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Bored of Education

by Forbes


Bored out of his mind, Morton Begley placed the cursor over yet another file on the Baltimore fraud squad computer. This was the twenty seventh time he'd clicked 'Open With' and he was just about fed up to the back teeth with accounting files.

Okay, so he'd messed up and pissed off his captain, but he didn't think he deserved to be stuck on some shit-eating hard-drive search for three days straight. If some dumb-ass accountant was stupid enough to think he could cream off one of the biggest businesses in New York then he was going to need all the money he could get for lawyer's fees. Begley stabbed the mouse and sighed, waiting for another tedious set of numbers to bore the nuts off him, taking a sip of a now almost cold mug of coffee.

He frowned. This file on the drive had a different code to the others, refusing to open with the usual accountancy program. Interest piqued, Begley put his mug down, sat up and quickly ran through the options.

Choosing an icon, he slowly sat back and stared at the screen as the file opened and emails began to unfold in front of him. Seemed the meek accountant had an eye for something more exotic than just money.

Reading through the messages, Begley could feel the blood draining from his face. His stomach began to turn lazy circles, threatening to send his lunch on a return trip as he read the words. With an uncertain hand, he clicked on 'Attachment', and picture after picture opened up before him. His body couldn't decide whether his face ought to blush, or pale at what he saw.

Chapter One.

Cragen paced up and down the squad room.

"I'm not asking you to emigrate, for goodness sake! Baltimore isn't the end of the universe."

"Might as well be," Stabler muttered, rocking back and forth on his chair. He glanced over and glared at the snort that came from Munch.

"And it's not for very long." Cragen sighed. "Look, if it were anyone else but Jerry Lonsdale asking, I'd say 'no' just out of principle. But he and I go way back and I know he's not blowing smoke up my ass - he needs help."

"But why me?" Elliot folded his arms over his chest and scowled.

"Because I said so?" Cragen asked, with feigned innocence. Elliot just continued to give him a poisonous look. Cragen sighed. "Because I *said* so," he repeated in a voice that just reiterated the fact that he was Captain and Elliot merely a foot soldier. "Look, I need a man to act as a substitute gym teacher to monitor the actual area we're concerned with, and I'm sorry but you fit the bill. John's busy giving his statement at the Adkins trial, and I chose you as opposed to Fin-" He paused and looked over at the black officer. "Don't take this the wrong way, Fin, but all things considered, I think Elliot would be able to pull off the whole 'teacher' look." He winced. "No offence."

Fin shrugged. "None taken."

Munch chuckled. "Can you imagine Tutuola trying to be an educator? He'd stick out like...." He hesitated, laughing.

"A sore thumb?" Olivia suggested.

Munch shook his head. "I was thinking more like a mouse turd on a wedding cake."

Fin squinted dangerously at him. "What you tryin' t'say?"

Munch regarded him over his glasses, unfazed. "Well, if you weren't frightening the living daylights out of the more sensitive students with that face of yours, then you'd be making the poor creatures 'assume the position' while you searched them all for substances."

Fin grinned. "Bet yo' ass."

Cragen tapped the edge of the desk. "Yes, people, but while the clean-up rate for recreational drugs in school might soar, that's not why we're there. We need to find out who is taking those pictures. It has to be an inside job - the perp is obviously familiar with the school system, and has access to the gym changing-areas."

"Could be remote cameras," Fin offered. "We've seen that before."

"It's not just the cameras we need to worry about," Olivia pushed a series of manipulated images across the desk. Stabler winced and looked away. "We need to find this guy before he actually gets around to following through and 'supplying' a girl for this," she said.

"Yeah." Elliot pushed the photos away.

"You sure the timescale we're working with is accurate?" Olivia slid the photos back into a folder.

"According to the transcripts of the emails between the accountant and the perp, then next week is when he's going to snatch his victim. We need to be well established in position before that. The perp mustn't suspect the accountant's been busted." He looked pointedly at Elliot. "As far as he's concerned, the deal's still on. We need to get people in that school asap. I've arranged for three plain clothes guys to start work as fake maintenance men, but I think the Faculty angle is our best bet."

Elliot sighed and threw the pen on the table. "I agree; but I still think vice'd be better at this."

Cragen shook his head. "It's my call. I owe Jerry - he helped me out of a jam, I'm happy to return the favour. Besides, the endangerment of a minor was SVU territory last time I looked at the manual."

Elliot tried not to roll his eyes. "But I know diddly about teaching, Cap'n."

Cragen smiled. "That's as may be, but you *do* have a distinct advantage over the rest of us."

Elliot looked up, his face blank. "I do?"

Cragen pointed at the framed picture on his desk. "Children, Elliot. You have lots of children."


Adjusting his tie for the second time in as many minutes, Olivia grinned as her partner slapped her hands away.

"Jeez, Liv... give it a rest, will you?" He gave the route-planner to the school a final glance, threw it into a leather carry-bag and snapped it shut.

"I just want you to look nice for your first day at school, honey," she smiled.

He curled his lip. "Ha, ha. Real funny. This is just some big laugh-riot to you, isn't it?

"No. Not at all." She folded her arms and arched an eyebrow at him. "I don't find the distribution of pornographic images the least bit funny - especially when the pictures are of minors. The idea of a girl being at risk is even less amusing."

Elliot sighed. "You're right. I'm sorry." He subconsciously adjusted his tie again. "I'm just nervous, I guess."

"You have nothing at all to fear. They're gonna love you. I just wish I was going to be there, too."

"You just wanna see me get my ass kicked by a bunch of girls."

Olivia smirked. "Well, as appealing as that sounds, partner, I happen to have a touch more faith in you than that."

"You think?"

"Absolutely. They're going to love you."

He looked at her and checked his watch. "I doubt that. I hated all my teachers in school."

"That was then - this is now. Things have changed."

"I know. That's what worries me."

Olivia laughed and winked. Trust me, they'll *love* you."

Elliot tilted his head. "Whaddya mean?"

Grinning, she fiddled with his tie. "Let's just say you'll be a welcome addition to the scenery."

Looking utterly baffled, Elliot shook his head, looked at his watch again and sighed. "Yeah, whatever, but I am *not* looking forward to this."

"Relax, you're gonna be fine." Olivia snapped her purse shut and patted his arm and grinned as he pushed his way through the squad room doors. "They're just kids;" she called after him. "How bad can it be?"

Chapter two.

Elliot held his breath and stood perfectly still as the stream of teenagers flowed around him. He had three daughters, but the volume and sheer *mass* of so many teenaged girls in one place was seriously starting to freak him out. They didn't give him a second glance, allowed him no respectful distance, their elbows and bags thumping into him from every angle. He stood rigid, resisting the flow of bodies, eyes desperately searching the corridor for any signs that could help him out. The continuous screech of voices was making him anxious.

A voice cut through the babble. "Gotta keep moving, my man, or they'll tear you down and trample your body while it's still twitching. They can smell fear."

Elliot glanced at the owner of the voice, a small black woman who barely skimmed his shoulder. He narrowed his eyes at her, remembering just in time not to glare at her. "Oh, thanks. I... um... I'm kinda at a loss here," he admitted with a little shrug.

The woman tilted her head, dark eyes seemingly amused. "Let me guess. Substitute?"

Elliot nodded. "Uh-huh. Phys Ed."

"Oh, dear." She shook her head and smiled.

"What?" A bag whacked Elliot in the back, and he glared at the owner who totally ignored him. He flicked his gaze back to the woman. "What's that supposed to mean?"

With a shake of her head, the teacher patted him gently on the arm and pointed down the corridor. "You'll be fine; take no notice of me, my dear. Just go that way and take a sharp left. The Admin. Office is on your right, you can't miss it. It's an oasis of quiet." With another little shake of her head and smile, she moved away.

"Um... Thanks," Elliot called after the woman as she was carried off in the crowd, swimming through the tide of adolescents with an easy grace of a minnow in a shoal of sharks. Elliot braced himself and plunged into the flow of traffic, trying to copy the way she had carved out a path with his elbows.


Tobias Beecher glared at the filing cabinet lurking at the back of the Admin office. Sure, it was the cabinet assigned to him for the semester, but Toby suspected it resented being stuck at the back of the room when shiny new filing systems had been brought in. He shuffled his papers, trying not to look at the deep scratch on the back of his hand that was courtesy of his last encounter with 'his' cabinet. Damn thing. If inanimate objects had souls, then the one for this heap of junk had been sold to the Devil. He took a deep breath and gingerly extended his hand towards the 'S' section. A small bell pinged.

Beecher looked up, paused and blinked several times as the walking epitome of 'tall dark and handsome' leaned on the Admin counter. Beecher's eyebrows shot up. This had to be some new kid's parent he thought, openly gawking across the room at the handsome face; taking in the askew tie and slightly distressed expression with amusement. For the first time in what seemed longer than three dry years, Toby felt the ping of something in his groin. No, he thought; there was no way God loved him enough to send a man that good-looking to work here; he had to be just passing through.

Dark and kind of Italian-looking, all muscle judging by the way his jacket pulled across his shoulders. Kind of uptight, too, looking at the frown and the jumping muscle in his jaw.

Toby slowly pulled his hand out of the cabinet, still staring. Maybe he was a newbie parent, perhaps, or someone wanting to register a complaint. As a senior member of staff, it really was Toby's duty to go over and see what the guy wanted.

As if reading his thoughts, the man turned his head slightly to scan the room, his eyes nailing Toby to the spot. They both jerked their chins up, acknowledging one another. Toby swallowed. One glance and several small mammals began to jig about in his stomach - what the hell was with that?

Courage and paperwork gathered tightly to his chest, Toby took one more deep breath and took a step forward.

With the timing of the relentlessly vicious, Mrs. Fisher, Head Administrator brushed past him, causing Toby to fumble his filing. Several sheets billowed to the floor. He bent to gather them up, hoping he didn't look as dorky as he felt.

"Can I help you?" Mrs. Fisher snapped at the man, staring at the loose tie with distain.

"Um... Yeah..."

Toby was amused to hear the guy's voice sounded a lot less confident than he looked. He watched long fingers wander to his collar, clearly uncomfortable with the way Mrs. Fisher was glaring at it.

"I'm... I'm substituting for Mr. Green," the man said. He put his bag down and held out his other hand. "Elliot Thomas."

The creatures in Toby's guts leaped at the word 'substitute'. Thank you God! He was going to be here longer than five minutes. He grinned, standing straight.

The Admin woman ignored Elliot's outstretched palm long enough for him to get the message and slowly pull it back. With a dismissive sniff, she shoved a handful of papers across the counter. "You need to complete these forms, get them duplicated twice, bring the originals to me, send the one copy to your Employment Agent and keep the other for your records." She all but threw a pen at him. "In black ink, if you please, and before you leave today would be nice."

Elliot looked down at the nest of paper. "Okay," he said slowly, picking up the pen. "Um... Where do I..."

"The Xerox is situated in the Faculty Lounge, and you need to get yourself down to the gym pretty sharpish. Classes start in 20 minutes." She sniffed again and turned away, busying herself in a filing cabinet.

Elliot stared at her back stunned at his complete dismissal. His eyes flicked back over to Toby, open wide, his expression incredulous. A twenty pound rodent danced in Toby's stomach as he gave Elliot a small smile and a 'what the hell?' look. He bent his head to hide the way a blush was starting to crawl all over his face. There was no way in hell to know if this guy 'sang in the choir', but he could see hours of flirting fun ahead, finding out.

Across the counter, Elliot cleared his throat loudly until the Admin Ogre turned around. "Um... Where's the...."

"Down the hall, take a right, up the first flight of stairs and third door on your left." The Admin lady looked at him like he'd been scraped off her shoe. "And I'd advise you to get there *before* the students, Mr. Thomas. Try to at least *look* professional."

Elliot stared back. "Okaaay. Right." He picked up his bag and walked to the door, with one last glance at Toby as he left the room, inadvertently jolting the other man with his startlingly blue eyes.

"Substitutes!" The snort was derision personified. "Haven't got the balls to be regular teachers, or the common sense to give it up and go sell aluminium siding." Mrs. Fisher glanced over to Toby and grinned wickedly. "Oh, they're gonna eat him *alive*."

Not if I eat him first, Toby said to himself, the thought shocking him with unashamed audacity.

Chapter three.

Elliot stared at the doors to the gym with a mixture of irritation and trepidation. His face was fixed in a frown as he absently fiddled with the string on his track pants. He was silently counting down the seconds until the bell rang for first class, trying to calm his nerves. Damn Cragen for doing this; it was unwarranted, just because he had kids didn't mean he could carry off such an in-depth undercover scene. Easier just to shove some extra security in the place. He sighed. The shirt the school had provided was a shade too tight, restricting movement around his chest and arms. He flexed and winced, knowing the tight fit was going to drive him crazy over the next few days.

He was fully aware that his anger at his boss and the size of the shirt was merely misdirected anxiety about the whole situation, a weakness that annoyed him intensely. There was no reason on earth he should be nervous about this assignment - teaching a gym class to girls ought to be a damned sight easier than chasing perps and perverts through the streets. But despite telling himself that, a movie in the back of his head kept re-running every frustrating moment he'd ever experienced with the opposite sex.

Loud voices and a squeaking stampede of sneakers told him his first class had arrived. He pulled in a deep breath and took one final glance at the lesson plan on the desk. They're just kids, he told himself as he opened the door. Just kids.

"Good morning." He spoke loudly as he entered the gym and waited for the chattering to quieten down. The noise continued, as he was roundly ignored. Elliot frowned. "Good *morning*'," he said again, louder this time.

But instead of dying down, the noise, if anything, increased in volume, drowning him out. Blinking in surprise that fast gave way to anger, Elliot's hands went to his hips. "Excuse ME!" he all but shouted at the teenage girls chattering and screeching like an unruly whoop of monkeys. Only three heads bothered to turn in his direction, but 10% of the population paying attention really didn't make much of a dent in the noise level.

"Do you mind? I'm speaking." Maddeningly, there was no noticeable response. Infuriated, Elliot took a deep breath and spoke again, this time using a parade-ground tone he hadn't employed in years.


This time every head turned to him and the noise dribbled away. Thirty pairs of eyes openly stared. Clearly being shouted at wasn't something they were used to.

"About time. Now I have your attention, ladies," He swept his gaze across the room, scalding the teenagers with his scowl. "We can begin. My name is Mr. Thomas. I'm here to take your Phys Ed classes for the next couple of weeks."

"Where's Mr. Green?" a voice piped up from the back.

"Mr. Green is indisposed. I'm here to..."

Another voice cut in. "What's wrong with him?"

"Prob'ly in the slammer," someone offered.

"I don't think..." Elliot started to say.

"Or rehab," another voice called out.

"Actually..." He scowled at the interruption.

"More like he's finally gotten round to that sex-change op," some joker added. There was a general snicker of laughter at that.

Elliot's eyebrows drew together. "Where Mr. Green has gone is frankly no body's business but his, and it's considered very *rude* to interrupt when someone's speaking."

"Yeah, whatever," came the bored reply from the back of the group. "Booooooring..."

Elliot's hackles rose. "I'd thank you to keep your comments to yourself, thank you," he snapped.

"Hey; it's a free country, man," the owner of the voice drawled, clearly unimpressed.

Elliot's eyes raked through the class and zeroed in on a girl leaning against the wall, arms folded, her body language clearly challenging. "You can't stop me expressing myself."

Elliot narrowed his eyes. "You think so?"

"Nah. That'd be unconstitutional."

A tight smile twitched one corner of Elliot's mouth; something that all four of his children knew was a bad sign. "I'm not here to exercise your 'rights' young lady; just your bodies."

"Yeah, whatever, but we got the right to free speech, dude."

Elliot shook his head. "Not in my class," he ground out, his teeth clenched tightly together.

The girl made a derisive noise. "Fuckin' classroom Nazi."

Elliot felt his nostrils flare, the bored insolence in the kid's voice needling him more than the bad language. He was aware of the silence that had suddenly roared in to the gym as 29 sets of teenage eyes watched the scene being played out. He got the feeling that the rest of his tour of duty in this place would be defined by what happened next. He steeled himself and reined his temper in a notch. He pointed. "You. What's your name?"

The girl just stared back at him, a smirk draped all over her face. Someone sniggered and Elliot's jaw tightened further. "Your name?" he asked again, burning with the urge to yell at the child for her dumb insolence.

"I think it's sewn in the back of my gym shorts," she shrugged, smirking. "You wanna check?"

Elliot forced himself to walk slowly over to where the girl lounged, the crowd parting before him without a sound. He came to a stop and stood perfectly still, just staring down at the girl, a shade too far inside her personal space to be comfortable. His mouth twitched again as the girl shifted slightly, her eyes darting left to right, suddenly unsure. Elliot knew from long experience how intimidating his physical presence could be; it had been both a blessing and a curse ever since he discovered what working out did for his physique.

A small part of him questioned the justification of a grown man trying to intimidate a girl barely into her teens, but he knew deep down if he didn't stamp his authority on the class, word would spread, and he would be lost.

"I asked you a question," he said quietly. "It would be polite to provide me with an answer." He leaned further forward. "What...is...your...name?" He spoke slowly, pausing between each word for effect. The girl's eyes shifted faster as she squirmed under his gaze. She held her silence for perhaps another two minutes before cracking and muttering something.

Elliot leaned a shade closer. "What was that?"

The girl looked at her sneakers. "Maz," she mumbled.

"Maz." He frowned. "What is that?" He watched as 'Maz' chewed her bottom lip, obviously debating whether to risk a snippy reply. He lowered his voice and put just a little of the growl that always made his kids instantly rethink giving him any lip. "Now, why don't you tell me what your parents *actually* named you?"

Maz opened her mouth, glanced up at his expression and seemed to rethink her reply. "Meryl," she said with none of the earlier insolence in her voice. Elliot took a deliberately long breath and straightened up. "Well, Meryl," he said, pitching his voice so all the class could hear him. "I think I need to clear a few things up. I don't think you understand the way things are going to be." He stared down at her, deliberately not saying anything more, allowing the silence to stretch out between them. He let the silence go on long enough for Meryl to feel really uncomfortable before snapping his fingers at her. "Stand up straight," he ordered.

Reluctantly, Meryl pulled herself away from the wall and stood with her arms folded across her chest.

"Now, look at me."

Meryl's gaze remained fixed on her trainers.

"LOOK at me," Elliot barked.

Sighing dramatically, the girl turned her face up, a sulk written all over it.

Elliot ignored the expression. "Thank you. Okay. Let me spell it out for you, Meryl." He spoke directly to the girl, but knew he had the attention of every student in the room. "I am being paid to increase your level of fitness. I don't care if you hate Phys Ed; I don't care if you hate school in general, and I don't even care if you hate *me*. I do care, however, that I earn my pay check." He stepped back. "There will be no bad attitude displayed in my class, no offensive language, no insolence, dumb or otherwise. You will do as instructed, first time of asking; you will sweat, you will work hard and you will get fit." He ducked his head to stare at her. "Do I make myself clear?"

There was no answer. "Do I make myself CLEAR?" The last word, bellowed out made at least a dozen girls jump. Meryl blinked up at him, her face almost as pale as her gym shirt.

"Yes," she whispered.

"Yes, what?" Swallowing, the girl frowned, clearly at a loss. Elliot sighed. "Yes, *Mr. Thomas*," he prompted.

"Yes, Mr. Thomas."

"Good." Elliot gave a sharp smile. "Now we understand one another, we can begin." He pointed across the gym. "Ten laps. Let's go." He clapped his hands, turning around. "ALL OF YOU!"

He stared as the startled teenagers began to trot obediently around the gym, the odd one occasionally glancing around at him in a kind of morbid fascination. He wondered how many parental complaints were going to be waiting for him tomorrow morning.


In the latter part of the afternoon as he pushed open the door to the Faculty Lounge, Elliot was struck by the similarity between the lounge and the squad room at the end of a shift. Both had an air of exhausted desperation and an atmosphere of battlefield camaraderie that transcended their careers.

The few teaching staff that hadn't raced out of the building as the final bell echoed through the halls were huddled in small groups, speaking in hushed tones, as if tired of the sound of their own voices. Others packed their briefcases with equal amounts of either panic or resignation. He had scanned the room, and instantly homed in on the most comfortable looking couch in the room, plopped himself down and shut his eyes and with a small groan, allowed his body to relax.


Toby sighed, gingerly pulled another drawer open and began to shuffle through the student files. He hated having to go into Admin at the best of times, so being trapped in a small room with a psychotic cabinet and the reincarnation of Baby Jane twice in one day was too much. Toby imagined the Head Administrator attended some satanic night school in order to perfect her vinegar-soaked attitude. Maybe she was the one who trained his cabinet to bite.

Another page fell through a gap and he stared miserably into the depths, knowing he had no choice but to fish it out, but also knowing he was about to get another war wound. One more reason why not following his dad into Law felt like a terrible mistake, career-wise. Maybe this was just karma for being the family black sheep. Or, more accurately, the 'rainbow' sheep. With a resigned sigh, he slipped his hand in the drawer.

Pulling out half the page and peering at a long scrape on his wrist, Toby ran a frustrated hand through his blond hair, cursing both the filing cabinet and fact he hadn't gotten around to getting a haircut. Please let the stylist be open late Monday's, he prayed silently. Let the new guy be gay, he added, but mostly, please, please, please let me take a chain saw to this thing. As if alerted by his vindictive thoughts, the senior Admin assistant snipped across the office at him. "Are you done with those yet, Tobias?"

His back to the woman, Toby pulled a face. "Yeah. Just about." He slammed the drawer a touch harder than necessary. It pissed him off severely that the old bat talked to him like he was a mere underling and not the head of his department.

"Well, perhaps you'd be a dear and run along to the Faculty Lounge to see if that new boy had the gumption to do what he was supposed to with those papers."

Toby was very impressed that he kept his face neutral while his stomach did the rodent rumba. Any other time he'd have told her to 'do it yourself', but he wasn't above using it as excuse to introduce himself. "Um... 'new boy'?"

The other woman sighed sharply. "Mr. Aluminium Siding."

Toby shook his head, feigning ignorance just to annoy her

"Oh, for goodness sake! You know - him this morning. 'Mr. Muscle-Bound-No-Brains-Phys-Ed'."

Toby couldn't help the smile that spread across his face. "Oh, him." He shrugged. "Hey, you know, I thought he seemed okay."

The harridan pulled a face, slamming a book shut. "Seen the type. Ten to one he'll have handed in his notice and high-tailed it already. All body no balls."

Toby bit his lip to keep from smirking. "Well, I'll just go see, shall I?"

Mrs. Fisher peered over the top of her glasses. "What, his balls?"

Toby laughed out loud. "I was thinking more of your paperwork, Selma," he said as he made his way out of the office. "But you never know," he added under his breath, a grin of wicked anticipation plastered all over his face.


Toby scanned the Faculty lounge for the 'new boy', eyes narrowed, the sense of anticipation in his belly disproportionate to the moment. It has been a long time since he had been interested in anyone like this. What amazed him was that he hadn't yet spoken to the other man, only shared a couple of glances; so why his dick was pinging all over the place was beyond him. Maybe he wasn't dead from the waist down like Genevieve sniped - she was just pissed she hadn't got the right equipment to make him 'ping'. He spotted the new guy over by the coffee machine and, taking a few calming breaths, walked over.

Opening his mouth to speak, Toby paused at the sight in front of him, opting instead to stare in silence. School had only let out a few minutes ago, but the other man was already slumped carelessly in the chair, legs stretched out in front of him, arms flopped to the sides, eyes shut. He had a light sheen of perspiration on his face, and the underarms of his wonderfully tight shirt were several shades darker than the rest of it. Beneath his lids, his eyes darted back and forth. He looked both debauched yet angelic. Toby wondered if this was how the man looked after a bout of hard, dirty sex.

A small smile moved his lips while Toby allowed his eyes scour the body laid out in front of him, making the most of the view. The poor guy looked exhausted; surely the first day at school couldn't have been *that* bad? His arm jostled as someone brushed by her. He turned to look, hoping the expression on his face didn't give anything away. A small black lady, holding a Garfield mug was looking past him, staring down at Elliot sprawled over the chair.

"Newbies. The first day always hits like a Mack truck." She shook her head.

Toby smiled. "You think?"

"Uh-huh." The woman poured herself a coffee. "Seen a million of 'em in my time. They come, they go." She stirred her drink. "Some last a while longer than others; depends on the backbone." She sucked the spoon clean. "Am I right, or am I right?"

He glanced back at Elliot. "Oh, I would imagine you're right, Flo; as always." His blue eyes couldn't resist travelling back up and down the supine body. "Think this one's gonna make it?" he asked with a smile.

Tilting his head one way then the other, he watched as Flo narrowed her eyes and studied the other man. "Don't know. He's sure got the body, but has he got the balls?"

Toby's mouth dropped open at that comment, momentarily unsure that he had heard correctly. He blinked a couple of times. "Um... well, I wouldn't know about that," he said, feeling a blush creep up his face. "It's not exactly my area of expertise." Not for want of wishing, he thought to himself.

Flo Maynard stood beside him grinned, her eyes sparkling with wicked inference. "Well, between you and me, dear, if I were twenty years younger, I'd damn well make it *my* area of expertise!" She glanced at Toby, winked and moved away, leaving him staring, lost for words. Sometimes, he wondered how well-closeted he was at work.

Toby shook his head and looked back down. Mr. Body Beautiful hadn't moved an inch, his eyes scurrying away behind closed lids at odds with the utterly relaxed pose of his body. Toby watched and idly wondered if it would freak this handsome man out to know he was being admired by another guy? Would it earn him a punch in the nose if he could read Toby's mind and see exactly what he'd like to do with that incredible body? Toby bit back a sigh and shook his head a little to compose himself. Last thing he needed were lurid homosexual fantasies written all over his face. "Hey," he said softly, touching his shoe to Elliot's ankle before his sub-conscious took hold and totally screwed with his ability to hold a conversation with this man. "Hey - wake up."

Grunting, Elliot screwed up his face. He shifted in his chair, his legs falling open at the knees, the tight track pants pulling in a way that would have satisfied the curiosity of both Flo and Mrs. Fisher with regards to the equipment department. Toby squashed a smirk and averted his eyes.

