House of Cards (Pt.2)
|Return to Pt. 1|
2 weeks later...
"Come on in, pal," Doug murmured. He held the door wide, squelching the urge to take Harry's arm and guide him over the doorstep.
Harry took a few hesitant steps into the room, then stopped, looking lost and overwhelmed in the unfamiliar space. He pulled his strangely oversized coat more closely about him and turned his head away from Doug's steady, troubled gaze. Doug closed the door softly and leaned against it, studying his friend from under lowered brows. He didn't know what to do next, how to make this any easier on either of them.
This move had been an uneasy compromise, at best. Harry needed and wanted to leave the hospital, but he had nowhere to go. His home was out of the question, since he could not function on his own, yet. Fuller had offered Harry his spare room, but the younger officer was visibly uncomfortable with that idea. In the end, he had come to Doug's apartment because it was the only place he could stand to be.
Now, it seemed as though he regretted his decision. Everything about his posture communicated resistance and fear. Doug felt the now-familiar ache growing in his chest, and he clenched his teeth in an effort to control his tears. He desperately wanted to help. He had gladly invited Harry to stay with him, grateful for the chance to safeguard and support his friend. But Harry seemed determined to hide behind a wall of misery and isolation that Doug could not breach.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, he rasped out, "Make yourself at home. I'll put your stuff in the closet." He slung the nylon gym bag over his shoulder and headed across the room. Harry did not move or even acknowledge his words. Doug tossed the bag into the closet, then glanced at his watch. Six o'clock. "Time to take your meds."
Harry looked over at him, his scarred face expressionless and his gauze-white gaze unnerving. "No more drugs."
"Hey, doctor's orders. It's just antibiotics, anyway. You don't have to take the other stuff, if you don't want. Come on." This time, Doug did not fight the impulse to touch his obviously frightened and disoriented friend. He caught Harry's arm, ignoring his flinch, and guided him around the end of the sofa, kicking the coffee table out of the way as he went. "Sit down and rest," he murmured gently.
Harry clutched his arm for a brief moment, confused and slightly panicked by the shift in location, then he felt the sofa against his leg and knew where he was. He let go of Doug and reached for the safe, solid piece of furniture. Doug had to close his eyes. He couldn't stand to watch, knowing there was nothing he could do to help. Then Harry gave a soundless sigh of relief, and Doug opened his eyes to find him seated on the couch, withdrawn as far into the corner as he could get with his coat bundled protectively around him.
"I'll be right back." Doug went into the kitchen and ran some water into a glass. Then he pulled several pill bottles out of his pocket and read the labels. Pills for infection, for pain, for depression... God almighty, they were drugging him out of his skull! No wonder he didn't want to take this shit! Doug found two medications that he knew Harry couldn't skip, and he knocked the appropriate number of tablets into his palm. He knew Ioki didn't want the pain meds, and he suspected that the psychoactive drugs were equally unwelcome. Antibiotics were what he needed, to keep him physically healthy while he dealt with this thing in his own way. Without a bunch of chemicals.
As he stepped through the doorway, he caught sight of his teammate and halted. Harry sat hunched forward, his elbows on his knees and his head buried in his hands. Even from here, Doug could see his shoulders shaking with sobs. As he watched, Harry dropped his head, raking his fingers through his hair, then grabbed fistfuls of the dark strands and tightened his hold 'til his knuckles whitened. The gesture was one of despair and desperate pain.
Not for the first time since their rescue, Doug wished that he still had the freedom to gather his friend up in his arms and hold him, 'til the sobs quieted and the pain eased. But Harry had drawn a line between them that Doug dared not cross. What had been acceptable, even necessary, during the horror of those hours under the Chapel was out of the question now.
Doug deliberately smacked his toe into the door, announcing his return. Harry stiffened, his head coming up sharply, and fixed his bandaged gaze on his friend. This time, Doug could see the echo of pain in his face, for all his attempts to hide it.
He sat down on the sofa next to Harry and said, "Gimme your right hand." When Harry obediently held out his hand, palm up, Doug dumped the pills into it. "There are three. Don't drop any."
Harry looked dubiously at the pills. "Just antibiotics, right?"
"Antibiotics and a blood-thinner thing. Whadda they call it? Anti-coagulant. S'posed to keep blood clots from moving into your brain."
Harry shuddered slightly, but he popped the pills into his mouth with no further discussion. Penhall caught his wrist and gently wrapped his fingers around the glass. When he had washed the medication down, Harry sat with the glass held in both hands, his head bent so that his loose hair obscured his face.
Doug reached over to take the glass, but for a moment, Harry refused to let it go. Then he suddenly released it and drew his arms in protectively against his body, as a shield against his friend's concern. The light touch of Doug's hand on his shoulder made him flinch.
"What can I do?" Doug asked, softly. Harry just shook his head. "Give it some time, 'kay? You have to get used to this place, get used to being out of the hospital and on your own."
"What, on your own?" At Harry's nod, he asked, "Is that what you want? To be alone?"
Harry thought about that for a moment, then shoved his hair back with that same, defeated gesture and pressed the heel of his hand to one bandaged eye. "I just want to find somewhere...safe..." His voice broke on the last word, and he ducked his head again.
"You are safe here. This is the safest place in the whole damned world, 'cause I'm here, and nothing's gonna get past me. Harry, I..." He had reached out, instinctively, to touch his friend, but Ioki pulled away, and Penhall clenched his fist in frustration. That was a dumb thing to do. He knew better. "I'm not trying to smother you, or run your life, or tell you how to feel. I just want to make it a little easier. That's all."
Ioki propped his elbows on his knees and buried his face in his hands, so that his voice came out as a muffled whisper that almost - but not quite - masked the desperation in it. "How?"
Good question. Doug didn't have an answer. He considered carefully before he opened his mouth, since this was a prime opportunity to either make some headway with his friend or blow himself permanently out of the water.
