Beecher?" 

Toby got up. His legs held. What a relief. "Okay, Detective Stabler."

He dropped into the present. Stabler was merely waiting for Toby to tell him what to do. They were both rock hard, and Toby knew what he wanted. He hadn't ever thought to want it again, but he did.

"Are they in the cabinet?"

"Sock drawer." Stabler pointed.

Toby pulled them out and spotted the water-base lubricant. "Wow. You thought this through."

"I've had time." Stabler hovered on the edge of a blush, and Toby kissed him to make up for it. The kiss became another, and Toby stopped worrying.

********

Stabler hesitated, just like when he'd gone back to Victim's Services after they'd met. He'd stood in the doorway and stared for a long moment, wanting to say something, and not knowing why.

"So what was Oz like?" he'd asked naively. 

Toby just stared for a minute, and then he shrugged. "Not a nice place. I don't recommend it to anyone, not even the most hardened criminal."

"That bad?" Stabler needed to get back to the precinct. He had just stopped in to make sure someone was doing a follow up on their latest case, and his feet had brought him over to Toby's cubicle. It didn't mean anything. 

Toby leaned back in his chair. "Yes. Good place to die, but not much else. You here for a reason?" 

"No." Stabler felt the brush off, but decided to let it slide. "I guess I wanted to see if you'd keel over again."

"No such luck. My heart is racing, and my palms are sweating, but I'm able to remain conscious." Toby looked down at the papers on his desk. "Thanks for asking." 

"Sarcasm. I like it." Stabler grinned. "How'd my doppelganger die?" 

Toby actually winced and his face went pale. "Fell from a balcony. Broke his neck." 

"Damn." Stabler was sorry he'd asked. "Your cellmate, huh?" 

"Over the years, yes." Toby wasn't lying, but it was easy to tell that he was skirting the truth. "He was my lover, and I miss him. Now, beat it, will you?" 

Stabler had no words at first. He managed to say, "I'm sorry for your loss." It was stupid, but he felt like he'd been kicked in the guts. He left the building quickly before Toby spilled any more devastating information. "Damn." Stabler stopped at the nearest bar and got a long neck. He sipped it slowly and fought against the image of Toby on his knees in front of someone that looked like him. When that picture was gone, another took its place. Them kissing. He drank a little faster. He'd known Toby was depressed, and now he knew why, and he was making it worse. Him and his stupid face. He'd stay away. He would. Toby had enough problems. 

It had only been one week later that he'd heard. "Stabler, head over to Victim's Services and get with someone about this case. We need all the help we can get." 

"I'd rather not." Stabler didn't even look over his shoulder. 

"Too bad!" Cragen stormed off. 

"You crazy?" Benson asked softly. 

"Yes. Yes, I am." Stabler got his coat. He was going. He'd just stay away from Toby. Easy. It was a big building. 

Karl looked the file over. "Get with Toby Beecher. He's the best on these cases." 

"Don't you have someone else?"
"You want it now or in six months?" Karl shrugged. He obviously didn't care. "Toby doesn't have a life. The rest of the people here do. Your choice." 

Stabler went, but he wasn't smiling. "Toby?" 

Toby whipped around from his file cabinet. "Don't call me that! Or Beech, or anything but Beecher. Okay? And what the hell are you doing back here? Christ! I gotta find work elsewhere." 

Stabler pulled his head back. He didn't need this shit. "Fine. I won't ask for your help with this case." 

"Good. Damn it." Toby looked like he wished he had a door to slam. "Fuck," he whispered. "Hand it over. I hate you."

 Stabler couldn't help but grin. Sarcasm, meanness, and a crappy attitude were all things he understood. "I hear that a lot. I think we'll be good friends." 

"Not fucking likely." Toby didn't look directly at him. "Sit the fuck down." 

"Does Karl know you cuss like a sailor?" Stabler couldn't square the cursing with the khakis and polo shirts.

 Toby nodded absentmindedly. "I don't with the clients. You're a cop. The gloves are off." 

"You never slip up?" Stabler was just picking at him now. 

"Are you going to sit down?" Toby frowned up at him. "This cubicle isn't big enough for you to loom over me like the angel of death." 

"Ugh." Stabler sat down. He didn't like that visual image at all. "You hate me?" 

"Pretty much. It's your face. Live with it." Toby smiled meanly at him. "I'll get with him this afternoon and get back to you over at the precinct." 

"So, you really don't need to talk about it." Stabler furrowed his brow. He was being blown off in a major way. 

"No." Toby picked up the phone.

"My boss ain't gonna like this." Stabler sighed. He was going to get yelled at by Cragen. "Let's go see him together."

"Absolutely not. I'll work with him. Goodbye." Toby dialed. "Out." 

Stabler threw up his hands and went out of Toby's cubicle. It would have to be good enough. The damndest thing of all was that he liked Toby. Toby was someone different. Someone who had suffered. Someone who could maybe understand. Stabler hunkered down at his desk and waited. 

"Well?" Benson whispered. 

Stabler shrugged and worked on other cases. He would have to take Toby at his word. Three o'clock came, and Stabler had given up. 

"My office!" Cragen pointed at Stabler. 

Stabler groaned, got up, and his cell phone rang. "Hello?" 

"It's Beecher. Tell me where to meet you, but not in the precinct. He's too nervous." 

Stabler paused to think about it. "Let me ask the boss. I'll call you back." 

"Good enough." 

It had turned out to be simple enough. They'd met at a coffee shop, and he'd gotten a preliminary statement. Toby had worked miracles, and Stabler's ass was out of the line of fire. After the guy had left, Stabler continued to sit, and Toby didn't get up either. 

"Good job." 

"My job." Toby shrugged. "Anything else?" 

Stabler wasn't sure. "I look like him?" 

"No scar on your forehead and you seem a little taller. Do you have a tattoo on your upper arm?" Toby fiddled with the dregs of his coffee. 

"Yes." Stabler regretted telling the truth when Toby's eyes bulged. "Christ on the cross." 

"I'll be damned. Well, that's a given, but still, motherfuck." Toby moved his chair back. "I am officially freaked out. Call me if you need anything else, but we can hope that won't happen." 

Stabler watched him stride away, burrowing into his coat as if he were cold. It wasn't cold. It was worry, anxiety, and maybe a touch of fear. Toby not only worked at Victim's Services, he probably needed to be a client. Stabler paid the tab and got moving. He was going to run Toby's sheet and see where they stood. 

"Which position would be easiest on your cast?"

Stabler blinked and came back into the now. Toby had pulled slightly away and was waiting for an answer. Stabler looked at him, really looked. "You decide."

Toby nodded. He tore open a condom and put it on Stabler's dick. Stabler had to take a deep breath. He wasn't going to ask any stupid questions, but he wasn't sure he could do this, and it had been his idea.

"No big deal, El."

Stabler pulled him closer and stopped worrying.

********

Toby tried not to gasp when it happened. He failed.

"Stop?"

Toby reached back and put his hand on Stabler's chest. "No." He relaxed and pushed back. Stabler groaned. It was a harsh sound. Toby knew he was thinking too much, but he couldn't seem to stop.

"You want to go get a beer, Beecher?" Stabler had stuck his head inside Toby's cubicle. "I think we both had a long day on this one."

It had been a tough case, but the victim had gotten her day in civil court and won a settlement, with Stabler's help. Toby considered lying to get out of this invitation, but unexpectedly the truth came out of his mouth. "I'm an alcoholic." 

Stabler shrugged it off. "You could watch me drink." 

Toby laughed. That wouldn't be any fun at all, but he liked Stabler. He hadn't wanted to, but he did. "Okay. I'll have a Coke and rum, no rum." 

Stabler smiled and waited until Toby had put things away and picked up his coat. "Cavanaugh's okay?" 

"Whatever. You driving?" Toby didn't have a license, but he didn't want the world to know it. 

"Yes." Stabler walked beside him, not in front of him. "I make you nervous?" 

Toby was shocked at both the honesty and the fact that Stabler sensed it. "Yes. You do. He killed without remorse." 

"Not me. I can't even set a mouse trap." Stabler opened the door, and they were outside. Toby took a deep breath of fresh air. He was still getting used to the idea that he was free. Free. He could do what he wanted. Mostly. Stabler smiled at him. "Nice day." 

Toby smiled back. "Every day I'm out is a nice day, even if it rains." 

"I understand that." Stabler unlocked the car doors, and Toby sat down in the passenger seat. Toby wanted to squirm. They were close. The doors were shut. Something bad could happen. He eased in and out another deep breath, but quietly. Stabler gave him a pat on the knee. "Don't worry. I took classes in how to drive." 

Toby chuckled weakly. Stabler had touched him. The heavy hand had left in a print on Toby's soul. "Shit." 

"Change your mind? I can take you home. Wherever that is." Stabler eased the car out into traffic. 

"No. I'm just tired. Like you said, long day. We won though." Toby tried to smile. He couldn't. There were no real winners in these cases. She might have more money, but she still had to deal with her rape for the rest of her life. Toby knew the pain all too well. 

"It will help her heal. Knowing she faced him down and won will help her go on with her life." Stabler glanced at him. "You did a good job." 

Toby wondered how Stabler had known what he was thinking. And good? Him? It was hard to believe, but it felt like it might have a little bit of truth in it. "Couldn't have done it without you. There's something about you that makes people trust you. A woman that's been raped by a big guy should run in fear from the sight of you. It's interesting." 

Stabler pulled to a stop and put the car in park. "And you want to run too?"

"Yeah, me too." Toby couldn't deny it. When he caught sight of Stabler out of the corner of his eye, he wanted to run. His mind screamed the word Keller at him. Stabler got out, and Toby followed after him. They got a booth, and he got a Coke. Stabler surprised him by ordering cheeseburgers and fries for them both. Toby wasn't sure he could swallow, but he hadn't eaten all day. "Thanks." 

"Gotta eat. A brisk New York wind could blow you away." 

"Right back to Oz," Toby whispered. He looked up, caught Stabler's face, and felt guilty instantly. "Sorry. I'm usually much cheerier." 

"Why do I have a hard time believing that?" Stabler shrugged his coat off and thanked the waitress for the beer. He took a long drink, and Toby couldn't help but watch. Toby sipped his Coke and told himself that he didn't want it. He didn't. It would only lead him down the road to hell again. 

"Why aren't you home?" Toby knew the detective was married with kids. 

"She left me," Stabler said quickly, as if it would hurt less that way. "She wants a divorce." 

"Sorry." Toby hesitated to butt in. "Do you have a good lawyer?" 

"I need one. You available?" Stabler took another drink. He must love beer. 

Toby dug out his wallet and one of his brother's business cards. "No, but my brother will do a good job for you, and he's reasonable." 

"Yeah, but is he expensive?" 

They laughed softly together. Toby nearly flinched when Stabler's fingers touched his and took the business card away. 

"Thanks. Um, is it all right if I call you Toby?" 

Toby nodded. Everyone called him that. It was no big deal. It meant nothing. Chris was dead! Stabler was sitting in front of him. Elliot Stabler. A detective. A nice guy. Toby drank some more Coke. He could eat now. The evening passed quickly, but Stabler only had one beer. Toby found himself actually talking to another human being, and he couldn't seem to shut up. 

Finally, Stabler grabbed his coat. "Okay. I'll take you home." 

Toby got up and put on his coat. "No. I'll catch a cab." 

"Don't argue." Stabler reached for him. "Isn't that too much money?"

"The waitress worked hard, and she needs it." Toby had it to burn, and he moved so Stabler couldn't touch him. "Cab. We aren't arguing." 

Stabler walked out with him. "How do you know she needs it?" 

Toby shrugged. He watched people. Old habit from prison when one day slid into another and all there was to do was stare at the unlucky fuckers all around him. "She'd just had a baby. I'm sure she can use the cash." 

