Title: Needs
Pairing: S/B
Rating: NC-17++
Disclaimer: HBO owns Oz, Dick Wolf owns SVU.
Summary: Set after Toby's release from Oz and inside Season Seven of SVU when Detective Benson is working computer crimes. Toby and Elliot work a case together, but neither of them are happy about it.
Beta: Suespur - thanks!
Warnings: Some dom/sub and a flagrant misuse of police handcuffs!

*********

Toby’s brother had called in a favor. Toby knew he should be grateful. He wasn’t. Working as one of eight assistants for A.D.A. Casey Novak was not his dream job. It didn’t pay much either, not that he cared about that. The only reason he stayed - he took a deep breath - was that he was trying to help other children, other victims. Most days, it was enough.

“Tobias, we’re all going to Cavanaugh’s tonight. You coming?” It was clear that he was asking because he thought he should.

Toby shook his head instantly. “No, but thanks. I’ll finish this up and head home.”

With a shrug, assistant number five was gone. Toby was number eight - low man on the totem pole. If there was a shit job in this office, he got it, and it was very hard to complain. One by one, they all left, and he relaxed when he was alone. He liked them - he did - but they were clueless about life. When the door opened, he kept his head down. It didn’t do any good.

“When will you be finished with the research on the Gomez case, Beecher?”

Toby looked up at her. “In another hour.” He didn’t attempt to smile or buddy up to her. She was the boss. “Do you want it on your desk?”

“Please.” Novak gave him a long look. “Are you adjusting?”

Toby knew what she meant instantly. He was tempted to crack a joke, but it stuck in his throat. “I think so. Some days are harder than others.”

She seemed satisfied with that non-answer. “Don’t work too late. You’ll give me a reputation as a hard boss.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Toby slowly lowered his eyes and got started again, relieved when she walked away. The door shut behind her, and he blew out a breath. He liked her too. She did her best on some of the shittiest cases Toby had ever seen. The phone rang, and he got it.

“You know where,” the deep voice growled, and the line went dead.

Toby put the phone down and shut his eyes. He did know. Quickly, he finished the case and put it on Novak’s desk. He grabbed his coat, shut off the lights, and went out into the city. No one forced him to go, and no one would make him stay, but he’d do both. The walk cleared his head of the cases he’d sludged through today, and he went right up to the correct room. He knocked softly, and the door opened.

“You’re late.”

“Yes, sir. I was working on the Gomez case. Novak wanted it tonight.” Toby put his briefcase and coat on the chair. The room was mostly dark, as usual, and he didn’t bother peering into corners.

The voice was behind him now. “Take it off.”

Toby complied, putting his clothes on the chair also. When he was done, he cleared his mind and went to his knees. When it was over, he might think again about why he did this, but right now, nothing mattered but obeying. He shut his eyes when the blindfold was tied tightly. Flesh pressed against his mouth, and he licked and sucked. His entire body quivered as he took it deeper. When his throat was full, the cock retreated and then came back at him. He reached.

“Don’t make me cuff you.”

Toby put his hands behind his back. He wasn’t allowed to touch, and the cuffs would hurt. He sucked harder in near silence. A small groan above him was his reward, and he began to swallow. Suddenly, his mouth was empty, and he gasped softly. His own cock was rock hard, but he wouldn’t touch it.

“More?”

“Please, sir,” Toby said softly. He inhaled the scent and licked, wishing he could touch, just once, but it was against the rules. The half-hard cock grew again, and he flicked his tongue along its length. A strong hand pulled him up, three steps, and he bent over the footboard. Now he had to put his hands on his head, and he did so, quickly. He spread his legs, settled into the position, and waited.

“Now?”

“Please, sir.” Toby bit his upper lip and grunted when he got it. His body ached and then adjusted, and he loved the possessive hand that rested on the small of his back. He shook, his cock ached, and the hips hit him harder. Silence was tough, and he bit the covers to achieve it. Clenching his asscheeks, he came, and it boiled out of him, leaving him light-headed. He floated, but was careful not to move. The blindfold came away, but he didn’t open his eyes. Silence. Silence. Breathe. Breathe.

“I’ll call you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Toby whispered before the door shut. He waited another long minute before going to clean up in the bathroom. The shower felt good, and he scrubbed at himself. He wasn’t a prag. He’d sworn he’d never be a prag again. This was different. It was the only way to get what he needed. It was what he wanted. His choice. He consented. He caressed the last of the come from his cock and put his head back into the water. Felt so damn good.

********

“Beecher? Have you met Detective Stabler?”

Toby pulled his head out of the file cabinet. His stomach tightened into a knot of panic, and he fumbled with his glasses to give himself one more second. “I, um, I’m not really sure, ma’am.”

Novak rubbed her forehead. She was tired of him. He knew it.

“Anyway, you and he are going to be doing the background on this case for me. I’m sure you’ll get along fine.” She strode off quickly, and Toby saw that Stabler had the case in his hand.

“Can we get started now?” Stabler waved his hand at the open file cabinet.

“Yes, sir.” Toby shut it with his foot. He’d look for what he needed later. “Did you get demoted?”

Stabler frowned, and Toby nearly passed out. He took an instant vow of silence. It should be easy, but he had to apologize first. “Sorry, sir.”

“Novak wants this case done strictly by the book. No mistakes. No lost paperwork. No surprises in the courtroom. Think you can handle it?”

Toby doubted it. “Yes, sir.”

Stabler rubbed a hand down his face. “Quit saying that!” he hissed.

Toby nodded, but he knew it’d slip out. He stuck his hands in his pockets and looked at his desk, waiting for orders.

“We’ll do this in the squadroom. Get anything you need.” Stabler walked away - out the door. Toby took the time to straighten his desk. He had two other cases he was working on, but obviously, this one was a priority. Pushing aside doubts and worries - he could vomit later - he gathered his usual items, put everything in his briefcase, and went with him. The hallway was empty, but he’d expected that. He walked to the one-six and tried to get a handle on the desperate sense of unease that had set up camp in his stomach.

Stabler was sitting at what was clearly his desk, chewing a straw, and Toby went to him.

“Okay, Beecher, take that desk.”

Toby nodded and went to the desk directly across from him. It was cleared. Obviously, no one used it. He didn’t ask any stupid questions or any questions at all. Stabler tossed him a file.

“Read that. Get up to speed and then we’ll get started.” Stabler pointed. “You don’t mind working here, do ya? All these cops don’t make ya nervous, right?”

“No, sir,” Toby said softly. He put his eyes on the file and started reading. Stabler made a huffy noise, and Toby wanted to crawl under the desk. He was certain this wasn’t in his job description.

“You want a soda?”

Toby shook his head, but didn’t say anything. He spread out the reports and forced his mind into them. This was his job, and he’d do it. Later, he could puke. When he was finished, he started over, trying to commit details to memory. No wonder Novak was worried. If the perps walked, the press would tear her to pieces. The witnesses had to be perfect, and the victim spotless.

“Tough case, huh?”

Toby had seen worse done to grown men, but this was different. “What‛s my role in this?”

“You’re going to do your usual thing. I’m going to supervise. Simple.” Stabler’s eyes glinted. “Bad case, but you‛ve been in Oz. You’ve seen it all, right?”

Toby nearly flinched. He wasn’t sure what to say. “If it’s okay with you, I’ll make the preliminary phone calls and get organized.”

Stabler shrugged. “No mistakes.”

“Yes, sir.” Toby got out his manila notepad and started from the beginning. He did his best to block out everything, especially the milling detectives and the itch in the middle of his back that whispered that he was in trouble.

“He’s polite for a lawyer.”

Toby didn’t look up.

“It’s overdone. He’s an ex-con.” Stabler sounded disgusted. “But Novak says he’s the best, so here we are.”

Toby felt a small trickle of sweat trace its way down his spine. He had to focus on the case.

“Which prison?”

“Oz.” Stabler snorted. “So don’t be fooled. He only looks harmless.”

Toby wiped his forehead and choked back the urge to curse at them. He wasn’t that man - that convict - not any longer. Instead, he started making calls. Ten witnesses would take a while. It took him the rest of the day to line up all the appointments. He also listed them by what he perceived as their ability to convey the information accurately. At this point, it was speculation, and he’d change it several times, but Novak needed everything right on this case.

“What’s the list?”

Toby handed it to him immediately. “I like to assess the witnesses. I put them on tiers. Some people simply do not sound credible. No matter what we do.”

Stabler looked it over and then gave him a long look. “You know liars, don’t you?”

“I have a passing acquaintance.” Toby shuffled through the papers. “The truth can be difficult to convey. It’s my job to help them.”

“Coach them, you mean.” Stabler handed it back. “You sleep well at night?”

Toby refused to discuss his sleeping habits. “I need to use the restroom, sir. I’ll be right back.” He waited for the bare nod and went quickly. The restroom was empty, and he went to the last stall. Anxiety and fear boiled over and he threw up. His glasses fogged and he ripped them off to clutch them. He’d never considered himself a strong man, and this case was going to take every ounce from him.

“Suck it up, lawboy.”

Toby flinched, turned, and fell to his knees. He took several deep breaths and stared at Stabler’s legs. “Sorry, sir.”

“Why do you say ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’ all the time? Are you so afraid that you’ll be sent back that you pile it on? Or is it your own pathetic need to feel less than the rest of us?”

Toby felt the glasses in his hand snap right in half. “I am less, and I was raised to be polite.”

Stabler pulled him to his feet and pushed him towards a sink. “If you can’t do this, tell me now so Novak can get me someone else.”

Toby rinsed out his mouth, spat, and washed his hands. He scrubbed his face before drying off. Stabler was still there, leaning against the wall, arms crossed. Toby took another deep breath and told him a little of the truth. “I can do this, but your very real scorn isn’t easy to swallow.”

Stabler shrugged. “Do you expect hugs and kisses from a bunch of cops? We all know someone made it happen. Ex-cons do not work in the A.D.A.’s office.”

‟I‛m only suggesting that I do the work at my desk.‟ Toby wanted to beg. He had to get out of here. ‟You could still supervise.‟

‟No.‟ Stabler‛s face backed that statement up.

Toby brushed off his trousers. He should quit. His brother was an idiot, getting him a job where everyone condemned him for breathing. He should’ve found something else. Should’ve, would’ve, could’ve. Damn. He was a loser. Stabler was still looking at him, and Toby did nothing but throw his glasses away.

“Got more, huh?”

Toby didn’t, but he didn‛t care. He‛d grown accustomed to seeing the world slightly fuzzy. “I’ve done all I can for today. I have two other cases.”

“Make copies and leave it on my desk. You can keep the original file, but I want copies of every scrap of paper.” Stabler pulled open the door. “I hope you can hack this.”

Toby walked right behind him back to the squadroom. He did what he was told before heading to his desk. It almost seemed friendly after working with cops half the day.

“Tobias, if you win this case for her, you’ll be sitting pretty.” Assistant number one didn’t look happy about that.

Toby frowned. He didn‛t need this shit, not after dealing with Stabler all day. “How far do you think she’ll promote an ex-con? Get over it.”

“Not so polite now. Stabler can push anyone to the edge.” One laughed and walked off. Toby rubbed his forehead and said a small prayer to the god of lawyers, asking for patience. He still couldn’t believe that Novak thought he was the best. If it was true, she needed a new bunch of assistants. Or. He groaned softly. She didn’t really want to win. Sometimes, losing made a statement also. And a couple of the ones that she’d lost were legendary. Toby’s cell phone rang, which was unusual at work, and he dug it out.

“Hello?”

“You know where.”

Toby had never refused him. God, no. “I’ll be late.”

The line went dead. Toby put his face in his hands. He was right on the ragged edge of oblivion.

“Beecher?”

Toby pulled himself together. Well, he tried. “Yes, Miss Novak?”

“I know it’s a difficult case, but I felt you were the best one for the job. Can you tough it out?”

Toby nearly laughed at her. He decided to tell her a little bit of the truth and see which way she jumped. “It’s not the case that worries me as much as Detective Stabler.”

“I know he has a rough reputation, but he’s a good man. He can be an asset, if you let him. I expect you to work with him fully.”

Toby listened carefully. He’d had no idea that Stabler had a reputation of any kind, but after today, he wasn‛t surprised that it was a bad one. “I understand.” He did. His ass was on the line - not that he cared. “I have two other cases I’m working up. Where do they rank?”

