Written by Valeria
NOTE: Here's a story several of you already saw on Autofocus, centering around three characters I normally don't gravitate toward writing about. Enjoy—and if you don't, rest assured that you'll probably not find me plumbing these particular depths again any time soon. Feedback, as always, is very welcome.
They had taken their drinks onto the enclosed porch, not quite as cool as the house but certainly more pleasant than the oppressive outdoors. Pembleton sat perched on the edge of his wicker chair, half turned away from the night view. Bayliss leaned back on the chair cushions, cane by his feet, eyes fixed on the dark starry sky.
It had been just over six weeks since he had taken a bullet for the man who sat beside him, an event of which he had no conscious memory. All he recalled was a blinding flash, a series of voices echoing in and out of his mind, wavering and disappearing...and waking up ten days later with a whey-faced intern peering clinically down at him. Not the sweetest of sights, but he'd take it over the tunnel of white light.
Those first days, he had lain in his hospital bed silently terrified of paralysis, chronic pain, permanent disability. None of those scenarios had materialized. He had been fortunate, the doctor told him: The bullet had entered his back, splintered on a rib and narrowly missed the spine itself.
He was still spending the better part of his day in physical therapy, and would be using a cane for several more weeks, if not months. Couldn't drive, wasn't yet up to sitting behind a desk for a full shift. However, he had been assured--given enough time--of a complete physical recovery.
But they couldn't do much for that degenerative disk. Well, no one ever said life was fair.
As he shifted on the cushions, feeling a momentary twinge, Frank leaned toward him solicitously. "You all right?"
"Sure. Fine." He took a long swallow of wine.
"You need another pillow, or--"
"I'm fine, Frank. Just relax. Okay?"
Pembleton searched his face for a moment, clearly skeptical, then nodded.
Both men were quiet for a few moments. Behind them, they could hear the faint rise and fall of Mary's voice, in the back bedroom with the children.
"You're gonna spoil those kids," said Frank conversationally. "My kids."
Tim grinned. "Your kids couldn't be spoiled, Frank. Not humanly possible.
I'm just glad they liked my presents."
Frank gave a sardonic snort. "You do realize you don't have to show up groaning under the weight of every toy sold in the Baltimore metropolitan area to be welcome here, don't you? Running around like a fool looking for--"
"For the final time, Nurse Nancy, I'm *fine.* And I like buying stuff for Livvy and Frankie. It's fun." He stretched a little, leaning back with his eyes half-closed. "She is the spitting image of you, you know. Livvy."
"You think?" Frank looked sincerely surprised.
"Oh, yeah," Tim nodded. "It's the eyes, I think. Same eyes.
"Intensity." Frank rolled the word around his tongue thoughtfully. "Well, she is a stubborn little cuss, if that's what you're saying."
"That is exactly what I'm saying," Bayliss laughed.
"What about Frankie?"
"Too young," said Tim. "Can't tell yet."
The silence stretched out.
"So," Tim said after a while, a little too casually, "did you take that job with the security company?"
Frank turned to look at him, giving him the baleful gaze of old; a refreshing change, really, after all the anxious fussing of the past few weeks. "No--but that doesn't mean anything."
"It doesn't," said Tim.
"No. It does not."
Tim shrugged. "Well, then. No point in talking about it anymore, huh?"
"None at all."
Frank sighed heavily, and spoke with the air of one granting an immense favor. "I do not know what I'm going to do, Tim. I really don't."
"Does it mean anything that I don't blame you for--"
"Tim, I just said I don't know what I'm going to do."
Tim opened one eye all the way, regarding his erstwhile partner, and decided to leap into the breach. "Because, you know, as the one who got shot, if I don't hold you accountable for it, then you don't have to stand on some misguided principle for--"
Frank leaned as far forward as he could, fixing Tim with that old stare. The box stare. "For the final time, Tim, *I--do--not--know--what--I--will--do.* Understand?"
There was a time when that stare, that tone, would have made Tim shrivel up inside, miserable in the knowledge that he had screwed up yet again. But now he couldn't help it; he smiled. "I most certainly do, sir. And I most humbly beg your forgiveness for even dreaming to ask."
Tim considered it. "Mmm...no, thanks. I'm a little tired." He smiled sweetly.
An answering scowl, and more silence. Bayliss concentrated on the city sounds filtering through the porch screens, drifting a little. He was, in fact, tired; it had been a physical therapy day, and the combination of the exertion, the punishing summer heat and Mary's excellent cooking had filled him with a not entirely unpleasant lassitude. Frank could sulk all he wanted, it didn't particularly bother him...
