slashsmut annie serial beecher keller

Another Time, Another Place - Part 11

by Annie

All lyrics and titles © U2, used without permission
Bows also go to Velvet Goldmine


A Sort of Homecoming: July 2010

(~And you know it's time to go
Through the sleet and driving snow
Across the fields of mourning to a
Light that's in the distance~)

Talia, bless her, took control of the situation. I could barely stand, let
alone think reasonably.

"Mr. Schillinger, would you like to come with us to our home so we can talk
in private." Not allowing for any argument, she ushered us both out the door
and locked it behind her, flipping the closed sign over. She held onto my
arm as I stumbled the few blocks to our apartment, Jason trailing behind.

Inside, she sat me down and pointed Jason to a chair. The kestrel squawked
at him and he flinched, perching on the edge of the seat and watching her
nervously as she preened her feathers. Talia broke the uneasy silence.

"Mr. Schillinger---" she began.

"Please, call me Jason."

She smiled warmly at him and he began to relax. "Jason. You must excuse
Chris. It's been a long time since he's heard anything about Toby Beecher,
so he was understandably flabbergasted."

He nodded earnestly. "I know. And I wouldn't have come, except..." His voice
trailed off uncertainly.

I finally found my voice. "Except? Except what? Is Toby... is he dead?"

Jason's blue eyes widened. "Oh, no, Mr. Keller! No, he's fine. Physically,
that is."

Irritated, I snapped at him. "So what is it? Goddammit, don't just sit
there. What the fuck is going on?"

He recoiled slightly but Talia placed her hand on his arm comfortingly. "I'm
so sorry, Mr. Keller. It's not easy for me to talk about. You remember Adam
Hansen, don't you?"

"Of course I do," I growled tensely. "He's why I'm not still rotting away in
Oz."

"Yes, er, of course. Well, after he died, the religious group he was
involved in did some digging into the circumstances. They discovered the
deal made to set him up, made by Warden Glynn and the DA and the governor.
And by Toby. Well, two weeks ago, his fiancee was murdered."

"Whose fiancee?" I asked stupidly.

Jason looked slightly guilty. "Toby's. Toby's fiancee. The killers were
caught and they confessed, saying it was justice for Hansen's death. But
Toby, he's a mess. I think... well, I think he's suicidal. And I remembered
all he had told me about you and I thought you could help. He needs you, Mr.
Keller. Please, help him."

Without a word, I stood up and walked to the bedroom and shut the door
carefully behind me. Right before I began screaming, I heard Talia.

"Jason, I think you should go. We'll be in touch."

(~And you hunger for the time
Time to heal, 'desire', time
And your earth moves beneath
Your own dream landscape~)

Talia entered the room cautiously, eyes out for flying objects, but she
found me lying on the bed with my arm thrown over my eyes. She sat down next
to me and rubbed my stomach affectionately.

"Chris, darling, talk to me." She was pleading, coaxing.

I slid over to lay my head in her lap, needing her comfort. "God, Tal, what
do I do? I thought Toby was part of my past, someone I'd just think about
with fond, and some not-so-fond, memories. I didn't think I'd be thrust back
into his life again."

She stroked my forehead, her fingers soothing. "What do you want to do?"

"He got engaged, Talia. He was going to get married. He moved on, like I
told him to do years ago."

"And that hurts you."

"Yes! Yes, dammit, it hurts. And I hate that it hurts and I hate that I'm
feeling so selfish and jealous over a woman that's already dead."

"And guilty."

"What?" I sat up to see her green eyes regarding me with compassion.

"You feel guilty. You think you could have prevented this if he had never
known you, never loved you, never used that love to get you out of Oz."

I collapsed back into her lap. "Yeah. I do. I feel fucking guilty as hell."

(~Oh oh on borderland we run
And still we run, we run and don't look back
I'll be there, I'll be there
Tonight, a highroad, a highroad out of here~)

I was flooded with memories of him. Memories of the first time we kissed in
the laundry room, memories of the first time we made love at the beginning
of the new millenium. Memories of my betrayal of him in the gym, memories of
the fight we had when I left that final night more than two years ago.

"What good would it do? What good would it do to see him again?"

My head shifted in her lap as Talia shrugged. "I don't know. You won't know
until you find out. But Jason seemed to believe you could do some good."

"Talia, help me. Tell me what I should do."