“Give them to me.” Novak took the files he collected. “Your priority is that case. Just that one. No mistakes. No distractions, and don’t be afraid to send Detective Stabler hunting down loose ends. It’s his job.”

Toby nearly rolled his eyes. He was going to boss around Stabler? Was she nuts? “Thank you for clarifying it.”

“And you can handle it?”

“I’ve seen worse.” Toby caught the slight look of disgust that crossed her face. He raised his eyebrows. “Oz isn’t a country club, ma’am.”

“I’m aware of that.” She tucked the files under her arm. “Do your best, and we’ll be fine.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Toby was glad to see her march away. She was full of fire, but he didn‛t need the pressure. Stabler would pour enough of that on. It had been nice of her to give him a chance at this job. Now, she was trusting him, and he’d have to come through for her. Then, he could quit. One more case. He could do it. And anyway, Stabler would kick Toby’s ass if he tried to bail now.

Toby organized his notes for tomorrow before leaving. It wasn’t that late, but he’d go. Some sleep tonight would be nice, and getting fucked would top off the day. He giggled a little, but made sure he was under control when he knocked on the door. Any desire to laugh fled as he was yanked inside, slammed against the wall, and roughly handcuffed. Fighting back was the height of lunacy. He tried to find some air instead.

“We’re going to have problems, aren’t we, lawboy?”

Toby shut his eyes and shook his head. The less talking he did, the better.

“Regrets? I can walk out that door. This arrangement was your idea, not mine.”

Toby felt crushed against the wall. He fought a wave of panic. “Please. Don’t leave.”

A snort. The hand pushing him dropped away. He needed this, and he’d begged for it once before, but he’d been a fool to count on it.

“If you’re not capable of separating work and play, then we’re done here.”

Toby turned and dropped to his knees. “Please. It was a shock. Give me a chance, sir.”

Silence, and Toby gave up hope. He was going to lose him. Again. This time he’d sworn to be a good, little bitch and not screw it up. “Please?”

“You like the fucking, huh?”

Toby wasn’t sure whether to lie or not. He loved the fucking, but it was more than that. It was the hands, the voice, the sense of being safe briefly. He knew he was pathetically grasping at the shadow of the man he missed so desperately. And he knew it was wrong. But. He needed it to feed his addiction. He hadn’t beaten it. He never would.

“Yes, sir.”

“Took you a while. Sometimes I think something else is going on here.” Laughter. “It can’t be my charm and good looks.”

Toby knew better than to talk. He spread his knees and kept his eyes shut. The cuffs were tight, but he didn’t mind. He was caught all right. A big hand shoved his head to the floor, and he went without protest, hoping. The cuffs vanished, but he didn’t move his hands. The door shut, and he collapsed down to the floor. Tears erupted, and he didn’t try to choke them back. He sobbed and wailed at the injustice of a world that would send his lover back to him, but make him a cop.

*********

Toby avoided breakfast. He didn’t want to have to throw up before lunch. He stopped at the office, made sure he didn‛t have any messages, and then reluctantly walked to the squad room. His lack of enthusiasm had to show on his face, and he took a deep breath before he went the last distance.

Stabler looked at him immediately. “Sleep late, lawboy?”

“I come in at ten, sir. Six hour shift.” Toby wished fervently that nickname had stayed in Oz.

The skinniest, ugliest cop that Toby had ever seen laughed and strolled over. “Thirty official hours a week. That way they can deny you benefits. Isn’t our system lovely?”

Stabler narrowed his eyes. “You usually leave at six or seven?”

“Yes.” Toby sat down at the desk and pulled out his notes. He also booted up the computer. “I don’t do this job for the money.”

Neither of the cops said a word, but the look they exchanged questioned why he did it at all. They thought he was an idiot. Well, he was. He had to forget them and focus. Two interviews today and he had to be at the top of his game. He’d ignore the voice that sent shivers over his body and made him want to beg for more that he wasn‛t going to get.

“Tobias!”

Toby looked up - half the way to panic. “Sir?”

“Try to stay on our planet, okay? I asked you what the plan was for today.” Stabler looked pissed.

“Two interviews and background checks, sir.” Toby swallowed hard. “Miss Novak said that you’d be willing to track down any problems.”

“I ain’t going to Canada, but yes.” Stabler leaned forward. “What?”

Toby flipped through the file. “This witness is lying about his employment. Can you find out what he really does for a living?”

Stabler took the sheet from him. “You’re sure?”

“Yes, sir.” Toby nodded. He was certain. “I usually do that kind of legwork, but . . .”

Stabler got to his feet. “I’ll be back before the first interview. Do not start without me.” He was gone quickly, and Toby wanted to bang his head on the computer screen. Instead, he started running names through different databases, even Google. Novak said no surprises, so damn it, there wouldn’t be.

“John Munch.” The ugly cop was back.

“Tobias Beecher.” Toby stood and shook hands because it was the polite thing to do. “You don’t have to pretend to like me.”

“That’s a relief.” Munch laughed. “Stabler isn’t usually such a hard-ass. This case is important to him.”

Toby went back to his computer screen. He had nothing to say to that. Munch wandered away, thank God, and Toby began to print everything he found on every witness and the victim. Novak would handle the victim, but Toby had to prepare all the background that he could find. It was also his job to dig up everything he could find on the suspects. Before he started that, he wanted to talk to Stabler. It would be safer that way.

Stabler came tearing in the squad room an hour later, dropping the sheet on Toby’s desk. Toby looked at the scribbled writing and sighed. “Handwriting is a form of communication.”

“Are you being a smartass?” Stabler practically spat at him.

Toby raised his hands. “My apologies. Where does he work?”

“He doesn’t. He’s on welfare. His last job was two years ago.” Stabler shook his head. “I hope all of them aren’t a pack of liars.”

Toby figured they were, but it didn’t really matter. He’d fix it all before trial. “We need to talk about the suspects.”

“You mean the perps.”

“I mean the guys that you think did this.” Toby tried not to back down instantly.

“They did it. And what?”

Toby nodded, even though he didn’t necessarily agree. The evidence wasn’t ironclad. “Have you run them through all the databases? Checked for priors? Everything?”

Stabler looked dangerous for one moment and then his face set into a mask. “You think I’m incompetent?”

“Angry, yes. Imcompetent? No. But these guys are clean. Nothing. I’m making sure before I do it again.” Toby tried to sound firm, but he wanted to apologize for being alive.

“This was their first time out of the gate. Overachievers, I guess.”

Toby had a hard time with that, and he knew the jury would too. Men didn’t just do this sort of thing the first time out. They usually worked their way up to it. He put his head back into the file and kept at it.

“Grab your stuff. We’re going to move this to an interview room.” Stabler got to his feet.

Toby nearly cursed at the interruption, but the look he got made him collect everything.

“Captain, we’ll be in room three.” Stabler was turned away, but Toby could hear every word. “I also have to stop in and see Novak.”

“Fine.” Cragen looked at Toby, but didn’t ask any questions, and that was a good thing. Toby followed Stabler to the correct room and began to prepare for his first witness. He could only hope that Stabler would stay quiet and let him work.

Novak, coming through the door, almost made him flinch. “Ready to get started?”

Toby nodded. “Who is handling the interview?” He had to know now.

“You are, but Stabler will ask any questions that he feels are pertinent.” Novak looked at them both. “Any questions?”

Stabler didn‛t hesitate. “My complaints about ass duty aside - I want Beecher in at eight, not ten.”

Novak raised her eyebrows. “You’re part-time?”

“Thirty hours a week. Remember?” Toby‛s stomach quivered. Ass duty? Wasn’t that his job?

“I’ll fix it.” Novak rolled her eyes. “Someone else can go to part-time.”

Toby couldn’t wait to see who hated him. “Miss Novak, if Stabler wants me in at eight, I’ll be here. I’ll adjust my hours. Don’t worry.”

Novak nodded. “I’d appreciate not having to deal with it. Come in at eight for the duration of this trial.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He began to pour over the information for the first interview. The last thing he needed was to look stupid. Novak and Stabler went out together, and Toby didn’t want to know what they were discussing. He had to pull it all together to get the most out of this witness.

*********

Toby took the soda Stabler offered him. “Thank you, sir.”

“I’d give you good money to shut up with that shit.”

Toby nearly laughed. He decided to shut Stabler up with some hard truth instead. “When I was transferred to Rikers, I was put in Unit P.”

Stabler tilted his head. “I’ve never heard of that unit.”

“The P is for polite. Since we were from Oz and considered hard cases, we were put in twenty-four hour lockdown. No yard. No gym time. Nothing but one ten minute shower a week.” Toby could tell that Stabler was listening intently. “All commands were to be answered with ‘yes, sir’ or ‘yes, ma’am.’ Failure to do so meant you were shackled to the discipline chair for the following twenty-four hours.”

Stabler’s eyes were wide. “Good story. I’m glad it’s not true.”

“Yes, sir.” Toby grinned. He popped his soda and took a long drink. He’d almost gone insane at Rikers. Total and complete isolation had brought him to a new understanding of his needs and flaws. He hadn’t liked it at all.

“Did you get sent back to Oz before your release?”

“Yes.” Toby had nearly wept from joy, but by then, he was trained, and they knew it. Pricks. “Back to Unit J.”

“Did the J stand for Justice?”

“Sorta. It’s where they put the cops and shank bait. The Nazis were trying their best to kill me, so I was put there.” Toby shrugged. Occasionally, he wished they’d succeeded. “Okay. Back to your suspects. You heard that witness - now she’s third tier, but if she gets on the stand there could be trouble.”

“Perps, and you’re right. I’d strike her. She doesn’t know enough.” Stabler drank some soda.

Toby went over it again. “The defense may call her. She contradicts the most important part of your case.”

“There were three of them. DNA confirms.” Stabler pointed with his finger at the file. “You did read that? Right?”

“And did you match it to these three? No. You were unable to obtain samples. You know there were three, but these three? There’s room for doubt.” Toby didn’t back away from it. His concerns were mild compared to what the defense attorney was going to do to Novak. “Why didn’t you get a warrant for their DNA?”

“Judge wouldn’t give it to us, but we’re going forward.” Stabler looked stubborn.

Toby sighed and rubbed his face. “It’s critical. Which you know. Let’s find something to make a judge listen.”

“If it were that easy, I’d have done it.”

Toby drank some soda and started looking for what he’d missed. “Is Olivia Benson available to interview?”

“She works over in computer crimes now. Transferred out.” Stabler looked extremely uncomfortable. “You can get with her there, but she wasn’t the lead detective.”

Toby backed away from what was apparently a sensitive topic. “Fine. Later.” He checked his watch. He had an hour before his next interview. “Excuse me, sir. I have business elsewhere.”

Stabler glared. “Spill it.”

“You don’t own me.” Toby returned the glare. He knew he was pushing his luck and he might regret it later. He straightened the desk, got his coat, and went to make a phone call.

*********

Toby bought a breakfast bar from a machine and took it to the roof. They had put in a small garden last year, and he occasionally went there to relax. The facts of the case ran around in his brain, and it was all complicated by one stubborn detective. It was all circumstantial, but the right judge combined with a good jury could convict. Guilt was something else entirely. Every prison had innocent people in it. Well, maybe not Oz, but the rest of them. He ate the bar quickly and pulled out his cell phone to speak with his brother, but he shut it instantly when Stabler came striding towards him.

“Business?”

Toby stared at him in the sunshine. Stabler was . . . not Chris Keller. Working with him two days had brought it all out of the darkness and into the damnable light. This man was a cop. The illusion was shattered forever - blown apart by the real world - and Toby hated that it was gone. He’d set the rules for that reason. No talking. No touching. No lights. It had been to protect him, but it was all gone, and he wanted to weep again from the brutal loss of his carefully constructed lie.

“I cried when you left,‟ Toby said softly, but he knew his words would hurt only himself.

“Shut up.” Stabler crossed his arms. His brow was a permanent furrow. Did he ever smile? “Don’t even think about that here.”

Toby shrugged the words away and prayed the man would leave also. “I have a private phone call to make. I get better reception up here. Excuse me, please.”

Stabler bit the inside of his lip. “Everything okay?”

“Don’t pretend you give a damn.” Toby opened his phone and hit the speed dial. He wasn’t happy that Stabler only moved to a respectable distance. Stabler needed to leave him alone.

