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Thanks to Siberian_Skys for her e-mailed encouragement for this chapter.
A Smile That Renews (The Smile Series, Part 9)
At the sound of those words Elliot's entire body felt like it was shutting down. A wave of nausea washed over him, and his stomach clenched. He was struggling to breathe, fighting to regain control over his emotions in order to deal with what was coming. He wasn't going to break down, dammit. He wouldn't cry. He was going to face whatever it was that Tobias had to tell him.
He took a deep breath, which only tightened the ache in his chest. No, he wouldn't cry. He wouldn't cry. Don't cry. Be strong. Be a man. Tobias needs you now.
Don't cry, he told himself, helpless to stop the tears beginning to heat his cheeks.
It had been years since he had felt this way about someone. Perhaps the years he spent with Kathy were necessary; by turning a blind eye to the problems in his marriage, it let him know what he was missing when he met Tobias. Like fumbling around in the dark toward happiness. Get married, get a house, have kids...who cared if you were unhappy as long as the faade was kept? Always the good son, the father, the provider. But there was never any time for Elliot, the human being, the person needing love and compassion.
He lost that part of himself somewhere along the way, and Tobias had helped him find it.
He never shared himself with anyone as completely as he did with Tobias. Not even Kathy, who knew the most intimate details of his life, knew the things he had told Tobias.
Some stories flowed easily during topics of conversation -- trips to the beach as a kid, going to his little brothers' football games, his sister's clarinet recitals -- while others were so painful that he could only trust Tobias with them.
There was the time after his baseball game when his father told Elliot he wished he were more like the kid across the street, who had the better batting average, the better grades, and the girlfriend. When Elliot responded he was how he was, he got smacked in the face with his mitt.
He told him about the time he spent weeks putting together an intricate model of a fighter plane, only to have it smashed into pieces when he forgot to return the glue to his father's workshop.
He told him about crying for hours after having his mouth duct-taped shut because he woke his father from his afternoon nap.
That story -- that was for Tobias alone. They sat on the couch together afterward, Tobias holding his hand. He didn't preach or tell him to get over it. He just sat there with a look on his face that told Elliot he understood, without saying a word.
He couldn't deny that some of those things still affected him to this day, which was why he started telling Tobias about them. Seeing Dr. Hendrix made him understand that he did indeed think about his childhood a lot without really realizing it. His quick temper and the ability suddenly to lose control were frightening.
Add to that the pressures of the job and the intense stress he had been under these past few weeks, and it was easy to get lost. His life was falling apart around his ears, but having Tobias meant he could face it. He felt stronger with him around.
He'd already lost his family. He couldn't lose Tobias.
The man he held in his arms had been there for him during every painful moment over the past six months. Tobias reassured him when he cried over his kids; he was there to kiss the wound he got the night his life almost ended; he was there to look him in the eyes and tell him everything was going to be okay.
I'm here, was all he had to say.
When Elliot would wake up screaming in those first few nights after the Gitano shooting, Tobias would simply whisper "I'm here," and he would immediately feel safe, far away from the terrors haunting his dreams.
He would melt into the strength of Tobias's arms in the darkness, never second-guessing what he was feeling. It was so physically overwhelming he could almost touch it.
He was absolutely and totally in love with this man.
His stomach fluttered again at the thought, and he swallowed. This beautiful, intelligent, generous, caring person, who had been victimized and violated in prison. He had lost his son. He had lost a lover. He had been in so much pain.
Pain. Too much pain.
Elliot couldn't bear to imagine it. Just thinking about it was tearing his insides apart. His Tobias, being hurt and preyed upon like an animal.
With his arms still wrapped around Tobias, he heard himself whimper. He felt himself starting to lose control of his emotions.
He swallowed again, his stomach churning at the imagined sight of Tobias's vulnerability when he entered that place. Now the man he loved with all his heart might have to face an uncertain future because of what they did to him in Oz. God, he was helpless to stop this. He couldn't help Tobias then, and he couldn't help him now.
He couldn't do a damn thing.
Tobias could die, and he wouldn't be able to do anything.