"Wake up, Dozy," he said, louder.

"God... Wha'?" Elliot groaned long and loud, pulling himself upright, one hand scrubbing his face. "Jesus," he muttered to himself.

Toby grinned down, watching Elliot still struggling to sit up straight. "So, how'd your first day at school go? Were the other kids nice to you?"

Frowning up, Elliot pulled a face. "If I were less of a gentleman, I'd tell you to go fuck yourself," he muttered.

Toby laughed out loud. "Wow, Prince Charming in the flesh."

Elliot grunted and scrubbed his eyes some more. "Remind me to bring in a bullhorn and a .45 tomorrow."

"Wow." Toby sat down. "That bad, huh?"

"I am absolutely shattered," he said, looking at Toby with pathetic eyes. "I don't know how they do it. Teachers, I mean. God... One day of it and I want to either run screaming or shoot myself."

Toby smiled. "Wow. I didn't realize this was *literally* your first day. Man..." He shook his head. "Given in to helpless panic, yet?"

"God, yeah. I feel like I haven't the first clue what I'm doing and by God, don't they know it." He ran his hands over his head. "Damn; she was right."

"Who was?"

"That lady, earlier." He waved his hand chest-height. "Small, black; spoke to me this morning; said they 'smell fear'." He winced. "She was right. Maybe I should ask her to teach me some tricks."

Toby snorted. He could imagine what tricks that particular educator might want to impart.

"What?" He gave Toby a sideways glance.

"Oh, nothing." Toby cleared his throat. "So, you think you can cope with coming back, tomorrow?"

He was silent for so long Toby thought he was seriously contemplating calling in sick.

"Guess I don't have much choice; the guys would kick my ass if they knew I'd been beaten by a load of girls."

Toby dipped his head to look, one eyebrow raised with a crazy flare of hope. "The 'guys'?"

Elliot looked up, a strange expression on his face. "Um... You know, the guys - my friends. Back home."

"Oh." Toby's heart had jumped, then slammed back down. Yep; too good to be true; he knew it.

Elliot was staring at him, and Toby wondered what was going on inside that handsome head. A pair of incredible blue eyes peered from under knotted eyebrows. Toby swallowed. All his conversational skills dribbled away under the most intense gaze he had ever been subjected to. What the hell was the man staring at?

Elliot blinked and shook his head slightly, thrusting his hand out. "I'm Elliot. Elliot Thomas."

Toby reached out and placed his hand in the large palm and prayed his wasn't sweaty. "Oh, yeah. Sorry; I'm Tobias. Beecher. Toby - Beecher." He grinned stupidly, cursing his clumsy tongue.

"Hey," Elliot said, grasping the hand a shade longer than Toby was comfortable with. "So - do you prefer Toby or Tobias?"

"I... um..." Toby felt he really didn't care what this man called him, as long as he did it while he was lying spread out, naked in his bed. The visual was so sudden, so strong that it snatched Toby's breath away. He ran his tongue over his lips, cotton-mouthed. Shit, he thought. "Just, well... Toby's fine, I guess."

Elliot's mouth quirked. "You guess?"

"Toby - yeah; it's fine... It's okay, yeah, Toby," he said vaguely, his eyes riveted to the amused mouth, imagining it all sorts of places, doing all sorts of things.

Elliot grinned and held up a hand. "Don't tell me, at the weekend your name is 'Mandy', yeah?"

Toby's mouth dropped open as Elliot's words registered. "Excuse me?"

With a little groan, Elliot put his hands to his face and scrubbed the heels of his palms into his eyes. "I can't believe I just said that. Christ; I'm sorry; I am so tired."

Toby felt his eyebrow rise. "*Mandy*?"

"Ignore me," Elliot muttered, his face still in his hands.

Toby regarded the top of Elliot's head, noted the slightly thinning hair, wondering why it wasn't the least bit of a turn-off.

"Do you always insult people the first time you meet them?" he asked mildly.

Elliot glanced up. "No; Look, 'm sorry. It was just a lame attempt at humor." He straightened up. "Forgive me?"

Toby inclined his head. "Sure." He felt reasonably sure Elliot wasn't making some obscure joke about his sexuality. "It'll cost you a coffee, though."

Elliot looked at the machine on the counter in front of them. "Uh-uh, not a chance." Toby said hastily. "I don't drink that shit."

"Don't tell me you're delicate."

"I might be. Don't judge everyone by your own measure."

Elliot grinned. "You'd be surprised. I'm just a big old softie, inside."

Toby snorted. "I bet. You take gym class, which means by definition, you're a sadist."

"Hey!" Elliot was both amused and offended. "I could be really hurt by that comment."

"Oh, and the 'Mandy' thing isn't a mortal blow to my masculinity?"

Elliot nodded. "Okay, okay. You win. I'll spring for coffee."

Toby pointed a finger, feeling reckless and deciding to go with it. "You can take me to a little coffee house I know, after school later in the week." He grinned. "That is, if you're still here."

Chuckling, Elliot ran his hands through his hair. "It's a deal."

"Okay, then." Toby felt a real surge of excitement. Maybe not a date, exactly, but standing right next door to it, in his limited social calendar.

Elliot stretched and sniffed as he lifted his arms, wrinkling his nose. "God, I stink."

"I shouldn't think so."

"Yeah, I do," he said, lifting one arm and leaning over. " See? "

Toby backed away, holding his hand up and laughing. "Uh-uh, no way. That's way beyond the call of duty."

The other man smiled slightly. "Coward."

"Absolutely," Toby nodded, watching him pull a face as he took another whiff. The urge to lean over, bury his nose in an armpit to judge the state of Elliot's personal hygiene was almost painful. He swallowed and pasted a smile on his face. "I hate to interrupt your grooming, Elliot but I need all that paperwork you were given." He held out his hand. "C'mon; I'll get my ass kicked by Satan's handmaiden if I don't get it from you."

Elliot chuckled. "Oh, yeah, I bet. Okay." He reached down to his briefcase, lifted a hefty pile of papers out and began to sift through them. "I think they're in here." Most of them slipped to the floor. "Shit," he muttered, grabbing at the rest as they headed the same way. "Damn; I have so much fuc..." he swallowed. "So much freakin' paperwork, I'm not gonna sleep at all tonight."

"Stop whining, you've been chasing a few girls around a gym all day. How hard can that be?"

The look he gave Toby bordered on homicidal. "I'm gonna let that one slide," he growled, shoving a handful of sheets at her. "Lucky for you I don't have my gun with me," he muttered.

"You own a gun?"

Elliot gave him a strange look. "Um, yeah. Had it for years. Don't get to use it much, though."

"I don't know - maybe you should bring it in to class tomorrow. Be a cool teaching aid."

Elliot made a rude noise. "Don't tempt me."

Toby stood up. "So, shall we see you tomorrow?"

"Yeah," came Elliot's listless reply. "I guess." He rubbed his hands over his face and the papers slid to the floor again.

"Right; look forward to it."

Elliot just grunted and bent to pick up his papers.

Toby walked away, shaking his head, a wry grin on his face. Not quite the result he'd fantasized about, but then nothing short of a stunningly adept blow-job would have matched up with his thoughts about the 'new boy'. Still, there was always tomorrow.

Chapter four

"So, what've you got?" Cragen sat on the edge of Elliot's desk. He folded his arms.

Stifling a yawn, Elliot shook his head. "A splitting headache, way too much paper work; but aside from that, not a lot, Cap'n."

"Running around with all the little girlies too much for ya, big guy?" Fin teased.

Elliot glared. "I'd like to see you try it."

"I always fancied myself as an educator," Munch said with slow thoughtfulness. "I like the idea of melding young minds to mine."

Elliot snorted. "Trust me, those minds don't need any melding."

"An' they really don't need melding to anything you got to offer, Spooky" Fin added, flicking a rolled-up wad of paper at his partner.

Olivia tapped her pen on the desk. "You get anything hinky from other staff, El?"

"Not really. I don't get to see much of them, stuck in the gym areas." He gave in and yawned hugely.

Cragen frowned. "How 'bout in the Faculty areas?"

"Just starting to get a feel," Elliot said, suddenly flashing on the memory of holding Tobias Beecher's hand in his. He felt his eyebrows knot together. Where the hell did that pop up from? He cleared his throat and pushed the thought away. "Not all the faculty go in there, but I'm starting to make notes on those that have." He flipped open his notebook. "I'm gonna concentrate on the male members of staff..."

"You sure about that?" Cragen interrupted.

Elliot nodded. "Statistically the perp will be male; I spoke to Huang about the tone and language in the emails and he agrees we're most likely looking for a man."

"Okay, then. Go on."

"Three I've ruled out because they were in Europe at the times of the first mail shots, even though I guess they could send from abroad, it doesn't seem likely." He turned a page. "Apart from that, I've got details on all the other men, just haven't met them all yet." Toby's funny grin popped back into his head, and Elliot shoved it away. Why did this man's face keep entering his head? He chewed his lip and considered. Cop's instinct, perhaps? Maybe his gut was trying to tell him something about Tobias Beecher.

"See if you can finagle a way to talk to them soon."

"I'll do my best to hook up with them in the Faculty Lounge or cafeteria." He shook his head. "No-one seems to pay much attention to the New Boy." Except Toby, of course. And there he was again.

Cragen tapped his pen on the blotter bringing his mind back to the office. "Elliot. You need to start talking to the other staff members, too. Cosy up; ask advice, make friends. The maintenance guys can only cover so much of the school at a time. And they don't get to go in the places you do."

Elliot nodded, still thinking about blond hair and blue eyes. "Uh-huh. Sure."

"What've you done about the changing-area cameras?"

"Um - I put up a couple of hangers, a few sports posters - the perp must have watched me decorate the whole place," Elliot said with a small grin. "Prob'ly drove him crazy, seein' all his precious angles lost."

"Well, let's hope he blows his cover trying to fix them. Okay; we'll wait to hear from you tomorrow." Cragen frowned down at Elliot. "You might want to get an early night, Stabler, you look like hell."

With a sour look on his face Elliot watched the older man walk away.

"Oh, Elliot, surely someone talked to you on our first day?" Olivia asked, leaning back in her chair.

"Well," Elliot scratched his chin and opened his mouth to tell them about the gentle teasing conversation he'd had with Beecher, but found himself shrugging instead. "I guess they were mostly busy."

"That's harsh, man," Fin told him, refilling his coffee mug.

Elliot sat staring at his desk, vaguely stunned at what had just come out of his mouth. What the hell was that all about? He ran the whole scene in the lounge through his mind. Nothing untoward had happened. Why was he being so economical with the truth?

"Perhaps they didn't want to contaminate themselves with the taint of a doomed man," Munch grinned.

Elliot held up his middle finger. "I did okay," he said with more conviction than he actually felt.

"So all fired up for tomorrow, then?" Fin handed him a mug of coffee.

"Yeah." Staring into the dark brew, Elliot bit back a sigh. "No problem."


Fighting his way through the morning crowd, Elliot glared at a couple of students unlucky enough to bump into him. Part of the deal with the school had involved the continued assessment for the pupils, and he'd been up until late the night before trying to keep Green's records up to date. He hadn't thought there was a profession that thrived on paperwork as much as that of a cop, but he was fast re-assessing that idea.

"Mr. Thomas?"

Elliot walked on for a couple of steps them stopped and turned as it sank in it was *him* being addressed. "Yes?"

The Principal, Mrs. Donnelly stood with her hand out, indicating the open door to her office. "Might I have a word, in private?" she said without smiling.

Elliot nodded and walked inside. The door clicked behind him and he guessed he was about to get the answer to the 'how many complaints' question.

"Please, sit."

With a tiny sigh, Elliot sat down, propping his briefcase against the chair. "What can I do for you, Mrs. Donnelly?" he asked, folding his hands in his lap. This wasn't unlike being summoned to Cragen's office to get his balls busted. The woman even perched on the edge of the desk like 'dad'. He bit back a smile.

"Mr. Thomas," she began slowly. "When I agreed to this undercover operation being conducted in my school, I was assured that there would be minimal disruption, marginal distraction for the pupils."

Elliot nodded. "Absolutely; we all want this to go as smoothly as possible." He knew what was coming next.

Donnelly sighed. "Quite. But this morning I find not one, not two, but three separate complaints about your teaching methods on my desk. Three complaints; and you've been in school for just one day."

Only three, Elliot mused. Out of thirty students, that wasn't bad. "Yeah?" he said, neutrally. "In regard to what, exactly?"

"The nature of the complaints regards you allegedly 'shouting' at the students."

"I raised my voice, yes."

The Principal's eyebrow lifted and Elliot smiled. He held a hand up in submission. "Okay, so I shouted. But I'm not accustomed to being ignored. I was raised to understand that it was rude to ignore an adult when they speak to you."

Mrs. Donnelly dipped her head in a slow nod. "I agree. But it's not normal practise, however for a teacher to 'scream' at the pupils in order to gain their attention." She looked at him with pursed lips.

Elliot laughed out loud. "Scream? No-ones ever described the way I shout quite like that."

"To quote one of the parents; 'He screamed across the gym at the girls'."

Elliot bristled. "Yeah, well, as the complainant wasn't actually there, that statement can only be classed as hearsay." He frowned. "Maybe these parents ought to be wondering what makes a teacher want to 'scream' at their daughters. But look; it was a one-off situation. I had to get their attention and instil my authority, okay? I can't see it happening again." He held up a warning hand. "But I can't guarantee that. While I'm here to catch a paedophile, I'm not gonna let a bunch of teenagers treat me like something they wipe off of their shoes. And I won't allow bad language in class."

"I quite agree. But perhaps it might be more helpful if you were to exclude any offenders and send them to my office."

"Then they miss the lesson - where's the sense in that? It'd be more beneficial to make their muscles regret letting their mouths run the show."

The woman sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose the same way Cragen did, making Elliot smile. His smile faded at her next words. "Do you have anger management issues, Detective Stabler?"

"Do you really think I'd be allowed in here if I had?" he replied, perfectly aware he hadn't answered her question.

"I don't know, you tell me."

A painfully clear visual of the front of his locker flashed into Elliot's mind as he held her gaze. He was fairly sure nothing showed on his face. He waited until she relaxed slightly before continuing. "Look, all the class completed the lesson; they got the required level of exercise that day, and hopefully learned a few manners. No problem," he reasoned.

A small smile tugged at the Principal's mouth. Elliot thought that under any other circumstances, she might agree with his methods. He held up both hands. "Okay, look. I'll try and keep the level of 'screaming' down, and get this whole thing over with as soon as possible, okay? I don't want complaints drawing attention to me, any more than you want the hassle. Deal?"

She stood up and offered her hand. "Deal. Let's hope we can put this unpleasant business behind us very soon."

"You got that right," Elliot muttered, shaking her hand. "Sooner the better."

The Principal laughed softly. "Teaching isn't to your taste, Detective?"

Elliot grimaced. "God; no. I don't know what possesses anyone to want to do this."

"Each to their own, I suppose. Perhaps you could think of this is a learning experience for you, too."

Elliot thought about that as he wandered down towards the gym. Learning experience, yeah. Right.


Toby sat huddled in a dark corner of the lounge between a bookcase and a pile of old boxes, resting his head on the back of the chair, staring at the ceiling. He had been there for the past ten minutes, and wasn't planning on moving any time soon. He figured he was entitled to the break from the hum of the photocopier, the smell of toner and the constant drone of students.

He smiled a small, vague smile in the shadows. Huddling away in the shadows reminded him of the bad old days at High School, sitting in the washroom stalls, pretending he wasn't hiding from everyone. As a professor of psychology, he understood all too well that 'meditating' in quiet corners of the school was just the adult manifestation of his teenage insecurity. Some things don't change, he thought; except now he could taking refuge in a comfortable chair, instead of the toilets. At least the smell was better in here and he could pretend to be marking papers or something.

There was a thump as the outside door banged open and the hurried footsteps of women teachers barged in. Toby sighed; there goes peace and quiet.

"...so I said to him, if you want to be mothered, go back home, dude. I'm not into breast-feeding." There was a round of giggles and Toby winced at the visual it summoned.

"You are so bad, Cheryl."

"So, you seein' him again?"

"Uh-huh. Next Tuesday."

The sound of running water drowned out what was said to that, and Toby was sorely tempted make a run for it.

"...and never even took his socks off." Someone else was saying as the water stopped flowing.

"That's gross. I don't know why you put up with him."

"Cause he's well-hung!" More giggles followed that.

"Aw, thanks. I'm not gonna be able to look him in the face next time I'm in the science block."

"Who needs to look at his face, y'know? I'd rather stare at the package, any day."

Toby winced and braced himself to stand up. It was time for him to leave, before things got more graphic. His ass lifted from the chair. If he was real quiet, he could slip out without any of the women noticing him.

"Yeah, well, I tell ya, ladies, talking of not being able to look a fellow educator in the face, I found someone new that qualifies BIG time. Green's substitute." A low whistle echoed around the lounge. "Have you checked him out? Man, is he built."

Toby's body froze, mid-raise.

"Never mind built, is he hung?"

There was much laughter at that. "Dunno - I can't seem to get my eyes off of his ass long enough to check out the package."

Toby felt his face warming up. He shouldn't be listening to this.

"That good, huh?"

"You have no fucking idea, baby. He can bounce me round the gym any day."

"Hey, I gotta go check that out."

"I saw him first, bitch. If what's between his legs matches the rest of his body, then I am movin' in, ladies; he don't stand a chance."

If Toby had been something lower down on the food chain, he'd have felt his hackles rise. An overwhelming sense of propriety towards Elliot washed over him. They had no right, dammit; he saw the man first; no way any of these slatterns could claim dibs.

"He married?"

"Since when did that matter to Sherrie?!"

"Fuck you - but nope. No ring. I scoped that out already." There was a snap of a compact case. "Blue eyes, great pecs and biceps that come out THIS far. I am *so* havin' me some of that."

Laughter followed that statement as the women filed back out of the lounge, leaving Toby standing behind the bookcase, his hand clenched in a fist, his whole body seething. The rational part of his brain knew he had no claim to Elliot, but right now, the primal part of him wanted to rip Sherrie's throat out for even looking. If there was any sniffing around to be done, then Toby was damned sure he was going to stick his nose in there first, even if it meant he got it punched. His mouth set in a determined line. Time to move things up a notch.

Chapter five

The last two days had persuaded Elliot that lunchtime was definitely the best time of day. Well, aside from going home time, that was. The food in the cafeteria was very good - he queued up with his tray hoping the meals in his kid's schools were as nutritious as these. He didn't care in the least that staff had to wait in line with the students. The kids were leaving him well enough alone. It seemed that news travelled fast about the new substitute. No-one had put a foot wrong in his any of his classes since that first outburst. His stomach growled as he walked nearer to the service area, his eyes scanning the choices with anticipation.

"Hey," a voice said behind him. He turned around. A woman was standing a shade too close to be strictly polite. He blinked in surprise.

"Hey, what's up?" he said, still distracted by the prospect of food; his eyes wandering back to the serving hatch.

There was a chuckle from the woman. "You tell me."

Elliot's eyes widened. What the hell? He turned back to her, keeping his face neutral. "Have we, um, met?" he asked, avoiding the actual question posed.

"Not yet. I'm Sherrie. Hi; and you are...?" She laughed again and leaned forward. "I mean apart from very nicely put together, I mean," she breathed.

Elliot's mouth dropped open as the penny dropped. She was hitting on him. The woman was actually *hitting* on him. The thought slammed into the back of his mind with such unaccustomed force that it collapsed in a stunned heap.

"I'm a... I mean, I'm..." he stuttered, shaking his head a touch to focus. "Elliot," he got out, finally. "I'm um, Elliot."

"Well, hello there, 'um-Elliot'." She gave him a huge smile, red lips peeled back from perfectly even teeth. Late twenties, he guessed, very blonde, around 5' 7 and very smartly dressed. Also, judging by the body language and wide smile, *very* interested in him.

"Hi," he replied lamely. The idea that he was being chatted-up still had his ego reeling in shock at the base of his skull.

"Yeah. Whaddya want, man?" The server behind the counter tapped his tray, almost knocking it from his fingers.

"I, er.." He frowned, looking helplessly at the food despite having studied the selection all the way down the line.

"I'd recommend the pasta," a warm voice breathed into his ear, bringing the back of his neck out in goose-bumps. "You need the energy."

Elliot glanced behind at her, eyebrow raised.

"You know; being into 'physical activities'." She grinned at him and lifted her own eyebrow.

Elliot turned back to the server, completely flustered. He'd been married too long and divorced too recently to be used to this kind of attention.

The man rolled his eyes and pointed his spoon. "Be the pasta, then, yeah?"

"No." Elliot cleared his throat. "I'll take the chicken, with mixed salad. Hold the dressing," he added.

"Very admirable," Sherrie said. "You look after yourself."

"I try," Elliot replied, watching his tray being filled.

"I can see that. Hell, we can *all* see that."

In his peripheral vision, Elliot was aware that she had shifted and leaned back to look at his rear-end. He turned to stare at her, amazed at her openness, a little flustered and, if he was honest, more than a little flattered.

"Very nice," she smiled, giving him a wink.

"Erm... thank you," he said, a laugh tickling at his throat. "Sherrie, was it?"

"Was, and still is, Elliot."

"Move along, pal, okay?" The man serving the food sighed heavily. "Whaddya want, lady?"

Moving along the line, Elliot selected a fruit juice and with thoughts of a mid-afternoon sugar-crash, a large slice of Danish. He tried not to imagine Sherrie checking out his ass as he walked away to find a table with just one free seat. Flattering as it was, he didn't think he had the energy to cope with remarks like that the entire lunch break. Maybe with a little advanced warning, he could dust off his ego enough to indulge in a little harmless flirting, but right now, it was still sitting in the middle of his head, blinking slowly.

Smiling to himself, he almost walked right past someone speaking to him. It was only when a hand reached out towards his sleeve that it registered he was being addressed. He looked down. "Hey, what's up?" he said, mentally wincing at himself for repeating his earlier words.

"There's a free space here," Toby said, pulling out the chair and patting the table. "If you want to join me, that is." He grinned up at Elliot, his eyebrows wiggling. "I'm not due to be 'Mandy' until Saturday."

"Very funny," Elliot slid into the seat and laid his tray down, glancing to the man next to him. "You're not gonna let me live that down, are you?"


"Yeah, well. I already apologized. What more d'you want?"

Toby bit down on the obvious and vulgar reply, content with a smile. "Oh, I'll think of something eventually, I'm sure."

Elliot gave him a strange look. "Okaaay. Should I be worried?"

Laughing, Toby shook his head. "I don't know. You'll have to let me know." He didn't know if Elliot realized he was being flirted with, but the man seemed to coping with the banter.

"Man, you don't frighten me," Elliot said, lifting a sprig of parsley from his food. "I've had 11th grade gym today." He placed the greenery on the edge of his tray.

"Ugh. Rather you than me." Toby mock-shuddered. "The thought of that lot minus part-way decent clothing freaks me out."

Elliot grinned. "You could open a stall with the amount of jewellery I had to confiscate. Why do they insist on turning up to class dripping in it? Do they think I'm blind?"

"Women." Toby pulled a face and grinned. "Go figure."

"You got that right," Elliot muttered, sending Toby's insides into a dance of glee over the barely disguised bitterness in that statement.

"I'll never get more than a slippery grip on them," Toby said, deadpan.

Elliot's head shot up, as the words registered. He breathed in harshly to laugh and began to choke on his food. He coughed and spluttered into his hand, turning red, still laughing. His eyes watered up and spit squeezed out between his fingers.

"Gross," Toby told him and handed over a napkin.

Taking the sheet of tissue, Elliot mopped his eyes and mouth, drying his hand while coughing to clear his throat. His breath still hitched occasionally. "Jesus," he muttered. "You wanna warn me before you say things like that."

"Like what?" Toby feigned innocence.

Elliot waved a hand. "You know, the slippery thing." He began to chuckle again.

Toby nodded. "I'll take it under advisement. Elliot doesn't do graphic descriptions."

"Not over lunch, anyway."

"Noted." Toby grinned. He basked in the atmosphere of camaraderie. "Anyway, all slippiness aside," he said, taking a chance and grinning wider at Elliot's expression. "That's why I thought you might need rescuing." He waved his fork in Sherrie's general direction.

Elliot pulled a wry face. "That obviously out of my depth, huh?"

Toby lifted his chin. "Sherrie had quite a welcome-wagon going on."

"Yeah, I noticed." Elliot shovelled salad into his mouth, glancing back over to the lunch line, amused that Sherrie was still looking at him. He couldn't help grinning as she winked.

"Seems you've made a big impression on the Home Ec. department."

Elliot shrugged with one shoulder and focussed back on his lunch. "Hhhmmm."

"Not your type, then?" Toby prompted, feeling a growing sense of excitement.

Replying with another small shrug, Elliot chewed before considering his reply. "Not really."

"Yeah?" Toby's lips quirked into a curious grin. "Why's that?"

Elliot shoved another load of chicken into his mouth and chewed, frowning as he gave the question serious thought. "Dunno," he said at last.

"Oka-ay." Toby gave him a sideways glance. "I can see why you're not an English major."

Elliot laughed. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and poked the fork towards Toby. "Oh, yeah."

Toby grinned and shook his head. "Minimalist but ultimately, eloquent."

Elliot took a sip of juice. "And I suppose you're gonna tell me that means something real deep?"

"I might."

"Great." Elliot grunted and attacked his food. That was all he needed, another Huang in his life.

"Ah. I'm sensing that bothers you"


"You don't sound too sure." Toby grinned. "Maybe you think I'm trying to shrink you."

Elliot gave him the benefit of his well-practised stare. "Are you?"

"Now, that's one thing that's not crossed my mind, Elliot." Toby told him with a grin that outweighed the comment.

Elliot frowned and wondered if he was missing something. "Okay," he said, giving up trying to read the other man. He speared some meat and held it up to view before attacking it. Chewing, trying to fit this new information into the picture he was building around Mr. Tobias Beecher.

"You always study your food before devouring it?"

Elliot stopped chewing. "What?"

"Your food." Toby pointed. "You stare at it as if daring it to make a move."

