Hi, Society: Chapter Three

by Riley Cannon

Author's note, 2-24-04: Again, as originally posted, although the later segments of this chapter did benefit from the valuable beta assistance of Christy.

         "Hi, Society"

Chapter Three, 1a/?

The water was warm, sloshing up the sides of the big tub as he watched his lover settle in at the other end. Chris aimed a smile at him, as warm and seductive as the water -- a look reflected right back at him from Toby's cornflower blue eyes. Toby's lips parted slightly, the pink tip of his tongue darting out to wet them, and Chris watched, hungry to feel those lips opening against his, starving for that sweet tongue in his mouth. From the impish light in the clear blue eyes and the smile that slowly curved his lips, Chris was in no doubt that Toby knew exactly what effect he was producing.

Two could play this game, Chris decided, leaning back against the smooth porcelain and raising one knee out of the water, his gaze locking on Toby's, his expression heavy-lidded and sultry as he slowly, lightly touched himself. Chris trailed his fingertips along his throat, along his collarbone to his shoulder, following the trail Toby had blazed last night with his kisses. His hand slid down, curving against his pectoral muscle, pulling, and rubbing at the peaking nipple. Sighing, his eyes drifted shut for a moment. When he opened them, the look in Toby's eyes was...ravenous, making his own breath come harder and faster as he watched Toby bite his lip and sigh. After another moment Chris went on with the game, his hand caressing his stomach, dipping into the water. It reappeared on his raised knee, fingertips drawing lazy, widening circles on his wet skin. He flattened his palm, rubbing up and down his thigh, from knee to hip and back, then creeping inward, stroking the sensitive flesh of his inner thigh, exhaling a soft moan that was instantly swallowed up as Toby leaned into him and kissed his mouth.

Chris had never been kissed the way Toby kissed him: hot and sweet, hungry and tender, devouring him one moment and savoring him the next. He closed his eyes, a low groan welling up from his chest as Toby tasted his mouth. He could have purred like a cat at the way his lover touched his face, brushed blunt fingers through his hair, cupping the back of his head to hold him still so Toby could feast at his mouth. Toby caught his bottom lip, biting gently, running his tongue soothingly along the tender flesh, drawing Chris' tongue into his mouth --

And the alarm clock went off, jarring Chris back to reality. Staring with bleary-eyed resentment at the clock, Chris sighed, reached out to shut it off and sank back into the warmth of his bed. His big, empty bed.

God, he wanted Toby there. He wanted Toby anywhere.

Reluctant to leave the dream just yet, Chris closed his eyes, running a hand slowly over his chest, toying with the nipple Toby'd played with last night. Imagining Toby's lips touching him there, his soft, warm tongue lapping at the hardening knot of flesh made him shiver and groan. He hadn't dreamed that up, either, how passionately and eagerly Toby had responded to him. At best he'd thought maybe they would finally share a kiss -- probably just a quick, chaste touch of lips, enough to build dreams on. But, Jesus, Toby'd come to life in his arms like no one had touched him in years, maybe in his whole life.

And his over-stimulated imagination was all too happy to play out what might have happened if Toby's dad hadn't come along. He would have gotten Toby out of his coat and shirt, would have kissed a hot and lazy path down his slim, wiry body... Chris groaned again, biting his lip, as his hand made that journey along his own body, closing around his cock, his thumb swirling over the head the same way he imagined his tongue would tease at Toby's -- oh fuck, oh fuck, that was too much, all it took for him to come, spilling over his hand and leaving him panting for breath as his head pressed back into his pillow.

A gusty sigh escaping him, he sat up, looking ruefully at his hand and stomach and the sheets, guessing he was going to have to make some time to do some laundry today. Given he hadn't gotten much of anything done -- household chores were almost the least of it -- since Tobias Beecher had walked through his office door, maybe it was a good thing they were only going to spend a couple of hours together today. In the bathroom, he paused, thinking about that. Toby had brought it up, reminding him about Giles; Toby wanted to pick him up at the office today. That was good, wasn't it, it meant Toby wanted to be there with him.

He aimed the rueful look at the grinning fool in his mirror and turned on the shower, wondering how the thought of a couple of hours with Toby, just looking at him and hearing his voice, was all it took to put him over the moon. Would there be more than looking? he wondered as he lathered up. He was almost afraid to think of that, how it was going to be when they saw each other today. What would Toby say, what would he do? Would Toby acknowledge what had happened, would he want to do it again, would he want to do more? What if he'd awakened this morning and decided he must have been nuts last night? What if Toby didn't show up at all? What if --

Jesus Christ, Keller, he pressed his forehead against the cool, wet tile, taking some deep breaths and resisting the urge to whap his head against the titles, get a fucking grip. He hadn't felt like this since Donna O'Brien had let him touch her breast and he'd finally figured out what his dick's true purpose in life would be. Donna'd let him put his hands, mouth, and dick a whole lot of places that summer and at least half the excitement had been knowing they could get caught anytime. Even then he couldn't remember that he'd felt his life depended on Donna just smiling at him, though.

In retrospect Chris almost wished Donna, someone, had evoked these other desperate feelings, that he didn't feel like he was going into this as a kind of emotional virgin. Soaping his hair, rinsing it, Chris thought about that, how sex and love had never really combined for him to this extent. He had always just expected they would and had seen no reason not to enjoy himself while he was waiting for that one special person to come into his life.

As he dried off, he smiled, remembering how old Father Grimaldi would look at him, all stern and suspicious, saying, 'Christopher, are you sure you don't need to come to confession?' And Aunt Kate and Uncle Mike would give him concerned looks, maybe because they had also heard that their nephew was a menace to the chastity of the local girls. But Chris had felt the only sin he'd be committing was hypocrisy if he claimed he felt bad about what he and the girls were doing. Not to mention: if Donna and the others felt so bad about it they were going to confession, how come they kept on doing it with him? He didn't feel guilty, and saying he did would be like lying to God.

Even now Chris didn't see why anyone should feel bad about fucking. The way he looked at it, if God didn't want them doing it He shouldn't have made it feel so good. He'd told Father Grimaldi that once but didn't think the priest had been real impressed. Funny, Chris remembered as he reached for his shaving mug and brush, getting the shaving cream ready, at the time he hadn't paid much attention to what the old priest had told him, how sex was a precious gift meant to be shared between two people who loved each other. Grimaldi had gotten kind of poetic about it in fact, Chris recalled now, saying that this physical joining of bodies should be the manifestation of two souls meant to be joined together. Since Chris had been a 16-year-old bundle of over-stimulated hormones at the time, with plenty of girls willing to keep him happy, he hadn't really credited that an old priest who'd probably been celibate for a hundred years would know what the fuck he was talking about.

Now, though -- maybe Grimaldi had been onto something after all, because the desires Toby stirred up in him were a million miles away from anything else he had ever experienced. Carefully scraping the straight razor along his throat, Chris had to admit the novelty of sex had waned quite a while ago. Funny how, once he'd realized he could pretty much reel in anyone he wanted, anytime, it hadn't seemed like that big a deal. Was that when he'd started wanting more, looking for it in everyone who came along and expressed what looked like genuine interest for a while?

And he had another reason to be grateful to have met Gerry, didn't he, since that had opened him up to possibilities that weren't necessarily boy-meets-girl. Gerry's tutelage in the bedroom had been as meticulous as elsewhere, giving Chris a very well rounded experience and ensuring he had a wonderful time. When all was said it wasn't all that different, however, still just bodies coming together. He had been fond of Gerry, but it had never quite changed over into love at least nothing on the scale of what he was feeling for Toby. And he always felt kind of bad about that because he knew Gerry had been at least a little bit in love with him. He could remember sort of wishing that magic spark would happen between them because being with Gerry was the first time he'd found someone who, if he didn't quite understand everything going on in Chris' head, had certainly acted like he wanted to.

For a little while he'd thought Kitty would be the one to combine it all: undeniable sparks of attraction, a sense of fun that followed them out of the bedroom, and the added appeal of opening her eyes to a whole new world. He reached for a towel, swiping up some bits of shaving cream he'd missed and headed back into the bedroom, thinking about his failed marriage. It had only been in the last couple of years, with them actually living as husband and wife, together every day, that Chris had realized Kitty was mostly humoring him. She'd say she wished she understood him but she'd never ask him anything about his work or what was going on with him; she'd say she wasn't real happy about him having a wandering eye but she'd never put her foot down about it. It was only after they'd gotten divorced that Kitty admitted she'd always thought he didn't want to let her all the way in, that even with a wedding ring on her finger she'd felt like she had no real claim on him.

There had been other factors, of course, but that lack of communication had been at the root of that as well. And whose fault had that been? he wondered as he hauled out clothes. Mostly his, he had to figure. If he'd done a better job of showing Kitty he really did care, that he wanted them to really share their lives, maybe they could have gotten through the worst of it.

Of course, if he was still with Kitty he might not have met Toby and he didn't even want to think about that because, as much as he cared for Kitty, she hadn't made him feel like this. And granted, Father Grimaldi likely hadn't been thinking of anyone like Toby when he'd advised Chris to save himself for love -- and he smiled at that thought as he headed downstairs -- but Chris sort of thought he'd done just that. Not physically, no, but maybe in every way that really mattered.

Maybe he wouldn't share that particular insight with Toby, though. He wasn't sure he wanted to share it with himself.

Embarrassed to be touching himself like this -- and embarrassed even more at being embarrassed -- Toby found he wasn't much inclined to stop the long, languorous strokes along his body as he stood there under the warm spray of the shower, imagining it was Chris' beautiful hands touching him. Startled out of his happy reverie at the sound of someone banging on the bathroom door, he'd barely called out, "What?" when he saw a shadowy form barge on in. "Angus, what do you want?" he said, knowing he probably sounded grumpy, but so would his little brother in a similar situation.

"I need some aftershave."

"Use your own," Toby said, poking his head out from the curtain and aiming an exasperated look at his brother over rummaging through the medicine cabinet.

"I'm out."

"Well hurry up then."

Angus shot a puzzled look over at him. "Somebody get up on the wrong side of the bed today?"

"No -- somebody just doesn't appreciate someone else just coming in and helping himself."

"Well, forgive me. Next time I'll schedule an appointment." Angus narrowed his eyes, looking at Toby's neck. "What's that?"

"What's what?" Toby asked, even as he self-consciously raised his hand to cover the love bite Chris had given him, standing out pretty starkly this morning when he'd first looked in the mirror.


"A mosquito bite."

Stepping closer, obviously trying to get a better look, Angus said, "Looked like a hickey to me."

Toby glared back at him. "Well it isn't. Now beat it."

"Doesn't look like a mosquito bite."

"It's none of your business what it is."

"Boys -- what's going on?" Harrison asked, looming in the doorway.

"Angus is just being a pest." And why can't everybody go the hell away and leave me in peace? What is this, Grand Central Station?

"All I asked was how you got a hickey."

Toby fixed his brother with a particularly sharp glare. "And I told you it was a mosquito bite. Now how about dropping it?"

Unexpectedly, Harrison came to the rescue, saying, "Gussie, leave your brother alone."

With an aggrieved -- 'What did I do?' -- look on his face, Angus snagged the aftershave and went out, just leaving Harrison there, and Toby kind of hoped his father could scoot along, too.

Instead his father gave him a long, faintly worried look, sighed and said, "Toby ... Is everything all right, son?"


"I think we need to talk about a few things, Toby."

No, we don't, Toby thought even as he answered, "Do we have to do it right now?"

"No, of course not," Harrison said, smiling, and Toby risked a longer look at his father, thinking he didn't appear upset or anything. A little bewildered, maybe, as if he'd just found out something wasn't entirely the way he had always believed it to be. "What are your plans today?"

*Besides eventually being able to get out of the damn shower without everyone looking at me? * "Just clearing up some things at the office before we take off Sunday. And, umm, Chris and I are going to see Giles this afternoon."


Toby tried to interpret that 'Oh,' but it proved difficult to pin down precisely.

Harrison's, "I see," was equally enigmatic. But he smiled, nodding. "Well, whenever you have some time, Toby, I would like to have that talk."


Harrison nodded again and -- finally -- left, closing the door behind him.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Toby let the curtain drop and leaned against the tiles. Why couldn't he just come out and say it -- 'Dad, I'm falling in love with another man.' -- and face whatever consequences came of it? The world wasn't going to end because of it. His father was a reasonable man, maybe he'd be fine with it. And if he wasn't, if he ranted and raved and threatened to disown him? In his heart, Toby knew that wasn't even a remote possibility, but it bothered him that it was even rattling around in his head.

Well, he tilted his face up into the now-cool spray, that had pretty effectively ruined the mood. He stepped back, shaking water from his hair as he turned off the shower and stepped out, wrapping a towel around his waist. Why couldn't he summon up some of Chris' insouciant approach to this, to life in general from what Toby could tell? He imagined even when it had been a previously unexplored path for Chris, the other man had just jumped in feet first, untroubled by what anyone might think.

And he still didn't like that, did he? Toby thought, lathering his face with shaving cream and reaching for his razor. If he thought there was only some vague and hazy David Blake in Chris' past, someone who had alerted him to the allure of pleasures off the beaten path but not so much that he'd actually done anything, that wouldn't bother Toby. Much. Swiping the razor along his jaw, he had to admit to being almost as surprised by this jealous, possessive streak that had been uncovered as he was by its source. He couldn't remember ever feeling that way about Genevieve. He didn't like the idea of her being with Vern Schillinger, true enough, but only because he intensely disliked the man and was concerned about Gen getting mixed up with someone who sounded like very bad news. Thinking she might meet and fall in love with someone more suitable, though -- that didn't bother him, not so far as he could tell. That anyone else even looked at Chris, though -- that kind of made him a little nuts.

None of this was like him. At least, he'd never thought so. Swiping up some excess shaving cream, Toby had to admit he was well on his way to confronting the knowledge that maybe he'd never really known himself at all. Was it any wonder no one else did?

Maybe someone did, though. Maybe he had finally found someone who wanted to know him, who wouldn't turn him away because he wanted too much.

And he was going to see him again, today. Toby had no idea what they would say or do, in fact -- but he couldn't wait to find out.

Chapter Three, 1b/?

Well someone was in a good mood, Mary Pete thought as her colleague came in, whistling softly to himself. Hanging up his coat and hat on the stand, he smiled over at her as he rolled up his sleeves and fixed himself a cup of coffee. Smiled? Mary Pete reconsidered that, looking at him over the rims of her glasses. No, beamed was more like it. And why a cup of coffee should make his grin turn a little goofy she had no idea.

"What're you up to?" Chris asked, coming to look over her shoulder at the photographs she had spread out across her desk.

"Just trying to figure out which ones Devlin will want to use," Mary Pete said, already prepared for Devlin's complaints of how her photographs were never lurid enough and he wasn't paying her to be artistic. Having long ago ascertained that James Devlin was pretty much indistinguishable from a jackass, however, Mary Pete never took it personally -- unlike Chris who could be a little too prickly and sensitive for everyone's good.

"His Nibs around?" Chris asked, sipping his coffee as he looked over the photographs, picking up a couple for closer examination.

"Dragged in half an hour ago."

Chris gave her an interested look at that, eyebrows raised. "Dragged in how? Like he might've had a rough night?"

"Or just a busy one." Mary Pete gave him a suspicious look. "Chris--"

He smiled again at the warning note in her voice, but she wasn't necessarily reassured since the enigmatic little smile had gotten to be a familiar one to her. "He and Evangeline have been married about ten years, right?" he said, manner a little too casual.

"Something like. Their oldest daughter was eight last month." She noticed Chris' eyes clouded with some concern at that reminder Devlin had a family.

He set his cup down on her desk and lounged back there, hands in his pockets. Looking very serious, he asked, "You think they're happy together? Your intuition ever tell you anything that way?"

"I haven't really seen them together enough to tell." She returned his serious look, asking, "Why all this interest in the Devlins?"

His off-hand shrug didn't fool her for a minute. "Can't a guy be curious?"

"A guy, yes -- you?" She shrugged back.

Her expression must have been eloquent of her suspicions because he gave her a cross little look, head lowered slightly. Instead of replying, however, he returned his attention to her photographs, going back to the ones that had caught his interest: one of Gloria on stage, caught in the midst of an especially effective torch song. The other one was of a currently much talked about couple, the Rev. Jeremiah Cloutier -- whose evangelical preaching was almost as big a draw as some of the shows on Broadway, and his constant companion, former showgirl, Shirley Bellinger. "These are really good," Chris said. "Gloria looks like she's got something lighting her inside."

"She's very attuned to the music -- that's what Leonard used to say."

"He's the one who discovered her, right?"

Mary Pete's curiosity deepened. "Which you already know -- yes." Letting her glasses dangle from the chain around her neck, she asked, "And what makes Gloria and Preston so fascinating to you all of a sudden?"

"It's my job."

"Umm hmm. One that, until this moment, you have never failed to whine about day in and day out."

That earned her another fierce glower. "I don't whine."

She returned an equally stern look. "You whine. What's changed -- besides the obvious?"

His brows drew together at that. "The obvious what?"

It was Mary Pete's turn to smile enigmatically. Either he thought she was stupid (unlikely) or he honestly had no idea he was walking around with 'I'm In Love' practically stamped across his forehead. Since the only thing worse than the lovely agonies of being in love was having someone tease you about it, however, she decided to be generous and let him alone -- for the moment. "Never mind. Just tell me why you're so interested in Gloria and Preston."

Resting against her desk again, hands back in his pockets, Chris thought that over, then shrugged, saying, "I promised someone I'd find out who put Preston in the hospital, and why, in exchange for some information. I'm pretty sure of the who and the why, but haven't got enough to absolutely nail it down."

And Mary Pete bet she could name who Chris was doing this favor for in three guesses -- and the first two wouldn't count. "What more do you need?"

"You mentioned once it was Preston who helped get you your job here. I sort of inferred that meant he and Devlin have some connection."

Sitting back, hands hooked behind her head, Mary Pete said, "That's a reasonable inference to draw. At least a quarter of why Gloria's career has taken off so well is because Devlin and Preston oversaw a campaign to promote her in The Tattler. Leonard was a little skeptical of them both, suspecting Preston had more than Gloria's best interests in mind."

"Especially after he married her?"

She nodded, sitting up straight again, having a little debate with herself. "You promise this isn't something you're planning to write about?"

"Scout's honor," Chris said.

"Umm hmm," she narrowed her eyes at him. "Gloria told me Preston's gone through all their money, she's doesn't have a penny to her name; he's even pawned her jewelry."