"By being here," he finally offered. "Maybe make you feel a little safer...a little less scared. Maybe give you somebody to talk to, to fill up the dark a little bit and keep things in perspective. The dark doesn't seem so big, when there's someone else in it. Harry, please. I know I can't make any of this go away. I can't even make it hurt less. But I can help you stick it out, 'til you can handle it on your own, if you'll just let me."
"I'm trying." His shoulders began to tremble with the effort of holding himself together. "That's why I came here. I can't do this alone, but I can't...I..." He took a gasping breath and half sobbed, "I can't do this, Doug! I can't!"
"Yes you can. We'll do it together."
Harry withdrew sharply from Doug's reaching hand, his own hand coming up to fend him off. "No..."
"Okay, okay. Just..." Penhall searched for some way to make his friend feel protected, without actually touching him. "Lie down for a while, okay? Right here on the sofa. This is your sofa, for the duration. Nobody comes near it without your permission, and that includes me." He jumped up. "I'll get you a blanket."
He hurried into the bedroom, then returned with a pillow and a thick quilt to find that Ioki had not moved. "Come on, pal. Lie down."
He dropped the pillow in Ioki's lap, and the other man clutched it defensively to his chest. After another appeal from Penhall, he propped the pillow against the arm of the couch, pulled his feet up on the cushions, and scrunched down 'til his head rested on the pillow. Penhall shook out the quilt and spread it over him, making sure to tuck it securely in around him to create a warm, sheltering cocoon of fabric between him and the rest of the world.
Ioki hesitated for a moment, then answered, softly, "Yes."
"Good. I'm going in the kitchen, then I'm gonna watch TV in bed for a while. You got the room to yourself, but I'm only a shout away. Okay?"
Doug took one more look at the familiar, pain-lined, scarred and bandaged face framed against the pillow, then he turned sadly away. Habit and hunger carried him through the process of making dinner, but once it lay on his plate, he couldn't even look at it. He left the plate on the counter and hurried into his bedroom.
There, he shed his clothing and threw it in random piles about the room before propping the door a careful eight inches open and crawling into bed. Once under the covers, protected in his own cocoon, Doug did something he hadn't in countless years. He curled up in a tight ball of pain and wept, with the utter abandon of a wounded child.
*** *** ***
Harry shoved back the blanket and sat up. The sound of muffled sobs from the other room had finally given way to snores, telling him that Doug was asleep and he was, at least for the moment, on his own. Just him and the rain.
He got to his feet and stood uncertainly by the arm of the sofa, wondering where Doug had left the coffee table. Living in Penhall's apartment was going to be a challenge - kind of like living in a minefield. You never knew what you'd find in the middle of the floor. This was insane, anyway. He should lie down and go to sleep...except that he couldn't sleep, and he couldn't breathe properly in here, with the walls closing in on him and the air getting thicker all the time. Just like being trapped in a collapsed building, with a zillion tons of bricks sitting a few feet above his head! He needed to get out...go someplace safe, where he could be alone...go home.
Home. But where was home? His old apartment? Would he feel safe there? No. That place was as alien and stifling as this one...worse, because it was empty. So, maybe he needed to go farther back. To San Francisco, where he had acquired his new identity. To St. Louis, where he had grown up. Or maybe all the way back...to Vietnam. To his childhood home. Saigon didn't exist anymore, but there was the beach where his parents and best friend had died. He'd left everything he loved on that beach. Maybe it was time to go home to them.
Unconsciously, while his mind revolved dark thoughts of bloody sands, Harry's feet carried him over to the window. The sound of the rain reached him, drawing him closer. He brushed aside the curtain and pressed his palms flat against the cold, smooth surface, then let his head fall forward 'til his forehead rested on the glass. He could almost feel the rain washing over him, running down his face like tears. The closest he would ever come to shedding tears again.
Vietnam. Vung Tau beach. Maybe, if he went home to them, the sky would cry for him there, too. No one else would cry for him. No one else would know. If he went back to Vietnam, he'd be giving up his life for the chance to set foot on the ground that had buried his family, and he'd disappear as completely as they had. But he'd be home. Really and truly home.
Turning away from the window, Harry took a moment to picture the layout of Doug's apartment in his mind. Of course, he had no way of knowing if Doug had left a chair in the middle of the path - or something worse - but life was full of risks. This was simply one in an endless chain of life-threatening situations that a cop must face...navigating Doug's living room in the dark. Harry squared his shoulders and stepped away from the wall, into the minefield.
Miraculously, he did not encounter any obstacles more dangerous than a pile of laundry. He reached the door without damaging himself or awakening his teammate-turned-babysitter, and slipped into the hallway, shutting the door on the sound of Doug's snores. By the simple expedient of following the wall, he made it safely to the stairwell. Two minutes later, he stepped out of the building and into the rain.
In the late hours of a wet and miserable night, the street was deserted. As he stood in the middle of the sidewalk, enjoying the welcome touch of the rain on his face, it occurred to Harry that he had no idea what to do next. He had fled the apartment more because he needed to get out than because he had any clear plan, and even if he followed through on his wild notion of going home, he couldn't walk from here to the airport, or catch a plane to the Far East with nothing to his name but the clothes on his back. So what did a blind man with no ride and no money - well, maybe he had money, but he didn't know how much - do in the middle of the night? Sit on the curb and think?
He turned to look back at where he knew the apartment building stood. No, not on this curb. Not with his faithful watchdog right upstairs. If he wanted to think undisturbed, he'd have to put some distance between himself and Doug Penhall.
Harry started slowly down the sidewalk. He had no clue which direction he was going, but since he also had no clue where he was going, it didn't matter. As long as he didn't run into anything hard enough to hurt himself, the rest would take care of itself. And the rain felt good. Cold and wet and real, and as far removed from the sterile safety of a hospital room as you could get.
He walked steadily, if aimlessly, for a long time. The cold crept through his heavy coat and made him shiver, while water trickled into his collar from his wet hair. His legs felt as though they were made of lead, and he began to realize how weakened he was by his injuries. Maybe this hadn't been such a bright idea. Maybe he should have stayed on Doug's sofa for the night. Then he remembered the feel of the room collapsing in on him, the tightness in his chest when he tried to breathe, and he knew that he could not go back to that.