Wrinkling his nose at the other man, Elliot shook his head. "You always analyse the way people eat?"

Laughing, Toby shook his head. "Why does my subject always make the jocks uneasy, I wonder?" he asked, sucking his juice through the straw. He glanced down at a stray droplet of orange and caught it with his tongue. He looked up, waiting for an answer.

Elliot stared. "Jesus wept," he whispered.

Toby looked back at him. "What?"

"That tongue..." Elliot winced. "My God."

Toby grinned. "What? This little thing?" He stuck out the object in question. It reached past his chin.

"What the hell?" Elliot leaned back in his chair. "You need a separate zip code for that? Or permit? God! Put it away!"

Choking back a laugh, Toby pulled his tongue in and wiped his chin with his hand. "I'll have you know this thing is very widely appreciated for its versatility."

Elliot shook his head. "By whom?" He held up a hand. "No, please. I don't think I want to know what you can do with that."

"You might be surprised," Toby told him, smirking.

Elliot stared. Was there an undercurrent to that statement? He wasn't sure. "Oh, doubt that, somehow," he said slowly.

"Don't be so sure." Toby gave a wink and gathered up his tray. He stood up and smiled down. "And you still owe me a coffee, Mr. Jock. I haven't forgotten. What are you doing after class tomorrow?"

"Um... Not much, I guess," he said, making the snap decision that buying Toby a cup of coffee fell under the directive 'get to know the suspects' - if he didn't look too closely at his reasons for wanting to spend time together. He reasoned with himself it was because he enjoyed their friendly banter and left it at that.

"Just a warning, Elliot..." Toby leaned over. "I don't do 'cheap'. I have great taste." He grinned and stood straight. "Forget the local joe. This is gonna cost you."

Elliot grunted and watched the other man walk away, a thoughtful look on his face. There was a little niggle at the back of his mind but he couldn't for the life of him think what bothered him about Tobias Beecher. Surely he wasn't so starved of male company that he was latching on to the first overture of friendship he'd received outside of work? Maybe he should talk to Cragen about it. Without knowing why, he brushed that thought aside almost as soon as it crossed his mind.

Chapter six

Elliot stretched out on top of his bed and yawned. He clicked the tv off and rolled over, rubbing his face in the pillow. It was nearly the weekend. God; he was looking forward to that more than he would have thought possible. Never mind the fact that he'd have to go into the station-house; that was fine; he was just pathetically grateful he didn't have to go into school.

Jesus, he thought, wriggling under the covers. It was just like being a kid again. Did all teachers think this way? Probably, he smiled, thinking of the mass exodus through the front doors at last bell. He sighed and pulled the covers up to his nose, turned on one side then the other.

Fifteen minutes later he flopped over onto his back. "Go to sleep, Stabler," he told himself, his voice sounding vaguely ridiculous in the dark.

He eased his eyes closed and instantly downloaded a full-colour snapshot of Tobias Beecher grinning at him. "Oh, God," he groaned. "Go away!" He threw himself over onto his belly. That damned man was driving him nuts. Everywhere he turned Tobias Beecher lurked; in the parking lot, the dining hall, the corridor. It was as if his subconscious was screaming at him to pay attention to the blond for some reason. And as much as he had trusted his gut instinct throughout his career, he found himself desperately hoping this time it was utterly wrong. He *really* didn't want Toby to be their perp.

Trouble was he didn't know exactly why that should be. It shouldn't matter to him who was the actual bad guy; all he ought to care about was catching him and slamming him behind bars. But a part of him cringed whenever he tried to fit Toby into the pattern. And that was driving him absolutely crazy.

He sighed and stared at the ceiling. He knew his grandmother would have tried to feed him some crap about past lives or freaky 'connection' being the reason he was pre-occupied with this guy. But past history and freaks aside, this was something he hadn't come across before. He'd never obsessed about another man like this.

A nasty little part of his mind held its hand up in the dark and pointed out that actually wasn't *strictly* true. He rubbed his face in his pillow, trying to erase the memory of gun oil and sweat from his mind; but without Kathy's presence in the bedroom, they seeped in under his defences, bringing the sting of something sharp and bitter along for fun.

Turning onto his back, Elliot forced his eyes wide open to stare up at the ceiling until he could justify the stinging in his eyes as something other than what it really was. The empty bed offered no protection against regret as the memories slipped in, eager to join him and cuddle up.

It hadn't been his fault; not really, he'd told himself in the years that followed. He had been very young, and Digger had been very, very insistent. Being young, horny and curious enough to wonder what it felt like to have another guy put his hands on you was no big deal - just part and parcel of being barely twenty and in the Marines. But you didn't tell *anyone* that you kept going back for more of the same; and you certainly didn't mention it to your new wife You just buried it all under twenty years of guilt and denial.

Elliot brutally scrubbed his face with both hands, disappointed with the way that his body tented his sheets. He was embarrassed that he still felt that way about Digger and in turn, angry that he should feel that way. As he lay there, studiously ignoring his erection, the thought suddenly occurred to him that Toby possessed the exact same shade of hair as Digger.

"Oh, Jesus," he said very quietly, not sure if it was a curse or an entreaty.


Tobias Beecher rolled over in his bed and sighed. It was two hours since he'd turned out the light and he was still wide awake. Actually, he was so tired he felt like he could sleep on a chicken's lip, but the sad little flip-chart of Elliot Thomas he held in his head just wouldn't go away.

Every time he closed his eyes, his sub-conscious slapped a full-color visual on the back of his mind. He possessed perfectly captured images of Elliot in the library, the corridors and the canteen - and one particularly delicious slow-mo movie of him strutting across the car park. As usual, those scenes rattled rapidly through his head like foreplay. And as usual, they were followed by better ones from his imagination.

In his head he watched Elliot slowly undressing before he took a long, leisurely shower. After that Toby gave himself a stunning visual of a damp Elliot prowling across his bedroom to lounge in his bed. And naturally, that lead to him lying on top of the other man, licking the droplets of water from his skin, one by one.

Toby groaned and rubbed his face in his pillow. When did he turn into such a fucking pervert? Just about the time Elliot Thomas walked into the Admin Office, his dick replied. Jesus; it was hard again - seemed like he spent every waking moment with that part of his body pushing at the front of his pants. Thank God he taught at a desk.

Sighing with resignation, he flung himself on his back and reached over to the nightstand. No sense in fighting it, he told himself as he pushed the sheet down. He'd have to go the store for more of this stuff, he thought as he squeezed a small splurge of moisturizer into his palm. He eased his hand over his aching dick and his eyes slid shut as he gently squeezed his cold fist over himself. Shit. Yeah - that was good.

He had it down to a fine art now - all he had to do was close his eyes and it was instantly Elliot's mouth on him. He pushed his hips up into his fist, a tiny groan of appreciation dribbling between his lips.

In his mind, Elliot was lying naked between his legs holding his pelvis tight, forcing him to lie still. His imaginary Elliot slid his mouth up and down twice and then took his cock right to the back of his throat. Toby whimpered, teetering on the very edge of orgasm as his Elliot held his cock in the depths of his throat.

One more push. He held himself back, prolonging the sensation. One more push.

Behind his closed lids he watched Elliot look up at him and slide his mouth back up the shaft, those intense eyes never leaving his as he held the very tip of Toby's cock between his lips. Toby watched him smile as he rubbed the underside of his cock head with the flat of his tongue. The rough texture sparked fireworks in Toby's groin - he shoved against the restraining hands as Elliot's mouth opened and swallowed him back down, sucking hard.

With a strangled groan, Toby came hard into his fist.


Elliot rolled over, buried his head in the pillow and groaned, his hips grinding down, pressing his erection into his mattress. Those memories still had a power over him that he couldn't deny, however many cold showers and Hail Mary's he forced on himself. Twenty years was a long time to pretend he couldn't remember the things Digger did to him that made his dick ache; a long time spent pretending to be the perfect husband and father. And just look how that had turned out.

Elliot rolled over in frustration, his hand resting on his chest - instantly bringing back the memory of another big hand touching his body. No man had touched his bare chest before or since - his father hadn't been interested in physical contact, his brothers only in fighting.

He remembered how Digger's hand had made him shiver; rough enough to make his touch almost painful. He shuddered as his hand brushed over first one nipple, then the other. Lying in the dark, staring at the ceiling but seeing only the rough canvas of a Marine tent, he ran his palm across his quivering stomach, tracing the remembered path further down to the rise of his pubic bone.

His breathing already harsh in anticipation, he forced himself to wait, his conscience struggling with this delicious, aching need. He was single now, so why should jerking off to Digger's memory be something to feel bad about? He ran his tongue over his lips, staring at the ceiling. He had kept such thoughts at bay while Kathy had been in his bed, he could count on one hand the times he'd weakened and found relief in the past. Count them on the hand that now crept over his groin to grasp his penis.

Unencumbered by guilt, his hand made the decision for him. Fingers at first caressed, then grasped harder, staying true to the memory of how it had felt all those years ago. Hard and fast, the other hand roughly pulling at his balls.

It didn't take very long. Sensitized by months of abstinence and the freedom to recall every stroke, Elliot shuddered with a swift orgasm that bordered on painful. Straightening his arched back, he let his breath out through clenched teeth and gradually relaxed, his hand glued to his cock.

Fuck-Shit-Damn, he thought glaring up in the dark, angry at himself - not for relenting and jerking off, or even for making a mess on his clean sheets, but for the realization that although he'd started off by thinking of Digger, it was the thought of another blond man that had pushed him over the edge.

Chapter seven

"Get into pairs, guys; and without all the fuss you made last lesson, okay?" Elliot mentally steeled himself for an afternoon packed with 90 minutes of torture. The lower end of the grades weren't too foul to teach, but the upper age-group was whole other ball game.

"Kinsett and Brown, put those earrings on my desk." He held up a finger. "No; no arguments. You can have them back at the end of the day, if you come ask me real nicely. I don't want to see you wearing them in gym time again, you hear?"

He turned slightly. "Jones, don't think I can't see you; get down from there, and Rodriguez, if I have to tell you about that again..." He winced. "Yeah, you know *exactly* what I'm talking about, young lady; just quit it, okay? And Pugh, I don't think any of us need to see quite that much of your bare skin. No, trust me, we don't. Pull your shirt down or report to the Principal's office, okay?"

Sighing, he put his hands on his hips. Raising his voice to a level that got the attention of all present, he jerked his chin towards the window. "Let me ask you; how many laps around the school field will it take to get you focussed, today?" He gazed around at sullen faces. "You don't wanna find out? Well then, perhaps we can make a start on the lesson before I start drawing my pension?"

As twenty-odd teenaged girls began to do stretches and warm-up routines, Elliot glanced at his watched and mentally counted off the minutes until the end of the day.


The piercing squeal went up at around ten minutes before the end of the lesson. Elliot's head whipped round to locate the incident, his hand automatically reaching for a non-existent gun.

"Mr. Thomas! Rosie broke her leg!"

Battling the urge to slap the over-excited squealer, Elliot pulled his hand away from his imaginary holster and strode over to where one of his pupils lay sprawled on the floor.

"What now?" he snapped.

"Rosie broke her..."

He held up a hand. "I don't need a half-assed House diagnosis, thank you." There was a snigger at his words and he frowned, angry at himself for using inappropriate language. "What've you done now, Rosie?"

"I fell."

"No? Really?" Two could do the sarcasm thing, Elliot thought as he crouched down to look at the offending limb. He reached out a finger.

"NO! It hurts!" The girl pulled her leg away.

"Hurts like the time you broke your arm?" he said, with a raised eyebrow. "Or like the time you broke your head?"

A teenaged lip pooched out. "Yeah, well; this *does* hurt. Look." She pulled her sock down to show a slight discoloration to the skin.

Elliot grinned. "Well, what d'you know? An actual injury. How 'bout that? Must be your lucky day."

"You're horrible, you know that?" Rosie said with a scowl.

"Yeah? Must be the company I keep." He stood up. "You'd better go to the nurse's station, okay?"

"I can't walk."

"Yeah, you can."


"I'm sure you can."

"I *can't*!"

The pooched lip wobbled slightly and Elliot frowned. Last thing he wanted was a complaint about reducing a pupil to tears. He rolled his eyes. "So just what do you suggest I do, Rosie?

The girl smiled at him, all thoughts of snivelling seemingly gone. "You could carry me to the nurse."

Elliot looked down at her. "I'm *not* carrying you."

"I can't walk."

"Yeah, you can." He looked around. "You two, give her a hand up." He snapped his fingers. "C'mon."

"We can't lift her, Mr. Thomas, she's way too heavy." The small crowd backed away.

Elliot's frown deepened. "C'mon, you guys."

"No way. Besides- " A girl with impossibly heavy eye makeup stepped forwards. "It's against school regs for us to lift each other. We might injure ourselves. We could, like, sue the school, y'know?"

Elliot stared incredulous. He looked from one face to another, reading absolute refusal to comply with this basic request. "And what about if I injure *myself*?"

"You won't; you're much stronger than we are."

There was a staccato of anonymous giggles at that. Elliot blew an aggravated breath out, unable to decide if he was being mocked or set up. He glared down at Rosie. "You sure you can't stand?"

"Oh, quite sure, Mr. Thomas." The girl smiled and held her arms up in anticipation.

A set of warning bells as loud as squad car sirens went off inside Elliot's head. Never mind the possibility of injuring himself, the reams of paperwork involved in an accusation of impropriety was enough to make him hesitate. Rosie smiled up at him as he scowled, running several escape plans through his mind.

"Rayda," he said, turning to a wide-eyed girl with alarming lamb-hair. "Go down the corridor, see if there's anyone around."

"But why?..." she began.

"Just go, okay?" he barked, instantly regretting the way it made her jump. He watched her trot across the gym, her hair bouncing and promised he'd apologize to her, later. He turned back and sighed, regarding the crumpled girl on the floor.

"I think you're quite strong enough to carry her, Mr. Thomas," a thin-looking brunette told him, leaning in a little too close for Elliot's comfort. "I mean, she's not very heavy, and just look at the size of your arms." Elliot's face was blank, the inference not registering until he felt a finger tracing down his arm from shoulder to elbow.

"Don't," he said, standing up quickly. The narrow-eyed expression on Rosie's face and the seductive trace of a finger that lingered on his skin more than answered his question; he was being set up. He stepped back a touch, his foot landing on the top of someone else's; he stumbled, apologizing instinctively as several girls reached out to steady him. It was on the tip of his tongue to thank them, until it sank in that these 'steadying' hands where staying longer than strictly necessary; one on his side, another below his track pants waist, just about on the swell of his ass.

A flush of embarrassment rushed through him. The sirens had been joined by the chorus of an old 80's song. This was not good; this was *really* not good. He was alone, vulnerable and open to all sorts of accusations if he allowed this to escalate. He inhaled, moving back, inadvertently forcing the hand on his ass to press harder. He glanced behind, ready to shout as another girl slid in to stand impossibly close to him.

"Steady there, Mr. Thomas." she said in a low voice, placing her hand on his forearm.

The gym door slammed open, interrupting Sting's voice whispering in the back of his head.

"Need a hand, there?" a voice called across the floor.

Elliot turned, a surge of relief plummeting into a lurch of dismay as he saw Toby walking towards him. In a staff of over 30, he had to get *this* man coming to his rescue. Typical crappy karma - the memory of last night's frantic jerk-off session, still agonisingly fresh. Fighting a blush, he barely noticed the hands slipping away from his body.

"Yeah," he said, clearing his throat as the girls began to back away. "I think I'm gonna need some help gettin' Rosie to the infirmary."

Toby joined him in the crowd and looked down. "Rosie, huh?" He tilted his head one way then the other then smiled. Crouching down, he peered at Rosie's leg. "Well, which one is it, this time, Miss. Murray?" Rosie pouted at him. "Oh? Cat got your tongue, too?" Toby mocked. "Poor baby."

Elliot frowned, wondering what was up with Toby's attitude. "What's...?"

Toby held a finger up to interrupt. "Hang on, there, Mr. Thomas, I think Rosie has something she wants to say."

Elliot waited, watching Rosie's face darken and scowl. She made a face like she was chewing a razor blade, then sighed dramatically. "Oh, fuck it," she said at last. With a dramatic flounce, she stood up, put her hands on her hips and gave Toby a filthy look. "Happy?"

"Ecstatic," he told her with a grin, he stood up and pointed at her ankle. "You might want to invest in better quality makeup, y'know?"

Elliot stood with his jaw hanging as the bell for the end of lessons sounded, and his class made a mass exodus for the door, Rosie up there with the best of them, not a limp in sight. He stared at the swinging door. "What the hell?"

Toby laughed. "Behold, it's a miracle!"

Elliot gave him a sour look and folded his arms.

Toby shook his head, still chuckling. "Don't worry - you'll learn."

Elliot gave his an incredulous look. "Learn *what*, exactly?"

"The explosive combination."

Screwing his face up, Elliot shook his head. "Huh?"

Toby leaned towards him, his voice low. "You know - a roomful of hormonal girls, one drama queen..." He even leaned closer, his breath tickling the edge of Elliot's ear. "And one drop-dead *fucking* gorgeous teacher." Placing his hand on Elliot's shoulder Toby leaned back and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Ka-boom."

He winked and began to walk away, leaving Elliot standing in the middle of an empty gym, his eyes as wide as open as his mouth.

Chapter eight

"So give me the rundown on the Faculty," Olivia said from the other end of the phone line. "Who d'you like for this?"

Elliot scratched his chin and flipped the page in his notebook, balancing the phone on his shoulder. "Well, out of the thirteen male members of staff in school, I've narrowed it down to eight possibilities." He reeled off the names, subjects and details he'd collated almost from memory. "They all have the opportunity, but I'm not sure about motive."

"I'll pass your list on to the others. What about tendencies?"

Elliot ran his finger down the page. "Two of them are married with kids, three singletons, two dating women on staff and one..."


"Well, it seems to me this guy's got no love-life to speak of."

"Oh?" Olivia sounded interested.

"He doesn't seem to be interested in datin' at all. Lives alone up-town, so the office gossip goes."


Elliot didn't need to flip back the page. "Beecher," he said.

Liv made a thoughtful noise. "What d'you think?"

Elliot chewed his lip. "I don't know. He seems okay."

His partner sighed. "You talk to him at all?"

"Some," Elliot replied, wondering why he wasn't offering Liv the information about the break-time chats he and Toby enjoyed. The tips the other man had offered on surviving the business. And he certainly wasn't about to share what Toby had called him earlier. Or any of the other personal thoughts beginning to plague him. "He works in a different area to me."

"You need to talk with him. See what kind of vibe you get, Elliot. Get to know him."

Elliot squirmed in his office chair. Why did getting Olivia's okay to 'get to know' Toby feel weird? "Actually, I'm supposed to buy him a coffee later, to apologize," he said.


Elliot felt himself go warm. "I said something dumb to him; this is to make up for it."

"Great." Olivia sounded pleased. "Talk to him in depth. Feel him out."

The warmth Elliot was experiencing blossomed into a full-blown blush. "Oh, okay. Sure." He was immensely thankful he wasn't face-to-face across the desk when she said that. He'd never get away with the change of color in his face. As he raised his eyes to roll them, he got a sharp jolt at the sight of the man under discussion leaning against the doorjamb, staring across the room at him. His guts bounced up then plummeted through the office floor in a nano-second.

On the other end of the line, Olivia was still speaking. "Keep me updated, on everything, Elliot. And you take care, okay?"

Elliot opened his mouth, simultaneously wondering what Toby had overheard, and what he should say next. "Yeah, I will." He ran his tongue over his lips. "So, I, um... love you, too, honey," he said in desperation.

He gently placed the receiver down, cutting short Olivia's screeched response. He watched Toby's eyebrow crawl up his face. Elliot cleared his throat. "Hey."

"Hey." the other man said, a smirk hinting around his mouth. "'Honey'?"

Elliot stared, a thousand different replies fizzing through his head. He shrugged, unable to decide what to say.

"The little woman?" Toby teased.

"God, no." Elliot frowned, an automatic response to the thought of Olivia in that context. "Nothing like that." He fiddled with the blotter on his desk.

Toby pursed his lips, noting Elliot's defensive reaction, the nervous fingers and the frown. He tucked them all away in the 'There's Hope, Yet' drawer in his head and gloated.

"Right, okay, then." He clapped his hands together. "Get your shit sorted out, Mr. Phys. Ed., it's payback time."


The small, intimate coffee house wasn't what Elliot had been expecting. It seemed a little too quiet, dark and mysterious to be viable, but Toby had been right about one thing - the prices. He winced as he paid and carried the tray over to the table. The prices must be how the place kept going with so few customers. Or maybe that was why there were so few.

"Shit, man. You weren't kidding about your taste in coffee," he grumbled, placing the tray down.

Toby laughed. "My taste in everything is impeccable."

"I'll have to remember that," Elliot grumbled, sinking into an impossibly soft chair. "God, this is a great chair," he sighed, wriggling his ass to get comfy. "Think I could buy this for my apartment?"

"I would imagine; most things are available for the right price."

Elliot closed his eyes and leaned back, thinking about that comment, but deciding he was reading too much into it.

Across the table, Toby watched him, relishing the opportunistic moment. His eyes raked over Elliot's face, tracing every line with his gaze. The other man was devastatingly handsome, even the generous nose didn't detract from his appeal. It didn't take much of an imaginative leap for Toby to place that relaxed body on the crisp white sheets of his bed, lying waiting for him to explore every inch. His mouth literally watered at the thought.

"Shall I be mother?" he asked, with a slightly unsteady voice.

"Yeah, sure," Elliot sighed, his eyes still shut.

Pouring the coffee, adding the cream and one sugar in his own, Toby leaned back in the chair dragging his mind from the now rumpled sheets. "No sugar, right?"

Elliot opened his eyes. "Right." He was surprised. "How...?"

"I pay attention in the lounge."

"Oh." He leaned forward to take the mug. "Thanks."

Toby watched as his companion sipped at the hot mug full. "You like it?"

Elliot nodded. "Yeah - great."

"That's a good one to start off with."

"What've you got?"

"Darker blend." Toby held the mug out. "Want to try it? Might be a little strong for you, though."

As predicted, Elliot took both the challenge and the mug with a small frown. "You think?" he said, narrowing his eyes.

Clearly the competitive type, Toby smiled to himself - learning this man was so much fun. "Perhaps. But then I don't really know which direction your tastes go, do I?"

Elliot gave the other man a peculiar look over the rim of the mug as he sipped. That sounded very much like he was being sounded out for something - maybe Mr. Beecher was trying to find out if his tastes extended to kiddie porn. Maybe he wasn't so far off with his gut instinct that there was something more to this man than met the eye. But he hoped not.

"Shit!" Blinking in surprise, Elliot held the mug away. "Damn, that's got a hellva bite to it!"

Toby smiled.

"You like to live dangerously," Elliot said, handing the drink back and licking his lips.

"Indeed," Toby held Elliot's gaze as his tongue slipped out to gather up the drop his mouth had left behind. He made a production of gathering Elliot's leftovers up with his tongue. The hot side of the mug and knowledge that he was being observed sent a terrifically erotic jolt through his body, and judging by the way Elliot's brow knotted together, it clearly bothered him too. Toby placed the mug on the tray and Elliot's eyes slipped down to his own drink. He looked a little confused and a little worried. Both of those emotions were fine with Toby, just as long as 'turned on' was hidden away in there somewhere, too.

Toby sat back and lifted his chin. Time to poke the cage. "So, Elliot; a little bird tells me you've been asking questions."

Elliot looked up quickly, guilt written all over his face. "Yeah?" Shit, he thought he'd been discreet; so much for his abilities as a detective. "About what?"

"Me," Toby said, looked smug, steepling his fingers together. "Now, why would that be, d'you think?"

Elliot shrugged. "Dunno."

Toby sat in silence, regarding the other man. He watched as he began to fidget again. Elliot was clearly uncomfortable, but Toby wasn't sure why. He filed the slight blush and defensively folded arms away for later reference. In his head, the drawer labelled 'There's Hope' slid open. "Well, whatever the reason, I'm flattered," he said, at last.

Elliot pulled a face, but didn't say anything. Damn the rumour-mill. Word got around faster than the 'flu in a girls' school. That thought made his mouth twitch.

"Something funny?" Toby asked.

"No... Well, maybe."

"Care to share?"

Elliot shrugged. "It's nothin', really."

Toby gave a little smile. "You're a strange one, Elliot."

Laughing softly and taking a sip of his coffee, Elliot nodded. "I can't argue with that." He blew out a breath. "Just ask my wife."

The 'Hope' drawer in Toby's mind slammed shut so fast it made him blink. "Oh?"

"Well, ex-wife, actually." Elliot rolled his eyes. "Geez, I think it took her all of five minutes to get over me after the divorce was finalised. Guess I was a little too 'strange' for her, too."

"Ah, I see." The drawer slid open, just a sliver. "Is it too personal to ask what happened?"

Elliot shrugged. "You know, I still haven't figured that one out, yet. But apparently 20 years isn't long enough to make your mind up what you want out of life." He frowned. He had never verbalized that feeling before.

"For you, or her?"

Elliot stared at across the table for a long time without answering. Toby didn't think he was looking at him, but rather something inside of himself.

"Both of us, I guess," he said at last, so softly that if Toby hadn't been staring at his lips, he might have missed the words.

"Well, they do say you never stop learning."

Elliot's gaze slowly focussed. "Yeah. Right; I'm sure learning a lot of stuff about being suddenly single and past 40."

"Welcome to my world."

Elliot smiled. "We make a right couple, huh."

Toby grinned back, his mental drawer flinging itself wide open. "Why, Elliot, this is so sudden," he laughed.

Elliot looked confused for a moment, before blushing furiously. "You know what I mean," he muttered.

"Oh, go on," Toby teased. "Don't spoil the moment."

Elliot shook his head, smiling, and willing his blush response to calm the fuck down. The sudden visual of the two of them as a couple had slammed into his head and rolled in an untidy, panting heap next to his imagination. The visual had jolted him so deeply it took his breath away - mainly because of the way his ego was busy jerking off to that thought. He busied himself over his mug. "Behave," he muttered, his blush and smile taking any real venom from the word.

