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Rated: XGC · Novella · Gay/Lesbian · #1809503
Before September 11th and after.
CODE: D (set in the D Is For Damien storyline)

TAKES PLACE DURING (specific story): Pre-, during, & post-Magic City (unwritten)

PAIRING: Det. Justin Reichert/Matthew Claasen (M/M)

EXPLANATION: Prepare yourselves for a long note to explain a pretty long novella.

This started out as a simple smut piece regarding my character Det. Justin Reichert of my Minot spinoff series, and his first boyfriend, Matt (last name never given, should really think one up). It provided a tiny bit of backstory about Reichert's past experiences with a boyfriend, when he was still pretty closeted. And that's all this was going to be, a simple smut piece with a bit of character development. I got as far as the part "...but Justin held his place," before I set the piece aside for around a year at the very least, maybe longer. I lost interest in writing about Matt and Reichert; there were so many more exciting things going on, seeing as Reichert turned into rather a man-whore after he transferred from NY to ND (North Dakota).

Come spring/summer 2011, I started writing up some more smutty scenes about Reichert and his fellow police characters, the first, I believe, being "We Don't Have To Talk," wherein Reichert actually passes the night with a female detective, Michelle Rosedale. The two of course do not hit it off as lovers, but become good friends. Such good friends, in fact, that Rosedale becomes only the second person Reichert shows his hands to. What does that mean? You'll learn what it means if you check out the abovementioned item and others featuring Reichert and his history. If you don't know what it means yet, this story will explain it all.

I got interested in working again on the old bit I'd started with Reichert and Matt, so dug it out and started typing. And typing. And TYPING. It turned from a simple smut piece into...a melodramatic novella about a very important, rather recent news event. O_o How did that happen? Well, it's a known fact that my characters love to chatter, and once they get started, they don't shut up. I've never believed in writing just pure smut, wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am (or sir as the orientation may be). I find smut without character development to be incredibly trite and dull--why should I care to read about two cardboard cutouts going at it? Why should I care to WRITE about it? I won't be interested in a scene unless I have a reason to care about the characters themselves, whether they're hopping into bed or not. Hence the fact that almost all of my smutty pieces have at least a bit of character development, and some have a good deal of dialogue. (However goofy it may be, e. g., in Rosedale's case.)

This scene started out as being simply how Reichert met Matt. But the two of them have a much longer history together, and it explains a lot of how Reichert acts today (though not all of it--still figuring out what turned him into such a man-whore). After they went at it, I found myself compelled to describe the mental somersaults Reichert goes through accepting that he's gay; the story continued, however, and I realized I wanted to take a good hard look at their entire relationship, from beginning to end. So the story kept going.

The thing is...in the middle of Reichert's and Matt's relationship is one VERY big thing that could not possibly be skipped or glossed over. It was actually something I've wanted to try to portray for a long time but never had the reason or opportunity. Seeing as I could not write the story without it, into the plot it went, and took things over since that's what it did with Reichert's life. It takes quite a bit to get to this Very Big Thing that happens in the story, but you've probably already guessed what it is.

Then I found I could not finish the story without writing the followup, or rather the fallout, of this Very Big Thing, because I knew that was a big part of the relationship later on. If I left it out, I'd just be cutting things off in the middle with no resolution. So that had to be written too. And I decided, finally, to include the very end of the relationship, which takes place quite a while after the Very Big Thing, after the unwritten novel Magic City, in fact, in which Reichert, after failing to talk down a suicide jumper from a building, is nearly ordered back to his desk, but then receives a case file revealing that similar things have been happening elsewhere, in particular Minot, North Dakota, where my characters Det. Max Kristeva, Det. Chance Devetko, and Lt. Alan Kincaid work. Rather wanting a break from New York, Reichert agrees to check it out, and drives a rental car all the way there (because, well...you know, airplanes). He finally returns from that trip, and what follows will be explained near the end of this story. And that's the end of the story of Reichert and Matt...for now. (I rather think Matt is the only thing that could steer Reichert off his current course of self-destruction, if only they were in the same time zone, so keep your eyes open--he might be making a comeback.)

The number of F-bombs in the story bugs me--I view excessive use of the word to be a sign of ignorance--but this is the way Reichert ended up talking when I wrote him up. I always thought he was rather polite and restrained; I never knew he was so foulmouthed before now. Weird. He continues to surprise me. Strangely, since starting this story most of my other characters have started cussing like crazy, too! I think I may have finally come to understand the difference between PG-13 and R-rated writing--F-bombs. Lots and lots of F-bombs.

A final thing. The weird title? It suggested itself to me well through the story when Reichert makes a particular observation. I fought against using it as the title, because the "Milk Cartons" are not the center of the entire story, despite being a main part of it. However, the name stuck in my head and nothing better took its place. And I guess the Milk Cartons in question are important enough to warrant being the title of the piece. Plus, I thought it was rather unexpected and a bit more abstruse than I'm used to being. A bonus is that milk cartons evoke the image of missing people, which is part of the theme of the story. So, "Milk Cartons" it is. Although weird, I think it's a rather obvious title if you know what the story is about; if you haven't figured it out, you will soon enough.

Fun fact: For Reichert's description of what he thought he was seeing on TV that morning, I needed to reference a movie. My first choice was Die Hard as I'd mistakenly believed it took place in New York; hence Reichert's "There's no Bruce Willis" comment. Fortunately I Googled it and at Wikipedia found out my mistake (it takes place in Los Angeles), but I still needed a movie that corresponded with events. I spent quite a while browsing various disaster movie summaries at Wikipedia until I finally discovered that Armageddon would fit the bill just nicely. (I can't remember that scene from the movie myself, but at Google I found a screencap of New York City that's really, really creepy in light of the Very Big Thing.) I hated that I would have to get rid of the "There's no Bruce Willis" line, probably to replace it with "There's no Ben Affleck." Then I recalled that Bruce Willis is in Armageddon, too! So the line stayed.

Fun opinion: I think my favorite line out of the entire story must be "Giant fucking mirrors!" (Reichert's terribly tasteless "Two big nice empty places" comment, which was actually added a bit later on, ranks highly too.)

The majority of this story was pounded out in a matter of a few days in September 2011, as I planned to have it posted online by a particular day; I didn't make the deadline in finishing it (the final scene remained unfinished for a few months), but here it is at last, complete. I hope the likely slews of inaccuracies (see disclaimers) don't detract too much from enjoying the story, if possible. This is one of the most ambitious non-serial items I've ever written so I hope SOMEBODY enjoys it.

PERSONAL DISCLAIMERS: If I had this story to start writing again, I probably would start it in a manner that makes it sound less like just a smut piece and more like an actual story with plot; but seeing as it started out as a mere smut piece, that's how it starts out.

In this piece there is plenty of "showing," but with a story covering such a long period of time, there is also plenty of "telling," which I hope doesn't come across as boring. My biggest concern, however, is accuracy, or rather, inaccuracy. I've never been to New York. I'm a lazy researcher, relying primarily on well-known facts, a few smaller checked facts (hello, Google; hello, Wikipedia), and a LOT, LOT, LOT of artistic license. The same holds here, only more so, since of course the Very Big Thing is a well-known and widely described historic event. My intent in writing stories is to set a mood or entertain, not to be 100% historically/culturally/regionally accurate, hence why I specialize in fantasy set in worlds of my own creation, where I can't easily get things "wrong." New York City is not my creation (neither is Minot, for that matter!), so I'm leery of sharing my very inaccurate personal version of it; I hope the story itself can make up for the slew of inaccuracies and just plain wrongs I'm betting are in here.

In particular, descriptions of places, and the span of time it takes certain events to happen (e. g., the appearance of the missing posters), niggle at me. Oh, as well as the news details that come out regarding Reichert after the Very Big Thing. Dunno how realistic it all is. Probably isn't. But as Reichert himself says at some point in the story, some things that happen are just so unbelievable you think you must be either watching a movie or dreaming.

I'm not positive about Reichert's given height. (His weight isn't given for the reason that I'm no good at estimating the proper weight of my characters.) All I can tell you for sure is he's taller than most of my police characters. Also, yes, him driving his own car around is kind of odd, but that was how I originally wrote him getting to and from the bar, so...*shrug.* No clue where he parks it, though. It only just occurred to me that when he leaves the city, he uses a rental car! So I've had to work in an explanation for that discrepancy. *oops* I'm unsure about Tim Reichert's exact age and how it fits into the timeline; he was supposed to be a young teenager here, but now I'm not sure. Sad to say, I have no idea how cell phones work as I've never used one (yes, you read that right), so my depiction of that rather mundane activity could be off. I remember seeing in a documentary, I think, that the power went out in Manhattan later in the evening, but I'm not sure how widespread that was or if it would affect the characters' establishments or not. Lastly, Reichert's glasses--a big, BIG artistic license. Later in the storyline he seems to wear them more for matters of light sensitivity, possibly due to what he went through; nowhere in any of my writing do I refer to him having any sort of vision problems. So he probably shouldn't have them at least until after the Very Big Thing. This is a detail I haven't figured out yet.

I'll point out right now that Reichert himself making it through the Very Big Thing is probably the biggest artistic license in the story, and I'm already aware of that; I always have been. This is fiction.

This story is from September 2011 (actually much earlier)/January 2012, so some details and the writing style may be out of date.

* * * * *

Milk Cartons

WHEN MATT PRESSED his lips against the other man's, he clearly saw the flinch pass over his face, felt how his own lips pressed tightly shut, his muscles going tense. He continued kissing him anyway, pulling away slightly to take the other man's lower lip between his own and gently suck on it. The look on his partner's face told him that he was beyond uncomfortable...but the hitch in his breath proved otherwise.

He'd been hard to miss in the bar. Seated in the darkest corner, away from everyone else, his hands clasped around his drink so tightly that his knuckles had gone white. He hadn't even taken a sip of it. Matt had never seen him in there, or anywhere, before, and everything about him screamed closet. He'd been on the verge of leaving when Matt had stepped up to him and asked if he could join him--then pure panic had entered his eyes. Still, he'd said it was all right, though he was just leaving. Matt offered to accompany him to his car. He didn't seem terribly thrilled, but again accepted. Matt managed to get out of him that his name was Justin. And that the bartender had been nice to him; before accosting him, Matt had asked the bartender about him himself, finding it strange that nobody was talking to him yet. It was the bartender's opinion that everyone figured he must be too good for them. He'd even said, when the newcomer had somewhat reluctantly accepted his drink, "Don't worry. With looks like yours, you have nothing to worry about."

Matt had peered at him as they left the bar through the alley door, as for some reason he hadn't wanted to head out the front way; Closet, his mind said again. He was much taller than Matt was, probably around six-three, and wasn't too fat or too thin--his leanly muscular build seemed to say that he knew how to take care of himself. His hair was dark and glossy, a lock of it falling in his eyes, and Matt thought it was a shame that he wore glasses, even if they were just for bright light, what with those beautiful hazel eyes of his. They didn't meet his own after he'd first asked to join him. They stayed focused halfway between the ground and straight ahead, as if he didn't want to make eye contact even on accident.

In the alley, he'd turned away with a mumbled apology, stumbled toward a nearby garbage can, and promptly thrown up. Matt stood near the doorway, watching with arched brow as he heaved at the can, gasping hoarsely and wiping his mouth. Once the other man was done he stepped down and went over to give him an inquisitive look.

"Get a bad drink?" he'd asked.

The man--Justin--had shaken his head. "Nervous," he'd mumbled, and that was when Matt understood why someone like him had been in a place like that.

They'd sat on the steps outside the door for a good long while, and he'd gotten him to tentatively talk a little...he had recently been with his latest "girlfriend," if one could call her that (as he himself said), seeing as they had known each other a matter of only days...he had been willing, and she had been willing...but it had ended up just like almost every time before, and she had left, tossing her clothes on with a somewhat irritated look, while he was left frustrated and perplexed beyond measure. He'd never managed to really feel that way about any of the women he'd been with, he said, and after that, he wasn't sure it would ever happen. While driving he'd seen the bar. And had stopped without thinking. And, after going inside and thinking a while, had apparently decided not to bother. Except that, by then, he'd caught Matt's attention, and now here they were.

Why be so nervous? Matt had asked. Was it truly such an awful thing to be in such a state? To which the other man had finally lifted his head and made eye contact, just briefly, before turning away again, his fingers fiddling.

"I'm a police officer," he'd said hesitantly, and again, Matt had understood.

