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Freedom of Choice

by Sandrine

Tim McManus didn't believe in doing things half-heartedly. You either did something right - or at least tried to - or you didn't do it at all. That's what he had been like that during his days in Oz, even though he had certainly messed up more often than not. But Emerald City had been his life, and he had devoted almost every ounce of his attention to it. When they took it away from him a second time - permanently, most likely, because Devlin had wanted his head and Querns didn't seem inclined to stop him - he turned his back on it and never looked back. Sure, it had killed him at the beginning, but eventually he'd learned to cope.

Life went on.

He moved on. He kept his apartment, he was still having a beer with Murphy now and then, but they never talked about what was going on behind the walls of the Oswald State Correctional Facility. Tim never asked; and Sean never offered any information. He had tried once, a couple of weeks after he had taken over Em City, but Tim had made it clear that he didn't want to know. The chapter 'Oz' was well and truly over for him. When he heard about the prison in the news, he switched to another channel.

Surprisingly - given his records - he'd gotten a new job in no time. Administrative work. Good pay, low risk. Safe. Dull.

He'd never considered himself a particularly adventurous person, but sometimes, he wondered if his life could get any more boring. It wasn't that he missed being called names on a daily basis, and running the risk of being shanked by some new guy trying to prove he was a top dog. It wasn't that he didn't value that he could sleep through the night now without having to wonder who'd be dead by the time he came to work in the morning. But sometimes, he thought he wouldn't object to just a little more excitement.

It had been just one of those days - following the ever so tiresome routine, nothing to look forward to, not even a good game on TV - when the bell rang and he found Ryan O'Reily on his doorstep, lounging against the doorframe as if he owned the place.

The younger man's face lit up with a smile that was as fake as it was cheerful when he saw him. "McManus, old pal! How you doin'?" And just like that, he pushed past Tim into the apartment, as if it was the most normal thing of the world.

In hindsight, Tim realized that the right reaction would have been to throw the door into O'Reily's face, lock up and call the police. He would have done so too, if he hadn't been too dumbstruck by the fact that O'Reily was standing in front of - hold on, make that 'inside' - his apartment. He stared at the empty spot in front of the door for approximately two minutes before shaking out of his stupor. "What the fuck are you doing here?"

O'Reily held up his hands in mock surrender. "Easy, man. I'm not on the run, if that's what you mean."

It didn't exactly make sense. But then, he couldn't imagine anything making sense when it came to O'Reily's presence at his place. "Then what?" he asked, irritated. "Last I heard, life plus forty years was just a little longer than, what was it, ten years?"

"Nine," O'Reily corrected.

Tim stared at him. "Nine. Fantastic." He thought of Said, of White, of Hill, of Glynn, of everyone Oz had killed, and was suddenly irrationally angry of O'Reily for just walking away like that, apparently unscathed with not even a small fraction of his time served. "So, what happened? They got fed up with you and your antics and threw you out?"

"They put Thomas Lyndon in my pod." He said it like that explained it all. Like the name held some sort of meaning. Which it didn't - at least not to Tim.

He felt a headache approaching.


"Jesus, where have you been? Stranded on some remote island?" O'Reily shook his head in disbelief. "Lyndon's face is all over the news. He raped and killed some kids, except they could never pin anything but two kidnappings on him. Never found the bodies."

Gradually, it was all starting to come together. "So, he was bragging to you about it and you made a deal?"

"Yep. The bastard actually told me where he buried them. The Feds offered me 18 years, but Querns stepped in and got them to make a fifteen, parole in nine, and here I am."

Tim didn't even want to know how O'Reily got Querns on his side, or how in God's name he ever made parole. In a way, it was almost funny, because this whole thing was just typical Ryan O'Reily. Manipulate someone here, sell somebody off there, and, ta-da, he was out of Oz. "Okay, that explains why you're not locked in a cell. Now tell me why you're here!"

For the first time since Tim had opened the door, O'Reily's confident faade cracked. He looked uncertain for a moment, almost... shuffling, his eyes dancing nervously around, looking anywhere but at Tim. "I'm sorta out in the cold. I need a place to stay for a few days."

It would have been hilariously funny, except that O'Reily seemed to be completely serious about this.

"You've got to be kidding me!" Tim shook his head, incredulous. "So, what? You figured since we've always been best buddies and got along so fabulously, I'd welcome you into my home. How the fuck did you pass the drug tests at Oz?"

O'Reily grinned, and apparently decided that now was a good time for honesty. "Well, actually, I thought your hero complex would kick in and you'd try to keep my ass off the street - unless your anger management issues would win out first, that is." And just like that, he managed to render Tim speechless for the second time that night.

"Come on, man, it's just for a short time. A month, maximum. Until I have enough money for the plane ticket. Then I'm off travelling."

"Travelling." Tim gave him a sceptical look.

It sounded rather far-fetched to him. Not to mention that it would mean violating parole. Then again, who knew what strings O'Reily had pulled when he made the deal with the Feds to get his way.

"Yeah. China, India, Australia, Europe. You'll see, I'll be out of your hair in no time. I promise I wouldn't be a bother. I clean up after myself, I don't do drugs, and I won't get into any kind of trouble. You'll hardly realize I'm here." He offered Tim what had to be his most winsome smile. "So, what do you say?"

It was... insane.

Tim remembered that back in Oz, O'Reily had usually been able to get whatever he wanted, simply because he was good at winning people over. Even Murphy, who was generally a no-bullshit sort of guy, had given him some slack. In fact, the only one Ryan had not managed to manipulate quite as easily as the rest had been him.

He wondered where his ability to resist the O'Reily charms had vanished to when he found himself saying, "I have a spare couch in the living room." Must be the hero complex after all, he thought.

O'Reily broke into a huge grin and clapped him on the shoulder. "I knew you'd help me out there, Timmy-boy."

With a sour expression, he watched his new flatmate saunter into the living room. He couldn't help thinking that he had just made the biggest mistake of his life.

Well, at least he wouldn't have to complain about boredom any longer.

* * *

He had never been the kind of guy who liked living with other people. Even at the beginning of his marriage, when things were still all hearts and flowers, he always found himself constricted by the living arrangements. It wasn't that Eleanor had been following his every step, but he'd been uncomfortable knowing that there was always someone around and he was never truly alone.

He'd assumed it would be worse now, having lived by himself all those years. But truth be told, he didn't mind having O'Reily in his place as much as he'd thought he would. Surprisingly enough, the guy was true to his word - he didn't make a mess, didn't bother Tim when he needed some space and actually proved to be decent company when the infinite boredom of Tim's job threatened to eat him up.

It was just as well, because Tim seriously doubted that O'Reily would really be gone by the end of the month like he had promised.

O'Reily helped out at the newsagent's down the street. Tim never asked him how much he was making, but since the stack of travel magazines next to O'Reily's couch grew about two inches each day, he didn't think that O'Reily would have the money for the place ticket anytime soon.

