If I Fell (Pt.2)
|Return to Pt. 1|
He haunted the room like a restless spirit, drifting aimlessly from point to point, unable to hold still for more than a minute or two. After lingering at work as long as he could find any excuse, walking home in the pouring rain, and taking his time to prepare a lunch he couldn't force himself to swallow, he still had endless time to kill. The house felt cold and empty without the cheerful bedlam of his family to warm it, and the steady drumming of rain on the roof only added to his sense of isolation.
Another meandering circuit of the room. Another minute pretending to relax in the armchair before jumping to his feet again. Another trip into the kitchen to contemplate his untouched meal. His stomach fluttered dangerously, and he turned quickly away from even the thought of food. 'How much longer to wait?' he wondered. 'When does it end?'
The doorbell rang, making him jump as if shocked. He froze for a heartbeat, and a wild vision of hiding in the closet till his visitor left flashed through his head. Then he found his courage again, or some shred of it, and forced his legs to carry him to the door. Swallowing his unruly stomach and the lump in his throat, he wiped his palms on his pant legs and reached for the doorknob.
The door opened to reveal a young man standing on the stoop. The visitor's eyes flew up to fix on the other man's face, and he looked as if he wanted to smile but couldn't quite manage it. They both stood as if petrified, each waiting for some sign from the other, some indication that it was safe to let down their guard and utter the first words of welcome or recognition.
After a long, watchful moment, the man on the outside of the door took an audible breath and said, "Hi, Harry."
"Can I come in?"
Ioki stepped back, opening the door wide. "Sure."
Hanson slipped through the door, then turned to close it behind him. He stood in the entryway, dripping steadily onto the tile, and watched Ioki walk into the kitchen. His eyes were wide with uncertainty and slightly sunken in his pale face. They followed his old friend's movements with an expression close to dread in their brown depths.
"Want some coffee?" Harry asked.
As Hanson peeled off his coat and raked his fingers through his wet hair, shaking raindrops everywhere, Ioki poured two large cups of coffee. He left one on the counter and carried the other over to the sofa.
"You need some dry clothes?" he asked, as he sat down cross-legged in one corner of the couch, his feet tucked under him on the cushions and his elbows propped on his knees.
"No, I'm fine. I'll just leave my shoes over here." Hanson quickly and quietly removed his shoes, set them neatly against the wall, and spread his sodden coat over the rack by the door. Then he retrieved his coffee and padded into the living room. "This weather sucks," he commented, just to fill the space.
"The weather always sucks."
"Still haven't gotten used to the winters around here, huh?"
"Rain is supposed to be warm."
Again, Hanson almost smiled. The apparent normalcy of their conversation had steadied him, while the casual process of making himself comfortable in a friend's home had given him time to master his emotions. His soft, brown eyes were still much too large for his thin face, their expression faltering between hopeful and terrified, but the tension had left his features and some color crept back into his cheeks. He moved with little of his old energy and grace, and his clothing hung loosely on his frame. His damp hair spilled over his collar and into his eyes, forcing him to shove it back every few minutes with a jerky, irritated gesture.
He reached the sofa, but instead of sitting down, he continued on to the fireplace. There, he made a point of studying each of the pictures and momentos arranged on the mantel, providing himself with an excuse for keeping his back turned to Ioki for a few more minutes. Harry seemed in no hurry to begin the conversation. He sipped his coffee and kept his thoughts carefully protected behind his smooth, calm, expressionless face. Only the slight tension around his mouth and the tired shadows left in his eyes by a sleepless night betrayed that this was no easier for him than for Tom.
A picture of two smiling children caught Hanson's eye. He gazed at it for a long moment, his mouth curving into an unconscious smile, and murmured, "Penhall told me about your kids. They're beautiful."
Tom sucked in another steadying breath, screwed his courage to the sticking place, and turned around. Harry was sitting quietly, staring into his coffee, his face unreadable. He seemed unaware of Tom's eyes on him, so Tom had a chance to really look at him for the first time since his arrival. The first time in four years.
He hadn't changed much, at least, not outwardly. He seemed older, without actually looking any older, as if a faint aura of maturity clung to him in spite of himself. Though he had updated the style a bit, he still wore his jet-black hair down around his shoulders. He had exchanged his overtly youthful, flashy earring for a sedate sapphire stud and his wide leather wristband for a purely functional Medic-Alert bracelet, but the effect was the same. Harry had always been incurably chic, and he still had the look about him of someone whose socks never got holes in them.
In contrast, Tom suddenly felt shabby and ashamed. It wasn't his own ill-fitting clothes or weary, unkempt appearance that made him so self-conscious. It was the full, shocking realization of the difference in the directions their lives had taken. He had come here today, hoping to give something back to his friend, in a desperate attempt to heal an old wound and find absolution for himself. But now he recognized that plan for what it was a piece of blind arrogance. He had nothing to give Harry. Nothing the other man could need or want. Any healing that had been done had taken place without him. He had, through his own choice, been left behind again.
Tom's eyes touched the traces of once-vivid scars on Harry's right temple and cheekbone, and he shuddered at the frighteningly clear memories they triggered. Pain wrenched at his stomach, the dull, familiar ache of a regret that had festered over years. And a desperate thought came to him. 'Why can't my scars be stitched up and forgotten? Why are mine always inside, where no one can get to them?'
Suddenly, for no apparent reason, Harry snapped out of his reverie and lifted his head. His eyes met Tom's squarely, disconcertingly, and he asked, "What are you thinking about?"
Flashback: Fall, 1990
"Hey. How's it going?" Hanson stepped up close to the bed and smiled down at his friend.
Harry's gaze flicked in his direction, then away, barely acknowledging Tom's presence before withdrawing behind a wall of shadow. For days, Tom had taken it for granted that Ioki's unwillingness to look him in the face was simply an expression of illness and exhaustion that he withdrew, even from the people who wanted most to help him, as protection against the physical and mental pain that assaulted him so unmercifully. Now he knew better.
Hanson pulled the chair up to the left of the bed and settled into it. Captain Fuller moved to stand opposite him, his hands thrust deep in his pockets and his face harsh with strain. Tom leaned forward to prop his forearm on the chrome bed rail, in a self-consciously casual gesture.
"We need to talk to you."
Ioki turned reluctant eyes on him, drawn by the serious note in his voice, but said nothing. Hanson could not meet his dark, haunted gaze for long. He glanced away, his face tightening in pain, and closed his lips on all the gentle, careful words that he had rehearsed so diligently.
Fuller watched Hanson's courage desert him, watched the tears begin to slip from his eyes, and knew that the younger man did not have the reserves of strength to handle this as he had intended. He didn't have the years of experience and emotional armor that allowed Fuller to stand there, so steady and in control, while preparing to deliver a crippling blow to another man's life. "It's important, Harry," the captain said in his most authoritative, reassuring voice. "We asked the doctor to let us see you, to tell you about the tests. We thought you might prefer to hear it from us."
