by Alexa C.
Summary: Beecher and Keller deal with the fallout. Post S2.
Notes: Beta by Heph; additional beta by Sugaree in Parts 6 and 9. Set post S2 and now somewhat Jossed. Somewhat. While technically a WIP, this also can be read as an alternate S3, with the canon S4 picking up at the end of Part 10. Fontana owes me a drink, man. Originally posted late 1998 through July 1999.
Hooray for the child who makes it through If there's any way, because the answer lies in you. *They're laid to rest before they've known just what to do. * Their souls are lost because they could never find - what's this life for. - Creed
Chris Keller was a good whore.
He learned early and well that survival depended on playing the game, on giving them what they wanted. Sex, like everything else, was a commodity: given when it could protect him or gain him some favor, taken when the opportunity arose for a few minutes - just a few - that would get him out of his head and bring the rush of pleasure and oblivion that orgasm gave.
He discovered he could divorce himself from his body, if he had to. If he had been a little younger, he might have ended up with some company inside his own head. But he was 17 when it started, a man in the eyes of the world and the justice system, and anyway, multiple personality disorder seemed a bit esoteric for a two-bit hood from Hell's Kitchen.
He had no use for the romantic aspects of sex. It was a bargaining chip. Hell, even before he went to prison, that's all it had been. A reward for spending enough money on a girl or for dredging up the pretty words that got her to put out. He understood the rules. Once he started putting out, he expected something in return - protection at the very least. And the performance was more than sex. It was the same lesson learned by many women and some men over the centuries. It was keeping the alpha dog happy, wearing the mask, playing the part, putting on a pretty face when the man of the house came home from a hard day at the office, or the man of the cellblock came home from a hard day on the prison assembly line. Agreeing at the right time. Burying yourself, because you were safer hidden away somewhere inside, where no one could touch you, hit you or caress you with hands that may as well have delivered blows for all the tenderness they expressed.
His wives never understood that. Not even Bonnie. He met them, wooed them, married them. Then he tumbled them and came to realize that no matter how he tried to fool himself, it was all just part of the game. He was skilled, and they mistook expertise for passion. Eventually, when their passion wore off, they found themselves unable to breach the steel wall around the core of Chris Keller. They tired of bruising themselves against it, and they left.
Locked inside Emerald City, Tobias Beecher had nowhere to go.
PART ONE: MARK OF CAIN
What ravages of spirit conjured this tempestuous rage - Created you a monster broken by the rule of love? - Sarah McLachlan
Everything and nothing had changed.
Same grey walls, same grey lighting, same grey lives, same grey faces enduring a curious nonexistence on a road to nowhere. Or did it all look more drab, more plain, in the light of the fire burning in Beecher's gut - embers that had lain banked but smouldering from the minute he'd been hauled into the infirmary three months ago?
The slumbering blaze had kept him warm during long nights spent shivering in the depths of a cold rage and a hatred that can only be born from the bleeding wreckage of love. It had comforted him as he lay helpless, claustrophobically encased in plaster, unable to wipe his ass or scratch his nose. It had driven him as he'd forced withered limbs through the agonies of physical therapy as the casts came off, one by one.
They had kept him on the ward as his bones knit and his mind unraveled, spooling down to the bare essentials. They had been afraid he'd be too much of a target, an easy mark, at least until the casts came off. They were thinking of his safety. So said Tim McManus, the embodiment of They, who sat beside the bed, face contorted as if he could possibly share in the agony Beecher was enduring.
Beecher had shut out the sound of McManus' voice, the wasted pleas for any information about who had done this horrible, terrible thing. What were They going to do, throw him in the Hole? He was already in a hell of his own making. Locked in his broken body, his mind had crawled through torturous paths of shame, ripped itself open on the memories of soft words spoken in the darkness of a pod and hard caresses shared on the wrestling mat of a gym. He had asked for it, asked for it all. Too stupid to learn the lesson that Vern had tried to teach him, he'd run stumbling for the haven of an outstretched hand. Blind and gullible, he'd placed his faith and his trust - and his heart - in a grip that squeezed until his life shattered with his bones.
His eyes were open now. As he hobbled back into Em City, the flames were there, flaring to life, warming his belly and creeping down his thighs, through his torso and groin in a curiously sexual anticipation.
The desire for revenge burned in him.
Jesus Christ, this had to be a joke. Beecher stopped behind the CO who led him to his pod. His old familiar pod, with its old familiar inhabitant. He giggled madly, and the sound jerked Chris Keller's head around as if it had reached out tangible hands and grabbed him by the chin. The tall, dark man stood there as if he'd seen a ghost.
"Is there a problem?" the CO asked in a bored voice. He was a new one, a short squat man Beecher had never seen before, and that change, too, was part of the sameness of Oz. Cellblock Five ate up hacks like a kid with candy. Most considered it a plum assignment until they actually walked that beat, and then they decided they would rather put up with the seething, roiling hordes in Gen Pop than the weird shit that always seemed to go down in Em City. In their opinion, Tim McManus belonged in the psych ward with the other nutjobs for trying whatever stupid experiment this was supposed to be.
"No problem at all," Beecher responded with a smirk.
And then he was alone with Keller. Alone with the man who had seduced him and stomped on his heart. Alone with a man whose body he knew intimately, even across the gulf of betrayal and pain that separated them as they stood three feet apart.
Alone as you could ever be in Em City, with its glass walls and its patrolling hacks. Which was, in fact, utterly alone.
"Don't call me that," Beecher said. "Don't you fucking dare."
Keller dropped his eyes and took a step back.
Beecher hadn't said anything to McManus, Keller already knew that. His naked ass would still be freezing on the damp floor of Ad Seg, even three months later. But he'd never thought that particular fact through to its logical conclusion. When the new guy had been hauled out, Keller had chalked it up to McManus' supposed obsession with shaking things up. It had been a relief to see Terrance's back, anyway. A junkie who'd finally waved his gun around too many times and shot a security guard, Terrance had found it even easier to feed his habit in prison than on the street. He'd spent most of his time bouncing off the walls, and Keller had threatened to shove the tits up Terrance's ass if he didn't shut up long enough to allow for three unbroken hours of sleep. With the way the guy was killing off brain cells, Terrance would be bunking with Peter Schibetta any day now.
McManus must have assumed Beecher could sure use the support of his best friend, Keller. Barely 48 hours later, Keller was wondering how to disabuse him of that notion without setting off any warning bells. Because Beecher was driving Keller nuts. Dancing just out of reach, the blond man remained a palpable presence over Keller's shoulder. In the cafeteria, in the gym, in the general recreation area, Keller would feel the itch between his shoulder blades and turn his head to find Beecher studying him like a bug on a pin. He'd woken the night before to find that basilisk gaze trained on him from across the tiny room, and he'd rolled onto his back to stare at the ceiling and avoid Beecher's eyes.
"You know," Beecher had said conversationally, the first words he'd spoken to Keller in two days, "I really, really hate you."
"That's not surprising."
"Isn't it, Chris?" Beecher made Keller's name sound like an epithet. "Because if I knew someone hated me that much, I'd be a little bit afraid to fall asleep, locked in the same room with them."
"Should I worry?" The bravado in Keller's voice masked the sick chills that ran down his spine. He recognized this man. This was the man who'd lived in the pod when Keller had first moved in.
Beecher didn't respond as he crawled into the bottom bunk, his by default since Keller had claimed the top bed. It wasn't like he could climb into the top bunk, anyway.
"You know, I don't really think I oughta lose sleep over it, Beech," Keller said, answering his own question and hoping the man on the bed underneath him heard what he was trying to say. "I mean, ask yourself: Just why do you hate me so much? Don't tell me nobody has kicked your ass before. And you didn't try to kill them. You didn't even try to kill Schillinger."
Silence greeted him again, and he spoke into the darkness.
"I'm sorry about what happened."
"Shut up, Keller, or I'll come up there right now and kick your ass."
Neither man had spoken again. And now, Keller found himself in the gym, still under the watchful eye of Beecher as Vern sidled up and whispered in Keller's ear, hot breath sour on Chris' cheek. Keller didn't squirm, didn't flinch. He didn't meet Beecher's eye.
"I think the little prag really has a thing for you, Chris," Vern whispered, barely concealed laughter in his voice. "You really turned him, didn't you? Guess I must have taught you a few tricks."
"Yeah, I guess you did, Vern," Keller muttered.
"So, how bad has he got it? Think he'd be willing to have a little fun?"
"Don't, Vern. He's already on self-destruct," Keller said with exasperation, gauging Schillinger's reaction and wondering how much leeway the older man was willing to grant to keep his resident expert on Tobias Beecher happy and performing well.
"Ooo, feeling a little protective, are we? How sweet."
"I mean it. I'm the one who's putting up with his crazy shit, now." Keller got up, leaving Schillinger to his own memories, and stalked across the room. Passing Beecher, he barely heard the blond man whisper.
"Reeeeal sorry, huh, Chris?"
Keller stalked to the pod, back straight, a swagger in his step. But once inside, he slumped against the wall, the sick headache pounding behind his eyes making him nauseous and dizzy. Beecher wasn't on self-destruct, he was. Every time, every single fucking time, he wondered how long it would be before he pushed too far. He couldn't let Schillinger scent fear on him. The older man would be on it like a dog, eager for blood, eager to shift the tentative new boundaries an adult Keller had laid on their relationship, to turn back the clock.
Too many balls in the air. If he dropped one, both he and Beecher could pay the price. And Keller was too open, too raw, to deal with all the games with his customary dexterity.
Bury it, Chris, bury it.
He doubled over, digging his fingers into the tender flesh of his eyelids, trying to press hard enough to squeeze out the pain hammering there. No one outside of Chris Keller's head would have guessed the turmoil that had wracked him since he had turned to find Beecher standing at the door of the pod two days ago. Beecher's omnipresence had only made it worse. There was no time, no quiet corner where Keller could center himself. Watching the man shuffle on legs still weak from his ordeal brought sick flutters to Keller's stomach. He had woken from dark dreams he barely remembered, his arm over his mouth to keep himself from screaming as he fell down a black hole that ended too soon, to land broken and bleeding on icy spikes that ripped open his body.
Through it all, Keller had remained outwardly impassive. But he could feel the cracks spreading, like the thin, fine roots of weeds that eventually rip up sidewalk pavement. Now, he had a few precious minutes alone, and he could do what he needed to do to kill the sickness lurking beneath the surface, to silence the pounding in his head. It would take Beecher a while to hobble back from the gym. Chris had the time he needed.
He scrabbled with one of the tiles beside the toilet, yanking the loose stone out of its nest of cement, and felt the comforting coolness of metal. Sparing a quick glance over his shoulder, he huddled in the corner and pulled off his tank. There, just below the waistband of his pants, where no one would see, no one would know. Laying the razor blade against taut flesh, he cut carefully, almost delicately, a single stroke that scored his skin and left a hot trickle of blood.
It was almost accidental, the discovery that the crystal-sharp slice of the blade could bring clarity.
That first night Beecher was in the infirmary, the night Keller had been locked in the pod alone, he had stood in the dark holding Toby's T-shirt, the realization of what happened sinking in. Swept up in the terrifying, exhilarating rush, carried along on the current of Schillinger's and Metzger's sadism, the terrifying chink he'd sensed in his armor during the previous days had split wide open and he'd lost control. Somewhere in the back of his head, he could hear Liz, wife number three, the pop-psychology fanatic, nagging him that he couldn't block off his emotions and not expect them to come spewing out at inappropriate times.
And no matter what emotions they were when he buried them, they always seemed to surface as rage, fueled by the fear of his own vulnerability. He had tried to push Beecher away, tried to follow the plan, tried to maintain after his moment of weakness in the laundry room. But Beecher just kept pushing back, the stupid shit. And Keller had struck out in blind terror, a berserker rage riding him as he fought to reestablish his control. He had smashed and kicked and beaten the thing that threatened his defenses.
He ran a hand over his face. Bury it. He turned away and found himself face to face with a haggard man in the mirror. He studied the image for a minute. He should look different, somehow. But it was the same Chris Keller looking back at him.
"Fuck," he muttered. What did he expect, some seal of fire set on his forehead? A tattooed 666? A memory floated in the back of his mind the sharp scent of incense and a smudge of ashes like a bruise on his forehead, to put his penitence on display.
It was just a job, damn it. Just a favor he owed to a man who had taken his sorry ass in when he'd been too young and stupid to understand the dangers he faced in prison. Just a debt paid off, one more entry marked in black. He tried to push the thoughts away and crawled into bed, unthinkingly hoisting himself into the top bunk, where the blankets and pillow held the scent of another man's body. Pain stabbed behind his eyes, nausea curled in his belly, and he rolled into a fetal position, gasping.
*In the laundry room, Toby so close - so close Keller could smell the other man: the clean smell of harsh prison shampoo and shaving cream; a faint whiff of milk and the wholesomeness of children still clinging; the tang of his sweat. For an instant, the blond man smelled like home, a home Chris never really had. Keller's mind cleared for the first time in years: no thoughts, no schemes, no subterfuge, just a clear, strong pulse of hope and trust, fluttering through him from Beecher's fingertips. "I love you, Toby," he'd said before taking the other man's mouth with his. And Beecher had surged forward just the slightest bit to meet him before Keller drove the smaller body back under the onslaught of passion ...*
Keller realized he was shivering, despite the scratchy blankets wrapped around him. Bury it, goddammit. Get a fucking hold of yourself.
He couldn't afford to lose control. If he had kept his shit together months ago, no one should have died in that holdup. If he had kept his shit together the past few days, Beecher wouldn't be lying in that hospital bed right now. He would be pissed, but he would be here, with Keller, where he belonged ...
Keller's hands, white-knuckled, clenched around the side rail of the bed, and he was surprised to feel the flesh of his right palm split against an unexpectedly sharp edge. The cold metal cut through his skin and his confusion, took him out of his head and brought him back to his body. He raised his hand to stare at the slash of crimson - almost black in the gloom - that was laid across his palm. He poked at it and felt small, silvery lances of pain run up his arm to his brain.
Pulling the blankets over his head, he cocooned himself in the scent of his lost pod-mate and lay, unsleeping. Every time the thoughts threatened to crowd in again, he banished them by grinding his left thumb into his palm.
The next day, he bartered his body for a razor blade. And every time he felt a crack open in his armor, he sealed it with a shimmering trickle of blood.
PART TWO: FORBIDDEN FRUIT
When I kissed you last night in my own backyard,
You ran so fast and you fought so hard -
You must be crazy for me.
- Melissa Etheridge
For Tobias Beecher, this was no ordinary mindfuck.
Every ice-blue glance held calculation - the focused concentration of a predator circling his prey. Layer by bloody layer, Oz was peeling back the veneer of civilization, like strips of flesh torn away to expose a heart that beat only to pump blood. Flesh and bone was animated by something far darker and more primal: the sheer will to survive. The law of the jungle was kill or be killed, and Tobias Beecher had survived.
That meant someone else had to die.
The integrity of his soul demanded it.
So he studied the other man - his lover, his torturer - for clues. His cunning lawyer's mind noted the tiniest details, the odd inaccuracies, the variables that didn't - quite - add up and could win his case in the courtroom or on the killing floors of Oz. Keller's flashes of impatience with Vern. His restless sleep. His loner status, always somehow removed from the crowd, even surrounded by bodies in the midst of the pit. The thinly veiled antagonism between him and the Aryans in Em City.
Tension in the pack - that dynamic Beecher had learned in the rough-and-tumble of law firm office politics long before he'd come to Oz.
There was a sharp, hard edge to Keller, but Beecher remembered from high-school physics class that even the density of metal could shatter with a tap - in the right place, under the right conditions. What would it take to break Keller? What would it be like to watch that facade fall, the fortress crumble, the walls come down in the sheer extremity of emotion that would wash across his face, softening those features ...
Dear God, what was he thinking?
For Tobias Beecher, love meant hearts and flowers, cherubs and sunlight - not a dark, primal need that reveled in the sharp, biting kiss that drew blood and recognized the signposts of finger-shaped bruises marking territory, that claimed inside and out without thought for pride or logic. There was love, and there was brutality. He had experienced both, and a small corner of his mind turned in fear from the thought that they might be connected.
He had never been one of those TV watchers fascinated by the steppes of Asia or the deserts of Africa on the Discovery Channel. His kids watched Power Rangers and Barney, his wife watched Oprah, and the various TVs in the various bars he frequented were always tuned to sports or the occasional odd showing of Melrose Place. So he had never seen the elegant savagery of wild animals mating, the instinctive urge that overcame threat or challenge.
He'd had no experience with the twisted tangle of need and rage, of how they could devour each other and fuel each other at once to create a flame in darkness. And unconsciously he knew that the discovery would change him forever, would burn any bridge back to the man he had been.
So if Beecher found himself lingering on the shifting planes of Keller's face when the other man grinned or the feathered sweep of brows lowered in concentration, if he found his gaze captured by the chiseled jaw and the defiant bridge of nose, if he found his own eyes locked and held by that stormcloud gaze, as if he could discover some truth or logic in the dissonant geometry of the other man's features - well, that was all part of the assessment.
Keller stood, unobserved, watching the physical therapist put Beecher through his paces in the gym. It had taken on an all-consuming importance for him, to know that the other man would be whole again, and strong, that he would leave that limping, halting gait behind. It nagged at Keller, a brutal reminder of his failure to maintain control.
It could have been much worse, he knew that, and he shifted against the wall, digging his fingernails into his palms to block the memory.
Clawing his way back up over the edge of the precipice, looking down at Beecher's twisted body that fateful day their lives had gone to hell. Hearing the soft susurration of a zipper and looking over to see Vern tugging at the opening of his own pants, intent on the final humiliation for the ravaged body that lay at their feet. His own protests echoing hollowly - "There's no time, somebody's gonna show up" - and Vern's insistence, only fading when Keller promised to take care of the older man himself, despite the concessions granted in return for his part in Operation Toby. Later, on his knees in front of Schillinger, sweltering in a tiny, stuffy closet in the mail room, he allowed his mind to go blank, even as his lips and teeth and hands performed all the tricks that he knew Vern liked best. Anything to make the man shut up and go away, to convince him to leave Keller in peace. Anything to wipe out the sound of Beecher's screams. Surely his debt was paid now.
He'd avoided Schillinger and the other Nazi punks as much as he could during the intervening months - he would have avoided them entirely if he hadn't needed someone to watch his back in this goddamned prison. He'd kept his head low and stayed out of Metzger's sight line. All he wanted was a chance to hide in a corner and lick his wounds - the invisible ones that were so much more painful than the ones he scored on his own belly and thighs after he woke, sweating and trembling from his nightmares.
He was jerked back to the present by a muttered curse from Beecher. The blond man was shaking with fatigue, head bowed, sweat running down his face and darkening that nasty green T-shirt he seemed so attached to - the T-shirt that Keller hated. He was sure Beecher knew that, too, sure that the other man wore it over and over as a jab at his pod-mate, a tool to dig up the memories of that night in the laundry room, when Keller had reached under it to stroke the hot curve of Beecher's hip ...
"Dammit, no! I'm not ready to stop yet." Beecher threw off the physical therapist's hand.
Keller took a step into the open, catching the eye of the therapist, who shook his head against any interference. Keller was sure the man had seen him watching, even before Beecher had been allowed to leave the hospital and return to Em City. Despite his unimposing form, the slender black man had been able to bully Beecher into doing exactly what needed to be done to speed recovery, and his skills were no less sharp now as he berated Beecher off the mats and onto the massage table. Keller settled back against the wall again, folding his arms across his broad chest as he watched Beecher *(thank god)* strip off the T-shirt to lay on the table, gleaming sweat highlighting the planes of his body. He was still too thin after lying in bed for the better part of three months, but Keller had watched him slowly begin building up muscle mass during the arduous physical therapy. He shifted, remembering the broad shoulders and strong arms that had wrapped around his own body during their wrestling sessions.
He watched the black hands move slowly over Beecher's pale skin in sensuous patterns, noted the slackening of Beecher's body as the strong, graceful fingers worked their way around the soft curve of calves, skimmed across the swell of muscle to the tender skin behind Toby's knees. Beecher flinched as the man hit a knot in the back of his thigh, and the therapist worked it with his thumb, eliciting a hiss, then a soft sigh of relief. Beecher's body seemed to become even more pliant, offering itself up to the hands caressing it as they made broad, sweeping strokes across his back. When they finished, he gave another soft sigh, lying immobile.
