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The Jackpot Question
by Riley Cannon


Title: The Jackpot Question
Author: Riley Cannon
Author's Website: Riley's Cannon Fodder
Fandom: Oz
Pairing: Tobias Beecher / Chris Keller
Rating: NC-17 (for m/m sex)
Author's Disclaimer: Oz and its characters/concepts are the property of Tom Fontana, HBO, et al; I am only having fun, no profit with them.
Author's Notes: This is a prequel to "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do"/"The Stake", and it would probably be helpful if not strictly necessary to have read those. At least if you've read "The Stake" so far you'll know why Chris kind of shies away from any talk about Christmas.
This one is yet another NYE story, although starting one day earlier. It's never easy getting a sense of time in Oz, but I'm taking the liberty of supposing the boys spent one day/night together in the pod before the NYE kiss. My justification is: Said was still in the infirmary for a while after Toby and the others were released, and Chris had changed his shirt between the balcony scene and the rest of the episode.
Song lyrics quoted from What Are You Doing New Years' Eve? by F. Loesser, passages from "To Kill a Mockingbird" by Harper Lee quoted without permission.
Series/Sequel: Part 1 of the series "Love, Love Will Keep Them Together"; prequel to "Breaking Up Is Hard To Do"/"The Stake".



Wonder whose arms will hold you good and tight
When it's exactly twelve o'clock that night
Welcoming in the New Year
New Years' Eve?

Maybe I'm crazy to suppose
I'd ever be the one you chose...
... Aah, but in case I stand one little chance
Here comes the jackpot question in advance:
What are you doing New Years'
New Years' Eve?

~ F. Loesser, "What Are You Doing New Years' Eve?"



* * * * * * * * * * * * *


Escorted to Toby's pod by Mineo, aware of the hack's look of disgust, and feeling the curious and knowing stares of his fellow inmates as he made that journey, Chris silently told them all to go fuck themselves. He didn't give a damn what they thought; there was only one person whose opinion and thoughts held any significance to him.

And he wasn't here at the moment, Chris realized as he looked around the empty pod.

After that initial sense of dismay at finding Toby absent from the pod faded, however, Chris thought maybe it would be easier to get settled in without knowing Toby was watching every move. That little exchange at the railings had been awkward enough, like something out of that stupid play he'd had to read in high school. He hadn't been prepared for that -- yeah, like he had been prepared for anything involving Toby? All he'd wanted was to see for himself that Toby really was okay; just say hi, and then let it alone, let him be. His only regret -- okay, almost his only regret was that his aim hadn't been a little better, there in the gym. It would have been good to end Vern's life then and there, even if it did buy him a ticket straight to death row. At least he'd know Toby was safe. But he'd figured it could still be okay; he could watch Toby's back from afar, Toby'd never even have to know. And Chris had convinced himself he really could get the hang of that, not being part of Toby's life, never touching him again or just being near him.

Only Toby had changed everything with one simple statement, spoken so matter of fact but... but kind of sounding like it really mattered to him. "I've asked McManus to let you be my roommate again." Chris hadn't known what to say to that, had been afraid anything he said or did would blow it and he'd lose this second chance before it even began.

Putting his armload of personal effects on the bottom bunk, Chris paused to think about that. A second chance. He'd never had one of those before. Not even Bonnie had given him that. She'd married him again, sure, but had made it clear it was just because she felt sorry for him and not because she had any kind of expectations of him this time.

As he made up the bunk he wondered if maybe he was reading too much into this. Maybe Toby didn't have any expectations, either. Maybe this was just his way of saying thanks for saving his life. Hell, maybe this was Toby's own private Operation Chris. Chris knew it wouldn't be anything more than he deserved.

Leaning against the bunks, he ran his hand along Toby's blanket, leaning his elbows there, face in his hands, feeling like he was wearing himself out with all this thinking. Small wonder Toby looked exhausted sometimes with everything always going on in his head.

Geez... Had he really thought getting involved with Tobias Beecher would be no big fucking deal, just a job to clear the slate between him and Vern? The way he'd been thrown, just finding out Vern was here, Chris guessed he would have agreed to anything, and seducing some rich boy lawyer so Vern could get some payback had sounded like a piece of cake. He was going to be in Oz a fuck of a long time and didn't need to be watching his back against the Brotherhood on top of everything else. The way Vern had told the story, it sounded like Toby -- Beechball -- had it coming anyway, just for being a dumbass. Hell, at seventeen Chris had figured it out: give Vern what he wants, keep in his good graces, and don't bother bitching and moaning about it to anyone because nobody gave a fuck anyway. Like they said: life's a bitch, then you die. Anybody didn't understand that, especially once their ass landed somewhere like Oz, deserved whatever grief it bought them.

Chris' first inkling that maybe Vern hadn't quite told him everything had come pretty quickly, when Toby'd walked him to this pod and stood there, reciting some half-assed loony rhyme. He'd looked loony, too, with that fucked up beard and all going. The stuff Chris had picked up about him had got him wondering, too: Vern's little Beechball had bitten Robson's dick off? Jesus Christ. He remembered thinking Vern might've mentioned that little detail before sending him off to seduce the guy. By the time he'd found out that particular, though, Chris had already started getting sucked into his own trap.