“Angus Beecher.”

“Hey.” Toby smiled. “How’s the family?”

“Good. Everyone is healthy.” Angus laughed. “I was just talking to Casey Novak about you. She’s very impressed.”

“I’m quitting.” Toby made sure not to sound as if he were joking. “Seriously, this is my last case. It’s too hard to work here.”

“Damn.” Angus sighed. “Well, don’t make a snap decision. But you are coming home this weekend, right?”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” Toby wanted to see his children. “Pick me up at the usual station? I‛ll be on the last train.”

“I’ll be there. Take care, Toby.”

“Take care of my kids, Angus.” Toby shut the phone slowly and put it away. He wished the week were over. No, he wished this case was over.

Stabler came back to him. His blue eyes asked a thousand questions and Toby had no intention of answering a single one. Chris Keller was truly dead now, ripped away, and Stabler could butt out of what was left of Toby‛s miserable life.

“Ready to go back to work?”

“Yes.” Toby didn’t go to the stairs though. He walked to the railing and looked out at the city. His family seemed very far away, and he missed them. Occasionally, he felt as if he’d exchanged one prison for another. “This next witness, I think, is lying. I want you to take control and push him hard. Very hard.”

Stabler was right at Toby’s elbow. “What?”

“Lying. You know - like not telling the truth. His story has holes that I could drive a prison bus through. Push him. Hard. Pretend you’re a cocksucking attorney bent on freeing his client from getting ass fucked in Oz.”

Stabler’s eyes were big. “You always been this way?”

“Yes, sir. I just look harmless.” Toby turned and went towards the stairs. Stabler went with him. Toby sighed softly. His days of living in a fantasy world were done, and he missed it desperately.

********

“The first two are worthless!” Stabler looked one breath from pulling his gun and shooting someone.

“You just better pray the defense doesn’t call him.” Toby tried to cross-reference the pertinent facts. There had been new information. “But, he did have something interesting to say. His testimony is that the street light was lit. Our first witness said it was out. Which is it?”

Stabler rubbed his chin. “I’ll find out.”

“Good idea.” Toby knew that even the smallest detail could trip up a lawyer. “I’m going to go interview Benson and then I’m off for the day.”

“Which means you’ll take a break and then come back, right?”

“Right, but I have to go clock out.” Toby left nearly everything on the desk, but took his manila notepad. He’d only write down what he had to with Benson. “Feel free to call me.”

“Oh, I do.” Stabler went one direction, and Toby went another. Benson was a good-looking woman, and there had been a time when Toby would have tried to charm her. Today, it just seemed like work. She had no new information to shed on the case, and she backed up Stabler completely.

“How is Elliot doing?” she asked softly.

Toby blinked. Had they been lovers? He didn’t want to know. “I met him yesterday. He’s a hard-ass detective with no patience for lawyers. Other than that, I can’t help you.”

“Sounds like he’s doing fine.” Benson smiled. “Tell him hello.”

Toby shook his head. He was Novak’s messenger boy. “Pick up the phone and use it. Thank you for your time. We may have to talk again later.”

“I’m here.” She went back to her computer screen, and he went to clock out. The office was still busy, and he checked his messages. Nothing. He got out before Novak could corner him and went towards the squad room. He found a bench halfway there and sat down to think. Now that he was on his own time, he’d work at his own pace. The fact that the men refused to give up DNA samples implied their guilt, but he didn’t necessarily believe that. Some people didn’t trust the cops not to frame them with it. It had happened before.

“Are you waiting for someone?” Novak sat down next to him.

Toby nearly groaned. He reminded himself that he liked her. Well, that was a lie. He respected what she did. “I’m thinking about the case. Our second witness is so bad that we can only pray the defense doesn’t call him. Why won’t they give up DNA samples?”

“They’re guilty.” She sounded sure. “And they know our evidence is circumstantial plus the victim’s I.D. from a lineup.”

Toby wasn’t convinced. “Yes, but men have been convicted and executed on less. Three white guys, never been in trouble with the law, and one day they decide to rape and brand a young, Black girl? For fun? Are they part of the Aryan Brotherhood?”

Novak gave him a sharp look. “Not to our knowledge. Have Stabler pursue that avenue further. Surely you aren’t suggesting that the victim is lying?”

“Not since I like living.” Toby shook his head in denial, but he suspected it. The trauma of being branded had probably made the truth impossible. He had experience with that. “These men have huge targets on their backs. They won‛t last one day in prison. Not one. It’s in their best interest to give up DNA.”

“I agree. They don’t.” Novak shrugged. “They went so far as to suggest that we’d frame them.”

Toby made a snap decision based on the fact that he shared something with the victim - a brand. “I want to meet her. Talk to her.”

“I’m not sure. She’s not exactly in a healthy state of mind.” Novak frowned. “You have a plan?”

Toby leaned over and rubbed his eyes. He didn‛t, but she didn‛t need to know what it was. “Yes. Can you arrange it, ma’am?”

“Tomorrow morning. Stabler will take you there. Tobias, don’t push her.”

“I would never do that. Thank you.” Toby grabbed his briefcase. “Stabler expects me back.”

“But you clocked out.”

Toby nodded and waved goodbye. He would know more after he’d met with the victim, but this entire case sounded flimsy at best. Stabler wasn’t at his desk, and Toby was relieved. He started trolling Aryan Nation websites, looking for member lists. He also kept his eye open for her brand. It was a symbol, but he didn’t know what. No one did. Finally, he found an expert on symbols and their meanings at Hudson University. He sent him an email and asked to meet with him. It was a start. This case wasn’t going to trial tomorrow. There was time to make completely sure.

“Eat.” Stabler put the food down in front of him.

Toby automatically answered. “Yes, sir.” He ignored the glare that he received. So, he was a trained bitch. Stabler could live with it. The food looked fine, and Toby ate it without complaint. He did go to the machine and buy two more sodas. Stabler took it with a grunt for thanks. Toby gave up on the Nazis and focused on their next two interviews. These two had potential.

“The street light was out. I’m certain. There’s a red light camera not too far away. When the light is on, there’s a reflection in the street.”

Toby quickly made notes. He also went back to the victim’s testimony, but she hadn’t mentioned it. “Novak wants you to take me to see our victim in the morning. Okay?”

“Fine, but do not screw this up.” Stabler pointed at him.

Toby looked away. He wasn’t the one that was going to blow this case sky high. A real lawyer would take care of that. He focused on what he could. “These guys - are they part of the Aryan Nation?”

Suddenly, Munch was there. “Do I smell a conspiracy?”

Stabler grinned, and for a moment, Toby held his breath at how much the cop looked like Chris Keller. Toby managed to ask around the ache in his heart, “Are they?”

“If they are, they’ve hidden it well. No white hoods in their closets,” Munch said. He pulled up a chair.

“No tats?”

“Nope.” Munch shook his head. “Not even a crooked birthmark. We checked the money. No strange donations either.”

Toby nearly cursed. “No luck on the symbol?”

“We thought maybe it was someone’s attempt at art. No one we referenced had a clue,” Stabler said.

“I’ll track it down,” Toby muttered. They couldn‛t know how important it was. “Stupid Nazis.”

“I sense you have a grudge against them.” Munch smiled. “I may end up liking you after all.”

Toby doubted it. He threw his trash away. “Thank you for the food.” He didn’t expect much of a response, and he didn’t get one. “Munch, do you have a list of known Nazi sympathizers that live in the area of our suspects?”

“Yes.” Munch went to his desk and returned with a list.

“Did you cross all of them to see if any had obvious ties?” Toby took it. He didn‛t ask how they‛d come by it.

Munch just looked at him. “We went the other way.”

Stabler reached and took the list. “Well, I’ll go that way now.”

Toby nodded. “And I have a few people I can call.” He was lying, but they couldn’t know that.

Munch and Stabler both gave him a hard look. “Don’t give the Nazis another shot at you,” Stabler said.

Toby shrugged. Stabler didn‛t really care. Toby worked the case, making notes, until he was certain that he was ready for tomorrow. It would be a long day. He checked the time - almost six. “I’m heading home. Novak was making the arrangements with our victim. I’ll be in at eight.”

“Good enough.” Stabler didn’t look up from the list and his computer.

“Munch, are you Jewish?”

Munch smiled. “And if I am?”

Toby put on his coat. That was an answer of sorts, but he thought Munch would be willing to help out with one avenue of investigation. “Could you find out what religion the suspects are and if they go to church? Several of the Baptist sects are almost as bad as Nazis.”

Munch frowned. “Really?

“Trust me.” Toby collected everything and promised himself a laptop. The office was too cheap to buy them for assistants, but he had money. Wait, he was quitting. Well, shit. He’d think about it.

“Hey, Tobias. Where do you live? I’ll swing by to get you in the morning.” Stabler’s voice carried easily across the squad room.

“No. Thank you, sir.” Toby waved and was out the door. He wasn’t ashamed that he was relegated to the halfway house, but he’d be damned if he’d have company over. Another month and his parole officer promised him that he could leave. Fucktards. Toby didn’t head home. He went to the Salvation Army and picked up a few clothes. Going home just long enough to change and ditch his suitcase, he went back out into the city. It was a risk, but he was willing to take it.

********

“You know where,” the voice snarled.

Toby could barely hear him over the music and noisy men, and he stepped outside. He hadn‛t thought he‛d receive this phone call, but now that he had, the answer was simple. “No.”

Silence. “Yes.”

“Get a life.” Toby shut the phone. He went back inside and worked the crowd some more. Chris Keller was dead. Stabler was nothing but a cheap imitation with aggression issues. He thought he was tough, but compared to Chris, Stabler was a pussy. The magic had exploded, leaving nothing behind but a tired cop, a bunch of lies, and Toby‛s aching heart.

Toby shook it off and concentrated on what he needed. It took a while, but he found exactly the kind of Nazi that he was looking for and sat down next to him. “I’m sorta lost. Can you help me?”

The guy was big, but not ugly. His tats were on his arms, and he looked Toby up and down before answering. “What ‘cha need?”

“Just got out of Oz. I was supposed to meet some friends.” Toby rattled off the names of the suspects. “Seen them?”

The guy furrowed his brow. “Who owned you?”

Toby thought it was a perceptive question. “Vern Schillinger. He wants me to meet up with these guys. Get his money. Can you help?”

A slow smile. “Prove it.”

Toby got off the barstool and pulled down his jeans. Men all through the bar clapped and cheered. The things he did for justice. Fuck. He yanked them back up and sat down again before he was raped on the pool table. “Help?”

“You bet.” The big guy put his arm around Toby and pulled him close. “They ain’t one of us. They’re shopkeepers about three blocks from here. Nice guys. You sure you got the right names?”

“I thought so. Shit.” Toby groaned. In the arms of a big Nazi was the last place he wanted to be, but it was worth the information. “I guess I could get him some money and lie.”

“Good idea.” The Nazi didn’t turn him loose.

Toby didn’t wiggle, but it was time to get out of this situation before he had to suck Nazi cock again. “Schillinger doesn’t share.”

“Shit.” The guy shoved him away. “Ask him about that while you’re there. I’m usually here.”

Toby grinned. “Will do.” He wandered away, but towards the door, and he made it out without being raped. It was something. There was a cab station several blocks away, and he walked there. The suspects weren’t Nazis. Stabler could chase his tail all night, but he wouldn’t find anything. Toby snapped open his cell phone and called him.

“Stabler.”

“They aren’t Nazis. Don’t bother any further.” Toby looked both ways and crossed the street.

“You sure?”

“Positive. Was our victim in a gang?”

Silence. Stabler slowly said, “She’s twelve!”

“She lives in a tough neighborhood. Find out.” Toby clicked off. He figured he’d pay for sending Stabler running around, but Novak had said to do it, and the cop wasn’t busy tonight. Toby had made sure of that. He locked the door of his one room apartment and leaned against it. Chris was dead. It rolled over him again, and he cried for all he’d lost and what he’d done to try to keep a piece of him.

*********

Toby clocked in, checked for messages, and read the one from Novak. He quickly went to the squad room. Stabler got up and put on his coat. He looked a little tired. Toby didn’t give a shit. It wasn‛t his problem. “Ready?”