A car cruised by, its tires hissing against the wet pavement. Harry paid no attention. Several vehicles had passed him on his trek, and he'd stopped worrying that one would turn out to be Doug. His shoulder struck a metal pole, and he stopped to orient himself. It felt like a light pole, so he'd probably reached an intersection. Another car went by, this one traveling across his own path and giving him a reference point for locating the street. Did he want to cross it, or turn? Did it matter?
While he was standing, undecided, on the corner, the car suddenly braked to a stop. Harry could hear its motor idling. As it shifted into reverse and came toward him, he took a step back from the curb to put some distance between himself and this stranger. He didn't like this, one little bit, but he wasn't in a position to run away. The car pulled up at the curb in front of him, and the engine died.
"Hey, pal." It was an unfamiliar male voice, a little gruff, but friendly. "You need a ride somewhere?"
"Don't worry, I'm not some loony. I'm a cab driver. It's my job to take people where they need to be."
Harry hesitated to answer, tempted by the thought of a ride in a warm, dry cab and the chance to rest. But was this guy for real? Or was he getting himself into some major trouble?
"Listen," the guy prompted.
Harry listened, and he heard a staticky voice coming from the direction of the car - a woman's voice on a radio. He couldn't understand her words, but he'd recognize the voice of a Dispatcher from a mile off. The guy was either a cabby or a cop.
"Get in the car, man, before you get washed down a storm drain. This weather is for shit!"
"I don't think I have any money," Harry explained. He reached for his wallet to check, but the cabby halted his movement with a cheerful,
"Forget about it. Meter's off."
"Are you sure?"
"Who's gonna know? This hour of the night, nobody's going anywhere. I'm just killing time."
The man got out of his car and opened the rear door. Harry took a cautious step closer to him. The man caught his elbow to guide him off the curb, and Harry had to fight the impulse to pull away. Only the completely impersonal quality of the stranger's touch made it bearable, and he couldn't quite suppress his sigh of relief when the man let go of him. Climbing quickly into the cab, he wrapped his coat protectively around himself and jammed his hands into the pockets, withdrawing as far from the other man's presence as possible.
The cab driver hopped into the front seat, cranked the engine, and asked pleasantly, "Where to?"
"21 Jump Street." The words came out of Harry's mouth before he could stop them - before he even knew what he was thinking - but they sounded right. Like they had been sitting in the back of his mind, waiting for a chance to pop up.
The driver pulled away from the curb and swung a U-turn. "Jump Street, huh? That part of town was hit pretty bad in the quake. Not much left standing."
"Kinda rough, too. Sure you wanna go over there?"
After that, the man fell silent, leaving Harry in peace until some minutes later, when the engine note changed and they came to a gradual stop. The driver did not turn off the car, and he said nothing for a long, thoughtful moment. Then he twisted around to look at his mysterious passenger.
"You did say 21 Jump Street."
"There's nothing here but a heap of rubble." Harry nodded. "I can't just drive off and leave you here."
"It's okay. Really." He paused, then added, "This is home."
"Huh? Did you live in this brick pile, before the quake?"
"Not exactly." Harry opened the car door and stepped out, while the cabby was still too confused to argue with him. "Thanks for the ride."
"No sweat." The man did not sound happy.
"I may have some money. Maybe enough to pay for..."
"I don't want your money, pal. What I want is to be sure I'm not doing something extremely stupid, here."
"I'll be fine."
"Tell you what. I'll swing by next time I cruise this neighborhood, just to make sure you're okay. If you're sick of sitting in the rain by then, let me know, and I'll take you someplace with a roof. Deal?"
"Now get outta the damned street, before a garbage truck runs you down. I swear, some people don't have the sense God gave a telephone pole."
Harry couldn't help smiling at the man's sour tone. He nodded and started around the back end of the car, to the accompaniment of his anonymous protector grousing under his breath about kids who were too dumb to look after themselves. Not until Harry was safely on the sidewalk did the cab screech away from the curb. Harry waited 'til he heard the engine roar off around a corner, then he turned to face the shattered remains of the old church.
"You're an idiot, Harry," he remarked, pleasantly. In the last few weeks, he had developed the habit of talking to himself in the second person, as though the H.T. Ioki who took up space in the world were a different person than the one who hung around inside his skull. The one on the outside bumped into things, while the one on the inside had 20-20 hindsight and didn't cut his alter-ego much slack. "If this is what you call home, you're even crazier than Penhall and the doctors think."
But it was nice to be able to breathe freely again. And the Chapel felt safe... familiar... comforting... even in ruins. So maybe his idiot self had the right idea. Stepping carefully, he approached the mountain of bricks, wood and concrete directly in front of him. His boots crunched over fragments of masonry, turning them to red dust against the pavement. Then he felt his toe hit something solid. A still-vertical fragment of the front wall.
Harry kicked away some loose debris and sat down on the ground, his back to the brick wall. Pulling his coat close around him, he tilted his head back against the rough surface and turned his gauze-covered gaze on the sky. The rain had slowed to a fine mist, and a fitful wind blew in from the river. Pretty soon, the clouds would break up, showing patches of winter stars. Maybe some moonlight. The sky was done crying for now, but that was okay. So was he.
* * *
Doug rolled over, knocking his pillow to the floor, and dragged his eyes reluctantly open. The glowing face of the clock taunted him. 12:35 in the AM - and a pretty lousy AM, to boot. He didn't want to go to the john, he wanted to sleep. But his body was telling him, in no uncertain terms, that he had to get up and pee, or he'd explode. After that, he needed food. Damn! He felt like he hadn't eaten in a week! Why was he so hungry?
Then he remembered - remembered why he'd gone to bed without eating dinner or taking care of the basic necessities, why his face felt so stiff and puffy and his eyes all sticky, why the thought of pushing back his covers and braving the waking world made him shiver in apprehension. Because Harry was asleep on his sofa.