He was never sure when it had happened, but he'd known something was different that day Toby found out about his wife's suicide. Vern standing there, cackling with glee about it, combined with the way it dredged up memories for him, of finding his mom dead from an overdose, had changed everything. That night, when he'd touched Toby, it hadn't been part of Vern's fucked up schemes; he'd just wanted to make Toby feel better, help him get through this, and hadn't known how else to do it. Sometimes he wondered how it might have been if he'd found another way, though. Maybe if he'd just kept holding Toby, stroking his hair, everything could have gone different.

Yeah, right. He pushed off from the bunk. There hadn't been any way for all that to come out right, not once it got rolling. Vern wasn't going to take no for an answer. Vern wasn't going to say, 'Aww, isn't that sweet -- my two ex-prags are in love,' and let them be. No, if he'd gone back on it then Chris knew he'd have been signing his own death warrant and what the fuck good would he be to Toby then? Least the way it had played out Toby'd come out tougher, stronger.

And if the price of that was the loss of Toby's trust, never again looking into those blue eyes and seeing anything but hate and mistrust -- starting to think maybe he'd just imagined ever seeing something warmer, softer in them -- well, that was just the way the dice'd rolled. Toby, alive, was the only thing he could win. Feeling the other man's blood spilling over his hands, onto that gym floor, Chris had realized Toby's life was the only thing that mattered. He'd do anything to preserve it.

Even leave him alone.

Only it was going to be a fuck of a lot harder to keep that promise he'd made himself here, with Toby so close. Which just proved what he'd been suspecting for a long time, that God had a fucking ironic sense of humor.

It was almost enough to make him glad he was pretty sure God didn't even know he existed most of the time because he'd hate to see how he'd get fucked with then. And why God had to use him to fuck with Toby? Hell, a person'd just go nuts trying to figure that out, wouldn't they? Chris could understand a shitload of grief getting dumped on him, he'd earned every bit of misery he got. But what the fuck had Toby ever done to deserve any of this? At least this one time when he'd prayed for Toby's life, it had worked. That counted for a lot, no matter what else might happen down the road.

"All settled in?"

Chris started at the voice, looking over at Toby standing in the pod door. "Uh, yeah."

Nodding, Toby came on in, his expression neutral. "You don't mind being back here?"

"Nah," Chris said, pleased he could at least sound so much more off hand than he felt. I'm just wondering what's going through your head, Toby. He'd find out soon enough, he supposed. He knew what he wanted it to be but didn't want to risk getting his hopes up. Anytime he'd done that, he'd just gotten smacked in the face.

***

Locked in the pod for the night, Toby fished out the envelope from under his mattress, taking out the Christmas card from his parents, still marveling it had gotten through the mailroom intact. He guessed Vern hadn't left specific instructions to destroy his mail while Vern was in the infirmary. Back propped against the wall, he read the card again, the brief message from his parents -- trying so hard to blame themselves for the way he'd fucked up his life; maybe it counted as some little point in his favor that he didn't want to take that easy way out, not anymore. Not for him to decide, he guessed, running his fingers over the signatures, smiling at the childish scrawls of Gary, Holly, and Harry. He shook out the photographs then, drinking in the sight of his babies, aching to be able to hold them.

"What's that?" Chris asked, and Toby looked over at him as he put away his toothbrush.

"Pictures of my kids."

A look of interest on his face, Chris took a step forward as if he was going to take a look at them, but then froze in his tracks, a sort of stricken look flashing over his face before he dropped his gaze and stepped back. "Sorry," he said, quietly, dropping onto the bottom bunk.

"For what?"

Silence for a long moment, then Chris' voice drifted up, "I remembered what you said about Vern, how him looking at pictures of your family... tainted them."

Oh fuck. "Chris," Toby hopped down, looking at the other man reclining across the mattress, back against the glass, "you're not Vern."

That earned him a blatantly skeptical look. "Just a pretty reasonable facsimile," he replied, no life in his voice, as if he was just reciting some well-known, tedious fact.

Taking a chance, Toby sat on the edge of the bunk, facing him. This had seemed like a good idea, laying in that hospital bed yet again, going over and over everything that had passed between himself and Chris -- ignoring the snide taunts from Vern about how it was sooo sweet, the way Chrissy'd come to his rescue. He didn't even want to think about how much of his wanting this reconciliation with Chris was to piss off Vern. A very small part, he prayed, but at this stage he found it pretty hard not to suspect himself of an ulterior motive if he just asked someone the time of day.

Words had gotten to be a problem between them, and that had to be one of life's better ironies given they both practiced professions where skillful use of the language was one of their chief assets. Maybe that was even the problem: both of them too accustomed to using words to deceive, to manipulate, so that when everything between them had been spinning on a lie it had been easy to talk. Now, when they were trying to build something on honesty, on this genuine feeling between them, words escaped them and tripped them up.

