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A Smile That Illuminates (The Smile Series, Part 3)
He drummed his fingers on his desk blotter, agitated at the stall in the investigation. They'd only been working the case for two days, but it was one day too long in his opinion.
"The uncle is a dead end," Olivia said. "His alibi checks out."
"Are you sure?" Elliot asked. "It seemed like he was hiding something."
"Yeah," Fin replied, "a hoochie up in Harlem. Which is where he was that night."
Elliot leaned back in his desk chair and put his feet up. "Now what?"
Liv shuffled through the case file on her desk, reading and re-reading witness statements as well as her notes. "I have no idea."
"Fin and I can re-canvass, Liv," Munch stated, walking into the squad at the tail-end of Elliot's curse. "Other than that we've got bubkis."
She nodded, not looking up from her notes. "They found her in the sixth-floor stairwell of the housing project...there has to be someone who saw something."
"Good luck trying to get witnesses in the PJs," Fin said, "but we can sweat the residents on the sixth floor again."
"Sounds good," Cragen said to Fin and Munch, "Elliot and Liv, see if you can dig up some more on the family here."
"If Ell and I can..."
She stopped talking abruptly, looking past Elliot's left shoulder to the squad's entrance. Catching sight of the visitor, she glanced subtly in Elliot's direction. "Elliot," she whispered, "Kathy's here."
Kathy walked up as he was dropping his feet to the floor. Looming over him, she took a quick look around the squad and said, "We need to talk."
"Kath," Elliot answered, as his partner and the rest of the unit made themselves scarce, "this isn't really the place for..."
"Don't you hand me that bullshit, Elliot," she interrupted, cutting him off with her hand. "My lawyer has been leaving messages for the past three weeks, none of which you've had the decency to return."
"That's because you had to hire someone who thinks she has the right to tell me when I can see my own damn kids."
"You left me, Kath. That's on you. After almost 20 years, after all we've been through, with the kids and having no money and shitty apartment after shitty apartment, and I have to call to make arrangements to see the kids? What the hell..."
"Can we not do this in front of everyone?" she said angrily, her voice lowered.
"Yeah, fine," he hissed, getting up from his desk and slamming the chair behind him. Stalking off down the hall to one of the interrogation rooms, he ushered her inside and shut the door behind them.
Kathy sat down on one of the chairs usually reserved for subjects.
"Wait, sit here." Elliot pulled an extra chair over from the side of the room he knew only the detectives worked from. Sitting down next to her, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "We need to work something out."
"Just sign the papers, Elliot."
Her reaction to him was cold at best, he thought. She seemed distracted, annoyed that she had to come to the squad to confront him. He couldn't exactly blame her; entering the squad could sometimes be a traumatic experience for anyone, much less the wife of a cop who dealt with this shit every day. Or...lived through it, he thought sarcastically, because he sure as hell hadn't been dealing with things for a while.
Kathy was looking down at her hands.
"Look at me, Kath."
She glanced up and met his eyes. "I didn't come here to get into it. I needed to come to tell you to stop ignoring my lawyer's phone calls. I want this done."
"Done, Kathy? Christ, you know I went to Father Harrigan. I was trying. You just gave up. What about counseling?"
"We're beyond counseling. If you paid any attention to what was happening in our marriage you'd know that."
He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck, which had tensed up the moment he sat down to deal with this. Ignoring the lawyer's calls had made them go away, but he couldn't duck them forever. He wasn't just being a dick -- although the thought had occurred to him -- he was trying to delay the inevitable.
"We've never even tried counseling. You want to throw away those 20 years over a couple of stupid fights?"
She frowned at him. "Do you hear yourself? This has nothing to do with a few 'stupid fights.' This is about you, the job, and your distance from me and the kids. It's about that goddamn dark mood of yours that has been hovering over the house for the past year and a half. You used to talk to me, Elliot. What happened?"
"I never talked to you about the job, Kathy," he replied, a little defensively.
"You never talked to me about what you saw, because I know you wanted to keep that out of the house. But at least you used to tell me how you were feeling, Elliot. If you were depressed, or upset, at least we could lie in bed after the kids were asleep and talk. You would open up to me. Now all you ever are is angry, and even then you can't tell me why. I'm sick of it."