"That why she's not camped out at his bedside fretting over him?"

"Pretty much."

"So -- would it also be a reasonable inference to think where you find Preston, you might find Devlin, too?"

"I imagine their circle of acquaintances overlaps a little, yes." Why that seemed to please him was anybody's guess but he had a little secretive smile, like he was fitting pieces of a jigsaw puzzle together in his head and arriving at exactly the right picture he wanted.

He went over to his desk then, taking the cover off his typewriter and rolling in a crisp sheet of paper. Instead of getting down to work, however, he propped his elbows on the desk and rested his chin on his folded hands as he looked over at her, curious. "There something different about you today?"

"What if there is?"

"Nothing. I'm just saying you look a little different."

She smiled to herself, surprised he had the presence of mind to notice much of anything besides a certain young lawyer. "I'm just sprucing up Aunt Marie."

"Oh." He frowned, shrugged, and flipped his notebook open, chewing his lip for a moment before the clack-clack of the typewriter keys began making a familiar little background sound as Mary Pete went back to her photographs.

After a little while the clacking stopped and she looked up to find him watching her thoughtfully again. "Yes?"

"You're not gonna do anything, umm, eccentric, are you?" he asked, looking worried about it.

Biting back a smile and giving him an innocent look, Mary Pete said, "Would I do that, Chris?"

"In a fucking heart beat."

She smiled then. "I won't embarrass you and Tobias," she assured him, thinking he didn't look like he entirely believed her.

Hearing the doorbell ring as he was on his way downstairs, Toby answered it and was a little surprised to find Genevieve waiting there. She looked a little startled, too.

"Is this a bad time to visit?"

"No, of course not. I was sort of on my way out, though," he said, looking past her and spotting her new car, a chauffer-driven Rolls, at the curb; one of many presents from Vern, so he understood. "What did you want?" And it better not be anything that was going to make his good mood evaporate.

"I'd like to come in for one thing," she said, and must have noticed him looking in the direction of the Rolls because she added, "Vern isn't with me -- he's not very happy with you right now." She smiled a little tentatively, as though she wanted to take the edge off the moment.

"Well, jeepers, Gen, I'm all broken up about that."

She favored him with a familiar look of irritation at that, waiting for him to let her by. "You don't have to be sarcastic, Toby," she said, preceding him into the living room and looking around with a raised eyebrow expression of disapproval at the, no doubt, squalid state of the dcor. Refraining from comment, however, Gen picked up one of Harry's drawings from the coffee table, tilting her head a little as she tried to decipher it.

"It's supposed to be a tree with a Cheshire Cat in it; we're reading Alice in Wonderland lately."

"Oh." Gen looked at the picture again. "That would explain the disembodied smile." She turned away quickly, but not before Toby had seen the glitter of tears in her eyes. "Do they like the story?" she asked after a moment, sounding a little hoarse.

"They seem to; Holly wants a cat named Dinah."

"Well, Aunt Clara and your grandmother probably have a new batch of kittens. We should -- you should let her pick one out."

"Maybe. We'll see." Toby looked at her standing there, caught in the late morning sunlight: impeccably coiffed and costumed, with an impressive rock weighing down her left hand -- and a look of inexpressible sadness in her dark eyes. It had been there for as long as he'd known her, only vanishing a little when she was around the kids. He wondered if he would ever learn its source. "You must be excited," he said to break the awkward silence, "one more week and you'll be Mrs. Vernon Schillinger."

"Yes, I can hardly wait," Genevieve said, a lack of enthusiasm in her voice and manner that likely would not have delighted her intended.

And that suddenly helped Toby make up his mind to broach the subject that had been troubling him. "Gen," he touched her arm, "if you're having second thoughts--"

"I'm not."

"You sure? It might be understandable, all things considered."

She looked at him, puzzled. "All of what considered?"

"His...areas of interest."

Frowning, shaking her head. "What about them?"

"Well, his politics for one thing, that morality committee he's involved with, for instance." Toby watched her face to see if she had any idea what he was trying to skirt around -- if intuition counted for anything it was telling him Genevieve truly had no idea what he was getting at.

"Toby, I know you and Harrison wouldn't dream of voting anything but Democratic, but just because Vern has more conservative views doesn't make him a terrible person."

If voting Republican was the only strike against Vern, Toby would be in full agreement with her, but he had no idea how to pursue this any further. He could hardly ask her outright if her fianc was a Nazi-sympathizer -- although he imagined Chris wouldn't have any qualms at being so blunt. "It's just... I've heard some things, about his affiliations, and it's a little disturbing."

With an exasperated roll of her eyes, Gen said, "Let me guess -- you've heard he's a member of the Klan?"

A little taken aback at her being so forthright about it, Toby nodded. "Yes."

"It's not true, he's sworn to me it isn't."

He looked at her, still troubled. "And you believe him?"

"I have to," she said, all the weary bleakness back in her eyes, "he's going to be my husband."


"Toby, I don't want to fight about this, please. That's not why I came here."

No, he supposed it wasn't. In their six-year marriage she had done her best to avoid any kind of strong emotion, after all -- why change now? "Why did you come?"

"I'd like to take the children shopping for some summer things, if that would be all right?"

"Of course it would. Come on, I think they're playing out back," he said, leading her through the house -- as if she didn't know the way perfectly well. "They miss you."

Her smile was wan, as usual. "Thank you for saying that."

"It's true, Gen."

She gave a small shrug. "Gary, maybe. I'm pretty sure Harry just thinks of me as that nice lady who buys him ice-cream sodas," she pulled up a stronger smile as she spoke, to show it was all right. The smile didn't go anywhere near her eyes, though.

"That's not true," Toby said again. "Both the boys love you, and Holly--"

"Holly's going to be a long time forgiving me for making her daddy unhappy," Gen said, matter of fact. "I know I have my work cut out there."

"I'm sure that isn't true."

"Toby, let's not lie to each other anymore," Gen said as they went outside. "There's no reason to now."

"There never should have been a reason to, Gen."

"Probably not. Live and learn, I suppose."

That sounded good, but Toby had to wonder how much she meant it when she was prepared to marry for something besides love again. It wasn't a mistake he would ever make again. As complicated as his feelings were about Genevieve, he really would have liked to see her find someone who could ignite the passions that had to be there, somewhere under that meticulously pulled together faade of genteel composure. He sure as hell couldn't see anything like that happening with Vern.

Outside in the postage stamp-sized patch of yard, they paused to watch the children industriously at play. Holly had Harry engaged in playing hopscotch with her; that's when Harry wasn't sitting beside Gary on the little garden bench and helping assemble a new model plane. Patricia was keeping an eye on them even as she helped Lena weed the tiny flowerbed. Both women looked over at them, smiling, although Lena's green eyes held a slightly dubious glint as they took in Genevieve.

"He likes to keep his options open, doesn't he?" Gen remarked, watching Harry go back to Holly's side at her imperious summons.

"I guess. Don't know where he gets it from." Toby could never see much of himself in any of them, and he thanked God none of them had picked up Gen's melancholia. Or his, come to that.

Gen gave him a curious look, shaking her head. "They're all miniatures of you, Toby," she said, sounding very serious, and looking a little envious. "I always think Harry's what you would have been like, if Victoria hadn't been...well, Victoria." She smiled, wistful and fleeting. "Sometimes I wish one of them at least looked a little bit like me, though. That's silly, isn't it?"

"No," he touched her arm, "it's not silly, Gen."

"Too late for regrets," she said, shrugging off the moment and turning away.

"I suppose so," Toby sighed. Shaking off the mood, he called over to the kids, "Hey, look who's here."

They all looked over and Toby couldn't help noticing that while both boys looked excited to see Genevieve, racing over to them, Holly took her time, coming over at a more sedate pace. Their reactions were markedly different, too, at learning they would be spending part of the day with their mother. Gary and Harry were instantly agreeable, even if it did mean shopping for new shoes -- although Harry's attitude was more along the lines of just being game for a little adventure that had the promise of ending with an ice-cream soda. And Holly... Toby was a little disheartened to see her maintaining a sort of cool detachment from Genevieve, staying close to him, clasping his hand and generally making it pretty clear where her parental preferences lay.

That couldn't be allowed to stand, not when he was far too familiar with the pain -- on both sides, he was sure -- of being estranged from a parent. There was nothing to be done now about his relationship with his mother, but there had to be something that could mend the fences between Gen and Holly before things got worse. What that might be he had no idea at the moment, but something would come to him, he was sure of it.

Checking his watch -- just half past ten -- Chris looked over as the door opened, not really disappointed when it was only Devlin coming in; Toby wasn't supposed to pick him up until about 11:30. He gave Devlin an interested look, thinking he was looking a little haggard and harried, not quite oozing the full flow of oily geniality.

"Marie, Keller," he said, putting on a jaunty manner, "I thought I'd reward your willingness to take on your special assignment by letting you have the rest of the day off. Whenever you've finished what you're working on now," he looked at both their desks, seeming a little dissatisfied with the level of activity he thought he perceived, "you may call the rest of the day your own," he finished, smiling.

Chris had a remark on the tip of his tongue, but held it at a sharp look from Mary Pete. "Yeah, that's real generous of you, Mr. Devlin," he said -- and was it his fault if his tone of voice still drew a suspicious look from Devlin.

Devlin let it go, though, saying, "I trust you're both prepared for your week with the Beechers?"

"Oh, yeah," Chris said, leaning back in his chair, "got clean underwear packed and everything." That drew an exasperated look from Mary Pete and a superciliously annoyed one from Devlin.

"Keller, if I get any complaints about your conduct from Tobias--"

"You won't," Chris cut him short, annoyed with the way Devlin spoke as if he and Toby went way back when Chris knew the real nature of things there.

"Well, I have every confidence in your carrying out this assignment to everyone's complete satisfaction," Devlin said, smiling again. "I'm sure you won't disappoint me."

Maybe not, but Chris had every reason to think they might surprise the hell out of him at some point. He watched Devlin leave, wondering what O'Reily could have on him. Something tied up with the whole Preston Nathan thing, or kind of branching off? Gambling, drugs, prostitutes -- they were all good possibilities. Knowing O'Reily, it was a fuck of a lot more than a picture of Devlin swiping the collection plate at church. But Chris knew he was just going to have to bide his time, because he wasn't getting his back scratched until O'Reily'd gotten his particular itch taken care of.

On the other hand, if what O'Reily felt for Gloria Nathan was even just a fraction of how Toby'd gotten to him, Chris thought he probably couldn't blame Ryan for being a little obsessive. A few days ago he probably wouldn't have been inclined to have much patience with Ryan -- but everything was different now.

He glanced at his watch again, checked it against the clock on the wall, and reined in a little frustrated, impatient sigh. Catching the curious look Mary Pete was giving him, he went back to his typing, glad he could pretty much do this by rote because his mind was very definitely elsewhere. Even so, as eleven o'clock came up and the minutes began ticking down to half past, Chris had to make a more concentrated effort than usual to get the last couple of paragraphs done. Finished at last, he rolled the last page out of his typewriter, tidying up the small stack of paper, and put the cover back on the machine. It was still just a quarter past eleven, so he poured some of this excess energy into straightening out his desk drawers. Ten minutes later, concluding there was only so much you could do with a pile of paper clips, he got up and paced over to the window to look out at the street and see if he could spot any sign of Toby. Nothing yet, and he bit his lip, pushing down all the doubts that wanted to come surging back.

Uncomfortably aware of Mary Pete watching him, he rolled down his sleeves and fastened his cuffs as he went over to retrieve his coat and put it back on, holding his hat as he looked at the clock again -- 11: 30 on the dot -- and paced back to the window for another look. As hard as he tried, though, he couldn't help feeling a little knot of anxiety forming in his belly as he still failed to catch any glimpse of Toby coming along.

"Chris? Is anything wrong?

He winced at the note of sympathy in Mary Pete's voice and glanced over at her quickly, not meeting her eyes. "No. Listen, umm, I have to...go out for a little bit," he said, concentrating on stringing the words together. "William Giles agreed to an interview and I need to go take care of that. I..." He looked out the window again. "It shouldn't take long. I'll swing by and pick you up after," he finished quietly, trying to shrug it off as he quickly made his exit.

All he could think, all the way down in the elevator, was that he must have pushed too far, too much last night. That even though he'd liked it enough at the time, Toby must have awakened this morning and realized it never should have happened. And now what? Chris wondered as he stood on the sidewalk, looking around for a cab, startled at the sudden honk of car horn and looking around to see a cream-colored Packard convertible, top up, pulling into the curb.

"Hey!" Toby leaned across the seat, opening the passenger door, smiling at him. "You ready?"

"Uh, yeah," Chris said, getting into the car, having a hard time readjusting his thoughts and letting go of his concerns.

"Sorry I'm running a little late," Toby was saying, waiting for a bus to pass before pulling the Packard out into the street. "Something came up at home at the last minute."

"Uh-huh." Chris didn't know what else to say and decided to keep his gaze trained out the window at the steady traffic of vehicles and pedestrians.

"Gen stopped by unexpectedly and wanted to take the kids for the day, and it took a while to get everybody ready."

"Uh huh."

Toby didn't say anything else for a moment, and Chris wanted to look around at him but couldn't quite risk it yet.

"Chris? What's wrong?"

He shrugged. "Nothing."

"Chris," Toby spoke his name in a knowing kind of way, like he was telling Chris he wasn't buying that denial. "What is it?" he pressed, and Chris felt a strong hand touching his shoulder, rubbing.

God, now he really felt like an idiot. "It's nothing, Toby," he said, looking around at him now. "I just..." He shook his head, not knowing how to put it into words.

Stopped at a traffic light, Toby studied his face, searching his eyes, brow furrowing with concern. "Chris," he reached over, touching his face, "I said we were fine -- I haven't changed my mind."

"You haven't, huh?" Chris said, wishing it came out sounding a little more off-hand and lighter.

Very serious, Toby said, "No," and astonished Chris by leaning over to press a soft, sweet kiss to his lips.


"Shh," Toby told him, kissing him again, lingering a bit longer, before moving back. "All right now?" he asked, a smile warming his eyes and curving his lips.

"Yeah." Chris couldn't have helped smiling back if his life depended on it.

Toby nodded. "Good. Now shall we go see Giles?"

"Sure." Chris relaxed back into the seat now, glancing out the window on Toby's side to see two women in another car gaping over at them. He -- just about -- bit back a smug smile, thinking they had no idea what they were missing. And he just wasn't going to worry about how healthy it was to go through this many mood shifts in the space of about fifteen minutes.

Chapter Three, 2b/?

"I would have expected you to be living around here," Toby said as they left the car parked in a shady spot and walked along a Greenwich Village street to Giles' home. "Or maybe it isn't Bohemian enough for you?" he teased.

Hat pushed back a little, Chris gave him a curious look. "What makes you think I'm Bohemian?"

"You mean besides the fact you kiss guys?"

"Yeah, besides that."

"Well," Toby paused for a moment on the sidewalk, hands in his pockets as he considered that, half suspecting he was teetering on the edge of another wrong-headed assumption about this man, "you don't seem to be concerned with obeying conventions, you don't care what anyone thinks of you." Yes, he'd misstepped again; he could tell by the irritated look that earned him. "All right, what am I being stupid about this time?"

"You might be surprised at what I care about, Toby," Chris said, a trace of frost in his tone as he walked on.

Squinting into the sunlight, watching after him, Toby shook his head, sighed, and hurried to catch up. "You know, you could try telling me what matters to you instead of stalking off in a snit."

That got a sharper look. "I'm not stalking off in a snit."

"Well, I'd say 'flounced off in a fit of pique,' but that sort of creates the wrong image. Of course, being a professional writer and all you'd probably know better than I would about things like that."

"Are you done?"

"Only if you're coming down off your high horse," Toby said, coming to another stop. "Chris, look, I had a marriage where no one ever said what they really meant, where saying good morning was cloaked with insinuation. It was miserable for everyone and I don't want to go through that again. All I want to do is figure you out."

"There's nothing to figure out," Chris said, all thawed out now. "I don't know why you think there's some really interesting story attached to me.

Toby looked at him, not buying that hint of self-deprecation. "Gee, I don't know, either, Chris -- maybe because you've been places I haven't, you've done things I never will?"

"You didn't miss anything."

"You'll forgive me if I doubt that, though?"

Chris shrugged it off. "Yeah -- I ain't Ernest Hemingway," he said as they walked on.

Passing him, Toby winked and said, "No -- you're cuter," as he headed for a terra cotta-colored house with an arched entryway and windows, a burst of bright color provided by the blue and purple petunias blooming in the black window boxes. He glanced back as he went up the stoop and rang the bell, biting back a smile at the perplexed glower on Chris' face, as if he was trying to figure out if he liked that comment or not.

"Hard to believe you ever leave anything up to insinuation," was Chris' wry comment as he joined him.

"You might be surprised." God knew he was. Verbal circumspection was something he'd gotten very good at over the years. That had a lot more to do with lessons learned at his mother's knee than at Harvard Law School. Like her, he usually needed to be fairly well fueled with alcohol before getting reckless with his words. Being around Chris evidently did wonders for his inhibitions, with no nasty side effects such as regretting anything he'd said the night before.

"I don't doubt that," Chris said as Toby pressed the bell again. "Nothing about you has been what I was expecting."

Trying not to squirm under the fond admiration in the other man's eyes, Toby said, "I guess we both have a lot to discover about each other."

"I guess. And maybe we can skip over trying to put each other into any kind of tidy little category?"

Toby had a feeling he'd just gotten a sharp nudge in the ribs there. He gave Chris a thoughtful look, ringing the bell again. "You really don't like being pinned down like that, do you?"

Chris shrugged. "Just don't see why it's necessary." He backed down the steps a little, checking the address. "You sure this is the right place?"

"Number Twenty-four, Tenth Street -- I've been here before."

Nodding, Chris came back up, leaning a hip against the wrought-iron railing, hands in his pockets as he resumed the conversation. "Putting yourself in a category just means you're limiting your possibilities. What's the point of that?"

"I think it's just that a lot of people are afraid of the unknown; it's comfortable to stay with the familiar, I suppose, keep plodding along a well-worn path with no surprises."

"You kinda thinking out loud there, Toby?"

He met the curious blue eyes, seeing the concern shadowing them, and knew this was a moment when complete honesty was required. That actually made a refreshing change. "Kind of," he admitted, resting back against the other railing, one foot crossed over the other. "This all makes sense when we're together, Chris, and I'm not having second thoughts. It's just--"

"When you're by yourself it doesn't seem quite real?"