Actions were good, though. Actions had said everything, there in the gym. Maybe they could work now, Toby thought, hoped, and held out the photographs of his family, offering to share them with Chris. It wasn't the same; when Vern had found the pictures of his family, it had been a violation, destroying one more piece of Tobias. This was different and he wanted Chris to know that.

He wished the wariness in Chris' eyes would fade -- Give it time, he told himself. -- but at least the other man sat up, leaning a little closer, carefully taking the photos from him. "Those your folks?" he asked after a moment, casting him a cautious look as Toby shifted closer.

"Yeah -- that's Grandmother and Angus back there, helping the kids with the snowman." Smiling, relaxing, enjoying being close to Chris again, Toby identified Gary, Holly, and Harry; trying not to choke up again at the picture of everyone gathered around the Christmas tree, the kids opening their presents.

"Christmas a big deal for your family?" Chris asked, a funny little wistful look on his face as he gazed at that photo another moment before handing it back.

"Yeah, I guess." Toby tucked everything away again, sitting cross-legged on the mattress, facing Chris. "I suppose we were spoiled a little," he said, frowning, feeling a surge of guilt at how lavish the Beecher holidays had probably been compared to what Chris' parents might have been able to afford. "It just seemed normal back then. Guess everything does when you're a kid."

"Yeah," Chris said, a kind of faraway look in his eyes.

"What was your best Christmas growing up?"

Chris stared at him a little blankly then, like he'd been asked to describe some alien and arcane ritual. "Uh," he shrugged, "I don't know. Church stuff, mostly." He shrugged again. "My folks kind of went all out one year, got a real pretty tree and all."

"Yeah?"

"I remember just sitting on the stairs, looking at it, all lit up. It was kinda like..." Chris paused, looking embarrassed.

"Kind of like what?"

"I dunno... magic, I guess."

Smiling, Toby nodded. "Yeah, I know. So what did you get that year?" he asked, wondering if he'd gone one question too far at the guarded look Chris shot him.

"I... don't remember," Chris said after a moment, very quiet, as if he was a million miles away for a moment.

Some instinct told Toby there was something here Chris wasn't telling him, but he wasn't sure if had any business -- any right? -- to pursue it. The decision was taken out of his hands by Mineo coming over to bang on the glass, calling out:

"Get your butt off that bed, Beecher!"

Aiming a resentful look at the hack, wondering for about the thousandth time just where the fuck all these prying eyes had been when Vern was burning a swastika on his ass, Toby got up, not wanting to lose this tentative connection but not sure how to hang onto it. Maybe, he thought as he went over to his locker, a step back could turn into a step forward? He looked at Chris, meeting his watchful eyes. "You want to play a game of chess?"

Surprise flashed in the dark blue eyes, accompanied by at least a thimbleful of hope -- not as much as Toby would have liked, but something to build on. "Yeah, sure," came the reply, Chris trying to sound diffident. He almost succeeded.

***

Damsel in distress? On the face of it that sounded ridiculous, and yet... Toby looked across at Chris, dark head bent so intently over the board, and tried to imagine him twenty years ago. It wasn't difficult to see the handsome man of today as a beautiful youth -- tall and slim, a lot more hair, softer features. Exactly the type to draw all the worst attention inside prison walls. Until good old Uncle Vern came to his rescue. Had Vern at least taken some time to build up to the brutal moment of truth, or had it arrived with that first light's out? And how the hell could a seventeen-year-old kid have possibly been prepared for that kind of treatment? Toby had a nasty feeling he might not want to know the answer to that.

Had Vern exploited Chris' charms before? Was that why there was nothing soft about him now, why ninety-nine percent of him was locked away and under careful guard?

There was so much he didn't know about this man, so much he had stubbornly refused to acknowledge. On some level he had known just what Chris must have been to Vern. He just hadn't wanted to face up to that, admit they could have that in common. Because if there was that much common ground between them, maybe there were other things they shared? Maybe that meant the same dark and duplicitous capacities lurked within him?

Well, there wasn't much debate about that anymore, was there? That had all been bubbling up long before Christopher Keller came strutting along, too. Christ, if he'd just left well enough alone all those months ago, not fucked up Vern's parole, the bastard would have been long gone and none of this would have happened.

Toby's mouth quirked with a sad little smile as he contemplated that particular pretty picture: a world where he met Chris with no Vern Schillinger to come between them. Where they were able to love each other without any troubling doubts and questions casting a shadow over everything. Knowing them there still would have been some little dramas, of course. Even in the most idyllic setting the course of true love was bound to smack into some whopping potholes, but they didn't have to be outright brutal.

Should he confess that he had spent a great deal of time dwelling on those make believe scenarios? Even as he had lain there in the hospital, physically broken, emotionally shattered, those dreams had crept in to torment him. How nuts was that? Passionately hating Chris one moment, still loving him the next. The broken bones had been almost insignificant. Almost, not quite. That did pale in comparison to the emotional turmoil, though. Hurting, feeling like an idiot -- shouldn't he have known all along it was too good to be true, how could a hotshot Harvard Law grad get taken in like that? The hatred turning inward, too, beating up on himself for not being able to get Chris out of his mind, not being able to banish that one incredible moment when Chris' mouth had touched his and transported him far away from Oz.