He couldn't say he cared much one way or the other. In the first four days of O'Reily's stay with him, Tim had hardly even seen even, save for one night when they'd watched a game on TV and another when Ryan's sarcastic commentary had kept him awake through a particularly dull movie. And it wasn't like he was spending any money on the extra lodger - his freezer was chronically empty anyway.

Or, at least, he had assumed so. Saturday morning, he grumpily strolled into the kitchen and found himself face to face with an annoyingly cheerful O'Reily, who announced, "I made pancakes."

It felt like stepping into twilight zone.

"It's too early in the morning to be this awake," Tim muttered, but didn't protest when Ryan sat a plate down in front of him. "Where did you find the stuff to make this? I didn't think I had any milk left. Let alone eggs."

"You didn't. I did some shopping yesterday."

"Weren't you going to save your money for a plane ticket?" Tim wanted to know - and mentally winced when he realized that it sounded like he couldn't get rid off O'Reily quickly enough. He hadn't meant it like that; he just wasn't a morning person.

But O'Reily didn't seem to be put off by the jab. "I was. Thought that a plane ticket wouldn't be much use if I starved to death before I even made it to the airport, though."

He sat down at the opposite end of the table and started eating, oblivious to the other man's gaze on him. Tim studied him silently, wondering if this new, smiling, cheerful persona O'Reily put on was a faade that was merely trying to hide the darker thoughts brewing under the spiky, messed-up morning hair of his.

The silence that had settled between them wasn't oppressive, but Tim suddenly felt the need to say something - anything. He needed to figure out what exactly O'Reily's game was. "Sorry. I'm not really used to having people around."

"I noticed." O'Reily grinned at him. "You can eat that, you know. I didn't poison it. Didn't even put glass into it."

Tim didn't get the reference, but made a point of trying not to think about it too hard either. He was sure he didn't even want to know. He carefully tried tasting the pancakes. "Hey, those are good!"

If possible, O'Reily's grin got just a tad wider. "Timmy-boy, you should have realized by now that I'm always good at what I do."

Tim didn't doubt that it was true.

* * *

The first thing Sean asked him when they met for their beer the next week was, "Do you have a new girlfriend?"

Confused by the question, he stared at his friend. "No. I've been pretty much abstinent since the mess with Lauren. Why?"

The answer surprised him even more than the question had, although it shouldn't have. "I don't know. You're looking less stressed than you did three weeks ago. As if someone's been taking care of you."

Tim snorted. "Yeah, right. Keeping me on my toes is more likely," he muttered under his breath, more to himself than to Murphy, who shot him an odd look. It wasn't quite true, though. O'Reily hadn't done anything that had given him reason to worry. That, in itself, was unsettling enough.

Ignoring Sean's curious gaze, Tim took a swing from the bottle and schooled his voice into careful nonchalance when he asked, "So, what's going on at Oz?"

Watching the reaction that simple inquiry provoked was almost comical. Sean was sent into a coughing fit, all but spilling his beer over the table. "You ask me this now? After three years of almost spitting fire whenever I only mentioned work? Why the sudden change of mind?"

"I realized that I was a bit out of the loop." Tim shrugged. "Just give me a quick round-up on what happened, okay?"

"Alright," Sean agreed, still eying his friend sceptically. "Howell got pregnant and left shortly after you were gone. Lopresti was stabbed by some new kid a couple of months later. Gloria was offered a job in a private hospital in New York last year. She was tearing herself up over it for a while, but eventually, she decided to go for it. Last I heard, she got married to one of her colleagues."

Tim raised an eyebrow. "You still in touch with her?"

"No, but... O'Reily is. Or rather, he was. Not sure about now. Believe it or not, the guy actually got free just a week or so ago - just wait till you hear this story! But before the wheels got in motion for that, he spoke to her regularly. They've been... pretty close for a while." In-between the strange tone in which Sean said it and his nervous shifting in his chair, McManus knew that Ryan and Gloria must have been a hell of a lot more than just 'pretty close'.

"You knew and turned a blind eye?" he asked, incredulously.

"Oh, come on, Tim. They've both been through so much shit, they deserved a little happiness." Sean ordered another round, before he continued, more quietly. "Besides, what does it matter now? Gloria has left, and Ryan is off to God-knows-where. Talking of which - you don't seem surprised to hear he got out. Not interested in that story?"

He laughed. "Trust me, I've already heard this one."

He wondered how Sean would react to the news that O'Reily was currently inhabiting the couch in his living room. He'd probably ship me off straight to the next mental ward before I can say 'insane'. There really was no casual way to slip that particular piece of the information, but he tried anyway. "So, are there any more recently released prisoners I'm going to find on my doorstop?"

"Well, Beecher's up for parole in a couple of--Hold on, you weren't serious about finding them on your doorstep, were you?"

"What do you think?" Tim asked, not sure what exactly he expected his friend to think.

"I think," Sean said, and took a large swing, "that I would really like to hear more about that. Cheers."

When he got home later that night, O'Reily was still awake, sprawled across the couch, flipping through the channels. He waved hello to Tim without taking his eyes off the screen. One arm cushioned under his head, his legs tossed over the side of the couch, he looked way too comfortable for a man who spent the last decade locked up in a high security prison and only just experienced freedom again. Most long-timers had problems with that, coping with walking free after all those years. It shouldn't have surprised Tim that O'Reily wasn't one of them.

"Murphy says hello," Tim called from the doorway. "He said he's always known you've got balls, but he never pegged you for suicidal."

O'Reily looked up to him and offered that open-mouthed, slightly wolfish grin of his. "You haven't killed me yet, so I'm ready to take my chances."

Tim kicked his shoes off and came into the room to stand next to where his unlikely flatmate was lounging. "Anything good on?" he asked, motioning towards the screen.

"Some action flick."

Without a further word exchanged between them, O'Reily drew his legs in, making room for Tim to sit down. Tim took him up on the wordless invitation without thinking about it.

* * *

Life had a way of beating you over the head and whispering 'Gotcha' in your ear, just when you started to believe that it was less shitty than you'd always thought it was.

O'Reily had been staying with Tim for three weeks now; and things went just a tad too smoothly. They didn't even have any fights yet - which had to be something akin to the eighth world wonder, considering that back at Oz, there had hardly been a day when they weren't in each other's face.

Tim didn't believe for a single second that the fragile ceasefire between them - and, he reminded himself, it was a ceasefire, even if it felt like peace - was going to last. So he was mentally preparing himself for the fallout in advance, because he knew that if came, it wouldn't be pretty. And it would come. Things were about to get royally fucked up.

He was right, of course, as he knew he'd be. Except that it wasn't anything he had expected, or anything he was even remotely prepared for.

