And when a man sat down on the barstool next to him, their knees touching, he hadn't moved away.
Normally after a bust like this, Elliot would be headed back to the station house, ready to type up his fives and move on to his next assignment. But there had been a problem with the perp in transit, and Cragen had called just as he was about to wrap up the scene. Stabler wasn't needed at the house, and the captain wanted him to stick around the hotel and keep an eye out for stragglers who might have had a connection to the underage prostitution ring they'd uncovered. Although technically off-duty, he was to stay in character as the flashy businessman for a while longer and wasn't expected to show up at work until the next day.
Honestly, he didn't mind being undercover at this particular bar. The freedom of pretending to be someone else for a while was no hardship, and the people in the lounge were interesting to watch, unlike his usual hangout where everyone was a cop. After walking around the lounge for a few moments, he spotted an empty barstool and headed over to it. As it was a Friday night, the place was packed, and though he tried to maintain a semblance of personal space, he was so close to the other patrons that their knees touched beneath the counter. The woman to his left jerked her leg away from the contact and glared at him like he'd just tried to molest her, but the guy to his right didn't move at all.
Curiosity piqued, Elliot turned his head and subtly checked him out.
Shaggy blond hair that brushed his collar, dark gray business suit with the jacket draped over the chair behind him, no wedding ring, eyes half-closed as the man studied his martini glass.
"Do I pass inspection?"
Spooked at having been caught, Elliot fumbled for words for a moment before pulling the cloak of his 'alternate identity' around over him. "Hey, buddy; just thought you looked familiar, s'all." Elliot kept his voice low and smooth, letting the end of the sentence slur out a little as if he too had been drinking steadily all night.
The other man turned towards him, eyes piercing Stabler's own, a beautiful pale blue color that did nothing to hide his hostility.
"Oh yeah? Where do you think you know me from?"
"Okay, yea, sorry then. I dunno. Didn't mean to bug ya," Stabler replied, wary of a confrontation with the stranger. Still, he couldn't seem to leave it alone, even though the blond man had already swiveled his stool back to its original position and was stroking the stem of his glass suggestively.
The bartender approached, and Elliot ordered a pint of Guinness. The drink arrived seconds later, and Elliot found himself staring at his pint-glass the same way that the man next to him was gazing at his own drink.
Stabler regarded him for another moment, then reached out and touched his arm near the elbow. "But you're- y'know, okay?"
The man turned back around and scowled at him. "What are you, the drinking police?"
Stabler nearly chuckled out loud. He shifted his features into a look of cocky nonchalance, picked up his beer and touched his glass to the other man's. "Sláinte," he said.
Light blue eyes found his again and the man stared at him with an exasperated look on his face.
"What?" Stabler asked.
"You just don't give up, do you?" The blond looked as though he was wavering between anger and utter disbelief.
"Well… you look just about the same way I feel. So- I just- well, things work out sometimes. They do," he said gently.
The look changed from indecision to misery. "The way you look? Your fiancée definitely did not just dump you."
There was a slight pause before the man spoke again. "I mean- you just don't look like someone that women walk away from. Or men. Whichever."
Stabler took a long swallow from his glass, and then said carefully, "My wife left me." Where did that come from?
The man looked Stabler up and down and then laughed loudly. Elliot quickly averted his eyes and pushed down the anger that rose up inside him. This is an insane conversation. He put his palms on the bar and began to stand up. He would find somewhere else to sit.
There was a tug on his jacket. He looked over and the blond was staring at him, a wide, friendly smile on his face. "Don't go," he said. "I'm sorry. I was just thinking that if it could happen to you, it could happen to anyone. Which wasn't something I was going to say aloud, but- really, sit back down. I can leave if you want. I'm the one who's out of line."
Stabler looked at the guy again. He sat back down.
"Let me buy you another drink. I'm really sorry. It's been… well, it's been a shitty day." The man signaled the bartender, who returned shortly with two more drinks. "Put all of his drinks on my tab," the man said, gesturing to Elliot.
"No, it's fine," Stabler said.
"I insist," the blond replied. "Let's start again. I'm Toby." He reached out with his right hand.
"Toby," Stabler said. "I'm Elliot."
Toby leaned closer to shake hands; Stabler could smell his cologne and was impressed by the firmness of his grip. Toby's hand was warm, and if their hands lingered in the greeting, Elliot didn't feel the need to point it out.
After the introductions, there was a lull in conversation, during which each man finished his drink and the attentive bartender brought more. Elliot was just about to break the silence when Toby beat him to it: "So, why'd she leave? Another guy?"