After two months of lying there, body healing, he thought he had gotten it all under control. He had it fixed in his head that it had all been lies -- even that kiss. Especially that kiss. And everything had been peachy... until he had walked back into the pod to find Chris still there. Walked in to hear Chris say he was sorry and he really did love him and wanted to make it up to him. Getting proof that the sonofabitch was actually sincere had only made him angrier, because how could you love someone and still do that to them?

He still didn't have any kind of satisfactory answer to that, and suspected he never would. Probably Chris didn't know himself. 'I do what I have to.' That was the key. Figure out how he had come to that state, where even betraying and hurting someone he loved seemed a reasonable price for survival, and all things Chris Keller would become clear.

And still he wanted him, wanted to stop fighting and succumb to his desires.

Anyway, all those what-ifs were doomed to be nothing more than wishful thinking. Toby knew that. The Tobias he had been before coming to Oz would have walked right by Chris and never noticed. Well, all right -- he watched Chris finally make a move, then sprawl back on his bunk, propped up on his elbows -- maybe he would have looked. You'd have to be blind, or dead, to not at least notice him. He wouldn't have done anything about it, though. It would have scared him witless to act on any twinge of desire. If he'd even recognized it for desire it would have sent him scurrying for the refuge of a good bottle of scotch to make everything numb and fuzzy.

And what the fuck was Chris in love with? Not that desperately lonely, several fries short of a happy meal Toby with his rhymes and nightmares. Chris'd have to be nuttier than him to love that. So -- what? What the hell did Chris see when he looked at him? Because all Toby saw when he looked in the mirror was a perplexing stranger gazing back at him.

Or maybe this was who he had been all along, and that other Tobias, meek and mild-mannered, wouldn't say 'Boo!' to a mouse, had been the ephemeral doppelganger all along? His family must think that sometimes. He could see it in their faces, just a fleeting glimpse, wondering who this odd young man was that looked and sounded so much like their son, their brother -- just, not quite. If Gary and Holly saw him more often, would they start to pick up on it, too? Was Harry perhaps best off of them all, for never knowing him at all?

Fuck if he knew. But that was how his mind worked, around and around, never still for long, never able to stop anywhere and just be in the moment.

Except for that one time in the laundry room, kissing Chris' mouth. He hadn't thought about anything else then, he'd just reveled in the sensations flowing through him, over him. Warm lips, and a hot tongue filling his mouth. Heat and wetness, a whiff, a taste of moonshine in Chris' mouth, the air warm and humid, and the rumble of the clothes dryer the only background music. There had been no time, no place, no anything for those few precious seconds. Just he and Chris and the giddy rush of feelings coursing through him.

He wanted that back. He'd never stopped wanting it back. Even when he'd hated Chris, even when he'd chased him off... even when he'd crept up in the dark and driven a shank into his back... he'd wanted to be back in Chris' arms, back in that wonderful, beautiful place. And if he had refused to consciously acknowledge that, the truth had been ping-ponging around all the same. His defenses had been crumbling daily.

And when the moment came, Vern shanking him there in the gym, all those carefully constructed and maintained walls of cold indifference crashed down in a heartbeat. He was hurt and afraid and he called for the only thing in this nightmare world that he could trust to keep him safe, 'Chrissss!' Instinct was a wonderful thing.

My hero, he thought, gazing fondly at the other man, some wry humor in his smile.

It wasn't even about sex, this thing between them. Or, well, he considered that as he made another chess move, maybe it was more correct to say that was only part of the equation. How important a part was yet to be determined -- and he just wasn't going to spook himself off by thinking about that right now. That part had snuck up on him, that first time they had wrestled. It must have stirring to life all along without him noticing until then, as their bodies strained and surged against each other, muscles taut, slicked with sweat, Chris peeling out of his shirt with a smooth seduction your average stripper would give her implants to possess. Toby had tried to rationalize his response away as some kind of adrenaline surge, just the way the male body was apt to respond to certain stimuli. Uh-huh, especially when that stimuli came in the form a walking aphrodisiac sprawled beneath him, 'Come hither' written all over him. Christ, what would have happened if he'd given into the impulse that had swept through him for a split second there, to lower his head and taste those tempting lips? He still thought about even now, when he knew that had probably just been part of the plan.

But no, this was more than sex. If that's all either of them wanted, there were undoubtedly easier ways to find that in here. This -- this was about things like soul mates, finding someone who knew you and understood you on some primal level. That was even scarier than the physical part. Fucking -- that was just bodies. Being known like this, accepted on every level, not just the nice and pretty, socially acceptable part, that was terrifying and exhilarating and didn't exactly come along every day of the week. He'd always thought that euphemism for sex from the Old Testament, how someone lay with his wife and knew her, was a pretty loopy way to put it. Not anymore. It made all the sense in the world to him now, and he could only wonder that he'd ever been content with a pale approximation of that before. Stupid to kind of feel sad about that since, without Oz and Chris, he never would have known what he was missing.