Doug groaned and swung his feet to the floor. As badly as he wanted to stay in the warm shelter of his own bed, he knew he would never be able to get back to sleep if he didn't check on his teammate. Picking his way through the scattered junk on the floor, he reached the door and eased it open. The first thing he saw when he stepped into the living room was the sofa, and the quilt folded neatly back to show him the empty cushions.
His stomach contracted in fear, and he muttered a curse. One quick glance around the room told him that Ioki was not in the apartment and pushed him over the edge of fear into panic. Heedless of his sleeping neighbors and his own mostly undressed state, he charged out of the apartment, bellowing,
"Harry! Where the hell are you?!"
He kept yelling all the way down the stairs and out onto the street. When his bare feet hit the wet pavement, he abruptly realized that he was running around in the rain in nothing but a pair of boxer shorts and a moth eaten t-shirt, but that didn't slow him down. He took off for the corner, still shouting at the top of his lungs, heedless of the spray of water thrown up by his pounding feet.
At the intersection, he hesitated. This was pointless and stupid. He could wander the streets all night and never find Ioki, if he let the panic take over. Time to stop running and think.
He looked up and down the deserted streets, hunting for inspiration. Nothing. He shivered. The drizzling rain barely dampened his hair, but the wind cut right through him and lifted goosebumps on his bare arms. When his teeth started chattering, he decided that the first order of business was to get properly dressed, and he turned for home.
Back in the apartment, Doug quickly pulled on a pair of jeans and a few layers of warm shirts. Then he donned his motorcycle gear and loaded up his pockets with necessities. As he worked, he tried to think about this from Ioki's point of view. Where would he go? And why? It occurred to Doug, while tugging on his heavy boots, that the why didn't really matter. He had a few ideas about that - some of which made his palms sweat and his stomach twist into knots - but the why could wait 'til he'd figured out the where.
The keys to Ioki's apartment still lay on the kitchen counter, next to the daunting array of pill bottles. Doug pocketed them on his way out the door, just in case, but he somehow doubted that Harry would choose to go there. He had talked about finding someplace safe, and an empty apartment that no one had lived in for weeks or bothered to clean up after a devastating earthquake hardly qualified as safe. Then again, what place was safe in Harry's mind?
Of course. That had to be it.
Doug bounded down the stairs to the lobby, then exited through a side door that led into the alley. His Harley waited under the sheltering overhang of the second floor. He jumped onto the huge machine, gunned the engine to life, and roared out of the alley in a spurt of loose gravel and rain water.
It was all so simple. There was no other place he would go. What was it Tom had said about the way Harry dealt with stress? Something about hiding 'til he wasn't afraid anymore...but that wasn't the important part! The important part was what he'd said after that, about Harry just being Harry. Well, the Harry Doug knew only felt really safe and at home in one place, and he wouldn't care that it had been reduced to a pile of rubble. He'd still go there when he needed to feel in control.
Doug drove with a kind of deliberate recklessness, his face set and grim. The doctor's warnings and Fuller's uncertainty lay in the back of his mind, percolating like week-old coffee, spreading acid fear through his brain. A large part of him - the part that knew exactly where Harry had gone - felt sure that his friend was constitutionally incapable of harming himself. But that part had suffered a severe shock when he walked out of the bedroom and found Harry gone, and he could no longer ignore the danger signals.
What if Travis was right? What if Harry had left tonight, because he didn't want his friend to interfere with his plans? Or because he didn't want him to walk in on the mess, afterward? He should have checked his gun before he left. And he should have counted the pill bottles on the counter. God knows what Harry might have done in the hours that he was asleep! He was a fool...a fool...
Doug put on another burst of speed and nearly scraped his knee on the pavement as he tore around a corner. He had failed again. And this time, Tom Hanson wouldn't come to his rescue.
* * *
Harry did not look up when the Harley stopped at the curb. He recognized the distinctive sound of that engine, and he knew that Doug had found him, but it wasn't until he heard his friend call his name in a voice made sharp by fear that he reacted. He lifted his head and followed Doug's approach with his bandaged gaze. Doug ran the few steps over to his seat by the wall, skidding to a halt in front of him and dropping to a crouch.
"Hey, Iok. You okay?" Harry nodded once. "Really?"
Doug gave an explosive sigh and sat down on with a plunk on the pavement. "Oh, man." He scrubbed shaking fingers over his face, then raked the damp hair back from his forehead. "You scared the crap outta me."
Harry said nothing, and Doug threw him a suspicious look.
"How'd you get here, anyway?"
A tiny gleam of humor lightened the shadows in Ioki's face. "Took a cab."
Doug chuckled. "I shoulda guessed. Move over and lemme have some of that wall."
Harry obediently scooted to his right, making room for Doug on the small patch of clear ground to his left. With an exaggerated sigh, Doug hefted himself around to sit beside Harry and leaned his back against the bricks. Both men propped their elbows on their bent knees, tilted their heads back to rest against the wall, and stared up at the storm-shrouded sky. A companionable silence fell between them.
To Doug's surprise, it was Harry who spoke first. "Why were you scared?" he asked, softly. "Were you afraid I'd do something stupid?"
"Of course not!" Doug protested, a little too quickly.
"It's okay. I know what Dr. Travis has been telling you."
"I didn't believe him, Iok. At least, not until..."
Doug hesitated, then whispered, "Yeah." After a moment to collect himself, he added, "Y'know, I'd understand, if you were thinkin' about doing something like that."
"I have thought about it. A lot. I even thought of catching a plane back to Vietnam, so the Communists could do it for me."
"Don't worry." He sighed, and a note of desperation crept into his voice. "The truth is, I can't. All my life, I've been fighting to stay alive, and now I don't know how to stop, even when it hurts this much. I'm tired, Doug, and I'm scared. I want this to be over."
"But you don't want to die, man, or you wouldn't be sitting here talking to me. You'd be splattering your brains across a wall somewhere."
Harry lifted his hands in a helpless gesture. "I can't do it. I wish to God I could, but..." He broke off to swallow the tears in his throat, then whispered, "What I really wish is that you'd left me in that basement. Then I wouldn't have to decide anything. I wouldn't have to do anything. I'd just be dead and out of here."