Toby just carried on laughing, loving gentle teasing of the moment and the way Elliot hadn't stomped on him for making the comment. "Hey, I'm past 40, too. I think I earned the right not to behave if I don't want to."

"Is that so?"

Toby nodded. "I think it's a moral obligation of the over 40's not to give a shit any more, don't you?"

Elliot laughed. "I think you're gonna lead me into temptation."

"Only if you want me to." Toby kept his tone light. He was treading carefully, wanting to get a clear green light before crossing the line.

Elliot was staring at the other man, his mug gripped tightly in his hand to stop himself from cupping the other man's face. The urge to lean over to taste that bitter coffee straight from Toby's tongue was making his hands shake. He swallowed. "If I'm the best you can find to tempt, you need to set your sights a little higher, man."

Toby laughed. "Hell, at my age, my sights can only cope being set on one gorgeous man at a time."

Elliot swallowed. "That's twice in one day you've said that about me."

"And your point is?" Toby teased, his eyes sparkling with amusement.

"Well..." Elliot hesitated.


"I'm just not used to it, is all," he finished lamely.

"Being told you're gorgeous, or being told you're gorgeous by another man?"

Elliot smiled slightly. "Both," he said softly.

Toby inclined his head. "I applaud your honesty." He sipped his drink.

"Thank you."

When Elliot offered no further comment, Toby grabbed his courage and swallowed his pride. "So, Elliot; do you *want* me to lead you into temptation?"

Elliot held the other man's gaze for a long time while he thought about his reply. The tone of voice, the look on Toby's face had made Elliot shiver slightly. The unspoken question about the other man's sexuality was now answered without a shadow of doubt. All that remained was for Elliot to decide whether he had the courage to admit out loud that the attraction was mutual.

Technically speaking, he was free to do whatever he wanted with whomever he chose; but just as technically, Toby Beecher was still a suspect in an ongoing investigation.

But despite all the reasons why it was a very bad idea to think of Toby in less than a strictly professional manner, there were two things buzzing around inside his head like two bi-polar wasps, driving him nuts. One was the way Digger's hands had felt on his body, and the other was the thought that Toby's hands would feel the same way.

No, it was professional suicide and just plain crazy for him to even entertain the *thought* of exploring a relationship; so he didn't know which of them was more surprised when the words finally made it out of his mouth. "Don't think I'd take much leading."

Toby's entire body flushed as Elliot's words filtered into his brain. He'd been fully expecting a verbal slap for flirting so openly. A stupid grin began to spread across his face; he toned it down in an effort to appear less like a raving lunatic.

"Maybe I should amend 'strange', to surprising," he said, tilting his head in acknowledgement.

"Yeah, well," Elliot shrugged with one shoulder. "I'd hate to be predictable."

Toby laughed. "That's certainly one thing you're not. I'm intrigued - what other surprises do you have hidden away, Coach Thomas?"

And that was when it hit hard. Elliot placed his mug on the tray. One other thing Elliot Thomas Stabler had hidden away, was that he was a fully paid-up police officer. What the hell was he doing? The coffee turned bitter in his mouth. He looked up.

"Toby," he said, hating the way his mouth seemed to relish the word. "I..." He hesitated. What could he say that wouldn't sound either moronic or trite?

Opposite, Toby sat very still. "You, what?"

"I have... Um... I have-" Elliot shook his head in annoyance at his lack of mature, adult articulation. "I'm-"

"What? You're irredeemably straight? Have a secret brood of kids?" Toby smiled a little sadly, feeling the hope slide away, dragging his dignity and pride with it. "Or maybe you're really a woman?"

Elliot smiled. "No, yeah-" He shook his head sharply, eyebrows knitting together in a deep frown. "Look, it's not that I don't-" He squirmed. "You know? It's just, well, things are..."

"Complicated?" The word had years of resigned disappointment draped all over it.

"No - yeah." Elliot groaned and put his head in his hands. "I don't know how to say this - what I mean is, I don't- you know..." He inhaled and tried to gather his words. "I'm not..."

"I get it, Elliot."

"You don't, you really don't."

"Yeah," Toby felt his mouth trying to dredge up a smile. "I do. You don't have to pussyfoot around the issue."

"I'm not trying to-"

"And please don't insult me by feeding me pathetic lies."

Elliot stared across the table at the face that had been keeping him awake for days and felt his insides shrivel at the hurt all over it. "Oh, shit," he breathed softly.

"Yep; that'll be the one."

"Toby, I-"

Toby placed his mug down on the table. "No, it's okay, Elliot. I understand."

"No, you don't."

Toby nodded, standing up. "No, really, I do. I've been here before, I know how it goes." He gave a bittersweet smile. "I won't make a scene; I'll be cool at work. I'm a big boy." He laughed without any trace of humour. "Not that you're the least bit interested in *that*, of course." He moved around the table and looked down. "See you around, Coach Thomas."

"Toby..." Elliot reached out to snag the other man's hand, but Toby neatly side-stepped.

"No. I don't think so. I'm not one for playing the drama queen." Allowing himself a long moment to stare into eyes that he still thought were just too beautiful to belong to a man, Toby nodded and walked away.

Elliot bit the inside of his cheek to stop himself from shouting after him as the other man strode across the room. His hands gripped the arms of the chair to keep from striding between the tables to grab him back.

Chapter nine.

The ringing of the telephone dragged Elliot from the shallows of unsatisfactory sleep. He screwed his face up and reached across the bed to the dresser and snagged the cell without opening his eyes.

"What?" he snapped.

"Is that any way to answer your phone?" Olivia asked.

"You woke me up."

"Elliot, it's eleven thirty."

"What?!" Elliot craned to look at his bedside clock. "Shit," he muttered.

"Yeah, shit. Dad wants to know where the hell you are, and I'm running out of excuses to cover your ass."

"Oh, fuck."

"You said it, partner. Now quit 'fucking' and get said ass in here."

She rang off before he could bite back about her lewd assumptions. He threw the phone down the bed and rubbed his face. Christ. He was screwed; and not in a good way.


The door slammed as he left Cragen's office - hard enough to make the glass rattle and Elliot wince. The reaming out he'd just gotten for being late had just about put the cap on the end of a week in which he felt like an unwilling participant in an insomnia experiment. It hadn't helped that he'd made exactly zero progress in tracking down the perp - something that Cragen had outlined in blistering detail, for the best part of half an hour.

He offered no defence; just nodded in the appropriate places and agreed that he had no idea what the fuck was wrong with him and that needed to get his thumb from up his ass and make an effort to do his damned job.

Cragen's bawling-out had nicely rounded off one of the most excruciating weeks he'd ever spent, plagued with trying to ignore his semi-permanent hard-on. He was just about wiped out.

"Tough meeting, huh?" Olivia handed him a mug of coffee as he collapsed into his chair.

"You'd better believe it." He took a long swallow from his mug, immediately comparing it unfavourably with the coffee he had shared with Toby.

"No leads, then?"

"Nope. No clues, no X marks the spot, no trail of breadcrumbs; nothing."

"Oh." Olivia sipped her own drink, her elbow on the desk, staring at him.

Elliot bore the scrutiny for a minute or two, then scowled across the scattered paper. "What?"


"Quit it, then."

"Quit what?"

"You know what."

"Nope." She shook her head.

Having the benefit of siblings who took psychological torture to the extreme, Elliot wasn't going to fall for that one. He leaned forward. "Quit *staring*, damn it!"

"I wasn't."

"Yeah, you were." He shuffled the papers on his blotter.

"I wasn't - I was just looking."

He let at least 30 seconds go by before he had to ask. "Looking at what?"


He narrowed his eyes. "Me?"

"You look like shit, El."

"Wow - gee, thanks. I appreciate that. You wanna kick me in the balls while you're at it?" he snapped.

Her eyebrows rose. "I'm just saying..."

"Don't feel you have to."

"Well, excuse me for giving a damn," she sniffed.

Elliot sat and stewed in the icy silence between them. She was right, he knew; he did look like shit, his bathroom mirror had told him as much this morning. But she didn't have to actually say it, did she? He wouldn't dream of telling *her* she looked like shit.

"I'm sorry," he said eventually. "This case is driving me absolutely crazy. I seem to be running as fast as I can just to be one step behind. Man, I'm just so fuckin' tired."

She tilted her head to one side, regarding him. "Yeah, I can see that." Smiling to show she forgave him, she put her mug down. "You okay, El? I mean, apart from being tired, that is? You seem, I dunno, sad, somehow."

Elliot stared at her. "Sad?"

She just shrugged. Elliot took another mouthful off coffee. He didn't know what to say to her.

"Maybe I'm just reading too much into the bags under your eyes," she smiled.

He gave her a sour look. "Don't start."

She held her hands up. "I give in. You look fine; No-one's hijacked your smile, wrinkled tees shirts are 'in' this year and the unshaven look is just a fashion-statement, okay?" She stood up. "I'm going to get a sandwich and I'll bring you back a warm chicken sub. And when I do, partner, the 'real' Elliot Stabler had better be sitting in that chair, or I'm going to stomp your food to death. Clear?"

He grinned. "Crystal, boss."


"Extra mayo," he called as she stomped out of the squad room.


Wednesdays stunk; it was official. Not only were there two more damned days in the week to get through, but having two back-to-back periods of aerobic classes in a gym shirt that felt like a straight-jacket had shrivelled Elliot's sense of humor to the size of a flea's gonad.

Despite being at opposite ends of school, the fates contrived to have him bump into Toby at every damned opportunity. They found themselves two cars down in the car park; were placed opposite one another in the world's longest staff meeting, and ended up standing next to one another in the cafeteria two days running. There had been no offer to sit down at Toby's table on those days, and he didn't think the rest of this week was going to be any different.

There was no animosity, as promised; Toby was unfailingly polite to him, spoke when spoken to, but that crazy spark of fun he'd seen dancing in the other man's eyes had vanished. Gone, too, was the expression of desire Toby had whenever he looked in Elliot's direction. And Elliot missed that look more than he would have thought possible.

The last two classes had suffered mightily for his ill-temper and lack of sleep.

"Do it again," he yelled, closing his ears to the cries of protest from the gasping pupils sprawled on the gym floor. "Do it again and get it right, this time - and if I hear any more whining I'm gonna make you do it BACKWARDS!"

He stood scowling as the girls dragged themselves up, his hands on his hips, breath ragged from keeping up with them and a light sweat breaking out on his face. He could feel his shirt sticking to his back and knew he was being a stereotypical hard-bastard coach, but he wasn't about to allow himself or them, to ease up. A tough workout would do the kids more good than harm, and maybe if he pushed himself hard enough, he'd be too exhausted to lie awake in his bed thinking about Toby.

"Faster!" he shouted, jogging alongside the slowest in the class. "C'mon! You can do it! Pick it up!"

He followed the class's desperate scramble over the equipment, scolding, cajoling, verbally nipping at their heels, pushing them relentlessly over obstacles, under bars, around skittles until his chest heaved, every breath caught in his throat and there was no sound but the strangled gasps and groans in the room. An untidy heap of girls collapsed along the edge of the gym, resentment burning in their eyes, but lacking the energy to complain. Elliot glared right back.

"You got three minutes to get your breath back then we do it again," he snapped. "Faster."

A chorus of appalled protest rang out, all who were physically capable of voicing their dissent. Elliot just shook his head. "Uh-uh. One more time." The course he set up in the gym was as close as he could make to the NYPD physical exam. He reasoned with himself that he was doing the girls a favour by giving them a taste of how tough it was to pass the test to get on the force. It hadn't crossed his mind to wonder if any of the girls actually thought about joining up.

"Mr. Thomas?"

Elliot was standing with his back to the class, staring into space, trying to stifle the images of Toby, desperately trying to recapture the feeling of exhilaration he got when he passed his own test.

"Mr. Thomas, sir."

Maybe when this was all over he could explain to Toby what he hell he had been playing at, giving him such a bunch of mixed signals. As long as Toby wasn't involved in the case, that is. Elliot frowned, the very idea stinging him somewhere deep inside.

"Mr. Thomas!"

The slight panic in the voice cut through Elliot's dark thoughts. He turned. "What?"

"Maz says she's gonna puke, sir." A girl with impossibly blonde hair pointed to her left. Elliot glanced over. Maz sat very still, a glassy look in her eyes, her skin a waxy mask of misery.

"Meryl?" He frowned and stepped forward. "You okay?"

A small shake of the head said that Meryl wasn't about to trust herself to open her mouth to let even the tiniest of words out.

Elliot and weighed up the odds the girl was exaggerating against the task of cleaning up a pile of puke. He sighed, erring on the side of the least distasteful scenario. "Okay. Take yourself into the locker room and get a drink of water. Sit down for a minute and see if you feel any better."

Maz stood up very carefully, her legs shaking slightly. She made her way very slowly across the gym, avoiding all the equipment as if it might leap out and bite her.

"Okay; the rest of you-"

"Oh, God; can't we rest a bit more, sir?"

Elliot's eyes raked across the crumpled class. "Rest? You just had a rest!"

"Yeah, all of two minutes," came a grumble from the back of the group.

"That might be two minutes more than you get in the field," he snapped back.


Baffled expressions across swept the class. Elliot could have slapped himself. "I mean, if you were in some kind of tricky situation."

"Like what?"

He bit at his bottom lip, trying to think of a cover-up. "Oh, you know, like out on the street, or something."

A bark of ironic laughter turned his head. "On the street? You think we're gonna be running the gauntlet of skittles and gym mats on the streets? Whaddya think we're gonna be doing? Being chased by the cops?" Any girl that had breath left, laughed out loud.

Elliot rolled his eyes. "I'm not talking literally, Einstein; just that life's not always a laugh-riot; you need to be on top of your game if you're gonna have a fighting chance out there."

A girl called Eva, with more mascara than was necessary shook her head. "Man, that spell in the Marines musta really screwed with your head, Mr T."

Elliot blinked. "What?" He scowled, annoyed to feel a guilty stab low in his belly. "What d'you mean?"

Eva pointed to his arm. "Marines. You got the same tat as my uncle. You're a jar-head." A snicker rippled around the class.

Elliot shrugged. "I served, yeah."

"Figures," the girl sighed. "Uncle Pete's a real fuckin' hard-ass, too." The snicker turned to murmurs of agreement.

"Language," he warned half-heartedly. "Or you can do a circuit all by yourself."

"Hey-" the girl held up her hands. "I give up, man. Peace."

Elliot checked his watch without really looking at it. "Yeah, well - it's time we went round again."

The chorus of disapproval almost gave him second thoughts. He shook his head, determined to do what he set out to do. "Uh-uh. Top of your game, remember?"

"I say we wait for Maz. I mean, she'd hate to be left out." Eva grinned and folded her arms.

He checked his watch, really looking a it this time. "Yeah, go see how she's doin', Charlie," he said to the last girl in the line. "Tell her to get a move on."

"Do I have to?"

He gave her a look, glanced meaningfully at the equipment laid out waiting, then stared back at her again. Rolling her eyes with a huge sigh, Charlie got up and stalked across the gym, muttering as she went.

"I heard that," Elliot called after her, resisting the urge to grin, the tall girl reminding him so much of Olivia it was priceless.

A girl with cropped hair held up her hand. "Is this something you have to practise, Mr. Thomas, or does it come naturally?"

Elliot blinked. "Huh?"

"That look."

He stared at her. "What look?"

"The one like you're shitting broken glass."

With their breath back, the laughter rang out through the entire gym. Elliot bit down on his cheek to keep from joining in.

"Observant, if not particularly articulate, Kia."

"I try." She nodded, acknowledging that he had let her get away with that one.

"Maybe you'd do better if..." He paused as Charlie came up to him. "Well?"

"She's gone, sir."


Charlie sighed. "Gone; as in 'not there'?"

An freezing wave of dread washed over Elliot from his head to his training shoes, instantly chilling his sweaty body. Gone. She was gone. Gone from the gym that he was supposed to be observing in order to catch a pervert that wanted to... The cold wave turned to ice, curdling his lunch, making him feel sick.

"Oh, shit," he muttered, his feet already moving towards the changing room doors.

A lone voice called after him. "Sir?"

"Everybody, stay here!" he yelled over his shoulder.


"STAY!" he roared as he piled through the double doors without bothering to look back.

Gone, gone, gone...

The word chanted in time with his harsh breathing as he crashed into the room. He snatched glances left and right, making sure Charlie wasn't mistaken, all the while, Cragen's voice screamed at him that he had failed, he had let him down, let the squad down; but more unforgiving, he had let Meryl down.

"MERYL!" he yelled, not caring it came out more like a scream.

He pushed out into the corridor, almost falling over his own feet. He stumbled, arms pin-wheeling and glanced up as he crashed into the opposite wall. All the blood pounding in his head turned to ice.

Chapter ten

At the end of the corridor, Meryl was being escorted along by a man who had his arm around her shoulders. The guy had his other hand jammed in the girl's side.

Pushing himself away from the wall, Elliot moved to follow. He held his tongue, forcing himself not to shout out for fear of scaring the guy into doing something stupid.

He moved quicker, closing the distance between them. If he could just get close enough to make a move, he could maybe wrestle Meryl to safety. A door banged open and a group of students began to stream into the corridor. Elliot cursed silently and picked up his pace. Ahead, the man jumped with surprise and pulled Meryl closer, the rough movement making her cry out.

With the main corridor doors only yards away, Elliot could feel his chances of controlling the scene slipping away. If there was a car ready to go out there, if there was an accomplice, the next time he saw Meryl would be in Warner's office.

"Hey!" Elliot yelled, reaching automatically for a gun that wasn't there. He cursed the lack of weapon. The man spun around, one hand moving to grip Meryl around the neck. "Get away!" he screamed.

"Don't hurt her!" Elliot shouted back, holding his hand up.

"Stay back!"

Elliot slowed to a walk. "Be cool, man. I just wanna know what's up."

"None of your business, man, walk away."

Elliot shook his head. "Can't do that." He pointed. "Why don't you let her go and we can talk."

"Fuck you!" The man shook his hand and Meryl's head rocked back and forth. Judging by the way her face had gone from waxy to puce, Elliot could tell she was struggling to breathe. He held both hands out.

"Look, man. She's my responsibility - I can't let her leave."

The perp glanced behind, gauging how much further he had to go until he reached the main doors. "Fuck you. Ain't nothing to do with you. This is family business, okay?"

Elliot kept walking towards them. "I don't think so, do you? C'mon, you're hurting her." He pointed. "Hey, she can't breathe, man. Let her go." He took several long steps, closing the gap between them.

"Back off!" The guy screamed and pulled his other hand out from when it was hidden next to Meryl's side and Elliot felt his guts roll over. The gun pointed straight at him. No vest, no gun and no back-up; he was utterly screwed.

"Just cool it, okay?" he said, licking his lips. "Don't let things get crazy."

"Get back!" The gun wavered up and down.

"It doesn't have to be like this." Inside his mind, Elliot screamed for the other undercover guys to show up.

The man took several steps back, his gun still aimed dead on Elliot's chest. "Stay there."

Desperate not to let the distance between them increase, Elliot nodded agreement, but stepped forward, anyway.

And then everything seemed to happen at once. The bell rang out for the end of class and the trickle of students became a flood, lines of girls came from every direction, pouring into the corridor, between Elliot and the perp, so he only just caught sight of the way Meryl had begun to struggle, her elbow jamming into the man's side.

For several long seconds, things were just fine, then someone noticed the gun, screamed and all hell broke loose. Elliot began to run, pelting down the corridor as the man's face changed from first anger, then pain and confusion. Barrelling forward, he crashed through girl after girl, throwing them aside trying to get to the man before he totally freaked and began firing. Screams mingled with shouts of outrage and anger as girls bounced off the walls, pushed aside by Elliot, and somewhere in the mess, adult voices rang out, trying to bring calm to a situation that was about two seconds away from being deadly instead of just disorderly.

"NO!" Elliot screamed as the gun raised up levelled out. There were too many bodies between him and the perp - he couldn't make it, he couldn't stop it. "GET DOWN!" he yelled, not daring to spare a second to see if his order was obeyed.

The roar of the gun pierced his ears as the man fired, but the screams that followed hurt more than any bullet. He had seen the muzzle-flash, felt the air rip as the bullet tore past him but had no idea if any pupils had been shot. Furious beyond reason, he launched himself into the air, towards the struggling couple, arms outstretched, reaching for the gun. Another flash, more screams and another moment anticipating sickening pain that never came.

Hands sliding over the hot barrel, Elliot felt his fingers tangle in the trigger-guard, forcing him to push the gun towards the ceiling as momentum carried the full force of his weight down on to the other man. Another shot came close enough to score the skin on his temple, blazing a trail across flesh, the sound so close to his ears it was more painful than the burn itself.

Elliot found himself struggling to disarm the man, screaming in what, thanks to the ringing in his ears, was a silent, but throat-aching, yell. He rolled over and over, arms and legs striking him from every angle, far too many to be from just two people; Elliot realized that Meryl was still tangled up with them. He couldn't spare a moment to check if she was had been shot - it took all of his strength to keep the gun away from their bodies. The thought of a bullet piercing her spurred his efforts.

There was a loud crack as he took a nasty smack in the cheek, his head snapping back as the shock sparked a burst of absolute rage. Elliot replied with a short jab to the man's stomach, revelling in the deep crack he felt against his fist. Spurred on, he hit the man hard twice more in the same place, any ideas of fair play having been erased at his first sight of the gun. A shower of spittle sprayed his face as the breath was driven from the body underneath him. Elliot yanked the gun free and in a fit of furious disgust, head-butted the perp with one vicious crack to his forehead.

All the fight and remaining breath went out of the man with a sigh.

Elliot sagged in a sickening mixture of pain and relief, his breathing measured in ragged, harsh gasps. His ears still ached, but gradually, he found his hearing was trickling back. His head was flooded with crying, screams, and the sound of air rushing into his lungs. He closed his eyes for a second, getting himself together and assessing his personal damage. Everything seemed to be where it was supposed to be, apart from some bruises, a sore hand and an outrageous headache. He would look up and check everyone else in just a moment.

Something wriggled beneath him.

"Aw, man..." A voice penetrated his headache as a hand shoved at his chest. "You weigh a fuckin' ton, Mr. Thomas."

Elliot raised his head, and came up nose-to-nose with Meryl. She pulled a face and planted her hand in the middle of his chest. "Too heavy..."

Elliot finally got it, and nodded. "Oh, sorry." He pulled himself to his knees, being careful not to lean on the gun or hurt her any more. He slipped the safety on and looked down. "You okay?"

She looked up at him and shrugged. "I guess." Struggling to sit up, her finger traced a scratch on her stomach. Eventually, she pulled her tee shirt down from where it had ridden up.

"You okay?" Elliot asked again, more softly this time. "Really okay, I mean," he asked.

She pursed her lips and glanced up at him. "I've had better mornings," she said with a little smile.

"But you're not, you know?" he winced and looked her up and down, his other hand reaching towards her.


He pulled his hand back, rethinking the urge to comfort her.

She glanced down at her body. "Nah. I'm good."

"He didn't-" He shrugged. "You know..."

Eyes widening, Meryl grimaced. "No."

Breathing out in relief, he nodded. "That's good. And you handled yourself real well, there."


"Yeah, you did." He nodded. "And I'm sorry if I squashed you."

Meryl grinned. "You bet your fat-ass you squashed me."

"I'll cut back on the candy," he smiled.

"Nah - you're in pretty good shape," she said, smiling back. "For an old guy."

Elliot grinned despite his pounding headache, pleased with the backhanded compliment.

"Well, my old, fat ass and I, thank you, Maz."

As if using her nick-name was some kind of signal, her lip wobbled, her smile faded and her eyes filled with tears.

"Hey- it's okay. It's over." Elliot ignored his second thoughts and reached out to touch her shoulder. With a little hiccough, all teenage bravado crumpled, tears spilling from her eyes. Throwing the rule book away, he gathered her in his arms and hugged her tight, leaning his back against the wall. "It's okay, Sweetheart. Everything's gonna be fine," he whispered, stroking her hair as gently as he would to any of his daughters.

The babble of voices around him droned and rose, some hysterical, some excited, but Elliot ignored them for a moment. The perp wasn't going anywhere soon, and he was damned if he was going to play teacher a moment more. Someone else could handle crowd control.

Chapter eleven

"OW! Shit!" Elliot flinched and pulled his head away.

"Oh, behave, you big baby."

"It hurts!" he groused, pulling his head away again.

The school nurse sighed. "For goodness sake. It's just a scratch."

"Feels like a crater," he muttered, touching the scrape the bullet's path had made.

"Well, it's not. But if you want to go to the ER and get it checked out, be my guest." She threw the cotton ball down and stalked off.

"'Tis not as wide as a church door, nor deep as a well; but 'twill suffice."

Elliot looked up at the familiar voice. Munch grinned down at him.

"You took your time," he complained.

"Busy booking the bad guy," he said, perching on the edge of the desk.

"And?" Elliot poked at his head, wincing.

"Well, it seems our reckless gunman is a better cyber-perv than he is at kidnapping and shooting straight."

"Ugh, don't." Elliot could still hear those shots; he couldn't believe no-one had actually been hurt.

Munch chuckled. "Relax. He literally is the lone gunman. Almost broke down in tears when he woke up and found Odafin leaning over him. Couldn't wait to 'fess up."

Elliot pulled a face. "I'll bet."

The door opened and Olivia pushed her head around. "You decent, El?"

"I have a head wound - how indecent d'you think that could be?"

"Well, you never know," she grinned coming in the Lounge. "That nurse had a real gleam in her eye when she came out."

Munch laughed. "That was the urge to poke her patient in the eye."

Olivia peered at Elliot's forehead. "Ouch. Is that as painful as it looks?"

Elliot nodded. "Yeah," he said, moving away before she took it into her head to give it a test-poke.

"Poor baby."

He narrowed his eyes at her tone, but didn't rise to it.

"I got a crowd of impatient teachers out there, wanting to come in and get their stuff. You okay with that?"

"Sure." He could empathise with them wanting to get out of the place as quickly as possible. He'd had just about enough, too.

She went back and spoke a few words, and then the room was full of chattering staff, all grabbing bags, sorting out lockers and milling around.