He felt himself get hot, and suddenly pinpricks of light started swimming before his eyes. Then his body began to tremble uncontrollably, his heart pounding in his ears.
Tobias pulled back from his arms and took Elliot's hand. "Elliot, I need to..." He paused, immediately looking into the other man's eyes. "What are you...God, Dahúil, why are you so pale?"
Elliot wrenched himself away from the bed, his feet tangling momentarily in the blankets, and ran for the bathroom.
He was hunched over the toilet, crying and getting sick at the same time, when he felt Tobias come up behind him. Kneeling there with him, Tobias wrapped his arms around Elliot and kissed the back of his neck.
"I'm here," he whispered.
Elliot turned and reached for the other man, pressing his face into Tobias's chest. Tobias fell back into a sitting position, holding Elliot in his lap, cradling his head. He slowly began to stroke Elliot's hair, and when he did so, Elliot let go.
His whole body shook as he sobbed, his fingers wrapped in Tobias's thin T-shirt as he desperately clung to the other man for support.
"Shh, Elliot, it's okay," Tobias said into his ear as he gently rocked him "It's okay. I'm okay. Do you hear me? I'm okay."
Elliot looked up at him. "You..."
Tobias nodded. "The test was negative, Ell. I'm okay."
Elliot entwined his fingers with Tobias's, and laid his head back against the other man's chest again. "We're okay," he mumbled, tears still streaking his cheeks. "We're okay, baby. We're okay."
"Yeah," Tobias smiled, kissing the top of Elliot's head and going back to rocking him. "We're okay."
* * *
Elliot did as he was told, rinsing away the foul taste on his tongue with mouthwash.
"Better?" Tobias asked, rubbing Elliot's back.
Elliot scoffed and shook his head. "I'm the one who's supposed to be taking care of you, not the other way around. God, what the hell is wrong with me?"
"Don't be embarrassed," he replied, leading Elliot from the bathroom. "Everyone reacts differently...screaming, fainting, crying. It's natural."
"But...I'm a cop, bud. I shouldn't be...I mean, I shouldn't be puking my guts out over it."
Tobias sat him down on the bed and ran his thumb across Elliot's cheek. "Elliot, how else should you react when someone you love tells you something like that?"
Elliot met his eyes. "God, Tobias, why didn't you let me go through this with you?"
Tobias sat down next to him on the bed and sighed deeply. "I don't know."
"Yes, you do. What were you afraid of?"
The other man was silent at first. "That's what I wanted to talk to you about," he said finally.
"Tobias..." He turned to the other man and put his hand on his shoulder. "Even if...even if you told me you were positive, it wouldn't have changed anything."
Tobias only looked down at his hands and shook his head.
"Look at me," Elliot begged, touching Tobias's chin. "Look at me. You were afraid I wouldn't want to be with you?"
"I know you love me, Elliot. You're a good man; I don't think you would have left me if I had told you the worst."
"Then, baby, I don't understand." He began gently stroking Tobias's hair. "Why couldn't you share this with me?"
"We should have had this conversation a long time ago. I shouldn't have put you through this."
"It's not," Tobias said angrily. "You're the best thing that's happened in my life in years, and I was too ashamed to tell you."
Elliot put his hand on the other man's knee. "That's not your fault."
"Some of it is," he admitted. "I got so fucking lost, Ell. I forgot what it was like to have someone love and care about me again. There's still a part of me that thinks like a con, that behaves and reacts like those animals I was penned up with. It's like this survivalist mentality that I can't seem to shake, and I despise that about myself."
"Tobias, you haven't even been out a year."
"I know. That's why I was hesitant to really let you see all of me...it's still too painful -- like an open wound. I love you so much, but I don't know how."
"How to do what?"
"How to make you understand, and not hate me."
"I could never hate you, Tobias," he said, brushing Tobias's cheek. "Don't ever think that way, not after all we've been through."
"You don't know, Elliot. You have no idea."
"I want to, bud. I love you. Please. I just want to be here for you."
Tobias cast his eyes downward again, and reached for the other man's hand. Slowly he began tracing circles in Elliot's palm.
Watching him, it reminded Elliot of the same way child victims reacted when it came time to explain what happened to them. It made him ache.