He resisted the urge to lash back at her, because it wouldn't help, and because she was right. He hadn't really shared his feelings with anyone in such a long time, and now he'd become cold and closed off without realizing it. Until Tobias, of course. That thought sent a wave of self-recrimination coursing over him -- he was more comfortable talking about his emotions with another man than he was with his own wife.
"I don't know how things changed," he admitted solemnly.
He really didn't. Kath was right -- he could remember nights lying there awake, the events of the day repeating over and over in his head, and he would feel her reach out to him. It was never his restlessness that woke her; she could always sense that change in him whenever he allowed the demons to stay longer than they should. They would talk about how he was feeling while he paid careful attention not to reveal anything too gruesome. It always helped him sleep. Just the idea of having a conversation like that now seemed as though he were talking about someone else. He couldn't recall the last time they had one of those soothing nighttime talks.
"I do," she said finally. "I know exactly what's changed. You've forgotten what it means to be a father."
He stood up then, sliding back so fast that the chair tipped from underneath him with a crash.
"Don't you dare think for a moment that I'm not a good father, Kathy. Don't you dare lay that on me. I care for them, I protect them, I provide for them...there is nothing in this world I wouldn't do for my kids! How could you say that? I haven't gotten a lot right in my life, but those four kids are the best part of me. They keep me going."
"Elliot." She sighed, stood, and walked to the door. "You can't be a father at home when your heart and soul are here." Glancing around the room, she took in the dim overhead lighting; the defaced, worn table; the weathered chairs. "And you can't be a husband, either."
"Dammit, Kathy!" His hands slammed against the tabletop harder than he intended, the sound reverberating throughout the room. "What do you want me to do, quit? The job..."
"The job is your life, I know. We're dancing the same dance here. Nothing is going to change, and that's not my fault."
He lowered his head and leaned over the table, both hands supporting his weight. "Please." He could feel the tears coming, and he struggled to swallow them. "I need to see the kids."
"My lawyer suggested we do it this way, but...if you give me enough notice I'll work something out. Maureen's spring break is coming up -- she's spending the week with Mary Cooney's parents in Florida -- but Kathleen and the twins will be around."
He turned to look at her as she paused in the doorway.
"I love you, I always have. The kids love you. But I hate the man you've become because of this place. Don't make it any harder than it has to be. I don't want to come here again."
And with that, she was gone.
* * *
Cragen gestured to the chair. "Sit."
"I don't really want to go into it..."
"The squad isn't interested in your private life, detective. We all have to deal with our own shit at home, but we are worried about you as a friend. I hate seeing you like this."
He gave Cragen one of his usual self-deprecating grins, more a statement on the path his life had taken than anything. Soon-to-be ex-wife? Check. High pressure job? Got it. Kids who were this close to being totally out of his life? Yeah. He sighed deeply.
"I need a few days, I think."
"Of course, Elliot. Liv can handle the Wilson case."
"Make sure she looks over that uncle of hers, again," Elliot offered. "He supposedly has an alibi, but he just didn't seem..."
Cragen cut him off with a wave of his hand. "We got it covered, all right? Take a few days, get your head straight."
Elliot had to laugh at that, picturing the blonde man with wire-rimmed glasses and tailored suit. Soon-to-be ex wife, high-pressure job, distant kids, and Tobias Beecher, the man he made out with on his couch.
No, getting his head straight was going to take a lot longer than a few days, if it was even possible.
* * *
She had followed his every move as he exited Cragen's office, trying to read him by his body language.
"Fine, Liv. I'm taking a few days, that's all."
She blinked at him. "Really."
He cleared papers from his desk and organized the files that had been spread across it. "Yeah."
"I guess Kathy's visit had something to do with it?"
He grinned darkly at her, the malevolent one that meant he was in no mood to discuss it. "Yeah."
Walking past her, he went over to his locker and clipped his badge and weapon to his belt. He found his coat, because although spring had technically arrived, it was still too chilly for just his suit jacket.
Returning to his desk, he locked the bottom drawer, and tossed his car keys into his pocket. "Call me if you get anything from the re-canvass on the Wilson murder. I'll be around."
He turned back to her.
"Take care of yourself, okay? You look like you could use the rest."
He nodded, and headed for the elevator.