Stabler took him by the arm and gave a gentle tug. "How do you know?" 

Toby wrenched his arm away. "Don't ever!" 

Stabler backed up and raised his hands. "Sorry. I don't want you to take a cab." 

Toby managed to push away the bulk of his instant anger. He didn't like being touched. "Too fucking bad. And did you look at her? It was obvious." 

Stabler sighed and put his hands on his hips. "Toby, I'm sorry. Let me give you a ride home. We can talk a little longer." 

Toby wasn't sure. He wasn't proud of where he lived, but maybe the truth would force Stabler to show his true colors. When Stabler ran for cover, Toby could write him off. 

"Okay. But don't touch me like that." Toby added a sharp glare to his words. "Don't." 

"I'm sorry." Stabler meant it. It was obvious. "Let's go." 

Toby went to the car and gave him the address. Stabler went towards it without hesitating. He knew where it was, and that meant he knew what it was. Did he care? Toby unbuckled the instant the car stopped. "Thanks. I had a good time. Later." 

Stabler got out with him though. "Toby, invite me up." 

Toby shook his head in wonderment. "You must be completely lonely. It's kinda sad." 

Stabler nodded. "It is. You too, I know. I want to talk about the Gonzalez case before I go. Okay?" 

Toby took him up three flights and down four doors. He unlocked it and pushed it open. "I need to review it. She was one of yours, right?" 

"Yes. The judge threw out the confession." Stabler looked around at the one room, a tiny fridge, a chair in front of a small desk, and a bed. "This ain't much better than prison." 

"You're wrong." Toby shut the door, took off his coat, and tossed it on the bed. "Take the chair. I'd get out the cake and coffee, but you can see that my resources are limited." 

"Why?" Stabler furrowed his brow. "What about your brother?" 

Toby sat down on the bed. He wasn't sure how much truth to tell. "Remember when I fainted at your feet?" 

"How could I forget?" Stabler eased down into the chair and pushed his coat off. "I thought I'd killed you by asking your name." 

"It was shock because you look like Chris." Toby had told him that a few weeks ago to drive him away. It hadn't worked. 

"I know." 

"So does my brother. He doesn't share your enlightened views on homosexuals and prison lovers. I'm not welcome in his home or the state of Connecticut. So, I came here." Toby took a deep breath. He was sharing too much with this man. It could all be used to hurt him. 

Stabler sighed. "That's too bad. Being an ex-con ain't easy." 

"No, but it pays the bills," Toby joked. He had to make light of it, or he'd sit around and cry all the time. 

Stabler laughed softly. He slowly began to roll up his sleeves, showing a Marine tattoo on one arm. Toby wasn't going to show his, no sir. Stabler smiled and said, "How long were you in prison?" 

"Twelve of fifteen." The numbers didn't bother Toby, but he was very curious as to what Stabler was doing here. "No reaction. You pulled my sheet." 

Stabler tossed him a fake grin. "I did. I wanted to know who was working my cases." 

"Prudent. So is this the part where you deck me and we part ways?" Toby would take it like a man, but he'd cry when Stabler was gone. 

"What you did was awful. Unforgivable." Stabler's eyes were hard now, like blue agates. "But you know that." 

"Yes." Toby frowned. "I can't bring her back. I think maybe I suffered enough, and now I'm trying to do enough good to balance the scale." 

"Can you?" 

"I can only fucking try." Toby sighed. "It's that or kill myself, and I want to see my kids before I do that." 

Stabler sat up straighter. "How many?" 

"Two." Toby refused to give any more information. He waited for Stabler to hate him. People usually did when they found out the truth. Even some of his cellmates had tried to claim the moral higher ground. "Just hate me and get it over with. The suspense is killing me." 

"You suffered?" Stabler was an expert at interviewing people, and that's what he'd come here to do. Toby could see it clearly, and he respected it. Now he had to decide what to say. He hated pity, but again, if Stabler was nothing but a shithead, this conversation would pull it out of him. It was better to know exactly what a man was than believe any lie that came out of his mouth. 

"I was raped and brutalized repeatedly by a Nazi named Vern Schillinger. Run his sheet if you want to have nightmares. I was beaten, fucked, tortured, and that was only the beginning." 

"And then?" Stabler had to be guessing that there was more. 

"And then I became addicted to heroin." Toby felt like peeling off his skin and handed it to Stabler. It would be less painful than this. "It made it all better until I snorted some bad angel dust, went insane, and ended up getting clean in the hole." 

"How long were you in the hole?" 

"A month, maybe longer, I don't really know." Toby didn't remember parts of it. "My brother knows me, and he refuses to have me in his home. My children won't see me. This." Toby pointed around the tiny room. "Is who I am and what I have. Deal with it and get out." 

Stabler got to his feet. Toby did the same. He braced himself for the violence that would follow. It would be ugly, but it would be over. He'd go back to having nothing, and it would feel so much safer. Stabler took a small step and hugged him. Hugged him. Toby was so tense that he didn't understand what was going on for a good two minutes. When he finally did get it, he fought back a sob. For fuck's sake, he would not cry, and he didn't, not more than one tear escaped. 

"I don't hate you." Stabler gave him another squeeze. "You're doing your best after years of hell."

 Toby felt like someone had lit a stick of dynamite in his pants. The fear had quickly turned to blind lust, and Stabler looked so much like Chris. "Please. Go away. I'll only hurt you or make you miserable."

"You think a lot of yourself." Stabler laughed and turned him loose. "Don't worry about me. For some reason, I like you." 

Toby stared up into Stabler's smiling face. "Oh fuck." 

Stabler really looked at him. All of him. Toby felt a spark of fire ignite the air between them, and he knew he was in real trouble. His knees gave out, his hands fumbled, and Stabler did nothing but lodge his fingers in Toby's hair and keep them there. Toby used his considerable expertise to make Stabler groan, and it was over quickly. 

Stabler fixed his clothes and pulled Toby up. "That never happened." 

Toby squeezed his hard cock through his pants and came instantly. He slumped down on the bed and put his whirling head in his hands. "It sure as hell didn't. I don't want a friend that looks like that bastard Chris Keller. Get out."

Stabler grabbed his coat and was gone. Toby didn't bother to lock the door. He had nothing. He was nothing, but for some reason that wasn't the end of it.

"Can I move?"

Toby blinked. They'd come so far, what was this? Nothing at all. "Yeah." He knew it would be good, but he made sure to control the pace, and the gentle rocking was better than that. Stabler took his time, and each moment was sweeter than the last. Toby didn't want it to ever end. He wanted that hand on his shoulder for eternity. "Oh dear sweet God."

Stabler caught Toby's hair, pulled him back hard against him, and gasped. Toby didn't protest when they went down and Stabler rested his cast against Toby's side. Their breathing matched up. Toby still quivered. He was a mess, and he shut his eyes to revel in it.

*********

Stabler had to rest his cast. When he had the strength, he was getting a pain pill, but for a moment, he wanted to hold Toby. Random memories flitted through him; he'd never thought they'd get here.

He'd paced and considered it from all angles, but he had to go to Victim's Services. This was one of his cases, and he had to see it through. It wasn't as if he wanted to see him. He was mortified at what he'd allowed over at the halfway house. Damn. He was ashamed that he'd enjoyed it. 

"Tobias Beecher in today?" 

The receptionist nodded. Stabler had known it. He'd just stopped to give himself time to change his mind. It didn't work, so he went towards Toby's cubicle. The file in his hand was heavy. He knocked on the metal part of the partition, as there was no door. Toby looked up, flinched, and scooted his chair away from him. 

"Here's the file you'll need for Alyssa Morels." Stabler held it out. Some perverse part of him refused to throw it down. Toby stared at it, slowly stood, and took it. Stabler watched him closely. Toby was scared. 

"Heard of messenger services?" Toby snapped at him. The fear had turned to anger and pain. 

Stabler hated to see it. He'd wanted to be Toby's friend, not someone else that betrayed him. Their paths were going to cross occasionally, and it would nice not to argue. Of course, this was all his fault. "Cost money. The department frowns on it. I'm off work." 

Toby's eyes looked hunted and haunted. "Fine." And he sat down to open the file. Stabler realized after a few minutes that he could stand there until the sun came up and Toby wouldn't say a thing. Well. Damn. He walked away. He'd go home, for a change. There had to be a few things around the house that needed doing. 

One week later, and Cragen comes out of his office. "I need someone to go by Victim's Services and drop this off. Any takers?" 

"I will." Stabler swiveled in his chair, answering before he can think about it rationally. "It's on the way home." 

"Good." Cragen put it in Stabler's hand. "You coping okay?" 

Stabler didn't want to talk about his divorce. "Yes." And he finished up his fives for the day before going to deliver his package. It was late enough that most people had gone home. Security glanced at his badge and shrugged. He spotted one light on, and he went towards it. He was no fool. 

"What the fuck do you want?" Toby wouldn't look at him, but he'd winced as if he were in pain. 

"Is that how you talk when the boss has gone home?" Stabler handed him the box. "From my boss to yours. With love." 

Toby's shockingly blue eyes met his and instantly darted away. "I'll deliver it. You're a prick." 

"My wife's opinion also." Stabler gave him a nice smile and headed for the door. But, there was one more thing, and he stopped. "Your brother is doing a good job. Thanks for the recommendation." 

"He's a prick too." Toby turned his back on him. Stabler could see the exhaustion, and he knew the bad attitude was all show. Toby was angry, but he was mostly just beat down. Living in a halfway house was hard. He had nothing and no one. Stabler jingled his keys and went towards the car. He'd been given the kiss off, but that didn't mean he was going. 

Stabler hauled the last of the crap out of the room over the garage and threw it in the trash. He wiped his hands on his jeans and went back to look at his handiwork. It was small, but a few furnishings would help. He'd go by the Salvation Army and see what they had. It was coming along. 

Three times, he found excuses to see Toby over at Victim's Services. Just a look, no words. He knew he was right on the verge of stalking him, and it made no sense. Why Toby? Toby obviously didn't like him. That Keller thing. Stabler didn't understand what he was doing lately, but this wasn't over. 

"I'm out of here," Stabler said to Cragen. "Okay?" 

"Losing an hour?" Cragen checked his watch. 

"I need to see my lawyer." Stabler was still worried about child support. The mortgage and bills ate up most of his paycheck. That night security job was getting closer and closer to a reality. 

Angus Beecher smiled. "I think we'll conclude this matter soon." 

"How much is she asking for child support?" Stabler feared the worst. Every cop in the precinct had a horror story. 

"Eight hundred a month. Two hundred per child. Of course, you aren't required to pay for Maureen by law. I can contest it. Get it down to six hundred." Angus looked like his brother, without the hard edges. 

Stabler would call her. If she needed it, he'd find a way to get it to her. "Have you spoken to your brother lately?" The question popped out of his mouth, and it worried him. He should be focused on his divorce, not worrying about Toby. 

"No." Angus's eyes pinched. "He's not family." 

Stabler nearly flinched. That was harsh. His family had their share of trouble, but they stuck together. "Don't contest it. Give her what she wants." He called her as soon as he hit the street. "Kathy, I was just at my lawyer's." 

"I suppose you're angry." 

"Do you need that much?" Stabler asked softly. "I'll work three jobs, if I know you need it."

"I can't make enough to cover all our expenses. I'm sorry. I could maybe get by on six hundred?" She was apologetic, and it made Stabler feel terrible. 

"No. You'll get it. I'll start this month. Don't worry." Stabler closed his phone. They were his kids, and they wouldn't go without. He drove home, parked the car in the garage, and spotted the old furniture he'd picked up. There was the answer to his problem, and maybe Toby's too. 

"You awake?"

"Barely," Stabler whispered. All of that had led here, and he was grateful. "I have to get up."

