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Strife and Hope
by blackchaps

art by Beechercreature

CHARACTERS/PAIRING: Stabler/Beecher - this is the third and fourth chapters of my One at a Time 'verse. Reading the first chapter Guilty as Charged and the second, Charity , will help you understand the plot of this one.
WARNINGS: drug use, violence, and far too many adverbs
WORD COUNT: 45,000
SUMMARY: Chapter three picks up where chapter two left off with Toby is struggling with drugs, arguing with Stabler, and trying to figure out his life. For Toby, that's the hardest part of all.
AUTHOR'S NOTES: Beta by Suespur - thanks! My apologies for spacing errors and other bugs. This story has been through two word processing programs and three laptops, one of which was fried in a freak electrical storm, leaving me a wreck until the tech guy pulled the stories off and put them on a mobile hard drive. So anyway, sorry!

Chapter 3 - Strife

"No," Stabler said firmly, putting his hands on his hips. "You go talk to him. I'm not doing it."

Espinoso and the A.D.A. both frowned. "We need some interdepartmental cooperation here."

Stabler said it again. "No." He was close to glaring. "Anything else?"

"You will be on the stand," the A.D.A. said.

"I'll testify to everything I saw and did." Stabler didn't have a problem with that. "I'm also available to review my statement."

"Good." The A.D.A. frowned. "Perhaps you don't understand that we need his testimony to fall into our side."

"He's a lawyer. I'm not an asset when dealing with him."

Espinoso snorted. "Not what I saw. You had him wrapped around your finger."

Stabler had heard enough. He smiled falsely and went back to work without another word. He wanted to throw his coffee mug across the room. Termundo should have pled out, but he was claiming one of his goons shot Benny. The idiot even confessed to it. Everyone had been so stoned that Termundo had a case. There would be forensics and testimony, but all the defense had to do was plant doubt and Termundo would walk.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

Stabler took a deep breath. "The Termundo case is going to be a damn sideshow."

"I thought they had him." Benson looked confused.

"Elliot! My office!"

Stabler set the mug down before it became a casualty of his anger, but he slammed Cragen's door so hard it groaned on its hinges.


Toby startled when someone actually knocked his door. He got it, fully expecting bad news. It was Saturday night, and he'd been struggling to stay home, instead of going out to score something good.

"Am I interrupting, Toby?"

"No, please come in." Toby was glad to see him. "I could use some distraction."

Deakins came inside and smiled. "Place looks different."

"Mabel outdid herself." Toby was more grateful than she could know. The thought of shopping for furniture made him slightly queasy. "Soda?"

"Please." Deakins sat in Stabler's chair, and Toby got them each one. "Thanks."

Toby took the couch and shut off the TV. "I suppose Mabel called you."

"Indeed." Deakins rubbed his ear. "Still sore. Okay, tell me what you did."

Toby told him as quickly as possible. He leaned, shut his laptop, and finished with, "It's either about the food, or it's not."

"Life is rarely that simple. Our church is more liberal than most, however--"

"Let's cut the crap, pastor. We're talking about someone going in the back, picking up some food, and leaving. There will be no debauchery occurring in the kitchen. I'm sure of it."

Deakins coughed. "Toby, are you gay?"

Toby drank some soda and stalled. He came up with an evasion. "My wife is dead. I have two living children, which isn't pertinent to this. I have a friend, and he happens to know the owner of Le Monde. They're willing to help us out."

"My condolences on your wife." Deakins did look sympathetic. "I say we put the needs of our people over the prejudices of a few voices."

"I knew you were a reasonable man. How about I handle pickup and delivery? That will keep the innocents, um, innocent."

Deakins nodded. "Good idea. Did you have dinner there? I've heard the food is incredible."

"It is." Toby smiled. He hadn't wanted to haul rolls back and forth, but he didn't have a choice, and it wouldn't kill him. "The prices are also incredible. I was glad I didn't have to get the check."

"Okay, baked goods are a great addition to our food line. What next?" Deakins drank his soda. He didn't seem to be in a hurry to leave.

Toby wasn't sure what they needed, but he'd rather think about that than pot. He opened his computer and used Google to find a food bank site for comparison. "How about beverages?"

"We haven't been willing to purchase them, and I'm not sure any grocery store would be willing to donate it." Deakins shrugged. "Limited nutritional value also."

"Hey, coffee is life." Toby started scrolling through the site. "Cigarettes?"

Deakins laughed. "You're trying to get me fired, aren't you?"

Toby laughed with him. "Milk. What we need is milk."

"Bingo." Deakins smiled, and it reminded Toby of his father. "I knew you'd get there."

Toby had worked enough to have a rough estimate of how much they'd need. "How many fridges do you have at the church?"


"Shit." Toby leaned back in frustration. "It'll never work."

Deakins nodded, but he didn't look worried. "I know. Solutions?"

"What does Mabel say?" Toby sipped his drink and hoped she had some ideas. His brain was completely focused on not smoking pot.

"That it's not possible. We do carry dehydrated milk." Deakins made a face. "There's always plenty."

Toby knew why. "Yuck. Okay. Obviously, we need a refrigerated truck. Fill it up, pass it out, and park it until next time."

"Money, money. You got any?"

"Uh, no. Some food bank siphoned off my portion of my inheritance," Toby said dryly.

Deakins had the balls to laugh. "Check eBay for a truck."

Toby went there and typed it in. "Nothing."

"Well, it'll give you something to do while you look for a milk supplier. That could be tougher than finding a truck."

Toby rubbed his face. He was barely up to getting dressed, much less thinking. "This is your way of driving me back to drugs, isn't it?"

"How many days?" Deakins got to his feet.

"It's been a thousand years." Toby got up also. He knew exactly how long it had been, but he didn't want to cry. "Thanks for coming over and clarifying this matter for me."

Deakins stuck out his hand. "See you Monday?"

"Yes." Toby shook hands with him and then had a thought. "Oh, unless I'm arrested as a material witness, but if that happens, I'll use my phone call on you."

Deakins' eyes grew wide. "You're not joking."

"I wish I was." Toby got the door. He didn't think they'd arrest him, but they might, and Espinoso would enjoy it. "Thanks for coming by. You married?"

"Just to the church." Deakins looked to the heavens. "Pray for me, Toby."

Toby laughed at that, like God ever listened to him. "You need all the help you can get with me and Mabel around."

"Exactly." Deakins left with a small smile on his face. Toby shut the door and locked it. He was going to bed soon. The bills were organized, he had a budget, and he had things to do tomorrow. He'd take a movie to bed. He brushed his teeth, refused to look at his drawn face, and stripped down to his boxers. Relocating the computer to the bed, he put in a movie and nearly screamed.

"Damn! I gotta get some drapes!" Toby quickly put his jeans back on and raised the window. "How long have you been watching?"

"I'm glad your jeans are back on," Stabler said with enough sarcasm to make Toby blush. Toby grabbed a shirt and put it on fast before crawling out on the fire escape. It was apparent that Stabler wasn't coming inside.

"I need a favor."

"Did your tongue just turn black?" Toby took a step and stared at Stabler's mouth. "Let me see."

Stabler sat down on the stairs. "The A.D.A. wants to meet with you and discuss your statement."

"Why didn't he or she call?" Toby already didn't like the way this was going. Sending Stabler meant they were desperate for something and that could be bad for him.

Stabler shrugged. "Espinoso said you wouldn't do it."

"Gee, he's right." Toby stepped back and leaned against the rail. "So, once again, they sent you to threaten, bully, and beg me into going down to the precinct. What a shit job."

"Yep." Stabler leaned back on his elbows. "My partner thinks you should be in prison."

"Can't wait to meet him." Toby crossed his arms. He wasn't feeling charitable towards Espinoso. "The defense is calling me, huh?"

"You're their star is what I hear."

"Interesting. I haven't heard from them either." Toby figured he'd get hit on Monday. "You know what I need?"

Stabler frowned. "No," he said, drawling out the word.

Toby didn't have any problem figuring out why Stabler looked worried. "Relax. I can score dope on my own. I need a refrigerator truck for the food bank."

"Yellow pages?" Stabler didn't even look interested.

"A used one. A cheap one. One we can afford." Toby tried to use his limited charm, but it was obviously failing. "You have about a hundred friends. I have two."

Stabler stared at him longer than was polite. "Are you counting me?"

"No." Toby hadn't expected that question, and the ache of it made him want to push him off the fire escape. "We want to give away milk to hungry families. First thing we need is a truck."

Stabler groaned. "This is blackmail!"

Toby said nothing. He let him think. The police had been bending Toby over since the first, and Stabler knew it. Finally, when Toby thought he was out of luck, Stabler sighed.

"I'll make some calls, but you will come down to the precinct and cooperate." Stabler pointed at Toby's guts.

"I'm not going to lie. We were all higher than damn kites, and our testimony should be considered in a dim light." Toby brushed his hair back. "Eric is the best you guys got. He wasn't high."

"You're sure?"

"Sure as I can be. I do have some experience with it." Toby shrugged. "Did you see him do it?"

"Angle was wrong. I heard it. Got out of the car. Two seconds later, Eric was telling me to get my ass down. It took us a few minutes to realize that we were cops." Stabler stood. "I gave him a gun, the units showed up, and bullets started flying. You're lucky you weren't shot."

"Again." Toby rubbed his arms. It was chilly out, but he didn't think that was why he had goose bumps. "Is Termundo out?"

"Remand, but that doesn't mean his people won't try to kill you." Stabler pointed inside the apartment. "When do you want to come to the station house?"

Toby didn't move. "You're not insisting on tonight? I'm amazed."

"Tomorrow is good enough. Give me a time and don't be late." Stabler's phone rang, but he ignored it.

"Ten. I'll be there. You start making calls about a truck." Toby pointed back at him and pulled out his best weapon. "Do it for the kids."

"Guilt used to get charity. Nice." Stabler started down the stairs. "Drapes are a good idea!"

Toby laughed, went inside, and shut the window. He also locked it. Turning off the lights, he curled up with his movie. That had been interesting. Stabler had been almost nice in a cranky way.

"Don't be stupid, Tobias," he whispered to himself. He set his alarm and watched the movie until he was nodding. Shutting it off, he was asleep fast.


Stabler checked the number that he'd missed and dialed it back. "Beecher will be in at ten a.m."

"Thank you, Detective. I appreciate it."

"I've interviewed him before. Whatever you do, don't threaten him. He hates that, and he won't cooperate if you do." Stabler tried his best to keep Beecher on the right side of the bars. "Okay?"

"Got it. I'll sweet talk him."

"Good luck." Stabler hung up. He looked back at the window. It was dark now. Beecher needed a refrigerator truck, and he was still clean. He was very thin and tired-looking, but he wasn't using. Stabler went back to work and sent out an email to everyone he knew. He'd find him a truck, but then they were even. He might even be ahead.

Benson came in the squad room, smiled at him, and took off her coat. "How'd it go?"

"Not a problem." He wasn't going to mention the blackmail, and he wasn't sure he wanted to talk about Beecher at all. It was almost as if it was private, which was ridiculous.

"Is he using?"

"No." Stabler refused to hold his breath on that, but he could hope for the best. He was almost willing to admit that he didn't dislike Beecher, but that was as far as it went.

"Bet you're tired of babysitting an addict." Benson made that exasperated sound that she did so well. "Hopefully, this is the end of it."

"Hopefully." Stabler remembered that his younger brother ran an equipment rental store and found the number. "Excuse me, I gotta make a call."


Toby didn't leave the bed until he'd read the news, checked his email, and run another search for a used truck. No luck, but he'd keep trying. It was Sunday. All he had to do was go to the precinct and get the food from Le Monde at ten p.m., closing time. After a quick shower, he fiddled with the idea of wearing a wife beater down to the precinct, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He put on the suit and his Rolex. It was a nice suit, and he'd look somewhat respectable. Brian would approve.

Checking the time, he hit the fridge for food and was glad that he was hungry for a change, hungry for food, not a hit. Maybe the worst of it was over. He doubted it, but it was possible. In another day or two, he was going to need groceries, but it could wait until Tuesday. There had to be a market around here somewhere. He didn't know how to cook, but he was good at re-heating stuff. Hell, over at the old place, he'd lived on nachos and pot.

After eating, he started walking. He'd get there mostly on time, and he made note of all the stores he passed. Before prison, Genevieve had done everything, and before that the housekeeper at the frat house, and before that his mother. For once, he had to take care of himself. It was awkward and slightly painful. Staying high and doing damn little was easier.

Toby got out his phone and reached for some humanity. "Brian?"

"What are you wearing?" Brian yawned loud enough that Toby could hear it.

"My suit. I have to meet with a lawyer today." Toby liked the way that Brian's priorities never changed. "I'm going to Le Monde at ten to make the pickup, okay?"

"I'll meet you there to make sure everyone is on the same page." Brian's voice was sleepy.

Toby thought he heard Rusty snoring. "Thanks. Should I keep the suit on?"

"Definitely." Brian hung up on him. Toby tucked away the phone and kept on walking. He wasn't jealous, but he'd give a damn lot to find Chris snuggled into bed with him. The visual image suddenly shifted and a tattoo appeared on Chris's right forearm. It was Stabler's Marine tattoo, and Toby bit his lower lip in frustration. He made up his mind to get laid soon. He'd use double condoms, but he was doing it. It might help him get over what he couldn't have.


"I'm headed home, Cap." Stabler was tired enough to admit he was tired, so it was time to get some sleep.

"I think A.D.A. Gardner wanted to talk to you." Cragen frowned, not unusual.

Stabler knew his shoulders were slumping. "I'll call." He wanted to sneak out, but he wouldn't. Gardner picked up on the first ring, and Stabler asked, "You needed something?"

"We'd appreciate your assistance with Beecher this morning."

Stabler yawned. "He's a lawyer. Don't piss him off. That's my advice."

"His testimony, if presented in the correct light, will be crucial."

"Talk to him. Don't lie." Stabler got his coat. "I need some sleep. I was up all night."

Gardner hesitated. "If I don't get what I need, I'll call you."

"If you don't get what you need, it's because he doesn't have it. No case is perfect." Stabler shut his phone. He was pushing his luck, but he wasn't some damn mediator. It was definitely time to get out of here for a day. He took a deep breath when he hit the fresh air and strolled to his car, pretending that he didn't see the man in the suit waiting for him.

"Going home?"

"Yes." Stabler stopped to talk, but only because Beecher was leaning against the car, preventing a quick escape. "I'm looking for a truck. Don't bust my balls yet."

Beecher laughed. "I'm not into that. You look tired."

"Hey, Beecher, keep your cool in there. The A.D.A. is new and young." Stabler yawned again, flipping his keys back and forth.

"Will do. I was young once." Beecher walked away, and Stabler went home. He wasn't going to think about it.


Toby was glad they met in an office instead of an interrogation room. It made him feel slightly more at ease. The A.D.A., Samuel Gardner, was a good-looking guy. He looked earnest. It all made Toby feel very old. They shook hands and sat down.

"Well, honestly, from what Detective Espinoso told me, I'm pleased." Gardner looked Toby up and down, no doubt relieved that Toby wasn't in a wife beater.

"I can come dressed as an addict if you want." Toby smiled humorlessly and crossed his legs, smoothing his trousers. "I'm going to need to review my statement."

"Do you intend to recant?" Gardner opened a file and slid it across to him, looking worried now.

With a shrug, Toby picked it up. "I was ill from heroin poisoning when I gave it. I don't remember what I signed."

Gardner's groan was audible. "You do remember what happened?"

"Pretty much." Toby read it and then again. It was accurate, but he could see why the defense was smiling, and he was very glad that he'd left out certain details. "There are some nuances I could add, but this is what I saw."

"You saw him shoot Benny Hollens, correct?" Gardner leaned forward. This was what he wanted.

Toby leaned back and tried to relax. "I saw him bash Benny with his gun. There were three loud pops, and they dropped Benny in the dirt. Blood spurted. I fell down and threw up." He could still picture it in his mind's eye. "I assumed that Termundo did it, but it could have been one of the other two guys."

Gardner rubbed his mouth. "From your position, did you see Termundo raise the gun?"

"No." Toby didn't remember it, but it had been crazy there. "Eric was in the perfect place to see what happened."

"Let's focus on your testimony." Gardner's frustration showed clearly.

Toby handed his statement back. "Isn't Eric going to testify?"

"What else can you tell me?" Gardner sidestepped that question.

"Eric wasn't high. I do know that." Toby shrugged and hoped he could leave soon. It wasn't his fault that this case wasn't open and shut. "Neither was Stabler. The rest of us were in various stages of stoned."

Gardner made a few notes. "What were you on?"

"Something Benny gave me, probably uppers." Toby hadn't asked at the time. "And pot, and heroin, and ecstasy, and whatever else they handed me that night."

"Think about it again. Termundo was in front of Hollens and..." Gardner wasn't giving up.

"And I heard three loud pops. I don't remember arms moving, but, A.D.A. Gardner, I was high. That means my memory is unreliable." Toby spoke as if he were speaking to a child. "I have to admit, I'm insulted that you weren't willing to call me. You sent Detective Stabler after me as if I were under arrest."

Gardner was switching tactics. It was all over his face. "If you testify that you were high, I might pursue charges against you."

That was no surprise. Toby had thought of that himself and planned for it. He was worried that he'd already admitted far too much. "Then I'll take the Fifth and refuse to incriminate myself. No testimony at all."

Gardner glared. "So to get your full testimony on the stand..."

"I'll need immunity." Toby tried to look pleasant, making him angry was a bad idea. "Wouldn't you rather rely on bullet trajectories and the testimony of policemen?"

"Yes." Gardner looked furious. He was young. "If you testify for the defense, I will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law, using your statement as evidence."

Toby wasn't intimidated. "Isn't the law wonderful? You can bet on one thing; if I do testify, I won't say anything that will lead to my arrest."

"I have your statement."

"And nowhere in it does it mention that I was stoned out of my mind, which is nothing but a rumor. You did read my statement? Right?" Toby was ready to get out of here. He was not going to invent testimony for them. "I would love to cooperate and see Termundo put in prison for life, but you're making it difficult."

Gardner leaned back. He was shifting gears, looking for a new strategy. "If I grant you immunity, you'll testify that you saw Termundo shoot the victim?"

"We're done here." Toby got to his feet. He wasn't impressed with this member of the justice system. "Don't send Detective Stabler to my home again."

"I thought you and he were friends." Gardner smiled, but it was really a leer. "Good friends."

Toby barked a laugh, wishing that were true. "Did you ever find out who it was in Stabler's unit who shot me? Now there's a case I'd like to pursue, especially if Stabler did it."

The smirk fell off Gardner's face, replaced with anger. "I had hoped you'd cooperate, given your past history with the judicial system. We'll be in touch."

"Then have the guts to call me." Toby shut the door hard when he left. He was not going to get fucked this time. They'd forced him into that situation, and he'd be damned if he'd let them screw him over again.

"Did you give him what he wanted, Beecher?" Espinoso got right in Toby's face. The prick must have been waiting for him to leave Gardner's office.

Toby didn't take even one step back. "Where the fuck are your balls? Sending Stabler to roust me out? You're a disgrace to the word macho."

Espinoso edged closer, and their noses almost touched. "You're a fucking addict. That pretty suit can't disguise it. I should've busted you."

"You mean set me up for shit you demanded I do. Now Gardner wants me to lie. You guys are fucked up in a fucked up system." Toby hoped the cop hit him where there were witnesses.

"I'll be watching you. One slip and you'll be begging to tell your side of the story in exchange for some leniency," Espinoso growled. "I could probably get a search warrant on what I have. I'll bring the dogs. I heard you about pissed yourself."

Toby refused to show his fear. "Next time you see Termundo, you remind him he owes me fifteen grand."

"You ain't getting out of this, Beecher."

"We'll see." Toby turned his back on him and went to the elevator. He was aware that he was playing with fire, but he'd be damned if he'd roll over and show his belly. They didn't have him. Not yet.


"Stabler." It took him a minute to find his phone on the dresser, and Stabler had considered not answering it at all.

"I know you don't wanna hear this," Fin said, "but word is that Beecher and Espinoso had a loud discussion about who didn't have balls in the hallway, and Gardner is mad as hell. I'm giving you a heads up 'cause shit rolls downhill."

"It sure does." Stabler groaned, rolling to his back. "I should've gone home and to bed that night."

"Ain't gonna argue about that." Fin hung up. Stabler put his phone back on the nightstand with a thunk. He shut his eyes. Shit.


Toby was still angry when he got home. He got out his laptop and made a record of what had transpired with Gardner and Espinoso, and he was angrier when he got done. Fuck. The plan was stay clean, but it wasn't easy, and Espinoso would find a way to make it harder. It had turned out that Stabler was one of the more reasonable cops, and who'd have thought that was possible?

Toby's phone rang, and he got. "Hello?"

"Mr. Beecher, this is Mr. Lawton, representing Enrique Dom de Luis, may I have a moment of your time?"

Toby knew he couldn't avoid it. "I was going out to lunch. Would you like to meet?"

"Yes." Lawton hesitated. "How about the Renaldo?"

"No. There's a diner about seven blocks from the precinct. Sits on the corner. I think it's called Mo's or something." Toby wasn't going anywhere with a bar.

"I know it. I'll be there within the hour." Lawton hung up, and Toby sat down. He shut his eyes and tried to remember why he cared enough to stay out of prison. His phone jolted him out of his self-pity, and he didn't want to get it, but it was Mabel.

"Hey, girlfriend."

Mabel snorted. "When's the pickup scheduled for?"

"Ten p.m." Toby was glad she'd called. She was like an anchor to the respectable world, and he needed one.

"I'll be by to get you around nine." She paused. "You might screw it up."

"Yes, ma'am." Toby couldn't wait to see her reaction to Brian. "You drive?"

"Of course!" Mabel clicked off, and Toby laughed. He hoped she was a good driver. It would definitely be an interesting evening. He made sure he had some cash and went down to catch a cab. It was time to talk to the defense. The diner was full of cops, but he found a booth, and he knew Lawton would find him. The waitress got him some coffee, and he didn't mind waiting. He would stay out of prison because Mabel would kill him otherwise. She expected him to behave. It was pathetic to latch on to her like a parasite, but it was all he had. He wanted to stay clean, but that want just wasn't enough to keep him from buying pot.

Dr. Huang would probably tell him to own it and do it for himself. Sister Pete had preached it on a daily basis. They didn't understand. He was old, and he'd been fighting this for years, and he knew he couldn't do it.

"Mr. Beecher?"

Toby looked up and nodded. "Have a seat, Lawton."

"You certainly don't look like a junkie." Lawton smiled like a wolf. "You look a little tired and drawn, but A.D.A. Gardner emphasized to me that you were an addict and unreliable."

"You read my statement?" Toby liked Gardner and Espinoso even less now.

Lawton nodded. "We're definitely calling you. You'll be served this week."

"Great," Toby grumbled. The waitress came over, and Toby ordered. "A double cheeseburger and some fries. Lawton, if you're smart, you'll get the same."

"That's fine, and some coffee." Lawton waited until the waitress was gone. "I ascertain from the look on your face that A.D.A. Gardner made you completely angry."

"Completely." Toby knew he'd better watch himself. This guy was good. "Gardner made it clear that if I testify that I was high, I will be prosecuted."

"Then we'll avoid that."

"And the cross?" Toby wasn't stupid.

"Invoke the Fifth. No man should have to incriminate himself." Lawton smiled. "I will be asking you about the party and the drugs you saw other people take."

Toby knew he was on thin ice. "I wasn't really paying attention to other people."

"Anything you say will give the jury a good sense of the situation."

Toby sighed. He didn't want to testify. There had to be some wiggle room here somewhere. Maybe the cops hadn't been thorough, again. He'd ask Stabler. "Lawton, you and I both know he did it."

"He says he didn't. My job is to represent him." Lawton smoothed his tie. "He speaks highly of you."

"He owes me fifteen grand for burying his daughter." Toby leaned closer and tapped the table with his finger. "Of course, if he gives it to me, it will look like a payoff."

"And we wouldn't allow that."

"However, I'm involved with a charity, and a donation to them would make me very happy." Toby leaned back as the food was delivered. "Termundo is an honest man. I'm sure he wants to pay his debt to me."

"I'm sure he does."

Toby wrote the information for the food bank down on a napkin and slid it to him. Maybe something good could come from all this crap. "God helps those who help each other."

Lawton tucked the napkin away. "He does."

Toby began to eat. He was hungry. Lawton did the same. When the food was gone, Lawton started the conversation again. "I trust your statement hasn't changed or been changed."

"And it won't. It's the truth." Toby kept his eye on the cops, but Stabler hadn't shown up yet. "I'm happy to testify, as long as it doesn't get me arrested."

"Something to avoid." Lawton wiped his mouth. "I'll reassure my client that you're not going to play the police's game."

"Do that." Toby smiled. "I'll get the bill. I'm sure you have people to see."

"Thank you, Mr. Beecher." Lawton was gone fast, and Toby went back to his coffee. He was ordering dessert. The waitress brought him some pie and ice cream, and he lingered, forcing his mind from drugs time and again.

"You pissed off the entire world." Stabler sat down with a thump and a groan across from him. His eyes looked worse than tired. "Thanks for making my day more difficult."

Toby motioned for the waitress, and she got Stabler's order, clearing away Lawton's mess.

"I'd apologize, but it's not my fault they send you to babysit me." Toby finished his pie. He was very full, but he needed to gain some weight back. "Why are you putting up with their shit?"

Stabler glared at him. "It's my job."

"Oh, yeah." Toby added some sugar to his new cup of coffee. "I was polite. They threatened me with prosecution."

"Gardner says you're siding with the drug dealers, refusing to cooperate." Stabler rubbed his face. "Give me the coffee."

Toby handed it over without complaining. "He wants me to lie. I didn't see Termundo pull the trigger. I was behind him."

"And you were high."

"I was, and I didn't see it." Toby tried to push back a blush. "I can only be so ashamed."

"At least you ain't proud." Stabler guzzled the coffee. "You know why they're reluctant to use Eric, right?"

Toby hadn't thought, but it dawned on him that Narcotics might not want to lose one of their undercover guys. "That is not my fault."

"I agree." Stabler seemed happy to see his food. "More coffee, please, Ali."

She smiled at him and came back with it fast.

"Do you know all the waitresses?" Toby whispered.

Stabler started eating and didn't answer. Toby watched him, fiddled with his silverware, and drank coffee with lots of sugar.

"I did have a thought." Toby felt the impact of Stabler's blue eyes. He leaned closer and lowered his voice. "Termundo shot the hearse, several people had to have seen that, and then he stepped to Benny, hit him in the mouth with the gun, and bang, bang, bang. Now, Termundo's gun should have Benny's blood on it, and if a person could match the bullet in the hearse to the bullets in Benny, well-"

"Are you sure about this?" Stabler got out his phone.

"Positive. I was messed up, but fear made it all clear." Toby kept eye contact. "No guarantee that the funeral guys didn't destroy the evidence."

Stabler spoke to someone on the other end, explaining the situation. He shut his phone and picked up his burger again. "We'll look into it."

Toby nodded. "What'd the funeral home guys see? They were all clean and sober."

"Not my case." Stabler looked at him. "I'm thinking you don't want to testify."

"Of course not. I could end up dead or in jail. Neither of them appeals to me." Toby pushed the empty coffee cup away. He was starting to honestly like Stabler, and it worried him. With him, 'like' led to blowjobs, and at that point, Stabler would pull out his gun and kill him. Toby had to think of other things. "Did you find me a truck?"

"Looking, but I could argue that you didn't exactly cooperate the prosecution." Stabler rubbed his forehead. "I need more sleep."

Toby got the check. He paid in cash and left a good tip. "I'm not going to lie on the stand. You wouldn't respect that."

Stabler rubbed his eyes. "You're right. Now listen, stop fighting with Espinoso. He ain't someone you want to mess around with."

"He started it." Toby grinned and got up. "I'm not looking for a fight."

