Come in from the Rain

by Riley Cannon

Title: Come in from the Rain
Authors: Riley Cannon, with Danielle Mucci Subject: B/K, canon-based and extreme AU mixed and blended; PG-13 to eventual NC-17 material
Archive: Yes
Feedback: Yes, on list or pirvate silverheels17@y... & frooshoo31@y...
Disclaimer: Inspired by characters created and owned by Tom Fontana in association with HBO, but treated with much more respect and TLC. No profit except for the pleasure of taking them out to play with. Warning: Get ready for UST. There will be relief, but don't expect anyone to sit up and say howdy right off the bat as one of the boys has some issues to work through first. Of course all the usual stuff will be present - angst, romance, sports... ;)

Summary: Soooo... Danielle emails me with this fic challenge and since it quickly becomes evident it is an offer I cannot refuse, here we are in AU/WIP Land once more. This one finds Toby paroled from Oz and getting adjusted to life outside. Unlike the season that will live in infamy, however, that transition is a teensy bit more fraught with difficulties for him because, let's face it, this is Tobias "I'm only happy when it rains" Beecher we are talking about, for whom nothing is ever as easy as one, two, buckle your shoe. ahem You need to know that while a lot of what we saw on screen did happen, a lot of it was different, and one very crucial item never occurred at all. Nor will you be kept in suspense about that for long.

The title is from the Brian McKnight song, "Could," supplied by Danielle (who is also the musical director of this story along with keeping the plot bunnies coming).

Beta'd by

And dedicated to everyone else who still believes.

Oh, yes, and there is an in-joke in here somewhere. Be the first one to correctly identify it and you get the next chapter of one of my fics dedicated to you. (Hey, it's that or I bake you cookies, and you don't want to eat my cookies.)

"Come in from the Rain" - 1/?

~~Chapter One~~

Toby hesitated a moment, about to reach for the stodgy, sensible frames, the ones his mother would pick out and insist made him look serious and distinguished. In fact they would make him look like a dork who might as well have a Kick Me sign taped to his back - or one that read Just Fuck Me Up The Ass. Mouth twisting with that bitter memory, Toby went with his first impulse, a pair of wire-rimmed glasses that had a hipper, edgier style.

"Mother won't like those," Angus said, standing behind Toby as he tried the glasses on.

"Tough. I think I've earned the right to pick out my own clothes and accessories." In the mirror, Toby watched his brother give him another one of those looks, the kind that would flit over his parent's faces every now and then. Those looks bespoke some uncertainty, an awkward discomfort as it sank in a little more that this wasn't the same Toby who had gone away to Oz.

And he hated that. He didn't want to unsettle them. If he could, he would have left Prisoner #97B412 behind the instant he had walked free of those prison walls. It just wasn't that easy. Even something as simple as adjusting to a new schedule was difficult; it was a week now and he was still waking up at five in the morning. Waking up in the early dawn hours, disoriented for a few moments as his mind processed this was all real - the big, comfortable bed and the soft sheets against his skin, the pale light filtering through the windows, the sound of the birds in the garden. That first morning, he had stood at the window and watched the sun come up, drinking in every streak of pink in the sky and every chirp as if glimpsing it all for the first time. Everything was like that, and it all came with that constant struggle to stay in the here and now and not let memories of Oz creep back in; a constant worry that he might never win that battle and be able to leave it all behind, pick up the shattered bits and pieces of his life.

Small wonder it didn't exactly make him easy to live with.

He had to have faith it would get better, it would get easier. `Give it time, son,' his father would say, giving him a fond look and a pat on the shoulder. And Toby knew that was true, that it needed time for all of them to adjust and get to know each other again. It was tough on everyone, including the kids, although they gave evidence of having a little more resiliency, as if they had learned early to roll with life's capricious punches. Toby hoped that could be trusted, prayed they were doing as well as it seemed, even while beating himself up for ever putting them through it all. It had to be strange for them, for everyone, having him around all the time after such a long stretch of only seeing him once a week in Oz. God knew it all felt surreal to him at times.

At least no one was trying to pretend it hadn't happened. That had been one of his biggest fears, that he would be expected to never mention Oz had happened, simply shove it all down somewhere deep inside. Not that he was likely to bring up a lot of it, most of it, at the dinner table. `Yeah, and then there was the time Vern Schillinger branded a swastika on my ass - would you pass the mashed potatoes, Mother.' His mouth twisted with another wry smile as he studied his reflection and took off the glasses, telling the salesgirl he'd take those frames and listened to her saying his glasses would be ready to pick up in about an hour.

Later, back at the car, he and Angus stashed the last of the packages in the trunk before getting in the car. Toby watched his brother start it up and head out of the mall parking lot, back into the afternoon traffic, envying him. That was another tough one to accept, that it was going to be quite a while before he would be allowed to drive again. All that made it somewhat palatable was remembering the near panic attack he'd had the other day when, just to see how it felt, he had climbed behind the wheel, just sitting there in the driveway and thinking he could do this, he could be trusted behind the wheel of a car. Until he'd glimpsed the kids in the rearview mirror, racing by on their scooters, and that horrible memory had flashed through his mind again: Kathy Rockwell on her bike, the sickening crunch as his car hit her... He swallowed, took in some deep breaths and looked out the window, willing it to go away. The State had decided he had paid enough of a price and even the Rockwells had been willing to let him go free. Why wasn't that enough to forgive himself? The hard part was over, right?

He sighed, feeling the cool breeze on his skin, still waiting for it to kick in that he was free.

Angus swung the car through the gates of The Willis-Warfield Academy and parked. "Place never changes, does it?" he said as they both got out.

"I think that's the idea," Toby said, looking around at the familiar architecture and grounds where he and Angus had spent some of their formative yuppie years. And there had been a few adjustments made in recent years, with special scholarships set up to get in some kids who had not been born with silver spoons in their mouths.

A genuine smile graced his features as he watched Holly come out of a door, talking with some of her friends. She spotted him and broke out a big smile, running over with no regard at all for the dignity of her school uniform.

"Where's Gary?" he said as she paused in her rundown of her day.

"Over on the basketball court," she said, letting him take her book bag.

Toby nodded, heading that way. "What did you learn today?"

"That George Washington probably did tell some fibs," she said.


She nodded. "Miss Sullivan told us about how there's real history and how there's apocryphal history, and how people get them mixed up a lot."

Toby nodded, especially impressed that she had a handle on `apocryphal' at only eight years old. "You're still in the third grade, right?"

She looked up at him and nodded.

"Hmm. Third grade's not what it used to be."

She nodded with a weary air. "It's not like kindergarten."

"I guess not," Toby said, sharing a grin with Angus. "Isn't Miss Sullivan your music teacher?" he said, wondering how revisionist history had worked its way into the lessons.

"Yes. She was teaching us Yankee Doodle, and explaining what it meant." She skipped along to keep up with him until he slowed his pace a bit. "Did you know if someone was dressed in the latest clothes back then they called them macaroni?"

"No, can't say as I did. That's a funny thing to call someone."

"I don't know," Angus chipped in. "What about calling someone a wet noodle? That's the same thing."

Toby considered this seriously, nodding. "I guess. I wonder what they called macaroni back then?" he said, looking at Holly.

She just gave her head a mystified shake at that.

The basketball court was in view now, some older boys sitting on the bench while the younger ones, including Gary, were getting pointers from the coach. A group of women were standing nearby looking on, although it didn't seem like they were paying much attention to the students. Drawing closer, Toby confirmed that impression: each and every one of them was riveted to the coach, watching every fluid move as the man moved up and down the court.

"That's Mr. Keller," Holly informed him.

"Yeah? Your teacher?" He shaded his eyes against the sun for a better look at the other man, remembering Gary and Holly both chattering about this Mr. Keller who, Toby had gathered, was just about the coolest thing since Gameboy.

"He helps out with P.E., too."

And to the evident enjoyment of many spectators, Toby thought as the women all but ogled the athletic - not to mention tall, dark, and handsome from what Toby could tell - Third Grade teacher. What impressed Toby most, however, was the patience he could see in the man, taking his time with Gary and encouraging him without ever giving a sign that Gary was receiving special treatment. Looking at his son going in for a shot and moving with so much confidence, Toby felt his throat tighten up and the burn of tears in his eyes as he remembered the hell of the last few months. Knowing Gary was in the hospital and that there was no way to get to him, that had been the worst part of his imprisonment. Seeing the boy now, healthy and healed - it renewed his faith, just a bit.

"Hey!" Toby called to Gary as Mr. Keller called a halt to play for the day.

The boy smiled, looking pleased to see him in a way that still gave Toby a kick in the belly every time, and ran over to join them. Mr. Keller followed at a more leisurely pace, only pausing a moment to accept a bottle of water from one of the ladies, the leggy blonde knockout.

"That's Miss Sullivan," Holly whispered. "She likes Mr. Keller."

Yes, Toby could see that in the way she found reasons to touch him and how her eyes tracked Mr. Keller's progress over to the Beecher family group. Of course all the women were doing that, and Toby had to smile at the precise angle of their rapt gazes. Apparently the ladies really liked how tight he wore not only his navy blue muscle shirt but his gym shorts as well. And if the confident swagger in Keller's step was anything to judge by, the man was well aware of his ardent admirers. Toby couldn't even imagine what it would be like to be that comfortable in your own skin, that sure of yourself.

"Hey," Keller said, coming up to them with a friendly smile, "you must be the dad. Chris Keller," he held out his free hand, "pleased to meet you."

Toby shook the outstretched hand and found it easy enough to pull up a return smile even though he suddenly felt a bit shy. "Tobias Beecher, thanks," he said. "My kids talk about you all the time."

"Yeah?" Keller kept smiling. "They've mentioned you a few times, too. Think you'll be staying around a while this time?"

"Ah..." Toby looked at the kids and Angus for direction, not quite sure how to respond to that inquiry.