Or had he? And that was another reason he'd kept things nice and fuzzy with booze? Because somehow he knew there was more, there should be more, but he didn't have a clue what it was or where to look?

What a long, strange trip indeed...

"Tell me something?" he said, looking at Chris as the other man studied the board again. He tried to make it sound like a request but didn't miss the way look that flashed in Chris' eyes all the same. "It's nothing bad." At least he hoped not.

Of course Chris didn't look convinced, but he shrugged and said, "Okay."

"Tell me a good memory," Toby said. "Tell me about a time when you were free and happy."

Chris shot him a dubious look, but after another moment he sighed and said, "Meeting Kitty was pretty good. I wasn't exactly free at the time, but," his voice cracked just an infinitesimal bit that only someone used to every nuance would notice, "Vern was gone by then and I was bunking with her dad, Johnny. Johnny was a whole lot different from Vern." Chris looked at him, very serious, like it was important Toby know that.

"I'm glad."

"Yeah, I was too." Chris didn't put too much inflection in the words, but there was enough for Toby to imagine the relief at being free of Vern.

They played on and he listened, smiling, as Chris gave him that one little glimpse. How Johnny had taken him under his wing and taught him all those confidence games. How he'd met Johnny's beautiful daughter one day and they had fallen in love with each other. Toby smiled some more as Chris, apparently thinking Toby was going to take the wrong way, hastened to explain that he wasn't sure it had been love, exactly, but maybe just a real strong cruch or something. As if Toby would begrudge that Chris had found a little happiness with someone, however fleeting. He wanted to think he was the only many who had ever rocked Chris' world, but that was a whole other matter.

Finally it was light's out and their chess game had ended in a draw, and after he'd brushed his teeth and climbed up into his bunk, watching Chris complete the same rituals, waiting until Chris was all settled in down below, Toby lay there in the dark, thinking about how to get over this one little remaining hump. Inspiration coming to him in the day's date, the strains of an old song running through his head, 'But in case I stand one little chance/ Here comes the jackpot question in advance...' and he asked, "So what are you doing New Year's Eve?" He smiled, imagining those intense blue eyes staring up at him through the springs and the mattress, perplexed and not too sure this wasn't crazy Toby back doing riddles instead of rhymes.

"What?"

Toby edged over and hung his head over the side, looking at him. "What are you doing tomorrow night, New Years' Eve? It's not a difficult question."

Chris just stared back at him for a few long moments, like he was sure there was a trick here somewhere if he could put his finger on it. "Geez, I don't know. Can I check my schedule?"

"Sure. You might want to look at your dance card and see if you can pencil me in a few times, too."

Chris gazed back at him, very serious and thoughtful. After another moment he said, "Were you this fucking nuts before you got here?"

"Nope. I was just eccentric then," Toby told him, grinning at his doubtful expression. "Give me an answer -- the blood's rushing to my head. Will you be my date?"

"Toby--"

"Will. You. Be. My. Date. You have until the count of three to answer me. One... two... I'm not hearing anything... thr--"

"Yes."

"--ee." He smiled. "Dress is informal, in case you wondered."

Chris aimed another long, considering look up at him. "I gotta get you home at any particular hour?"

"No, my folks late me stay out all hours and get picked up by strange men," Toby said, settling back on his mattress.

He felt a foot kick the bottom of his mattress. "You callin' me strange?"

"Well, they don't have anything like you down at the country club, let's put it that way."

A long silence then, and he thought Chris must have dozed off, when his voice drifted up again. "We really gonna do this, Tobe?"

He hung his head over the side again. "Yeah, we are," he told him, and felt a funny, warm little glow in his belly when Chris smiled up at him, like he finally believed.

***

Was this what Christmas and birthdays were like for everyone else? Chris was thinking about that as he shaved the next morning. He rinsed the razor, then drew the blade along his jaw, and had to figure maybe he hadn't had it so bad after all, not having a lot of experience with that kind of anticipation. Because this was fucked up, the way his stomach was tied up in knots as he watched every move Toby made to try and get some clue about what was going to happen. All right, sure -- he paused to hitch up his towel -- he'd be watching Toby no matter what. If there were clubs for that like they had for nuts that were always going out to eyeball some dumb bird in the woods, then he would be the number one authority on all the habits of the North American golden-crested Beecher.

He grimaced at his reflection in the mirror, recalling a particularly lousy weekend he'd never get back again, Angelique dragging him along on one of her birding expeditions. About the only thing that had saved him from being completely bored out of his mind while she'd been out tromping around in the woods, had been running some scams on the other spouses who'd been left to their own devices at that godforsaken lodge. True, Angie had made it up to him and all, but if anyone'd really wanted to press him for why he'd sought their divorce he'd have to say her addiction to bird-watching was a motivating factor.

His little reminiscent smile didn't last long. All those troublesome thoughts and worries were way too ready to jump back in and whomp him. Jesus, how did Toby stand it, all this thinking? No wonder the guy went a little nuts every now and then.

