Written by Beth

AUTHOR'S NOTE: Many, many thanks to Brigitte, Dawn, Rachel, and Vali, all of whom were kind enough to read this in an earlier form. Any remaining weaknesses belong to me and me alone.

Mid-June and it was 90 degrees already, muggy, hazy, and oppressive. Even with the air conditioning on it was still uncomfortable in Tim's apartment. Chris had brought fans, trained them on the bed, but still Tim grumbled, sticky, and sweaty and short- tempered. His face was flushed with the heat and he held an arm over his eyes like a little boy.

It had been a horrible last few weeks, Chris thought for the thousandth time as he silently watched Tim from the doorway. Chris could not, even now, bear to talk much about the day of the shooting. That didn't mean that he wasn't thinking about it, though; in fact, it seemed as if he couldn't *stop* thinking about it.

Part of him violently resisted the urge to remember- -it seemed mad to voluntarily relive even one moment of the trauma. But another part of him was hopelessly stuck on it, almost obsessively driven to revisit and reexperience. And so despite that fact that he wanted nothing to do with it, this section of his mind regularly replayed a handful of fragmentary images and scenes, intense flashes of some of the very worst moments of his life.

The one on his mind right now was of himself sitting on a foot stool beside Tim's bed in the intensive care unit. It was the dead of night, and the two of them were finally alone. The stool hadn't been high enough to allow Chris to look properly at Tim's face, and it was driving him crazy. He'd been standing for hours, though, and his legs were weak, and he was just too damn exhausted and shaken to go get something else to sit on. So he'd started watching Tim's hands, and then his chest, wanting and needing to take comfort from watching his lover breathe.

It had soon become apparent, however, that Tim actually wasn't breathing at all--the respirator was doing it for him, and in an almost ruthless fashion. Up and down, up and down, always the same regular and automatic pattern. There seemed to be incredibly little of the Tim that he knew in the body next to him, and it scared the hell out of Chris.

He had never before understood how *alive* Tim was when he slept, how vibrant and active. In bed at home, Tim had a charming repertoire of short breaths, long breaths, sighs, sniffs, and murmurs. He rolled over, restlessly moved his long limbs, buried his face into his pillow like a child.

Tim certainly wasn't doing any of that now--he wasn't doing anything at all, in fact. Chris had begun to panic. What if Tim really wasn't alive? What if the doctors were just using these machines to keep him breathing until they could break the horrrible news to everyone at daybreak? Hoping to find some sort of confirmation that these thoughts were insane, wrong, Chris glanced at the glowing numbers on the machines. None of them made a damn bit of sense to him. He looked for a medical chart to read: the nurse had taken it away.

He needed to see just one small sign of life, one single gesture or movement that was undeniably Tim. Please, he thought. Please, Tim. Let me know you're in there. Tim hadn't, or couldn't, and despair had swept over Chris. That night had been a million hours long.

Chris shook his head hard to get rid of the memory and the feelings that accompanied it. Stop it, he admonished himself. Look at him in bed in front of you right now. He's sweating, he's breathing, he's moving. Stop thinking about death.

And besides, several days after that horrible evening, reassuring words had come from the doctors, phrases like "good prognosis" and then "full recovery." If they had been tempered by warnings like "painful rehabilitation" or "exhausting physical therapy"--and he was sure now that they must have been--Chris hadn't heard them. He'd been far too delighted at seeing Tim's body slowly reemerge from the forest of machines and tubes, far too excited and grateful as his lover's moments of lucidity grew in frequency and duration.

It had been a long, slow unearthing, but finally the torn body beside him had once again been Tim Bayliss. A good memory for once: Chris vividly recalled the first time Tim had really come back, the first time he--Chris--had finally been able to see the man he loved emerge fully from the limp and exhausted form in the hospital bed. He'd come into Tim's room as soon as visiting hours would permit, which was shortly after dinner had been served, and found Tim propped up on pillows in front of a mostly untouched dinner tray.

"Hi, hi," Tim had said abstractedly, his eyes trained on the television flashing above him. Chris's eyes had followed Tim's and had landed upon . . . the cartoon network. They had then very nearly filled with tears. How stupid, how wonderful that the first thing beyond the pain to engross Tim was a bunch of animated characters plotting violent deaths for each other. Crossing the floor to block Tim's view of the screen, Chris leaned in and kissed Tim, first on his long throat and then his parted lips.