“Yeah,” Stabler growled. He led the way to a police car, and Toby was tempted to play with the light. The drive was a long one because of morning traffic, and Toby was surprised that Stabler didn’t bitch at him. Finally, Stabler asked, “Where were you last night?”

“Bar.” Toby opened his briefcase. “I met with a contact of mine and then went home.”

“I could’ve picked you up. Living at the halfway house ain’t no big deal.” Stabler gave him a short glare.

“To you maybe. Truth is - I just don’t like you.” Toby controlled a wild grin. He felt almost free this morning, and it was dangerous, very dangerous. “At all.”

Stabler dropped his hand into his lap and adjusted himself. Toby got the message, but he didn’t care. If Stabler equated sex with friendship, he was a real idiot. Two more blocks and they were there. Toby took a deep breath and steadied himself. He could do this. Stabler pulled him aside. “Do not screw this up!”

“Got it.” Toby had no intention of doing that, unless he had to. He shook hands, acted extremely polite, and was relieved when he finally was able to speak to Sheree Wilson alone. She looked fragile, hurt, and it tore at him. He didn’t touch her, but he sat close. “Are you feeling better?”

“Of course not.” She glared at him. “I’m hurt and embarrassed.”

Toby nodded. He knew her pain, and he was so sorry. “I know. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t know nothing.” Sheree looked away. Her face sullen. “How am I supposed to live like this?”

Toby took her hand. He didn‛t blame her for her anger. “Sheree, look at me.”

She did, but reluctantly.

“I know. I was in prison. My first week there I was raped and branded. Trust me. I know.” Toby spoke softly. “The only good news that I have is that people can’t see my brand unless I wear a small bathing suit.”

“It’s on your ass?” Sheree’s mouth hung open.

“It is.” Toby kept hold of her. It made talking about it easier. “It got infected, and I didn’t sit square for a month or two.”

“The doctor gave me some salve to put on it.” She looked inside her shirt and cringed. “It hurts, but you’re right. No one can see it unless I wear a bikini.”

“It’s not much, I know.” Toby smiled, but not big. He took advantage of her now fragile trust and spent the next hour going over the crime scene with her, slowly, digging his way to the truth. She was a nice girl, but she was a liar. When he finished, he thanked her.

She took him by the arm. “Show me.”

Toby nearly groaned. He’d been droppng his pants a lot lately. He did so very quickly, praying that Stabler didn‛t open the door. She gasped, and he hugged her, but gently. “Do what the doctors say.”

“I will. I, uh, like you.” She blushed. “You ain’t lying to me.”

“I’m not. I wouldn’t.” Toby pushed just that much more. “Do you think, some day, you could tell me the truth?”

Her eyes darted away. She bit her lower lip and rubbed her face. “They don’t understand.”

“They don’t. I hope they never do.” Toby knelt down in front of where she was sitting. “I don’t tell people that a big, white Nazi branded me because I’m ashamed.”

“I hear that.” Sheree wiped her eyes. “They’re all angry now. If I do tell the truth, will they believe me?”

“Yes.” Toby smiled. “They’re adults. They can deal with it.”

“Momma cried for hours. The pastor said that he would preach against the evil white man this Sunday.” Sheree bit her lip again. “Ain’t much room for the truth.”

“The truth is for you, not them.” Toby sat down next to her on the bed. “My family pretends it didn’t happen. White people don’t go to prison and get raped - not in their world.”

“That’s tough,” Sheree said quietly. “In this neighborhood, everyone has a story. My brother is in Attica. He was jacking cars.”

Toby believed it. He tried to catch her beautiful eyes. “Can you help me with the truth?”

“Yeah.” Sheree nodded. “Not here though. Come get me tomorrow.”

Toby didn’t like the sound of that. Too many things happened in this neighborhood. If she let it slip that she was telling the truth, she could wind up dead. “Sheree, come with me. We’ll get lunch and talk some more.”

She slowly, very slowly, nodded. “It’d be nice to get out of here for a minute. Everyone is so busy crying that they forget I’m the one hurt.”

Toby nodded. He went to her door and opened it. Stabler was close, too close. Toby raised his eyebrows and practically stumbled over him. “Sheree wants to come down to the station house and make sure her statement is complete. Do you have a problem with that, Detective?”

“Of course not.” Stabler went to her. His voice was smooth and calm. “Think you’re up to it?”

“I ain’t no weakling. Hell, it’s been two weeks!” Sheree put on her coat.

Toby went to explain things to Sheree’s mother. The mother cried again and then abruptly gave in. The pastor glared and looked thoroughly pissed off. Toby ignored him. Stabler put her in the car and then caught Toby by the arm.

“You screwed this up, didn’t you?” Stabler‛s eyes were mean.

“Only in the sense that I’m going to get her to tell the truth.” Toby brushed the hand away. “Is she in a gang?”

“No.” Stabler rubbed his face. “I have a bad feeling about this.”

Toby got in the car and hoped that Stabler didn‛t shoot him after hearing the truth.

********

Novak‛s eyes pierced right though him. “I don’t know whether to thank you or fire you!”

“Fire me. Please. Before Stabler gets hold of me.” Toby looked over his shoulder into the room where Stabler was with Sheree. “I am a crappy lawyer, and I found holes in her story in three minutes. A real lawyer would have torn her to shreds on the stand, and she was all you had!”

“I know. I know!” Novak sighed. “Good work, but I’m not thanking you for it.”

“I was going to meet with an expert to try to find out what the symbol on her chest is. Do you want me to keep that appointment?”

“Yes.” Novak was still glaring. “Since you screwed it up, you can help with the investigation - the new one!”

Toby almost quit right then and there, but it could wait until tomorrow. He was curious about the brand on her chest. “She’s brave and smart. Don’t you dare make her feel bad about this choice.”

“Are you lecturing me?” Novak took another step towards him. “Tobias Beecher? The one who ran down a child with his car?”

Toby flushed. He should flash his ass at her just to shut her up. “My apologies. Excuse me.” He turned to leave when Novak turned the sound on again. Sheree’s clear voice was easily heard.

“That lawyer was branded too. He knows how it hurts. I did this because he asked me to.” She hesitated. “The rest of you are a bunch of losers!”

Toby cringed. Novak caught him by the arm. “What the hell is she talking about?”

“I established a rapport with her, so she’d tell the truth.” Toby straightened his spine. “She needed empathy. I gave it to her.”

“You lied to her?” Novak spat. “You are fired!”

Toby just looked at her and then he gave her a slow smile. He gently removed his arm from her hand and pushed open the door to the room. It was time to take a direct hand in this interview. She needed him. He disregarded Stabler’s glower.

“Sheree, please. Detective Stabler is trying to help you. He’s good at his job, when he has the right information.”

Sheree took him by the hand, and he sat down. She looked at him, no one else. “I told the truth this time. I’m sorry that it’s not what they wanted to hear.”

“That’s not your concern. The police will do their best. You did your job, and that was to tell the truth. Did you tell him everything? Every little detail?”

She frowned. “I don’t know. Help me. Like what?”

Toby settled in to do this again. He was fired, but he wasn’t walking away from her. She needed him.

*********

“Meet me. I don’t care where.”

Toby stared at his phone. This was the last call he’d expected. “I’m home. If you flash your badge, they’ll let you in.”

“On my way.” Stabler was gone, and Toby put his phone on the nightstand. Sleep had been impossible tonight. Novak hadn’t fired him. She’d backed away from that, but she was still furious. Stabler had given him the look of death, and Toby had gone home. Tomorrow, he’d go over to Hudson University, and he still had eight witnesses to go through. Novak had made it clear that he’d be interviewing them all. She was praying that he actually found someone who had seen something.

Toby didn’t get up for the door. He just raised his voice. “Come in!”

Stabler pushed it open and locked it behind him. They exchanged a long look. “You screwed it up for me. No, you fucked it up!”

“You wanted the truth. I know you did. It just hurt going down.” Toby relaxed back against the wall and didn’t worry. He‛d been threatened and beaten by the best Oz had to offer. “Aren’t you sleeping tonight?”

“I seriously doubt it!” Stabler yanked the chair away from the small desk and sat down with a thump. “My captain is not happy!”

“Stop yelling. The walls are paper thin.” Toby played with the hole in his jeans. “I like Sheree. Little girl has balls. Have you ever smelled your own flesh burning? Ever lain terrified as someone took a match to you? When you wake up the next day, the whole world looks different.”

Stabler rubbed his face. “Novak thought you were lying. I showed her your file. She about puked.”

Toby was glad to hear it. “She told me I had to come to work tomorrow, even though she’d fired me.”

“Munch and I are working the case.” Stabler did look tired. “We could use your help.”

“Novak may put me on something else, and if she does, I‛m quitting.” Toby didn’t think she would, but it could happen. Carefully, he looked over the man he’d substituted for Chris again. Stabler was handsome, strong, and he could fuck like a machine, but it wasn’t enough now that the artifice had been stripped away. “Anything else?”

Stabler shifted in his seat. “We’re done, aren’t we?”

“Yes. I didn’t want to know you. I wanted you to fuck me, nothing else.” Toby told the brutal truth. It almost felt good to say it. “Now that I know you, forget it.”

“Why?”

Toby leaned up. He considered some elaborate lie, but he decided that he didn‛t care enough to bother. If Stabler kicked Toby‛s ass, well, Toby had earned it. “My lover in prison looked like you. Chris Keller. I missed him, so I put you in his place. I’d shut my eyes and pretend. Worked pretty damn well.”

Stabler clenched his fists. “Why don’t you just go visit him?”

“He’s dead. Killed himself.” Toby said the words fast so they didn’t hurt so much. “I know it was wrong, but you got laid, so no complaining after the fact.”

“I didn’t complain. You’re right. Last thing I want is a damn relationship.” Stabler got to his feet. “Now that you know me, you can’t pretend.”

“Exactly. Chris was . . . dangerous, jealous, and possessive. He loved me. I loved him. You’re nothing but a cop - a bad-tempered cop.” Toby pulled the hole in his jeans wider. “You’re a good fuck though.”

“Glad to hear it.” Stabler didn’t look at him. “I don’t like you much either.”

“Most don’t.” Toby grinned. “Find someone else to fuck.”

Stabler opened the door and left without a look back. Toby turned on his alarm and shut off the light. He didn’t bother to lock the door.

********

“Dragging in late again?” Stabler was chewing a straw half to death.

Toby dropped the information in Stabler’s lap. “Here’s what the expert told me about the symbol. Because there is an active investigation ongoing, I’ve been relegated back to my desk. I will continue to interview the people that came forward as witnesses.”

Stabler grabbed the material. “I need answers now. I’m already two weeks behind!”

Toby ignored the drama. “Not my fault.” He turned and went back to his office. Quitting looked good today, but he was still concerned about Sheree. It was hard to walk away from her. He’d been at his desk for three minutes when Novak appeared. She still looked pissy.

“Beecher, get your stuff and go back to the squad room. They’re short-handed there so you’ll be helping with the new canvass. Make sure to interview all the people on your list.” Novak narrowed her eyes. “You’re assigned with Stabler until I say otherwise.”

“Shit.” Toby watched her eyes widen. She hadn‛t expected that. He refused to apologize. “Why did you give me this job?”

Novak seemed to get taller. “My office. Right now.”

Toby went with her, and he knew he looked sullen. Assistants number two and five gave him a look that said it all - he was nuts. Her office wasn’t far, and he sat down to wait for it.

“I assigned you to Stabler because you’re the best assistant I have at interviewing people. You know when they’re lying, and when they’re leaving out information that I need.” She didn’t look happy about it. “I gave you a shot because I owed your brother a favor. I certainly never expected you to be good at it!”

Toby wasn’t sure he believed all that bullshit. “Working with Stabler is like playing hot potato.”

“I have no idea what that means, but you are going to help clear this case, or you can pack your desk and go home.”

Toby looked her over again. Being fired was no threat, and he had a feeling that she knew it. “And afterwards? Is it back to every shit job in this place while everyone laughs at the ex-con?”

Novak sighed heavily. “It’s your choice. It’s not my fault you went to prison. I’m not going to take the heat for that, and if you expect a promotion, you can forget it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Toby said softly. This case and then he‛d quit. That was the plan. “I’ll report to the squad room.”

“Good. You helped make this mess. You can help clean it up.” She started working on other things.