Toby stood in the corner of the toilet stall, his head pressed against the partition, eyes closed tight. If he timed it just right, then all the fuss would be over and he could get his stuff from the lounge without having to catch sight of Elliot again. Long minutes went by with him staring at the inside of his eyelids, counting heartbeats.

Bad enough being brushed off, God knows he'd been *there* before, but add that to the knowledge that Elliot had only cozied up to him because he was on the lookout for a pervert, and that was the nail in his dignity's coffin. He felt used, abused and thoroughly sick.

When the news had broken about what had happened and who Elliot really was, he had been struck by a manic surge of hope; but that had quickly given way to slow realisation, indignation and finally fury. There had even been a fleeting moment when he'd felt ashamed, and that made him angrier than all the other feelings rolled up together.

Bastard. Not even Gen or his parents had succeeded in making him feel that way about himself. He might not be the most 'out' man in the world, but until today he had never felt dirty about being gay. Damn Elliot. Damn him to hell for making him feel that way; damn him for making him feel *anything*.


In the Lounge, Elliot fielded endless comments, mostly congratulations and words of appreciation. One or two thought it hilarious that he was really a cop, not a teacher.

"You ever want to get a proper job, Elliot, just you take your teacher's certificate and come back," Jones from Chemistry winked at him.

"I'll bear that in mind if I ever get the urge to self-destruct," Elliot smiled.

"Aw, c'mon," the assistant French tutor said. "Don't say you haven't relished every second of the past two weeks."

"Oh, yeah," Elliot nodded. "Loved it; really."

The guy pointed his finger like a gun at Elliot and laughed.

"I think you're very brave," a voice from behind him made Elliot turn.

"Oh, hi, Selma," he said, resisting the urge to back away. "Um - thanks."

She laid a wiry hand on his arm. "Very brave. I could see everything from my office." Her eyes travelled up and down his body.

Elliot wanted nothing more than to pull his arm away. "Oh, yeah? Well, y'know, I'm just doing my job."

Selma Fisher gave him a sharp-toothed smile before gliding away, leaving him with the urge to take a shower.

"See you've got a real fan, there," Munch whispered.

Elliot shot him a look that dared him to say anything else.

"I think it's sweet," Olivia said, leaning against the wall.

"You would."

"No, she's right," Munch said, looking inside the coffee pot. "We don't get to be the hero very often. You should make the most of if. Hey, does anyone actually *drink* this stuff?" He pulled a face. "It smells worse than ours."

"It is." Elliot took the pot from him and replaced it. "Don't touch." The pungent smell bought memories of the little coffee shop racing back, along with a sharp pang of regret. Would Toby show up? Surely the other man would have heard all about the excitement by now? He turned to stare across the crowed room. Maybe he'd get the chance to have a word with him before he had to get back to the station. To have a stab at putting things right between them.

He gazed around the room, every blond head making his stomach twist in anticipation. At his side, someone spoke.

"Uh-huh," he said with absent dismissal. He couldn't see Toby anywhere. He always came to the Lounge to get his stuff at night.

"You okay, El?"

"Huh? What?"

"I asked if you were okay?" Olivia stepped up and put a hand on his forehead. "Maybe you should go to the ER, just in case."

"Nah, I'm fine," he said. He glanced over her shoulder, straight into Toby's blue eyes. Elliot's insides leaped into a bucket of ice. He pulled his head away from Olivia's hand. "Don't."

"You're my partner, I'm allowed to fuss over you." She leaned closer and replaced her hand on his face. "You look ashen." He saw Toby's face harden and then look away as she touched him.

"I'm okay." Elliot stepped towards Toby, hoping for a word, a glance, but the other man was moving away from him through the crowd, towards the lockers.

"I think you should-" Olivia's hand fell away as he started across the room towards Toby. Elliot didn't bother turning to reply as she called his name.

His mouth set in a grim line, he pressed through the bodies in the Lounge. He was going to speak to Toby, whether he wanted to or not. He took a calming breath two steps away from his locker.


Toby didn't turn. "Hey." There was a pause. "*Detective*."

"It's still 'Elliot'."

Toby was busy filling his backpack with books, didn't look up or bother to answer. The locker was slammed and locked. Finally, he turned around. The expression on his face made Elliot step back a pace.

"Toby, I-" Elliot reached out.

Toby flinched and moved away. "Don't," he said. "Just don't." His narrowed eyes flicked to the right and Elliot followed his gaze.

"Hey." Olivia smiled from one to the other.

Toby nodded to her. "Detective," he said again, but with none of the venom from before. "Please excuse me." He began to push past them.

Elliot snagged his sleeve. With a look that could have blistered steel, Toby stared at his arm, then up at Elliot. "Do you mind?"

Elliot's forehead wrinkled up in frustration. He winced at the pain the bullet scorch-mark caused him. "Look, man I get that you're mad at me, but I couldn't-"

Toby held up a hand. "Save it. I know the drill. You don't need to explain to me how police procedures go."

"Can we at least talk about it?" Elliot asked quietly - very aware that Olivia was listening in.

"I don't think I have anything I want to say to you, Detective Thomas."

"It's 'Stabler', actually," Olivia added helpfully. "Thomas is his middle name."

Toby just raised his eyebrow. Elliot shot his partner a sharp look that was totally wasted on her. He sighed. "Look; I know you're probably angry I didn't..."

Toby held up his hand and leaned in, lowering his voice. "You bet I'm angry," he snapped. His eyes narrowed to icy slits. "Got a sex-crime? Let's go check out the deviant, first."

Elliot leaned back as if slapped. His mouth dropped open. "Jesus! How could you think that?"

"Yeah, whatever."

The dismissal in Toby's voice stung. He didn't try to stop Toby as he turned and stepped into the crowd, moving across the room without a second glance. The pain in his chest completely eclipsed the throb of his head wound.

"Who the hell was that?" Olivia asked.

Elliot worked his jaw, testing out several answers, but in the end, decided against freaking her out. "Head of Psychology," he said with clenched teeth.

A voice behind them interrupted the movie in Elliot's head where he was running after Toby.


He blinked and shook his head to clear away the picture. "Yeah?"

"I just wanted to thank you." Principal Donnelly held out her hand. "You did a magnificent job."

Elliot took the offered hand and tried to dredge up a smile. "Thanks. I'm just glad it all ended okay. How's Maz?"

The principal frowned. "Who?"

Elliot found the smile he was searching for. "Meryl Jacques. She likes to be called Maz."

"Oh, okay. Yes, she'd absolutely fine. A scratch and bruise or two, but she's in fine form and loving every second of the attention, to be honest."

Elliot smiled wider. "I bet."

The woman raised her eyebrows. "She can't say enough about you."

Elliot's smile turned into a laugh. "I'm flattered."

"He's a regular hero," Olivia grinned and patted his arm. "We all aspire to be like him."

Elliot dug her in the ribs.

"Well, if you ever fancy a change of career, I'd be pleased to offer you a position."

Elliot laughed out loud. "You gotta be kidding!"

The woman shook her head. "No. If you took a teaching credit, I'd love to have you here. I think you've got a real knack with the kids."

"Wonders will never cease," Munch said, handing Elliot his badge. "You found your calling."

"I think I'll stick to police work, thank you very much," he said, slipping the badge back into his pocket. The weight was comforting.

"Oh, well." Mrs. Donnelly shook his hand again. "We'll miss you; and thanks again."

Elliot nodded. He watched her walk away and it hit him. He wasn't coming back. He wasn't going to stand in the cafeteria queue next to Toby; wouldn't bump into him in the Admin room, or get that funny thrill when he caught a glimpse of blond hair across the yard. Shit. He was never going to get to find out how Toby kissed.

The reality of his situation was as bitter as the Faculty coffee. He felt as if a door had slammed so hard in his face it rocked him back on his heels.

"You ready?" Olivia placed her hand in the small of his back.

Elliot gave a brisk nod, not trusting himself to speak. He just picked up his jacket and with one last look at Toby's locker, strode away, his guts tied in a knot.

Behind him, Munch and Olivia exchanged puzzled glances as he disappeared down the corridor.

Chapter twelve

The following week dragged by as if on broken legs, a strung-out seven days full of paperwork that provided no distraction for Elliot's frustrated, angry thoughts. His sleep-pattern hadn't improved with the passage of time, either much to his disgust.

Instead of abating, the feeling that he had let something monumental slip away was making him more agitated with each restless night. And just to add to the misery of tension and insomnia, he seemed to be one great big, walking hard-on. Having been celibate since his divorce, and to be honest, for quite a while before, his dick had woken up with a vengeance; every passing thought seemed to turn him on. He hadn't jerked off so much since he left his teens.

Consequently he was slowly unravelling, physically and mentally, causing Olivia to go into 'mothering' mode in a big way. He had appreciated her fussing for the first three days, but it was now wearing thin.

"You finished with that?" Olivia asked, holding her hand out.

"Yeah." He passed the metal rule over the desk, his other hand covering his mouth to hide another huge yawn.

"You might want to invest in some decent hot chocolate," she said.


"You know, to help you sleep."

"Oh." He pulled another file from the heap, barely listening. "Sure. I guess."

"You could try morphine."

"Yeah, I'll pick some up on the way home." He jumped as an eraser landed under his nose. "What?!"

"You might at least pretend to be listening to me."

"I was!"

She gave him the look.

He sighed. "Okay, I'm sorry." He tossed the eraser back. "What d'you say?"

"Never mind."

Rolling his eyes, Elliot shook his head. Women. He'd never get more than a slippery grip on them- The thought blossomed into a stab of familiar pain. Damn Toby to hell! He wouldn't get the hell out of his head. "Fuck," he said softly, rubbing his eyes.


"Nothing." Pulling his mug of nearly cold coffee to him, he took a swig to distract himself.

"That's disgusting."

Wincing, Elliot nodded. "You got that right." He stood up. "I'll make some more."

Olivia grinned. "My hero."

"You were just waiting for me to offer, weren't you?"

She chuckled. "Maybe."

He turned away and began to make a fresh pot. Simple tasks to occupy his mind were what he needed. After work he'd maybe take the car to the wash, if it wasn't too dark. Or go to the market and re-stock his cupboards; he was getting low on food again. Hand covering his mouth again, he didn't bother turning around when he heard Olivia speak.

"Hello there; can I help you?"

"I got a message that I had forgotten to sign my statement," a voice said, and Elliot's stomach lurched. He put the coffee pot on the heater and slowly turned around.

Toby was standing by his desk, facing away, whether he was being ignored on purpose, he couldn't tell. Olivia was busy fishing through the pile of statements.

Elliot walked up to his desk, holding his breath, studying the back of Toby's neck, wanting nothing more than to run his fingers through the freshly shaven hair. The other man had gotten a pretty severe haircut; he wasn't sure how he felt about that - he'd gotten sort of fond of the long look.

"Oh, yeah; that's right." Olivia pulled a file out. "Here we go."

Staring at the back of the head, Elliot gave his lips a quick lick and spoke. "Hello, Mr. Beecher," he said as neutrally as he could with the beginnings of an erection stirring in his pants.

Toby jumped slightly. "Oh," he said, turning. "I didn't see you." His insides rolled, one somersault away from spraying out across the squad room. He swallowed hard.

Elliot tilted his head to one side, a shy smile tugging his lips. "Uh-huh. Does that make a difference?"

Toby's mouth tightened. He shook his head sharply so he wouldn't have to focus on that sad smile. "No, I don't think so." He turned back to Olivia, effectively dismissing the other man. "Is that it?" He held his hand out to her - he needed to get out of here. "Where do I need to sign?"

Elliot glanced over the rigid shoulder to Olivia, who was looking from one man to the other. He clenched his teeth, un-balled his fists and made a decision not to allow Toby to dictate the moment. He would make the other man talk if it killed both of them. "Mind if I take over here, Liv?"

Her eyebrows shot up, but to her credit, she said nothing, just handed him the file. Taking it, Elliot waved to the spare chair next to his desk. "Seat?"

Toby looked as if he was going to explode. His jaw bounced, his eyes narrowed. If Elliot didn't know better, he imagined he was about to get a fist in the face. He almost welcomed the thought - it would be communication of a sorts.

Eventually, Toby grabbed the back of the chair and pulled it out. He sat down with very bad grace. "I have to get back to work," he snapped. "Can we hurry this up?" He felt like his control had just grabbed his dignity and run screaming from the room.

"Sure." Elliot made a production of opening the file and reading through it. He was conscious of Olivia busy doing nothing on the opposite desk, the rhythmic ticking of the clock, and Toby getting more and more agitated. He smothered a grin and slowly turned the page. He pretended to read through two more; nodding, then turned the pages over and glanced over them again.

"Oh, for goodness sake!" Toby banged his knuckles on the desk. "Is this some childish game you're playing to punish me?"

Elliot looked up, wide-eyed. "Game, Mr. Beecher?"

"You know what I mean."

"I'm sure I don't." Elliot folded his hands on the file. "Maybe you could explain it to me. It's such a shame when there's a break down in communication between people."

Toby glared at him, his mouth a tight, white line, refusing to react to the words. "Where do I sign?"

Elliot looked casually at the pages. "Oh, I'm not sure. Let me see." He went back to slowly turning the pages, first one side, then the other. He could sense Toby winding himself up like a spring. A couple more turns and he'd be ready to fall apart. Maybe once the facade had broken, they could talk. "Ah - here it is." He picked up a page and made as if to hand it over, then snatched it back before Toby could take it. "Oh, nope. That's not the one."

"Will you just..."

"Please, Mr. Beecher- I'd hate for us not to be on the same page about this." He leaned forward and looked straight into Toby's furious eyes.

"Is that so?"

"Yes. I don't want there to be any misunderstanding about anything." He gave a tiny smile.

"Much as I appreciate that, *Detective*, I don't think I'm interested in the details." Toby gave a sharp shake of his head. "Not any longer."

He was not going to allow this man the opportunity to hurt him again, however much his libido argued its case. He held out his hand. "If you'll give me the correct form, I'd like to get out of here."

Elliot sat back in his chair, the sharp words hurting more than he ever imagined. He stared at the other man, hoping to change his mind through sheer force of will. The two of them sat motionless, angry expressions locked together. The squad room clock crunched out the seconds. The coffee pot dripped and burbled; still Toby and Elliot stared at one another in silence. Toby folded his arms and leaned back in his chair - Elliot followed suit. The quiet stretched out between them like razor wire.

"Oh, for goodness sake!" Olivia reached over and snagged up the last page in the file. "Here." She slammed a biro down. "Just there, on the dotted, Mr. Beecher."

Toby took the pen with a smug smile. Elliot gave his partner a vicious look.

"Thank you." With a flourish, Toby signed the page and handed it back. He looked at Olivia, ignoring Elliot completely. "I appreciate that." Standing, he nodded at her. "Goodbye."

Olivia nodded back as he strode across the room and pushed his way out, his head held high despite the pyrrhic victory. He would not show his weakness here. He would find some anonymous bar and try to avoid getting shit-faced drunk.

The door was still gently swinging on its hinges when Elliot exploded. "What the HELL was all that about!?"

"I might ask you the same question!" Olivia matched his furious stance across the table. "Since when do we antagonize members of the public!?"

"I was not!"

"Like hell. Either than or some freaky display of macho one-upmanship."

"I was just-"

"You were just being a complete asshole!" Olivia shouted. She pointed to the door. "That man is well within his rights to make an official complaint about the way you treated him."

"He won't."

"Elliot! You're missing the point!" She threw her hands up. "Not that I can even *see* a goddamned point to that little display."

"The POINT is - it's none of your business!"

She picked up the pen and threw it at him. "You're my partner! Watching you make an asshole of yourself *IS* my business!"

"Oh, fuck you."

The words were out of Elliot's mouth before he could think better of it, and the moment they spilled across the desk, he looked at Olivia's face, mortified. She was staring at him, her mouth open.

"Oh, God, Liv-" He held a hand out. Olivia just stared at him in silence, which was somehow worse than having her bawl him out.

"Stabler. My office. *Now*."

Elliot turned. Cragen stood in the doorway looking like he wanted to rip out someone's throat. Sparing one last glance at his partner, Elliot turned and walked towards his boss, wondering if he was going to have either a job or a partner much longer.


"I'll apologize immediately," Elliot began, standing stiffly at parade-ground attention. "That was unforgivable."

"Yes, it was." Cragen moved to stand in front of him. "I don't know what prompted that little display of temper, nor do I *want* to know."

Elliot said nothing, just stood rigid.

"All I need to know, is that you're doing your job, and from what I can see, you're doing anything *but*." Elliot began to speak, but Cragen held up a hand. "No, save it, Detective. I don't want to hear any self-centered excuses; I've used them all myself and don't think I can stomach hearing them from you."

Elliot swallowed and straightened his shoulders, preparing for the rest of the wrath.

"So; it's time to get your thumb out from up your ass, Elliot. Shave properly, actually *use* that iron I know you have, and for God's sake, get some rest."

Elliot glanced down at himself.

"Yes, Elliot, you *do* look that bad." Stepping back a little, Cragen softened his tone. "What's going on with you, son - some kind of delayed reaction to the divorce?"

Elliot barked a sharp laugh. "Yeah, right."

"Then what?"

Elliot's jaw worked back and forth. "I'm just dealing with something, right now."

"No, you're *not* dealing with it. That's why we're having this chat." Cragen folded his arms. "What's eating you? Talk to me."

Pulling a face, Elliot fidgeted, shuffled his feet and dug around for the right words. "I kinda met someone," he said at last. He chewed his lip, choosing his words carefully. "And I don't think they're interested - I mean, they *were*, but I sorta, well, fucked things up." He glanced up.

"You're complaining you got lucky?" Cragen asked, amazed.

A smile flitted across Elliot's face. "No - I mean, I haven't; yet." He willed a blush away.

"So? What are you waiting for? You're a free man, in case you hadn't noticed."

Elliot winced.

"That was uncalled for - I'm sorry. But you know what I mean." Unfolding his arms, Cragen perched his butt on the edge of the desk. "Go see them. Say how you feel. It's not rocket science."

"I- I, well..." Elliot swallowed. "It's- well, complicated." He winced again, hearing Toby's voice saying that word.

Cragen rolled his eyes. "Come on, son. You're old and ugly enough to know what you want and how to go about getting it. Go see them; just tell 'em how you feel." Reaching over to slap Elliot on the arm, Cragen laughed. "God! I never thought I'd be acting as an agony uncle to you."

Elliot smiled. He relaxed, the tension unravelling slightly. "Yeah; me neither."

"Okay. So we can look forward to seeing a well-rested, neatly-presented police officer, in future, then, yes?"

Glancing down at his rumpled shirt, Elliot gave his boss a wry look. "I didn't think anyone had noticed. Sorry; I have a spare in my locker. I'll go put it on."

Cragen gave him a sad smile. "We're all your friends, Elliot, and friends notice their friends falling apart, you know?"

"Yeah. Thanks." He nodded, embarrassed.

"Oh, before I forget-" Cragen reached behind to his desk and handed over a slip of paper. "Had a message from Principal Donnelly. Seems the school want you to pop in; said you left something behind."

Elliot frowned. "What?"

"Didn't say."

"Oh." It was on the tip of his tongue to say they could post whatever it was, when Cragen spoke again.

"Take Olivia and drop by this afternoon; it won't take long; you two could do with the time to sort yourselves out." He held up a finger. "And with regard to your 'maybe-kinda' love interest? Sort it out, Elliot. I want my best detective back."

Smiling openly, Elliot turned and opened the door. "I bet you say that to all the guys."

Cragen laughed.


He and Olivia were almost half way to the school before it dawned on him that Cragen hadn't used a single gender-specific pronoun in his pep-talk. He frowned at himself in the rear-view mirror, not sure what to make of that.

Chapter thirteen

Elliot held the heavy school doors open, thanking the God of Sexually-Frustrated Police Officers that Olivia wasn't the type to hold a grudge. She had called him a few choice names, accepted his apology, and with a swift hug, she told him if he ever said that to her again, she'd kick his balls into orbit. He solemnly promised he wouldn't, quite sure that if he did, she'd give it her best try.

"After you," he said, ushering her inside the school.

"Nice," she said, looking around at the spacious halls.

"Expensive education," he whispered. "Don't mean the kids are any better behaved, just gets you a more attractive cage to put them in."

Olivia laughed, nudging him in the ribs. "Don't tell me you wouldn't send your kids here, if you could afford it."

"Maybe." He grinned. "I think Dickie'd love attending an all-girls' school."

Olivia laughed and shook her head. They reached the Admin area and Elliot found himself hesitating. He glanced through the glass doors, watching Selma Fisher stapling some forms with grim determination.

Olivia looked at him. "What?"

Leaning towards her, Elliot whispered in her ear. "She scares the crap outta me."

Laughing out loud, Olivia pushed the door open. "You big baby," she muttered, smiling as she walked towards Mrs. Fisher. "Hi there - Detectives Benson and Stabler. Our Captain said he got a message from Principal Donnelly?"

Selma Fisher didn't spare Olivia a glance. She flung the stapler to the work surface and hurried around the desk so quickly it made Elliot step back. "Oh, Elliot!" she gushed. "How wonderful to see you again! Your spectacular save has been the talk of the school!" She grabbed Elliot's hand and squeezed.

He winced and tried to smile. "Um, yeah. Hi there, Selma. Thanks." He stood patiently while the woman pumped his arm up and down in her claw. A sly glance at Olivia standing with a smirk on her face was enough for him.

"Well, that's great. Um, you think you could let Principal Donnelly know we're here?" He pulled his hand away with as much grace as he could muster and shoved it in his jacket pocket out of harm's way.

"Of course!" Selma patted his arm. "Right away."

Elliot bit back a comment as she squeezed his bicep a shade harder than was comfortable. "Thanks," he said, stepping back.

Still displaying enough teeth to scare a shark, Selma scuttled to the phone. With a low mutter, she appeared to be passing on the message. Elliot looked at Olivia and scowled. "Don't," he said very quietly.

She gave him a 'what, me?' look and turned away, smiling.

The two detectives stood waiting, gazing around the room; Elliot glanced over to what he knew was Toby's filing cabinet. He smiled sadly, having heard all sorts of stories about the metal snap-dragon's habit of skinning knuckles. He'd briefly held one scratched hand in the Lounge one morning, laughing at the sulky expression on the other man's face. Given the chance over again, he'd lift that hand to his lips and kiss the scratch better, just to see the reaction.

"Someone will be along in just a moment," Selma told them, pulling his attention away from thoughts of Toby's hands.

She grinned. "I think one or two people want to have a quick word with you."

Elliot shook his head. "Actually, we're on a bit of a tight schedule," he said, desperately trying to think of an excuse to get out of there in case he saw Toby. After this morning's debacle, he couldn't face seeing the other man again, regardless of how his dick felt about the matter.

"Oh, no!" Selma looked devastated.

"I'm sorry-" Elliot began.

"Nonsense," Olivia interrupted him. "I think we can spare a few minutes of our time." She grinned at Elliot and winked.

Seething, he tried to convey that this was not a great idea, but she just tilted her head to one side in her annoying quasi-innocent way. "That'd be okay, wouldn't it, El?" she said, batting her big, brown eyes at him.

"I really don't-"

"Oh, of course we have a few minutes, don't you think?"

Elliot glared, and Olivia glared right back. Unfortunately for him, having already established he was firmly in the dog-house, he backed down with a twitch of his tightly clenched jaw.

Nodding, Olivia acknowledged his surrender. "Well, that's settled - we can hang around for a while."

"Oh, wonderful!" Selma clapped her hands together. "How marvellous!"

Elliot fought the urge to roll his eyes. God, could this get any worse?

"Well, hello, again, handsome."

This time Elliot did roll his eyes as he turned around with a feeling of impending doom. "Hello, Sherrie," he sighed.


Actually, it had been quietly amusing, watching Olivia bristle at Sherrie. It had only taken about three sentences for Sherrie to totally piss his partner off. Knowing Olivia the way he did, he didn't mistake her reaction for sexual jealousy, but for the territoriality it was. She'd be damned if some Barbie-doll was going to stake such a blatant, and unwarranted claim on her partner in front of her. He grinned across as Sherrie led them down the corridor, Olivia's face growing redder as the blonde teacher's double-meanings became less and less subtle.

Olivia fumed, the poisonous expression bouncing between Elliot and Sherrie, as if unsure at whom she was more pissed. 'Who's she?' she mouthed as Elliot caught her eye. He just grinned wider and shrugged as if there was nothing wrong. He almost laughed out loud when he read the word 'bitch' on Olivia's lips.

"...And it would be just wonderful if you could do some personal training sessions, you know, for those of us who appreciate a good, hard work-out." Sherrie's hand wandered down the small of his back, resting on the tail of his jacket. "You know, on a one-to-one basis."

Elliot blinked. "Um, I'm not sure the Department would allow me engage in private employment," he stuttered, suddenly very uncomfortable.

"Oh, well, maybe we could arrange some sort of indirect payment," she breathed, her body pressing closer and her hand sliding down to cup his ass. Her hand tightened, and Elliot jumped.

Olivia leaned between them, breaking the moment. "Is this it?" she said, reaching over to point at the sign that read 'Faculty Lounge'.

Sherrie gave her a nasty look. Olivia just smiled sweetly at her. "Hey, you know, I think Elliot's boyfriend would be really interested in that kind of thing."

Elliot's eyes bugged out. He turned to stare at Olivia like she'd lost her mind. 'What-the-fuck?' he mouthed at her. Olivia just blinked innocently at him.

Sherrie looked like she'd bitten into a lemon. "Oh," she said, releasing the grip she had on Elliot's ass. She looked him up and down. "I see."

Olivia leaned over and rapped smartly on the door. "How is Fin, these days, El?" she grinned.

"I am gonna *kill* you," he hissed, as Sherrie stepped away from him into the Lounge.

The applause started before they got inside the room. Elliot stared, a blush spreading as he realized he was the cause. He tried to take a step back, but a shove between his shoulder blades propelled him inside.

"Elliot!" Principal Donnelly walked up, clapping enthusiastically. "Thank you for popping by. We're so glad to see you again."