Elliot's body stiffened, then relaxed as he reminded himself that this guy truly had no idea; he could say whatever he wanted. But when he opened his mouth, the truth came out. "I work too much."
"That's it? You work too much?"
Elliot leveled a cold stare at Toby. "Yea. That's it."
Toby shrugged. "Okay." His eyes were clear, and he appeared content to drop his line of questioning.
Illogically, Elliot felt the need to elaborate. "I- I get called away all the time, from her, from my family. I can't… I don't talk about what I do at work with her, and it's- it wasn't- I wasn't enough. For her."
"Oh." Toby dipped his finger into his drink and lightly touched the rim of the glass.
Elliot watched as Toby wiped his hand on his napkin. "So-" he prompted.
"Oh. Well, I work a lot too, but in the end, she dumped me because she thinks I'm gay," Toby said with a wry smile, looking over to meet Elliot's startled gaze.
"She wasn't ever really my fiancée," Toby admitted. "Actually, I asked her to marry me earlier tonight. She said no."
He looked so downtrodden that Elliot was struck by the irrational urge to pull the guy into a hug. Shaking his head, he said, "Yea, Toby, you win. That's much shittier. At least I know my wife loved me back. Well, she used to." Nice, Stabler, way to commiserate. "I mean…" he trailed off uncertainly.
"No, I know what you mean," Toby reassured him. "I've been sitting here thinking about whether or not I ever loved her to begin with. I'm not sure I did. Maybe she's right, anyway."
"About-" Elliot wasn't sure how to put it.
"Yeah, about that." Toby grinned at him, blue eyes sparkling with a hint of mischief. He ran his hands up over his face and tucked his hair behind his ears; he stretched his arms up above his head and rested his head on his hands. His elbows were angled, and Elliot saw how his arm muscles stood out, even through the fabric of his shirt.
Toby smiled again, the skin around his eyes crinkled and he looked sideways at Elliot. "'Nother round?"
Although he'd reached his normal three-beer limit, Elliot agreed.
Their conversation flew along after that: they discussed sports and where they grew up and what their first cars were. The drinks kept coming, too, and when Toby asked him what sort of work he did, Elliot had to think for a minute. He was about to answer when his cell phone vibrated, and he had to pick up.
"Excuse me for a minute," he said to Toby, who nodded understandingly and turned away as if to give a semblance of privacy, although Elliot knew he could hear every word.
"Sta- Stacy, hi," he answered awkwardly. Oops. No more beer for me. "Um, yea. I'm here. No, not-," he paused. "I'm just having a beer, shooting the shit and… stuff," he ended lamely. "No, I'm fine. Really. I'll see you tomorrow. Yes. Okay, keep me posted."
Elliot snapped the phone closed and slid it back into the pocket of his leather coat. "Sorry," he said to Toby. "Where were we?"
Toby raised an eyebrow at him and said, "You were about to tell me about your job, but then you got a mysterious phone call." He laughed.
Elliot laughed too. "Oh- That was about work, actually. I- I work for the city… government… and that was my- assistant, making sure I made it to the hotel. There's a conference coming up," he invented.
"Huh," Toby mused, "that's not at all what I would have guessed."
Elliot's laugh was nervous this time. "Why, what would you have guessed?" he blustered.
"Mmm… salesman or bodyguard. You've got the smile to sell anything and the body to back it up. Plus, those glasses? They make you more approachable, even though I think you wear them more as a screen… you know, to try and keep people back."
Elliot stared at Toby. "And you're a… guidance counselor?"
"No, even worse. I'm a lawyer." Toby chuckled. "I attended this seminar once about picking juries. You know, how people dress relating to how they think, what their jewelry says about them, all that. It's pretty interesting, actually."
Elliot relaxed marginally. He could handle lawyers. He didn't think Toby was the soulless kind, either, the way he'd been mooning over that dumb girl who dumped him. And he'd seemed truly interested in everything Elliot had to say.
His thoughts fuzzy, Elliot looked around. The bar was mostly empty, and the woman who'd glared at him earlier was gone. One of the bar backs was putting chairs up on tables.
Toby leaned into him, nudging Elliot with his shoulder. "One more, Mr. City Official?"
"Umm… yea, I shouldn't. I still have to get home…" Elliot was startled at how much time had passed in conversation with the attractive, blue-eyed Toby.
"Home, schmome!" Toby sang out. "Hey- you said you were staying here for a conference." His eyes drilled into Elliot, but they weren't accusatory, just confused.