Lost in his reverie, it took Chris a minute to notice the physical therapist's beckoning gesture. He moved toward the table on reluctant feet, pausing at the man's side as the guy began stuffing his gear into a bag at a bench a few feet away.
"You're his friend, right?" the physical therapist asked. "In the same cell with him?"
Keller gave him a blank look, then nodded, his gaze drawn back to Beecher's body, face-down and spread in lush abandon on the table, clad only in the grey prison shorts.
"Listen, he's really out of it today. Trying to push too hard, too fast, and he's about knocked himself out. Can you help him get back to the cell? I don't think he could even stand up on his own right now - probably end up on the floor in a puddle."
"Is he gonna be OK?"
"Good night's sleep should fix him right up, but he's got to stop pushing so hard. I don't know what he's doing when I'm not around, but he comes in for each appointment, it seems like he's worse than the last time around. Tell him to slow down, relax, OK?"
"A nice, peaceful recovery? In this place?"
"I suppose not, but he's got to ease up some. He's just too tense, and it makes the therapy even harder." The therapist looked at Keller in speculation. "Try to get him to take it easy, OK? And for now, just get him to bed, let him sleep it off."
"Uh, yeah." Keller just stood there for a minute, and the man gave him a shove toward the table before returning to his gear, displaying the same deft imperiousness with Chris he exhibited with his patient.
Beecher lay so still, no protest coming from him, that Keller thought he must be asleep. But as Keller laid a hand on his shoulder - warm palm curling around the curve of muscle, fingertips brushing soft skin - Beecher quivered, like a horse under a fleeting flurry of air. Keller moved his fingers lightly, in soft, reassuring featherstrokes.
"Hey, Beech, you OK?" he asked, squatting down by the head of the table.
Beecher's head turned, his eyelids rising languorously to leave Keller staring into dazed blue eyes, any resistance swept away by his exhaustion. Keller wondered suddenly if this was how the other man would look sated from passion. From somewhere inside his own head, Keller watched his hand stroke the curves of shoulder and biceps, noting their thinness, the delicacy of a bird's wing. In some remote part of his mind, he felt the smooth glide of skin on skin. He heard himself say, as if from a great distance, "You OK, baby?"
"Mmmmmm," Beecher responded. "Want to go to sleep."
Half-carrying Beecher back into the pod, trying to ignore the stares of the other inmates as he felt the drowsy warmth of the other man's body seep into his side, across the nape of his neck where an arm dangled, Keller knew this was a bad idea. Watching Beecher collapse, boneless, onto the bed, Keller felt a spike of pain shoot through his temples, and he started to pull away. Metal flashed bright in his mind, steel on steel, as Beecher tangled their fingers together, yanking Keller back toward the bed.
"Stay," the blond man breathed into his pillow, already falling into sleep.
Collapsing onto the floor, Keller looked around. This had to stop. He'd had everything locked down, everything under control - until he touched the other man, pale flesh gliding like satin under his fingertips and scraping like sandpaper against his defenses. So smooth to the touch, unlike the knitted bones Keller knew lay beneath the skin.
If he could stretch just a little bit further, he could reach the loose tile with its gleaming sharp salvation hidden underneath. Beecher was so far gone, he would never know. But as Keller extended his arm, pulling away from the bedside, Beecher's fingers tightened unconsciously on his other hand, leashing him. Keller drew up his legs, wrapping his free arm around his shins, and rested his forehead on his knees. He clenched his fists, and Beecher moved his own fingers in sleepy protest.
Bury it, Chris.
Keller forced himself to relax, concentrating on the feel of the warm fingers tangled in his. He rubbed a thumb back and forth over the sleep-warmed skin. After almost three years in Oz, Beecher's hands may have roughened from manual labor, but they were still soft in contrast to Keller's calloused fingers. In his cocoon of self-imposed darkness, Keller's world narrowed to the feel of Beecher's flesh under the sensitive whorls and ridges of that thumb. Back and forth, back and forth.
Keller finally slept, only to waken a few hours later with a scream choked in the back of his throat. He sat, staring at the tile patterns of the floor in a stupor until he was shaken back to awareness by the shouts of hacks calling evening count and the tug of Beecher's fingers as the other man jerked upright in bed. The two men stared at each other, wide-eyed, missing the smirk of the C.O. who stuck his head in the door.
"Line up, ladies."
The shutters slammed in Beecher's eyes, and he was out the door. Keller rose from the floor, biting back a groan as stiff muscles protested. Beecher's back was ramrod straight and anger was radiating from him in palpable waves as Keller stepped beside him. The gulf was back.
What the fuck was he doing? Even as he berated himself, even as he tried to block out the flaring spark of electricity where Keller's fingers had touched his own, Beecher was achingly aware of the heat from the body standing at his side, and he knew it was a rhetorical question.
He was pathetic, but at least it was a self-aware state of pathetic affairs. AA and other counseling had taught him that much. Oh, yes, they had acquainted him far too intimately with his own failings. And he knew he was being ensnared again, willingly tangled in a soft, dark web, reaching out for a familiar touch to fill the void in his own soul.
Keller knew it, Beecher was sure. The dark man had known just what effect his caresses would have once Beecher's walls were torn down by exhaustion, his slack muscles and willing body already prepared by the physical therapist's hands. The desire - to be touched by something other than impersonal or brutal hands, to be held safe from the outside world - had come roaring back, an ache so deep that it drowned out the hatred that had hummed through Beecher's blood for so long. Feeling Keller's strong hands on his body, Beecher had given in, had clung to the other man with the same abandon he had felt months earlier, when Keller's lips and body had offered a haven from the miserable reality of Oz.
It had been a fantasy then, and it was a fantasy now. Only this time, Beecher walked into it with open eyes. He was a whore, willing to offer his pride as a sacrifice, to pay whatever price seemed necessary to feel that traitorous touch again.
As shame curled in his belly, he closed his eyes and reached inside himself, searching for the dark blaze that had warmed him when he walked back into Em City. He could use Keller's advances, make them one more puzzle piece locked snugly into place in his plans - if he could stay in control, maintain the thin line he had to walk with more skill and dexterity than any exercise in physical therapy required.
For the first time since he had swum back to consciousness in his hospital bed after the attack, shaking with rage and pain, he doubted that ability.
Despite missing dinner to baby-sit an exhausted Beecher, Keller spent breakfast the next morning pushing his scrambled eggs around on his plate with disinterest and avoiding Beecher's gaze from the next table. What was going on inside that blond head? Chris had always counted on his ability to size up any situation, play it to his benefit, but he felt curiously out of his depth, and the lost feeling made him uneasy. He ran an index finger speculatively over the tines of his fork, pressing hard enough to leave an impression but not break the skin. He looked up to meet Vern's gaze as the older man slid into a seat across the table.
"You look like shit," Schillinger commented easily.
"Thanks, Vern, you always did know how to sweet-talk a guy."
"Not getting much sleep, huh? The little Beechball keeping you up nights? Tell me, how high does he bounce?" Vern snickered.
"Lay off, Vern. I'm in no mood for this."
"You know, I heard about that sweet little show yesterday, you holding his widdle hand and keeping him safe while he was sleeping. You're not going soft on me, are you? Because I would hate to think what would happen if you lost your edge."
"This is over," Keller said, grabbing his tray of uneaten food and beginning to rise. Vern's hand shot out and grabbed Keller's wrist in a bruising hold.
"I think you're forgetting yourself, Chris," Schillinger said in a low, sweet tone. The grip loosened, and the older man stroked a finger lightly across the underside of the wrist, caressing the pulse throbbing there.
Too tired for finesse, Keller went for a show of strength.
"Vern, get your fucking hand off me," he snapped, pulling his wrist away with impatience.
The two men faced each other across the table. Then Vern smirked again, a nasty smile sliding across his pasty face. Keller turned and walked out of the cafeteria, Beecher's laughter tailing him.
Beecher ate his breakfast with more appetite than he'd had in weeks and made one stop on his way out of the cafeteria, leaning over to whisper softly in Schillinger's ear before dancing out of reach with a gleeful grin.
"So, Vern. What happens to the master when the dog won't come to heel?"
PART THREE: VALLEY OF THE SHADOW
*Head like a hole, black as your soul - *
I'd rather die than give you control.
Bow down before the one you serve.
You're going to get what you deserve. - Nine Inch Nails
Beecher stepped through the gym doorway and into the arms of madness.
He had courted those arms through the night, flirting with their cold embrace to keep the heat of Keller's touch at bay. Their strength had blocked out the world as he fought for control, given him the shelter he needed, safe within the eye of a whirling storm of rage and regret. Those arms had shoved away the extraneous details of Oz, the people who surrounded him, the unwanted words of the hacks and the other prisoners.
They danced around each other, he and madness, in a ritual courtship. Those arms had never betrayed him, had kept him safe and solitary through the riot and the subsequent months in Gen Pop, had propelled him into action against those who would hurt him. He remembered his first surrender to that embrace, the angeldust shimmering through him, the strength of those arms behind his own as he shattered the glass of his pod, driving a gleaming shard into the eyes that had followed him, devoured him, turned away from him.
He had chosen, then, another embrace to lock around him, turning from one master to a stronger keeper. Tied down like an animal, he had screamed out his fear and pain, willfully shoving them out of his body to make room for the madness that crept through him, possessing and claiming him, invading him deeper than Schillinger had ever managed to thrust. And he had opened himself willingly to the new invasion.
Then he had betrayed that embrace, turning to the more tangible arms of a man who promised friendship and comfort. A man who had betrayed him in turn.
But the madness was not a jealous lover. It had come calling again at his hospital bedside, whispering words of promise and safety. And it was a patient suitor, waiting through his struggles against the emotions stirred by its rival. Now, when his own strength threatened to give in, it opened its arms, the sweet embrace beckoning him to dance again, promising support from the shadows as he put his plan into motion.
And as Beecher stood in the shadows of the gym - watching the sallow light play across Keller's straining muscles as the other man pumped iron, forcing more strength into those broad shoulders and heavy biceps - he felt the whisper of that embrace, leaving him feeling curiously light and reckless.
He could do this. He had been schooled by the best - unwittingly, unwillingly - but the harsh lessons would finally take.
So he circled on the edges of the gym, waiting for the right moment. Enjoying the dance he'd set for himself, the surety of the pattern he sensed developing. Ryan O'Reilly wasn't the only one in Em City with moves.
He giggled softly - to himself, he thought - but Keller's rhythmic movements slowed, and the dark head turned, searching the shadows. Catching Keller's eyes, Beecher flushed at being caught out so immediately, then turned away, presenting the other man with his back and lacing his fingers through the cold metal fence as he stared into nothingness and gathered his defenses around him.
The stage was set. All it needed was the proper audience to put things in motion.
Any time now, any time ... now.
On cue, he turned and drifted toward Keller.
From across the room, Ryan O'Reilly watched the easy, almost aimless steps that carried Beecher toward his target and was reminded of the whirling dervish dance the blond man had buried himself in during the riot, spinning around his own center, blocking out everything around him. O'Reilly's eyes narrowed, and he shifted to fold his arms across his chest and lean against the wall in frank curiosity, an unexpected witness to a scene choreographed for other eyes - one more scene played out in Oz, lost amid the heavy clanking of metal and the muttered grunts of sweating men, ignored for its very ordinariness by the rest of those around them.
"Like the view?" Keller asked as Beecher approached him.
Beecher shrugged carelessly, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
"I never realized I was so fascinating," Keller continued, turning back to his weights.
Beecher stepped closer.
"Oh, you're fascinating, all right. For some fucking reason, I just can't keep my eyes off you."
The response was low, intended for Keller's ears alone.
Take the bait.
What the hell?
Keller looked up at the blond man, searched that unreadable sky-blue gaze and wondered when Beecher's eyes had become so opaque. The man he remembered had been absolutely transparent. But now ... Where had he seen that expression before? A sick feeling stirred in his gut.
No. He didn't want to think about this. And the best defense was a good offense. Drive him away, fast, before this got messy. A quick, clean cut.
Keller almost laughed at the irony.
"Want to get a closer look?" Setting down the weights, he leaned back on the bench, resting on his hands, and tilted his head suggestively. He ran his eyes down the length of Beecher's body, his gaze harsh and calculating, at odds with the easy relaxation of his body. It was a gaze intended to wound, to put Beecher back in his place.
"Somehow, I doubt Vern would approve. Or is this more of the plan?"
Keller blinked. That wasn't the response he had expected.
"I don't need Vern's approval for anything." He still lounged across the bench, but a hint of anger colored the words.
"Oh no?" Beecher's tone was sharp, deadly, a rapier aimed at his opponent. "What's that they say, Chris? Once a man makes you his prag, you're his prag for life."
"You oughta know."
"Oh, but I'm not the one still dancing to his tune." Beecher leaned in and whispered in Keller's ear. "What do you want, Chris? What do you want?"
He was so close - so close Keller could feel the heat of the other man's body, feel the breath feather across his face. Chris recognized the challenge, rose to it. Don't think you can outplay me, Toby, he thought wryly, even as he lifted a hand to lazily stroke one finger across a cheek shadowed in the dim light.
"What are you offering?"
Again, the expected recoil didn't materialize - Beecher merely cocked an eyebrow at him and stepped away, melting into the shadows. At least Keller's parry had shut the other man up. Stalemate.
Then he looked up and met Vern's eyes through the fence, where the older man stood watching the scene playing out before him. And Keller had to laugh in grudging admiration at Toby's ploy.
"What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
The words were vicious, the tone commanding - Vern in rare form. Chris had been vaguely amused by Schillinger since arriving in Oz, watching the older man's obsession with Beecher blunt his edge, making him almost pathetic at times. Now, faced with the threat of rebellion in the ranks, the old Schillinger was back.
"Don't worry about it, Vern," Keller said, a humorless grin sliding across his face. "Just playing a little game. Staying sharp."
"You're the one who said he still had a thing for me."
"Don't get cute with me, Chris."
"I thought you liked your guys cute." There was the slightest edge to the words, the hint of a challenge, as Keller drew himself to his feet.
Lesser men would have melted under Schillinger's hard gaze, but Chris was back on his game now. The walls were going up. Schillinger was an old, familiar sparring opponent, and any physical danger he posed had become meaningless under the knowledge that nothing Vern did could crack those inner walls that the old fucker, himself, had helped erect. And with a far more deadly emotional danger withdrawn for the moment, some of Beecher's recklessness communicated itself to Keller.
"Gimme a break, Vern. What do you think I'm going to do, fall in love with him or something?"
"You watch yourself, Chris. I'm getting a little ... concerned ... about you lately."
"Yeah, whatever." And Keller flicked a glance toward the shadows.
It scorched Beecher, that look, even as Keller's eyes slid over him where he stood, fists clenched. He tried to control the tremor that ran through him as he watched the two men, saw Chris' laughter, tried to decipher what they were saying. Dangerous, a mistake, to get so close to Keller, to allow that touch that had burned itself into his cheek, bringing back the memory of those fingers wrapped around his own as he lay half-awake.
Too dangerous to continue.
Beecher sidled over to Vern's coterie, the pack of Aryans who stood throwing half-pulled punches at each other and half-muttered insults at a pair of nearby gangstas.
"Must really suck, I bet." The words were out before he could allow himself second thoughts.
"What the fuck are you talking about?" One of the Nazis half-turned to him.
"To have your big, bad leader cozying up to a punk like that. A prag."
"What the fuck ..."
"You didn't know," Beecher gave another giggle, allowing the madness to lift him, carry him along. "Vern and his buddy there ... well, they were reeeal good friends. And now look at him."
Beecher jerked his chin at Keller, locked in conversation with Schillinger, and turned back to the surprised gaze, the dawning comprehension.
"He's set up better than you are. Disrespecting you all the time, getting away with whatever shit he wants. He's not even a real Aryan, is he? God, you guys are so stupid. I can't believe it, you bad motherfuckers putting up with that shit."
The Aryan made a grab for Beecher, and the blond man danced out of reach.
"Don't touch me, asshole. Not unless you want to lose a part."
And he smiled, a big toothy grin, as he backed away, out of the gym.
"What the hell are you talking about, O'Reilly?"
Ryan O'Reilly grabbed Beecher's arm and shoved him against the wall of the corridor leading from the gym back to the pit in Em City.
"He knows, you asshole. Whatever you're playing, Keller's figured it out."
"I'm not playing anything." Beecher's tone was casual as he pulled out of O'Reilly's grasp, and he walked away humming to himself.
The words hit him like a brick, stopped him in his tracks. Keller tensed, not turning.
"What the fuck did you just say?"
"I said, prag, that I wanna talk to you."
Keller watched - not so much with anger as incredulity - as the Aryan brat swaggered up to him in the shadowed gloom of the empty hallway. What the fuck did this dumb puppy think he was doing?
"Yeah," the baby punk continued. "Tell me how much you enjoyed being on your knees in front of a real man."
"You wanna know, huh?" Keller leaned in close, close enough for his warm breath to wash across the kid's face, eyes trailing down farm-fresh features set in a learned sneer tinged with amusement, resting finally on full, soft lips. He flicked his tongue out to moisten his own lips and lowered his voice to a soft rumble. "You want me to show you?"
The smile spread across the kid's face. And Keller struck.
"Why don't you show me?" he grated out.
The kid was tough, but he was no match for Keller's brute strength as the older man grabbed him and swung him around and down to the floor, driving him to his knees, one hand fisted hard in the short bristles of blond hair on the crown of his head. Keller stepped closer, pushing his hips at the kid's snarling face until the baby-soft lips almost touched the crotch of Chris' rough cotton pants.
"C'mon, you little cocksucker," Keller hissed. "How does it feel?"
He could feel his cock hardening, the adrenaline pumping through him, sensitizing his skin and electrifying the hairs on his arms. The scent of the kid's fear, sharp and sour, drifted up to him. He let the rage ride him, focused it and turned it directly on the one acceptable target. He jerked the blond head back, slamming it against the concrete wall with a dull thud.
"Hey! What the fuck's going on here?"
Keller turned his head at the outraged shout to meet Metzger's hot glare and stepped quickly back, hands raised, allowing the kid to fall in a heap at his feet.
"Nothing going on here, man," he said with a lazy grin. "He tripped, that's all."
His own words reverberated in his head, echoing in his father's harsh tones, he tripped, she fell down the stairs, and a wave of ice washed through him, drowning his anger. He stepped over the kid and continued down the hall past Metzger, a slow, rolling stride that wouldn't dare betray the shaking at his core.
"You might want to check him out. I think he hit his head."
Behind him, he heard Metzger's heavy footfalls, the rustle of cloth as the Aryan hack reached down to pull the kid to his feet. Heard the hiss, the rage in the tones - *Yeah, that's right, take my rage, kid. Fucking take it and store it up inside you for a change* - "He's a fucking loose cannon."
And he heard Metzger's chilling response.
Chris continued his steady way back to his pod and threw up.
Keller wasn't privy to the next conversation, but he could have guessed at it if he set his mind to it - could have guessed at Vern's simmering anger, Metzger's concern.
Metzger was all practicality, the perfect emotionless stormtrooper. There had always been something forced about his displays of emotion, as if he was playing a role for those around him even as he went through his actions by rote. As if emotion were a convenient shorthand for relating to other people, but not all that important in the everyday scheme of his life.
To Metzger, it was a simple equation: Chris Keller equaled trouble. The man had shown himself to be unreliable, unpredictable. And if Vern's suspicions were true, that Keller had formed some kind of twisted attachment to Beecher, then Schillinger and Metzger were in danger.
It was a danger that could be taken care of easily enough. Metzger had made his own quiet observations of Keller's behavior, keeping his discoveries to himself, but he knew an accident could be arranged with little effort. Poor guy, cutting himself with that razor blade, and then to slip like that, to cut too deep ... Tsk, tsk, tsk.
It would tidy things up nicely.
Too nicely for Schillinger.
*What do you think I'm going to do, fall in love with him or something?* Love, lust, it didn't matter. Keller had sealed his fate with a single, betraying glance into the shadows.
Schillinger could find one last use for even a damaged tool that had turned in his hand. The boys could teach Keller a lesson for now. Vern had bigger plans for him.