Doug heard the pain and longing in his voice and felt his eyes sting with sympathetic tears. His own voice came out sounding gruff, as he struggled to keep his emotions in check. "And the rest of us would be hating ourselves for letting you go."
"Trust me, Iok, I've been there. Dying doesn't fix anything, and it takes away any chance you'd ever have to make it right. I'm sorry you're hurting, but I'm not sorry you're still alive, no matter how bad it gets. I'll never be sorry."
Harry didn't answer. Doug's words seemed to weigh heavily on him, bowing his shoulders and making his head droop forward. When he pushed back his hair with that same, defeated gesture that he had used back in the apartment, Doug felt the ache starting in his chest again. He had to clench his hands together to keep from touching his friend when he felt the pain washing out from him like that.
"Let's go home, pal," he murmured.
"This is home." Harry looked up and around, as though his ruined eyes could still see the Chapel standing above them. He took a deep, ragged breath and continued, "Ever since I came to this country...ever since I left my family dead on that beach...I've been looking for a home. I looked for ten years. I'd given up. But then I came here, to the Chapel and you guys, and...here it was."
His head dropped, his hair spilling over his face and his blind gaze averted from the destruction around him. "I came here tonight, because this is home. There was nowhere else to go, and I needed to be...home. But it's gone. Everything's gone."
"No, Harry..." Doug couldn't stand it anymore. He abandoned caution and looped an arm around Harry's shoulders, feeling him stiffen reflexively at the touch. "The Chapel was just a bunch of bricks, not your home. It was the people inside who made it special, and we're all still here."
Harry shook his head in mute despair, and Doug gave him a small, playful shake.
"We're your family, Iok. That's what counts, not some old building."
"But that's gone too...my f...family." He fixed his bandaged gaze on Penhall and whispered, "I can't be part of that anymore. I can't be a cop. I don't belong...with y..." His words dissolved into tearless sobs.
Doug tightened his clasp on Harry's shoulders, and for a split second, it seemed he would pull away. Then miraculously, the tension drained out of him and he let his head fall against Doug's shoulder. Doug wrapped both arms around him and bent his head to murmur into the damp, midnight black hair that brushed his chin,
"Don't ever say that, Harry. Not to me. You'll always be my family. My brother. I don't care about the Police Department, and being a cop, and all that crap. And I sure don't care about this pile of junk that used to be a building. All I care about is that I didn't lose another member of my family. That would kill me. It would kill me to lose you, Harry. You gotta believe that."
"I can't stand any more of this."
"I know." Doug tucked Harry's head under his chin and began rocking slightly, in a soothing rhythm. "I know."
"I'm...scared of the dark."
"Shh." After a quiet moment, Doug suggested, gently, "You're not gonna find what you're looking for here. Why don't we go home? My home, where it's warm and dry and safe?"
"Doug, do you think...I mean...Could I, maybe, call it my home, too? Just for now?"
Penhall smiled. "For as long as you want."
* * *
Once again, Doug ushered Harry into his apartment and hung back by the door to watch his reaction. Harry stopped in the middle of the floor, as he had before. He hesitated for a single heartbeat, then took off his coat and held it up, dripping.
"I'm making a mess on the floor."
Doug snorted in disbelief and sauntered over to him to take the coat. This was the first time since leaving the hospital that Harry had removed the heavy, oversized, oddly protective garment, and his friend had no doubt as to the significance of his gesture.
Doug relieved him of the sodden coat, then clapped a companionable hand on his back and gave him a gentle shove toward the couch. "Want a cup of coffee?"
"Yeah." Something perilously close to a smile drifted over Harry's face. "Sounds good."
"Sit down and get those wet boots off."
"Where should I put them?"
He paused on his way into the kitchen and retorted, "Hey, this is my place, remember? Throw 'em on the dining table, for all I care! Just get 'em off your feet before you catch pneumonia."
Harry took a cautious step toward the sofa, clearly unsure of where, exactly, he was. Doug forced his voice to stay casual as he asked, "Want a hand?"
Harry shook his head, and Doug turned deliberately away, so that he would not be tempted to intervene. He busied himself with the coffee, not returning to the living room until Harry was safely ensconced in his corner of the sofa. Doug brought the coffee over, paused to kick Harry's neatly placed cowboy boots halfway across the room, and froze in the act of planting his backside on the sofa cushions.
"Uhh, mind if I sit?" Harry looked startled, and Doug obligingly reminded him, "It's your couch, remember."
"Sit down, Doug."
The dry note in his voice made Doug grin. Man, but it was good to hear that! Even the tiniest indications that the Harry he knew was coming back were like a lifeline in a hurricane. He plopped onto the sofa and held out one mug of coffee to his new roomie.
"Careful. It's hot."
It took some help from Doug for Harry to get the cup safely in his hands, but after a moment of awkwardness, he let go of his embarrassment and allowed his friend to guide his movements. A few swallows of the thick, acidic brew seemed to brighten his outlook on life considerably. The near-smile appeared again, for a tantalizing moment.
"That's pretty awful."
"Worst coffee on the Pacific Coast. You feelin' better?" Harry nodded silently. "Not gonna take anymore walks in the rain?"
"Good. You scared me. It's not nice to scare Big Brother Dougie."
"Hey, you're entitled to freak out and go wandering the streets, if that's what you need to do, just next time...clue me in, okay?"
Doug sipped his own coffee thoughtfully, his eyes dwelling on his friend's face and the rectangle of gauze taped over his eyes. When he had enough caffeine and enough worry in his system to make him reckless, he broke the companionable silence to ask, "Did you get that bandage wet?"
Harry's hand strayed up, unconsciously, to brush the gauze with his fingertips. "A little bit, I think."
"I better change the dressings." Harry stiffened, and the invisible wall began to thicken between them again. Doug could almost see him shrinking into the corner of the sofa. "You knew I was gonna have to do it, anyway. Once a day, that was the deal. The doc wouldn't have let you go, if I didn't promise to change 'em once a day."
"The nurse just did it, before we left."