"That's the idea," Angus said, clapping him on the back. "Think my big brother's had enough traveling to last him a while."

Toby nodded, trying to play along with the deception and wondering how deep it ran. How much wear and tear had it been on the kids to keep up those lies? Yeah, just what he needed, one more thing to beat himself up over. He went along with it, though, nodding. "Yes, I've been away long enough."

"I'll bet. Hey," Keller twisted the cap off the bottle and handed it to Gary, "slug some of that down." He flashed another warm smile at Toby. "I'm thinking in ten years you'll have sports agents lined up at your door."

If Toby wasn't too sure about that, Gary looked tickled at the prospect, his face lighting up with another smile, and Toby felt his stomach flip over again as he noticed the tiny scar that cut through Gary's right eyebrow. The only visible scar from the accident. "I haven't heard of too many sports stars coming out of Harvard."

"Ahh, first time for everything." Keller looked back at him, catching and holding his gaze for a long moment. It was a strange moment but in a good way, one of those times when you felt really tuned in and connected to someone. Although Toby wasn't quite sure why he should be experiencing anything like that with his children's teacher.

He broke that eye contact a second later, only to find himself even more inexplicably fascinated with one bead of sweat, the way it slid from behind Keller's ear and trailed slowly along the man's strong neck. Toby had never seen a drop of sweat take such a long time, slipping along Keller's smooth skin as if were a caress.

Toby blinked and gave his head a minute shake as he looked away, recognizing this feeling all too well. It was like those times in the Hole, when everything seemed detached and dreamlike and the most mundane thing might capture his entire attention for hours or days at a time. Sometimes that would hit him even smack in the middle of Em City. Pandemonium might be raging all around him, and the only thing that touched him, that seemed real, would be some small detail - a pool of blood growing incrementally around a body sprawled on the floor, for instance.

The sharp nudge of something in his ribs jolted him and he turned, defensive, for a moment expecting to see Vern Schillinger standing there, shank in hand. Far too many seconds had to tick by before he registered his brother's anxious face, before his brother's voice and Keller's penetrated the fog, both of them asking if he was all right.

"Yeah." He pulled up a weak smile, fighting so hard to stay in the here and now. "I'm fine. Just...spaced out for a moment." Smile even more feeble, he added, "You know, jet lag." And what a fabulous first impression to make on someone.

"Yeah, I know what's that like," Keller said, giving him a curious look. "Where'd you come in from?"

Simultaneous, Toby and Angus said, "Paris," "Japan," and exchanged sheepish looks as the kids tried not to act embarrassed and Keller's puzzled look deepened.

"Paris by way of Japan," Angus said, trying to look like that made sense.

"Yeah, I...guess that'd really take it out of you," Keller said. "Bet it's good to be back, huh?"

"Yes, it is," Toby said, able to tell the truth about that at least.

"And you're back just in time to get in on planning our spring carnival," Keller said.

"Spring carnival?"

"Yeah - two and half weeks off and we don't even have a theme picked out yet. You'll hear all about it at the PTA meeting tonight."

"I'll be glad to help any way I can," Toby said, meaning it. PTA meetings had not been much of a priority for him before but he appreciated being able to take another crack at that, too. "I really want to get involved with what my kids are doing."

Keller nodded, watching his face. "That's always good to hear," he said, a guarded note in his tone and expression.

"But you hear that a lot," Toby said, guessing at the reason for Keller's caution.

The other man shrugged. "Sometimes they mean it."

"Well this will be one of those times," Toby returned, making a definite statement of his intent and emphasizing it with a look that dared Keller to dispute his intentions.

Evidently Miss Sullivan was feeling neglected because she came sashaying up, slipping her arm through Keller's. "So you're the famous Tobias Beecher," she said, the smile on her lips not at all matching the look in her hazel eyes. That look, cool and smug, informed him what she wanted to say was she knew the real story behind everything and would be only too happy to bring her boyfriend up to date on all the lurid details.

Still, Toby kept a smile on his face as he shook her hand. "I'm not sure about the famous part, but yes, that's me."

"This must be quite a change for you," Miss Sullivan went on, ignoring the curious look Keller was giving her. "So much less... confining."

"Yes," he said, finding it difficult to force a lot of warmth into his voice. He looked away from her, pulling up his best fake smile for Mr. Keller. "I think we'll be heading for home, then. Pleasure meeting you."

Keller nodded, his smile seeming genuine enough. "You, too. See ya tonight?"

"Yeah. You...will." As uncomfortable and awkward as it might be, Toby knew he had to face it, had to be able to look everyone in the eye - even the Miss Sullivan's - if he was going to be any use to his kids. Or himself, for that matter.

He could do it. He had to; there were no other options. But, Christ, it would be good to have someone watching his back, someone to understand and lend him some strength if ever he faltered.

Was that asking for too much? he wondered, suspecting he already knew the answer.

"So....?" Chris said as the Beecher's disappeared around a corner.

Deborah shot him a puzzled look, all innocent and butter wouldn't melt. "What?"

"What the fuck was that about with the famous Tobias Beecher?"

"You don't know?"

"Deb, if I knew would I be wasting my time asking?" he said, trying to rein in his exasperation and mentally chalking up Reason #507 on the list of ways she reminded him of his mother - and none of them were good.

Still clinging as they walked back to the basketball court, Deborah said, "That's right, you weren't here when it happened."

"When what happened?" Chris said and chalked up Reason #508.

"When Tobias Beecher went for a drunk driving spree and hit and killed a little girl," Deborah said, her superior smile beyond aggravating.

Chris stopped and turned back even though Beecher was long out of sight. "Christ, no wonder," he said under his breath, realizing now what had been lurking behind the look in the other man's eyes. Chris didn't think he'd ever looked into a pair of eyes as haunted and desolate as Tobias Beecher's. Other things were suddenly clicking into place, too, like the themes of some stories and a play Gary and Holly had written in class. "He's been in prison," he said, certain of it, understanding that whole Paris by way of Japan thing now.

"Oswald," Deborah confirmed. "We've heard he was getting out on parole a few times - guess his family finally pulled it off."

"Yeah, `cause it couldn't be because he earned an early release," Chris snarked back at her. It wasn't her fault, probably, but he couldn't help remembering all the knowing looks he'd seen pass among his mother's friends, everyone certain the only reason his 17-yearold ass wasn't still parked in Lardner was because some palms had been greased. More than twenty years ago and the memories still had a bite. "How long was he in for?" he said, doing the arithmetic in his head. He'd been teaching at Willis-Warfield for three and a half years, so...

"Five, six years." Deborah shrugged as if it couldn't really matter.

"Christ." His five months in Lardner had left scars that could still feel tender all these years later. How much more was Tobias Beecher carrying around after five, or six, years? Chris could barely imagine, but what he imagined was bad enough to give him a sympathetic jolt.

"Anyway," Deborah said, "I thought you should know."

"Yeah, `cause otherwise I might make the mistake of treating the guy like he's human."

Deborah gave him a sharp look at that, finally letting go of his arm. "It's not like anyone's out to tar-and-feather him."

Only in their hearts, Chris thought, already thinking of tonight and how he might let Beecher know that if the guy needed a sympathetic ear, Chris was willing to listen, that he'd been there, too, in his own way. And if there was one thing Chris knew, it was that the very worst thing you could do was keep it all bottled up inside. That just ate you alive.

"So I was thinking," Deborah was saying as they walked back to the school, her agenda doing a one-eighty, "how about we pick up a pizza after the meeting, and go back to your place, and...?" She let it trail off suggestively, running one finger along his tattoo.

He tried not to roll his eyes. "Yeah, and that would great if I didn't have an ass load of work to do," he said, glad of always being able to fall back on that entirely legitimate excuse when he wanted to take a rain check.

Of course he could always come out with another truth for her, that Mr. Tobias Beecher was a lot closer to the kind of blond he liked than she would ever be. He'd given Principal Wingate his promise to be discreet, but there were times when discretion wasn't always the better part of valor.

And speak of the devil... Principal Wingate was approaching them in the hall now, a few strands of gray hair slipped loose from her bun as usual, glasses dangling from the chain around her neck, in every way possible the polar opposite of Deborah. "Chris, I was hoping to catch you before you left," she said, also clasping his arm but not like what she really wanted was to cop a feel. "Deborah," she raised her glasses to look at the younger woman, "could you give us a moment? Thank you, dear." Chris smiled as Deborah glared at her, withdrawing reluctantly as Maggie sighed and shook her head, letting the glasses dangle again. "I worry about that young woman, I'm sure she doesn't eat enough to keep a bird going."

Chris's smile grew. "And I'm sure that isn't what you want to talk to me about."

"No." She fished around in a pocket of her gray cardigan for a folded piece of paper, screaming pink in color and looking like a flyer. "This was in my mail this morning, apparently they have supplies and things for school carnivals. They're only on that internet thing, though, and I was hoping you would look them up and let me know what you think."

"Actually," Chris looked the flyer over again to make sure, "I've checked this place out already and I think we can do better. I'll Google some more and see what I can come up with."

She put her glasses on again to give him a long look. "Google?"

"Google - it's a search engine. It's how you find things on the web."

"Yes, because using the Yellow Pages is just too exhausting and cumbersome, I'm sure," she said with a little sniff.

"Well, there's always the risk of paper cuts that way," Chris said.

She gave him another look and shook her head, smiling. "Well, you go and Google and let me know what you find. I'd like us to have a couple of really solid ideas to put out there tonight so we can cut right to the chase."

"I'll find you something," Chris promised, liking the way she thought.

Hands braced against the tile, Toby raised his face up to the shower's spray, letting the hot water pour over him, plastering down his hair and drenching his body. It felt good, being away from all those anxious, watchful eyes. He could tune out the rest of the world in here and not feel guilty about that - and not have to keep on
his toes in case someone with a grudge sidled up beside him with a shank. That much was good, no question, and it would surely become a familiar sensation in time. All of this strangeness would fade away, right?