A police siren sounded far in the distance; he shook his head a little at the noise. The city was falling to pieces all around them, the local press taking a carnivorous glee in tracking the carnage day by day. It made him restless. He wanted to be back out there, to be doing his job...but he wanted to be doing it with his partner.
The two men's eyes met, the sameness of their thoughts clearly broadcast.
The sound had got to Frank, too.
"Mary thinks I should go back," Frank said softly.
Tim looked at him in surprise. "Mary? I thought she's wanted you to quit for..."
Frank shook his head. "She wanted me to pay more attention to her and the kids. I am learning to do that. She never wanted me to jump ship entirely.
The last time that happened--"
"Congressman Wade," Tim interjected. He hadn't forgotten.
"Congressman Wade. I nearly drove her insane, I think." Frank smiled a little at the memory. "She gives me chapter and verse about how this is what I do, this is who I am...it's rather like living with you at this point."
"I'll take that as a great compliment." Bayliss tipped an imaginary hat, then draped one arm over the back of the chair. "I'm not going to lecture you, if that's what you're afraid of."
"Well, good, because you started--"
"I won't." Tim decided to change the subject. "Goddamn weather..."
"The ninth level of hell," Frank agreed. "Took the kids down to the beach yesterday, but it was just too hot--even in the water. I don't want to think about what July will be like."
"It'll pass," said Tim. "I hope. We're going down to the Chesapeake in a couple weeks."
"You and this Chris person," said Frank.
Tim met his eyes steadily. "Yes, Frank. Me and this Chris person."
Frank's expression didn't change, but his caution, his careful choosing of words, was palpable. "You two are getting along, then."
Tim stretched out his legs, idly running a foot along the porch's smooth floor. "Yes. We are getting along."
"Well, that's...good. Very good...what the hell are you laughing at?"
"You," Bayliss said, trying to hide his smile behind a hand and not succeeding. "It's all right, Frank. I know this all makes you uncomfortable."
"It does not make me uncomfortable." Frank shook his head stubbornly. "All right?"
"All right...if you insist." Tim drained his glass, setting it carefully on the small table between them.
"As long as you're sure."
"Sure of what?"
Frank made a discomfited gesture. "Sure of what?" Tim repeated.
"That this is really what you want."
Tim sighed impatiently. "You mean, that I really want someone who happens to be male. Is that what you mean?"
Tim turned in his chair, now fixing a level gaze on his companion. "Frank, I don't expect you to understand. All right? You don't have to understand, you don't have to accept it...you just have to let it lie. Because it's not going away. Okay? Can you do that?"
"I didn't say there was anything for me to accept," Frank retorted. "It's not my place to accept or not accept your private life--"
"I'm just saying, I hope you're sure."
"You hope I'm sure," Tim repeated, without rancor. "You don't think I hope I'm sure. No...you just think I'm fucking around. Like you've thought all along."
A heavy sigh. "Tim--"
"You know I'm right, Frank. You haven't liked this since the beginning. You were all over me about just having dinner with him--"
"And then you tell me I'm 'confused.' Over what? Over *dinner?* I had a good time, Frank. I could actually talk to him without feeling like I was making a complete ass of myself. Do you know how--" Agitated, he broke off for a moment. "Never mind. I don't have to justify this to you. I'm sick of justifying things to you."
"Tim." A hand on his shoulder.
Tim looked away. He had said more than he wanted to; Frank had that effect on him. He had said much more than he wanted to that long-ago, drunken night on the pier, a memory that still made him wince. *You're not a hugger. I don't want your comfort. I don't want to be partners with you anymore.*
Frank's hand was warm, steady. He stared down at it, not answering.
"You don't have to justify anything to me," Frank said quietly. "That isn't what I meant."
Tim made a noncommittal sound.
"I worry about you," Frank continued. "So that's a bad thing. So I'm a bad guy."
"I didn't say it was a--"
"Tim, you know--" Frank hesitated. "You're a nice guy, okay? You like to please people. So...if you were feeling as lonely as you said you were, and..."
Bayliss stared at Pembleton for a moment, comprehension dawning slowly. Then he burst out laughing.
Frank took his hand away, looking indignant, as the other man let out a full-throated giggle. "Is that what you thought?" Tim finally managed to say. "That I got *seduced?* Poor little Timmy got wined and dined and had his virtue compromised by the scheming fairy restauranteur? He just wanted to make friends, and he got screwed?"
Tim shook his head, not giving any ground. "That's not what happened, Frank.