It happened on a Monday morning. The weekend had been quiet and uneventful and comfortable. A little one-on-one basketball game in the yard - he remembered Ryan laughing it off when he had lost, "Not my kind of sport, Timmy-boy. Give me a pair of boxing gloves and I'm happy," and his own half-joking answer, "Yeah, right. And I'll be out cold. I think I'll pass." - and later, they'd ordered Chinese takeout and watched a game. They didn't talk much, they never did, but the silences weren't uncomfortable; and it got late.

Way too late, because when the alarm went off in the morning, Tim felt as if a truck had run him over. He staggered into the bathroom on auto-pilot, stepped into the shower and hoped that the cool stream would help waking him up.

Over the rush of water, he didn't hear O'Reily approaching, only becoming aware that he wasn't alone anymore when he heard the swearing.

"Fuck. I totally overslept. Wilkins is going to chew my ass off over that."

Tim was just thinking how good it was that for once, he wasn't the only grumpy person in the morning and O'Reily's usually cheerfulness was absent, when the door to the shower stall was pushed aside and a body slid in next to him without as much as a "move over". He was all but frozen into place, incredulous that O'Reily would invade his privacy just like that. At the same time, he wondered whether he was being too touchy. The thought struck him that of course this wouldn't be a big deal to Ryan. The guy had spent the last decade being stripped of any privacy whatsoever. It was probably the most normal thing in the world for him.

Tim frowned, telling himself that he maybe was more surprised than actually disturbed. After all, he had showered with other guys before. Hadn't any guy, really? High school, college, at games, hell - even at Oz. But then, the shower room had never been a six square foot cabin. By the time made up his mind not to let himself get bothered, the time for protesting had long since passed, anyway.

O'Reily stood about a food away from him under the spray, head turned up, eyes closed, the water running down his body. Tim didn't mean to stare and yet, he suddenly couldn't look away.

The expression on Ryan's upturned face was one of absolute bliss, almost orgasmic. He had angled his head so that the stream hit his forehead, and the water gradually made his way over his face, dripping off his lashes, running down his cheeks, some drops disappearing between the open lips. Tim suddenly felt the desire to raise his hand and touch the scar on Ryan's chin, feel the roughness of the skin under his touch.

His gaze followed the way the water took: the long column of Ryan's neck, the lean, hairless chest, down to where the first dark curls shadowed the pale skin. His eyes still fixed on that spot, he reached out to touch Ryan - and jerked away suddenly when he became aware of what he was about to do.

It was only then that he realized that his body had already reacted to - To what, exactly? The physical closeness? The sensual way Ryan enjoyed the shower? Despite the cool water still raining down on him, his face burned up in shame. For a moment, the mere idea that he would react like that to Ryan O'Reily of all people was too terrifying to process. Then, his gaze flew up to O'Reily's face. The relief when he found the young man with his eyes still closed, oblivious to Tim's reaction, shocked him into action; and he bolted, forcefully pushing past O'Reily and hurrying out of the shower.

"Hey, man!" O'Reily complained when he found himself shoved aside unexpectedly, struggling to keep his balance. "What's the rush?"

"I'm late," Tim called over his shoulder as he grabbed a towel and left the room quickly. He wanted to put as much distance between himself and O'Reily as possible. He didn't dare to breathe out until he was safe in his bedroom, with the door shut firmly behind himself. His erection had subsided when the realization of what was going on hit home, but the mere concept of actually growing hard because he had watched O'Reily having a shower was so alien to him that he couldn't stop the hysterical laughter from welling up in his throat.

Sitting down on his bed, he buried his face in his hands. This was wrong in so many ways he couldn't even begin to list them. Ryan O'Reily. Ex-con. Dangerous. A man, for God's sake!

He briskly pushed himself up and reached for his clothes, deciding that this wasn't happening. There was no way he was going to be attracted to O'Reily. He was tired, it was early, he hadn't slept, and O'Reily had taken him by surprise by stepping into the shower like that. Didn't mean a fucking thing. Tonight, he'd be back from work and they'd sit on the couch and watch TV and things would be back to normal.

Yeah. Right.

* * *

It didn't really surprise Tim all that much when things were not back to normal that night. Or the next day. Or the one after. He strongly suspected that it would take a long time until anything would return to normal again - if he was lucky.

Since that morning in the shower, he was more aware of O'Reily than he had ever been before. Not in a way that made the other man's presence bother him. Sure, it was awkward sometimes now, but that was for a different reason altogether. - Living with O'Reily was still as easy as it had always been. Seeing O'Reily was not.

He had never actually noticed the way O'Reily looked before, but now he couldn't stop noticing. How his hair stuck in all directions when he'd just woken up, how his lower lip sometimes started bleeding because he was chewing on it all the time, how he'd got that intense, troubled look now and then as if he was not as unaffected by the past as he let on. Things like that. And, of course, the more obvious stuff. The muscular upper arms his sleeveless shirts usually left exposed. The pale green eyes. The flat of his stomach when he was shirtless, doing workouts. The curve of his throat.

Sometimes, he'd look at Ryan when they were talking and suddenly, casually, he'd think, Nice arms. He tried to ignore it the best he could, but he knew he was not doing a particularly good job. The only good thing about this whole business - or rather, the one thing that didn't make him end this once and for all by throwing O'Reily's sorry ass out on the street - was that Ryan was blissfully unaware. Not that this made it any easier for Tim. It merely served to assure him that, if he wasn't as terribly obvious about this as he thought he was, this... condition might be less severe than he considered it to be. It might actually pass as quickly as it had come.

Denial left a stale, ashen taste in his mouth, but Tim held onto it for dear life.

And yet, it became more and more obvious that it wouldn't just go away like that. 'It'. He didn't give it a name, not even in his own head. Because giving it a name, replacing the neutral pronoun by 'his attraction to O'Reily', would mean acknowledging it, would inevitably make it more... real.

It was bad enough as it was. When Ryan was around, he was constantly distracted - too occupied by either noticing the young man's presence or concentrating on not noticing it. And Ryan himself didn't exactly help. He never pulled a stunt like that again, jumping into Tim's shower with him - probably because Tim was always locking up the bathroom now - but he wasn't exactly being inconspicuous. It was as if he was constantly... posing. Sauntering through the kitchen half-naked in the morning, doing his workouts in the middle of the living room where Tim all but fell over him, stretching on the couch when they were watching TV, constantly leaning too close when they talked, purposefully invading Tim's private space. - If he hadn't known better, he'd have thought Ryan was playing him on purpose. Oh, it wasn't that he didn't think him capable of doing just that. But the problem was, Ryan's behavior hadn't changed at all. He'd always been like that, with anyone. It was Tim who'd changed, who was suddenly hyper-aware of everything Ryan said or did, of every move, every smile, every careless little gesture.

Far too often, his concentration slipped. And while Ryan so far hadn't noticed what it was Tim was preoccupied with, he did notice that something was off.