He shook his head, scattering droplets of water, and reached for the soap, filling his hands with the rich, creamy lather and working it over his body. Sometimes he thought if only he could scrub long enough and hard enough he could completely wash away the last years of his life. He looked at the drain, at the soapy water swirling away, part of him wanting it to be just that easy to get rid of it all. That would make everything so much easier, wouldn't it?

Toby squeezed shampoo into his hand, worked it into his hair and thought about that, thought about who he wanted to make it easier on because it sure as hell was not himself. He didn't want to forget one single moment, not that horrible instant forever frozen in time, when he had killed Kathy Rockwell, and not one thing that had followed in its wake. He wanted... He rinsed the shampoo from his hair, shook his head again. He wanted people to understand that Tobias Beecher, Esq., and Prisoner #97B412 were one and the same, that he was the sum of all his parts - whatever the fuck they added up to.

He shut off the water and stepped out of the shower stall, reaching for a towel and rubbing it over his face, his chest, relishing how thick and soft it was. Of course that was one more way he troubled everyone, he knew that. As simple a thing as sitting down to a meal felt like an adventure to him, though; going to the mall today - that had been as big a thrill for him as any African safari. It felt like he was seeing the world in Technicolor all of a sudden, that was the best explanation he could offer anyone. Everything he looked at, every taste and smell and texture was a burst of exuberant life after being so long in Oz. And he didn't know how to stop being a freak like that.

Toweling his hair, he went over to the sink, catching sight of his reflection in the steamy glass. He scrubbed a spot clear, staring at himself and remembering the old photos he had looked at last night, hauling them out of the boxes up in the attic. Had that really been him? That soft-looking, nave lamb captured in the snapshots? It seemed incredible when he looked at himself now - pared down and toughened, lines in his face that hadn't been there in that other life, and so many shadows in his eyes.

He pressed his hand to the cold glass, closing his eyes, aching deep inside for the warmth of another's touch. Longing for someone to see him as he was, not as they wanted them him to be, and to accept it all, embrace it all.

Toby drew a deep breath, opening his eyes as he let it out again and stepped back. Talk about wishing upon a star, he thought, mouth quirking with a bitter, wistful smile. Once someone knew the story, like that Keller, they would never be able to look at him the same way again, even if they wanted to. The knowledge that he had taken a life, that he had been locked away in Oz, would color their perceptions no matter what.

And yet... He sighed again, deep. And yet he would give so much to be proved wrong about that. He couldn't believe, though, not when he looked into the eyes of his own children and saw that knowledge lurking there.

Trying to cast off this mood, Toby shaved and dressed, putting on one of the new suits he'd purchased today, pairing the dark pinstripe with a cranberry-colored shirt that was something else Mother would not care for. Maybe the effect wasn't very stylish, he'd never been a good judge of that, but the color made him feel good, it helped him feel free. He couldn't help it if no one understood that.

Now... He slipped his wallet into his breast pocket, his house keys, too, put his new glasses on, and headed downstairs, braced for the inevitable debate. Nor was he proved wrong about that as his parents asked where he was going and suggested Angus should drive him, and Angus tried not to protest that he had other plans tonight. All of it was well-meant and Toby couldn't even blame them because he didn't entirely trust himself, but he felt like if he didn't do this now, tonight, he never would. That he would only be sentencing himself to a different kind of prison.

"I'll be all right," he told all the anxious, doubtful faces as he heard the taxi beeping its horn outside.

His father stepped forward then, nodding, believing in him. "Of course you will, son," he said, smiling and looking like he might understand. "You'd better take a raincoat, though," Harrison added, fishing one out from the closet by the door. "You've got your cell phone?"

Toby nodded. "I'll be fine."

Harrison looked at him, nodded again, and slipped an arm around him in an easy hug. "I know you will. Have a good time."

Well... That might be too optimistic, but Toby appreciated the thought.

He slipped the raincoat on, hurrying out to the curb just as the first fat drops of rain started to fall, hoping to Christ he could do this one thing without betraying anyone's faith in him.


Okay, here's the second chapter of this one, moving things further along -- again, though, remember: lots and lots of UST before the lovin'. <g>

Feedback to Danielle and myself, on or off list.

Dedicated to EKS, who correctly identified one in-joke, although not the official one I was thinking of. (She spotted a line reference -- "Wishing upon a star," -- to an official B/K canon moment.)

The wonderful beta was by Eliza; any remaining goofs are solely by own.

The official in-joke is still waiting to be claimed, however. Hint: It's a place.

So, without further ado... In honor of the wonder that is Meloni's birthday, starring our lovely boys front and center -- forever and always 'cause why else do we read B/K fics? -- here's some fic Danielle and I hope you enjoy.

Rebecca, may be back later with something else

P.S. For MeloniGlasses, think that nifty pair Elliot was sporting when he went undercover a few SVU's back.

"Come in from the Rain" -- 2/?

~~Chapter Two~~

The lights were turned down in the classroom, spilling mostly from the green-shaded lamp on the desk where Chris was sitting. He had the sleeves of his blue dress shirt rolled up, and his tie and collar loosened as he finished making some notes for the meeting. Sitting back in his chair, Chris took off his glasses and set them and his pen on the yellow legal pad, rubbing the bridge of his nose as he concluded he was about as ready for the meeting as he ever would be. The soft patter of rain against the windows was a soothing distraction and he went over there, hands in his pockets as he watched one raindrop and then another splatter against the glass. There was something nearly hypnotic in the rhythm, drawing him out of his head and clearing it so he could focus on something that wasn't hula hoops, balloons, and dunking booths.

He smiled, watching some of the parents arriving, making a mad dash for the front door as if a few drops of rain might cause them severe emotional trauma. Although he had to score them points for bothering to come out at all. It would be very easy to use any excuse to blow off a PTA meeting. Christ knew his dear old mom would have; a broken fingernail had been enough to keep Sharon from turning up for any event.

A corner of his mouth turned up again with ironic amusement as he tried to picture her here, mixing and mingling. His imagination could not rise to the occasion, however. The few fuzzy, grainy images it did cough up were not encouraging -- Sharon surveying the landscape with a predatory gleam in her eyes and zeroing in on the one or two people worth knowing; or examining him with critical appraisal that found everything wanting. Not that it mattered, not after all this time, but still...

He sighed, about to turn from the window when he saw a taxi cab pull up to the curb. One man got out and stood there, face turned up to the cloudy sky as if relishing every drop of rain as it splashed against his skin. Chris leaned forward a bit, recognizing Tobias Beecher, and nodded to himself in understanding of that simple joy in the rain.

After another moment, as the cab pulled away, Beecher shook his head with what looked like a tiny, rueful laugh at himself. He glanced at the school then, up at the windows, and Chris raised his hand to wave at him. Hesitating a moment, Beecher gave a tentative wave back before running up the steps to the door.

Chris went back to his desk, slipping his glasses back on as he hauled a mess of photocopies out of his briefcase. He set them in two piles on the desk, pondering, and opting to go with his first impulse. It had been a long, hard winter and it was time to start thinking about lazy summer days at the beach. So... He shuffled the second pile of photocopies together and unceremoniously dumped them in the trashcan. The wonders of outer space could be enjoyed another day -- it was time for a luau.

His mouth quirked up again as he considered how to rephrase that in order to sell it to Principal Wingate, however.

Climbing out of the taxi, Toby shut the door and stood there as the car drove away, his face raised up to feel the cool rain. God, it had been so long since he'd felt that or breathed in the fresh, wet scent of spring. And who the hell was he trying to kid? He'd never taken a moment to enjoy those things before. There hadn't been time, not for that or so many of the things he had found himself aching for in Oz. Well, that was the twisted brilliance of incarceration, wasn't it? No matter your actual sentence, the instant those doors clanged shut and you were locked away inside, all the plans and possibilities you had nurtured curled up and died.

He shook his head, a resigned and bitter laugh escaping him. He had to stay focused on this second chance he'd been given, more than a lot of people ever got. Just because he had fucked up before didn't mean he couldn't get it right this time. Sounded good anyway; give him some time and he might really believe it.

Toby squinted through his rain-spotted glasses at the school, seeing someone at a window up on the second floor. Recognizing his kids' teacher, he was thrown for a moment by the other man's friendly wave. Maybe Keller hadn't been updated on his bio after all? It took a second for the impulse to crystallize, but then Toby was waving back, feeling a bit rusty but glad he could still process the idea. When had a friendly gesture become an unfamiliar act to him?

Mouth twisting with another bitter smile, Toby ran up the front steps and let himself into the school. He took off his glasses, polishing them as he looked up and down the quiet, deserted hall. He put the glasses back on and rested his hand on the banister, starting up the stairs and hoping to Christ he didn't get lost.

Raincoat folded over his arm as he walked along another hallway, he fought down the few twinges of unease bubbling at the back of his mind. This wasn't Oz. These silent and dimly-lit hallways held no dangers for him. All the same, when he saw a warm glow of light up ahead he quickened his step and stopped in the doorway of the classroom, looking in and spotting Chris Keller over at the desk, sorting through some papers. Toby lingered, watching him and thinking he looked just as comfortable and sure of himself in slacks and a dress shirt. The glasses were a surprise, a rimless and high fashion pair that he wouldn't have expected to see a third grade teacher sporting. Not that it was any of his business, of course, and Willis-Warfield did likely pay their staff generously.

Starting to feel a bit like a voyeur, he cleared his throat as Keller dumped one pile of paper into the trash.

Keller looked over at him with an easy smile. "Hey, you made it."

"Yeah." Toby stepped on into the room, looking around at the desks and shelves, artwork pinned to the big bulletin board, and something written on the chalkboard. "I'm not quite sure where to report, though," he said, stepping closer for a look at the chalkboard and reading the Oscar Wilde quotation written there -- 'All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.'