A shudder passed through Harry's body, and he closed his eyes against the sight of his frowning commander and silently weeping friend. Beneath the fading bruises, his face turned ashen.
"You know what I'm going to say already, don't you?" Ioki did not answer, but the tension in his muscles and the tremor in his hand, as he lifted it to cover his eyes, were more eloquent than words. Fuller's face softened momentarily, then he regained control and continued, "I still have to say it, Harry, or the doctor will. The CAT scan showed a blood clot. It's growing very slowly, but definitely growing which means that the bleeding hasn't stopped, but because of where it is, they can't operate safely. All we can do is wait for it to stop on its own, then wait for the clot to dissolve. In the meantime, any damage is permanent. Harry," the rough edge to his voice betrayed the effort it cost Fuller to force the words out, "the doctor says that the deterioration should be well advanced, by now. You should have noticed it several days ago."
Hanson lifted his head and reached up to clasp Ioki's wrist in gentle but insistent fingers. As he pulled Harry's hand down, forcing him to face them both, he whispered, "Why didn't you tell us, Iokage?" Harry's only answer was to gaze at his teammate out of those bruised shadows, his mouth hard with pain and a frown pulling his brows together. "We're your friends," Tom continued, "your family. We could help, if you'd let us."
Harry pulled his wrist free of Tom's grasp and spoke for the first time, in a soundless whisper. "Leave me alone."
A sob escaped Tom's lips, and fresh tears spilled down his cheeks. "I'm sorry, Harry."
"Go away. Please...just go away..."
Hanson rose slowly to his feet and turned toward the door, his shoulders slumped as if a terrible weight rested on them. He moved past Fuller and out the door, where he stood in the hallway, numbly, his hands stuffed in his pockets and his head bowed, unable to decide where to go without someone to direct him. Fuller watched him for a moment, then shifted his eyes back to the man in the bed. At this point, he couldn't decide which of them needed him more, which was carrying a greater burden of hurt and horror. Despair hung thick in the air, forming a tangible shroud around both of the young men, isolating them from each other and chilling Fuller to the bone.
He forced words out of his mouth, though how they managed to sound so calm, he had no idea. "I'll send Judy in to keep you company."
"How about Doug? Or Booker? He's been here for two days, waiting to see you."
"I don't think it's a good idea for you to be alone. You don't have to make conversation, but Judy can take a nap in the chair, in case you decide you want to talk to someone ."
"Please, Captain, just...tell everybody to go home...leave me alone."
"We can't do that. We'll stay out of your room, for now, if that's what you want, but we aren't going to leave you here alone. Harry," he took an involuntary step closer to the bed and lifted one hand toward the injured man, "sooner or later, you have to talk about this. With Hanson, Hoffs, me, anyone you want. But you have to talk about it." His hand unconsciously clenched into a fist. "It isn't going away."
Ioki lifted his hand to cover his eyes again, effectively blocking out his captain's presence and dismissing him with one gesture.
Fuller cast a glance over his shoulder at Hanson's hunched form, then said, in a furious undertone, "Do you have any idea what you're doing to Tom?"
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than he wished he could take them back. He had no right to put any more pressure or inflict any more pain on a man who had already passed the limit of what he could endure. But sometime in the last few hours, Fuller had reached his own limit. One officer one friend shattered beyond repair was bad enough. Having two of them in this appalling condition was more than he could bear, and he could not simply stand and watch as Tom Hanson disintegrated under his eyes.
Swallowing a flood of remorse and fighting down his frustrated anger, Fuller struggled to find the right, neutral, careful words. "I'll tell the others to stay out, for a while. We'll give you some time to yourself, but if you need us, we're here. I'm never more than a phone call away, day or night. Remember that."
Harry completely ignored him, giving no sign that he had heard any of Fuller's words. The captain sighed and jammed his fists into his pockets. He could think of nothing else to say, nothing that might pierce the other man's shell of misery, so he walked silently out of the room.
Hanson met him in the hallway and responded to the guiding hand on his arm by stumbling along at the captain's side. They turned the corner that took them out of sight of Ioki's room, and Hanson abruptly halted. He fell heavily against the wall and slid down to sit on the cold tile. With his knees drawn up to his chest, his arms pulled in tight to his body, and the look of a wounded animal in his eyes, he seemed impossibly young and fragile. Captain Fuller crouched beside him, bringing his voice and his reassuring presence closer to the huddled figure.
"Take it easy, Tom. Take a deep breath and let it go."
"I did that to Harry."
Looping one arm across Hanson's trembling shoulders, Fuller said, "Come on, I'll take you home. You need some rest."
"I did it. It's my fault." Tom turned desperate eyes on the commander he trusted so implicitly and demanded, "How do I fix it, Coach?"
"You can't." With a sigh, Fuller settled down on the floor beside the younger officer and continued, "Some things can't be fixed. They happen, they're done, and you have to learn to live with the consequences."
"I don't know if I can."
Fuller's face tightened with anger, the same anger he had felt standing over Ioki's hospital bed, only now it was directed at a different kind of selfishness. "You damned well better find a way!"
Hanson flinched. "You do blame me."
"Believe it or not, this isn't about you! You were behind the wheel of the car, so you feel responsible. Fine. That's natural. That's what any of us would feel. But the bare fact is that you would have plowed into that truck, no matter who was driving. Ioki would have chased the perp, same as you did, and he would have totaled the car, same as you did. Then I'd be sitting here with him, listening to a load of self-indulgent crap and wanting to wring his fool neck, the same as I want to wring yours right now."
Tom leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes against the hot tears that trickled down his cheeks. "I wish to God you would."
Fuller quirked a humorless smile at him and shook his head. "A short-term solution, at best."
Hanson took a sobbing breath and whispered, "Is there any way that Harry can stay on the force, still do his job, after this?"
"No. You heard the doctor. He's already lost more than forty percent of his visual capacity, and it's going to get worse. Even if the bleeding stopped today, and his condition didn't deteriorate any further, he wouldn't be able to function as a police officer."
"So, he gets pensioned off and loses the only thing that ever mattered to him. And it's my fault." Tom lifted his head and turned accusing eyes on Fuller, cutting off his unspoken retort. "You can tell me that it was 'just one of those things' till you're blue in the face and it won't change what happened. I drove that car into an immovable object. I gave my friend brain damage. I did this!"
Fuller made no further attempt to reason with him, just stared steadily into his distraught eyes and waited.
"And if the bleeding doesn't stop soon? Then what?" Hanson demanded.
In the ensuing silence, Fuller realized that it was not a rhetorical question, that the young man genuinely wanted to hear the answer, even though they both knew it by heart. Swallowing to clear the roughness from his voice, the captain murmured, "Then he'll die."
Tom's head fell back against the wall again, and his eyes closed. After an excruciating time, he asked, very softly, "Does it ever get easier?"
"We haven't lost anyone, Tom."
"You know what I mean."
The captain sighed. "No, it never does. I used to think it would pray it would but after all these years as a soldier, a cop, a commander, I know better. Now, if it didn't hurt so much, I'd be afraid that I was dying inside along with all of them. This way, I know I'm still a human being...even if I sometimes wish I weren't!"