"What's wrong with you, man? You've been staring into space as if you've seen a ghost. Did you even hear a word I said?" Ryan frowned at him.

Tim sighed and rubbed his temples. "Sorry, I've been... thinking."

The frown deepened. "Right." It didn't take a genius to figure out that O'Reily didn't believe a word he said.

"You know what - I need to get out for a while," Tim told him. "Get me some fresh air. I'll be back in a few hours." He stood up briskly, grabbed his jacket and walked out, all too aware of Ryan's curious gaze on his back.

When he called Sean from his cell phone and asked if they could meet over a beer, he tried to sound casual, but it was obvious that his friend didn't buy it any more than O'Reily did. They met in their usual pub, but somehow, the atmosphere was charged. Conversation wouldn't flow, and it felt as if all the gazes were turned on him. Which was ridiculously paranoid, but he just couldn't relax, not even with the first two beers down and another on the table in front of him.

"So, what's wrong?" Sean queried eventually, fed up by the tense silence.

Tim didn't even bother denying that something was wrong in the first place. He stared into the far corner of the room and scratched his head. "Have you ever been attracted to someone you shouldn't have been attracted to?"

"You mean, like, someone who's married?"

He all but laughed out loud at the idea. If it had been just that... His moral standards weren't all that high. Still, he merely shrugged. "Yeah. Or an older woman. Or... I don't know, a guy," he casually threw in. "Or your best friend's girl. Or, say -" He laughed. "Shirley Bellinger." The idea was ridiculous and Sean grinned with him, but Tim thought he made his point. "Just someone you shouldn't want that way. Someone you don't want to want."

Sean didn't seem unfamiliar to the concept. "Sure."

"What did you do?"

"Me? The smart thing. Letting it pass," Sean smiled. "You're not exactly known for using your mind when it comes to women, though, so that might not be your way."

It was true as well. The idea that his idiocy would extend over gender boundaries now was what bothered Tim the most, though he obviously was not going to admit that to Sean. "So, what are you saying? Just go for it?" Somehow, he didn't think that this would be a good idea.

Sean held up hands. "Can't give you advice here, my friend. Try thinking of a worst case scenario, and ask yourself whether you could live with that."

As the worst-case scenario involved O'Reily beating him to a bloody pulp and dumping the body in the trash when he found out, the answer was a definite no. He could not live with that. Literally. But that didn't exactly get him any further. "It's just-- It's fucking eating me up."

Truth was - he was at the end of his tether. Instead of fading, the unwelcome draw to O'Reily got stronger with every passing day. He felt that if he didn't do something about it either way - make it go away somehow or give in to it - and soon, he would be going insane.

For once, Sean didn't seem to understand the seriousness of the problem and merely shrugged. "Avoid her. Shouldn't be too hard. Not like you're the most social person in the world."

Tim laughed mirthlessly. "Trust me, that is not going to work." He gulped the rest of his beer down at once, wishing for something stronger but at the same time knowing that it wouldn't be a good idea to get plastered now.

Suddenly furious with himself, he stood up abruptly and threw some cash on the counter.

"I'm going--" home, he was going to say, but before the word could leave his mouth, he realized that 'home' was exactly the place he wanted to avoid. "For a walk," he finished instead, but not before Sean had noticed the short pause.

His friend gave him the oddest look. "Tim. Be careful, okay."

It was early when he left the bar. Too early, because O'Reily would still be awake, and that meant that they would have to talk, and - fuck - he couldn't guarantee which way a conversation would go. Not when he was half-drunk and tired and his self-restraint was bad enough as it was.

He almost regretted not having asked Murphy if he could spend the night on his couch perhaps, when he passed by his office building.

Oddly enough, as dedicated as he'd been to Emerald City, he'd never spend a single night in Oz - not deliberately anyway, because the riot certainly didn't count. It seemed odd to settle in his office for the night, lying on a too hard, uncomfortable couch with his desk and all those folders in sight. It took him hours to fall asleep, but eventually, exhaustion and his state of intoxication took their toll.

When he awoke at five o'clock the next morning because the guy from the cleaning company switched on the light, there wasn't a single muscle in his body that didn't ache. His secretary, Dana, kept throwing his pitiful looks until eventually, she advised him to go home.

He protested, naturally - after all, the whole point had been to avoid going home - but she wouldn't have any of it. "You're no good like this to anyone," she argued, and handed him his jacket, ushering him to the door with gentle force. He didn't have the strength to argue with her, so he followed her advice.

Ryan's voice greeted him as soon as he walked through the door. "Yo, man, where the fuck have you been? First you rush out like someone's after you, then you don't return the whole fucking night."

"So what, O'Reily? You're not my keeper," Tim snapped, throwing his jacket over the chair and walked off. His stomach was protesting over the lack of food it had received during the last forty-eight hours.

Ryan jumped up from couch and followed him. "Hey, easy. Just curious. No need to bite my fucking head off." He lounged in the door and watched Tim trying to find something edible in the freezer.

Tim wondered if it had always been so difficult to stay mad at Ryan. The general consent had been a definite yes, but he'd never agreed before. He sighed. "I was at the office. Some stuff that had to be taken care of."

"The whole night?" There was more than a hint of scepticism in Ryan's voice. "Didn't know your job was all that thrilling."

Tim all but laughed at the idea. 'Thrilling' was not a word he'd use in relation to his job. Ever. "It isn't."

"You slept at your office, McManus," Ryan replied, frowning at him. "So either your job has been keeping you busy until late, or there's some serious problem you didn't tell me about."

Fuck. Tim decided that sometimes, Ryan was too smart for his own good. Resting his head against the door of one of the closets, he closed his eyes. "Just... drop it. Please." He didn't need to turn his head to feel Ryan's eyes on him, knowing that the other man was dying to ask what was going on. He hadn't expected Ryan to give in so easily, but he was grateful when he respected Tim's plea and didn't push the issue.

Tim straightened himself, giving his lodger a weary look. "Look, I'm off to bed."

"At five forty? How old are you? Eight?"

"I'm tired, okay? I didn't get much sleep last night." He pushed himself past Ryan through the door.

"Yeah. Whatever."

* * *

For once, Tim was up before O'Reily the next morning, half-hoping he could hurry out of the apartment before Ryan got up. He knew he wouldn't be able to avoid the guy forever, but, hey, he could try.

He had just decided that there was still time for a quick coffee when the kitchen door opened and Ryan came in.

"Yo. You're up early." Without asking, he helped himself to Tim's coffee, leaning across the counter and practically crawling into Tim in the process.

Tim found it hard to summon enough energy for an "Hmm," contenting himself with watching Ryan's slim form move through the kitchen. A small, rational part of his brain made a mental note to turn the heating down in the future so Ryan would stop walking about shirtless. The rest of him was too busy admiring the beauty of the half-naked body.