"He's talking about drug dogs and your apartment, so if I were you, I'd be careful." Stabler stood after wiping his mouth and tossing down his napkin. "You paid for mine?"

Toby shrugged, and they went out the door to the sidewalk. "Give me a ride home, will ya?"

"As far as the precinct." Stabler gave him a look that told him that he was pushing his luck. When they were sitting next to each other, Toby stared out the window to keep from rubbing up against him. Stabler drove fast. "Stay home. Don't do anything that might look suspicious."

"I have some business that I have to take care of tonight." Toby wanted to stay in the car and make out. He rubbed his eyes, trying to banish the image. "I need a nap."

Stabler parked the car, but didn't do more than glance at him. "Go home."

"Yeah. Yeah." Toby got, slamming his door, not caring that Stabler gave him a nasty look. "Hey, any chance I won't see you again?" He wasn't sure he could handle the temptation day after day. Sooner or later, he was going to break and try to lick him.

"Not with my luck," Stabler grumbled. Toby heard the resignation, and it shattered any hope for friend number three. He hadn't hoped - not really - and it was good thing he hadn't bothered.


"Still fucking with my case?"

Stabler turned his chair and flashed to his feet. "Listen, asshole. You made me a part of this from day one. I told you that it was a bad idea to involve Beecher. You didn't listen!"

"Did you think he was too smart for me?" Espinoso had his hands on his hips. He was angry, and Stabler didn't give a damn.

"Hell, he's too smart for all of us!" Stabler knew he was close to losing it, but he was tired and sick to death of dealing with this. "He solved Shantille's murder!"

"I thought you got the credit for that," Espinoso snarled. "He's a damn addict!"

"What's your damn point?" Stabler saw Cragen come out of his office but there was more to say to this asswipe. "You blackmailed him, threatened him, and now he doesn't give one shit whether Termundo walks or not. That's on you!"

"Termundo will kill him." Espinoso looked happy about it, and Stabler wanted to hit him hard.

"Oh, really? If Termundo walks, it's your screw up." Stabler made sure not to clench his hands into fists. He was going to keep it under control. "You!"

Espinoso took a deep breath and glared, not backing down. "Beecher's testimony will change, once I arrest him for possession."

Stabler turned and looked at his captain. "I didn't hear that. Did you?"

"No. Detective Espinoso, I suggest you take a walk and clear your head. Detective Stabler will not be available on this case unless it's inside a courtroom. Are we clear?" Cragen got between them, and Stabler walked away out of his respect for his boss.

Fin caught him by the arm before he cleared the door. Stabler raised his eyebrows, waiting for it.

"I made the call. Wheels in motion at the funeral home," Fin said.

"Good, and we're officially done." Stabler prayed he was. "Done."

"Let's hope." Fin swaggered off. "Espinoso, you screwed up. Deal with it."

Espinoso left with another glare and a curse or two in Spanish. Stabler went inside Cragen's office and sat down to wait for him. They had to talk.


Toby took a nap. He needed one. Whether it was the pie or Espinoso was anyone's guess. When he woke up, it was about six, and he didn't rush. He stretched, scratched, and remembered that he wanted to get laid. Who was he fooling? It wasn't going to happen.

The condom had broken with Shantille, and he wouldn't take that risk again. Even high at Benny's that last time, he'd kept his dick juice away from them. Disgusted with himself, he went to get a soda, find his computer, and play on the internet. He'd put the suit back on in a minute.

His phone ringing brought him out of cyberspace. "Yeah?"

"Hi, Toby-wan."

Toby had to think for a long moment. "Sherrie?"

"It's me!" She sounded happy. "I need something. You, um, think you could give me a hand?"

"You high right now?"

"A little. Come get me." She laughed.

Toby didn't think so. "Sorry, honey, I have a date."

The laughter switched to begging. "Please? I could really use your help."

"Head to the nearest emergency room." Toby hung up on her. He'd liked her fine, but she had been Biggun's girlfriend, and last he'd heard, she was under arrest for possession. Toby might have to get a new phone number. Benny must have passed it around because Sherrie had never called before tonight. Toby shrugged it off and went to put on the suit. He hoped it didn't smell like rolls before the night was over.

At exactly nine, there was a knock on his door, and he got it. "Mabel!"

Her eyebrows went up. "That you, Toby?"

Toby laughed and let her inside. "You look good too, sweetie."

She smacked him on the arm. "You're feeling better."

"Much. It was the food." He got his cell, his keys, and his wallet. "Let's roll."

"Was that food humor?" She glared, but then it softened. "Funny."

Toby made sure to lock his door. "Are you sure I'm not keeping you up?"

"I'm not old." She looked like she might smack him again. Toby opened the car door for her, and she drove them to Le Monde. Brian met them inside the front door.

"You did wear the suit." He laughed and kissed Toby on the cheek. "Who's this?"

"This is Mabel. She organizes the food bank." Toby watched them size each other up, waiting to see which way this would go. Mabel was tough to please, and Brian was feisty.

"You're gay."

"You're old."

Toby almost covered his eyes. He wasn't sure he wanted to watch.

"I'm not just old!" Mabel let him have it. Her eyes were practically shooting sparks.

"I'm not just gay," Brian said with a saucy grin. "Let's go through to the kitchen and see what they've got for us."

Toby latched onto that. "We really appreciate this."

Mabel humphed, and Brian gave Toby a look that was indecipherable. Toby was glad to see the owner, Rick Lyons, was there and they didn't have to wait. Rick and Brian kissed, Toby and Rick shook hands, and Mabel didn't look happy about any of it. A quick introduction, and they got down to business.

"This is what we have left from a normal day." Rick made a gesture at a table stacked with mostly rolls but also a few croissants.

Mabel stepped in front of Toby. "You throw all this away?"

"Yes. We pride ourselves on fresh baked goods. Our clientele expect the best." Rick smiled at Brian. "Don't you?"

"At these prices, absolutely." Brian smiled. "Is it enough to make it worth the trouble?"

Counting the rolls, Toby wasn't sure that it was. "Mabel?"

She picked one up and took a bite. Rick and Brian both looked surprised. She swallowed and said, "Almost as good as mine. We'll need two days' worth. Toby can pick up on Sunday night and Thursday night."

"I'd have to store them." Rick sighed.

Toby smiled, trying to plead without looking too obnoxious. "You'll be helping a lot of families and lower income people."

"In Manhattan?" Brian looked horrified. "Rick, you simply must."

Rick glanced around the kitchen. "Toby can pick up any evening he wants, but storage isn't possible. I just don't have the room."

"We have refrigerators at the church." Mabel nodded. "Toby, it's up to you."

"I'll do it." Toby felt like grumbling but didn't. He got his own roll and bit into it. "We'll have to bag them."

"In groups of six." Mabel put her hands on her hips. "Do you boys go to church?"

Brian blinked, but Rick nodded. "Yes, but we don't have a food bank."

Toby winked at Brian. "God helps those who help each other."

"Now, you bag those up so Toby doesn't eat them all." Mabel waggled her finger at them.

"We can do that." Rick nodded. "What are you donating, Brian?"

Brian frowned. "I run a clothing store!"

Toby laughed softly and went for the opportunity. "You never throw anything out?"

"Only things that go out of style." Brian looked at Rick. "You would do this to me?"

"My church has a thrift store." Rick put his arm around him. "Pay it forward."

"Shit." Brian pointed at Toby. "I blame you for this, but it is for charity. I think I can write it off. Rick, we'll set it up."

Toby watched Mabel's face. She was thinking hard, and she finally said, "Good. For a couple of gays, you're not so bad."

Toby moved fast and clapped his hand over Brian's mouth. "Rick, let's bag these up, and we'll get out of your hair."

"Thanks." Rick started ordering people around, and Toby kissed Brian on the cheek. Brian sniffed, but it was just funny.

"Thank you, Brian." Toby smiled and hoped they were still friends.

"You're welcome," Brian grumbled. "I have to meet Rusty."

"We can handle it from here." Toby saw him out. "Thanks. She's nice, and she's given me a chance, and she knows I'm an ex-con."

"She has spirit. Reminds me a little too much of my mother." Brian gave Toby a kiss on the mouth. "Nice suit."

Toby laughed and went back to the kitchen. The rolls were ready, and he hefted them out to the trunk. Mabel had a key to the church, and they put them in the fridge together. Toby shut the door and said, "One day done."

"It's a good thing. If you can't pick up, call me and I'll get Ralph. He's a damn liberal."

"I like that about him." Toby let her take him home, and he got out with a smile. He was doing a good thing, and he waved goodbye. Next, he'd find a way to get milk. It would be tougher, but he'd figure it out.


Toby put his keys away and forgot about going up to his apartment right away. "Hey, Eric. What's going on?"

Eric threw up his hands. "You're killing me!"

"Me? I'm not doing anything, especially not lying." Toby leaned against the wall near the door. He wasn't taking him up. They could talk here on the sidewalk.

"You saw it!" Eric leaned next to him. "You did!"

"I didn't. If I had, I'd testify to it. I'm not going to perjure myself." Toby shrugged. "You saw it."

"Damn right." Eric pointed with his finger. "It was ugly. I can't testify or my cover is blown forever."

"What's more important?" Toby didn't know. He wasn't a cop.

"I could do a lot of good in the future." Eric groaned. "Damn it!"

Toby nodded. "In Oz, a good friend of mine killed himself, and you know what the law did for me?" He didn't wait for an answer. "I got five for manslaughter in the second. It looked like I'd pushed him off a balcony. I hadn't. Appearances, Eric, are everything."

Eric stared at him. "You're suggesting I testify as a junkie, not as a cop."

"I'm not suggesting anything." Toby didn't care what happened, as long as he didn't end up dead or in jail. "But I'm not going to make up some story about what I didn't see!"

"Shit." Eric pushed away from the wall. "Want a joint?"

Toby unlocked the outer door and went inside. He didn't want it. He craved it, and he was not going to do it. "Buck up, you loser." He'd read on the internet that marijuana was not habit forming. Maybe not, but it sure was nice. He was glad to take the suit off, and he went to bed with a movie. Tomorrow, he would find things to do, and he'd go to the food bank. He was fine. Fine.


"Hey, Elliot, you awake?"

Stabler groaned. He had a feeling this was going to be bad. "No."

"Good." Fin shut the door to the crib. "You didn't hear this from me, but the shit is flying over at Narcotics. If Espinoso shows up, be ready for anything."

"Damn." Stabler wasn't getting up, but it was going to be hard to sleep now. "You take any heat?"

"I worked it through a buddy of mine." Fin's voice was low and even. "Looks like our boy, Beecher, is two for two."

Stabler pulled the pillow over his head, and after a moment the door shut again. 'Their boy' was driving him nuts. He didn't know if it was the looks, the heat, or the feeling that there was much more to Beecher than his rap sheet. The heat? He groaned again and rolled to his back. God, he was losing it.


"I thought we were waiting!"

"They'll be old as the hills by Friday." Mabel wasn't taking no for an answer. "Here are the Ziploc bags. Get busy!"

Toby stopped arguing, put on some plastic gloves, and started sorting. Someone was setting up a table for the rolls, and he needed coffee. "Mabel!"

"What is it now?" Mabel looked frustrated with him.

Toby tried to smile, but he was hurting. "I need coffee. Bad. Really bad."

She threw up her hands and marched off, but he heard her taking care of it. If he was going to work here, there was going to be coffee, damn it. It was his money, and if he didn't get coffee soon, he was going to have a breakdown.

"You okay, Toby?" Ralph scooped up a pile of bagged rolls for his table.

"Yeah." Toby watched his hands shake. He'd had worse, but he was a little achy this morning. Thirty more rolls and he was done, and he took them to Ralph's table. They'd run out, but at least they wouldn't go to waste. Mabel handed him some coffee. He could smell the sugar. "Thanks. Sorry."

"Drink it and get with it." Mabel was off to handle something else, and Toby considered opening a vein and pouring the coffee directly inside his body.

"Where are the rolls from?" Ralph asked.

Toby shrugged. He wasn't spreading the word. Mabel and Deakins may well kill him. He helped with some heavy lifting, drank his coffee in two big gulps, and got some more. Mabel was watching him, and he realized two things: she cared and he needed to buy a coffee pot for home.


Toby put the box down and went to Deakins. "That's me."

Deakins pulled him out in the hallway. "I received a large donation this morning! We can afford a truck! If we can find one, a cheap one." He smiled big.

Toby was glad to hear his blatant manipulation of Termundo had worked. "Good news. Who's it from?"

"Anonymous donor, but there was a note." Deakins handed it to him.

Toby opened it and read, "In loving memory of Cassandra Dom de Luis."

"Do you know who that is?"

"A friend of mine. She died." Toby wondered where this put him with Termundo. Even? Or did Toby owe him now? "This is a good way to remember her." Something good could come from the drug money.

Deakins wrapped his arm around him. "You need more coffee."

"Definitely." Toby felt awkward, being hugged by a pastor. "Talk to Mabel. I want coffee every time we're open."

"Is this the first of your administrative changes?" Deakins' eyes twinkled.

"Does she know?" Toby was worried about that.

"Not unless you told her, and I'll make sure we have coffee." Deakins strode off, and Toby went back to his canned fruit and his coffee. He drank it all, got a refill with lots of sugar, and finished putting out the cans. Mabel shot him a look, and he fixed his labels. The doors opened, and they were busier than ever.

Deakins whispered as he walked by, "I added ten more families per day."

Toby made a note to check the qualification procedure. There were more small children than he'd seen before, and he had a feeling they had prayed for more donuts. This time, he really looked at them, and the signs of a family struggling were clear: pants that were too short, shoes that had seen more than one child, and a look on their faces. They were hanging on, and he went ahead and felt ashamed. All the money he'd wasted on pot when he could've been helping people.

A sharp pang of homesickness cut through him. He'd give anything for ten minutes with Angus. He shook it off and kept working. At last, everyone was gone, and he could help clean up.

"Toby, why don't you go on home?" Mabel asked, coming up behind him with her broom.

Toby took the broom from her, trying not to shake. He appreciated her concern, but he was the youngest man here. "I'm fine. Thanks for the coffee."

"Pastor Deakins informed me that I would be making it from now on." She raised her eyebrows, not arguing, but clearly skeptical. "We've been arguing about it for months, and I guess I lost."

"I'm certain you don't lose many arguments. Coffee is good. Let's spread the love." Toby wasn't getting between them, but he needed his damn coffee. He changed the subject before she could ask him if he was involved in the decision. "No rolls left."

"They were a hit. Everyone wanted to know where they were from."

"Mum's the word." Toby started pushing. He'd break down boxes and take them to the dumpster in a minute. When the hall was clean, he took a minute and sat, rubbing his hands through his hair. He was hungry, that was all it was.

"Toby, here's a key to the church. Sign here." Deakins put the paper in front of him.

Toby signed without reading it. He stuffed the key in his pocket and took a deep breath. "God, I'm hungry."

"Didn't you eat before you came?" Deakins frowned. "No wonder you're shaking like a leaf. Come on, I'll take you somewhere to grab a bite."

Toby nearly snapped no, but he didn't have anything else to do. "You want to hear about last night, don't you?"

"In detail." Deakins smiled, pulled him up, and they went to his car. "Why didn't you eat?"

"I don't know." Toby wasn't giving out the detail that food wasn't all that attractive in the morning. He wanted dope. "There were more children today."

"It did seem that way." Deakins drove quickly to a nearby restaurant. "This place has a buffet, so we won't have to wait."

"Good idea." Toby concentrated on eating and not falling down. When he'd finished one plate, he took a breath and a moment to enjoy the coffee. "I think I'll live."

"More good news." Deakins was pushing around some potatoes. "Let it settle. Tell me about last night."

Toby smiled and recounted it precisely as it had happened. Deakins looked thunderstruck by the end of it. He opened his mouth, shut it, swallowed, and whispered, "She said that?"

"Indeed she did." Toby laughed, nodding his head. "Brian told me later that she reminded him of his mother."

Deakins broke out laughing. Toby left him there to go get some more food. He concentrated on protein this time. When he got back, Deakins was still smiling. "I should've gone with you."

"Rick, the owner, his church, Methodist, runs a thrift store. Brian will be donating his old clothes to that. Everyone wins."

After a moment, Deakins nodded. "Toby, I think your father would be proud of you."

Toby's brain flickered out for a second. When he came back, he was light-headed. "You knew my father?"

"We were friends, yes. I was younger than him, but he didn't hold it against me." Deakins wasn't eating any longer. "When Angus came to me, I agreed to this because of him."

"You know... everything about me." Toby felt as if he'd been hit between the eyes with a hammer. "Where's my brother?"

"I don't know that." Deakins didn't have a lying bone in his body. "I questioned him quite severely about siphoning away your money for a charity, and he gave me reassurances that you would be told. That he would get your approval."

Toby rubbed his face. Conflicting emotions darted through him, anger among them. "I wasn't told. After I was arrested, my lawyer, Steven Smith, informed me of the situation."

"I was afraid of that. You looked stunned." Deakins sighed. "You have my apology."

"It's not necessary. It was my brother's decision, and I hope to discuss it with him at some point." Toby wasn't angry at Deakins. It was only money, but he did want to know why his brother had thought he had the right to make this decision about Toby's inheritance.

"You gave your brother the right to handle your money, and this was what he did." Deakins slowly spun a large ring on his finger. "He told me that he didn't believe you'd ever get out."

"Maybe that's what he hoped." Toby went to get some dessert. He found some pie and ice cream and tried desperately to get control over his emotions. Crying in front of Deakins was not Toby's idea of a good time. He found his spoon and took a bite.

"Your brother said it with sadness, not hope."

Toby managed to swallow. "Prison is very violent. It's easy to hurt each other, and one misstep will pile on the years."

"I don't know, but I believe you."

Toby didn't look at him, and it made it easier to control his emotions. He wasn't sure whether to feel relieved at what he was hearing or ashamed or both. He'd figure it out later. "I miss them."

"I'm sure that God has plans that you aren't aware of."

"Those plans are never good for me, but I'll hold off judgment for now." Toby smiled, but it was bleak, empty. "Let's change the subject. What can we do for the children? There are more of them than ever, and while they need the basics, a treat wouldn't kill us."

Leaning back, Deakins rubbed his chin. "Mabel will throw a fit if you put up a candy table."

"Why doesn't that surprise me?" Toby tried a laugh, and it was weak, but it was there. "Okay, no candy, and no toys, but ice cream?"

Deakins seemed to be considering it. Finally, he shrugged. "Fill the freezer with ice cream bars. It'll last a good long while."

"Buy bulk?"

"Definitely. You have a key to the church now. Can you take care of it?" Deakins smirked. He was enjoying himself now.

"I'm going to be broke by Christmas." Toby wasn't, and he spotted the wrinkle of worry on Deakins' forehead. "That was a joke. I'll get this freezer full, you get the next."

"Deal." Deakins nodded, checking his watch. "Ready to go?"

"Yeah. I think I'll get a pie for later." Toby did just that. He would need the sugar. Deakins took him home, and Toby thanked him and meant it. Deakins smiled and was gone. Toby easily spotted the drug dealer on the corner. The guy had never been there before, and he swaggered his way down the street.


Toby had bought a lot of shit in the months since he'd been released and not once had a dealer talked first. They waited, made the exchange, and then grunted. Toby opened his phone and dialed.

"Yes, I'd like to report a man selling drugs." He gave the address. The dealer was moving away fast now, and Toby went up to his place. He put the pie in the fridge, turned on the TV, and hit the couch hard. Sleep was a good idea, but the memories of all the misery he'd caused drove him up and out the window to the fire escape.

Leaves swirled and blew away, the wind was chilly, and he knew he'd need a coat soon. A coffee pot was also becoming a necessity. He went back inside, grabbed his phone book, and took it outside to look at it. It was hard to think, but he had to get his shit together.

"Can I come up?"

Toby looked down through the metal bars to the alley, surprised. "You're asking?"

Stabler pulled the ladder and trotted up the four flights. He sat on a step and tapped the phone book. "What now?"

"Deakins wants me to buy ice cream bars for the kids. He said to buy bulk." Toby tried not to stare. Stabler looked good enough to eat. Those jeans were practically painted on, and Toby forced his eyes back to the book. "I also need a coffee pot."

"No coffee? Now that's an emergency." Stabler smirked and looked him up and down. "Still clean?"

Toby held out his hand. It shook a little, but that could have been all the caffeine. "I thought we agreed that we wouldn't see each other again."

Stabler just looked at him. "Termundo pled out to murder two."

"I'll be fucked up the ass." Toby regretted those words instantly. They gave him all sorts of ideas that might be fatal. "I mean, gee, that's great."

"Too late." Stabler didn't look at him now. "Those hearses are completely detailed after every funeral, but they had the bullet in a jar on the director's desk."

Toby's mouth fell open. "People are weird."

"You don't know the half of it." Stabler sounded as if he did know it all and wished he didn't. "Now for the bad news."

"Espinoso wants my ass behind bars." Toby flipped the page. "There was a dealer outside when I came home."

"What'd you do?"

"Called 911." Toby shrugged. He tossed the book at Stabler. "Find me a store."

Stabler sighed. "Shut the window and come on."

Toby took the book back, launched it to the bed, and shut the window. He followed Stabler down, and they shoved the ladder up.

"You sure you want to be seen with me?"

"My rep can't get any worse." Stabler got them moving. "I doubt you'll be getting an apology from the A.D.A. either."

"Yeah, fuck him." Toby was only worried about Espinoso. "Nice of you to come tell me. What the hell motivated you?"

Stabler flexed his hands on the steering wheel. "You got enough on your plate with getting clean."

Toby would have called any other man a liar, but Stabler's sincerity was obvious. "I guess I could buy you some ice cream too."

Stabler shook his head in disgust. "Always the smartass."

Toby laughed, starting to enjoy his day. Stabler parked and pointed. "This place has everything. If you get lost, I'm leaving."

"I bet your kids love shopping with you." Toby got out. He had to hurry a little to keep up with Stabler's long strides. "I've never been to one of these."

"What, they didn't have one in Oz?" Stabler was no slouch himself when it came to the sarcasm.

"It was probably in the new addition. I was stuck over in Unit J."

Stabler slowed down a little. "Why?"

"Nazis were trying to kill me." Toby stopped talking and stared as they went through the main entrance. "Wow."

"Yeah. Hope you got some money." Stabler pushed a cart at him. "Go wild."

Toby was tempted. "I do need a toaster." He steered the cart towards the first aisle. "Did your wife usually push?"

Stabler glared. "She made me."

Toby laughed again, feeling slightly giddy, and that meant he was teetering on the edge of a shopping addiction. "Wow."

"You said that." Stabler sighed dramatically. "Get the ice cream last."

Toby didn't respond to that. "How long you been a cop?" He headed for the small appliances. Stabler stuck with him but didn't answer. Toby reminded himself that they weren't friends. It wasn't going to happen. "Never mind."

Stabler handed him a toaster. "I have this one."

Toby put it in the cart without looking at it. "Coffee pot?"

"Next aisle over. Make sure to get coffee and filters, or it won't work," Stabler said with a small smirk.

Toby pushed that direction. He noted that Stabler had bought all this stuff recently. The divorce was new. Poor fucker. He picked out a coffee pot and felt a tiny rush. Yes, shopping was good. His phone rang.


"Toby, are you heading to Le Monde tonight?" It was Rusty.

"Planning on it. What's up?" Toby pushed the cart, keeping his eye on Stabler.

"Brian has a thing. I'm already lonely, and he hasn't left."

"Pick me up on the way." Toby smiled. "Do you guys sell winter coats?"

"Not ski jackets, but a nice trench coat, yes."

Toby groaned. "I'll freeze my ass off." He laughed at the look on Stabler's face. "Okay, bye."

Rusty clicked off. Stabler's eyebrows couldn't get any higher. "Boyfriend?"

"A friend. One of the two." Toby made a show of looking around. He wasn't going to tell Stabler about Rusty and Brian, not after that scene on the way to Le Monde. "Clothes?"

"That way." Stabler gave a tiny grunt. "No drugs, right?"

"Maybe some Ex, no big deal." Toby saw the clenched jaw and let it ride for a moment. "That was a joke."

"Not funny," Stabler growled. Toby tried not to laugh. He found the coats and took his time picking one. Stabler was the perfect husband. He waited patiently with a bored look on his face. Toby tossed the one he liked in the cart. He could do this all day. Stabler seemed to wake up. "Next?"

"Movies!" Toby went that direction and picked a handful. He had years to make up for, and after putting them in the cart, he noticed that the food wasn't far away. "Look at all the wine."

Stabler appropriated the cart and didn't stop in the liquor section. "Ice cream."

Toby caught up with him, refusing to drool over all the whiskey and wine and beer and whiskey. "I should shop here regularly."

"Nothing stopping you." Stabler opened the ice cream case. "How many boxes?"

Toby squeezed close and looked. One second he was reading labels, and the next his dick was hard and all he could think about was Stabler's skin. He could feel it, through the clothes. "All of them?"

"I see about twenty boxes of the ice cream bars, that's two hundred."

"We have about fifteen to twenty kids come through each time." Toby breathed deeply and nearly groaned from the smell of him. "That's forty a week."

"About four weeks, if you're lucky." Stabler got down a box and handed it to him. "This kind?"

"Good enough." Toby couldn't think straight. He took a step back. He had to, and he hated it. "Another cart?"

"Load up the bottom too." Stabler handed, and Toby stacked them. He needed to stuff a box in his pants to cool down. When they were done, Stabler shook his head. "Doesn't seem like that many."

"Pick another kind. Get them all." Toby wiped his forehead. His hands were freezing, and he was sweating from pure lust.

Stabler finally shut the door. "Hand me that coat."

Toby laughed and started pushing for the front. Stabler stuffed his hands in his pockets. Toby wanted to warm him up, but he liked living. They rang it all up, Stabler flashed a member's card, Toby paid cash, and they hauled it out to the car.

"The church?"

"Before we melt." Toby grabbed a box and opened it. "Want one?"

Stabler held out his hand, and they ate on the way. Toby kept his mind firmly out of the gutter. He had to work at it. It wasn't easy with Stabler chewing on the stick. Stabler parked, and Toby got the key. They hauled and filled a freezer without any chatting.

"Thanks," Toby said. He tried to find some words that would express his gratitude without sounding like he wanted to date him. "You're a good guy."

"Not so much." Stabler shrugged the words away. "Did your arm scar?"

Toby shrugged back at him. "What's one more?" He was almost sorry their shopping trip was over, but Stabler helped him carry everything up the stairs. Stabler raided the fridge for a soda and sat in his chair. Toby took his new toaster out of the box and put it on the counter. Coffee pot was next, and the coat he tossed on the bed with the movies.

"I need a closet."

"You need some paint." Stabler gestured at the crazy mural and rubbed his eyes. "I think I'm blind."

Getting his own soda, Toby went to sit on the couch, hoping to spend some quality time staring at Stabler. "It's colorful."

"It's a train wreck." Stabler pointed. "Is that a rainbow?"

Toby tilted his head. "Yeah. When I first saw it, I thought it was fate. What better place for a guy that just got out of Oz?"

Stabler groaned. "I bet there's a paint sale somewhere this weekend."

"I'll mention it to Mabel." Toby laughed. He was so close to asking Stabler if he was up for a kiss or two.

"My brother's looking for you a truck." Stabler put his empty can on the coffee table. "How much money you got?"

"Maybe thirty grand." Toby padded it a little. "I know it's not much."

Stabler gave him a funny look. "Running low on money?"

"Pastor Deakins has a budget, and so far I'm not having much luck diverting him from it." Toby checked the time. The day had slid away, and that was a good thing.

"Isn't it your money?"

Toby looked at him in bemusement. "You tell him. I can't do it."

"I can see where it could be a problem." Stabler got to his feet. "Okay. Gotta run. Stay off the street until this all blows over with Espinoso."

"No drugs. Got it." Toby stood and smiled because Stabler was so damn handsome. "Want me to get the window for you?"

Stabler looked down at the floor. His blue eyes blazed when he looked back up. "We're done."