Toby laughed softly. "You need a pain pill."

"Right." Stabler pulled away, but gently, and immediately went to clean up. Toby beat him there, and they managed to avoid each other's eyes. Stabler had to hug him, just to reassure himself that Toby wasn't angry.

Toby leaned against him. "Wow."

"Yeah." Stabler kissed him one more time. "I gotta get a pill."

"Let me get it for you. Go lie down." Toby slid away from him. Stabler let him go and went to find a comfortable spot on the bed. He did stop and put his briefs back on. Damn. He'd never imagined it like that. He wasn't sure they'd ever do it again, but it had been so right. A sudden thought prickled at the back of his mind. What if Toby demanded his turn? Stabler nearly winced. He rubbed his eyes and resolved to think about it later.

"Here." Toby had water and a pill. "You set your alarm?"

Stabler took both items. "You're not my mother."

"Good thing." Toby leaned over and grabbed his shirt. "I have some stuff to do. You go to sleep."

Stabler wanted to argue about it. He wanted to hold him, but he was being ridiculous. "Okay. I'm tired."

Toby smiled and turned the light out. Stabler finished the water and relaxed down. He was tired, but he knew Toby wouldn't be back tonight. Shit, he had to find his cuffs.

********

Toby opened his briefcase and made a mess on the coffee table. The cat loved it and managed to stretch out on more than a few papers. Toby rubbed him on the head and started checking a few things. It grew later, and he startled when the doorbell rang. Quickly, he answered it and wished he hadn't.

"I thought you, and that animal, lived in the garage." Benson looked cool and calm.

Toby opened the door wider and went back to his paperwork. Insulting him was nothing, but picking on his cat was the sign of a real bitch. "Stabler went to bed."

Benson came inside, shut the door, and stood too close to him. "The captain told me that I have to apologize to you."

Toby nearly laughed at her. "Really? You know, I like Captain Cragen. He's an old drunk, like me, and he's got a sense of humor."

Benson didn't look happy. "Does Stabler know what an asshole you are?"

"Yeah. He says he works with assholes, so not to worry about it." Toby spotted the gun on her hip. Hopefully, she wouldn't shoot him. "Are you taking Stabler to work tomorrow?"

"I thought I might." Benson surveyed the coffee table. "Why do you care?"

"I guess you've never shared a cab with someone." Toby didn't think they'd ever exchange civil words, and he wasn't sure he cared.

"Get a car." Benson smiled. "But you won't, because you know you're going to drink again. It's just a matter of time, isn't it? And from there the drugs will come so easy. Who will pay the price this time?"

Toby put several files in his briefcase and opened another. This poor woman needed more help than he could give her. He was going to have to pass the case to someone more qualified than him.

"Oh, I'm sorry, were you running off at the mouth again? Cat, did you hear something?" Toby said dismissively.

Benson took a small step. Toby would have to crane his neck to look up at her, but he would never do that. She snarled, "Stabler doesn't need you in his life. He has enough trouble."

"You're probably right, but he likes the rent money." Toby sniffed. He was tired of this game, and he stood up, putting them face to face. She leaned away from him. He didn't smile at her. "Go home. I accept your apology."

"I didn't give you one." Benson glared. She was so sure of herself that it was almost sad.

Toby smiled a little. "I noticed. I can't be bullied, Detective, not after Oz, and thanks so much for giving my file to Stabler. Just what an exhausted man needs. Tell me, when you get an idea in your head, is it possible to remove it?"

"He needed to know!"

"I had told him," Toby fired right back at her. "You stay out of my life, and I won't demand an apology in front of your co-workers. Deal?"

Benson shifted on her feet and looked away. "I'll be watching."

Toby pointed at the door. "Do it where I can't see." He sat back down and opened another file. This one was a man that had been raped. Poor fucker. Toby had to go see him tomorrow. It was going to be hell, but it was part of the job. Benson shut the door fairly hard, and Toby got up to lock it. He didn't like her, and he felt somewhat guilty about it. She watched Stabler's back, and she must do a good job because he was demanding, but she wasn't reasonable. She jumped to conclusions and then refused to budge. Of course, he was an addict and an alcoholic, but half the guys carrying a badge had problems. She needed to turn it loose.

Toby leaned back against the cushions and pulled his cat into his lap. Tonight had been great, however, what did it mean in terms of their relationship? Would Stabler expect that from now on? Toby stroked his hand down soft fur and thought about it.

 They'd circled each other cautiously. Eyes sliding and too few words between them. It seemed to Toby that Stabler was at Victim's Services more than he should be. One day, out of the blue, Stabler was inside Toby's cubicle again. 

"Want a new place to live?" 

Toby narrowed his eyes. He didn't want to hear this. "Why?" 

"I could use some cash. I have a room over the garage." Stabler shoved his hands in his pockets. "Your decision." 

"You don't need money!" Toby snarled. He couldn't believe this shit. Was Stabler really that horny? 

"I do. My child support is killing me," Stabler lied. It was a lie. The divorce couldn't be final yet. 

Toby turned away. "You're lying." 

"Did you think I'd wait until the paperwork was finished? Kathy needs the money now." Stabler edged closer. "It's over the garage and not directly attached to the house. I'll leave you alone."

Toby refused to consider it. Stabler was just yanking him. Toby shrugged and told a lie of his own. "Fine. Come get me some time."

"How about tonight?"

Toby waved him and his bullshit away. "I have to work." 

"Tonight." Stabler left. 

Toby didn't pack, but it happened, and he moved into the garage with a sigh of relief. It was small, but he was alone. No one right across the hall to stare and lick their stupid lips. He was truly safe here. Stabler worked all the time, and when Toby wasn't at work, he read a book in real privacy. That had been the beginning. It had been two weeks before they'd shared a meal together, and Toby had tried to leave. 

"I'll go to my room." Toby filled his plate and grabbed silverware. He could eat with his cat, which Stabler didn't know about. 

"Why don't we talk instead?" Stabler was at the kitchen table. "I haven't seen you for a week." 

Toby sat down, but only because he didn't want to have to bring his plate back. "I like living here. No one fucks with me." 

Stabler stopped chewing, seemed to choke a little, and took a big swig of his beer. It was always in the fridge. Long necks. Toby ignored them. Stabler wiped his mouth. "Good. I like having a roommate, not that I ever see you." 

"Is that a complaint?" Toby glared. "I rented a room, not the house." 

"I guess I expected you to sleep there, but live over here." Stabler picked up his fork again. "Was someone messing with you over at the halfway house?" 

Toby wasn't going to answer that, but Stabler's free hand slid across the table and landed on top of his hand. It was as if someone had taken a cattle prod to him. He jolted and he knew his eyes were wide. "Please." 

"Please what?" Stabler gave him a squeeze and turned him loose. "If someone was harassing you, I'll look into having their parole revoked." 

"No." Toby stared at his plate. He had to eat, but it was hard. "Damn you for being nice to me. Don't you know that I don't deserve it?" 

Stabler kept on eating. Finally, Toby managed to calm down enough to eat, and when he looked up again, Stabler had a small smile on his face. "Feel better?" 

Toby shrugged and got up to clean the table. When Stabler joined him, they bumped into each other and it was hell. Absolute hell. Toby was on fire. He gasped and knew his hands were shaking. Stabler pulled him close and held him. 

"You're wrong to do this," Toby whispered. 

"It feels right." Stabler was so warm, so alive, and Toby crumpled. The heat between them went up about ten degrees. Stabler held him close. "I've been so angry, but it goes away when I'm with you." 

Toby didn't understand that, but he'd get to the bottom of it later. He ended up back on his knees, but this time Stabler gave him some relief when it was over. They washed their hands together, and Toby laughed softly. "I just don't get it." 

"Me neither." Stabler grabbed the hand towel, used it, and threw it at him. "Football tonight." 

Toby knew he'd be watching that in the living room instead of reading on his bed. He shrugged and capitulated. "Okay." 

"Good." 

It had been the beginning of something that neither of them could explain, and Stabler didn't seem to want to discuss it. Toby didn't care. It was all he had. 

Toby eased up off the couch and went upstairs. He briefly considered Maureen's room, but he needed more, and he stripped before sliding into bed. Stabler's back was warm, and Toby moved close to enjoy the heat. Whatever they had, it was enough right now.

*********

Stabler woke up in the middle of the night with a slight start. He could feel a warm bulge that was bigger than a cat against his back. "What the hell?"

"Just me. Sorry. I couldn't face all the pink in your daughter's bedrooms." Toby kissed him on the shoulder. "Go back to sleep."

"Damn odd." Stabler liked it. He couldn't reach back, but he wanted to. "I thought I heard voices."

"Benson was here, breaking my balls." Toby hesitated. "You're going to throw me out just to get some peace in your life."

"That ain't happening." Stabler laughed softly. "I'll tell her I'm gay. That'll shut her up."

Toby didn't answer. He didn't move away though.

Stabler heard a soft sigh and realized that maybe he'd said something wrong. "Sorry."

"Don't worry. We aren't gay, just very stupid. Well, you're not gay, but I probably am. Wait, I still like women. Shit. Let's start over."

"Shut up," Stabler drawled so Toby would know it wasn't serious. The situation was weird, but he refused to lie awake and label it. He had to work in the morning. "Don't leave."

"I'm warm."

Stabler was glad to hear it. He wished Toby would always sleep with him, but it never happened. Toby did what he wanted, and he always had. 

Stabler parked his car at the halfway house and went up the stairs quickly before he changed his mind. It was late - long after midnight, but he'd just gotten off work. Toby pulled open the door and said, "Yeah. What?" 

"So you don't work all night." Stabler smiled for him. 

Toby didn't seem to care. "Go away." 

Stabler wrapped his hand around the door and edged his way inside the horrible, little room. Even his garage was better than this. "I thought you'd pack." 

"Why the fuck would I? You're here for another blowjob." Toby sat on his bed, leaned back on one arm, and ran the other hand through his long hair. "Get over here and whip it out. I want some fucking sleep tonight." 

Stabler was completely appalled. He put his back to the door and tried one more time to reason with him. "It's eight hundred a month." 

Toby sighed and didn't look right at him. "I'm sure Angus has told you what a fucker I am. Why are you doing this?" 

"I need the money, and this place sucks." Stabler wasn't going to touch him, not tonight. Toby was too close to prison - too close to hell. He looked around and seemed to give up the last inch that he'd held back. 

"Okay. I'll pack. I'll head to that homeless shelter on ninth when you change your mind."

Stabler stayed by the door and didn't offer to help. "You have money."

"So what?" Toby threw a bag on his bed and started filling it with clothes. All he seemed to have was clothes. "It don't mean shit."

Stabler didn't understand how a man could be so down on himself that he wouldn't even find a half-decent place to live. But he'd never been to prison. He watched, but he picked up his fair share when the job was done and went out the door.

"Hey, sweet cheeks," a guy stuck his head out a door and said. "Don't leave me."

"Go fuck yourself." Toby seemed to shrink further. Stabler put him and his stuff in the car and got him the hell away from that place. He knew how tough it was. He'd lived there himself once when he was undercover.

Stabler helped him take his things up the stairs, and Toby took a look around. Toby opened his wallet, pulled out eight hundreds, and put them on Stabler's palm. "Go away and don't come up here unless you're invited."

"The downstairs bathroom is yours, please feel free to use the kitchen, and I won't come up here without your permission. You have my word." Stabler put the money in his pocket and left him. He'd give the money to Kathy tomorrow morning. It would help, and he wouldn't have to get that security job now. Overtime would see him through, and he'd work every hour he could squeeze out of Cragen. It was a week before he saw Toby again, that was at the precinct in a hallway, and they barely exchanged a glance. Benson didn't even notice and he hadn't told her about his tenant. Her mouth would drop open and he couldn't admit that he needed the money.