"Mmmmm," Tim had warmly replied, and then trained eyes back on the television.

Chris had nearly doubled over, his body seized by a painful racking laughter that bordered dangerously close on sobbing. If Tim was well enough to be self-absorbed, then Tim was himself. It was going to be all right.


"You're watching me. I can feel it." Tim's voice was low and tired, but it effectively rid Chris of the memories.

Chris stifled a laugh. Tim hadn't even bothered to move his arm from his eyes. "Does that bother you?"

"No." He sighed. "Come sit by me?"

Chris moved slowly to the bed and sat on the edge. "What do you need, babe?" he gently asked, unable to stop himself from running fingers through Tim's soft dark hair. This was the question that occupied his days now; what did Tim need? What would make him better? What would make him smile?

As he'd gotten just well enough to assess the situation he was in, Tim hadn't been the happiest patient in the world, nor the most even tempered. In the hospital, Chris had felt great sympathy as he watched Tim rail against the inactivity, the boredom, and the discomfort, repeatedly assuring him that things would get better once he was out of there, once he was at home.

That had been a lie of almost cosmic proportions, although Chris hadn't known it at the time. Although Tim *had* been delighted to get out of the hospital, to sleep in his own bed, and to wear his own clothes, he hadn't been prepared for the frustration and intense anger he'd feel as he realized just how long it was going to take for him to get back on his feet. Chris hadn't been prepared for it either. Tim was home, therefore Tim should be Tim--not Tim some of the time and a demanding and petulant stranger for the rest.

And neither of them had foreseen that the pain would linger so long, that Tim would lie awake groaning at night, unable to find a comfortable position, unable to relax. In desperation, Chris had offered to call the doctor to get a prescription for more pain killers. But Tim had refused--had shook his head vehemently and acted with an awesome and infuriating stubbornness. First of all, he said, his insurance probably wasn't going to cover it. Moreover, he was *sick* of being so dependent on the medication, and he wasn't going to make himself even more groggy than he already was.

Then he told a story about how his back kept going out at work a few years ago. He'd been given muscle relaxants to help him get through it, but in the end, they'd done more harm than good. He'd finally realized, he said, that the only real way to stop the pain was to let his own body take over the healing process, not to mask the symptoms with drugs. And so he was going to do that now. He'd take the rest of the pills he had been given, but that was it.

Chris had thought, and still did, that that was so much bullshit. His own belief on the matter was that pain should be avoided at all costs, but of course he couldn't force Tim to take more medication, not when the man was so determined. And besides, Tim was probably right about the insurance. But it was not easy to watch Tim suffer and to be so helpless to stop it.

Tim now moved his arm away from his eyes and managed a small, wry smile.

"Tell me what you want," Chris said again, awestruck at his beauty. "Tell me what I can do for you."

Tim laughed a little. "I predict that this will last for about one more week. Then, you'll kill me."

Chris smiled back. "You start physical therapy next week. You'll be out of the house and occupied with getting better. I can be nice until then."

"Mmmm," Tim said in response.

His face was still flushed even though the breeze from the oscillating fan lifted his hair from his forehead at regular intervals. It bothered Chris to see him still so uncomfortable.

He leaned down, kissed Tim gently on the mouth. "I'll be right back," he murmured, then headed for the kitchen. When he returned, he carried a small basin of water, a wash cloth, and a sponge.

"You know I can walk to the shower," Tim warily, defensively reminded him, watching as Chris dipped the wash cloth into the basin and wrung it out.

"This will cool you down," Chris said. "Just let me do this." Just let me do one damn thing, he thought. He leaned over the bed. "Tee shirt off," he said, fingers moving to the hem and lifting it. Tim sighed, then raised his torso half off the bed, wincing. Chris quickly swept the shirt off, then lay it at the end of the bed. Reaching again for the wash cloth, he folded it in three and then gently wiped the long column of Tim's throat, the underside of his jaw, the soft skin under his ears. Tim sighed and closed his eyes.

"Feels so good," he murmured almost inaudibly as Chris carefully wiped his cheeks and then his forehead.

Finally, Chris lay the cool cloth on Tim's brow, then reached for the sponge. He started with the collar bones, reverently tracing their shape and length, then moved down first one arm and then the next, taking great pleasure in the curve of muscle, the crook of an elbow, the soft skin of his inner arm. And then there were the hands, the swell of the palm, the length of the fingers, the circumference of his wrists.