Toby's throat closed for an instant. He swallowed down the big ball in it and almost begged for a few more minutes. He had known this was coming, but it still hurt, and the echo from Chris made it so much worse. Trying to remember to breathe, he asked, "Your brother will call me?"

"Yes. His name is Alex Stabler. He's not as friendly as I am, so don't be a smartass." Stabler went to the door. "Stay clean."

Toby couldn't imagine a grumpier Stabler than Elliot. His mother must have wanted to move to Canada to escape them. "Thanks," he managed to say, looking at his feet.

Stabler didn't glance back as he shut the door. He was gone, as in, not coming back for any reason. Toby sat down, put his head in his hands, and told himself not to give a damn. Not one damn. He still loved Chris anyway, and friends were nothing but a pain in the ass. It was his family that he missed. Angus had given up on him ever getting out of prison. They weren't coming back, and Toby couldn't blame him for the decisions he'd made. That was the important tragedy in his life. Not Elliot. Never him. He'd never been anything but a cop.

"Can I come in?"

Toby lifted his head and tried to smile for Rusty. "You bet."

Rusty grinned. "Oh, lord, did I pass a bull on the stairs! You should've seen him!"

"That was Detective Stabler. He was here, busting my nuts over a case." Toby let Rusty hug and kiss him. "You think he's cute?"

"No, more like raging handsome." Rusty fingered Toby's shirt. "Is that ice cream?"

Toby leaned his head onto Rusty's shoulder. "You can pick out the clothes I wear tonight."

Rusty smiled. "Thank goodness. First, go shower. You smell like old people." He didn't turn loose of him. "You need a minute?"

Toby nodded. "Yeah. Just one." He took a second and pushed everything to a distance that allowed him to breathe. It was all he could do.


Stabler strolled down the street, leaned against the wall, and waited for him. It didn't take long.

"You got?" Stabler flashed the money.

"You bet." The seller handed it to him and snatched the money. Stabler took him by the arm and spun him against the bricks of the building, pushing him hard and probably leaving a mark on his face.

"What the fuck?"

"You're under arrest." Stabler used the cuffs before searching him, finding a knife, but no gun. He read him his rights.

"Listen, the color of the day is cherry red."

Stabler took him to his car. "Today is my day off." He loaded him up and took him to booking. It wasn't a perfect solution but it would give Beecher a short break from temptation. Stabler put him in a chair hard and whispered in his ear, "Tell Espinoso that he's being a damn fool."

"I'm starting to agree with that!"

Stabler left him and went upstairs to put in a couple of hours. It would help him to forget the sharp look of disappointment on Beecher's face - help him to forget sharing ice cream and insults. God, he needed help.


"You two closing the place down tonight?" Rick asked as he moved down the bar, throwing out drinks.

Toby swirled his club soda and wished that they'd let him lick the bar clean. He shouldn't have come here tonight. His want was terrible, threatening to take over his life again. Rusty wiggled closer and kissed him.

"You okay?"

"Just thirsty." Toby pushed his club soda away in anger. It wasn't enough to satisfy his urges. He could get drunk if he wanted. Alcohol was legal. No one would give a shit, and it'd be so nice to be disconnected.

"The bag of rolls will be ready soon," Rick said. "Did everyone like them?"

"I heard there was a fistfight over the last package," Toby lied with a smile. "It's a nice thing you're doing. Thanks again."

Rick took the club soda and dumped it in the sink. "It's easy enough. Rusty, I can't believe Brian let you out of the house alone."

Rusty sighed. "He trusts Toby." He pouted a little. "He's so mean."

"He loves you, and he knows you love dick." Rick laughed. "The question is: why does he trust Toby?"

"Because I'm not a poacher." Toby could smell the whiskey. It smelled like oblivion, and he needed it. "Rick, get me a dry martini, will ya?"

"Bar's closed." Rick pushed the towel over the bar in front of them. "Rusty, go dance with Toby one more time, and then both of you beat it."

Rusty shrugged and pulled Toby to the small dance floor. It was a slow song that the lady was crooning, and Toby let Rusty wrap him tight. The lyrics of the song took a while to penetrate his aching brain.

"I've got it bad, and that ain't good."

Toby held Rusty closer. The song seemed to last forever, and he was almost weak with despair by the end of it. Rusty kissed him.

"Let's get you home."

Toby didn't answer, not able to meet Rusty's eyes. He cut through the kitchen, got his rolls, and they went out the back together. If he was practically running from his own fucked up life, no one could blame him.

"My car is going to smell like baked goods!"

Toby put them in the trunk. "Are you really into prison flicks?"

Rusty gave him a steady look with big, brown eyes. "Brian shouldn't have told you. You'll think I'm a fan girl or something."

"Nah." Toby rolled down the window, hoping the wind would drive the tears from his eyes. "I haven't seen any myself. Sex in prison isn't much fun for the guy on his knees. Most of the guys are straight, so they're just taking what they can get. At the end of it, they usually give you a kick or a punch."

"Oh, my."

"Well, yeah. They wanted it, but they're ashamed, so they have to beat you up to prove it ain't shit." Toby wasn't sure why he was talking, but it was better than crying, and that's what he wanted to do. "Every now and then, it was nice, but it never lasted. Men get shanked, transferred, or put in solitary for the rest of their lives."

"I'm starting to think the movies lie." Rusty's voice was soft and low.

"Bring one over some time, and I'll let you know." But Toby wasn't going to discuss Chris, not ever. That had been beyond love, and those memories were his to hoard. "I did have a very nice time in a supply closet once."

Rusty gave a small groan. "Okay! I'm hard as rock now!"

Toby managed a short laugh. Rusty parked outside the apartment, and Toby got the rolls. "You coming up?"

"I probably shouldn't. You'd only get me in trouble." Rusty maneuvered around the bag and kissed him. "I had a good time. You gonna be okay?"

Toby shrugged. He leaned against him for a second, pulled back, and spotted his own private drug dealer watching. Anger flicked through him. Did Espinoso think it was so damn easy?

"I'll make it. Tell Brian thanks." Toby felt nothing but stubborn now.

"You tell him that I behaved." Rusty brushed Toby's hair back. "You need a haircut."

"I need everything." Toby kissed him one more time, but that was the last one. "Go home."

Rusty laughed, knowing how cute he was. He pulled away, turned, and frowned. "That guy is way too close."

"He's a cop. He's on stakeout." Toby smiled, but he wasn't happy. "Bye." He dug out his keys and went up quickly. Rearranging the food made enough room to stuff the rolls inside the fridge, and when that small task was done, he got ready for bed. He grabbed a handful of toilet paper, wiggled to his back, and remembered one of the good times, but halfway through his bitch of a brain put Stabler in the room. Stabler held him close and that was all it took for Toby to come in his hand. He wiped up, tossed it towards the trash, and rolled to his side. Sleep now. Just sleep. Nothing else.

"I got it bad, and that ain't good," Toby whispered.


Stabler waited with little patience for Fin to get off the phone so they could discuss the case. What he didn't like was furtive glance that he got before Fin turned to face him.

"That about the case?" Stabler didn't want to discuss anything or anyone else.


Stabler put up his hand. He wasn't going to listen. "Stop. Let's talk about our case."

Fin shuffled some papers. "Don't be blaming me later."

Stabler got an ache in the pit of his stomach. "The case?" He held on to the file with a death grip. Nothing he said or did would change Espinoso's mind. Beecher was on his own. He'd have to handle it. Stabler was staying out of it. He couldn't care.


Toby began to dream about rolls, croissants, and assorted pastries. His fridge was always full of them, and the smell of them always seemed to be in his nose. It had to be his imagination, but it didn't help that everyone at Le Monde called him 'Roll Guy' and laughed. It did give him one thing to do every day, and he was glad for the anchor, but the cost of the cabs was killing him. He had the money, but it was a damn waste.


"What?" Toby snapped. He was not feeling patient, or kind, or one bit nice today. Puppies, gay men, and small children needed to run for their lives.

Rick blinked in what could have been surprise at Toby's tone. "They're ready."

Toby eyed a big bottle of whiskey behind the counter. He wouldn't tonight, but, damn, he wanted. "Thanks."

"Hey, you okay?"

"Rick," Toby said, trying desperately to sound calm, "I don't have a car. This situation isn't very damn cost effective."

Rick bit his lower lip. "You should have said something. Let me go ask around."

Toby nodded and felt guilty. He shouldn't complain, not about anything. A big, damn loser like him had to be grateful for every roll tossed his way.

"Toby, this is Ramon Montoya. He goes by your apartment on his way home." Rick smiled a little and nudged forward a young, Hispanic man. "He'd be glad to help out."

Toby felt ashamed. "It would save us a lot of money. Ramon, do you mind?"

"No problemo." Ramon grinned, flashing a gold tooth. "I don't work on Sundays."

"I'll pick up then." Toby felt like apologizing, but he swallowed it. "Thanks, Rick."

Rick nodded. "Brian told me you're trying to get clean and sober. Coming here every night can't help."

Toby sighed at having two mouthy friends. "Brian talks too much."

"But my thrift store is getting a rep for being the place to buy clothes." Rick laughed and hugged him. "You did good."

"You helped." Toby grabbed the praise and held it tight. "Ready to go, Ramon?"

Ramon looked at Rick, who nodded. Toby followed him to a beater than had seen better days, but the engine sounded pretty good. The interior didn't smell like pot, thank God, and they were going.

"You got no license?" Ramon asked.

"I can't get one." Toby had agreed to that restriction, but it still sucked. One last ass fuck by a system that had enjoyed bending him over. "What time do you usually get off work at the restaurant?"

"After eleven. That okay?"

"Sure. Thanks for this. I owe ya one." Toby made a mental note to ask at church if anyone had a car for Ramon. It could happen. Church, he'd discovered, was a lot like prison. Groups, subgroups, and people bound together by a common idea. Of course, people in church usually wouldn't shank someone for a roll of toilet paper, but it was similar. Toby rubbed his face. He was going nuts.


"Yeah, park anywhere." Toby wasn't been surprised that Rick had given Ramon Toby's address. "Thanks."

"No problemo. See ya tomorrow, Roll Guy." Ramon grinned.

Toby laughed and took his stash of bread upstairs. Stuffing it all away, he went to sit out on his fire escape. He was clean, sober, and he'd been tested. Results weren't back, but he was doing everything right, so why did he feel so damn empty? He had a life. It was busy enough. He lowered his head, shut his eyes, and pictured Stabler clearly. Sitting across from him, looking so damn sexy, and not knowing it.

The ringing of his cell phone brought him out of it. "Hello?"

"Tobias Beecher?"

"Yes. Can I help you?" Toby asked cautiously. He didn't recognize the number.

"This is Alex Stabler. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you, but I found you a truck. You still need one?"

Surprise grabbed him. "You bet your ass. Can we meet?"

Stabler rattled off an address, and Toby scrambled inside to write it down. "Okay, got it. When?"

"Sooner the better." Alex didn't sound cranky like Stabler had described. "I'll give my brother a heads up."

Toby didn't want that, not at all. "No, don't involve him!" He was afraid he sounded like an idiot, but Stabler didn't want anything to do with him, so that was how they were going to play it.

"Okay. If you say so." Alex hesitated. "Deal is cash only, no checks."

"Not a problem. I'll be there in the morning to look at it, and thanks."

"Later." Alex hung up. Toby shut his phone and smiled. If the truck looked good, it would time to get serious about finding a bulk source for milk. Toby skimmed his finger over the address and couldn't help but wonder if this Stabler would look like Chris too. An entire genetic bank of guys who were drop dead gorgeous. Angels had to have been involved. Toby laughed and set his alarm to get up early.


"Hey, bro."

Stabler sat down on a bunk in the crib, switched his phone to the other ear, and smiled. "Hey, Al."

"Are you sure about this Beecher guy, El? I don't want to get ripped off." Alex sounded a little worried. "You said he was an ex-con."

"He may be an ex-con, but he's loaded. His family was wealthy, and now he's running a food bank." Stabler thought he'd mentioned all this, but he'd slept since then. "You need cash?"

"Cash only." Alex hesitated for a moment. "Okay, well, I won't worry. I was going to ask you to come out, but Beecher was really loud about me not telling you what was going on and that made me a little nervous that he planned to rob me."

Stabler hoped he understood that sentence. "He didn't want you to tell me what was going on?"

"Right. Have you slept lately?" Alex laughed.

"No." Stabler wasn't sure how much to say, but this was his brother. "I told Beecher that we weren't friends, and that you'd be handling this deal."

"Well, he got the message, loud and clear. Did you punch him to get your point across?" Alex had to be grinning. "I'll have to ask him."

"I owed him a favor and this is it, but we ain't friends. He's a skel." Stabler didn't feel like smiling or laughing or even being slightly amused. "Don't make me hit you, Al."

"Like it'd hurt. Okay. I feel better about this. I might call you about how it turns out." Alex hung up. Stabler lay back flat and put his arm over his eyes. Beecher believed it. He believed, and that was a good thing. It was. They couldn't be friends. Not ever. Beecher's smile flashed in front of Stabler's eyes and he screwed them up tighter. Some sleep would help.


Toby took the bus to the subway and then caught a cab for the last of it. It had taken him over an hour to get here, and he hoped it would be worth it. He'd told himself twice not to count on a good deal. He paid the cabbie and went through a gate up to a building set off the road. 'All-Quip Rental' the sign said, and Toby believed it because that was a bulldozer. He went inside and didn't see a soul. The place was slightly dirty and full of equipment that he'd never need and didn't know how to operate.

"Can I help you?" A deep voice asked from behind him.

Toby turned and clenched his jaw so it didn't drop open, but he was sure his eyes were as big as fifty-cent pieces. "You have to be Alex Stabler."

"Tobias Beecher?"

Toby stuck out his hand and hoped it wasn't crushed. "Nice to meet you."

Alex gave him a hard look. "You're an ex-con?"

"We come in all shapes and sizes. I'm the geek model." Toby was glad to get his hand back with no broken bones. He let himself stare. "You're a professional wrestler, aren't you?"

"Maybe." Alex finally smiled, and Toby nearly collapsed from the shiny teeth. His brain quit working, and his jeans got a little tight.

"You okay?"

"Just stunned. I'll recover quickly." Toby brushed his hair back. He had to play it cool, but Chris would be so pissed that there was someone more handsome than him, and it made Toby want to giggle. "It's not every day I meet a god."

Alex's eyes widened and then he laughed. "I can't wait to tell my wife that."

"Tell her that she's envied by millions." Toby grinned. Just looking at this Stabler was a pleasure, and Toby had to pull his mind out of the gutter. "Okay, where's the truck?"

"Right. Can't stroke my ego for a lower price all day." Alex took him out the back door into a large fenced-in lot, full of assorted vehicles. "El said you wanted a smallish one. Right?"

Toby nodded. They went around some pickups and there it was. He took his eyes off Alex's ass and tried to focus on the truck. "Does it run?"

"Yep." Alex got in and started it. To Toby, it sounded fine, but he was no expert. He walked around it, checking for holes and obvious damage. After one trip around, he opened the back. Alex stepped up inside with him.

"The truck has to be running to keep things cold. Sucks gas, but it works."

Toby was glad to see there were still racks. "Did your stick-up-the-ass brother tell you why I wanted this?"

"Food bank." Alex narrowed his eyes. "He really pissed you off, huh?"

Toby was going with that because the truth of his attraction might get him squashed like a bug. He pulled up his shirt sleeve and showed off the bullet scar on his arm. "He made it damn clear that he doesn't like me."

"He's a cop. His job." Alex shrugged as if he wasn't worried about it. "My advice is that you go pick up the milk early in the morning and hand it out the same day. Save gas."

"I don't have a driver's license." Toby sat down on a low bench. It was already starting to cool. "How much?"


"Twenty-two," Toby said automatically. He smiled his best. "It's for charity."

Alex groaned. He rubbed his face in what had to be a Stabler family habit. "My Catholic church runs a homeless shelter. What can you do for them, Mr. Food Bank?"

Toby wanted the truck, but he wasn't willing to lose his shirt to get it . "What do they need the most?"

"Blankets and sheets are always in short supply." Alex smiled big at him. Lord, he was gorgeous. Rusty would scream and pass out.

"Let me make a call." Toby went around to the front of the truck, crawled in the cab, checked everything out, and called Mabel. She picked up promptly, and Toby said, "Mabel, I need help if we're going to get this truck. The Catholic Church runs a homeless shelter. They need blankets and sheets. What can we do for them?"

"And good morning to you, Toby." Mabel sounded grumpy, but that was normal. "Let me think."

Toby waited. He picked up a floor mat and made sure there wasn't a hole underneath it. The truck seemed pretty solid, if only they could get it. "Our truck is riding on this."

"The Quilting Club is the answer. Give me a minute." She hung up.

Toby got out and waved Alex over. "Take me for a test drive?"

"You need a license, Tobe." Alex gestured for him to get back inside. "But let's go around the block a couple of times. If anything falls out, it's gonna be the transmission."

"A comfort to know." Toby noticed the lack of seatbelts and didn't comment on the nickname. It was better than Stabler calling him a skel. The truck bounced, but it went with a growl. "Brakes?"

"Work good." Alex hit them hard, and Toby nearly flew out the window. "That was fun."

Toby had to laugh. "At least I wasn't in back. Got any ideas about the milk, Al?"

"Let me think." Alex pulled back in the lot and parked. Toby's cell rang.

"That was fast," Toby said to her.

"We're on board. We have fifty quilts in storage at the church."

Toby was shocked. "Fifty?"

"We sell them at the rummage sale each year." Mabel sounded half the way to annoyed. "Get the truck!"

"Yes, ma'am. Call Deakins and tell him to get ready."

"Will do."

Toby clicked off. "Our Quilting Club has fifty in storage. Is that enough?"

Alex grinned. "Twenty-two it is and cheap at the price."

"I want a three-month warranty." Toby smiled because Alex was so beautiful. Gorgeous. Handsome. Wow. There simply weren't enough adjectives. "I'll pay cash."


"Tomorrow morning. We'll bring the quilts too." Toby stuck out his hand. "Deal?"

"Deal." Alex shook Toby's hand firmly. "Oh, and I think my sister can help you with the milk. She works in food distribution."

"Is she gorgeous?" Toby nearly licked his lips. He was starting to think he'd take any Stabler he could get. "And available?"

"She's single. The rest is up to you." Alex headed back inside, and Toby followed him. "But, uh..."

"What?" Toby hoped she wasn't a lesbian. That would make it harder.

"She works for a big chain. You know they have lots of paperwork and procedures. That charity line won't work with them. I'll call her. She might call you. She might not." Alex went back behind the counter. "Be here tomorrow morning, or I'll sell it to someone else by the afternoon."

"I'll be here with someone who can drive and a pile of cash." Toby took one more second just to stare at the huge, drop-dead gorgeous version of Chris Keller. "Thanks, Alex."

"I'll tell El to chill. You're not so bad." Alex grinned.

"Don't bother. He's made up his mind there." Toby knew that wouldn't help. 'El' didn't want to be acquaintances, much less friends, and it was impossible to blame him. No one that knew about the drugs wanted to have anything to do with him. Why would Elliot be any different? Toby pulled himself away and started the hike back to his part of town. This was going to take some planning.


"Hey, Sis."

"Hey, El." It was Caroline: his baby sister.

Stabler smiled, glad to hear from her. It had been a few months. "How are ya?"

"Good." She was smiling. He could hear it. "I'm thinking about working with a charity, and Al said I should ask you if Tobias Beecher is reliable. I hate to waste my time if he's nothing but a con artist."

Stabler left his desk and went to find an empty hallway. "Did you meet with him?"

"Tonight at eight. He's taking me out to dinner." Caroline sounded slightly happy, and that wasn't a good thing. "Al says he's cute."

"Did he mention the ex-con part?" Stabler growled. If he had to talk to everyone in his family about Toby Beecher, his head was going to explode. "Or the smartass part?"

"Tobe called Al a god. Everyone in the family is still laughing about it." Caroline laughed, but it wasn't funny.

"Tobe?" Stabler put his hand on his forehead. "I need Tylenol."

"Al makes up nicknames for everyone, you know that."

"Only people he likes, and Beecher shouldn't be in that category. He's a skel!" Elliot said it more for himself than her.

"Did you really shoot him?"

It didn't sound as if that would convince her not to go. "No, I didn't," he ground out, furious now.

"Wow, he was right about that stick. Okay, I'll make up my own mind. Love ya, bye." Caroline hung up. Stabler put his phone in his pocket before he threw it into a wall. He did not have a stick up his ass!


Toby put on his suit. He didn't know if this was an interview or a date, but he wanted to look nice. They were going out to eat. There was a two-month wait on reservations to Le Monde, but he knew the owner, and he had shamelessly exploited it.

Rick had stared and asked, "With a woman?"

Toby chuckled and prayed she looked like a Stabler. She was picking him up, and he refused to be embarrassed about it. Not everyone in New York drove. He straightened the new tie that Brian had said brought out the blue in his eyes and checked his face to make sure he'd shaved well enough.

The knock was almost a relief. He was nervous enough to want to get this started. Pulling open the door, he took in the jet black hair, the height, the wow, and he smiled.


"Tobias, I assume." She was almost as gorgeous as her brothers.

"Yeah." He got out of the way so she could come inside. "Let me get my cell, and we can go."

She smiled, took several steps, and he saw her eyes bulge. "Nice place."

"You can tell me what you really think about the mural. Your brother, Elliot, already informed me that it's awful." Toby smiled and found his phone. He really hoped that he didn't smell like rolls for a change. "I'm ready."

"It's awful, but strangely enough, it fits the space."

Toby laughed, liking her instantly. "A diplomatic Stabler - I'm swept off my feet." He got the door and locked it behind them. "I have reservations, but if you don't like the place, we can go elsewhere."

"Where to?" She was beautiful, and he would follow her anywhere, much less the car. He hoped he wasn't drooling.

"Is Le Monde okay?" He tried to use his blue eyes to his advantage.

"They have a huge waiting list. How'd you manage it?" Caroline's eyes were big. "That's fabulous!"

"Thank goodness. The only other place I know is Mo's." Toby laughed with her. She drove, and he was glad she didn't drive like her brother. "Okay, so I've meet Alex, Caroline, and Elliot. Who's left?"

She smiled, and he nearly fell over dead. This woman was single? The men she worked with must be blind or severely gay. "Devin, Frank, and Bradley."

"Wait." Toby lined the names up. "No kidding?"

"Our parents were nuts. It's our only defense." She laughed, and Toby did too. "They called us the alphabet kids at school."

Toby got out when she stopped and helped her with her door. He put out his arm, and she took it. The maitre'd took them right inside, and Toby had to smile at her delight.

"My friends are going to die of jealousy!"

Toby helped her with her chair. "Best table in the house." He thought so at least. "Because you're at it."

"You're a dangerous man, I can tell." She smoothed her hands together, and Toby was strangely glad she hadn't rubbed her face.

"You're here." Rick smiled, coming up without any delay. "Introduce me, Toby."

"Caroline Stabler, this is Rick Lyons, the owner of this lovely establishment." Toby wanted him to butt out. This was his date, well, business meeting. They shook hands, and Rick sat down. Toby almost glared at him.

"Has Toby filled you in on our community project?"

Toby couldn't wait to hear this. She shook her head and her hair shined under the lights. "Not yet."

"Let me help. Toby is confused easily by beautiful women." Rick waved at the waiter. "Coffee for Toby, and get the lady whatever she wants."

Toby was about ready to punch him. He was so suave that he made Toby look like a dolt. She was clearly fascinated with him, and after she ordered a white wine, Toby jumped in, "Okay, this is how it started. I run a food bank, and we needed to expand our menu."

"This is where I came in." Rick smiled, oozing charm. "I donate my baked goods that are left every night to the food bank."

"And that's where I got sucked into the madness." Brian sat down on her other side and kissed her hand.

"This is my date!" Toby protested, and she laughed so prettily.

"Please continue." She batted her eyelashes.

Brian looked in her eyes. "So, I agreed, because I'm Toby's friend, to donate my extra clothing to the thrift store at Rick's church, which is fabulous now, thanks to me."

"Links in a chain, I like it." She smiled at Toby. "And then you met my brother, who had a truck for sale."

"And he needed blankets for the homeless shelter at his church, which my church provided." Toby had a sudden thought. It was his church. He should get his ass out of bed and go some Sunday morning. "Now we have a truck, but no milk for our families."

"A lovely story." She graced them all with a smile, and the waiter interrupted by bringing their drinks.

Toby was glad to get his coffee. "Okay, beat it, ya losers."

Caroline giggled, and then turned serious. "I think, maybe, we can help Toby buy the milk in bulk at a low price, but donation is out of the question."

"Why?" Rick smiled.

Brian edged closer. "Yes, why?"

Toby watched her squirm. He smiled and asked, "If small business can lend a hand in our community, what responsibility does a large corporation have?"

"If we donate to one small charity, the larger ones will beat down our door. We have maintained a policy of lowering prices if the purchase amount is sufficient, but giving it away isn't possible."

Rick rubbed his chin. "So, your company has no commitment to the community. Interesting."

"I wonder what would happen if we all felt that way," Brian said.

Toby cut her some slack. "Ms. Stabler doesn't make the policies. She simply enforces them."

Caroline looked them all over. "Each of you seems to have gained from this. What's our benefit?"

"What do you want?" Toby said quickly. He was more impressed with her by the minute. She was standing her ground, and that was never easy.

Rick eased to his feet. "The special tonight is lobster tail. I'll get two."

"Excellent," Caroline said. Rick smiled and left, but Brian wasn't leaving.

"I got nothing but a sense of fashion from it," Brian huffed. He kissed her hand again and was gone.

"They're both gay, aren't they?" Caroline asked with no trace of scorn. She was smiling.

"Oh, yeah." Toby looked in her beautiful eyes. "A reduced price would be lovely, but perhaps at your next board meeting, you could mention that it's curmudgeonly?"

"I love a man with a vocabulary." She patted his hand. "You've done good things with practically nothing but charm. I'll do what I can to help."

Toby kissed her hand too. Everyone else had. She laughed, and he seized the moment to ask, "Could I borrow an employee for half a day twice a week?"

"What?" Her beautiful face looked stunned. "Say that again?"

"I have a truck but no driver." Toby turned her loose and added sugar to his coffee. He took a big drink before continuing, "You could use the truck on the other days." He sure didn't want it parked at his place.

"Big truck?" She was considering it.

"No, it's small. It would be great for those small, annoying deliveries that aren't cost efficient because of your big trucks. Also, it would be able to get to those hard to reach markets that you have to turn away because you can't get your truck down the street."

Caroline stared at him. "You should've been a salesman."

"That's what a lawyer is." Toby let her think by concentrating on his coffee. It also let him stare at her cleavage without seeming obnoxious. "Free truck."

"You'll pay the gas?"

"For two days a week." Toby smiled. He was willing to concede that, if he didn't have to pay a driver. "Your driver gets there at nine. We unload the milk, and he's gone - Monday and Friday. Simple."

"If I could add a delivery to the truck, we could gloss over the gasoline." She was shrewd, and he thought maybe he was falling in love. He did love brunettes. She sipped her wine. "We'll have to work closely to coordinate this."

"I am at your disposal." Toby finished his cup. He'd switch to club sodas now. "Our amounts may vary slightly. We gain and lose families."

Caroline nodded. She looked very sincere. "We'll draw up a contract, but keep the details casual and make it so either of us can withdraw at any time."

"Sounds excellent. I'm very sure we'll work well together." Toby relaxed. The hard part was done, and he trusted her to get him the best price. Stabler's were honest people. "Alex gave me a three-month warranty on the truck."

"And he can repair it if it breaks down." Caroline grinned, and he was forcibly reminded of her older brother, Elliot. She whispered, "He's not a god."

"Could've fooled me. He looks like Apollo or some other Greek god."

The lobster arrived and eating forestalled further talk about business. Toby wanted to discuss brother Elliot in detail, but he wouldn't.