Toby gave him a surprised look. "You, too?"

"You think I do this all the time, Toby?" Chris said, very serious.

He certainly hoped not -- and he just wasn't going to think about how friendly Chris had been with Ronnie Barlog last night. "It's kind of...I don't know, disconcerting," he said, ringing the bell one more time, "to find out you had all these all possibilities buried inside but never knew it. That it might have always remained a mystery if the right person didn't come along." And he guessed that must have been the right thing to say by the way Chris' eyes lit up.

At least there was only a small flicker of worry in Chris' eyes as he searched Toby's, saying, "Long as you're not sorry about what you're finding out."

Hearing footsteps finally approaching the door, Toby knew he couldn't respond exactly the way he wanted to, so he settled for grasping Chris' shoulder, squeezing as he said, "Not for a minute. My equilibrium may have gotten a jolt, but I'm not complaining." Realistically he knew this sense of giddy excitement couldn't continue indefinite, they would come back down to earth, but he was anticipating a soft landing. He wished he knew how to get Chris to stop anticipating some dire development, though. Give it time to get a little bit more comfortable, he supposed. There wasn't any need to rush things along, far as he could see.

"Well, I never would've pegged you for the impulsive type, that's for sure," Chris said, sounding a little rueful.

Toby canted him a curious look. "How would you have pegged me?"

"Dunno." Chris gave him a long, considering look as the door opened. "Kind of quiet, cautious, sort of bookish -- maybe sort of prissy," he finished as Giles beamed out at them.

"Who's prissy?" Giles said, giving them both a curious look.

"I am, apparently," Toby said, and threw a huffy little look at Chris. "Thank you very much for that," he remarked, belatedly realizing that was probably the kind of thing that qualified as prissy to judge by Chris' smile.

"Well... " Giles shook his head, evidently deciding against trying to make sense of an in-progress conversation. "Come in, come in," he said, standing back to let them into the foyer, saying they could leave their hats on the cherry wood table there under the gilt mirror, before conducting them along to a cozy living room. "I hope you boys weren't standing out there too long. Betty and I were down in the basement putting away her preserves," he said, shooing a calico cat off a loveseat and indicating Chris and Toby could sit there. The cat clearly thought otherwise, giving them both a green-eyed look of feline pique before jumping up on a windowsill and stretching out with a languorous enjoyment of the sunshine that implied this was a much better spot anyway.

"No, we just got here," Toby assured him, watching Chris looking around the room -- taking in the framed photographs arranged along the top of an upright piano over in one corner, the bookcases crammed to overflowing, everything tidy but not too fussy. And what was the source of that embarrassed little grimace, Toby wondered, as Chris' gaze settled on the coffee table? The arrangement of flowers looked fine to him, and the crystal vase was perfectly tasteful as far as he could tell. There wasn't anything else there except a pile of mail, with a copy of Black Mask magazine on top. An idea forming even as Giles reached for the magazine, he got his answer to Chris' signs of discomfort as Giles said:

"This is sort of serendipitous, isn't it, Christopher? May I call you Christopher?"

"Umm, yeah, sure."

"Serendipitous how?" Toby prompted, curiosity bubbling away.

"That this came in the mail today," Giles said, handing him the magazine. "Of course I don't have to tell you how good the story is, do I?" he added as Toby leafed through the magazine, finding the table of contents page and feeling a funny little sense of pride as he saw 'And Be A Villain' by Christopher Keller listed there.

"Actually," he said, "I haven't read this." And to go by Chris' expression, feelings were very mixed as to whether or not Toby reading this was desirable.

Giles looked surprised by that admission. "Really?"

"I wrote it before we met," Chris said, still looking like he was sorely tempted to snatch the magazine from Toby's hands. "It's nothing much really."

"Nonsense, it's wonderful. The ending was very unexpected, and I think you're going to get quite a reaction to this -- especially from people who can read between the lines."

"Umm, thanks." As if sensing Toby's eyes on him, he looked over, frowning. "What?"

"I take back what I said yesterday -- guess you can be shy," Toby teased gently.

"It's nothing to do with being shy," Chris said, still glowering a little. "I just know it's not that big a deal."

"Giles thinks it is -- I think it is."

"You haven't even read it."

"Only because this is the first I've heard of it."

"Yeah, well..." Bereft of a comeback, Chris shrugged again, twiddling his fingers against the upholstered arm of the loveseat.

Giles was smiling at them; the cat remained wholly self-absorbed, however.

"How many stories have you had published anyway?" Toby said, setting the magazine back on the table.

"'Bout half a dozen," Chris said, seeming more interested in watching the cat sit up and wash her face.

"You should think about getting them published as a collection," Giles said. "I hope you won't think it's too forward of me, but I mentioned your name to my editor yesterday and he agreed with me that that would be an excellent idea. He was pretty enthusiastic, I must say, mentioning he'd love to see what you could do with a novel." Polishing the lenses of his glasses with a handkerchief, he asked, "Have you given any thought to that?"

"A little. I started one a couple years ago but haven't had a lot of time for it."

Toby gave him an interested look. "What's it about?"

Predictably, the answer was a self-deprecating, "Nothing much, just some of my experiences over in Spain."

"When you were dodging bullets and all? Uh-huh, can't imagine that being interesting."

Chris gave him a suspicious look but appeared to get the idea he was being teased again. "You're just not gonna let go of that, are you?"

"Not if you keep being all mysterious about it."

"Maybe I'm all mysterious because there's nothing to tell."

"Uh-huh -- you want to sell me that bridge over in Brooklyn next?" Toby said, suddenly aware Giles was watching them a little too intently, and even the cat was looking kind of interested now.

Betty Giles coming along just then and saying lunch was ready, was sort of a welcome interruption. They all moved along to the kitchen -- the cat trailing along and joined by a silver tabby just coming downstairs -- and sat down at the table there, with Betty apologizing for not having anything fancier than club sandwiches and potato salad, but it was just too hot to cook much these days. Toby decided his new mission in life was going to be finding those half dozen stories of Chris' and reading them, because he had a feeling that might tell him quite a lot about what was going on in Chris' mind.

Chapter Three, 2b/?

Notebook open on his knee, Chris finished the rough word sketch of Giles' office, thinking he should have brought Mary Pete along to get some photographs. That likely would have occurred to him earlier if there hadn't been a few other things on his mind. Thinking about that, he looked over at Toby back on the loveseat and making friends with the calico (the silver tabby was pretending to be a paper-weight, curled up on the mail left on the coffee table). He could hear the cat purring as Toby scratched behind its ear and felt pretty sure he knew how the cat felt. Watching her arch her back as Toby stroked her, Chris actually found himself envying the cat a little and raised his eyes to Toby's mischievous blue gaze. Chris shook his head, smiling as he looked back down at his notebook, thinking that for someone who was feeling a little disconcerted by all this, Toby was handling it pretty well. Better than him in some ways.

He read back over his notes on the rest of Giles' home, pretty certain he had enough to add some color to the article. Even so, it couldn't hurt to ask if he could come back with Mary Pete and get some photos later. Might as well make the most of this opportunity, now he'd snagged it. It stung a little to know it had only come his way because of Toby, but just a little. He couldn't feel too bad about that, after all, when getting access to Giles had been a big part of why he'd wanted to get close to Toby in the first place.

There was a bright, shining example of him not thinking something all the way through. That had been a brilliant plan, all right, Chris thought, flipping back through his notebook. How was it supposed to have gone again: cozy up to Tobias and get a better idea of what was going on with this wedding farce, persuade Tobias to give him an introduction to Giles -- oh, and have a little fun flirting with the other man just to see how far he could push it before Tobias'd had enough.

Chris guessed that was why they warned you about playing with fire. Not that he regretted the way things had gone, not for a moment. It was just that he had been resigning himself to a lot of things these last few years and one of the biggest was accepting that really falling in love, having someone care that much for him in return, was one of those things destined to pass him by. He'd figured there was something wrong with him that he could never quite make that leap, let alone inspire anyone else to have feelings that deep, so that this thing with Toby was literally the last thing he had expected.

Why now, right out of the blue, and why Toby? Not that he minded that, either, and maybe that kind of thing always was simply one of the great mysteries of the universe. Toby had to be puzzling over the same thing, especially if this was the first time he'd been involved with another man. And that was another mystery to ponder: did a guy kiss another guy with that much passion right out of the gate if it was all some kind of brand new experience? He'd kind of needed to warm up to the idea, get used to it step by step with Gerry, before deciding he liked it. That made him think Toby might have a few secrets of his own tucked away. And Chris wondered if he should let Toby know it was okay if he had some prior experience kissing guys -- maybe even doing a little more than kissing. Just so long as Chris was the only one he was kissing now.

And that was kind of remarkable, that he had no problem with giving that level of fidelity in return. Toby's little flashes of jealousy had taken him by surprise, sure, but they sort of tickled him, too. He'd never had anyone care that much; or, if Gerry or Kitty had, they'd never let him know it. Had they really thought the surest way to lose him was to stake some kind of claim? It felt sort of peculiar, true enough, having Toby so focused on him, but it was a nice kind of peculiar. He just hoped he wouldn't blow it, either by saying too much or too little. Why was it, he wondered, that he knew just the right way to get someone to open up to him but could never quite get it right when he was the one getting grilled? Up to now it had always been easier, in the long run, to just let someone make up his or her own little story about him. He wanted it to be different this time but it was hard, breaking out of a pattern that had become so ingrained.

He stopped at a page, shaking his head in embarrassed disbelief at what he'd written, a rough introduction to the piece on the wedding: 'The bride-to-be's ex-husband is Tobias Beecher, a tall, slim blond in his thirties and a member of one of New York's most blue-blooded families. The eldest son of noted Manhatten attorney, Harrison Beecher, Tobias is a highly accomplished lawyer in his own right.' The whole paragraph was like that, just blatant gushing about Toby. Chris shook his head again and hoped he would have located his journalistic objectivity by the time he sat down to really write the article.

And leaving aside his feelings for Toby, how the fuck was he going to write about Vern Schillinger with any kind of detachment? Somehow he didn't think what Devlin had in mind was anything like: 'The groom, Vernon Schillinger, 50, a widower with two sons -- Andrew, 17, and Henry, 16 -- made his first fortune in the Oklahoma oil fields and soon parlayed that into the burgeoning automobile industry. Currently, Schillinger is engaged in manipulating public opinion to follow his own brand of fascist and racist jingoism through his publications, The International Observer, previously a well-respected weekly news magazine, now regarded as an embarrassment in journalism circles; and The New York Sentinel, a daily newspaper which has taken tabloid yellow journalism to lower depths than anyone could have imagined. Often rumored to be considering a run for governor, with his sights set on the White House, it may interest readers to know that in addition to being a long-standing member of the Ku Klux Klan, Mr. Schillinger also numbers among his associates several highly placed members of the current regime in Germany; this reporter has reason to suppose the association reaches to the very highest person in that land, in fact. Additionally, friends and relatives of the new Mrs. Schillinger may want to know that there remain some unanswered questions regarding the sudden, unexpected death of his first wife, Arlene, four years ago.' Not that there really was any reason to think anything untoward had happened to the first Mrs. Schillinger, it just wouldn't surprise Chris if it had turned out that way.

"What're you smiling about?" Toby asked.

Chris blinked and looked over at him again, noting the calico was now curled up in Toby's lap. "Nothing," he said, knowing he wouldn't write anything like that, of course. He couldn't afford to, he needed this damn job -- thanks to Schillinger.

Well, and his own impolitic indiscretions, even though he still didn't think any of that should have counted against him. He may have pursued certain stories because of thinking they were issues people should know about, but he hadn't smudged any facts to slant a story to suit his views. And who he slept with sure as hell had never factored into anything. In a way it hadn't even been Schillinger firing him that had gotten stuck in his craw. He and Vern had rubbed each other the wrong way from day one, after all, so that Vern putting up with his attitude and smart mouth for most of a year was probably kind of remarkable if you stopped to think about it.

Nor was Vern even the first one to remark on his attitude. Gerry had told him once, sounding a little exasperated with him, 'You've been blessed with a great many gifts, Christopher -- you might think about acquiring some little bit of diplomacy sometime.' He'd thought that was sort of unwarranted, too, given all he'd done was give his honest -- solicited -- opinion of the most godawful painting he'd ever seen. How was he supposed to know the guy asking what he thought was the same one who'd painted the thing?

Chris thought he'd learned to be a little more tactful about things like that; a vague, 'I've never seen/read anything quite like it,' usually did the trick. For some reason, though, he'd just been provoked to tweak Vern right off the bat -- and then keep tweaking, giving it all an extra twist after he'd gotten back from Europe with a whole new perspective on his boss. He'd been so goddamn certain he could get away with exposing Schillinger, too, that his reputation would keep him secure. Yood killing his story on Lorca's assassination should have been all the warning he needed to button his lip and keep a low profile around the office. Instead he'd gone off half-cocked, positive he'd be backed up by his colleagues, stalking into Schillinger's office and demanding to know where some ignorant, Nazi asshole got off telling him what he could and couldn't write. Half an hour later he'd been cleaning out his desk in a room full of people all pretending they didn't know him.

That should have been warning number two, he thought, twiddling his pen as he read back over the biographical notes he'd already made on Giles. But as pissed off as he'd been at getting fired, he'd been just as confident he'd have another job by sundown. Or by the end of the week, and definitely before the month was out.

That's when Chris had discovered he'd been earning a whole other reputation all that time, and that he hadn't exactly endeared himself to a lot of people. 'Times are tough, Chris,' Yood had told him. 'People have to look out for themselves -- and that's not even starting on all the ways you've pissed people off. That sonofabitch'll can us all before he's done, but as long as the asshole is writing our paychecks we're only going to admire your balls from a distance.' All he'd really gleaned from that was that apparently he should have kissed more asses than he'd fucked. A lot of the outright gossip floating around about him wasn't even remotely true, especially the sex stuff. Jesus Christ, if he'd fucked even half the people he was rumored to have done he never would have gotten anything else accomplished. He guessed that made it kind of ironic that he'd wound up at The Tattler, dealing in half-truths and innuendo. It wasn't the kind of irony he could enjoy, though.

If there had only been himself to consider Chris liked to think he would have fought it harder. There'd been Kitty to think about, though, and house payments ... and a baby on the way. So when Devlin asked him to come to The Tattler, actually offering more money than he'd been making at The Observer and giving in on even frivolous demands, like requesting a private office, Chris had been in no position to turn it down.

And now...now sometimes he got to thinking writing half-assed gossip and celebrity profiles was all he'd ever been cut out for anyway. His novel had stalled so long ago he doubted he'd ever be able to get back to it. Just getting a short story completed had become a chore and without a lot of prodding and pushing from people like Mary Pete and Gerry, 'And Be A Villain' would probably have landed in the trash a long time back.

It was nice of Toby to think it was only false modesty and all, the way he kept downplaying his writing, but Chris knew it went quite a bit deeper. That was part of the frustration: knowing the problem, but not knowing how to fix it. The more time went by, the more he got to thinking any way he'd had with words, something he'd always been able to count on, had deserted him for good -- always assuming it had ever been real in the first place. Maybe writing for a rag like The Tattler was the apex of his talents and he should just pack it in and go work for Uncle Mike's paper back home.

Which was why he didn't spend a lot of time dwelling on it all and kind of wished Toby would let it be. Where was the sense in raking over all the ways things had gotten fucked up? For all the difference it made, Chris figured he might as well make the best of what life had handed him before too many more years went by, and not waste a lot of time thinking about all those little might have beens. That didn't get you anywhere.

No sense at all in thinking about the baby, he considered, turning to a fresh page in his notebook. It had only been a little more than four months along when Kitty had miscarried, after all, so he'd barely even started to really think about being a father when it became a moot point. He and Kitty had never talked about it much. Chris hadn't quite known what to say to her, for one thing, and couldn't even tell how bad Kitty had taken it because she'd just sort of put it away somewhere to keep to herself. Today he would have talked to Mary Pete about it, but back then Mrs. Reimondo had kind of been an unknown quantity and he'd taken his lead from Kitty and kept quiet about it, too.

Anyway, whatever disappointment he'd felt had to be pretty minor to what Kitty had gone through. Not to mention the guilt that colored it all for him. He had wanted the baby; he'd really been looking forward to it, even if the prospect kind of scared him. It was just, well, he'd been worried about how they were going to manage it all and had wished a couple of times that the timing could have been a little better. In his head he knew it was ridiculous to think that had somehow jinxed things -- but it was one more thing he figured it was best to keep to himself.

Yeah, that had gotten that new year off to a really great start, he thought, straightening up and looking around the room, gaze sliding past Toby. He got up, going over to one of the bookcases, idly checking the titles. Kitty had seemed like herself again, after a while, but things were never quite the same between them after that. He thought they had been making some real progress toward getting to know each other better, too, but after they lost the baby he guessed both of them had gotten a little gun-shy of getting too attached and the marriage had died a quiet little death.

And somehow he didn't think any of that was what Toby meant when he said he wanted to get to know him better. He only wanted to hear a good story, right, something to match this image he'd formed of Chris, and not have it cluttered up with any kind of personal crisis? As he slipped a book off the shelf and opened it, though, glancing overat Toby, Chris had to admit he wanted to find out he was wrong about that.

"Ah, there you are," Giles said, as he finally reappeared, carrying an old photo album which he set down on the coffee table. The silver tabby cracked an eye open to check this out, then, content the album was neither a threat nor something it could eat, resumed its snooze. "I'm afraid we're not terribly organized around here," he said, opening the album and turning several pages before finding what he was looking for.

Chris had sort of been gathering that impression. His own housekeeping skills undoubtedly left quite a lot to be desired, but trying to work in the rat's nest Giles called an office would have driven him nuts. Betty Giles was clearly made of sterner stuff. Putting the book down, Chris looked at the photograph Giles had located: a large, sepia-toned picture of a black Labrador. "That the original Gideon?"

"That's him," Giles said, looking fondly at the photograph, the inspiration for his first success: a series of books for children, featuring the brave and loyal Gideon.

Chris studied the other photos affixed to the black paper, most of them showing the dog playing with a boy he was pretty sure was Giles. "So," he settled back on the sofa, retrieving his notebook and pen as he shifted around to face the older man, "what prompted you to move away from the Gideon books to the Cyprian James mysteries?"