She pushed at my shoulders and forced me to look at her. "I won't do that,
Chris. I won't give the answer to you. I'll just repeat what I first asked
you: What do you want to do?"

Closing my eyes, I whispered. "I want to go to him."

(~The city walls are all come down
The dust a smokescreen all around see
Faces ploughed like fields that once
Gave no resistance~)

Jason was pleased and relieved to hear of my decision. He said Toby had been
getting worse each day and there was only so much he could. As he rambled
on, I marveled that this chatty, eager young man was Vern's son. They were
alike only in resemblance, and in their devotion to Toby, however
differently they expressed it.

As he sat in our living room, talking excitedly with Talia about the latest
bestsellers, I could see glimpses of the man Vern could have been in his
child. Before hate and hardness took over, before the violence and
soullessness of Oz seeped into his blood. It was only at the end that Vern
let most of that hatred go and, sitting there with his surviving son, I
could mourn him without it being tinged by my own hatred.

Talia interrupted my thoughts. "Would you like me to come with you?"

I smiled at her in appreciation for her thoughtfulness, but shook my head.
"No, I need to do this alone. If he's as bad as Jason says he is, he's going
to have a hard enough time seeing me, let alone a stranger."

She nodded, satisfied with my answer.

(~And we live by the side of the road
On the side of the hill
as the valleys explode
The land grows weary of its own~)

I knocked on his door tentatively, than with more assurance. He had moved
out of the apartment I had shared with him and now lived in an
expensive-looking brownstone. Jason had surprised me when he gave the
address, since it was only a few streets down from Talia's place. Small
world.

The door swung open and I had to stifle a gasp. The man standing in front of
me wasn't the man I had loved, hair golden and eyes azure, nor it was the
man I had last seen, eyes sorrowful and yearning for love. No, this man,
this Toby, was the man I first met in Oz. The man with shadowed, haunted
eyes and ragged beard and unspeakable nightmares.

"Hello, Toby," I murmured.

He overcame his shock at seeing me sooner than I did and his eyes hardened.
"What are you doing here, Keller?"

I spread my hands helplessly. "I heard what happened to your-your fiancee. I
wanted to say I'm sorry."

"Yeah, well, thanks. Your condolences are duly noted. Now, if you'll excuse
me---" he started to push the door shut, but I stuck my foot in before he
could.

"Toby, wait. Please let me come in. I want to talk to you."

He laughed harshly. "You want to talk to me now? After what, two years?"

(~The wind will crack in wintertime
A bomb-blast lightning waltz
No spoken words, just a scream
Tonight we'll build a bridge across the sea and land
See the sky the burning rain
She will die and live again
Tonight~)

We both heard the sound at the same time. "What was that?" I asked.

He didn't say anything, just turned away and left the door open. I stood
there for a moment, then followed him in and down the hall. I noticed the
dirty dishes and clothes and trash lying around the house as I passed by
rooms with curtains closed to the summer sunlight. The house looked like it
was dying. Just like Toby.

I found him in a small bedroom, pacing back and forth with a small bundle of
clothes in his arms as he crooned wordlessly.

No, not clothes. A baby. I stumbled back against the door and Toby looked up
at me, the terrible grief in his eyes almost threatening to overwhelm me.

"She'd only been home from the hospital for two weeks when it happened. She
didn't even have a chance to get to know her daughter. God, she was so happy
to be a mother. She had so many plans, so many things she wanted to do." He
choked on a sob.

"Can I see her?" I spoke softly, so I wouldn't startle him or the baby.

He hesitated for a moment, then nodded. Holding out my arms, I took the tiny
bundle and held her close to my chest. Strangely enough, all of my
experience taking care of Talia's strays had trained me well for holding
babies. I pulled the pale green blanket back and took a good look at Toby's
daughter.

She stared up at me with those disconcerting, penetrating eyes all babies
have, not blinking. She had Toby's dark blue eyes and a brilliant shock of
red curls. Her mouth curled as she blew of drool at me and I smiled. She was
absolutely beautiful and my heart ached for Toby.

"Give her back to me." Wordlessly, I handed the baby back to him and he laid
her down in the crib, smoothing his hand over her head gently.

"What's her name?"

He just gazed at her, seemingly unaware of my presence now. Then he
answered. "Kelly. Her name is Kelly."

He glared at me, as if daring me to bring up the similarities in my last
name and his daughter's name, but I stayed prudently quiet. "She's lovely,
Toby."

