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Huge thanks to Maverick for both the beta work and supplying some key ingredients for the plot.
Also, smut will happen -- but not for a while yet.
by Riley Cannon
Juggling a dog, her purse, and a shopping bag, all Laurel Peltier wanted was to get home before the rain really cut loose. About all she needed was her idiot dog breaking his leash and charging headlong into the park, lifting a leg to relieve himself against the arch before going over to sniff at a woman sitting on the one of the benches. "Oh, for crying out loud..." Getting a better grip on her shopping bag, Laurel hurried over there, already apologizing to the woman as the dog carried on. Fucking rude, the least the chick could do was take off her sunglasses instead of just sitting there like she couldn't be bothered to notice anyone. Laurel caught hold of the leash just as he jumped up and pushed the woman -- she went right off the bench, crashing to the ground, sunglasses flying off as her head lolled and her wide, dead eyes stared up at the sky.
"Ah, geez." This just wasn't anybody's day, was it?
Elliot was almost home when his phone went off, Cragen telling him Munch and Fin were at the scene of a possible rape-homicide in Washington Square Park. Elliot could have legitimately begged off. He'd already spent most of the day chasing down one perp. Let someone else work this one. Only -- Cragen'd said there might be a link to the Central Park rapist, it wasn't exactly out of his way ... and besides, it wasn't like he had anything else to do this evening. It was almost a relief to not have to face that empty apartment for a little while yet, and in just a couple of minutes he was pulling up to the crime scene.
He got out of the car, feeling the cold bite of late autumn and zipping up his fleece pullover. The spatter of rain was starting to get more enthusiastic too, so he grabbed his NYPD cap as well before jogging across the street to the crime scene. M.E. Warner and O'Halloran were already there, working the scene with the rest of the crew while uniforms tried to keep order, Fin and Munch interviewing witnesses.
Warner didn't have much beyond the obvious yet -- raped, death by strangulation, but it looked like she'd been killed somewhere else and brought here and deliberately posed. Two strikes against its being the Central Park rapist; he slit their throats and hid the bodies. O'Halloran came up with the clincher, though, a Polaroid in the victim's raincoat pocket, of her sitting there on the bench, dead eyes hidden by sunglasses, like any tourist stopping for a snapshot.
Different perp then, had to be. This one liked to play. Elliot could feel his jaw clenching as he thought about it, imagined the terrible fear she must have felt -- but he pulled in a deep breath and pushed that to the back of his mind, for now. He let out the breath, let go of the anger, prowling the area on the alert for anything just the slightest bit off kilter. Just the usual crowd of onlookers jostling for the best view, a lot of them with their cell phones out, catching all their friends up on the news. One scruffy-looking guy was arguing with a uniform, like he was trying to force his way past him, and Elliot headed over there just as the guy was yanking the yellow crime scene tape up and heading over to the bench.
"Hey!" Elliot snagged him by the shoulder and shoved him up against the big pagoda tree, hands starting to pass swiftly over him to check for weapons when the guy spoke up, the snarky drawl ringing an unexpected bell, "Well damn, Stabler, if you wanted to frisk me, all you had to do was ask."
What the hell? "Beecher?"
"Wow, he remembers." FBI Agent Tobias Beecher stood there, smiling at him.
Returning the smile was easy, it had been right from the start. "Didn't think they let you out of D.C.," he said, standing back.
"Well, you know, weekend pass. I'm due back at the asylum on Monday."
The tone was one Elliot had gotten to know well that week in Washington, although he suspected some extra effort was going into it right now. Beecher looked beat, collar and tie loosened, raincoat rumpled, stubble decorating his jaw. He knew that look too -- pulling long hours on a case that'd gotten under your skin, and you couldn't quit until you had the bastard in cuffs. He'd seen it often enough in the mirror.
"Not that it isn't great to see you, Toby, but--"
"Is it?" Toby interrupted, close now and watching his face like this answer really mattered.
Smile warmer and more intimate, Elliot nodded. "Yeah, it really is." The actual FBI sponsored seminar hadn't been that much, but spending time with Toby had easily made up for all that. They'd hit it off from the start, something he thought was just as unusual for the other man, and spent a lot of time solving all the world's problems over lunch and dinner. Not that they agreed on everything by a long shot, but that only gave the conversations a feisty edge that they both enjoyed with no one getting into a politically correct snit. Short of time with his kids, Elliot thought those few days in Washington might have been the best time he'd had in a long time, and he wondered if Toby felt the same.