Tim caught Chris's hand in his for a moment and squeezed in gratitude. Each time the rushing air from the fan touched him now, it brought relief as the thin sheen of water on his skin evaporated.

Chris turned away for a moment to wet the sponge again, then took a long, slow breath. Slow and steady, gentle and impersonal. He was going to wash his lover's chest without showing him how badly he wanted him, without informing him that the past six weeks without sex, without anything other than sick-room intimacy, had been driving him crazy. Tim definitely didn't need another reason to be frustrated.

And so he softly began to slide the sponge swiftly but carefully over Tim's pectoral muscles, brushing over dark nipples and soft skin with what he imagined to be a soothing and undemanding touch.

Tim opened his eyes then, met Chris's.

"Slower," he urged, the expression on his face unreadable. "And could you come closer?"

"Slower and closer," Chris repeated, his throat tightening a bit. "Okay."

He leaned over Tim and began again, carefully regulating his breathing as he touched him.

Tim sighed and rolled his head to one side, watching Chris's face.

Chris's eyes were trained on Tim's body. He bent over, then swept the sponge to his lover's side, gingerly, lightly running it over the incision that was fast becoming a new-born scar. He wanted to wipe the imperfection away, to rid Tim of the wound and of everything that it stood for.

"Stop it," Tim said irritably. "Not there."

Why not there? Isn't that the most important part of you--of me, of our life--these days?

Chris didn't say it, though, just lifted his eyebrows and then swept the sponge over to Tim's rib cage, delighting in the hollows between the ribs.

"You're getting thin," he observed as he turned away to dip the sponge in the water again. "Once the heat breaks, I'll cook you something really good."

Tim said nothing, but he kept his eyes on Chris, who waited for a moment, then returned to his ministrations. The middle of the chest, the sternum, the other side of the rib cage, and then down to the stomach.

"Kiss me." The words were almost whispered, but Chris heard them. Reverently, and with care not to betray the intensity of his yearning, he lowered his lips to the soft damp skin, savoring the taste of salt and soap. And then he moved upward, not able to stop. He could tell that Tim was breathing more rapidly, could feel the sweet tension gathering in the body under him.

Chris started a little when Tim slid fingers into his hair, massaging his scalp, but then relaxed into the caress, delighted. Enervated by the touch and deeply aroused by the rising and falling chest before him, Chris moved his lips to a nipple, bathed it lightly with his tongue.

"Chris," Tim breathed in the tone of voice he reserved for when he was very excited. And as Chris heard it, as he registered the fact that what he was hearing was Tim's desire, he felt the muscles of his groin grow tense, his cock begin to harden. His own breathing was rapid and shallow now. So much for control.

As he used tongue and teeth to lavish attention on Tim's nipples, Chris also seized the opportunity to slide the sponge back down Tim's abdomen, to dampen the quivering skin of his stomach, to gently dip inside his navel.

"Lower," Tim urged, his voice mostly breath. It reverberated in Chris's mind, made his nerves thrum. But he went higher instead of lower, higher because it had been so long since Tim had kissed him with anything other than weary affection, higher because he wanted to tease a little, higher because, frankly, he wanted to make this beautiful sulky man get a taste of what unfulfilled desire felt like.

Tim's mouth was eager and hot under Chris's, and Chris couldn't help it--he groaned before slowly moving away from the deep kiss.

Tim's eyes glittered with desire and . . . amusement? "So you *do* want me after all," he said, smiling a little, his voice a shade triumphant.

"You thought I didn't," Chris said, not concealing his disbelief.

Tim smiled. "Well, I had my hopes, but Jesus. Ever since we got here you've been Dr. Chris Rawls to the rescue . . . so distant."

Chris clenched his teeth a little. "I have been *trying,* smartass, to help you get well! And distant--distant?! You're the one--you're--" He broke off. If he started *that* conversation, they'd be here all night.

"I'm *better* now, Chris. I'm back on my feet, I'm walking around the house. You've got to stop seeing me as a patient."

"Believe me, I don't. You most definitely are *not* patient," Chris snapped.

Tim had the good grace to laugh at that before repeating "*A* patient." And then he relented. "With no patience."

Chris smiled a little, then dropped the sponge, moving a hand to Tim's chest, fingers gently skimming over soft hair. "Let's go back a bit. So we know that I want you. The question that arises is . . ."

"Go back to what you were doing and we'll find out," Tim said.

"If you're not sure, I'd rather not," Chris smoothly returned.