He should have known better. He had known better.
The fulfillment of the dire prophecies that had whirled in Chris' head as he lay sleepless in his bunk was cold comfort as two of the Aryans cornered him in another hallway the next day. He hadn't bothered to learn their names. They were just two more of the faceless, nameless ciphers Vern ruled wherever he went. Keller was pretty sure these were the two new ones, the guys who had replaced Mark Mack and Nameless Faceless who had gone down into that fucking hole in the ground. He punched one of them before they could even move in, but the other caught him with a jab to the gut and he doubled over, getting a knee to the face for his trouble. As his head snapped back, one of them grabbed the back of his neck, and he saw movement in the shadows. Blond hair, broad shoulders.
Keller went limp, unresisting. He might as well get it over with and make it as painless as possible.
You can't stumble when you're on your knees.
PART FOUR: SINS OF THE FATHERS
Thank you nothingness,
Thank you clarity,
Thank you, thank you, silence
- Alanis Morrissette
Keller had been no untouched virgin when the state deposited him on Vern's doorstep at 17.
He'd done his time in Juvie, and he'd taken his first male bedmate at 15. They had banded together, watched each other's backs against the predators in the training ground for baby thieves and murderers, turned to each other out of mutual need when the lights went down and the nights got too dark. In a perfect world ... in a perfect world, he wouldn't have been there in the first place. But he was there, and if it hadn't been so far from perfect, the sex might have marked some kind of pact between them, a vow of brotherhood, a romantic bond that sealed their friendship for life. But there was no romance in the seedy streets they had come from, let alone the institutional gray hallways where they found themselves trapped. In reality, it was nothing more than a blind, instinctive search for oblivion through the gateway of the oldest mind-altering drug known to man.
Already an alley-cat, Chris took his pleasure where he could find it, and the packaging didn't make much difference. The on-again, off-again relationship continued after they were released, fueled by convenience and the perpetual horniness of adolescent males.
It had the additional advantage of pissing off Keller's father. When the old bastard had discovered that his son had turned into a cocksucking faggot, Keller Senior had taken out his wrath - as usual - on the punching bag he'd sired. Chris' refusal to cry out, deeply ingrained, had only seemed to enrage his father this time, as if he was determined to make his pansy-ass son whimper. But Chris had already learned his lesson too well for that.
He'd learned it at 3, from the stiff awkwardness that met his attempts to clamber into a lap for a hug; at 7, from his dismissal as he lifted a small palm, scraped in a fall, for inspection and a comfort that never came. He learned it again at 11, from the curt response as he shyly confessed his first moonstruck interest in a girl - she'd been a pretty little thing, long blond hair pulled back into ponytails, but by the time Chris left the neighborhood in later years, she'd been deep into drugs, the sunshine of that hair dull and lifeless.
He'd certainly learned from the disapproval radiating off of his father as Chris stood with tears in his eyes at his mother's grave. So he'd swallowed the tears, choked down his grief and tried, again, to be the man his father insisted on.
He'd learned to lock all that away, and he'd be damned if he'd give it up to the old bastard now. There had been a kind of sneering triumph in the back of his mind as the dull smack of his father's fist met his flesh and the crack of bone reverberated through an eerie silence.
It was a fair trade. Although he chafed at the enforced inactivity, his ribs would heal. Meanwhile, the hospital sheets were a helluva lot cleaner than the ones at home, the TV reception was more dependable, and the meals were regular, if uninventive. When the social worker showed up in the doorway of the hospital room, he met her eyes with calculated innocence and told her sincerely that he'd been on his way home when someone jumped him not far from his own doorstep. He'd managed to stagger back to the apartment before collapsing.
No way was Chris ending up in a foster home. His sometime lover was back in foster care, where he was screamed at and smacked around, and if Chris was going to put up with that shit, he could sleep in his own damn bed while it happened. The guy had told him that it didn't happen in all foster homes, but as far as Chris was concerned, a known quantity was better than a roll of the dice any day. Besides, this was his blood, and that meant something. You kept your mouth shut and took care of your own business, whether at home or on the street.
Two years later, when he got tired of taking it and fled the house, when the unleashed anger exploded onto some idiot on the street who hassled him one time too many, he ended up bunking with Vern, where he learned to take it all over again. And he finally understood his father's lesson: to never, ever be vulnerable by exposing himself. Emotions were too dangerous.
The schooling had continued under - and under - Vern. If his father had taught him to go to ground emotionally, it was Schillinger who taught him camouflage, how to pull on the mask and move in plain sight - a skill so necessary to the covert operation he had just pulled off in Oz. A deceptively simple-sounding job, some uppity rich-kid prag who wouldn't know what hit him.
Chris hadn't expected to be caught in friendly fire. Back in his days at Lardner, observing the prison meat market, he had been thankful that at least Vern was jealous and possessive. Beecher would never see anything positive in Vern's treatment, but Keller knew both of them had been lucky. A lot of other men - men with no problem loaning out their property - would have turned them both out in exchange for cigarettes or dollars or favors.
Apparently, Vern had learned to share his toys in his old age.
Keller didn't stir as he heard Beecher come in. He hadn't needed the razor after he walked slowly and carefully back to the pod; he had crawled into his bunk, focusing on the pain that lanced through him. His mind had shut down early in the game, and he was still floating in the blessed feeling of nothingness. A bitter grin twisted his mouth as he wondered if he shouldn't thank Vern for that, at least.
"Not feeling well?" Beecher sniped.
Keller didn't respond, didn't even bother to turn over. He couldn't summon any interest in dealing with Beecher's schizophrenic mood swings.
Beecher proceeded to ignore him, rummaging around in something - whatever it was, Keller didn't care - over by the sink. The hacks started their nightly run, calling count, and still Keller didn't move.
"Hey, man, come on," Beecher said. Getting no answer, he stepped over to the bed and shook Keller roughly.
It was instinctive, a primal response: Keller's roll and grab, ripping the other man's hand off his shoulder. Holding the wrist in as crushing a grip as Vern had held Keller's own in the cafeteria. He panted, trying to regain his breath and slow his heart from the surge of adrenaline as he stared into the other man's face and watched an icy-blue gaze rake down his body, cataloging visible injuries, calculating invisible wounds.
Chris dropped the wrist and rolled back over to face the glass wall. There was nothing more he could do to protect Beecher, nothing more he could do to protect himself. Give them what they wanted, and you would be fine. Turn your head, close your eyes. Make it through the day. His quicksilver existence granted no time or space to take a stand.
Behind him, he heard a hack pounding on the door frame, voice raised, and the low tones of Beecher's voice, spinning an excuse about sickness, maybe some of that slop they served in the cafeteria. Yeah, they would go to the infirmary tomorrow if Keller didn't feel any better. Then the heavy sound of the locks clicking shut with terrible finality. He was locked in the cell, alone with the one person who had, maybe, cracked his armor.
Maybe? That's a good one, Chris.
This was all Beecher's fault. Those fucking puppy dog eyes.
Beecher's fault? No, Chris had asked for it, had known better than to open himself up to it. And he had done it, anyway.
He shifted on the bed, welcoming the stab of pain that silenced the thoughts.
Beecher was back, the hand on Chris' shoulder almost gentle this time, belying the harshness of his words.
"What the fuck happened?" There was an odd, almost avid note in the blond man's voice.
"It's fine," he said, voice flat. He pulled the blankets over his head and drifted off into the first peaceful sleep he'd had in weeks.
He woke to a Beecher jittering with nervous energy, already pacing the cell in the gloomy light cast by the fixtures over the central control area outside. It had to be four o'fucking-clock in the morning, Keller thought. Jesus, even Said wasn't up yet, standing on his head and mouthing his incantations against the white devils. He had an eerie sense of deja vu, remembering Terrance, and wondered if Beecher had fallen off the wagon again.
"It was bad, wasn't it?" The other man's voice was strained, floating toward Chris out of the gloom.
"It's over," Keller said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, clamping down on the pain the movement brought him. "It's done."
"How can you say that?" Beecher asked. "Look at you. You're a mess."
"I said it's over, 'cause it's over. You got what you wanted, didn't you? "
The words slapped him across the face, bringing a moment of stunning clarity in their wake.
Beecher shuddered, remembering the hot, dark glee that had swelled through him at the sight of Chris' hunched form curled on the bed, a tide of excitement and satisfaction and an almost sexual satiation as he contemplated the bruises and welts marking the other man's skin. He had wanted to throw back his head and laugh, howl even, like an animal baying at the moon over a fresh kill.
*How does it feel, you motherfucker? Tell me all about it. Please. Tell me if you feel even one tenth of the damage you did to me in that fucking gym, when you twisted my arms and broke my goddam heart. Did you remember the sound of my bones snapping each time one of their fists met your flesh? Did you remember how I tasted that night in the laundry room every time one of them was in your mouth? Tell me, you faithlessfuckinggoddam traitor, did you remember how my skin felt under your fingers that night when you kissed my neck, pressed against my back? Did it all come back to you each time one of them was behind you while you were on your knees?*
And then Keller had denied him even that, eyes and voice flat, denying anger, disavowing pain, turning away in dismissal. Inciting Beecher to further ire.
He wanted to pummel the man, feel the madness sweep through him as he tore through those mental barriers Keller had thrown up. He wanted to watch as emotion broke across those features, wanted to lean in and feel the heat of Keller's body, smell and taste the man as he took possession of him, holding him down with hands hardened by purpose, as if they had known only rage and need, never carefully tied his son's shoes or brushed away silken babyfine hair from his daughter's fevered forehead ...
Sweet Jesus ...
The kernel of himself that remained, the last of the man he had been - the part of him that had frantically protected itself by denying the dark lust that drove him toward Keller - was screaming, horrified. Nausea threaded through his belly.
Who the fuck was he anymore? He was trying to save himself, but would he lose himself in the process? Was the cure worse than the disease?
And now Beecher moved toward Keller in the darkness, hobbling to stand between the dark man's knees as Keller slouched on the edge of the top bunk. A dreadful fascination on his face, he stretched up a hand to touch the purpling bruise on Keller's forehead where the Nazi's knee had met Chris' face. He saw Keller's jaw tighten, saw him swallow hard as Beecher's fingers feathered down one cheek, moved on to brush the necklace of dark fingerprints that matched the fading set Schillinger had left on his wrist.
Beecher's handiwork this time, as surely as if he had raked furrows in the flesh with his own fingernails, brought bruises to the surface with his own fists.
I said it's over, 'cause it's over.
Was there some kind of object lesson in that? Was it so easy to let it all go?
"O'Reilly was right." It was a statement, not a question. "You knew. You fucking knew. And you walked into it anyway."
When would Chris ever learn? Last night it had seemed so easy, so simple. And here Beecher was, the stupid shit, banging on the walls again, demanding to be let in. What the hell did the man want, anyway? Keller grabbed the hand lying against his throat. He could feel the blond man's fingerprints seared into his skin, more real than the prints Vern had left in blood. He met Beecher's eyes levelly, trying to make his warning clear.
"I don't think you really want to go there, Toby."
Jerking his hand away, Beecher turned his back and rested his forehead against the glass wall of the pod.
"And anyway," Keller continued cuttingly, "not everything is about you." He eased back down on the bunk, wincing, before adding his final warning.
"Watch out for Vern."
Beecher tried to shut out the sound of Keller's labored breathing as hot waves of shame and panic ran through him. Leaning against the glass, he closed his eyes, shutting out Oz, shutting out his life, shutting out everything but the terrified skitterings of his own mind. He rubbed his hand against the rough cotton of his pants as if he could wipe away the feel of Keller's flesh. In his mind, he could see the alabaster paleness of his own fingers pressed against the dark satin of Keller's skin, tracing the bruises down the column of the other man's throat to rest on the rising swell of the hard chest.
And then the coldness of Keller's voice had lashed him, reminding him of who he was, where he was, who he was with. His legs trembled with weariness after his night of pacing, and he welcomed the sick ache that still coiled in his bones, the penance for being so weak and stupid that he had come crawling to a man who had broken him so thoroughly.
This was what he'd wanted, wasn't it?
The fingers in his mind reached out again, pressed hard this time, turning his anger and frustration on the arched neck in front of him, and he squeezed ...
It wasn't over. It had only begun.
PART FIVE: TOWER OF BABEL
You know where you are?
You're in the jungle, baby.
- Guns 'N' Roses
It was the very normalcy of things that set Beecher's teeth on edge.
Oh, there were small differences, little niggling reminders of what had passed between them, like an image just at the corner of peripheral vision, flitting away, yanked out of sight and never quite caught. Keller got up stiffly, moving gingerly, pulled on a T-shirt rather than a tank to hide more of the welts, met the hack's eyes impassively during count as the uniformed drone inspected his bruised face and tried to send him to the infirmary.
"Fell," was his curt response to the CO's reminder that there was no fighting in Em City.
Sure, and no fucking, either, Beecher thought nastily. *And now, you report it to that Nazi Metzger, and we're both safe, because he isn't going to take it any farther.*
He grinned at the CO as the man inspected him for any marks, secure in the belief that his own wounds lay hidden deep, out of sight of prying eyes. Stupid asswipes, like teachers on a playground full of the petty cruelties of children, had no idea what went on under the surface, below the sight line. Oh, there were things they knew and chose to ignore, the way Beecher's own treatment at Vern's hands wasn't just his hands, was it? had been ignored by everyone he thought was supposed to help him, everyone who left him to twist in the wind. Whittlesey, with her precious speech about adjusting to prison life as he lay huddled in his bed. McManus, with his oh-so-bright idea about putting fresh-meat Beecher in a pod with Adebisi - that crazy, horny fucker, who spooked Beecher right into Vern's snare. What did they think would happen?
Even Sister Pete, who had tried to get him to talk about what he was feeling. That was the first real betrayal, the sudden crushing understanding that she knew what went on in prison - how could she not? - that she knew what had happened to him, and he was still going back to that same glass-walled cage where everyone and no one saw what was going on inside, into Vern's waiting arms.
Was that the moment the seed had taken root, the moment that had allowed his own casual betrayal, sifting through the confidential files of Vern's psychological profile without qualm, violating her trust as he felt she had violated his own? He hadn't wanted to recognize it, hadn't wanted to lose his last familiar anchor in the maelstrom, had even continued to turn to her for comfort and support, admitting his own growing feelings for Keller. She was a nun, for God's sake. Why hadn't she told him it was wrong, evil? That his feelings for another man would ruin him, doom him? Instead, she sat back, watching his downward spiral the same way O'Reilly had been a casual observer of his continuing shameful treatment by Vern.
Fuck them. Fuck them all. He didn't need them. Not with the ally he had now. He snickered softly to himself, grinned again as the hack looked at him, shaking that silver head in wonder at poor, crazy Beecher. Of course. The CO felt sorry for him in his madness - his madness, yes, his, the ever-faithful lover who would never betray him, bound to him through blood and sweat and tears and pain. None of them could understand, could see those arms holding him up, supporting him - his rock and his polestar at once, leading him on unerring feet through the storm. He felt the fingers tickling in the back of his mind, soothing him, a chilly promise of satiation.
He was finally self-sufficient, finally realizing that there was no one else he could depend on, if not himself. He had no ties, nothing to lose. Gen was dead. His grandmother had the kids. And the old Toby was dead, too. Beecher remembered kissing him goodbye in the mirror that night alone in the pod, when Keller had been dragged off to the hole. He had tried to hang around for a while, hadn't recognized the brush-off, but maybe now Beecher had effectively strangled him, even as he had envisioned strangling Keller. He had his plan, and he would get his satisfaction.
If only Keller would stop acting so fucking normal.
Because it was a routine day, the two of them locked in the same mundane dance they had shared every day in the pod: anticipating each other, moving around each other in practiced steps to piss, brush their teeth, make their beds. The casual intimacy of it ate away at Beecher, the familiar cinnamon scent of Keller's toothpaste and the clean smell of fresh laundry oh, don't go there, Beecher, nonononono from Keller's T-shirt, the damp heat coming off of his freshly showered podmate and the way Chris' hair shone seal-sleek, slicked back and not quite dry. It was like a hundred other mornings in their pod, and Beecher took every opportunity he could to brush by Keller, to physically jar the other man, hoping the pain each little bump shot through the wracked body would break down something, anything, and release the knowledge that everything had changed for Chris, too.
When he deliberately thrust his elbow into Keller's stomach, pulling the blankets up on the bottom bunk, the other man grabbed his arm, and Beecher felt a thrill shoot through him, a tremulous whirl in his stomach, an anticipation of the roller coaster ride ahead.
But Keller only sighed and released him, stepping back to slouch against the wall, arms folded protectively across his chest, clear grey eyes sizing up Beecher, measuring him. Finding him wanting?
"All right, Beech. What the fuck's wrong with you?"
"What the fuck's wrong with me. What the fuck is wrong with me. I think you would know that better than anyone, Chris."
Keller huffed out an impatient snort and brought up a hand to scrub across his freshly-shaven jaw.
"Let it go, man." The words were punctuated by a shake of his head and that familiar lazy, half-amused stare from under lowered lids. "It's over. Jesus, can't you get that? I apologized, I took my knocks. You hate me, that's fine. That's probably safer. But get. Over. It. Whatever you thought I owed you, I've given you, OK?"
Beecher stared at the other man, speechless. Keller had given him nothing, not the first hint that he had suffered anything like what Beecher had been through, hadn't allowed a crack in those walls to show that he had paid the sort of emotional price Beecher had forfeited for their involvement. Did the man think a little blood was recompense for the scars on Beecher's soul? Keller's body would heal, just as Beecher's had. No, the marks Beecher wanted to leave went far deeper, were far more permanent.
For the first time, Beecher wondered if Keller was even capable of suffering those same scars, wondered what kind of soulless soul-sucking dark creature he had unwittingly handed his heart. His body was racked by a sudden shudder, followed by more freezing rage. He advanced on the other man, closing the distance between them, crowding into Keller.
"You think this is over because you say it's over?" Beecher's words were jagged, shards of glass ripped out of his throat. He laughed. "You haven't even begun to give me what I need, Chris."
"What do you need? What exactly do you need, Beecher?" Keller grabbed Beecher's arms, fingers searing, electric, even as they dug in painfully, and Beecher realized that the dark man was wrong about something else: not even his hatred made him safe. Keller's touch was like closing a circuit, something snapping into place and humming through him, and he was suddenly aware of how close they were standing, of the heat radiating off the other man and the touch of Keller's breath on his face, still tinged with sweet cinnamon and sin as they faced off.
*What do you want, Chris? What do you really want?* Beecher's own words from the gym came back to haunt him.
"Why are you botherin' with me anymore?" Keller continued. "Go play with Vern or somethin'. Maybe you and him like these games, but don't pull me any farther into it. I'm sick of both of you. You're both nuts, and I'm tired of being the guy in the middle. I've been fucked enough. I've paid both of you back whatever I owe you."
Vern? Vern? Oh, yeah, Schillinger would get his all right, a tool in the destruction Beecher had scripted, used and discarded as Beecher had been - and then, with any justice, left to rot in this prison forever for his unwitting participation in Beecher's final revenge. But Keller's words were only further confirmation that Chris couldn't give Beecher what the blond man needed, the emotional satisfaction he craved.
Vern was ... Vern. Beecher had never expected anything else from him, once he learned the older man's true nature. There was nothing more Vern could ever do to betray Beecher, not one more drop that truly mattered in the ocean of humiliation already suffered from a man who had used and branded him like cattle. Beecher had never expected anything else from Vern. It was Keller who had made Beecher care, Keller who had built those expectations then torn them to bloody shreds along with Beecher's heart. It was Keller who had broken him. Keller who would have to pay the ultimate price.
And the swelling tide of anger pushed back the heat he felt from the other man, allowing him to reach out, plant his hands against Keller's chest, shove himself away.
"You don't understand anything," Beecher hissed. "You stupid moron. You have no idea, do you?"
He backed slowly away, out of the pod, never taking wary eyes off of the threat plastered against the back wall, the danger that could strike out at him at any time.
Beecher was right about one thing. Chris was stupid, a moron, to think that he had given Beecher what the other man needed to be whole again - that he had managed to erase the evidence, the nagging reminder of his own loss of control. Even as he watched Beecher back away, he was already turning the new problem over in his mind, forced back into action by Beecher's hands, searching for another way out of this maze.