Ignoring me again, he left the room and headed back for the front door,
which was still ajar. He stood by it, waiting. "I think you should leave
now."

I nodded mutely, not knowing what to say.

"And don't come back. You're not wanted here." He shut the door in my face.
I rested my palm against the wood for a long time as I collected my
thoughts.

*I will come back, Toby. I promise you that. I promise your daughter that. I
WILL come back.*

(~And your heart beats so slow
Through the rain and fallen snow
Across the fields of mourning
To a light that's in the distance
Oh don't sorrow, no don't weep
For tonight, at last
I am coming home
I am coming home~)

Part 12

Please: July 2010 to September 2012

I was back the next day. And the next and the next and every day after that.
It got to be a pattern. I'd knock, wait a few seconds, than knock again. I'd
see Toby peering out from behind the blinds, so I'd knock again. After that,
I'd just sit down on the stoop and wait. After several hours, I'd go home.

Talia excused my increased absences from the store as I waited for Toby to
come out. And each night, she'd feed me pasta and rub my shoulders as I
tried to unwind from the increasing frustrating I felt.

"Jason called me today."

"Oh, what'd he say? Any change?"

"None. He's still not showing up for work. Jason's been handling most of his
cases but people are starting to wonder. It's been six months."

I grimaced. "Don't remind me. But I think I'm making progress."

She looked delighted. "Really? That's fantastic news! How do you know?"

"Well, I keep sending him gifts for Kelly. He'd always deposit them outside
the door the next day. But two days ago I sent him a doll for her and I
haven't seen it again. It's not much, but..."

"It's better than before," she finished for me, eyes shining.

"Yeah." I couldn't understand it. Talia had never met Toby, never talked to
him, but she was just as concerned for his well-being as I was. Each night
she asked about him and the baby, taking such pleasure out of the little
steps I was making with him. She was an amazing woman and I thanked God
every day that she had found me that night in the alley.

(~So you never knew love until you crossed the line of grace
And you never felt wanted till you had someone slap your face
And you never felt alive until you almost wasted away~)

On Kelly's first birthday, I arrived at Toby's house for my usual visit of
sitting on the steps. I had stopped bothering to knock, since I came at the
same time every day. I just stretched out, enjoying the warm sunshine on my
face. Suddenly, I had an idea and a grin stretched across my face. Standing
up, I took a deep breath and began to sing. Loudly. Badly.

"HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU
HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DEAR KELLY
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU!"

I finished the song and started again, hollering at the top of my lungs.
Just as I expected, Toby ran out of the house, face livid.

"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"

I paused long enough in my singing to respond. "Just wishing Kelly a happy
birthday. Making sure she can hear me, since you won't let me in."

"I think all of New York can hear you. Now will you shut up?"

"Can I see her?"

"No."

I opened my mouth to start singing again and he held his hand up hastily.
"OK, fine. But only for five minutes."

I grinned at him, turning on all of the old Chris Keller charm. "Perfect."

Grumbling, he led me into the darkness of the house. I noticed that it was
much cleaner than the last time I had been inside, and took some
satisfaction in that. Even Jason, with his melodrama and puppylike devotion
to Toby, had said he didn't think Toby was suicidal anymore. It looked to me
like he had decided to stay alive, at least for his daughter. But I could
tell he still wasn't *living*.

And then I saw her. She took my breath away, she was so beautiful. Playing
quietly on the floor, her red curls tumbled around her heart-shaped face. I
crouched down in front of her and she stared at me, then at her father.

"Hi."

"Hi." Her voice was sweet and clear.

"She can talk?"

Toby grunted. "Yeah. Sort of. She only knows 'hi', 'daddy', and 'gimme'."
But despite his brusqueness with me, I could hear the deep affection in his
voice. I turned my attention back to Kelly and saw with some surprise that
she was playing with the doll I had sent to her a long time ago.

"Hi Kelly. I'm Chris. I'm your daddy's friend." Toby snorted at that, but I
ignored him. "I gave you that doll there. You like it?" She smiled and
nodded at me, a look of such innocence and openness on her face. I was
falling deeply in love with this little girl. Even after Toby threw me out a
minute later, I carried the image of his daughter's smile, a mirror of her
father's, in my heart.