It was only when he felt the other man's gaze on him that he snapped out of the reverie. Ryan had narrowed his eyes, his expression suddenly wary. For the first time since he'd turned up at Tim's doorstep, he looked dangerous. "Don't look at me like that." His tone was hard; the easy camaraderie had vanished at once. "I know that look. And let me tell you - it's not gonna happen. I'm not a fag."

There was no real appropriate answer to that. Going for denial - What the fuck are you talking about? I did not look at you like that! - would only make it worse, because he knew he had been caught red-handed. And worse, O'Reily knew it too.

A wave of anger washed over him - both at himself for losing control like that and at Ryan for noticing. Fucking hell! He should have known better. Should have been less obvious. Should have tried harder to shake the attraction off. Should never have been attracted to Ryan in the first place. He furiously slammed his mug down, spilling his coffee all over the table, and shoved his chair back.

"Well, I'm not either," he spat, and stormed out of the kitchen without a further word or a look back at Ryan. The door slammed shut behind him.

* * *

Tim's secretary was in her late thirties, divorced, with two teenage children. Dana was not the kind of woman who would turn anyone's heads on the streets, but with her silky brown hair and the wide, dark eyes, there was something undeniably appealing about her.

When Tim asked her if she wanted to go have dinner after work, she seemed surprised. He couldn't exactly blame her. In the seventeen months she was working for him, he had never shown any kind of interest in her.

After a short moment of hesitation, however, she agreed.

"Great!" He smiled. "I know a nice small Italian bistro just a few blocks down the road."

It had been a while since he last had a date, but he still remembered all the right moves - when to sit back and listen, when to chip in with some witty retort, when to reach out and touch her hand. There had been a time, once, when he'd been really good at this; and it was a bit like riding a bike. Not something you'd ever really forget how to do once you mastered it.

He kissed her when they left the restaurant; and she leaned into the touch. In the chilly night air, her body felt nice and warm against his.

"Let's go to my place," he asked quietly, brushing a dark lock out of her face.

"Tim, I -"

"Please." He didn't have to try hard to make his voice sound needy. He didn't need her, exactly, but he needed this, tonight, for more reasons than he could count. He held his breath until, finally, she nodded.

He tightened his arm around her and pulled her close, trying not to flinch when her hand brushed across the front of his shirt.

* * *

"I'll call you, Jen!" Smiling, Tim closed the door. Deciding he had time to grab a quick breakfast before work, he walked into the kitchen - just in time to catch Ryan's smirk.

"What?" he asked briskly.

They hadn't really spoken since their confrontation the previous week. Most of the time, Tim had successfully avoided Ryan, coming home late - usually with company in toe - and leaving before Ryan was awake. It surprised him how much he missed the young man's company after just a couple of days. To make things worse, his... unhealthy attraction to Ryan hadn't wavered. He had expected that in-between keeping a distance and his frequent encounters with women over the course of the last week, he'd be able to get Ryan out of his mind. But of course, all it needed was one annoying little smirk to have it all coming back to him.

Ryan rolled his eyes. "Alright, you've made your point. You're not a fag; I believe you. You can stop bringing a new girl home, like, every hour or so." He turned away to put his plate down in the sink.

We're really getting domestic, aren't we? Tim thought sarcastically, observing the other man.

He failed to point out that it had been only one woman a day. He did, however, protest against the notion that he only did this to prove he wasn't gay. "Have you ever considered that I might be doing this because I enjoy it? That I might not want to stop, just because you are suddenly convinced of my heterosexuality?"

"Yeah, right. That's why you never brought anyone home with you before last week. I'm not stupid, you know." Ryan spun around and leaned against the counter, crossing his ankles. He watched Tim speculatively. "And I never said I was convinced you're straight."

Before Tim even had the chance to react to that unsettling revelation, Ryan continued. "Look, man, I'm sorry for overreacting like that the other day. You're doing time, you get like that. Always alert. Always careful not to drop the soap, figuratively, letting anyone who approaches you know that you're not into this sort of thing, because otherwise you'll wind up as someone's prag faster than you can say 'rape'. And even when you're on the other end, prison sex is all about control, about proving that you're powerful and all that shit. And that's not what sex should be like."

Tim looked at the younger man with a frown. "Why exactly you're telling me this, O'Reily? I've been there. I know what prison is like."

"I know. Just explaining why I was all in your face last week."

"Yeah, well. Apology accepted." Tim tried to sound nonchalant and gruff, but he actually felt more relieved than he was willing to let on. He knew that he'd messed up. They had been getting along just fine, and then he had to do something stupid like getting aroused over Ryan parading around the kitchen half-naked. And, even more stupid, letting it show.

"Good", Ryan echoed his thoughts, offering him a smile. "Didn't want to have that standing between us."

And then, suddenly, Ryan moved in and covered Tim's lips with his. For a moment, Tim was too shell-shocked to respond, still trying to process that Ryan O'Reily was kissing him. His body must have caught on quicker than his mind did, because before he knew what he was doing, he was kissing back, opening his lips to accept the probing tongue. His hands, too, moved on their own volition, roaming across the younger man's body, gripping the muscular upper arms tightly. When the realization of just what he was doing sunk in, he forced himself to push Ryan away. "Whoa, hold on. What the fuck was that? You just gave me a speech of how you couldn't - and now you suddenly -"

"Tim, Tim, Tim, Tim, Tim." Ryan sighed with fake exasperation that didn't hide the humor underneath. "Did you actually listen to me? I was trying to explain that I went with my instincts last week, and I overreacted. This is not Oz. This is not about power and control and violence. It's about you," he poked a finger into Tim's chest for emphasis, "wanting me. And about me being curious to see if I can make you scream." The crooked grin he sported shouldn't have been as appealing as it seemed to Tim - and it wasn't, really. But it made him focus on Ryan's lips, and reminded him what those lips had felt like against his own just now.

"You okay with this?" Ryan asked, and brushed his mouth against Tim's once again. A butterfly-soft, brief touch, gone as quickly as it came. His hand rested lightly against the other man's chest.

Tim looked at him, trying to come up with all the reasons why this was a bad idea. Realizing they weighted nothing compared to the force of his attraction to Ryan. "I don't have a fucking clue," he muttered. "I haven't done this before. I meant it when I said I was a women's man. Exclusively." And for the longest time, not even that, he mentally added. Not until you practically forced me into it last week. But he didn't say that.

The information that this was new territory for Tim didn't seem to bother Ryan or put a lid on his intentions.

"Doesn't stop you from wanting this, does it?" His hand trailed down lower until it covered the growing bulge in Tim's pants. Ryan smirked. "Hey, does that mean all the times I called you a cocksucker, I was off the track?" He didn't wait for an answer, but just went straight for Tim's lips again, while his fingers deftly worked on undoing the zipper of Tim's pants.