"Alex says the homeless shelter looks better than ever. Everyone is pleased with the quilts."

Toby had wondered about that. "I assumed they'd be stolen."

"Cynic." But she nodded. "I did too, but they're so colorful, they're hard to steal, and the people are starting to claim one in particular."

"Mabel is working on getting them more sheets. They're easy to make or so she says." Toby was glad Rick had included crab cakes. They were excellent.

Caroline looked at him coyly. "Is Mabel your girlfriend?"

Toby laughed at the absurdity of that. "She's my adopted grandmother, and she loves to boss me around. She told me that if I didn't score the milk, she'd twist my ear off."

"Oh, dear, that's funny." Caroline covered her mouth with her napkin and laughed. Toby decided he could stare at her all day. When the main course was demolished, it was Rick who pushed over the dessert wagon. He sat down again, and Toby did glare at him this time.

"Sweets for the sweet." Rick made an elaborate gesture. "On the house, what would you like?"

Toby patted him on the shoulder. "You can leave the cart and get us some coffee - the good stuff - that you hide."

Rick glared back at him. "I do not."

"Some coffee would be lovely." Caroline used that killer smile. "Toby and I are finalizing the deal. I think we've reached an arrangement that suits us both."

Rick made a sharp gesture, and waiter was there instantly. "Get them the good coffee."

Toby winked at Caroline. "How many handsome brothers do you have?"

"Too many." Caroline rolled her eyes. "It's why I ended up in this line of work."

"Never enough food for the table?" Rick asked, and Toby thought it was a perceptive question.

She hesitated and then nodded. "I will be speaking to the board about their policy. You have my word."

Toby wanted to kiss her. "We know you'll do what you can." He changed the subject to take the pressure off her. "Rick, where's Rusty tonight?"

"Brian said Rusty had a meltdown. I think they're fighting again." Rick rolled his eyes. "Drama queens - the both of them."

Toby couldn't disagree, but there might be more to it than that. "I'm sure Rusty has a reason. I'll call him later."

"Be careful. Brian is not a forgiving man when it comes to Rusty." Rick stood as their coffee arrived. "Dessert?"

"No, but thank you." Caroline smiled. "The coffee is treat enough."

Toby didn't get a chance to say no. Rick was gone with the cart.

Caroline took a sip. "This was marvelous. I understand now why the wait is so long."

"I'll tell you a secret." Toby slid into the chair next to her, taking his coffee. "Rick always has an extra table for his friends. If you want to bring someone, wait at the bar. He knows you now. You'll get seated."

"But only if you get your milk." Caroline's eyes were mischievous.

"I love a smart woman. Would you like to dance?" Toby stood and held out his hand. She blushed, and they went. He held her gently and smelled her hair. She was everything he loved in a woman, but she didn't get him fired up like her handsome brother did. When the music ended, he whispered, "I could do that all night."

Caroline straightened his tie. "I'd be late for work."

Toby took her back to the coffee, and they finished it before dancing again. He knew she was about ready to go home, but one more dance didn't kill her. He didn't try for a kiss, and he thanked Rick on the way out.

Brian caught him before they were outside. "Toby, you have to call Rusty."

"Caroline, can you give me a moment, please?"

"I'll wait in the car."

"Thank you." Toby turned to Brian and moved him farther away. "What happened?"

"He's been crazy lately! Watching prison documentaries and crying. He threw out his prison porn collection, and I'd spent hundreds on that!" Brian looked flabbergasted. "Of course, I got them out of the trash, but still!"

"Oh, shit. My fault." Toby felt guilty. He'd screwed up again. "I better talk to him."

"You might have to fuck some sense into him." Brian shook his hands in pure frustration.

"No. Please. Don't make me have sex with him." Toby couldn't believe what he was hearing. "I'll be in tomorrow for a new suit. I have a feeling I'm going to need two. I'll talk to him."

"You better." Brian stalked away. Toby sighed and went to Caroline's car. She didn't waste time getting them moving.

"I'm very glad we met. I had a lovely evening," Toby said, hoping she liked him enough to put in a good word with her brother. He nearly groaned at his own stupidity. When had he become so gay?

Caroline smiled and brushed her hair back. "It was more than fun. I never thought I'd eat there in my life. Thank you very much."

"Glad I could do it." Toby noticed she was focusing on the restaurant, not him. He didn't fool himself. She was nice, and they'd work well together, but there was no chemistry, and a woman as beautiful as her shouldn't settle for less. "Your brother, Elliot, wouldn't go with me."

"It was that stick." She shot him a grin. "I'm surprised he talks to you."

"He doesn't unless his boss makes him." Toby shrugged and checked the time. It was ten. He'd be home in time to meet Ramon. "Did Alex tell you everything I said?"

"Just the funny parts. We're a close family."

"You're very lucky." Toby made sure not to whine. "Elliot did take me to Mo's."

"Good burgers." She parked and turned off the car. "How many years were you in prison?"

"Fifteen." Toby did his best to sound as if it didn't matter. It was interesting that she'd waited until now to quiz him about his life.

She frowned. "Has the adjustment been difficult?"

"Very." Toby didn't open his door. They could talk a minute. "It's a different world."

"It is." She started to get out, and Toby did also. He gave her a hand to the curb. She smiled. "I'll walk you up."

Toby got the door, and they went to his apartment. She opened her purse. "Here's my business card. I'll pencil you in for three tomorrow. We'll hash out the details and get started Monday."

"Excellent." Toby stuck it in his pocket. "Thank you very much. You're doing a good thing."

"And it'll increase my bottom line." She raised her eyebrows. "I think you're doing very well at adjusting, but I was disappointed that you're not a smartass like Elliot said."

"After we sign the contract, I'll think of something to say." Toby stroked his hands down her arms. He was going for a kiss. It wasn't the Stabler he wanted to kiss, but she was here, and he liked her. She leaned, and he kissed her. Some part of him wanted sparks to fly, but it was just a kiss, and he smiled. "Thank you."

"Tomorrow." She was gone quickly, and he knew he wouldn't be kissing her again. He peeled off his coat and sighed. He'd tried. He had to give himself credit for that.

"Would you like to see the autopsy photos of the last guy who broke my little sister's heart?" Stabler yelled from behind him.

Toby jumped, stepped back, tripped, and fell on his ass. Stabler, mad as hell, loomed over him.

"Fuck!" Shock was all he could feel.

"Yeah, you better be scared." Stabler didn't help him up. Toby hoped he didn't get a shoe planted on his chest. He scrambled back and got to his feet fast before Stabler kicked him.

"I locked that window!" Toby used his lawyer voice. "Breaking and entering is a felony!"

Stabler put his hands on his hips and took the step that boxed Toby into the corner. "Don't even think about putting your filthy dick anywhere near her!"

Toby nearly fell down from the anger. "Jesus Christ, Stabler, it was a business meeting."

"You kiss all your business partners?" Stabler was still yelling.

"All of them but Alex. He was too tall." Toby tugged at his tie. He had to stay calm. Fighting would get him arrested. "You scared the shit out of me. I gotta change my shorts."

Stabler eased back, but not much. "We clear on this?"

"Yes. I'm filth. She's an angel, and I won't touch her." Toby pulled his tie off. His dirty dick didn't want her, but Stabler wouldn't want the truth. Toby couldn't resist teasing him about his brother. "How about I go after Alex?"

Stabler punched him. Toby saw it coming and couldn't move near fast enough. It lashed him across the cheekbone, and he bounced off the mural. The wood floor was hard underneath him, and he stayed down. If he got up, he'd find a way to hurt Stabler, and that was a stupid idea.

"Stay away from my family!" Stabler pointed down at him.

"Got it." Toby sat up and raised his hands. He hurt from more than just the punch. It felt as if Stabler had pummeled him in the heart. "I'll be a good ex-con. I promise."

Stabler looked as if he might hit him again, but as quickly as he'd shown up, he was gone out the window. Toby leaned back against the wall and took a deep breath. His face felt as if it'd been stomped. Stabler packed a hell of a punch.

Toby got up, took off his suit, locked the window again, and decided to get a bar to brace it shut. He put on jeans, a wife beater, and wandered downstairs. Ramon would be by soon. It was time to get the rolls. Toby put one leg up and leaned against the bricks. His face pulsed and he wondered what he'd tell Caroline tomorrow because he was going to that meeting. Stabler could deal with it or beat him up again, but he was going.

Ramon pulled into a nearby parking space fast. He got out and handed the bag over. "I ate one."

"Good, aren't they?" Toby liked Ramon. The guy worked hard and always had a smile on his face.

"Police! Put your hands up!" The voice was familiar.

Toby dropped the rolls and put his hands up. It didn't stop them from slamming him into the wall, but at least they didn't shoot him. He was certain that Stabler had arranged this, and he only grunted as they dragged him to a car, shoved him across the hood, and searched him thoroughly. It was all a game of intimidation to them.

"Get the dog." Espinoso had a nasty look on his face.

Toby had one second to wish he were stronger and then mind-numbing fear swept it all away. He lunged up, his feet were kicked out from under him, and he hit the concrete. The sound of barking was the last thing he heard.


Stabler fumed all the way back to the station. His sister had kissed Beecher! He probably had AIDS, and she'd kissed him! He tried to take a deep breath but it wasn't happening. Anger pounded through his veins, and he kicked the bumper of his car. He sat on the trunk, put his head in his hands, and breathed. Yelling at her would do no good. She'd tell him to butt out, as usual. He'd done everything he could to protect her, and Beecher wouldn't date her again, if he knew what was good for him.

Squad cars came rolling into the parking lot, and he recognized Espinoso immediately. The strut made him grind his teeth. He slid off his car and took a look at the latest trophy for Espinoso's wall. The light from the parking lot bounced off blond hair that might have been bloody, and he was staggering. His head was down, and his legs weren't moving right. Stabler forced his feet to stay put. He saw them get the German shepherd dog out, and he clenched his jaw to keep from cursing.

"He's dirty, and he's mine now." Espinoso laughed in Elliot's face.

Stabler could only shake his head. "You're a damn fool." He would not follow him inside. Beecher was a big boy. He could handle this, if he were conscious. Stabler got in his car, clenched the steering wheel, and tried to start it. His fingers wouldn't do it. He squeezed the keys until his hand ached. "Damn it!"


"I want my lawyer." Toby said nothing until he was slammed into a chair. The only good news was that they'd left the dog outside, for now.

"Who are you moving it for?" Espinoso slapped the table. He must not have been happy with the glare that Toby gave him because he went to the door and brought the dog inside. "We know you pick up every night from that Hispanic guy. Biscuits weren't much of a cover! Tell me who!"

"I want my lawyer." Toby hoped that was what he'd said. He felt disconnected from his mouth. His head pounded, and the dog was too close.

Espinoso smiled. "I'll get him. The dog can keep you company until he gets here. Shouldn't be more than three hours or so." His smile was dirty. "Unless you'd rather talk."

Fear jolted through Toby again and he was up before he could think. Espinoso slammed him into the wall. He felt his mouth break open, and he was afraid that he'd let out a soft sob.

"Are you resisting arrest?" Espinoso hit him hard. The air burst out of Toby's lungs and he collapsed down. The next thing he heard was the scrabble of toenails on the floor, and he crawled for the corner. He pushed his face at the walls and waited to be torn up again. Nothing but fear moved through him.

"Tell me about the operation!" Espinoso yelled.

Toby saw only the dog. "I'll get Stabler for this," he whispered.


"Captain, I was in his apartment right before he was arrested. He was clean."

"That doesn't mean he's not selling." Cragen didn't look concerned. "It's not our case. We're staying out of it."

Slumping, Stabler sat in the chair. "I know I should go to my desk like a good boy, but it's not going down."

Cragen sighed. "Elliot, just admit that he's your friend. You solved a case together. He earned your respect, and you want him to stay clean."

Stabler wasn't going to deny all of that, but he wasn't going to admit it either. "He's terrified of dogs, and Espinoso had a big one with him."

Now Cragen looked worried. "I'm certain they're following proper interrogation procedures."

"I wish I was. Espinoso was demoted a grade over the Termundo thing. He blames Beecher." Stabler got up. He didn't have a choice now. He'd ignored Fin, and this was the result. This wasn't a little bit of guilt. This was a river of it. "I'll go to my desk."

"Yes, but call his lawyer."



"Who? And where do you take it?"

Toby struggled against the cuffs, trying to get his hands up. The dog was right there. Right there! He gasped when he was lifted to his feet and shoved in the corner. Drool dropped on his shoes, and he pulled his head back so far that he hit the wall.

"Lawyer! I want my lawyer!" That was the only thing that Toby could even think to say.

"We got his voicemail and left a message. I'm sure he checks it regularly. We got hours of this, Beecher!" Espinoso stroked the dog's big head. "And Peaches here likes you."

"Shit," Toby whispered. He was fucked. The fear had become a constant, but all he had to do was stay calm until Steven got here. That was all.


The bark boomed up Toby's spine and he trembled. His ability to speak was gone, and he hit his head on the wall again. There was blood on his shirt, but he didn't think he'd be seeing a doctor any time soon. Espinoso was yelling about something, and Toby went to a quiet place in his mind and wondered why men who looked like Chris betrayed him. Or wait, maybe Chris had done it because he looked like Stabler. Toby giggled. He might have to grow a crazy beard again.

"Peaches, you want to search him, don't you?"

Toby threw himself towards the door, and Espinoso put him flat on the floor. The dog clawed at his back, pain ripping, and he broke. "I hate you, Elliot Stabler!" he screamed.


Huang occasionally helped out in Homicide, and there was a shortcut through Narcotics. He saw the group of men outside the interrogation room, and it was their odd behavior that made him slow his steps.

Everyone laughed, and then he clearly heard the name Elliot Stabler being screamed. He couldn't get to the front to see, so he quietly asked an officer near the back, "What's going on?"

"Espinoso is using a dog on some drug dealer to get a confession. We're all betting he pisses his pants."

Huang frowned; not believing it was possible until another piercing yell came floating out. He wasn't afraid of confrontation but perhaps it would be better to get some backup. Quickly, he backtracked to SVU. Elliot was at his desk with his head in his hands. Did he know what was going on?

Fin put a hand on Huang's chest to slow him down. "Not now. It ain't a good time."

Huang saw Cragen come out of his office and went to him instead. "There's a man in the interrogation room in Narcotics screaming Elliot's name. They're using a dog to gain a confession."

Cragen slowly nodded. "We'll all go. For once, I believe, we have a case in our own house."

"Who is it?" Huang rushed to keep up with them. Elliot was practically running.

"Tobias Beecher," Fin snapped. "Narcotics has a hard-on for him."

Huang saw that this was going to get ugly in a hurry, so he stopped following them and ran for Novak's office.


"Back off!"

Toby squirmed out from under the dog and curled partway under a chair. He wasn't safe, but it was better than nothing.

"This is my interrogation!"

"And it's over, Detective. Elliot, get Beecher out of here, and someone call a bus!"

Toby flinched when hands touched him. "Elliot, I hate you for setting me up," he wheezed, still gulping for air.

"Come on. It's over." Elliot's hands were gentle on him. He helped, and it was all another lie. Chris had done the same damn thing. The dog barked, and Toby fell back down.

"This is bad, I know, but you can do it," Elliot said. "Let me help."

"You set me up," Toby whispered. "I just kissed her. I was being polite." He heard himself sob and was ashamed. Barking filled the room, men shouted, and someone shoved Elliot right down on him. Toby grunted and hid under him. Now he was safe.

"Damn it!" Elliot struggled up and took Toby with him through shoving men. Fin steadied them, and they were moving. Toby fell down again not far from the door. He was out. Out. Thank God.

"Get a damn ambulance!" Someone was yelling. "The dog bit Elliot!"

Toby felt his wrists drop apart, and he decided to crawl to safety. Elliot lifted him, and they made it a short distance before he was pulled to sitting on a bench. He held himself, shook, and pressed his lips together so he didn't cry out.

"Elliot, let me look."

Toby recognized Huang. "Hey, Doc," he managed a whisper. "Dog bit him."

"It's not bad," Elliot said. "He's worse."

"He needs an ambulance and a hospital." Huang lifted Toby's eyelid. "Tobias, can I give you something to calm you down?"

Toby nodded and his teeth clattered together. He put his aching head on Stabler's shoulder. "Why did you do this to me?"

Elliot put his arm around him. "I didn't."

"Oh." Toby watched it all turn black.


"Got him?"

"Yeah." Elliot held him up on the bench. "Concussion?"

"Head wounds are always bloody, but yes, I think so." Huang gave Toby a shot. "That'll help the shock, but we need to get him to a hospital."

Elliot nodded. "Fin!"

Fin came running. "Their captain's out with the flu. Cragen arrested Espinoso. Tempers are flaring."

"Never mind. Go back to him. Get backup." Elliot pressed the makeshift bandage to his arm and stood. "Doc, get the other side. We'll take him."

"Good idea." Huang did his fair share, and Elliot put them both in the back seat. He hit the siren and drove fast to the hospital. The badge meant he got to go to the front of the line, and Huang was talking doctor-speak to a nurse as they put Toby on a gurney.

Toby opened his eyes briefly and grabbed a handful of Elliot's shirt. "You okay?"

"A little bit of glue and I'll be fine." Elliot smoothed Toby's bloody hair back. Toby needed to be thinking about himself. Elliot was relieved to see a doctor coming towards them. "Shut up and let them work."

"Fuck." Toby turned him loose, and they took him away. Elliot went to another room to have his arm looked after, and he was glad for the numbing shot.


"Yes." Elliot didn't watch the doctor work. All that and Toby had asked about him. Toby cared about him. It didn't make any sense. Elliot shook himself. "Police dog, so he didn't have rabies."

"That's a relief." The doctor worked quickly. "I still want you on antibiotics for ten days."

"Not a problem." Elliot cleared the door the instant the doctor was finished. He looked for Huang and found him outside a room. "What's going on?"

"Staples in his head, contusions, split lip, cuts on his wrists from the handcuffs." Huang stuffed his hands in his pockets and continued, "Concussion, shock, lacerations on his back and he might have had a psychotic break. I'll evaluate him further when he's more lucid."

"Just great." Elliot leaned against the wall. Shock was pushing its way through him now. "I tried. I did. Cragen said they wouldn't do it. I knew better, and I sat at my desk."

"Elliot, this is beyond what we expect. It wasn't predictable." Huang gently examined the bandage on Elliot's arm. "You did your best."

"It was damn little. I knew, and I love my job so much that I did nothing." Elliot rubbed his face, ignoring the tug of the bandage. "This is beyond guilt. I'm as responsible as Espinoso, and Toby knows it. He wasn't screaming for me. He was screaming at me."

Huang sat down next to him. "You're upset. Give this time. You got between him and the dog. Not many men would do that."

"Was that a drug dog? They don't bite." Elliot got out his phone. "Did Toby have any bites?"

"None that I saw." Huang frowned. "Any dog will bite in that type of crazy situation."

"Better safe than dead of rabies." Elliot had some calls to make. "Tell the doc so they can check him."


"Are you awake yet, young man?"

Toby watched her swim into focus. "Mabel, what time is it?"

"Noon." She fussed with his covers. "Why?"

"Deakins has to meet with Caroline Stabler today at three. I won't be up to it." Toby was glad she got him a drink of water. He saw the stubborn look on her face, but the meeting was important. Someone had to go. "Please. Call him."

Mabel frowned. "Are you sure it's that important?"

"Yes. It is." Toby managed to get her hand. "Please. The business card with her address is in my suit pocket at my apartment."

"I can give him the address," Elliot said, but Toby couldn't see him.

Toby rolled his head to look at him, but it hurt, and he stopped. "Elliot, are you okay?"

"Fine." Elliot got very close. "How many fingers?"

Toby crossed his eyes. He didn't know, and he didn't care. What was important was the milk. "A few. Mabel, are you still here?"

"I'm calling, now hush."

Toby shut his eyes. They would do it. He could rest. A doctor, examining him, woke him up, and he saw the needle. "I have rabies?"

"I'm giving you a tetanus shot. This'll sting."

"Now all of me hurts," Toby grumbled. "Give Elliot one too."

Elliot's voice came from the corner. "I keep mine up to date. You didn't."

Toby smiled just because Elliot was here with him. "All this 'cause I kissed your sister. I guess if it'd been your brother, I'd be dead."

"Go to sleep." Elliot sounded angry. Toby shut his eyes. He was tired, and his head hurt, and all the rest of him as well. Elliot said, "I didn't do it." The words were soft.

"Hey, El? Thanks." Toby eased over to his side. He didn't hear an answer.


"What's going on?" Elliot shut Toby's hospital door and resisted the urge to lean against it. He was more tired than he could show.

"The shit and everything else is hitting the damn fan." Fin's eyes darted at the door. "He okay?"

"Yeah. He was bitching at me."

"Good. Not saying he ain't a junkie, but that was wrong."

Elliot had to agree. "Cragen made it out alive?"

"The dog tried to get a piece of him, and I had to shoot it." Fin looked down and away. "Turns out, it wasn't a drug dog, just some mutt that Espinoso picked up at the pound."

"That had his rabies shots, right?" Elliot didn't like what he was hearing.

"They're doing the test on his brain to make sure." Fin leaned against the wall. "Everyone is getting ripped or put back in traffic, and Novak is prosecuting everyone she can get her hands on."

"The press?"

"Is having a field day." Fin shrugged. "'Police Dog Attacks' was the headline for the Post."

"Did Beecher's lawyer ever show up?"

"Dragging a blizzard of lawsuits with him." Fin hooked his thumb at Toby's door. "He can go back to drugs 'cause no cop is ever going to have the balls to look at him again."

Elliot wasn't going to tell Toby that. "I guess I should go in and try to help them sort it out."

"Captain said no. The press is trying to track Beecher down. When they show up, he wants you with him." Fin pushed away from the wall. "Gotta go. You take it easy."

"Thanks, Fin." Elliot found a newspaper to grab and went back inside Toby's room. Mabel had gone to be with Deakins, and he sat on Toby's other side. Toby was suddenly looking at him.

"Ramon. Is he okay? They arrested him too."

Elliot didn't know. "I'll make some calls."

Toby licked his lips, and Elliot got him some water. "He works at Le Monde and brings the leftover rolls for the food bank to my place almost every night."

"Every night a Hispanic guy drops off at your building?" Elliot rubbed his forehead. "And it never occurred to you that Narcotics might suspect it was drugs?"

"Any fool could see it was food." Toby shut his eyes. Elliot saw him shiver. "That dog..."

"Fin had to shoot it. It was trying to bite a piece out of Captain Cragen." Elliot went back to his chair. "They're testing him for rabies."

Toby looked at him again. "You didn't set me up?"

"I didn't." Elliot leaned forward. He was going to make his point here. "I wouldn't, but I still don't want you dating my sister."

"Got it." Toby shut his eyes, and Elliot watched him fall asleep. He read the newspaper, skipped the article about police dogs gone wild, and yawned. That had been a long night.

"I want to see him!"

Elliot put the paper down and went to see who needed arrested. "What is going on?"

The nurse pointed to a tallish guy, who was wringing his hands. "He wants to see Tobias Beecher. I told him no visitors."

"Just let me check on him!"

Elliot got rid of the nurse, flashed his badge, and escorted the guy to the nearest visitor's lounge. "Who are you?"

"I'm a friend of Toby's. Rusty Garbaldi." Rusty stuck out his hand. "I saw you on the stairs in his building, Detective."

Elliot tried to remember as he shook Rusty's hand. He hadn't been down Beecher's stairs more than once. "You're one of Toby's two friends?"

"That's me! We saw the article in the paper, so we called Rick, who called Mabel, but Brian had to stay at the store, but he expects an update. We're all very worried!"

Elliot prayed for patience, and he'd admit that he was reassured that Rusty knew Mabel. "I can see that you are. Toby is going to be fine. He'll go home soon. They're keeping him for observation because of the concussion."

"It's true then. He was attacked by a police dog!" Rusty was on his feet in an instant. "You people should be ashamed!"

"Settle down." Elliot was ashamed, but it didn't help the situation. "I'll let you see him for a minute. Keep it short. Get in and get out."

Rusty nodded, happy now. "Thank you."

Elliot sighed quietly and took him to the room. Rusty might have been over-emotional before, but he was a good visitor. They talked softly for a minute or two - Elliot didn't listen - and then Rusty made his exit. Elliot looked away when they kissed.

"Brute," Rusty said as he left. He was more gay than gay, but he seemed nice enough. Elliot went back to his chair, and Toby smiled.

"You sure know how to make friends." Elliot couldn't wait to meet friend number two.

Toby touched his face. "An ex-con can't be picky, and Rusty has a good heart." He struggled to sit up, and Elliot helped him with the bed. "My hands ache."

"I think they glued the cuts shut. Don't take off the bandages to look." Elliot nearly winced from knowing how it hurt. Toby had fought the cuffs, and they had sliced him up. "It's going to hurt for a few days."

"No shit." Toby put his hands in his lap. "Why are you here? Don't you have cop stuff to do?"

"The captain wants me to stay with you." Elliot picked up the paper. "You made the front page."

"Above the fold?"

"Nah." Elliot smiled. Trust Toby to think of that. "Fin told me that your lawyer is tearing the precinct down - brick by brick."

"Good for him. At some point, he'll show up here." Toby fumbled with sipping his water. "He wanted to do it the first time, but I wouldn't let him."

Elliot slid the newspaper in front of him. "Why not?"

"You were trying to solve the case. It wasn't personal." Toby adjusted the paper slightly. "Steven has these ideals about the legal system. I just hope he doesn't bankrupt me."

"Not working pro bono, huh?" Elliot wasn't sure whether to be relieved that Toby understood or further ashamed that they'd been so hard on him.

"Not likely." Toby glanced over at him. "Your arm hurt?"

"Not since I took a pain pill." Elliot leaned back and relaxed. He wasn't worried about his arm. It'd heal. "Watch some TV, I gotta sleep." He shut his eyes and let the events replay again. Somewhere along the line since Shantille had been murdered, he'd made a friend, and he didn't know when. It was a ridiculous idea, but if Cragen knew it, it was most likely true. A cop and a skel, friends?


Chapter 4 - Hope

"We're bringing the party to you tonight."

"Please, God, no." Toby wasn't sure how much he could take. He felt as if he were under siege from the press and lawyers. Even Huang had demanded a chunk of time, and Toby had felt violated by the end of it.

Brian laughed. "Bye!"

Toby groaned. He was doomed. All he wanted was a couple of days of peace and quiet, but it wasn't going to happen. He had to start turning off his cell phone more often. The hospital had kicked him out, and he was starting to wish he could go back.

A tiny tap on his window made him look, and he used his middle finger instead of words. Elliot raised the window and came inside. "Hurting, huh?"

"Uh, yeah!" Toby flopped down on the couch. He regretted it instantly. His body was still too sore for that. "Why aren't you at work?"

"Had to get the bite checked, so I stopped by to harass you." Elliot might have been smiling, but it didn't seem likely.

Toby glared. He was tired, and it made him want to curl up in Elliot's lap. "I've seen way, way too much of you lately."

"Yeah. It's been entertaining." Elliot raised his eyebrows. "Did the milk delivery go okay?"

"Deakins said it went fine." Toby had wanted to go, but Mabel had threatened him with dismemberment. His hands were still awful looking, but they didn't hurt that bad. "You should leave. I think Brian and Rusty are coming over."

"Not scared of them." Elliot raided the fridge. "Want something?"

"Hurts to hold it." Toby made a limp wrist. He grinned. Elliot rolled his eyes, and Toby laughed. "Let me see your arm?"

Elliot sat down and pushed off his light jacket. "Missed my tattoos."

"Dumb dog should've bitten Christ right in the--"

"We're here!" Brian and Rusty said simultaneously as they came through the door. Toby watched Elliot's face for panic, but he simply looked amused.

"Us too," Deakins said, and Toby almost crawled under his quilt. His worlds were colliding, and he had the feeling that Elliot was laughing at him.