(~You had to win
You couldn't just pass
The smartest ass
At the top of the class
Your flying colors
Your family tree
And all your lessons in history~)

Excrutiatingly slowly, Toby let me into his life a little bit more at a
time. We progressed from five minute visits in his living room to lunches at
a cafe down the street to afternoons in the park. I carefully avoided
talking about his fiancee and he never asked me what I had been doing since
I left. But I knew it was only a matter of time before we had to get
everything out in the open. It was the only way we could move past this
precarious stalemate we had forged.

"She's getting really big, Toby." I ventured as we watched Kelly play in the
sandbox at the park. He just nodded, a tiny smile playing over his lips.

"She must get that hair from her mother." I braced myself, waiting for him
to declare the day over and take Kelly home. But he didn't. He just sat
there, watching her play.

"Yeah, she did. Sarah had the most beautiful hair. It went down to her
waist. She never cut it, even when she was pregnant with Kelly."

"How did you meet her?"

"She was the social worker who worked out the visitations with my kids. And
once they decided they didn't want to come see me anymore, I didn't want to
stop seeing her."

"You loved her a lot." I knew I was treading on thin ice but I knew if we
stopped now we'd be set back for a long time. It had ceased hurting me a
long time ago to think of Toby loving someone else. With a daughter like
Kelly, I could understand why he had loved her. I couldn't be jealous of a
ghost.

"Yeah, I did. But she's dead, so drop it. OK?"

"Why don't you just say it? It's ok. I won't get mad or anything."

He looked at me sharply. "What do you mean?"

"You think it's my fault she's dead. That if you hadn't tried to get me out
of Oz, she'd still be alive."

He started shaking his head before I finished. "No, no! I don't think that!
Chris, it wasn't your fault she died. It was mine."

It was my turn to shake my head. "You can't mean that. Hansen's friends went
after her because of *me*, because I set him up. You didn't do anything."

"That's it, Chris. I didn't *do* anything. I should have protected her
better. I should have known my connection to Oz would get her killed. If not
Hansen, then someone else. I let her die, Chris!"

His eyes were filled with such torment that I couldn't help but reach out
for him. And for once, he didn't push me away. He just let me hold him as he
trembled.

"Daddy?" Kelly's small voice ended the moment and Toby pulled away from my
arms, wiping his eyes on his sleeve.

"Yes, honey?"

She looked at both of us, puzzled. "Why sad? Unca Cwis? Why Daddy sad?"

I smiled at the little girl. "It's ok, Kelly. Your daddy is going to be ok."

(~And you never knew how low you'd stoop to make that call
And you never knew what was on the ground till they made you crawl
And you never knew that the heaven you keep you stole~)

After that, it got easier. Not easy. Easier. I found myself spending more
and more time at Toby's house. I felt guilty about leaving Talia alone so
much, after all she had done for me, but she reassured me it was fine.

"Chris, remember how you felt when I first found you. That's how Toby feels
now. He needs you."

And it felt good to be needed again. Toby and I had gone through so many
times in our past where we needed each other. We had seen each other at our
worst and still found our way back to each other.

Kelly turned two before we even knew it was happening. She went from a
beautiful baby to a stunningly gorgeous little girl. Toby doted on her but
she wasn't spoiled. Her nature was too sweet and generous to allow for any
brattiness. Everytime I watched her play or kissed her bruised knee or read
a book to her until she fell asleep in my lap, I remembered how
uncomfortable I felt that last time I talked to Cyril O'Reily and how happy
I was my ex-wives and I never had any kids.

And now? Now I couldn't imagine my life without Kelly. I wasn't her father,
but after the first time she had taken to calling me "Daddy Chris" instead
of "Uncle Chris", I felt tears of pure joy spring to my eyes. I loved her,
and I loved her father, and I wanted them both in my life forever.

Toby came back from putting Kelly to bed one night after her second
birthday, pulling a sweater on over his t-shirt. Fall was arriving and the
air had grown chilly. He lowered himself carefully into the couch with a
groan.

"Shit, I'm getting old, Chris."

I scoffed. "Hardly. You're only 44, same as me. And *I* don't feel old."

He picked at a thread. "I'm going to be 60 when Kelly turns 18. That's
pretty old. What if..."

"You're worried you won't be around when she grows up."

"How'd you know that?"

I smiled. "Talia. Can't live with her for four years without some of her
insight catching on."