When Ryan's hand closed firmly around his cock, Tim couldn't contain a gasp of mingled pleasure and shock. He bucked into Ryan's grip helplessly.

Obviously pleased by the reaction, Ryan smiled. "If someone had told me some years ago that I'd have my hand on your dick one day, I'd have ghosted the motherfucker."

Tim was about to complain that talk of killing didn't exactly contribute to the mood or turn him on, when Ryan's hand began to move - strong, sure strokes with just the right amount of pressure to build a delicious friction. He thrust into Ryan's hand, feeling his breath coming harder, shallower. Knew that he's almost... almost there. Groaned. Thrust harder as the strokes were speeding up. And then, just when he was only a breath away from the edge, Ryan drew back. Grinned.

"Gotta go. I'll be late for work."

Tim was gone too far to recognize Ryan's smirk for what it was. "Fuck work!" he gasped, trying to reach out for Ryan, but the other man danced out of his reach.

"Uh-uh. I can't. Don't wanna lose the job."

The goddamn smirk was still firmly in place, teasing, and it finally dawned on Tim that Ryan was doing this deliberately. "O'Reily, you bastard, you can't leave me like this."

Ryan actually had the nerve to laugh. "Sorry, man," he offered, without sounding sorry at all. He took a step closer, the length of his body brushing against Tim's when he leaned over to whisper into Tim's ear. "I'll make it up to you. Tonight. Promise."

Tim gasped when he felt the flicker of Ryan's tongue against his ear; and his body arched up against Ryan's - or it would have, if Ryan wasn't already leaving.

"You'd better keep that promise," Tim yelled after him.

* * *

Ryan did, in fact, keep his promise.

When Tim came home from work, Ryan was in his usual spot, lounging on the couch. There was a moment's pause when the two men merely stared at each other. "Hey, man," Ryan started eventually.

"Hey," Tim returned, and thought, 'Shit, this is going to be awkward.'

But then Ryan pushed himself up and sauntered over to him, hands in his pockets, managing to appear both cool and insecure at once. He invaded Tim's personal space like he always did. Only this time, he smiled that mischievous smirk of his and said, "Kiss me."

It held the force of an order, and that alone should have put Tim off, should have had him bristling with indignation. He shouldn't have been compelled to obey, closing the distance between them as if Ryan had put some sort of... spell on him.

He hesitantly touched his lips to Ryan's, testing the waters. Ryan was perfectly still, mouth half-opened, waiting for Tim to set the pace, in his own time. And he did, cautiously at first, just mouths brushing against one another until it wasn't enough anymore and his tongue darted out to flicker against the soft flesh. Like a sleeping dragon awakened, Ryan responded, frantically, reaching for Tim and drawing him flush against him as the kiss grew more and more intense.

Tim was sure that there was some irony in the fact that kissing Ryan O'Reily was making him harder than he had been in months; and he might have been able to figure it out if he hadn't been too busy rubbing himself along the length of Ryan's body.

A sudden, unwelcome idea came to whatever part of his mind that was still working, and Tim broke away, panting, and narrowed his eyes at Ryan. "Are you trying to settle some scores? Get some of your own back for all that fucking shit that went on between us back in Oz?"

Ryan laughed. "You're paranoid, man. What scores am I going to settle by sucking your dick?"

"You want to suck my -- fuck!"

The grin grew wider. "Yeah, watch me."

Tim did watch him as he got down on his knees, every motion as graceful and as smooth as a cheetah. And equally deadly, Tim thought, but somewhere along the way it had stopped to bother him, maybe even turned him on a little - or more than just a little, perhaps; and by the time he'd finished that thought, Ryan had opened Tim's zipper, pushed his pants and shorts down and swallowed him whole, and Tim didn't think anything at all anymore.

They never even made it to the couch that night, because eventually, Tim's legs gave in and when he sank down in a heap to the floor, Ryan just followed. Tim was uncomfortably aware that Ryan was still hard. For a moment, the idea that he might be expected to reciprocate scared the hell out of him, but then Ryan reached for his hand and the next thing Tim knew was that he was jerking Ryan off. It should have been weirder, holding another man's dick for the first time ever, giving him a fucking hand job. But by now, Tim had realized that 'should' and 'shouldn't' wouldn't get him anywhere in this. He was in uncharted waters here; and it was sink or swim. He was swimming just fine, judging by the noises Ryan made when he came.

The next morning, Tim had collected his wits enough to appreciate the irony - among other things - when Ryan stepped into the shower with him.

"Fuck, O'Reily, I do need to get to work," he muttered even when he pushed Ryan against the cool, slippery tiles.

It was then he realized that Ryan was like a drug-addiction. Nothing to be satisfied with a quick fix and brushed away again. The more Tim got, the more he wanted. Like with any drug, it made Tim lose control over himself. And yet, at the same time, it gave him an amount of control over the other man that was addictive in itself. The way Ryan melted into him, arched into his touch, half-moaned his name when he was close to the edge. Tim couldn't get enough of that.

It was like a vicious circle, except that Tim had no desire to get out of it.

The funny thing was that it didn't change anything. Sure, the couch was more often left unoccupied during the night than not, because the bed was more comfortable, and moving afterwards required an energy Ryan couldn't or didn't care to muster. But except for the sex and the heated tension sometimes created by no more than a glance, everything was still the same.

They still casually sat next to each other watching a game or some movie every other night (except that they frequently only heard about the score in the morning news, because they'd gotten... carried away), Tim still won their basketball sessions, and Ryan did eventually teach him some boxing moves. There were no awkward discussions about feelings, no intimate heart-to-hearts, no fights because Tim stayed out too long with Sean. It was so completely unlike any relationship Tim had ever had that he didn't realize that they were in a relationship until he overheard Ryan on the phone with who he assumed to be Gloria and felt a small, uncomfortable tuck in his stomach.

He pushed the jealousy away, refusing to think about what it meant.

Yet, later that night, he asked Ryan to fuck him.

Ryan looked up to him and frowned. "You sure?"

He wasn't, but he bit his lip and nodded, not trusting himself to say anything. Ryan kept staring at him; and Tim knew that Ryan knew what brought this on, but neither of them mentioned it.

Ryan took him with a gentleness and a restraint that surprised Tim, giving him time to adjust every now and then, as if he knew that it wasn't just the novelty of being with a guy that scared Tim. There was a moment when Ryan brushed his fingers lightly across Tim's stomach and frowned; and Tim knew that he'd noticed the scar - had probably noticed it a long time ago, but Ryan didn't ask.

* * *

"Do you trust me?" Ryan asked one night. It was mid-October, almost five months since Ryan had showed up at his doorstep and three since they'd first kissed.

Tim stopped in his tracks and looked up at Ryan. It was a loaded question. Back in Oz, trusting Ryan O'Reily had been a certain way into an early grave. But this wasn't Oz, and he'd trusted Ryan with his body, at least, for months. "Yeah. I guess I do. Why?"