Six days later he found himself sharing a table with Toby, and he thought Toby looked better, more relaxed. He wasn't going to touch him, and then he did. Damn. They chatted, and he found himself again with his fingers sunk in Toby's long hair. This time, he made sure that he gave some back. Later, during the football game, he'd pulled Toby close to him and said, "Rest."

Toby nodded slowly. "I can trust you."

It wasn't a question, but Stabler heard the fear behind those words. "You can. Rest. You need it."

Toby was asleep by the third quarter, and Stabler found himself fiddling with a long, blond curl and holding him tenderly. Whether this was right or wrong wasn't the question any longer. The question was how much would Toby allow. Toby was so hurt. He needed time, and Stabler had it to give.

Stabler smiled, shut his eyes, and fell back asleep. The alarm yanked him out of a dream where he was standing naked in the squad room, and he tried very hard not to move.

"Okay. I'm ready. Do your worst." Toby slapped the alarm off.

Stabler rolled over and managed to miss Toby's face with the cast. "This thing is a pain."

"How about a shower?" Toby surprised him by quickly straddling him and smiling down at him. "And coffee?"

"Are you happy?" Stabler couldn't believe the true smile on Toby's face. "If you are, I'm calling your therapist."

"I think it was the kissing. Whoo! It was good!" Toby leaned over and kissed the center of Stabler's chest. "You get the water started. I'll do the coffee."

Stabler could only smile. He slapped out at Toby's ass as it got off him. Toby laughed and headed downstairs. Stabler started the water and got out the plastic. He didn't even have time to fumble with it. Toby took it from him and did it. They showered without any horseplay, but Stabler noticed that Toby made sure to get him extra clean.

"Don't work all day." Toby snapped off the water and got them towels.

"What about you?" Stabler didn't think the captain would let him. "See ya at midnight?"

"I'm coming home for more kisses." Toby threw him another smile and went out the door. Stabler wondered if it was that simple. A couple of kisses to get Toby to work less. Not likely. Toby came back and helped him dress. Stabler had to have coffee, but he caught Toby in a hug and squeezed him.

"Where are my cuffs?"

Toby smirked. Stabler kissed him hard enough to make him groan. Toby complained, "That's cheating!"

"Tell me." Stabler threaded his hand into Toby's wet hair. "Or no more kisses."

Toby groaned softly. "One more and I'll tell."

Stabler shook his head and kissed Toby's chin gently. "Nope."

"Shit." Toby slumped. "In the freezer. Kiss me."

"Later." Stabler smiled and headed for the coffee. His cuffs were ice cold, and he put them on a towel to warm up.

Toby laughed. "Want some breakfast?"

"Nope. I gained five pounds." Stabler shot him a glare. Bad enough that he had to wear a cast; he wasn't also getting fat. "I blame you."

"It's the cast, dumbass."

The doorbell rang, and they looked at each other. Toby slumped onto his arms. "I'm moving out."

Stabler used his lungs. "Come in!" He wasn't quite ready to drop the subject of his weight gain, but Benson would think he was crazy.

"Ready for work?" she asked brightly.

"Let me finish my coffee," Stabler said and smiled. "Hey, Tobe, are we meeting for lunch?"

"I gotta meet with a client, so, no. And you know I hate that nickname." Toby was trying hard not to smile.

Stabler pointed at the coffee. "Get some, Olivia."

"I had orange juice." She leaned against the wall. "I would be happy to call Tobias a cab."

Toby ignored that and sipped his coffee, but Stabler had a feeling that Toby was preparing a shot across her bow.

"Vern used to call me To-bi-as. It still makes me want to shank someone," Toby growled softly.

"He's dead. Get over it." Stabler let his eyes laugh for him. "Lunch around one?"

"Get over that." Toby slugged his coffee back. "Steve better get to work. I hate pink."

"Yeah, but it suits you." Stabler laughed at Toby's crackling, blue eyes. Toby made a huffy sound and left the kitchen. Stabler figured he'd be paying for that later.

Benson gave him an odd look and picked up his ice cold cuffs. "What the hell?" She juggled them, and they clanked down on the table.

Stabler finished his coffee. The less said about the cuffs the better. "I was drunk. Let it go."

Benson rolled her eyes. "How does work sound?"

Stabler nodded. He might be able to do some good today.

********

Toby laughed to himself as he caught a cab to work. Definitely no blowjobs for Stabler tonight. Pink? And in front of Benson? That was over the line. Toby went to see his client first and was somewhat pleased to find the guy was traumatized but not suicidal. They talked for two hours, and then Toby had to get back to the office.

"Hey, Toby!"

"Hi, Karl." Toby opened his door and put his briefcase down. "Come to fire me again?"

"No." Karl laughed weakly. "I got you a real office. The janitor was complaining."

Toby liked his cell and wasn't sure he wanted to give it up. "Show me first."

Karl took him up another floor and down to one side. "Is this better?"

Toby sighed. It had a window, four real walls, a door, and it was cheery. Shit. "How bad is the janitor complaining?"

"He said things that I won't repeat." Karl pointed. "You have a window and everything."

"How many more cases do I have to take to earn this office?" Toby was suspicious. Everything had a price tag.

Karl coughed. "Well, that's the thing. We'd like you to do more supervising of some of the younger people who work here. You're so good with the clients, and if you could pass on that expertise, well, it would all be to the good."

Toby sighed. It had been bound to happen. "I can't work Friday nights."

"Same hours, a few less clients, but more supervising." Karl smiled. Toby gave up and went to get his stuff. The janitor had to be placated at all cost or he'd never get his trash can emptied. By the time he had everything where he liked it, it was one o'clock. It seemed that he wasn't going to get much done today.

"Look at this office!"

"Elliot, I don't have time for lunch." Toby opened a file and sat down. "I have to earn this office."

"Which is ironic since I know you don't want it." Stabler took one of the chairs in front of the desk. "How the hell are you going to stay depressed in this working environment?"

"I'll think of something." Toby looked up at him and smiled. "Pink? You are paying for that!"

"Brings out the blue in your eyes."

"Well, that dog shit brown you wear does nothing for you!" Toby grinned as he said it.

"Makes the perps feel all superior." Stabler plucked at his brown shirt. "More blue, huh?"

"Definitely." Toby suddenly smelled food. "Burgers?"

"And fries." Stabler picked a bag up off the floor and opened it. "But you don't want any."

Toby felt his stomach complain. "You're the one on a diet. Fork it over." He went to shut the door and sat down in the chair next to Stabler. "Benson still after my nut sack?"

"Yep. I politely told her to shut up." Stabler passed over a burger and some fries. "You want the milk shake?"

"Do I look stupid?" Toby took it and slurped some down. "Did you know the food in Oz really, really sucks?"

"I'm not surprised." Stabler started eating, but Toby was too busy enjoying his own food to notice.

"When I got out, I went to a restaurant and basically ordered one of everything in a last ditch effort to save my taste buds." Toby had done that, and it had cost a small fortune, but he hadn't cared. It hadn't worked, but he'd had a nice meal. He'd taken the leftovers to a homeless shelter before reporting to the halfway house.

"Toby, why didn't you get an apartment?" Stabler cocked his eyebrow at him.

"How'd we get from food to there?" Toby loved the fries, good and salty.

"Just curious. Took me a while to ask."

"The thought of dealing with a real estate agent made me ill, and what did it matter? It wasn't like I was going to have friends and family over." Toby shrugged and took a bite of his burger. It was excellent. He immediately followed with some shake. Wow. This was living.

"Watching you eat makes me realize that you haven't been out of prison long." Stabler smiled. "I think you were depressed and didn't give a damn if you live or died."

Toby swallowed. "Didn't I say that?" He was glad that Stabler was through talking, and they ate in silence. When he was done, he got up and wandered back around to his desk chair. "Thanks, El."

"Not a problem." Stabler started shooting for the waste basket with the crumpled sacks. "Game on Friday?"

"I'm going. You?" Toby sucked the last of his shake.

"You bet. Let's go early so I can see them warm up." Stabler wasn't leaving. He seemed entrenched for the day.

Toby pushed some papers around. "Did you get your badge back?"

"No. I caught calls and did some paperwork." Stabler shrugged. "Mostly, I sat around and talked."

Toby had figured that. All his buddies would want to make sure that Stabler was still kicking. "Go home and have a nap. I'll be along."

Stabler bit the inside of his lip. Toby had noticed it before when Stabler was worried about something.

"What?" Toby brushed his hair back.

"I don't like lying to Benson or pretending. She's always had my back," Stabler said quietly.

Toby didn't know how to answer that directly, but he did know a few things. "If the brass finds out, your career will be damaged beyond repair."

Stabler nodded.

"Do we have to say anything? Let her draw her own conclusions based on what she sees, not what you tell her." Toby didn't want Stabler hurt, not for any reason. "Or, I can leave."

Stabler rubbed his face. "I could tell her."

"Only you can make that call." Toby refused to shout no at the top of his lungs. "But, I have to tell you, it will drive me away."

"Why?" Stabler leaned forward.

"She will hate me, and she's in your life more than me." Toby sighed. He had never wanted to discuss this. "You're not gay, Elliot, and even if you wanted to be, I'm not sure the gay union would take you. Do you notice that cute guy down the hallway? The one with jet black hair and pouty lips?"

"Hell no!" Stabler got to his feet. "You did?"

"Me? Of course not. I love you." Toby smiled up at him. "Think about this long and hard before you go telling her something that just isn't true."

Stabler put his hands on his hips. "We'll discuss him later, but I will think about it."

"Good." Toby came around the desk. "Thanks for lunch."

"I owed you." Stabler opened the door. "I better go home and check on Steve."

"Doesn't he work?" Toby made a small joke.

Stabler shrugged and strolled down the hallway. Toby left the door open and went to his desk. He never would have guessed that Stabler would want to tell someone they shared a bed. It was that honesty thing. Stabler hated to lie, even by omission. Toby didn't mind lying, and he'd lie, cheat, steal, and kill to protect Stabler. Unfortunately, none of those things would help this time. Well, he could kill her, but it wasn't a very good solution. Maybe the best thing to do was to make sure she never saw him. Out of sight - out of mind. And Stabler might let it ride.

********

Stabler puttered around with Steve until his arm started to ache, and then he went to rest on the sofa. Telling Benson would be the hardest thing he'd ever done, but he should do it. He should. He didn't know if he would though. If he did, he might lose Toby. It was a real risk. Toby could only take so much, and Benson had already pushed him too hard. Perhaps, this time, saying nothing wasn't a lie. It was just smart. The afternoon slept away into the evening, and he woke up when Steve banged the door on his way out.

Stabler looked down at his lap and stroked his cat's fur. "Hey, buddy. I didn't see you arrive."

"Meow." The cat always said the same thing. What it meant was a mystery. Stabler wasn't hungry or particularly thirsty, so he turned on the TV to watch something noisy. Maybe his kids could come over for dinner one night this week. He missed them.

"Get your hands off my cat and no one gets hurt." Toby shut the door quietly. "You cat pervert."

Stabler tried not to laugh, but failed. "My, my, a new office and you've found your balls. You came in the front door!"

"I left the remote somewhere." Toby put his briefcase down by the coffee table. He stretched and yawned. "You make dinner?"

"Hell no." Stabler figured that Toby expected that answer. "I'm on a diet."

"Well, I'm supposed to eat more. I'll get a yogurt." Toby hung his coat up in the closet. "I want my room back."

"Another week and you can move in, shut the door, and pretend that I'm not over here." Stabler knew it would happen.

"A relief. You're so nosy." Toby went to the kitchen. "Want a beer?"

"You bet." Stabler took it and gave it a kiss. "I love beer."

"Weirdo." Toby was eating a yogurt, and he seemed to enjoy it, but it wasn't real food. "That new office is depressing. I may have to find another job."