Judging by his smile, just as intimate and like he might be remembering those same things, Toby nodded back. "For me too."
Funny how that confirmation hit him, so much stronger than he was sure was appropriate. Firmer ground was needed, he realized and steered the conversation back to professional matters. "But I'm guessing you being here isn't just a wild coincidence."
"What?" Toby returned with a look of mock defiance. "It's sooooo hard to believe I'm stalking you?"
That made Elliot laugh, soft and cut off quickly, but it was good to remember he knew how. "And I'm sure I'm very flattered."
"You should be. I don't stalk just any good looking lug who comes along."
Okay, Elliot wasn't quite sure what to say to that. Toby was just being a nut, of course, it was just ... for a second he'd thought there was a light in those blue eyes that wasn't teasing, that the other man meant every word. Except maybe the stalking part. "Well..." clueless about a reply, he just fumbled something out there, "good to know you're selective."
Something about Toby's smile indicated this all tickled him, and yet Elliot didn't get the feeling the joke was in any way at his expense. And for a second he really profoundly resented the rest of the world intruding, in the form of Munch calling out, "Elliot? There a problem?"
He sighed, shook himself, called back, "No problem, John!" -- and knew he hadn't imagined the flash of disappointment in Toby's eyes, like he didn't appreciate the interruption either. "Guess we better get over there," he said, hand coming to rest on the small of Toby's back as they started over.
"Guess so. And to answer your question, no, it's not just a crazy coincidence that I'm here."
Elliot nodded, expecting that. Was it crazy that he wished it could have been? "So...?"
"I think your vic and mine are going to turn out to be the same," Toby said as they got over to Fin and Munch.
"So," Munch looked at them, gave Toby a longer scrutiny over the rims of his glasses, "this would be the part where we bend over and grab our ankles?"
Fin gave him a puzzled look. "What're you on about now?"
Munch nodded at Toby. "I can smell a Fed at twenty paces."
"Wow, John," annoyed, Elliot couldn't help snarking back, "that's quite a nose you've got. Don't need bloodhounds with you around." He glanced at Toby, feeling the muscles under his hand tensing up. "Sorry."
Toby shook his head. "Not a problem. If I had a suspicion somebody was going to yank a case out from under me, I might get cranky too." He patted Elliot's arm, letting him know it was okay. "For what it's worth, if it does turn out we're after the same guy, I would far rather combine our resources than get into a pissing contest."
Eternally skeptical, Munch just rolled his eyes as Elliot made the introductions
"Pleased to meet you, Beecher," Fin said. "Don't mind my partner, he's just socially deficient," he added, earning a grumpy look from Munch. And before his partner could jump in with anything else, Fin patted Elliot on the shoulder, telling him, "You trying to make me and Munch look bad? Go home, we'll catch you up in the morning and see if we need to double team it then."
Elliot nodded, guessing he must look in pretty bad shape if Fin was being solicitous. "Get Cragen up to speed on Beecher's involvement."
"Yeah, we'll make his day with that," Munch muttered as he and Fin headed over to Doc Warner.
Watching them, Toby said, "That's quite the combination there."
"Oh yeah, they're a laugh riot," Elliot returned, stretching against a twinge in his back that'd been bothering him all day.
"Yeah, just too many long days." Never long enough, though. At some point he always had to stop and go face all those empty hours. To put that off a while longer, and because he really would enjoy the company, Elliot touched his elbow and asked, "You want to go grab something to eat?"
"That'd be great, yeah, but," Toby looked at him, gaze directed at the hand resting on his arm, a gold band still encircling the ring finger, "don't you have to get home to the wife and kids?"
Elliot frowned, knowing he should have taken that ring off by now, not really sure why he hadn't. Wasn't like that made things more final. He glanced up to find Toby watching him with a look of concern.
"I'm..." Toby shook his head, as if venturing out carefully on what he imagined was a patch of thin ice. "Something wrong?" he asked, rubbing his arm.