"Let's set up the food," Rick said. He had an armful of containers.

Toby looked at Elliot. "Is everyone coming?"

"That's what I hear. Alex is bringing his wife." Elliot got up and took a dish from Mabel. "Caroline is bringing brownies."

"No press, right?" Toby asked weakly.

"Right." Mabel pressed the back of her hand to Toby's forehead. "You'll do. Eat more!"

"Yes, ma'am." Toby tried to smile for her. "How'd you get involved with this crew?"

"The milk was wonderful. We didn't have one left over." Mabel looked satisfied about that, and she was avoiding the question.

"That's great, and I think we can afford it." Toby hoped so. Deakins was mum on the budget, and Toby didn't have the strength to tackle him on it, not yet. "Rick, how's Ramon?"

"He's fine. The Post gave him more money than he'd ever seen for an exclusive." Rick laughed. "I thought he might quit, but he's back to washing dishes."

"You didn't invite him?" Toby frowned about that. "I like him. More than I like Elliot."

Rick sighed heavily. "Anyone else I should invite?"

Toby smiled and found a small joke. "That cute little waitress for Elliot?"

Caroline laughed. She'd just come in the door. "Don't bother." She winked.

Rick opened his phone and went to the other side of the loft. Brian and Mabel were setting up the food, bickering, and Rusty was finding a spot for a stereo. Toby got up and went to him.

"Not loud, okay?" Toby leaned against him a little. "I kinda have a headache."

"Sorry." Rusty turned and hugged him. "But you're feeling better?"

Toby nodded. He was having nightmares about dogs every night, but physically, he was getting well. "Hey, did you really throw out your prison porno collection?"

Rusty blushed. "Yeah." He glanced over at Brian. "I was stupid to think sex in prison could be, well, you know."

"Hot? Fun?" Toby made sure his voice was very quiet.

"Well, yeah." Rusty's voice was so soft. "So stupid, and I feel bad about ... well, you."

Toby took him by the hand. "Rape is never fun, but Rusty, that's not all there was. I did have times when, um..."

"Tell me later, in detail." Rusty's eyes were huge. "Please."

Toby laughed softly. "You did make up with Brian over this, right?"

Rusty nodded and blushed. "Knowing someone made it personal, and you know me, I get all emotional."

"Hey, Toby! Come eat!"

Toby left Rusty to fiddle with the music and went to look at the food. "Maybe we should invite the neighbors - all of them."

"It's not that much!" Mabel protested. Toby gave her a hug and laughed when she gently smacked him on the arm. He noticed that Elliot was already camped out in his chair, eating from a plateful.

A knock on the door made them all look. Everyone else had just walked in, and Toby went to get it. He looked up. "My apartment's not big enough for you."

Alex laughed and stepped inside. "I'll find room. Food?"

"That way." Toby looked out in the hallway. "Wife?"

"She had girl's night out instead." Alex was moving to the food. Toby caught up with him in time to see the looks on Brian's and Rusty's faces. It was more than hilarious. Toby had to sit down and giggle, so he picked by Caroline. She was safe and smelled good.

"I needed more furniture for this party." Toby smiled at her, not Elliot.

"Ya should've made it a paint party." Elliot pointed with his fork. "Who can eat with that staring them in the face?"

"Hey, I like it!" Toby didn't, not really, but he had to say something. "And Caroline likes it."

"Now, I didn't go that far!" She shook her head. "You better go get some food. Mabel is glaring."

Toby snuck a peek and groaned. "Someone save me."

"Not gonna be me," Elliot said. "I watched Mabel rout a pack of journalists from outside the hospital. She's brutal."

"Mabel!" Toby waved her over. "Were you really in Vietnam?"

"Of course! I was a nurse." She frowned at him and pointed at the food. "Move it!"

Toby went to get a plate. He was glad Rick had brought paper ones. It'd save on clean up. Rusty and Brian were watching Alex avidly. Toby waved his hand in front of their eyes and got very little reaction. He had to say something.

"He's married. He's straight."

"Who cares?" Brian grinned. "He's eye candy."

Rusty nodded and licked his lips. "Just. Wow."

Toby looked over the food and found some he thought he could handle. His hands still hurt, but he wasn't going to ask someone to feed him. "Rick, all this looks great."

"Well, I would hope so." Rick took the plate from him. "You're trembling. Hands hurt?"

"I guess." Toby didn't want to look like a complete weakling. "I thought you had a boyfriend."

Rick shook his head. "Looking. You offering?"

Toby hadn't thought of that. "We could discuss it. I mean, you're handsome and great food seems to follow you everywhere."

"We'll talk." Rick sounded serious. Toby fought a blush. Rick shooed him back over by Caroline and brought him a plateful and a soda. There was no alcohol, thank God. Someone had used their brain. Ramon showed up, and Toby caught glimpse of his neighbors coming up the stairs. He insisted they come inside, and they only argued a minute. Their dog came with them, and Toby hoped the mutt behaved.

"Brian, introduce everyone. I have to eat or Mabel is going to kill me with a spoon." Toby took a bite of his cheeseburger. It was good, of course, and he whispered to Caroline, "Should we tell Rick that Mo's are better?"

"At some point, yes. Oh, I know, take him there for lunch." She smiled. "Humble never hurt anyone."

Elliot was listening. "Mom always said that. I think she was talking about Alex."

Alex was staring at the mural. "Want me to paint over all this?"

Toby laughed. "Sure. Have fun. Drop by any time." He wouldn't mind staring at Alex's backside for a couple of hours. After he'd eaten the burger, he cornered Deakins. Deakins hadn't said much, but he was probably appalled at the company Toby kept.

Mabel was talking to Elliot about military service, and the rest were mingling, discussing one thing or the other. Ramon was staring wistfully at Caroline, and Toby hoped Elliot didn't punch him in the nose.

"How are we doing on the cost of the milk?" Toby smiled, but he wanted an answer.

Deakins didn't look away. "Now that I've met you, I'm more willing to expand our budget. Your father's law firm sends us quarterly payments. We just received one. I'd be happy to go over it with you."

"I'd appreciate that." Toby eyed the barbecued shrimp. It looked good. "And the ice cream?"

"Big hit. Ralph ate two." Deakins smiled and whispered, "Then Mabel smacked him."

"Those two need to get married already." Toby had noticed it, but he wasn't going to butt in because Mabel would smack him. "I'm getting the shrimp."

"It's really good." Deakins wandered off, and Toby saw him strike up a conversation with Rick. Toby got a plate full of shrimp and found some room on the couch.

Elliot stole a shrimp. "When do you get your staples out?"

"Two days." Toby resisted the urge to scratch them. "He'll check my wrists then."

"Nothing he can do about the brain damage."

Toby threw a shrimp at Elliot, who caught it and ate it. "Who invited a cop to my party?" he asked very loudly.

Caroline tapped him on the arm. "It was his idea."

"Oh." Toby glared at him anyway. At that moment, the Chihuahua raced across the room and jumped in Toby's lap. Toby stared for one second. He very slowly reached to push him off, and Alex scooped the little dog up.

"Don't pass out," Elliot whispered and lightly slapped Toby's face.

"Ouch!" Toby woke up all the way. He'd been stunned, but he was fine except for the big bruise that throbbed.

"Breathe, Toby." Caroline pulled him into a hug. It was nice. She was soft and smelled good, and he relaxed into it. "You're okay."

Toby shut his eyes. He was fine. Elliot growled, "Toby's tough. You can push him away now."

Caroline laughed, and Toby sat up straighter. He tossed Alex and the little vermin a shrimp and ate some more himself. It was hard to swallow the first one, but the rest went down okay. Elliot had thought of this? That had been nice of him. Weird, but nice.

"Elliot, do you have any other beautiful sisters who will date me?" Toby was careful not to smirk, but he was thinking it.

"No." Elliot looked at Caroline and Alex. "And if you tell Devin I said that, I'll find reasons to have you arrested."

Toby didn't ask about brothers, but he had the feeling that Elliot was thinking of an answer for the future. Caroline and Alex were laughing, and Ramon had edged closer. Elliot shot him a look that could have stripped paint off the mural. Toby smothered a laugh.

Mabel handed him a soda. "What's our next project at the food bank?"

"I have no idea." Toby stared at the top on the soda can and didn't want to pull it. Elliot opened it for him. "Thanks."

"Weakling." Elliot smiled, making it a lie. "How about pie? Pie is good."

Toby shook his head. "No real nutritional value, but I'll see what I can do for Christmas."

"Now you're thinking like you should." Mabel nodded with satisfaction. "I'd say fruit. Apples and oranges have a long shelf life and don't have to be refrigerated."

"They last longer if they are." Caroline smiled at Mabel. "Toby, move it. Mabel and I need to talk. We'll find the next item, and then you can find a way to get it."

Toby got up and went to find some dessert. Elliot went with him. "Bossy women."

"No other kind." Elliot chewed a brownie. "Try one."

Toby got his own. "Thanks for doing this. Even if I wanted a night of peace and quiet, this is nice."

"All these people care about you. Don't screw up." Elliot never pulled his punches. It was clear now that he'd done this to drive that point home.

"And you, do you care?" Toby asked in a voice barely above a whisper. "Even a little?"

Elliot rubbed the white bandage on his forearm. "Guess so."

Toby took it and didn't comment on it. He wasn't going to believe it would ever be more than casual friendship but considering where they'd started, it was a lot. There was a knock on the door, and Toby frowned. "Who else is there?"

"Dunno. I'll get it." Elliot went and his voice was easy to hear even from the door. "Are you sure you have to do this now?"

"Yes." Steven came striding in the loft. He did a double-take at the people or the mural or both and looked right at Toby. "We need to talk."

Toby nodded, not willing to argue in front of all these people. "Get a plate of food, and then we will. Buffet by Le Monde. Not to be missed."

Steven seemed to notice the food. "Le Monde? You talked me into it."

"Everyone, this is my lawyer, Steven. He's a pain in my financial ass."

"Tobias!" Mabel never approved of cursing.

Steven put his briefcase down, and Elliot took Steven's coat, tossing it on the bed. Toby got out of the way and let him get some food. Mabel, Caroline, and Deakins were in a serious conversation, and Alex was examining the mural.

Toby went to talk to him. "So, what color are you thinking?"

"Blues, and I want to keep that rainbow, but paint over it to mute it." Alex was serious. That was clear. "Some trees, maybe something like a park scene."

"I don't like dogs," Toby said flatly. "Leave them out. I like impressionistic art."

"Yeah. That could work." Alex suddenly looked embarrassed. "You think I'm nuts?"

"You want to paint. Paint. I'm not stopping you. Can you paint my kitchen cabinets too?" Toby didn't much like them - too orange.

Alex frowned. "Let me go see. You buying the paint?"

"Sure, but don't you have a job?" Toby couldn't believe that Alex could take a few days off to putter with paint.

"I can handle it. I paint the homeless shelter when it needs it, but I got an itch to do this place." Alex wandered off, muttering. He certainly was different from Elliot.

Steven was chatting with Caroline, and Toby caught Elliot's look. "Hey, I didn't invite him!"

"I'll talk to her."

Toby stepped in Elliot's way. "Steven is nice, rich, and loyal to the bone. If he were gay, I'd marry him. Give them a chance. Your sister is very choosy."

"But she falls hard." Elliot glared. "And he's a lawyer."

"I know we're a lower life form, but give it a rest." Toby thought he'd said enough, and he went to chat with Ramon.


Elliot went back to his chair and sat down to listen. Caroline was definitely flirting. That alone made it obvious that she'd never been that interested in Toby. Elliot wondered why. Toby was handsome enough and rich and a lawyer too. Women were nuts.

"I'm surprised to see you here, Detective," Steven said with an ill-disguised look of disgust. "Don't you have people to torture?"

"My night off." Elliot smiled. He could take the heat. "Have you met my sister, Caroline?"

Caroline gave him a steady look. "I introduced myself." She abruptly stood. "Excuse me for a moment." She seemed to be heading for the bathroom.

Elliot smiled falsely at Steven. "Don't make me put you in a room," he growled.

"Your sister obviously got the brains and charm in the family." Steven sniffed. He picked up his plate and went back to the food.

"Al, I say we beat him up." Elliot glanced at his brother for support.

Alex shrugged. "He seems nice enough. You've got that stick, you know. It interferes with your--"

"I do not have a stick up my ass!" Elliot jumped to his feet. Everyone stopped talking and stared at him. He blushed. "Sorry. Ignore me."

"Let's take a vote on that!" Toby laughed. He would. He'd started the whole damn thing with his big mouth.

Mabel sighed. "Young men these days have no manners. Pastor, it's getting late. We should say our goodbyes."

Elliot ended up glaring at Toby, and that was when Steven took over the show. "I came here tonight to inform Tobias of the settlement that he could receive from the city."

Toby groaned. "I didn't want that!"

"Too bad," Steven snapped.

Elliot edged back even with his brother. "Toby doesn't want the money?"

"I think what he wanted was Espinoso's balls on a platter," Alex whispered. "Once he got those, he turned it loose."

"You may be right." Elliot watched Steven produce some papers with a flourish. The settlement must be huge. That was taxpayers' dollars, and while he understood the need for lawyers to squeeze cash out of turnips, they should've been satisfied with all the cops who were gone now because of this mess.

Toby snatched the papers from Steven and started flipping through them. "Are you nuts?"

"What's going on, El?" Caroline asked.

"Steven and Toby are looking at the settlement papers." Elliot rolled his eyes. "I'm just a cop, but I think it's a big number."

"I can't ever speak to the media regarding this matter, or write a book, or even mention it in the men's room?" Toby rubbed his forehead, winced, and put his hand down.

Elliot waited to hear the number. Rusty piped up, "I hope it teaches them a lesson."

"It did," Elliot said into the silence. They'd do their dirty work out on the street next time. Narcotics was a tough job, and he had no illusions about the methods they used to gain some convictions. This had cleared out the hard-core bad apples, and that was good, but nothing would change. Elliot spoke up. "Give us the bad news!"

Toby looked right at him. "Four million."

Everyone's mouth fell open, but Steven seemed to preen. Well, he did get a cut. Elliot poked his brother in the ribs. "Stop drooling, Alex!"

"That's a lot of money." Alex rubbed his face. "He should take it."

Toby handed the papers back to Steven. "Tell them it's fine, but I want an apology."

Steven frowned. "That's not possible. They made that clear. The police did have probable cause."

"I want an apology for that dog!" Toby snapped. "If they can't swallow their pride and give me a private apology, they can forget it. I'll get a book deal."

Elliot thought that was reasonable, but he doubted Toby would write a book. "Private they might go for, but public is not going to happen. Of course, the money is their way of saying sorry."

"I say take the money and run," Brian said into the silence. "Even if they do apologize, they won't mean it. Espinoso won't apologize, and he's the one who should!"

Deakins raised his hand. "Toby, it's easy to lay blame but difficult to forgive. Do what you have to, but find forgiveness in your heart. Men, and women, make mistakes."

Elliot looked at Caroline, and she frowned. "The poor dog is dead."

Toby's shudder was easy for everyone to see. Mabel gave him a hug. "I think Toby's had enough. Let's clean up!"

Rick nodded, grabbed Ramon, and Caroline went to help also. Brian and Rusty were whispering to each other, and Elliot wondered what they were planning now.

"I'll tell them what you said," Steven said to Toby. "Are you sure?"

"No. Give me a day to think." Toby sounded tired. Elliot made up his mind and went to him.

"Want me to throw the bums out?" Elliot asked.

Toby leaned into him for one second, seemed to realize it, and pulled away. "Sorry. I am a little tired. Did we ever find out if the dog had rabies?"

"She didn't." Elliot encouraged Toby to sit on the bed. "Take a breath. It's okay."

"I hate dogs." Toby looked around. "Okay. Mabel was right. Steven, thank you for coming by."

Steven nodded. "I'll leave the papers here. Read them tomorrow."

Elliot went to help everyone get out the door faster.


Toby watched and didn't lend a hand, but he was glad to see Rick shove that shrimp in the fridge. Mabel was putting other things in there as well, but Alex seemed to be filling his pockets with brownies. Toby had to laugh. He was tired, but he had friends, and it was more than he'd had in years. He saw Steven slip Caroline his business card. She smiled at him, and Toby tried not to be jealous.

"We think someone should stay with you tonight," Brian said. "Pick one of us."

Toby raised his eyebrows. "Mabel?"

Rusty giggled. "I'll go tell her."

Toby wanted Elliot to stay. They could wrap up in the quilt and watch TV until it turned to snow and then make...

"Toby! Focus! Who?"

Toby sighed. "Rick?" He was curious about that situation and willing to explore the possibility. Waiting around for Elliot would take a thousand years, maybe longer.

Rusty and Brian seemed to blink. "You sure?"

"You both can stay, but I'm not getting between you by picking one." Toby got to his feet and started for the door. He wanted to hug everyone goodbye, especially Deakins, who seemed uncomfortable with the idea but smiled.

Alex put his hand on Toby's chest to keep him back. "No hugs. I'll be here soon with the paint. Okay?"

"Sounds good. Brian! Rusty! Alex is going to paint my apartment." Toby grinned as they fanned themselves. "You'll have groupies watching your every move."

Alex laughed and left with a brownie in each hand. Mabel fussed at Toby for not eating enough, the neighbors thanked him and escaped with their yappy dog, Caroline left with Steven, Ramon beat it out the door with a big pot of food, and Rusty and Brian left right after him. They kissed him thoroughly, and when they finished, Elliot was rubbing his face.

"Thanks for the party, El." Toby felt almost shy. He knew he was falling hard for him, but there wasn't any way to stop it. "Are you going back to work tomorrow?"

"Yep." Elliot hesitated. His eyes were very blue. "I don't know if I said it, but I'm sorry for what happened."

Toby frowned, not sure what to say. "Did I thank you for showing up when you did?"

"No, but don't." Elliot shrugged. "I was late. It was Huang who forced Cragen to listen. I tried, but--."

"They didn't believe you." Toby gave him a very quick hug. "Thanks. Be careful at work."

Elliot gave him a funny look. "Don't let Al paint the place orange like he did Mom's kitchen one year."

"Noted." Toby tried to laugh, but wasn't sure he succeeded. Feeling almost winded, he said, "Bye."

Elliot nodded and went out the door for a change. There was no real reason to see him again, but Toby hoped fervently that they'd talk on the fire escape soon. He shut the door, leaned against it, and took a deep breath.

"You okay?" Rick asked, coming to him.

"Yeah." Toby was glad he wasn't alone, but the wrong guy had stayed. "Did Alex eat all the brownies?"

"Yes." Rick smiled. "How about you go to bed? I'll clean up."

Toby took him by the hand, even though it hurt. "Thanks. A lot." He looked around. It wasn't too bad. "Did Rusty mean to leave his stereo?"

"He said he was donating it." Rick laughed. "Go to bed."

"I'm going."


Elliot stood outside the door for longer than he should. Rick had stayed, and Elliot dimly heard them laughing. It wasn't any of his business. He wasn't volunteering to stay. Well, he might've, but he'd have slept in his chair.

His phone rang. "Stabler." He started down the stairs. Toby shouldn't be alone, and that's what mattered.

"I know it's late, but we need to talk. Can you come by the precinct?" Cragen asked.

Elliot took one last look at Toby's door. "On my way."


Toby woke up very confused. "What the hell?" he muttered.

Rick curled closer. "You didn't expect me to take the couch, did you?"

"No, but I did think you wore underwear." Toby relaxed and settled into him. It wasn't the right man, but the touch was impossible to turn away from, and he groaned. He'd been alone forever. Rick held him gently but didn't do more than that. Toby was too tired, waking up again when sunshine made it in his window. He carefully stretched and did a damage assessment.

"Feeling better?" Rick asked.

Toby smiled. He did, and he liked waking up with someone. Today, he wouldn't be picky about who, he'd been too lonely. "How do I look?" It was a tease.

Rick kissed him. "Like hell trompled over you. Are those claw marks on your back?"

"Yeah. I was supposed to put this crème on, but I can't reach them." He shrugged. "They're not infected."

"Not yet." Rick skipped his hand up Toby's naked chest over scars. "Next time, huh?"

Toby flinched. "Don't touch me there, okay?"

"Sorry." Rick put his hands down on Toby's ass, and that was fine.

Toby cuddled into him and shut his eyes. "I'm a wreck. If you touch me, I may pass out."

Rick nuzzled and kissed him. "Rest. I'll get you some food."

"I could get used to this," Toby mumbled. He yawned and dozed, checking the fire escape more than once. It was empty, and it would stay that way, but a guy could dream.

"Okay, eat. I'll hold the coffee." Rick arranged the pillows and made him sit up. "You're scrawnier than Mabel."

"Mabel is a fine figure of a woman." Toby ate and let Rick pamper him. "Hey, don't you have a restaurant to run?"

Rick smiled and kissed him. "I'll get there. If you need anything today, call."

"And you'll send Ramon, right?"

"I might." Rick drank some of Toby's coffee. "Want my opinion about the money?"

Toby thought about it. He wasn't sure. He finished the food, took a sip of coffee, and finally nodded. Rick took the plate to the kitchen and came back with his own mug.

"Take the money. Do something with it that will give you closure. An apology is just words, and politicians lie."

"Can I keep some of it? I don't have any winter clothes yet." Toby widened his eyes and tried to look pitiful, which was easy. "And Brian's place is expensive!"

Rick groaned. "Shit. Never mind. Keep it all. You earned it."

"Sure as fuck did, and anyway, the hospital bill is going to be enormous." Toby shook his head in disgust. "They didn't offer to pay that!"

"Assholes." Rick gently reached and skimmed his fingers over Toby's mouth. "Wish I could kiss it better."

Toby tugged Rick's hair. "I'd let you try, but I'd cry. Does your thrift store have furniture?"

Rick sighed and seemed to give up. "Now that's a topic that throws water on my dick. Yes. Quite a bit. Want me to take you?"

"Would ya?" Toby put his coffee down and eased closer. He had changed his mind four times, and now he wanted to see how much it would hurt. Rick nodded. He groaned, and Toby didn't worry about the pain. He needed this more.


"Think Beecher will take the money?"

Elliot wasn't sure enough to say. "He wants an apology. I mentioned that hell might freeze over first."

Cragen nodded and pointed with his pen. "Brass doesn't want anyone going near him."

"My brother is painting Beecher's apartment." Elliot usually obeyed orders, but he'd have to think about this one.

"That's fine, but you don't need to help. Stay away from him. Brass is on a rampage, and you might get ripped."

Elliot got to his feet. "Is this all you wanted?" They could've done this tomorrow. Some sleep tonight would be nice, and he forced his mind from thinking about who was sleeping at Toby's place.

"Elliot, don't."

"Got it." Elliot went to his desk to see what had piled up while he was gone. Tomorrow, he'd hit it hard, and he'd stay away from Toby, at least until the settlement was signed.


Toby let Rick help him in the shower. He wasn't supposed to get his wrists wet, and that made it damn hard to get clean. Rick shook his head and asked, "The cuffs did all that?"

"It was the panic." Toby didn't remember hurting himself, and he hadn't noticed the pain until the next day. "I hate dogs."

Rick washed Toby's hair. "I won't bring Fifi over then." He kissed him. He'd done a lot of that. Toby didn't mind. He felt needy. Usually, when he felt like this, he'd get drunk or high, but the urge wasn't there for some reason. Maybe he was too needy, and it just wouldn't be enough. He wasn't sure, but he wasn't buying any dope. He got out, and Rick toweled him dry, carefully.

"Where's that crème?"

Toby had to think about it. "I think I tossed it on the dresser."

Rick hurried back with it and smeared it on. "These are ugly."

"Hurt, too!" Toby yelped. He wasn't putting on a shirt for a minute. Rick fussed over him until he was comfortable on the couch with the TV on and some coffee. Toby finally had enough. "Go to work. Please!"

Rick laughed. "Thanks. Gotta run. Bye." He grabbed his stuff and was gone. Toby stared after him for a long minute. Would he ever find someone that made his blood sing again, or had Chris been the one and only? Everyone else was nice, but it was sex, and now that he'd had magic, he wanted it back. He lowered his head and sighed. Chris would understand.


"I want to check in with Tobias Beecher. Do you have his contact information?" Huang asked as he came alongside Elliot.

Elliot continued to his desk and dug out the address and cell phone number. "Can I ask why?"

"I think the department bears some responsibility for his current mental state, don't you?" Huang looked sincere. He usually did.

"Brass doesn't want anyone going near him." Elliot was going to obey that order - for now. "That might include you."

"I don't think so." Huang wrote the information down. "Thank you."

Sitting down, Elliot found some papers to shuffle. He'd call Alex later and maybe Caroline. She might have spoken to Steven. Toby was having his staples out today, and Elliot had planned on taking him, but that was shot to hell now. With any luck, Mabel, and not Rick, was helping Toby get to the hospital.


"Watch the hair," Toby hissed. He was half bald as it was. His hair looked stupid with a bare patch in the back.

"Men," Mabel muttered, "are such babies."

Toby didn't bother to glare at her. The doctor pronounced himself satisfied with Toby's head and moved on to his back and then his wrists. "Are you using the crème?"

"Yes." Toby had asked Mabel to put it on earlier, and she had. "I'm doing fine."

"For a train wreck." Mabel snorted. She was in fine humor today. Toby only gasped once as the bandages came off. Mabel got closer to look. "Healing. Do you have feeling in all your fingers?"

The doctor looked at Mabel. He said, "Answer the question."

"Yes. They all hurt." Toby flexed his hands. It was much better, but he wasn't punching anyone soon. "Mabel was a nurse in Vietnam."

"Ah." The doctor gave her a slow smile. "Not a doctor?"

"Wasn't seemly back then, but by the end of the war, I knew as much as any doctor." Mabel was very serious, and Toby wanted to hug her. He wouldn't. He was just all mushy lately. It was the mild painkiller was his guess.

"Watch his back carefully. That one is deep, and I don't want it infected." The doctor pointed, and Mabel nodded. "His bruising is better. They managed to miss his ribs."

"My kidneys weren't grateful for that." Toby wanted his shirt back.

The doctor handed him some gauze. "Keep your wrists wrapped another couple of days."

Mabel did it quickly. "See, Toby?"

Toby sighed. He'd struggle with it. "Let's go." He hopped off the table and put his shirt on. "Do I get a lollipop?"

"No, but keep taking the antibiotics and if you need a refill on the painkillers, come see me again."

That was the doctor's way of saying no more unless he begged. Toby didn't think he'd be doing that. "Mabel, let's go get me a haircut."

"Really?" Mabel looked eager. "Something short?"

"Very short." Toby didn't bother to tell her that his hair grew so fast that it'd be long again by Christmas. She took him to a barber and supervised happily. He was glad to make her day. She dropped him off at Le Monde by noon, and he pointed at her. "I'm coming in tomorrow. Get used to the idea."

"Well, I'd hope so. You're not that hurt." She looked at him primly. "I've seen men march ten miles with bullets in their legs."

"On that note, I'm gone. Love ya, bye." Toby got out and waved. She drove away fast, but Toby saw her smile. He went inside and found a spot at the bar. The maitre'd didn't do more than nod.

"You're taking me out for lunch?" Rick strolled over, looking bewildered.

"Come on." Toby got to his feet. "Humble is good for everyone or something like that."

Rick dug his keys out. "I'll go, but you're buying."

"Not a problem." Toby gave him directions and even opened the door for him. When every cop in the place fell silent and turned to look at him, he realized that this might have been a bad idea.

"Toby, are you sure about this?" Rick whispered, almost hiding behind Toby.

"I was, but I'm changing my mind." Toby headed for a back booth and dragged Rick with him. "I should've thought this through."

Rick got in the booth fast. "And what the hell happened to your beautiful hair?"

"Mabel had some barber cut off." Toby shrugged. It looked better, but now he was a geek. "I had a shaved spot."

"Still," Rick huffed. "I guess it looks nice."

Trying to look casual, Toby laughed. The place was picking up conversation again, and out of the blue, Elliot was standing by their table. "Have you lost your damn mind? Half the guys in here want you dead!"