"So the pain doesn't go away?"
"How do you stand it?"
"Sometimes, I don't."
Fuller closed his eyes against the aching, pleading gaze of the younger man, unable to face Hanson's desperation and his own, at the same time. When he could command his voice, he said, "Let's go home, Tom."
He pushed himself to his feet and held out a hand to pull Hanson up. "Come on." When Hanson stood beside him, he put his arm around the other man's drooping shoulders and led him down the hallway. "You need a hot shower, a good meal, and a week of sleep."
"I can't sleep."
"You will. I'll see to it."
Hanson walked quietly beside him for a moment, then said, very softly, "You never answered my question, Coach."
"Yes, I did."
*** *** ***
Hoffs prowled the waiting room like a restless cat, her eyes shifting endlessly from her watch to the empty doorway, while Penhall sat slumped in a chair and watched her through slitted eyes.
"How long has Fuller been gone?" she demanded.
"Give it a rest, Jude. Watchin' the clock isn't gonna get him here any faster."
"He should be back, by now."
Penhall shook his head sadly. "You saw what kinda shape Hanson was in. Fuller can't leave him alone like that."
"But it's okay to leave Harry alone, right?" Before Doug could respond to her bitter remark, she murmured, "I'm sorry. I know you're worried about Tom."
"Right now, I'm worried about all of us."
Judy halted her frantic movement and turned to face her colleague. "Is he going to make it?" she asked.
"Tom?" Doug thought about that for a long minute, then sighed. "I don't know. I've never seen him like this."
"It scares me."
"Me, too." Penhall stared down at his own hands, which were knotted together in his lap, for a long moment, then said, "I think...I think he'd decided that it was okay to forgive himself, until... This whole thing just came at him, out of nowhere, and knocked him sideways."
"That's how we all feel, isn't it?"
"Then what gives Tom a corner on pain?"
Doug lifted his eyes to meet hers, and for once, his expression was deadly serious. "How would you feel, if you'd been driving that car?"
Judy's jaw hardened stubbornly, and she snapped, "I'd know better than to destroy myself over something I couldn't change. How does Tom tearing himself to pieces help Harry?"
"It doesn't. But Tommy's never been much good at letting go of things. Even things that aren't his f..." He bit off the word and flushed painfully.
"You can say it," Hoffs whispered into the sudden silence.
They both fell quiet, letting the harshness of those words echo through the room and settle into their heads. Hoffs resumed her pacing, and Penhall shut his eyes in an imitation of sleep. A moment later, Penhall spoke again in a soft, apologetic voice.
"It isn't, you know," he muttered. "Not really."
"I know." She uttered the words out of loyalty to her friend and teammate, and out of a desperate need to still the unwelcome doubts that whispered in the back of her mind. Half of her believed it, but the other half...
Her eyes strayed to the empty doorway again, waiting for the familiar figure of her commander to appear and put an end to the waiting. "Where the hell is Fuller?!"
"Same place he was two minutes ago."
"He's supposed to be here! He's supposed to tell us we can go see Harry!"
"It wasn't Fuller who told us to stay out. Jude, if Harry wanted company, he'd ask for it. Until then, give 'im some space."
Hoffs rejected his words with a firm shake of her head. "I don't believe he wants to be alone in this place; not when he hates being here so much!" A look of grim determination hardened her features, and she turned purposefully toward the door.
"Judy!" Penhall leapt to his feet and made a snatch for her arm. "Where are you going?!"
"If Harry wants to kick me out, he can, but I'm going to hear it from him! Not Fuller!" She easily evaded his grasp and strode out of the room.
Doug groaned, "Oh, man!" and hurried after her.
She did not even hesitate at Ioki's door, but pushed straight into the room without breaking stride. Just inside the door, she came to an abrupt halt, forcing Penhall to stagger backward a step, to avoid trampling her.
"Oh, God!" Judy gasped. Doug followed her gaze to the empty bed, and he felt a cold prickle of fear go up his spine. "Doug!" her voice scaled up in panic. "Where is he?!"
"Calm down, Jude. He's probably off getting an x-ray, or something."
"At midnight?" She ran to the bed and began hunting for the nurse's call button. What she found instead was an IV needle, still connected to the half-empty bag that hung from a stand beside the bed. Holding up the needle in shaking fingers, she whispered, "I don't think he went to get an x-ray."
Doug swore under his breath, as he took two steps to reach the closet and wrenched open the door. "His boots are still here," his eyes fell on the empty hangers, "but not his jacket." Doug snatched a large, white plastic bag from the closet shelf and moved over to the bed with it. "Call Fuller!" he urged, as he up-ended the bag, dumping the contents out on the bed.
Hoffs lifted the telephone receiver and began dialing. "I'll try Hanson's place, first."
"If he's not there, call Dispatch and have them track him down." A miscellaneous collection of stuff spilled from the bag and skittered across the blanket. Penhall sorted through it, discarding a bloodstained T-shirt, some odds and ends of jewelry, and Ioki's police ID and wallet. Suddenly, he groaned aloud.
Judy glanced up to see him holding an empty shoulder holster in one hand and the spare clip to an automatic in the other. "Doug..."
"Don't say it."
"It can't be. His gun is at the Chapel!"
"Did you take it there?"
"Neither did I."
"Jude..." He took an unsteady breath, fighting his own rising panic. "I think God is on vacation."
*** *** ***
Hoffs drove slowly, one eye on the road ahead and one scanning the deserted sidewalks. Beside her, Penhall sat in brooding silence. He had said no more than three words since they left the hospital, too wrapped up in his own sense of frustration to have the attention to spare for her, so the only sound in the car was the desultory chatter of the Police radio.
They had cruised several dark, deserted streets, with no particular pattern to their wanderings, when Penhall bestirred himself enough to mutter, "I can't believe I was so stupid."
"Come on, Doug, let it go. Everything was so nuts that night, it could have happened to any of us."
"But it didn't. It happened to me." He buried his face in his hands and moaned, "I'm such an idiot!"
"You're not an idiot. You got distracted and forgot you'd put the gun in with the rest of Harry's stuff, that's all."
"I can't believe I did that. And I really can't believe he found it! How did he know it was there, when I didn't even know it? Oh, man! I am such an idiot!"
"Don't waste time beating yourself up. Fuller's gonna do enough of that, when he gets his hands on you."
"Great. That makes me feel much better." He lifted his head and looked around in confusion. "Where are we?"
"Hudson Street. Near Commerce."
"That's at least three miles from the hospital!"
"He's had as much as a four hour start on us."
"Jude, do you really think Harry could walk this far?"
"I don't know. I wouldn't have thought he could get out of bed, much less out of the hospital, but he did."
"How did he get out of the hospital?" Doug asked.
Before Judy could answer him, the radio crackled to life and a male voice began rattling off a series of codes, indicating that they had a public disturbance on their hands. Neither cop listened very carefully, until they heard the strange voice say, "Suspect is Asian male, mid twenties, armed and dangerous."