Keller's smile stayed in place with no obvious effort. "Not a problem, I'll show you the way," he said, rolling down his sleeves and buttoning the cuffs, then slipping on his suit coat.

"Thanks." Toby nodded at the chalkboard. "You don't think Oscar Wilde's a little sophisticated for third graders?"

The easy smile flashed again, Keller returning, "You talked to a third grader lately?" He shrugged, fixing his tie. "Dorian Gray might be too much for them but I think they can handle this much of Oscar. We went over to the college last Christmas to watch them put on The Canterville Ghost and some of the kids wanted to know what else this Wilde guy had done."

Toby nodded, looking at some of the artwork pinned up under a banner that read: The Stuff of Dreams. "This some kind of project?"

"Yeah." Keller looked at it, frowning thoughtfully. "A lot of these kids, they come here knowing what they're supposed to be when they grow up, but no one's ever encouraged them to imagine what else they might do." He looked a bit unsure of himself for the first time, shooting Toby a rueful look. "I just figure it can't hurt to see what might be going on in their heads sometimes." He singled out one drawing among the ones of fire fighters, ballet dancers, and cowboys, of a bird flying over a wall, the sun rising bright in the sky. "That one's Holly's. I think she decided to be more interpretive than literal."

Toby nodded again, studying the drawing, wondering if it really meant what it looked like to him. "Sounds like a good idea."

Keller shrugged, looking at him again but not giving a lot away with that look. "At least they know there are some more possibilities for them. Come on, we'd better get to that meeting," he said as he tucked his glasses in his shirt pocket and gathered up the remaining stack of paper and a legal pad, leading Toby back to the stairs. "Don't worry about taking a wrong turn, it's easy to get turned around in here."

"Well, I spent a lot of time here when I was growing up, but that's been a while." Toby watched his face again for some tell-tale sign that Keller was been informed on all the gory details behind his long absence.

Keller only nodded and said, "Yeah? You're one of our distinguished alumni?"

Toby hoped his huff of self-derision was too infinitesimal for Keller to discern. "You could say that, I guess. Class of 'Eighty-three."

"Wow," Keller flashed him a grin as they started down the stairs. "Reunion committee track you down yet?"

"Ah, no, I don't think so." Christ, that was all he needed.

"Yeah, you want to stay low on the radar there. Went to mine a couple years back -- root canal with no anaesthesia woulda been more fun," Keller said, casting him a look eloquent of the horrors he had endured.

Toby smiled, betting he could easily top that experience. With any luck he would not be taken with some masochistic impulse to actually accept any such invitation, assuming one ever arrived.

"And here we are," Keller said, opening a door into one of the ground floor classrooms. He held it open as Toby stood there, hesitating. "You okay?"

No, not really, but he couldn't balk now. Toby nodded, gearing himself up another notch as he walked on in. Heads turned to look at him and he wanted to believe he was imagining and magnifying the self-righteous censure in everyone's eyes. Most of these people didn't even know him, not that a minor detail like could matter when there was good dirt to spread around. The ones who could claim an acquaintance -- well, he was getting accustomed to those guarded and furtive looks of recognition, no one wanting to snub him outright. No one had been beating a path to the door to renew past friendships, though, or even just say welcome home. It was a little better down at the law firm, but even there Toby had no illusions that it was due to anything but respect and courtesy to his father.

He made his way to the back of the room, squeezing into one of the desks with a lot more ease than good old Freddie Twombly up there, his fat ass looking like it would collapse the whole desk any second now. Yeah, good old Freddie who had his own share of DUI arrests and visits to rehab, but who wouldn't even look Toby in the eye now. Well, there was no one so self-righteous as a hypocrite, that was one tiny grain of wisdom he had been able to glean.

And bitterness was so much more attractive and honest, right? He sighed quietly and tried to slump down in the seat. Maybe Freddie had kicked the booze; maybe he'd put on a few pounds because he was feeling good about his life and staying home nights to enjoy his wife's cooking. What the hell did he really know about Freddie or any of them? What had anyone ever really known about him?

His morose gaze traveled around the room, settling on Chris Keller up at the desk and consulting with an assured, middle-aged woman who seemed familiar to Toby. He searched his memory and pinned it down: Margaret Wingate, his 9th grade history teacher -- now bumped up to principal of Willis-Warfield. He seemed to remember having had a bit of a crush on her back then, too, and even with the graying hair and fuller figure it wasn't hard to recall why. She and Keller looked very easy with each other. Toby envied that; it would be good to feel that comfortable with someone. And it didn't look like he was the only one having envious thoughts. Some of the other faculty members, Miss Sullivan for one, were casting resentful looks at Keller and Principal Wingate. Was Mr. Keller a favorite of the principals? Toby thought he wouldn't be surprised if that were the case, the other man came across as someone who connected with people pretty easily, never thrown by an awkward moment. Toby bet that would feel good, too.

He up straighter as Principal Wingate finally called the meeting to order, apologizing for cramming them into this classroom -- "I'm afraid the only time we could get the cafeteria painted was this evening, though, so we will have to make the best of things." There were refreshments on a cart near the desk, cookies and lemonade, but first they needed to get a few things seen to.

Toby tuned out some of it, his gaze roaming the room once more, watching the other parents. He could spot the ones who really wanted to be there, earnestly taking in everything being said, contributing with enthusiasm, while some others -- like Freddie -- kept glancing at their watches and fidgeting in a way that said more about them wanting to be out of there than with the discomfort of the seating. In the space of ten minutes, two cell phones went off, the parents, both fidgeters, excusing themselves and taking it out into the hall. He smiled at Principal Wingate's look of annoyance following the parents out and was glad chances were slim to none his own phone would not be ringing.

Keller was talking now, sitting on the corner of the desk and wearing those expensive glasses as he read off some announcements, something about an upcoming field trip to the aquarium and wanting parent volunteers to come along and help chaperone the kids. And apparently Mrs. Hathaway, the librarian, was retiring at the end of this school year after a quarter century's service to the school. Given Toby was pretty sure she had been approaching a hundred back when he was here it sounded like this was certainly an event worthy of commemoration.

"And the Children's Hospital sent us this letter," Keller held it up for a moment, "thanking us for the game room we were able to give them from last year's carnival proceeds. The care packages are a big hit, too," he smiled, scanning the letter, "and it sounds like they could probably use some more of those. Maybe we can pool whatever's left over at the end of the year and get some more coloring books and stuff?" he said, looking at Principal Wingate.

She nodded. "I think that can be arranged. Being in the hospital's bad enough without being deprived of coloring books and crayons," she said with a gentle smile.

Care packages... Toby frowned, remembering Gary saying something about that one time he'd been able to telephone him, when Gary had been in the hospital. The game room, too, that had come up, Gary trying to assure him being in the hospital wasn't so bad, they had some really cool games and videos and stuff. Toby looked away, out a rain-streaked window as he felt his eyes burning and his throat constricting again, memories flooding him -- McManus coming to his pod that afternoon, gloomier than usual, telling him there had been a car accident, Genevieve had been killed and Gary was in the hospital in critical condition. It still amazed him that he had been able to hold it together so well, even when Warden Glynn refused to let him out to go the funeral or visit Gary. What else could he do? Go berserk and undo all the progress he'd made, jeopardize every chance of the parole board letting him go? What was there to do except nurse that bitter irony, the knowledge that after all the difficulties things were right on the verge of turning out pretty good for him. His marriage to Gen had weathered the storm, they were going to be together with the kids and in their own home in just a few more months. And then -- a stupid car accident and those few fragile dreams were wiped out in a heartbeat, and all he could do was lay awake in the night wondering if this would be the final retribution, his child's life taken in exchange for Kathy Rockwell's, and clinging to every assurance from Said and Sister Pete that God would not be that cruel.

He let out a deep breath, trying to pull himself back, remember that fate had thrown him a few mercies. Gary had survived, had healed. And he was free to hold his children, feel the sun on his skin, and build something out of the ruins. He had to hold onto that, that lifeline. It wasn't everything he had hoped for, but it had to be enough.

From far away Toby heard the words, "Oswald Penitentiary," and snapped his attention back, looking around wildly for a moment and zeroing in on a woman he didn't know, young and pretty, probably with the best intentions as she said, "Isn't there some better charity we could support? What about that women's shelter down on 12th Street I told you about? They're really doing something constructive, getting the women new clothes and makeovers so they feel good about themselves, with the confidence to go out and apply for jobs and put their lives back together." She spoke with the air of a true believer and as if it struck close to home. "That has to be better than throwing money away on books for convicts."

Before he even realized the words were leaving his mouth, fired by his own experience, Toby said, "Yeah, because it's way better to keep them locked up in cages like goddamn animals with nothing to do but become even more vicious predators. We wouldn't want them escaping into the pages of a book, maybe learning something and getting a clue they could be more than society's shit? You all feel safer in your beds if you pretend they don't even fucking exist?" Oh Christ -- everyone was looking at him now, shock and discomfort on all their faces. All but the principal and Keller, but even they were exchanging some pretty dismayed looks.

Toby looked down at the scarred wood of the desk, more troubled by the knowledge he didn't want to apologize to them than he was for having made the outburst. In retrospect he might like to edit it, present his objection in a more dispassionate and reasoned manner. But he didn't want to take it back. Was that a step forwards or back? He folded his hands on the desk, hunched forward a bit and feeling certain of nothing except that he had probably shot down any chance of being asked to any class reunion.

So, at least it wasn't a total disaster.

Fuck. Chris knew he should have gone with his instinct to warn Beecher that Oz was coming up. He had planned to lead up to it gradually, give Beecher a chance to get used to it. Karen Novak had shot that all to hell, although even Beecher might not blame her if he knew Karen's story.