"When exactly do you see your shrink again?" Stabler knew it happened monthly, but he didn't know when.

"Wednesday afternoon. I'll mention it to him. I promise." Toby sat down, pushed off his shoes, and put his feet on the coffee table. "Good to be home."

Stabler's mouth nearly fell open. He knew his eyes had widened. He drank some beer to cover his reaction. There was more going on than he knew. "Did Holly call you?"

"Nope. Harry did." Toby smiled in a wistful way. "To make sure I knew when the game was."

"Angus is going to be pissed." Stabler wanted to make sure one thing was clear. "He's afraid you'll sue for custody."

Toby looked at him long and hard. "You really think so?"

"It fits." Stabler knew it in his gut.

"I wonder what I could say that would alleviate that fear." Toby scooped out the last of the yogurt and let the cat lick the container. "If I begged for monthly visits, do you think he'd back off?"

Stabler thought about it. "No. Let me talk to him." He could do it, and for Toby, he would.

"I hate to put you in the middle." Toby shook his head. "Let me think about it."

Stabler would do that, but if cornered again, he'd make the situation better. "Okay, but whatever you do, don't bring it up on the phone."

"You're afraid he'll try a restraining order. I don't want that." Toby nodded and padded off to the kitchen. He came back with a soda. "I could use your help on one of my cases, a guy by the name of Nick Stanley."

"A guy?" Stabler waited to hear it before committing himself. Toby had changed the subject awfully fast. He must not want to deal with Angus, not yet.

"Yes. He was raped. The case didn't fall in your precinct." Toby took a long drink and reached to mute the television. "He knows who did it. He went to the hospital, and he says they did a rape kit. His attacker was never arrested."

"Why?" Stabler narrowed his eyes. Cases where men were raped were always touchy.

"Cops didn't believe him. According to him, they laughed and called him gay. And, uh, Elliot, he's not. Not at all. No way." Toby opened his briefcase and pulled out the file. "Take a look?"

Stabler hesitated. He might have to step on some toes, but he wasn't doing anything else right now. "How'd he end up in your lap?" he asked and reached for it.

"He found us on the internet. I got him because, well, I get all the men." Toby turned the sound back on. He didn't say anything else. Stabler opened the file. Tomorrow, he'd get to work on it. It couldn't hurt to make a few phone calls. When the doorbell rang, he barely looked up in time to see Toby, his briefcase, and his shoes, disappearing up the stairs. The chicken.

"Come in!" Stabler shut the file, but he'd read it again later.

Benson came in with a smile and a pizza. "Got time for me?"

"And pizza? Of course." Stabler reached for his cat, but the fickle animal was also heading upstairs. Damn. He was alone and defenseless. Might as well eat pizza.

"Where's Tobias?" Benson put the box on the coffee table and went to the kitchen for plates. She got him a slice and waited for an answer.

Stabler considered the truth from all angles again.

"He's a damn faggot, and he's got no business being a cop!" his father shouted. He'd overheard Stabler discussing it with his brother. His brother had wisely fled the scene.

"He's a good cop, Dad." Stabler didn't give a damn who the man fell into bed with. "I don't care about the rest of it."

"You a faggot too?" His dad shoved his thick finger in Stabler's chest. "Rat him out! Do it or I will."

Stabler stared down at the offending finger. "You were fired. Forced out. No one will believe you."

"You piece of shit!"

Stabler didn't duck the blow, and he felt his lip crack open. Kathy was going to be furious with him. Go along to get along was the family rule. He wiped the blood away. "I gotta get home."

His father shouted after him until the car door closed on the noise. Was it only three days later that he heard the news? Officer Lewis quit abruptly after being beaten half to death in the locker room. Stabler had lowered his head and gone back to work. He hadn't done it.

"Stabler?"

Stabler took a bite. One piece wouldn't kill him and it would offset the beer. "He's somewhere. I don't keep track." He didn't. It wasn't a lie.

"You ever worry about him getting high around your kids?"

"No." Stabler didn't. "Olivia, you and I have been partners for years. I don't want this to come between us."

"You should've told me that you needed money!" Benson wasn't eating. "I could have found you someone safe."

Stabler shrugged. "I'm not the kind of guy that whines around. Forget him. Please."

"He's your friend?" She was pushing hard for the truth.

"He's a good guy, but I don't want to spend the next year or two arguing about him." Stabler knew that Toby could be listening. "If you see him, he'd probably appreciate you ignoring him."

"He doesn't like me." Benson delicately began to eat her pizza. "Fin likes him."

Stabler thought he might have to clap Fin on the shoulder tomorrow. A reasonable man was a relief to find. "Toby helps a lot of people at Victim's Services. If you got to know him, you'd like him."

"I don't think so." Benson shrugged her coat off. She was staying. It was going to be a long evening if they had to talk about Toby all night. "Does he have a girlfriend?"

"Not that I know of."

"He's gay," Benson said with surety. "You know that, right?"

"Toby's sex life is his own business." Stabler finished his piece. He felt slightly nauseous. Toby's sex life was busy with him.

"Does Kathy know you have a gay, addict, alcoholic renter?"

Stabler seemed to watch his temper go through the roof. "Enough. I've had enough. If you don't trust my judgment since I let a little boy blow my arm off, just come out and say so!"

"This has nothing to do with that!"

"I'm not so sure. Go home, Olivia. Work with Fin for awhile. When I'm back to catching cases, we'll discuss this further." Stabler handed her the pizza. "Leave. Now."

Benson turned very pale. "Fine. I'll talk with you later."

Stabler stepped to the door and opened it. "Later."

Benson left quickly, and she took the pizza. Stabler put his hand on his stomach. He needed to puke after that scene. She was a good partner, but she was projecting her anger at her mother onto Toby, and it wasn't fair. Toby was clean, and he was doing his best to stay that way, and she was making it more difficult, not less!

Stabler slowly walked upstairs and headed for the bathroom. He sat on the toilet lid, breathed through his mouth, and refused to punch the wall. Steve would complain about patching a hole or two.

Toby knelt down in front of him and put his arms around him. "I'm so sorry."

"Not your fault." Stabler meant that. It was his fault. It was always his fault.

"Part of it is. I should've stayed away from her. I got cocky." Toby tucked his head close to Stabler's. "You're the one person that I can't bear to hurt."

Stabler let out a long breath. "Forget it."

"No." Toby stood up. "Let's back away from this."

Stabler got to his feet quickly, but Toby was already heading for the door. "Damn you. Don't do this to me!"

Toby's blue eyes were sad. "I've already done more than I should have." He was gone into the hallway, and Stabler would be damned if he'd chase after him. Whatever the hell they had it was not going to be dramatic, romantic, and love torn. Damn it!

Stabler went as far as his bedroom door and leaned against it. He waited until Toby and his duffle bag were close to the bottom of the stairs. "I ain't feeding your cat!"

Toby didn't answer. He shut the door behind him. Stabler slammed his fist into the wall. It hurt. It hurt, but not near as much as Toby being gone.

"Damn it!" Stabler sank down to the floor. He was alone, and he had earned it.

********

Toby wasn't entirely sure where to go. He hated taking a bed at a homeless shelter when he wasn't. In the end, he found a hotel not too far from his job and got a room for a couple of nights. He wasn't moving out. He just needed to think, and he couldn't with Stabler in the room. Of course, Stabler might throw him out for this, but he didn't think so. Anger was one thing, irrational was another.

Toby turned on the TV, slumped down on the bed, pushed off his shoes, and tried to reason it out.

Toby heard someone on the stairs, and he looked that way. "What?"

"Can I come up?" Stabler, of course, it was his garage.

Toby had to think about it. This was his place, and Stabler was a big man, but saying no was a mistake. "Yeah. If you gotta."

"That kind of enthusiasm always gets results." Stabler came to the top of the stairs, but no further. "I like what you've done with the place."

Toby didn't smile at the sarcasm. He'd done nothing and wouldn't. He pushed his hair back and sat down on the old chest that was at the end of his bed. It had made him laugh when he saw it - home, sweet, home. "Do you need something?"

"First of all, I think there's a no pet's clause in our contract." Stabler pointed at the cat stretched out on Toby's bed. Toby reached and stroked his hand down the long body. The cat purred for him. Toby shrugged and said nothing. He had hoped that Stabler wouldn't care. Stabler frowned. "I mean it."

Toby loved his cat, but that was no one's business but his own. Cat had just showed up in the garage, made himself at home on the bed, and finally Toby wasn't so damn alone. "I guess you can run over him."

Stabler actually groaned. "You could take him to the pound."

"So could you." Toby knew that wouldn't happen. Stabler was too busy. Toby waited for the other shoe to drop. "What else?"

"I guess I wanted to know if you were pissed." Stabler crossed his arms. "At me."

"No." Toby smirked. He knew he was pushing Stabler away, but he had to do it. Anything else would hurt too much. "I've never met a man that turned down a blowjob."

Stabler rubbed his hand down his face. "I didn't intend to hurt you."

"You didn't. It didn't mean anything." Toby got to his feet. He'd take this standing. "You want me out?"

"No!" Stabler came to him, but didn't touch him. Toby knew Stabler wouldn't make that mistake again. "Toby, I like you."

"Touching, really." Toby laughed. "I'll stick around. Who knows you may get lucky."

Stabler lowered his head. "Being an asshole isn't quite your style. It's almost if you're working at it too hard. Maybe you should try for calm, detached bastard."

Toby swallowed hard. He felt like he'd been punched in the gut. "Hey, why don't we skip to the part where the straight guy realizes a faggot is living over his garage and beats the crap out of him?"

"Try again. This time work that prison attitude."

"Listen, you cocksucker," Toby lowered his head and hissed, "I'm not your bitch, and you don't really give a damn. Let's leave it there. You get your money. I get some peace and quiet."

"There it is. That's what you're really thinking. I can respect that. The rest was all crap." Stabler pushed the sleeves of his sweatshirt up. "I just got rid of the old ball and chain, and the last thing I need is a bitch. I do give a damn. I'm not always sure why since it's obvious that you don't give a rat's ass whether your landlord lives or dies. The money is nice, but at one point, I thought we'd be friends!"

Toby shook his head and refused to believe it. "You thought I'd be easy, and I am."

"Bullshit!" Stabler got right in Toby's face. "You were the one dropping to your knees. I never asked for it!"

"My fault. I'm a slut. Ask anybody." Toby grinned. He was about ready to burst. "Wait, they're all dead. Forget it."

Stabler kissed him. A kiss. It wasn't harsh. It was gentle, almost timid, and he pulled away without shoving his tongue deep. "I'm sorry. I never meant to make it worse. I'll leave you alone."

Toby raised his hand, but there was no one to touch. Stabler was gone, and he wouldn't be back. Toby sat down hard. He'd done it. Wasn't it what he wanted? He could be alone now until he got up the guts to put a bullet in his head. Much later, he went over to the house to get some food and a soda. Stabler was in front of the TV, drinking a beer, and he didn't even look over.

Toby walked past him, but stopped to stare at the back of his head. Stabler had kissed him. Kissed him. Toby stepped in front of him, blocking the television. "You kissed me."

"Sorry." Stabler didn't raise his eyes from his beer. "I'll put a fridge in your room."

Toby had a sudden flash that he was screwing up, big time. Usually, he got that feeling days or hours too late, but this time he might make it on time. He took another step and held out his hand. "I'm sorry too."

Stabler gave him a hard look with blue eyes that were too familiar. He reached up and took Toby's hand. "Let's get pizza."

Toby had to laugh. He sat down next to him. "Sounds fine. I'll add an extra hundred to the rent for the cat."

Stabler sighed softly. "He can't come in the house."

Toby blinked innocently. "Of course not." He ducked his head. "I won't forget that kiss."