"Came for the burgers." Toby drank him in like a man dying of thirst. "I'm not that bad of a guy."

"Tell them that." Elliot suddenly lowered his voice. "You okay?"

Toby nodded. "Go on. Watch my back, will ya?"

Elliot looked resigned, but he went back to his booth. Rick leaned closer. "Let's save ourselves."

"Let's not. Fuckers can get over what they did to me," Toby snapped.

Rick's eyes were huge. "Don't go to the restroom."

"Not that stupid," Toby grumbled, glad when the waitress showed up. "Hi, Ali. We went double cheeseburgers, fries, and two cokes."

"Good enough." Ali wrote it down and went to get their drinks.

Rick examined his silverware with an eye for dirt, and Toby sighed. "You aren't going to need those. Rick, before this lunch is over, your world is going to be changed."

"Yeah, I might have food poisoning."

Now Toby could laugh and mean it.


"The guy's got balls," Fin said, "or he's got brain damage."

"Did you see his face? It hadn't occurred to him." Elliot rolled his eyes, disgusted, impressed, and disbelieving - all at once. "Some part of him still thinks cops are the good guys."

"I guess we haven't beaten enough shit out of him yet." Fin wiped his mouth. "If he goes to the restroom, you better go with him."

"He ain't that dumb." Elliot wasn't worried about that. "Did you hear if he signed?"

"Nope." Fin glanced at him. "I'm betting he wants a damn apology. Who's that guy he's with?"

"Owner of Le Monde." Elliot waited for the surprised eyes and got them. "Rick is his name. He's a nice enough guy."

"You know him too?" Fin was almost glaring. "You never take your cop buddies out for a nice meal."

"As if we could afford it." Elliot chuckled. "Anyway, would you really be seen there?"

Fin nodded. "It's about the food. We ain't prejudiced, right?"

Elliot remembered that Fin's son was gay and nodded quickly. "Of course not. So, if you saw a cop go in there, you'd think, what?"

"That he was on the take." Fin leaned back and got comfortable. "We're staying 'til they're done, right?"

"We better. Let's get pie." Elliot was glad he could see Toby without stretching and looking obvious about it. Toby's hair was very short, but it looked good on him. His wrists weren't so heavily bandaged, and he was moving easier. He'd be well soon. He might have another scar or two, but he was alive. Elliot hated the fact that after the last few months, that was the benchmark.


Toby ate, but he watched Rick's first tentative bite. Rick chewed, swallowed, and stared at the burger. "I am humbled."

"Yeah." Toby poured out some ketchup for his fries and ate every bite on his plate. "What's your plan? I can see you scheming."

Rick wiped his mouth. "I have to have the recipe, or the cook. Either will do. Thanks, Toby, for bringing me here, but we should've gotten take-out. That one guy is fondling his gun."

"They all do that." Toby didn't look. He hadn't looked at anyone but Elliot, which was stupid. Elliot was lingering over pie, and their eyes had met more than once. Elliot always looked away first.

"Okay, I'm done. Let's run." Rick got up. "Put down plenty of money."

Toby threw down a fifty. It was enough and a good tip. "Let's ask Elliot if he knows the cook."

Rick went with him, but quickly. Elliot growled, "What, ya dirty skel?" It was very well done, and he might have even meant it.

Toby pointed at Rick. Rick talked until Elliot gave up and got to his feet. They went towards the kitchen, and Fin yanked Toby down into the booth.

"Sit down. You're less of a target." Fin roughly checked Toby's head. "You'll live, ya crybaby."

Toby felt assaulted. "You're never nice, are you?" He didn't bother saying ouch.

Fin gave Toby's head a push. "You wouldn't know what to do with it. How's your ass?"

"How's yours?" Toby desperately looked for Rick. "Shit. I'm getting out of here."

Fin pushed him towards the door, opened it for him, and walked him out. Toby had a feeling there was more, and Fin got very close. He looked mad as hell, but all he said was, "Did you sign?"

"I'm meeting with them early in the morning." Toby tried to look tough, but he certainly didn't feel it. "What should I do?"

"Sign and get over it. Espinoso is spending the next three in Rikers. Time to move on." Fin had a point. "You cool with that?"

"I'll consider it." Toby looked down. "I'm going to pretend you won this argument and slink away."

"Good idea, skel." Fin glared as Toby went to Rick's car. It was locked, so he leaned against the side. Rick finally came out with Elliot, and he was smiling so he'd gotten his way on something. Fin and Elliot didn't say a word as they went passed, but Toby was just glad to see him one more time.

"God, I'm a damn fool." Toby got in Rick's car. "Did you get it?"

Rick grinned. "Cost me, but it'll be worth it." He patted Toby on the leg. "Thanks for lunch. Glad we're alive. Thrift store?"

"Sure." Toby relaxed back. He'd seen Elliot and that made it a good day.

"You really like Elliot, don't you?" Rick didn't sound insulted. "Wait. Don't bother to answer that, but I've never seen a guy more hetero. Getting hung up on a straight guy is so gay, Toby."

"I know." Toby fiddled with his seat belt. Rick put his arm around him. "Should I sign or hold out for an apology?"

Rick didn't answer right away. He drove, but when they finally stopped, he said, "Will it make you feel better?"

"I doubt it." Toby got out and caught Rick before they went inside. He hugged him close and said, "What I want is to make sure his stretch behind bars is a real stretch."

Rick blinked, and Toby nodded. "That's the convict talking right there. Payback is always paid back."

Rick still wasn't talking. Toby turned him loose, and they went inside. There was plenty of furniture, and Toby wasn't sure what he wanted, but he'd know it when he saw it. Rick pointed at a small kitchen table. It had a metal top and legs.

"Ya think?" Toby liked it okay, but he usually ate in front of the TV.

"Yes. It'll give you more places to put things." Rick looked underneath it. "Good shape, and the two chairs match. Get it."

"Okay." Toby was willing to buy it. "Four flights of stairs. Keep that in mind."

"We'll stop and get Ramon." Rick grinned. Toby thought that was a good idea. He walked completely around the store. There had to be a solution to his storage problem. Rick caught up with him. "What are you looking for?"

"I need something to hang up my shirts and coats in or on. Folding is not my strong suit." Toby looked around the store again. "Any ideas?"

"Actually, yes, but we'll have to go to a real furniture store." Rick looked about also. "We don't have anything that size."

Toby tugged him close. "Sorry if I scared you."

"No. You didn't. I was just surprised. You don't usually come across as, um, what's a good word?"


"Slightly deranged." Toby smiled and was glad Rick kissed him. "I hide it well. Espinoso will be put in protective custody. He'll be fine."

"Too bad." Rick made an ugly face. "Bastard should be bent over and made to scream."

It was Toby's turn to be surprised, and he laughed. "We can dream. Okay, let's get the table."

Rick nodded, and they paid, loaded it, and left. Toby noticed they skipped Ramon, but the table wasn't that big, so they managed to get it upstairs without too much trouble. Rick looked around the loft. "We need to rearrange this space. It's all wrong."

"Shit." Toby sat down on his couch. "My hands hurt!"

"Sorry, sweetie." Rick kissed him on the forehead.

"Hey! You home?"

Toby pointed at the gorgeous man standing in the doorway. "There, Rick, is the answer to your prayers."

"The giant returns." Rick went to make Alex haul furniture. They started discussing furniture, color schemes, and paint, and Toby went to lie on his bed. He pushed off his shoes and stared out at where he wished Elliot was sitting.


"Why the hell did I get a phone call from One PP, when I told you to stay away from him?" Cragen yelled from across the squad room.

Fin took the lead. "He was at Mo's. We kept them from killing him! What the hell were we supposed to do?"

Cragen looked like he wanted to pull out his remaining hair. "Is he an idiot?"

"Fin thinks he has brain damage." Elliot hung up his leather jacket. "No one shot him, but it was close."

"Did anyone rough him up?"

"Nah. I asked him if he was going to sign. He said he might." Fin sat down in his chair, and Elliot did the same.

Cragen paced back and forth several times. "Maybe if I go apologize, he'll sign."

Elliot made sure his mouth didn't fall open. "What?"

"You told me the bust was trouble, I disagreed. Part of the blame is mine." Cragen sighed. "He wants an apology. I owe him one."

"Espinoso owes him one." Elliot hated to see his captain humble himself. "And that'll never happen."

Cragen went back to his office without another word. Fin whispered, "What the hell?"

Elliot didn't know, but he'd be glad when this was all over and he could sit on Toby's fire escape again.


"You asleep?"

"Not now." Toby sat up and stretched, looking around his loft. "Wow."

"Looks better, huh?" Rick sat down next to him. "I gotta go. You mind being alone tonight?"

Toby shook his head. It was no big deal. He pointed. "He can paint."

"Apparently so. No one was more surprised than me." Rick laughed. "Eat dinner, rest, and someone will check on you later."

"Tomorrow, I'm going to the church." Toby was going whether Mabel like it or not. "Thanks, Rick, for everything."

"We'll hook up soon." Rick winked. They kissed again, and he was gone. Toby leaned back against the headboard and watched Alex paint. It was surreal, and he liked it. Alex turned on some music, and Toby reluctantly let himself pretend it was Elliot. Not Chris this time, for a change, but a stubborn cop with a very rigid sense of propriety who would never touch him. Rick was right. It was so gay.

Toby's cell rang, and he got it but kept an eye on Alex's ass. "Hello?"

"It's Dr. Huang. How are you, Tobias?"

"Fine." Toby wanted to hang up, but he wouldn't. "You?"

Huang laughed softly. "I'm doing well, thank you. How are you sleeping?'

The words, the lie, caught in Toby's throat.

"We should talk."

"Doc, nothing is going to help. I can talk about how scared I am until I'm blue in the face, but it's not simple fear any longer." Toby tried to reason with him.

It was Huang's turn to be quiet for a moment. "Perhaps you're right. Does it bother you that you'll go through life with a debilitating phobia?"

"It does when you put it that way." Toby laughed, but it wasn't funny. "Lots of people don't like dogs."

"Simple dislike is one thing. Paralyzing fear is another." Huang sounded so calm. "Let me recommend someone."

Toby didn't have to think for even one minute. "No, but thanks for calling." He hung up. He'd avoid dogs. This was New York. He'd be fine. He wasn't worried.

"Okay, I'm at a stopping point," Alex said, flipping off the music. "Wife said not to be late."

Toby really looked at the wall, instead of Alex. "It's very nice. That orange is tough to cover, huh?"

"Yep." Alex pointed at the kitchen. "I'll start work on that tomorrow or the next day."

"Sounds good." Toby smiled. He hoped it stretched out for another week. "Oh, I'll be gone in the morning. That a problem?"

"Coming in the afternoon." Alex was putting on lids and doing something strange with the brushes.

"Thanks, Alex. You're a good painter."

"I'll get my rhythm back soon."

Toby managed not to laugh. Who was he to criticize a man's art? Alex packed up, left, and Toby raided the fridge. The TV was boring, but it was noise, and he was very surprised when someone knocked on the door. For a guy with two friends, he was busy all the time. He was smiling when he opened the door, but it didn't last one second.

"Should I assume the position?" Toby let the sarcasm out. He knew a cop when he saw one, and he'd have sworn he'd seen this man talking to Elliot at the precinct.

"No. May I come in?"

Toby stepped out into the hallway and shut the door. "Badge?"

"Captain Cragen, Special Victims." Cragen showed him the badge. "On behalf--"

"Stop," Toby interrupted, throwing up his hand. He didn't want that from this man. "You're Elliot Stabler's boss?"

"I am."

Toby saw honesty written all over this cop's face. "Come in. We'll talk. Have you had dinner?"

Cragen's surprise was easy to see. "No, but thank you."

Toby heated up the shrimp and got them each a soda. He was absurdly glad he had a table. Cragen had his coat off, and he looked uncomfortable. Toby put out the shrimp and a few other things that Rick and Mabel had left. Cragen was reluctant, but Toby didn't give him much of a choice.

"So, did they make you come over or did you volunteer?" Toby turned off the sarcasm. He was genuinely curious.

Cragen looked right at him. "I feel responsible. Detective Stabler saw them take you inside. I reassured him that they'd follow proper procedures. He wasn't convinced, so I asked him to call your lawyer, but I refused to let him intervene. I bear part of the blame."

Toby ate a shrimp. "And then what happened?" He knew, but he wanted to hear the captain's side of the story.

"Dr. Huang told us what was happening. I decided it was time to act." Cragen began to eat. "This is very good."

"Le Monde catered." Toby sipped his soda. He didn't want an apology from him. Cragen had followed procedures and acted when it became obvious something was wrong. Toby sighed. "It was good of you to come over, but an apology isn't necessary."

Cragen frowned. "If I'd have acted sooner, it wouldn't have happened."

"Captain, you and I both know that you can't intervene every time someone is arrested. Stabler informed me that they had probable cause. It was what they did with it that was wrong, and you're not to blame."

Toby started eating again, watching him think about it. Cragen picked up a shrimp and said, "The brass wants you to sign."

"I will." Toby hadn't made up his mind until right now. "The captain in Narcotics - did he approve of Espinoso's techniques?"

"No. He had the flu. Espinoso planned it that way." Cragen pointed at the wall. "Interesting mural."

Toby pushed his plate away. He liked the mural more now than he had yesterday. "Some coffee?"

"No, thank you, I need to be going." But Cragen didn't get up. "I do apologize for your stay in my custody. I didn't realize what was going on."

"I hope you've altered your management style." Toby saw from Cragen's face that he had. "You can tell your bosses that I'm going to sign and apologize for causing so much trouble."

Cragen got to his feet. "I wouldn't go that far." He stuck out his hand. "Thank you."

"You got balls, Captain." Toby smiled and shook the captain's hand. "I'll stay out of your precinct from now on."

"Everyone is under orders to stay away from you." Cragen put on his coat. "Unless you're breaking the law, of course."

"Of course." Toby had the answer to why Elliot hadn't sat on the fire escape lately. Elliot had probably been relieved. Toby got the door for him. Cragen was gone with a bare nod, and Toby slumped against the wall. He hoped he'd said enough but not too much. Quickly, he cleaned up his apartment and then curled up on the bed with a movie. At eleven, he'd go down and meet Ramon. Hopefully, there was room in the fridge for the rolls. He fell asleep and jerked awake when there was a pounding on his door.

Moving fast, he opened it and groaned. "Sorry, Ramon. I fell asleep."

"No problemo. Someone let me in." Ramon handed him the rolls. "See ya."

"Bye." Toby shut the door and went to stash them. He still wondered if forensics had analyzed every roll for heroin, but he wasn't going to ask. That done, he turned off the lights and went to bed. He had to get up in the morning.


Elliot kept on working. He wasn't curious as to what was going on over at One Police Plaza. Eventually, he'd hear what happened. Someone would tell him. He knocked on the next apartment door in his canvass. Munch shifted from foot to foot. Elliot felt the same. This day couldn't end fast enough.


Toby would admit that he was nervous, and the cab ride over there seemed to take forever. Steven was there on the steps, waiting, and they went inside together.

"You know what you're going to do?" Steven asked.

Toby nodded, and he did, but he had a few things to say. They were ushered into a conference room that was full of cops and lawyers. They all looked slightly pissed. Toby sat down and made sure they hadn't switched to a new document. Steven was quiet. He'd negotiated this, but his role was over. It was Toby's decision.

"Did Captain Cragen receive a commendation?" Toby asked into the charged silence.

One of the cops frowned. "Why would he?"

Toby picked up the pen and noticed that the lawyers leaned towards him in anticipation. "He didn't sit on his ass and watch them torture me. He took responsibility. He arrested Espinoso. He was nearly bitten by that German shepherd. He acted with integrity and honesty. He's a fine policeman, and you need more of those. Need I continue?" He took a breath and went on anyway in the face of their silence, "And Detective Stabler? He was bitten while shielding me from that dog. Did he receive any kind of mention? Or Fin Tutuola? Those detectives acted as if they had badges. To serve and protect - shouldn't they be rewarded for doing just that, when no one else in the precinct gave a damn?"

No one said a word. He signed it. "Anything else?"

One of the lawyers nodded. "Will you be speaking to the press in this matter?"

Toby looked at Steven. Steven leaned and whispered, "You can reveal the amount, if you want, but nothing else."

"No." Toby wasn't doing that. He was embarrassed enough. "Would you like me to sign something to that effect?"

It was produced immediately. He signed and stood up. Looking right at the guy with the most brass on his chest, he said, "Cragen's unit is a credit to Manhattan, and if you ignore this, you're sending a strong message that doing the right thing is almost as bad as doing the wrong thing."

The cop looked at a lawyer and back at him. "We handled this internally."

"I bet." Toby was finished. He wanted to throw a chair at them, but he throttled down his temper and walked out the door. Steven lagged behind, and that was fine. Toby needed a minute to regain his composure. His hands shook a little from the stress of pushing them into the table top and he sat down to wait. Steven finally joined him.

"You okay?"

"Yeah. Did you get the cash, baby?" Toby tried to smile.

Steven smiled also. "We will. I'll bring a suitcase by."

Toby managed a chuckle. "Let's walk before they set a dog on us." Steven caught up with him, and he was glad to be leaving.

"I wanted to thank you for having that party. Caroline and I, well, we're dating."

Groaning, Toby couldn't believe it. This was his worst nightmare. "If you hurt her, Elliot Stabler will kill me! For real, this time!"

"I won't hurt her." Steven stopped on the sidewalk. "For her, I leave work early. I'm a partner. I'm delegating more."

Toby clutched Steven's arm. This was terrible news. "Good thing I have money for a bulletproof vest. Want me to get you one too?"

Steven grinned. "I'll get behind Caroline. She's not scared of Elliot." He gave Toby a hug. It was a shock. "This was pro bono."

Toby nearly fell on his ass. "What the fuck? Are you shitting me?"

"I stuck it to the man, Tobias. I've been wanting to do that my whole life. I'm sorry you were hurt, but I'm very glad I could help. Do good with that money and buy me a nice wedding present."

Toby watched him stride away laughing. It was a shame that Elliot was going to murder him. Catching a cab, Toby dashed upstairs to get changed and grab the rolls. It was time to go to the church. He'd take a moment to pray it was a damn long engagement.

Deakins was near the front door for some reason. "Let me carry those."

"Mabel will think I'm a wimp." Toby smiled and didn't hand them over. "Truck here yet?"

"Yes, and you're not going to help. You can watch how we did it last Monday." Deakins lowered his voice. "How'd it go?"

"I signed. It's over." Toby took a deep breath. "I feel better about it. For every bad man in this city, I hope there are three good ones that stand up for what's right."

"There is. I'm sure of it." Deakins gently took him by the arm, and they went towards the basement together. "On another subject, I spoke to Rick at length about their thrift store. We always have things left from our rummage sale, and now I have a place to take it all."

Toby was glad to change the subject. He put the rolls and the table and started sorting. Mabel would find him soon enough, and she did, giving him a look that meant trouble.

"Did you put the medicine on your back today?"

Toby pulled the tube out of his back pocket and handed it to her. "I thought you might do me the honor." Thank God he'd remembered it.

She dragged him inside the pantry, shut the door, and he pulled his shirt up but not off. He made sure not to grunt as she applied it quickly and efficiently. It was how she did everything.

"I still think that one could've used a stitch."

"They use glue now." He had to tease her. "Is it infected?"

"Red, but it's not bad. Keep taking your antibiotic." She pulled his shirt down. "I see you lifting anything heavy, and you're getting it."

"I'll be good." Toby wanted to hand out ice cream and laugh with the children. He needed some laughter.


"Elliot! Fin! My office!"

Elliot got to his feet with a small groan. He'd screwed up again. Fin wasn't moving fast either. Munch whispered, "What'd you guys do?"

They both shrugged but went, and Cragen shut the door. Cragen sat down at his desk and pointed at the chairs. They sat. Elliot almost said something, but the look on his captain's face stopped him.

"I received these from the brass this morning at our monthly meeting. Copies were put in your jackets." Cragen opened a manila folder. "I'm under orders to tell you that bragging is not recommended."

Elliot took the certificate he was handed. Fin did the same. They exchanged a look. Cragen continued, "Thank you. Dismissed."

Fin went out first, but Elliot hesitated, wanting to know. "Did you get one?"

Cragen might have smiled. "And if I did?"

"Never mind." Elliot went to his desk, and he was glad Cragen had received one. Cragen had put his nuts on the line by going to another squad to make an arrest.

Fin glanced over at him. "Wasn't expecting that."

"Not in a million years." Elliot put it away. He'd look at it later. "I almost believe in Santa again."

Munch laughed, and Fin mumbled, "And the Tooth Fairy."

Elliot went to get some coffee. He had a long day ahead of him, and then he was climbing a fire escape.


Toby shook his head. "Rick, it's too damn big!"

"You have a big space! Trust me. It'll balance out that mural." Rick had said that three times, and Toby had paid the bill, but he didn't believe a word of it.

The delivery guys struggled to get it up the stairs and into the apartment, and Toby stayed the hell out of the way. Rick did too. When they had it up there, Toby tipped them, and they left with only a mild sneer at the gay boys.

Rick started unwrapping it. Toby helped, and they wrestled it into position opposite the mural. Rick made Toby push it more times than was necessary, and finally he sat down.

"I'm done! It can stay there." Toby leaned back and looked at the armoire. It wasn't all that big here in the loft, and he'd have plenty of room for his clothes.

"Perfect." Rick brushed his jeans off. "Now ditch that old dresser."

Toby groaned. "You want me to help you take it to the thrift store, right?"

"I'll send a couple of guys for it." Rick sat down next to him. "You like it?"

"Yes, and you were right." Toby hated to say it, but it was true. "I like it a lot. Still not sure about the bed though."

Rick got up and looked everything over. "You're right. Help me move it."

"I should've kept my big mouth shut." Toby crawled to the bed and got on it. Rick slapped him on the ass, and they laughed. Toby helped him push the headboard in front of the window. "No, you can't block my window."

Rick sighed and looked again. "I have an idea. It may seem weird, but I think it'll work."

Toby groaned, but helped him take the headboard and footboard off and put the bed on the floor. They slid it under the window and Rick arranged all the pillows.

"Rick, honey, you are so gay today."

"Thank you." Rick stepped back. "Now it's more like a day bed or extra places to sit, and it doesn't clash with the furniture."

Toby put the headboard behind and against the dresser. "If you say so. If you'd have been in a cell with me, I'd have been stylin'."

Rick nodded. "Looks good. Mural turned out great. Did you pay him?"

"I paid him very well, but he said the mural was no charge. I didn't argue with him because he's huge." Toby smiled and crawled on his bed. "I like the different shades of blue. He did a great job."

"The cabinets needed something. The place looks even bigger now." Rick sat down and stroked his hand through Toby's hair. "You doing okay?"

Toby enjoyed the simple touch. It was good not to be alone. "Still clean. Still want it. Same shit, different day."

"Still having nightmares?"

Toby sat up. "Did I say I was?"

"I sleep here occasionally, remember?" Rick scooted closer. "It's no big deal. I just worry."

"Dogs give me the shakes, and lately, they're everywhere. Even the small ones are starting to freak me out." Toby put his head in his hands. "I need shrunk."

Rick rubbed Toby's shoulder. "Give it time."

"I got that." Toby sighed and broached the topic that had been nagging at him. He didn't want to discuss dogs any longer. "Rick, when are you going to find a real boyfriend?"

"Well," Rick said, "when I do, I'll tell you first."

Toby put his arm around him. "It's okay that you don't love me."

Blushing, Rick looked down. "I do love you, as a friend."

"I know. I feel the same. We're good, just not..." Toby wasn't sure how to finish his sentence.

"Great. I know." Rick kissed him. "I was worried you thought it was more."

"I know." Toby rolled his eyes. "You told Brian, you dumbass."

Rick hid his face in his hands. "I'm going to throw him on the grill."

Toby laughed and pulled him down for a long kiss. Rick groaned at the end of it. "I have to go."

"Have fun at work." Toby let him leave without complaining. Rick was a good friend, and that was enough. Toby didn't need any more from him. His life had settled into a rhythm of church and a few friends and he was good with that. Deakins had turned over the budget to him, and running the food bank was satisfying. It had also been nice to know that Deakins trusted him enough to do it.

Toby tucked a pillow behind his head. He did sorta miss Alex showing up at odd times and painting one thing or the other. He'd even painted the small bathroom. When he'd finished, he'd sighed in a sad way and said, "I have to go back to my real job now."

Toby didn't understand why Alex didn't paint for a living. He could make real money. One of these days, maybe, Toby would ask Elliot. Elliot. Toby hadn't seen him in forever. It had been forever, right? It seemed like it. It was tempting to go sit on his car, but that would be more than stupid, and being arrested just to see him was lunacy.

"Fuck," Toby whispered. He had to get over it. Find a wife. Start another family. Something. Maybe he could find a husband. It might be easier. He stopped staring at the ceiling and shut his eyes. It'd been nearly nine years since he'd seen his children. Holly was eighteen or nineteen, and Harry was fifteen or sixteen. Gary was still dead. Toby got to his feet, grabbed his keys, and went out the door, running from his past.

"Hey, Toby," his neighbor said, and the little dog yapped. Toby gulped, waved, and beat it down the stairs. He'd go for a walk. His feet took him towards the precinct, but he wasn't going all the way. That decision was reinforced when he saw a guy and his dog coming down the sidewalk. Toby tried to push the fear away, but that didn't work any longer. He turned and went the other direction, and it wasn't two blocks before a huge black dog was walking right at him.

"Damn dogs," Toby muttered. His heart was racing, and he tried not to care. The dog barked, and that was it. Toby headed for home, and he shut the door hard. This was ridiculous, but he wanted to hide, and he put his back to the wall and slid down to sit. "I need help."


Elliot put his gun in his locker and made sure the bullet was out of the chamber. He had made up his mind to go see Toby.

"Elliot, do you have a minute?" Huang asked.

"Sure." Elliot hoped this was about the case, and not something he'd done lately.

Huang smiled but not much. "It's concerning Tobias Beecher. Do you mind discussing him?"

"Don't want you breaking any confidentiality laws," Elliot said just to mess with him. "Wait, tell me he's not in lockup."

"No, no." Huang put up his hand. "I merely wanted to know if he'd ever talked about his fear of dogs with you."

Elliot strolled back to his desk and opened the bottom drawer. It was still there. He pulled it out and opened it up. "I know how it started." He showed Huang the reports and waited for his reaction.

"The CO set the dog on him?"

"Most likely. I didn't ask. When we searched his place for drugs using a dog, I honestly thought he'd pass out. He was frightened then." Elliot shrugged. He'd done everything by the book that day, but Toby's fear had left a sour taste in his mouth. "Someone told Espinoso, and he used it against him."

Huang nodded. "His fear has bloomed into a full-blown phobia, and he refuses to see a doctor."

"Can't blame him there." Elliot didn't like them either. "It's Manhattan. How many dogs can there be?"

"The longer he doesn't deal with it, the worse it will get. At some point, I'm afraid he'll no longer feel safe enough to leave his apartment." Huang put the reports back in the file. "If you see him, could you talk to him about seeking help?"

Elliot hated to commit to that. "I could mention it." He had his own ideas on how to conquer fears, and it didn't include running away, or hiding, or shrinks. "Have you seen his scars?"

"No." Huang frowned. "What are you suggesting?"

"Nothing." Elliot got his coat. "Going home. Good luck with that."

Huang said nothing else, but he was thinking, and Elliot got out of there before he had to answer more questions. He walked to Toby's apartment and pulled down the fire escape. If Rick was there, Elliot would leave, but he wanted to check on him.


Toby took a shower, found some sweats that Brian would cringe over, and took his computer to his bed. He'd read the news and see if Steven had emailed him back. The relationship with Caroline was still going strong, and Toby wouldn't be surprised if Elliot beat him up over it.