Toby laughed. "Yeah, you're right. Talia's a real find, Chris. And Kelly
keeps asking to go see that damn bird again." He paused, and I waited
patiently for him to go on. I'd learned a lot about patience in my time with
Talia. "Chris, I don't have any family left. My parents are dead, my other
kids hate me. Kelly's my last chance at a family. What if I fuck it up?"

"You won't."

"How do you know?"

I smiled again. "Because I know *you*. You love Kelly. She adores you.
You've got a good job, you haven't had anything to drink in over ten years.
And you've got friends like Jason and Sister Pete and Sean Murphy and Talia
watching out for you. And me. Between the five of us, Kelly's going to be
spoiled rotten, even *if* something happens to you. And it *won't*."

"But..."

"Hush." I laid my fingers over his lips and he froze, blue eyes wide.

(~Your Catholic blues
Your convent shoes
Your stickon tattoos
Now they're making the news
Your holy war
Your Northern star
Your sermon on the mount
From the boot of your car
Please, please, please...get up off your knees
Please, please, please... leave me out of this~)

Slowly, gently, I kissed him. My lips explored his carefully, seeking out
the curves I remembered from so long ago. My tongue probed his mouth,
sliding along his teeth and rubbing against his tongue. It was exquisitely,
heartachingly sweet.

I moved my lips to his cheek, brushing them tenderly. "I love you, Toby."

He pulled back and gazed at me, desire and fear and other emotions I
couldn't recognize swirling in his eyes. "Chris, I can't. Not now."

"When?" I didn't sound demanding or pushy, just curious.

He looked down at his hands. "I don't know. I still... I still have so much
anger towards you. For leaving me. For a lot of things I thought I was
over."

(~So love is hard and love is tough
But love is not what you're thinking of~)

I took his hands in mine, brushing the backs gently. He tried to pull them
away but I wouldn't let go, turning them over to kiss the barely visible
scars of his suicide attempt so many years ago.

"I understand. I really do, Toby. Can I ask just one thing of you?"

He tilted his head to one side, prompting me to go on.

"Just let me love you. You don't have to love me in return or make any
committments to me or make any choices about us. Just let me love you. Will
you do that for me?"

He didn't answer but he leaned over and rested his head against my chest. I
took that as my answer and I held him deep into the night, listening to the
cold autumn rain against the windows.

(~September... streets capsizing... spilling over, down the drain
Shards of glass, splinters like rain
But you could only feel your own pain
October... talking getting nowhere
November... December... remember...
Are we just starting again?~)

Part 13

Even Better Than the Real Thing: September 2012 to December 2012

I walked a tightrope in the next few months, balancing between letting Toby
know I cared for him without letting him feel I was pressuring him into
anything. Sometimes it would seem like he was wavering, relenting, but then
he'd shut down and push me away. There were days when the only thing that
kept us together was our shared love for Kelly.

(~Give me one more chance
And you'll be satisfied
Give me two more chances
And you won't be denied~)

Thanksgiving arrived and Talia insisted on having everyone over to our
house, Toby and Kelly, Jason, Sister Pete and Sean Murphy. She bustled
around the spacious kitchen, feeding bits of food to the kestrel and dodging
Kelly.

It was the first time many of us had all been in the same room together, and
some of us hadn't spoken in years. All of our past entanglements made some
awkward silences, but Kelly's tinkling giggles and Talia's deft handling of
the conversation soon set us at ease.

In a quiet moment when Toby was occupied with re-tying one of Kelly's shoes
for the ninth time, I sidled over to Sister Pete, who was watching the
little girl's antics with affection.

"Hey, Sister, did you bring it?" I had called her when I found out she was
coming and asked her to return something to me I thought I had lost many
years ago.

She smiled. "Yes, I brought it. And I did what you asked." She slipped the
small package to me surreptitiously.

I reached over and hugged her, a move that astonished her but widened her
smile. "Thanks, Sister. You're the best." I kissed her cheek, grinning at
the blush rising to her cheeks.

"Christopher Keller! Look at you, making eyes at an old woman like me."

I stuck my tongue out at her. "Nonsense, Sister. You'll never be old. But, I
have to confess that I have eyes for another woman."

She laughed. "I'd be shocked, but I can guess who it is. Could this lady
have bright red hair and the same blue eyes and smile of her father?"

"That's the one." I gazed fondly at Kelly and Toby as they held their heads
close to each other, red blending with gold. "She's stolen my heart."

Sister Pete patted my hand. "Looks like she's not the only one."