"Tobias," he said gently, "let's go lie down on the bed while we talk."
"Why?" he asked curiously.
"Because I want to hold you."
He stripped off his suit jacket and tie while Tobias pulled back the covers and got into bed. Tossing his shoes aside, he undressed down to his underwear and crawled in next to Tobias. He sat against the headboard and cradled Tobias against his chest, the same way the other man did for him minutes ago in the bathroom. It allowed them to be close, but it also gave Tobias the ability to tell his story without having to look Elliot directly in the eye. It would make it easier for him to talk and not feel pressured.
"I know you've been hesitant to talk about what those bastards did to you," Elliot said, "but the rape wasn't your fault."
His fingers found that soft, long hair again, and he began stroking it soothingly. It was moments before Tobias spoke again.
"Rapes," Tobias whispered harshly.
Elliot closed his eyes and took a deep breath, steadying the feeling of nausea that surged through him again. "I'm here, baby," he answered, his voice anguished. "It's okay."
"He sold me for motherfucking boot polish, Elliot," he said hotly. "I can't get that out of my mind. They all had me as their prag."
"A prag -- a prison bitch. Someone who is violated, abused, used up, then used again. You can be bought and sold by anyone...it's like all you are is a piece of meat, and you have no mind of your own. You're soulless."
"That's not you," Elliot said firmly. "That's not who you are."
"But it's who I was -- what I was turned into in there -- and it completely changed me."
"You were a victim, Tobias. No one is asking you to forget or ignore what happened. I can't fucking stand to think about..." His voice broke and he cleared his throat. "It hurts to think about what they did to you. When you're ready to tell me, you know I'll be here to listen."
Tobias glanced up at him and smiled, but it was dark and troubled, an almost regretful look. "There's a lot you need to hear in order to understand me."
"You've held my hand enough," Elliot said, "now let me do the same for you."
Tobias let out a shuddery sigh, his breath catching in his throat.
"I'm not the man I was," Tobias whispered, the emotion in his voice audible.
"In some ways," the other man answered gently, "maybe that's a good thing."
Tobias scoffed at the statement and settled back against Elliot's chest again. "I've lived two lives. One before Oz, and one inside. In my first life I was a selfish, materialistic asshole, hell-bent on making it to partner before I was 35. I had no time for my wife or my family, and the way I coped was to go out and get drunk off my ass every night. Why couldn't a rich, successful lawyer get fucked up once in a while? It was only later that I realized how much I hated myself and that I used the alcohol to numb the pain." He sighed. "Then that man died the afternoon my two-martini lunch turned into seven."
"When you hit the little girl?"
"Kathy Rockwell. Riding her bike...she had the prettiest red hair, Ell. In braids."
Tobias was quiet for a moment, but Elliot could think of nothing to say to that. He just rubbed his arm to let him know he understood.
"And then, well, I started my next life in Oz," he continued. "The first thing that really hits you when you step inside those walls is how loud it is. It's like this non-stop...thunder. It's just constant, never-ending noise, all the time. That bothered me the most, in the beginning. You can't think; you can't sleep. I was scared out of my mind but I couldn't rest." He looked up at Elliot. "Do you know they say that in prison you should never accept help from guys who offer to take you under their wing?"
"That's what started it?"
"They put me in the pod with Adebisi -- this scary, half-crazed African -- but then he came along and played protector."
"The man who raped you," Elliot said, more statement than question.
"Vern Schillinger, the man who welcomed me to Oz by killing me a second time."
"Why didn't they do anything?"
"Who? The COs? The warden? What the fuck did they care?"
That forced Elliot to admit to himself that if he had to work all day around the type of prisoners Oz housed, he might be blind to the problem as well.
"Besides," Tobias said, "it's hard to prevent it from happening no matter what. Some of us...some people are simply easy prey."
"You shouldn't think of yourself like that, Tobias."
"Oh, not anymore. At the time though, the courts made an example out of me -- cocky lawyer sentenced to 15 years. I think they knew what was in store for me, too. Like they planned it as an extra punishment. Christ, one look at the nice suit, the glasses, the expensive haircut and everyone in Oz could smell fresh meat. Sometimes you saw the guys who fought back, but me...no, I was broken, and thought I'd stay that way."