* * *
In the precinct parking garage, he found his car and slid into the driver's seat. Taking a deep breath, he slowly clenched his fists, closed his eyes, and proceeded to slam his hands against the steering wheel over and over. Eventually he allowed everything he had been holding back for the past half hour to come exploding out of him in a fury. Screaming in frustration, and with the car rocking during the assault, his anger finally subsided. He dropped his balled fists to the smooth fabric of the bucket seats and took a weak, shuddery breath. Then he found his cell phone.
* * *
"This is Tobias Beecher."
"Why is it that you're always around when I need you?" he asked shakily.
"Elliot?" Tobias's voice sounded confused on the other end of the line. "Is that you?"
"Guilty as charged," Elliot chuckled humorlessly.
"Are you okay? You don't sound right."
"Oh, you know, I haven't been right for a while."
"Elliot...what's going on? What happened?"
"It's okay, Tobias. I'm having a spectacularly bad day, that's all."
Elliot could hear Tobias's audible sigh of relief. "Well something's going on. This is the first time you've ever called me during work hours."
Something he had to remedy, thought Elliot. He was in an awkward situation though. They had only seen each other twice following that first kiss they shared two weeks back, and not much more had occurred. He never even asked if Tobias was gay. Should he? Elliot was pretty damn sure he himself wasn't gay, yet here he was having dinner and spending dessert on the couch with another man. Was there a delayed-reaction type of gay? Like 20 years married and four kids and everything was great until she decided I was too angry all the time gay? Was he kissing another man to get back at Kathy, somehow? He thought about that for a second, wondering how in the hell he had gotten into the predicament of having a wife and...a boyfriend? Christ, boyfriend? Well, this wasn't some sort of revenge. He could feel it -- he was glad for that. So, not revenge, and not gay. But there was kissing. What the fuck did that mean?
One thing at a time.
"I guess I should call you more often, Tobias," he said plainly.
"That's not what I meant, Elliot. I mean that I know your job is stressful and keeps you busy, so for you to call me in the middle of all that must mean something bad."
"I could have just called to hear your voice."
"Maybe...but I know you better than you think."
Dammit. He sighed, knowing Tobias's bizarre sense of empathy had won over this conversation. Tobias probably also knew that Elliot hadn't reached the point of calling just to hear his voice yet. Shit. Was that bad? He hadn't had to deal with this dating thing in so long. Although...is that what they were doing? Dating? They hadn't actually gone out on a date per se. But they kissed, right? He suddenly had a strange picture in his head, of sitting there talking to Maureen, asking her for dating tips.
"Did you hear me?" Tobias asked over the phone.
"I said I know it has something to do with work, and to just tell me what it is."
"Kathy came into the squad today."
"Yeah," Elliot agreed, rubbing the back of his neck again. "We argued, I blew off my partner, and asked Cragen for a few days leave. And then I beat up the steering wheel."
"I was feeling a little overwhelmed."
Tobias chuckled. "You had me worried there for a minute. Did the steering wheel put up much resistance?"
"A little," he replied, feeling himself relax. "I stopped when my hands started going numb."
"You didn't hurt yourself on purpose, did you, Elliot?"
Elliot could hear the concern in Tobias's voice, and winced inwardly for making him worry. "Just blowing off a little steam."
"That's not the way to do it, you know."
"I'm still working on that," he admitted.
"So now what are you going to do? How many days did you take?"
"I think I'll take the rest of the week. I need to do some thinking...Kathy wants me to sign the papers."
"Is that why she came in?"
"She also mentioned that I suck at fatherhood," Elliot said.
"No, a part of me understands why. She's right -- I've been closed off for so long that I've forgotten who I used to be."
"I think the man I know isn't like that at all," Tobias said.
He softened, welcoming the balance of concern and support Tobias always offered whenever they were together. It centered him, bringing him out of his dark mood. It also made him feel guilty, because as much as he craved it in his life, if he wasn't willing to sign those divorce papers, this relationship had to end. He needed to be sure of what he wanted. There was no turning back.
"Tobias, can I see you tonight? I'll get us dinner."
"A few words to puff up your ego and I get a dinner invitation? You're easy, detective."
"Takes one to know one."
"Ooh," Tobias laughed. "Snappy comeback! I'll be sure not to match wits with you in the future."
"Seven o'clock, smart ass."
"Yes sir, Detective Stabler."