(~Well my heart is where it's always been
My head is somewhere in between
Give me one more chance
Let me be your lover tonight~)

I tore my gaze away from the two people I loved most in the world to smile
at Sister Pete. "No, she's not. Kelly and her dad share equal spaces in my
heart."

"It's amazing how a child can bring people together, isn't it?"

I looked around the room, at Sean and Talia talking quietly in the corner,
at Jason lying on the floor with two of the dogs, at Kelly and Toby laughing
together over some private joke, at Sister Pete smiling benevolently, and I
sighed happily. "Yeah, it is. It definitely is amazing, Sister."

(~You're the real thing
Yeah the real thing
You're the real thing
Even better than the real thing~)

Toby and I didn't see much of each other between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
He had gone back to work part time, spending half of the day at home with
Kelly and half at the office. And I was really busy with the shop, making up
for all the work I had missed when I was trying to regain his trust. He and
Kelly were going to be spending Christmas alone but he invited me to come
over for New Year's Eve. I was looking forward to it, especially since I
knew we'd be alone. Talia would be watching Kelly for the night. I didn't
know what that meant but I dared to start hoping a little bit.

"Chris, can I talk to you?"

"Sure, Tal, what's up?" We were stringing even more lights in the shop.
Despite the risk of blowing out a few fuses, we loved the look they gave the
store.

"How would you feel about taking over the shop for me? Permanently, I mean."

I stared at her. "Are you kidding? You know how much I love this place. But
what are you going to do?"

Her green eyes blazed with excitement. "I got a job offer from the New York
City Wildlife Refuge. They want me to head their raptor rehabilitation
program."

I grabbed her around the waist and swung her around. "Talia, that's great!
You've been wanting to do something like this ever since I've known you. I'm
so happy for you!" I planted a big kiss on her lips as I danced her around
the shelves.

"Put me down, you oaf!" she laughed merrily. "I've already drawn up the
paper. Just sign them and you're the proud owner of one slightly used but
very charming little bookstore. Merry Christmas, Chris"

Grinning from ear to ear, I replied, "Where do I sign?"

(~Give me one last chance
And I'm gonna make you sing
Give me half a chance
To ride on the waves that you bring~)

On New Year's Eve, I stood on Toby's doorstep, shivering slightly in the
cold air. He had dropped Kelly off at Talia's earlier and the two were
happily watching cartoons together and making cookies. Toby had told me we
were going to a nice restaurant for dinner and to dress accordingly. I
patted my pocket to make sure the package Sister Pete had brought me on
Thanksgiving was still there.

The door swung open, letting out a blast of warm air. My jaw dropped.

"You shaved."

He snickered slightly. "Close your mouth, Keller. You look like an idiot.
And come in out of the cold."

"Yeah, well, you look like... Wow. I don't know what to say." And I didn't.
He had shaved his ragged beard off, but that was only the tip of it. He was
impeccably dressed in a very expensive-looking tuxedo and his hair was
trimmed short and styled. His blue eyes were free of the pain that had
darkened them for so long and he smiled easily. He looked absolutely
gorgeous.

I looked down at my navy suit, suddenly feeling shabby in comparison. "I
think I'm underdressed."

"You look great, Chris," he said softly. He cleared his throat. "Besides,
we're not going anywhere."

"We're not?"

"No, we're not. I made dinner."

"Oh." I didn't know what else to say.

(~You're honey child to a swarm of bees
Gonna blow right through you like a breeze
Give me one last chance
We'll slide down the surface of things~)

By the time dinner was over, both of us were squirming in our clothes.
Neither one of us felt comfortable in formal wear and after several times we
caught each other pulling at a collar or shifting in our seats, Toby put a
stop to it.

"C'mon. I've got some jeans and a sweater you can wear. And if I don't get
out of this damn thing I'm gonna go crazy."

"Too late." It was out before I could stop it, and I cringed, expecting him
to throw me out.

He just chuckled. "OK, crazi*er*."

I followed him down the hall to his room. I had never been in here before
and I looked around curiously. It was spartan, with bare white walls and a
bed, nightstand, and dresser. I noticed a picture on the nightstand and
picked it up as Toby rummaged through his closet.

I caught my breath as I saw what it was. A beautiful young woman with
streams of flaming red hair, smiling down at a tiny newborn in her arms.
Sarah and Kelly. Toby turned around to see me staring at the picture. I
looked up at him, my eyes flooded with tears. "Toby, she's... she's..."