Maggie was giving him a nudging look, and he cleared his throat, pushing his glasses up as he scanned his notes. "Actually Mrs. Novak, we were just getting to that. We've got the money we're raising from the basketball fundraiser already set aside for the shelter. In fact we've got a sell-out for that and an anonymous benefactor has matched the sum, so everything's looking good that way." He looked at Tobias Beecher sitting there in the back, feeling bad for the guy trying to look inconspicuous. If anyone were to ask Chris' opinion, he would have to say Beecher wasn't doing a very good job of that anyway, inconspicuous did not suit him at all.

"As a matter of fact," Maggie Wingate said, "we have some other business about the basketball game. As you know, it's to be parents versus faculty and I'm afraid one of our fathers, Mr. Asher, has had to bow out, so we'll need someone to take his place. Do we have any volunteers?" she asked, scanning the room expectantly.

Hands failed to shoot into the air, however, and feeling inspired, Chris said, "How about you, Mr. Beecher, think you could help us out here?"

The other man shot him a cranky look, clearly not appreciating that he had been put on the spot. "I'm...not sure--" he started to say.

Chris cut him off, saying, "I know it's short notice since the game's next Wednesday," one week from that night, "but no one's expecting you to be Michael Jordan and it would be a big help. You know how to play, right?"

"Yes, I know how to play, but--"

"Okay, I'll put you down then," Chris said, trying not to smile as he scribbled Beecher's name on the list Maggie handed him.

The only audible reply was a huff as Beecher sat back, the expression in those sky blue eyes promising the blond might have something more to say about this later. Chris had to admit that was not an entirely undesirable prospect. He'd thought he had this Tobias Beecher pegged -- chronically absent father, too wrapped up in his own life to be bothered with his kids. Now he knew that assumption had been haywire, he was curious to see what other surprises Beecher might have in store. That the guy was not exactly hard on the eyes had nothing to do with it.

In fact, it couldn't. There were about a hundred things wrong with that idea. Maybe he could be a friend, though, that wouldn't be so bad. And he could certainly supply the guy with some pertinent information. As Maggie reminded everyone that the purpose of the fundraisers were to give Willis-Warfield students a sense of community responsibility and involvement across the board, and they couldn't limit that to causes and concerns that made no one uncomfortable, Chris made his way back to where Beecher sat, handing him some flyers. "That's a schedule of some practice times we've set up," he said, bending down to whisper, "and the program for the game. Here's the information about the carnival," he added, tapping his fingers against the stapled sheets touting the tropical theme he'd picked out, "and here's a report on this year's fundraisers so you can get an idea of what we're doing."

Beecher nodded, pushing his glasses up as he skimmed the pages. "Looks good," he whispered back. "Thanks."

"Not a problem." Chris wished he could put the guy more at ease. He didn't like that guarded and cautious look on his face, like Beecher was always bracing himself for bad news. Not that Chris didn't understand that. And hell, he couldn't even promise the other man that feeling would ever completely go away.

Maggie was getting to the carnival now and Chris gave Beecher a reassuring smile before heading back up to the desk. The principal had just announced a theme had been decided on and some of the parents were squawking, insisting there hadn't been enough discussion about that yet. They were the same ones who had been holding up the process all along, bitching that one idea would be too much work or that another was politically incorrect. Chris' favorite was Mrs. Eldridge, always fretting about indulging in such frivolity when the world was in such a state. He always wanted to ask her to pinpoint some Golden Age in human history when the world had not been fucked up beyond belief, thereby giving frivolity the thumb's up. Knock wood, he had thought of all that and come prepared to field every question and objection. First define your proposal and then sell it for all it was worth, with every ounce of conviction you had. That was one of the earliest lessons he had ever learned, and still one of the best.

Chris snagged the stack of stapled photocopies, divided them up and began distributing copies, handing them out to everyone in the front row of desks. "Please take one for yourself and hand the rest to the person behind you," he said, exchanging a smile with Maggie. Everything was laid out there, he told them, making his best case. A tropical theme, he explained, would expose the children to a diversity of cultures and would be a terrific learning experience for them. The history and native culture of Hawaii would be the primary focus, and the kids would be able to partcipate in a wide variety of projects -- arts and crafts to dramatic presentations and anything they could think of that might be appropriate. He put a decided lack of emphasis on dunking booths, face-painting, and hula lessons, knowing that by the time Mrs. Eldridge noticed those activities taking place it would all be in full-swing anyway. Chris had some other, personal reasons for choosing Hawaii -- but that was no one's business but his own.

Of course there was some debate but when Maggie finally called for a show of hands, the outcome was clearer than any election in Florida.

"Then I'll make it official," Maggie said, looking like she wished she had a gavel to add to her authority, "and declare that our carnival theme this year will be Hawaiian. That should be very pleasant after the winter we've had."

"Yeah, and we can all get leid," Tobias Beecher drawled from the back of the class, once again drawing everyone's attention and looking like he wished there was a trapdoor in the floor so he could make a quick escape.

Maggie bit her lip, fighting not to smile and Chris, also struggling to keep a straight face, said, "Yes, Mr. Beecher brings up a good point. We're going to need a lot of leis to go around," nope, he couldn't quite keep from smiling. He aimed the smile at Beecher, though, following up with a wink, glad to see the guy sitting up straighter and not looking so shame-faced. "Making leis can be the number one crafts project, everyone should be able to take part in that."

Concerns about how much this was going to cost were eased by the announcement their anonymous benefactor had already made a generous contribution, although everyone else was encouraged to chip in whatever they thought was fair. After that, the meeting broke up into one-on-one consultations as parents sought out particular teachers to find out how their little Johnnys and Marys were doing, helping themselves to the refreshments as well. Beecher didn't seem to quite know what to do with himself, staying back out of the way and watching everyone else, a look on his face that Chris could only think of as wistful determination. Attending to his own business, he tracked Beecher's movements out of the corner of his eye, pleased when the guy finally approached Gary's teacher this year, Mrs. Alexander. Although he didn't care for what looked like the frosty and brusque reception Beecher was getting there.

Chris was at the desk, telling Karen Novak that her son, Scott, was showing a lot of improvement in his reading, and really emerging from his shell, when Tobias Beecher finally approached.

"Excuse me," he said, like he was actually taking his time and choosing his words now, "I would like to contribute whatever time and money I can to the carnival. Are you going to have sign-up sheets or something?"

"Yeah, we'll get something made up by tomorrow for the kids to take home," Chris said. And he couldn't help it, he had to remark, winking again, "Guess you're real anxious to get leid, huh?"

Caught unawares, Beecher laughed, almost choking on his lemonade, and Karen did spit a few crumbs of Oreo cookie.

"Oh man," Beecher had a rueful look as he wiped his mouth, "I keep telling myself I need to learn to edit, but..." He shrugged with a hapless air.

"Nah, don't sweat it."

"Yeah," Karen said as she fished a tissue from her purse and dabbed her lipstick, "they need some shaking up around here." She tossed the tissue in the trashcan and stuck out her hand. "Karen Novak."

"Tobias Beecher," he said, shaking her hand.

"Pleased to meet you. And listen, I didn't mean to go all women's activist on your ass, Tobias. It's just my sonofabitch ex-husband's doing twenty years in Oz for trying to kill me, so I'm maybe not as broadminded as I should be.

"I...guess that's fairly understandable," Beecher said, looking like he appreciated her forthright manner, even if it was unexpected. "And I'm sure that women's shelter is a very worthwhile project."

"You better believe it. They helped me save my life, and Scotty's. You don't forget something like that."

"No," Beecher had a careful air to him, "I guess you wouldn't."

"And nobody's forgetting," Chris said, thinking to help out if the guy was getting uncomfortable. "There's enough money to go around."

Karen rolled her eyes. "I guess somebody's never had to live paycheck to paycheck and clip coupons to get by." The dig was gentle and good humored, though, and Chris supposed it wasn't entirely undeserved. She looked past both their shoulders then, her face lighting up. "And there's the best coupon I ever clipped."

Chris turned to look with Beecher, a lot less surprised than he, however, by the guy just coming in and making his way over to them. With more hair on his chin than his head, and a body and clothes that were both comfortably broken in, Bob Morris wouldn't be anyone's idea of a GQ cover boy -- anyone except Karen's, which was the most important thing. To make it even better, Bob looked at her like she was Miss America. Chris had liked them from the first time he'd heard their story, the one Beecher was getting now, how they had met down at the supermarket check out, swapping coupons and sparks flying away. Chris watched Beecher taking in the story, nodding and smiling, a thoughtful look in those light blue eyes.

As Karen and Bob said their goodbyes and took off, Chris said, "They kinda revive your hopes, don't they?"

The blond gave him an interested look, nodding again. "I guess they would." He sounded fairly neutral, but Chris thought he detected a small note of endorsement. "So -- how's Holly doing?"

"Pretty good," Chris said, happy to switch gears. "She likes reading and art best," he shuffled through some folders, taking out some more of Holly's drawings and handing them to him. "Her spelling needs some work, but it's coming along."

Beecher looked at the drawings and papers Chris showed him, looking pleased. "So she's gold stars all the way?" he said with a wry little smile.

"Yeah, well, I didn't say that," Chris admitted. "She acts up a little every now and then, talking in class, nothing big." And he'd been pretty sure of the cause behind that: that chronically absent and uninvolved father. Now he knew that absence hadn't been voluntary, he could see there had been a lot more going on. Knock wood, there was a lot of reason to believe that was one problem that wouldn't be getting worse. "She just needs to sharpen her focus sometimes."

"Yeah, she's...had some distractions in her life." Beecher spoke cautiously again, shooting him a quick look, as if he really didn't want to dodge around the subject this way but wasn't quite sure how to come right out with it, either.

Chris had a few ideas that way, however. And with the meeting starting to break up, everyone drifting out, he figured this might be as a good a time as any to try them out. "You know, if you want to get back at me for volunteering you for the basketball game," he said as they walked down the hall, "you could make me buy you a five dollar cup of coffee."