"Good, because it's probably your last one. I ain't the kissing type." Stabler put his arm around him and squeezed. Toby sank into it, took a deep breath, and let it happen. They were going to be friends.

Toby smiled from the memory. Stabler had given him a chance, a small one. That had been the beginning. Toby had tried hard not to like him or give two shits, but he'd fallen in love as surely as he'd fallen for Chris Keller. Stabler wasn't Chris, and it hadn't made any difference. They were only similar in form, except for the occasional outbreak of temper that made Toby sweat. When Stabler was angry, he was just like Chris. Deadly.

"Crap." Toby dug out his cell phone and stared at it. He pressed the buttons.

"Yeah."

"Elliot, I'm over at the Belmont." Toby wasn't sure what to say next, so he lamely said, "Can I have a couple of days to think?"

"And if I say no?" Stabler rumbled at him.

"I'll come home, throw myself at my cat's paws, and beg for forgiveness." Toby smiled.

Stabler choked off something like laughter. "Yeah. Things have been tough around here. Take all the time you need, but I'm keeping the cat for collateral."

"Thanks." Toby hesitated because he hated saying these next words. "I love you." He shut the phone before he heard the answer. It was easier that way.

********

Stabler opened his mouth to answer, but Toby had hung up. He wasn't sure what he'd been going to say, but Toby wasn't taking any chances. Stabler put the phone down and made up his mind to say it once when Toby wouldn't blame beer. It was true. He did love Toby. Not like he'd loved Kathy, but they were different people. Hell, different sexes. It couldn't be the same, and he was glad it wasn't.

Slowly, he got ready for bed. He was more tired than he liked. His back was going to be cold tonight, but he had to give Toby his space. When Steve was finished, Toby would be happier here. Stabler fell asleep, but his mind didn't turn the problem loose, and he watched them play it out again.

He'd come home very late from work. He almost hated to raise the garage door, but he did, and he sat in the car long after it had gone down. So much anger coursed through him that he couldn't even feel his fatigue. Furious. He was beyond furious. Seeing the shrink had helped, but it was as if his anger had nowhere to go, nothing to turn into.

The car door opened, and Toby looked at him. "Come on up."

Stabler wanted to hit him. He wanted to hit something. He ached to hurt someone besides himself. "I shouldn't."

"The one time I invite you and you're turning me down?" Toby raised his eyebrows. "Okay." And he shut the car door.

Stabler's tenuous hold on his temper snapped like a tree branch. He got out and slammed it. Toby was halfway up the stairs, and Stabler was right behind him. Stabler wanted to shove him down, but Toby must have known it because when they were up the stairs, he whirled, and they were toe to toe.

"Do it!"

"No!"

"Hit me!" Toby pushed him back. "You hate what I've made you! Do it!"

Stabler unclipped his gun. He wanted to eat a bullet about twice a day, but no more than right now. Toby suddenly looked afraid. Stabler stared down at the gun. "I'm so damn angry."

"I know." Toby put his hand on the gun. "This won't fix that."

"No, but the voices in my head will be quiet." Stabler looked straight at him. "You know. You understand."

"Yes. I do. You're right. They would shut up." Toby put his arms around him, and the gun was snug between them. "If you do, do me too because I'll miss you."

Stabler leaned his head against Toby's. That was a load of romantic bullshit. It was nice to know that he'd be missed though. He pulled away and put the gun on the old dresser. His badge, he put next to it. "No one ever said it would be an easy job."

Toby stayed close. "You do good things. Whoever is saying otherwise in your head is stupid."

"My father wasn't stupid."

"Yeah. I bet he was." Toby gently removed Stabler's tie. "He told you that you were a loser, never good enough, and you'd screw up everything you touched."

Stabler couldn't deny any of that. He watched Toby toss the tie on the trunk and start on the buttons of his brown shirt. "He was my dad."

"Doesn't make him right. He never understood you, so he criticized constantly." Toby tugged the shirt off, and it landed on the tie. "For some reason, you're not a drunk. I can't figure it out."

"I hated it too much in him." Stabler reached with fingers that still trembled from his rage and took off Toby's sweatshirt. "You need to eat more."

Toby led him to the bed, and they were lying together. Stabler wouldn't kiss him, but they held each other, and he realized that some of the anger was gone. Toby didn't even try to take off Stabler's pants. They simply lay, flesh and bone pressed. Stabler let out a big sigh. He was home.

"Better?"

"Some." Stabler took a deep breath. "Get the cat off the bed."

Toby shrugged. "He was here first." He rubbed him gently.

"How'd you know about my dad?" Stabler stared deep into Toby's blue eyes.

"I had one too." Toby stroked his hand over Stabler's short hair. "Will we survive them?"

"I don't know. I can only pray I didn't screw my kids up so badly." Stabler held him a little tighter.

Toby sighed and shut his eyes. "Too late for me and mine. I'll pray for you and yours."

Stabler nearly gasped as exhaustion swept over him. He pressed himself into the warmth of Toby and let the dark take him.

The alarm went off, and Stabler reached across the bed to slap it. It would take him longer than usual to get ready, but he wasn't in a rush. Today, he wouldn't stop by to see Toby. Toby needed time to think it through, and the least Stabler could do was give it to him.

********

Toby went to work early. He still wasn't sure about this supervising bullshit, and he wanted a few extra minutes to prepare. Karl would give him a hand if things didn't go right, but he didn't want that to happen.

"Hey Toby, congrats on the new office!" It was one of the boys from the mail room.

"Yeah, thanks." Toby didn't smile. "I liked my cubicle just fine."

"I'll trade with you."

"Don't tempt me or you'll be supervising and I'll be hanging out in the lounge." Toby pushed the button on the elevator and went up. His office was just as happy as he'd left it. Damn. Maybe he could get some blinds. He knew he was being stupid, but he'd been incarcerated for years. He couldn't forget it over night!

Putting his briefcase down, he quickly made sure he knew where everything was. He'd made a promise to himself that today he'd work and not think about the problem with Stabler. Just one day. That was all he was asking.

"Beecher?"

Toby would know that tough voice anywhere. He sat down. "Have a seat, Fin."

Fin looked around. "Not bad for an ex-con."

"When they realize it, I'll go back to my supply closet." Toby wished.

Fin nearly smiled, and he sat down. "How's Elliot?"

Toby pursed his lips and considered a lie, but Fin was damn smart. "Steve is re-doing the garage, and I got a hotel for a couple of days. I couldn't face pink."

"I'll have to make sure and catch him at work." Fin flipped the file he was holding. "Got time?"

"Why do I get all of SVU's shit cases?" Toby raised his eyebrows. He was complimented that Fin would ask, not that he'd admit it.

"You're good at them." Fin smirked. That was definitely a smirk, not a smile.

Toby leaned forward. "One question first. Do you dislike me?"

Fin shrugged. "And what if I do?"

"Give me the case." Toby laughed softly. He had two friends now. It was more than a miracle. There were two people on the planet who had given him a chance. Maybe there was hope. Maybe his kids would forgive him someday.

Fin handed it over. "We gotta move on it."

Toby read quickly. "Are you driving?"

"I better since you don't have a license." Fin got the door.

Toby smiled. The last place he wanted to go was the precinct, but that's where he was headed.

********

Stabler made some calls and didn't like what he was hearing. Toby was right about this guy. No one had given a damn, and his rapist was walking around smiling.

"What are you fiddling with, Elliot?"

Stabler smiled up at Cragen. "Captain, I need your help."

"Why am I suddenly worried?" Cragen pointed at his office.

"It's why you get the big bucks." Stabler took the file with him. When he came out an hour later, he was smiling. The ball was rolling downhill now. He stopped in surprise when he saw Toby in a chair next to Fin, but he pulled it together and sat at his desk.

"Hey Elliot, how's the arm?" Fin asked.

"Better. Thanks." Stabler avoided looking across the room, and it felt ridiculous. He put a few things away and quit trying. "Toby, when you're done, we can talk about that case you gave me last night."

Toby nodded. "Okay. Give me a minute."

"I'm good at it." Stabler gave him a quick jab. He didn't like giving him any time. Cuffing Toby to the bed was looking more and more attractive. Stabler had a bizarre thought. Had Keller wanted to possess Toby? Had he been obsessed? It was easy to let happen. It was one of the things that made him a good cop. When he wanted something, he stuck with it. But Keller? Stabler had read Keller's file and even done a little unauthorized research, but he refused to have him dug up for a DNA sample. Chances were that they were half-brothers. That was all that mattered, and if Keller had been anything like him, well, obsessed would be the word for it.

"I need some coffee," Toby said. He pointed. "Up?"

Stabler nodded and followed him up the stairs to the mezzanine and the coffee pot. "Bad one?"

"Bad enough." Toby rotated his neck and rubbed it. "Fin's got it covered. For a tough guy, he's good."

"He is." Stabler poured two coffees and made Toby's the way he liked it. Toby took it with a small smile. Stabler sat down and said, "I didn't think I'd see you today."

"Me neither." Toby sipped it. "I have to get back. Karl's going to kill me."

"I doubt it." Stabler drank some coffee. "Cragen got the Nick Stanley case re-opened, and this time SVU South is going to investigate it fully. For some damn reason, they were never called."

Toby checked his watch. "I have to get with Nick then. Thanks, El. You're the best." He was out the door very quickly. Stabler sat and enjoyed the feeling of having done something right. He hadn't felt that way lately. Going to the rail, he looked out and drank his coffee. Benson had the day off. Munch was in court, and Cragen looked tired. Stabler went down to his desk. He needed his badge back.

*********

Toby was so tired he nearly stumbled over the threshold of his hotel room. Dropping everything, he flipped on the light and groaned. He was exhausted, and he didn't want to be here. He wanted his garage back! Damn it! And damn Stabler for following the damn codes anyway.

"And I want my cat," Toby grumbled to himself. He sat down hard, and he realized that the reason he was here was a stupid one. He'd needed time to think? He was an idiot. That's what he was thinking. Stabler was the best thing that had ever happened to him, and whatever crumbs were tossed his way, he'd take them and be grateful. He rubbed his face and fell back flat. Stabler would deal with Benson. Toby would stay out of it, and if Stabler got hurt along the way, well, he was a big boy. Treating him like a China doll was completely fucking ridiculous. The guy was one hard-ass detective that spent most of his day kicking down doors and breaking balls.

The knock on his door made him jump. He got up and pulled it open. "Are you stalking me?"

"Yeah. I think I am."

"Good." Toby pulled him inside, locked the door, and made sure the curtains were shut. "Let's go to bed."

"Yeah. I'm tired from sleeping in the car." Stabler moved in very close. "Have you been at work this whole time?"

"Well, I wasn't out getting drunk and laid!" Toby gently put his head into the crook of Stabler's shoulder. "Thanks."

"What for?" Stabler wrapped an arm around him, and it felt so good.

"Not quitting."

"I never quit." Stabler pulled off Toby's coat. "I fed the cat."

"He bit you, didn't he?" Toby knew it was true.

"Right on the leg!" Stabler laughed softly. "Little bastard."

"He knows exactly how to get what he wants." Toby started working on Stabler's buttons. "I admire that about him."

"I guess it is a good trait to have." Stabler caught Toby by the hair. "You're coming home or I'm biting you on the leg."

"Okay." Toby worked a little faster on their clothes. It was cold. "Bite me on the ass. I'd like it."

"Perv." Stabler pushed his shoes off. "And get a haircut."

"No." Toby shoved the last of the clothes down, and they were in bed together. The cast was in the way, as usual, but they managed to work around it until they were both comfortable. "I hope you didn't expect dick, because I'm too tired."

Stabler slid his foot down Toby's leg. "Me too. I'll catch you in the morning."

Toby turned on the alarm and hunkered down into the warmth. "And I know you secretly love my hair."