He should have known that it would take more than Beecher learning to walk again, that some sign would remain, as glaringly evident as any physical wound, to remind Chris of how he had lost that control, lost himself in Beecher. He should have known how dangerously fragile the other man's grip on sanity was from the very beginning, from the moment Chris walked into the pod and Beecher started spouting rhymes.
But there had been those moments, all too brief, when it had seemed that Beecher could hold it together, could rise through and above the madness that encircled him. Somewhere between the lunatic madman and the fragile victim, had been a man who burned with barely contained fire, drew on a deep well of long-untapped emotion to offer it in outstretched hands to Keller.
Chris had never been able - never really been inclined - to analyze the attraction, to understand what drew him to Toby. All he knew was that it was real and it was dangerous. And it was his own damn fault.
He had helped forge the weapon of his own destruction.
Already fired in madness, finally quenched in the cool, clear waters of friendship and security - real to Toby, however false its intention - Beecher had shone and quivered like tempered steel. For just a moment he had managed to walk that knife's edge between lunacy and despair, long enough to draw Keller to the shiny, sharp object before him, like a child stupid enough to reach out and prick his finger - or slice himself open.
Because when blade met shield, it was the shield that had split, leaving Chris exposed, open to a thrust at his heart.
So he had helped push Beecher off that edge, that ledge, back into madness. To save himself.
Beecher had offered a false salvation. Had seemed so sincere that night in the laundry room when he looked at Chris with ... had it been concern in his eyes? So hard to remember now, after what had followed, what Beecher had done later. Painful to remember the way Beecher had reached out, not demanding, not taking, simply offering - care, concern, comfort - a wholly unique experience for Chris.
*Goddamn. This is over, you stupid fuck. Bury it, Chris.*
Chris tightened the arms he had again wrapped protectively across his chest, fingers digging into the marks left in blood under his skin as he struggled to maintain his detachment. Worrying at the problem just as he worried at the bruises on his ribs.
Yes, bury it, because that's what he was so good at. What Beecher had seen - the man who had drawn that care out of Toby - had been only one more mask, anyway. Right?
True love, Toby. How _roman-tick_. Gotta learn, baby, there's no such thing. Proved it yourself. There's bodies - in rest or in motion - and you just hope the collisions will help more than they hurt. Love. Love is chemistry. And those sparks don't have anything to do with whatever spin your fucking intellectual lawyer's brain tries to put on it.
And that was the problem, right there, wasn't it? Because those sparks didn't care what they lit, and that fire didn't care what it burned. Master or servant, it was all the same - fire consumed, destroyed. And if you didn't keep it under control, it would turn on you, burn you.
Chris had already been burned once. He didn't intend for it to happen again.
And across the pit, Ryan shook his head at another scene playing out in front of anyone who had the insight to watch it. Jesus, what a mess.
Just fuck him, already, Beecher. You've spent enough time eye-fuckin' him, it don't matter where you put your dick. You got it bad, and that ain't good.
Because if there was anyone in this entire fucking prison who could recognize the halting, half-hoping, half-hating look in Beecher's eyes, it was Ryan O'Reilly. He had seen it in another set of eyes, dark-liquid and accusing him of murder - had put it there the same way Keller had planted it in Beecher.
Ryan shifted, leaned back in his chair, away from the game of checkers going on with considerably less strategy than the game that now held his attention. The comparison - himself and Gloria, Keller and Beecher - hit a little too close. He had always prided himself on sliding the knife home to the heart. He had never been the kind of kid who pulled the wings off of flies. Stomped on cockroaches, maybe even taken some satisfaction in the sharp crunching sound they made. But at least the little fuckers were dead.
Which was why this mating dance between Beecher and Keller had to stop. Ryan had been an amused observer this long, but it was detracting from the real quarry, Vernon Adolf Schillinger, rapist and pillager. Toby's little schemes had been entertaining to watch, but he was dragging the fucking thing out farther than that damn wall around China that O'Reilly had read about in one of his travel magazines.
But that had always been Beecher's problem, hadn't it? The reason Ryan had cut him loose, why Beecher had gone looking for someone more compatible to glom on to. Beecher was too fucking high-maintenance. O'Reilly didn't need the strokes bad enough to be constantly stoking that fire. But maybe someone else did. O'Reilly swung his eyes back to Keller, who was focused on Beecher ... Whose gaze was locked right back on Keller, through the glass that separated them.
O'Reilly wasn't the only one who noticed.
Caught and noted, the gaze was one more black mark against Keller in Schillinger's book, one more grating wound from Beecher.
Not enough that Beecher would suddenly find Vern beneath his notice, would follow Keller with his eyes, drawn to the man who was nothing more than a tool, dammit, in the seductive dance, the thrust and counterthrust that had become so compelling to Vern. No, Beecher had also stolen away Chris' attention, drawing Keller like a bitch in heat.
Beecher had been a surprisingly vigorous opponent, pulling himself up from his knees again and again to end up locked in battle. Jesus Christ, the little fucker didn't know when to stop. If he had shown that much spirit from the first, Vern might never have kicked him out, never have gotten tired of the little broken doll that had ceased to entertain him. To find himself unexpectedly challenged had started a slow hunger deep inside him, a ravenous thirst for blood that he had buried briefly as he played at being the model inmate, but which ate away at his innards, bit by bit.
And it gnawed at him now, with a curious pain, as he watched the two men watching each other, circling, waiting.
So close. So skittish.
So fucking doomed.
Beecher had locked him out, turned Schillinger out of his mind in a final complete rejection. And he was taking Keller with him. But Schillinger could still craft one final hurt, the deepest wound of all. And Beecher would strike the blow with his own hand.
And then he would never forget Vern Schillinger again.
*I made you. And I can break you, just as easily.*
Vern grinned as he pulled his mail cart up beside Beecher.
"And here I thought the honeymoon was over," he said in dulcet tones. "Must be ... convenient to be sharing a pod. Certainly looked cozy. Took me right back to old times. Just made me wonder what the two of you were talking about, standing so close together like that."
Beecher slowly turned in his seat to look at the older man, his own crazy smile drifting across his face.
"You like that? You like watching us together?"
"It's a source of endless amusement," Vern drawled.
"You liked it well enough, once upon a time - set it up, got off on it, probably wanted to watch him fuck me as much as you wanted to watch him fuck me up ... Did you ever think about that, in your little Gen Pop cell, late at night, with only your hand to keep you company? How we would look together, how I would look with his marks on me instead of yours? Of course, they were still yours ... as long as you were holding the leash. How does it feel to have your boy after me now, Vern? Now that he wants me? Now that you can't control him anymore?" Beecher uncoiled, moving in close to whisper in Vern's ear. "I should really thank you. Because you want to know a secret? You don't matter anymore. Not to me, not to him. Not after what we've both been through. You want to know what we were talking about? He said he was sick of you."
Mirth laced his voice before he drew back with a cackle, and Vern had to resist the urge to grab him by the scruff of the neck and shake him like a recalcitrant puppy, clenching his fingers around the cool, slick handle of the mail cart to restrain the desire. Beecher was becoming far too dangerous, digging a little too deep into Vern's inner workings. Pressing and prodding, trying to push all the buttons, all the right buttons guaranteed to set Vern off ...
"Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match. Find me a find, catch me a catch. Matchmaker, matchmaker, open your book, and make me a perfect match." Beecher's rhyme was spoken with deadly venom.
*Oh no, cupcake, you don't think I'm going to fall for that one? Think you're gonna aim me and fire? Too smart for your own good, sometimes.*
Beecher wanted to think he knew how to get under Vern's skin, goad him into another stupid move? Understanding ran both ways, and Keller had long ago tipped Beecher's hand on this game.
"You stupid little bitch." Vern said wonderingly. "You think you're in love. That's precious. I suppose you're going to tell me true love conquers all? That it doesn't matter what he did to you? Or ...." he leaned forward, pushing his advantage this time, crowding into Beecher's space, laying a damp hand on the back of Beecher's neck caressingly. "Do you like it like that? Hmmm? How much did you really enjoy the time we spent together? Admit it, that's all you really want, isn't it? Why you always gave in soooo easy - just like you're doing now. You want someone to take care of you when you need to be taken care of. Shit, he was right."
"What the fuck are you talking about?" Beecher squirmed in Vern's grasp.
"He said he could get you back, and I didn't believe him." Vern laughed, a nasty edge to the sound. "He's playing with you, you stupid fuck. He told me so, himself. 'Playing a game,' he called it. 'Staying sharp.' You've been doing some watching of your own, Bitcher. Didn't you wonder what we were talking about in the gym after you two finished pawing each other? Didn't you wonder what we were laughing about?"
"Playing a game. Uh-huh. And that's why you kicked his ass? Because you don't like anyone else playing with your toys without permission?"
"Get this through that overeducated head of yours: you're the one nobody cares about. If Keller wants to play with my leftovers, I got no problems with that. Keller got his ass kicked because he got out of control - been out of control since he broke Mark's nose. So he got spanked. He knows the rules. He plays by them. That's all. Nothing to do with you," Vern paused, a predatory gleam in his eye. "Wait a minute ... you didn't think he did it for you?"
He shook his head and stepped back, pushed his mail cart back into motion.
"Should have stayed with me, sweetpea. At least I looked out for you."
"Man, you look like shit." It was Ryan's voice, the elder of the O'Reilly clan sidling up behind Beecher to slouch against the wall with his hands stuffed in his pockets, his large blond shadow close behind, bouncing the ubiquitous ball. One too cocksure, the other too naive to give a mad dog the same berth other Em City denizens granted these days.
"I feel like shit," Beecher admitted, scrubbing at his face, collapsing back in his chair to rest his elbows on his knees, hunched with weariness. "Why do you care, anyway, O'Reilly? Got another fixer-upper you want to push on me?"
"Just trying to show a little concern, man. I mean, who tried to watch out for you when you were drowning yourself while lover boy there was in the hole?"
"I don't need anybody to watch out for me, O'Reilly. I can watch out for myself just fine."
"Uh-huh. Since you've done such a great job so far. Since you're doing such a great job as we speak. You're probably right. I'm probably better off dealing with Schillinger on my own."
Beecher surged to his feet and reached out to grab O'Reilly's arm as the other man turned to leave.
"Schillinger is mine, O'Reilly. Don't get in my way." He was vibrating with intensity again, flushed with the adrenaline of an animal challenged as it stood over its kill.
"Growing some balls?" Ryan mocked, the same words he'd used more than a year ago, before Beecher had exacted his first revenge. "Seems to me you're spending too much time watching your boyfriend to pay much attention to Schillinger. Every time I look at you, you've got your eyes all over him."
"All part of the plan, O'Reilly, all part of the plan," Beecher grinned maniacally.
"What plan?" O'Reilly scoffed, shrugging out of Beecher's hold. "You gonna fuck him to death? Don't try to pull that shit with me, Beecher. I've seen theway you look at him. What the fuck happened to you? You like it so much you had to go looking for it again? Can't you even keep your shit together around him? 'Cause the way it looks to me, he and Vern are kinda tight. He was there when Schillinger broke your legs, wasn't he? Did he watch?"
Beecher froze, suddenly - terribly - exposed and frighteningly vulnerable. O'Reilly hadn't only seen him looking. Hadn't only seen the show Beecher put on for Vern, trying to fuel the old bastard's anger and paranoia. No, the Irishman had seen deeper, past the double-bluff, had sussed out the true feelings that Beecher had tried to bury, had tried to deny even to himself.
Just like he realized Keller figured out your little game, a tiny voice reminded Beecher.
And if Beecher's true feelings were apparent ...
Oh fuck, oh God, oh fuck ... What if Vern saw what Beecher was really feeling, the deep dark recesses of his soul, not the gloss he had laid over his confusion and intended for Schillinger to see? And if Vern knew Beecher's true feelings, surely he knew Chris' true feelings.
*"He's playing with you. 'A game,' he called it."*
How fucking far would anyone take a game?
How about far enough to reel somebody in, to make them trust you, to get through their defenses, to offer your body as hostage for good intentions you knew wouldn't come to fruition, to lash out in an attack that left any heart and spirit in its path a shattered, bleeding wreck? Would that be far enough? Of course Keller would tell Beecher that everything was clear between them, would want Beecher to let down the defenses that shielded him. Would want easy prey. What else was he planning?
Mired in fear and confusion, Beecher finally registered Ryan's last words, and the instinctive fight-or-flight reaction ripping through him tipped the only way it could in Oz, turning him on the closest target.
*Yeah, and you were so fucking concerned when Schillinger was in my bed every night. You want to play now?*
"At least he didn't kill my husband."
O'Reilly's face went blank. He turned on his heel and walked away, dragging Cyril with him.
From his vantage point holed up inside the glass-walled pod, Keller watched O'Reilly's retreat, wondering what that little tiff was about, why Beecher seemed determined to burn all his bridges. From what he understood, Tobias and the Irish hood had been thick as thieves at one point - about the time Beecher had turned on Vern. That still burned Schillinger. He held O'Reilly partly responsible for the humiliation he'd suffered from Beecher. Which was probably why he'd taken his anger out on Cyril .... Keller was just as glad he'd been in the hole during that little game of Vern's. Wondered what he'd have done if Schillinger had expected him to participate.
Would you have joined in like a good little boy? he asked himself wearily. Would you? God, when are you going to grow up, Chris? You're thirty-fucking-seven years old. You've been taking care of yourself for more than 20 years now.
Yeah, by rolling over, he jeered at himself. And what do you have to show for it? A sore jaw, a sore ass, a collection of bruises and a rep that's shot to hell if anyone finds out about yesterday. You may look good, but you're getting too old to take 'em on if you have to prove yourself all over again.
Once a man makes you his prag, you're his prag for life. The words floated through his mind, and he hugged himself even harder, trying to center himself as he hissed in pain. He was just too tired, too tired of the game, too tired of juggling all the balls he had to keep in the air.
It was time to stop this shit once and for all. This was no time to be fucking around. This was a time to get very clear, to focus on what moves he needed to make to defend himself, to cut Beecher off, to kill whatever lingering feelings the other man might have for him. Because no matter how stupid Beecher might think Chris was, he was smart enough to recognize what was still driving Beecher in his quest for revenge, smart enough to see a mirror of his own desperation as he had pushed Beecher toward the ledge, fighting for self-preservation against unwanted emotional knowledge.
Beecher just needed a little help, that's all. Something to drive him away from Keller. And then Chris would have a little breathing room, space to pick up the pieces and retreat.
Retreat, yes. Discretion is the better part of valor. He who fights and runs away ...
*Run for your life, Chris. Run away, just like you always do the morning after the night before. Like you always do ... *
Just like he always did.
The problem is the sex. It's never as good as it is in the beginning, and once the sex sucks, I realize I got nothing in common with them.
His admission in the laundry room - four failed marriages, the inability to connect, the death of desire as the flesh sated itself, leaving a dried, empty husk behind - drifted back to haunt him. Was that the answer? Fight fire with fire until it burned itself out?
Beecher had already reduced it to that lowest common denominator. Had made it easy, in fact, to push him away. Had made it about the same old thing:
Keller, newly returned from the hole, had hated the other man in that moment, hated him with a cold clarity for reducing what was between them to a simple transaction. He recognized no hypocrisy in his own disgust, because he had come to believe that Beecher was better than him, had expected more from Beecher than Chris, himself, had to give, had expected Beecher ... to give. Somehow Beecher had found the inner strength to keep rebounding no matter how many times he was pushed down. Beneath the madness and the fear and the hate, there was a shred of humanity left that hadn't been crushed, that Chris had glimpsed in the laundry room, had helped to nourish for a time, for whatever twisted reasons. A tiny portion of his mind had believed that Beecher was different, that Beecher could stand against all of the expectations.
And then two simple words had slammed Chris back into his place. A whore. There to service. Had he recognized even then the strangely familiar, grasping selfishness of Beecher's desire? Had he realized then that the other man was as dangerously flawed as he, himself? What did it matter if he pushed over an idol that already tottered on feet of clay? This was what he had feared, had known in the back of his mind would happen when he first felt his armor crack, when he felt the stirrings of something long hidden in a black cave reaching for the warmth and light of the other man. Beecher had turned out to be no better than the rest of them - all the others whose rapacious, demanding hands Chris had surrendered himself to, male or female, hands that pushed and grabbed and left Chris to merely snatch what pleasure he could for himself. The pleasure he thought Beecher was capable of offering, rather than having stolen from him by a thief sneaking in under cover of desire.
What the hell had he been thinking? He should have known better, had known better, had known how much too much risk there was in Beecher's arms. Had known whose image the other man was molded in, who had shaped him in this prison. Even if Chris hadn't wanted to admit it to himself, still didn't want to admit it to himself, he knew. It had been a dream, and he knew how much a dream was worth.
Because that's what it was all about, right? The fuck, the hook, the draw. Chemistry. Chemical oblivion. The rush and finally, the flatline.
Beecher had been right all along. Chris should have listened to his body as the other man had urged. When had it ever led him wrong? It knew when he hurt, so he could stop it, knew what felt good, so he could do more of it, and most important, knew how to help him shut off his goddam brain. The body knew. So why the hell didn't he listen to it? Listen when it told him to taste and touch and grab and bury himself so fucking deep inside that crazy whirlwind, find the heat and calm at the center of the storm?
Feed the flesh and the brain will follow.
He knew what he had to do, how to purge Beecher out of his system, how to ensure the blond man was driven far, far away. It was time to dissolve this twisted marriage. The body, as usual, was never wrong.
An evil, seductive smile slid across his face as he raised his head and met Beecher's eyes once again through the glass.
You want it, baby, you got it.
PART SIX: PILLAR OF SALT
You're so evil, baby -
The way you let your grace enrapture me. But don't you know, I'd be insane
To ever let that dirty game recapture me? - Fiona Apple
A Pyrrhic victory is a victory, nonetheless.
And Ryan O'Reilly, stalking off to lick his own wounds, would have been gratified to know that he, in no small way, set off the chain of events that followed.
Because it was the anger and fear that continued to drive Beecher, the bone-deep rage that had marked his recovery, pushed him to revenge, terrified and tempted him as it twisted around the hatred that was the carnival-mirror image of the love he'd felt. The rage that kept him off-balance as he was confronted by Keller.
No time to find his center, to wrap the chilly arms of madness around himself and block out the world. Only the anger with its shock of adrenaline, its warm rush of pleasure and need, driven higher by the shameful reaction of his body to the dark man who was suddenly, constantly hovering at his side.
The man who settled himself into a chair beside Beecher - long, powerful legs stretched out inches from the blond man's own - to watch television, tugging playfully at the wires of Beecher's headset until he smacked the hand away and growled, only to meet Keller's engaging, infuriating grin. The man who poked him in the ribs in passing, as Beecher leaned brooding on the metal railing of the top level, whipping around to meet that grin, those teasing eyes, the body that pressed against him and burned down his side for a brief moment, then was gone as Keller continued down the stairs. The man who would have dipped his fucking pigtails in ink if they'd been in grade-school, for God's sake - only his body's reaction wasn't an innocent playground response.
The growing frustration and anger sparked and arced between them as Keller met Beecher's gaze from across the messhall that evening, not looking down this time, pinning Beecher with a smouldering glance that burned away awareness of O'Reilly's eyes, Vern's eyes, Metzger's eyes on them. It crackled as Keller stood just that much too close during count, a step too far into Beecher's personal space.
And it sizzled as the locks clicked, shutting him in with the man who deliberately touched Beecher at every possible turn, making soft contact with shoulder, thigh, hands as they brushed by each other, the man who laid his fingers on Beecher's hand and hip to push him out of the way at the sink and left them there just a moment too long - roughened, nimble fingers brushing Beecher's knuckles and caressing through the soft cotton of his T-shirt - wielding the weapon of skin on skin as surely as Beecher had only that morning, teasing and demanding a response.
Anger and need, a chemical reaction, a double-jolt of hormonal cocktails that act on the body in the same way, heightening awareness and sensitizing skin, forcing confrontation, lending foolish confidence, demanding satisfaction.
Fight or flight, with nowhere to flee.