He'd assumed it to be a general question - the way someone else would ask, "Do you love me?" maybe - but the moment that customary O'Reily-smirk stretched Ryan's lips, he knew that he'd been wrong.

"Come with me," Ryan ordered.

Tim followed him into the bedroom, resisting the urge to ask what was going on because that would defy the whole trust issue, wouldn't it? When Ryan told him to lie down, Tim merely raised a brow and did as he was told, more curious than worried about what Ryan had in store for him.

Until the other man reached for one of the drawers and produced a couple of Tim's ties.

Tim sat up so suddenly that the bed creaked. "Ryan, I -"

But Ryan was already there, straddling him and pushing him back down on the bed. "Shhh. You said you trusted me, remember." He grabbed Tim's wrist and tugged it over the other man's head with gentle force, fastening the tie to the headboard. Tim fought the urge to lash out, a cold wave of panic closing over him and threatening to suffocate him when his other arm, too, was rendered immobile by the silken ties.

He was about to call an end to Ryan's game, realizing it was too much to bear, when Ryan leaned down and kissed him, long and with growing heat. For a moment, Tim lay motionless, hardly daring to breathe. Eventually, though, Ryan's lips coaxed a response from his, and then it was just Ryan and him; and everything around them blurred into irrelevance. The ties didn't matter anymore, became a mere cause of frustration because he wanted to touch Ryan but couldn't. He arched his body, tense with frustration and need and desire as Ryan's fingertips ghosted over his hard cock.

"Do you have a fucking idea how much it turns me on to see you like this," Ryan whispered into his ear and closed his fist around both of their cocks. Tim squeezed his eyes shut, letting Ryan's voice wash over him like a slick, warm wave. "Completely in my control. Wanting me so much you can barely stand it. You'd let me do anything to you. Any. Fucking. Thing."

And then he came, spilling over his stomach and Ryan's fingers, and apparently, that alone was enough for Ryan to follow suit.

They lay panting for a moment, until Ryan had recovered enough to roll off Tim. "Shit." He laughed, almost embarrassed. "Not quite what I had planned."

Tim didn't have the energy to do more than raise a curious eyebrow.

"I was going to fuck you. Long and hard. Until you fucking begged me to let you come. But the sight of you, all tied up and helpless and mine... Fuck! You're making me lose my fucking control."

Coming from Ryan, that was almost a love declaration. Tim smiled faintly and closed his eyes, about to doze off when he felt Ryan cleaning him up with something that was probably his sheets. He couldn't bring himself to care much. The feeling of cloth on his skin was suddenly gone, though, replaced by the warm weight of a hand; and Tim's eyes fluttered open.

Ryan gave him a strangely intense look, his eyes less guarded than usually. "Where'd you get that?" He traced his fingertips along the fine, white line that went straight across Tim's stomach.

Oddly enough, instead of recoiling, Tim found himself instinctively leaning into the touch. "A woman."

When he didn't offer any more information, Ryan raised an eyebrow. "What, she try to kill you when you dropped her?"

"Not exactly." Tim looked past Ryan, staring into the space and remembering. Remembering Lauren's laughter - laughter he'd always considered as being silvery before, but then, he realized that it was more than slightly manic. His initial small struggles at the first bite of the blade. 'Come on, this is not funny anymore.' Then, panic building when he realized that she wasn't going to stop. Blood. So much blood, everywhere, and it hadn't even hurt. Not at first, anyway.

"Tim?" Ryan's voice tore into the haze of memories, and Tim focused on him instead, shaking himself back to the present. Ryan frowned down on him, and there actually seemed to be something akin to concern in the pale eyes.

"She tied me to the bed and suddenly decided she felt like carving me up. She'd seemed rather sane, up to this point, but maybe I'd just missed all the signs. If it hadn't been for my neighbour hearing me screaming, I'd probably have bled to death. When the ambulance came, I was unconscious. Probably a good thing. Spared me the embarrassment of watching them having to cut me loose from the bed, anyway." His tone was all matter-of-fact, but he knew that he didn't fool anyone, least of all the man who was lying beside him, upper body probed up on an elbow.

Ryan just stared at him. "Jesus," he muttered. "That's fucked up, man."

"Yeah, well. Shit happens, right?" Tim squirmed uncomfortably under the intensity of Ryan's scrutinizing.

The younger man's fingers brushed lightly across the binds that tied Tim's wrists; and he shivered. "How can you trust anyone after that?" Ryan wondered, and Tim knew what he really meant to ask was, 'How can you let a convicted murderer tie you to the bed?'

Tim smiled humourlessly. "I've been shot. I've been stabbed. I've been accused of all kinds of shit. You think I'd lose my faith in people over that little scratch?"

Narrowing his eyes at Tim, Ryan continued to watch the man beneath him. "McManus, my friend, you're stark raving mad. You know that, right?"

It must have been a rhetorical question, because he didn't wait for an answer. Instead, he leaned down and kissed Tim.

* * *

With the realization that what they had was indeed a relationship, unconventional as it might be, came the knowledge that it was going to end one day. Because that's what relationships did, wasn't it? You met someone, and you liked them enough to let them into your life, sharing it with them for a while. Be it for a month, or a year, or maybe a decade. But eventually, there had to be a parting of the ways because you had your life and they had theirs; and different lives ran different courses, different people had different goals and expectations and ultimately, there was a point when compromise was required. And compromise was a certain way to make people unhappy, Tim had learned from experience. Life was too short for compromise.

But usually, there were signs that preceded the end of a relationship. Small, subtle signs first - ones Tim usually missed - followed by big ugly fights and awkward silences.

There was none of that with Ryan. One day, he stumbled into the apartment with an annoyed expression, shrugging out of his jacket. "This is the first fucking time I've seen snow in years," he grumbled. "Can't say I've missed it. Jesus, I cannot believe it's almost Christmas! Remember when I came here and said I would be gone in a month?"

And just like that, in-between Ryan's words and the way he wouldn't quite meet Tim's eyes, Tim knew what was going to come.

He smiled, but it felt forced and probably looked every bit like that too. "Yeah, well, I never expected you to actually stick to that promise, don't worry."

"Even so," Ryan began as he flopped down beside him on the couch, "I'm getting a bit stir-crazy. I have to get moving. There are places to see. The Chinese Wall is waiting for me, man." He threw a piece of paper on the table in front of them. Tim recognized it as a plane ticket. He didn't bother to take it and check for the departure date, knowing it would be sooner rather than later.

Compared to the Chinese Wall, there was little he had to offer. And yet...


Tim didn't look at Ryan, he just stared straight ahead, knowing that beside him, Ryan did the same. The silence between them stretched for a long moment, and the seconds ticked by. Tim caught himself counting them. He was at thirty-seven when Ryan spoke.