Puffing out his cheeks, Chris let out one deep breath, took another one, and wiped up the excess lather. He was going to touch Toby again, maybe hold him, and kiss him, maybe even... But no, he wasn't going to get his hopes up that high. He couldn't expect too much right off the bat, not after what Toby'd been through with Vern. And if they never got to that point, was he prepared for that? What if Toby just wanted them to be special friends or something? He guessed he'd find out just how much he'd meant it, telling Sister Pete all he wanted was to be near Toby again, to touch him. It was hard to wrap his mind around the idea Toby could want that. Although what was even tougher was trying to come up with any reason for Toby to still love him. He sure as fuck couldn't see what there was to love about him. Maybe Toby saw something no one else ever had, him included? Yeah, and pigs were sprouting wings and flying.

Chest heaving with another troubled sigh, Chris rubbed the steam off the glass and caught a flash of Toby's reflection there. He turned around, watching him come in and tried to return Toby's little smile. It wasn't much more than a little twitch, and then he was frowning into the mirror again. This couldn't be real; it didn't make any kind of sense that it could be real. He was just setting himself up for more heartache.

Then Toby was beside him, wrapped in his towel, a little scruff of stubble on his jaw, giving him a nudge in the ribs. He titled his head close, whispering, "You know, your face is going to freeze like that one of these days."

Which only made Chris frown even more fiercely. "It isn't funny." He wanted to pull the words right back, knowing they were stupid, he was in position to complain, but... But he really did kind of resent how Toby kept acting like this was all some kind of joke. Fuck, that was probably all it meant to Toby. Why would it mean anything else?

So he wasn't expecting Toby to reach over and rub a comforting hand over his bare back. He didn't expect him to say, "I know it isn't, Chris," either. One of those square, practical hands squeezed his shoulder. "I don't mean to tease you."

Chris shrugged. "I got it coming, if you did." He looked at their reflections in the misted mirror, wondering how come Toby looked kind of sad. "Toby--"

"What?" Toby's hand continued to gently glide back and forth over his back. He was watching their reflection, too, their heads side by side.

"I don't know."

As if he understood, Toby nodded and squeezed his shoulder again. "We'll figure it out together. Okay?"

Chris nodded okay and Toby smiled at him, like it really could be all right, like it could make some kind of sense. Feeling a little calmer, a little more settled after another moment, Chris was able to smile back this time. And if the O'Reily brothers hadn't come along right then he wasn't sure he wouldn't have taken Toby in his arms then and there.

***

Well, Toby scanned the empty common area, a SORT team standing by even though they were all safely under lock and key now, this was either going to be paradise or hell. He turned to regard his pod mate... his nemesis, his obsession... his lover?... who seemed far more concerned with checking to see if the hacks really had confiscated all his skin mages than with the prospect of being indefinitely locked up in here.

"How long do you think the lockdown will last?" he said, for lack of anything more scintillating popping into his head. Funny, New Years' Eve used to be one of his favorite holidays. Dealing with it stone cold sober took some of the pizzazz out of it. Contemplating Chris down on hands and knees as he looked under the bunk, ass up in the air, he couldn't help supposing there might be a little excitement creeping back tonight, however.

A look of petulant dismay on his face, Chris sat down on his bunk and shrugged. "Probably depends on how pissed the warden is. Those fucking hacks got everything."

"Oh, well, boo hoo." Toby dropped down on the chair. "It's not going to kill you to go without your porn a few days."

Chris turned this over, not looking one hundred percent convinced. "Yeah, and I suppose you only read Playboy for the articles."

"Yep." Toby fished through his small pile of books, left untouched by the hacks. "You want something to read?"

"What you got?" Chris craned his neck as if to make out the titles, not looking too excited at this alternative.

"Well... How about 'To Kill a Mockingbird?' That's a good one."

"Read it." Chris flopped back on his bunk.

"You did?" All right, there was no reason that should surprise him -- but it did.

"Yeah, in school."

"Did you like it?"

"It was okay."

Toby huffed, taking this lack of enthusiasm personally. "It's a lot more than okay. It's fucking brilliant."

Chris sat up, cocking a skeptical eyebrow at him. "I take it you have a personal stake in it."

"You better believe it. I wanted to be Atticus Finch when I grew up." And never mind that he had fallen pitifully short of that mark. Toby liked to think if he had it all to do over, knowing what he did now, he could still be Atticus. Or at least Scout. Well, he guessed some sort of operation might be required for that, but he knew what he meant.

"He remind you of your dad?" Chris looked interested in that at least.

"A little. He and Atticus taught me the law matters, it can make a real difference." He sighed, shrugged. "I think I kind of let them both down, though."

"Not if you still believe what they taught you."

He shot Chris another surprised look. After another moment, he shrugged again, not sure if that really counted. "Maybe. And maybe if I'd tried harder--"

"You'd have driven yourself nuts twice as fast." Chris stretched out on his bunk. "Read it to me."

Face scrunched up a little doubtfully, Toby checked to make sure he was serious. "Read you 'To Kill a Mockingbird?'"

"Uh-huh." Chris folded his hands under his head. "Got nothin' else to do."