“Justice really is blind,” Toby muttered and went to his desk. The other assistants stared at him as he made sure he had everything. He was going, but he’d be damned if he’d work twelve-hour days from now on. They’d get their six, but that was it. Stabler shot him a fast smirk as Toby put his briefcase down on the empty desk. Toby sat down and looked at him. “Did you get what you wanted?”

“Pretty much. Let’s hit the bricks. Munch and Fin have another case, so we have a lot of footwork to do.” Stabler got to his feet and put on his coat.

Toby looked at the captain’s office. “Did you clear it with him?”

Cragen came out the door and right to them. “Get moving. This case isn’t getting any younger and I have the brass breathing down my neck!”

“Captain, I-”

“Go canvass.” Cragen pointed. “I’m aware you aren’t a detective, but you’ll do.”

“Yes, sir,” Toby said without thinking. He got his notepad and pen and went with Stabler, who was grinning. The sedan seemed too small, and Toby wanted to sit in the back. “Stop smiling.”

“I’m not. This case is practically impossible to solve now. I don’t have a partner, and a shitty ex-lawyer doesn’t cut it by any stretch of the imagination.” Stabler had them moving. “But you’re up to speed, and I don’t have time to teach someone else about the case.”

Toby looked out at the city. He didn‛t resent being called shitty. “The symbol points to an obscure religious sect from Africa. She was, for all purposes, a sacrifice. The brand was part of the ritual.”

“How many religions do their business in an alley?”

“Sheree only remembers flashes. Are the forensic guys certain that she wasn’t a dump job?” Toby didn’t look at him.

Stabler was quiet a moment. “Since she’s not dead, it’s tougher to tell. Let’s suppose that the ritual was done elsewhere, and she was dumped in the alley, does that square with any of our witnesses?”

Toby thought about it. “The first witness said she heard a car.”

Stabler dug in the seat next to him. “Here are the results of Munch’s preliminary canvass.”

Toby took the papers and started reading. Their witnesses had been culled from this bunch. He read quickly, trying to memorize as he went. Stabler parked the car, and Toby finished before getting out.

“I think it was a dump job.” Toby had made up his mind. “She remembers screaming. No one mentions that, and little girls can raise the roof. Also five people saw the flash of headlights.”

“I agree.” Stabler dug in his pocket and snapped open his phone.

Toby leaned against the side of the car and listened to him talk to forensics. “A canvass in this neighborhood won’t do us much good, but I want to see the alley,” he muttered to himself. He didn’t wait. He set off walking, found the alley, and went down it. He’d seen the photos. She’d been found by a dumpster, and he squatted down next to it. It was filthy. The forensics guys had had their work cut out for them.

“Any ideas?”

Toby heard the sarcasm. He slowly got to his feet. “When I was branded, it was to mark me as property of the Aryan Nation. Why would they go to the trouble of branding her and then throw her away?”

Stabler put a gentle hand on Toby’s shoulder and squeezed. “They’re nuts?”

Toby nudged him away. He didn’t need any touching. “That’s a given, but they knew she was alive. Elliot, this is the first case of this, right?”

“We found no other cases like it.”

Toby was glad for that. “Recent immigrants from that area of Africa might be a place to start. I think a canvass here is wasting our time.”

Stabler rubbed his face. “Do you think they’ll try for her again?”

“Maybe. Depends on whether it was a virgin sacrifice they needed. Even the professor didn’t know that much about the religion.” Toby watched Stabler make another phone call. This case was stone cold, even he knew that, but it was going to heat up again fast. The pastor would make sure of that.

“Cragen is putting a unit at her house.” Stabler looked up and down the alley. “No homeless people?”

“Tough alley.” Toby started walking the length of it, but slowly. Why here? Was it the cosmic center of their religion or had it been convenient? He sighed. One thing for sure - he was no detective, not even if he had read the entire works of Agatha Christie three times while incarcerated.

Stabler paced along beside him, and they both stopped at the same moment. “Don’t touch it.”

“As if.” Toby moved farther away. He was glad he’d skipped breakfast.

“It should have been another girl,” Stabler said after he snapped his phone shut.

Toby was surprised also. “Maybe, they didn’t count on the police giving a damn. In Africa, no one would. Rape is common, and no one cares. They needed a sacrifice, but they have no desire to go to jail.”

“Too bad. They‛re going.” Stabler looked up and down the alley. “When the crime scene guys get here, we’re going to try to track down a few homeless people.”

“Can’t wait.” Toby glanced down to the end of the alley. “I’ll check the next one over.”

“Just wait for me.” Stabler got right in Toby’s face.

Toby shrugged. He wasn’t going to bother trying to reason with him, but he was clocking out at three and going back to his shitty room at the halfway house. When the team showed up, Toby wandered back to the car and leaned against it. Details of the case flitted through his mind and he was sure of one thing. If that had happened to a white girl, there would be a task force instead of one cop and a crappy ex-lawyer trying to make heads or tails of this mess.

“Beecher!”

Toby pushed away and trailed after Stabler down one alley after another. There was no one. “Hey, bonehead, let’s head to the nearest shelter. This is a colossal waste of time.”

Stabler put his hands on his hips. “I liked you better when you didn’t talk.”

“I liked you better when all I had to deal with was your dick.” Toby headed back to the car. He ignored the huffy detective until they were at the car. “Why don’t you go to the homeless shelter, and I’ll head back to check immigration records?”

“Fine.” Stabler looked angry. Toby nearly giggled. He knew he was losing it. In the end, he had to call a cab. Bad neighborhood. He went back to the squad room and sat down at the computer. The first thing he did was email their expert with an update. Any help would be appreciated, and it wasn’t as if the victim’s family had to be notified.

“Is Stabler with the body?”

Toby glanced up at Cragen. “He went to check with the homeless people. Apparently, they’ve taken to avoiding that alley.”

“Who’s with the body?” Cragen sounded pissed now.

“Captain, if there are tags or a GPS, we’ll inform them, but right now, there’s nothing we could do,” Toby said patiently.

“Excuse me? Tags?”

Toby stiffled a round of giggles. “These are the stats: brown hair, brown eyes, about two feet tall, no distinguishing marks on any of four legs.”

Cragen glared at him. “You think this is funny?”

“No. Not really.” Toby smiled, but it was an empty one. “That little girl is going to carry that brand for the rest of her life and wonder why she was picked out to wear it. I do find it mildly amusing that New York’s finest consists of an ex-con ex-lawyer and a detective that needs another anger management course.”

Cragen walked away. He slammed his office door. Toby found that Munch was looking at him. “What?”

“Only Stabler makes him slam the door that hard. Yes. I definitely like you. Give me the low-down.” Munch came over and pulled up a chair.

“Fine, and then you help me with the idiots at Immigration.” Toby liked Munch too - much better than Stabler.

********

“Where the hell are you?”

Toby put the phone in front of his face to save his ear drums from further abuse. “I clocked out and went home.”

“Damn it!” Stabler was yelling, and it wasn’t pretty. “Get your ass back here!”

“I‛m not working for free any longer. Take it up with my boss.” Toby paused. “Sir.” He shut his phone fast before Stabler reached through it and choked the shit out of him. The halfway house was quiet, and Toby stripped off his shirt and tie. He dressed in his torn jeans and a wife-beater. Two things kept coming at him: Chris was dead, and Sheree.

Toby knew now that he’d never grieved for Chris. He’d been too busy grieving for himself. It was only now that he was free that he really understood the loss that he’d suffered. And Sheree? Catching the idiots that had raped her might be very important to her future. She was livestock now, like him. Tomorrow, he’d go check on her.

His phone rang again, and he made sure it wasn’t Stabler. It was Novak. Shit. “Hello?”

“Tobias, we need to talk. Can you come here?”

Toby hesitated. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. “Can’t you just fire me over the phone?”

“I have no intention of firing you. Stabler wants to shoot you anyway. Please. Come to my office. We’ll talk.” Novak didn’t sound angry. “Sooner rather than later.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Toby said without thinking. “Give me thirty minutes.”

“Thank you.” She clicked off.

Toby sighed, rubbed his face, and looked at his clothes. Fuck it. He grabbed his old jean jacket and didn’t glance in the mirror on the way out. The subway got him most of the way there, and he walked the rest of it, like usual. They checked his I.D. at the desk, and he went up to her office. Stabler was there, looking cranky.

“What did you do with the geeky lawyer?” Stabler sniped.

“Shut up, sir,” Toby said calmly and took the empty chair in front of Novak’s desk. “Yes, ma’am?”

Novak rubbed her forehead. “Beecher, let’s face it. You don’t fit in with the rest of my assistants. They’re all either scared of you because you were in prison or angry because I gave you a chance.”

Toby knew that. Stabler chuckled softly. “Scared?”

“Stabler wants you full-time, which means twelve hours a day.” Novak sighed. “Or more. So this is my proposition. You will give Stabler all the time he wants on this case, and I’ll promote you to be my liasion with the one-six. With the budget cutbacks, I have two units now to prosecute for.”

Toby hadn’t known that. Poor woman. “I can’t work weekends.”

“Why? The halfway house keeps you busy?” Stabler was enjoying himself - the fucker.

“My parole officer allows me to travel to Connecticut on weekends to see my children. I’m not giving that up. Monday through Friday - I’ll work all you want.” Toby wasn’t backing down on this part of the deal. He’d quit.

Novak looked at him steadily. “Not a problem, after this case is cleared.”

“Where will my desk be?” It was an important question.

“Squad room. I have a liasion in the homicide unit that I’ve taken on. I get daily updates. It’s saving me time. I have a feeling that you’ll fit in perfectly over at Cragen’s unit.”

“Cragen agreed to this?”

“Yes. He’s tired of not being able to get me on the phone. You’ll have limited ability to make decisions, but it’s more than he’s getting now.” She pulled a folder out off her desk. “The job description, salary, and benefits. I need to know now whether to send you with Stabler or cover you as you make for the door.”

Toby looked at Stabler. “You should’ve taken his gun.”

“Right,” Stabler drawled. “Come on. Make up your mind. It’s a real job instead of shit work, and we don’t give a crap about Oz.”

“Oh, really?” Toby refused to believe that.

“Well, we’re pissed that you ran over a child, but they had to put you somewhere.” Stabler grinned, but they both knew there was nothing funny about it.

Toby rubbed his face. He should walk out. Instead, he saw his hand reach for the folder. “I’m making a huge mistake, aren’t I?”

“You’re mine.‟ Stabler got to his feet. ‟Let’s go.”

Toby nearly quivered at those words, and Stabler probably knew it. Toby looked at Novak. “You don’t like me, do you?”

“Not all that much. This’ll be perfect.” She smiled. “You have one week to clear the case, Detective, and then Beecher begins his new job.”

Stabler grabbed Toby by the jacket and hauled him out the door. Toby glared and brushed him off. “Prick.”

“Jackass.” Stabler starting walking, and Toby went with him before the cuffs came out. Toby shivered. He was not horny, damn it.

“Congratulations on the promotion.”

“Hopefully, she’ll remember that I’m on parole and fire me.” Toby thought that there had to be legions of real lawyers that would want this job. He looked at Stabler again and changed his mind.

“How many kids you got?”

“Two.” Toby stopped at the soda machine and bought one. “They live with my mom and brother.”

“Why didn’t you just move to Connecticut?” Stabler was a nosy fucker.

Toby spilled his guts. “My crime was committed in New York. Oz is in New York. I was given early release on the condition that I would stay in New York until my parole was up. It sucks. It really does.”

“You’re lucky he lets you travel. Some wouldn’t.” Stabler got his own soda. “No car?”

“Nope.”

“Curfew?”

“Eleven p.m.” Toby was always there. He wasn‛t going to screw it up again. “I have another month in the halfway house, and then I can find a place.”

“Interesting. They’re breaking your balls. I wonder why.”

Toby knew why and after a short pause, he told him. “I broke my parole before and not long after accidentally killed another inmate. I was also implicated but cleared in the death of another.” That wasn’t the half of it, but it was a start. “I’m considered high risk to offend again.”

“No shit.” Stabler sat down at his desk. “I was right. You only look harmless. Who’d you kill?”

“The guy who put the brand on my ass.” Toby took his desk, tossed down the folder he was carrying, and started reading the paperwork that had been tossed on it, presumably by Stabler. “Oh, and Novak knows all this.”