Paused by the stairs, Beecher gave him another of those long, thoughtful looks. "I guess I could. Where, exactly, do they serve five dollar cups of coffee?"

"Place couple blocks over, Cafe Calypso," Chris said, pushing the door open and starting down the steps. He stopped and turned back, an understanding smile tugging at his mouth as he saw Beecher stopped there, face turned up to the rain once more. It had slacked off to a barely-there sprinkle, but still enough for a guy to appreciate after being locked away from it for so long. "I can give you a lift over," he said, starting around to the parking lot.

Beecher called him back, though, shaking his head. "Just a couple blocks over? Can we walk?"

"Sure, we can do that."

"I'd like that."

Chris nodded, shifting his briefcase to his other hand and falling into step alongside him, watching him breathe in the cool, wet scent of the pavement, that rich aroma of wet earth lingering too, with its promise of trees and flowers in full bloom soon. Even the asphalt, wet and glistening, catching the reflection of the traffic lights and neon signs, caught Beecher's eye as they walked along, as if he was viewing some exhibit of modern art. That fascination with everything around them, it made Chris want to stop and take a second look for himself, perhaps discover some beauty previously overlooked. Chris wondered if Tobias Beecher even realized what a gift that could be.

Keller's scrutiny was decidedly unobtrusive, but Toby was aware of it all the same. Just like he could imagine that he was acting like a nut, stopping to gawk at the way the glowing blue light of a neon sign advertising Books was splashed across the wet street. Or running his hand along the drenched leaves of a lilac bush, shaking loose droplets of water, bending his head to breathe in the perfume of the flower. He stopped at the top of stone steps leading into a park, wanting to tear off his shoes and socks and go running through that soaking wet grass.

He kept expecting Keller to say something like, 'Guess you don't get out much.' Something that would clue him in on where the other man was coming from. He looked at him as they crossed the street, the coffee house up ahead. Keller had to know, someone must have filled him in by now. So -- what was this really about, this let's be friends stuff? Could it be real?

Funny how much Toby wanted the answer to be yes.

"This the place?" he said as they walked inside, the sumptuous, delicious aroma of good coffee making the question redundant.

"Yep." Keller shot him a smile, leading him over to a table by one of the windows looking out on the park and the river beyond.

They sat down, Toby closing his eyes to savor other smells -- bread was baking somewhere, there was chocolate, too, and spices. And the soft background murmur of voices, jazz music behind that -- he thought he knew that music and cocked his head, listening closer. "Miles Davis?" he said after a moment.

Keller listened, shrugged. "Probably. The owners always have something good on."

Toby nodded, looking around some more, feeling comfortable with the lights turned down, not minding all the people. He'd thought he might, crowds had been difficult a few times. This place, with the wood and the exposed brick, the glass that directed your eye to the view outside but didn't enclose and suffocate you, it felt...warm, cozy. Intimate. Like nothing he had known in such a long time.

The music changed as a waiter came over to hand them menus, Nat 'King' Cole's velvet voice singing "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," and Toby looked down at the table, rubbing his fingers over the polished wood, smiling to himself.

Well, maybe that song wouldn't be part of the soundtrack of his life anymore now. It was an appealing notion, anyway, one he thought he could really get used to.

Title: Come in from the Rain
Authors: Riley Cannon w. Danielle Mucci Subject: B/K, canon-based material mixed with AU; this portion rated PG-13
Posted to: TS, TSXF
Archive: Yes
Feedback: Yes, on list, or private to
Disclaimers/warnings: Tom Fontana & HBO own them; we're only taking them out to let them get some much needed TLC. No warnings (although if you're looking for PWP/instant gratification smut -- this ain't the story for you). Harry Chapin lyrics used without permission.

Summary: Toby has been paroled from Oz and is trying to put his life back together. One of those steps is to become more involved in his children's lives, which brings him in contact with one of their favorite teachers -- whose name is most definitely not Marion... ;)

Thanks to Eliza for the great beta job.

Dedicated to Dori, Holly, and Sarah M. who correctly identified The Willis-Warfield Academy as the little bit of an in-joke.

Oh, and the movie referenced is called "Till Death Do Us Part," starring Treat Williams, about a case prosecuted by Vincent Bugliosi.

"Come in from the Rain" - 3/

~Chapter Three~

Head cocked slightly to one side and smiling just a bit, Chris watched as Beecher studied the menu with the kind of concentration usually reserved for filling out tax forms. The blond made him think of a kid turned loose in a candy store and not quite sure where to start. After another moment, and with one of those huffing sounds, Beecher put the menu down and gave him a rueful look across the table. "I can't make up my mind," he admitted. "Maybe you should order for both of us."

Chris nodded, still smiling as he looked the menu over again and tried to imagine what would really hit the spot after years of prison cuisine. The first thing he had wanted after just five months had been a Big Mac, fries, and a chocolate shake. So -- what did Calypso have in the way of comfort food? "You hungry?"

"Ah," Beecher looked like he was giving that more thought than it needed, "maybe a little."

"Yeah," Chris angled the menu, squinting for a better look at the print, "I was too busy getting ready for the meeting earlier to grab a bite."

Beecher nodded, gaze fixed on the table as he traced abstract patterns over the dark wood. "Yeah, I was...kind of distracted, too."

Chris bet nerves had factored into that. It made him wonder if this was Beecher's first time out on his own. That could explain the thrum of nervous energy he kept sensing in the other man. "Sandwich okay? They make some good ones here."

"Sure, that's fine."

Chris waved a waitress over, her white t-shirt displaying the Calypso logo and a nametag that announced her name was Cerise. It displayed a few other things as well and Chris found himself ridiculously pleased when Beecher only gave her a quick look over. All business, she jotted down his order of grilled chicken sandwiches -- onions and bell peppers okay by Beecher -- on toasted herb bread, Kona French Roast, and chocolate chip cookies for dessert. As Cerise took off, Chris looked back around to see Beecher slumped down on the bronze leather banquette, watching him with an amused and curious look. "What?"

Beecher quirked an eyebrow. "Chocolate chip cookies for dessert?"

"Yep." Chris scooted over on the curved bench just a bit, one of the ferns up on the divider tickling the back of his neck. "You wait -- one bite and you think you're eating Heaven." Beecher smiled at that, a bright one that lit up his whole face for a second. Chris wanted to see that again; he wished he could tell the guy it looked good on him.

If the skeptical look stayed in place, Beecher also looked willing to have a taste for himself and find out. He started to scoot over, too, pausing to pick up a folded newspaper left on the seat. "Do you write advertising copy in your spare time, Mr. Keller?"

Chris flashed him a playful smile. "Ahh, I know what that is," he drawled, "you're casting aspersions on my character." That got another smile, this one a little uncertain like Beecher was making sure Chris was teasing. Deciding to take another chance, Chris said, "And you can make it Chris, if you want."

Beecher studied him across the table, mulling that over for a moment before nodding. "If you'll make it Toby."

"I can do that. It suits you."

The blond shrugged, looking down at the table, table, his forehead wrinkling in concentration as he worked something out in his head. Chris wished he could make this easier for him, but his gut instinct kept telling him to let Beecher -- Toby -- set the pace. After another long moment Toby looked up, glancing out the window at the traffic passing by and letting out a deep sigh. "You know, don't you? The real reason I've been away?" he said, still watching the street.

"I've heard a version," Chris admitted quietly, watching him, the pensive set of his mouth, the cautious look in his eyes as he finally looked back at him.

"And now you want the definitive one."

Chris shrugged, hands resting on the table. "If you want to share it."

Toby's mouth twisted with a wry smile, shooting him another wary look. "I've found it's something of a conversation-killer."

"I'm still listening."

Toby drew in a deep breath, watching his face, searching his eyes and looking like he was reassured by whatever he found. "I guess you are. Why?"

"'Cause I have an idea of how you're feeling right now."

That got another skeptical look from those sharp blue eyes. "You do?" Toby said, blunt. "How?" He looked chagrined in the next instant, though, lowering his head and resuming his examination of the table. "Sorry, none of my business."

"Yeah, it is." Chris sighed, slumping down on the padded leather bench, the memories a lot easier to handle now. Still with some bite, some kick, but he knew they didn't have any more power to drag him down than he gave them. "When I was seventeen, I was the lookout when a guy I knew broke into a house. I was dumb enough to think Mikey was just screwing around. And then the cops showed up to arrest me." He picked up a paper napkin, starting to shred it as he talked, as he remembered, some of that old kick making his belly feel tight. "The D.A. wanted to make an example of me and steamrolled right over me and my halfwit attorney -- before I knew what hit me I was being processed up at Lardner." And he hadn't been there half a day before getting cornered by two other inmates leaving him in no doubt about what they had in mind. A corner of his mouth quirked up in bitter memory of what a clueless asshole he'd been to actually think good old Vern Schillinger had rescued him out of the goodness of his heart.

Startled as a hand touched him, he looked up into Toby's worried face and then down at the hand lying against his arm. "Ah, sorry, I...kinda drifted off for a second," he said, thinking this wasn't going quite as planned.

Toby didn't act like he minded. "It's okay." He sighed and gave Chris' arm a quick pat before he sat back, still looking troubled. "You were only seventeen?"

"Yeah." Chris nodded and let out his own deep breath, finding an unexpected comfort in having made the admission. He had stopped being ashamed of it a long time ago, thanks to Dr. Geisman, thanks to Lulu, because they had gotten him to talk about it all and truly set himself free. That was what Toby needed, that was what Chris wanted to give him. "My mother got me a new hotshot lawyer," he went on, "and he got me out in five months, all charges dismissed, but..." he frowned down at the table's smooth surface, "it was five months I was a long time forgetting."

Toby watched him, thoughtful. "Twenty years forgetting?"

"Sometimes, yeah." He would have liked to promise him one day it would all - poof! - go away, but Toby deserved better than lies about quick fixes.