"Um..." Elliot fumbled for something to say. He looked about the room - there were a dozen members of staff, a few pupils and admin people, but no Toby. He didn't know whether he was relieved or not. "I don't know what to say," he admitted.

She chuckled. "No speech necessary," Ms. Donnelly said, taking his hand. "We just wanted to take the opportunity to thank you again and make a small presentation; something to remember us by." She laughed again. "That is, unless you're planning on coming back to teach!"

Elliot smiled. "I don't think so, thanks."

"Shame," she said. "We could do with someone like you shaking things up."

She indicated with her hand. "Meryl - if you please."

Stepping forward with a brightly coloured parcel in her hands, Meryl grinned at him. "Hey, there, sir," she said.

Elliot winked at her. "Hey, Maz. How's it goin'?"

"Cool." She looked down at her hands and up again. "This is just something we wanted you to have." She thrust it at him.

Embarrassed, Elliot took the gift. "I can't-" he began.

"It's not much."

"No, I mean, I *can't*." He looked at Liv for help, but she just shrugged. His face twisted in embarrassment. "What I mean is, as a police officer, I'm not allowed to accept gifts," he finished lamely, still holding the parcel as the room fell quiet.

"Oh." Meryl frowned and chewed her lip.

Elliot stood there with the parcel hanging limply from his hands, feeling like an utter bastard. "Um, I don't know what-" he began.

"Oh, hell. Let's say it's not a gift." Maz stepped forward and took it from him. She pulled at the paper, ripping it off and dropping it to the floor. "See? If it's not in crappy gift paper, it's not a gift." She thrust the denuded parcel at him. "Now you can accept it, yeah?"

"I don't think that-"

"Actually, we're just returning it - not giving you anything new."

Elliot stared blankly at her. She pointed to his hands and he looked down. He was holding a school Phys Ed shirt. With a snort of laughter, he let it unfold in his hands. He checked the label and shook his head. "This isn't mine."

"No, it's a replacement for the one you had before." Maz smirked. "One that should fit you properly."

Elliot raised an eyebrow at her. "You noticed that, huh?"

"Couldn't help but notice," she laughed. "But it helped pass the time in gym class."

He gave her a mock stern glare, but couldn't maintain it. He laughed. "Okay. I give in. It's great, thank you. I shall think of you all when I wear it."

"So you're gonna keep it?"

He nodded. "I think I can do that." He glanced at Olivia. "What d'you think, partner?"

She smiled. "I think you could squeak by the regs with that."

"You're a cop, too?" Meryl's eyes were wide.

"I am," Olivia nodded.

"Does she do what you do?" she asked, staring at Olivia.

"Yeah" Elliot nodded. "Only better."

"Oh, wow, that's so cool. You know, I'm gonna apply as soon as I can," she said with a grin and a blush.

"That so?"

"Yeah. Can I, like, talk to you about it?"

Olivia smiled hugely. "You sure can." Elliot watched the two walk away, Maz chattering animatedly.

Someone spoke at his side. "I think you might have inspired several more potential recruits, Detective." He glanced around then down, when he realized who was speaking.

"Hey, Flo." He grinned down at the black woman. "Didn't see you there."

"Funny man, she said with a sideways look.

"So you think the ranks of the NYPD will be bulging with lady officers one day?"

"Maybe." She pursed her lips. "Have to say, you made some fans in this dry old place."

Elliot laughed. "Gimme a break."

"Oh, we have a few male teachers." She tilted her head. "But maybe not so many like you, Detective."

He looked at her, unsure what she was inferring.

"I'm nothing special," he muttered.

"Oh, I don't know about that. You're a hit with some people."

Elliot shrugged off her comments and concentrated on folding his shirt up. "I don't know - I seem to have a talent for pissing people off," he admitted. He stopped and looked around to check for young ears.

"Don't we all?" Flo replied. "But then, that's what makes life such a challenge, don't you think?"

He chuckled. "You have a strange way of looking at the world."

"That's why I work in the Psych Department."

Elliot looked at her, wondering if there was something deeper to her words, but decided he hadn't got the energy to puzzle it out. "Yeah," he said, "Rather you than me."

"Oh, I don't know. I would've thought that as a policeman, you got to understand a fair bit about how people's minds worked."

He laughed. "Yeah? Well, you're wrong about that. I'm pretty hopeless when it comes to relationships." He bit his lip. He hadn't meant to say that. "I mean, I'm better just sticking to chasing people."

"Do you catch them?" Flo smiled. He smiled back. "Sometimes." "Even when they don't want to be caught?" "*Especially* when they don't wanna be caught." He grinned. "Glad to hear it," she said and turned away. Puzzled at her abrupt departure, Elliot looked the way she'd gone - straight into a pair of brilliant blue eyes. He swallowed compulsively, staring. "Hey, Toby," he said.

Chapter fourteen

Toby nodded, but didn't say anything more. This wasn't the time or the place to start another fight. Or even continue the one they were already in the middle of.

"I, er-" Elliot squeezed the shirt in his hands. "I want to apologize for this morning." He strangled the material in his fists. "I behaved badly."

Toby stared at him. He shrugged. "No matter," he said, keeping a very tight hold on the urge to step closer and invade Elliot's space.

Elliot took a deep breath. "It was very impolite of me. To say nothing of childish."

Toby nodded. "Yeah. It was."

"You're not making this very easy."

"Should I?"

Elliot tried not to bristle. "I don't know. Maybe you could gimme a break."

"Granted; apology accepted." Toby began to walk away before he lost the power to maintain his anger in the face of that whipped-puppy expression. He had to ball his fist up to keep from cupping the other man's face.

"Toby-" Elliot both loved and hated the way the name sounded in his mouth. "Wait, please."

Pausing, Toby took a moment to gather his resolve before turning around. "I don't think you and I have anything more to say to one another, Detective," he said with quiet dignity.

"But if you'd just let me-"

"No. I don't think so."

"Let me buy you another coffee?" Elliot asked, knowing his expression and tone both bordered on pathetic.

Toby shook his head and looked at his shoes, pulling a face at the sudden stab of pain in the middle of his chest. "No," he snapped He turned and walked quickly away.

Elliot watched him move across the room, to be swallowed up in the small crowd. His hands clenched into fists around the shirt he held - frustrated, angry, but more than anything, hurt. Being turned down was one thing, repeatedly allowing himself to be verbally kicked in the balls was another. Enough was enough. He turned away and walked back across the room. "Hey," he said, reaching Olivia. "You about ready?"

"Sure." She smiled at him. "I think we're going to be seeing a lot of Maz in the future."

"That so?" Elliot forced himself to smile.

"You bet!" Maz rubbed her hands together. Soon as I graduate, I'm gonna look you up and join your squad."

Elliot laughed. "Oh, man. I think I'll be long retired by then. God, I hope so."

"Oh, bummer." Maz looked crestfallen. "So you won't end up my boss, then?"

"Uh-uh. I very much doubt that." Elliot held his hand out. "But bless you for thinking I'm young enough."

Maz grinned and took his hand. "Told you - you're not bad. For an old guy, that is."

"Wow, thanks."

She blushed, and pulling him forward by the hand, she slipped her other arm around his neck and gave him a hug. "Thanks for the save, fat ass," she whispered.

"My pleasure," he replied, hugging her back. "Now just make sure you get good enough grades to join up."

"I will."

They broke apart and Elliot winked. "And quit callin' me fat ass, huh?"

Maz smiled and shrugged. "Why should I? You ain't my boss, or my teacher."

He pointed a finger at her and narrowed his eyes. "Just as well; I'd make you-"

"You really gonna wear this sometime?" she interrupted, tugging at the shirt in his hands.

Elliot rolled his eyes and nodded. "I promise."

Maz grinned and looked at Olivia. "Blue suits him," she said. "And it fits real nice, if you know what I mean."

Olivia laughed. "Maybe I can get him to model it in the squad room."

"Send me pictures?"

"I'll see what I can do," Olivia joked.

Elliot shook his head. He walked away to the sound of their laughter.

Shaking hands with just about everyone in the room, Elliot slowly made his way out with Olivia following moments later.

As they left, Elliot allowed his eyes to wander over to the opposite corner of the room, in a fit of crazy masochism.

Toby was standing with his back to the door, casually getting himself a drink, their leaving not even registering on his radar. Goodbye Toby, Elliot said silently, hating himself for being weak enough to look at the other man. He gripped the shirt in his fist and turned towards the door feeling like he was leaving a bloody trail of his insides behind him as he walked away. Damn Tobias Beecher for making him feel like that. Damn him for making him feel *anything*.


Toby took a long drink from the water fountain and closed his eyes. Seeing Elliot again was torture. It had taken all his strength to walk away when all he wanted to do was grab the other man and kiss that mouth as hard as he could. Damn him. Why did he feel like his guts had been ripped out? Maybe as soon as this was all over, he'd go out and get laid by some stranger to get over the hurt, the betrayal and the ridiculous surges of lust and hope.

"Can I ask you something, Toby?"

He turned, glancing down. "Sure, Flo." He pulled out a smile.

"Are you entirely out of your mind?"

Toby frowned. "What?"

"I said-"

"I heard you - what do you mean?"

Flo rolled her eyes. "What I *mean* is - are you totally fucking insane?"

Toby goggled at her. "Flo! Shhh!" he whispered. "Are you nuts?"

"No, but I think you are, Tobias." She sighed. "Why would you turn that man down?"

"What? You were *listening*?"

"Not listening; merely observing."

"There's a difference?" he asked, incredulous.

"There is. And there's also a difference between playing hard to get and being a total fucking idiot."

"Flo!" Toby glanced around to see if anyone heard. "Jesus!"

"I think Jesus has done his part by sending you a man who's interested in you; and one who's sex on legs, to boot."

Toby stared, his mouth hanging open, his mind busy revving away in neutral.

"And here you are, doing everything in your power to chase him away." She reached out and punched his arm. "Wake up, Beecher!"

"OW!" He rubbed his bicep. "Damnit, Flo. That hurt."

"Good. Proves you're still alive. I had my doubts."

Toby screwed up his face and struggled to think of something to that wasn't either incriminating or humiliating. Or both. "I'm not... I don't-"

"Yes, you are, and if you *don't* it's probably because you're the most contrary man I ever met."

"I-" Words failed him. He stood looking at her, eyes wide, still rubbing his arm.

"Tobias Beecher; listen to me. He likes you. You like him." She held up her hand and Toby flinched. "Don't bother to lie to me. I may be three hundred years old, but I'm neither blind nor stupid."

"I didn't think-"

Flo laughed. "Yeah. Right. News Flash, girlfriend. Your closet door's swinging wide open."

Toby's jaw dropped, unhinged. He swallowed a couple of times, then shook his head. "Even if you were right-" He held up a hand, blushing. "And I'm not saying you are, he's not - well, he's not, you know..."

"Yes, he is."

"No," Toby blushed and squirmed. "Flo, he's not. I sort of made - well, I kinda made a kind of pass at him."

Flo grinned. "Ooh! Who'd have thought? And?"

Toby scowled at her. Her incredulity burned almost as much as Elliot's rejection. "He turned me down flat, if you must know."

"I don't believe it!"

"He said it was 'complicated'." Toby's tone expressed his utter disgust with that word.



"Because he was on a case?"

Toby hesitated, a tiny seed of doubt falling out of his Hope Drawer and rolling across his mind. He shook his head. "No. Complicated because he's-" He glanced around. "Y'know - not gay," he whispered.

"He actually *said* that?" Flo leaned back to peer up at him.

Toby wriggled, that little seed slipping between the cracks in his mind. "Sorta," he lied.

"Yeah? Bullshit."

"Flo - for the love of God, will you stop that? Swearing doesn't suit you."

She snorted. "Yeah? Well, martyrdom doesn't suit you, either, Tobias." She held out her hands and made fists. "Take a chance, man! Reach out and grab it!" She winked. "Hell, grab *him*! He's got a very grab-able..."

Toby wrestled a blush down. "Flo, I told you, he's not like *that*."

"And I'm telling you, you're wrong." She made the grabby hands again. "Toby - go after him!"

Rubbing his hand across his eyes, Toby sighed. "You're not listening to me. I'm not about to make a fool of myself again." He stomped down on that mental seed, crushing it.

"He wants you."

"He just feels sorry he made me feel bad."

Flo groaned and held her fist up. She shook it. "Toby! I could just slap you silly! You are so wrong about him!"

Sherrie pushed between them to take a water cup. "Wrong about who?"

"No-one," Toby said, hating that he was unable to stop himself from folding his arms across in a classically defensive pose.

Flo snorted. "I'm trying to get through to Toby that he's being a total fuck-wad."

"Flo! Jesus, woman!"

Sherrie flicked the dispenser lever. "Oh, yeah?"

Toby scowled at the way Sherrie didn't argue the point as she got her water.

"Yeah." Flo rolled her eyes. "He's trying to tell me our delicious detective's not gay."

Toby cringed. "Damnit, Flo! Do you have to?"

"I'm just saying."

"Oh; hell, yeah." Sherrie took a sip of her water. "He's as gay as a rainbow fart."

Toby and Flo both turned to look at her. She swallowed her water and stared back at them, one at a time. "What?"

"How'd you know that?" Toby demanded, his mind racing to throw Flo's bullshit on that battered seed.

Sherrie pulled face. "That lady cop let it slip." She regarded her nails. "I knew, of course."

Toby and Flo exchanged looks. Very slowly, a grin spread across Toby's face. In his mind, the seed blossomed into a riot of sunflowers.

Chapter fifteen

Lost in his world of self-imposed misery, Elliot made poor company for the rest of the day. He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that Olivia all but gave up trying to include him in conversation. She just set about finishing up the reams of paperwork required to put a perp away.

"How long d'you think he'll get?" she said, hitting 'print' on her pc. She glanced up at the silence. "Elliot?"

He looked at her. "Huh?"

"How long?"

He looked blank. "How long, what?"

Biting back a sigh, she slipped a pen in her desk tidy. "The school janitor, El. The man whose nose you broke, the one arrested for peddling porn and attempted kidnap? How long d'you think he's going to get?"

"Oh." He shrugged. "I dunno. Life, I'd hope."

She snorted. "Yeah. Right." Leaning her chin on her hands, she stared across the desk. Long moments went by. "Are you okay?" she said at last.

He gave a weak smile. "Sure."

"Funny, you don't look it."

"You gonna tell me I look like shit again?"

She smiled. "Would it help?"


"Then, no, I won't." She pushed a square of chocolate across the desk. "You know if you need to talk, I'm here for you."

He leaned over and briefly covered her hand with his. "I know. Thanks." He took the candy and slipped it in his mouth.

"But you won't," she said with a lop-sided grin.

"Probably not," he admitted, pushing the chocolate around his mouth. "Hey, this is good."

"Of course. No point in buying cheap candy." She popped the last bit in her own mouth and went back to sorting paper.

Elliot watched her work as he sucked the last of the sweet stickiness off his teeth. He knew it was killing her not knowing what was bothering him, but he was incredibly grateful he didn't have to explain. He wasn't sure he could explain it to himself right now.

The door to the squad banged open and Fin marched in with Munch in tow. They were bickering as usual. Elliot smiled. Some things didn't change.

"All I'm saying is that you didn't need to scare the man quite *that* much."

"Got a confession, didn't it?" Fin poured coffee.

"It got a wet interview room seat, that's what it got." Munch held his hand out for a mug.

Fin gave his a narrow-eyed look but handed the full mug over without complaint. "Look, that cheesy skell ain't gonna chase old ladies no more. Job done."

Munch sighed and took a sip of coffee, wincing. "I don't know which causes me more pain, this coffee or my partner's technique."

Fin leered. "Ain't never had no complaints about *that*, baby."

Munch pulled a face. "Oh, please." He walked over to their desk. "Spare me the visuals *and* your appalling grammar."

"Whatcha got?" Fin leaned over and snagged up the shirt that lay on the back of Elliot's chair.

"A souvenir from the school," Elliot said, turning. "My uniform; they said I could keep it."

"Neat." Fin held it up. "How come I never get stuff given to me?" he asked.

"Your last victim gave you the contents of his bladder; what more do you want?" Munch said, peering over his glasses.

"Chocolates would be nice," Olivia said. "Or flowers."

"I wouldn't say no to a Mustang convertible." Fin grinned, throwing the shirt back at Elliot.

"Isn't that called bribery?" Elliot asked, folding the shirt neatly. "Or something along those lines."

"Oh, yeah. I forgot."

Turning to tuck the shirt in his drawer, Elliot caught sight of someone approaching his desk. He looked up. "Can I help-" He trailed off. Toby stood in front of him, a shy smile on his face. Elliot stared, half freaked by the smile, half in shock at his very presence. Inside his pants, his dick let him know at least one part of him was pleased to see the other man.

"Hey," Toby said, jerking his chin sideways. "The lady on the desk downstairs said it'd be okay to come up."

"Oh?" One syllable was all Elliot could come up with.

"Yeah." Toby glanced at the other three cops, clearly uncomfortable. "I, um- wondered if we could talk."

"I thought you'd said all you wanted to say to me." Elliot's insides twisted, his instincts screaming at him to get up and walk away before the other man could hurt him in public, and more importantly, before his erection could get a hold.

"Yeah, about that." Reaching to run his hand through what was left of his hair, Toby's face twisted. "I- er, have a couple of things I need to add."

"Not interested."

Elliot stood abruptly and strode to the coffee machine. He leaned both hands on the counter and inhaled the sharp scent of coffee, trying to will his hard-on away.

Behind him, Toby's voice came closer. "Elliot, please?"

"I said *no*."

"Look, I know you're mad at me-"

Elliot spun around. "Mad at you?" he barked. "After the way you *spoke* to me? Are you kidding?" He laughed harshly. His voice dropped. "I'm not mad, Beecher - I'm beyond that."

Toby winced. "I got things messed up. I know that now."

Elliot glanced beyond Toby's shoulder; he could see the others in the squad room staring at the floor show; three pairs of eyes wide in morbid fascination. His anger cranked up a notch.

Toby stepped closer. "I just need to-"

"Just leave me alone, okay?" he snarled.

"I need to tell you some stuff."

Toby reached out a hand and Elliot looked at it. It had a fresh scratch between two knuckles. Elliot flinched away, wanting nothing more than to take the hand and kiss it better like he'd promised himself would.

"Don't," he scowled, hating his overwhelming impulse to fulfil that promise.

"Elliot, please-"

Toby took one more step forward. Elliot felt either his head or his dick would explode if that hand touched him.

"Don't fucking *touch* me!" he shouted. He lurched away from the counter, taking a box of stirrers and tiny milk pots with him.

They clattered to the floor, bouncing around in their new-found freedom. Elliot stopped, watching several spin in excited circles. He reached a hand to the back of his neck and squeezed hard.

He bent to slowly gather the mess up, horribly aware of the stares of his colleagues, and the way his pants were stretching tight across his groin. Both made his skin crawl with humiliation.


He looked up at Cragen standing in his office doorway. He wasn't smiling. "Can I have a word?"

Gritting his teeth, Elliot stood up and dropped the contents of his hands on the counter without a glance at anyone else. He walked towards the office.

The Captain closed his door much more quietly than Elliot thought he would, under the circumstances.

"Captain-" he began.

"Shut up."

Elliot stared. "But-"

"Shut up and listen to me because I'm only gonna say this once. God help me if I'm wrong, but I'm gonna say it anyway." He stood in front of Elliot with a pointed finger a bare inch from Elliot's nose. "Leave early. Take that man with you. Go find a bar somewhere very quiet, buy a lot of beer and sort this shit out; one way or another.

"Captain, I-" Elliot started.

"Don't argue, Elliot. It's pretty damn obvious that your crazy behaviour lately is tied up in some way with him."


A large hand came up between them. "I'm still speaking, if you don't mind." He took a big breath. "Sit in that bar until you know what you want. Get drunk; decide one way or another if you're going to kiss or kill him - but either way, come back to work tomorrow happy. Or at least content."

Elliot's eyes widened. "What're you saying?"

Cragen pointed at the door. "Go."

Elliot's face twisted in a helpless expression of confusion. "I'm not-"

Cragen shook his head. "I don't care."


"Go. Before I put a notation in your jacket for swearing at a member of the public."

Elliot opened his mouth, saw the expression on Cragen's face and closed it again. He reached for the door then turned back. "Thanks," he said, very softly.

"I hope to Christ it works out for you, Elliot. Whatever 'it' is."

Not knowing what else to say, Elliot just nodded and left the room.

As the door closed behind him, he walked slowly across the squad room with four pairs of eyes staring at him, solemn as a family of meerkats. He sought out the one pair of eyes he was interested in, and ignoring the others, he looked directly into the ice blue depths.

"You want some coffee?"

Chapter sixteen

It took Toby so long to find a parking spot, Elliot had begun to wonder if the other man had ditched. He was on the verge of turning around and walking away, when a blond head appeared in the crowd. The surge of relief was only matched by the excitement he felt roll through him.

"Hey," he said, automatically holding his hand out before he'd realized what he'd done. To his relief, the other man didn't seem to think there was anything unnatural about shaking hands; he just nodded and took it in a warm clasp.

"Sorry; there were no free spaces."

"S'okay." Elliot smiled. He didn't feel comfortable enough to admit he'd been panicking. "You want to-?" He indicated the seats they had used before, guiding Toby to a quiet corner.

They settled down, both nervous, neither wanting to start speaking.

"You want..."

"Shall I..."

They spoke together, and smiling, Toby held a hand up. "You first."

"I was going to ask if you wanted the same as last time," he said.

"Sure. You can remember?"

Elliot inclined his head as he stood up. "I was paying attention," he smiled.

Toby watched as the well-built body moved through the crowd, his gaze wandering up and down the torso, admiring the graceful stride, the broad shoulders and the outstanding ass. God, he thought, Please don't let me fuck this up.


"Is this how it's gonna be-" Elliot asked as he placed the tray down sat in the huge armchair. "Me doomed to buying the most expensive coffee in the history of the world?"

Toby regarded the solemn face on the other man, and tried to keep a tight hold on the hope that surged at the teasing tone. "I don't know," he said carefully keeping his own tone neutral. "It all depends."

"On?" Pouring the coffee out, Elliot kept his eyes on the task at hand.

"Whether or not we ever see each other again, I guess."

With the coffee poured, the sugar and cream added, Elliot had no more excuses to avoid looking at the other man. He raised his gaze. Blue eyes met him stare for stare. He swallowed. "Well, I'd like us to," he said as carefully as Toby had.


Elliot watched a grin start to spread over Toby's face. He smiled in response. "I guess," he said, the knot in his belly uncoiling. "It's not like my social calendar is rammed at the moment."

Toby laughed softly. "Gee, thanks." He reached for his mug. "You think we can make less of a fucking mess of things, this time?"

Elliot shrugged. "Only one way to find out. Guess here's as good a place as any to start from."

"So; you think we *should* start over?" Toby asked, cursing his insecurity.

Elliot picked up his own drink. "Yes."

Toby sipped and sighed, his eyes sliding shut for a moment. "Wonderful."

"The coffee?"

He laughed. "Maybe." Resting the mug on the arm of the chair, his eyes flickered down to the table. Now for the tough part. "Look, Elliot, as much as I'd like to, I can't ignore what happened between us. I'm sorry I went crazy at you. It was dumb and more than a little drama-queenish." He pulled a face. "Jesus - and I thought I didn't do 'drama-queen'."

Elliot held up his hand. "No, *I'm sorry*. I should never have-" He smiled and shook his head. "I mean I should have kept a step back during the case; been more professional."

"Shouldn't have flirted back at me, you mean?

Elliot gave him a wry look. "You think I was flirting?"

"God, I really hope so."

Elliot chuckled. "I guess I was, kinda. Without realizing it, I'm afraid."

"Oh, please!" Toby snorted.

"No, really." Elliot glanced around quickly. "I told you, I'm not used to this."

"Being hit on by another guy?"


"Look, I gotta ask, Elliot. Before I make a total fool of myself-" He took a breath. "Are you interested? In *me*, I mean. And I'm not talking 'beer, bikes and basketball' interested."

Elliot held his gaze and wondered what he was going to say. One word, was all it was gonna take to sort this out; like Cragen said: one way or another. He could finish this mess with one word, smile, drink up his coffee and walk away without breaking out of his 'straight cop' role. The easier option, perhaps, but his mind gave him a quick flashback to this morning, jerking off in the shower with this man's face in his head, and he knew.

Toby sat waiting for the most important reply in his life, a wicked posse of mammals in his belly busy turning his insides into a knot.

"Yes," Elliot said at last.

"Not beer?" Toby asked softly.

"Not beer."

"Nor basketball?"

Elliot smiled. "No."

Toby held up a finger. "I do like bikes, though."

Elliot's smile turned into a grin. "Me too."

"So. That's a yes, then." He grinned as the mammals inside his belly did a happy dance.

Nodding, Elliot relaxed. That hadn't been as tough as he thought. "I gotta warn you, though, Toby," he said with a self-deprecating grin. "I'm less than experienced at this."

Toby's eyes widened. "In what way?"

Elliot felt a blush threaten, thankful for the dim lighting. "Jesus, you know - in *that* way."

"Ah. I see." Toby studied the other man across the table, the words at total odds with the appearance, the strut. "So are we talking - virginal - here?"

The threatened blush turned into a full-scale scarlet onslaught and Elliot felt himself go hot all over. "Jesus Christ!" He leaned forward and placed his mug down. "You wanna say that a little bit louder? I don't think they heard you in the washrooms."

Toby laughed. "I'm sorry. I'll behave."

Elliot gave him a wry look. "I doubt that, somehow."

"Relax; just tell me what I'm dealing with."

Elliot cleared his throat and glanced around to make sure they weren't being listened to. He squirmed, embarrassed. "I, um- I haven't had sex-" he began.

"I thought you said you were married?"

"I don't mean *that* sort of a virgin," he said, exasperated. "I have *kids*, for pete's sake!."

Toby's eyes widened some more. "Yeah? How many, dare I ask?" he said, taking another sip.


Bursting out with delighted laughter, Toby choked on his coffee. "Fucking hell, Elliot!" He put his mug down and accepted the offered napkin. "Four!"

"That's what usually happens in a marriage."