Suspecting he was just being humored, Toby opened the paperback, turning to the first page -- and then thinking maybe this wasn't such a good idea. "Uhm," he bit his lips, skimming ahead a couple of paragraphs, "okay... 'Part One: Being Southerners, it was a source of shame to some members of the family that we had no recorded ancestors on either side of the Battle of Hastings--'"

"That ain't how it starts."

Toby's huff was a little frustrated. "Chris--"

"Start at the beginning."

Faced with that implacable command, he turned back a page, cleared his throat and read, "'When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his... arm... badly broken at... at the elbow." Fuck. "'When it... uhm, when it healed, and Jem's fears of...'" He stopped, looking up from the book to find Chris watching him, expression solemn and grave. And he couldn't have said why that suddenly made such a difference -- just that it did. The past wasn't wiped away, it never was, but knowing Chris was willing to face it with him, that he knew it would always be there between them, made it a little bit easier to truly push it aside and let this new page turn in their lives.

After another long moment, eyes locked across that little distance between them, Toby nodded and looked back at the book. "Ah... 'and Jem's fears of never being able to play football were assuaged, he was seldom self-conscious about his injury...'"

***

Toby had stopped reading at last, which proved even he couldn't talk forever -- that, and Chris had probably ribbed him too many times about not sounding like Gregory Peck when Atticus was talking. Funny how he'd remembered that bit about Jem's broken arm when he hadn't done more than glance at the book in years. Funny, too, how Toby'd understood what he was trying to get across, that he wasn't trying to slough off everything and pretend it never happened. What was even funnier was how, if they could just wish upon a star and make all the shit between them go away, Chris wasn't so sure he'd want to. As fucked up as it all was, maybe going through it was how they got to be here. Maybe if he hadn't come so close to losing Toby, he'd have never known how much he needed him.

And it was too bad he'd screwed things up with Sister Pete because he bet she could help him figure out stuff like that.

Chris sighed, watching Toby brush his teeth. His expression grew troubled again as he thought about what might be about to happen. Everything he was feeling the last couple of days was sort of equal parts dread and anticipation -- and sometimes the parts weren't so equal. Moment of truth, wasn't that what they called this kind of thing? Well -- here it was, and he still didn't know if he was ready for it.

He watched Toby pull on a t-shirt and climb up into the top bunk, settling back against the pillow propped against the wall. If Chris didn't know better, he'd swear Toby was giving him a coy, come hither sort of look. Fuck, maybe he didn't know better?

Thinking about that, Chris took off his jacket and started getting ready for bed. He'd brushed his teeth and was washing his face when the lights finally went out. Good, whatever happened, it had to be easier to handle in the dark.

He splashed cool water over his face and looked in the mirror, seeing Toby's reflection there. Still looking seductive, still looking like a mystery. The riddle smiled over at him and said, "Happy New Year," and Chris felt a funny warmth start to bloom in his belly.

He smiled back, returned the, "Happy New Year," and rubbed his hands over his face. He reached for a towel to pat his face dry, and looked at his reflection again, kind of amazed that no one looking at him would know how antsy he was feeling, how afraid he was that this wouldn't go the way he hoped. Never let 'em see you sweat. Never let 'em see anything much, so they could project whatever they wanted onto a blank canvas. Johnny'd taught him that, only meaning it to apply when they were running a con on someone. No way Johnny could have known he'd adapt that as his way of moving through life all the time.

Only not anymore. Now, here, he had to be the real deal. And he just didn't fucking know if he could do that. He'd try, though, for Toby.

Catching a glimpse of movement behind him, Chris turned, watching Toby drop to the floor and then just lean back against the bunks, looking over at him. Chris wanted to say something but nothing was coming to him. There wasn't a whole lot of consolation to be had in Toby being just as at a loss for words. How come it had been so goddamn easy to do when it was all tangled up in lies?

He watched Toby's face, trying to read something there, thinking he saw a flash of doubt, some fear -- hoping he wasn't just imagining the little flare of longing. Still no one moved, no one said anything, and with the seconds ticking by Chris was starting to think maybe they would stand frozen there forever, when Toby sighed a little and lowered his head.

What did that mean, though? Chris was worrying about that even as he finally moved forward -- one step, another, one more, and he was there, just a little bit of space between them as Toby placed a hand against his chest. Not like he wanted to hold him off, push him away; more like... Toby was making sure he was real? A deep sigh of relief eased out of Chris turn, and he risked a little bit more, tilting his head just a bit and pressing their foreheads together. He shut his eyes, needing to soak that up for a moment. He was touching Toby. He was being allowed to touch him again. And having that dream come true felt different than he'd expected. It was quieter, and felt like it might shatter in a million bits any second.

He moved back, pressing his hand to Toby's side, not meaning to touch his wound and scared that might have broken everything right then. Only Toby was looking at him, so serious and thoughtful, like he was making up his mind to something. Then Toby was reaching out to him, a hand going around the back of his neck and pulling him in... pulling him in for a kiss... Oh God. He was kissing Toby again, once, twice, more, and it was so good he was shaking. He needed to hold onto something, to Toby, and slid his arms around him, shivering some more as Toby kissed him and touched him, a thumb grazing across his cheek, then both arms around him, holding tight.