“Did you blackmail her for a job?”

“That job? Are you nuts?” Toby laughed. “Employment is another requirement of my parole. My brother called her and she owed him a favor. Apparently, it was a fucking huge one.”

Stabler didn’t answer that, so Toby looked up at him. He was digging in his desk. Toby didn’t want to know why, so he went back to the paperwork on the immigrants and the preliminary forensics report on the dog.

“Where are we at on your case, Elliot?” Cragen came up and asked.

Toby kept his head down, but he listened to the rundown. He hadn’t missed much. When Cragen was gone, Toby asked, “Think they’ll get any prints off the dog?”

Stabler shot him a look. “We can hope. Let’s swing by there on our way to Sheree’s house.”

“Problem?”

“No, but I want you to find out if she remembers anything else based on what we saw on that dog. From there, we’re going to inform Fido’s closest kin about his demise.”

“If some kid starts bawling, I’m blaming you for making light of it.” Toby got to his feet. “I’m not dressed for this.”

Stabler laughed. “I have a sweatshirt you can borrow. I‛m not losing any more time by taking you home.”

Toby sighed softly, questioned again his decision, and followed him to the locker room. “You lift weights?”

“Some. Yeah.” Stabler opened a locker, and Toby spotted all the kids, but he didn’t ask about them. It wasn’t any of his business.

“Take it off.”

Toby licked his lips and let his coat fall to the bench. His heart sped up, and he wanted nothing more than to fall to his knees. Christ. He was a fucking loser. Looking, he saw that Stabler was staring at him.

“I’m not your trained bitch. Not any longer.”

Stabler brought him the sweatshirt and laughed softly. “You liked it.” He pushed the shirt into Toby’s chest and barked, “Put it on!”

“Yes, sir,” Toby said and wanted to crawl under the bench. Shame washed over him, but he put it on over his wife-beater. He looked more respectable now. “I’m not your bitch.”

“You liked it way too much to give it up easily.” Stabler dropped his voice low and whispered in Toby’s ear, “You might have been pretending, but it was me in that room, and you know it now. Me. Me. Me.”

“Shut up!” Toby grabbed his coat and got the hell out of there. His cock strained in his jeans, and he wanted to run for his life - right back to that little room and beg for more. Stabler caught up with him, and they went to forensics together, but Toby wouldn’t look at the smug bastard. It had all been about Chris, not Stabler. Damn it.

“Find anything?” Stabler asked. Toby finally looked and saw a beautiful, black woman in a lab coat. She gave them a complete rundown and ignored him, which was fine. Stabler practically stood in front of him anyway.

“Here’s his collar and dog tag,” she said and handed it over in a plastic bag. “Never thought I’d be doing an autopsy on a dog.”

“Aren’t you glad you came to work today?” Stabler flashed that fake grin. Toby wanted to kick him in the ass.

“Who’s your new partner?”

“He’s not anything,” Stabler said forcefully.

Toby stepped around him and held out his hand. “Tobias Beecher. I’m going to be the liasion for the SVU unit to the A.D.A’s office.”

“Dr. Warner.” She shook it firmly. “You must be a lawyer then.”

“That’s why Stabler ignores me.” Toby smiled. “Can you figure out where the dog was by the dirt between his paws?”

She gave him a smile. “We’re working on it, but only if it was some place unusual. I can tell you that he’s been dead at least a day. If you calculate the attack on the child, they’re working on a two-week schedule.”

“We have to be done in a week.” Toby instantly liked her. “One more thing - tell me they didn’t rape him.”

Stabler groaned.

Dr. Warner shook her head. “No sign of it. He was tied down and bled dry. I don’t want to know what they did with the blood.”

Toby didn’t either. “I’m surpised they didn’t do that to Sheree.”

Stabler stepped in front of him again. “Thanks. Call us if you find anything else.”

“Will do.” She walked off to run more tests, and Toby waited to be yelled at.

“Different rituals for humans and animals.”

“But the brand is the same and right on his chest. Poor dog.” Toby sighed. “Are you going to stand in front of me when I meet all your co-workers?”

“Probably.” Stabler headed for the car.

Toby went with him. “I bet I outrank you.”

“Right.” Stabler barked a laugh that wasn‛t funny. “Animal shelter next.”

Toby prayed they had a video security system and took background checks before releasing animals to people.

“Did you really think they’d rape a dog?”

“Sick shit, but I’ve known men that would fuck anything.” Toby flipped the collar around. His notes were at home, but something was bugging him. He focused, tried to visualize the pages, and it came to him. “Witness number five, Harold Remke, works at an animal shelter.”

Stabler glanced at him. “Coincidence.”

“Maybe so.” Toby tried to remember Remke’s information. “He lives in an apartment above the alley where Sheree was found. He’s on a work visa.”

“Africa?”

Toby shut his eyes and tried to remember. “I didn’t have that information. I would guess it’s unusual for one of the witnesses to be involved with the crime.”

“You’d be wrong.” Stabler drove a little faster. “We’ll give him a hard look.”

Toby thought it was a good idea.

*********

“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

Toby managed not to cringe. If he was going to work with this unit, he was going to have to find his balls. “Home. I can barely see straight.”

Stabler shook his head. “I own you until this case is cleared. Go grab a couple in the crib.”

“I need clean clothes.” Toby put on his coat and refused to ask what the crib was. “I’ll go home, shower, change, and come back.”

Stabler didn’t look convinced.

Toby sighed. “Give me a break.”

“Be back in an hour.” Stabler grabbed his coat. “Forget that. I’ll give you a ride home.”

“No.”

Stabler didn’t listen. He took Toby by the arm and steered him that way. Toby didn’t like it, but causing a huge scene wasn’t his style. He got buckled and leaned his head back. Harold Remke had disappeared into the city, and Stabler had managed a warrant to toss the apartment. Remke was looking good for it, and the DNA that they‛d taken off his toothbrush would confirm it. Toby watched the lights go by and wished he couldn’t smell Stabler. Hell, he could almost taste him. He’d been a damn fool to think it had all been about Chris. They’d had sex too many times, and he wanted more. He had needs, and they weren’t being very picky about whether it was Chris or Stabler. Either would do - almost the same package.

“You’re a dickhead,” Toby said as he got out. The harsh words gave him a measure of comfort.

Stabler got out, flashed his badge, and followed him up. “You keep trying to convince yourself of that.”

“I don’t have to try.” Toby didn’t bother to keep him out. “I have no idea how I’m going to work with you.”

“You’ll figure it out.” Stabler opened the little fridge and found a soda. “Go shower.”

Toby pressed his lips together instead of answering. He would control his mouth.

“Did they really do that to you at Rikers?” Stabler must have seen it.

“It’s funny. You think you’ll do what they say, but once you get close to the chair, your brain flies out the window, and you fight. God, you fight. Doesn’t make any difference, but you do it anyway. The hood they put over your head is the final humiliation.” Toby slowly peeled Stabler’s sweatshirt off and threw it at him. “Twenty-four hours can be a very long time in the dark.”

“Sounds like grounds for prisoner abuse.”

Toby tossed his wife-beater on the bed. His jeans followed. After all, Stabler had seen it before. He’d demanded it before, and Toby had given it freely every time. He went to shower. He’d only gone to the chair once. He was no fool. Well, yes he was, and he laughed softly. Cleaner, he went out and found some Dockers and a polo shirt. Stabler was sitting on the bed, drinking his soda, and flipping through Toby’s photo album. Nosy cop.

“Cute kids.”

“I like them.” Toby brushed his hair. It was too short. He had to find a new barber. Reaching for his glasses, he remembered that he’d broken them. It was time to get new ones or contact lenses.

“I count three.”

Toby found some socks and almost didn’t answer, but Stabler would just look it up in the file. “My oldest boy was murdered.”

Stabler’s mouth fell open. “Nazis?”

“Of course.” Toby rubbed his face. The grief was well-worn but still stabbed at him. “They did it to punish me.”

“Are they dead?” Stabler sounded furious.

Toby wasn’t going to answer that. He put on his shoes. “I’m ready to go.”

Stabler shut the book. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“Me too. He was a good boy, and he sure as hell didn’t deserve to die because I wouldn’t bend over.” Toby made sure he had all his paperwork in his briefcase. He wasn’t going to re-hash all his old regrets, but dying would have been easier than watching his son and father be killed.

Stabler got up and wrapped his arms around him. Toby wanted to fight and shove him down, but after half a second it drained away. He put his head on Stabler’s shoulder and sighed heavily. Stabler kissed him on the side of the head.

“Let’s go help Sheree.”

Toby nodded, but he couldn’t seem to unwrap himself. “You’re not him.”

“So?” Stabler growled.

“But you’re not all that bad.” Toby laughed. “I still think you could use an anger management course.”

“Did that. Didn’t take.” Stabler turned him loose. “Come on.”

Toby went obediently, and somewhere down deep inside he knew he was screwed. If Stabler asked again, Toby would put his hair in pigtails and giggle. He rubbed his face and tried to find some backbone. Nope.

“We’ll check with the lab and then catch some sleep in the crib.” Stabler patted him on the knee. “Then we’ll do our best to track down all known associates. Of course, they’re all probably in the wind, but we might get lucky.”

Toby nodded mindlessly. He wasn’t really needed now. Stabler would track them down. Toby shut his eyes and tried to relax. “I think Sheree is going to be fine.”

“She’s tougher than I thought. She was playing us.” Stabler snorted. “It’s a good thing that she remembers so little.”

Toby agreed. He wished that he remembered less. Some of it was blurry, and he was grateful for that. He went inside without bitching about it.

“There’s our geeky lawyer friend,” Munch said. “Cragen wants to see you, and Elliot, the lab called.”

Stabler went to his desk quickly, but Toby dragged his feet. “Am I in trouble?”

“Probably.” Munch grinned. “Waiting makes it worse.”

“Thanks.” Toby was glad he’d gone home to change. He knocked softly and listened for permission before going inside. “You wanted to see me?”

“Sit.”

“Yes, sir.” Toby sat down.

“You are polite.” Cragen frowned as if that was a bad thing. “Are you taking the job?”

“I thought I might give it a try. If I‛m awful at it, I‛ll quit.”

Cragen shook his head. “I watched you with Sheree Wilson. You were good, very good. Novak is busier than ever, and I’m tired of getting no one when I call.”

“I’ll do what I can to help. Honestly, I haven’t had time to read the job description.” Toby didn’t smile or laugh. He was very uncertain about working in a department with a man that bent him over a footboard regularly.

“When are you starting?” Cragen didn’t seem worried, but he didn‛t know about all the sex.

“When this case is cleared. Stabler has them on the run. It won’t be long.” Toby was sure of that. “Anything else?”

“We’ll talk more later.” Cragen went and opened the door. Toby followed him out.

Stabler put the phone down. “DNA is back. One of them is Remke, and he’s from India.”

Toby blew out a breath. “Now we find his buddies.”

“Listen to the wanna-be-cop.” Stabler laughed. “I thought you were tired.”

“I am.” Toby smiled. He waited until Cragen was gone. “Now what?”

Stabler smiled back at him. “We get a dump on his phone records. See who he’s been talking to and put out an APB on the asswipe.”

“Let’s make completely sure they can’t grab Sheree on the way out of town.” Toby got his coat. “I’ll go there.”

Stabler nodded. “Get them somewhere safe, even if you have to pay for it yourself.”

Toby pulled out his phone to update Novak and went to find a cab. It seemed to take forever to get there, but Novak was pleased, and it was something. He paid the cabbie, checked the time, and knocked on the front door. It was late - past ten, but he didn’t want to take any chances. The house was dark, no answer, and he had no idea what to do so he called Stabler.

“No answer at the house. Got their number?”

Stabler gave it to him. Toby hung up and called. He could hear the phone ringing, but no one was home. Gently, he pushed the door. It swung open, and he could see the broken lock. “Motherfuck,” he cursed. Getting Stabler back on the line seemed to take forever. “House has been broken into. What the hell do I do?”

“Settle down, lawboy.” Stabler started shouting instructions to Munch, and Toby simply waited with his heart in his throat.

“Tell me what to do!”