Penhall shot a disbelieving look at Hoffs and saw his own shock reflected in her face. "It couldn't be!"
In answer, Judy swung the car into a tight U-turn and tore down the street in the direction of the address the patrolman had given.
"That description could be anybody!"
"The location is near the hospital," Judy pointed out.
"Harry wouldn't shoot at other cops," Doug insisted, though the stark worry in his eyes betrayed his doubt.
"He's messed up enough to leave the hospital in the middle of the night, alone, with his gun. How do we know what he'd do?"
"Not shoot at cops. Not Harry." With that, he clamped his jaw shut and allowed Hoffs to concentrate on her driving with no further distractions.
A scant few minutes later, they pulled up to the curb behind a pair of squad cars. Penhall was out of the car and running before Hoffs could cut the engine, headed toward a group of four uniformed figures collected under a street light. They crouched in a loose semi-circle, their guns drawn, and their eyes fixed on a man who stood fifteen feet away from them, in the shadow of a storefront.
Doug could not see the suspect's face in the darkness, but one glance told him that they had found their missing teammate. The ragged figure wore a hospital gown over a pair of badly torn and stained blue jeans, with a familiar black leather jacket over both. The glow of the street light picked out the stark white of bandages on his hand and face, and gleamed threateningly along the barrel of the gun he held pointed at the surrounding cops. He clutched the gun in his uninjured left hand, steadying it with his splinted and bandaged right hand, but the watching officers had no way of knowing that he could neither shoot accurately with his left hand nor see them clearly in the darkness. They only knew that a very dangerous looking man was aiming an equally dangerous looking automatic at their heads.
The instant he recognized the cornered man, Penhall gave a warning shout that brought two of the patrolmen around to face him. Their guns turned to orient on him, and the one in charge, an aging beat cop with years of experience in his lined face, called, "Hold it! Police!"
Doug pulled to a stop and fumbled for his badge. "I'm a cop! Officer Doug Penhall!" He held up his badge, and the guns lifted to point harmlessly upward.
"Back off, Penhall." The older officer turned away from him contemptuously and did not even acknowledge Hoffs' presence, as she came up beside Penhall. "We've got this under control."
"No!" Judy stepped forward. "Put your guns away!"
At the sound of her voice, Harry looked in her direction, his gun shifting with his gaze. The patrolmen reacted to the movement instantly. Two of them dropped to the pavement, while the one farthest outside Ioki's line of fire lunged forward, his gun held out at arm's length, and shouted,
"Hold your fire! He's a cop!" Doug and Judy screamed, in unison.
"You kids get the hell outta here!" the older man bellowed.
In answer, Hoffs whipped out her ID and flashed her gold shield in the startled officer's eyes. "I said, hold your fire! That's an order!"
The three younger patrolmen looked to their senior member for guidance. He shot another disbelieving look at Hoffs' badge, then turned to glance at their silent suspect. "You're outta your mind, Detective."
"And you're out of line. I'm the ranking officer here, and I'm telling you to hold your fire, stay back, and let us deal with this."
"You get too close, and that junkie'll put a bullet in you. He's already fired on us twice."
Hoffs licked her lips nervously and asked, "Anybody hurt?"
"No, but don't push your luck."
"My money says he's dusted," one of the younger cops offered. "Took a walk off a building and found out he couldn't fly."
A tremor of rage passed through Hoffs' body, and she opened her mouth to snarl a retort, but Penhall's hand on her shoulder silenced her. "Take it easy, Jude. Who cares what these turkeys think? Let's just get Harry outta here."
Judy turned her troubled gaze on the motionless figure by the wall and whispered, "How?"
"Lemme handle this."
"Don't you worry. Harry's not gonna shoot me."
"Are you sure about that?"
He quirked a wry smile at her, slipped his gun from its holster and laid it in her hand. "Course I'm sure. We're pals, aren't we? Just keep these jokers outta the way." With that, he stepped clear of the line of cops, into the empty space that surrounded Ioki, and turned his loopy grin on his friend. "Hey, Iok. How you doin', man?"
Ioki stared emptily at him through the ragged fringe of hair that fell in his eyes, no sign of recognition in his face. His weapon moved to point directly at Penhall's chest.
Doug gave a burst of nervous laughter. "C'mon. You don't wanna shoot me."
Ioki drew in an uneven breath and whispered, "Go away."
In answer, Doug took a cautious step closer to his teammate, his hands held out in a placating gesture. At the sound of his boots on the pavement, Harry's finger tightened on the trigger. Doug flinched.
"Fuller's gonna have my head, if you actually put a slug in somebody with that thing," he chided. "It's bad enough that I left it in your room."
Another step brought him close enough to see Ioki clearly for the first time. The injured man's eyes were wide, panicked, and completely irrational. His face was gray with pain and exhaustion, and he trembled with the effort of holding himself upright, but at the same time, he seemed totally unaware of his own physical distress. His mind had moved somewhere outside his body, where nothing could touch it.
Penhall had to fight down the urge to run up to him and grab the gun out of his hand, to scoop him up in a bear hug and tell him everything was going to be all right. He didn't really believe that Harry could shoot him, but he didn't want to find out the hard way that he was wrong. And he didn't want to inadvertently cause other kinds of damage, while Harry's grip on reality was so uncertain.
"How 'bout if you give me the gun, and we talk about this," Penhall suggested, pleasantly.
"No...Leave me alone! I won't go...won't go back there! "
"That's cool. I understand." Doug took another step, and Harry shrank back against the storefront. "I know how much you hate that place."
"You can't take me back..."
"I know." Another step. "I'm not gonna try; you have my word on it."
"Go away!" Harry gave a little sob of fear, and for the first time, his gun wavered from its target. Please...please go away!"
"I'm not gonna do that, either." He saw tears begin to slide from the corners of Harry's eyes, and his voice softened. "C'mon, Harry. Let's get outta here. Let's get away from all these uniformed jerk-offs and find some place warm to talk. You gotta be freezing, standing there in your bare feet. And I know you're tired."
"I don't want..." Ioki seemed to lose track of his thought. He hesitated for a moment, then asked, "Where am I?"
"No place you want to be. How 'bout we go home?"
"Doug?" A flicker of awareness crept into Harry's face. He lifted desperate eyes to find Doug in the shadows, and a spasm of pain contorted his features.
"Yeah, it's me. Gimme the gun, Harry, then we can..."
"Doug!" He gave another frightened sob and let the gun slip from his fingers. In the next heartbeat, his legs gave out, and he started to fall.
Penhall caught him, as he crumpled to the sidewalk, and dropped to his knees under the sudden deadweight. Harry landed in a nerveless heap against him, his face hidden in the larger man's shoulder, shaking so violently that he could hardly breathe. Doug put his arms around him protectively and tried to banish the trembling from his own muscles. He felt a sickening wave of relief hit him, and he muttered, "Oh, man. You scared me good that time, Iok."
Hoffs retrieved Ioki's gun, then crouched to meet Penhall's eyes over Ioki's bent head. "I'll radio for an ambulance."