"But you got 'em wet, and that's bad." Doug watched the cold fear gathering in his face, and impulsively reached out to touch his arm. "What is it, Iok?"
Harry turned that stark white gaze on him and said, in a haunted whisper, "I don't want you to see what...what's under there."
Doug's face softened in understanding. "I already have." He squeezed his friend's arm slightly and continued, in a gentle, persuasive tone, "I saw it in the basement and again at the hospital. There ain't nothin' under there that can shock me. You got nothin' to be afraid of."
After a long, tense moment, Harry gave a reluctant nod. Doug broke out in a relieved grin and jumped up to fetch the supplies he'd been given at the hospital. Five minutes later, while Harry sat perfectly still, his face as white and cold as marble, Doug removed the adhesive tape and lifted off the bandage.
He knew immediately that he'd made the right move. The dressings underneath were stained with both water and blood, and some of the cuts visible at the edges had begun to ooze fluid into the already sodden gauze. He had to clench his fists briefly to still the tremor in his fingers, then he delicately peeled up the dressings.
A wash of pain, strangely mingled with relief, went through him, and Doug couldn't quite stifle his murmur of recognition. Because under all those bandages, was Harry. Tired, sick, scared, with half-healed cuts and the traces of bloody tears around his closed eyes, but still Harry. And without the gauze and tape in the way, his familiar face seemed whole again. Doug just stared at him, letting this image of his friend etch itself permanently into his brain, 'til he heard Harry ask,
"Does it look horrible?"
"I was just thinkin' how great it was to see you again. All of you."
One corner of Harry's mouth lifted in a wry smile. "You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"
"No." With one finger, he tilted Harry's chin up, so that the light fell more strongly on his face. "It doesn't look horrible. It looks like it hurts."
"Yeah. Okay," Doug said, in a voice that betrayed none of his feelings, "let's get this done."
By the time Doug smoothed down the last piece of tape, Harry was ghost-white and shaking in reaction. He checked to be sure that the gauze was firmly in place, then he jumped up and bent over his friend. One hand slid behind Harry's head to support it, while the other reached for the quilt on the floor.
"Lie down, pal. I gotcha. Just...just relax." He shifted Ioki's shoulders away from the back of the couch and eased his head down on the pillow. Harry gave a small sob of relief and seemed to deflate against the supporting cushions. "Now, you can sleep for a week, if you want."
Harry pushed down the quilt that Doug had spread over him, freeing his arm, then reached toward his friend's voice. Doug caught his hand in both of his own. From the way Harry's fingers tightened around his, he wondered if maybe the fear was back, and Harry didn't want him to leave.
"What's wrong?" he asked. "Did I hurt you?"
"Are you gonna be able to sleep?"
"I think so."
"The doc gave you some pills for that, if y..."
Harry shook his head, cutting off the suggestion. "I just want to...want you to know how...how much..."
"I know. Forget it, okay? Just get some sleep."
"Where will you be?"
"Where do you want me to be?"
Harry hesitated, then whispered, "In here."
"Then that's where I'll be," Doug answered, promptly. "I'll crash on the floor, right here, where you'll have to listen to me snore all night."
"Thank you, Doug."
"Any time, pal. Now shut up and go to sleep."
*** *** ***
A head poked around the doorjamb, and someone cleared his throat. Judy's eyes drifted open to find Doug Penhall grinning crazily at her. She broke out in an answering smile that seemed to light up the drab hospital room.
"Penhall! I'm so glad you came!"
In fact, Hoffs had been lying here all night, wondering if she'd see her teammate today. She knew that Harry had been released from the hospital yesterday afternoon and had gone home with Doug, and she desperately wanted to know how things were going for him. She was still completely confined to this bed, still on heavy pain medication, and still connected up to several IV tubes and plastic bags full of sinister fluid, so she had not been able to see him off. And Harry had not come to her.
This didn't surprise her, and it only hurt a little. She'd gotten almost used to being told that her partner was unable and/or unwilling to leave his hospital room to visit her. Judy understood Harry, maybe better than anyone else on the team from all her years working so closely beside him, and she understood what kind of hell he was going through. She had dipped a toe in that hell, herself, recently. She had come terrifyingly close to dying - something her partner knew all about - and now faced the possible end of her career, if the doctors couldn't repair the appalling damage to her leg. So, in a very real sense, she was the one person on the team most qualified to offer Harry her sympathy and support. But he wasn't ready for that. Not yet. Maybe not ever. She would just have to accept that and let him heal in his own way.
But that didn't stop her from pumping her teammates for information on his progress, and Doug was the one person she most longed to see today.
His eyes twinkled mischievously at her, and his smile widened another notch. "Lookin' gorgeous, as always. You up for some company?"
"I'm always up for a visit from you!"
"Well...it wasn't exactly me I was thinking about." Penhall ducked back out the door to reappear, a moment later, with a blessedly familiar figure beside him.
Judy took one look at the man standing uncertainly in doorway and gave a shriek of delight. "Harry!"
He smiled, ever so slightly, and murmured, "Hey, Judy."
She flung out both hands toward him, as though she could somehow reach across the entire room to grab him, and urged, "Don't just stand there! Come here!! Come here, come here, come here...!"
Doug guided Harry up to the side of the bed, then stepped back as Judy seized both his hands and pulled him close to her. He obediently leaned forward, and Judy flung her arms around his neck in a crushing hug.
"I can't believe it! You finally came to see me! I missed you so much, Harry. I've been so worried." With that, she took a gasping breath and burst into tears.
Harry returned her embrace a little hesitantly, but when she started to sob, he tightened his hold on her and said, "It's okay, Jude. Please don't cry."
"Don't pay any attention to me," she sobbed. "It's the pain drugs. They make me wacky."
"I'll vouch for that," Penhall interjected.
"I'm just...I'm just so glad to see you!" She held him tightly for another moment, then slowly relaxed her arms and settled back against her pillows. Harry straightened up, but before he could move away from the bed, she clutched at his arms and protested, "No! Sit here, with me! On the bed."
"I don't want to hurt your leg."