"Yeah, I suppose. Thank God *that* never happened with Gen." He shuddered.

"You don't like kids?"

"No - I love 'em. I just don't want any more reasons to have to speak to my ex-wife if I can help it."

Elliot tilted his head to one side. "I didn't realize you'd been married, too."

"Yeah, well, it's not something I'm proud of." He balled up the napkin and threw it on the table. "Although to be fair, picking the wrong woman to marry kind of pales in the light of picking the entirely wrong gender, in the first place, you know?"

"Oh." Elliot nodded slowly. He opened his mouth to say something else and was embarrassed to find nothing but a jaw-cracking yawn emerging.

Toby's eyebrow lifted. "I'm boring you?"

Laughing, Elliot scrubbed at his eyes. "No. I'm sorry; I've not been sleeping too well." He wondered how much of himself he'd just given away.

"No; me neither," Toby admitted quietly and they stared at one another in understanding silence for a while. At last, Toby smiled. "So; going back to the bit where you said you were interested in me."

Elliot grinned. "Oh, so it's all about you, huh?"

"Of course. I am the drama-queen in this relationship, after all." Toby tilted his head to one side. "Explain something to me, if you would."

"I'll try."


Elliot blew out a breath and flopped back in his seat. "Damned if I know," he said. "Never so much as looked as another man since..." he trailed off, frowning.

"Since?" Toby leaned forward, resting his chin on his hands.

Elliot chewed his bottom lip, considering how much to say. A clatter of silverware across the room drew his gaze, reminding him of the lack of privacy. "There was this guy, once," he said softly.

"Hey, my favorite beginning to a fairy story," Toby grinned.

"Shut up or I won't tell you." Elliot smiled. Toby mimed zipping up his mouth and waited. "There was this guy," Elliot continued. "When I was in the Marines-"

"Oh, God! You were in the service, too?" Toby rolled his eyes. "I've died and gone to heaven."

"Shut up, man."

"Hey, I can't help my imagination." He grinned. "You still got the uniform?"

Elliot narrowed his eyes. "No."

"Pity. Carry on; this guy."

"Well, we kinda hooked up, you know?"


Elliot gave an exasperated sigh. "Can't you use that imagination of yours?"

Laughing, Toby rolled his eyes. "Oh, trust me, I'm using it. I'm using it." He stuck out his tongue and panted.

Elliot winced. "Jesus."

Eyebrows wiggling, Toby pulled his tongue in. "So, I'm guessing this Marine 'buddy' of yours showed you the road less travelled?"

"You could say that."

"And did you like it?"

Smiling as he took a mouthful of coffee, Elliot swallowed it down. "You honestly think I'd be here, if I hadn't?"

"I guess not." He jerked his chin. "Been anyone else, since?"


"Why not?"

Elliot stared at the ceiling for a moment. "He and I went our separate ways-" He refused to let his mind look at that memory any closer. "And I came home to my wife."

"You're kidding?"

He looked at Toby. "No. I'm not."

"How long?"

Elliot sighed. "Twenty-odd years."

"Fuck." Toby's jaw dropped a little. "And you never - You know - in all that time?"

Elliot shrugged, torn between pride and embarrassment. "No."

Toby sat in stunned silence while Elliot concentrated on his coffee. When he had drained his drink and leaned forward to replace the mug on the tray, he stared at it if it were the most interesting thing in the world. Then picked up his napkin and began to shred the little paper square in his hands.

"Dead give-away," Toby said, pointing. "Classic sign of nervousness."

"You don't say." Elliot threw the ruined napkin down.

"There's no need to be."

Elliot snorted. "No; there's *every* need."

"What do you think's gonna happen?" Toby laughed.

"I have no idea," Elliot admitted. "And that's what's scaring me."

"I thought you said you'd-"

"I don't mean the-" He said, glancing around. "I'm not talking about the *sex*," he finished with a whisper.

"Then what?"

"I mean the fact that I'm considering throwing away twenty years of heterosexual behaviour by being here with you."

"Oh." Toby considered this. "And that scares you?"


Smiling, Toby shook his head. "Unless you're planning on wearing slingbacks and a pink over-the-shoulder cashmere sweater in the station house, I'd be willing to bet you're not gonna change that much."

Elliot smiled at the image.

"You're the same man you've always been; you'll just be physically involved with me, not a woman."

Staring at those blue eyes, Elliot felt his panic subside a touch. "Yeah, I guess so." He gave an ironic laugh. "That is if I can remember what it's like to be 'physically involved' with anyone." His laugh trickled away under Toby's intense gaze. He let his eyes slide back down to the ruined napkin.

When Toby spoke, it was very quietly. "So, Elliot; do you want to do something about that?"

Elliot looked up at him, a mixture of excitement warring with a jolt of fear. "I, um- I guess so."

"Gee, don't overwhelm me with your enthusiasm, Detective."

A small smile tugged Elliot's mouth. "Fuck you."

Toby grinned and winked. Elliot caught the double-meaning and groaned, covering his eyes. "Oh, man," he muttered, laughing.

"One thing at a time, gorgeous."


"Oh, I don't think I can do that any more."

Elliot moved his hands away from his face, elbows resting on his knees, to look at him. "Yeah?"

Toby smiled. "I think I'm in far too deep for that."

For some reason, those words squeezed something way down inside Elliot. He worked his jaw, unable to speak for the moment.

Toby leaned forward, the smile still on his face. Their noses were inches apart. Blinking slowly, Toby let a wicked grin spread over his face. "You know, Detective Stabler, there's something I've wanted to do since the second I laid eyes on you."

Elliot stared as Toby came closer and closer, not quite believing what his eyes were telling him. Moments later, his lips confirmed what it was Toby had in mind.

Chapter seventeen

There was no thunderclap or bolt of lightening to strike them down. There was no shout of disgust or riot. In fact, it was a bit of an anticlimax, save for the way Elliot's dick hardened so fast he thought he'd pass out.

If Toby could do this to him with a chaste, closed-mouthed kiss, heaven only knew what devilment that serpentine tongue could get up to with time and privacy. The thought of that tongue on his body brought a surge of blood to Elliot crotch that positively hurt. He groaned.

Toby moved away. "Are you okay?" he asked, suddenly wary.

"Yeah." Elliot opened his eyes. "I guess that answers the question," he muttered, running his tongue over his bottom lip, amused to see Toby's eyes follow the movement.

"What question?"

"Whether I want to kiss or kill you."

Toby frowned. "I don't follow."

Elliot shook his head. "Never mind." He glanced around, wide-eyed in sudden realization. "God, I can't believe you just did that in public!"

Toby laughed. "Actually, I think you'll find *we* did that."

"We're in a coffee-shop," Elliot hissed between clenched teeth.

"Relax. We're in a *gay* coffee-shop," Toby corrected. He looked pointedly around.

Elliot followed his gaze, noting for the first time that there were mostly single-sexed pairs sitting at the booths and little rainbow flags over the bar. He felt his jaw drop. "You brought me to a gay coffee-shop!"

"So what?"

"You didn't know I was-" He hesitated. "Amenable," he finished lamely.

Toby laughed. "And your point is? Look, who cares? Even if you were irredeemably straight, it wouldn't matter where you drank your coffee." He winked. "Mind you; you might have gotten used to being hit on by guys if you'd come here more often."

"I can't believe I didn't notice before," Elliot said, still gazing around.

"So much for your detective skills."

Elliot pulled a face. "Ha, ha." Frowning slightly, he pulled his bottom lip between his teeth and nibbled at the skin. Decision time. He drew in a breath and glanced at Toby. "So?"

Toby nodded, waiting patiently for Elliot to suggest the next move. "So."

"You wanna-" Elliot lifted one shoulder.

"I take it that little gesture means you'd like to take this someplace else?"

Taking his courage in both hands and holding tight, Elliot nodded. "Yeah."

"Well, then, let's go." Toby stood up. He began to move away from the table. "My place okay?"


"It's not far; follow me." He moved away from the table.

"You not gonna finish that, then?" Elliot pointed at this half full mug.

Toby looked at the mug, then Elliot, then back to the mug. He said nothing.

Elliot rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay. I was only asking." He stood up, straightening his jacket. "It was fuckin' expensive," he muttered.

Toby laughed. "I'll make it up to you."


There was plenty of room to park at Toby's apartment, albeit in 2 spaces as far from his place as was humanly possible. Toby grumbled as he trotted across the forecourt behind Elliot. "Bastards in 16. They always take my spaces."

"I could have them busted for you," Elliot teased.

"You'd do that for me?" Toby grinned.



"If you make it worth my while."

Toby laughed. "I could get to like having a cop round to play."

"You might find I'm high maintenance."

"Oh, I think I'll risk it."

Elliot reached the main door first. He stood while Toby caught up, found his key and slotted it in the lock.

"Tell me, Elliot," he said, letting the door swing open. "Were you doing the quickstep back there because you wanted to distance yourself from me, or are you just keen to get it on?" He meant it as a joke, but hesitated when he saw the expression on Elliot's face.

"That was a-" he started to explain, shocked to find himself grabbed by the lapels and pinned against the wall. He attempted to justify the comment, but found Elliot's body shoved hard to his, the other man's mouth crawling over his, swallowing his words.

There were no more words for a long while. Elliot kissed Toby with all the pent-up frustration of the past couple of weeks; using his tongue, his lips and occasionally his teeth to make his feelings clear.

Eventually, breathless, he licked his way out of the kiss and leaned back, his teeth dragging Toby's bottom lip with him. He grinned at the stunned expression on the other man's face. "That answer your question?" he growled in a low voice, smirking.

Toby's tongue gathered the moisture from his lips and took it inside his mouth to taste. He stared at the slightly wild expression on Elliot's face and wondered briefly if he could handle what he'd unleashed. "Christ," he whispered.

There was a heartbeat of stillness, then Toby's eyes darted to the stairway. Both men grinned at the same time and started off up the stairs, hell bent for leather, laughing and clattering up the stairs, grabbing the handrail, taking the treads two at a time.

"Third floor," Toby gasped, one step behind Elliot.

"Fuck!" Elliot managed to say. "Tryin' to kill me." He swung around the last landing and hesitated, unsure which door. Toby pushed past, his key ready.

"This one." He forced the door open and fell through into his apartment, gasping for breath, laughing.

Elliot stumbled in after him, slamming the door shut. He grabbed the back of Toby's jacket and swung him around. Toby took the momentum and used it to his advantage, pressing himself against Elliot, his hands either side of the other man's head, trapping him against the wall.

"Ha! Gotcha."

"You think?" Elliot grinned. He ducked down, grabbed Toby's arms in a basic Aikido move and spun him around, squashing his face into the wallpaper, one arm bent up between his shoulder blades.

"Fuck!" Toby squeaked, his face distorted against the wall.

Elliot eased up a touch. He leaned forward, hooking his chin over Toby's shoulder. "You okay?" he whispered. He felt Toby shudder.

"Oh, yeah." The blond head turned around, his mouth bare inches from Elliot's face. "Shit, you can do that to me any time, sir," he breathed.

Elliot's eyes raked over Toby's face as if memorizing it. A small sad, smile tugged at his mouth so briefly that Toby wondered if he'd been mistaken. And then he was being kissed again. He leaned his head back, opened his mouth and gave up to it, the warmth of the contact spreading down his whole body. From behind Elliot crushed their bodies together, hips grinding, tongue imitating the movement. He forced his erection against Toby's buttocks hard enough to hurt, desperately trying to increase the friction.

Toby jerked his head away from the probing tongue. "Bedroom," he gasped out.

As if that was a magic word, Elliot instantly eased off. He pulled his body away, but buried his nose in the gap where Toby's collar met his neck. He inhaled sharply.

Toby wriggled away, grabbed his hand and pulled him to the farthest door. He burst through, stumbling slightly, dragging Elliot with him. They both crashed onto the bed, a jumble of arms and legs. Toby laughed like a maniac. "S-shiiit!"

Not bothering to reply, Elliot began pulling the other man's clothes off. A frown of concentration knitting his brows as he flung the clothing to the floor. Only when he had exposed Toby's body from the waist up did he pause, gazing down. He stared so long Toby began to squirm.

"What?" he asked, resisting the urge to grab a cushion to cover himself.

Elliot smiled. "Nothing."

"Well, clearly something's bothering you." He fought to keep the snip out of his tone.

"I've been waiting to do this for the longest time." He reached out and traced a finger all the way from Toby's collar bone to his belt. It had been so long since he had touched another man's body in anything other than anger that the breath caught in his throat. He dug in fingers into Toby's flesh, denting the skin. He pushed down, kneading the muscle and bone, revelling in the fact he didn't have to be mindful of hurting a more delicate female body. He wanted growl in satisfaction.

"God..." Skin pricking and shivering, Toby groaned and arched, cat-like into the firm touch.

Taking the response as a green light, Elliot's hands began to scrabble at Toby's belt, unlashing it and grabbing at the zipper. Not giving the other man a chance to do anything to assist, he pulled both hips up and the pants down in one desperate movement.

"Fucking hell, Elliot," Toby laughed, half impressed at the sliver-back gorilla-type display of strength, half pissed at how easy it'd been to unclothe him.

"What?" Elliot barely looked up, his eyes fixed on Toby's naked groin, hypnotized by the gracefully curved, swollen flesh. His own cock surged in response.

"C'mere." Toby reached up and grabbed Elliot's belt, determined to do a little bit of 'chest-thumping' of his own. He snaked the belt through the loops, the leather snapping in the air as it came free. He tried to get a grip of the zipper, but was defeated by Elliot's shirt tails hanging in the way. In exasperation, he flopped back down and pointed. "You; get your clothes off. *Now*."

"Yes, sir." Grinning as he sat back on his heels, Elliot proceeded to strip out of his working uniform of jacket, shirt and tie. He slid silk through cotton, buttons through holes with slow, erotic deliberation - his fingers sliding over the material, tongue protruding suggestively. He hadn't stripped for anyone with a blatant intent to seduce for years, and it made him almost giddy with desire.

Toby watched him, open mouthed and breathing heavily, the sexual tension cranking up as they fed on each other's desire.

"Oh, my God-" Toby whispered as Elliot's undershirt dropped to the floor. He reached up to lay a hand on the large chest in front of him. "You're fucking beautiful."

Elliot gave a small grunt of amusement as he pushed his chest forward towards probing fingers that were kneading the sloping muscle. He narrowed his eyes as Toby's other hand reached up to join in, his thumbs digging in hard. It felt good, but at the same time, the squeezing was almost too much, the sensation ready to slide into pain. He hissed as Toby pinched his nipple unexpectedly. "Fuck-" He frowned. "That hurts."

"Hurts 'good', or hurts 'bad'?" Toby asked, doing it again.

Elliot arched his back. "Good," he admitted, through clenched teeth, embarrassed at how he was responding. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this hard, this desperate.

"Good," echoed Toby. He grabbed Elliot's hips and used them to lever himself into a sitting position. With a wicked grin, he slid his hands up the wide back and swept his tongue over a nipple.

Elliot responded with a flinch. He glanced down to watch that ridiculously agile tongue licking him; the sight striking him as so deeply erotic, a feral growl rattled from the back of his throat.

Toby's grin widened - he licked again and again, loving the noises that came from inside the magnificent chest. He dug his fingers in and latched his mouth over the wet nipple.

Elliot's breath left his body in a grunt of pain and pleasure that sounded embarrassingly needy. He grabbed the back of Toby's head, partly to keep his balance, but mostly to push that suckling mouth hard against his body. His eyes slid shut as the wicked mouth licked and sucked at his chest, while hands scratched across his back.

Alternating from one nipple to the other, Toby was intent on making Elliot writhe under his mouth; he would not allow the other man to pull away, to escape his teeth, his tongue. Fine hairs snagged between his teeth in a way he knew must hurt, but Elliot didn't seem to mind; his hands made no attempt to pull him away. Toby discovered a basic fact of life as he nuzzled Elliot's chest - he couldn't suck whilst grinning.

The sharp sting as Toby's teeth grazed his flesh forced a thin whining sound from Elliot's throat. He squirmed at the needle-sharp pain, completely stunned at how incredibly erotic this felt. He had no idea his chest and nipples could be such a source of pleasure. How could he not know this at his age?

Toby wiped his wet mouth on Elliot's skin as he bit his way down his sternum as far as he could reach. His hands slid around to stroke the rock-hard belly, stunned by the ridges of muscles under the skin. The strength hidden here was humbling, and amazingly erotic.

With Elliot's shirt gone there was nothing to impede Toby's attack on his pants, so he applied himself with renewed vigour, and in seconds they were pulled open and yanked down. Toby paused, looking at the rigid cock in front of him, fleetingly amused at how the track pants hadn't really done the other man justice.

He took the swollen cock in one hand and craning his neck down in a borderline insane manner, licked the end. Above him, Elliot's whole body jerked, and he yelled out. Toby grinned. Risking dislocated vertebrae, he licked again, thrilled by another strangled cry.

"Fuck..!" Elliot panted, grabbing at the blond head. He wasn't sure if he wanted to force Toby down on him, or rip him away. His fingers scratched through the short hair in frustration, the thought of that incredible tongue on his cock making his whole body tremble.

Toby felt Elliot's body shudder, on the edge. He grinned and fell back on the bed, grabbing both hands around Elliot's hips, forcing him to crash down on top of him. The breath was driven clean out of his lungs with the weigh of a surprised detective.

"God," he gasped out, the grin turning manic at the rush of pleasure that full, warm body contact gave him.

Elliot propped himself up on his elbows to look down, eyebrows on the rise with a question. Not allowing him the chance to ask if he was okay, Toby leaned up and kissed him again, revelling in the taste of coffee, the feel of saliva. His agile tongue slithered between Elliot's teeth to stroke the roof of his mouth, darting back out before Elliot could catch it. Grinning, Toby teased the other man, nipping back and forth, flicking his tongue between lips, against teeth, until he felt Elliot grunt with frustration and slide his hand around the back of Toby's neck to pull him closer.

Pressing down his full weight onto the other man, Elliot pinned him down and chased that insane tongue around Toby's mouth before finally coaxing it into his own. Trapping it against the roof of his mouth he began to suckle on it, feeling a stab of triumph at the helpless noises from the other man.

Chapter eighteen

They weren't very elegant, Toby thought to himself. And it definitely wasn't tidy - not the way he'd imagined making love to this man, at all. In fact, they were a completely uncoordinated mess of arms and legs, mouths and tongues - neither seemingly able to get enough skin contact, which was crazy considering they were both mostly naked.

There was only enough unallocated blood left in Elliot for the most fleeting of thoughts about the way they were making out. They were like rutting mink, or a couple of crazy teenagers too scared to take their time in case they got caught. He wanted to pull back, to say: stop, wait - slow down, but his body wouldn't let him stop, and the way Toby's tongue was lodged in his mouth, the other man seemed disinclined to speak, too.

He knew he was too heavy to be lying on Toby like this - but the other man didn't seem to mind. Seemed to like it, actually, judging by the way his hands were gripping his ass, pulling him down. A tiny part of him laughed that in all their wrestling, along with his spit, he seemed to have gathered up and swallowed Toby's voice, too.

Toby squirmed beneath Elliot, pawing at the slippery flesh, digging in his fingers, his nails. He knew he was leaving marks; knew tomorrow would bring visible signs of what he was doing; but he was unable to reign himself back. He had to bite, squeeze, taste, and if Elliot objected to the way he was making love, he wasn't letting it show. They groaned in unison as they strained to grind their erections together, squirming and thrusting against each other.

Elliot could feel their skin becoming slick with sweat and pre-come. The way his cock was sliding in between their hot bodies and the prickle of Toby's pubic hair on the sensitive head was rapidly undoing what little control he had. He was holding onto his orgasm with every delaying technique he had ever employed, but it was a tenuous grip. He pumped his hips into Toby's groin in synch with the way his mouth was being tongue-fucked, wanting to bury himself in the hot flesh. The wet, sliding sensation at both ends cranked up the tension. He felt his balls tightening.

Elliot pulled in a shaky breath through his nose, feeling Toby's tongue slide deep inside his mouth, desperate and demanding, kissing him as if it was the most erotic thing in the world and all he ever wanted to do.

He wanted to break off, to tell Toby that he felt exactly the same way, to laugh and say slow down, they had all the time in the world - but he felt Toby's hands spread his ass cheeks open and touch him in a place that had been neglected for 20 years and that was all it took. With a roar, his orgasm shot out of him, hot and wet, spreading between their bodies.

Toby heard the shout and felt the shudder run through the powerful body lying on top of him and knew he was responsible for it. The thought that he had made Elliot Stabler lose complete and noisy control was enough to finish him off. With a guttural shout, he thrust his hips up into the slippery ejaculate coating his stomach, and added his own.


Both panting heavily, they lay still; sweaty and trembling, bellies glued together. With his face buried in the crook of Toby's neck, Elliot could barely get enough oxygen in side his body. Sparkly motes danced under his eyelids. He turned his head to the side, too wiped out to move any more. He felt completely washed out, exhausted and perfectly, utterly content. A wave of self-deprecation fermented in his belly, bubbling out of him in a throaty groan.

A pair of hands slid up his arms. Toby moved beneath him. "Hey?" he said, pushing up.

Grunting, Elliot leaned sideways and slithered off Toby's chest, the semen helping to slide them apart without too much effort. Very gently, the complaint rattled out of him again.

"You okay?" Toby asked, peering at him.

"Yeah." Elliot smiled. "Sorry - I just couldn't hold on." He gave a self-deprecating shake of his head. "Man, I feel older than dirt, but here I go, shootin' off like a kid."

Toby grinned, pecking a kiss to the end of Elliot's nose. "Well, Detective, I consider that a compliment."

Elliot looked at him. He seemed genuinely unconcerned about the brief performance. He liked that. "My pleasure," he shrugged, kissing the other man slowly and more intimately, on the mouth.

With a sigh, Toby relaxed against the pillow. He stretched and yawned. Frowning, he reached down to run a finger across his belly. "Why is it that this stuff is amazingly erotic until two seconds after it goes cold?" He leaned over the bed and snagged his tee shirt. He made short work of the mess on his stomach before offering the damp cloth across the bed.

Wiping up whilst pulling a face, Elliot sighed. "You know, any decent host would have offered the guest the cloth first."

"Yeah, well - whaddya gonna do?" Toby snickered.

Elliot shot him a narrowed-eyed look as he wiped his belly clean. He sighed, looking down his body. Then in a sudden burst of movement, lifted his legs and thrashed his them up and down, kicking his pants off. "Shit," he said tersely, sitting up. He swung his legs over the bed and sat there, staring down.

"What's up?" Toby asked, his heart pounding all over again, but this time in fear that the other man was about to walk out. He swallowed. "Elliot?"

With a loud sigh, Elliot stood up suddenly, making the mattress lurch. Toby bit his tongue, waiting for the inevitable 'shit, I gotta go' scene.

"Never gonna get the fuckin' creases out if I leave them on the floor," Elliot muttered, picking his pants up and folding them carefully. He glanced over to the bed as he reached out to hang them over a chair. "Is it okay-?" he hesitated, holding them at arm's length in mid-air.

Toby rushed to answer the unspoken question. "Yeah, God - stay. Please." Toby hoped he didn't have one of his 'manic serial-killer' grins plastered all over his face He scooted over, digging his way under the covers. He watched Elliot fuss and fold his pants, smoothing them down before turned to stand at the edge of the bed. Toby's smile creaked wider at the sight of a naked Detective Stabler standing beside his bed. "Getting in?"

"You sure?"

"You need a written invitation, already?" He was amazed to see an expression of endearing uncertainty cross Elliot's face. He patted the pillow beside him. "Elliot? Please get in."

With a nod and a little smile, Elliot climbed in beside him. He wriggled around for so long, Toby couldn't hold back the amused sigh. "Will you quit that? You're like some goddamned feral dog, trampling reeds."

Elliot stilled and looked over at him, his face a picture. "I'm just tryin' to get comfy."

"Jesus, it's a $1200 bed, Elliot. It's comfy, already."

Elliot huffed, rolling his eyes. "Touchy."

Toby chuckled. He slipped across the gap between them and entwined his arms and legs with Elliot's. He looked at the other man, unsure how he'd feel about cuddling up. "Is *this* kind of 'touchy' okay?"

Elliot answered Toby's question by pulling the other man close and burying his nose in the crook of his neck and sighing. "Yeah. It is."

Toby grinned against Elliot's forehead. He knew damned well this time the grin was the serial killer one.

Chapter nineteen

They lay quietly, listening to each other breathe, the thumping of two heartbeats and the quiet scrunch of the clock by the bed. Toby's one hand gently stroked the skin under Elliot's ear and sighed, completely content.

"You okay?" Elliot asked from the depth of the pillow.

"Hhmmmm." Toby turned his head and kissed the side of Elliot's face, careful to avoid the bullet-scrape. "I'm more than okay, thank you."

Elliot looked at him in the darkness. "Really?"

"Oh, yeah." Toby could see well enough to recognise the shine of teeth as Elliot grinned.

"Good. Me too."

"We're a couple of fucking idiots, aren't we?"

Elliot chuckled. "I guess. But it's cool, now."

Toby rubbed an itch under his nose. "You sure? Cause I'd like to do this again - and as often as possible."

Elliot lay still as he considered the question. There was no question that he felt content, relaxed. The shuddering orgasm seemed to have shaken that restless, irritating niggle he'd been carting around since... he frowned, calculating - working back in time. Was it really as simple as that? Had the past twenty years just been one huge fucking mistake? No. Not a mistake. No way he'd ever think of his children as anything other than a blessing. But his marriage? It hadn't always been bad, not until the last few years, anyway. But had he and Kathy just been making the best of a bad situation? Was the whole thing his fault for trying to prove something? It was an uncomfortable thought.

Toby nudged him. "Elliot? You're not making me any less insecure, here."

"Sorry." He gathered his thoughts and focussed on the man next to him. "Yeah, it's cool," he said.

"Could've fooled me. You looked like you were about to leap up and run screaming from the room."

"No, I wasn't." Elliot shifted up a bit to look Toby directly in the face. "I was just thinking." He pulled the sheet up to his shoulders.

The defensive gesture wasn't lost on Toby. "Oh-oh."