"Well, as much as I loved that old dog," Giles said, slipping off his glasses, "there were only so many ways I could have him coming to the rescue of Jack and Polly before people started to think those kids were a bit simple-minded -- always getting trapped in a mine-shaft or falling down a well."

Chris smiled, relaxing back against a cushion, aware Toby was paying close attention but not quite sure what he was getting out of all this. Actually being the object of someone's interest, Chris was finding, was sort of a perplexing and mixed blessing.

Idly stroking the cat's fur as she kneaded her paws against his leg, Toby watched Chris settle into the interview, wondering what had been running through his mind a couple of minutes ago. For a few moments there had been a look of such immeasurable sadness in his eyes that Toby had ached for him without even knowing why.

He wished Chris would let him have more glimpses like that instead of quickly masking it and hiding it away as Toby had watched him do when Giles came into the room. He wanted to know everything this man was thinking and feeling, all the things that had shaped him to this moment in time. That wasn't so much to ask, was it? He smiled a little ruefully at that, ruffling the cat's fur. He actually understood Chris being kind of skittish of laying himself bare like that, if that's what was making him reticent. It was a big risk, lowering all your carefully constructed defenses, opening yourself up to such a deep level of intimacy -- hiding in a whiskey bottle was far easier.

And that level of honesty had to run both ways, didn't it? If he really trusted Chris he should be able to confide everything in him. Toby wanted to; it was only his own reluctance to smack up against all his secrets that kept holding him back. He'd spent a long time avoiding so much of it, probably even rearranging certain moments in his head so it all played out very differently from reality.

Toby sighed and settled back, watching Chris and envying the easy way he had of coaxing information from his subject. Even when he aroused suspicion, as with Leo Glynn last night, Chris smoothed right over it without missing a beat. It made Toby glad Chris was using this gift to a good purpose because he'd hate to see what the other man might get up to with that combination of charm and manipulation if it was directed to some nefarious purpose. He smiled at that, although his appreciation was tinged with a flash of concern over how easily Chris had insinuated himself into the life of one Tobias Beecher. It was probably just as well he hadn't been inclined to put up much resistance since he had a feeling it might not have made any difference, not if Chris really had his sites set on him.

Funny, though, why had Chris been flirting with him almost right out of the gate? There was nothing like that in his manner now, with Giles; no, he'd put Giles at ease by approaching him as one writer to another, sharing that common experience. Toby wondered what in the world Chris had picked up on in him that had signaled the way to go was teasing seduction.

It didn't matter, of course, it was just...well, a little odd if he stopped to think about it. In theory he had always liked the idea of love at first sight, but until now he hadn't been given much cause to think it really happened that way. Granted, he had been drawn to David fairly early on, because of feeling kind of lonely and out of place at Harvard, but he'd been pretty cautious about really getting friendly with the other boy -- and he didn't want to think about David right, quickly shoving that memory back where it had come from.

Knowing there was no sense in sitting here, working himself up into some kind of fret, Toby reached over to shift the silver tabby slightly and tug the Black Mask magazine free. He brushed a couple of hairs off the cover as he got comfortable, turning to Chris' story, wondering if the story really would give himmuch in the way of insight into this perplexing and tantalizing man he was giving his heart to.

But -- every little piece of the puzzle helped, didn't it?

OK, after a long hiatus, this one is resuming production. Thanks to Christy for much nagging and nudging -- and inspiration. If you like this, she deserves some of the credit. Thanks, too, to Anne for coming up with the name of Chris' hometown. And if you want to see the painting referenced in the following, here's a link:


There's a bunch more to come yet...


Chapter Three, 3a/?

*...He picked up on the second ring and I told him what I had -- the times and places, photographs so he could picture it better. I told him I'd have it ready to hand over first thing in the morning if he wanted to stop by my office then. He must have wanted it bad, though, because he asked where was I now and couldn't we meet and get this done tonight. It was on the tip of my tongue to suggest some neutral meeting ground. The all-night diner on the corner, for instance, somewhere bright and noisy, nothing personal. I wondered which one of us was more surprised when I invited him over to my apartment instead. There was a quiet pause then and I figured he was working out a polite way to turn that down and propose an alternative. Instead, after another moment his voice spoke in my ear, saying that would be fine and he'd be there in half an hour. Then the click as he hung up, as if he wanted to get started over right that instant.

That was the first time Quentin Collier surprised me.*

Toby paused to push up his reading glasses, and then go back over the story so far, trying to decide if he was just imagining the innuendo going on between Quentin Collier and the private detective he'd hired, Thomas D'Angelo. A week ago he likely would have concluded yes, he was reading far too much into a phrase here or there. Of course a week ago he might not have picked up on anything at all.

He looked over at Chris, still chatting away with Giles, and thought about that, the double meanings buried in the text. Of course it would probably all come clear in the end and if not, he could always ask Chris about it. And if Chris got shy about that, well, he felt sure there was a way to get him over that as he listened in on the conversation. They were talking about how Giles had gotten started writing, with Chris coaxing biographical details out of Giles by offering up a few tidbits about himself. Naturally Toby's ears pricked up at that. He tried not to let on he was sort of eavesdropping, casually petting the cat as he listened to Chris talking about what had inspired him to write.

Toby had already surmised that his interest in journalism had been sparked because of his uncle publishing a small town newspaper, but the rest of it was brand new information to him. Now he learned that small town was upstate and located on the shores of Lake Ontario. Bellows Falls sounded like it had been a good place to grow up, although he still found it difficult to imagine Chris in anything but the most cosmopolitan setting. Toby hoped that picture of his hometown was mostly true. The only thing that made him question that fondly nostalgic sketch was Chris saying he had been inspired to write his own stories because of spending so much time by himself when he was growing up. Immersing himself in books Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn had been particular favorites had been his chief form of entertainment. And it had sort of been a natural progression, he was telling Giles, to go from losing himself in those stories to wanting to spin out some of his own.

Giles nodded and said it had been like that for him, too, and then proceeded to roll out the story of his life. Meanwhile Toby patted the cat and fretted a little over the images that had popped into his mind, of Chris all alone as a boy and finding escape from that loneliness between the covers of a book. He wished they could have known each other back then. He bet they could have had adventures that would have made Tom and Huck look like amateurs.

He was also experiencing a mild bout of pique, thinking he really shouldn't have to find out details like that in this roundabout way. Should he read something meaningful into that as well? he considered, gaze going back to the issue of Black Mask he'd set down on the couch. If Chris didn't hesitate to trot out bits of pretty personal information to assist him in getting his subject to open up, why was he so shy of revealing those same things to him? Had he been asking the wrong questions? Or ... No, maybe the error had been in the way he was asking. Toby didn't think he had been coming across like he was grilling a witness on the stand, but he could see how that approach might be so ingrained in his behavior that he wasn't even aware he was doing it.

Picking up the magazine once more, he had to admit that flash of pique was flavored with an infinitesimal trace of resentment as well. Well, maybe resentment was too strong a word. He didn't like that they weren't quite on an equal footing here. Thanks to his job, for instance, Chris likely knew a great deal about him -- from his date of birth to how much he was rumored to be worth, and anything else the gossips of the town had managed to insinuate and repeat so often it might as well be gospel truth by now. The truly intimate details, the potentially hurtful ones, were still thankfully under wraps, however. And he really did have to think about that, didn't he? How much was he prepared to confide in Chris? He guessed he might as well ask himself how much did he trust Chris, because that was the crucial element here especially since he'd been burned that way a few times before. Maybe that was even why Chris hadn't been a little more forthcoming: he was reluctant to do so when Toby had demonstrated so little inclination to share anything in return; he could be seeing that as Toby not trusting him, suspecting anything confided in him would turn up in The Tattler.

He sighed softly, wishing things weren't quite so murky. No time like the present to start clarifying things, though. It wasn't going to be easy to tell Chris a lot of that stuff, though. Off hand Toby wasn't even sure which items he was most reluctant to divulge. The stuff about Angus, yes, that was going to be the worst of it, but there were a couple of skeletons rattling around his own closet that he wasn't exactly eager to drag out into the light of day again. They were things a lover had a right to know, though.

Well, Toby found his place in the story again, if his writing was anything to go by Chris understood the necessity of keeping some things private, and that secrets coming to light could cause a lot of damage. Not that he could see that happening. The potential for harm should the beans get spilled had to be minimal. As long as they could trust each other, what could go wrong?

He sighed and read on, easily seeing why Giles had been inclined to rave about this story. It was kind of dark and {more} than kind of morally ambiguous -- it sure sounded like Quentin might be thinking of avoiding the fuss of a divorce, thereby keeping all the money and covering up his own indiscretions, by bumping off his wife. Was he going to get Thomas involved in that? Not to mention were the two men going to get even further involved with each other? Of course there was only so much Chris could have done that way in a story like this ... but reading between the lines was proving to be awfully interesting.

*..."You're not married, are you, Thomas?" he asked me, his eyes lingering on my left hand as though the absence of a wedding band was better proof of my marital state than our surroundings. I'd watched him look the place over when he arrived and had imagined he was comparing my cramped and Spartan digs to his palace on Park Avenue. The curious thing was, I hadn't seen any flickers of distaste or discomfort as he had accepted by invitation to make himself comfortable. If he was relieved to find I didn't inhabit the squalid and sordid environment he might have imagined, he hadn't given that away with any word or gesture. Actually he had been acting like he was enjoying making himself at home here -- which was probably as profound a comment on the state of his marriage, and of his life, as his having hired me in the first place.

But since he'd asked, I told him no, I hadn't had the pleasure of holy matrimony. He smiled at me as I spoke those words, just a slight pained and ironic upward lift of one corner of his mouth. The smile was mirrored in his eyes, with a shadow of despair. That might have been my first intuition this wasn't going to turn out well.

"The pleasure's up for debate," he said, settling deeper into the corner he'd claimed on my sofa. "As for the holiness..." His gaze moved to my beat-up old coffee table, to the photographs spread across it, and he tilted his head as if to say the holy state of matrimony sort of spoke for itself there.

I couldn't dispute that. And it wasn't exactly news to me. Looking at those pictures, the stark and unflattering black-and-white evidence of a wife's infidelity, I was struck less by the luridness of them than by a sense of sadness that permeated every scene -- that ran through this entire business. I would have liked to think it hadn't always been like that for Quentin and Linda. But what did I know? Maybe two people wound up exchanging those vows for all sorts of reasons that had nothing to do with love. Judging by those photographs, after all, it looked like you could have affairs for reasons that had nothing to do with seeking pleasure because Linda didn't look like she was having a good time in any of them.

"What will you do?" I asked him even though it was none of my business after this.

He replied with a small shrug, eyes thoughtful as he considered the photographs again. "I hadn't thought quite that far ahead," he said, and then looked up at me again. I got the feeling he wanted to see if I believed him. I must not have had my poker face on, though, because he smiled again with a little more humor and said, "What would you do, Thomas?"

At least I could answer him honestly. "I don't know."

Looking at me really serious, he asked me a funny sort of question then, "What wouldn't you do?"

I shook my head, not sure what he was getting at, and could only repeat, "I don't know."

That funny little smile tugged at his mouth again and he said, "Neither do I, Thomas -- that's what scares me."*

"Hmph, I'll just bet you are."

Chris blinked, distracted from what Giles was telling him about the friends who had been the inspiration for Captain Martin and Billy Taylor in All's Fair, and looked over at Toby. "What was that?"

Looking a little embarrassed, Toby sent him a silly smile, saying, "Uhm, nothing. I was just...talking to your story."

Giving him a harder look, Chris shrugged after another moment. "You do that a lot?"

Toby sent a stubborn look back. "Maybe. That a problem?"

Chris smiled. "Guess we'll have to wait and see." Aware Giles was paying them far too much attention, however, he just shook his head and checked his notes, picking up the thread of the interview. "Ah, so you had no idea the novel was going to stir up this controversy?"

Still favoring him with an indulgent smile, Giles said, "No, it was the furthest thing from my mind. I had envisioned it primarily as a romance in the old-fashioned sense of the word: a wartime adventure. Captain Martin and Billy were meant to symbolize, at least in the larger sense, the human potential to make something beautiful out of even the worst situation. It never crossed my mind that anyone would derive something salacious in that." He smiled, shrugged his shoulders. "They don't even kiss, for heaven's sake, everything about their romance is implicit."

"Well, it's a tribute to your words that you implied enough to stir that much up in everyone's imaginations," Chris said.

"I can't say I wouldn't wish some imaginations had been less lurid and more compassionate, however," Giles said, taking his glasses off to scrub the lenses. He sighed, smiling a little sadly. "We can't all be looking at the stars, I suppose."

No, Chris supposed not. He had a feeling the Vern Schillinger's of the world were probably happiest down in the gutter, actually. "Can I ask how your friends reacted to your using them as the basis for Captain Martin and Billy Taylor?"

"They were pleased." Giles slipped his glasses back on. "Their only concern going in was that I not reveal their actual names, which I'm sure you can understand. Otherwise they gave me permission to do as I pleased." He laughed softly. "Actually Billy told me he was disappointed the novel wasn't more daring."

Chris smiled with him and glanced over at Toby again, his smile growing fonder as he watched the golden head bent over the pulp magazine. If appearances were anything to judge by, the story was holding his interest, and that gave him a funny kind of warm glow. "So," he went on, still looking at Toby, "they've been together all this time?"

"Yes -- they celebrated their twenty-second anniversary earlier this year. I have to say, they've had one of the most successful marriages I've had the privilege of seeing."

Chris looked back at him, thinking that over. "Is that how they see themselves, as married?"

Giles nodded. "To all intents and purposes, yes. They carry on just the way Betty and I do," he added, a reminiscent look coming into his eyes. "We were all at an art show a few months ago -- the Gerald Markham exhibit at the Taylor Gallery -- and they got into the most ridiculous squabble over whether or not Markham had painted the right river or not. Billy insisted it looked a lot more like the Seine than the Thames, and Captain Martin said a river's a goddamn river and it wasn't like Markham had the Eiffel Tower in the background so what difference did it make? Billy said that was beside the point and Markham ought to suspect someone might know the difference. Of course, then the artist himself comes along -- none of us knowing that, however -- and says everyone knows this Markham fellow's just a daft bugger who sits around smoking opium all day and then paints whatever pops into his head, and it's a wonder any of it ever comes out right." Giles paused to take a sip of ice tea, still smiling. "Of course then the formal introductions were made and we all realized we'd been had. Markham came over afterwards to tell Billy, in the nicest way I must say, that he should bloody well know if that's the Thames or not since it's the view from his front lawn. I'm still not sure Billy was convinced, though."

Listening to the story, Chris smiled along with Giles, thinking that sounded about like Gerry all right. Maybe that had been the cause behind Gerry's good-natured grumbling about nitwitted Americans that night? "Are you an admirer of his landscapes?"

"Getting to be. Art's always intimidated me just a bit, but I'm finding if you ignore the critics and focus on what truly appeals to you, it's not so difficult. That's one of the reasons we're in some disarray at the moment, actually," Giles said, getting to his feet. "Betty and I are trying to work out where to put some of the purchases we've made. We have a Markham that I think is especially good."

"Which one?" Chris said, also getting up, curious to see what might have caught Giles' eyes -- and kind of hoping the old guy's appreciation went beyond buying something because it went with the sofa.

"It's called Before The Storm -- a river view, as a matter of fact." Giles led him to a large storage closet and took out a wrapped canvas, explaining, "I suppose this isn't the best place to keep it for the time being, but I worry about the cats getting at it if we left it anywhere else." He carefully removed the wrapping and propped it up against the wall. "I believe it's one he did in the 'Twenties."

Yes, it was, Chris thought as he bent down a bit to examine it more closely. "Nineteen twenty-six, actually August," he added with a smile, remembering all too well why Gerry had given it that title, as indicated by the dark clouds off on the horizon.

Watching Chris and Giles out of the corner of his eye, only able to catch scraps of what they were saying now, Toby tried to stay focused on the story, finding his place again:
*...So I wasn't all that surprised when I read the news a few days later.

I was having my breakfast at the diner down the street and reading someone's abandoned newspaper, the page-one story catching my eye right off. Millionaire socialite Linda Collier had been reported missing by her husband, who was said to be in a state of great anxiety.

I finished my coffee thinking Quentin must have discovered just how far he'd go.*

Hmm, Toby thought Thomas better watch what he was getting into there, as he looked up from the magazine again to see Chris and Giles taking a look at some painting. Unable to contain his curiosity any longer, he put the magazine down and shifted the cat out of his lap, earning a grumpy look for that, and went over to see what was going on. He had to say, he was impressed that Chris seemed to know quite a bit about it -- telling Giles it reminded him of a painting by Constable called Wivenhoe Park, and pointing out some features with a lot of familiarity, how there were a herd of cows in the Constable painting instead of the horses in this one, for instance.

Toby listened some more, curiosity further nudged as Chris spoke about the painter, some guy named Gerald Markham, with an even greater sense of familiarity, telling Giles a story about how the picture had been painted. Apparently there had been a weekend party of this Markham's estate and everyone had been out enjoying a beautiful summer's day, picnicking and all, when a storm had come up unexpectedly and made a mess of things. Much hilarity, it seemed, had ensued.

"It sounds like you know quite a bit about it," Toby said, feeling irrationally neglected as Chris fussed over the artwork.

Chris gave him a funny look, like he sort of thought something was up -- but wasn't quite sure. "I should -- I was there when Gerry painted it. Actually," he squatted down, peering even more closely at the canvas, and then pointing a long finger to one of the figures down by the riverbank, heaving a punt into the river, "that one's me."

Toby stared at him, not sure if his leg was getting pulled or not, and huffing a little of that disbelief. "You're in the picture?"

"Yep." Chris stood back up, looking completely serious.

Well... All Toby could do was huff again, not entirely sure he liked this particular revelation, even if he couldn't quite say why. He had a feeling there was a lot more to the story, though, and he meant to find out just how much.

Pretty sure he was correctly interpreting the look Toby had been giving him for the last five minutes 'Can we please get out of here?' Chris thanked Giles for his time, asking, "If you wouldn't mind, I'd like to have a colleague of mine, Marie Reimondo, come over sometime and take a few photographs to accompany the interview."

"That would be fine. Just let me know when you want to set up," Giles said, smiling as he escorted them to the front door. "Betty and I can straighten the place up just a bit that way."

Chris nodded, biting back a smile as Toby thrust his hat at him. "Okay. And I really do appreciate you doing this, it means a lot to me."