Judy giggled, and the slightly hysterical note in her voice told Harry just how stoned she was. "You can't. Trust me."
He perched cautiously on the edge of the mattress, and she slid her hands down from his forearms to his hands. He returned the pressure of her fingers and tried to smile. "How're you doing?"
"Great! Lousy...I don't know. The leg isn't healing the way they think it should, and it hurts like crazy, but I'm too high to notice most of the time. I'm better, now. Better than I've been since it happened." Tears began to slide down her cheeks again. "I can't tell you how happy it makes me to have you here."
"I should've come before. I'm sorry."
"No...I understood. I did." She lifted one hand to touch his scarred cheek, and her voice dropped to a whisper. "How are you doing, Partner?"
His mouth tightened, and his bandaged gaze shifted off to his left, avoiding her.
When he didn't answer, Judy tried again. "Is it better, being away from here?"
"Harry, honey, talk to me." He didn't say anything, but for the first time, he turned his face in her direction as though he were watching her through the layers of gauze. She brushed the hair back from his forehead, so she could see him more clearly, and took a moment to absorb his appearance.
He looked so tired. So pale and subdued and somehow lost. The scattering of half-healed cuts on his face did not shock her, but rather served to remind her how much her friend had endured over the last weeks, and what a terrible price he had paid for his endurance. Her own crippling injuries were temporarily forgotten in the need to ease the suffering in his face.
"There were times, lying here," she whispered, "when all I could think about was seeing your gorgeous face again." Harry winced at her words. She opened her palm and rested it against his cheek, her thumb brushing the bandage that covered his right eye. "It kept me going. I knew you'd walk through that door, sooner or later. I didn't mind waiting. I knew you'd come, when you could. And I was right." Tears formed afresh in her eyes. "I was right."
Harry made a move as if he wanted to touch her, but squelched the impulse and pulled his hand quickly back. Judy, with the lack of inhibition brought on by the drugs in her system, caught his hand and lifted it to her face. She dropped a light kiss on his palm, then pressed his open hand to her cheek, holding it there with the pressure of her own fingers.
"I missed you," she whispered. "I thought about you all the time, especially at night when I needed someone to talk to. And I've been so afraid... But it's gonna be all right now. I'm sure of it. We all got out alive, and we're gonna be okay." She held out her free hand to Doug, drawing him over to the bed. Her warm, tear-bright eyes smiled at him, and her fingers clasped his strongly. "All three of us."
"I hope you're right, Jude," Penhall said. He tried very hard to keep the concern out of his voice.
Beside them, Harry looked away, his gauze-white gaze shifting to the wall. Neither of his friends missed the aching misery in his face, but neither of them commented on it. It was enough, for now, that he had come this far, to this room, and had not withdrawn from their attempts at comfort.
Epilogue (8 weeks later...)
Dr. Cole smiled at his visibly nervous patient. "Just relax, Officer Ioki. This is the easy part."
"For you, maybe," Harry retorted.
Cole laughed. "That's better. Hold still."
With a sure, steady touch, he began peeling away the adhesive tape that held the bandage over Harry's eyes. He had a matter-of-fact, avuncular way about him that tended to calm even the most skittish patient, but it had little effect on Ioki. Cole had the distinct feeling that the young man was one breath away from bolting out of the room in panic. He removed the last piece of gauze and said,
"You're doing fine. Sit still for a minute, then we'll see how we did."
Harry sat very still and listened while Cole crossed the room to get something off the counter. The doctor returned to the exam table and stood in front of him, silently, for what felt like an eternity. Finally, Harry couldn't take it anymore.
"What's wrong?" he asked, in a tense whisper.
"Not a thing." Cole's strong, impersonal fingers grazed the overly-sensitive skin around his eyes, tracing first one, then another of the fading scars. "That's healing nicely. I think we caught this one in time, too. Very nice."
Harry took a ragged breath. "What about...?"
"Let's find out. Open your eyes."
It took him a terrifying moment to muster the courage, then he lifted his eyelids and oriented his gaze directly on the doctor. It felt strange, after so many weeks under bandages and tape, to have air against his face again. He blinked, instinctively trying to clear his vision, and frowned at the odd sensation.
"How does it feel?" Cole asked.
"Weird. Normal. Weird and normal."
"I know exactly what you mean. Are the headaches better?" Ioki nodded slightly. "Good. You'll have some residual pain from the surgery, and it will take your muscles and nerves awhile to adjust. But the worst of it is past."
"Can I...touch them?"
Harry closed his eyes and lifted his hands to cover them. When he pressed the heels of his hands against his eyelids, he felt only a twinge of pain, and his eyes felt...well, normal. It was eerie, to say the least. Dropping his hands again, he asked,
"What do I look like, now?"
Cole chuckled. "Like yourself."
"But..." Harry touched his face again, very lightly. "How do you know?"
"Trust me. I do my job very well. And I have a photograph, right here, to tell me what I couldn't figure out for myself." Cole studied the picture, then turned his critical gaze on his patient. "Another few months, and no one will know that isn't the original equipment."
A smile tilted Harry's lips. "You didn't make my eyes green, or anything, did you?"
That earned a belly laugh from the doctor. "No substitutions."
"Thank you, Doctor."
"If you really want to thank me, you'll take better care of yourself from here on out. I've got some of my finest handiwork invested in that face, and I'll be plenty angry if I have to do it all again."
The mock severity in his tone brought a genuine smile to Harry's face. "You sound just like a cab driver I know."
Cole gave a grunt of approval and headed for the door. "And by the way, your eyes still crinkle up at the corners when you smile - which is something you don't do often enough."
With that, he whipped the door open and bellowed, "You may come in, Officers!"
Harry slid off the exam table just in time to meet Doug, as he barreled into the room.
"Iok!" Doug swept him up in a bear hug, gave him a shake, then set him on his feet again. "Man, is it good to see your ugly face!"
"Just as long as it's my ugly face, and not some stranger's."
Doug mussed his hair playfully, and his voice dropped to a sincere, affectionate murmur. "You look like a million bucks, pal."
"That's probably how much it cost the Department."