"No, it's nothing bad, just-"

Toby couldn't help the wince that crossed his face. "Doubts?"

Elliot smiled. "No."

Toby reached out and tapped the end of Elliot's nose. "You mean to tell me you don't have any doubts about throwing away twenty years of heterosexual behaviour? Come on - I'm not that nave."

Elliot nodded. "I got some," he said ruefully. "I'm not that nave, either. But that aside-" He smiled. "I'm good."

"So, you think there's a chance I'll wake up tomorrow and you'll still be in my bed?"

Elliot shrugged. "Depends."


"My bladder. It ain't what it used to be."

Toby chuckled. "Okay; an incontinent. I'm pre-warned. Oh, and by the way - I snore like an adenoidal hippo."

"Shit." Elliot groaned. "Like this isn't gonna be tough enough."

"Being with me is tough?"

Elliot looked at him for a long time. When he spoke, it was very softly. "I'm a Catholic father of four, Toby. How much tougher could it be?"

Toby bit his lip and nodded. "Yeah. I know; I'm sorry. I shouldn't be flippant about it." He took a slow, deep breath. "So-" He waved his hand between them. "You think you could be more than just 'okay' with this, some day?"

"Are you always this insecure?" Elliot smiled.

"Are you always this evasive?"

That made Elliot laugh out loud. "Dunno. Maybe you'll have to stick around to find out."

"I might just do that."

Elliot raised an eyebrow. "Probably gonna be a real bumpy ride."


"Almost guarantee it."

Toby looked him in the eye and nodded. "I'll take my chances. Besides," He slipped a hand under the covers and stroked up Elliot's thigh. "I want to find out if you can last more than two minutes, next time."

Laughing, Elliot reached down and grabbed the invasive hand. "Bastard!" He flexed his arm and pulled hard. Toby resisted and they wrestled briefly, grabbing each at other's hands and arms, laughing.

The pseudo-fight didn't last very long before Elliot yelped as a finger poked him. He barked out a sharp laugh. "Stop! God, I give in!" He relaxed, surrendering completely as Toby used his legs to pin his body down. He allowed Toby to hold his hands on the pillow above his head. There was a wicked grin on the other man's face. "What're you grinning at?" he smiled.

"You," Toby replied, leaning down to lick Elliot's chin. "Under my control."

"So you think," Elliot argued, but made no effort to get free. He rather liked the feeling of Toby's weight on him. "Just so happens I'm letting you *think* you're the boss"

Toby laughed out loud. "Yeah, right." He bent his head and kissed the pursed mouth, forcing the lips apart. His tongue filled Elliot's mouth, as he ground himself between the other man's legs.

Beneath him, Elliot opened both his lips and thighs wide. He slid his tongue into Toby's mouth, and his legs around the back of the other man's thighs, gripping hard, forcing their groins together. He lazily humped his hips upwards in time with their tongues.

"Shit," Toby breathed into Elliot's mouth. He lifted his head to regard the other man. "Bastard," he grumbled, struggling to move his semi-erect cock into a more comfortable position.

Elliot laughed. "Now who's the boss?"

Toby narrowed his eyes. The smirk on Stabler's face irked him. He lifted himself up slightly and tilted his head. "Well, you're the detective, you tell me," he said, unravelling his tongue and applying it to the base of Elliot's neck. He began to drag it downwards.

Elliot squirmed. He was ticklish, but wasn't about to let Toby know that. "You think you're real funny, you know that?"

"Uh-huh," Toby replied without pausing in his wet trail. He reached the broad chest and had to release Elliot's wrists as he wriggled his body down the bed.

Elliot tensed, a bubble of laughter trying to squeeze out of his throat. He lowered his hands and gripped the sheets by his sides to keep from moving. "Tired, yet?" he chuckled, peering down at the top of the blond head.

"Uh-uh." Toby could feel spit dribbling down his tongue as he made his way down Stabler's stomach. He chuffed with laughter as he poked in the belly button, and Elliot's whole body jumped and shivered.

Elliot wriggled, laughing. "Enough, Beecher!"

Toby shook his head as he glanced up, his tongue trailing over to one hip bone. He grinned manically, raising his eyebrows. He paused, opening his mouth even wider.

"Don't you dare-" Elliot began. He didn't get to finish before Toby's eyes glinted with mischief, and he bit down, hard.

Elliot exploded with a strangled mixture of shock and ticklish reaction. He grabbed Toby's head. "Oh, fffffuck!"

Toby pulled his mouth off the flare of Elliot's hip with a loud 'pop'. He stared up, innocent. "What? You don't like that?"

"Yeah... yeah. No!"

Toby rolled his eyes. "So which is it?"

Elliot pulled a face. "Just- gently, okay?"

Toby snickered. "Baby." He looked back down at Elliot's groin and stroked a finger over the skin. "There's gotta be a real funny story to go with this," he said with a smile.

Elliot peered down. He pushed Toby's hand away and touched the small tattoo. "What - you don't like it?"

"Oh, sure," Toby chuckled.

"Are you making fun?"

"Who, me?"

Elliot frowned. "Yeah, asshole - you."

Toby shook his head. "I wouldn't dream of it, Detective. But you gotta admit, it doesn't exactly go with the whole 'butch' thing the other two have, does it?"

"Kiss my ass, fuck-face," Elliot said, flicking a fingernail against Toby's forehead with a sharp, clunking sound.

"Ow! Oh, man, just for that-" Grabbing Elliot's hips, Toby held him down and attacked the other bone, deliberately sucking as hard as he could.

"OW! Sshhhiiiit!" Elliot howled.

Coming up with another loud smack, Toby looked at his handiwork. A large, mouth-shaped bruise adorned Elliot's hip. "Cool," he said, wiping the spit off the skin.

"What the-?" Elliot craned his neck down to look. "Aw, fuckin' hell, Toby." He poked the mark. "How the hell am I gonna take a shower at work, now?"

Toby grinned up at him. "You got a hickey? So what?"

"I'm divorced," Elliot said with a scowl.

"No, you're *single*," Toby pointed out.

Elliot grunted with bad grace. "I'm too fucking old to get hickies, *that's* what I am," he muttered, rubbing at the mark.

Toby rolled his eyes. He pushed Elliot's hand out of the way and kissed the bruise. "There. That better?"

Resting on his bent elbows, Elliot looked down at him. "No."

Toby shook his head. "You must practice that look in the mirror."


Toby pointed. "That expression. You've spent some serious time perfecting that, haven't you?"

Elliot just scowled harder. "Bite me," he snapped, then his eyes widened. "NO!" He grabbed Toby's head. "Wait, I just mean-"

"Relax," Toby pushed the hands away. I know what you mean." He grinned. "But now you mention it-" He looked down at Elliot's cock, which despite his orgasm, was standing proud from his body. "What do we have here?" He touched a finger to the head.

"What does it look like?" Elliot pushed his hips up.

"Well, I gotta say I'm impressed." Propping himself on his elbows, Toby took hold of Elliot's penis and swept his tongue from his hand to the top of the head and back down again. "Not bad for an old man."

"Fuck you - we're about the same age."

Toby grinned. "Yeah, I know." He ground his own erection into Elliot's leg. "I'm pretty fuckin' impressed with me, too." He bent his head and licked.

Chapter twenty.

Elliot watched the other man through eyes narrowed to slits. Toby licked him over and over, like he was the world's strangest lollipop. His tongue was both rough and silken and Elliot's hips thrust in time with the strokes. He reached down to touch Toby's head. "Wait-"

Looking up, Toby licked the saliva from his lips, the sight making the pulse in Elliot's cock beat harder. "Problem?" Toby asked.

Elliot shook his head. "No. I just want to-" He sat up and pulled at Toby's shoulder. "Turn around. I want to-" He shrugged, not quite brave enough to say the words. "You know-"

The blank look on Toby's face cleared. "Oh, I get it." Scrambling through the sheets, he shifted around, top-to-tail. He stretched to look up at Elliot. "I thought you were tired?"

"I was, until you started licking me with that thing."

Toby laughed. "I told you it was versatile."

"That you did." Elliot smiled. "And I'm very appreciative."

"Not yet, but you soon will be," Toby said, lying flat, leaning his head on Elliot's thigh. He stuck his tongue out and tickled the head of the other man's cock.

Elliot chuckled and ran his hand over Beecher's thigh before settling himself there. He stared at the thick cock bobbing in front of his face for a second, assailed both by memories and sudden nervousness. There was a tiny moment of doubt and a sliver of embarrassment worming their way into his mind. Kissing and humping could maybe be excused away as some kind of crazy playfulness - but deliberately putting another man's penis in his mouth was altogether another matter. He took a calming breath - and was immediately struck by Toby's warm scent. There was no getting away from what he was about to, and to whom.

Down the bed, oblivious to Elliot's hesitation, Toby leaned in and nuzzled the other man, burying his face in his crotch. He opened his mouth and caressed the nearly hairless balls. He heard Stabler grunt gently and part his legs - wordlessly offering himself to Toby. With a grin of satisfaction, Beecher put his wicked tongue to work.

Long, wet strokes of Toby's tongue gently undid the knot of tension in Elliot's stomach; the warmth, sliding up and down the sensitive skin sent a rush of lust to his groin. The memories of how good it felt flooded back, the desire to enjoy this act again drowned the last of his uncertainty. He opened his mouth without further thought and took Toby inside.

Toby uttered a strangled groan with the erotic overload of having Elliot Stabler's mouth on his cock. The heat, the wetness and the sheer mental image of having this man go down on him brought a surge of blood to his groin that threatened to finish him off. He quickly took hold of Elliot's cock and shoved it in his mouth, sucking hard to reciprocate.

Elliot gave a long, heartfelt moan as his cock was thrust deep into Toby's mouth. His hips lifted, unconsciously following through. How had he managed to last 20 years without this?

Toby's tongue rubbed on the underside on his penis, stroking all the way from root to head. Mouth full, cock buried to the hilt in another man's throat, Elliot's whole body arched and tensed, revelling in the whole experience, craving release.

With his sucking counterpoint to the gentle thrusts of his hips, Elliot's mind ran through a silent litany of curse words - eyes screwed up tight, he was stunned that he could feel another orgasm gathering so quickly.

He began to suckle hard on Toby, instinct taking over as techniques he had thought long-forgotten came tumbling out of him. He pulled his head back and used his tongue in ways that he remembered well. He wrapped both hands around Toby's ass and pulled him close, encouraging the thrusts, welcoming the intrusion into his body. He used a thumb to stroke the silky path between Toby's balls and ass.

Toby whined, a thin, needy noise that squeezed put of his throat to vibrate around the hard cock in his mouth. The way Elliot was pulling at his body - as if he couldn't get him in deep enough, was so fucking sexy it took his breath away. More than the act itself, it was the fact of *who* was between his legs that was picking at the edges of his control, unravelling it like a cheap sweater. Stabler's strong fingers dug into his ass cheeks, flexing and kneading. Toby gasped, his breathing coming in short, heated bursts through his nose.

Elliot felt the sharp gusts of breath on his balls - felt, more than heard the whining in Toby's throat and knew the other man's control was wavering. He felt a quiet triumph; he would not be the first to come this time. He grasped Toby's ass harder, took a breath and opened his throat, swallowing hard several times in a way that he had been taught half a lifetime ago.

Toby was helpless as Elliot pulled him in close and took his cock right to the back of his throat. The erotic shock pulled loose the last errant threads of control and his orgasm swept over him in an uncontrollable, butt-clenching yet delicious rush. His body convulsed, spurting.

Elliot felt it the instant Toby lost control, and mentally grinned. He could feel the muscles in the man's ass flex as his body trembled, tensed and relaxed. His objective reached, he let his own control slip back a notch, allowing himself to savor the heat of Toby's mouth, the feel of fingers working his own ass. He thrust into the wet heat a couple more times and let the hot pleasure take him to a gentle, shuddering orgasm.

The lights behind Toby's eyelids faded. He let Elliot's softening cock slip from between his lips. "Jesus Christ," he breathed. He sat up unsteadily on one elbow and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand.

With his head still lying on Toby's thigh, Stabler stared up with a smug grin on his face.

Toby mock-glared. "What?"

"Who's the boss, now?" Elliot asked lazily.

Toby muttered to himself, making a big production of turning around to lie beside Elliot. He settled himself and regarded the other man with baleful eyes. "If I wasn't so fucking wiped out I'd teach you another thing or two about being bossy, Mr. Detective."

"I'm a patient man, I can wait."

"Well, you're gonna have to. I don't have another round in me tonight."

"You sure? Coz I think I could-"

"Oh, fuck off - you could not!"

Elliot chuckled. "Nah. You're right." He smiled. "But I'd like to give three a go, some day."

Toby placed a hand on the large chest. "Yeah. Me too."

Elliot stared into the cool blue eyes as he ran his tongue over his teeth. He could still taste what they had just done. He lay still with Toby's hand on his chest, examining how he felt about that - about himself. He was glad to find no great change in his opinion of himself. He was single, he was an adult, and he was content. He smiled.

They lay quietly in the rumpled sheets, just looking at one another, smiling - something that Elliot would have scorned had anyone had suggested it before now. Even during the good times, he didn't recall ever lying in bed staring goofily at Kathy. And that saddened him.

Toby watched Elliot's face change. He would never have guessed the face of such an apparently taciturn man could display his emotions so openly. He brushed a thumb over a nipple.

"Can I ask you something?" he said quietly.

Elliot's expression cleared. He nodded. "Sure."

Toby chose his words carefully. "Sometimes, I see this look on your face and I wonder what you're thinking. I mean, I don't want to pry, or anything, but-" He smiled and shrugged. "Oh, hell, yeah, fuck it. I do wanna pry. You look so-" He hesitated, wary.

"So, what?"

Toby stroked his nipple again. "Sad, Elliot. Or disappointed, maybe?"

Elliot said nothing. His eyes darted back and forth under a creased brow. "I didn't realize," he said eventually.

"I just wondered, you know; what makes you like that. Is it this? You regret this?"

"No." Elliot shook his head, frowning. "Not this-" He pursed his lips and thought. Sad and disappointed? The words echoed in his mind. Had he been? *Was* he? He wasn't sure, or even what to make of Toby's comment. It was a hell of a thing to get thrown at you out of the blue.

"I don't know," he said. "I guess everyone gets like that sometimes."

Toby just looked at him and Elliot smiled at his expression. "Oh, I see. More than just 'sometimes'?"

"You could say that. It's a little disconcerting."

"And it's more than a little disconcerting to be told you're borderline depressive."

"I didn't say that. I just thought you might like to share."

Sighing, Elliot stared up at the ceiling in silence.

"You don't like to talk about yourself, do you?"

Elliot cut him a sideways glance. "You analysing me?"

Toby held up a hand. "Wouldn't dare, man. You're the boss."

Elliot grunted. "Yeah, like I believe that." He turned the words Toby had used to describe him over and over in his mind, feeling a sting as if they were coated in broken glass. He winced. The disappointment was an easy one. Firstly from his father, then latterly; his wife. Probably his kids too, in some way. His job, a lot of the time, and worst of all, in *himself* for not being the son and husband he set out to be. The list was long and painful.

"Things didn't turn out the way I hoped," he said by way of explanation. "You know? In my life."

Toby leaned in and kissed him. "Yep, that sounds like life, all right." He rubbed his nose on Elliot's cheek.

Elliot smiled a small smile. "I'm kinda hoping things are gonna change."

Toby grinned. "Oh, I can guarantee that - and it's gonna be in a *good* way, Detective Stabler." He dipped in for a long, wet kiss. "Besides," he said, licking Elliot's bottom lip. "I want to find out all the things you learned from your Marine buddy."

He felt his smile slip away when he saw the expression that flooded Elliot's face. That was definitely one of his 'buttons' Taking the strong chin in his hand, he gently shook it. "There. That's it. *That's* the look I'm talking about." Elliot pulled his face away. Toby grabbed the chin again and pulled it around to look straight in Elliot's eyes. "Tell me."

"It's nothing."


To Toby's relief, Elliot looked more amused than pissed.

Toby stroked his thumb along Elliot's jaw-line. "Did he hurt you?" he asked.

Elliot winced as if rabbit-punched. "Jesus, Toby." He turned away and rubbed his face with a hand.

"I take it that's a 'yes'."

"Fuck," Elliot muttered. "Does it matter?"

"You tell me."

Elliot glanced at Toby, not wanting to elaborate. He looked at the set of the other man's jaw, the studied patience as he lay there waiting for an answer. Well, he could just lie there and wait. He wasn't going to explain anything to this man - it was none of his business; they'd only known each other five minutes.


Elliot screwed his face up and sighed. It was like being in bed with a Jack Russell terrier. Fucking relentless. How could he begin to explain stuff he could never have talked to Kathy about? Stuff that he hadn't even discussed with *himself*? He stared into blue eyes, determined to remain defiantly silent. This was no-ones business but his - besides, it was ancient history.

"I hated him," he said at last, surprising himself.

Chapter twenty one

"But I thought-" Toby began to say.

"I guess I loved him too, a little," Elliot said, cutting in. "In a funny kinda way. He did things to me that-" He closed his eyes.

"He abused you?" Toby felt his stomach clench.

"No." Elliot shook his head, his eyes still shut. "Nothing like that. It was consensual." He gave a short laugh that sounded entirely humourless, even to his ears. "Well, eventually."

"Christ, Elliot."

Turning his head, Elliot cracked open an eye. "Don't. Don't you dare think that. He never forced me; it wasn't like that at all. Hell, I work in sex crimes every day, Toby - I know the criteria for abuse and this doesn't apply. Not even close." He scrubbed his hand over his eyes to clear away the sand and smoke. "I wasn't some defenceless little kid, I coulda stopped him any time. I just-" He swallowed and his voice slipped into a whisper. "I just didn't want to."

Toby waited to see if anything else was coming. After waiting through a long silence, he spoke. "How old were you?"

Elliot closed his eyes again. "Old enough to know better. And young enough to spend the last twenty years hating him for what he did - for creating this - this *need* in me." The dust and heat from twenty-odd years ago scratched the back of his eyelids. He rubbed them harshly, welcoming the pain.

Toby said nothing, just placed his hand in the middle of Elliot's chest and left it there, motionless.

Keeping his eyes tightly shut, Elliot spoke quickly, the words tumbling out of him without consideration, without thought or censure. "What Digger showed me - what he did, was so outside my experience it fuckin' blew me away. He was older than me and I didn't have the guts to stop him at first, and by the time I did, I'd well, gotten to like it, I guess." He frowned. "I mean, some of it was pretty rough, but mostly it was good. *It* was good. The sex, I mean. He wasn't so big on the other stuff, though, like kissing. He didn't ever kiss me, but that was okay. I guess it helped me shut it away, keep it apart and make it separate from what me and Kathy did. When I came back it was like it'd happened to someone else; no-one could see I was any different, and I told myself I wasn't, either. I never told her - 'course I never told her. She would have flipped." He gave another bark of mirthless laughter. "Everyone would have flipped. Hell, *I* fuckin' flipped. Guess that's why I got her knocked up. To prove something to everyone. To myself."

He covered his face with his arm and groaned. "Oh, fuck."

"Hey-" Toby reached over and wrapped himself around Elliot's body, trying to hold as much as possible. "It's okay," he muttered, stroking the dark hair. He lay there, silently. He didn't need to have a psychology degree to know Elliot was absolutely mortified for revealing so much of himself.

"Maureen wasn't a mistake. None of my kids are," Elliot muttered angrily from under his arm.

"I know."

"Marrying Kathy was the mistake." The words shocked Elliot to silence. He'd teased the thought around in the private corners of his mind, but never before pinned it down and vocalized it. He clamped his mouth shut.

Toby stayed resolutely silent. There were a lot of things he would like to say to try and comfort Elliot, but he wasn't stupid enough to try and shrink a man lying in his bed.


They'd been lying wrapped up together in silence for so long Toby wondered if he'd actually heard the word at all. He peered at the face in the crook of his neck. "Hey, there."

Elliot's eyes opened a slit. "You still here?" he said.

Toby laughed. "Looks like." He gave a squeeze. "Can't scare me off that easily. Besides, I live here." He had decided around half an hour ago that he was going to play things light when Elliot decided to surface. He'd bet his left nut that the other man would be just crucified with embarrassment.

"I, er..." Elliot scratched the side of his nose, feeling awkward.

"Shut up." Toby untangled himself from Elliot's limbs.


"Shut up. Whatever feeble apology you think you owe me, forget it."

Elliot pulled himself up a little and peered at Toby as if he were deranged. "Who said I was gonna apologize?"

Toby shrugged, snuggling back under the covers. "You were, weren't you?"

Elliot pooched out his lower lip. "No."

"Liar." Toby smiled.

"You keep calling me that."

"I keep calling you gorgeous, too, but I don't hear you complaining 'bout that." He crooked a finger. "C'mere."


Toby rolled his eyes. "I want to kiss you goodnight, you awkward son of a bitch."

Elliot regarded him with suspicion. He was waiting for the in-depth analysis of what he'd just revealed. The guy taught shrinking. He *must* have reams to say about this.

"C'mere, Stabler!" Toby reached over and grabbed the other man by the shoulder, pulling him in. Toby grinned and placed a kiss on the end of the Roman nose. "There y'go. How hard was that?"

Elliot lay nose-to-nose with him on the same pillow. He narrowed his eyes. "Is that it?"


Elliot was confused. The other man wasn't asking questions, wasn't offering advice or platitudes - nothing. He busied himself by squirming around, getting comfy, thinking about what that meant.


Elliot nodded. "Uh-huh." He lay still, watching Toby in the dark, waiting. He waited a long time. His eyes began to droop. Blinks became longer and longer. He felt his body slide into repose as he allowed his muscles to relax. He fought the pull of sleep and opened his eyes. Toby was looking at him. He opened his mouth to speak.

"It's okay; I understand." Toby said very softly. "We don't need to talk about it."

"I didn't mean to dump that on you," he said, regardless.

"You didn't."

Elliot nodded very slightly, finally understanding. "Thanks."

"You're welcome."

Elliot grinned. "I mean, thanks for not shrinking me."

"Who, me?" Toby smiled back.

"Yeah, you," Elliot growled.

Toby's eyebrows rose. "You don't like shrinks. I get it. But over the next hundred years or so, when I slip up and tell you why you're doing something, don't freak out on me. It's my job - I can't help it. Just like getting shot at is yours."

"I'll try not to do that too often."

"I'd be grateful," Toby smiled. "I'd kinda like to keep you around for a while."

"Well, promise not to shrink me, and I might stick around."

"Deal." He wriggled his nose. "Maybe I shoulda been a lawyer, like my dad."

Elliot groaned and covered his face. "Oh, fuck, no! Then I'd *have* to kill you."

Toby sighed. "Lawyers, too?"

Elliot shrugged. "Meh. Whatcha gonna do?"

"I'm in bed with Mr. Intolerant. Great."

Reaching to pull the other man closer, Elliot whispered in his ear. "You're in bed with Mr. Sex-Machine, actually."

Toby laughed. "Okay. I'll have to take your word for that."

Elliot gave a low growl in the back of his throat, sounding like something large and primal, and Toby felt goose bumps break out all over his body.

"Oh, you are gonna be *so* sorry you made fun of me," Elliot breathed.

Toby rubbed his ear and grinned. "Yeah?"

"Oh, yeah," Elliot whispered, his eyes narrowed.

"Good. I'll look forward to you correcting me." Toby leaned forward and kissed him. "But in the meantime, sleep, Stabler. You need to gather your strength."

Elliot grumbled, but there was no conviction behind it. He yawned, belatedly remembering to cover his mouth. "G'night," he said, sleepily, rolling onto his back. He stretched up and relaxed, leaving one arm raised above his head as he closed his eyes.

Beside him, Toby chuckled softly.

Elliot cracked open an eye. "Now what?"


"Sounds like it. You know, a guy could get real offended when someone laughs at them after sex."

"I wasn't laughing *at* you."

"I have a gun," he said pointedly.

"I wasn't laughing at you," Toby assured him, placing a kiss on his shoulder.

"Then what?"

"I just got the answer to a question that's been bugging me since the day I first saw you."

"Oh?" Elliot grinned sleepily. "You mean: 'How am I in bed?'"

"Yeah, sort of. But not that, exactly." Toby ran a hand down a bicep. "When I saw you in the Faculty room that first day, slumped on the chair with your eyes closed, I bet myself that you'd look just like that after a hard bout of love-making." He smiled.

Elliot smiled. "Thank you, but I'd hardly call that a 'hard bout'." He felt a warm blush of pleasure that Toby had thought of him in those terms so soon.

"Maybe not - but it was love-making nevertheless."

"I guess." Elliot tilted his head, smiling. "And? Do I look like you imagined?"

"Yep. You do. Just like some glorious, debouched, fallen angel."

Elliot's smile broke into a laugh. "No-one's called me an angel since I was about three and had a head of curls."

Toby snickered and reached to run his fingers over the short hair. "Wow, you know, somehow I can't picture that."

"Fuck you," Elliot grumbled with a smile, pushing the hand away. "Thinning hair is a sign of masculinity."

"I can't argue with that," Toby said, lifting the cover and pretending to peer down into the darkness.

Elliot squashed the sheet down. "Stop it."

"No, why should I? The view's incredible."

Elliot groaned and rolled away.

Toby laughed and lifted the sheet again. "Hell, look at that; the view just got better."

"Go to sleep, Beecher."

"Is that an order?"

"No - a threat," Elliot growled.

Toby laughed and dropped the sheet as he wriggled to fit himself behind Elliot. He snuggled his legs up and looped an arm over the big chest. He was inordinately pleased when Elliot took his wrist and tucked his hand under his chin.

"G'night, Stabler," Toby breathed, placing a soft kiss in the hairs on the back of Elliot's neck.

Elliot grunted an absent reply, already almost asleep. His last thoughts were not of how bumpy this ride was going to be; or of how he was going to explain this seemingly sudden and radical change of lifestyle to his family and his colleagues, but rather ones of warmth, of peace, and a contentment he hadn't felt for as long as he could remember.

He sighed and pulled the wrist in his hand close to his lips and kissed it as he finally let sleep take him.

The end.

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