"It means a lot to me that you're interested in what an old fossil has to say about anything, Christopher." Giles walked with them part way down the steps. "And I meant what I said, you must go back to your novel and finish it, you're too good to let discouragement get to you."

Appreciating that, but kind of embarrassed by it as well, Chris shrugged. "We'll see."

Unexpectedly, Toby piped up at that. "The hell we will. You're going to finish that book."

Chris gave him an amused look. "I am, huh? You gonna make me?"

"Damn straight."

Grinning now, Chris shook his head. "Huh prissy and bossy."

"I'll prissy you," Toby returned, looking dead serious.

Looking like he was enjoying this far too much, Giles nodded, "That's the way, Tobias."

Chris just shook his head, following Toby on down the steps, thinking he was going to wind up with a lot more than he'd bargained for in this relationship.

With the top down, Toby slipped behind the wheel of the Packard and canted a playful look at Chris. "So -- where to?"

Chris checked his watch. "Actually I need to get back to The Tattler to pick up Mary Pete. We're supposed to go over our plans, work out any awkward details that might come up."

Toby nodded and pulled away from the curb, thinking there couldn't be any harm in taking a slight detour, however.

Chapter Three, 3b/?



"This isn't The Tattler Building," Chris said as Toby turned the Packard into the park, easing into a shady spot.

"Can't get anything past you." Toby shut off the engine and settled back comfortably on the seat, hands resting lightly on the steering wheel. "Are you in a hurry to get back? Maybe you need to finish up a riveting expos on Mickey Mouse?"

"Hey, don't underestimate that rodent, he could have hidden depths." Chris tipped his hat back as he watched him sitting there, looking crisp and sharp in a blue suit and white shirt, a pearl gray tie and handkerchief setting it off. He looked poised and polished, nothing to hint at the passionate nature Chris knew was bubbling away underneath. Not unless you looked a little closer and noticed his lips quivering as if he was holding back laughter; that glint in his eyes, just before he looked away, was also kind of a giveaway.

Not even about to guess what might be tickling him, but willing to bet he would find out soon, Chris sighed and looked out at the scenery. A pair of teenage girls, seventeen, maybe eighteen, peddled by on their bikes and coasted to a stop just past the Packard. They were both in shorts and sleeveless blouses -- white and pink for the brunette, navy and white for the redhead -- and had their hair pulled back in ponytails. For some reason it was suddenly vital that they fix their hair, shaking it out and running their hands through it before refastening the rubber bands. And the redhead must have developed a leg cramp or something because she stretched out the long limb, slowly massaging the calf and casting surreptitious looks over at the car to make sure he and Toby were getting a good look. In another minute, however, they were out of ways to remain stalled there, and with no sign of getting called over to the Packard the girls traded what were undoubtedly disgruntled looks before getting back on their bikes and taking off.

Chris slumped down in the seat, smiling as he watched them disappear around a turn. He caught another movement out of the corner of his eye then: Toby removing his hat and tossing it into the backseat. Wanting to be nonchalant about this, and failing miserably, Chris felt his breath softly whoosh out as Toby's hand touched his leg, fingers stroking slowly but surely along the inside of his thigh. Finally! He closed his eyes for a moment, absorbing that touch, absorbing what it meant: he could touch him again, kiss him again. Not that he'd been in a lot of doubt about that, but all the same...

He rolled his head towards him, his stomach doing a flutter at the tender hunger he saw in Toby's face, knowing the same hunger was in his own eyes. He had wanted that interview, yes but getting through it, through lunch, when what he really wanted to be doing was pounce on Toby, had taken all the discipline he possessed. "You know, I think we could be arrested for what's on your mind," he said as Toby reached over to snag his hat and fling it behind them as well.

"Want to risk it?" Toby scooted closer along the burgundy upholstery.

"Fuck yeah," Chris growled, reaching out to grasp the back of Toby's head and pull him close. No resistance met him, only yielding, warm lips.

It was as good as last night, he had remembered exactly right. Toby's wiry body came to life in his arms, holding him just as tight in return. Every spark of passion was met and matched, then notched up higher. And he wondered when that was going to stop hitting him like some kind of revelation.

Dragging his lips along Toby's cheek to his ear, he told him, "Christ, I've been wanting to do this all day." He kissed his ear. "I missed you all night."

Toby pulled himself closer, his hands slipping inside Chris' coat to knead his waist. "I know, I know," he whispered back, kissing the corner of his mouth. "I can't believe I let you leave, let you get in that taxi without kissing you again." He kissed him now, taking his time about it, pushing his tongue inside to flick against the roof of Chris' mouth. "God," he panted against his cheek, "I could feel your mouth on me all night -- I don't think I got more than two hours' sleep last night for thinking of you, wanting you with me."

Chris shuddered against him, as thrilled by that admission as by Toby's kisses and the way his hands stroked up and down his back, that touch scorching him right through the cotton of his shirt. "Yeah? Any thought in particular keep you awake?" he said, catching those golden curls at Toby's nape and tangling his fingers in them.

His own blunt fingers scratching through Chris' short hair now, Toby kissed the corner of his mouth again. "Everything, all of it," Toby said, voice pitched to the same conspiratorial level. "How your mouth tasted like coffee, how hot it was." He kissed his face, an eyelid, wrapping his arms around Chris and holding on tight. "What would have happened if my father hadn't come along."

Scooting around on the seat to hold him better, Chris nuzzled his nose against the hair at his temple. "What would have happened?" He felt Toby's body shake as that laughter bubbled up again and pulled back just a bit to give him a curious look. He was pretty sure he wasn't the being laughed at, but... "What?"

Merriment dancing in his blue eyes, Toby traced his face. "I'm not sure, but whatever it was I have a feeling Dad really would have gotten an eyeful," he said, his smile radiant. He hugged Chris close again. "God, it feels good to be with you like this. It's all I could think about last night: I was going to see you again today. I was going to be able to touch you again, kiss you again." He hugged tighter, like he couldn't ever get enough. "I dreamed about you," he confessed, whispered it in his ear. "Do you want to know what it was?"

Chris could only wordlessly nod against him, soaking up every touch, every word, and every glorious admission. And still he could hardly believe it was real, that it was happening. He half-expected the alarm clock to go off again any moment to awaken him from this incredible dream.

"We were out at the house," Toby told him, voice soft and warm, interspersing the words with kisses. "I'd dragged you off to this gazebo we have there." He paused, nuzzling against Chris' ear, licking the rim, "And it's sort of secluded and secretive, looking out over the ocean." He blew warm air against the damp skin and Chris shivered. "The trees are shadowing it as I bring you inside and we kiss, like this," he demonstrated by capturing Chris' mouth, sweeping his tongue along the kiss-swollen lower lip, swiping it against Chris' tongue. "We can't get each other undressed fast enough, though, and I just rip your shirt off because I can't wait a moment longer. I have to touch you, I have to touch you now," and he did, running his hand over Chris' chest, burning him through the cloth, fingers finding a nipple peaking against the white cotton and rubbing it. "Then our clothes are gone and we're on the floor of the gazebo the sun is warm on our bare skin, we can hear the surf pounding the shore," he ran a thumb over Chris' tender lips, looking right in his eyes, making that pounding surf sound incredibly erotic, "and there's nothing else in the world but us, there's nothing else for us to do except make love," he whispered into his mouth, kissing again.

"Oh, Christ." All Chris could do for a moment was hold him, tight, one hand buried in the golden hair as they ravaged each other's mouth. "Jesus...Toby..." He had to pause, forehead pressed against Toby's as he tried to catch his breath. "That gazebo's real?"

"Umm hmm."

"You'll show me when we get there?"

"Count on it." Toby rubbed his cheek against Chris', fingers digging into his hair. "Did you dream about me?"

"Uh-huh." Chris butted his head into that touch, just like a cat wanting to be petted.

"What?" Toby kissed his cheek. "What did you dream?"

He was almost afraid to say, it sounded stupid in comparison, but, "We were," he stopped to kiss the corner of Toby's mouth, "we were taking a bath together--"

"Yeah? Were there bubbles?" Funny, Toby didn't sound like he thought it was stupid.

"No, no bubbles," Chris murmured against his lips. "Just...just warm, soapy water, and..." He groaned, loud, as Toby delicately licked a path along his jaw. "And we were, uhm, seducing each other you were looking at me like," he snagged his hands in Toby's hair, holding him still for a moment so he could kiss his lips, "like you could eat me alive, and I was touching myself to get you to come on over and do it," he nuzzled Toby's ear, bit the lobe gently, "and my fucking alarm clock went off before it really got good."

"It was going to get good, though?" Toby was trying to climb right in his lap.

"Yeah, fuck yeah." He buried both hands in Toby's hair, raining kisses all over his sweet face. "It was already so good I..." Oh, geez, he couldn't tell him he'd jerked off daydreaming about him.

"What?" Toby was looking at him, his face alight with curiosity. "What?"

"I had to...you know."

Eyes sparkling, Toby shook his head. "No -- what? You had to ... what? Put the cat out, balance your checkbook, toast marshmallo--"

Chris laid his hand over that impossible, kissable mouth. "Jerk-off -- I had to fucking jerk-off, you lunatic," he told him, laughing with him.

And far from looking embarrassed, Toby looked like that tickled him, too. "At least you got to," he told him. "I was barely getting started when Gussie and Dad decided my bathroom was suddenly the place to be."

Smiling, loving that it made him happy, Chris pulled him closer, as close as they could get, sighing with tremendous satisfaction as Toby's arms tightened around him. He lowered his head into the crook of Toby's neck, just breathing him in for a moment, feeling so much more than he thought he contain. He groaned, almost rumbled with pleasure as he felt Toby stroking his hair. Pulling back just a ways, just enough to look into his face and almost losing himself in those gorgeous eyes, blue as the sky. He felt like he needed to say something, put what he was feeling into words. All he could think of, though, was, "I love you. Christ, Toby, I love you," the words welling up from his heart. He whispered them once more, against his cheek, winding him arms around him again and just holding on, feeling the truth of those words -- the power of them for almost the first time in his life. How could something be so huge, so powerful, and yet feel so delicate and fragile, too?

He sighed again, letting the feeling wash through him -- but then going still, afraid this wonderful thing was already starting to shatter as he felt Toby draw back, as seconds ticked by with no response. Oh God. He opened his mouth to try and take the words back, "Toby, I..." but he faltered, nothing else coming to him as he gazed into Toby's face, gone so serious and solemn now. "I--"

Toby's hand pressed against his mouth, then curved along his cheek, thumb brushing his lips. "Chris... Oh Chris." The grave solemnity gave way to an awestruck delight, his expression brightening like the sun coming out. "I love you," he said in the next moment, that joyful astonishment coloring his voice. He said it again, "I love you, Chris, I love you," and pulled him into another kiss so soft and tender it brought a sting of tears to his eyes.

Was it supposed to be like this? Chris wondered. Was it supposed to feel so good it hurt? He didn't know, he didn't know anything except that he couldn't get enough of holding Toby, of touching him and kissing him, wanting to do a fuck of a lot more besides. The way Toby was squirming around, practically in his lap now, was extremely gratifying, too -- or, it was until Toby's maneuvering made Chris slip sideways and whap his head into the glove box. "Oww -- fuck!" Chris sat up, rubbing his head, dislodging a contrite Toby in the process.

"Oh, Christ, I'm sorry. Are you -- goddammit!" Toby complained as he smacked his own head on the steering wheel, the horn blaring for a moment.

Nursing their bumps, they looked at each other, aggravation and emotional excesses bleeding off in a burst of laughter, like popping the cork on a champagne bottle.

After a while, when they had caught their breath and swiped tears of laughter out of their eyes, Toby gave him a comical look and said, "We could always try the backseat."

Chris consider that, weighed the odds of those girls or someone else coming by at some inappropriate moment, and said, "Maybe some other time." He suspected they might have tempted fate enough for today. He didn't want to let this go just yet, however, and got out of the car, holding his hand out to Toby. "Come on."

Toby gave him a long thoughtful look before climbing out of the car. "Where are we going?"

Feeling a little stupid, Chris let his hand fall to his side. Of course they weren't going to stroll hand-in-hand through the park -- what was he thinking. "Ah, nowhere in particular, if that's okay?"

"Nowhere in particular is fine," Toby said, looking ready to follow wherever Chris might lead. That went a ways to making up for the feeling foolish part.

What helped more was Toby touching his arm as they walked along, clasping his hand and squeezing as if to reassure him. Slanting a cautious look at him, Chris felt that flutter in his belly again. There was no mockery, no embarrassment in those blue eyes. Nothing but the same warmth and understanding that had been there all along. He nodded after a moment, squeezing back and then letting go, knowing it was safe to do that.

As they walked across Bow Bridge, they paused to lean against the sun-warmed stone rail and watch some of the boaters out enjoying the lake. Toby tracked the progress of one rowboat in particular, saying, "Those two are ending up in the water, I'd bet on it." He pointed out the pair of college-age boys showing off just a little too much for the benefit of the college-age girls watching from the shore.

Chris sent him an amused look. "That your expert opinion?"

"Umm hmm. That one standing up, taking a bow? He's just asking for trouble." And sure enough, even as Toby spoke the kid unbalanced and plunged over the side, overturning the rowboat and taking his friend with him in the process. Both kids bobbed back up immediately, but had already lost their audience: the girls had just given a collective shake of their heads and were heading over to see what an older guy with a camera was up to. "Weight distribution's crucial," Toby went on, "you have to be really careful how you move around in those things."

"You'll have to give me a demonstration sometime," Chris said, managing to flavor it suggestively. Then, giving him a sort of sheepish look, he admitted, "I was always kinda on a par with those two." He indicated the boys who had now slogged their way to shore.

Toby found that hard to believe; Chris had an air about him that said everything was effortless for him, especially if it involved some kind of athleticism. Possibly appearances were somewhat deceiving, however. He thought about that as he leaned back against the railing and watched the man beside him, remembering his first impression of him -- all of three days ago. Those initial assumptions hadn't been wrong, he suspected, so much as simply incomplete. First impressions tended to be like that. And he could admit to being gratified to have given Chris cause to reevaluate him -- especially that prissy part.

He smiled at that, letting the smile grow warmer and more intimate as Chris turned to look at him. For that instant all he wanted to do was drink in the sight of him, memorize how the sun warmed his skin and sparkled his eyes. Well aware of this appreciative scrutiny, and clearly not minding in the least, Chris stood a little straighter, head cocked slightly to the side with a smug smile playing over his lips. Toby could hardly raise any objection to that given Keller had so much cause for preening.

Toby's gaze lingered over him, admiring the cut of the dove-gray suit and how it set off his broad shoulders and narrow hips. He really liked the way the red tie was loosened just a bit, his collar unbuttoned -- as if it wouldn't be too much of an effort to remove the necktie altogether and unfasten a few more buttons.

Unconsciously licking his lips at the thought, Toby cast a speculative look over at a beautiful old weeping willow just across the way. Its branches drooped low over the walkway and almost touched the surface of the lake. It looked dark and secretive, beckoning them to come over and get lost among its shadow. That was a temptation Toby felt absolutely no inclination to resist.

"Come on," he said, catching hold of Chris' hand and tugging lightly at his fingers before slowly backing away along the gentle curve of the bridge. Needing no second invitation, Chris followed him into the seclusion of the willow.

In that shadowy spot, Toby pressed him back against the tree, looking at him again. For a moment all he could feel was the same kind of stunned amazement as when Chris confessed his love. Those words shouldn't have come as a surprise, they should have registered as a statement of the obvious -- he knew that, and still couldn't quite get over being bowled over by it. He took some comfort in knowing Chris had been just as powerfully affected. He took even more in discovering Chris was no more prepared for the enormity of all this.

"Toby?" Chris was looking at him, a trace of uncertainty in his eyes. "Hey -- you in there?" he said, touching his face, a thumb stroking along his eyebrow.

He looked into those serious blue eyes and smiled. "I'm here," he said, cupping his hands around the back of Chris' neck. "I'm right here with you." There was nowhere else he ever wanted to be. And he leaned in, kissing his face, kissing his mouth, to prove it -- maybe to himself as much as Chris.

Chapter Three, 4a/

Toby nuzzled Chris' ear and jaw, felt the powerful body tremble in his arms, and wondered if it should tickle him quite so much to know he had this strong an effect on the other man. He drew back far enough to look into blue eyes gone a shade darker and smiled with thoughtful mischief. Loving the suspicious, not-quite-believing flicker in those eyes, he tugged that red silk tie loose and undid some more of those buttons.

"Toby, I don't think--"

He quieted him with a kiss. "I do. Besides, I owe you something."

Heavy brows drew together, blue eyes quizzical. "What?"

"You'll see." Although maybe not until the next time he looked in a mirror.

He slipped a hand inside Chris' shirt to caress his chest, cupping his hand over a swell of pectoral muscle to feel the tender flesh of a nipple jut against his palm. He rubbed his hand back and forth, drew the tips of his fingers over that hardening nub, pulling, and felt a shudder of pleasure run through his lover.


"Shh." He whispered it against the hollow of his throat, tongue darting out to lick him there as Chris tilted his head back against the tree, breath shivering out in a moan. No, Toby decided he had every right to be tickled that Chris responded to him like this. He'd waited a long time for something like this.

Chris found his voice then, rough, a little breathy. "You tryin' to kill me, Toby?" His hands were busy kneading Toby' shoulders, his arms and the back of his neck. No effort at all was being put into trying to make him stop.

Loving that, Toby smirked and licked him again, blowing warm air against damp skin and feeling him shiver again. "Nope." He raised his head to look at him, just soak up the sight of an aroused and needy Christopher Keller: lips parted, eyes dilated so only a rim of blue was visible, cheeks flushed with more color, chest rising and falling rapidly. Toby's own breath caught at that vision, at the knowledge it was all because of him. If the conscious idea of a seduction had entered his brain upon meeting this man, he would sworn on everything holy that he would have been the one pursued and entice. And that he would have made Chris work for every scrap if there been any inclination to succumb. Funny how things worked out.

As much as the idea of love at first sight had always appealed to him, that notion of there being one special person you were meant to encounter, Toby wasn't sure he'd really believed it. He knew he had not been prepared for it to really happen. Momentous, life-altering events were much easier to deal with in the abstract, he suspected -- or with a good bottle of scotch to blur the edges. That was good, though, wasn't it, that as much as this thing with Chris threw him for a loop he wasn't making a run for it, wasn't longing to chase these feelings away with alcohol. He'd come a long way since last summer -- since a long time before that ... but he didn't want memories of David spoiling this and pushed them back, deep down into their special little box.