He'd convinced him at last to come to his place. "We don't have to do anything," he'd promised. "I just think you need to talk to someone right now." After a long hesitation "Justin" (Matt did wonder if it was really his name, though he'd seemed too genuinely flustered to lie) had finally agreed, and they'd gone. Once at his apartment, they had talked, for a good hour or more, and Matt learned exactly how it was that he'd come to find him slinking out of a gay bar, a look of utter humiliation on his face as he did so. And after a while of that, Matt had carefully taken his hand, and felt it squeezed back. He'd touched Justin's face, with no spoken response, and so had kissed him then. And this was where they were now, in his apartment, his mouth meeting the detective's, which remained firmly closed...at least, at first.

Shaking, his partner gingerly opened his mouth. Matt sucked at his lip before gently prodding his tongue within, earning a flinch, but Justin held his place. Matt knew from experience just how long this could take, so was prepared to take his time; he waited until he felt the other man's grip on his hand loosen slightly--he'd been squeezing Matt's fingers almost painfully for a moment, but Matt had said nothing. It didn't seem to bother him too much when Matt let his other hand trail from his face to his neck--in fact, his breath picked up just the slightest, and Matt made a mental note of this fact--but when he slipped it from his neck to his shoulder, and then to his chest, his muscles tensed up again and he broke the kiss, almost jerking back slightly. He kept his head lowered so it was difficult to see the look on his face, but Matt could see the flush there; he wasn't sure if it was lust or embarrassment, so figured it must be both. When he opened his mouth and stammered under his breath, as if not sure what to say--all he managed to get out was "I don't know if..."--Matt pressed a finger to his lips to silence the protest, seeing how he lifted his head just a little, his eyes widening.

"We won't do anything you don't want to do," Matt whispered to him.

He'd used these words with new--and reluctant--boyfriends in the past, and they had always worked. Which was why it didn't surprise him when Justin untensed again--not completely, but more than he had so far, as if he'd been expecting to get himself in a situation he couldn't get out of. Matt always found this reaction rather amusing, that he might be considered threatening in the least, especially considering the shape his partner was in; he bet Justin could snap him like a stick if he wanted to. Embarrassment and shame went a long way toward making one lose his confidence, however, as sad as he found that fact. He figured there was more than just being a police officer to account for the awkwardness he was sensing, but didn't pry; if he wanted to speak up about it later, he would.

This time, their kiss wasn't quite as uneasy as it had been before; Justin even shut his eyes, and not out of humiliation. When Matt's tongue met his he accepted it, gingerly at first, but then with growing boldness; he stiffened again when Matt touched his chest, but didn't protest, and Matt could tell, when he ran his fingers down his abdomen, that the tightening he felt wasn't just from fear. He felt a twinge of sympathy that someone with such looks that everyone else in the bar was too reluctant to approach him should feel so ill at ease, but made sure to keep this thought to himself for now.

By now he seemed to be used to the kissing, perhaps even enjoying it somewhat; he didn't pull away from Matt's caress. Matt rather longed to run his hand up under his shirt, and feel his muscles bared, but wasn't certain that would be a good idea just yet. He'd gotten good over the years at telling just how far he could go with someone before they felt too uncomfortable, and that seemed like it would be pushing it right now. He knew his partner needed to have some sort of relief tonight, else he wouldn't have let him go this far, but as for what he was willing to put up with, Matt still had to figure that out.

He ran his hand down Justin's side, fingers just barely slipping under his belt, touching his hip, the hollow where it met his groin. Justin went stiff again, his breath hitching, but didn't pull away this time. Matt withdrew his hand, trailing it over his belly--still outside his shirt--and taking note of the increase in the detective's breath, how hungry his kiss was now. When their mouths parted, this time Justin even caught Matt's lip between his own in a soft bite, taking in a shaky breath when Matt ran his lips along his neck. Matt could swear he even let out the slightest moan; Justin's grip on his other hand tightened again, but this time not out of nervousness.

Matt ran his hand down until his fingers latched onto his partner's belt; he paused long enough for their mouths to meet again, Justin letting out a soft guttural sound, before pulling his hand away from the buckle. He reached for the zipper instead, pulling it down and slipping his fingers inside his fly. He had just enough of a split second to feel the hardness just starting to swell there before Justin abruptly broke their kiss again, pulling back quickly with a startled gasp--Matt saw the blood drain from his face. He'd been expecting this; he let go of Justin's hand to grasp his arm and stop him from scrambling to his feet, as it looked like he was ready to do. He made a point of letting his other hand fall still, though the stirring he felt between the other man's legs didn't abate.

When Justin didn't break his way free, Matt pulled his hand out and cupped his face in his hands, making certain to meet his eyes, which were the size of moons. He leaned forward so their foreheads touched, their warm breath fanning over each other. Once or twice he'd had a partner too reluctant to do anything at all; those men would have been gone by now. Even with all the terror in his current partner's eyes he could see the need there, even if Justin himself had no idea what it was he needed.

"We won't do anything you don't want to do," Matt repeated himself, shaking his head slightly to emphasize the point. When Justin said nothing, he dropped his hand back down, again slipping it inside his pants, keeping the motion slow and careful to give him plenty of time to react should he change his mind. Justin's shoulders hitched and he flinched when Matt's fingers moved over the hardness forming there; Matt could plainly see the shame in his eyes, warring with desire, the latter of which seemed to be winning out, albeit only with a massive effort. He could tell from the tension in his body that his partner was literally forcing himself to sit still and not back away; Matt kissed his neck again, waiting until that tension abated somewhat, before slipping his hand inside the other man's underwear now, at last touching him. Justin jerked at the touch, just a little, but didn't pull away.

When their mouths parted again after a moment he whispered, falteringly, "I don't think..."

Matt put a finger to his own mouth this time, making a soft shushing noise. "Relax," he whispered; when Justin's response was to furrow his brow as if in confusion or disbelief, Matt touched his face, offering him just the slightest smile. Justin blinked.

"Lie back," Matt said softly, the tone of his voice firm enough to discourage indecision, but coaxing enough to be nonthreatening. When his partner's response was to pause, still seeming confused, Matt repeated himself, "Relax." He dropped his voice to a whisper, trailing his fingers under the other man's chin. "I won't do anything you don't want me to do."

He could see a different look enter his partner's eyes; almost a sort of chagrin at being found out, mixed with perplexity that Matt should understand his reaction at all. Matt leaned toward him, kissing his neck, moving his lips down to the hollow of his throat; Justin sucked in a breath, shaking slightly, but the near-snapping tension in his body abruptly loosened, and after another brief pause he at last sank back, Matt accompanying him, stroking his side--his hand now under Justin's shirt, touching his bare skin without any sort of protest--but aside from this, being careful not to come on too strong, leaving him plenty of room to escape if he chose to. He kept their bodies several inches apart, rather than pressing against him, even though he was fairly certain by now that the detective wouldn't fight such a thing. After several moments kissing and lightly caressing--Matt knew it was a good sign when Justin at last hesitantly touched him back, his fingers against Matt's side at first nearly flinching away, then sinking into him slightly--Matt pulled away from his mouth, slowly drawing himself back while letting his mouth run down the other man's throat, his chest--he could kiss him only through his shirt here, something he found regretful--down to what little bit of his abdomen was bared. He at last lifted his head to cast a surreptitious look at his partner. Justin still lay back, his eyes shut and head pressed back as his chest hitched, fingers digging into the pullout bed. There was a distinct bulge between his legs now. Matt slid his hand back into his pants--his partner again flinched, but held his place--and slowly caressed the hardness there. He heard Justin let out the slightest moan, and knew there would be no more protesting, no more hesitating or changing of minds.

He pulled his hand free to undo Justin's buckle and loosen his belt. A light touch to his belly was all that was needed for him to lift his pelvis enough for Matt to draw his pants and underwear down to mid-thigh, though this was just a little bit impeded, considering how excited he already was. Matt stared for a moment at his penis thrusting into the air, admiring it and again feeling a twinge of sympathy that he should be so in the closet. He caressed his partner's thighs, running his hands up to where his legs met his groin, longing to see him completely naked--the way the dark hair around the detective's shaft tapered up toward his belly and out of sight under his shirt made him ache--but knowing he could settle for this for now. Being patient was everything; even if he ended up not coming himself this time, his patience was likely to pay off the next time. He was willing to wait for a good thing.

His fingers trailed over his partner's testicles, lightly touching the base of his penis, preparing him for what was to come. Justin's reaction was to arch his back so his head pressed back further against the bed, cutting off the soft noise that arose in his throat. Matt took the signal and leaned down to take the thick shaft into his mouth. He was prepared enough that the way the detective cried out and jerked upwards didn't catch him offguard; he clasped Justin's bared hips to hold him in place, and after a second or two his partner relaxed and sank back to the bed, and Matt began to work at him, mouth sucking, running his tongue up and down the other man's quivering heat, up and down, up and down, until Justin moaned and started to move as well, arching, tensing his buttocks so he pressed up into Matt's mouth as deep as Matt could take him, relaxing to sink back, arching upward again. For a while Matt watched how he dug his fingers into the bedclothes, twisting the fabric with each slow thrust; it was another good sign when one hand moved to Matt's head, his lover's fingers tangling in his hair, pulling him downward just slightly to urge himself deeper. Matt touched his hand and it fell back to the bed; he slipped his own under the detective to clasp his buttocks as they tightened, taking him as far back in his throat as he could. Justin shuddered and let out a long, low cry; Matt enjoyed the sound, feeling the ache between his own legs, an ache that would just have to go unsatisfied for now. He was willing to wait.

He wouldn't have expected the act to last very long at all, what with how much need he sensed, but his partner held out longer than he'd thought he could, and he was rather impressed. He supposed it came with being so frustrated for so long. Despite the lack of reciprocal stimulation, Matt liked listening to the sounds he let out, feeling the way his muscles tightened and relaxed and tightened again; sometimes, bringing another person such pleasure was reward enough in itself. He'd always prided himself on his ability to bring his lovers pleasure. To this day he didn't have a single ex who resented him for anything--picking up on the emotions and desires of others, and being able to act on them appropriately, was his skill. He mentally compared what he was experiencing now to what he'd witnessed earlier, his partner retching into an alley garbage can, and felt just the slightest twinge of satisfaction that he'd made him come so far.

His thoughts drifted back to the present as the other man's motions started to increase in speed, his moans growing louder, and he knew at last the time had come. Sometimes, his lovers preferred to draw things out as long as they could; he knew that wouldn't be the case here. Drawing things out with somebody so full of previously frustrated needs would do neither of them any good; ending things with his partner satisfied was the important thing. He didn't fight it or attempt to slow Justin down when his thrusts upward grew quick, his hips jerking at Matt's mouth; instead he admired the curve of his back as he arched, the look of the muscles and tendons tightening in his arms, the tautness of his thighs, the rise and fall of his ribs as his breath came in quick, violent gasps. It didn't catch Matt offguard when the hot fluid spurted into his mouth, filling his throat; Justin's groan of climax was long and low, as if despairing that the act was over, though Matt knew otherwise. He worked at swallowing the seed as it filled his mouth, until the flow waned and died; he pulled his mouth slowly away, letting his tongue and lips caress the hardness that was no longer so hard, drawing apart with just the slightest strand of mixed seed and saliva that he surreptitiously wiped away from his mouth. The ache between his legs was throbbing by now, but he ignored it. He kept his hands on his partner's thighs until his heaving gasping had lessened into a hoarse pant, and drew them away only when Justin at last weakly pushed himself up, face flushed and gleaming with sweat; Matt could see it dampening his shirt under his arms as well.

He offered him a slight smile again, but his partner didn't seem to see it. Instead of smiling back or even saying anything, he pulled himself forward so awkwardly and abruptly that Matt had to back away to avoid getting accidentally hit. He furrowed his brow a little when the detective hurriedly pulled his underwear and pants back up, hastily working at the belt and zipper. He stood up as he did so, which wasn't a good idea as he hadn't gotten his balance yet and nearly stumbled; Matt would have grasped his leg to help him avoid falling, but something in his mind told him not to. This wasn't the reaction he'd been expecting.

"Justin...?" he asked softly, having to look up at him as he was still kneeling.