“Step back to the sidewalk and wait. Do not enter the house. Toby, do not fuck with me on this. You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Toby shut his phone. He listened, but all he could hear was the neighbors and traffic. Shit. Probably they were gone, and if not Sheree was dead, but what if she needed help? He pushed open the door and went inside, quietly. If he was breathing, his lungs didn’t know it. The place was trashed, and he made sure not to touch anything. He didn’t turn on any more lights, and he went towards the one in the kitchen.

“Fuck.” He knelt down, avoiding the blood, and checked the mother’s pulse. She was very dead. He backed away and went to Sheree’s room. Empty, but there was evidence that she‛d fought them. He hurried back outside, rubbed his hands through his hair, and heard the sirens. Where the fuck was the unit? Toby looked up and down the street. There it was. He snapped open his phone and hit the redial.

“Almost there.”

“The unit guys are dead.” Toby shut the phone and ran to the car. There was nothing he could do. They’d been shot in the head. He rubbed his mouth and wanted to puke. There were brains all over the dash. Almost magically, the street was suddenly full of police cars, and he’d never seen so many pissed off cops.

Stabler grabbed him up immediately. “Did you go inside?”

“Yes.” Toby weathered the glare. “The mother is dead in the kitchen. Sheree is gone.” He blamed himself for this. “This is my fault!”

Stabler shook his head and got in Toby’s face. “No. Now go sit down and let us work.”

Toby walked away, found a spot on the curb to sit, and watched controlled chaos. The media showed up. Cragen appeared. Munch and Fin. The whole gang was here. Now that cops were dead, things would get done quickly. Where had the fuckers taken her? Toby racked his brain and wished that he’d interviewed Remke first.

They were from India, not Africa. Did it make a difference? With nothing else to do, he called his expert. The professor took his time answering the phone. “Hello?”

“Professor, this is Tobias Beecher again. I need your help.”

“It’s very late.”

“I know. Listen.” Toby tried to think coherently. “They were from India. Is it important?”

The professor was silent a long moment. “You’re sure?”

“Positive. We found one of them.” Toby stuck his other finger in his ear so he could hear above the new rash of sirens.

“Oh, God. I mean, well, yes. I made a mistake. They follow Kali Ma - the eater. She demands blood sacrifice on the altar. Females are spared. Males are killed.”

Toby forced his stomach to shut up. “Where would they go?”

“Caves. Real caves. They won’t kill any females, unless they’re not on the altar, but-”

Toby cut him off. “Got it. Caves. Thanks. I owe you.” He clicked off and ran to find Stabler. Stabler was going through Sheree’s bedroom looking for a clue. Toby grabbed him by the arm. “Caves. The professor says they’d have a cave for an altar. A real cave, not a subway or something stupid.”

Stabler stopped. “Central Park?”

“We need an expert.” Toby had no idea who to call. “Along the Hudson River?”

Stabler pulled out his phone. “Go tell Cragen. Now.”

Toby ran to find him. He felt as if his lungs were caving in. They had to find her. Had to. She’d trusted him. Cragen was by the bloody police car. “What?”

“They’re headed for a cave.” Toby tried to sound calm. “Their altar is in a cave.”

“Good work.” Cragen strode off. He found Munch and Fin, and Toby just watched. His stomach roiled, and he got away from the car before he lost it. The press milled around, and he saw Casey Novak come under the tape. He went to meet her, but she didn’t say a word until they were away from the media.

“How many are dead?”

“Three. The mother and two cops.” Toby rubbed his hand through his hair. “I feel responsible.”

“You’re not. People who kill cops are the worst kind of killers, and we had no idea that they would go that far.” Novak put her hand on his arm. “You look sick.”

“Brains everywhere.” Toby waved his hand toward the police car. “I have to stick with Stabler. Sheree will need someone when they find her.”

“Good idea. I’ll put out an Amber Alert.” Novak was gone, back to the media. Toby spotted Stabler and made his way there.

Stabler took one look at him. “Get lawboy a vest!”

“Will do!” Fin shouted back.

Toby was relieved. He wasn’t going to be left behind. “Where to?”

“Central Park is the closest. We have rangers meeting us there. It’s going to be rough going at night.” Stabler took the vest from Fin and put it on Toby. “Stay behind me.”

“Will do. The professor said they won’t kill her if she’s on the altar. Otherwise, bets are off, and all of us are fair game.”

“Got it.” Stabler shouted a few more instructions, and Toby took a deep breath when he climbed in a police van.

Fin grinned, but it wasn’t a happy face. “You got the balls for this, lawboy?”

“It can’t be tougher than a riot in Oz.” Toby hoped not. He hadn’t had a vest there. “I hate that nickname.”

Munch and Fin laughed. Stabler threw open the doors the instant they got to the park. “Munch and Fin, check that van and set up a base.”

Toby spotted the rangers. “Christ, horses?”

“We can‛t waste time stumbling around in the dark.” Stabler checked his gun, and Toby wished he had one. “Let’s go.”

“Jed Allen, Park Ranger. I called in everyone.”

“Elliot Stabler, everyone got vests and weapons?” Stabler asked him. Toby watched. He saw the instant camaraderie of cops, and he hoped he wasn’t in over his head. Stabler continued, “Consider these men armed and dangerous, and they have a hostage. Her safe return is paramount.”

Toby eyed the horse. Stabler swung into the saddle. He looked right at home - the dickhead.

“You coming?”

“I don’t ride.” Toby had never and would never. Well, he’d make an exception for tonight.

“Allen, can you handle two?”

“Of course.” Allen stretched out his hand, and Toby was behind the saddle before he knew what to do. “Hang on.”

Toby did just that, and they were traveling behind Stabler, and it was dark except for the lights on the ranger’s helmets. The horses didn’t seem to mind. Toby could hear Stabler occasionally talking on the walkie-talkie with Fin.

Stabler held his horse back and was even with them. “We have units going to the caves along the Hudson.”

“They’re usually underwater,” the ranger said. “One of my men noticed some strange activity about four days ago. Some dog was howling its fool head off.”

“They’ll do that when they’re being killed. Take us to that section.” Stabler spoke with Fin, and Allen kicked his horse along a little faster. Toby held on tighter with no shame. They were well off the beaten path when Allen pulled them to a stop.

“There.”

Stabler dismounted. They all did. Toby nearly fell off, but was glad when his legs were under him. The horse gave him a dirty look. They fell quiet, and the chanting was obvious. Stabler pointed, and they were all following him. Toby brought up the rear. He didn’t have a gun. Staying back was the best decision, and he watched Stabler go in with his pistol ready. Yelling and gunfire, and Toby ran towards the cave. When he got inside, he looked for Stabler first.

“Get her, Toby.” Stabler had one of them down.

Toby went to the highly decorated altar set at the farthest distance from the entrance. She looked dead, but her eyes rolled when he lifted her eyelid, and he felt for a pulse. It was strong. She was drugged, but hopefully, fine. “I have a pulse. She needs an ambulance!”

Stabler made the call, and Allen came over to him. “Let’s get her back. The scumballs can walk.”

Toby scooped her up and went quickly, but balked at the horses. Allen mounted, and Toby handed her up.

“You coming?” Allen held her close.

Toby swallowed. “Will my horse follow yours?”

“Guaranteed. Get on.” Allen waited. Toby threw himself up and hoped for the best. He put his feet in the stirrups and held on to the saddle horn. His horse did follow. Thank God he didn’t have to steer. Allen set a fast past, and Toby prayed the ambulance would be there. It was, and he got off fast, abandoning the horse and taking Sheree. The EMT’s were there with a gurney and he put her on it.

“She’s been drugged!”

“Let’s get moving!”

Fin grabbed him. “You going?”

“Yes.” Toby climbed in the ambulance. “Get my horse, will ya?” He laughed at Fin’s expression, and the doors shut behind him. The ambulance roared off, jerking them, and Toby realized that he might have been safer on the horse.

********

“Lawboy fell asleep.”

“I wonder if he has saddle sores.”

Toby flipped them off before he opened his eyes. “I can hear you.”

Stabler and Munch laughed. Toby sat up and rubbed his eyes. He checked on Sheree before giving them his attention. Stabler smiled. “The doctor says she‛ll be fine.”

“Yeah. Thank God.” Toby sat back down in the chair by her bed. “What‛s going on?”

“Bail was denied. They‛ll get the needle.” Stabler didn‛t sound happy. “And we have funerals to attend.”

Toby had no idea what to say about that. “What will happen to Sheree?”

“Child Protective Services is taking the case. They‛ll handle it.” Stabler didn‛t smile. “Ready to go?”

“Someone has to tell her.” Toby frowned. “I‛ll stay until I‛m sure she has someone.”

“What if your parole officer wants to find you?”

“Fuck him,” Toby snarled. He didn‛t give one shit about his damn parole officer.

“You see, Munch, this is why I think lawyers are stupid. If he asked us, we could take care of it for him, but no, he‛d rather go back to Oz - again.” Stabler was such a smartass.

Toby shut his eyes and tried to block him out.

“Well, he‛s doing a good deed. It wouldn‛t kill us to help him out,” Munch said. “Later, Beech.”

Toby waved, but didn‛t open his eyes. Five seconds later, lips pressed into his forehead.

“Good work, lawboy.”

Toby smiled and went back to sleep.

********

“Meet me?”

Toby nearly slapped his phone shut, but he didn’t have it in him. “Where?”

“Your choice.”

Toby thought about it. “I’m moving out tonight. Would you like to help?”

“Sure.” The line went dead.

Toby loaded his only box and zipped his luggage. He had no idea where he was going, but he was getting out of here. Novak had called his parole officer and made this happen three weeks early. It had been nice of her, but she’d claimed it was making the office look bad. Toby smiled. He was leaving. That was what mattered. There was a knock on the door and it was Stabler. He looked almost reluctant, and it was funny.

“What? Busting my balls at work today wasn’t enough for you?” Toby smiled.

“I was very polite.” Stabler grinned. “You were just wrong.”

Toby sighed. “Let’s not start this argument again.”

“Where are you going?” Stabler picked up the box.

“I have no idea. Maybe that fleabag hotel where you and I had so much fun.” Toby grabbed his luggage and they were out the door. They put it in Stabler’s trunk and got in the car. Toby didn’t wave goodbye to the shitty place. “Any suggestions?”

Stabler shrugged. “You got money. Buy something nice.”

Toby had thought about it, but he didn’t really care. “I have three more years on my parole, and then I’m moving home to Connecticut.”

“Nothing will keep you here?” Stabler looked away.

Toby wondered if he was imagining the small amount of regret he heard in Stabler‛s voice. “I doubt it. It’d have to be an offer of marriage or something. I miss my kids.”

Stabler started the car. “It’s kinda late to find a place tonight.”

“Hotel then. How about something close to work?” Toby took a deep breath. He had to tell someone, and Stabler was the obvious choice. “I petitioned the courts to be Sheree’s legal guardian.”

“I heard.” Stabler pulled out into traffic. “Doesn’t she have an aunt?”

“No one except a brother in Attica. She’s at a foster home now, but I hope that’ll change soon.”

“You sure about this?” Stabler glanced at him. “She’s a street kid.”

“I know, but she needs help, and I can give it. I can’t turn my back on her. My brother agrees with me. It was a family decision.” Toby had given the matter serious thought. He was making the right choice. Saving a life, instead of taking it. “You think I’m nuts.”

“Nah. Stupid, maybe.” Stabler pulled into the parking lot of a hotel about three blocks from the precinct. “Here, okay?”

“Perfect.” Toby laughed. “I feel almost free.”

“You look crazed.” Stabler grabbed the box again. Toby checked in, got the key, and they went up the elevator together. He noticed that Stabler smelled good, and he nearly groaned. Damn. He was easy. Pushing open the door, they put the stuff down, and Toby smiled. He had a fridge, microwave, bathroom, and a king-sized bed. Heaven. And no cops guarding the door. Wait.

“Thanks for your help. Bye.” Toby tried to shoo him out the door. Stabler walked to the window and opened the curtains. The view wasn’t half-bad. Toby sighed. “You’re not leaving?”

“You want me to?” Stabler dropped gracefully into a chair.

Toby pushed off his shoes and flopped on the bed, avoiding the question. “Wow. I hated that halfway house.”

“I lived there once. Wasn’t fun.” Stabler took his coats off. “Room service?”

Toby didn‛t want to know why Stabler had lived in the shithole. He grabbed for the menu. “Let’s get one of everything.”

“You are nuts.” Stabler laughed. “Can I ask you something?”