After hours of silence, of Beecher roaming the tiny room like a caged animal, Keller had enough. He wasn't sure what was worse, the constant pacing or the barely contained jittering when Beecher actually sat down for a minute, still throwing off enough nervous energy to run Oz for a year. He didn't know what Schillinger had said to Beecher, didn't know what had happened during the confrontation with O'Reilly. But like any master gamesman, he had recognized the resulting advantage - and he had pushed it, setting his own plan in motion, tempting Beecher, whipping the response higher. Recognizing the keystone of Beecher's turmoil, the lust and the bloodlust.
It was time to move in for the kill.
Looking out through the glass walls of their cage, standing not-quite-touching the man seated beside him yet close enough for shared heat and scent to mingle in the inches between their bodies, Keller knew the breaking point was close. And when Beecher flung himself out of his chair again to stand bent over the sink, hands white-knuckled and clenched, head down, Keller drifted over to stand behind him, gaze lingering on the dark-blond waves of hair laying against the soft skin at the nape of Beecher's neck.
Soft skin, bared by a bowed head, that awaited the teeth of a predator ... or a mate.
You can do this, Chris. You can do it. It's the best thing - for you, for him, for all of you. End it. Cruel to be kind, baby.
He lifted one hand to rest it on Beecher's shoulder and felt the muscles under his fingers become impossibly more tense.
"Jesus, Beech, you're tied up in knots."
The shoulder under his fingertips shrugged, a dismissive gesture and a halfhearted attempt to shake him off, but Chris had his claws in, just the barest bit, and he didn't intend to let go.
"You're not still all worked up over our fight this morning, are you? Because I meant what I said, Beech. This all needs to be over. It's stupid to go on like this. And I've tried to give you what you want, but I'm starting to wonder if you even know what you want. You figured out what you want yet, Beech? What you need?"
The words were challenging.
He knew what Beecher wanted. His own words to Vern, months earlier, echoed in his head.
He won't admit it, yet ...
He met Beecher's eyes in the mirror, saw angry blue sparks in that laser gaze.
"What are you offering?"
If Keller was going to throw Beecher's words back at him, two could play at that game. And if Beecher's dark seducer underestimated his partner, so much the better.
You can do this. You can. You will.
It was time to prove to himself and to Keller that he wouldn't be led around by the balls anymore, that he had leveled the playing field. Time to see just how far Keller would take it, just how far Beecher, himself, could stand it. He would see if there was any truth to Schillinger's claims, any hope of breaking down the wall inside Keller that protected that inner core. And then he would reject it, as swiftly and painfully as he had been rejected.
You want to dance, too, Chris? Let's fucking dance.
He straightened, staring down those stormcloud eyes in the mirror.
"Time to put up or shut up, Chris? What are you offering?"
Did Toby have any idea, Keller wondered, how sultry that sulky glare was? Was that what had held Schillinger after the initial attraction to easy pickings? He leaned in closer to the tension-tightened body in front of him and spoke in a low, rumbling voice.
"Just want to make you feel better, Beech. Help you get past all this shit, so we can leave it behind."
"You think you can do that, Chris? You think you can give me exactly what I need? Think you're up to that challenge?"
In response, Keller brought his other hand up, resting it on another stiff shoulder, kneading, working at the knots that bound up Beecher's body and soul. He felt a shudder ripple through the other man, watched those eyes half-close in the mirror in an instinctive reaction to the pleasure of the touch. Beecher's head dipped again, baring the ridge of vertebrae under his skull. Keller moved one hand to stroke across the naked flesh above the neckline of Beecher's T-shirt, tracing patterns up into the strands of hair, rough silk that caught against his calloused fingertips.
"Christ, what have you been doing?" he asked impatiently. "Your PT is gonna kick my ass, you show up like this. He told me to make you take it easy, you know. Keep you relaxed."
Already enjoying the burn across his shoulders as Keller attacked aching muscles, Beecher was thrown off-balance by the sudden conversational turn and mentally flailed, trying to follow the one-eighty Keller seemed to have taken.
"What the fuck were you doing there, anyway?" A slow flush spread from the neckline of Beecher's T-shirt, moving up to burn his cheeks.
"Watching you. Been watching you, ya know. Think I might have learned a few things, too."
"Yeah, and what do you think you've learned?"
Beecher turned in Keller's grasp, bringing up a strong, square hand to grab at Keller's fingers, pushing his hand away. The action brought their bodies further into contact, and Keller leaned into him, but Beecher set his ass against the cold metal of the sink and refused to give any ground. Face only inches from Keller's, he narrowed his eyes.
*Game face, Beecher, keep your game face on. Don't think about the way he feels against you, don't think about how fucking warm he is, how good he smells. Just remember what he wants. What you're not going to give him. What he's going to give you.*
Keller shifted, entertaining a brief thought of backing Beecher into the sink, pushing with his hips just far enough to leave the other man perched on the ledge, legs wrapping around Chris' for balance, hands coming up around Chris' shoulders as Keller dipped his head to the triangle cup of flesh at the base of Beecher's neck, pushing the other man's head back to burrow into his neck. Beecher's expression was calculating again, and eerily familiar, and Keller mentally shook himself, brought back to the reality of the lean length of Beecher's thighs and the warm, soft fingers tangled in his.
You got one thing right, Chris. Push it.
"You'd be surprised what I've learned."
"You gonna show me?"
Keller laughed, short and grudging.
"Yeah, I might be able to do that." Shaking his hand free of Beecher's grasp, he brought it back up to dig his fingers into those tense shoulders again.
This was too easy.
And it felt so good ... the release of tension, the slackening of muscles that had been wound tighter and tighter all day. The loosening, giving himself up to the sheer physical pleasure, the comfort, the touch his body still craved.
Don't. Don't do this, a tiny portion of Beecher's mind warned.
But his body was on autopilot, unable to stop capitulation in the face of exhaustion from days of running in high-gear. Beecher slumped as Keller pulled him away from the sink, slipped behind him to work on the muscles in his back. *Just give him a few minutes, just let him keep doing that for a few minutes longer, and I'll worry about what happens later, later.*
Christ, his legs were going to give out.
Then he felt Keller's body against his, hard chest curving against his back, pushing him forward, step by step. He balked as their destination became apparent, dredging up the strength to set in his heels.
"Sit your ass down, Beech," Keller said. "I'm telling you, ain't nothin' gonna happen that you don't want."
But he was already allowing Keller to push him down on the bed, sitting in a half-stupor as the other man slipped in behind him to run those strong, graceful fingers down his spine, pushing and kneading, and he spared a single moment to wonder just when he had so completely lost control of this encounter - if, in fact, he'd ever had any control at all. Those hands were pushing him down on the bed now, and he struggled, panic flaring momentarily.
"Stop it." Keller's voice was sharp. "I've seen your PT enough to know you need to be lying down for this."
Those hands were too sure to resist, and Beecher tried to stifle a groan as he stretched out on his stomach. He jerked, startling as he felt Keller's palms on his calves.
"How can you even walk like this?" Chris asked, settling himself on his knees at the foot of the bed, between Beecher's feet, as he probed at knotted muscles.
"I'm lucky I'm even walking at all ...." The acerbic response was bitten off, shifting into a low moan into the pillow as Keller's fingers worked at the sore muscles, moving over the swell of golden-furred calves and around the sharp, tender points of ankles, careful not to press too hard. Beecher wiggled his toes and pulled in a breath as Keller reached his instep.
"Too light," he gasped out. "That tickles."
Keller grinned and increased the pressure, moving from one foot to the other. A pause to strip off his own T-shirt, then he was trailing his fingers back up the rounded calves to the baby-soft creases marking the backs of Beecher's knees, where he caressed lightly, a gentling touch and a warning before digging his hands into the knotted thighs. Beecher groaned again, a strangled sound of pain and pleasure twisting against itself in the small enclosure.
"Like that, huh?" Keller asked, his voice low.
Beecher was sinking, settling into the mattress, his limbs heavy with lassitude as Keller's fingers leached the tension from his body. This ... this wasn't what he had expected. He had been prepared for the kind of fumbling, ill-timed caresses Keller had tried to pull off during their ... courtship? ... when Keller had grabbed at his dick or swooped down on him in the laundry room.
Direct, upfront, that was Chris. Telegraphed from a mile away and easy to parry - if you were so inclined.
It was the other little things that had pulled Beecher in, the reassuring touches as Chris helped him change sweat-soaked clothes after a nightmare, the way Keller's shoulder had rested against his as one of them bent to whisper a joke in the other's ear. The small things, the thoughtless courtesies, that had made Beecher love him. Sweet Jesus, why had he forgotten about those? Why had he ever been stupid enough to think they were thoughtless or unplanned? There was a creeping unease in the back of his mind telling him that the oversight might be his undoing, but he could already feel his traitorous body responding.
The fingers skimmed across the backs of his legs, trailing rough caresses down onto the tender skin of his inner thighs. With an effort, he spread his legs further and felt those hands creep up to brush the curving underside of his ass beneath the legs of his boxers. He dimly realized that his cock was swelling. One part of his mind skittered around frantically as he felt the hands roam up his sides, skimming over bare flesh to pull his T-shirt off as a straddling weight settled over him. But the weight was comforting, blanketing him, and his body sank further into the nest of bed-coverings, craving more of the touch.
Keller ran both his hands up the bare back, studying the pale, perfect expanse of skin in the low light filtering into the pod, the swell of muscle parted by the shadowed ridge of spine. He gently worked his way down one arm, then the other, to the strong fingers lying limp against the blankets. He returned to worship the back, shoulders broad and more imposing than the bad clothes and hunched posture would admit. The skin slipped under his fingers like satin, shone with the same deep, rich gleam as Chris probed the sharp wings of shoulder blades. Down the sweep of flesh to press gently in the hollow at the small of the back, sending a visible shiver through the body under him.
His vision - his focus - narrowed to the lines of Beecher's body, limned in soft light, to the way the shivering skin responded to his touch, the way sharp planes curved and arched and fit into his hands. He brushed his fingers across the small of Beecher's back in fascination, tracing the lines of muscle outward along creamy skin, the light brush of soft, tiny hairs sending an answering shiver through his own body.
Beecher was panting now, small hitching gasps that could have been cries of pain. He arched up into Keller's hands as the fingers slowed and brushed across the dip of his lower back, under the waistband of his boxers, tracing down angled hipbones on either side of his body. Fearful expectation shot through him as those hands cradled his pelvis, pulling his hips up and back to meet the hardness pushing against his ass, and he whimpered, hands clenching and seeking purchase in the covers under him even as his hips rolled, his body lost between the living blanket of warm flesh and the swelling organ behind him and his own hard cock scrubbing against the rough blanket of the bunk through his thin underwear.
But the hands moved back around - light featherstrokes gentling him, the same touch that had calmed him days ago on the massage table - and swept up his back in a smooth wave, cresting at his shoulders and breaking to run down his arms where fingers wound with his. He lay under the body draped over his own, feeling the other man's hot chest pressed against his back, a double-heartbeat pounding through his body in syncopated rhythm.
Keller's voice was rough, whispering in Beecher's ear, a soft breath of air stirring tendrils of blond hair. Beecher could no more have disobeyed than he could have grown wings and flown over the walls of Oz. But as he rolled onto his back, the weight above him lifting as hands helped him move, he caught sight of the face of the man over him, tense with desire and lust. The spell lifted a little, thin fingers of sanity forcing themselves through the cracks, and he shoved himself up and away until his back was pressed to the wall, his knees drawn up. His cock throbbed against his belly, and he looked out at Keller with huge eyes, pupils dilated so that only a thin rim of blue iris showed.
Keller moved like a cat, flowing up the bed to cup one hand around Beecher's cheek, his chest pressed to the knees of the man huddled before him. He stroked a thumb across one cheekbone and pressed himself in a wordless plea against Beecher's legs.
"Nothing you don't want, baby." His voice was low and husky. "Nothing you don't need. Let me give you what you want."
Slowly, slowly the legs opened, and Keller slid into their embrace, feeling knees pressed against his ribs. It was an awkward position, but not hopeless. He grabbed Beecher by the waist and hauled him down onto his back, covering the shorter body with his own. Beecher closed his eyes and gasped in great shuddering breaths of air, his chest heaving against Keller's, the scattering of hair there a warm brush against Keller's skin. Chris bent to kiss him, their mouths on a level again, but Beecher buried his face in the curve of Keller's neck, slack mouth hot and wet against the tendon leading down to his shoulder. Keller hissed, wincing as the other man's fingers dug into the bruises on his back, but Beecher's grip only tightened, eradicating the pattern of Nameless Faceless' fingerprints with his own.
Keller gave himself up to it, surrendered to the inevitable. One hand pressed Beecher's head to his chest, feeling the curve of skull cushioned by soft hair, and he rolled, pulling them both onto their sides to prevent crushing the other man. His free hand roamed up Beecher's side, cataloging ribs, gliding across damp skin to lightly pinch a nipple. Beecher's hips bucked against his, a cry muffled in Keller's shoulder, and Chris ran a fingertip around the small pink nub, soothing it.
"Please," Toby gasped. "Please ..."
It had been so long, too long, and Keller knew Beecher wouldn't last. Already he had flung a leg over Keller and was grinding his hips into the other man's, leaving a damp stickiness on his boxers and the front of Keller's pants. Keller's hand roved down, slid under the elastic waistband and found Toby's cock, wrapping calloused fingers around it, feathering the moisture over the blunt head with his thumb.
How many times had he done this, for how many men? How many times had he automatically performed the same gestures, the same movements, without noticing the hard delicacy of their flesh and bones, the silk over steel that made up their cocks and their bodies?
Beecher flung his head back, moaning, and Keller took the opportunity to flick his tongue against the taut throat, dipping into the hollow to taste the sharp bite of sweat and the underlying tang of Toby's flesh, snuffling against the underside of the scratchy jaw to fill his head with the scent he remembered from the laundry room. He traced the arch of salty skin upward, teeth rasping against stubble as he scraped them across the other man's jawline to gnaw delicately at the soft skin under Toby's ear.
He pumped Beecher's cock, holding the trembling body close with his other arm around Beecher's back as the blond man came with a strangled sound, thrusting his hips.
It was over in a matter of minutes, and Keller felt Beecher tense again.
"Get out of my bed." Beecher's voice was dead and he wouldn't meet Keller's eyes.
Keller nodded, smoothing one tendril of sweat-soaked hair back at Beecher's temple. Then he silently crawled out of the bed. Climbing into the top bunk, he noticed the dark red stain on the front of his pants where the friction of Beecher's body had rubbed open one of his wounds.
He curled himself up, knees pressed to his chest, trapping his throbbing cock against his belly, Beecher's smell all over him, ground into his fucking skin.
Bury it, Chris. Just breathe. Breathe.
It was no good. He stretched himself out, ran his hands down his own sweaty chest, across bruises and down to the waistband of his pants ... lower ... where the sound of his zipper ripped through the silence of the pod. He winced, knowing Beecher heard, couldn't possibly have missed it.
Trailing his hand further down, across the hard flat muscles of his stomach, under the elastic of his boxers, over the curve of hip and the velvety soft skin where leg met pelvis, down to a sticky wetness, gummy against his fingers, seeping out of the stinging pain that met him as he rubbed his fingers across the reopened cut on his thigh. He dabbled his fingers in the smear of blood, scratched lightly at the lips of the wound, welcoming the splinters of pain that seemed to ease the hardness of his cock. He remembered someone once telling him - some weird chick who wouldn't swallow because she said it made her feel like a vampire - that the chemical makeup of human blood and semen were practically the same, and he wondered again if it were true.
Then he shifted, and the bruises across his back pulled achingly - Beecher's fingerprints there now - and he remembered the feel of Toby's fingers digging into his shoulder muscles, the wet heat of Toby's mouth on his neck. He muffled a moan into his free hand, the hand that had held Toby's hardness, and a sharp wave of that salty scent filled his head.
The hand in his pants moved of its own volition to his cock now, smeared blood on his fingertips mixing with the viscous fluid leaking out of the tip. He brushed his fingers lightly over the head, again and again, breathing deep, desperately trying to muffle the sound in his palm, drunk on the mingled scents trapped there. Quick light touches, the scrape of calluses smoothed by the stickiness, and the flashes of memory in his head: Beecher pressed against his shoulder, whispering, hot breath tickling Chris' ear. Toby's head bent over a book, the curve of his neck exposed, waiting for Chris' fingers. Tears in the darkness and the feel of the other man's body molded against his own, as Chris offered the simple animal comfort of physical contact, Beecher shuddering at Keller's promises that he wasn't alone. Pain in those blue eyes, clouded with fear and rage as sharp laughter and the sour smell of old sweat surrounded them in the gym. The touch of Beecher's fingers on his neck and the scent of soap and laundry detergent, the brush of Beecher's lips against his, mouth opening, tongues tangled, the desperate drive to suck some of that light into himself ...
Keller's body spasmed hard in the darkness, and he lay there panting, terrified.
The problem is the sex. It's never as good as it is in the beginning, and once the sex sucks, I realize I got nothing in common with them.
But he and Toby had everything in common, didn't they?
Keller had seen to that.
PART SEVEN: VEIL OF THE TEMPLE
I would burn for you, feel pain for you,
I would twist the knife and bleed my aching heart
And tear it apart.
The next morning, Beecher decided to let his beard grow again.
It meant less time shaving - less time confronting himself in the mirror.
If there was one thing Tobias Beecher was expert at, it was self-flagellation. His demanding upbringing had ensured it. No punishment could have been worse than his father's arched brow when 10-year-old Toby had brought home a B on his report card. Anything less than perfection was unacceptable. He had internalized the demands like a good little boy, craving the kisses and praise that rewarded his pat performances, his desire to please. In time, he had developed that thin layer of arrogance that overlays self-doubt, the mask designed to hide a fear of failure from oneself along with the world, but he never could escape the vague unease that he wasn't quite good enough, banished only momentarily by the next great victory - academic, personal, professional.
In high school, he had discovered the soft, cotton-wool cocoon of alcohol, introduced at a weekend party in the Hamptons, summer breeze blowing through the window, not-quite-dead disco providing its soundtrack of debauchery, a double-dozen other itinerant sophomores and juniors looking for some excitement, escape, anything that would take them away from the ennui of a world that had been laid at their feet - too easily won, nothing precious - shallow, full of the excesses of the 1970s and only just gearing up for the blind drive to success that would become the 1980s. It was a revelation, that first wondrous dance with his new lover, who shimmered golden-warm in his veins, telling him that everything was OK, that he was OK, that he was, in fact, a really great guy and he could set down those worries about grades and girls and whether he could live up to family expectations for a minute and revel in the sudden feeling of connectedness he had somehow achieved. Nothing was too big to handle, nothing was too hard to endure, and when - after four or five glasses of sticky-sweet rum and Coke - he had achieved that pinnacle, the buzz that sweeps through your body and sends you soaring, gravity-suspended awareness blindly concentrated inward to catch that sudden feeling of flight, of reckless abandon, it was all he had ever dreamed of.
He had yet to have sex with anything more than his own hand, and the experience was the sweetest thing of his young life. Through high school and college, he continued chasing that feeling of disconnection as surely as any junkie with a pipe, craving the blast that took him straight to heaven, where worry and failure and guilt were specters swept away on the rising tide. For a while, the shelter of Genevieve's embrace had provided a haven from shame and self-doubt, but eventually, the call of the bottle was too strong. Then, the guilt had set in again as he realized he was failing his wife too, unable - or unwilling - to break the chains that bound him to his mistress. He found his comfort and his punishment in the bottom of the bottle, the cycle at least familiar. The bottle expected nothing of him, demanded nothing of him. It smoothed over the guilt, made the stumbling blocks seem less important. It sanded them down to a fucking yellow-brick road that led him straight to Oz.
Well, what did you really expect, Gen? She was there before you, and she'll still be there long after you're gone. Too bad you weren't enough. Too bad the kids weren't enough. Not enough to keep me from her. But don't you worry, oh no. Because she exacts her own punishment, her own special brand of loathing . that pulls me right back to her.
He wasn't a stupid man - surviving private school cliques and Harvard Law and the viciousness of civil litigation, where more was accomplished by cutthroat office sparring than by reasoned courtroom debate, rarely bred stupidity. In his lucid moments, he'd known the alcohol was the worst kind of crutch, and he'd berated himself for not being strong enough, good enough to shoulder his life on his own. He knew the bottle dragged him down, that its siren song was all a cheap lie. It solved nothing - and let's have another drink to fortify ourselves against that knowledge, Toby. In the end, the bottle's twisted embrace had betrayed him as thoroughly as Chris Keller. And like Keller, it still wrapped him in that unholy embrace, sinking its vampire teeth into his soul to suck out his life.