This was different. Chris was different. More importantly Toby knew he wasn't the same frightened, confused boy who had gotten tangled up with David in the first place. He wasn't even the same guy who, last summer, had refused to acknowledge the accusations his mother hurled at him that last awful night. As bad as that had been at least it had provided the catalyst that allowed him to be here, welcoming Chris into his life and heart. He just hadn't realized any kind of metamorphosis had been taking place until it walked up and kissed him.

"What's twisting through your head now?" Chris said, murmuring the words against his cheek.

"Lots of things," Toby whispered back, twining his arms around him and trying to pull himself even closer -- shivering as he felt Chris' hands at his waist, at the small of his back.

"Anything in particular?"

"Well, now you mention it," Toby nuzzled his ear a moment before pulling back, touching Chris' chest, "I'd like to know more about how you happened to be there when that picture was painted."

Chris' mouth twitched with a smile, sort of dubious, like he found it hard to take this seriously. "You would, huh?"

"Umm hmm." Mostly he wanted to know just how well Chris had known the painter because there had been an awfully fond, affectionate tone in his voice as he'd spoken of this Markham guy. It didn't matter, not exactly. Logically Toby knew Chris had not just magically sprung into existence the instant he had laid eyes upon him, that others had wanted him, touched him -- but logic didn't have a whole lot to do with this.

That skeptical smile shifted to something more like a smug and cocky smirk, like he thought it was cute Toby was reacting like this. His tone of voice confirmed that as he said, "You gonna work yourself up into a tizzy?"

Toby narrowed his eyes, suddenly wanting to wipe that smirk off his face and chase away any memories of this Markham guy or anyone else lingering around -- he wasn't sure he didn't kind of resent Kitty, come to that. "Well, we'll just see who gets worked up, won't we?" he said and bent his head back to its earlier task. He pushed cloth out of his way as he kissed a slow trail along a beautifully formed chest, wishing he could strip him naked here and now and really feast his eyes. Later ... soon ... not soon enough, he thought and lashed his tongue over a hard little nipple, sucking for a moment before popping back up to claim Chris' mouth and swallow the groans that welled up. His hands curved around Chris' head, Toby held him still to snatch one kiss, then another, nibbling his lower lip a moment before swiping his tongue along the tender flesh inside. Mouth grazing along his cheek, Toby's tongue traced the join of ear and jaw, pressing harder as he found one particular spot that made Chris groan even louder. Pleasure shot through Toby as his lover clutched at him, as the dark head rolled against the smooth trunk of the tree. He could feel the big, strong body practically get weak in the knees as Toby kissed and lick at that tiny spot, just there, again and again. It was extremely tempting to mark him there for all the world to see -- but he decided to resist this time. He would file it away for future reference, however.

Feeling he had made his point, Toby kissed his way back to the panting mouth. He brushed their lips together, adoring the tiny, almost plaintive whimper as he lowered his head to the base of Chris' throat. It felt pretty good to have the upper hand, all right, especially since he never would have guessed he had it in him.

So he wasn't quite prepared to have the tables turned.

Oh God oh God ... Chris could barely frame a clear thought much less put it into words. The entire world had narrowed down to this -- Toby's mouth hot on his skin, lavishing sensation on him. He tried to catch his breath in little gasps; mostly he tried to just remain upright, welcoming the support of the tree at his back. Fingers tangled in Toby's hair, he pulled and tugged, hard, as that soft tongue caressed him over and over, as he felt Toby sucking, biting him. It was so ... fucking ... good. Oh Christ...

"Bastard." He growled it against Toby's mouth as he pulled his head up and shoved him against the tree. He breathed it again, "Bastard," making it something like an endearment as he licked and nibbled those tender, maddening lips.

Calmer -- barely -- he pressed their foreheads together again, running his hands along Toby's sides. He smiled, loving the way Toby quivered and squirmed closer. He loved the soft whimpers of pleasures that slipped from Toby's mouth as he slid his hand lower, down over that cute little ass, and squeezed.


Capturing Toby's hands, Chris raised them above their heads, pressing Toby back against the tree trunk and ravishing his mouth. He couldn't remember the last time he'd kissed like this. Fuck, it never had been like this. He groaned again and burrowed his mouth into Toby's neck, thrusting his hips against Toby's, wanting him so bad.

"Oh, Christ ... Toby ..." He let go of Toby's hands, started to step back before they really got too carried away. He'd barely put a sliver of daylight between their bodies when strong arms clamped around him and hauled him back. That still-hungry, kiss-swollen mouth latched onto his once more as Toby pressed into him, bumping his hips unmistakably.

"jesus ... jesus ..." He dragged his mouth away, rubbing his cheek against Toby's. "We gotta... oh god ... we gotta stop..."

"Uhm uhm." Toby just tried to pull him even closer.

"Tobe..." He held him tight, stroking his hair, feeling the slim body quiver in his arms. He kissed his face, his temple, trying to soothe him. "It's okay, baby," he whispered, almost crooning it. "Come on, come on."

Another shudder ran through the warm, wiry body, then a whoosh of breath, and the golden head settling on his shoulder after another moment. "Oh God..."

Chris echoed that silently, wondering what was going to happen if they ever actually made it all the way to bed. It was either going to be spectacular, or kill them.

"So Gerald Markham?" Toby prompted when they were seated side by side on a bench in Bethesda Terrace.

Chris gave him a sideways look, wanting to smile but thinking twice. Granted, Toby was unlikely to turn into a wildcat out here in front of everyone but he was still going to be careful about teasing him in the future. "So what about him?" He had a suspicion of what this was about but it just seemed too ridiculous to be taken seriously.

"He was a friend of yours?"

Chris decided to correct the tense and see what happened. "Yes, he is a good friend."

Sky blue eyes flicked his way, mouth starting to set up a little pouty. "Well how long have you known him?

"Since I was nineteen."

Incredulity was blatant in those light blue eyes now as Toby scooted around to face him, the gears almost visibly shifting in his head, and Chris got the feeling they were going to be here for a while.

Thanks as always to the HiSoc beta group, to all the nudgers at the TS list, and to Nudgemaster General Christy for endless inspiration and encouragement. All
mistakes, etc. are the sole property of the author. Oh and credit to Christy for a certain joke towards the end.

And a couple of URLS so you can check out some things mentioned here, if they catch your interest:

http://www.geocities.com/CapeCanaveral/Hangar/7630/indexHistory01.html Lafayette Escadrille

http://www.architectureweek.com/cgi-bin/awimage?dir=2002/0123&article=design_1-1\ .html&image=11690image1.jpg

Chapter Three - 4b

Settled back, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle, Chris watched those two girls walk their bikes over to the fountain and lean them there. With an apparently casual glance over at him and Toby, the girls sat down on the ledge and drank the Cokes they'd bought. No one else was showing any interest in the two of them -- and he was only too aware of having Toby's undivided attention.

He sighed, really wishing they could just sit here and enjoy the beautiful summer's day. He didn't know about Toby, but it wasn't often he had the chance to just look at the flowers or listen to the birds. Of course it also wasn't that often he was able to steal a few moments like this, with someone he could really see himself spending the rest of his life with -- huffy fits of jealousy and all.

"So -- how did you meet this guy? Did he come to Bellows Falls to paint the scenery or something?"

Chris shook his head, remembering not to smile. "No, I went away to college. Or did you forget that part?"

Toby gave him a sour look. "No, I didn't forget. So you met him at Georgetown?"

"Not at Georgetown, but because I talked Uncle Mike and Aunt Kate into letting me go over to Europe with some friends I'd made there." Thinking it might help demonstrate that Toby was attaching far too much importance to it all, Chris scooted over just a bit so his shoulder was pressed to Toby's. Well, and it was kind of nice to touch him, of course. Chris took a moment to enjoy that casual, comfortable intimacy before adding, "They were kind of reluctant to let me loose that far from home--"

"Gee, I wonder what they were afraid might happen?" Toby remarked, kind of cute and sarcastic.

"Can't imagine." Chris shrugged, his shoulder brushing Toby's. "Anyway, I wore 'em down and took off." He frowned, falling silent as he watched the fountain spray water, his gaze lingering on the bronze angel that adorned it. Trying to make it sound like it hadn't been that big a deal, he went on after a pause, "Mostly I wanted to see if I could find my father's grave, over in France." He must not have done a very good job of playing that down because Toby reached to take his hand, squeezing gently.

"You said he was killed he was the war."

"Yeah." Chris gave him a curious look. "You ever hear of the Lafayette Escadrille?"

"Umm, yes. Weren't they a group of Americans who went over to fight in France, before Woodrow Wilson officially got the U.S. involved?"

Huh, cute and smart -- no wonder he loved him. Chris smiled and squeezed his hand back. "Yep, all of them pilots. That's what my dad joined up with in Nineteen-sixteen." He squinted off into the distance, not seeing the park anymore. He was seeing his father -- tall and handsome, standing at the ship's rail in the Baltimore harbor and waving goodbye to him and his mother. He could see her, too, in her old-fashioned long dress; her best dress with lace at the collar and pinned with the cameo brooch she'd always treasured. The breeze had tugged at loose strands of her dark hair and her blue eyes, like his, had been brimming with tears as she clutched his little hand and waved farewell to his father. None of them knowing it was the last time they would ever see each other. With an effort Chris pulled himself back to the here and now. There was no sense dwelling on that, it was all so long ago. He cleared his throat and continued after a bit, not risking a look at Toby even though he could feel his gaze. "Anyway, umm, we got word just a few months later that he'd been killed. My mother wanted to have his body returned to the States, but... I don't know, I think she was already too sick to get it done. Later on Uncle Mike checked around and found out Dad had been buried in a little village over there, and," he shrugged again, "I'd always wanted to find the grave."

Toby squeezed his hand again, giving him a curious, troubled look. "What was the matter with your mother?"

"Tuberculosis," he said, remembering how pale she'd been in those last months, all of her energy waning. "We went out to Colorado Springs, to a sanatorium there, where she was supposed to get some treatment. She never came out." He bit his lip, trying not to get bogged down by that memory.

He felt Toby move even closer to him, heard his soft, "Tell me," and looked around at him, his breath catching in his chest for a moment at all the warmth and understanding in Toby's face. The other night when he'd gotten that feeling that Toby could know him better than anyone else, Chris hadn't exactly known what was going on. Now... Now he didn't know how he'd ever lived so long without that.

"Ah," he shrugged, "it's nothing really, just... " He chewed his lip again, thinking. "Uncle Mike couldn't get out to Colorado to pick me up so I had to go back to Baltimore by myself. This nun, Sister Magdalene, put me on the train and told me my mother was there, too, that her body was in a coffin way in the back." He pulled up a sad, rueful smile. "I didn't get a lot of sleep on the trip thanks to that. Anyway," he pushed that away, the nightmares that plagued him for a long time afterwards, "Uncle Mike met me at the station in Baltimore and took care of the funeral and everything. It was winter," he added, seeing it all so clearly even after more than twenty years, "but they must have found some flowers somewhere because I remember her casket was strewn with purple irises -- those were her favorites. That was the only color, just that purple and the snow on the ground and everyone dressed in black." He fell silent, intensely aware of Toby watching him and hoping he hadn't said a whole lot more than Toby had really wanted to know.

The way Toby slipped an arm around his shoulders, tugging him close and whispering, "I'm sorry -- but thank you," looked like a good indication Toby didn't think he'd said too much.

Chris took a deep breath, remembering how he'd thought turning it all into a piece of fiction would help him deal with all those memories. And to some extent it had, but they still had the power to sneak up and wallop him every now and then. Maybe being able to share those memories with Toby could help even more? It was worth thinking about anyway.

"Anyway," he felt Toby rubbing his arm comfortingly and looked at him, smiling to show he appreciated that and that it really was all right now, "I was poking around this little village just a ways north of Paris, and not making a whole lot of progress because of not exactly being able to speak French." His smile turned rueful at that. "I was sitting at this caf, about ready to give it up and head back to Paris to try and hook up with my friends, when this guy comes along lugging his paints and canvas and stuff. He sits down at another table and takes out a sketchbook, keeps looking over at me and then sketching, and I'm kind of wondering what's up when he smiles and says he's Gerald Markham and he hopes I don't mind, he's just real struck by my profile." Chris still wasn't sure if Gerry had been a hundred percent honest about that. "We got to talking and he figured out I was kinda lost because of the langauge, and offered to help me out. I don't know -- we just hit it off really well. We corresponded a lot over the next few months, then the next summer he invited me to come visit him in England."

There was a long silence beside him, then one of those little huffy sounds, followed by, "And your aunt and uncle let you go?"

Chris turned to give him a mildly exasperated look. "I was twenty years old -- how were they going to stop me?" Of course that didn't mean Uncle Mike and Aunt Kate hadn't tried, endlessly quizzing him about Gerry, and saying he was his parents all over -- flighty and irresponsible, without an ounce of common sense in his head. Looking back he could see how they could've had some real concerns about him taking off like that, worried he was getting in over his head. That didn't mean it wasn't still something of a sore point for him, though, and he didn't much like going through it all again with Toby. "You know, you're assuming a hell of a lot."

Toby gave him a sharp look, not quite as warm and welcoming now. "Yeah? So I'm wrong?"

With something close to his own huff, Chris frowned at him, saying, "Why does it matter? I mean," he sat up straighter and turned to face him, "it's not like you've never done this before." It was a shot in the dark, sure, but he found it awfully hard to swallow that this was something brand new for Toby.

He could tell it hit home, too, with the way Toby shifted away just a fraction, a stubborn, cross look settling over his face. "We're not talking about me," he said, a hint of frost in his tone.

Big surprise there. "No, of course we're not." Chris couldn't quite get the frosty sarcasm out of his own voice. He wasn't sure he wanted to.

Toby looked at him a long time then before he sighed and sat back. "Chris... I don't mean to sound like I'm cross-examining you. It's just," he shrugged, "I want to believe this is as special, as unique for you as it is for me."

"Toby," he touched his arm, "it is. Look at me," he said, more gently now and eager to chase away the doubts lurking in those pale blue eyes. "Yes, I have slept with my share -- more than my share, maybe," he amended with a wry grimace, "but this, you and me, Toby -- this is different. I have not felt this way before, I swear." He looked intently into his face, wishing they could be alone again so he could prove it to him a little more emphatically. Would that even be enough, though? If he knew more about Toby's previous experiences he thought it would give him a better idea of how to approach all this. As it was, all he knew for certain was that Toby had amicably divorced his wife -- and even that was probably open to interpretation. There were some awfully mysterious undercurrents running through all of that, he'd picked up on that much right from the start. But he didn't want to have to rely on nothing but his intuition for this, it was too important for that. "Look, whatever you want to know, just ask. It's like I said, though, it ain't that interesting."

It was Toby's turn to look exasperated -- something he seemed to be pretty good at. "And you will forgive me if I think that's a self-deprecating load of bullshit.

Chris blinked, glaring back at him. "You know, you mighta missed your calling by not going into diplomacy."

"I've spent my entire life being diplomatic, saying just the right thing, politely avoiding what was really important. And you know what, Keller?" Toby said, grasping his arm. "Fuck that -- you, what's going on here, is too goddamn important to be polite about it. You've got me, I'm hooked, so knock it the fuck off with playing Mr. Enigma. Okay?" He shook him a little, just for emphasis.

Staring back, pretty much floored again -- all Chris could say for a moment was, "Jesus Christ."

"Yeah, he's not here -- you are, talk. How old was this Markham when you met him?"

Still giving him a hard stare back, Chris told him, "Two or three years older than we are now," and watched as he thought that over.

"Yes, well," clearly Toby was only slightly mollified by that, "even so, he was a lot older than you."

"And you're still making a lot of assumptions."

"And like I said -- am I wrong?"

Chris was feeling just as stubborn right then, remembering how so many of Gerry's friends had assumed they understood the arrangement between him and Gerry, how Gerry was keeping his young American lover. Some of them, like Pierce, taking their presumptions even further by thinking Chris would make himself available to anyone if the price was right. "You want me to tell you he seduced me, took advantage of me?" he said, the frost back in his voice.

"If that's what happened -- yes."

"Well it isn't. He liked me--"

"Hmph, I'll bet he did."

"Okay," Chris got up, glowering down at him, "if you're gonna be an asshole about this--"

"Chris," Toby jumped right up, laying a hand on his arm, trying to placate him, "I don't mean it that way."

"The fuck you don't," Chris returned stalking off.

"Chris, damn it," Toby followed right on his heels and grabbed his arm, holding him still, "will you stop this?"

"Me?" Chris shot him an incredulous look. "You're the one who fucking started it."

"I did -- " Toby caught himself, a frustrated look flashing across his face. "All right, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to act like that."

Arms folded over his chest, Chris regarded him a little dubiously. "Yeah, and if this is how you don't cross-exam me--"

"I'm sorry." Toby gave him that stubborn look again. "Look, will you sit down, please?"

Looking back just as stubbornly, Chris shrugged after another moment and settled down on another bench. "So?" he said, hands in his pockets and his legs stretched out again, appearing a lot more nonchalant than he felt just then.

Toby sat beside him, breathing out a tiny sigh. Leaning forward, hands clasped between his knees, he said, "Were you more than friends? And don't tell me that shouldn't matter -- it does. You're just going to have to deal with that."

Taking some time to think that over, Chris let out his own small sigh after a bit and nodded. "Yeah, we were. But not until we'd known each other a couple years. And nobody took advantage of anybody else."

Toby sat up straighter, giving him a grudgingly interested look. "But he did seduce you?"

Chris took his hands out of his pockets, sitting up as well. "Yeah, I guess you could call it that, but only 'cause I asked him to."

That got him another long, slow look with incredulity clear in those light blue eyes. "And just how to you ask somebody to seduce you?"

Since he had never actually sat down to examine that, at least not since working himself up to the idea in the first place, Chris was stumped for a minute. It didn't help that he suspected the next words out of his mouth were potentially more important than he could see right this instant. On the one hand, it seemed to him that this was all a lot harder than it needed to be, but on the other hand -- he scooted around to face Toby, just taking a moment to look at him sitting there with the sunlight making his hair shine like gold, eyes just as bright with interest and expectation -- Chris had to admit there wasn't a question in his mind about this all being worth the trouble.