Toby heard the serious note in Stabler’s voice. “Do you gotta?”

“Yeah.” Stabler looked out the window. “Can I stay tonight?”

“They have plenty of rooms.” Toby grinned at the glare he received. “I realize that it took a lot of courage to ask that question. That’s why I made a joke.”

“Asswipe,” Stabler muttered. “Order some food. I’m hungry.”

“Me too.” Toby looked over the menu again and ordered enough to feed four men. He was celebrating. “You want some beer?”

“You bet.” Stabler grinned.

Toby ordered some of that too, and plenty of ice tea. He hung up the phone and got to his feet. “I gotta get out of these clothes.”

Stabler tugged at his tie. “Take it off.”

Toby clapped his hand over his mouth and started unpacking. Stabler didn’t offer to help. He turned on the TV and stared at it. Toby found his favorite jeans and a wife-beater and changed quickly before the food showed up. When he looked again, Stabler glanced away.

“You think we should?” Toby asked softly.

“I don’t know.” Stabler frowned. “I’m not sure you like me.”

“Neither am I.” Toby stowed the empty luggage and went to organize his bathroom stuff. He was about settled in when there was a knock on the door. Three guys with three trays, and he could only grin. They put everything on the bed, and he gave them more than enough. Money well spent.

Stabler grabbed a beer. “Thanks.”

“My turn to buy.” Toby propped himself up against the headboard and started making some serious in-roads on the food. Stabler hesitated, and then did the same but at the tiny table. He had this look about him as if he didn’t know if he were welcome, and Toby wasn’t sure either. They‛d had so much sex that it made things awkward now that they knew each other. “You can stay.”

“Thanks. Queens is a hike. Now I’ll have two beers.” Stabler smiled. “You don’t drink?”

“I’m an alcoholic. Not a good idea. One is never enough.” Toby rolled his eyes. “I thought you read my file.”

“Skimmed it for the high points. Missed a few details.” Stabler shrugged. “You were . . . a very bad boy.”

Toby could only agree with that. He ate some more food and watched more TV. No reason to rush his answer out. “It’s more comfortable over here with the bad boy.”

Stabler choked on his beer. “Shithead.”

Toby laughed, but he knew Stabler would come sit with him, and he did. Cautiously, but they were on the bed together. Toby knew Stabler’s dick better than his own, but it all seemed new tonight. Maybe because there was a light on, or maybe because Chris wasn’t in the room with them. Toby would always miss him, but he was gone.

“You miss that guy that looked like me?”

“I’ll see him in heaven.” Toby laughed to himself. He had to believe that. “God won’t have the balls to keep us out.”

“I’ll put my money on God.” Stabler lifted an eyebrow. “But maybe you two will enjoy a hotter environment.”

Toby nearly choked on his tea. “Fucker.” He wiped it up and laughed. “Hell is definitely where you’ll be. Wow, you and Chris.” He licked his lips. “That would be like matter and anti-matter.”

Stabler ate some more food. “I liked Captain Kirk, but I bet you were into Spock.”

“Miss Chapel was more my type. Sulu was cute though.” Toby was finally full. He started cleaning up the wreckage, taking the trays out to the hallway. The tea and the beer stayed. “That was surprisingly good. I might stay here for a few weeks.”

“I’ll come for the beer.” Stabler put his arm behind his head. “You going home tomorrow?”

“Yes, sir.” Toby nodded to emphasize. “Harry has a soccer game, and Holly has gymnastics. It’ll be fun. Are you going to see your kids?”

“Should.” Stabler bit the inside of his mouth. “The twins at least. Maureen is mad at me again, and Kathleen might have a thing.”

“You’re easy to get mad at. You’d think she’d know that by now.” Toby edged a little closer. He wanted to curl into him, and he wanted to curse for feeling that way. “Did you finish your fives before you called me?”

“Oh, shut up.” Stabler reached and pulled him close. Toby did curl into Stabler’s side, putting his head on Stabler’s shoulder and stretching out the length of him. The TV droned on, but all Toby could see was the city out the window. It was a nice view. Stabler felt good. Perfect.

“Toby, I don’t want to do this if you’re going to think of him.”

Toby had figured that. “You’re not him. He’d have had me naked by now and come twice already - once on the food. Don’t worry. I know it’s you.”

Stabler kissed him on the forehead. “Sorry if I was rough on you with the cuffs and everything.”

“My rules. I tore them up, by the way.” Toby found some skin to caress. “We’ll have to renegotiate everything.”

“Okay, lawboy.” Stabler put his arm around him. Toby didn’t want to rush tonight. He wanted to take it slow and easy and enjoy every minute. Find the places on Stabler’s body that weren’t like Chris’s and kiss them. Stabler kissed him again.

“I never got to do that.”

Toby pulled him down for an open mouth kiss. When Stabler’s eyes were wide, Toby eased away, laughing. “I didn’t want to scare you.”

“That thing’s longer than your dick!”

Toby punched him. “That isn’t nice.” He laughed and settled back down. “Oof,” he grunted when Stabler rolled on top of him. “Take off your clothes, will ya?”

Stabler shut him up with another kiss. Clothes started hitting the floor, and Toby had to admit that this was more fun with the lights on. Suddenly, Stabler abandoned the bed and shut the drapes. Toby admired the view.

“What are ya grinning about?” Stabler gave him a weak glare.

Toby wiggled his tongue at him. He made a grab for it and they were tussling. Toby knew it wasn‛t serious because he managed to get on top once. Finally, Stabler pinned him, and Toby pushed up into it. Every inch where they met felt good. Toby didn‛t want free. Not ever. Stabler flipped him over fast, and Toby gasped.

Stabler hesitated. “Shit. I forgot a condom.”

Toby looked over his shoulder. He wasn‛t quite sure if he wanted to have this conversation. Condoms were easier than discussing things. “Well . . .”

Stabler shrugged and flipped him over again. Toby was getting dizzy, and he wasn‛t happy with being treated like an inflatable doll. “Okay. That‛s enough. Stop.”

Stabler reacted as if he‛d been hit with a hammer. He not only stopped; he left the bed, reaching for his clothes. “I‛ll leave.”

Toby blinked in astonishment. “No. That‛s not what I meant.”

Stabler had his underwear in his hand when Toby ripped them away. “Hey. You said stop. We‛re done.”

“I just meant stop flipping me around!” Toby grabbed him by the wrist and pulled. “Listen, we never talked. We just used a condom. But . . . I‛m clean.”

Stabler came back to him, but not on him. “Condoms are safer. I‛m not doing it without one.”

Toby could only nod. It wasn‛t smart to take a chance. “I want this. I want you. Don‛t leave.”

“Okay. Just making sure.” Stabler kissed him. Toby understood Stabler enough now to realize that consent was everything. It was reassuring on several levels. Stabler fisted his cock. “Suck me?”

Toby didn‛t mind doing that at all. This time, he got to look. “Nice dick.”

“Smartass.” Stabler pushed at Toby‛s head, but it wasn‛t serious. Toby laughed and started working at it. He pulled out all the stops, doing a more thorough job than usual. Stabler liked having his balls licked, and Toby spent time there. When he took it all the way to his tonsils, he heard a familiar groan and swallowed.

Stabler suddenly pulled him up and ground their hips together. Toby kissed him, and they came together. He laughed softly from how delicious it felt. Stabler held him close. It was so nice to be touched and loved. There was no awkward silence or strange looks. They cleaned up and got under the covers. Toby ordered a wake up call and did his best to crawl inside Stabler‛s skin. Satisfied, he fell asleep.

********

Toby came back from his weekend with the kids feeling good, but he stared at his phone a long time before making the call.

“Stabler.”

“You know where,” Toby growled into the phone.

A long pause. “I‛ll be late.”

Toby clicked off. He laughed softly and made a few preparations. This was going to be fun. When the soft knock on the door came, he was surprised that he was nervous. Had Stabler felt that way? Toby pulled the door open, but stayed behind it. Stabler took three steps into the room.

“You‛re not too late,” Toby said from behind him.

“Finished my fives.” Stabler eased his coat off and put it on the chair that Toby had moved to that position.

“Take it off.”

Stabler was in such darkness that Toby couldn‛t see detail on that stubbborn face. It was enough that he took it all off and dropped to his knees. Toby swallowed hard and nearly flipped on the lights. His own reluctance surprised him. He went behind him and eased the blindfold over blue eyes. Stabler bit his lip, and Toby moved in front of him. It would be his choice. The digital clock actually seemed to tick. Toby waited and had to control a jump when Stabler licked him. Oh God. Toby nearly came right then, but he thought about ice . . . ice. Shit. Stabler took him deep, and he came hard. He wanted to collapse, but he managed to keep his head in the game.

“More?”

“Please.”

Toby noticed there was no ‛sir‛ on the end of that. Well, he couldn‛t really expect the sun to come up in the west. He stayed where he was until he was hard again, and then he lifted Stabler under the arm and took him to the bed. Toby shuddered when Stabler put his hands behind his head and assumed the position. There were simply no more curse words to describe how perfect he looked. Toby could hear him breathing heavily. Stabler was worried, but he was going through it with it.

“Now?” Toby didn‛t mean it, but he was going to ask.

“Please.” Stabler‛s voice cracked.

Toby refused to hurt him so that meant lots of lube and time, but he had both. He waited until he was sure, put on the condom, and pressed inside. Stabler took a harsh breath, and Toby stopped. More waiting, a little more lube, and he put his hand on the small of Stabler‛s back. When some of the tension drained away, he moved. Not hard. Not fast. A gentle rhythm. He knew when Stabler started to enjoy it. That much faster and he tried to think of cold things. He wanted it to last forever, but Stabler tensed and that was it. His orgasm nearly sent him to his knees, but he just groaned. Very slowly, he eased back.

“I‛ll call you,” Toby said softly.

Stabler let out a long sigh. “Thanks.”

Toby went to clean up. There was no way that he was really leaving. Anyway, this was his hotel room. He took a warm washcloth back for Stabler, who hadn‛t moved all that much. Stabler flinched when Toby wiped off the lube and removed the blindfold. Toby kissed him gently.

“Thank you, sir.” Toby‛s reward was the flash of a grin.

Stabler grabbed the washcloth and wiped off the bedspread. He went to the bathroom. When he came back, he hesitated by his clothes, and Toby handed him a beer to encourage him to stay.

“Thanks.” Stabler opened it and took a long drink.

“Have a nice weekend?” Toby slipped on some underwear and went to sit on the bed. He avoided the wet spot.

Stabler got his briefs on and joined him. “Saw the twins. Called Maureen and she didn‛t curse at me, which is progress.”

“That‛s good. I had fun. Harry is finally starting to figure out that I‛m his father. It‛s hard to leave.” Toby put his head on Stabler‛s strong thigh. “I won‛t call you again.”

Stabler put his hand on Toby‛s head. “It was consensual. I may call you some time.”

“Just roll your chair over and whisper it in my ear.” Toby grinned. Stabler thumped him on the head, but they both laughed. “I knew better than to cuff you.”

“Did you like that?” Stabler stared down at him.

“Uh, can I take the Fifth?” Toby didn‛t want to encourage him. It had been good and bad.

Stabler sighed. “Can I apologize for being kinda pissed off that last time we met at the fleabag?”

“Yes. I should insist on it.” Toby bit him on the leg, but not hard. Stabler pulled, and they were hugging. Stabler whispered his apology very softly in Toby‛s ear. Toby smiled. “Good enough. Let‛s forget it. I was wrong too.”

“You sure were. I just thought you were a weirdo.” Stabler raised his eyebrow. “I was right, but still.”

Toby sighed. “Yeah, it was weird, but you weren‛t complaining!”

Stabler tugged him down, and they crawled under the covers. “Did you get a wake-up call?”

“Yes. Are you driving me to work?”

“No.” Stabler tucked him a little closer. “You can walk.”

“Shit.” Toby grinned and shut his eyes. This situation wasn‛t perfect, but it would do for now. They were bound to have arguments, and there might be weeks where they‛d do nothing but ignore each other, but Stabler was real now, not some ghost, and Toby loved him. Asking for more seemed greedy. He quivered a little. “You‛re hot in the sack.”

Stabler snored. Toby got just that much more comfortable and relaxed. This wasn‛t heaven, but it was damn close.

*********
End

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