"I have to go," Justin said almost before his name was past Matt's lips. He didn't meet his eyes at all; Matt could tell now that the flush still on his face was no longer from desire, and neither was the way his hands shook as he tucked himself in and straightened himself out. He bit his lip a little, keeping any detailed reassurances he had to himself, as he knew they wouldn't work here. Instead he slowly stood, so as not to threaten the other man, and gave his arm just the slightest touch. It wasn't a good sign when Justin jerked his arm away this time; Matt could tell the reaction was reflexive, and unintentional, but that didn't matter, a reaction was a reaction.

The flush in the detective's face grew and he paused just slightly as if to make sure he hadn't hit him or anything, but he still refused to meet Matt's eyes or touch him back. "It's all right," Matt started to say, hoping to at least calm him down a little--if he planned on driving in such a state, and Matt knew for certain now that he was going to leave, he was likely to crash his car--but Justin cut him off again; Matt sensed he didn't like being so rude or brusque, but had no choice.

"I have to go," he said again, his voice not quite as panicky as before, though Matt knew what it meant, even if he wasn't sure of the why. He'd been certain the other man's inhibitions had been overcome, if only in private, but apparently it wasn't so yet. The twinge of unspoken sympathy he'd felt earlier only grew; he didn't feel disappointment so much as regret. It always saddened him to see somebody in such denial.

He didn't offer any further argument, just stepped aside to keep out of the detective's way as he turned for the door. Justin--if that was in fact his name--kept his head low, but Matt could clearly see the look on his face. He'd been right; it took more than being on the police force to get a look like that. Matt wanted to speak up, very much, but he didn't believe in wasting his or anyone's time on pointless things. He kept silent as Justin slipped out, the door shutting behind him, and honestly wondered if he'd see him again, though he wouldn't be surprised if he didn't.

* * * * *

The rest of the week rolled past and the new one began. It wasn't like him to do so, but Matt couldn't quite get him out of his mind; perhaps it was more pity than anything. He returned to the bar as he regularly did, though he never saw "Justin" there again, nor had the bartender, when asked. The bartender offered his sympathy that things hadn't worked out, though sometimes it couldn't be helped.

Matt even wandered past the nearest police stations, though Justin had never said which one he worked for, nor had he ever given his last name. Matt wouldn't have asked anyway; if he couldn't even come out to himself, then surely he hadn't come out to the police force yet, if he even was one of them. Perhaps he'd made that up to sound more impressive, though Matt hadn't gotten that impression; as the bartender had hinted, he had no need to make himself look good. His reactions that night had seemed sincere enough, unfortunately.

It was a shame. He'd rather liked him, even with how uptight he was.

It was a full three weeks before he spotted a familiar car parked at the side of the street out front of his building. He furrowed his brow and craned his neck, his arms loaded with groceries, to peer into the passenger-side window. The driver was turned away, facing the building--looking up at a window about the level of Matt's apartment--so he didn't even notice Matt until he used his elbow to tap against the door. The other man almost jumped out of his seat when he whirled around to gape at the window; Matt smiled and bobbed his elbow, gesturing for him to roll it down. When he did so, Matt nodded up toward his own window.

"You can sit and stalk me or you can help me out if you want."

He had enough time to see Justin's face go red before the window rolled back up and he got out of the car. He accepted the bag of groceries Matt handed him without a word, though looked as if he had no idea what they were. They crossed the street and now Matt nodded at the alley beside the building. "We can take the side entrance," he said, an excuse that didn't sound like an excuse, to save him the embarrassment. He saw the twinge of guilt flicker across Justin's face but pretended not to as they entered the building and made their way up the stairs.

"It's kind of creepy-sweet and all but if you wanted to find me you could've just come up," Matt said as he took the groceries from him to put them away.

"I didn't know when or if you'd be here or at that bar, or if you even had a job or not," Justin retorted, sounding genuinely offended. Matt laughed at the reproving tone of his voice, which just seemed to confuse him.

He made sure to make no references to their last--and so far only--time together, and to not even ask why it had taken so long to hear from him again; he could tell it must have taken all his courage to show up at all. He could also tell that his lack of comments on the subject perplexed Justin even more, but he said nothing either. The longer Matt engaged him in idle chatter the more relaxed and relieved he seemed, so chatter Matt did. Through steering the subject in various directions he learned more about him--that his name was in fact Justin, Justin Reichert, and he was in fact a detective with the city police; that he had a mother, stepfather, and younger stepbrother (Matt could tell from the way his eyes softened when he mentioned him how close they must be); that his father had been out of the picture for a very long time (Matt could tell from the way his eyes hardened when he mentioned him that there was little closeness to be found there); that they were moderately well off and lived in a nice brownstone on a quiet street whereas he had his own apartment overlooking the city proper; if one went out onto the balcony and leaned over and craned their neck they could see the Twin Towers. In return Matt made sure to drop details about himself, since he could see that Justin--Reichert (he seemed to prefer going by his last name)--was genuinely curious. When he stated that his life was nowhere near as glamorous as that of a detective, it was as if some small barrier were broken--Reichert let out a short sudden bark of a laugh that Matt knew wasn't intended, but it made him smile anyway.

They talked that evening much longer than they had the last time; Matt noticed the daylight fading through the window, but Reichert made no move to leave. Matt told him several of the most humiliating stories he could think of and earned laughter every time, knowing that sharing life's embarrassments could actually help lessen such things. At last after nightfall the conversation wound its way back to their last encounter, and at last Reichert asked what had obviously been on his mind the entire time, why he'd even been invited back up here at all.

"I figured you weren't parked out there just for fun," Matt said.

"Yeah, but so? I mean, after..." Reichert trailed off; Matt didn't bother filling in. "I acted like an asshole the last time," he said at last, his voice quieter.

Matt took a sip of his drink. "You mean that was an act?"

"Okay, I was an asshole. You know what I mean. That's my point. I figured..." He paused, then shrugged and picked up his own drink, as if just to give his hands something to do. "I wouldn't have invited me back in."

"Yeah, maybe, but I'm not an asshole like you." Matt laughed at the disgusted way Reichert rolled his eyes. "Look, you might think you're subtle and all, but you're not. You don't just wear your heart on your sleeve, you leave a dripping bloody trail behind you." He didn't pause at the way Reichert grimaced at this knowledge but kept on as if not noticing. "It's not a bad thing, it's just not who you are to act like a blank slate. You can't pull it off. You know why nobody was talking to you in that bar? They figured you were too good for them. Chew on that for a while." He took another sip, ignoring Reichert's gaping stare. "Fortunately I don't let such things stop me. Otherwise you might still be sitting in there."

"Oh. So I have you to thank for getting me out of that situation."

"Well, yeah. Aren't you grateful? Since none of those other guys were good enough for you anyway."

He did like that once they got talking, Reichert seemed to take very little offense with whatever tone he assumed, so he could speak freely without getting a hissy fit in return. He wondered if it was a cop thing. After some more inane banter--Matt even tossed out a few mild insults, just to test him, which Reichert tossed right back--he got up to clear away the remains of their informal supper; Reichert stood as well, but Matt took the dishes away before he could pick up anything. He stood fiddling his fingers at the zipper of his jacket--he'd never even removed it--as if not knowing what else to do; Matt stepped out of the kitchenette and back toward him, reaching out to take his preoccupied hand as soon as he drew close enough. Reichert jerked back--just as Matt knew he would, so he tightened his hold, keeping his hand held fast. When Reichert saw that was all he intended to do he relaxed again, though the guilty look Matt was coming to know so well had returned to his face. Matt pulled lightly on his arm; at first the detective hesitated, but when Matt made a point of indicating how the pullout bed hadn't been pulled out, and was now merely a couch, he untensed a little bit again, and they both sat down. Matt kept a small space between them and stared at him for a while as he sat with his fingers knotted between his knees, Reichert's own stare fixed on the small coffeetable.

"You wouldn't've sat parked outside my apartment for God knows how long if you didn't intend to be invited back up," Matt said after a while.

"I don't know what the fuck I intended," Reichert said in return.

"Well, when we don't know what we intend is often when we do what we intend to do most. What's so awful about it?" He interjected the question before Reichert's face could complete screwing up at the odd statement preceding it. "You seemed to enjoy yourself the last time you were here," he added, at Reichert's perplexed look.

Reichert turned and ducked his head lower, hunching his shoulders. "I don't know," he said, almost defensively.

"I'll take that as a yes. Otherwise you wouldn't be here again, unless I were breaking the law for something." Reichert's nose wrinkled, but Matt didn't let him cut in. "So I'm wondering, what's so awful about it by now. You stepped into the bar in the first place, you didn't run off when I said hi to you, you even came back here for a while. You know the rest. I can tell that was an awful lot of accomplishments for one night, if the muscle cramps I see you have from keeping yourself jammed in that closet are any indication." The flush returned to Reichert's face and he hunched his shoulders again, a comment of Matt's finally seeming to hit a sore spot. "I hear the police force is a lot more progressive these days," he added, opening a can of soda sitting on the coffeetable and taking a drink.

"Yeah, well, you might be all lah-di-dah and out there but that's you and not me. Just because a place is progressive doesn't make everything all clear and easy."

"I never meant to say it did, so I'm genuinely sorry if it sounds like I'm making light of it. Maybe I've just had things a lot easier than you."

Reichert's shoulders lowered somewhat and he stared at his hands. "I haven't had anything hard," he murmured; Matt bit his tongue at the unintentional double meaning of the comment. "No one knows yet. I know I wouldn't be kicked out of my job or anything stupid like that, but that isn't everything. There's another guy...another guy at my station. A beat cop. He's been out as long as I've known him there. Do you know what the other detectives say when we're the only ones there and he's not around?"

"Fairy, homo, faggot...I'm sure those are just the tame ones," Matt said. "I've heard them all. That's nothing new. I'm betting it's not new to him, either."

"Yeah, well, that's what they say when they think he doesn't know. I laughed the first few times. I didn't really find it funny, but I laughed anyway. After a while it got annoying and then it just got tired and ignorant. They don't even bother hiding it anymore, do you know that? I'm certain he's heard them more than once. And because I'm one of them, that makes me just as bad, at least to him, I bet. The last time they started it up, he was right there just a few yards away, obviously hearing everything, I told them to shut up and let it drop. They were surprised. That I lost my sense of humor, I'm betting they think. I haven't told them otherwise and I don't really plan to."

"It's not your prerogative to do so. It's none of their business."

"Yeah? Tell that to him. He's none of their business, but that doesn't stop anything."

"So you think that because you're not outing yourself like him, you're part of the problem."

"Well, I'm certainly not part of the solution, am I?"

Matt shrugged. "Like I said, it's not your job to be the solution. It sounds like he's handling it."

"So I suppose if you saw a group of thugs beating somebody up in the street, you'd tell yourself, well, you're not involved, he's handling it, and go on your happy way?"

"It's not the same thing and you know it, otherwise you wouldn't be practically asking for affirmations."

"It's close enough, and you know it, or else you're more ignorant than I thought."

"Look, the moment one of your fellow assholes takes a swing at him, then it's your problem. Otherwise...you can't save the world. All you'll be doing is beating yourself up over things you can't fix. Christ, you have no idea how many times I've seen you look guilty and you haven't even done anything bad so far. Do you just like to punish yourself on purpose?"

"Just because you can't fix the world doesn't mean you shouldn't try."

"Gee, you should put that on a poster with a picture of a cute little kitten and sell it. Make loads of money and you could even retire."

"Sorry, it's already been done. And cops don't become cops so they can sit and twiddle their thumbs while the world goes to hell and just tell themselves, 'Well, that's not my problem.' Some of us actually like to try to fix something. It's not like we're in it for the loads of money."

"I get your point, I really do, but you're only one person and can only do so much. Here's an affirmation for you, you have to pick your battles. Like stopping in a bar instead of driving on and insisting that's not for you. Or saying hello to somebody instead of running off like a scared little pussy."

"Is that some sort of hint?"

"It wasn't meant to be one, but sure, if you want. I'd love to give you yet more stupid things to feel guilty about since God knows you don't have nearly enough."

Reichert looked as if he were going to reply, bit his lip, then turned to stare across the room instead. Matt set down his drink and leaned back on the couch to rest his feet on the table. Some impish part of him wanted to draw his knee up and run his foot along Reichert's leg, but that wouldn't accomplish anything useful, so he didn't. "Look. You might think you're the only person who's ever thought these things or had this conversation, but you're not. I can't tell you how many times I've said some version of the stuff I'm saying to you. No," he added, when the detective looked at him over his shoulder, slightly pursing his lips, "I'm not some kind of man-whore. I've just had more experience than you have. That comes with not beating yourself up every time you meet somebody in a gay bar. Not that you can have much experience with that, but..."