Making a wry face, not wanting this sense of awkwardness, Elliot said, "It's okay, Toby. It's just..." He sighed, made it quick, like ripping off a Band-Aid. "Kathy and I are divorced. Nobody to go home to." He shrugged, tried to show it was all right -- and didn't succeed all that well going by how Toby looked at him, no trace of pity in that searching gaze, just sympathy and regret.
"I'm sorry." He rubbed Elliot's arm again, squeezed. "Yeah, I'd love to go grab some dinner with you, Elliot."
Elliot nodded, smiling, glad of his no fuss support.
"So, what do you recommend?" Toby asked, looking at him over the menu.
They were seated at Elliot's regular booth in the Washington Square Diner, the rain pattering outside, but everything cozy and comfortable in here. Elliot took off his cap and set in the bench beside him, running a hand back over his hair. "You're safe with just about anything, it's all good. Well, except for the veggie burger anyway."
Light blue eyes scowled at him. "Stabler, do I look like a veggie burger kind of guy?"
Elliot looked him over, betting his face was going to ache later from smiling so much. "Welllll..."
"Hmm." Toby's offended air would have been vastly more effective without the cheerful sparkle in those eyes. "Just for that I'm getting the meatloaf."
"Wow," Elliot still couldn't stop smiling, "yeah, that's telling me." He went with a cordon bleu chicken wrap that came with fries, relaxing against the upholstery. "You got a place to stay?"
Toby shook his head. "Not yet. I pretty much just threw some stuff in a bag and hopped the first plane up here."
That's what he'd thought. "Well, it's not much, but you're welcome to crash at my place."
Giving him another playfully huffy look, Toby said, "Are you suggesting the Federal government doesn't provide its agents with adequate funding for hotels?"
"Yep -- especially when their agents just take off like a bat outta hell."
"Hmm. Okay, touch," Toby smiled. "It's okay, Elliot, I can find a hotel. I do have credit cards," he added as the waiter came over with their food.
Elliot nodded as the plates were set down, fiddling with his napkin to cover up the ridiculous pang of disappointment he felt. "Oh, okay," he said, gaze fixed on the food as he shrugged. "It was just a suggestion." What did he expect? That Toby wouldn't have better things to do than keep him company?
"Buuuut," Toby began, and Elliot looked up as he stretched the one syllable out as far as it would go, "if you can promise me coffee in the morning, your place sounds great."
Feeling the smile creeping back, Elliot said, "Yeah, I can promise you coffee."
"Sounds like a deal then." And Toby raised his coffee cup to clink against Elliot's, sealing it. "I really do appreciate it, Elliot," he added more seriously, digging his fork into the meatloaf and dipping that into some mashed potatoes before transferring it to his mouth.
"No problem, there's plenty of room." Oddly fascinated, Elliot watched him scarf down two more bites, smearing some gravy on his thumb in the process. Unconcerned, Toby simply proceeded to lick the digit clean as Elliot watched, raptly, his own lips slightly parted as he observed the other man's tongue dart out again and again until no trace of gravy. Suddenly aware of how he was staring, self-conscious about it, he focused all his attention on his own food and took a generous bite out of the wrap.
"How do you like that?"
Elliot blinked, looked over at him. "What?"
"Your chicken thing -- any good?"
He nodded, took another bite. "It's good," he said, barely even tasting the chicken, ham, cheese, and tomato. "How, umm," he cleared his throat, "how's your meatloaf?"
"Hits the spot," Toby declared, this time slowly drawing his lips over the fork to clean off every bit of potatoes and gravy.
Elliot took another bite, wondering what the hell was his problem, sitting there and practically ogling the other man. It was just ... he'd never seen anyone enjoy meatloaf and mashed potatoes in such a sensuous manner, savoring every bite and not letting one drop of gravy go to waste. "When's the last time you ate?"
"What's today?" Toby asked and sucked another drop of gravy off his middle finger, eyes locked with Elliot's. "So you never saw anyone eat meatloaf before?"
Feeling his cheeks burn, Elliot hastily tore his gaze away and focused on his own plate. "Sorry."
He risked a glance at him, not sure what he expected to see, but feeling better at the warmth he found in Toby's eyes. "I don't know. I..." He shrugged. "I don't know, guess my people skills have gotten fucked up." Maybe that was it, he'd forgotten how to act around anyone who wasn't a perp or a victim. Smile lopsided, he added, "According to Kathy, they were never that great to start with.