"I started smoking marijuana. Then I moved on to snorting heroin, then PCP."
Tobias chuckled darkly. "He had nothing to do with it."
"How the hell did that happen?"
He shrugged. "It eased the pain. I was Schillinger's prag, in every sense of the word. The drugs were an escape from the hell I was being put through. Sister Pete tried to help, of course, and McManus, but neither of them got me out of that fucking pod and away from Vern! Their intentions were good -- hell, Pete even called my mother for an intervention, if you can believe that shit -- but they were useless to me."
Elliot hugged him close. "You sounded desperate."
"God, you have no idea, Elliot. The way it made me feel..." He took a deep breath and let it out. "At one point I was wearing lipstick."
"You don't have to explain it."
"It's okay," he said. "It finally changed after Schillinger met up with a new buddy and decided he didn't want me anymore. And, well, I kind of...snapped."
"I was high on PCP and threw a chair through the glass-plated door of our pod. Showered him with glass and nearly blinded him. That was just the beginning, though. He hated me and never let me forget that."
"Can't say I blame you," Elliot responded honestly.
"I lost control and I didn't care. That was the worst thing, Elliot -- I had become just like them. A fucking sick, twisted piece of shit." Tobias looked up at him. "Oz showed me just what I was capable of, and it still scares me."
"You fought back, Tobias."
"Fighting back only made it worse. It turned into this fucked-up circle of violence. He wound up being responsible for the worst and best things in my life: the death of my son, and my relationship with Chris."
Elliot frowned. "He was involved with Chris? I thought you said you and Chris were cellies."
He didn't press it. "Okay."
"It's just...our relationship is hard to explain. Chris and I hurt each other as much as we loved each other. Literally." Tobias sighed. "Chris knew Schillinger from before he came to Oz, and he manipulated me. Then he helped Vern break my arms and legs."
"I loved him, Elliot."
"I know, Dahúil. Believe me, that's not even the worst of it. But it was prison. Everything is fucked up in prison, even love."
"You must have a remarkable ability to forgive, bud," he answered, shaking his head in disbelief.
"Among other things."
"Yes, more than once." Tobias looked away, and then grinned wistfully. "I think he eventually found a way to forgive me, too, because he smiles at me in my dreams."
Elliot pulled the other man into an embrace, cradling him. He wanted to ask; he wanted to know, but he wasn't sure how to do it. No doubt there was much left unsaid about Tobias's time in Oz, but even getting him to open up this much was a major victory and he didn't want to rush him. But...
"Tobias," Elliot asked gently, the question coming out in a mumble as he held Tobias close to him, "how did he die?"
"He..." Tobias took a breath and released it. "He fucked up my parole. We had a fight -- I was angry and rejected him, and he threw himself off the upper tier of the cell block."
"Oh my God."
"That's why I needed to get the HIV test."
"What? I don't understand."
"Because after he died I realized he did what he did because he loved me. It was selfish, and cruel in a way, but that's what he knew. His reaction was pure Chris Keller. I shouldn't have blamed him for that. That was the man I fell in love with. The man who would kill for me was also the one who confessed to a murder he didn't commit to protect me. He showed his love in the way he knew how, and I was too self-righteous to recognize that. Christ, after everything I had done, who was I to judge his actions? He was right, too, when we last talked. It was bullshit."
"I blamed myself for a long time afterward, Elliot," he answered, anticipating the question. "I didn't care, about anything. Including who I fucked."
Elliot didn't respond, and when Tobias didn't hear a reaction he sat up and faced the other man, reaching for his hand.
"Ell, please...I didn't know how to tell you. After Chris died, something in me just...broke...and I didn't know how to deal with it..."
"...and I just drowned the pain and guilt in another type of addiction, I guess..."
"But after I got out I was so full of self-loathing that I stayed away from everyone. I couldn't stand to be in crowded places, or around too many men, and then I tried to get back into the job market but that got fucked up and I wound up in that bar and you bumped into me, and..."