Reichert turned away again. When he spoke, Matt could barely hear him. "I just keep wondering maybe..."

"Maybe it was just a one-time thing? You had to get it out of your system? And now you can go out and be normal and find some cute girl who'll change your mind? Trust me, I've heard all that a hundred times before, too," he said, noticing how Reichert's shoulders hunched a little again. "And every single time they were wrong. With how you pick every single other little thing apart I'm sure you've been turning this over in your head since I last saw you. So tell me, have you met any cute girls who've changed your mind yet?"

He waited a very long time but got no response, and so leaned forward again so they sat almost shoulder to shoulder. He mimicked Reichert's action of staring blankly across the room, though he did surreptitiously peer down to see how he kept rubbing one finger across his knuckles, again as if not knowing what else to do with his hands. The impish part of Matt's mind could think of at least a dozen more useful things he could do with them, but again, he didn't mention this.

"You don't really get it," Reichert said at last, though the tone of his voice was faltering, no longer so certain. "My family...my mother's side of the family, they're--we're Catholic. I don't mean like I go to church every Sunday and eat wafers and drink wine or anything, but..."

"And you honestly think you'd be the only Catholic ever in the history of the world to have this conversation? I can tell just from what you said that you're not worried about burning in Hell or anything. So if you're still looking for excuses, you need to find a better one." When Reichert said nothing he added, "You're not worried about what some priest or nun or God might think, you're worried about someone else." Still no response, though he noticed the subtlest change in Reichert's posture. "You're not the only person to have ever thought that. You're not going to be the last. There are three things you can do--you can keep this up and tell them, you can keep this up and not tell them because frankly it's none of their business and it really shouldn't matter, or you can stop this and pretend you're exactly what everybody assumes you are and go on doing what you were doing before. If you're leaning toward choice C, let me just advise you to remember what you were feeling right before you stopped at that bar."

Reichert's head lowered slightly so his face fell into shadow and Matt could tell it had finally sunk in. He picked up his drink and sipped at the last of it while he waited for a reply, since there was nothing left for him to argue over by now. Reichert was by no means the toughest customer he'd ever had, but he hadn't been very easy, either, and he was secretly glad they were past the most troublesome part of it. He peered toward the clock and was honestly surprised by how late it had grown. He thought of several things he'd far rather be doing with the other man by now, instead of arguing, but finished off his drink rather than say so. After the silence had drawn out for an awkward period of time, he set the can down once more and paused, then reached to take Reichert's hand without looking at him. The detective didn't jerk back this time; Matt felt his fingers curl around his own, and knew that while there would likely still be plenty of uneasiness, there would be no more pulling away. Obviously his current partner wasn't the sort to take things into his own hands, at least in this area; Matt shifted sideways so their knees touched, and they sat in silence for a short while, then he slowly pulled his hand from Reichert's grasp and slipped his arm around him so his fingers trailed down his side. Reichert's muscles were still tensed, but Matt found he liked their hardness; with his other hand he turned the other man's face toward him and their eyes met. He was actually rather surprised by how beautiful and expressive they were, what with how Reichert had kept them mostly hidden or turned away before now. So many wonderful traits going to waste. With his fingers on Reichert's jaw, he leaned forward and their mouths met--Reichert's opened almost immediately, and the hunger in his kiss was also a surprise, even for Matt. Matt felt him lean toward him, and at this dropped his other arm to slip it around him as well and draw him close so their chests touched. He felt Reichert's own arm hesitantly go around him, his other hand meeting Matt's face. The way his breath snorted from his nostrils, since he couldn't pant through his mouth, and the hammering of his heart against Matt's breast, told Matt it was time, and he put pressure on his arm to indicate that they should stand, which Reichert obeyed. It would be too much trouble to move the coffeetable and pull out the bed, so Matt decided that lying on the couch itself would have to do. He started to pull off his shirt, but Reichert tugged at it himself, surprising him yet again, so Matt let him. When he was unclothed but for his underwear, he lay down on his back, grasping at Reichert's shirt to pull him down; their kiss continued, their lips biting and sucking at each other, and Matt rubbed his leg against his partner's as Reichert reached for his buckle.

"Wait a minute," Matt whispered, breaking the kiss, putting his hand over Reichert's to still it; Reichert lifted his head to look down at him, his face again thrown into shadow, though Matt could hear his breath and feel it fanning over his own face. "Take off your clothes," he whispered; when Reichert hesitated, confusion and reluctance flitting through his eyes, Matt cupped his face in his hands and smiled. "So I can see you," he added, again rubbing their legs together a bit.

He heard the hitch in Reichert's breath at this motion; his aversion toward disrobing in front of him was obvious, judging by his pause and the flush rising in his face, but after several long seconds he removed his jacket, then, a bit more slowly, his shirt. He had to stand again to work at his pants, undoing the belt and zipper and slipping them off along with socks and shoes. He was still clad in his underwear, and bent forward, so Matt couldn't see him very well; after a final moment of hesitation Reichert slipped his underwear down his legs and lightly kicked them aside. He stood upright again, and Matt let out his breath, feeling his own underwear tighten as he began to bulge outward.

His initial observation, that Reichert obviously knew how to take care of himself, was amply proven; Matt had had skinny boyfriends, soft boyfriends, muscular boyfriends, but he had to admit, if only to himself, that his current partner was in better shape than any of them had been. Matt had always loved to trace the contours of another man's muscles with both his eyes and his fingers, though most men who worked out had an almost false quality to them, as if they tried too hard; Reichert's arms and legs and abdomen didn't bulge awkwardly like theirs did. He could have almost passed as slender when fully clothed, though Matt was good at guessing what men really looked like; still, Reichert's lean but strong build impressed him. He wasn't erect yet--Matt's request seemed to have flustered him somewhat--so Matt got a chance to see him as he normally was, and even that was impressive, too. He let his eyes linger on the sight a moment or two, then trail upward, following the line of dark hair running up from Reichert's groin, up his belly, tapering off between the tight muscles of his abdomen; he was glad the detective wasn't so mistakenly vain as to shave himself too much like some men did, and raised his hand to run it down the narrow line until his fingers tangled in the hair surrounding Reichert's penis, and he felt the other man's body tense at the touch. Matt took him in his hand and slowly stroked, back and forth, using his other hand to slip off his underwear; Reichert's breath hitched again, and he quickly started to grow hard, until Matt was running his hand up and down the erect shaft, trailing his fingers over the hot testicles and tangling them in his hair again. Reichert lifted his leg to place it over Matt's, his knee pressing on the outside of his thigh, and he leaned down so they kissed again. His hips had started to move, swaying just slightly with Matt's stroking motions; Matt ran his free hand down his back to caress his buttock. He slipped his fingers between, let one trail over the tight knot of his partner's anus; when Reichert jerked and gasped, tensing rather than loosening, Matt withdrew, deciding not to enter him. Instead, he took advantage of the break in their kiss to smile up at his partner--Reichert just looked back down at him, panting and dazed--and though it struck him as a bit too coy, he figured it would go over better than speaking aloud, so he parted his lips and ran his tongue along them. He squeezed Reichert's hardness as he did so, and lifted his knee to touch it against his thigh. He thought perhaps the hint might fly over Reichert's head; it didn't, and Reichert pushed himself back up, turning, then coming down again; he had to be careful what with the narrowness of the couch, so Matt guided him somewhat, touching his knees when Reichert placed them to both sides of his head, spreading his own knees at Reichert's touch. The couch gave a soft creak beneath their weight; Matt lifted his head and took the tip of Reichert's penis in his mouth, swirling his tongue over it and earning a sharp cry. He would have smiled at the way he felt the detective's thighs tighten in his grip, if he'd been able. Instead, he moaned in his throat when he felt a warmth surround him, Reichert taking Matt into his own mouth without the slightest hesitation, so deeply that Matt shuddered in relief that the wait had been worth it.

He was impressed; for obviously never having done this before, Reichert was good at it. Usually proud of the fact that he could control himself quite well, Matt nonetheless moaned again around his partner's hardness, shutting his eyes tight and arching his hips upward. Reichert's tongue and lips drew up and off of him; before Matt's body could relax, he wrapped his mouth around his testicles instead, sucking hard, and Matt let out a sharp noise, bucking slightly. His teeth just lightly scored Reichert's shaft at the motion; he felt the detective flinch in return, his pelvis driving downward deep into Matt's throat. Now that no more preliminaries were needed, and his groin was throbbing wildly, Matt knew they could simply do what they needed to do; he wrapped his arms around Reichert's thighs, feeling the detective do the same, and after Reichert made the first motion, arching his back and tensing his buttocks to thrust into Matt's throat, Matt followed suit, pushing his hips upward toward Reichert's warm mouth, and the two of them started rocking together on the small couch, their bellies rubbing as they quickly grew slick with sweat. They didn't speak anymore, if they even could have, the soft whimpers and occasional slight grunts they let out speaking for them. Once in a while one of them would pull his head back to catch his breath, gasping at the air; when Reichert did this Matt did the same, before taking the opportunity to burrow his face back against him, running his tongue over his anus and shivering at the long groan his partner let out in response. Fingers digging into Matt's thighs, Reichert buried his own face back in Matt's crotch, hugging the sides of his head with his knees, Matt doing the same to him. They moved quickly now, urgently, bodies tense and quivering with need. The couch creaked, its foot slightly thumping against the floor with Reichert's heavy thrusts; Matt dimly heard a responding thump, the tenant below his apartment evidently hearing the noise and knocking back to demand silence, but he didn't care, and Reichert didn't seem to notice. The strength of Reichert's grip on his legs, the tensed muscles of his belly where it rubbed against Matt's, the tightness of his thighs, his heat and hardness within Matt's mouth, even the tang of his sweat, made Matt shudder with lust; nobody else in the bar knew what they'd missed out on, and that was just fine by him.

He didn't bother to regret it when Reichert bucked against him and his throat filled with warm fluid which almost made him choke; he knew there would definitely be other times. He released, himself, before realizing he probably should have offered some sort of warning; when Reichert's reaction was to pull his head back with a sputter and start coughing convulsively, Matt had to force himself not to laugh lest he bite him. Reichert ducked aside to try to avoid getting hit by the stream; Matt was just about certain he would be annoyed by this, but it had been worth it. After a moment he felt his partner start to relax, and carefully drew his own head back so his softening penis slipped from his mouth. He lay catching his breath and waiting for Reichert to make a move; to his credit, he did put his head back down and attempt to lick up what he could, and the feel of his tongue sliding along Matt's length, and up the inside of his thighs, was almost enough to make him harden again, if only it had been physically possible; instead Matt shut his eyes and let out a soft shuddery breath. Reichert carefully lifted himself so Matt could sit up, and they ended up sitting side by side again, chests heaving; Matt discreetly peered at his partner as he tried to catch his breath, and admired how his sweat dampened his hair and made his muscles gleam. He hadn't meant to stare at him for so long, but Reichert at last noticed his look, peering at him from the corner of his eye as if reluctant to look at him straight on again; Matt grasped his hand, and their fingers twined. They didn't say anything, didn't have to, as they sat for several long moments, their breath slowing.

When Reichert at last bothered to lift his free hand and rub at the slickness coating his chin and neck, a mildly irritated look coming to his face, Matt could no longer hold back his laughter. Reichert's disapproving expression did little to stop him. "That's why God made showers," he said after he'd regained his composure and given the other man enough time to get over his embarrassment; Reichert's look was vaguely perplexed this time, so Matt smiled at him as he stood, still holding his hand, so he got to his feet as well. It seemed to take him a moment to understand where Matt was leading him; Matt felt the pull on his hand when he hesitated, but it was just a second, and they passed through the darkened hallway together. The hour was late enough that Matt rather hoped he would decide to at least stay the night, even if he did have to leave early in the morning; Reichert didn't protest them entering the bathroom, so Matt made plans to pull out the bed when they were done...whenever that should be. The shower did take considerably longer than most showers did, with how preoccupied the two of them were for a good long while, their hands and mouths exploring each other's body as the water spattered down over them.

* * * * *

Matt hadn't been expecting anything momentous, and he didn't get it. He'd never cared for momentous things anyway, with all their attendant drama. He could tell almost from the start that no matter how much he might have enjoyed himself, no matter how much he might finally admit it to himself, Reichert wasn't about to go out and let the world know about the two of them. That was just fine with Matt. He wasn't interested in making any points for the greater good, when the individual mattered so much more.