* * *
Tobias knocked at the kitchen door and let himself in. He hung his coat over one of the chairs and walked over to Elliot, who was standing at the island buttering bread. Tobias came up behind him and looked over his shoulder as he worked.
"Something smells good," he remarked.
"Veal parm from Suriani's heating in the oven."
Tobias lightly kissed the side of Elliot's neck. "I didn't mean the food."
Elliot tensed at the natural display of affection, and dropped the knife he was holding. It was still going to take him a while to get used to the simple, unfettered way Tobias showed his feelings. Elliot dusted the bread with garlic and stuck it in the oven.
When he turned back around, Tobias was leaning against the island, his head tilted to the side. "Do that again."
"What?" asked Elliot.
"Bend over," he grinned.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," he laughed, enjoying Elliot's awkwardness. He stood over the table and straightened the place settings. "I know you're struggling with it."
"This is all just kind of new to me." He caught Tobias's eye. "I haven't had to deal with this sort of thing in a really long time, and even then I wasn't very good at it."
"You mean kissing?" Tobias asked. "Because I think you've done fine so far." He bit off a giggle, and Elliot threw a dishtowel at him.
"No, this whole..." he waved his hand, "whatever it is. Us."
"I believe the term is 'man-on-man action.'"
Tobias laughed this time after catching Elliot's reaction. "It gets easier, Ell, believe me."
"Well, this is a first for me."
"And I'm some sort of gay lothario, I take it?" Tobias asked. "With a black book filled with the names of all of my conquests?"
"I guess it's true I haven't spoken all that much about my life. But trust me, Elliot, you're only the second guy I've ever..." Tobias waved his hand in the air like Elliot did, "'whatevered' with. I used to be married."
"So, you're not gay?"
His answer came quickly. "I want to be loved, Ell. Maybe my eyes opened a lot while I was in Oz, but I don't particularly care whether it's a man or woman if someone is willing to share their heart with me. Love is love, y'know?"
Elliot nodded, trying to wrap his head around the concept. In his world of black and white, there very rarely ever tended to be shades of gray. Cop or perp. Good or bad. You liked men, or you liked women. There was no in between. Until now, of course. It never mattered before, but suddenly he had to deal with it in his own life. And here he was, not quite married but not quite divorced, spending time with a bad guy who had changed his life, and feeling better than he had in 20 years each time he kissed someone who wasn't his wife -- or a woman. It was like his world had been turned upside down, and he was trying to keep his mind from going with it.
"You...uh...met someone in Oz, then?"
Tobias nodded, grabbing a piece of buttered bread. "His name was Chris."
Elliot pulled the bread out of his hand. "That needs garlic. I was making garlic bread before your kiss threw me off."
"I have that effect."
Elliot grabbed a towel and slid the veal from the oven, placing it on top of the stove. Balancing the tin foil package of garlic bread, he carried it and the entree to the table.
"How did you meet Chris?"
"It wasn't in a bar, that's for sure," Tobias answered, his mouth half-full of garlic bread.
"Was he your cellie?"
Elliot could sense the hesitation in Tobias's answer and wondered if he should continue to pry. "Your relationship didn't end well, I take it."
Tobias didn't look up at him. "He's dead."
The mood darkened, and Elliot instantly regretted asking the question. There were probably a lot of things about Oz Tobias didn't want to talk about. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to dredge up painful memories for you."
"Everything about the last nine years has been painful. It's not going to go away any time soon."
Elliot knew the cold truth of the matter was that the past would always remain. But having someone to turn to was the most important thing he had in his life right now, thanks to Tobias. Something about this man had touched him in a way no one else ever did, even Kathy. If Tobias was the one he trusted, more than Kathy, more than Olivia, then he deserved more.
He placed his hand on Tobias's arm, and the other man looked up at him. "You've helped me more than you'll ever know just by letting me talk without preaching to me. Everyone in my life seems to want to tell me what to do, except you. You've been the only one who has actually listened to all my shit, and you have to let me offer that in return."
"I have a pretty good feeling I have a lot more shit than you, Ell."
"Do you have an almost-ex wife who bitched at you in the middle of your own office today?"
Tobias smiled. "No, I guess I don't."
Elliot bit into the wonderful tasting veal. "You said you used to be married? Did you go through the whole awkward pre-divorce phase too?"