It's also an insulting little scenario on about nine different levels, by the way...but I'll let it go."
He watched, agitation giving way to amusement, as Frank rubbed a hand against his smooth bald skull, a gesture he remembered of old. A gesture signaling his partner was twisting neurons into knots trying to figure something out.
"Since when do you worry about me, anyway?" he continued. "Didn't we have this talk already in the hospital? I absolve you of all this guilt you're carrying around about what happened to me. Okay? Go in peace, my child, and please give it a rest."
That got another full-bore scowl. "Understood, Bayliss. I humbly pledge never to inquire after you, your health, your well-being or your life ever again. I know it's not my place to ask. I realize I'm not worthy of being accorded the status of friend--"
Tim groaned in annoyance. "Frank, knock it off--you know damn well you're my friend. Do you think I would have told anyone else about Chris? Do you think I would have told anyone else about...when I was a kid?" He hesitated a moment. "And I know you worry about me. You wouldn't have followed me to George's house that time if you didn't. I'm not stupid, Frank."
He waited for another stream of sarcastic patter. Instead, Frank nodded slowly, the anger in his eyes fading.
"Are you still...taking care of your uncle?"
"His liver is going. Decades of alcoholism will do that to you. He's in a nursing home." Tim shifted in his chair, running an absent hand through his hair. "My mother told me, while I was still laid up. Apparently, she'd been bringing him the occasional bag of groceries for quite a while. Great minds think alike. Or maybe old George really knows how to pull the strings." He gave Frank a twisted little smile. "Hardly matters at this point."
"Does she know?" Frank asked flatly.
Tim considered it. "I think she knows something. What kind of something, I don't know. And I'm not asking."
"I meant, about Chris."
Tim smiled again. "Same answer."
Tim regarded Frank sideways, the corners of his mouth twitching. "I mean it, Frank. Give it up."
"Give what up?"
"You know perfectly well what, Frank," Tim retorted. "I'm not going to give you wheres and whys and what-am-I-reallys and how-do-I-knows. Okay? I just..."
He picked his wineglass up from the table, fingers slowly tracing the rim.
"I used to--I mean, the job doesn't help sometimes, but this was all before Adena or anything, okay? I used to wish I knew what people meant when they talked about being happy. I really didn't know. And now--" He gave a one-shouldered shrug. "Now I feel like I do."
"Yes. I mean, not all the time, but...enough. Enough to feel alive. It's a nice feeling, feeling alive. That's something, isn't it?"
Silence. Tim shrugged again, turning the glass over and over in his hands.
"I prayed over you," Frank said suddenly, surprising himself.
"You did," said Tim.
Frank took another swallow of wine, staring out at the city lights. "Yeah, I did. I promised God I'd do anything if you lived..."
"Threw a few Hail Marys in there, too," Tim replied softly.
Pembleton turned, his large dark eyes narrowing sharply. "Mary told you."
"No. I heard you."
"You did?" The other man looked very ill at ease.
"Not the first part. I mean...that you'd do anything. But I was going in and out for a while. Just hearing bits and pieces of things. I heard what sounded like you-- praying."
Frank nodded, the fingers of one hand curling on the chair arm.
Tim replaced the empty glass. "Frank, come back to work. Mary's right. It's what you do. It's who you are. And part of what you are is--it's what we are. I mean, who the hell am I gonna partner with? Munch?"
That got a smile. "You know I'm right," Tim doggedly continued. "You turned in your badge because of me, right? Well, I'm here. I'm absolving you. I mean it. And I'm asking you to come back with me."
Frank looked down at his feet, tongue between his teeth. Tim waited.
"I don't know what I'm going to do, Tim," he finally said. "I can't promise you I'm going to be back. I'm not saying no. But I'm not going to make commitments I don't think I can keep." He lifted his head again. "And whatever I decide, I know that you'll go back."
"You're right," Tim said. "I will. But whatever you decide, either way--you're my partner. Anyone else is just gonna be someone I ride with."
The two men sat there in the deepening night, the porch light softly illuminating their features, regarding one another.
"Have a good time on the Chesapeake," Frank said.
Tim didn't answer for a few moments. Then he smiled.
"Thank you," he said.
Another siren wail came from far away; both men straightened in their seats, listening intently, looking like dogs on the scent. Then Bayliss settled back in his chair, shaking his head.
"Fire engine," he said.
Frank considered the sound, then nodded in agreement. "A fire engine."
The apartment was dark when he entered, save for one small living room lamp and a dim light from the back bedroom; the air conditioner whirred softly.