For a time, Reichert came to his place--when he did come, which was unpredictable, given both his job and his still somewhat reluctant attitude toward the situation. Again Matt didn't mind. He had no need to work a regular job himself--when the detective grew curious about this, he explained a settlement he'd won some time back, which with his rather spare tastes was good enough to keep him going for now--so it wasn't terribly inconvenient to open the door for him at noon or at midnight or whenever he would appear. Late nights were far more common. Sometimes Reichert was more communicative than any of his other boyfriends had been, something which was a nice change of pace. On other occasions he talked little at all; Matt came to understand his moods, able to tell which he was in when he showed up. After two or three times of returning from shopping or a trip into the city to find Reichert waiting for him, he gave him a duplicate key; "It doesn't mean anything," he said, seeing the uneasy look on his face, "it's just so you don't end up creating a fire hazard taking up space on the stairs when I'm out." At this comment Reichert accepted the key with no response. Matt knew the two of them were seeing each other exclusively--neither had the time or inclination to do otherwise--but the idea of commitment still seemed to make the detective ill at ease, so Matt didn't press the issue. Like so many other things, it didn't matter.

He had to admit he was surprised to eventually be invited to Reichert's apartment, even if for whatever reason that day it might have simply been more convenient. It was bigger than Matt's place, though nothing ostentatious, and was furnished pretty much as he'd expected, with just the slightest hint of disinterest in keeping it pristine; Matt privately found this amusing as he ran his hand over a throw half hanging off the couch. He was far more interested in the balcony view. Although puzzled by his interest, Reichert led him out--it was nothing more than a concrete ledge big enough to fit perhaps three people in chairs, with a wrought-iron railing surrounding it, though Matt took little notice of this. He leaned over the railing as far as he dared, twisting his head sideways, and smiled with pleasure at the view of Manhattan spreading out before him, the numerous skyscrapers poking out from the shorter buildings here and there, two particularly tall ones glimmering in the sun.

"You can't see anything from my place," he said, rather needlessly, since of course Reichert knew this by now.

Reichert leaned over the railing beside him and also craned his neck to look at the view. "It's just a couple of towers," he said, as if Matt were an overly wonderstruck child.

Matt shrugged--having to be careful when he did so. "So? It's beautiful, that's all."

"It looks like a couple of fucking milk cartons plopped in the middle of the city."

Matt made a face at him. "I said it's beautiful. Of course you wouldn't notice since you can look at this every day."

He pulled himself back over the railing. Reichert had already lost interest and was leaning his elbows on the bar; he shrugged when Matt turned to him. "Whatever," he said. "Of course when something's always around you kind of get used to it. I bet if you lived up here long enough you wouldn't bother looking out the window. And you'd think they look like milk cartons, too."

"I bet you you're wrong," Matt replied, and when Reichert gave him a cross look he gave him the finger in return. This was normal; the detective might have been moody but he didn't hold grudges over trivial things. For a while he tolerated Matt's insistence on examining the skyline, though after some time he at last grasped Matt's sleeve and ended up pulling him back into the apartment, Matt putting up just enough of a mock argument to make it entertaining. They spent the rest of the afternoon inside, and the rest of the night in Reichert's own bed, though Matt made sure, to the detective's annoyance, to look at the view again early the next morning. Although he did get used to it, he made a point of leaning out over the balcony every time he visited, just for the pleasure of watching Reichert roll his eyes and pull him back inside.

The view was considerably different this morning. Matt stood atop the roof of his own building, since there was no view from his window; he ignored the other tenants likewise huddled in groups nearby, murmuring to themselves. He speed-dialed Reichert's number for the third time, whispering, "Pick up, pick up," under his breath, but for the third time got nothing but the answering machine. He hated leaving so many messages, especially if someone other than Reichert might hear them. So he didn't give his name or any other identifying details, just asked for Reichert to call him as soon as possible. When the answering machine picked up yet again--"Hey, this is Justin Reichert, leave your name and number and I'll get back to you"--Matt almost said nothing, since there was little left to say, but a tiny twinge inside him made him speak anyway.

"Justin, pick up. Are you there?" A long pause. He knew Reichert would have answered by now if he were home. Matt bit his lip, hating the emotion that nearly cracked his voice, having to clear his throat to speak again. "Please call me when you wake up or get back--please?" He waited on the line, just in case, until the machine beeped and the phone hung up. A fourth attempt at calling failed to go through; the cell phone towers were overburdened. He didn't wonder why.

He headed back for the stairway, exiting the roof and making his way down to the ground level. He left the building and jogged out into the street without worrying about a car hitting him, since there was practically no traffic now, aside from foot traffic, and even that was starting to die down as people headed further downtown or out of town, according to their interests. It took him some time on foot to reach Reichert's building; he was gasping for breath by the time he reached the door after so many flights of stairs. He refused to take the elevator today. He'd told himself not to do something so childish, so juvenile and clingy, as to rush to the detective's apartment uninvited--We spoke last night--he has today off--he said he was turning off his phone and sleeping in--he hasn't woken up yet--but the sensible part of his mind was rapidly losing out in view of everything he'd seen so far that morning.

Reichert had never had the chance to give him a key, if he'd even planned to. Matt knocked, then pounded on his door. He almost attempted picking the lock before realizing the door wasn't even locked in the first place--something niggled at him that that wasn't a good sign--and slipped inside, fighting down the irrational guilt of trespassing; he looked in every room, but no one was there. There were no explanatory notes anywhere in the apartment; he didn't know if Reichert were the type to leave any. The messages on the answering machine were accumulating--far more than Matt himself had called in, so he knew others were calling as well. The television was on, and the sliding glass door of the balcony was open. Matt hurried out to it even though he knew nobody would be there. He leaned over the railing as if looking might help him somehow, though it did nothing but show him the same thing that was showing on the TV, that was showing on probably every TV in the city. He stared at the changed skyline--there was only one Tower now, just one fucking milk carton--for merely a moment before pulling back in and leaving the apartment, shutting and locking the door behind him this time though it made little sense. He rubbed his hands together, his breath coming quick as he walked briskly back down the hallway toward the stairs.

He had no immediate family in the city, and so spent the rest of the day in his apartment beside the telephone, just in case anyone called on his landline. He did receive a few calls on his cell, mostly old friends no longer living in the city, but kept his replies to them short lest he tie up the line. They faded out as the daylight did. He tried Reichert's landline a few more times--he'd tried his cell phone several times throughout the day, but it never went through, and this just filled him with even more dread that he told himself to shove aside for now--but when the calls did connect, all there was was the answering machine. Toward midnight he realized he was calling for the sole purpose of listening to Reichert's recorded voice, and that was when he made himself stop, because somebody could be trying to call in return. He sat on the couch, not bothering to pull out the bed, for the rest of the night without sleeping, but no one else ever called.

* * * * *

A call did finally come the next day; Matt had just started to doze, but he picked the phone up in the middle of the first ring. He recognized the voice, but had to bite down his disappointment anyway.

"Hey Matt, it's Ross. Business is shit so I'm heading out to look around. I thought maybe you'd come with me."

Matt wasn't sure if Ross--the bartender who'd become a casual friend due to how frequently he dropped in--had any idea what had been going through his head all the previous day and night, though he suspected he might. He agreed to meet him at the corner near the bar, changed his answering machine message to tell anyone calling to contact him on his cell, and left, tossing on a jacket to ward off the slight chill. He hated how he couldn't stop checking the phone as he went, as if afraid he'd turned off the ring, though he knew he hadn't.

Ross was waiting at the corner, hands jammed in his pockets as if he were cold too though the weather was relatively mild. He glanced Matt's way as he approached, not seeming to see him at first, though he then waved as if to gesture him across the nearly barren street. With his shaved head, tattoos, and the chain hanging from his ear, he looked rather like the type of person who would be beating Matt up instead of meeting him to head into the city. Matt saw that the windows of the bar were dark, a CLOSED sign on the door, even though it was likely unnecessary. They fell into step beside each other and started walking briskly.

"My cousin works in Tower Two," Ross said as they walked, their shoulders hunched. "They're putting up pictures all over the buildings and lampposts. My sister Jennie says there's hundreds of them. I'm going to see if he's in there anywhere." He peered at Matt from the corner of his eye; Matt had his phone out and was staring at it blankly. "Have you heard anything?" Ross asked, and Matt knew then that this meeting had been deliberate.

"Not yet," he said, having to force out the "yet."

"I'm sorry," Ross said.

Matt shook his head, not looking at him. "He had the day off. Maybe he went to see his family. To let them know he's okay. He had maybe a dozen or so messages on his machine yesterday morning alone, I bet most were from them."

Ross was silent for a moment, then nodded and turned to face ahead again. "That could be it. Too early to start freaking out any."

Some part of Matt's mind didn't agree with this comment, but he told himself it was reasonable anyway, because he had nothing else left to think. They tried not to look up at the still-smoking sky as they drew nearer, though it was difficult. It took a while for them to realize they were leaving tracks in a fine layer of ash coating the sidewalk; when they glanced around they saw that it coated everything. Ross put his hand up to his nose and mouth; Matt tried not to cough. They passed a few incongruous objects apparently dropped on the sidewalk without a thought--a purse, somebody's bottle of water, an MP3 player--but ignored them all. Pictures started appearing on the posts and windows they passed, and they glanced at them all without seeing anything they were looking for. They at last came within sight of a large group of people milling about on the sidewalk, spilling into the street itself, murmuring and also looking at the walls and lampposts, even the mailboxes, any blank surface that had been available. As soon as the two of them edged their way into the crowd and were able to see the largest area of wall, they halted as if stunned into immobility, staring at innumerable sightless eyes that stared back.

"Jesus," Ross whispered. "There's thousands of them."

Matt was biting the inside of his mouth to keep himself from letting out any noise. For a moment he had no idea what to do, there were so many pictures--most titled MISSING--covering the wall. And it wasn't just this wall, it was everything to the left and right as well, as far as they could see down the sidewalk. Ross nudged his arm and he let out a sharp breath, not even aware that he'd been holding it.

"I'll head this way, you head that way. You've met my cousin before, you know what he looks like. If I see anything I'll come back and let you know."

Matt nodded numbly. He still stood frozen to the spot as Ross carefully picked his way through the crowd, keeping his eyes fixed on the pictures until he disappeared from sight. It was a few moments before Matt could get his legs to work; he made himself turn left, and started walking slowly. The crowd was thinner here; the pictures weren't. He had to turn his head from left to right as they were to both sides of him. Many overlapped; when he couldn't see a photo, he had to halt and lift up the edge of the one atop it to look under. He hated touching them; he hated that people had been forced to cover up others' pictures, almost hiding the ones under them from view; he hated that he hated this, since it wasn't as if anyone had any choice. He passed people carrying yet more pictures, seeking places to put them. For a very long time there wasn't a blank spot visible anywhere.

He lost track of how long he looked; it was only when Ross reappeared that he noticed the angle of the sunlight and shadows and realized it must have been hours. His eyes burned both from looking at so many small photos as well as from the smoke and ash still floating in the air; only now did he realize this, too, and halted to rub at them. Ross grasped his elbow, out of breath; it was a moment before he could speak.

"Todd called; he's okay. He got out early. He's back with my aunt's family. Would've called sooner but couldn't get through."

"That's good," Matt said, his voice flat, emotionless.

Ross leaned sideways to peer into his face. He looked ready to ask something, then didn't. "When we reach the next block I'll take one side and you take the other," he said at last. "Get it done faster that way. There has to be an end to these things somewhere."

Matt didn't bother telling him his fear that perhaps he'd overlooked some of them, what with their sheer numbers and how close they were and how they covered every immovable surface except the sidewalk and street itself; didn't tell him that this fear was also a hope, that maybe missing something was a good thing. Maybe there was nothing to miss. Despite the hopefulness of this thought, it agonized him that there were so many possibilities and he had no idea which was most likely. The city had never seemed so huge before. The sprawling view he'd had from Reichert's balcony flashed in his mind and he bit the inside of his cheek again, stifling the choked sound that almost came out, and nodded. He and Ross parted ways at the next corner, though they still walked parallel to each other, examining the pictures more closely. If he didn't see anything by the time he reached the last of them, Matt told himself, he would go back and look again. He might have missed some; and new pictures were being posted, and perhaps others being removed as people were located, every minute.