"Bullshit." Stabler's voice was drowsy. Toby curled into him and relaxed. Sleep came quickly, and his last thought was a small prayer that he'd sleep all night long.

********

Stabler miscalculated where the alarm was, nearly broke his other hand, tried again, and yanked it out of the wall. "I am not getting up."

"Damn. You are up." Toby put his hand in just the right spot. "I gotta go to work."

"You're certifiable." Stabler had known Toby was dedicated, but he'd been so busy himself that he hadn't realized how ridiculous it was.

"You work just as much as I do. At least I sleep in my bed. Half the time, you grab two hours in the crib and call it good." Toby rubbed him gently. "I can't leave with you in a bad way though."

Stabler pulled him closer. "We could cut back to eighty hours a week."

"Is that for each of us or a grand total?" Toby laughed and kissed down him. "Do me a favor and shut up while I do this."

"What a grouch." Stabler's next thought was only about Toby's tongue and where he was going to put it next. Toby had rhythm. He knew how to make it all feel good. Stabler had been very upset after his third blowjob to realize that Toby was an expert, and it was where he'd gotten that expertise that pissed him off.

"Don't smack me with your cast." Toby looked up and laughed. Stabler shoved the covers off the bed, and the cool air was a relief. He tried never to be pushy, but this morning, this morning was different. Maybe it was the after effect of Toby walking out or maybe it was just him being a jerk, but he wanted more. Something different. Something where Toby didn't do all the work and then wash him in the shower.

"Toby, slither up here." Stabler tugged Toby's hair.

"I don't slither," Toby huffed and crawled up him. Stabler gave a small gasp when their cocks crushed together. He'd have never thought of that as being something he'd enjoy, but Toby had taught him better. "What?"

"When we do this, uh-" Stabler had to stop and take a deep breath. He was afraid he was turning red. "You always give. Don't you want to take?"

Toby ground his hips down tightly. "Doesn't take much to make me happy."

Stabler reached up and swept Toby's hair back so he could see him better. "I love you, Toby. I want to give, but you never let me."

Toby stopped, completely. He gave him a wild look and slowly moved away until he was sitting next to him. His dick was still hard. "You shouldn't, and I don't want you to lie, and I don't need anything."

Stabler sat up. He had assumed all that, but hearing it hurt him. Hurt him for Toby. "You know I don't lie. I hate lies. And I do feel that way, so as you would say, get over it. You don't need anything or you don't love me enough to ask?"

Toby tucked his hands under his arms and practically hunched over. "That's cruel."

Stabler wasn't sure what to say next. He moved a little closer and tried to pull Toby into his lap. Mistake. Toby loved to be touched, except when he felt threatened. Stabler had learned that early on.

"Don't touch me." Toby jerked away and left the bed. He grabbed his clothes and shut the bathroom door behind him. Stabler wasn't sure whether to push the issue or let Toby march out of here in a ball of self-loathing. That's what this was all about. Toby thought, hell, Toby knew people wouldn't like him. Toby was an idiot that way. He had a lot of friends, but he didn't know it. Even Fin liked him, and Fin was a hard man to impress.

Stabler got off the bed and tried the bathroom door. Locked. "Open it or I'm kicking it in, and I do that for a living."

For one minute there was nothing and then the lock clicked over. Stabler slipped inside and locked it behind him. The bathroom was small, even slightly claustrophobic, and if Toby wanted to get away, he was going to have to get in the tub, which he promptly did.

"Please. I have to go to work. We'll talk later." Toby was lying. He did it well, but it was obvious.

Stabler shook his head. "No. For once, we're doing this my way."

"You want to fuck my ass? Fine. Do it." Toby was half-dressed. There was no way he was turning on the water. Stabler reached out his hand and waited. Toby crossed his arms. "I'm going to be seriously late for work."

Stabler smiled. Toby was pulling out the big guns. That's how afraid of intimacy he was. Toby loved sex, but intimacy wasn't something he could handle. Stabler understood completely. Even this line of thinking made him slightly nervous. "Come on, Toby. All I want to do is lick you a little."

Toby stepped out and sat down on the side of the tub. He reached. Stabler pushed the hand away from his crotch. Toby grimaced at him. "Why is this important?"

"Because you are, you idiot." Stabler went to one knee in front of him and wrapped his hand around Toby's neck. "You are important. I, occasionally, not often, and we don't need to talk about it, would like to make sure you go to work smiling."

Toby covered his eyes. "It's easier-"

"If I let you run the show," Stabler interrupted. "How are your control issues lately?"

"Oh, shut the fuck up." Toby finally looked at him. "This bathroom is filthy."

"Even the bed has seen cleaner days." Stabler stood up carefully so he wouldn't bang his cast into the sink. "Are you coming home tonight?"

"Yes," Toby said softly. "The cat is probably hungry."

"I'll let you go in first." Stabler unlocked the door. He wasn't pushing Toby any farther on the subject. It wasn't smart. He opened it and smiled. "Later?"

"Yeah." Toby looked away. Stabler found his clothes and started struggling to get them on. He had another doctor's appointment today, and he was looking forward to the promised forearm cast. Toby came out and started helping. Stabler shoved him away, but gently. Toby sniffed.

"Go to work. I hate being babied about as much as you hate being loved." Stabler saw the slight twitch that meant Toby had taken that hard.

"I'll get us some coffee." Toby was out the door before Stabler could protest. Stabler finished about the time Toby came back with two cups. "Drive me to work?"

"Sure." Stabler took the coffee. "Thanks for the coffee. Get your shit. This place sucks. If you ever leave again, I sure as hell better find you at the Hilton, not this crap hole."

Toby's eyes were suddenly big. "You'd come after me?"

Stabler quit trying. He couldn't convince him. "Next time I'm sending Fin to bring you home. Wait, maybe Benson."

"Wow, you're an asshole this morning." Toby packed his small bag, and Stabler yanked open the door and went out to his car. It was true. He was pissed off. This crappy hotel said a lot about Toby's self-esteem that Stabler didn't want to hear. Stabler started the car, sipped his coffee, and waited. Toby tossed his bag in the back and got in the front. "Mind if I ride in the front?"

"Don't push it." Stabler put the coffee in the cup holder and got them moving. He was angry, and he didn't much like it. "Damn, Toby, you should think enough of yourself to find a clean bed!"

"Hey, Elliot. Kiss my ass. Did you ever think that even that place seems pretty nice after a six by nine with a black man the size of a barge?" Toby pushed his hair back, and really, that was a bad sign. "You're right. I'm not terribly fond of myself, but I've only been out six months! Six months! I still look for the lunchroom when I hear a car horn. Half the time, I wait to use my phone until the approved hours, and I'm still afraid to change the channel on the TV!"

Stabler tried to watch the road, but he was thoroughly captivated by the passion on Toby's face. Gone was the sadness, gone was the robot, this man was feeling something. Stabler pulled over and stopped the car. "And?"

"You think it's easy to be touched? I can barely stand it! When you grab or squeeze or pull, I want to hurt you!" Toby's forehead looked like a road map. "If I touch you, I'm in control, and you can't hurt me!"

"Toby, you've already given me the power to destroy you." Stabler watched him closely. The last thing he wanted was for Toby to hit him. "You love me, or is that something you say but don't really do?"

Toby clenched his fists. He was breathing like he'd run a mile. Stabler let him think about it. There was no rush this morning. He sipped his coffee, but he was wary. Toby had been in prison for years, and forgetting it was a mistake.

"I love you."

"But not enough to let me love you back? You want to be my bitch?" Stabler flashed him a fake grin. All of this might be a mistake, but it was honest. "To-bi-as."

Toby growled softly, but the words were loud. "Yes. Yes, I do! That way, when you throw me out, it won't hurt!"

Stabler shook his head. "Really? If I said, 'Tobias, hit the street,' you would feel nothing? You'd trudge off to some crappy hotel and sigh with relief?"

"Stop calling me that!" Toby clasped his head in his hands. "You don't understand about the things I've done."

"I probably do." Stabler drank a little more coffee. "But I don't want to talk about the crimes you committed that aren't in your file. Toby, let me care for you or move out, for your sake."

"So it comes to this? I'm supposed to let you get me a beer?" Toby shifted in his seat and threw his arm over the back. He leaned close. "Or are you going to let me fuck your ass?"

Stabler narrowed his eyes. He wasn't afraid of that. "I doubt you want to. You're too busy being my bitch. How's it down on the floor, Tobias? Good?"

Toby got out fast and slammed the door hard. Stabler sat and watched him get a cab. He might as well go to work. No way was he going home to face the cat.

********

Toby didn't go directly to work. He had the cab drop him off about three blocks away, and he walked the rest of the way. Control. He had to find a measure of control. Stabler was an asshole. A fucker. God damn him for telling the truth!

"Toby?" Karl came at him in the lobby.

"What?" Toby snarled. He didn't slow down. "I'm here."

"You look angry. Is there something I can do to help?" Karl spread his hands.

Toby nearly hit him. He almost stomped him. "Do you really give a damn?"

"Well, yes. I consider you a friend." Karl smiled a little. "If I can help, I will."

Toby stopped walking and stared at him. "Did you know I'm gay, Karl?"

Karl shrugged. "I don't care. It's not like you're asking me out, but if you did, it'd be a compliment, even though I wouldn't go because I'm not, but if you want to get a beer, we could do that."

Toby wanted to crumple to the floor and laugh hysterically. "Uh, no. I don't drink, but we can get lunch some time."

"Good." Karl gave him a tentative pat on the shoulder. "Go home early today. That's an order. You look exhausted."

Toby managed not to flinch away from the touch. He wasn't going to make any promises about going home. Stabler was there. Toby nodded though and went to his office. He sat down heavily and wished he had something to kick. Quickly, he snapped open his cell phone.

"What?"

"Don't you ever call me that again, you prick!" Toby had to get those words out or he'd never get any work done.

"We'll see." Stabler hung up on him. Toby stared at his phone and put it away before he threw it. Stabler was pushing him too hard! Damn it! Of course he was afraid of being intimate with another person. Who wouldn't be? Stabler cuffing him to the bed and taking it was one thing, but Stabler dropping to his knees and sucking him off was something else entirely. Toby rubbed his eyes. He never should've started sleeping with the man. It had led them here. Stabler now thought they should have more than the occasional blowjob, and it wasn't possible.

"Mail!"

Toby didn't even look up as it was tossed on his desk. Had he made a mistake? Which time? He wasn't sure, but he had a feeling that Stabler wasn't going to let this drop. Someone was going to have to give, and Toby didn't think he could let it be Stabler. It was too risky. Way too risky. Chris had cared for him, in his fucked up way, and look where he was. Dead. Dead. Dead. His father? Dead. His mother? Dead. His son? Dead. Shit. Toby rubbed his forehead. It was safer to hate him. It had to be. It was the one thing he'd come to believe over the years alone in his cell, waiting for nothing. He'd gotten out and been satisfied with this job, and then Stabler had thrust his way into Toby's life. Was it time to put an end to this shit? Fuck the crumbs. Fuck it all.

It had to be sign from God that Stabler had been shot by a Nazi. After all, what were the odds? Toby straightened his back. Fine. Fucking fine. He'd go back to being miserable. The day lasted about as long as being in the hole did, and when the building emptied, he found himself staring mindlessly into space.

"Ready to go home?"

Toby snapped into focus. "No. Not doing it. Go away. Go far away."

"You sound about six years old." Stabler put his ass in a chair. "You had all day to think it over. I'd be willing to bet my salary that you're moving out."

Toby bit off the first words that wanted out. He swallowed the next sentence, but the third one burst from him, "Fuck you!"

"Yes. I think that was the point." Stabler smirked. "Did you decide that I'd be better off without you?"