And after all, didn't he want to know all about Toby, right down to the most mundane things? So maybe it was only natural for Toby to be just as curious right back, even to the extent of attaching consequence to things Chris didn't think were in any way significant. He couldn't even explain where his reticence to talk about himself came from, except that a lot of the time when he had confided in Kitty, for instance and even Gerry sometimes it had often felt like he was just talking to himself. Sometimes even when he was sure he'd had their interest he couldn't tell if they understood just what he was getting at or not, much less if they really wanted to try. He guessed he'd fallen into the habit of assuming things himself, like how if someone was paying him attention it wasn't because they wanted to know his life story or what was on his mind. He'd never had anyone this tuned into him and wasn't quite sure what to make of it. It felt ... good, though. So maybe it wouldn't be any kind of hardship to get used to it?

He shot a cautious glance around to see if anyone was paying them attention now -- it looked like the girls had given up on them in favor of some boys nearer their own age -- then reached over to cup the back of Toby's neck and give him a gentle squeeze. "Look," he guessed he would give this his best shot and hope to Christ he found just the right words because he really did want Toby know, it was only that he didn't want him making too much out of it, "I was twenty-two and a long ways from Bellows Falls, seeing a whole new world spread out for me." Not to mention the raging hormones that had encouraged him to cut a swath through the hometown girls hadn't slowed down a bit. He hadn't been close to feeling any kind of dissatisfaction with that situation, either, not back then. Smiling, moving his hand but staying close, he added, "And if you really gotta know, it all started kind of stupid."

"How do you mean?"

"What you said about me being the Bohemian type? Well," he went on as Toby nodded, "I don't know how true that is, but it's a good description of the crowd Gerry hung around with -- and I wasn't exactly what you'd call polished and sophisticated about all of it at the time."

Toby smiled at that. "You gawked?"

"Yep." He frowned, remembering the memory still stinging just a bit, although he didn't want to let on about that. "If I'd been a dog or cat," he added with a wry smile, "I'd have thought my name was gauche faux pas, I heard that so many times." He grinned then to show Toby it hadn't been that significant. "I felt like a kid at the zoo a whole lot of the time -- sometimes even Gerry didn't find that charming." Which was at the root of why things could never quite work between them, as close as they might have gotten, because even Gerry couldn't quite let well enough alone and accept him as he was and not want to tinker him into shape. "See," he let his arm rest along the back of the bench, his hand brushing Toby's shoulder, "Gerry dragged me off to the opera this one time when we were in Paris -- the one about the bullfighters?"


"Yeah, Carmen."

"Did you like it?"

He made a so-so motion with his other hand. "Might've liked it better if I'd known what the fuck it was about at the time. Anyway, since that was boring me out of my skull I borrowed Gerry's opera glasses and watched the audience instead." He could still see the opera house clearly as well: all marble and gold and bronze, and the other patrons dressed in their finest clothes, the women glittering with jewels. "There were a couple of Gerry's friends, both men, over in another box. I'd seen them around a lot but never connected the dots -- not till that night from the way they were carrying on. Not kissing, but touching each other a lot, and then one of them got down on his knees like he was looking for something, and his friend got this real funny look on his face. I mentioned it to Gerry and he took the glasses away from me, telling me not to be rude." That was sharp and clear, too, Gerry having a look for himself, turning red and reprimanding Chris in a really flustered way that he'd found more amusing and intriguing than anything else. "Of course I wanted to know what I was being rude about, and when we got home Gerry hemmed and hawed his way through an explanation."

His smile growing broader, like he was picturing the whole scene, Toby said, "What did you say when he told you?"

"Something like why would anybody want to do that when there were so many beautiful women around, 'cause I won't tell you I wasn't kind of perplexed by it all. Think I drove poor Gerry kind of batty wanting to know all the specific details of what they did and all."

Toby gave him a thoughtful look, suggesting, "Maybe he was concerned you might be uncomfortable?"

"Yeah, that was part of it. I told him it didn't make any difference to me which it didn't, even though I couldn't exactly see the point of it right then. But, I don't know," he shrugged, "it sort of got lodged in my head, making me curious, wondering about some other things and starting to add 'em up. How come Gerry spent so much time in London or Paris with his me and his other friends, for instance, and not so much back with his wife in Oxford -- that kind of thing. I finally worked my way around to asking him, and he told me outright that while he loved Audrey and found her attractive his true preferences lay elsewhere."

"Umm hmm." Toby's smile was fading a bit, like he was doing some addition as well and wasn't that keen on the figures. "I'm guessing his preferences ran to tall, dark, and handsome young men?" he said, not sounding overjoyed about that but also making an effort not to pitch any kind of fit. Chris appreciated that and gave his shoulder a squeeze to show him.

"Yeah, well," he scratched the side of his face, giving him a rueful look, "that's sort of one of the things I asked him. He got real shy and quiet, admitting that yes, he had feelings like that for me but he never would have mentioned it if I hadn't brought it up that way."

"And...?" Toby prompted, looking kind of retrospectively cranky about it.

"And," he thinned his lips out to keep back a smile, "like I said, it was sort of stuck there in my head, like an itch I couldn't quite scratch--"

"Have I mentioned your romantic turn of phrase, Keller?"

Chris smiled then, wondering what would happen if he gave into the impulse to lean on over and kiss him right then and there. "You want me to say I was in a flutter over him?"

Lower lip pooching out, Toby shook his head, admitting, "Not especially, no."

"Didn't think so."

"So -- you were sitting over afternoon tea one day and said...?"

"Actually I was sitting for him--"

"Sitting for him? He painted your portrait?"

"Yeah," Chris said, slowly, thinking this might be something best avoided, "sort of."

Fat chance of that, of course -- he deduced that much from the look of narrow-eyed suspicion Toby shot him then. "Well he did or he didn't."

"It wasn't exactly the kind of portrait you'd hang out for everyone to see, is all."

Toby stared at him hard then, doing some more arithmetic in his head and looking like steam would come out of his ears any second. "He painted you in the nude?"

"No he had his clothes on."

"Ha ha, very amusing."

His attempt at humor obviously falling flat, Chris sighed and nodded. "Yeah, I was nude."

"Completely naked?"

"That's what nude usually means, yeah."

Toby took a deep breath, then let it out, still steaming. "And you let him know that if he wanted to get up to any funny business with you, you wouldn't shriek with maidenly horror?" he asked, sounding calm and almost blas about it.

Not buying that for a moment, Chris bit back another smile and said, "Something like that, yes."

Toby huffed, "Jesus Christ," and sat back, thinking that over.

All righty -- here's a whopping big chunk of HiSoc for you, wrapping up the "Getting to know you, getting to know all about you," scene in the park.

If you're some whippersnapper <g> who doesn't know what a Brownie is, click here to see one:


Thanks as always to my beta group, and to Christy in particular for being the bestest elf in the world. If you enjoy this, a lot of the credit goes to her for all her suggestions on how to get a little extra oomph out of a line here or there.


"Hi, Society" -- Chapter Three: 4c

Toby scooted around on the bench to take a long look at the object of his bemused exasperation. All right, he knew it should not surprise him that someone had been moved to immortalize Chris on canvas. Hell, if he had his Brownie with him wouldn't he be snapping away? And now he knew the picture existed Toby felt a profound motivation to track it down and possess it. No, what bothered him wasn't Chris posing for the portrait so much as the painter having been his lover. That implied a deep level of trust and intimacy, for one thing, and he couldn't stop that knowledge from stirring up some resentment and insecurity.

Chris was looking at him with a flicker of concern in his eyes, like the silence was starting to worry him. "Come on, it's not like it's hanging in the Louvre or something," he said, his smile indicating this didn't warrant a fuss.

"Well that's a relief," Toby said, really making an effort to stay in the present and not let anything out of the past cast a shadow here. "Where is it hanging?" After all, he had a vested interest in knowing what lucky bastard was currently able to gaze at Chris in all in his glory anytime said lucky bastard desired. Doubly so when Toby himself had not had that privilege as yet.

Shoulders lifting in an easy shrug, Chris said, "Don't know." Just like that, as it if couldn't possibly concern him.

As Toby didn't quite share his sense of insouciance about it all, however, he frowned at him. "You don't know who has a naked picture of you?" He was damn sure he would keep track of something like that.

"Not offhand, no."

Swallowing a huff before it could work its way out, Toby strove to emulate his companion's unconcerned manner. He settled back, legs stretched out, and tilted his head just a bit to the side as he gave Chris a long, curious look. "Soooo -- you're completely nude, not even an artfully draped sheet or something?" he said, very composed and mature. Just two guys sitting around talking about one of them being naked.

Chris shook his head. "Nope. I'm arranged sort of artfully, if that helps," he said with a big, smug smile on his handsome face that said he not only didn't have a shred of shame about this but he kind of got a kick out of its getting under Toby's skin.

Hmph. "Not really." Lips thinned out, Toby moved one foot and began tapping it against the warm stone, and thinking about that cocky attitude that implied everybody ought to be moved to paint him naked. "You were given specific instructions on how to pose?"

"Uh-huh. Gerry had something real specific in mind--"

Oh, yes, Toby just bet he had.

"--he wanted it to look like I was waiting for my lover to come back to bed."

Toby choked back another huff, casually asking, "So you're -- what, pretending to be asleep?"

"Not exactly." And even though he was clearly enjoying needling him about this, Chris slid over so they were touching again, bumping their shoulders together. With his voice dropped to an even more confidential whisper, he described the details of the painting as if intent on weaving a vivid word picture for Toby. "I'm propped up against this pile of pillows. The lights are low, with candles in the darkest corners of the room. The four-poster bed's all rumpled and the covers are trailing on the floor, and I look kind of drowsy and content, with this leg," he touched his right thigh, long fingers lightly stroking, "stretched out and the other," his fingers brushed over his left knee now, "raised up just a bit. My hand's propping up my head and I'm looking off to the side like I'm expecting to see this one, special lover coming back any moment." He leaned in just a little bit closer as Toby sat there with his lips parted and picturing the whole thing in his mind, and breathed, "I just didn't know I was waiting for you," right against Toby's ear.

Toby turned to Chris, reminding himself to breathe now as his eyes raked over the flesh-and-blood features that he was sure were just as vivid and alive in the painting. That settled it: he was pulling every string he could to locate that painting and buy it. He reached out to touch Chris' shoulder as if brushing away another ladybug, and cupped the nape of his neck for just an instant to show his appreciation. Chris gave him a soft smile in return, no trace of that cocky smirk now. He still wasn't thrilled that someone else had seen Chris like that but he appreciated the effort to share it with him. He especially liked the implication that Gerald Markham had not been the lover Chris had imagined to get in the mood.

Toby breathed out a tiny sigh then and let his hand drop to his lap. This was as good of a jumping off point as any. "And you've never worried it might come back to haunt you one day?"

Chris gave him a puzzled look. "How would it do that?"

Toby shrugged. "Don't know. It's the sort of thing that can happen with indiscretions, though."

"Only if it's the kind of indiscretion you're ashamed of."

"That is generally the nature of indiscretions."

"Yeah?" Chris flashed one of those bright smiles. "Guess I've never had one of those, then." He cocked his head, studying Toby more seriously. "I take it you've got a different perspective on that, huh?"

Toby let out another deeper sigh. "You could say that, yes." So -- moment of truth time. He could do this, he had to; that realization was as clear and sharp as anything as he searched Chris' eyes. All he saw there was patient expectation and a promise to accept whatever Toby told him. Maybe something more than acceptance, too.

"You were right," he said after another moment with an air of self-deprecation. "This...this isn't an entirely new experience for me." Toby lowered his gaze to his hands, clasped in his lap. "There was this guy at school, at Harvard -- David Blake," he spoke the name haltingly, almost afraid uttering it would have the power to make him magically appear. He shook his head at himself and looked up again, actually feeling some relief at getting it out there at last. Maybe telling Chris could have the opposite effect, in fact, and banish David forever?

"You loved him?" Chris asked it easily and Toby had to search his eyes to find a trace of concern there.

He could ease that, at least. "No. It...wasn't like that," he said, face scrunching up with remembered embarrassment. "I... I had a crush on him, I guess," he went on, the words coming slowly at first. He had never told anyone even this much, after all. "He was a couple of years older than me, everything I wasn't -- handsome, charming, everything coming easily to him." He cast Chris a wry look. "This would be a good point for you to mention that I'm stunningly handsome, wittier than Noel Coward, and a whiz in the courtroom."

Chris' smile had a wistful tinge to it as he reached out to touch his arm. "That all ought to go without saying, Tobe."

"Yeah, well." Toby shrugged again. "I thought he liked me. Sometimes he did, it wasn't all lies," at least he had always liked to tell himself that, not wanting to believe he had been completely deceived. And maybe it was time to throw out all of that self-deception. "Or ... maybe it was," he said, surprising himself by that admission as he looked Chris straight in the eye. Gaining a lot of strength from the quiet encouragement he saw there, he ventured further, "It was actually more than a crush, too. I ... I just like to think of it that way."

"Why?" The question was kind, Chris only wanting to understand him.

"It scared me, confused me. I wanted those feelings, those...desires," he swallowed, "to just be a phase I was going through."

"What about now?" Chris asked that just as quietly but Toby only had to search his eyes to know how important that was.

"Different story," he said, giving him a warm smile and wishing there were a few less onlookers so he could reassure him even more effectively. "I'm not an inexperienced boy now," he went on, seeing a lot of curiosity stirring in those blue eyes.

"So," Chris studied him thoughtfully, as if he was picking his words carefully, "Blake was the guy who, you know, showed you the ropes?"

"In a manner of speaking, yes."

Chris nodded, clearly wanting to ask a lot of questions and sorting through the most important ones. "You slept together?" Yes, Toby could see how that would be top of the list.

"No. We...we never got that far," Toby said, instinctively wanting to duck the memory that provoked. It didn't have anymore power than he allowed it, though. He already felt better for telling Chris just this fraction of the story, as if this exchange of confessions was drawing them even closer.

Chris was giving him a skeptical look, though, saying, "Well ... How come? I mean," he hesitated an instant over his choice of words, "you're kind of a wildcat there, Beech." He shot Toby a quick, searching look as if wanting to make sure this wasn't going to set him off.

His smile taking a rueful turn, Toby shrugged, more flattered than anything. "Yeah, well, David never saw that side of me much." Just that one, spectacularly humiliating time. "There were a lot of sides he didn't see, actually," he added, trying to make a lame double entendre of it. "If you want something to be smug about, in fact," he reached over to smooth his hand along Chris' tie, "you can preen all you want about being the only one to get to me like this."

"How about if I just remind you say, four, five times a day," Chris said, his look and voice sultry, "just how much you inspire me?"

Toby bit his lip and swallowed. "Yeah, that'd be good."

A corner of Chris' mouth quirked up and he said, "Sooooo ... how far did you and this prick get?"

With a small laugh, Toby said, "We...touched."

Brows drawing towards each other, Chris pursued that. "You kissed him?"

Toby shrugged. "Not like you." No lie there, he'd never even imagined he could kiss anyone like that.

"And what did you touch?" Chris tilted his head closer, looking very intent -- something he was really, really good at. "Did you touch his ... cock?" he said, making it sound like a delicious word worth savoring.

Steadfastly refusing to turn bashful, Toby nodded and said, "Yes," very matter-of-fact about it.

A teasing twinkle creeping into his eyes, Chris pressed, "And did you suck it?" He made that sound scrumptiously illicit, too.

"Chris." And he couldn't contain the huff this time. "Yes." He nipped Chris' soft chuckle in the bud, telling him, "You should probably know I wasn't very good at it, though." He hated having to admit that but guessed it would become self-evident before long in any case. Assuming Chris didn't bail on him after all this.

With no indication such a possibility was even passing through his head, Chris said, "I find that hard to believe."

He shrugged. "It's what David said. And..." He faltered now, pushing on at Chris' encouraging look. "He never wanted to reciprocate." Which, looking back, should have been a pretty solid clue about how things were going to work out. "I always assumed that was because I was so bad at it."

Looking really pissed off, Chris demanded, "How come you didn't assume this Blake guy was just a selfish dick?"

Toby could only shrug, not really having a very good answer for his naivet at the time. "He had a ... a kind of glamour back then." That was about the best he could do.

"But not anymore?"

"Christ, no. I got over that a long time ago," he said, emphatic about it.

"What happened?"

"I grew up -- David didn't." Cocking his head as he gave Chris a considering look, he said, "It's funny -- he thought he was creative, he was going to be the next Picasso or Matisse and set the art world on fire."

"And I've never heard of him because...?"

Toby's mouth twitched with a bitter smile at that. "He wasn't any good. Everything he did was too blatantly derivative of the painters he admired. The few really original pieces he came up with were just," he shook his head, thinking how to describe it, "flat, shallow -- kind of like David." God, it really felt good to say all this, get it out of his system instead of having to make polite small talk if David's name ever came up. He gave Chris a wry look, telling him, "You don't have to be concerned about any naked pictures of me floating around, incidentally."

"Yeah?" Somehow Chris did not give the impression that he would have too terribly burned up about that. "Too shy to pose?" he said, gently teasing him.

"Well yes. But also he never asked. David was strictly into self-portraiture." His voice was laced with remembered pique as he said, "He used my mother and I to wangle a showing at the Taylor Gallery once do you know it?"

Chris', "Yeah," had a slow and cautious quality to it that made Toby suspect Chris had a special acquaintance with the place.

"That where Gerry shows his pictures?" And might that be a place to start searching for a certain portrait? It struck him as being worth checking out anyway.

"Umm hmm. Tell me about David. What do you mean he used you to get this exhibition?"

Knowing a broad hint when he heard one, Toby said, "Mother was a strong supporter of the arts and had helped a few other people get their start. She wasn't terribly impressed with David's talent but since he was a friend of mine," he tried but couldn't quite keep the bitterness out of his voice, "she agreed to put in a good word for him and set things up. It was going to be his moment of glory."

"He wouldn't have had a shot at the brass ring without the Beecher name backing him up?"

"I doubt it." Toby said, thinking he saw something very like guilt flash in those deep blue eyes for a moment.

Looking a bit pensive, Chris said, "I'm guessing the reviews weren't good?"

"Abysmal would be an understatement. He actually got in a fistfight with a guy he overheard critiquing one painting, calling it 'preciously pretentious.' So no, the evening was not what you would call a success."

Chris was giving him a really interested look. "I gotta say, Tobe, you don't sound like you were all broken up about that."



"I thought the dick, as you put it," the corners of his mouth twitched upwards, "had it coming."

"So the bloom'd gone off the rose?"

"Oh yeah." Toby leaned forward, hands clasped between his knees. "He'd shown his true colors to me by then." He glanced sideways at Chris. "They weren't very pretty."