Toby reached across the table to touch his wrist. "They look okay to me, Elliot."
He nodded, wanting to believe that, looking at their hands on the table, Toby's fingers stroking back and forth across his skin. For a crazy second he wanted to turn his hand, clasp Toby's hand in his, just to feel connected for a moment, just to believe somebody actually gave a damn. Toby's thumb stroked the inside of his wrist, his knuckles, not completely withdrawing the touch, just letting his hand rest there near Elliot's, close enough that any movement would let them brush against each other.
"You should get some lotion or something for those knuckles," Toby told him, picking up his fork again.
Grateful for the distraction, Elliot smiled. "Yeah, 'cause velvety soft skin is really important in our line of work."
"Taking care of yourself is."
"I'm taking care of myself."
"Well, at least you're eating regularly."
Munching a couple of fries and reaching for some more, Elliot frowned. "And you can tell this because...?" he asked and put the fries down.
Toby cackled softly. "Because our waiter greeted you by name, that's how. My brilliant deduction is you eat here a lot. And you can finish your fries, I don't think they'll harm your figure."
Aiming a grumpy look at him, Elliot ate a couple more just to show he wasn't concerned about anything asinine like that. "Yeah, I'm probably a regular," he admitted. "My place is just a couple blocks from here."
"Yeah? That's handy." Toby was eyeing the abandoned fries hungrily. "You're not gonna finish those?"
Elliot smiled and pushed the plate over to him. "Knock yourself out."
Swirling a couple of fries through a few dabs of gravy still left on his plate, Toby ate them with just as much satisfaction. "So how tough is it finding a place here?"
"Helps to have connections. When Kathy filed for," the hesitation was slight now, the word gradually becoming easier to say, "divorce, Munch said he could probably find me an apartment in his building, divorce central he calls it. I said thanks, but no thanks. Spending most of the day working side by side with him is enough, I didn't want to risk him rubbing off on me any more."
Toby snerked, mischief dancing in his eyes. "Christ, now, see, that's an image I didn't need in my head."
Elliot stared at him, picked up the double entendre, and burst out laughing, glad he hadn't been drinking anything right then. "You know what I mean."
"Yeah, but I made you laugh."
He nodded, still smiling. Yes he had, and that was no small thing. "Yeah, well, I might've made a lot of life changes lately, but the day John starts looking attractive to me, promise you'll shoot me," he said, belatedly adding, "Not that there's anything wrong with finding a guy attractive."
Toby nodded, looking right at him. "Yeah, some guys, you'd have to be dead not to notice. But I know what you mean," he went right on before Elliot could really react, "if Munch ever starts looking tasty to me, promise you'll pull the trigger. So how about dessert?"
"Uh ... okay." And maybe that would give him time to fully digest what Toby had just said.
"Anyway, Aunt Phyllis called to tell me she'd heard about what happened," Elliot was saying, digging a fork into his slice of apple pie while Toby eyeballed the slice of blueberry set before him like he'd been a castaway on a deserted island and hadn't seen food in years, "and said the two guys she'd been renting out her apartment to were moving to Boston, where one of them had just gotten a job, and the place was mine if I needed it."
"I always wanted an aunt like that," Toby said, diving into the blueberry pie.
"Yeah, well," Elliot watched the blueberry stain his lips, watched a blue-stained tongue flick over them, and took a quick gulp of coffee, "I guess she's always favored me a little."
"Yeah, how inexplicable." Toby flashed a blue-tinged grin at him. "So she lives down in Florida now but keeps her apartment up here?"
"Yeah, just in case she gets tired of all the sunshine."
"Oh, yeah," Toby glanced out the window, the cold October rain coming down harder, "and who the fuck wouldn't get bored with all those warm sunny days?"
"Yeah, well, that batch of hurricanes last year had her thinking about heading north again, but she said she came to her senses pretty damn quick."
Taking a break from wolfing down the pie, Toby watched his face, thoughtful. "You're pretty fond of her."