After an indeterminate passage of time the photos on Ross's side of the street must have run out, for he rejoined him and started looking at the photos Matt was searching. He coughed a few times, then held up his balled hands and blew on them; with a start Matt saw how dark it had gotten, the chill that had entered the air. The pictures were getting harder to see, but the people who passed were now starting to carry flashlights and candles (Candles? thought Matt), so they remained visible even in the dimness.

He didn't know that Ross had moved on ahead of him until he nearly ran into him where he stood staring up at the wall. Matt turned just as Ross lowered his head to look at him; the expression in his eyes said everything. Heart crowding into his throat, Matt had to keep himself from shoving him aside, looking up at the photos, his eyes scanning them rapidly.

He saw the words before he saw the pictures.


Justin Daniel Reichert
Ht. 6'3", dk brown hair, hazel eyes
Please contact family with information...

Matt's stare shifted upward to the two photos included above the notice. He didn't have the time to tell himself that it was a big city, there could be more than one Justin Reichert, maybe even more than one in the NYPD. It was a stupid thought, he knew it. Stupid thoughts seemed to be all he had by now. One of the photos was a formal portrait, a headshot of a man in a police dress uniform. The other one was of the same man, not in uniform, wearing casual clothes now as he seemed to be horseplaying with a lighter-haired boy, both of them laughing at the camera. 6'3". Lean build. Hazel eyes. Matt couldn't have described the feeling that spread through him if he'd tried. It was as if everything inside him were disappearing, ceasing to exist; he would have wondered how he managed to stay standing, if he'd been in any mind to. Ross hadn't stopped staring at him, though Matt couldn't see him. He opened his mouth, though no sound came out.

"Justin," he managed to whisper after several seconds had slipped by.

"I'm sorry," he heard Ross murmur.

He had the day off, Matt's mind told itself. He'd lost his voice again and couldn't say it out loud. Ross was talking; the words faded into his consciousness where they drifted as hazy as the ash in the air.

"...Passed a couple of people looking for their son or something, they found his picture on the wall but then he called them and he was okay. It's all chaos and shit. Lines will get crossed. I'm betting most of these people aren't even missing. It'll be like this till the phones are working again. And hospitals. There must be slews of people going there. Maybe he's there someplace. Maybe he's unconscious or got hit in the head and doesn't remember anything yet. Shit, he could be in that pile looking for people and his family just hasn't found out yet. This sign doesn't mean anything. He can be anywhere, just fine." He reached up toward the picture and ran his finger along the phone number, then took out his cell phone. "I'll call the family and see if I can find anything out."

Matt wasn't even aware that he'd reached out and clasped both phone and Ross's hand, stopping him from dialing. When Ross looked at him he spoke, though his voice sounded like it was coming from somewhere else.

"They don't know about me. He'll call if he can."

Ross stared at him for a moment, biting his lip. He gently removed Matt's hand and shoved the phone back in his pocket.

"I'll start looking in the hospitals, then. Say I'm a relative. You head back and keep an eye on your phone. I'll call if I find out anything."

Matt nodded. Ross turned and jogged off down the sidewalk. Matt's head was in such a fog that by the time he reached his apartment building, he couldn't even remember having walked there. Instead of heading for his apartment, he went back to the roof, and turned to look at the view that was nowhere near as impressive or all encompassing as that from Reichert's balcony. Still, he saw enough.

None. No fucking milk cartons.

* * * * *

He stayed in his apartment all day the thirteenth. Staring numbly at the same images played over and over and over again on the TV. Not bothering to eat, not bothering to sleep except for when he happened to doze off, which was never for very long. Every time he saw Reichert's eyes he awoke again, glanced toward his window without a view, then back at the TV. Ross called him early in the day. No news from the hospitals, except for the news that practically nobody was showing up. There were beds, there were doctors, there were people lined up to give blood--but there was almost nobody needing a bed, a doctor, a blood donation. The hours slipped by--Matt knew from Reichert telling him himself that the first forty-eight hours were the most important ones, in a missing person case--yet the accounts of missing persons being found did not come in. Eventually, Matt stopped hearing what the newscasters were saying; his eyes stayed fixed on the ever-increasing number of dead and disappeared. Hundreds. Thousands. It was incomprehensible. If he hadn't been so numb, he wouldn't have believed it. It simply wasn't possible. Where were they? People didn't just disappear.

"People don't just disappear," he whispered to himself, and kept repeating it throughout the day. He dozed fitfully at night, awoke the next morning with nothing changed but the growing numbers on the TV. For some reason, this morning he stopped hoping. Perhaps he hadn't hoped all along, and just hadn't been able to admit it. As his mind woke itself, all the feverish reassurances he'd been giving himself over the past few days flitted past, and he nearly cringed at how pathetic they all were. He could almost hear Reichert criticizing his wishful thinking, just as he'd criticized him when leaning over the balcony to stare at what was no longer there. Matt had never been one to feel shame in any great degree, but somehow, all the pointless hoping he'd been engaging in ashamed him, simply because it was something Reichert would have rolled his eyes at. Perhaps it was an insult to keep hoping such stupid things. Matt made himself get up, go into his kitchenette, make himself breakfast that he didn't care to eat but did so anyway. Ross called him again, but he didn't pick up. There was nothing in the message he left anyway, just the request to know if he was okay. Matt didn't call him back; not because he was trying to keep the line free, but because there was no point in it.

By evening, he wondered why he'd hoped at all. The hollowness started to slowly fill in again; he stood in his kitchenette making something to drink, fully aware that when this phase passed, it would become even worse, as if this were the eye of a storm; he decided not to dwell on it. He stopped staring at the numbers, stopped staring at the repeating footage, stopped listening to the details, just letting the voices drift past, taking in a general bit of news here and there. As the sunlight started to fade he called Ross back lest he worry too much, heard that his cousin was doing fine, told Ross he was okay in return, even managing to feign a tone of voice that wasn't so flat, or was it feigned at all? He'd never believed in dwelling on things one couldn't change. It didn't matter what they were. Empty wishing never got anyone anything.

Just around nightfall, a bit of news different from all that had been playing the past three days, an actual survivor being found near the edge of the rubble field, what had once been Tower One. Matt's eyes flicked up toward the screen, then back down to the counter so he wouldn't chop his fingers as he cut up some fruit and carefully dumped it in the blender. Between blending he heard scattered phrases--"--adult male--" "--critical condition in an undisclosed hospital--" "--no further identification pending notification of the family." At least one family would be resting better that night, Matt thought, pouring the drink--he blinked when he saw that he'd poured two glasses. A memory flickered in his head--Reichert frowning at the drink Matt had prepared for him, calling it "fruity," Matt calling him "fruity," Reichert rolling his eyes but drinking it anyway--and then died. Matt poured the second glass back in the blender and put it in the fridge.

He visited Ross's bar the next day. There were very few people to be seen, no music, no chattering or laughing. Ross seemed glad to see him, again asked how he was holding up. Did he hear? They'd found somebody. A "miracle survivor," the news kept calling him, seeing as no one else had been recovered alive. Matt nodded at each comment. He'd watched it on the news last night. But it had been updated since then, Ross informed him. The survivor was with the NYPD, they said; had he heard? Matt shook his head, he hadn't heard that, then shrugged it off. Of course the survivor would be a first responder, he told him--a firefighter, a police officer--what with how many of them had been there. At least some family would be resting better, he did tell the bartender before he left; Ross watched him go but said nothing else. Matt visited one of the few stores that had opened back up so far, bought groceries to tide him over until the next week, and went back home. He stood on the roof for a while. It was still smoking. It was strange. That evening, he checked the news just out of curiosity, but there was nothing new on the so-called "miracle survivor," and no news of others. He switched the TV off and went to bed, where he actually slept, without dreaming anything that he could recall.

Matt had never even been one for watching TV that much, but it was on now practically every hour he was at home and awake. He tuned out much of what was airing as he'd heard it already; he found his lack of concern or interest in much of what was going on to be curious, wondering if this was normal, and when his mood might shift. For some reason, he felt like drinking a lot of smoothies, as he wasn't very hungry, and there was something vaguely soothing about them, even though he didn't need much soothing. He briefly glanced at the updated number of dead/missing, listened to a few accounts of those who'd managed to flee before the second Tower came down, but stopped watching when several tearful people held up photographs toward the camera crews, pleading for information. He didn't like seeing people weeping and begging. That never got anything done.

In the afternoon he heard another brief mention of the miracle survivor but nothing much new. He wondered why the news insisted on reporting things that were no longer news, and switched to a sitcom for a half hour, then to a different news broadcast. Dozed. Went up to the rooftop to look across what was visible of the city. Would it never stop smoking? Wondered just how long a fire could burn before having to go out. Puzzled over how long it would take for two 110-story buildings to burn to ash and cinders. Went back downstairs to prepare the inevitable smoothie, half-listening to snippets of newscast in between blendings.

"The identity of the 'miracle survivor'--"

"--fall of Tower One has finally been released--"

"--member of the New York City Police Department--"

"--Det. Justin Reichert--"

The glass container of the blender shattered when the entire thing hit the floor, spattering juice across the kitchen. Matt's hands were empty but still poised as if he were holding it. It felt like all the blood, all the sensation had left his arms.

"--witnesses reported as arriving on scene and helping several people incapacitated by debris--"

It isn't him. Stuff like that only happens in movies. Stupid movies.

"--caught in the collapse of the North Tower--"

Matt slipped around the counter, stepping carefully in the remains of the smoothie lest he fall or cut his foot. He stepped onto the carpet and approached the TV in silence, still holding his hands aloft as if he were carrying an invisible blender.

"--rescued after three days buried under rubble. Apparently the same girder that caused his injuries also prevented him from being crushed by yet more debris--"

A photo came on the screen. Matt stared at the same picture he'd seen in the MISSING poster, the formal portrait in police dress uniform. He stared Reichert in the eyes as if Reichert were staring back. What swirled through him now was just as indescribable as the vast hollowness that had appeared when he'd first seen the photograph a few days ago--a few days ago?--it had been only that long?--it felt like he'd looked at it months ago, like he'd been sitting here in his apartment without a view for months. Had it been only a few days?

"--remains in critical condition at an undisclosed hospital. Our hearts go out to the family with hope for a full recovery. His rescue opens hope for other families that there may be more survivors, though officials are urging caution as rescue missions are increasingly turning toward recovery of remains. John? Back to you..."

The phone started ringing even as Matt still stared numbly at the screen. The answering machine--he hadn't even bothered to change the message he'd recorded on the twelfth--picked it up as he was too dazed to. He only dimly heard Ross's excited voice; it was funny, what close friends they'd become in just the past few days.

"Matt! Matt! Turn on the TV! Did you see it? I'm gonna call around and see if I can figure out what hospital it is. Did you see the news? Call me when you get this!"

Matt didn't call--not because he didn't want to, or didn't care, but because none of it would sink in. He was water, and the news was a slick of oil, floating on the surface but not breaking through. When the phone finally rang again, he looked at the clock, and couldn't believe he must have been standing there for an hour, though the ache in his legs said otherwise. What he'd thought he'd just seen was a dream, or more wishful thinking. He slowly came out of it and retrieved the phone just as the answering machine picked up, so Ross's voice came out as if on a speakerphone.

"Matt! Jesus, I thought I'd never reach you. Where've you been? Have you seen the news?" Matt opened his mouth, made a small sound, and must have taken so long to reply that Ross didn't give him the chance. "Listen, Jennie and I did some looking around and we think we found the hospital he's at. Christ, you would not believe how easy it all is, go figure. When you get there make sure to tell them you're a relative, a cousin or something, 'cause they know he has only a stepbrother, all right? Make up a sob story or whatever and you'll get right through because everybody's got a sob story right now and they can't tell what's what yet. It's crazy, I know. I wouldn't believe it either if Jennie hadn't tried..."

Matt took down the name and street of the hospital--it was within several blocks of his building--several blocks, Justin had been there, several blocks away, all along?--and almost hung up on Ross before Ross warned him, "Jennie says she saw him, he wasn't in good shape and they...I guess they say they're not sure he'll make it. So get over there while you can. If they won't let you through, here's his room number, so maybe you can sneak in..."