Any alcoholic knew that one small drink wasn't an option. There were two choices - stay away or fall into the bottle and drown.
So he avoided his own eyes in the mirror, hearing again the sound of Keller's pleasure drifting down from above him, his own cries echoing in his memory as a backdrop, mingling in his head. Shame pierced him again in the morning's cold fluorescent light, as Keller met his eyes with a hooded gaze, turned away. Cold, distant, as if last night had never happened, as if neither of them had driven the other to desperate pleasure.
Was it so easy to hide it? Had it all been a sham, the desire and the need ... at least until some body - any body - pressed close had whipped up an uncaring physical response? Had Keller found his measure of emotional satisfaction in the knowledge of how he had played Beecher - again - how he had brought down those carefully constructed defenses?
Beecher remembered the muzzy feeling and the damp heat, like waking from a too-deep sleep on a summer's afternoon, sweat coating his body, sheets tangled tight around his legs, suffocating, not enough air, thoughts thick and syrupy. Face buried in Keller's shoulder, hiding from the knowledge admit it, Toby of just who was wringing pleasure out of his body with every touch as much as denying that last intimacy of lips pressed together, hard and demanding, devouring.
Just once wasn't an option.
The bottle would always be there, taunting him, drawing him in. Step into my parlor. There would always be another bottle. But Chris Keller - there was only one of him. Once he was exorcized from Beecher's life, he would be gone, cut cleanly away. Beecher could breathe again, healed of the torment he faced every time he looked into that chiseled face, watched those supple lips shape themselves around words that could cut like knives or soothe like salve. Once he severed the twisted cord that bound him to the dark man, he would be free.
He remembered Keller's fingers tangled in his as he slept, his own hand pressed in a caress against the other man's bruised throat, desperate pleasure in the darkness. Three strikes, and you're out.
He took to his bed after count, avoiding breakfast, letting the madness whisper to him. It was all he had, and he clutched at it like a child afraid of the dark - glad for its return in the aftermath of the night's passion, in the utter hopelessness of all his plans, grateful that it had lain in wait even as he had faithlessly fallen into Keller's embrace once again. It was the only lover he could turn to now, the only one that had never turned on him, the only one that held out a hope of rescue from shame and self-doubt. He couldn't wait any longer. It was time to take matters into his own hands. Waiting for Schillinger to move - he could grow old and tired and tormented, trapped in Chris' arms.
Jesus Christ, can't even depend on that Nazi fuck to act the way he should anymore.
So he went to the kitchen, where Ryan O'Reilly was just starting on the unpleasant task of cleaning up the mess hundreds of people had left behind. The Irishman eyed Beecher narrowly as he plucked a piece of leftover toast from a plate and shredded it in his hands, unable to bring himself to eat.
"Hey man, I'm sorry about yesterday," Beecher mumbled uncomfortably, staring at the floor. "I was an asshole. I shouldn't have said that stuff."
"You're right. You shouldn't have."
"I mean, it's none of my business, right?"
"So, what are you saying?" Resting his hands on the metal countertop in front of him, Ryan leaned closer and peered intently at Beecher. "Fuck, man, what is wrong with you lately?"
"Nothing. Everything ..." he waved a hand and slumped back on the counter, scrubbing at his face with both hands.
"Listen, Beech," O'Reilly said grudgingly. "You need to get your shit together, OK? Then we can talk. But if you're going to do something, you need to do it. All right?"
Beecher looked up, met the Irishman's knowing eyes. Fuck, yeah, he needed to do something, if only to cure himself of this transparency that seemed to allow everyone around him to peer into his soul and discern his every motive. Because he hadn't fooled O'Reilly, that was for sure.
"Anything else you need? Toast, juice ..." Ryan's voice trailed off expectantly.
"I'll just help myself on the way out, how's that sound?"
And Vern, loitering by the entrance to the cafeteria, putting off another day in the mailroom filled with monotony and paper cuts, smirked to himself as he watched Beecher slip back out of the kitchen, noted the tight shoulders and the humming intensity of his movements.
The little bitch had always been transparent. Vern could look into his eyes, into his brain, and see what was going on there. If Beecher had been around, Vern never would have fallen for that murdering cunt Whittlesey's game. He coulda' looked straight through Beecher and seen what was going on. But they'd taken Beecher away and hid him somewhere, bringing him out to confront Schillinger only when the damage was done, when Vern was facing more long, drawn-out years in this prison, locked away from his kids who were killing themselves on the street.
Beecher must think Vern was stupid to fall for that shit again. You didn't climb to the top of the Aryan heap if you were stupid, you stayed safely down at the bottom, among the masses who could be led like sheep. And you didn't stay at the top, among the dangerous power plays and shifting loyalties, without a certain amount of cunning.
No, Vern wasn't as stupid as Beecher would like to think, and that meant the prag could clean up his own damn mess. Vern wasn't anybody's garbageman.
And then they would see. They would see who had the last laugh.
He went in search of Metzger.
"I guess you're back in Schillinger's good graces."
Keller tensed at the sound of Metzger's voice behind him and immediately, silently berated himself. If he couldn't pull the ragged pieces of his self-control back together, he might as well kiss his ass goodbye with this shark gliding silently through the water in search of chum.
"Well, gee, thanks. That's nice to know." His voice held just the right note of calculated sarcasm, not enough to be openly defiant, just enough to let the hack know that he had no intention of a repeat performance of a few days ago, that things were back on track. That he was his old self again, the Chris Keller who had walked into this damn prison with masks on and defenses in place.
What a fucking joke.
His desperate attempt to avoid Beecher's eyes that morning made a mockery of it, and the way he had slammed down his barriers, the way he had fled to the showers - and it had been a flight from danger, pure and simple - where he blocked out the fear and longing under scalding water, pain sharp as a knife leaving him red, raw and breathless, cutting away the surge of guilt that had washed over him under Beecher's ravaged, searching gaze, the longing and the hopelessness that threatened to suffocate him under the knowledge of everything they had done to each other - and the fear that it wasn't over yet.
His stomach had lurched, and he had mentally flailed for balance, trapped in that nauseated moment of free-fall after missing a step. He was losing it, losing himself in Beecher the way he had before all the shit went down. His grip slipping as he again fought for control, only this time he couldn't see any way back.
The same old Chris Keller. In his dreams.
"No, he wanted me to let you know that things were square," Metzger continued. "You did a good job. Oh, and he said thanks for softening Beecher up again."
But Metzger was already gone, patrolling around the top level of Em City as if the whispered conversation had never taken place.
Keller stood gripping the cold metal railing, staring down into the pit, eyes searching for one familiar blond head, tension and panic rising in him at Beecher's absence and at the scenarios that conjured in his head.
Don't do this Chris. Don't. You warned him. Told him to stay away from Vern. It's none of your business now.
But the body was already moving.
The blond man was almost hidden in the shadows of the gym, curled in on himself, jerking slightly at the sound of Keller's voice.
"Beecher, what's wrong?"
"Need you." The voice was raw, husky, a mixture of crazed mirth and misery.
"Can't get you out of my fucking head. Please, Chris, please ..."
"What is it, baby? What do you need?" He approached the other man tentatively, as one would approach a dog, uncertain of attack.
"Kiss me?" Beecher's voice was desperate now, a plea ... and a demand.
And that familiar darkness was back in his eyes as he turned his head toward Chris, that crazy, familiar void that sucked in light, captured and twisted it, devouring it, devouring Chris.
Keller heard the soft clang of metal behind him - barred doors shutting them in, alone, unnoticed - and he shuddered.
"Don't do this, Toby. Don't."
Keller felt something shift inside him. All his life, narrowing down to this one point, poised on the precipice. Less danger in stepping over the edge than in trying to maintain his balance.
Yes, give him what he needs so both of us will be free.
His hands framing Beecher's face, his thumbs smoothing across Beecher's eyelids, closing the tender flesh over those blue eyes and blocking out the darkness before he leaned forward to capture Beecher's lips, inhaling the other man's familiar scent, overlaid with the sharp smell of desperation and madness now. A kiss goodbye, a last deception, for himself, this time - that the man who'd met and matched him in the laundry room still lived inside this familiar skin. Beecher's mouth opened under his.
Then the other man was squirming in his grasp, twisting, bringing up one of his hands, and there was a sharp pain singing across Keller's chest. He looked down at the blood, saw the crimson stain on the knife Toby held - and Chris laughed.
He'd cut him, Toby had cut him. That was too fucking perfect. The delightful perversity of it overwhelmed him.
Beecher's face twisted.
"You think this is funny?" he snarled and lunged forward.
Keller opened his arms to his lover, lifting his chest to the blade.
"So, how does it feel to kill someone else who loves you?"
Beecher looked up, eyes still wild, taking a step over Keller's crumpled form, toward Vern, who stepped - a little too hastily - back from the fencing that separated them.
"What the fuck are you talking about?"
"Don't point that thing at me, sweetpea. Not really your style, is it? You kill the people who love you: your wife, your lover." Schillinger spit out the last word. "You kill the ones who are stupid enough to trust you. Trust you to do the right thing, take care of them, forgive them. Drive on the right side of the road. That's why I'm safe, you little shit. I know enough not to trust you. Not like Chris, the stupid sonofabitch. Could have told him, if he'd bothered to listen. Should have seen for himself what you do to the people who love you."
"Shut the fuck up! He didn't love me."
"Of course he did. Why do you think he crossed me like that? Why do you think you're not dead, instead of just hobbling around, you gimp? Our boy Chris has never had a good track record of showing what he's feeling. But he loved you. He was too stupid to hide it from me."
"Am I? What's the lie? And what's the truth?" Vern stepped further back, laughing.
"Yeah, right. Tell me another," Beecher said, backing the other way, almost stumbling over Chris in his attempt at flight from Schillinger's razor-edged words. "Just remember - I haven't forgotten about you."
Once around the corner, he was too busy to notice Cyril nearby, bouncing his ball. Too busy holding himself - literally - together as he wrapped shaking arms around his own body and tried to stop the nausea.
Vern beat a hasty retreat. Keller had served his purpose - served it very well, indeed. And although Schillinger would almost - in some twisted, nostalgic way - miss having the prag around, it cleared up a lot of messy loose ends to leave Chris bleeding his life out on the floor.
But before he left the gym, he sidled back up to the fence to lean down and whisper to Keller, hoping to send a message to hell with him, laughing over the fact that his master's voice would be the last thing Chris would hear.
"I keep what's mine, cupcake. Even if I have to kill it to keep from losing it."
PART EIGHT: TREE OF KNOWLEDGE
Love me, hate me, make me live again.
I need you around.
- Better than Ezra
And Keller would have died too, if Beecher had been more adept at killing with any weapon smaller than a car fueled by a bottle of booze.
But the blade's thrust had been driven by rage, not by training or experience, and while there was plenty of damage to his soft tissues and nicks to the ribs that had actually done their job and protected his heart, Keller was waxy pale but still breathing when the ball slowly rolled through the sticky pool of blood to bump against his nose. Cyril's shocked cry brought both Ryan and a nearby CO running. Ryan, who had suspected Keller's complicity in Vern's plan since Beecher had been found twisted and broken in this same gym, would have kicked the sonofabitch for good measure and left him to bleed out, but the hack moved in with uncharacteristic control, took over with uncustomary efficiency: stanching the bleeding until help could arrive, getting Keller to the infirmary in time for the stitches and the blood transfusions that saved his life.
The poor slob never understood what he'd done to rouse his boss' ire, but he learned to tread carefully around Metzger during the next couple of weeks.
Beecher was huddled in blankets that still held the mingled scent of Keller's body and his own when McManus came to the door of the pod.
He was thinking about all the times he'd been cruel to Gen, all the hateful, hurtful words he had thrown at her when the alcohol had loosened his tongue. He had never been physically abusive - he'd never been a physically violent man at all - before Oz. But he had found himself in a unique position to understand exactly what a weapon the tongue can be, to appreciate the fact that the pain of words could hurt more than pain of fists. His bones had healed. His heart was dead. He wondered idly if he could use battered-spouse syndrome as a defense when Keller's body was found. Wasn't he wedded to the dark man in some sick way, bound in blood? Why else couldn't he get Keller out of his mind?
He tried to ignore the gaunt man suddenly standing in his doorway, intruding on his solitude.
When you've done something wrong, you are summoned to McManus' office. If he comes to you, it's bad news.
He remembered telling Keller that once. Yeah, when McManus had arrived with the news of Genevieve's death. How fitting. How appropriate. There was an eerie kind of parallel in the reappearance of the man who had once come to tell him of the death of the only woman he had ever really loved - the woman he had killed. Now, McManus had re-materialized with news of the death of the only man Beecher had ever loved - who he'd also killed. But that man he'd loved - that man had never really existed, had he?
"Beecher," McManus said.
The Wizard of Oz really did look like shit these days, Beecher thought, without much feeling. Good. The cocksucker deserved to be as miserable as everyone else in this fucking hellhole he'd created.
Welcome to your nightmare, McManus.
"Beecher, it's Keller," McManus said, coming to squat beside the bed as the blond man stared at him incuriously. "He's been cut, knifed. They found him, in the gym. He's in the infirmary ... Beecher?"
Even the miserable tangle of emotion - depthless terror and twisted satisfaction, aching regret - that clenched in his stomach when McManus led him to Keller's bedside in the tiny recovery room was a relief after the empty, wrung-out feeling that had pervaded him in the wake of Schillinger's words. The bruises left from Keller's beating only a few days ago stood out in stark contrast to the pale skin, welts still raw pink and scabs rusty with dried blood, a roadmap of rage *your rage, Toby, admit it* drawn across Chris' body.
His eyes were hollow and bruised, and his chest barely seemed to stir under the sheets - sheets that Beecher suddenly remembered against his own skin, uncharacteristically soft and comforting after too many washings, fragile to the point of fraying from the hot water and bleach that had pounded them into the texture of the thinnest flannel.
"I know something is going on," McManus said, standing beside him. "I know why Keller was thrown into Ad Seg months ago, and I know about your drinking binge. I know about his visits to the infirmary after you were attacked. We don't condone relationships between prisoners here, Beecher, but if you're being harassed because you ... care ... about the wrong person, that will not be condoned either. Is someone targeting the two of you? Who did this?"
Beecher's mind snagged on one short sentence. Visits to the infirmary? What? But his mouth was already racing on. His laugh was bitter. Who did this?
"We did this. He did this. I did this. Oz did this. You did this." His voice was suddenly weary. "Go away, McManus. Just leave me the fuck alone."
McManus opened his mouth to respond, but Dr. Nathan was motioning for his attention, and he wanted to know Keller's status. He allowed her to draw him into her office, away from the bedside where Beecher remained immobile, the same mixture of hope and fear on his face that McManus had seen so many times on Keller's when the other man had snuck in for just a few minutes before lockdown to stand sentinel over Beecher's bed as the blond man lay in exhausted sleep after hours of physical therapy.
That despairing look as Keller had watched Beecher sleep - as if some part of him had been ripped away - had haunted McManus the first time he had seen it when he stopped by the infirmary to talk to Gloria about some supply requests. Tim made a point of returning to watch, safely hidden from view, night after night. Gloria said Keller showed up two or three times a week, always after Beecher was asleep. And he just stood there, watching, looking lost.
And Beecher ... the man had been digging his way into some kind of pit for a long time before Keller showed up. McManus had feared for his sanity but felt helpless in the face of the forces surrounding them all. Oz was unraveling, and Beecher was just one thread in that warped weft. McManus didn't have much hope for him, didn't have much time to deal with him. But he had blossomed under Keller's attention, seeming secure for the first time since he came to Oz. Now, his world was unraveling at the seams again, and McManus felt as baffled and helpless as he had before. A thin thread of anger tightened in his gut. He knew he would meet the same stone wall he had run into - headfirst, time and again - in trying to get any information about this latest salvo in whatever war was going on.
*Why the fuck would he tell you anything, Tim? It's not like you've done a stellar - or even adequate - job of protecting his ass so far.*
McManus winced at the inadvertent image that unfortunate thought brought to mind.
Somehow, Tobias Beecher had become symbolic of every fuck-up Tim McManus had made in Em City. He remembered how the ghosts of the dead had crowded around Beecher in silent, accusing chorus as the blond man eye-fucked him through the glass during the riot, and he shivered. Someone walking on your grave, Timmy ...
McManus tore his thoughts away from Beecher as Gloria's words finally registered.
"Wait a minute, what are you telling me here? You're saying that Keller's a cutter?"
"It's not unheard of in prison, Tim," she responded acerbically. "You and I both know inmates are one of the groups at high risk for self-injury. The man's thighs are a mess of healed and half-healed cuts - injuries that go back a lot farther than whatever beating he took recently. Somebody's been taking a lot of anger out on him - but it's my opinion he's the one responsible for those cuts. He wouldn't be the first prisoner to come in here burnt or bleeding because he's taking something out on himself."
The specter of Miguel Alvarez - still hidden away in solitary, passive and compliant now that he had been medicated to muffle his screams - floated between them.
Tim scrubbed a hand over his face, remembering Keller's pale, bruised countenance and Beecher standing over him, the tableau sickeningly familiar.
Had Keller blamed himself for Beecher's injuries, for not protecting the other man? Had he gone back to his empty pod after each visit to the infirmary and pulled out a hidden razor blade as the lights dimmed? Had he taken out his fear and pain on his own body?
And what kind of self-destruction would Beecher visit on himself, now that the tables were turned?
It didn't matter what they showed in movies or on TV, bleeding to death took a hell of a long time. And it hurt like fuck.
Or was it the living that hurt?
Keller groaned inwardly as the bitter medicinal smell of the infirmary rolled through his nose and into his lungs, cutting through the drug-induced high that was cushioning him, pulling him back to earth and the miserable situation he had tried so desperately to leave behind.
Can't even die right, can you, Chris?
And he wanted to die, right about now. Barring that, he wanted to regain enough strength to crawl out of the hospital bed he felt firm against his back and kick the ass of whoever had pulled him out of the blessed blankness he'd stumbled toward and finally allowed to cradle him as the lights got dimmer and he grew colder. Mess them up good for pulling him back to a hell of dull-red agony, concentrated in the stabbing ache across his chest that seemed to pulse with every rush of blood his heart pushed through his veins.
His cuts weren't supposed to hurt like that, they were supposed to make him feel better.
Well, he knew something else that would. If a fucking doctor had patched him up, that same doctor could damn well get him some drugs that actually worked. He pulled in a breath, wincing as the dry air scraped like a file across his raw throat, trying to shove out the words that would bring some blanketing relief.
He opened slitted eyes against bright light to see Beecher standing over him.
Keller's eyes fluttered shut again, but it was too late - Beecher knew he was awake now, and a new kind of anger coiled in the man by the bedside.
"What the fuck was that about?" Beecher rasped. "What were you thinking? Why didn't you just paint a target on your chest?"
He clenched his fists to keep from throwing himself at the other man, remaining rigid by the bedside only through an effort of will.
*Going to kill you, want to kiss you, finish the job this time, motherfucker, for doing that to me, for letting me do that to you, for making me do that to you, goddammit, could have really killed you, oh God, what have I turned into, what are you trying to turn me into, still alive, that's all that matters, all that matters, need to touch you, need to make sure, feel that you're still warm and breathing ...*
"Don't know ... what you're talking about ..." The words were low, pulled painfully out of a throat sandpapered by anesthetic.
"You know exactly what I'm talking about - just like you've known exactly what's been going on the whole time. You let me do it, Chris. You could have stopped me - I didn't have any idea what I was doing. But you let me do it."
A slight shrug under the soft cotton sheet.
"You ... needed it." The words were halting, and Keller turned his head back to look at Beecher. "Wanted to ... give you ... what you needed."
"Oh my God." Beecher's voice was soft - as if he could deny sudden understanding by keeping it from escaping into the air.
Had Schillinger finally been telling the truth this time, saving it for the moment when it could be used as a weapon?
No confirmation of Vern's words in the drug-clouded gaze meeting his own. But no denial, either.