"I can't, man. I've always wanted to do this. To travel, go see places no one I know has ever laid their fucking eyes on. That's what got me through my time in Oz. I can't just... give that up."

Not for you, Tim heard, even though Ryan didn't say it. If Tim had been angrier, he'd asked Ryan whether he would have given it up for Gloria; but he wasn't so much angry as he was resigned. He merely nodded and got up, walking over to the window and looking outside. It was still snowing.

He had his back still turned to Ryan when the other man spoke again. "Come with me."

And somehow, that did make him angry, the fact that Ryan was unwilling to give up his plans but expected Tim to just bury his. "And what?" he yelled, whirling around. "I leave everything behind - my job, my friends, my whole fucking life?"

"It's not like you have that much of a life to leave behind. You hate your goddamn job, and Murphy is probably the only one who'd even notice if you were gone."

"Fuck you! You come into my life and turn everything upside down and then you suddenly get bored or whatever and you just walk away like that. And hey, that's great. It's not like any of this mattered! I've been getting along pretty well without you before, and I will do once again when you're off to China or the rain forest or fuck knows where. You know what, O'Reily? Fuck you!"

He reached for his jacket and went for the door, because he couldn't stay in this room even a second longer or he was going to do something stupid. Like hit Ryan. Or beg him to stay. Neither would do him any good or end with anything but broken bones or shattered dignity.

The door fell shut behind him heavily, with a hollow bang. Tim rushed down the stairway, desperate to get away as far as possible. When he stumbled out of the building, the cold winter air hit him with all its icy force, slowing his step. Tim took a deep breath and felt the cold biting his throat, crawling down his lungs like needles.

He didn't stop, though, not until he had put a suitable distance between himself and Ryan; and he was sitting on a cold bench in the park, staring out at the frozen sea as if it held all the important answers to life.

He didn't move until Sean arrived half an hour later, obviously somewhat bemused that Tim's call had interrupted something but trying not to show it.

Sean dropped down beside him and for a moment, they sat in silence.

"So...?" Sean started, with a sidelong glance at his friend. When Tim didn't answer, Sean sighed, and his breath stood white and foggy in the air before dissolving. "Why do I have the feeling that this is about O'Reily?"

"He's leaving. Travelling. He didn't say a fucking word before, and then suddenly he's all, 'It's been fun, cheerio!'"

"Correct me if I'm wrong, Tim, but didn't he tell you that this was what he was going to do the moment he arrived at your place? And now you suddenly didn't see this coming?"

Frustrated, Tim ground his teeth. Sean didn't understand. Well, how could he?

"I know he said that. But that was fucking months ago. Before... before we..." Words failed Tim. How did you tell your best friend that you've been having sex with a male ex-convict for months? "Before..."

"Before you started fucking, yeah, I got that," Sean finished for him and rolled his eyes when Tim all but gaped at him. "I'm not that oblivious. But since when does fucking mean anything for someone like you. Or O'Reily. I mean, he fucked that cunt Howell, for God's sake. Then again, so did you."

Tim winced. He hadn't needed a reminder of that particular episode. Pushing the disturbing mental image of Howell to a far-away corner of his mind, he latched onto the idea that he was indeed overreacting.

But if it hadn't meant a thing, why was he so unbelievably... disappointed that Ryan was leaving.

"He asked me to come along."

That, at least, seemed to shock Sean. He visibly needed a second or two to process that piece of information. "Okay... What did you say?"

"No; of course. That I couldn't just leave everything behind. Yelled at him. Said a couple of things I didn't mean. Shit!" Tim dropped his head into his hands when a sudden realization overcame him, hitting him with the force of a fist to his gut: "He'll be gone when I get back."

"Do you want to go back to your place, see if you can still catch him?"

Tim shook his head. "Wouldn't do any good. It's not like anything changed since I left." He pushed himself up, his hands leaving dark prints on the snowy bench. "Let's go have a drink."

A drink turned into two, then quickly into five, and before he knew it, he was so plastered he could barely walk. The alcohol hadn't drowned his sorrows, exactly, just made them more vague and blurred, and when he stumbled up the stairs and clumsily worked on the lock of his door, a cold cloud of dread descended over him.

It was almost five in the morning, and the apartment still looked the same as it had last night when he had left, except that the spot Ryan had occupied a few hours ago was now empty.

Tim stared at it for what seemed like hours, as if he was trying to project Ryan by pure force of will.

He distantly heard a toilet flush, but didn't turn his head until he caught a movement out of the corner of his eye.

"Yo, man, why are you standing in the doorway like a fucking statue?"

Tim blinked and looked at Ryan, wondering if his intoxicated brain was playing tricks on him. "You're still here," he said - or tried to say, at least, because his voice sounded slurred even in his own ears. He took a step towards Ryan, but his legs didn't get the right idea and he stumbled, only just holding on to the wall before he fell down.

"Yeah, buddy, luckily for you. Otherwise you wouldn't find your fucking bed."

And then Ryan was beside him, half holding him up, half dragging him across the room, muttering silent curses about what kind of an idiot Murphy was to leave Tim alone like this. Tim couldn't care less. He leaned against Ryan; and when the other man dropped him unceremoniously on his bed, he just held on until Ryan gave in and lay down beside him, a casual arm draped around Tim's waist.

"You didn't leave," Tim muttered, and that was the only thing that mattered. Within seconds, he was fast asleep.

* * *

When he woke up the next morning, nursing a hangover from hell, Ryan was gone. The bed beside Tim was cold and empty, and except for the stack of travel magazines next to the couch, all of Ryan's stuff was gone. The spare key to Tim's apartment hang on the board next to the door where it had been for years before Ryan had moved in.

There wasn't a note on kitchen table, no 'I'm sorry', no contact details how Tim could get in touch with him, nothing.

It was as if Ryan had never been here to begin with.

Tim staggered into the bathroom, bent over the toilet and puked. He told himself it was a purely physical reaction because he'd had too much to drink the previous night, knowing it was not quite the whole story but deliberately ignoring it. His head ached more than it ever had before, and not even the two aspirins helped much.

He called in sick for work, and contemplated getting straight back to bed. Instead, he sat on the couch and flicked through the TV channels, thinking that Ryan might have been right the night before when he'd told Tim that he didn't have much of a life to turn away from.

He almost ignored the doorbell because getting up seemed too much of a hassle. But it might have been the postman, or Sean, or someone trying to notify him that the house was burning down, so he pulled himself up and opened the door.

There was a strange, not entirely unwelcome sense of dj vu when he found Ryan leaning against the doorframe with a lopsided smile.

"Yo. I heard you have a nice, cosy couch in your place. That one still free?"

Tim missed a beat before he gathered his wits. "No. But there's plenty of room in the bed."

"Good." Ryan grinned and pushed past him.

* * *


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