Get over there while you can. Any slight fluttering that had started to rise in Matt's breast quickly changed into a floundering panic. The numb haze that had been over him the past day or so shattered and he gasped, having to set the receiver down before his clenching fingers could break it. His arms shook so badly he wrapped them around himself to try to still them, and his legs felt like water. Reichert had described a standoff situation to him once, how calm and easy it all seemed at the time, how afterwards when he got back to his apartment he nearly collapsed; adrenaline, he'd said. Apparently it would keep someone going while they needed it, then when it was over came the crash. He'd also described how once after a rather rough foot chase and arrest, over a half hour had passed before he'd realized that he'd fractured his ankle--he'd been running on it all along, but once it was over... Matt finally understood what he'd meant.

He had to fight to get on his jacket and shoes, just to leave the building; he almost lost his balance on the stairs. His breath came out in a sharp wheeze and he shook like a leaf as he walked, attracting a few odd looks which he didn't notice. When the hospital came into view, he found he couldn't approach the doors. He literally had to force himself to walk across the street and enter, and even that took several moments and a vast amount of will. As he neared the reception desk he decided he didn't want to see him after all. He'd be better off not seeing him. He didn't want to. The more rational part of his mind was bewildered by this reaction--how could he possibly not want to see him? He didn't know, he just didn't. Get over there while you can. The implied finality of the words was what finally propelled his feet forward.

He did just as Ross had advised. Asked if he could see Justin Reichert, said he was a cousin who'd just gotten to the city; when the nurse informed him it wasn't time for visiting hours for non-immediate family, he vowed to just peek in and see him, he wouldn't enter the room or bother him or anything, just wanted to know he was okay. Did she have any information herself? She professed ignorance, which he knew was just confidentiality; he was waved through anyway, warned not to disturb his cousin, he needed all the rest he could get. Matt murmured a thank you and slipped past the desk into the hallway and toward intensive care.

The room number the nurse had given him was the same as the one Ross had. He saw to his relief that there was a large window overlooking the room, as he'd hoped there would be, since he was largely unfamiliar with hospitals; he slowed his step and could see that the curtain was only partly drawn so anyone passing by could look within. He hadn't passed the door yet, so he couldn't see who was inside. He halted again as if his feet were suddenly sinking into the floor.

...wasn't in good shape...

...not sure he'll make it...

...while you can...

Reichert had once told him of a nightmare he'd had. In the dream, he'd found a body. But there had been a blanket covering its face. The figure was indistinct so it could have been anybody--his stepbrother, his stepfather, his biological father, his sometime police partner, any one of various friends or acquaintances, even Reichert himself--he couldn't know unless he lifted the blanket. In the dream, he'd picked up the edge of the blanket, but had hesitated in raising it. On the one hand, he had to know who it was. On the other, he didn't want to know. The not knowing, and not wanting to know, had been the most frightening part of the dream, which Matt fully believed, recalling what had gone through his head while searching the thousands of pictures. Reichert had finally pulled the blanket aside...but that was the end of the dream. He never did find out who it was. As he'd described this dream to Matt, sitting hunched over in the bed with elbows on knees and a sour look on his face, Matt lying beside him and stroking his leg, he'd made clear how silly he'd found it, to be rattled by a mere dream. But even after awakening, it bothered him, the needing to know and the not knowing. He hadn't known which was worse, and he'd been in a foul mood the rest of the day because of it.

As soon as this memory finished flitting through Matt's head, he realized he had to see, or it would hang over him forever, like the smoke and ash still hanging over the city, like the mood which had hung over Reichert the rest of that day. He paused to steel himself, as he imagined Reichert had done in his dream, then stepped slowly forward, peering aside, willing the scene within to come into view as gradually as possible. He wasn't as brave as Reichert. He wouldn't have been able to just yank that blanket aside.

He could hear the beeping of the heart-rate monitor and the racket of an artificial respirator before he could see anything. This made his already slow step descend to a crawl, and he felt as if he had to drag his feet just to move them. He saw the edge of another curtain, the kind that surrounded hospital beds, but could tell that it hadn't been drawn shut. He halted to steady himself again and had to take the next step without thinking about it else he wouldn't have taken it at all. He told himself Reichert deserved at least the kind of courage he'd shown in his dream, and with that thought he turned his head to look in the window.

"The really stupid thing," Reichert had said, scowling at the bedsheets, "is I just know it would've both scared the shit out of me, and been totally anticlimactic. That's how it always is. Say for example it was me under the blanket. Bam--shit scared out of me--holy Christ, how am I under that blanket if I'm the one looking under it? Bam--what a stupid fucking dream, why am I under a blanket if I'm the one looking under it? So the next time I have a dream like that, I'm going to just pull the damn blanket off, laugh at whatever it is, and wake the hell up. This is completely not worth stewing over. I just know the ending would have been stupid, and that's why I'm so pissed off right now."

Matt again understood.

He almost didn't even see Reichert at first, there was so much equipment and so many dressings. It took him a moment to realize that all of that was him. He tried to make sense of it, appraise the situation. Reichert's left arm and leg were in traction; his right arm and leg lay upon the bed, but were bandaged. Further bandages wrapped around his ribs, the same ribs Matt had once run his fingers over, smiling at the way his partner had flinched; the tubes in the detective's nose and mouth, combined with these wrappings and the artificial respirator, told Matt all he needed to know about that. The dressings were thickest on his hands--Matt could hardly bear to wonder why, why those hands that had fiddled with his jacket zipper, that had touched his face, that had dug into the bedclothes, that had run along his body, were now so lost in sterile wrappings. It was likewise with his head; the bandages wrapped around his skull and over his left eye. His right eye, nearest Matt's vantage point, was still visible, one small thing he could find relief in, but it was swollen and dark with bruising, and it was shut.

Someone was huddled on a seat beside the bed, their back to Matt so they didn't see him. Judging by their hair and build, Matt knew it was the other person in the second photo on Reichert's MISSING poster, and could only assume it was his stepbrother. As he thought this, he saw him raise his hand to his face--wiping his eyes--and then lower it again, this time lightly placing it on Reichert's heavily bandaged right hand. He turned his head to glance at the clock on the wall--Matt saw how red his eyes were before slipping back away from the window before he could be noticed. If his stepbrother was here, then his parents probably were as well. If he was looking at the clock they were probably due to return soon. Matt huddled into his jacket and walked back up the hall, not meeting anyone else's eyes lest they be the parents who had no idea he existed, as if they could somehow tell who he was to their son. In a day already full of understandings, he now understood the guilt Reichert had always felt, and he didn't feel safe lifting his eyes until he was safely slumped in the shadows of Ross's bar, cradling the bottle the bartender had passed to him, "On the house, because you need it," along with the offer to drive him home when the time came. Matt had never gotten drunk before, had never seen any point in it. There was enough of a point now. He wiped at his own eyes in between swallows, trying to replace the image of bandages with that of caressing hands, of bruises with hazel eyes, of tubes and machinery with a hesitant smile that took weeks to appear but had finally been worth it.

In the following days he paid more attention to the news. To the handful of people who stepped forward--an office worker from Tower Two, the mother of a firefighter, a young patrol officer, several people from the North Tower--each telling their own story of what they'd seen the "hero cop"--that was what the media called him now, instead of "miracle survivor," now that they knew who he was--do that morning.

The patrol officer told of how he'd been driving to the scene somewhat late, the man running on foot who'd flagged down his car--practically jumping in front of it--flashing a badge as he climbed in, asking what had happened even as they sped to the site, how he'd learned the stammering details from the patrol officer himself, how as soon as they'd arrived, he'd jumped out of the car, running into the smoke and ash, and had been lost to the younger cop's sight. He'd figured he was dead by now.

The office worker from the South Tower told of running through the choking darkness as the building came down behind her, how she'd fallen and had no idea how long she'd been lying there half-invisible in ash when someone finally picked her up, how she'd groggily started to come to in time to glimpse the face of the man who passed her off to an emergency worker; she hadn't had the chance to get his name, hadn't been able even to speak to him, but had recognized his picture on the news.

The firefighter's mother--speaking for him as he was still recovering in the hospital, the same hospital Reichert was in--told her son's story of getting struck by falling debris which pinned his leg, how like the office worker he was far enough out of the way and buried well enough that no one could immediately see him, how someone--made gray and indeterminate by the ash--had freed him and helped him to his feet, letting the firefighter lean on him as they made their way back toward his fellows, how whoever it was had turned and disappeared as soon as they had hold of him, before they could see if he needed any attention himself. Like the office worker, the firefighter had managed to get a glimpse of his face only at the last moment, and that only because the other man had suddenly swiped his hand over his face to clear the caked dust away before he was lost from view.

A receptionist from Tower One told of being practically buried in a mound of concrete and steel, of pulling herself half free but being unable to finish the job due to the section of metal keeping her pinned down; of a man appearing seemingly out of nowhere and grabbing at the metal beam, jerking back with a hiss and his smoking hands held up to his face; how even after that, he'd wrapped them up in his jacket, and pushed the beam over, so she could scurry out of the rubble and to safety. It had never occurred to her that he was dead, she insisted; she knew he must still be alive, because God didn't let guardian angels die until it was their time, and this was obviously somebody with a lot of good things left to do.

The handful of people from the North Tower told of him briefly appearing in the lobby to direct them to a safe way out, what with the accumulating smoke making everything difficult to see, though they knew it was him. He hadn't been so coated in ashes, or his hands seared, just yet. They knew he'd escaped Tower One along with them, as he'd accompanied them and a handful of firefighters even as other firemen were heading inside; they'd lost sight of him, but had been surprised to learn of his disappearance, since he'd been right behind them, they insisted. They couldn't believe at first that he'd actually gone back into all that mess, but after hearing the other stories they were no longer surprised.

Matt listened to these accounts with growing fascination, leaning toward the TV in the dark, as he'd been too preoccupied to bother turning on the lights when night fell. There were other interviews. The police captain of Reichert's precinct. His family themselves. Part of Matt rather wished Reichert could see all of this himself. He would have been able to gloat and make Matt choke on it--You're only one person and can only do so much--and Reichert's argument, which he'd found so trite and childish at the time--Just because you can't fix the world doesn't mean you shouldn't try. Some of us actually like to try to fix something.

Matt had once asked him where he'd gotten such an attitude, since it seemed so out of keeping with the rest of his mindset. Reichert had hesitated to respond. "You'll think it's stupid." Matt insisted that he tell him anyway. He learned not only where Reichert had gotten this attitude, but why he'd become a police officer in the first place.

"You've heard of Kitty Genovese, right...?"

"Of course."

"Let me recap anyway. Put things in perspective. New York, 1960s. Pretty young lady on her way home from work late at night. A guy runs up and stabs her in the back. She starts screaming for help. Somebody yells out a window, guy runs off, but comes right back to finish the job. Stabs her, rapes her, and leaves her to die. Whole thing takes around a half hour. A bunch of people in their apartments see or hear at least part of what's going on. Only a few bother doing anything and what little they do turns out not to be enough. The guy who finally calls the cops? Sees the assault in progress outside his door. Shuts the door and calls not the cops, but a friend or some such and asks what he should do. Don't get involved, he's told. Good Samaritan calls the cops anyway. Kitty dies anyway. What took him so long to call, they ask? He was drunk, and he was tired, he says."
A pause. "Granted, a lot of the bigger story's been exaggerated over the years...but still, people didn't do nearly enough. Including the cops, people didn't want to call them because they'd get brushed off and treated like shit so often. I heard this story when I was in school. Couldn't believe it, that people could just not care to get involved. Nobody should have to die like that. Nobody should have to wonder why nobody else got involved. I'd had no idea what to do with myself before hearing that story. Then I heard it, couldn't believe it, and something clicked. Maybe I can do something. Nothing much, sure, but something is better than absolutely nothing. Something might have saved Kitty. Something as small as a shout or a phone call. It doesn't have to be something big. Everybody can stand back, or somebody can bother getting involved. I figured it may as well be me. Now, before you go spouting some self-affirmation kitten poster shit, I've always known I'm just one person and can do only so much, and in the big scheme of things, it might not make much difference. But if I help just one person one time, a Kitty or just some lady who had her purse snatched and her ID and money stolen, then in my opinion, at least that's something, and it's better than absolutely nothing. Maybe I can't change anything big or important. I can try to change something small, though. Sometimes small things are what's most important, anyway. And that should count."

Go figure that he had actually proven himself right in a manner so stupendous he would have grimaced at the unbelievability of it, if it had been fiction. Matt knew that despite all this, he wouldn't have gloated. It wasn't his style. He might have smirked and given Matt the finger, though, and said good riddance to those fucking milk cartons.