And he really appreciated Chris touching his shoulder then, rubbing gently. "He'd left college by then, just dropped out. That hadn't thrilled his parents and he'd been cut off from the family funds. Since he thought society had an obligation to support him as an artiste," he spoke the word with the annoyance it had always provoked whenever David called himself that, "of course it never occurred to him to try and get a job. My dad actually tried to help him at one point but David said that would confine and stifle his artistic urgings. His sensibilities weren't compromised by sponging off others, however," he said, not expecting the bitterness to be so strong after all this time.

"He took advantage of your friendship?" Chris was looking troubled and like he was waging some internal debate.

"Yep." He let out a deep breath and sat up again, looking at Chris directly, counting on his support to get through this. "He took off after the fiasco at Taylor's and I hadn't seen him for quite a while when he suddenly turned up again." Toby had to pause and gather his thoughts, wanting to phrase this in a way that didn't make him sound like an utterly pitiful idiot. "He was acting kind of decent, actually, telling me how he'd been doing a lot of thinking and realized he'd sort of been a cad towards me." His mouth twitched with a dubious smile. "His word, not mine." With a slight lift of his shoulders he went on, mentally crossing his fingers. "I knew it was a scam, deep down I did, but... I was feeling kind of lonely and thought there couldn't be any harm in giving him the benefit of the doubt. You're supposed to do that," he said, more to himself than Chris. He looked up at Chris to assure him, "I didn't want a resumption of our...previous relationship, it wasn't like that. But when he said he'd like to try and salvage our friendship I thought it might be worth a shot. And ... then he hit me up for money, a lot of it. When I said no, he," Toby took in a long, deep breath then let it out, "he tried to blackmail me." He bit his lip, waiting, searching Chris' eyes.

Chris didn't say anything for a moment. He just sat there looking at him, a myriad of emotions passing over his face -- shock to anger, and hurt. Hurting for him, Toby realized, more deeply touched by that than he knew how to express. "I'm sorry," Chris said, squeezing his shoulder again.

Toby shrugged, wanting to slough it off but knowing it wasn't that easy -- not when it still got to him so badly after so long. "He'd gotten nasty before, when I'd turned him down for a loan, but," he sighed, shook his head, "this time he was really desperate for cash, I guess. He said if I didn't give him the money he'd go to my folks, tell them all about us. I called his bluff, though," at least he'd thought so at the time, "and told him the equivalent of 'Publish and be damned.'" His smile was bitter as he finished, "I was really proud of myself, too. He went away and never bothered me again. That was almost ten years ago."

Chris sat back on the bench, turning all that over and looking like he was making some deductions. "And then he got in touch with Devlin and spilled the beans?" he said, giving Toby a troubled look. "That's what Devlin's got on you?"

"That and ... other things." If it was only his reputation at stake, Toby thought he would be willing to face the music. There was the rest of his family to think of, though. Slumping back as he felt that weight settle on him again, he felt awfully tempted to try and lighten that burden by sharing some of it with Chris. He looked up at the clear blue sky, saying, "I don't actually know if your boss has been in touch with David. He might have gotten all he needed to know last summer, from my mother."

Chris shook his head, not getting that at all. "You're going to have to explain that."

"I know." He nodded, tracking the progress of two pigeons flying in and taking up a perch on the fountain. "You know how she died, right?"

"A heart attack?"

"Well, that was the official story." He gave Chris a curious look then, kind of surprised he had to fill in all of these details. "It was all the talk of the town last summer. I...guess you were busy with some other scandal?" he said, feeling a bit awkward at having to bring up The Tattler.

Chris answered easily enough, not betraying any hint that he resented being reminded of the trashy tabloid he wrote for. "I wasn't in town. Devlin sent me and Mary Pete out to Hollywood for the summer."

"Oh." Toby thought about that, picturing Chris mingling with Hollywood starlets and feeling a little too inclined to pursue this tangent. Maybe he could do that some other time, though, when it wouldn't look so obviously like an attempt to avoid a difficult subject. "Guess I should be relieved the story didn't make its way to the West Coast, huh?" Toby said, resignation in his smile. "Well," he stretched his legs out again, hooking his hands in his trouser pockets, "we had another party out at Oak Hill. That's--"

"Your place on Long Island. I know."

"Yeah, guess you would." He skewed a suspicious look his way. "Devlin tell you that? I suppose he's provided you with a number of tidbits?"

"A few," Chris said, giving him a wary look now.

"But he didn't tell you everything?" And Toby hated the mistrust and accusation that colored his words.

Chris gave him a disappointed look but only said, "Toby, would I be sitting here putting you through the wringer if I already knew the whole fucking story?"

Feeling ashamed of himself, Toby said, "I'm sorry. I am, Chris. I know I can trust you."

Giving him a very direct look, Chris said, "You'd have every right in the world not to." He shifted on the bench, letting out a quiet sigh. "Is that what you meant before, about how you'd been having a hard time trusting people lately?"

"It's part of it, yes. Keeping secrets like this I think they poison a person after a while."

"They are yours to keep, though. I mean, you've got a good reason to be on your guard."

"No." He was very firm about it. "Like I said, I'm not a green kid anymore and you're not David. Anyway," he went on after a moment, looking at Chris to show it really was all right, "what I said about calling David's bluff wasn't exactly true. Turns out he had gone to my mother and told her everything. She paid him to go away, and then went out and found Genevieve for me to marry." He tried but couldn't quite keep a trace of resentment from coloring his tone. "By last summer, though, Gen was gone and Mother was getting worried. The afternoon of this party we were having, she'd seen me horsing around in the pool with Gussie and a friend of his, a kid named Adam. Nothing happened, I swear it -- the kid's got an obnoxious streak a mile wide, for one thing. But," he let out a tiny, frustrated huff, still perplexed a year later, "Mother got it in her head that I was showing 'unhealthy tendencies' again, that's what she called them. It didn't help that she'd already been hitting the bottle and that I wasn't being very cooperative with her plans to pair me up with another girl she'd found for me." He sat up again, shifting to face Chris. "It got progressively worse as the evening wore on -- isn't that how you'd put in one of your stories?"

"Maybe," Chris said, quiet again, and looking like he was still hurting for him.

He nodded, lips thinned out as he remembered every detail of that last awful evening: keeping pace with his mother drink for drink, matching every bitter comment; his father desperate to shut them both up, their guests making excuses to leave early. All but Devlin, hanging on every ugly accusation. "We had quite a row," he said with a small, regretful smile. "Your boss was there, soaking it all up. He was absent for the final act, though." He had to pause, biting down on his lip as it started to tremble, caught unawares by the tears burning his eyes. "She... She got up in the middle of the night and must have been going downstairs for something," like a fresh bottle. "She slipped on the stairs, though, and...fell." He bit his lip harder. "We got her to the local hospital and got in some specialists from the city. They did everything they could. It looked like she might pull through, in fact. But ... there was a relapse, heart failure." He shrugged, vision blurred. "She lingered three days and died." And despite everything he still missed her terribly sometimes.

"Hey," Chris' voice was soft against his ear, no trace of seduction this time, "here."

Toby looked stupidly at the handkerchief pressed into his hand for a moment, then nodded his thanks. "She drove me insane sometimes, but," he pulled up a sad, lopsided smile, "she was my mother."

"I know," Chris said, rubbing his back.

Slanting a rueful look at him, Toby sniffed and said, "More than you were bargaining for?"

"Nope," Chris said, just like that.

Toby thought he fell in love with him all over again right then.

Chapter Three: 4d

Strolling back to the car, Toby had to admit he felt better for getting all of that off his chest. Strange how something could weigh you down without you really be aware of it. After all, it wasn't as if he had been spending every waking moment dwelling on this. At least not until just recently, when Devlin had contacted him about The Tattler getting exclusive coverage of Gen's wedding to Schillinger. He'd been fairly floored by the man's nerve at first, and then increasingly frustrated as he got backed further and further into a corner. Toby couldn't have said if it was because of his experience with David, or what, but he really disliked being put in a position like that. Really disliked it a lot. So intensely that he had been entertaining thoughts of pounding Devlin's head against the polished wood of his desk. The attractiveness of those thoughts was beginning to worry him.

On the other hand he looked at Chris walking along beside him he had to admit it had given him proof there was something to that every cloud having a silver lining clich, since Devlin's unscrupulous manipulation had brought Chris into his life. And he certainly had no complaints about that. If Tim McManus succeeded in digging up some good dirt on Devlin, all his problems could be over. There had to be something that would force Devlin to back off. And if that in itself wasn't entirely scrupulous, well ... he was doing it for the sake of his family, not to sell magazines. That helped to ease his conscience just a bit.

And it had to be a better solution than actually slamming Devlin's head into his desk.

He and Chris still had a lot to learn about each other he was terribly curious about last summer in Hollywood, for instance but he was banking on them having quite a bit of time to delve into each other's every nook and cranny. In more ways than one, he amended with an impish smile that matched his good mood perfectly.

He didn't even mind when those teenage girls drew up alongside them on their bicycles, dismounting and walking their bikes as if they had been invited. Although he could have done without the redhead eating Chris alive with her eyes.

He couldn't, however, actually blame her.

"I'm Norma," the redhead said, "and this is Ethel."

"Yeah?" Chris had to answer them, of course, although was it really necessary to flash them that bright a smile? "I'm Chris -- he's Toby," a thumb was jerked his way in introduction.

"What do you do for a living?" Norma asked, getting right to the point. "We've been wondering about that all day."

Toby bet they had also been wondering if Chris had a wife and eight kids at home.

"I'm a writer -- Toby's a big shot attorney."

This earned Toby a sharp reappraisal, Ethel, the brunette, sidling up to him with her bike now. Well, nice to know he wasn't entirely lacking in points of interest.

"A writer?" Norma said, looking like that might count as a minor strike against Chris -- a very minor one. "Guess you don't make a lot of money, huh?"

"Nah," Chris agreed, good-natured about it. "Toby's loaded, though," he added, giving him a playful glance. "You know the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers?"

"Well not to speak to."

"Yeah, me, neither, but Toby's in with them like that," Chris held out crossed fingers by way of illustration.

"See," Ethel finally spoke up, "I told you they weren't movie stars."

"Well they're good-looking enough to be famous," Norma countered. Then to Chris, "That's what we're going to be. Soon as we finish one year of college," she said this with an air of its being a wholly unreasonable obligation, "we're going out to Hollywood to get discovered like Lana Turner and be famous movie stars."

Thinking to contribute something to the conversation, Toby said, "Are you taking acting lessons?"

Ethel gave him a dubious look. "You don't need acting lessons to be a movie star."

"We've read all about it the magazines," Norma said, pausing to rub her leg and making sure she had Chris' eye. "There was a real good story all about it in The Tattler last month," she went on, as a slightly pained expression crossed Chris' face. "It told how there's this casting couch a lot of these big shot producers and directors use, and how a girl's got to mind her p's and q's something awful on account of that."

"You don't think that article might have been intended as a cautionary tale?" Chris said.

"Nah," Norma dismissed that. "The guy who wrote it sounded kind of stuck-up and all, but you could tell it was meant to be instructional, all full of do's and don'ts."

Biting back a grin, Toby said, "Funny some stuck-up guy would be writing for a magazine like that."

"That's what I always say," said Ethel. "Sometimes it's like you're not reading trash at all."

Toby had to cough to cover his laugh at the grumpy look on Chris' face at that backhanded compliment.

"Of course we'll have to change our names, on account nobody sexy's ever been named Norma or Ethel," Norma said, getting back to the point. "What do you think I look like?" she asked Chris.

"Jailbait?" he said, friendly again and not giving an ounce of offense.

She gave him a saucy wink. "I'm legal, gorgeous."

Toby felt compelled to point out, "Ethel Barrymore and Norma Shearer are very respected actresses."

The girls and Chris gave him pitying looks that implied he was missing the point entirely.

"What kind of experience have you had?" Chris said as they all walked on.

"High school plays," Norma said. "I was Desdemona in our production of 'Othello' this year Mr. Lundy said he'd never seen anything like it."

Toby would lay money on that, watching with curious exasperation as she declared, "'Kill me tomorrow; let me live to-night!'" with enough dramatic energy to power a thousand footlights. And did she really have to top it off by trying to collapse into Chris' arms?

Nor was he especially gratified that Chris seemed to think it was all a hoot, grinning at her as he quoted in turn, "'I kissed thee ere I killed thee: no way but this, killing myself, to die upon a kiss,'" as he set her upright. He did, at least, refrain from actually giving her a smooch and Toby derived some mean satisfaction from the look of disappointment that crossed her face.

Chris shot him a playful look, saying, "No cracks about me knowing Shakespeare?"

"Nope. I don't think you missed your calling, though." He couldn't resist getting in a mild dig.

With no trace of taking offense, however, Chris walked on, parrying the girl's questions about what he wrote and scoring more points with the revelation that his rsum included detective stories. That focused attention back on Toby, with the girls wanting to know if he'd tried any really juicy murder cases. He had to disappoint them on that score, saying that, no, his clients tended not to be axe-murders and the like.

"Well," Ethel said as they got to the Packard, "we should be getting home." She eyed it, then Toby, as if weighing how much the car made up for his deficit of psychotic maniacs among his clientele. "Pleasure talking to you."

"Same here," Chris said as the girls got back on their bikes.

"See ya, gorgeous."

"See ya, jailbait."

"Was that entirely necessary?" Toby said as he opened the car door.

"Was what necessary?" Chris slipped into the passenger seat, turning what looked like a genuinely puzzled look on him.

"Flirting with those girls," Toby said, getting behind the wheel and resting his hands on the steering wheel.

"That was called making harmless conversation."

"Hmph. If you say so." Toby could hear the snippy tone creeping into his voice and wanted to smack himself. "I know it didn't mean anything," he quickly added.

"I would hope so." Chris turned to pluck his hat from the back seat and pop it on his head before giving Toby a long, serious look. "So I can't make friendly conversation with anyone? Is that it?" He didn't sound like he was put out about that but Toby still got the impression this was delicate territory.

"I didn't say that. I just..." He sighed, watching a squirrel dash across the road and disappear into the trees. "I realize you probably can't help doing that, that it's just amusing to you to see how many people you can make fall all over themselves just to get a smile from you, but..." He trailed off with a quiet huff, not even sure exactly what he was getting at.

"Did David do that kind of thing?" Chris asked, with the same gentle understanding as before.

Toby nodded. "His style was different, though. He insisted people pay him attention acolytes worshipping and adoring."

Chris nodded. "Okay. I will do my utmost never to smile at anybody ever again."

Shooting him a sideways glance, Toby confirmed there was a tickled smirk lurking on his lover's face. He relaxed into the seat, saying, "All right, I have some insecurities. I admit it. It's not easy falling in love with a guy who makes Casanova look like an amateur."

Predictably that brought a broad smile to the handsome face. "What would it take," Chris said, slowly easing his arm along the back of the seat until his fingers were idly caressing the back of Toby's neck, tugging at the curls clustered there, "to ease all of your insecurities? Hmm?"

Toby shot him another, suspicious look. "Something good."

"Yeah? Like," Chris leaned in and kissed the corner of his mouth, "this?"

Toby turned into him, parting his lips to him. "Yes," he murmured after a moment, drawing back to look into his eyes, "I think you might be onto something there." Retaining enough presence of mind to look around and check they weren't drawing a crowd, he went back in for more, hooking his arms around Chris' neck to make a thorough job of it. "I'd like to see you get anything like that from a Vanderbilt or Rockefeller," he stated with confidence as he sat back. Which reminded him... "So I'm loaded, huh?"

"Umm ... Let's see: fancy-ass mansions on Fifth Avenue and Long Island, you drive this fancy-ass car, and don't buy your suits off the rack at Penny's yeah, I'd say that adds up to loaded," Chris said, slumping down in his seat just a bit. "Plus I kind of read about it in your file," he added in a barely audible mumble.

Toby sat back and thought about that, still not starting the car. "You have a file on me?"

Chris sighed. "I don't -- the magazine does."

"And what exactly are the contents of this file?"

Chris shrugged. "You know -- vital statistics, newspaper clippings, stuff like that. Nothing really."

"Umm hmm." Of course it was stupid to be bothered by that. After all none of those truly confidential matters would be in there. All the same, it did sort of touch a nerve that Chris must have known those vital statistics, however trivial, all along while he had been largely in the dark about one Christopher Keller.

He decided not to make a fuss about it, however, given everything else was just about perfect right now. Instead he leaned over to lay another long, wet kiss on his lover's mouth. "Stick that in your file, buster."

Grinning, Chris snaked a hand around the back of his neck to pull him back. "I don't think there's a category for it," he said, kissing him just as long and deep.

"Invent one," Toby breathed out, coming up for air.

Chris let him draw a breath and then tugged him back, rubbing his hands over Toby's back. Between hungry nibbles along Toby's mouth, he said, "What're you doing tonight?"

"Ah, uhm, my dad's planning some little get together, oh christ," he groaned as Chris nuzzled along his cheek, nibbling on an earlobe now, "but...ah..." he moved his head, seeking Chris' mouth again, plunging his tongue inside, "ahh...maybe I could get out of that."

"Yes, get out of it," Chris rumbled against his cheek. "I want to see you tonight. I need to see you tonight," he stated, kissing his mouth, tongue flicking against the roof of Toby's mouth.

"Yes," Toby purred back. "I'll call you," he vowed. And this time something told him there would be no problems with reciprocation.

It was hot and stuffy in the dressing room as Gloria was putting the finishing touches to her costume for the show tonight, but she shivered as Ryan's fingers brushed the back of her neck under the pretext of helping her with the clasp of her necklace. She looked at their reflection in the mirror -- at herself holding up her hair and Ryan standing behind her with an intent look on his face. They looked right together, she thought as the string of pearls -- the only piece Preston hadn't pawned -- settled securely around her throat. She let her hair fall, shivering again as she watched Ryan run his hand over it before stroking his fingers along her throat, her face.


"You want me to stop?" he said.

She should tell him yes, not sit there with her eyes half-closed and absorbing that scorching touch. She shouldn't tilt her head just a bit to the side, giving him better access as he bent his head to kiss her throat. She shouldn't reach up to touch his head, bury her fingers in his thick hair and turn into him, offering her mouth. And she definitely should not feel like she was melting into him as he kissed her, twining her arms around his neck.

But, damn, if this was a sin it felt a lot like heaven.

end of Chapter Three; story continues in Chapter Four
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