"Huh. They can afford it, with what they aren't paying us."
Before Harry could do more than grin in appreciation of this complaint, Judy nudged Doug aside with one of her crutches to demand his attention. The next few minutes were occupied with her bubbling enthusiasm. Long before she had exhausted herself or run out of things to say, Doug began to twitch with impatience.
Cutting her off in mid-gush, he said, "Come on, guys, let's blow this joint. I got something to show you." The others trailed obediently after him, out of the clinic and through the parking lot to where his truck was parked. They all piled in, and Doug drove off, whistling.
Five minutes later, they pulled to a stop on a quiet residential street. Harry waited for one of his friends to say something, but Hoffs was busy looking out the window, and Penhall just sat there, radiating smugness. Finally, Harry couldn't contain his curiosity any longer, and he demanded,
"Where are we, Doug?"
"2477 East 12th Street."
"That doesn't help me much."
"All will be made clear. Follow me." He hopped out of the truck and came around to the passenger side to help Hoffs climb down. Once she had her crutches safely in hand, she moved across the small patch of lawn to the sidewalk, where she waited for Doug and Harry to join her. Doug parked them at the foot of a short concrete walkway, facing a medium-sized, pleasantly old-fashioned apartment building with tall french windows overlooking the street.
Standing between them, with an arm across the shoulders of each, he announced, proudly, "Is that the coolest apartment building you've ever seen? And the inside's even better!"
"Apartments?" Harry looked over at him, startled. "Are we being evicted?"
"Am I being evicted?"
"Don't be stupid. C'mon." He led them into the lobby, chattering the whole way about the glories of his new discovery. They stepped into a small, somewhat creaky elevator that made Hoffs cringe, but the antique machinery got them safely to the top floor. Once there, Doug ushered them gleefully into an apartment at the front of the building.
Hoffs stepped into the empty room and looked around in appreciation. It was a large, light, clean space, with polished wood floors and windows that stretched to the high ceiling. A hallway opened off the living room, inviting her to explore. She hobbled away, her crutches thumping against the floor as she went.
Ioki stood just inside the door and listened to the echoing footsteps of his teammates. He didn't quite know what to make of Doug's dream apartment, and he wasn't sure what the other man expected of him. Was he trying to make a point? Or just gain approval for a change he needed to make? Following Doug's noisy progress around the room with blank eyes, he turned these questions over in his head until his friend charged up to him.
"Whaddya think, Iok?"
Harry shrugged. "It sounds big."
"That ain't the half of it. Come take a look at the r..."
"Doug." Penhall fell silent at the warning note in his voice. "What's this all about?"
Penhall took a deep breath, with the air of a man bracing himself for an explosion, and blurted out, "I think it's time to make a decision."
"What kind of decision?"
"About where you're going from here." Harry just stared at him with that weird, empty gaze of his and waited. "You can't sleep on my sofa forever, and you don't need me babysitting you anymore, so...well..."
"You're asking me to move out?"
"No! Are you nuts? I would never kick you out! But...the truth is, Harry, that you've kinda been in limbo, while you were waiting to have your surgery and getting used to...everything. And that was cool. I was glad to be there, to help out. But all that stuff is done, and you don't...you don't need me anymore. So, if you were thinking of making some changes, maybe getting out on your own, like you wanted from the start, then now would be a good time."
"Yeah. Maybe it would."
Harry couldn't see Doug's face fall, but he heard the note of constraint in his voice when he said, "Fuller's been using your paychecks to keep up with the rent on your old place, so you can always go back there. Or find a new place. You got plenty of money in the bank, with the settlement from the Department and your pension and everything. Basically, you can do whatever the hell you want."
"What if I don't know what that is?"
"So, you think about it for a while. But don't take too long. This place won't stay on the market forever."
"Doug, if you want the apartment, just rent it."
Penhall smacked him lightly in the side of the head and snorted, "Wake up, pal! I don't want it for me, I want it for us."
"If I'm going back to living by myself, I don't need a big place like this. But if we're gonna still be roomies, this would be great! We'd each have our own room, so you wouldn't have to sleep on the sofa! We could put all the furniture where you want it...make nice, clear paths everywhere...and I swear I wouldn't leave one single thing on the floor! Word of Honor! Even in my room, just in case you had to go in there to...I don't know...take back the socks I borrowed! Except, I promise I won't borrow anything without asking! And I'll wash all my dishes, instead of leaving them in the sink, and not dump my shoes on the chairs and... Hey, haven't I been good about that stuff, lately? When was the last time you tripped over any of my junk? I even cleaned the old pizza out of the fridge last week!"
"Okay, okay, I'm starting to get the picture. You're just a little bit jazzed about this idea."
Doug's answer was interrupted by Judy, who came limping out of the back hallway on her crutches, grinning from ear to ear.
"It's a beautiful place, Doug! When do you move in?"
"I don't know." He shot Harry a sidelong glance, noticing that his friend's face had turned thoughtful. "That's still being negotiated."
"Well, you're a fool, if you let this one go. I say we stop by the manager's apartment on the way out, and get you a lease to sign!"
"Hey, hold on!" Doug started out of the apartment on her heels, sweeping Harry along in his wake. By the time they reached the lobby, Judy had been forestalled from her headlong charge and agreed to let Doug handle his own living arrangements. Outside, they halted on the sidewalk again, and turned to gaze at the building.
"It really is beautiful," Judy sighed.
"It's a nice neighborhood," Doug pointed out, "with lots of kids around and people walking their dogs..."
As if to prove his statement, a couple strolled up to them with a dog on a leash. The animal paused to sniff curiously at the strangers. Doug scratched its head, while its owners made pleasant, pointless conversation with the three young cops. A minute or two later, when the dog decided that he was ready to move on, the couple continued their walk. They waved a cheerful farewell, as they moved off down the sidewalk.
Doug draped an arm around Harry's shoulders and gestured expansively toward the façade of the building. "So, whaddya think, pal?"
Harry gazed at the building, still wearing that thoughtful expression, for a long minute. Then he turned to smile at Doug.
"I think it feels like home."
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