The other man finally stopped talking and relaxed against the bed.
"Look." Elliot put his hands on Tobias's shoulders. "I love you."
"I know, Elliot, but..."
"No. That's it. I love you. That's all of you -- your past, your pain, your everything. I know we can't forget Oz overnight, and I don't want you to be afraid to talk to me when you need to. I'll always be here to listen, okay? But whenever you start to doubt yourself...whenever you start to think you don't deserve to be happy, I want you to remember that I love you, Tobias. No matter what."
Tobias smiled, his eyes brimming with tears. "Crazy motherfucker," he huffed, and kissed Elliot on the lips.
"That's what they all say," Elliot laughed.
Tobias reached for the other man and hugged him. "I don't know how this happened," he admitted, nuzzling Elliot's neck. "It feels so surreal."
"Want me to pinch you?"
Tobias chuckled and sat up. "It's just been a long time since I've been happy."
"I know. Me too."
"Right back at you, bud."
"Elliot." He paused, wiping his eyes. "So much has happened to me, things I'm ashamed of, things that are still hard to talk about. This...what we just talked about...that's not everything."
"I don't expect you to sit here for hours and tell me every little detail, Tobias, believe me. This is a start. A good start, and a step toward healing." Elliot held out his hands. "Now c'mere."
Tobias raised an eyebrow teasingly. "Taking advantage of me in my vulnerable state?"
"No. I just want to wrap my arms around you right now."
"I am huggable."
"You are," Elliot grinned, holding out his hand. "You're not gonna make me ask twice, are you?"
"No sir, detective."
Tobias crawled over Elliot's legs and settled next to him, his head comfortably resting in the crook of Elliot's arm.
"Everything's changing, Tobias."
The other man met his eyes. "What do you mean?"
"The HIV test, the conversation we just had. I feel like we're headed on a different path."
"Oh God, you want me to have your children, right?" Tobias joked. "I can't really see myself as a stay-at-home mom."
Elliot flicked his nose playfully. "No, smart ass. I just mean that the more we share with each other the closer we become. It's a strong feeling...I can't describe it..."
"You mean we're connected now."
Elliot thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, I guess that's exactly what it feels like."
"What do you think about that?"
"It's where I want to be. It's where I need to be."
Tobias leaned up to kiss him. He kept it light at first, and then deepened the kiss. His tongue came to linger on Elliot's bottom lip.
"My test results mean other things will be changing for us too," Tobias said with a lick of his tongue.
Elliot moaned when he answered. "I know."
"We're going to have to have that conversation next."
"Not tonight, though." He looked up at Elliot and grinned. "You've been through enough...we don't want you puking again when we start talking about lube."
"I did that on purpose."
Elliot looked at him, and brushed the hair back from his face. "I know," he said, smiling warmly.
Tobias snuggled closer to Elliot and brought the covers over the both of them. Elliot slid down into a more comfortable position, allowing Tobias to press against his chest. Tobias's right arm went underneath his pillow, and his left clung to Elliot's midsection.
"I'm sleeping just like this," he mumbled from Elliot's chest.
Elliot's fingers slipped through the gold curls again. "I did that on purpose."
Tobias huffed softly, his fingers trailing along Elliot's back. "I love you."
"I love you too."
Tobias yawned, and closed his eyes. Elliot's fingers never left his hair.
Elliot looked down at the other man wrapped in his arms, and felt all the tension and anxiety from earlier melt away. His worst fears weren't going to be realized, thank God. Perhaps he'd stop by the church on the way to work tomorrow and light a candle in gratitude.
At that moment, he put everything out of his head that was bothering him, and concentrated on Tobias's slow, steady breathing. He chose to forget about those divorce papers; the tensions in work; the problems what were sure to multiply when his and Tobias's relationship was brought into the open. He didn't give a shit. Not right now. The world could be ending outside and all he would care about was this exact second, when God gave them a second chance.
Yes, he would definitely light a candle.
He closed his eyes and drew the other man closer to his body. Everything was going to be okay.
Elliot kissed the other man's forehead in response. "Yeah, bud?"
"When can I move in?"
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