"Well, shit!" Elliot covered. "I forgot to book a room. That's okay, I'll just get a cab and-"
"Nooo, don't be silly. You can stay in my room. It's. Large." Toby giggled. "I reserved it when I got here," he whispered confidentially.
"No, really. I mean, that's great of you to offer, but-" Elliot tried desperately to think of a reason why he couldn't stay.
Toby reached out and lightly traced his index finger in circles over Elliot's bare wrist. "Elliot. Please, stay with me."
The combination of a plea and an invitation were clear in Toby's voice, and shivers ran down Elliot's spine when Toby touched him. Hell, just get the guy to his room safely, wait until he passes out, and then take off. Convinced of the strength of his plan, Elliot looked up from Toby's fingers into his pretty eyes. "Okay. Okay, Toby, c'mon, let's go."
"Where's your stuff?" Toby slurred out, trying to stand and having to sit back down.
"Um- it was a last-minute thing. Li- Lily. My, my other assistant. She'll have stuff sent over in the morning."
"So many assistants," Toby grinned. "And here I am, the one needing assistance." He looked pointedly at Elliot, who shakily rose to his feet and put his arm out for Toby to hang on to as he pushed himself up again. This time he was able to stay upright, and when the bartender rushed over with the bill, he signed with a flourish and tucked the pen into his pocket, wheeling around to look at Elliot. "Sixteenth floor. Let's find the elevator." He beamed at Elliot, and Elliot had to grin back.
The ride to the sixteenth floor was made in silence. Toby leaned against the wall of the elevator, his eyes closed and his breaths even. Elliot took the opportunity to study Toby: the baby curls at the nape of his neck, the way his fingers drummed the rail, the fit of his gray slacks on his hips. When the elevator door slid open, Toby said quietly, "Finally," and Elliot's breath caught in his throat. Toby was looking straight at him, and Elliot knew that Toby knew that he'd been staring.
"You stole their pen," he whispered to Toby as they stumbled their way out of the elevator, one strong arm around Toby's waist.
Toby sniggered under his breath. "With what I paid for the room, I'm sure they don't care." He patted his pocket for the keycard and Elliot noticed that there was only one door in the hallway.
"P is for penthouse," Toby poked him in the shoulder. "You coming in?"
Elliot followed him into the hallway and took a good look at the room. Penthouse. It was, in fact, very large, and Elliot was relieved that the couch looked comfortable. Toby shrugged off his suit jacket and began unbuttoning the collar of his shirt. "There must be a bed around here somewhere," he said, opening a door that led to a linen closet.
Elliot felt himself turning red. He stammered out something about needing to use the bathroom and started opening doors too. On his second try, he found the bedroom and stared into the room: a king-size bed with an elaborately carved headboard dominated the space, while a comfy-looking easy chair, dresser and yet another door took up the adjacent wall.
"Oh good, you found it." Toby breezed by him, turning on the light, then turned to clasp Elliot's hand and tugged. "Come on, I'm sure that's the bathroom through there," he said, pointing to the other door. Elliot stepped forward as though in a daze and heard the click of the door behind him when Toby pushed it closed.
Great plan, Stabler. "Uh- I need- I'll be right back," Elliot managed as he fled to the relative safety of the bathroom.
Elliot flipped on the light switch, then closed and locked the door. He flipped the toilet lid open, unzipped his pants and took a much-needed piss. Running cold water in the sink, he washed his hands and then splashed more water onto his face. He let the water run while he looked up at himself in the mirror. The rivulets of water looked like tears. Okay. I'll just go back out, say thanks for the room, goodnight and go out to the couch. No big deal. Okay. Here I go.
Toby knocked on the bathroom door. "You almost done? I wanna brush my teeth."
Worst line ever. Elliot brightened at the thought. Maybe he was serious. Maybe he just didn't want to be alone tonight, but wasn't…
He called out, "Two seconds!" and shut the water off. When he opened the door, Toby stood in front of him in his trousers and undershirt, bare-footed, brandishing a toothbrush.
"I found this one on the dresser. I'll bet there are spares in the medicine chest," he said.
Elliot backed up and went to check. It was fully stocked: razors, shaving cream, hand lotion, band-aids and aspirin. He pulled out a pre-wrapped toothbrush, a tube of paste and the bottle of aspirin.
"Good call," he replied, and Toby came over to stand at the sink next to him. Elliot watched as Toby started to brush his teeth. He shrugged and followed suit.