Penhall felt Ioki stiffen at her words, and try to push away from him. He shot Hoffs a burning glare and tightened his hold on his friend. "No. Everything's okay, man. You don't have to go back to the hospital tonight." The look he gave Hoffs stifled her protest. "We'll just take you home," he continued, in a soothing tone.
"Relax, Harry. We're talkin' about home, not the hospital."
"I have to find Tom."
After a long moment, Doug asked, in a strange, small voice, "Is that where you were going? To find Tom?"
"Couldn't it wait till morning?"
"Where is he? He said he'd be here!" The slightly hysterical edge to Harry's voice sent a prickle up Doug's spine. "I need to see him!"
"We'll find him."
"He promised! He...he promised..."
"Harry?" Judy tried to keep her voice calm, in spite of her growing alarm. "Why do you need to see Hanson? What's wrong?"
Ioki turned his hunted gaze on her and whispered, "The captain said I...he said it's m-my fault..."
"What's your fault?"
"I have to find him! I need to..."
"Okay." Doug didn't wait for more. He got his feet under him and stood up, dragging Harry up with him as gently as he could manage. "We'll go find him, right now."
Harry gave a gasp of pain and staggered against Doug. Both of his colleagues reached out to steady him, and between the two of them, they got him moving in the direction of Judy's car.
"You just have to make it to the car," Doug assured him, "and we'll get you home."
"You leave Tom to us. We'll find 'im. Just take it slow."
Harry made it as far as the car, then collapsed into the back seat and appeared to pass out the instant his head touched the upholstery. Judy shut the door to block their voices from reaching Harry, then turned on Doug with fire in her eyes.
"What are we doing?! Have you gone nuts?!"
"We're getting Ioki home in one piece."
"We have to take him to the hospital, Doug!"
"So he can run away again?" Judy clamped her lips shut and glared at him, but he was unmoved by her obvious fury. "The only way they'll keep him there is to tie him to the bed. Is that what you want?"
"I want to keep my partner alive!"
"That's what I'm trying to do!" Doug took a deep, calming breath and tried again, in a milder tone. "We take him back to his apartment, call the doctor, call Fuller, hopefully get Hanson over there to talk to him, and make sure he's stays put. Then maybe tomorrow, when he's had some sleep and has his head screwed on straight again, we get him to go back voluntarily. If we're lucky."
"I don't like it."
"What's to like? But you gotta admit, it's the only way we're gonna keep him from killing himself."
Hoffs thought about that, her eyes fixed tearfully on the ground and a scowl darkening her face. Finally, reluctantly, she nodded. "Okay. Let's go. But Doug?"
"You get to tell Fuller about this one."
*** *** ***
"I understand that, Captain, but... No, sir. No, I don't think it's... Look, Captain, we did the best we could! It's not like... I know that!"
Hoffs sat on the edge of the bed, watching Penhall pace as wide a circle as the phone cord allowed and gesticulate angrily with each step. She did not have to hear the other half of the conversation to gauge Fuller's mood. Her teammate's obvious frustration told her more than she wanted to know, and she gnawed her lower lip nervously, as she listened.
Beside her, Ioki stirred and started to sit up. Hoffs put a restraining hand on his shoulder and murmured, "Lie still, Harry."
"Is Tom here?"
She sighed. "Not yet."
"I need to see Tom."
"Later. After you get some sleep."
"Where is he?"
"Doug is looking for him, right now." She felt like a broken record, repeating the same handful of phrases incessantly, knowing that Ioki would forget her words a few minutes after hearing them. His mind seemed to be slipping in and out of focus erratically, but during his brief spells of clarity, two all-important facts dominated his thoughts. He needed to talk to Hanson. Now. And he absolutely, categorically refused to return to the hospital.
"We'll get him here as soon as we can," she assured her partner, for the umpteenth time.
Harry lay quietly for a moment, and Judy suspected that he'd tuned out again, but when he spoke to her, he sounded unusually alert. "Jude?"
"Would you turn on the light?"
She glanced up at the ceiling fixture. "It's on."
"Oh. Okay." She reached for the small lamp on the bedside table and switched it on. The dark shade diffused the light into a soft, dim glow that barely spilled over to the wall beside it.
Harry stared at it for a moment, frowning, then said, softly, "Take the shade off."
"I don't think that's..."
"Never mind. I'll do it."
He lifted his hand toward the lamp, but Judy caught it and held it tightly to still his movement. "No, let me." She carefully unscrewed the finial that held the shade in place and took it off. The sudden flare of light from the bare bulb made her squint uncomfortably, but it didn't seem to bother Harry. His gaze shifted from the lamp to Judy's face, and he smiled slightly.
"You're welcome." She met his eyes for a minute, then asked, "Harry, can you see me?"
"Now I can."
He smiled again and let his eyes drift closed. "Well enough."
Judy fell quiet, not wanting to disturb him and not able to speak around the tears in her throat, anyway. In the silence, she could once again hear Doug's voice, sounding tired and heavy, speaking to Fuller.
"Yeah, I know. Okay. What about Tom? Is he awake, yet?" The answer brought a sigh from him. "I guess not. We'll try. Call me if...right. Okay. G'night, Captain."
He hung up and turned to find Judy watching him forlornly. At her unspoken question, Doug shook his head. "Fuller gave him a sedative. He's gonna be out till late morning, at least."
He moved around the decorative partition that separated the living room from the bedroom, and came quietly up to the side of the bed opposite Judy. Harry lay very still, as if deeply asleep, his eyes closed and his left hand clasped in both of Judy's. The unshaded lamp on the bedside table illuminated his drawn, battered face all too clearly. Doug shot a frowning look at the lamp, then shifted his gaze to Judy.
She shrugged and murmured, "He wanted it on."
"But the doc said..."
At the sound of Doug's voice, Harry opened his eyes and turned to look at him. "Doug?"
"Yeah. Hey, man, how 'bout if we turn the light off, and you get some sleep?"
"He said he'd be here. He promised."
"Don't sweat it. He'll be here in the morning."
"I need to talk to him."
"In the morning."
Ioki shut his eyes and turned abruptly away from Penhall, his face falling into despairing lines. Penhall glowered down at him, all his worry and exhaustion plain in his grim expression. Then he glanced up at Hoffs and nodded toward the lamp.
"Better turn it off."
"No!" Ioki's eyes snapped open, and his grip on Judy's hand tightened. "Don't...please."
"Maybe we should, Harry," she suggested. "It'll be easier for you to sleep."
"I don't like the dark."
Doug sat down on the mattress and said, in a tone of forced calm, "The doctor says strong light isn't good for you. It could hurt your eyes."
"Does it matter?" Doug just stared at the bedspread, unable to come up with an answer for that one. After a minute's silence, Harry closed his eyes again and murmured, "It's my house, my lamp, and my business."
Judy bit her lip and blinked back angry tears, while Doug answered, simply, "Fair enough. Will you at least try to get some sleep?"
"After I talk to Tom."