"If she hadn't killed herself, I'm sure it would have come to that."
The sound of Tobias's voice made Elliot look up at him. It was so nonchalant, so matter of fact, that it was almost as if someone else had been speaking. There was a finality to it that was disturbing.
"Jesus Christ, Tobias..."
"Told you I had more shit."
"We don't have to talk about her," Elliot said gently. "Or Chris."
"Yes," Tobias said, "we do. But not tonight."
"I have my share of problems, Tobias, but like I said, I'm here to listen. You can trust me."
Tobias smiled warmly at him. "I know I can, Ell. You already know more about me than I've told anyone in over six years. I appreciate that."
"It's the cop face, isn't it?" Elliot asked, quirking a grin.
"Among other things," Tobias said in a teasing tone, overemphasizing a leer up and down Elliot's body.
"I only do that so you'll say my name that way," he laughed. "Okay, now I want to know more about why you had such a bad day."
The somber mood had passed as if it were nothing more than a discussion about some trivial occurrence. Elliot thought better than to press for more information -- he had cared for enough victims to know that getting Tobias to bring up anything tonight would do more harm than good. But he would need to talk about it eventually. The cop in Elliot could see it very clearly.
"My day, huh? Okay, let's see: unsolved murder of a 16-year-old; Kathy telling me I've forgotten how to be a father; my little rage-induced battering of the steering wheel in my car; and the constant reminder than I need to decide what to do about the divorce."
Both men paused for a moment to look at each other, and then broke out laughing.
Tobias tucked the errant strand of hair that always fascinated Elliot behind his ear. Elliot couldn't help but stare.
"You have a gorgeous grin, Ell. We need to get you to do that more often."
Elliot looked down self-consciously and stabbed another piece of veal.
"Not used to compliments, either? When was the last time Kathy ever said something like that to you?"
They chuckled together again and returned to their dinner.
* * *
After the table had been cleared and the dinner dishes tossed into the sink, the two of them made their way into the living room. For the first time since having the kids -- since he was almost a kid himself, in fact -- he was alone, free to do whatever he chose. It was a mixed blessing though, because he didn't have the bustling sounds of the household to keep him company. Now it always seemed so damn quiet in the house.
Which is why he treasured these nights he got to spend with Tobias.
He watched Tobias walk in ahead of him. Tonight he was dressed casually, with a polo shirt neatly tucked into his jeans. Here was a man who had suffered so much while in prison, yet who also had a remarkable dignity about him. Elliot had seen men broken by the system before, and he knew Oz was one of the more notorious places to be incarcerated. Tobias must have been through so much -- most of which he was still hesitant to discuss -- and it amazed him to see how resilient Tobias was. It felt like he was the one who should be supporting Tobias, not the other way around.
But there he was, the handsome, intelligent former lawyer, in the home he used to share with his family. Everything about this situation would have been wrong if the Elliot Stabler from a few months back were standing here. Sure, events hadn't turned out exactly how he imagined they would, but he never thought his life would be changed by another man.
After finding a comfortable spot on the couch, Tobias put his feet up and tucked a pillow behind his head. But before Elliot could sit, Tobias reached out and grabbed him around the middle, pulling him down next to him. Tobias wrapped his arms around Elliot's shoulders and held him close to his chest.
"I know how you're feeling," he whispered into Elliot's ear. "I went through the same thing when I first started having feelings for Chris. It mystified me, confused me, made me re-examine a lot of my beliefs about love and companionship. I couldn't understand at first how I could possibly care in that way for another man. I mean, I had a wife, kids -- this wasn't me, y'know? But to have someone to love...that was more precious to me than anything. We went through a lot to be together, and the one thing I'll always be grateful to him for is the way he taught me to open my eyes to the infinite types of love. I think I'm better because of it."
Elliot thought that something or someone had smiled upon him, as the Irish saying went. That was the only explanation for their chance meeting; for Tobias tracking him down at the 1-6; for the easy, comfortable way they conversed together, or alternately, the quiet moments they shared in silence. It had been years since he felt this way.
Elliot brought his hands up to Tobias's. "Willing to be patient with me?"
Tobias kissed the side of his neck again, this time with his tongue lingering over an ear lobe. "Willing to show me your ass more often?"
The other man laughed and rested his chin on top of Elliot's head. "I'll take that as a yes."
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