He took the frame from me and set it back in the table, running his fingers
over the glass lovingly. "I know."

(~You're the real thing
Yeah the real thing
You're the real thing
Even better than the real thing~)

Toby left to go change in the bathroom as I peeled off the suit and changed
into the soft jeans and cotton sweater he had left me. I was only about an
inch taller than him, and the clothes fit perfectly. I ran my fingers over
the cloth, breathing in the lingering scent I remembered so well.

"Lemon."

"What?"

I snapped out of my reverie as he re-entered the room, carrying the tuxedo.
He began to hang it carefully on a hanger and I followed his lead with my
own suit.

Oh, nothing," I said. "It's just... you still smell like lemon. On your
clothes. I didn't expect that."

He paused briefly, then continued putting away his clothes. "Oh."

As I folded my pants along the crease, the box slipped out of the pocket and
bounced along the floor, stopping to rest against Toby's bare foot. He bent
down to pick it up, a line of puzzlement creasing his brow. "What's this?"

I reached out to take it, but he pulled away. "It's your Christmas present."

"Can I open it?"

I sighed, hoping I hadn't miscalculated, hadn't read all the signs wrong.
"Yeah."

Sitting down on the bed, he tore open the paper and pulled the top of the
box off. He stared into it for a long time and I was afraid to speak.

"This is the watch I gave you."

I sat down next to him. "Yes. Well, no. Not exactly. See, Sister Pete has
kept this for me for a long time. And a few weeks ago, I asked her to return
it. But before she did, I asked her to take it to a jeweler and make some
changes to it."

"Changes?" He still looked into the box, as if he were afraid to touch it. I
reached over and pulled the watch out, turning it over in my hand.

"See? I had the back smoothed out and re-inscribed. For you. Read what it
says." He took the watch back from me and held it close to his face. I held
my breath, waiting as he read.

>>>This time,
This place<<<

(~We're free to fly the crimson sky
The sun won't melt our wings tonight~)

Abruptly, he walked out of the room. I just sat there, stunned.

*Good going, asshole. Now you scared him away for good.*

Just as quickly as he left, he returned, carrying a thick envelope with him.
He sat back down beside me and thrust the envelope at me, his other hand
still clutching the watch.

I just looked at him, and he nodded for me to open it. I pulled the flap
open and slid my hand in, pulling out a sheaf of papers and a key. Confused,
I looked at Toby for explanation.

"The key is for the front door. So you can get in. I want you to move in. If
you want to. I already talked to Talia and she doesn't mind. Actually, I
think she's going to be wanting some privacy before too long, if I'm right
about things..." He trailed off as he realized he was babbling.

I was speechless, staring at the key as if I expected it to disappear into
thin air. I thought I'd be waking up from my dream soon but when I looked
around, Toby was still there, watching me with a half-smile on his face.
"Are you sure you want this?"

He took my hand in his and brought it to his lips, kissing it. "I'm sure.
And that's not all I want."

"Anything," I whispered, still too stunned to completely believe what was
happening.

"These papers... Well, they're adoption papers. For Kelly. I want you to
adopt her. I want us both to be her fathers, not just in her eyes but in the
eyes of the law. I want her to be *our* daughter."

(~Take me higher
Take me higher
Can you take me higher?
Will you take me higher?~)

I grabbed him and kissed him hard, hungrily, not able to speak anymore.
Tears coursed down my cheeks as I held to his lips for dear life. Laughing
and crying at the same, we reached for each other. After so many lost years,
so many missed chances and broken hearts, we clung to each other at last.

(~You're the real thing
Yeah the real thing
You're the real thing
Even better than the real thing
Even better than the real thing
Even better than the real thing~)

Part 14

New Year's Day: January 1, 2013

The clock chimed in the hallway as we kissed. He pulled away, gazing at me
with desire burning in his eyes. "It's midnight."

"So I noticed."

"Happy New Year."

Smiling with remembrance at the first New Year we had celebrated thirteen
years ago, I replied. "Happy New Year."

(~All is quiet in New Year's Day
A world in white gets underway
And I want to be with you
Be with you night and day
Nothing changes on New Year's Day
I will be with you again
I will be with you again~)

It felt like coming home. He kissed me deeply, pushing my back on the bed.
My hands traveled up and down his back and sides, reacquainting myself with
the contours of his body.