"Fuck!" Toby nearly fell off the bed as a jolt of pure fear raced through him. It was as if thinking of him had conjured him, but that wasn't possible. If it was, Elliot would live here. Toby raised the window and shouted, "Are you trying to kill me?"

Elliot crouched down and looked inside. "The bed is in the way."

"Get over it." Toby set his computer down with shaking hands and searched for a shirt. Before he could find one, Elliot was in the room.

"Your back is healed." Elliot had stepped close. "Your wrists?"

"Fine." Toby slipped on a T-shirt to cover his wreck of a body. He was very glad when Elliot went to stare at the mural. "I swear my dirty dick has been nowhere near your sister."

Elliot didn't look at him. "She's marrying Steven. I blame you. I'll always blame you." He turned and flashed a grin. "How have you been?"

"Peachy." Toby decided to sit on the couch. He watched Elliot look around the apartment. "You?"

"Not bad." Elliot finally nodded. "Alex did a good job."

Toby used the opportunity. "Why isn't he a painter? Doesn't he know it's a very lucrative career for someone with his talent?"

Elliot shrugged. "I told him once or twice, but I think he's worried he couldn't support his family and the business he has now does. When the itch comes over him, he finds something to paint, and then he goes back to work happier."

"Rick wants him to paint Le Monde - all of it." Toby nodded when he saw Elliot's surprise. "It's true. I heard them discussing it, but I don't know what'll come of it."

"Alex will do what he wants. He always has." Elliot opened the fridge. "No shrimp?"

"Cragen ate the last of it." Toby enjoyed surprising Elliot. "There's pie."

"And ice cream?" Elliot was getting things out. "You got it good, Toby."

Toby blinked in surprise at hearing his name. At that point, it dawned on him that he'd never seen Elliot so relaxed, so friendly. "Elliot, did that stick fall out of your ass?"

Elliot glared and then cut himself a big piece of pie. "Huang talked to me earlier."

"Shit." Toby finally broke. He had to have some pie also, and he took over as soon as Elliot was out of the way. "I'm not going to a shrink!"

"Don't blame ya." Elliot surprised him with that. "He thinks you'll get to the point that you won't leave your apartment. Ridiculous, huh?"

Toby scooped up some ice cream, put it on his pie, and then started shoving everything back in the fridge. He took his plate to the couch and sat.

"Guess he was right," Elliot said. "Toby, this place is nice, but didn't you spend enough time in prison?"

"Shut up," Toby growled. He took a bite and avoided looking at him. For several minutes, there was only the sound of silverware on dishes. Toby had to say something. "I'm fine."

Elliot didn't look convinced. "You're scared shitless. In fact, I'd bet you're so scared that you can't even talk about it."

Toby kept on eating, but it was sticking in his throat. When his plate was empty, he took it to the sink and rinsed it. "I don't want to talk about it. There's a difference."

Elliot handed him the plate. "That was good. Who made it?"

"Mabel. She's still trying to fatten me up." Toby smiled. He couldn't run the food bank without her, and she knew it.

"You're fit." Elliot leaned against the cabinet. "So what're ya gonna do? Hide?"

"I might." Toby handed him a soda. "I can remember every tiny detail. The click of claws, the feel of the drool on my skin, the piercing bark, and the burning pain as teeth sink deep: it all adds up to the fact that I hate dogs. Hate them."

"You sure?" Elliot frowned. "Didn't you have a dog when you were a kid?"

"Cats." Toby's mother hadn't liked dogs either. He had to change the subject. "Did Cragen get the commendation that he deserved?"

Elliot's eyes widened. "He wouldn't say, but I think so. What do you know about it?"

"I'm surprised they listened to me." Toby wanted to edge closer and see what the pie in Elliot's mouth tasted like. "I told them when I signed that they were fools if they didn't reward policemen who did the right thing."

"You lectured them?" Elliot's voice was incredulous. "The Chief of D's?"

Toby smiled a little. "The guy with all the stuff on his jacket? Yes, I told him that he was sending the message that integrity was to be avoided. He looked like he'd swallowed a toad."

Elliot rubbed his forehead. "Wow."

"Bunch of suits made me sign a non-disclosure agreement." Toby rolled his eyes. He wanted to stay on this topic. "But I managed to tell them what I thought."

"Why aren't I surprised?" Elliot wandered over to the huge armoire. "So what did you do with the money?"

There was no way that Toby was going to answer that. "I'm funding a home for lost dogs."

Elliot looked right at him. "Okay, that was too nosy. Just curious." He pointed at the other end of the apartment. "That's handsome, and I don't usually like big furniture."

"Me either, but Rick insisted it would work, and it does." Toby saw the quick change come over Elliot's face.

"He lives here?" Elliot glanced at the window.

Toby did damage control fast before Elliot bolted. "No. He helped me shop for furniture. He's gay. He's got that designer sense that God didn't put inside me even though I kiss guys occasionally."

"That is such a stereotype." Elliot rolled his eyes and put out a limp wrist. "I'm sure there are straight guys who can decorate."

"Yeah. Show me one." Toby laughed and shut the window. He also locked it. Elliot was staying whether he liked it or not.

"I thought you and him were a thing." Elliot was studying the floor now.

Turning on the TV, Toby sat down on the sofa. "I haven't seen you in weeks. Have you had me under surveillance?"

Elliot sat down in his chair, grabbed the remote, and changed the channel. "Caroline might've mentioned it."

"When's the wedding?" Toby didn't think Rick was a good topic. Elliot put it on the news and didn't answer that at all. He must've been in complete denial. Toby put his feet up on the coffee table and tried to relax. All that sexiness was so close, but he couldn't touch it, and he almost groaned from frustration.

"How's the food bank?"

"Good. I seem to shop a lot, but I don't mind."

Elliot raised his eyebrows. "No dogs in stores."

"Exactly." Toby wasn't going to deny it. He knew he couldn't handle it, and Elliot knew it too. Elliot didn't smile, and Toby wished that he could see all those teeth again. Maybe get a glimpse of tongue. Toby ran his hand through his hair. God, he was gay. He had to date a girl again soon. "How about your sister, Devin? Is she single?"

Elliot's glare nearly stripped the skin off Toby's face. "Married. Happily. With five kids."

"Rats." Toby gave up on the Stabler family. "Any cute detectives I should know about?"

"No." Elliot got a soda and came back. He wasn't really talking, but he wasn't leaving, and Toby was pretty content to stare at him all night. The people on TV never seemed to shut up, and Elliot asked, "How are Brian and Rusty?"

"They're doing well. Two weeks ago, they went to Canada and got married." Toby smiled at the look on Elliot's face. "The party at Le Monde was enormous."

"Did Mabel go?"

Toby saw the glint of mischief in Elliot's eyes. "No, but she sent a present, a very nice quilt. They were thrilled."

"What'd you get 'em?" Elliot went to the fridge and came back with a soda.

"I paid off the mortgage on their shop." Toby had been glad to do it, and it hadn't been that much. Brian was thrifty, and he'd been making double payments for years. Rusty had cried, and Brian had kissed him hard, and Toby would admit that he loved them. "If it weren't for them, I don't know if I could've stayed clean this long." He still fought it, but it was so much less, and he owed a big part of his success to Brian and Rusty.

Elliot suddenly smiled. "I'll tell Caroline she can expect something big."

"Steven made it clear he better get something good when I got the settlement." Toby let his eyes linger on Elliot's mouth. "You'll help me think of something?"

"I doubt it." Elliot shrugged and drank his soda. He was probably a towels as a gift kind of guy. Toby accidentally visualized him in a towel and nearly touched himself. He ran his hands down his sweats and prayed his dick behaved. Now was not the time to get worked up. Elliot changed the channel and asked, "So what else did you buy? A car?"

Reluctant to answer that, Toby sighed. He was hanging out with a nosy cop who had no idea when to shut up. It was what made him a good detective. "El, I can't get a license. Didn't you know?"

Elliot pulled his attention from the television. "Why?"

"I wanted out. It was a condition of my early release." Toby did his best to sound as if it were no big deal, and it wasn't, except for occasionally when he had to ride the bus. "The DMV has me on the banned list. So, no cars."

"I thought you were a stubborn New Yorker." Elliot was thinking it through, but what he'd come up with was a mystery. He drank some soda, and Toby watched him like a hawk while pretending to watch television. Elliot glanced at him. "So, you moved close to the church."

Toby hadn't expected that. "Yes." He wasn't going to offer up the other reason. There was something he wanted to know, and he'd have to take the chance that Elliot would walk out. "You had made it pretty clear that you didn't want to be acquainted with me, much less friends. Would you mind telling me what changed?"

"Yep." Elliot smirked at Toby's frown. "For a lawyer, you don't phrase questions very well."

"I'm out of practice." Toby wasn't going to ask it again. He honestly didn't care what the answer was anyway. All he cared about was that Elliot was here and his butt seemed firmly planted in front of the TV.

"What're ya doing tomorrow?"

Toby didn't know, but he hoped this meant they were doing something together. "It's Wednesday. I usually sleep late, wander around in my boxers, and then watch TV. It's a full day."

"Didn't need that much detail." Elliot rolled his eyes. "I'll come by in the afternoon. I have the day off."

"Why?" Toby was intensely curious. He was glad too, almost ecstatic, but he was going to play it cool. "Shooting practice?"

"Toby-wan, if I'd have shot ya, you'd be dead." Elliot clearly meant that.

"You could do me the favor of forgetting that nickname." Toby wasn't holding out much hope for it.

Elliot laughed now. "Not likely. It's good to have ammunition at parties. One more crack about a stick, and I'll tell Brian your nickname." He smiled. "And he'll tell the world."

"You asshole." Toby threw a pillow at him.

Elliot caught it and put it behind his back. "Hey, how about a new chair? This one has a broken spring."

"I never sit in it," Toby said with a small huff. He drank his soda and exploited the opportunity to get more time with him. "You could take me to the store tomorrow. Can't carry a chair on the bus."

"Okay." Elliot didn't seem to need much convincing. "I'll be here around one. Be dressed."

"Got it." Toby smiled and then he had a sobering thought. "You won't get in trouble at work for stopping by?"

Elliot tossed him the remote. "Hope not. Okay, gotta go. Thanks for the food."

"No problem." Toby got up and nearly tackled him to make him stay one more minute. "You can take the pie if you want."

"You wouldn't tell Mabel?" Elliot's eyes twinkled.

Toby tried not to fall into those beautiful eyes. "I have cookies too."

"It's mine." Elliot got it and headed for the door. "One o'clock."

"I'll be here." Toby watched him and those jeans go down the stairs. That ass should be against the law. Elliot didn't look back, and Toby shut the door softly. Alone again. He was used to it, but it wasn't much fun. No wonder he'd done drugs all the time.


Elliot made a call before he drove all that way, and he was glad to see Jerry waiting for him when he got there. He parked, got out, and went to shake Jerry's hand. "Good to see ya."

"You too, Elliot." Jerry smiled and pointed down the row. "I thought about what you said, and I think I have the perfect one for you."

Elliot hoped so. It was crucial that they get this right the first time. "Give me all the details."


It was pathetic to start checking his window after twelve thirty, but that was Toby's life, and still no Elliot. It came as a small surprise when there was an actual knock on the door. He opened it, took two steps back, gasped, fell down, and scooted for the closest corner. There were no rational thoughts in his head. He had to hide. Hide.

"Toby, it's okay." Elliot put his arms around him. Toby held on tight and shook his head over and over again. He wanted to scream curse words, but nothing was coming out. Air, he needed air. Elliot pulled him up and made him sit on the bed. "Take a deep breath."

Toby looked again. "Out! Out!"

Elliot got right in front of him, blocking the view and letting him hold on for dear life. "It's okay. Nothing bad is going to happen. Nothing. You have my word. My word. Trust me. Trust me."

Burying his face in Elliot's stomach, Toby didn't believe a damn word of it. "How could you?" he croaked. "You must hate me."

"No." Elliot pulled Toby's face up by the chin. "Fear eats at us. The only way to fight it is to face it. Instead of a bunch of talk therapy, I got you a dog."

"Fuckwad." Toby wrenched his face away and shoved at him, but Elliot didn't budge an inch. "Leave now! And take it with you!"

Elliot knelt down in front of him. "You can do this. It's a dog. Not a Nazi intent on branding your ass or a cop bent on revenge. It's a doggie."

"Fuck you," Toby whispered. "You know how it hurts!"

"Yes, but I still like dogs." Elliot ran his hand through Toby's hair. "That poor dog at the precinct was abused. She never had a chance."

"And that one? Is that one nuts?" Toby edged back towards the window. He'd go out and down.

Elliot took him by the hands and put a stop to that. "Watch."

"No!" Toby looked away. He would not. Elliot would get over this dumb idea in a few minutes and take the damn thing away.


Toby didn't look.


Toby refused to look. "Tell him to speak, and I'll piss my pants."

"It's a bitch." Elliot held him close again. "Go there and lay down."

Toby peeked. The dog, it was fucking huge, went to the corner, and settled down quietly. She looked at him with big, brown eyes, wanting to eat him. "Is it going to bark?"

Elliot sat down next to him. "This is--"

"Let me guess," Toby interrupted, "Killer? Shredder?"

"No." Elliot hugged him. It felt so good, but Toby could barely enjoy it over the fear. It was washing up and down him, leaving him weak. If that animal moved, he was going to need new underwear. Elliot turned Toby's face. "Look at me. Her name is Brandy's Best."

"How ironic for an alcoholic." Toby hid his face. He just wanted it gone. "Nice to meet her. Can she go now?"

Elliot sighed. "She doesn't have a real name yet. She flunked."

"She's a dummy? Great. Just what I need - a retarded dog. Thanks. Hey, buy me a snake next time, okay?"

Elliot laughed. "Wow, you do sarcasm well. She washed out of police dog training."

That was enough details to make Toby quiver. He didn't want to know why or how. He wanted her gone, gone, gone. "Okay. Are you leaving? I'm about ready to call the cops."

"We're here." Elliot snapped his fingers and the huge thing stood up and walked towards them. Toby shrunk back, gasping, and Elliot pointed at the floor. It sat.

"No closer. Please." Toby began to think he'd never take a deep breath again. "In prison, my nickname was Bitcher. Bitcher, like a dog. God, Elliot, take it the fuck away."

"Settle down. Your dog, yes, your dog, doesn't bark. Not ever." Elliot must have seen Toby's disbelief. "The trainer thinks she's some sort of throwback to the wolves."

"You gave me a wolf. I'll just save it the trouble and jump off the fire escape. She can eat my ass from down there. I'll be dead so I won't mind." Toby managed to get up and back away. He didn't stop until he was in a corner.

"That's why she failed. She's perfect, other than she won't bark." Elliot pointed back at the corner, and the dog went. She lay down and made a face like a smile at him. She probably thought he'd be great eating.

Toby swallowed so hard that he hurt his throat. "She's not a German shepherd."

"No, she's a Belgian. They're popular now." Elliot leaned against the wall next to him. "You need a friend, and she was going to be sold. Also, no one, and I mean no one, will ever break in this place."

Unable to believe this was really happening, Toby put his face in his hands. "As long as she stays over there, we'll be fine."

"Okay, let's go to the store." Elliot put his arm around him and peeled him out of the corner. "She went before we came up, so she'll be fine."

"Right." Toby didn't believe that. She'd crap everywhere and eat his bed. "You distract her. I'll run out the door."

Going to her, Elliot gave her a pat on the head. "Stay. We'll be back."

"She's not a damn human!" Toby got the door open. He shut it fast behind Elliot, almost hitting him in the ass.

"She has about fifty words. She's better behaved than any of my children ever were. I think you two are going to be great friends." Elliot was an idiot, and Toby went down the stairs fast. He bolted out the door into the fresh air, took a huge gulp, and nearly screamed. Elliot caught him around the shoulders. "It's this, or hide in your apartment forever."

Two big steps, and Toby slid up on the hood of Elliot's car as a dog and his proud owner - idiot - walked by. "I could've gone to a shrink!"

Elliot had the balls to laugh, and Toby punched him hard in the arm. Toby wanted to beat the shit out of him. No place was safe now. "You've made up your mind, haven't you?"

"Yes. You'll do this, and you'll smile." Elliot rubbed his arm.

"And I'll die." Toby kicked the car. "Don't I have enough scars?"

"Actually, yes. You look like road kill, but that dog won't bite you. Not ever." Elliot got in the car. Toby did too because at least the dog couldn't get him in there. Elliot patted him on the leg. "Let's go buy dog food."

Toby wanted to hide under the seat. "Why? It's going to eat me."

Elliot laughed, and Toby hit him again.


Elliot prayed that he hadn't made a tremendous mistake. At the kennel, he'd known he was doing the right thing, but now he wasn't so certain. The dog needed a good home, not a quick trip to the pound, and Toby knew nothing about dogs. They were back at Mega-Mart, because they had everything. Toby complained about the dog food, said it didn't need a bowl, and stared at the dog beds as if they were evil.

"No! Damn mutt can sleep in the corner!"

Elliot didn't argue any further, but that dog was worth thousands. However, it was an improvement that Toby had said it could sleep in the corner. He'd been talking about guns ten minutes ago.

"Dog treats?"


"New leash?"

"Fuck no."


"Absolutely fucking not!" Toby shut his eyes and shuddered. "Even food is ridiculous. I'm sure it'll survive by consuming the neighborhood children."

It was hard not to laugh at all the drama, and Elliot managed to choke it back this time. Toby wasn't buying any of the right stuff, but he'd figure it out later. Elliot knew they'd have to do this in stages. "Maybe she'll eat the Chihuahua next door."

"I can hope." Toby glared. "No new chair for you!"

"Please?" Elliot tilted his head to the side and tried to look hopeful. He didn't really care, but he had to do something to make Toby laugh.

All that did was make Toby look even angrier. "I hate you. Before, it was dislike, but I hate you now."

Elliot looked over his shoulder at his ass. "But the stick is gone."

Toby mumbled about sticks and where he was gonna stuff them. Elliot pretended that he didn't hear, and they picked out a chair. This store was great. It wasn't a high quality chair, but it'd do.

"I'm not buying anything nice. Damn wolf will just eat it." Toby's eyes were blazing blue. Elliot tried to look sympathetic. He wasn't sure he pulled it off. Toby studied the dog food bag. "It says here that a dog weighing a hundred pounds should eat six cups a day. Six cups! That's ridiculous."

"She's a big dog," Elliot said, remaining calm.

Toby turned the look of death on him. "We're buying a gun in aisle twenty-three, and you're shooting me."

"I can use my police issue for that." Elliot rolled his eyes. The drama was incredible. Rusty was wearing off on Toby. "She needs you. She's never bonded to anyone."

"Bonded? What the fuck?" Toby was cursing a mile a minute. "I'm not ever going to touch her. She needs to get the fuck over it."

Elliot hid his smile. "You explain it to her. Oh, and her instructional manual is in the car. Don't let me forget to give it to you."

"Hey, next time you think to get me something, just don't!" Toby started mumbling again, and Elliot made sure not to listen. This was going well. In another six months, Toby would be over it. Maybe.


Crossing his arms, Toby sat in the car. He wasn't getting out. "No. You go ahead. You can have the place. Give me the keys to your apartment."

Rubbing his face, Elliot looked tired. "I'm going up with you. I'll even spend the night, if you want."

"Really?" Toby looked at him and then slowly blushed. He'd wanted that for months, and he was finally getting it. Unfortunately, the dog was in there too. "Good. You can sleep with the wolf."

"We were gone forever because of the complaining. She might have to piss. Let's go." Elliot started getting things, and Toby only went as far as the hood of the car. He wasn't going up. No way. Luckily, his phone rang.

"Toby, what's up?"

Toby took a breath. "Hi, Rick. Elliot bought me a wolf. It's in my apartment. I am not. What's up with you?"

Rick was quiet. Finally, he asked, "Are you even breathing?"

"Don't think so!" Toby tossed Elliot the keys. "I'm coming over. Elliot won't give me his apartment."

"I have a dog, remember?"

"Fuck!" Toby leaned back on the hood, giving up on life. There had to be someone sane in this city. "Okay, later. I gotta call Brian."

"Um, Toby?"

"What?" Toby knew he was this close to a breakdown.

Rick coughed. "They got a dog," he whispered.

Toby slapped the phone shut. He was fucked. Fucked up the ass. But Elliot was spending the night. That was something. Of course, it didn't matter because the dog would kill him in his sleep. "Fuck!"

Elliot came out with the wolf. She wasn't on a leash. That was stupid. Toby scooted farther up the car, but he was dead. Elliot said, "Get it done."

She sniffed once or twice and peed on the corner of the building. Just hiked her leg and did it. What a bitch. Didn't she know that people lived here? It was wrong. Elliot came over and got the parts to the chair out of the car.

"Get your half. We're going up."

"Fuck if I will!" Toby shook his head. He wasn't. Not ever. He didn't even want to live in that apartment anymore. There were dog germs everywhere by now.

Hefting the back of the chair, Elliot sighed loudly. "I'll order pizza."

That was the worst bribe ever. Toby narrowed his eyes and shook his head, refusing to even look at the stupid dog. "If we're going that route, I want something good."

"How about a kiss?" Elliot wasn't looking at him.

Before he'd thought about it, Toby slid off the hood and got his part of the chair, but he wasn't going without complaining. "Pizza and a kiss and you can rub my back. It aches."

Elliot snapped his fingers, and the wolf dog went up the stairs with them. It was right there, behind him, and he ended up almost running. When they were at the door, she sat and rolled out her tongue.

"Don't even laugh at me, you cunt."

She tilted her head. Elliot opened the door, and Toby went in first. He knew he was panting, but he was too scared to be embarrassed. Elliot put the chair together and put it in place of the old one.

"I'm going to haul this one downstairs."

"No! Don't leave me here." Toby got as far away from the dog food as possible.

Elliot left. He walked right out. Asshole. She stared at him. Toby glared back at her. With a soft whine, she flopped down and put her head on huge paws that ached to slice him up.

"That's right, bitch. Stay there, and I won't have to cry." Toby opened the window and went on the fire escape. When she was out of sight, he was able to breathe again without wanting to pass out.

"This is progress." Elliot came out and sat with him. "She's been fed today. She's used to being fed in the morning."

"I don't want to hear the word 'fed' again tonight. Okay?" Toby hugged himself. "Can you return her?"

Elliot shook his head. "I'm sure they already filled her kennel. I was lucky to get her."

"Lucky. Right." Toby tried to take a deep breath. His lungs didn't want to work. This called for drastic measures. He dug out his cell phone, flipped through the memory, and hit dial. "Dr. Huang?"

"Hello, Tobias. How are you?"

"Elliot Stabler bought me a dog. A huge one and it's sitting in my apartment. I need help. Right now."

"Where are you?" Huang sounded confused.

"On my fire escape." Toby heard Elliot's groan. That'll teach him. "I need you to tell him to take it away. Now. Right now. Before I die of stress."

Huang hesitated. "Tobias, Elliot's methods are often ham-handed, but his intentions are good. Facing your fear isn't a bad idea. Take several deep breaths and calm down."

"He said you were ham-handed." Toby put the phone back on his ear. "Hell yes, it's a bad idea. The dog is huge. Did I mention that? She'll eat me before breakfast."

"Dogs in non-stressful situations rarely bite." Huang sighed. "Hand Elliot the phone."

Toby handed it to him. "Your turn."

Elliot took it. "You know I'm right."

Toby wanted to hear the other side of the conversation.

"I know it's a big step, but Toby can handle it." Elliot paused. "He can. He's been in Oz! This is a dog."

That was the dumbest thing Toby had ever heard. Being in Oz hadn't made him tough, except... that there was no way that dog was worse than Vern. But still, she was dangerous. She was lying there, staring with her big eyes, wanting to bite him on the ass. He suddenly got very angry, and he went inside. She didn't move as he stood over her. He drew back his foot to kick the holy shit out of her and all the damn dogs just like her. She stared up at him, and he heard Elliot's feet hit the floor.

"Go ahead. She won't bite you."

Toby clenched his jaw. He'd beat the shit out of her. Payback was always paid back. She didn't raise her head, but her eyes looked up at him. "Fuck!" He turned, Elliot caught him, and he began to cry. Hot tears of anger ran down his face and he was ashamed, but he couldn't stop. Elliot held him, and he wanted to crawl under his bed. Instead, he kicked Elliot in the shin.


"I didn't want to face this!" Toby kicked him again.

Elliot got out of range. "Too damn bad!"

Toby would bet that Elliot's kids were pissed at him most of the time. He wiped his eyes and snapped, "Order the fucking pizza. I need a shower."

"Don't worry, dog. He's just kicking me."

Toby had turned, but he turned back. "Bitch! That corner, now!" And he pointed. She got up, wagged her tail, and went to lie down. "Stupid bitch."

"You may not name her bitch." Elliot didn't come closer. "Understand?"

"Fine. I'll think of something else." Toby slammed the bathroom door. He'd never been so angry. Okay, that was a lie, but it had been a while. He didn't want a damn dog! He'd spend part of each day changing his shorts! Quickly, he stripped off his clothes and got in the shower. He'd hide in here for an hour or so.


Elliot called Huang back. "He's in the shower. He's mad as hell."

"Good. That's better than passing out. It's possible that he's going to work through this, but don't leave him alone." Huang was using his doctor voice. "Don't."

"I'll stay to referee. She's a police dog, washed out of training."

Huang sighed. "Tell me she wasn't vicious."

"She doesn't bark." Elliot rubbed his leg and sat down in the new chair. "I'm sure she's the one."

"I'll be on call tonight, but Elliot, talk to me before you do something like this again with one of my patients." Huang was pissy now. "I'm not asking."

Elliot controlled his mouth. "Later." He hung up. Huang wanted to talk things to death. Toby needed to deal with it, not hide. His anger was a good thing. Elliot rubbed his other leg, put Toby's phone on the coffee table, and sat back to watch some television. He'd order the pizza later. Toby wasn't coming out any time soon.


Toby stayed until he was a prune and half the way to dehydrated from the steam. Only then did he venture from the bathroom. He left his clothes, marched out, and stood over the dog. "This is my ass. It's not for eating!"

She smiled. She wasn't listening. Stupid bitch.

He heard a muffled snort from Elliot and started hunting for clothes. She watched him, and he flipped her off twice. She wagged her tail. Oh, she was crafty, but he wasn't fooled. Later, she'd bite the fuck out of him. He put on a wife beater and some sweats.

"Are you going to shed everywhere?" He wanted to know now. "I think I'm allergic."

"Dog, Toby's a liar. You'll get used to it." Elliot was such a smartass. "Kick me again, and I'll walk out the door."

Toby didn't want that. Unless. "With the dog?"

"No." Elliot opened his phone. Toby didn't really listen to him order pizza. She was looking at him again, and he didn't like it. Maybe he should feed her, so she wouldn't eat his nuts.

"Think she's hungry?"

"Probably thirsty." Elliot didn't move his ass.

Toby put on socks and went to find a bowl. Mabel had left a plastic one here. He filled it up and found a spot far enough away that he might not piss himself. She looked at him.

"She won't move. You put her there."

"Great. I have to learn how to drive her. Have I thanked you for this yet?" Toby yelled. It made him feel slightly better, but not by much.

"Not yet." Elliot tossed him some papers. "Here's her owner's manual."

Toby saw her looking and pointed at the bowl. She got up with a yawn, and he beat it over to the sofa, pulling his legs up tight against his chest. She drank it all. Water went everywhere. "Yuck. She's a slob, and I need a bigger bowl."

"Told ya." Elliot was so compassionate. Toby wanted to kick him again. He smiled. "We had a golden retriever, also, a big dog."

Toby didn't want the details. "What is she going to do now?"

"Either ask her to do something or let her do dog stuff."

"Like chew on my leg?" Toby tucked his feet an inch closer.

Elliot shrugged like it wasn't important. "Let her think about it."

"I hate dogs. I hate dog people. I hate you." Toby wanted to make all of that very clear. He wasn't changing his mind on any of those points.