"You would be!" Toby wanted to throw something at him, but he had the sinking feeling that he was acting like a child. "Safer, at least. Everyone I care for dies."

"You're only responsible if you killed them and I don't want the count." Stabler held up his hand. "Kathy used to read these really bad romance novels, and occasionally I'd skim a chapter when I was sitting on the toilet. You and me, we ain't playing out this scene. If you want to move out, move out. I ain't gonna cry about it."

Toby stared at him, slowly put his chin in his hand, and stared some more. "You actually read them?"

"Something to do." Stabler shrugged. "I concede the point that you haven't been out long, but it still doesn't excuse you acting like a fool."

"I've never met anyone like you. While most guys would cheer that the sex is one-sided, you're not going to be happy until I let you touch me." Toby felt confused. Didn't Stabler know he had a good deal?

Stabler smiled. "Why should you get to have all the fun? And I told ya once - I don't want a bitch."

Toby winced away, turning his chair completely around. He needed one minute without Stabler filling up his vision. "You piss me off."

"Truth can do that. I guess hanging out with you all the time made me realize how messed up we are. You have my apology."

Toby shut his eyes and laughed. He laughed. He couldn't help it. "Do you realize that I have never, and I do mean never, been in a relationship where it was fair?"

"What do you mean?"

Toby turned back around and began to shut files. He put them away and tried to decide how much of the truth to tell. How much could Stabler handle?

"Just spit it out." Stabler frowned at him.

Toby decided to do just that. "With my wife, I initiated every sex act we had. If I had left it up to her, we'd have never had sex or children."

"What about Keller?"

Toby was slightly shocked that Stabler was perceptive enough to ask. "Chris could top from the bottom, and the less said about the others the better. There was one guy that might have, but Chris killed him."

"No women?"

Toby hesitated a long time. He had lied to Chris about Holly's teacher. He had lied, and it had led to so much pain and suffering. At the time, it had seemed like such a small thing. A way to let Chris know that Toby was like him. "No."

"Kathy liked it. A lot. I did too." Stabler wasn't laughing, thank God. "How about this? You think about it. No rush. I got time."

Toby stuffed a few things in his briefcase. He would take the time because he had no idea what he wanted to risk. "Let's go to the house and brave the cat."

"You're going in first." Stabler got up and stretched. "An interesting cold case came my way today."

"You got your badge back?"

"I don't need it, not yet. I'm fit for ass duty, but nothing else." Stabler waited for Toby to go first. Toby wasn't surprised to see that it was dark outside. His stomach rumbled, and he was tired.

"Karl called me. He's worried about you," Stabler said.

Toby groaned. "I am such a pussy."

"Get a good night's sleep, and he'll forget it. You just look tired. My fault." Stabler unlocked the car doors. Toby got in and nearly started another argument, but it seemed like work. Stabler blaming himself wasn't anything new. It was just annoying as hell.

"What I do with my life is not your fault." Toby leaned back and shut his eyes. "I'm insulted that you treat me like one of your kids."

"Well, you're always pissy about something." Stabler wasn't driving slowly tonight. "I can't win for losing."

Toby nearly cursed at him, but that would be stupid. Stabler needed to go back to work, and their life could get back to normal. Rarely see each other, an occasional blowjob, and dinner together once a month: it worked. Toby turned his head and stared out at the lights of the city. He absolutely hated it when Stabler was right, and he was. It was time for more or nothing at all.

********

 Stabler parked the car, hit the garage door button, and got out. Toby was half-asleep, but he was still going in first. He bumbled out of the car; Stabler opened the back door and nudged him through.

"Meow!" The furball ran straight at them and launched himself. Stabler moved even further out of the way. He was injured enough without teeth marks in his leg.

"Motherfuck!" Toby headed straight for the kitchen, with the cat right behind him. "This is your fault, you asshole!"

Stabler figured Toby meant him. So he hadn't fed the cat today. It wasn't his cat! He went to get the mail, dumped it on the kitchen table, and found a beer. He needed one. Toby grabbed a soda and glared death at him. Stabler just smiled. He wanted to think about what exactly topping from the bottom meant, and he knew his back was going to get cold tonight.

"How's Steve getting along?" Toby yanked out a frozen pizza and started the oven.

"Go look. I think you'll like what he's done."

Toby nodded. "I will. This rent thing is stupid. Steve shouldn't have to wait for his money. I'll write him a check."

"He didn't mind monthly payments." Stabler wasn't protesting, not exactly. He did feel guilty that he hadn't had the money to make the changes himself, but he had four kids to support, and they came first.

"I do. He pays child support too." Toby sat down and rubbed his leg. "Fucker has sharp teeth."

"You bleeding?" Stabler sat down across from him and tried to wipe the smile off his face. He was partially successful, but Toby's glare made it hard. Changing the subject was probably a good idea right now. "Do you pay child support?"

"No. I wish I did." Toby shook his head. "I wish I gave them something."

Stabler didn't know what to say to that. "Do you have it to pay Steve? I might be able to swing half." He could, maybe.

Toby seemed to hesitate. "I have it. Thank you for not checking my financials."

"That's invading a man's privacy, and it's not like you've broken any laws lately." Stabler had almost done it twice, but he was glad he had resisted. "If you're moving out, I'm not letting you pay a dime."

Toby stared at his Coke can. "I really want some whiskey. Or a beer. Or a hit of coke. Really."

Stabler shut his mouth. He'd obviously pushed Toby too damn far today. And all because he'd wanted to see Toby smile. Stupid. Stabler got up and put the pizza in the oven. He wasn't going to suggest a meeting. Toby knew his limits. He'd go if it were necessary.

"If I leave, you can reimburse me. Monthly." Toby took a long drink.

Stabler got the message. His new renter could pay it off. Well, that would work, but he didn't want Toby to leave. Not telling him that was the best idea right now. Toby needed some space. He'd reminded Stabler forcefully today that he hadn't been out of Oz very long, and Oz stuck with a man. The cat jumped on the table and glared at them both.

Toby picked him up and put him on the floor. "No."

The cat strutted out. Stabler smiled after him. Stupid cat had style. He didn't take shit off anyone.

"That cat reminds me of Chris. Demanding, bitchy, and able to kill with a quick twist."

Stabler didn't mind discussing Keller, but talking about him casually rankled. Would Toby ever turn him loose? "Furry and loved to crawl in your lap?"

"All that too." Toby sighed. "Sorry. I'm exhausted."

"Eat and go to bed. You can dream of Chris." Stabler checked the pizza. Another five minutes and they were quiet ones. Toby hadn't yelled or cursed at him, but Stabler felt as if he'd kicked a puppy. Shit.

Toby got out the plates, and they ate. When it was gone, they glanced at each other and went upstairs. They didn't talk, and Toby headed for Maureen's room. Stabler got his clothes off and lay down. He was an asshole.

"That wasn't nice," Toby said as he cut through to the bathroom. When he came out, he had more to say, "There was a time when I would have hit you for talking to me that way."

"I think I'd feel better if you did." Stabler rubbed his eyes. "I'm jealous of him. I'm sorry."

"You're sorry a lot today. When do you see your therapist again?" Toby jabbed at him.

"Friday morning." Stabler went ahead and told the truth that he shouldn't. "You loved him! He made you happy. I'm nothing but a loser that you give pity blowjobs to."

"He also hurt me and made me hate him," Toby said quietly. "You've never done those things. Not yet. You're not a loser, but you are whiny tonight."

"Shut up and go to bed." Stabler pointed out the door.

Toby went around the other side of the bed, crawled under the covers, and got comfortable. "Set your alarm."

Those were the last words he said. Stabler watched him fall asleep. "You better dream of me," Stabler muttered and kissed him on the forehead. He turned off the light and lay back. Sleep. Right.

********

Toby had that dream again. He knew it was a dream, and he didn't want to have it. He stood outside the dream and watched it, but it made no difference. There was no way to wake up. No way to stop it. No way to ignore the pain of what was coming at him. God, it would hurt. His younger self arched and screamed. The laughter was loud again. Agony thrust through both of them. Again and again, until he watched himself try to pass out.

"Toby!" Keller yelled.

Toby took his eyes off his writhing, smashed body and turned to face him. "Are you proud? I'm broken!"

Strong hands reached and he couldn't allow even a single touch. "I'm destroyed! And you did it!" And he ran. He tried to gasp, but nothing happened. His throat seized up.

"Toby!" Stabler slid off the bed and knelt next to him. "You okay?"

Toby moved away from the hand that reached. Had it been Stabler in his dream or Keller? He got up shakily and bolted for the bathroom. Breathe. He had to breathe. Having a panic attack was embarrassing, and he didn't want to have to explain it to Stabler. Toby's lungs didn't cooperate. The panic of no air climbed into his throat, making it even more difficult. He knew he was turning a funny color, and he tried to pant. Shit!

"Breathe, Toby." Stabler was suddenly there, touching him. "Toby! Take a breath!"

Toby wheezed it in. His vision swam around him, but he managed to stay on his feet. The arm was heavy, but he didn't push it off. Another breath. Breathing was easy. Damn it. Stabler held him and finally helped him to the bed. Toby rubbed his chest. His lungs hurt. He focused all his attention on breathing.

"How long have you had these attacks?" Stabler reached for his cell phone. "Bus?"

Toby shook his head vigorously. He put his hand over Stabler's mouth. Stabler should get the hint. Toby had to breathe, not talk. Minutes later, he got up and went back to the bathroom. The slight trembling from the lack of air would go away soon. He washed his face, leaned against the sink, and stared at himself. Now he'd done it. He should have stayed in his own bed where he belonged.

"Better?" Stabler was still right with him.

Toby lowered his head. "Yeah. Go back to bed."

Stabler didn't move. He rubbed Toby's back in lazy circles. "Scared the shit out of me. I thought you were dying."

"Not tonight." Toby straightened up. "I gotta get something. Please, go to bed."

Stabler still didn't move. "Can't I help?"

"No. You don't understand." Toby forced his legs to take him to Maureen's room. He didn't even pay attention to whether or not Stabler was following him. Toby dug in his overnight bag, opened the bottle, and took the tiny pill. He capped it and sank down to sit on the floor with his head on his bent knees. Give it twenty minutes and he'd be fine.

"What the hell are you taking?" Stabler took the container from Toby's slack hand. "Xanax?"

Toby didn't lift his head. He had to breathe and relax, which was going to be hard with Stabler yelling at him. Shit. He never, ever should have slept with him. He'd stupidly hoped that he might not have another episode.

"Your psychiatrist gives them to you?"

Toby didn't look. He kept his head down and said, "No big deal." He only took it after an attack, just to smooth out the edges.

Stabler sat down very close. His body gave off heat. Toby wanted desperately to curl up on Stabler's lap and breathe. How dumb was that?

"Toby, this is why you never sleep with me, isn't it?" Stabler hadn't touched him. "Lay down in my lap. I won't touch you."

Toby glanced into those startling blue eyes. He couldn't do it. There was want, but he didn't have the will. "No." He flushed as a full body quiver worked its way up him. Damn lungs. Damn it. How ironic was it that he would start this after Oz? Stabler didn't leave. He sat close and didn't touch. Toby appreciated it, but it was stupid. He was fine. "El, go on. I'm good."

"No." Stabler sounded as if he'd made up his mind.

Toby waited silently, and eventually he felt his body give in to the medication. He took a deep breath and got to his feet. Now he had to find a bed or he'd be sleeping on the floor, and he didn't want to sleep in Maureen's bed. "I'm going to the couch."

Stabler blocked him. "Come to the bed."

Toby tried to ignore it, but he sagged, and he put his hand on him. "Why do you do this to me?"

"I guess because I love you." Stabler wrapped him close and started for the bed. Toby didn't quite remember hitting the pillow.



Back to part I  |  On to part III  |  Back to Oz  |  Home