We didn't have to fight for space on a tiny bunk or keep one eye open for a
wandering hack. We had all the time in the world at our hands and we took
it.

The clothes we had just changed into ended up in a pile on the floor as we
explored each other. I stroked and kneaded the places I knew he liked to be
touched and his hands awakened a depth of passion I had forgotten.

When he took me in his mouth, I cried out his name, struck anew by the sweet
torment of his mouth. He sucked me in gently, teasing, prolonging the
ecstacy. He'd stop and then start again, hands cupping my balls and rubbing
them, and I begged for release.

(~Under a blood red sky
A crowd has gathered in black and white
Arms entwined, the chosen few
Newspapers say, it's true it's true
And we can break through
Though torn in two we can be one~)

Moving fluidly, our bodies merging against each other, we changed positions.
Now it was my time to hear him gasp my name and plead for the end of my
exquisite torture. I tasted of his skin, not able to get enough of his
clean, soapy, lemony scent. It was intoxicating and I was dizzy with
emotions.

We found ourselves couple together in the same way we had first made love.
Toby slid on top of me, skin against skin, as his hot depths engulfed me. He
suckled on the pulse at my throat and I took his hand in mine, intertwining
our fingers and bringing them between our bodies to stroke him.

Together, we pulsed and rocked and reached for climax. Together. Always.

(~Oh and maybe the time is right
Oh maybe tonight
I will be with you again
I will be with you again~)

We drifted off to sleep together, but shortly after I awoke to find him
gone. Alarmed, I looked around in the darkness of the room and saw him
standing by the window looking out.

Padding up silently behind him, I wrapped my arms around his waist and
kissed his shoulder. He turned his head to nuzzle me.

"It's snowing."

"I see."

"Kelly's going to be thrilled when she wakes up."

I smiled, imagining the look of delight on her little face as she saw the
powder on the ground. "Maybe we should go over there before she wakes up, so
we can take her out to play."

He turned, wrapping his arms around me. "That's a great idea."

"Come back to bed." He let me tug him back to the bed with me and I pulled
the blankets over us, molding my body against his.

"Chris?"

"Hmm?" I replied, sleepily listening to his steady heartbeat.

"So what happens tomorrow?" Yet another echo from the past, our first time.

"Don't you know, my love?"

"Tell me anyway."

I kissed him. "This time, this place."

(~And so we are told this is the golden age
And gold is the reason for the wars we wage
Though I want to be with you
To be with you night and day~)

Part 15

Epilogue: June 16, 2030

He smacked at my hands as I adjusted his tie for the twentieth time.

"Are you ready for this?"

"Are you kidding? What father is ever ready for this?"

"Good point. Let's go."

All those smiling faces, beaming at us as we greeted everyone. Jason
Schillinger and his wife. Sean and Talia Murphy and their two kids. I felt a
twinge of sadness that Sister Pete wasn't here to see this day. She had
passed on four years ago.

"It's time." Toby nudged me and I looked up just as the music started.

She was breathtaking. All eyes were on her as she bestowed her dazzling
smile on everyone.

"She looks just like her mother," Toby breathed. I squeezed his hand.

"And you." He smiled at me and squeezed back.

"And you."

She did actually look a bit like me, or so I liked to believe. In the way
she carried herself, how she held her head.

She came to us and took both of our hands in hers, eyes shining. She kissed
each of us and turned to face the minister and her soon-to-be husband.

When the minister got to the part of who was to give her away, Toby and I
stepped forward.

"Her father and I do," he said with love and pride, and we stepped back.

The rest of the ceremony was a blur, just snippets penetrating my haze of
sheer happiness.

"Do you, Kelly Sarah Beecher-Keller, take this man..."

"I do."

"I do."

"I now pronounce you husband and wife..."

Afterwards, we sat watching Kelly and Matt at the reception, saw the
powerful love shining between them as they danced.

"Do you think she'll be ok?" Toby asked nervously, fingers running through
his grey-gold hair. I had lost all of mine some years back but Toby liked
it, said it was sexy.

"Yeah, she'll be ok. She made a good match there." I touched his cheek
affectionately, a gesture I knew from experience would settle his nerves.

It worked, as always. "You're right. And she had a good basis to compare it
too. If you and I could make it, anyone could. I love you, Chris."

I kissed him. "And I love you. So quit worrying and let's go dance at our
daughter's wedding."

END


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