Steve’s eyes opened slowly; the room was bathed in light. He started to sit up but the dull ache in his head slowed his movements. His mouth tasted stale and dry. He glanced at the coffee table, the half-filled bottle of scotch and the empty glass.
He ran a slightly shaking hand over his eyes and through his hair, trying to stop his stomach from heaving. He stumbled into the kitchen. The clock on the stove read 8:53. With robotic precision, he refilled the percolator and plugged it in, then made his way slowly and carefully upstairs to the bathroom.
After he washed his hands and face, he exited the bathroom and started down the stairs, then stopped and turned to the bedroom door. He opened it slowly and quietly, and the light spill from the hallway fell across the bed.
Mike was awake and looking towards the door. He smiled and chuckled slightly. “I was wondering when you were going to get up.”
Steve stumbled a couple of steps into the room. “Sorry, ah, I, ah, really couldn’t get back to sleep.”
“I’m not surprised. You looked pretty shook up last night.” Mike sounded concerned, his tone turning serious. He waited until the younger man nodded. “You okay?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve nodded again, more vigorously, “I’m good. Ah, you want some breakfast? I just put the coffee on.”
“Sure. Whenever you get the chance, no rush.” Mike was studying his disheveled partner. “Why don’t you go downstairs and get changed,” he suggested, then watched as Steve seemed to pull his thoughts together and really look at him for the first time that morning.
“Right, yeah, I’ll be back with breakfast,” Steve said distractedly as he turned and left the room. When he returned to the bedroom almost a half hour later, it was with a tray table filled with buttered toast and two cups of coffee. He set the tray table on the bed in front of its occupant.
As he dragged the armchair closer to the bed, he felt the once-over from Mike. “You going into work?” asked the older man, eyeing the slacks, shirt and tie.
Steve sat and reached for a mug. “Yeah, I thought I go in for a few hours and see how things are going, see the guys, you know…” he answered vaguely.
“And see Jack?” added Mike casually as he picked up the other mug and took a sip.
“Yeah, if he’s there.” Steve grabbed a piece of toast.
Mike put down his mug and reached for a piece of toast himself. “I, ah, I thought maybe we could talk about last night,” he said casually, staring at the toast in his hand before taking a bite.
Steve smiled to himself; he’d been wondering how long it would take the older man to bring up the subject.
“Or not…” Mike sighed after a beat then took another bite of toast.
Steve took a deliberate gulp of coffee before answering. “Look, I do want to talk about it, but not right now. I kinda need to sort a few things out first, okay?” He took a deep breath. “So,” he continued, as he put his mug back on the tray, “how about tonight, over a bottle of beer and a big glass of ginger ale, we have ‘the talk’?” He finished with a conciliatory smile.
Mike studied his young friend’s face then nodded slowly. “Sounds like a good plan.”
Steve leaned back, working on his second piece of toast. “How are you feeling? How’s the back?”
Mike shifted slightly. “It feels great. I feel good. Really.”
“Well, we’re gonna have to change that bandage before I leave this morning…”
Their talk turned to more mundane matters as they shared breakfast with their customary companionable ease.
# # # # #
Mike heard the front door open and close and the chink of keys being tossed onto the side table. He glanced at the clock/radio: 6:24.
“Honey, I’m home!” Steve called in his best ‘Leave It To Beaver’ style up the stairs.
Mike chuckled, but his chest was still too sore for him to call back down. He heard Steve climb the stairs.
“Wow, you’ve been busy,” Steve observed from the doorway.
Mike was sitting up against a wall of pillows, his left arm still in a sling, surrounded by small piles of open files, a pad and pencils on the tray table in front of him, and a cardboard box at the foot of the bed.
Steve had come home at lunchtime with the box of files of the interviews from the people on the streets around 850 Bryant just after the shooting. He had laughingly added that about five guys had helped him put the files together and at least another 20 had been in the room when he picked up the box and left – so sneaking them out of the office had not been an issue.
Mike grinned at him over his reading glasses. “Thanks again for bringing these home.”
“No problem. Anything?”
Mike shrugged. “Not yet, but it feels good to be doing something, anyway.”
Steve chuckled. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine, good. Anything on your end?”
Steve shook his head, rubbing the back of his neck. “What do you think about Chinese food for dinner? I’ll call for delivery?”
Steve turned to go back downstairs. “The usual?” he asked over his shoulder. When he got no response, he turned back. Mike had already picked up a file and was studying it with a furrowed brow. Steve chuckled quietly as he continued out the door and down the stairs. “The usual,” he muttered quietly to himself, nodding.
# # # # #
Steve finished putting the dirty dishes in a pile beside the sink, dried his hands on a towel and picked up the two glasses. He stepped into the living room towards the stairs then stopped short.
Wearing slippers and his dressing gown loosely over his shoulders, Mike was making his way slowly and stiffly down the stairs.
Steve quickly put the glasses on the coffee table and crossed to the foot of the stairs. “What are you doing?” he asked as he reached out to put a supporting hand on Mike’s right arm.
Mike looked up with a grin. “I need a change of venue,” he chuckled through gritted teeth. “No offense, but I’ve been in your room way too long.”
Steve helped him to the couch and Mike sat heavily with a groan. He looked around the room with feigned curiosity. “I like what you’ve done with the place,” he chuckled.
“Very funny,” said Steve with a chuckle of his own as he put a glass on the coffee table in front of Mike. “Here’s your ginger ale. Can you reach it?”
Mike leaned forward carefully and picked up the glass. “No problem. Thanks.”