He wasn't ever going to heaven, but -- Christ -- if he could just go on kissing Toby's mouth he'd never know the difference.

***

Toby trembled as Chris' lips brushed against his. He reached his arms around him, holding tight, as much to try and anchor himself as because he wanted to hold the other man. His breath gusted out on a long sigh as Chris finally left his mouth, warm lips gliding along his cheek, his jaw, the dark head burying itself in the crook of his neck. He could feel Chris shaking, too, drawing some calming breaths, and took some comfort in knowing this wasn't just a big deal for him.

He sighed again, softer, sliding one hand up to stroke Chris' head, smiling as Chris tried to burrow into him a little more. Caught you by surprise, too, huh? A smile curved Toby's lips as he held Chris tighter, glad to have that in common.

As he stood there, arms full of Chris, no particular thought in his mind because he'd got that back, too, being able to be in just this one moment, something slithered in to fill up that vacuum. If you still want payback, revenge, the thought whispered to him, this is the perfect time for the killing blow. Keller'd never see it coming. He'll be all vulnerable and defenseless, looking at you with those pitiful eyes, unable to do anything as you reach in and tear his heart out, stomp all over it, like he did yours. You can do it, the thought insisted, prodded. Do it, do it now -- you know you want to.

Chris was moving, raising his head to look at him, a warm, almost shy smile on his face. "Toby," he said, like he was marveling at something, long fingers reaching to stroke along his face. As he looked into Toby's eyes, though, a moment of uncertainty flickered in his own, the smile, the happiness, evaporating away bit by bit. Nothing left but a flicker of sad expectation after another moment, like he'd sort of expected this all along.

Do it -- fuck, he wants you to, he knows he has it coming, the thought urged as Toby looked into those dark eyes, shadowed with so many old hurts -- and he wrapped himself around Chris, holding on tighter than before, covering his face with kisses, whispering, "I love you, I do, I do." He pushed back, looking into Chris' face again, still seeing a wariness in his eyes. "Chris--"

"You got every reason not to, to..." Chris took a deep breath, put his hands on Toby's shoulders and pushed away from him. "It's real nice you tried," he went on, apparently speaking to the floor, "but... but I know what I got coming to me," he informed the concrete, mouth twisted with a sad little smile. "It's okay."

"It is not okay," Toby informed him, pulling him back, one hand cupped around his face to make Chris look at him. "You have no idea what you deserve," he said, searching his eyes, not sure how to get through to him, how to make him believe. Maybe... Maybe words weren't the answer. "It's not okay, Chris -- but it will be. Come here," and he tried to tug him down to the bunk, tugging hard before getting him to finally budge.

"Toby, I don't think--"

"Let's not," Toby whispered conpiratorially in his ear as he settled him there. "Let's nobody think for a while." And sure, he was a fine one to talk -- but he was going to try. He wanted to try. "We've caused each other pain, Chris, and I don't know about you, but I've had enough of hurting." He surprised even himself by slipping a hand under Chris' sleeveless tee, rubbing his hand lightly over the hard, flat belly. "Make love with me?" He bent his head close, kissing his lips, settling beside him in the cramped little space.

Chris looked into his eyes for the longest time, like he was looking for some kind of revelation. When he found whatever he'd sought, he nodded once, a funny, almost wistful smile touching his lips as he cradled Toby's head to him and kissed his mouth.

Soft, slow kisses to start with, tongue tracing the outline of one lip then the other before darting inside for a second and flicking against his palate. Toby pressed his head into the pillow and tried to capture Chris' mouth again as it deserted him -- groaning as he succeeded and his mouth was filled with Chris' tongue this time. Parting again, just a fraction of an instant, and he caught Chris' lower lip between his own; he nibbled it, licked along the tender, soft inner skin and heard Chris groan and felt him shiver.

In that tiny sanctuary of the bunk, in the shadowy darkness, they made love, stripping each other bare -- of clothes, of guarded expectations, of everything that didn't matter here in this bed. In that sanctuary they touched each other, tenderly, roughly, hungrily -- coaxing pleasure from one another, raising the stakes with every brush of lips along sensitive skin, every lap of a tongue against a nipple, every stroke of fingers along the inside of a thigh. In that world where nothing existed but them, where there was no Oz and no Vern to cast a poisonous taint over everything, they moved and twined together until pleasure vibrated through every nerve, neither wanting to end it but too filled with a nearly giddy satisfaction to mourn it as the feelings peaked and crested.

How could you grieve something that only waited for another striking of sparks to flare into heated life all over again?

***

There was just about enough room for them to curl together on the narrow bed, and Chris reveled in the closeness that necessitated. He looked at Toby, gaze sliding all along the slim, pale body entwined with his, to the golden head lying so near to him, light blue eyes open and watching him. He wanted words to say, but couldn't find any. All he could do was look into that sweet face, take his hand and kiss the palm, press it to his heart.

And all Toby did was nod, so serious and earnest, and reach to draw him closer, so their breaths mingled as they lay there, together in the dark.


~ The End ~


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