"Got it." Elliot started watching TV again as if they weren't in any danger. Toby would've hit him again, but that would mean leaving the relative safety of the couch. Instead, he watched her, ready to bolt if necessary. She walked around, sniffed, and looked at him. She was making plans for lights out, no doubt about it. Finally, she lay down with a big dog sigh. Toby drew a shallow breath. Damn Elliot.

"We're not friends."

"Got it."

Toby saw that she'd shut her eyes. "She sleeps?"

"She's a dog. They do a lot of that." Elliot was an asshole. Toby started reading the dog manual, and he resented every word of it. When he finished, he started over. By that time, he was chewing pizza, and she was watching every piece go in his mouth.

"She's never had pizza." Elliot handed his crust to Toby. "You could toss it to her."

Toby ate it. He wanted to discuss all of this now, but he wasn't keeping her. "She knows all this stuff?"

"Yes. She's been in training since she was weaned." Elliot started on another piece. "She's worth a bundle."

Toby didn't know what to say to that. Dogs didn't have value. They were nothing but a pain in the ass. "Why?"

Elliot launched into an explanation that Toby didn't really listen to because the word 'dog' was in every sentence. Toby grunted when Elliot was finished. She was still looking at him, but he wasn't throwing pizza across the room.

"I'm not calling her Brandy. I'm thirsty enough without that reminder every day. What did they call her?" Toby wasn't curious. He just wanted to know.

"Probably nothing. She trains for one maybe two years, and then she's paired with a cop. That's her partner until she's retired."

Toby was interested, but he wouldn't admit it. "And then?"

"Some of them are put down. Others are adopted out, and occasionally the officer takes them home." Elliot handed Toby more crust. Toby sat it on the floor. She perked her ears up higher. He looked at it and then at her. She got up, and he waited until she was a few steps closer.


Her butt hit the floor.

"Putting a leash on her is like telling her it's time to work?" Toby let her drool while he studied the pamphlet.

"Yep." Elliot suddenly dug in his pocket. "I forgot this in all the running and screaming."

Toby glared at Elliot and took it. It was her badge. "She failed."

"She's a police dog. Not everyone is cut out for field work. She's still considered a service dog." Elliot looked at her with affection, and Toby wanted to smack him. He put the badge, it had a clip for her collar, on the coffee table. She was waiting. He sighed and gave up.

"Eat it."

It was gone in one bite, and she lay down hopefully that much closer. Toby felt panic claw at him. He leaned back and waited for her to kill him.

"It's okay," Elliot said. "I think she likes you."

"Please, not that." Toby couldn't help but look at her big, brown eyes pleading for more pizza. There had to be some room here somewhere. "Does she have fleas?"

"Nope." Elliot tapped Toby on the knee. "Ready for a kiss?"

"Yes." Toby was scared, but he wouldn't say no to that. "A long one."

Elliot snapped his fingers. "Kiss."

She licked his cheek.

"Good girl." Elliot smiled - the rotten bastard. "Your turn."

Toby was never letting her teeth get that close to him. "I wouldn't even kiss you now. Not until you wash the dog slobber off." He eased to his feet, intent on demanding a real kiss, and her eyes tracked him. She was evil. He was sure of it. She'd act nice until she was ready to pounce and tear the holy shit out of him.

"Tobias, it's a dog. That's all. They're not minions of Satan."

"I said that aloud?"

"Yeah, ya weirdo." Elliot patted her on the head. "Don't listen to him, girl."

She laughed in a dog way. Toby slunk back to the bathroom. He needed a minute, or maybe a half an hour.


Elliot put the pizza away and lay on the couch. Toby would come out when he could handle it again. He was making progress. He was starting to think instead of blindly fear. She had moved to lie near the bathroom door. She did like him. God only knew why. Maybe because he'd stared her down.

"Don't get excited, girl. He can't handle it." Elliot felt a little cheap about the kiss, but Toby couldn't have expected a real one, could he? Toby kissed guys all the time, but Elliot hadn't made that leap yet, and he didn't think he would. He was too hung up on girls. Toby did look like a good kisser, but Elliot knew he wasn't gay. He'd never gotten a hard one for a guy and he never would. It wasn't possible.

"Did she die yet?"

Elliot projected his voice enough that Toby could hear him though the bathroom door. "Give it about ten more years." He heard muffled curse words.

She cocked her head and stared at the door. Elliot smiled. He knew in his gut that he'd done the right thing. He heard the door but didn't look. Toby didn't need the pressure.

"Don't even look at me like I'm steak." Toby's voice was harsh. "No, don't look pathetic. Fuck, you're the one who's mean!"

Elliot bit his lips to keep from smiling.

"No, you're not a good dog." Toby was talking more easily. "If I buy you treats, will you bite Elliot in the balls?"

"Hey!" Elliot sat up and threw the pillow. It hit the dog. She gave him a look as if he'd offended her.

Toby didn't pick it up. "You can have that one, dog." He put his hands on his hips. "How do I get her to attack you?"

Elliot narrowed his eyes, but he'd planned for this. "Uh, gee, was that page missing from the manual?"

"Someone tore it out." Toby glared. "You said she failed!"

"She did, but she got an A in attacking." Elliot had the urge to cover his balls. "She won't unless you command her."

Toby walked over to him. "You hand me a gun, but no bullets? Elliot, I'm surprised at you."

Elliot felt a trace of guilt. "Shit. I'll write them down. She also has a command override."

"She's not a fucking starship!"

Elliot raised his hands. "Fine. I won't teach you."

"Ah, fuck. What is it?" Toby looked as if he might kick him again.

Elliot went to find a pen. He wrote it down. Toby read it. "Shazam? That's the dumbest thing--" The page drifted to the floor as she ran to Toby and sat down right in front of him. She looked up, waiting for her next command. Toby was white as a sheet. Elliot hurried over to steady him.

"That's what she does. She will forget whatever else she's doing to sit in front of you."

Toby stared in to Elliot's eyes, barely tracking. "She is a starship."

"You need some sleep." Elliot gave him a gentle hug. It wasn't any big deal. Toby put his head on Elliot's shoulder. He seemed to be breathing. Elliot opened his mouth to say something about sitting down, and Toby kissed him - right on the lips. It went on forever - shock cycled through him along with chagrin and a healthy dose of regret for ever teasing about kisses.

"Got my kiss." Toby reached and wiped Elliot's mouth with his thumb. "Good girl. Go lie down."

Elliot found himself at a loss for words. He let go of him and went back to the sofa. The TV was still on, and he pretended to watch. Eventually, his dick would go down.


Toby had stolen the kiss he'd been promised, but he wouldn't feel guilty about it. Elliot looked stunned for one second, and then he put on that mask that said nothing. He went to sit down without a word. Toby licked his lips for one more taste. He still felt all tingly. Magic. He'd found it again, and God had to be laughing. That was when he realized that some of the fear was gone. He glanced over the mutt and really looked at her. She was a pretty tan color, except for some black on her head, and she didn't smell. She also looked intelligent, and as much as he hated stupid people, he hated stupid dogs even more.

"Can she go all night without peeing?" Toby didn't want to ever clean it up.

Elliot bit the inside of his lip. "Yes. Take her out right before you go to bed and again in the morning. If she has to go, she'll tell you."

"By strolling over to pee on my leg?" Toby dug some cookies out of the fridge and went to sit on the other side of the sofa. He tossed one at Elliot. "Good dog."

Elliot didn't look amused, but he ate the cookie. "She'll go to the door and whine. I noticed there's a park about three blocks from here. Make sure she gets a good run every day."

Toby didn't think that was necessary. "Fuck. I hate you." It was all he could think of to say. She yawned, and he flinched. "My God, her teeth are like knives."

Elliot snitched a cookie. "We could take her for a walk."

"People will run in fear."

"Just you." Elliot wiped his hands on his jeans. "Get a jacket. Got a Frisbee or a ball?"

Toby glared, but went to get his shoes on and his jacket. He made sure the window was locked and saw her staring at him. "Leash?" He hated to ask because that meant he was giving in, but, well, fuck.

"If you want." Elliot looked around. "It's in the car. Do you like her collar? I thought blue looked nice on her."

"She's colorblind." Toby wasn't sure what to do now. He went to the door. Elliot went out first, he was no help, and Toby stared at her. She wanted to go but she was waiting. Toby sighed. "Come on."

She was up fast and coming right at him, and he nearly climbed the wall. All she did was go out and stop, looking over her shoulder at him, and he wanted to kick her ass down the stairs. "Hate you," he whispered and locked the door. He went down, and she was right on his heels. "Really."

She didn't say anything. Elliot was rummaging in the back seat of his car. He finally brought a blue leash over, and Toby took it. "Great. Now I can hang myself." It was then he noticed her intense stare. She thought it was time for work. He clipped it on and waited to be dragged to his death, but she went behind him and sat down. She was far too close. He tried to hand Elliot the leash, but Elliot was walking towards the park. Toby hurried to catch up, and she was right with him.

"Elliot! Take her!"

Elliot put his hands in his pockets. "It's turning colder. Thanksgiving is on the way. What's the food bank doing?"

"Mabel wants the works." Toby couldn't decide whether to drop the leash or tie her to a post and walk away. Someone would take her. She was valuable. He could have brushed his hand along her head, but he wasn't ever going to do that. She was almost tense, and he could see that she was ready for anything. Maybe the leash was a bad idea. He wouldn't want to accidentally kill someone. She was dangerous.

"Turkey and everything?" Elliot was smiling, and Toby gave him a shove.

"Yeah." Toby felt like pouting. He didn't like Elliot at all. "She's huge. She's going to eat me out of house and home, and she's a dog!"

Elliot found a stick as soon as they got to the park. "Here ya go."

Toby took it but he wanted to hit Elliot with it. The sun was down, and their only light was the street lamps, but her eyes were on that stick. He took the leash off, coiled it up, and stuffed it away. She wagged her tail, and he threw the stick as far as he could. She didn't move.

"Go get it, ya dummy!" She raced off so fast that Toby jumped out of the way. "Okay, I'm going home. The stick was a good idea."

Elliot sat on a park bench with a huff and rolled eyes, and Toby nearly bolted as she came galloping back to him. The stick was slobbery now, and as he watched, she snapped it in half. "Stupid dog."

She smiled.


Elliot didn't hold out much hope for the future, but no one was dead, and Toby was breathing more regularly. He'd yelled a lot and bitched more than was believable, but he was surviving.

"Take her out, and we'll turn in for the night."

"Where are you sleeping?" Toby asked belligerently.

"Sofa." Elliot wasn't going near the bed. He wasn't.

Toby shook his head. "Wrong. You're sleeping between me and that animal. Get used to the idea while you take her out."

Elliot narrowed his eyes. "No."

"Yes." Toby pointed at the bed. "Now!"

She launched herself, and Elliot tried not to laugh, but he couldn't hold it in, and he knew Toby was going to hit him. Yep, there it was.

"Off! Down! Fuck's sake, dog. I was talking to him!"

Elliot went to his chair and sat down. "Take her out, and we'll discuss it."

Toby bitched and moaned but finally the door slammed. Elliot used the silence to laugh. He hoped the dog brought Toby back. At some point, Toby would realize that the dog was possibly as smart as him, and then things would progress more smoothly. The trainer had said that she was the smartest dog that had ever been through the program. Toby, whether he knew it or not, was getting over it. Elliot stretched. He could sleep, but he didn't think the bed was a good idea. Toby might get ideas that one kiss had turned him gay. Elliot shoved his shoes off and tried to relax. He wasn't gay. That hard on hadn't meant anything. Not a damn thing.

"She pissed on your car."

"Huang would say that's passive-aggressive behavior." Elliot turned off the television. He had to get a grip. "Okay, where's she sleeping?"

"In your car?" Toby smiled, but it was all teeth.

Elliot rubbed his face. He was tired. He was. "She needs a place. Make it for her and she'll sleep there every night."

"Outside the door?"

"If you want." Elliot was tired of arguing. "Got an old blanket?"

Toby groaned. "Stupid dog, as if I give a damn whether or not you're comfortable!"

She yawned and went in the bathroom. Elliot tried not to laugh as she drank from the toilet. Toby had a look of horror on his face. "Tomorrow, after I clean the toilet, we're going to a pet store to get her a water dish."

"Good idea. You two have fun. I have work." Elliot felt lucky he hadn't been called today. "Let's go to sleep. You've been panicked so long that I'm exhausted."

Toby grumbled something about assholes but started turning in for the night. He ignored the dog. Elliot watched them, and it was interesting. Toby didn't know it, but he was doomed. She'd made up her mind that he was the one for her. Elliot went to sit on the bed, trying to get used to the idea. He might have to do this, or Toby would sleep on the fire escape.

"Go lie down. No, I don't care, but that way." Toby was back down to boxers, and he was under the covers fast on the side nearest the window. "Elliot, stay between me and the dog. Please."

"She's a good girl." Elliot slowly lay down on his side of the bed on top of the covers. Toby was burrowed up, and he sighed loudly. Elliot rolled to his side and shut his eyes. This was no big deal. He still wasn't gay.


Toby knew she was going to eat him, but Elliot was warm and there, and it was enough to get him to sleep. Hopefully, when he woke up, the dog would be gone. She wasn't. She was looking right at him from across the room. Toby ducked his head and snuggled back into Elliot. He could thank the dog for this moment, but he wouldn't - stupid dog. Elliot, however, smelled good and felt better.

"She has to go out," Elliot grumbled and stretched, pushing against him. "I was on top of the covers!"

"Not my fault. I was asleep." Toby had shamelessly enjoyed it and wanted more. "Don't worry, El. You're not magically gay now. You're still as straight as that stick up your ass."

"Your dog needs to piss and eat, Toby-wan. Think you can handle it, or did all that pot make you stupid?" Elliot fired right back at him,

Toby put his foot on Elliot's ass and shoved hard. "Fucker."

Elliot hit the floor, got up, and strutted to the bathroom. He cursed the entire way, and Toby almost laughed, but the dog was watching him. She gave a soft whine. He groaned and found some clothes. She didn't fool around. She pissed all over Elliot's tire again. Toby smiled and ran back upstairs with her right behind him. It was chilly out there. He started a pot of coffee and stared at the dog food. She was politely sitting next to it.

"Tear it open and have at it." Toby didn't want to do it. She tilted her head. He glared at her. She lay down and gave him sad doggie eyes. "You're a bitch. You are. You're trying to manipulate me, and I don't like it."

She crossed her paws.

"You'll have to beg."

She sat up on her butt and put her paws in the air. She held it and held it until Toby gave up. "You win, but begging is very unattractive. People will think you are their bitch, and then they'll take advantage of you and before you know it, you're bent over a--"

"Uh, Toby, just feed her. You can lecture her about prison politics later," Elliot interrupted him. "Six cups."

"I remember. I'm not a moron." Toby pulled the string on the bag. She practically drooled on him. "I need a dog dish." As soon as he said it, he realized that he'd been played. "Oh my God, I have a dog."

Elliot suddenly hugged him. "Actually, she has you."

Toby breathed in the smell of him and hoped Elliot didn't move away. He did. Toby sighed and found a bowl, but it wasn't big enough. He used a plate, measuring the greasy stuff and pouring it out. She came over and sat down, but she waited.

"Go ahead." Toby got out of the way, expecting her to eat the plate as well. She didn't. She merely ate every bite, licked the plate, and wagged her tail at him. He had to say something, impressed with her manners. "You're welcome."

Elliot handed him some coffee. "You're talking to a dog."

"She's smarter than you and probably a better cop." Toby enjoyed that insult and took the cup of coffee. "When you leave, take her with you."

"No." Elliot sipped his coffee. "Take her to the pet store. They'll help you buy the right stuff. Explain that you're a moron when it comes to dogs."

Toby didn't think any of that was a good idea. "She can't ride the bus!"

"Yes, she can." Elliot pointed at the badge. "She can go anywhere."

Toby took a second to think about that. "That's kinda cool." He watched her find a spot and lie down, but she was watching him. "Was she free?"

There was a pause, and then Elliot grinned. "They're sending you the bill."

"It's not even a gift!" Toby put his cup down. "That's it. You're dead!"

"Toby, could you tell your backup to go lay down?" Elliot didn't look worried exactly, but he did look cautious.

Toby looked down at her. She had planted herself at his side; her lips pulled off her teeth, willing to tear Elliot to pieces. She was capable of great violence. He shuddered. "Sorry. Go lie down, please."

She did, but she was watching. Elliot sighed. "She's bonded to you. Be careful with her. She'll die to protect you."

"Stupid dog." Toby reached up and wiped some sweat off Elliot's forehead. "This was a dumb idea."

"Are you scared?"

Toby drank some coffee. "Mostly pissed off. Did you ever consider that I don't want a dog?"

"Not really. Dogs are fun." Elliot was clearly a dog person, and that was a mark against him. "I think I was more upset than the kids when ours died."

Toby tried not to feel sorry for him. "You could take her home. Really. I wouldn't mind. At all."

"She would." Elliot smiled. "I gotta go to work. You two have fun. Call me if you can't figure out how to use a pooper scooper or something important like that."

"She's going to take a shit. Just great." Toby didn't want him to leave. They could go back to bed and pretend they weren't sleeping together. "You could stay."

"Cragen does expect me to work. I'll tell Huang that you're fine."

"I am not!" Toby opened the fridge for food to send with Elliot. There was a package of cinnamon rolls from Mabel, and he handed them to him. "Come back soon, please. Like in an hour."

Elliot took the rolls. "Thanks. Maybe. Gotta work. If you need a break, just tell her to stay, and go do something. She'll be there when you get back."

Very sure that he couldn't be trusted with her, Toby shook his head. "I don't think I can do this."

"Yes, you can." Elliot was ready to go. "Have fun and get her some toys."

Toby leaned against the door when Elliot was gone. She was staring at him. Now she'd eat him. There were no witnesses. She smiled, and all he could see was a long tongue and huge teeth. He crept to the bathroom and shut the door. Maybe she'd disappear while he was in there. She didn't, but she was asleep, and he dressed quietly. Sneaking out the door seemed like a good idea.

Toby's phone rang, and he got it fast, but her eyes were open now. "What?"

"Toby, did you forget the rolls last night? It was Ramon's night off."

"Ah, shit." Toby didn't take his eyes off her. She might move or something. "Sorry."

"The dog is still there, huh?"

"Rick, it's huge!" Toby crawled out on his fire escape. It was more like a dog escape now. "I'm going to die."

Rick was quiet for two seconds. "You've been hanging out with Rusty too much. I put the rolls in the fridge. Ramon will deliver them all tonight. Try to remember his new day off is Wednesday, okay?"

"I was stressed out!" Toby began to think that no one understood. "Remember my huge scars?"

"You're using huge a lot." Rick sighed. "I'm sure it's a nice dog. Elliot likes you."

"What?" Toby didn't believe that shit, even if they had kissed and slept together. "Are you smoking wacky weed this morning?"

"Trust me. I'm gay. I have powers beyond straight men." Rick laughed. "I'm not saying he'll ever turn gay, but if you were patient, he might, well, ya know, let you blow him. Straight guys aren't that picky about whose lips are on their dick."

Toby swallowed hard, liking that idea a lot more than was healthy for his future. "I think I need to change my boxers." He tried to take a deep breath and failed. "No, I need CPR."

Rick laughed some more. "Come for lunch. We'll talk."

"Maybe. I got a few things to do before work tomorrow." Toby knew he did, but his brain wasn't kicking out any information beyond the fact that he had a dog. "Do I have to name her?"

"Dogs do like to know their name. That way, you can call them." Rick was getting his ass kicked later.

Toby shivered and had to go back inside. "I hate dog people."

"Should've asked for a fish." Rick hung up.

Toby groaned and put his phone away. He needed oxygen. "Are you a dumb dog?"

She wagged her tail.

"I thought so." Toby groaned again but louder. He was fucked, and he was going to get Elliot for this.


"How is he?"

"He was doing better when I left. Mostly, he's just angry at me now. He fed her and took her out." Elliot smiled up at Huang.

Huang frowned down at him. "It was a huge risk. You're lucky he didn't have a breakdown."

"He's not a damn pansy. He spent fifteen in one of the toughest prisons in the U.S. It's a dog - a nice one." Elliot couldn't believe all this worry over a dog.

"Trauma isn't always reasonable." Huang was getting huffy now. "I'll call him later."

"Do that." Elliot picked up his latest case and went to hash it out with Cragen. He had to work.


"Do you really need all this crap?" Toby looked down at her, ignoring the sales boy, who had been in her corner from the beginning.

She sat and smiled at him. That was a yes.

"What an industry. Look at all this junk. I'm not buying you a squeaky toy. You're a cop, for fuck's sake!"

The sales boy disappeared, but Toby didn't care. They had too much already. She looked at him and very slowly reached for a toy stuffed into the bottom rack, eying him the entire way. It was a rope with a big knot at each end. She wanted it bad. Toby didn't want to give in, but at least it didn't squeak. "Okay, but one, but no treats."

She held on to her rope until they got to the checkout. "Drop it."

Toby picked it up, had them scan it, and handed it back to her. She took it gently. He looked at the checkout lady. "Dogs are idiots."

"She seems pretty smart to me." The lady pulled a treat out of a bag. "May I?"

"No." Toby wasn't backing down on the treats. "Jesus Christ, dog, I spent less on myself when I got out of prison."

Everyone stopped and stared at him, but he didn't give a shit. He signed the receipt and took his bag. It was huge. Like his dog. His dog. This was nuts. She still had her rope, and he hailed a cab.

"No dogs!"

"She's a police dog, so shut the fuck up!" Toby put her in first and sat the bag between them. The cabbie glared but took them home, and she still had her rope. He struggled up the stairs, dropped everything on the floor, and flopped down in Elliot's chair. Her nose pushed under his hand, and he shut his eyes. "I'm not touching you."

She sat down next to him, and he knew that Elliot was right. He was hers now. Damn it all to hell. He got up and dug out all her stuff. She was willing to help, but he didn't know where to put her pad. It wasn't a cute, little bed. It was a large sheepskin pad that had cost a small fortune, and he sighed at how ridiculous it all was.

"Got any ideas?"

She sneezed. He laughed and then remembered to glare. "I don't want to step on you at night. How about here?"

He put it down and went to set up her food dishes. There was a mat for that also, and he filled her water dish. She drank it all and dripped water on the floor. He filled it up again and cleaned up the mess. "I don't like dogs."

She wagged her tail. Toby decided to ignore her. It would help him get through the day. He did his stuff on the computer, watched television, and called Mabel to talk about the food bank. She talked until his ear hurt, and he didn't mention the dog. Finally, he hung up, and it was lunch. He was hungry. She could suffer.

"I'm going out."

She got up instantly from her bed and went to the door. He rubbed his hands through his hair and pulled. "You're not invited." She nosed the door knob. He groaned and knew he was beaten. "Fine. I'll show Rick that I'm not joking, and he'll feel sorry for me."

They took the bus because Toby wanted to see if she'd behave. She did. He didn't put on her leash, and it made no difference. She stuck right with him. He noticed people smiling at her, and he was tempted to tell them off, but they'd think he was nuts.

"Sir, no dogs allowed." The maitre'd sniffed.

"You tell her." Toby went to the bar, and she did too. He half expected her to get a barstool, but she curled up underneath his and put her head down.

Rick came out from the kitchen. "You're alive!"

"Oh, shut up." Toby threw a straw at him. "She's a dangerous animal."

"I'm sure she is." Rick didn't look convinced, grinning like a fool. "So, how's your day?"

Toby decided to wipe the smirky smile off Rick's face. "Up! Here! Alert!"

Rick fell on his ass as she launched herself up onto the barstool. She put her big front paws on the bar, leaned, and growled very softly. She looked mean as hell. It was scary. Toby almost touched her but stopped himself.

"Okay, good girl. Go lie down."

She jumped off the barstool and flopped back down. Rick checked his pants. "Did I piss myself?"

"You sat in water." Toby laughed at him. "Isn't the pretty doggie woggie sweet?"

Rick glared, wiping his trousers off with a rag. "You may have a point."

"Ya think?" Toby yelled. "And the shit I had to buy? Fuck's sake, I spent more on her than I ever did my wife!"

"I can tell I need help here. This is an emergency." Rick started making phone calls. Toby dropped a peanut next to her to see if she'd eat it. She did. He nudged her ear with his shoe, and she seemed to like it. Rick put a drink in front of him.

"It's a double club soda. Brian is on the way. He can help."

"Oh, yeah. Brian. Good idea." Toby took a drink. He was beyond help. "Are we eating or not?"

Rick put in the order. "Can we move to a table?"

Toby got up and went. He knew his shadow would follow along, and she seemed fine under a different chair. "I'm not happy."

"I can tell. She's bigger than huge. I thought you were exaggerating. Why didn't you say no?"

"I did! About ten times! Elliot didn't give me a choice. He dumped the dog on me, spent the night, and went to work." Toby saw Rick's eyes widen.

"He spent the night?" Rick leaned forward. "Did he sleep with you?"

Toby rolled his eyes and groaned. "Focus on the problem - the dog!"

"He did! Oh, my, God." Rick was breathless. "Is he gorgeous naked?"

"He slept in his clothes." Toby regretted that. "He was very warm, and he seemed appalled when he realized where he was. The first thing he did this morning was make fun of me, so I kicked his ass out of bed."

"He called you gay."

"Worse. He called me stupid." Toby checked on her. Still there. "You have a dog. Take her. Please. I'll pay you, and we won't tell Elliot."

"She'd eat my Fifi." Rick peeked at her. "Will she eat the furniture?"

"Let's hope not." Toby had spent enough money on her for one day. "I'm not keeping her."

Rick shook his head vigorously. "Of course not. You hate her. She's ugly and stupid."

"She is not!" Toby clapped his hand over his mouth, dismayed, and put his head on the table. "I'm so fucked."

"Oh! My! Fucking! God!" Brian arrived with his usual fanfare. "That's not a dog. That's an elephant!"

Toby banged his head lightly. Brian and Rick went over everything in detail, but he noticed where their attention was focused, and it wasn't the dog.

"He slept with you?" Brian gasped, and he quizzed Rick completely on the subject before saying, "Well, it's love."

"What?" Toby jerked his head up. He grabbed Brian by the collar and shook him. "What?" he yelled.

Brian brushed him off. "Elliot loves you. He was so worried about your phobia thing that he wanted to heal you, so he bought a very expensive dog and spent the night! Come on, do I have to draw you a map!"

"He had them send me the bill," Toby growled. "Your map leads to Nowheresville."

Rick laughed. "What a cheapskate."

"Cop salary." Toby didn't think Elliot was cheap. He was more like frugal, and they shouldn't criticize him, not ever.

Brian was staring under the table. "Is it dangerous?"

"It's a she, and yes. She eats gay people for lunch." Toby snapped his fingers and she sat up next to him. Her head was slightly above the table. She stared at them, and Brian and Rick looked away. She'd won that round, and she knew it. Toby sighed. He'd done a lot of that today, but he was out of curse words. "Any suggestions?"

"Run." Brian was serious. "Maybe she won't find you."

Rick nodded. "Or take her to the pound. I'm sure they'd love to have her."

Toby found himself glaring at them. "She's a police dog, not some mutt, and, well, I think she likes me," he mumbled the last words, appalled at the idea.

"When's lunch?" Brian asked brightly. "And when your boyfriend gives you a dog, you smile. It's a commitment. It means he's serious about you."

Toby didn't think he and Elliot were even friends, and the word 'boyfriend' would send Elliot screaming to get his gun.

"How's Bow Wow?" Rick asked, and that set off a round of cute doggie stories. Toby had her lie back down. She was not cute. She would never do cute things. Well, that begging thing had been slightly funny, but she wasn't ever going to be... her head was on his shoe.

"I give up. You win. You're the boss, but I'm not ever going to like it," Toby hissed at her. "And I'm naming you Frou Frou Butt."

Rick and Brian laughed at him. They shut up as soon as he glared. "You two were no help whatsoever."

"Oh, I think we were. Let's talk about Elliot." Brian smirked. "What's he smell like?"





art by Beechercreature