"Listen to me, Iok. He isn't coming over here tonight, and you can't sit up waiting for him. The doc only agreed to let you stay here, 'cause we told 'im we'd make sure you got some rest."
"You can't send me back, Doug," Harry murmured. "Unless somebody signs papers that say I'm crazy and I can't take care of myself, nobody can make me go." He glanced over at Doug, a frown pulling his brows together as though a troubling thought had just occurred to him. "Did the captain tell them I'm crazy?"
"Course not! He wouldn't do somethin' like that!"
"Then I get to decide where I want to be." He relaxed into the pillow and closed his eyes again. "And I want to be here."
Judy freed one hand and reached up to brush the hair back from his forehead. "Please, Harry," she whispered tearfully, "I know we can't make you go back to the hospital, and we can't make you do what the doctor says. But please! For me! Will you stop worrying about finding Tom and start taking care of yourself?"
"You're not fine! And running around in the middle of the night, looking for Hanson when you should be safe in your hospital room, is only making things worse!"
"Okay, no hospital! Just stay here in bed and rest. For me, Harry. For your partner, who's very, very worried about you. Please?"
Ioki mumbled something sleepily, that she couldn't translate. Then, as he twisted onto his side and buried his face in the pillow, both Judy and Doug heard him say, very clearly, "Leave the light on."
"I will," Judy assured him. "I promise."
*** *** ***
Fuller shrugged on his jacket and checked his watch. Almost noon. Penhall's latest phone call sat heavily on his mind and put a scowl on his face, which he made a palpable effort to soften when he turned to confront Hanson. "That was Doug. He's waiting for us."
Tom shook his head, and spoke without lifting his eyes from the floor. "I can't, Coach. I'm sorry." His entire posture communicated withdrawal and resistance.
"Is that what you want me to tell Harry?"
"Tell him whatever you want. He won't care."
"According to Doug, you're the only person he does care about."
"That's Doug talking, not Harry."
Touched by the open pain in the other man's face, Fuller stepped closer to him and placed a gentle hand on his arm. "Don't make another mistake, Tom. Come with me and put a stop to this, before you both go so far that you can't find a way back."
"I'm sorry, Coach. I know you want me to be stronger than this...be the one to make the first move..."
"Harry's already done that."
After a tense pause, Tom asked, "How can I believe that?"
"You think we're setting you up? Is that it?"
Tom lifted wide, tragic eyes to his commander and struggled to speak around the emotion that choked him. After few false starts, he whispered, "I saw the look on his face when he threw me out of that room. I'll never forget it, as long as I live...and I'll never forgive myself."
Fuller stared sadly at him for a long, silent moment, measuring the depth of his hurt and the strength of his fear. He felt an overwhelming urge to put his arms around the younger man, to protect and comfort him, and at the same time, he wanted to give him a good, hard slap and order him to stop being such a fool. Since he could do neither, he satisfied himself with squeezing Tom's arm in understanding and asking,
"Is it yourself you can't forgive, or Harry?"
"He didn't do anything."
"Except let you see how much you'd hurt him."
"He hates me." Tom swallowed audibly, fighting to control his threatened tears. "I saw it in his face. He hates me."
"That's not what I saw."
"I'm sorry," he mumbled, "but I have to hear it from him."
"Then come with me, and let him tell you."
Tom shuddered and seemed to shrink away from the captain's touch. "I can't...not till I know I won't see it again!"
Fuller sighed and stuffed his hands into his pockets. He could feel Hanson slipping away from him, along with any control he might have over this situation. "You may be asking too much of him. He tried, Tom, last night, and it's my fault he couldn't reach you. Now I'm trying to make it right for both of you, but you have to do your part."
"I've already done my part, and look where it got us!" The raw pain in Hanson's voice struck Fuller like a physical blow. "I won't do it again! I won't... hurt either one of us again."
Fuller watched the tears spill from Tom's eyes and shook his head in defeat. "I wish you could have a little faith, Tom. In me, in Doug, in Harry. You used to know us better than this."
Tom just hung his head and continued to weep, silently.
"I have to go. I don't like leaving you alone here, but..."
"Go," he whispered.
"If you change your mind, call me. Please, Tom, call me." With that, he turned and strode out the door, leaving Hanson standing in the middle of the room, looking lost and desolate.
* * *
The look on Penhall's face, when he met Fuller at the door of Ioki's apartment, only sank the captain's spirits deeper into depression. He pretended not to see the hope and eagerness drain out of the younger man, as he realized that Fuller had arrived alone. Hoffs hovered nearby, a similar defeated expression in her eyes. Looking at them, Fuller began to grasp the enormity of their situation.
"'Morning, guys. How'd it go last night?" He brushed past them and moved into the apartment.
"Where's Tom?" Judy whispered, then winced, as she heard herself repeating Harry's words.
Fuller lifted his hands in a helpless shrug. "He wouldn't come. He's convinced that we're trying to get him here under false pretenses."
Doug spun away, swearing under his breath, and headed for the phone.
"That won't help," Fuller warned. "The state he's in right now, you'll only make things worse."
Penhall hesitated, with the receiver half way to his ear. "So, what do we do?"
"I don't think there's anything we can do, except wait for Hanson to pull himself together."
"What if Harry can't wait?"
Fuller shot a worried glance toward the back of the apartment and the bed where his other damaged officer lay in a state of complete withdrawal. "Any change?" he asked Hoffs.
She shook her head. "He hasn't moved or spoken since he woke up a few hours ago."
"Maybe we could get him to snap out of it, if we suggested that he call Hanson."
"I tried that," Doug said. "He didn't even hear me."
"Hm. Let me see what I can do."
Leaving the two younger cops in the living room, Fuller moved around the partition and into the bedroom. He found Ioki curled up under the blanket, his face turned toward the light of the unshaded lamp and his eyes fixed emptily on the distant wall. He did not react to the captain's arrival, even when Fuller switched off the lamp and let the cool shadows back into the room. Fuller sat down in the chair Hoffs had vacated on his arrival and leaned forward to prop his elbows on his knees.
For a long time, he could not decide what to say. He had come prepared to give Ioki the same speech he'd given Hanson, about doing his part to bridge the gap between them. But faced with Ioki's resigned, empty suffering, the words deserted him. He remembered Penhall's frantic phone calls the night before, begging him to drag Hanson over here in any condition, and he knew that he was too late. Ioki had done his part, and then some. He had burned himself out in an attempt to reach his missing friend, and now he had nothing left but this... this hopelessness.
The captain weighed all his options and found that he had frighteningly few of them. His words to Penhall had been all too accurate. They could do nothing but wait and try to safeguard their friends until they each, separately, found a way back. It was too late for them to help each other, now.
"Listen to me, Harry," Fuller finally said. "I want you to do something for me. I'm not making it an order I don't have the right I'm just asking it as a favor." Ioki did not move or shift his vacant stare from the wall, but Fuller knew, somehow, that he was listening. "I don't like you being here, so far from help if something goes wrong, so I... I want you to go back to the hospital."