He was contemplating the polished top of the table, now, fingertips running back and forth over some especially interesting spot. Chris studied those fingers, those square, practical and dependable hands, thinking those were hands a person could rely on, those were hands could keep you safe and secure. He'd bet they gave away more about Toby than their owner even suspected - or could acknowledge right now. Smiling at that, at how concentrated Toby was in whatever tiny imperfection he had discovered in the wood surface, Chris dipped his head down a bit, trying to make eye contact. "Hey, Toby, listen to me." He reached over to stop that nervous hand, sky blue eyes darting up at him and then away, gazing out the window. Chris left his hand there, enjoying that contact way too much, but at least he was resisting the signals his brain was sending to caress, to turn up the volume and seduce. Even if that could be in the program it sure as hell didn't have a place there now.

"Listen to me," he repeated, still trying to catch his eye. "Toby, I know you want to hear it can be like a dry-erase board you can just wipe clean. It'd be a fuck of a lot easier that way, just make the last six years of your life go away."

Toby turned to him then, a harder glint in his those eyes now that hinted at even more depths - and only made him all the more intriguing to Chris. "Look," Toby said, voice low and passionate, "there is not one single goddamn moment when I am not aware of everything I've done. There is nothing I can ever do to make any of it go away, there is nothing I can do to make up for any of it. I am going to have to live with that knowledge all the rest of my life."

Chris could feel that passion, the anguish and frustration underneath, and leaned in closer to him. "Toby, all I'm saying is you don't have to be locked into that all the rest of your life. You have a right to let it go and move on, to," he paused, trying to remember what the doc had told him, "to assimilate it into you but not have it be the sole defining aspect of your life." He made a wry face at Toby's dubious look and sat back a little, moving his hand so it was just resting next to Toby's on the table. "Yeah, I know," he added with a shrug, "it sounds like a lot of bullshit psychobabble, but I'm living proof it works."

Toby resumed his examination of the tabletop, lifting his shoulders in reply. "Maybe, if all you did was be a lookout in some small time robbery."

"There was a hell of a lot more to it, Toby," Chris returned, "things I didn't even know about until the doc pushed all the right buttons."

"Like what?" Toby said, shooting him a serious, upward glance.

Yeah, Chris slumped down on the comfortable, padded bench, this was always the hardest part. "That's fair," he said, nodding. And it was; Lulu had done that, teaching him by example, and it was something he always tried to draw on when he needed to get through to some troubled third grader. Age didn't make a difference, either. Eight years old, or seventeen, or a few years shy of forty, everyone needed to know someone had been there before and made it safely to the other side. "Yeah, it was only five months, drop in the bucket compared," Chris rested both hands flat against the table, "but it was the second most important thing that ever happened to me. Nothing had prepared me for it, and I came real close to letting it fuck me up forever. A few more nudges the wrong direction - Christ knows where I'd be today." Not here talking to Toby, not a teacher with responsibilities he welcomed and enjoyed because of the purpose they gave his life.

Toby looked at him straight on, studying his face, like he might be imagining that 17-year-old Chris Keller and how he'd been back then - slimmer, a whole lot more hair, softer features, prime-cut new meat for the harder, seasoned felons in his cellblock. Chris shivered, tangled in a memory for a moment, Schillinger touching his face, telling him, "Hey, sweetpea, you're smooth as a girl," - that Nazi cocksucker's idea of foreplay. He let the memory come on, let it get as vivid as it wanted to, and then it pass, knowing it didn't have any power to hurt him now. He blinked and looked back at Toby, ready to help him get to that same place, ready to show him whatever was needed to start that journey. Lulu'd taught him that, too, and his dad, how if the things you experience in life are to have any purpose at all you have to have to be willing to share them with someone else; none of it did you any good just hoarding it and hiding it away. A tough lesson, one he'd finally realized you spent your whole life learning how to do.

"That...must have been tough for a kid," Toby finally said, cautious, still watching his face.

"Wasn't the most fun I ever had, no," Chris admitted, no way of dodging it. "Not a piece of cake for you, either, though. How old were you, when you went in?"

Toby's mouth made a rueful quirk. "Thirty-two," he said, like it was only dawning on him now. He looked down at the table again, repeating it, "I was only thirty-two."

And how much did that gnaw at him, those years he'd lost, important years when he should have been watching his kids grow up and making a place for himself in the world? It had to feel like he was back to square one, starting all over from scratch, and only seeing the years he'd lost right now. That was something else he needed to know, to remember, that he was still young and had a whole lot of life and possibilities ahead of him. Different from what he'd had laid out for him before, sure, but different didn't have to be bad, different wasn't a one-way ticket to misery. Chris was living proof of that, too.

"You know, one night I saw this movie," he said, thinking a more oblique approach might work, "and the prosecutor was giving his closing argument, and how he illustrated his point was to take these pieces of string," he improvised by pulling a paper napkin from the stainless steel dispenser and shredding it into strips, "each string representing a single piece of the evidence." He laid his napkin strips out on the table, one by one. "And you know what he had when he was done?"

"A tangled ball?" Toby retorted and looked down again, like the strips of napkin were the only thing interesting to him. But Chris could tell he had his attention.

"No, Toby, he twisted them together," and he gathered up the bits of paper, balling them up in his fist, "and made a piece of rope. He showed that you could take something that may have been weak on its own but that put together, it could turn into something strong, something unbreakable."

"Yeah, well," Toby shrugged, his tone
self-deprecating, "you know what they say, give a man enough rope..."

Chris thought he might have gotten exasperated with him pretty easily, if there wasn't so much on the line. "Toby, what you went through, that's one string. Every birthday party, every graduation, every date you went on - the bully that picked on you in third grade and your kids being born, the Christmas present that Santa forgot when you were five," he leaned into Toby's space again, "those are all some of the strings that make you who you are. You can't just snip one or two out because you don't like them or you don't believe they should have any meaning now, after what you've done. You do that, Toby, and you weaken the whole thing, eventually it snaps. You might not think so now, but believe me," he put his hands on Toby's forearm this time and looked him straight in the eye, "Toby believe me, the fact that you are alive and breathing and out of that place, trying to get your life back, that proves you are so much stronger than you give yourself credit for." He shook his arm a little, as surprised as Toby by his impassioned words.

Trying to distance himself, Toby said, "Let me guess, you also have a sideline in motivational speaking?" But anyone could tell his heart wasn't in the snarky remark, that Chris' words had gotten to him more than he may have liked.

Chris knew all about that, too. Thankfully, the doc and Lulu had kept right on kicking his ass until he had finally bought a clue. That was the least he could do for Toby.

Glad of the distraction of the waitress coming over with their food, Toby nodded politely as she set down their plates and cups of coffee, receiving the same impersonal courtesy in return. It was pretty obvious whose attention she was trying to get, for all the good it was doing her. As she threw in the towel for the moment and went off to take care of some other customers, Toby said, "She's cute." About fifteen years too young for either one of them, but there was no harm in looking. One day he might even feel inclined to do a bit more than look, although probably not with a 20-something waitress.

Chris unfolded one of the thick paper napkins and spread it across his lap, shooting a knowing look over at him that let Toby know he was well aware someone was trying to change the subject. With a slight shake of his head and a hint of an understanding smile, though, Chris glanced over at the waitress and gave a neutral shrug. "I guess, if that's your type."

Unfolding his own napkin and picking up one of the sandwich halves, Toby said, "What is your type?" Something told him Mr. Keller could probably get away with being on the choosy side.

Clearly enjoying his first bite of the sandwich, Chris chewed and swallowed and sent him a tiny and mysterious smile. "Well," there was a barely detectable suggestive drawl in his voice, "I have always been a little partial to blondes." And although that certainly explained Miss Sullivan, that tone of voice and the twinkle in those blues eyes gave Toby the perplexing idea there might be some other level of meaning behind that.

"You're not married?" Toby said, taking a moment to just take in a deep whiff of the sandwich, mouth just about watering at the appetizing aromas of the grilled chicken, the onions and peppers. The first bite, all those flavors flooding his mouth - something sweet there, a tang of lemon, too, the flavor and texture of the bread - it was another of those Technicolor moments. Would Chris understand that, or had the years been merciful and erased any memory of prison glop food from his mind?

"No." Chris shook his head, watching him eat and looking like he not only understood how much Toby was enjoying the sandwich but also like it tickled him to be a witness to it. "Beats anything institutional, huh?"

"Oh, fuck, yeah," Toby said with feeling, going for the forkful of the potato salad next, loving that just as much. He shook his head, amused at himself for digging into the food as if he had never eaten before in his life. None of the vibes coming off Keller put him a self-conscious frame of mind, however. Very much the opposite, in fact; he was feeling more relaxed than he had in ... fuck, six years, longer maybe. "Ever been?" he said, taking another bite of the sandwich.

"Married?" Chris shook his head. "Nah, not exactly in the cards for me."

"Ever want to be?"

Chris shrugged then. "Used to think it would be good to find someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, yeah."

Toby frowned across at him, not liking the sound of that, surprised by it. "But you don't anymore?" His answer was a pretty fierce glare, jaw set firm and eyes narrowed. "Sorry," he said, making an apologetic gesture. "Didn't mean to cross the line."

The frown notched up, the handsome head tilting a bit as well. "Cross what line?"

"Into anything personal," Toby said, a bit halting. "Didn't mean to offend," he said again.

"You didn't," Chris said, looking puzzled now.

"Yeah, well, you looked like you were about to bite my head off."

Inexplicably, Chris grinned. "Sorry," he picked up his glasses and slipped them back on. "I'm not pissed off, Toby, just nearsighted," he explained. His expression turning rueful, he went on, "Actually I'm still getting used to them, trying to convince myself I only need for a few things. You know - like reading, driving, if I really want to watch a movie or TV show in focus."

Toby smiled back with an amused huff. "Vain, much?" he returned, one eyebrow raised.