He approached the half-opened bedroom door quietly and poked his head in, a hand on the jamb. Tim lay sprawled on top of the bedspread, stripped down to his T-shirt and boxers, glasses off and eyes closed. He stood there for a moment, watching the other man's chest steadily rise and fall as he dozed, then moved slowly forward.
He stepped right on the loose floorboard, which gave a loud answering creak; Tim stirred and opened his eyes, smiling when he saw Chris. "Hey."
"Hey yourself. When'd you get in?"
"Uh..." Still half-asleep, Tim turned his head toward the bedside clock.
"Hour ago, around there."
Chris walked toward the bed, pausing to kick off his shoes. Closer up, he could see the lines of fatigue in Tim's face, sense the exhaustion; he shook his head a little.
"What is it?" Tim asked.
"Nothing. How was dinner?"
"Good. Very good."
He sat on the edge of the bed. "So...was anything settled?"
Tim laughed a little. "No. But I didn't really think it would be." He raised his arms over his head. "He didn't say no, though...that's something."
"Mm." Chris reached over and stroked the other man's hair. Tim smiled and closed his eyes again, leaning into the touch. "He'll be back."
"What makes you so sure?" The fingers against his scalp were warm, soothing.
He felt so tired.
"I just know."
"You just know, huh? I wish I did."
"Trust me. It's a feeling I get."
"A feeling." Tim opened his eyes, his mouth quirking a little. "So how do you know it's the right feeling?"
"I just know," Chris smiled back. "I know feelings."
"You know feelings, huh?"
"I know feelings." He leaned forward, into the pair of arms that pulled him close. "I know this feeling..."
Their mouths met in a long, searching kiss. Tim's hands reached up slowly, sinking into his lover's dark hair, savoring the softness; Chris pressed himself against Tim's body, his own hands pulling up the T-shirt to caress the smooth skin beneath. Their movements became rougher, more urgent, Chris's arms tightening around Tim's bare back...
And then Tim, his mouth still locked with Chris's, let out a ferocious yawn.
Chris snorted and then started laughing, hard. Tim joined in a little abashedly, his face flushed. "Sorry," he muttered.
"That's okay." Chris rolled off him, curling up against his side, an arm around his shoulders. "Long day, huh? You looked beat coming out of the PT--"
"That went fine," Tim protested. "I got some rest afterwards--"
"What, half an hour? That's not--"
"Don't hover," Bayliss said gently.
"I'm not," Chris replied. He ran his hand up and down Tim's back, carefully avoiding the long, raised scar that was still an angry red. As Tim shifted his weight on the bed, Chris saw the sudden grimace, heard the quickly stifled catch of breath.
"You overdid it today," he said, a reproving note in his voice.
"Yeah," Tim agreed, his eyes sinking shut. "I know." He lay quietly, his head on Chris's shoulder. Several minutes passed in silence.
Chris pressed his nose to the other man's scalp, letting the smells of Tim's hair, his skin, the faint lingering scent of shampoo permeate his senses.
That was what had been most horrible about the hospital, he thought--not the harsh lights or the constant squawking of the intercoms or the bewildering array of tubes and wires and machinery. It was the smell, the disgusting antiseptic reek that penetrated every corner of every room, shutting out any odor that might be faintly human, remotely comforting. He couldn't begin to comprehend how doctors and nurses could stand to be swimming in that smell all day. It had to do something to you, seep into your brain, damage it...
It was Frank Pembleton who had called him, very late that night. He had just dragged himself through the door after a long, exhausting evening going over restaurant accounts. "Mr. Rawls?" the voice asked, perfectly collected and broken all at once. "I understand you're a friend of my partner? Tim Bayliss? I'm afraid he was shot tonight."
The words made no sense; they weren't real. But he obediently followed them down to Johns Hopkins anyway, feeling as he drove--steadily, calmly, not breaking any rules of traffic--like that poor fellow in The Manchurian Candidate. A stranger's voice on the phone giving insane instructions he had no choice but to obey. *The man you love is in a coma. We'll just have to wait and see if he comes out of it. Why don't you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?*
When he finally got there, the room was swarming with people. That was the first feeling to cut through the protective numbness: a sharp surge of irritation. Tim's mother, of course; his partner, sure. But who the hell *were* all these other people? Cops, most of them. He didn't like cops. Tim was the exception that proved the rule. All that mournful concern...half of them would probably have wanted to pull the plug on Tim if they'd had any clue who he, Chris, really was. But he played the courteous southern boy he'd been raised to be, and said nothing. A friend. What else?