Steve picked his own glass and curled up in the armchair. He took a sip of beer then leaned on his hand, elbow braced on his knee, and looked at his partner with a wry smile. Mike had set his own glass back on the table and sat back gingerly, and was watching the younger man with whimsically upraised eyebrows.
“Well, here we are,” Mike said finally.
“Yeah… so, where do we start?” Steve asked lightly.
Mike looked down at the table. “How about last night?” He looked up. “What’s really going on with you and Jack?”
Steve blinked and looked away. He knew Mike was going to ask that, and he had thought all day about what he would say. He decided that, indeed, honesty was the best policy and he couldn’t keep anything from Mike; but he had also told himself he wouldn’t tell his partner everything. Sometimes editing the truth was the best and only option.
“Yeah, Jack,” he began, “where do I start?” He took a deep breath. “Jack’s having a hard time coming to terms with Charlie’s death. He seems to think that, ah, that Charlie would still be alive if, ah…” He trailed off, trying to find the right words.
“If I hadn’t picked up his keys, right?” Mike finished the sentence for him.
Steve looked up quickly then shook his head slightly in disbelief. Mike’s perceptiveness never ceased to amaze him. He nodded. “Yeah. He didn’t believe me when I told him what Maureen had told you. It was as if he didn’t know.” Seeing Mike’s frown, he continued quickly, “He knew. I talked to Rudy, and he told me Jack knew all about Charlie’s health. It seems like Jack has… other problems.”
Steve told Mike about Jack’s gambling addiction. Mike looked away as Steve spoke, shaking his head sadly. “I had no idea,” he said softly when Steve had finished.
“Nobody did,” said Steve, “and now Jack is completely on his own and he’s scared and he doesn’t know what to do.” He took a deep breath then plowed on. “And I haven’t made it any easier for him – I’m having a hard time facing him myself… I, ah, I feel guilty every time I see him…”
Mike met his eyes. “Because Charlie’s dead and I’m still alive?”
When Steve’s eyes finally met his partners, they were filled with a sad culpability. Finally Mike took a deep breath. “Yeah, well, you’re not the only one.” Slowly, he put his head against the back of the couch and closed his eyes.
Steve gave him a couple of seconds before asking, “Is that why you didn’t want to go into the church?”
Mike didn’t move but he smiled slightly. “That’s one of the reasons, I guess. I, ah, I just haven’t, you know, ah…” There was a catch in his voice and he hesitated, squeezing his eyes tighter.
“It’s okay,” Steve said quickly, leaning forward, “it’s okay. You don’t have to –“
“No – no, I do… I, ah, I have to start facing this or I’m never going to get passed it.” Mike took a couple of careful deep breaths. “I was in the front,” he said quietly, “there were four of us up front, and I am the only one of those four that’s going to walk away from all that. Because of some stupid keys…” He put his right hand over his eyes. “Why me?”
Steve barely heard the question, but he leaned further forward and put a hand lightly on Mike’s knee. When there was no response, he squeezed harder, and watched as Mike took his hand away from his face and turned to look at him.
Steve smiled warmly. “For what it’s worth,” he said slowly and deliberately, “you’ll never know how grateful I am that is was you.”
Mike stared at him, not moving, then with an affectionate smile, put his right hand over Steve’s and squeezed.
“Mike,” Steve continued quietly, “no one wishes it wasn’t you, believe me. Everybody, and I mean everybody, has come up to me in the past few days and asked about how you’re doing and when you’re coming back. You are loved, Michael, and you are missed. And there isn’t a person in the department who isn’t absolutely thrilled that you are going to be coming back to work.”
As he spoke, he saw the tears forming in his partner’s eyes. With a mischievous smile, he leaned back, slipping his hand from under Mike’s. “You know, Lenny’s really pretty good at this psychology stuff,” he said easily with counterfeit awe, anticipating the response.
Mike’s eyes widened quickly and he sat up straighter. “Lenny? Lenny wanted you to say that to me?”
Steve started to laugh. “I’m joking, I’m joking,” he said quickly, hands up in surrender. “Rudy told me to talk to him but I haven’t had the time, or the inclination to be honest, to do it yet.” He chuckled. “I just thought things were getting a little maudlin in here…”
Mike shook his head and smiled ruefully. “If I wasn’t handicapped, you be crying ‘Uncle’ on the floor by now,” he laughed carefully, wincing a little. Still, he realized that what Steve had said was from the heart, and deep inside he was grateful to have heard those words.
“I need another beer,” Steve announced as he stood and picked up his glass. “You want another ginger ale?”
“Sure.” Mike watched as Steve retreated into the kitchen with their glasses. He mulled over what his partner had said; he knew it was time to confront his fears and hopefully start to get his life back together. But he also knew that first he had to get well, and that was going to take time.
Steve put their glasses on the coffee table and sat once more in the armchair. He glanced at his watch. “I want you back in bed by nine, sir,” he announced playfully, “so we have another hour or so.” Knowing he could only push Mike so far right now, he turned serious. “Anything you want to talk about?”
Looking into the middle distance, Mike nodded slowly. “Yeah, ah, if you don’t mind… I don’t really know what happened …?”
Steve understood what he meant and nodded. He knew Mike was ready to hear, and he also knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Steve picked up his glass of beer and settled back into the chair.
And while Mike sat silently, occasionally sipping the ginger ale, Steve told him everything he could remember, from the germination of the practical joke in the Homicide office, to Mike waking up in the ICU cubicle. It was midnight before either of them got to sleep.