"What ... what kind of a ... a ... fucked-up idea do you have about love, anyway?" Beecher asked incredulously, now almost incoherent with rage. "You think you love me, so you make me a murderer all over again? Do you even know what it feels like?"
Keller looked at him bleakly, blankly.
"Don't you even remember?" Beecher whispered, voice cracking.
He leaned over and pressed his lips to Keller's mouth.
*Remember, damn you! This was real, this was the most fucking real moment of my life, and I know you felt it, too. You can fucking well acknowledge it.*
His lips were demanding, a weapon of his need for certainty; he forced his tongue into a compliant, complacent mouth that opened under his, accepting, passive against his assault. He froze and pulled away.
Keller lay there, still unblinking.
Beecher reached out a hesitant hand to touch the other man, resting his fingertips on the sharp cheekbone, feeling the cold, pale (dead, whispered a voice in his mind) flesh under the pads of his fingers. The nausea was back. He had never seen Chris like this before - as if Beecher could do what he wanted and Keller would simply allow it.
And the true horror of it was, Beecher recognized that look. Oh, yes, he had seen it plenty of times in the mirror.
*Dear God. Is this how he was - is - with Schillinger? Is this how that Nazi fuck took him?*
"Chris," Beecher whispered, and the dead eyes flickered over to look at him.
This time, the kiss was gentle, pressed softly on the unresisting mouth.
Beecher's tongue flicked out, testing the seal of Keller's lips before they slowly parted. Once allowed access, the tongue explored hesitantly, touching, tasting, not hampered this time by the sharp overlay of alcohol, finding only salt-sweetness and a spice that was, somehow, uniquely Keller, vaguely recognizable from his familiar scent.
One of Keller's hands came up, hesitantly, his fingers smoothing across Beecher's cheek, around the curve of an ear, before burying themselves in Beecher's hair, brushing through the waves as the kiss became more insistent.
Beecher slid his own hand down, behind Keller's neck, and the silken glide sparked a kinesthetic memory ...
*In the laundry room, the scene oddly accented by the sallow lighting and the harsh smell of detergent, almost lost in the tang of the other man's sweat, the musky smell of his own body. And the fear he felt receding, crowded out by his desire to show this man - this man - that there could still be beauty in love, that someone still cared. The other body coming to life under his fingers, the feel of the strong muscles of neck and shoulder bunching and moving under his fingertips, and the sharp flare of desire as another body pressed against his; the unfamiliar yet comforting feeling of strong, hard thighs against his own; a firm hand on his waist, pulling him closer; an answering hardness against his belly ..*
He gasped into the mouth moving against his and jerked away, panting. Keller looked at him wide-eyed, breathing heavy, and raised a hand to brush away a strand of hair falling over Beecher's forehead.
Beecher sidestepped, sliding out from under the touch.
"Toby ..." Keller said softly.
"Don't," he responded, unsure whether the word was a warning or a plea.
And then he fled.
PART NINE: WRESTLING WITH THE ANGEL
You have spent nights thinking of me, Missing my arms, but you needed to leave - Leaving my cuts, leaving my burns, hoping I'd learn. And blood and fire are too much for these restless arms to hold, *And my nights of desire are calling me back to your fold ... * - Indigo Girls
The dance was oh, so familiar, and as seductive as it had ever been.
And it gave Beecher comfort on those long, dark nights before Keller was released from the hospital, alone in the pod with just his memories and his mistress, drowning the shame and the pain and the guilt.
The trip back to the bottle had been terrifyingly easy as he wrestled with the demons haunting him: the madness, those arms where he had sought succor, that had finally turned on him in familiar betrayal, that blinded him and set him on the last vestiges of love, striking at the rival. The memory of Keller's body slack under his hands, his own fingers tacky with blood and the dawning horror of what he had done, what he had driven himself to do. The sensation of Keller's skin under his fingers, the lips under his responding to the monster that had beaten and cut and ravaged.
So he ran toward his punishment with open arms, a rat trapped on a treadwheel, going nowhere, but sure at least in the sick knowledge that his mistress's familiar touch would give him what he needed.
*Exactly what you need, right, Toby?*
And if - when - she betrayed him again, that would be hardly more than he deserved.
The nights were spent in fits of self-recrimination and regret as the contraband alcohol seeped into his system, making him maudlin until he consumed enough to float above it all, when that rush scooped him up, swept him higher to plummet into darkness on the bed where he had cried out in a different kind of pleasure and guilt under Keller's hands. The days were a sick hell of head-pounding nausea and the creeping realization that he was caught in the loop, too busy kicking around the shards of his life to try and piece any of them back together. He avoided the mirror and embraced the looks of disgust from those around him, the people weary of watching him wallow in misery.
He watched from behind the wall as Sister Pete tried to reason with him, as McManus pounded his fist on a desk and tried to goad him out of his shell, threatened him with the Hole until he could get his shit back together.
"I can't help you if you're not even willing to help yourself, Beecher."
Who needs your help, McManus, you cocksucker? I needed it once, a long, long time ago, but I don't anymore. I'm right where I need to be - right where I should be.
But the threat of the Hole, of the days he would spend cut off from the umbilical cord that fed him the alternating feasts of guilt and oblivion that he craved, at least made him more circumspect. He thrust his face into a freezing bath of cold water in the mornings, spent breakfast pacing his cell until he could walk without wavering to Sister Pete's office, where he spent his days idly accomplishing nothing at the computer.
"Tobias ... Tobias. Tobias!"
He jerked in his chair as her voice cut through the haze.
"Tobias, go back to your pod and get some sleep."
"I'd rather not, Sister." The words a supplication, a plea that he not be banished to the dark corners of dreams that tormented him until he tore himself awake, gasping and more weary than he'd been before he laid himself down.
She failed him again.
"Go get some sleep. When's the last time you had a solid rest? You can't function on the edge of exhaustion."
He drew himself to his feet, made his painful way to the door, headed for the achingly empty pod.
"And Tobias - no drinking."
He looked at her in pity for a moment before turning away. There was another prisoner waiting outside, and the man looked at him through mascaraed lashes, red nails curled primly in his lap.
"Drama queen," he sneered as Beecher walked past him.
Beecher turned to consider the painted face, the visage that had terrified him so much when he had first come inside these walls.
"I would stop being such a drama queen," he responded gravely, "if so much drama would stop happening around me. Your lipstick is smeared. Honey."
He made his way down the hall, veins itching. Where the fuck was Luis?
The little shit hadn't been out of the casts that long, and if he kept this up, he was going to fall over and break both his legs again.
It wasn't the homecoming Keller had hoped for, but then, it was what he should have expected. He met Beecher's wide, startled eyes as the blond man stood swaying in the door of their pod, contraband bottle clutched to his chest.
*That motherfucker Luis has been selling to him again, I bet. I'm gonna break his legs, lazy eyed, wetback bastard.*
"Wellllll," Keller drawled. "Welcome home, Chris."
And _let's fuck_, maybe?
"They didn't tell me you'd be back today."
"Obviously not. Enjoying yourself? Give me that fucking thing." Keller reached for the bottle, wincing as the motion pulled the stitches tight across his chest.
"Get the hell away from me!" Beecher scuttled to the side, turning away to shield the half-empty bottle from Chris' grasp.
"Give it here, dammit!" Keller's words rose to a roar, punctuated by the sound of splintering glass as he flung the bottle against the far wall. The sweet smell of whiskey cut through the pod. "You're so fucking predictable. Don't you know this is exactly what Schillinger wanted? Exactly what I was supposed to make you do? Why do you keep letting us do this to you?"
"Don't give me that shit, Chris. You think you're the center of my universe? That everything I do revolves around you? That you make me drink? Not everything is about you." He flung Keller's words back at him viciously. "I drink because I choose to drink. Me. Nobody else. You got that?"
Somewhere in the back of his mind, a tiny part of Beecher's consciousness realized he'd just made a very profound, very important statement. But he couldn't be bothered examining it right now. His security blanket had just been torn away, and he was on the offensive, the alcohol devouring good sense and judgment, throwing yet another snare in his path, ensuring that he'd return to his mistress to cover the shame brought on by this encounter, this welcome gone so horribly, suddenly wrong.
"I drink because it makes me feel better, stuck in here with you. Do you understand that? The same way you cut yourself with that fucking razor blade."
He watched Keller's eyes go dark.
*Did you think I wouldn't find out about that, Chris? Did you think I wouldn't hear that you'd been slicing yourself up? Would you rather do that than admit you feel something? All that time I was trying to get inside you, see what was going on, and you fended me off with that razor blade. Were you just letting me do your dirty work for you when you confronted me in the gym, opened your arms to the knife?*
Keller was trembling under Beecher's stare, and he sagged onto the bunk, arms curled around himself. Beecher felt a small moment of triumph ... until he saw the other man wince, fingers not quite pressing against his chest, dancing over the front of the tight T-shirt and the bulk of bandages underneath, and the guilt slammed through him again, emotions seesawing on the waves of alcohol. He was on his knees at the edge of the bunk in an instant, collapsing gracelessly under the weight of his drunkenness and concern. He shoved Keller's hands away.
He peeled up the T-shirt, exposing the tape and gauze barrier that covered Keller's wound, checking for any signs of bleeding, pressing his fingers against the warm skin - sheened with sweat brought on by the pain of wrestling for the whiskey bottle - around the edges of the bandages. His hands trembled - in a palsy of drunkenness or guilt, he wasn't quite sure - and he clenched his fists against the smooth expanse, running his knuckles up and down Keller's sides, feeling flesh quiver over the armature of ribs.
Keller drew in a sharp breath that cut off in a soft sound of pain.
Beecher leaned forward and pressed his lips lightly against the bandages, arms curling around Keller's waist. Turning his head, he put his ear to the solid chest, hearing the reassuring drumbeat of the other man's heart. He felt Keller's legs pressed solidly against his own ribs, felt the other man's arms around him, one hand in a tight grip on his shoulder, the other buried in his hair, and he burrowed into that reassuring nest of flesh, warm, alive, heart still beating, blood still pumping through veins ...
The sensation of Beecher nestled against him lanced through Chris more keenly than the pain of his wounds, sharper than the sting of guilt he felt watching the other man clutch the bottle. He closed his eyes tight, hands grasping spasmodically at the body pressed close to his as he tried to regain control. In the waning days of his hospital stay, he had viciously fought off Dr. Nathan's attempts to medicate him with painkillers, recognizing how the drugs had helped shatter his defenses during that sweet, stolen kiss from Beecher after his surgery.
It had terrified him, in retrospect, how easily he had opened himself to the other man. Unadmitted, buried deep, a thin tendril of fear had curled through him. He had offered his very body, his life to the other man, but Beecher always seemed to need, to demand more. And Chris was unsure how far he would go, how far he could go for Toby and remain intact.
He had allowed his life's blood to spill over Beecher's hands. How much more could the other man want?
So he tried to take deep, calming breaths - as deep as the rock of pain sitting on his chest would allow - tried to bring himself back under control as his hands unclenched and stroked soothingly across Beecher's shoulders, combed through the dirty silk of his hair. He gently pushed the other man back, wrinkling his nose.
"Baby, you need a shower. And a shave. And I want to get this hospital smell off of me."
The empty, echoing heart of Em City - abandoned by all but a skeleton force of COs to keep an eye on nothing while the residents were dispersed to their daily jobs - added to the surrealism of the moment as Keller tugged Beecher out of the pod and toward the showers, only stopping to snag a couple of towels and clean pants. They stripped efficiently, avoiding each other's eyes, and Beecher stepped quickly under the spray, disgusted for the first time in days by the reek of alcohol and the griminess of his own body.
He wiped the water out of his eyes to find Keller standing at a distance, eyeing the shower head ruefully.
"What ..." He caught sight of the clean, white bandages marring the expanse of Keller's chest, and a sudden flash of understanding hit him, almost burying the squirming twist of guilt that accompanied it. He stepped away from the spray, sudsing soap in his hands.
He stepped closer, tugged Chris into his orbit, where he could reach to run soapy hands across the other man's collar bones, down his sides, skin gliding slick under his fingers. He brushed them across Keller's abdomen, feeling the muscles clench, and smoothed the line of dark hair there.
"What the hell are you doing, standing around in the shower? You're not supposed to get those bandages wet, are you?"
Keller shrugged lightly.
"Almost healed up. And I got tired of sponge baths."
Beecher shook his head, a grin at the other man's obstinacy pulled across his face. He turned back to the warm spray of water, rinsing his hands, then returned to carefully wipe the soap off of Keller's body. Something nudged his hip, and he realized the other man was half-hard in the steam of the shower, realized how close he was standing as he trailed his hands over the wings of Chris' clavicle, smoothed two fingers into the dip of flesh at the base of Chris' throat, chasing the last of the suds. Keller caught his wrists suddenly, holding him immobile, and stepped away.
"Thanks. I can get my back."
Their eyes caught, glance snagged sharp for a moment, then Keller shook himself and turned away. Beecher shrugged, stepping back under his own stream of hot water. He felt suddenly lightheaded from the alcohol still running through his body, combined with the heat of the water still pounding him and the remembered heat of Keller's body close to his. He put out a hand to the wall to steady himself.
A hand against his shoulder pulled him away, and he stumbled before another came up to his waist to steady him. Then he felt both hands move to his hair, and his head fell back as strong fingers dug into his scalp, working shampoo through the tangled waves.
"Jesus, Beech. You look like something that's been left beside the road for three days."
No response possible other than a moan as those fingers worked their magic. Beecher felt himself turned around again - God, he was getting dizzy - and Keller smoothed the hair back from his forehead, rubbing shampoo into his hairline, behind the curve of his ear. Beecher opened his eyes to stare at the other man again as those hands stilled, cupping his head.
One breathless moment .. and then Keller was pushing him gently back.
"Rinse that off and let's see what we can do with that scruff on your face."
Keller was already at the sink as Beecher padded out of the shower, pulling his pants on over damp skin. Shirtless, barefoot, he joined Chris at the mirror, swiping a small patch clean in the mist-covered glass.
Beecher stood grasping the razor, trying to steady his hands, and felt Keller's gaze on him.
*Of course I'm not drunk, officer, and I'd be happy to walk a straight line, too ... *
"Give me that."
He looked up to meet Keller's eyes in the clear swathe of mirror, their reflections framed by condensation. Those eyes met his gravely, calmly, and Keller reached around him to pull the razor from nerveless fingers, brushing a reassuring stroke over the back of Beecher's hand before twining his own fingers through Beecher's and pulling him to face the other man.
The bottom of Beecher's stomach dropped out, and to his horror, he felt tears prickling behind his eyes. He closed them, shutting out the sight of the lean, chiseled face, yellowing bruises still feathered across one cheek, lower lip still raw in one corner. Inside the shroud of darkness, he sensed Keller step closer, a wall of humid heat, and felt gentle fingers tipping his head back, smearing cool lather on his cheeks and throat. He leaned against the sink, gripping the sides hard to control his trembling.
He almost moaned again when he felt the light scrape of the blade run up the underside of his jaw.
"You keeping this beard, Beech?"
"Thought maybe a little something might be nice." He forced his voice to remain light, calm. "You don't think it makes me look too much like McManus, do you?"
Keller snorted, but his touch remained sure, deft on Beecher's chin, thumb smoothing across the cleft.
"I dunno, man, you look good without a beard ..."
flash of memory, smell of detergent, taste of Chris' mouth under the alcohol
"... even if you do look about 12."
"I do not!" Beecher's eyes jerked open, and Keller grabbed his chin to hold him still.
"Sure you do. I almost didn't recognize you the first time I saw you shaved. Felt like I was robbing the cradle."
"You might as well have ..."
Keller was suddenly intent on his task, the razor's scrape over Beecher's skin demanding all of his attention. Beecher took the opportunity to study him without having to meet those challenging eyes as Keller worked his way carefully around the point of a jaw before leaning forward, reaching around Beecher to rinse the suds off the blade in the sink behind the blond man. Beecher was achingly aware of the muscled legs between his own braced limbs, and he shifted imperceptibly, bringing their bodies further into contact as Chris' hips nudged into the cradle of his pelvis.
He closed his eyes again, guilt and indecision and fear warring with the shocking rightness of their bodies' contact, the ease with which they fell together. He felt the tears threaten, tension wound tight within him, and he focused his concentration on the glide of sharp-edged metal over his skin is this how it feels for you, Chris, when you put that razor to your flesh, blocking out everything in a bright edge of pain, instead of that soft blanket I wrap myself in? and the warm points of Keller's fingers against his face as the other man tilted his jaw to reach under his other ear.
"God, you're good at that ..." And flinching from the thought: Who do you think he had to practice on? ".... those fucking orderlies in the infirmary cut me to pieces. Where were you then ... sssst!"
A sudden bite of pain, and he felt Keller jerk away from him, opened his eyes to see the hawkish face pale.
*Oh God, what did I just say? *
"Chris?" He reached out, but Keller backed away, features immobile. "Don't do that. Don't you fucking shut down on me, you bastard."
Beecher launched himself away from the sink and grabbed Chris' shoulders, but the other man didn't move again, and his eyes were blank. Beecher looked down, saw blood blossoming between Keller's fingers where the razor was clenched headfirst in one fist and felt an incandescent swell of rage surge through him.
*Motherfucker. All this shit we've been through and you're still shutting me out ...*
It was followed just as quickly by a wave of weariness. He was a good one to talk. He stood here drunk, and Keller stood here bleeding himself out, and both of them just continued to scrub away at each others' wounds, bumping the raw places ... And sweet Christ he needed a drink.
He studied the man before him, slowly loosening his desperate grip on Chris' shoulders, sliding his fingers over damp, bare flesh to tight-drawn shoulder muscles, where he rubbed soothingly, small light circles with his fingertips, strong thumbs brushing up the column of the other man's neck. He had tried to batter his way through this door, only to end up with blood on his hands. But that tragedy had resulted in one moment - just one - that may have given him a key.
"Hey. Baby. Everything's OK." He whispered the words, sliding close to Keller, drawing on every resource he could remember, every hint and scrap of knowledge learned - willing or unwilling - to coax a response out of the other man.
Playful flirtation that had first caught Gen's eye, unwanted but precious knowledge of just what touch and where would draw a response out of a hard male body that much faster and send Schillinger on his way, whore's tricks learned from Keller himself - not the clutch and the grab, but the light tease of skin on skin, the gentle seduction that slowly ate away at resistance.
Beecher stood not quite touching Chris, full-body almost-contact all along their lengths, allowing the heat to build between them. He slid one hand down a lean, muscled arm to the curiously fine-boned wrist and the normally graceful fingers now clenched tight. Tracing a pattern across bone-white knuckles and through the sticky smear of blood, his fingers wormed their way into the tight grasp to worry the razor free. He flung it away, heard it clatter against the far wall and took a deep shuddering breath as he wiped his fingers against his pants. Something flickered in Keller's eyes at the sound of the catch in Beecher's throat.
"It's OK," Toby whispered again, his words a light kiss of air against the other man's lips, and a tremor ran through Keller's body.
Beecher lifted his hand to Keller's side, running his fingers gently up and down that hard sweep of flesh, sideswiping a nipple that peaked against the rough caress of his thumb before he traced the edge of the bandages down, down ... down across flexing stomach muscles, feeling the light brush hair above the waistband of Keller's pants. His other hand moved to cradle the back of Chris' head, sleek hair slipping through his fingers, and he leaned forward to press his lips carefully against the bruise shadowing Chris's cheekbone, darting out a tongue to trace it up to the other man's temple, where he licked and gnawed down to the rough jaw.
Keller was making small sounds in the back of his throat, desperate animal noises, and Beecher ran his fingers down the hardness tightening the front of the other man's pants, tracing the length of his cock through rough cotton. Keller moaned, his hips jerking into Toby's touch, pressing close, seeking more as Beecher pulled down the zipper and slipped his hand inside.
He traced the hard flesh under his fingertips, not shrinking this time from the warmth and the stickiness, a half-remembered, shameful thrill running through him as the body under his swayed to his touch, moved at his command.
He leaned in close, breath tickling the shell of Chris' ear.
"Let me in, baby."