It was Frank Pembleton's wife who had made room for him near the head of the bed; whether Frank had told her, or she simply had a radar for such things, she seemed to sense the truth instantly. He stood there, gazing down at his lover, hands clenched in his pockets to keep from touching him. Tim's mother had sat on the opposite side, stroking her son's hair, deliberately pretending not to see him.
Not until three endless days later did he get any semblance of time alone with Tim. He'd been sitting there holding Tim's hand when the slight, redhaired woman had walked in, just in time to see him kiss the other man tenderly on the cheek. Another cop, one he used to work with. She didn't look the least surprised, didn't miss a beat; just strode to the empty room next door and brought herself back a chair. They had talked for a long time.
"Hmm?" He sounded like he was falling asleep again.
"Who's that woman you used to work with? Small, really long red hair--"
Tim raised his head a little. "Kay Howard. She's in fugitive now--I mean, I *think* she's in fugitive. I don't know. Damn rotation system got everything fucked up." He settled back against Chris. "No sense...why do you ask?"
"I met her," Chris said. "In the hospital."
"Oh. You never told me...sharp, Kay is. Perfect clearance. Nobody beats her..."
"She was nice," Chris continued. "She told me about when she was shot, and--"
He broke off. Sergeant Howard had seemed certain Tim would wake up, and be absolutely fine when he did; no doubt in her mind. Over the next week he clung to that almost reckless certainty, like a drowning man to a scrap of wood.
"Kay's nice," Tim agreed. He was definitely falling asleep.
Chris nodded silently. Tim Bayliss, Frank Pembleton, Kay Howard; three decent cops. It was a start, anyway.
He circled his arms tighter. Tim rubbed his cheek against Chris's shoulder, a gesture that made him think of a cat. He liked cats. Sensuous creatures. Like Tim. During those first few weeks--in the midst of all the new discoveries, the sweet, awkward excitement--he had been overwhelmed by the sheer force of the man's need. He was starved, not for romance or sex but for common garden-variety affection, for someone he could simply touch, simply hold. The sort of affection anyone should be able to take for granted. It had overwhelmed Chris, and made him sad.
The arm around Tim's back was prickling with pins and needles. He moved it a little, feeling Tim place his forehead in the crook, his breathing now steady and deep. Quiet, now. The man loved to talk, he had found that out.
Long winding stories with no clear beginning or ending point; Chris could pick up any of the threads he chose, asking after it, and get an interesting story.
Tim had said that to him, during that first dinner: *You're so interesting.*
*You certainly interest me,* he had said back--quietly, with no way of mistaking his meaning. A respondent flash of excitement in Tim's eyes, mixed with fear. The idea that he, mild-mannered Christopher James Rawls III, could scare anyone, filled him with a guilty pleasure. He felt something of the same pleasure their first night together, learning the most intimate facts about this man. The smell of his sweat. The tastes of him; in the hollows of his throat, the small of his back, the insides of his thighs. The sounds. The expression on his face when he came.
*Would you touch me again,* Tim had asked. Wanting, tentative. Trying not to sound scared.
*I want to touch you forever,* Chris said back. The utterly sincere nonsense of falling in love.
And the other, deeper parts of himself Tim had shared. Sagas of past romantic disasters, a few of which Chris wasn't sure he should believe. (A coffin? Tim?) Adena, whom he talked about as though she were his own child. The story--related with complete detachment, Chris listening in silent, nauseated rage--of a particular Thanksgiving, a faceless uncle instructing him to rinse out his mouth...
He hated it, he hated knowing any of it; and it wasn't enough. He wanted every last fact, every random event and accident that had gone into the making of this man. That was what Tim brought out in him: tenderness, and avarice. He wanted everything about him, everything from him.
What did Tim want? He still had no real idea.
He gently disengaged his arm, and reached to pull down the blanket and sheets. Tim muttered without opening his eyes, "What're you..."
"Come on," Chris said softly. "Get into bed."
Tim obediently slid his legs under the covers, stretching out with a heavy sigh. As Chris reached over to switch off the nightstand lamp, Tim murmured something unintelligible.
He leaned closer. "What was that?"
"I love you," Tim repeated, pressing his cheek to the coolness of the pillow.
Chris put his lips to one soft, exposed earlobe. "I love you, too."
He watched for a few moments as Tim slept, then quietly rose from the bed and left the room, avoiding the loose floorboard. He closed the bedroom door carefully behind him and headed for the pile of papers he had stacked on the kitchen table; it was getting late, and he had accounts to go over.