After a moment's hesitation, Ioki turned his emotionless gaze on the other man's face and spoke in a flat, tired voice. "I'll go."
"Thank you." Even as he said the words, Fuller felt a cold sense of failure. He may have persuaded his injured officer to return to the safety and care of the hospital, but it was a Pyrrhic victory at best. Ioki had left the hospital to find Hanson, and his sudden willingness to return could only mean one thing. He had given up on his friend.
"Trust me, Harry," Fuller said, though he almost choked on the words, "you're doing the right thing."
*** *** ***
Harry lay on the sofa, staring at the invisible ceiling and listening to the tiny, quiet sounds that filled the apartment. He thought briefly about getting up to put some music on, maybe turn on the television for company, but those activities required more motivation than he could muster at the moment. And in a perverse way, the emptiness of the room suited his mood.
For the first time in longer than he could remember, Harry had absolutely nothing to do. It wasn't just the 'nothing to do' of one lonely evening or idle weekend. It wasn't even the enforced boredom of convalescence. He quite literally had nothing to do. The check lying on the coffee table confirmed it.
He turned his head to look at the spot where he knew the check lay. He had placed it there himself, hoping he could lose it in the muted gray and black shadows, and forget its existence entirely, but his brain refused to cooperate. It had made an indelible impression on him, from the moment an apologetic Captain Fuller had placed it in his hand and explained what it meant. Harry knew that Fuller had brought the envelope over in person as a gesture of friendship and support; he knew that his colleagues, and especially his commander, wanted to keep the door to the Chapel open to him. But none of that changed the bare facts. For nearly two months, he had been a cop on extended Medical Leave. Suddenly, with the arrival of one innocuous check, he was an ex-cop on a disability pension. A civilian. Unemployed. As of today, Officer H.T. Ioki did not exist.
The phone rang, and he smothered a sigh. Doug and Judy had been calling him, almost hourly, since Fuller's visit. He'd gotten used to hearing from them several times a day, through the course of his seemingly endless recovery, but this was ridiculous. After the third or fourth call of the morning, he'd moved the phone to the floor by the couch, so he didn't have to keep getting up to answer it. By his calculations, it ought to be Doug on the other end of the line. It was his turn.
He reached for the receiver without shifting his position on the leather cushions. "Hello."
He was mildly surprised to hear Judy's voice and wondered if he'd lost count somewhere. "Hi, Jude."
"I'm so glad you're home! I have the most amazing news!"
His curiosity stirred, reluctantly, at the excitement in her voice. "What's up?"
"You'll never guess who called!"
His heart lurched painfully in his chest, and the word came out of his mouth before he could stop it. "Tom..."
He heard Judy's little sigh of regret. "No. I'm sorry, Harry."
The brief surge of hope drained out of him, leaving him colder and emptier than ever. In his daily conversations with his old teammates, he had stopped asking the only question he really wanted answered. He had stopped putting them all through the strain of repeating the obvious Tom Hanson was gone.
Barely a week after the painful scene at the hospital, Hanson had come to Captain Fuller and asked for some time off. Fuller had agreed, because he knew the young officer was in no shape to do his job, but he worried about letting him out of his sight for long. A few days later, the captain had returned to the Chapel to find Hanson's badge and gun on his desk, Hanson's desk cleaned out, and Doug Penhall in a state of collapse.
Since that time no one had seen or heard from the missing Hanson. At first, Harry asked after him every time he spoke to Hoffs or Penhall. But the pain in their voices and the subtle current of resentment he felt beneath their words quickly silenced him. Tom had vanished from their lives, and on some level, they blamed Harry for it. He could accept that. He blamed himself, when he dared to think about it. So he kept his guilt and frustration and loneliness to himself, and he stopped asking.
On the other end of the phone, Judy hesitated, knowing how harsh a blow she had dealt him with her answer, but her own excitement wouldn't let her stay depressed for more than a heartbeat. "Somebody even better than Tom!"
"Who?" he asked, wearily.
This time, his heart stopped completely. When he could get enough air to speak, he gasped, "What?"
"She's out! Harry, they let her out!"
"But that's impossible. She was... She can't have..."
Judy uttered a breathless, almost hysterical laugh and brushed away his confused protests. "We haven't gotten the paperwork yet, so I don't know the details, but Helen said that the boy, Jeffrey Something..."
"LaRouche" Harry supplied, automatically.
"That's it! Jeffrey LaRouche! He came back to school and heard that she was in prison for the murder. It took him a while to get his nerve up, but eventually, he went downtown and told Homicide exactly what happened. The Judge changed Helen's sentence to Time Served and released her! Harry, she's out!" When her announcement was met with shocked silence, she almost shouted, "Don't just sit there like a lump! Say something!"
His voice came out sounding small and strange. "Judy, how did you know about...me and Helen?"
She laughed aloud. "I got it out of Tom months ago! You didn't think you could walk around looking like somebody ran over your dog, without me noticing, did you? Now, stop asking me dumb questions and pay attention!"
Another laugh rippled through the phone at him. "Poor Harry! I can hear your marbles rolling all over the floor!"
"She called you?"
"No, stupid, she called you. I just happened to pick up the phone. She called from the Court House, before she even got out of the building, looking for you. She didn't have a number to give me, but I told her you were probably at home and she could reach you there."
"When? How long...?"
"We got off the phone maybe ten minutes ago. I would've called you right away, but I had to..."
He cut her off abruptly, still speaking in that odd little voice. "She hasn't called."
"She will! Oh, Harry, I know she will!"
As if on cue, the doorbell chimed. Harry turned stunned, disbelieving eyes on the door and said to Judy, "I have to go. Someone's at the door."
"Oh, God! It's her!" She began babbling urgently at him, "Remember that the poor woman's been in prison for more than three months, Harry. She isn't going to be the same person you knew before. She isn't g..."
"Bye, Jude," he said, absently, and hung up the phone.
Moving like a sleepwalker, Harry stood up and walked to the door. He had no idea what expression he wore it was as if his entire body had gone numb, and the outside had no connection to the inside. Luckily, the outside knew where the doorknob was, and how to turn it, without any conscious direction.
He swung the door open and stood very still, his face doing something he couldn't identify, and waited. For what felt like an eternity, no one moved or spoke. Then, he heard a blessedly familiar, yet strangely altered voice say,
"Can you spare a cup of coffee for a friend?"
He felt his mask crack and his face soften, as an incredible wave of relief washed through him. "Helen..."
Her feet sounded against the floor, then her arms were around his neck and he was holding onto her for dear life. She took one sobbing breath and began to cry.
"You came home," he whispered into her hair.
"Oh, Harry, I was so afraid I'd burned my last bridge!"
"Please...don't ever leave like that again."
Hanson poured himself a fresh cup of coffee and padded back over to the sofa. He had relaxed noticeably, his body no longer taut with strain and his face almost serene, but the heaviness of his eyes betrayed just how painful their visit to the past had been for him. And he still seemed wary of his old friend. When he sat down on the couch again, he settled himself into the corner, as far from Ioki as possible, and kept his gaze on the cup in his hands.