And Keller found himself pinned flat against the wall, spread wide open by Toby's hand: four fingers, one thumb, a furnace of a palm and a sticky glide over throbbing hardness. His hips thrust forward, and he groaned - the sound ripped out of him - and threw his head back, scrabbling against the slick tiles behind him, grabbing at the top edge of the half-wall in a death grip, feeling his fingernails bend back. Beecher's free hand twined with his fingers as the blond man plastered himself against Chris' side, lips and tongue branding Chris' throat.
Somewhere along the line, the balance of power had shifted, despite his efforts to maintain control, to direct this looming encounter, and Chris felt his shaky defenses splintering, threatening to lay him bare under the gentleness of Toby's touch. He could have stood against any attack but this, and mingled desire and fear racked him as he realized that Beecher knew that, too.
Irresistible force meeting immovable object, and something had to give.
*Oh, baby, the last time I gave you what you wanted, gave myself up to you, look where it took us, drove you back to the bottle ... *
Keller felt himself teetering on the edge, felt Toby's hot breath feather on his face, in his ear, and he brought up his other hand, leaving an unnoticed smear of blood from his torn fingers against the other man's cheek. He pulled Beecher close, nipping at his lower lip before taking his mouth in a hard, sucking kiss, tongues wrestling for dominance, a battle of wills, a fight for control, and Keller thrust hard one last time, driving himself into the haven of Toby's hand, his cry muffled in Toby's mouth ...
And then he gave, bent, fell to his knees in the supplication that had always spelled ultimate victory, sliding down Beecher's body and peppering kisses across the furred stomach, deep exhalations - as he struggled to regain his breath and control - reflected back at him from Beecher's fevered skin. He nuzzled into the hardness at the other man's crotch, feeling the solid body twist against him, against the hands that held it captive. Toby's familiar smell, deeper here, darker and more concentrated, mingled soap and salt, rushed over him as he pulled down the other man's zipper and traced back up through the thin cotton of underwear, bending to press his lips against the weeping head as he drew out Beecher's cock - falling into the accustomed position, the practiced rhythm, the familiar mindset that allowed him to knit the ragged pieces of himself back together.
The light scrape of teeth, barely perceptible, and Beecher spasmed, doubling over to grab hard at the top edge of the wall, bent over the man kneeling before him, looking down to meet Keller's calculating, upturned eyes and their question.
*Coppery slick taste of blood in his mouth, a convulsion of rage snapping his teeth shut, hard, and sweet screams filling his ears; Keller's hand wrapped around his cock, thumbing the seam on the underside, sending hip-writhing pleasure rolling through his body; flesh parting easily under the knife's blade, hot blood on his hands, sticky salt; the sharp nip of the razor at his own throat ...*
... and the flash-fire of Keller's mouth closing again over the tip of his cock, tongue flicking out cat-quick to lap at the slit there, making Beecher's muscles clench in an agony of desire. Hooker's mouth, whore's mouth, moving down on him like hot, wet silk, drawing him in, the velvet of Chris' tongue dragged across the underside as a warm hand gripped his hip, steadying him, and fingers traced across the sensitive flesh behind his balls. Beecher reached blindly down to grab one of Chris' shoulders, fingers digging deep into the muscle, leaving a fresh set of bruises marking Keller's body.
He felt that dark desire flood through him again, urging him to push and batter and force his way to ecstasy - no marks left by proxy this time, just his fingerprints emblazoned on the other man's skin, his scent and his seed on the other man's flesh, another savage thrust marking Keller outside if not in, imprinting Beecher on the body offering itself for the taking. He looked down through slitted eyes at the kneeling man before him, under him, around him, and his hand moved from Keller's shoulder to fist hard in the silky short hair at the back of Chris' head, his grip brutal as he fucked that open, willing mouth, feeling the pull across his lower back as he strained for orgasm, thrust himself into the center of that white heat exploding across the back of his mind, from the center of his body, fire meeting somewhere in his chest.
And then Chris licking his lips, smug as a kitten with cream, reaching up to guide him down as he collapsed, shuddering, spent, unable to control his own limbs.
Set, point and match.
Round two, like round one, to Keller, who had pulled that mantle of control back around himself at the critical moment, turned the weapon of seduction back on Toby, gliding out of the gentle grasp that had begun to slip through the cracks of his armor. Leaving a willing, pliant body with practiced, sure hands and mouth. Leaving Beecher's cock no more able to breach those inner defenses than the knife had been.
So close, almost in this time, before the walls had snapped shut.
*Is it so hard - so impossible - to give yourself up to someone, Chris, to let them inside, really inside, not just into your body?*
Keller held the other man's shaking frame as Beecher sank to his knees, cradled him until Toby's heart and breathing slowed and he squirmed in Chris' grasp.
Keller released him as he rocked back to rest on his heels. He looked searchingly into Chris' eyes, then slumped, looking away.
"Hey. Toby. You OK?"
Beecher shook his head wearily. "No. I can't keep doing this."
"Doing what?" Keller's voice was wary now.
"This." Beecher's hand waved to encompass his own body, Chris still kneeling before him, the razor lying in a corner. He got stiffly to his feet, zipping his pants, and walked over to pick up the plastic disposable Bic shaver, grimacing at the rusty stains already dried on it. "I'm tired, Chris. You make me tired. I can't keep trying to find a way in."
"No. Don't. I can't take this anymore. I think ... maybe I need to ask McManus to move me to another pod." He turned to look at Keller again, the lines of fatigue across his face stabbing shame and regret through Chris.
*Can't seem to not hurt you, baby.*
Keller kept his own voice carefully neutral now: "If you think that's what you really want."
What you really need ...
"What the hell do you want, Chris? Do you even care?"
Of course I care, you bastard. It's ripping me up inside. But how is that any different from what's already going on?
He banked the sudden flare of rage and met Beecher's eyes calmly, telling him: "You do what you need to do."
Shoulders bowed, Beecher scooped up his towel and walked out.
And Chris collapsed back against the wall, drained, exhausted, too tired to deal with the emotions snaking through him. His chest ached, and he reached up a hand to rub across the bandages, felt the pull of the stitches holding his healing skin together. Their sting distracted him, and he rubbed across the soft gauze again, focusing on the itchy pain.
He stayed there until a hack found him, shook a disbelieving head at the line of blood seeping through the bandage and hauled him back to the infirmary.
PART TEN: BREATH OF LIFE
Tear me open, pour me out.
These things inside, they scream and shout. And the pain still hates me,
So hold me until it sleeps.
Beecher contemplated life as a shattered bottle of Jack Daniels - black-label, 86-proof - and it sucked.
A bone-deep weariness pervading him, he sat in his pod studying the jagged glass and the puddle of whiskey spread across the floor, nostrils twitching at the sharp-sweet smell, stomach heaving and head pounding in the aftermath of a buzz burned away in the throes of orgasm.
My choice. Me. Mine.
His earlier fight with Keller echoed in his head, and he bitterly accepted the truth of the words, even though they had been flung to hurt, to proclaim his independence, to deny any tie to the man who had become the dark star Beecher orbited. His life, one long set of fucked-up decisions: to drink, to drive, to trust, to fall in love. To think that he could somehow reach inside Chris Keller and see what no one else saw, could gain access to the bleeding heart of him and receive some reassurance that there was guilt, regret, love there.
How precious. What made him think he was so special?
And indeed, he wasn't at all - the door had slammed in his face as quickly and effectively as it always had, shattering his certainties into crystalline shards like the bottle that lay against the far wall, like his bones, like his life.
"You gonna clean that mess up?" O'Reilly's voice broke into his reverie, the lanky Irishman lounging in the doorway of the pod, on his way to wherever in the brief hour or so between ending lunch and starting dinner.
Well, that's the question, isn't it? Are you going to clean this mess up?
He got stiffly to his feet, normal post-coital lassitude replaced with a bruised feeling like the aftermath of a beating, and rummaged for a towel. He could soak up the whiskey with toilet paper, flush the evidence, wrap the glass shards in the towel and bury them tomorrow in the trash can in Sister Pete's office. Everything swept under the rug, nice and neat, leaving a horrible lump that wouldn't fool anyone.
My choice. Me. Mine.
"You know, you still look like shit, Beech, but at least you're cleaned up some."
"Keller's out of the hospital."
"What?" A sense of deja vu, a been-there, done-that quality to the conversation, and Beecher was staring at Ryan, unaccountably tense.
"Saw D'Agnasti dragging him down to the infirmary, blood all over the place. Doesn't look like that little nick you gave him is healing up too well ... Hey, where are you goin'? Wait a minute ..."
Keller's voice was low and deadly, drawing the hack forward to stand beside Dr. Nathan, who was trying to look reassuring while brandishing the syringe.
"I just need to give you something so I can re-stitch your chest ..."
"Keep your hands to yourself, lady."
He knew he'd overstepped the bounds this time, made a fatal mistake. They'd known - there'd been no way to hide it once his body was stripped, exposed to view in the infirmary after the stabbing. But they had at least afforded him some dignity, observed an unspoken pact: He kept his hands off of himself - at least where they could see and would have to take action against him - and they left him to Sister Peter Marie. She'd tried to talk to him, tried to be understanding, but there was no way he was going to lay himself bare to the woman who already had Tobias Beecher's confidence. Sister Pete belonged to Toby, and Chris wouldn't usurp that, wouldn't taint that by telling her the ugly things that had passed between them. He had asked a few questions, tried to determine that she was keeping an eye on Beecher, but otherwise he sat silent, refusing to be drawn out.
But because he endured the sessions with her, no one else had said anything about the cuts that scored his body, the damage he'd inflicted on himself in secret. Now, with the evidence of his sins bloody on his chest, with the ruins of the doctor's work to patch him up exposed, he had forced their hand.
And he could see the end of that road: drugged complacency, a private cell in the psych ward, a vulnerable moment on a quiet night and a belt slipped around his neck, or a sheet or a shoe lace. A clean, efficient kill. And Metzger was far more practiced than Beecher, his strike wouldn't go astray. Not that he would get his own hands dirty - one more Nameless Faceless would be more than happy to earn his stripes dealing with a renegade who had challenged the Master Race, even on something so petty as a love affair.
At least he could go down fighting.
So he lashed out at the hack who grabbed for him and tried to hold him still for the needle, twisting in the uncertain grasp and taking advantage of the fact that the beefy man was - for once - trying not to hurt the prisoner he struggled with, trying not to tear the wounds open further. He heard McManus yelling, Sister Pete's voice - Jesus, had they called everyone in to confer over his body? - saw quick flashes: Nathan trying to dodge in under his flailing arms, the curious eyes of other prisoners taking in the excitement and the distraction.
Then the bang of the outer door hitting the wall as a body barreled through and the yell:
Beecher's voice, and Keller's head snapped around, automatically responding despite his better instincts, the moment of distraction allowing D'Agnasti, still cursing, to get him in a headlock. Pinned, Chris kicked out with one foot, almost losing his balance and dragging the hack down with him as he managed to knock Nathan back, sending the syringe flying out of her hand to shatter on the floor as she reeled, grabbing her arm with a cry of pain. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw O'Reilly come flying from behind Beecher, flinging himself forward with a curse - "Motherfucker!" - only to have another hack clothesline him as he went by, knocking the breath out of him and taking him neatly down.
And then, oh good Christ, Cyril was in the melee, and Keller knew he was deep in the shit now, starting a mini-riot in the infirmary. But he couldn't stop struggling, despite the arm across his neck, cutting off his own air, and the voice in his ear - "Fuck, hold still, you bastard ..." - couldn't control the fear and the rage that swept through him, shaking him like a cur with a rat in its teeth, now that it had been unleashed.
You all want to see what's inside, take a good fucking look, you cocksuckers ...
McManus was bellowing now, the thin control he held on his frustration slipping, threatening Keller with restraints, ordering the hacks to clear out the infirmary, threatening to kick ass if order wasn't restored. Ryan crouched on hands and knees, retching, trying to get his breath back as Cyril babbled and struggled to reach his brother, another CO hauling him away, and Toby stood white-faced, trying to reach Chris as Sister Pete held him back with a hand on his arm, speaking quick and low in his ear.
Keller was trembling as D'Agnasti and McManus hauled him down on the bed, held him down as he weakened. Helpless to stop the anger sweeping through his body in dark waves, he thought he might throw up.
Then warm, gentle fingers turned his hand, cupping his own fingers, and something was dropped in the center of his palm, slick and wet and cold, and that other hand folded his around the ice cube. Moisture seeping as his body's heat melted the ice - but not fast enough to stop his fingers from aching with the cold that seared across his palm, chewed deep into his flesh, slicing to the bone, and his fist clenched convulsively as his whole world narrowed to the ice and the creeping pain
When he surfaced, the infirmary had quieted, although McManus and the hack were watching him warily, but he ignored them, meeting the eyes of Father Ray Mukada, standing there at the bedside, incongruously armed with a styrofoam cup.
"Better?" the young priest asked, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be helping Keller hurt himself to stay calm.
Keller nodded mutely.
"You have to let them re-stitch your chest, you know."
A touch on the back of his hand from the other side of the bed, and Toby's voice, soft in the quiet: "Chris, please."
He turned his head to meet the blond man's shadowed, guilt-filled eyes and had to close his own as caught Toby's musky scent, remembered the salt-sharp taste of him. Fuck, he was a grown man, he was not going to cry, not here, not over something that couldn't be helped anyway.
*Still can't stop hurting you, didn't do this to hurt you ...*
Mukada stirred, the ice rattling in the cup, and Chris drew on the memory of that chill eating into his flesh to help him open his eyes and face Beecher.
"They're gonna lock me up, Beech." His laugh was mirthless. "I guess you don't have to move after all. They're gonna tie me down and shoot me up and lock me away, just like they did with Alvarez. They think I'm crazy. I must be crazy, right?"
"You're not crazy." There was steel in Mukada's voice, the same implacable strength that had made even Miguel Alvarez sit up and take notice when the young priest dredged it up to insist on duty to a baby, a grandfather, God.
"Keller ..." McManus' voice now, from the head of the bed, and Chris rolled his eyes, yanking a hysterical giggle from Beecher. "We don't want to do any of those things, but you have to let us help you. You can't continue to do this, and if it's the only way we can help you ..."
Two voices, in stereo, from either side of Keller's bed, and Beecher moved closer to hover over him - D'Agnasti shifting slightly in response - as Mukada turned to McManus.
"Tim, I want to talk to you for a minute."
The priest drew McManus away, toward the office where Dr. Nathan and Sister Pete already had their heads together, conferencing madly, Gloria shaking off the efforts of an assistant to tend to her arm, where Keller's footprint was purpling under the caramel skin. The discussion ratcheted up a notch, and Gloria slammed the door, cutting off the sense of their words and leaving only the raw sound of raised voices.
"You've got McManus on a rampage," Beecher remarked, leaning against the bed. "And I'm not looking forward to talking O'Reilly down after this one."
"Yeah, well, you know me. I never fucking think things through."
"Don't give me that bullshit." Beecher's voice was suddenly low, intent, and he cast a surreptitious glance at D'Agnasti's looming form before leaning into Keller and continuing in a whisper. "You've got to be smarter than this - and I know you're smarter than this. But if you don't pull your shit together, you really are going to end up dead."
Another quick glance at the hack standing near the bed, and Beecher's eyes met Chris' again, a world of fear darkening their blue depths, and Keller knew the sharp lawyer's mind, the intellect trained by boardroom brawls and honed by the primal political plays of Oz, had run through the same scenarios Keller had.
Inside the office, Tim McManus was fighting a losing battle.
He tried to keep a grip on his frustration, but he feared his control would slip at any moment, resulting in an explosion that would make Keller's outburst look like a 4-year-old's tantrum. Gloria Nathan's calm, reasonable voice only grated on him further. He wondered how much she was clutching at this problem to avoid the image of O'Reilly charging to her defense.
"I can't just pump him full of drugs and turn him into a zombie, Tim. He's right about that. It's a band-aid, it doesn't solve the problem."
"It will keep him from ripping those fucking stitches open long enough for them to heal. If I had any idea he would try that ..."
"What would you have done?" Mukada's voice now, one more person ranged against McManus, and Tim turned away, pressing his fingers into his eye sockets as the young priest told him one more time just how he'd fucked up. *You're supposed to absolve me of my sins, not pile them on top of me, you little brat.* "You already tossed his pod, took away that razor blade before you'd let him out of the hospital. You can't just take away his coping mechanism and expect him to not do something like this."
"So you suggest I do ... what? Let a prisoner run around Em City with sharp objects? What do you want me to do?"
A feeling of utter hopelessness dropped on him like a stone, trapping him, squeezing out his breath. As he looked through the blinds to see Beecher close to Keller, whispering to him - invisible walls around the pair shutting out Tim and everyone else - the hatred blossomed, blind anger at fate and all of the men who couldn't seem to accept his help, who stubbornly spurned him each time he tried to reach out. Why the hell did he keep trying, anyway? None of it ever made a difference, it only ended up ashes in his hands. Every good intention was one more stone in the path to hell, leaving him stumbling, lashing out at the very people he was supposed to aid as he tried to regain his balance.
Unknowingly, his thoughts echoed Beecher's earlier hopeless words in the shower: *I'm tired. You make me tired. I can't keep searching for a way in ...*
He felt Sister Pete's soothing touch on his shoulder, and he shrugged her off.
"Tim, this is not the end of the world," she said softly. "It's just going to take some time. Meanwhile, all we can do is keep patching him up. We can't force him to stop. He will find a way to keep doing it. You know that. We've got to get to the root of why he's doing it."
Gloria shifted at her desk, wincing at the pain in her arm.
"The problem is, he could really hurt himself without us knowing about it. Conway, Ozuro, Delafonte ..." the doctor reeled off the names of other prisoners who were in and out of the infirmary on a regular basis after cutting or burning themselves "... they come in here because they're looking for attention. They make it as obvious as possible. Keller - he's trying to hide it. And I can't treat the ones who hide it, who don't want anyone to know."
She looked at Sister Pete for backup, and the other woman nodded.
"He hides it," the nun confirmed. "He won't talk about it. He won't talk to me. I had a few sessions with him before he was released back to Em City, and he just sat there and stared at me for the entire hour."
"Let me talk to him." Mukada's voice, breaking in once again, with just a hint of the steel he had turned on Keller.
"Not in place of his sessions with you, Pete. In conjunction with them. Maybe he'll talk to someone else. Maybe he's got something he wants to confess. I'm not completely in the dark here. I have done some research."
After Alvarez ...
McManus heard the thought clearly, although it remained unspoken, and it ran a chilly finger up his spine.
"Well, what the fuck else are we going to do?" McManus asked uncharitably, throwing up his hands and yanking open the office door. "KELLER!"
He stood for a moment, trying to bring himself back under control. The last thing he needed to do right now was take out all this frustration on the nearest available target. Fists clenched, he made his way back to the bed.
"Are you going to stop this shit and let them fix those stitches?" He waited for Keller's nod. "We're not going to dope you up. But I'm laying down some ground rules. First of all, you're going to keep your hands away from there from now on. If there's one part of your body that's off-limits, it's your chest. Do you understand? Second, I don't want you hurting yourself - although I realize what I want means next to nothing - but if you do, you're going to come here and let Dr. Nathan take care of it. Immediately. Not the next day, not after dinner. In addition, you've bought yourself an additional three hours of counseling a week with Father Mukada. Are there any questions? Are there any problems?"
Keller remained obstinately silent, but at least he didn't refuse, eyes sliding over to Mukada's form in the office doorway.
Silence equals consent ...
And still carried along on the wave of righteous wrath consuming him, McManus looked up into Beecher's widened eyes oh, don't try to pull the puppy-dog thing on me, you little bastard, I've seen what lives in your head and stabbed a finger at him.
"And as for you, you will show up for your weekly counseling session sober, or I'll have no problem bouncing your ass in the Hole. What's this about moving?"
Beecher shuffled his feet and dropped his eyes, suddenly intent on the sheets of Keller's bed, looking for all the world like a grade-school kid caught out by the teacher.
"Shut up, Chris."
Tim gave a sharp nod and turned on his heel, stalking out of the infirmary.
"Feel better?" Sister Pete was standing outside, waiting to pounce.
"Strangely enough, I do. Even though I know none of that did any good at all."
"You need to let things out more often, too, Tim. You get a little strange sometimes when you hold it in too long."
"You offering a psych session? Right now, I'd settle for a beer."
And of course he was right. It wasn't nearly that easy.