He nodded, took another bite of the apple, tasting the mix of flavors -- the apples sweet and tart, some cinnamon and cloves to spice things up just a shade -- and said, "Yeah, she was a lot of fun. Way more of a free spirit than either of my folks, that's for sure. Actually," and he had to laugh again, "she's always on my case to loosen up."
"Might be she's on to something there."
Elliot met his eyes, knew he wasn't imagining the invitation gleaming in them -- Come out and play? -- and felt a powerful tug of temptation to accept. "Might be," he acknowledged, and took another bite of the apple.
Elliot turned down Jones Street and slipped into a parking spot outside his building, saying, "Well, this is it," as Toby looked up and down the tree-lined street of old buildings.
"Aunt Phyllis knows how to pick 'em," Toby said, opening his door and leaning over in back to snag his overnight bag.
"Yeah," Elliot got out as well, "it could've been worse." Didn't keep him from missing the house in Queens, remembering how good it had been to come home to it at the end of a long and lousy day, seeing the warm glow of lights in the windows. He even missed the kids making racket.
He blinked, looked across the hood of the car at him. "Sorry, I..." He shook his head, shrugged. "It's nice," he said.
"It's just not home?"
He let out a deep breath. "Yeah."
"Maybe that could change, one of these days," Toby said as they went inside.
"Maybe." Elliot glanced at Toby beside him, feeling like it already had taken a turn for the better.
Inside, he flipped on the lights. "Mi casa es su casa," he said, laughing at himself, glad of Toby's smile. He pointed out the features of the cozy apartment, which took all of two minutes: living room, tiny kitchen and dining area, two bedrooms -- he'd fixed up one for when the twins came to visit -- one bath, and the living room complete with a nice big couch.
"I like it," Toby declared, taking it all in, and that wasn't so hard to believe. There were a lot of Aunt Phyllis touches that made it feel warm and welcoming. "I could really use that bathroom," he added with a comical face.
Elliot waved him toward it. "Be my guest." He took his coat and the overnight back from him, and wondered if they were going to have to argue about Toby taking his bed while he sacked out on the couch. Wasn't like he didn't have plenty of experience in that department, and it was a comfortable couch. It wasn't actually unusual for him to fall asleep right there, with the television on.
Toby was back in a couple of minutes, yawning and stretching, plonking himself down on the couch. "Think the waiter slipped some knockout drugs into my pie?"
Elliot prodded him in the shoulder. "Come on, you'll be more comfortable in my bed."
Sky blue eyes popped open. "Well damn, Stabler, maybe you really do want to frisk me."
Annoyed at the blush he felt burning his cheeks, Elliot said, "I just meant--"
"I know what you meant. It's just fun to tease you."
"Oh." He frowned, feeling like idiot. That's what it all was, just teasing? And why should he care anyway? It wasn't like he wanted anyone, let alone another guy, flirting with him. Funny how that thought didn't carry quiet as much conviction as he'd expect it to. "Anyway, I'll get the bed ready."
Toby reached out to catch hold of his hand before he could leave. "Elliot," he caught his eyes, held them, only solemn warmth shining there now, "I'm not teasing now." As he spoke, his fingers stroked along Elliot's palm, the light caress tingling through him.
"Umm," Elliot cleared his throat, "I'll... just go turn down the bed," he said, and made his escape, still feeling like an idiot -- but not in a bad way.
He turned down the covers, poofed up the pillow, and went back out ... stopping and shaking his head, a fond smile on his face as he saw Toby slumped down on the couch, already conked out. Hating to disturb him, he moved around to face him, nudged him a couple of times but only got a grumbled protest to let him be. Well, at leas he could make him a little more comfortable, Elliot decided and got him shifted around so Toby was stretched out on the couch, a pillow under his head, and a blanket tucked around him. For a second, his fingers brushed through a few untidy strands of blond hair -- and he drew back, scared of how very much he wanted to touch.
He backed away, went to his bedroom but left the door open so he could still hear Toby breathing, because that was something he couldn't run away from: how good it felt to have someone there.
No -- stretched out in bed, thinking about it, able to admit it there in the dark -- not just someone. Toby. It felt good to have Toby there, just a few heartbeats away.
Elliot lay there, thinking about that, listening to the rain splash against the windows, the other sounds of the city, and for the first time in forever drifted right off to sleep easy as could be.
~to be continued~
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