In a low, deceptively bland tone, he asked, "How is Helen?"
"I worried about her, you know? Getting out of prison, having to rebuild her life the way she did. I know how hard that is."
"It was very hard, for both of us. But we made it through."
A hint of a smile touched Hanson's lips, though his eyes were wistful. "I don't know how you guys did it. Both of you having to start all over like that."
"In some ways, that made it easier. We were starting from the same place."
Tom shook his head and murmured, "You never cease to amaze me, Iokage." Harry gave him a wide-eyed, startled look. "What? What did I say?"
"Nothing. It's just... Nobody's called me that in...years." Hanson watched, appalled, as tears began to slide down Ioki's face. "I missed you, Tom."
Hanson just ducked his head, unable to meet Ioki's empty, yet unnervingly direct gaze.
"Every day you were gone, even after I knew you weren't coming back, I waited for you to call. At first, I couldn't believe you'd actually left, and then I... I got so mad at you for going, I almost hated you."
"I thought you already did."
Ioki shook his head. "The only thing I ever blamed you for was not being there."
"I'm sorry, Harry." His soft words were filled with painful sincerity. "I know made a terrible mistake, and I hurt a lot of people, but I had to go."
Ioki took an unsteady breath and asked, very softly, "Why? Because of me?"
"Only in part." He stared intently into his coffee cup, trying to marshal his thoughts into some kind of order and keep a rein on his emotions. "What happened between us was the last straw, I guess. I hadn't really known, for a long time, what I was doing with my life, why I was fighting so hard to be a cop when it didn't make sense to me anymore. I only stayed in the job as long as I did, because I was so used to thinking of myself as a cop that I couldn't think beyond it. It's all I knew, all I wanted or planned or trained for. It was such an essential part of who I was..."
"I know the feeling."
Tom's eyes flew to his face for a moment, then turned quickly away again. "Yeah. But it was true for you. For me, it was just...habit. I couldn't face starting over again, so I stuck to the old routines long after they'd stopped meaning anything. And then there were my friends..."
He broke off, too overwhelmed by the emotions that crowded up in him to speak for a moment. Harry just waited, knowing better than to interrupt.
"That was what finally broke the connection, for me," Tom whispered. "When I couldn't face my friends, I couldn't find a reason to walk into that building again."
"Where did you go?"
"Nowhere. Literally." Tom lifted his head again and turned his enormous, bruised-looking eyes on his friend. "I dropped out of my own life and just kind of...drifted. I haven't...held down the same job or lived in the same place for more than a couple of months at a stretch. I haven't spoken to anyone from my old life but Doug. Not even my mom. It was like I couldn't find any place to put my feet that would stay solid, and the only person I could even talk to about it was Penhall. He was sort of my link to reality."
"You know he...he never forgave me for making you leave."
"I know, and I'm sorry."
"Are you?" The unnerving gaze fixed on Hanson again. "I thought that's what you wanted?"
Tom gave a soft hiss of pain, but the the basic honesty in his soul would not allow him to deny it. "Maybe a little. Maybe I wanted you to feel some of what I was feeling."
"Well, it worked."
"Since we're telling the truth, here, how about some more of it?"
Harry thought about that for a moment, his face set and sad. "Okay, the truth. Yes, I did blame you for the accident, at first. I was so angry not just at you, at everybody and everything, but you were the nearest target. And the easiest to hurt. So I did hurt you, deliberately, even though I knew it was wrong while I was doing it. But...this is the absolute truth, Tom...I never hated you, never really blamed you, till you walked out on us and tore apart everyone who loved you, just to spite me."
"It wasn't just to spite you, Harry. You have to believe that."
"I do now."
"Good, because I need something from you, something very important, and if you do still hate me for any of the...the mistakes I made, you won't be willing to give it to me."
"What is it?"
"Would you believe me if I told you that you always had it?"
Hanson almost smiled. "I do now."
"Are you coming back, Tom? Is that what this is all about?"
"I'd like to. I'm not sure what it's going to take, but I'm ready to try. This was...well, this was my first step."
"I'm glad you took it."
The smile blossomed across Tom's face, lifting the shadows from his eyes and making his threatened tears sparkle. "Me, too."
"Will I ever see you again, now that you've got what you need?"
"Y'know what I really need? My friends. All of them. So, if we're still friends..."
"Then let's start acting like it."
They stared at each other, blankly, for a moment. Then Harry commented,
"I've forgotten how. What'd we do, before?"
"Had a beer at the pool hall."
"I guess we could do that, but I don't drink much anymore." He tapped one finger against his temple and added, "Alcohol scrambles my brains up worse than they already are."
"Do you still play pool?"
Ioki raised one, ironic eyebrow. "Yeah, right."
Hanson grinned again. "Okay, okay. How about..." He snapped his fingers in sudden inspiration. "Food! We were always good with food! And I still eat at least once a week."
"Have you had this week's meal yet?" Harry asked. "You could stay for dinner."
Some of the happiness drained from Hanson's face. He sounded serious, and a little wary again, when he answered, "I'm sorry, but... I'm not quite ready for the whole Family thing, yet. Give me...give me a little time, okay?"
"I understand." And Tom knew, from the placid tone of his voice, that he really did. "Let's grab lunch sometime. We can pick a neutral place."
A glimmer of a mischief touched Hanson's eyes. "Rocket Dog?"
Ioki made a sour face at him and countered with, "Pizza."
"Pizza..." He hesitated, just for a fraction of a second, then murmured, "Okay, but I'm driving."
Harry burst out laughing. "I may not be able to beat you at pool, but I'm still a better driver than you!"
"In your dreams, Iokage!"
As their laughter died, Hanson turned his eyes back to the cup in his hands and his thoughts inward. He felt drained and exhausted, but at the same time, miraculously lighter. In some ways, he had grossly underestimated how difficult this would be, but now that it was done, he was filled with a relief so intense it was painful. Just the fact that he could now sit here, relaxed, saying nothing, staring into his cup of cold coffee, unafraid of what his friend was thinking, was a source of unexpected happiness for him.
"I guess I'd better go," he finally murmured, into the companionable silence. "I, umm... I have some things to take care of, now that I'm officially back among the living."
"Where will you go?"
"To see Penhall, first. And my mom. Then...I don't know." He laughed, and now there was no constraint in his voice. "As usual."
Tom rose slowly to his feet and headed for the door, with Harry a few steps behind him. He halted with one hand on the doorknob, turning back to gaze at his friend with wistful, hopeful eyes.
"See ya soon, Harry."
"Yeah. Take care of yourself."
"I will." He smiled slightly, as he realized that he meant it. "I will. You know, I...I missed you, too. And I'm truly sorry. For everything."
Tom let go of the doorknob to give his old friend a quick, fierce hug. "Thanks, Iokage," he whispered. Then he stepped back and slipped through the door. On the front stoop, he paused again to add, "I'll be back. I promise," and the door shut softly behind him.
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