The narrow-eyed glower was genuine this time, but with a lot of good humor behind it. Broad shoulders lifted in a shrug as Chris admitted, "Yeah, maybe a little. `Course it's kinda hard to look real cool if you're bumping into the furniture. Not to mention I'm liable to get my ass kicked one of these days because someone thinks I'm giving him a dirty look when all I'm doing is trying to focus."

"Well, you do have an intimidating air."

Keller's mouth quirked. "Yeah, I've heard that." He shrugged again. "Sometimes it's useful - sometimes I wish I'd known I could do that back when I was seventeen."

Toby sighed and sat back in the booth, looking at him. "You're not going to let go of this, are you?"

Chris shook his head, hands spread out as he gave him back a don't know what you're talking about look. "Tell me to back off and I'll never say another word."

And maybe he really would never mention it again, the same way no one else ever did, at times making him feel like he had only exchanged Oz for another kind of prison, a very polite one where bad things were never mentioned. That was safe and easy, no question, but -- he sighed and considered the man across from him, the first person who had simply taken him as he was, passing no judgments and carrying no expectations, all of that making for something pretty irresistible - but safe and easy wasn't what he wanted anymore. He had come too far for caution to rule the day now. He leaned in again and reached for the cup of coffee, aromatic steam rising from it. "It's not an easy thing to talk about, Chris."

"Is it any easier to avoid?"

Toby conceded that point with a look. He wrapped both hands around the cup, feeling the warmth, taking his time as he closed his eyes and inhaled the rich, delicious aroma. "I have to admit, this is good coffee," he said, biting his lip against a smile as Chris gave him an exasperated look. "Kona - that's Hawaiian, right?"

"Uh-huh." Chris shook his head, the look in his eyes letting Toby know he was prepared to be as patient as need be. As they ate some more and enjoyed the coffee, he very patiently detailed how to make the perfect cup, always boil the water between 195 to 205 degrees, grind the beans for about ten seconds; keep the beans stored in the freezer, only taking out the amount you were going to use during the week, storing the ground coffee in canning jars.

By the time he got to why the rich, volcanic soil of Hawaii provided the perfect growing conditions, Toby put up in his hands in surrender. "Okay, okay, if I spill my guts will you pleeasse shut the fuck up about coffee?"

Grinning, Chris nodded. "Sounds fair to me."

Toby shook his head, not entirely sure why he was smiling and actually enjoying this. "No," he said, taking another bite of the potato salad, "avoiding the entire topic is not exactly what you would call easy. In fact..." He frowned down at the table, fingers finding that miniscule groove again, rubbing back and forth over it. "In fact, sometimes I think it's going to kill me, everyone pretending everything's just fine now, everything can get back to normal now. It's like they want to pretend I was only away at ... at summer camp for six years."

"Camp FuckYouEveryWayFromSunday?" Chris said, underlining it with a short and bitter laugh. He reached over then, laying his hand over Toby's again and giving it a light pat before moving off. "Do they know it's driving you crazy, all the denial?"

"I doubt it. I think," he frowned, "I think they believe they're doing the right thing, that it would upset me more if they brought up and dwelled on it. Yet everything they do is because of that, because all they're thinking about is how I was in prison and how nothing is the same now. It's so stupid, like everyone's sitting in the room and pretending nobody farted."

Caught off guard, Chris almost choked on his coffee, coughing and covering his mouth, giving him a warning glare across the table as he dabbed at his mouth with a paper napkin. "And thanks so much for almost making me snort hot coffee through my nose."

Trying to look apologetic, Toby shrugged. "Sorry." He sniffed. "My eloquence isn't what it was."

"Sounds okay to me - just give me some advance warning, huh?"

He nodded, a tiny smile of appreciation curving his lips. Did Chris know what a gift this was, just letting him unload like this? He took another sip of coffee, wondering if it really tasted that good or if it was something to do with the company putting him so much at ease that he could let every taste and sensation linger long enough to enjoy them? "Can I ask a question?"

"Sure - shoot."

Toby leaned forward, meeting his eyes, searching them for the answers. "Why are you doing this? I mean, there must be other things you could be doing tonight." Like Miss Sullivan, he thought but didn't say.

"Because I made a judgment call on you," Chris answered without any hesitation, "and had no right to do that, especially when I didn't know all the facts."

Toby nodded, thinking about that. "And that's important to you?"

"Since I've been on the other side of that, someone believing the worst about me `cause they'd only heard part of the story? Yeah, pretty important."

Toby nodded again, looking down at the table and then up. Never ask a question you don't know the answer to - that was one of the basics of his profession. If he pursued this he might hear some things he wasn't prepared for and might not like, but on the other hand the truth couldn't be any worse than all the things he imagined were being whispered behind his back. "Can I ask what you had decided about me?"

Hesitating an instant now, considering his words, Chris took off his glasses and set them on the table, leaning in towards him. "Truth?" At Toby's nod, he went on, "I thought you were probably too involved in your own life, your career as a hotshot attorney, to be bothered with your kids - the wife and kids were just accessories to your lifestyle."


Chris cocked his head, looking at him very seriously. "You asked."

True enough. "That's what you meant about how lots of the parents say they want to be involved but most don't really mean it?"

"Yep." Chris sat back then, that intense gaze shifting out the window, but not before Toby had glimpsed something there, a flash of an old hurt. Arm stretched out along the top of the banquette, long fingers idly stroking the soft leather, Chris said, "I know a little bit about being the kid in that situation."

Pretty intimately, too, Toby could tell. "I think Genevieve made up for a lot of my shortcomings that way," he said, hoping it was true.

"She did, yeah."

Curiosity piqued some more, Toby said, "Did you know her?"

"Met her a few times. She never missed a PTA meeting if she could help it, and was always throwing herself into volunteer work, more with Maggie - Principal Wingate - than me." He looked back at Toby. "I figured that was one of her ways of coping, keep herself busy enough and maybe she wouldn't notice her husband was never there."

There was more than a pinch of truth there, Toby couldn't deny it no matter how much he didn't like the picture. It all might have gone that way, too, if not for Oz. "You ever hear that song, `Cat's in the Cradle?'"

"Harry Chapin? Yeah."

"I heard it on the radio the other day and it suddenly hit me that could have been my life, it would have been ... if I hadn't gone to Oz." He shook his head, a bitter huff escaping.

"Yeah, well, that's what Dorothy found out in the end, right, that everything she needed was right there all along, she just needed to open her eyes and see it."

"Yeah," Toby sniffed, "but I got gypped out of the ruby slippers."

Chris flashed that bright smile, dimples popping, and winked. "Yeah? Ya want a pair?"

Toby laughed. "I'll get back to you on that." He sat back, nodding to himself. "I wasn't the husband or father of the year. I always meant to try and do better, told myself someday there was going to be time enough to make up for everything, catch up with it all." He shrugged. "Guess life had other plans that way."

"It usually does."

He looked at Chris, nodded. "When you did see Genevieve, how was she?"

A pensive look on his face, Chris shook his head. "Hard to say. Kinda sad, lonely," he said after a moment, pausing to search for more words. "Really sweet and thoughtful, though. Some of the others, parents and faculty, I'd hear them talking about how they thought she was stuck up or something because she kept to herself a lot, but I always thought she was just real shy." He shrugged, like he wanted to say more, but she hadn't made enough of an impression for that.

And could there be a sadder epitaph?

"She was always shy," Toby said, remembering the first time he'd met her at Harvard, both of them feeling out of place at the party and sitting on that couch over in the corner, finally breaking down and talking to each other in lieu of anyone else coming along to help them break the ice. Small wonder coming to see him in Oz had been an ordeal for her. "It was tough on her, standing by me through everything, tougher than she ever let on to me, probably. I know a lot of people thought she should dump me and move on with her life."

"She must have loved you a lot to stick it out."

"Maybe." He shook his head, hating himself for not being able to know for certain. "Or maybe it was a sense of obligation." No one could answer that now, all he could go on was what his gut told him from her visits, how awkward and stilted everything had felt, Genevieve's discomfort radiating off her in palpable waves. "I think..." Toby paused, hands pressed against the edge of the table, not quite believing he was actually going to say the words to this man, to Chris Keller, when he hadn't told his parents - when he had barely even acknowledged it to himself. "I think I was going to ask her for a divorce," he said, slumping down on the padded bench as the waitress came over to see if they wanted anything else.

~~to be continued~~

"Cat's in the Cradle" -- by Harry Chapin

My child arrived just the other day,
He came to the world in the usual way.
But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay. He learned to walk while I was away.
And he was talking 'fore I knew it, and as he grew, He'd say, "I'm gonna be like you, dad.
You know I'm gonna be like you."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little boy blue and the man in the moon. "When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when, But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

My son turned ten just the other day.
He said, "Thanks for the ball, dad, come on let's play.
Can you teach me to throw?" I said, "Not today, I got a lot to do." He said, "That's ok." And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed, Said, "I'm gonna be like him, yeah.
You know I'm gonna be like him."

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little boy blue and the man in the moon. "When you coming home, dad?" "I don't know when, But we'll get together then.
You know we'll have a good time then."

Well, he came from college just the other day, So much like a man I just had to say,
"Son, I'm proud of you. Can you sit for a while?" He shook his head, and he said with a smile, "What I'd really like, dad, is to borrow the car keys. See you later. Can I have them please?"

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little boy blue and the man in the moon. "When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when, But we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

I've long since retired and my son's moved away. I called him up just the other day.
I said, "I'd like to see you if you don't mind." He said, "I'd love to, dad, if I could find the time. You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kid's got the flu,
But it's sure nice talking to you, dad. It's been sure nice talking to you."
And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me, He'd grown up just like me.
My boy was just like me.

And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little boy blue and the man in the moon. "When you coming home, son?" "I don't know when, But we'll get together then, dad.
You know we'll have a good time then."

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