Tim sighed in exasperation, then said the words. "I want you, Chris. I--really do."

For a crazy second or two, Chris froze, unable to remember what it was that he should do. A glance down at Tim's face, open and expectant, brought him back to himself. He gingerly climbed on the bed, nudging Tim's legs apart so that he could kneel between them.

"Shirt off," Tim said helpfully, and Chris shrugged out of the tee shirt he wore, then eased himself over Tim, catching most of his weight on his hands.

"This is okay?" he checked, anxiously scanning Tim's face for signs of discomfort.

Tim was already reacquainting himself with Chris's upper body, and did not bother to answer. Chris stared into Tim's eyes and shuddered under his caresses, wanting Tim to see how he was affecting him, needing to seek out an unspoken communion.

Tim's face was flushed again, and he'd discarded the compress Chris had so carefully placed on his forehead. Chris hoped that he was blushing himself, or purring like a cat, or doing something obvious enough to let Tim know just how exquisite his touches were. He could not speak, so Chris buried his face in Tim's neck and groaned his thanks, knowing that he was overreacting but not able to help himself.

When Tim's hand hovered at the waistband of his shorts, Chris lifted his head and kissed him hungrily, deeply, caught between the desire to invite Tim to touch him more and the need to reclaim possession of the body beneath him.

Tim settled the matter by deftly sliding his hand under layers of fabric to hold and stroke Chris's erect penis, his thumb tracing intimate circles on the head.

"God!" Chris cried out, a little shocked by the note of surprise he heard in his voice. Had he been a stranger to pleasure for so long that he'd forgotten what Tim could do to him?

"Chris, take your shorts off," Tim said clearly and slowly and fondly, yanking frustratedly at the elastic waistband.

Chris got immediately to his feet, stumbling a little, then laughed. "I guess I'm all worked up," he said weakly, throwing the last of his clothes on the floor.

Tim's face was a study in amusement and affection. "You're beautiful," he said. "Come here."

And Chris did, much less careful of Tim this time, much more mindful of his own overwhelming need. He loomed excitedly over his lover, planted several desperate and entreating kisses on his mouth and jaw, and then moved back a little, trembling hard, to allow Tim's large hand to encircle his cock.

It was not an ideal position--in fact, Chris felt a little silly hovering over Tim, and his arms were beginning to shake from the strain of holding himself up. But he would have endured any amount of awkwardness for this, done any number of ridiculous things to be close to Tim again. And so he roughly pushed the discomfort out of his mind and gave himself over to Tim.

For a while the room was silent except for the occasional creaking of the bed as Chris rocked into Tim's grasp and the sounds of labored breathing. And then Chris reached the brink, slowly and powerfully and intensely. He began to call Tim's name, his voice almost a sob, his entire body growing rigid as he waited.

"Now, Chris," Tim urged, and the sound of that voice pushed him over. Chris exploded, the pleasure of the orgasm so overwhelming that he did not think he could remain in his body, did not think he could survive the onslaught. The delight of bearing the unbearable, he somehow managed to think before he collapsed onto Tim.

Tim's sharp gasp scared the hell out of him, and Chris immediately scrambled to get up, mortified. How could he have been so thoughtless?

"Are you okay? Are you okay? Are you okay?" He couldn't stop asking it, his voice high and strident.

Tim made a noise of annoyance, then locked his arms around Chris, keeping him in place. "Please, Chris--be still! I'm fine. I'm here--it's all right. It's all right."

Chris went limp and squeezed eyes shut as his throat tightened and his eyes filled. Not now, he scolded himself, but it was no use. The moment was too raw, the emotions too intense. He sobbed once, caught himself, and then began to cry.

Tim made low, comforting noises, stroked Chris's hair and neck, whispered to him.

You're here, you're here, you're here, Chris wanted to say. You're here and you're alive and I'm so fucking relieved.

"I love you so much" came out instead. It would have to do. He wiped tears from his eyes, trying to stop shaking.

Tim held him tightly.

"Go to sleep, Chris," he murmured tenderly. "I want you to sleep in my arms."

Chris raised his head, eyes questioning. "But you--"

"Don't worry about me. Really. I think you've done enough of that lately." Tim's voice was dry, and then softer: "Just relax, please. You don't know how good it feels to hold you, to see you calm."

Chris lay his head back down on Tim's chest, positioning himself so that he could hear his lover's heartbeat. Alive, alive, alive, it said. He let his eyes fall shut.