Matt glanced toward his window, as if he could see where they'd stood from here. Reichert wouldn't have said or thought that last thing. He might have been mouthy when in Matt's company, but he'd always had much more tact, much more compassion when it came to others. That went without saying, now.

He picked up the remote and switched off the TV for the first time in hours. He rubbed at his burning eyes--the tang of smoke and ash still made him grimace, he wondered if it would ever go away--and pulled out the bed, lying in it staring at the ceiling for a good long while. He rolled onto his side and held the opposite pillow, trying to catch Reichert's scent, to imagine he was still there, still awake and still whole. It was too difficult to fool his mind so. He contented himself with the thought of Reichert not under tons of rubble, but in another bed, still breathing, and thinking that he was at last able to sleep.

* * * * *

Matt couldn't pay a proper visit in the hospital, couldn't speak to family or friends or fellow police officers, to keep up on Reichert's condition. He relied on the news--the media were fascinated with the lone survivor, the "hero cop"--and on occasional surreptitious glances into the recovery room; he had to sneak past now, as they were likely to inform family of this strange cousin who kept showing up at odd hours. He was never accosted or caught. A few times he saw Reichert alone; once, just once, he even crept into his room and stared down at him for a good long while, reaching several times to take his hand, drawing back each time he saw the bandages; he ended up leaving without touching him or saying a word at all. More often than not, his family, in part or in whole, was in there with him, more frequently as time went on. It went like this for a couple of weeks. They were then there so often he could no longer walk past. Ross's cousin Todd worked at filling him in. He'd inhaled enough smoke and ash to warrant visiting the hospital every so often, and each time he did he would pass the detective's room and then pass the information on to Ross, thus to Matt.

Through a combination of this and the media Matt learned of when Reichert at last opened his eyes--his visible eye, at least--and then, a little while later, when he seemed to become aware of his surroundings, and then to communicate.

Now that he was recovering, the media, fickle as they were, largely lost interest, so he relied on Todd's reports. Todd befriended the injured fireman Reichert had helped out of the rubble, so this made things much easier. It turned out the fireman had taken to wheeling himself to Reichert's room to talk with him; that the detective was lucid enough to talk back; and that the fireman had had to fill him in himself on what had happened, as he hadn't seemed to remember at first. "Where are the Towers?" the fireman reported him as asking, as he'd looked at the disaster site footage on TV (the fireman had had to turn it on as Reichert couldn't use the remote, not only because of the bandages on his hands, but because the nurses and doctors thought it best he not learn too much too soon); his confusion had been genuine, and the fireman had felt awkward having to explain that they were gone. Reichert's bewildered response to this Matt found both amusingly typical, and heartbreakingly sad.

"They're the fucking Twin Towers--how the hell can they be 'gone'...?"

The fireman through Todd, and Todd through Ross, reported when his memory seemed to start coming back; when he'd recovered enough to start physical therapy, which was doubly difficult, as he couldn't support his shattered left leg what with his shattered left arm; how the fireman sat sympathizing countless evenings as Reichert grumbled over the slowness and tediousness of getting better (Matt smiled at this); when he at last departed the hospital to go home, though the fireman, whose leg had been badly injured, continued to see him now and then in physical therapy; how incredibly difficult and painful it looked, and the look on Reichert's face when he went through with it anyway. The fireman's therapy ended before the detective's, so the updates ended; Matt was at least sure he was alive and moderately well, which counted for something. It was the only thing he'd asked for when he'd bothered to pray, seeing as he wasn't sure if he even believed in God, and he wasn't sure if Reichert did, either.

Fickle as ever, the media, now that Reichert was recovering, started to show interest in him again, though, look as he might, Matt never saw him in any interviews. He could imagine Reichert's reaction to being asked to speak with a reporter, and it made him smile, too. Most of the world had no idea what they were dealing with when they were dealing with Reichert, and Matt sensed that was just as it should be.

Matt realized that Ross noticed it, but the bartender said nothing, perhaps feeling too awkward to. Reichert never showed up at Matt's apartment, or called him back to his, or contacted him whatsoever. He didn't resent this, or Reichert for doing it; he knew there were plenty of reasons not to get back in touch, only some of them physical. When he lay alone in bed at night--for he hadn't been interested in seeking out anyone else in the meantime--Matt wondered how their relationship, if it still existed in any form, had changed. What had changed, and if he would ever find out. The two of them had always been rather casual with each other--Reichert with his inconsistent visits and hesitation committing to anything, Matt with his flippant attitude and lack of concern for things that had nothing to do with him--but then again, they'd never seen anyone else while they were seeing each other, and the thoughts and feelings, physical and emotional, that coursed through Matt--and Reichert too, he was sure--when they were alone, had never been casual, and belied the indifferent tone of the rest of their relationship. If Reichert were to call him on the phone right now and ask to meet, would they merely talk? Would they talk, and make love? Would they merely have sex, and be done with it? He had no idea, and while this didn't agonize him as Reichert's blanket dream had agonized the detective, it still made him wonder.

He sensed a sort of counterpart to Reichert's feeling of anticlimax at the end of his dream, in how much Matt had gone through the day he'd disappeared and in the months following, only to not hear from him again. The looks Ross tossed at the bar TV whenever Reichert was mentioned made it clear that he resented this state of affairs, but Matt wasn't angry or hurt. Just somewhat saddened, and disappointed, but mostly sympathetic. Despite all he'd gone through during his search and resulting vigil, he knew he could never compare that to what Reichert had been through, so he could never judge how he acted afterward.

The date of the first anniversary quickly approached, almost before anyone knew it; Matt learned, from Ross from Todd from a friendly note from the fireman, that a commemorative ceremony was to be held in which various first responders would be awarded for their work onsite; prominent on the list of recipients was Reichert's name. He forwarded a copy when Matt asked Ross, and he sat in his apartment staring at it. He wondered if Reichert would show up. At first he figured he wouldn't; Reichert had never cared for awards or ostentation, too much attention made him bristle, which was why Matt assumed he'd never appeared on the news in person. Then he figured he must show up, if only out of respect; Reichert had always cared about giving respect where it was due, even if it was an inconvenience for him personally. So Matt waffled over what he thought he would do, and felt a bit vexed that he didn't know Reichert well enough to judge, after all. This problem was resolved when another list was forwarded to him through Ross and Todd, a list of those whose attendance was verified so far. Reichert was included.

As the date of the ceremony grew closer, some of the expected attendees met and chatted with each other a bit more, to become familiar with one another or figure out final details. Matt entered the bar one afternoon to find Ross talking with a man he didn't recognize; when Ross introduced him--the firefighter Reichert had pulled out of the rubble--Matt nearly bristled, and wanted nothing more than to get Ross in the back room and demand to know what the hell he thought he was doing. The look on his face must have been more obvious than he'd thought; Ross took a step back, whereas the fireman raised both hands and waved them slightly, a gesture of entreaty.

"I tracked your friend down and found him here. He didn't look me up. I know all about it now. I mean, I kind of started to figure." He shrugged toward the name of the bar, flashing in the window. "It's none of my business, and I don't care anyway. He could show up in a pink tutu and fairy wings and I'd still shake his hand for what he did. Todd kept pestering me so much for info I figured somebody really cared to keep up to date, I just wasn't sure who..."

After Matt had sufficiently calmed down, he learned the reason for the visit. It was a simple update, nothing important; the fireman (Ross gave his name as James, "But you can call me Jim," he said) had had the chance to see Reichert again, though only briefly, and they hadn't had the chance to talk, as he'd been speaking with someone else. Now that almost a year had passed, he was on his feet and walking, though he had a distinct limp, and still had to use a crutch for his left leg. And he'd been wearing gloves, Jim added, fingerless gloves, although he hadn't been in uniform or any such. He offered no commentary on this last detail, and neither Ross nor Matt did, either. The general public wasn't to attend the ceremony, which was for family and associates of the recipients, and it wasn't going to be televised. Matt wasn't sure if he would've been able to watch it even if it were. He thanked Jim for the information, and the fireman shook their hands and departed. Ross offered Matt a free drink; Matt turned it down--he hadn't much enjoyed the morning after his last binge--but assured him he was all right, before heading to the store and then home, his usual routine for as long as he could remember.

He wondered what Reichert's routine had been--he hadn't seemed to have one, what with how inconsistent he'd been. He wondered if he had a routine now. He lay in bed nights mulling over these inane things, as they gave him something to do to fill in the empty hours before sleep. He'd had no inclination to open a book, or pick up a paper, or watch anything but the news, in quite a while. More often than not, he simply lay and thought, fiddling his fingers the way Reichert used to do, something he'd always found endearing but just a little bit annoying, as well.

The morning of September 11th, he turned on his TV just for the droning of the news reporters to keep him company, and to stave off the silence that threatened to fill the small apartment, but paid little attention to all the ceremonies and speeches and commemorations and memorials being shown. He dimly heard names being read, a seemingly endless list of names, but tuned this out when he realized they belonged to the hundreds upon hundreds of photos of strangers he'd seen plastering just about every wall and window and lamppost in Manhattan. Almost all of those pictures were gone by now, he realized, and then he thought, a year. Everyone must have given up any remaining hope months ago. Had it really been months? It had felt like merely weeks, which made no sense, as when it had been happening, days had felt like months. He told himself to remove the calendar from his wall the next time he was up, for all the good it was doing him keeping track of time.

A sudden knock on his door jolted him out of a half-doze and he sat up abruptly, blinking and confused. At first he thought perhaps he'd dreamt it, but it came again--not pounding, but urgent enough--if anything it sounded like whoever was knocking was trying to keep quiet enough so only Matt would hear it. He slid his legs off the couch and went to the door, peering out the peephole. The lighting in the hallway was lousy, always had been, so he couldn't be sure who he was looking at--he was almost positive he knew, but was almost equally positive he was wrong, since it made no sense. He undid the locks and opened the door several inches to peer out.

His visitor's head jerked up as if he'd been falling asleep where he stood. Matt almost didn't even recognize Reichert, the look in his eyes was so strange. It looked as if he'd lost a little weight--Matt didn't doubt that he'd probably lost more, but had also probably put some back on in the past year--and it also looked as if he hadn't been sleeping properly, if the dark rings under his eyes were any indication. Aside from that and the police dress uniform he was incongruously clad in, he looked the same, at least unless one looked him in the eyes. Matt couldn't quite describe it even to himself. He imagined small animals got that same look when being chased down by larger predators. It suddenly struck him, he supposed it was the same look people would get seeing a jet airliner headed for their office window, or the look one would get plummeting 110 stories just before they hit the ground. A shiver of nausea passed through him though he had no idea why. All this happened in the space of a second or two.

For another second or two they just stared at each other as if they had no idea who the other was. When Reichert at last spoke, he barely opened his mouth, and he whispered, as if someone were listening in.

"I didn't know where else..."

There was a hitch in his words; Matt didn't wait for him to figure out what he was going to say next. He opened the door wider, grasped Reichert's elbow, and guided him in, shutting the door behind him. Reichert blinked like he had no clue how he'd suddenly gotten from the hall into the apartment; he glanced at Matt, looking as if he wanted to say something, but neither of them spoke as Matt slipped his arm under Reichert's to help him walk to the couch. The detective didn't lean on him as much as he'd expected him to, though he did falter somewhat before sitting down. Matt started clearing the small coffeetable before him, and then, even though it struck him as some sort of silly movie trope, he picked up the edge of the blanket he'd had spread across the couch and draped it over Reichert's shoulders, as he'd started shaking so violently Matt couldn't tell if he was cold or what. Reichert didn't seem to notice the gesture; his eyes were still wide but had gone glazed, which Matt didn't like.

When Matt moved back into his line of vision he blinked and peered up though he didn't lift his head. Matt saw it now, the old familiar guilt; he disliked that look as well, but at least it was something he knew, something he'd dealt with before, something that had come before all this.

Reichert seemed to try to control his shaking, with little success. His voice faltered as much as his step had. "I'm sorry I never..."

Matt shook his head so forcefully that he cut himself off. "Sit here," he said. "Relax a minute while I get you something to drink."

He turned away to the kitchenette. He had no idea what he should give him to drink; nothing seemed right. He pursed his lips when he remembered something Ross had given him as a New Year's gift, which he'd stuck in the back of the cupboard with the thought that maybe someday he'd have some sort of proper occasion to drink it. As he fetched the bottle and poured a glass of brandy he looked at Reichert surreptitiously. Neither of them had been big on drinking; it was one of the few things on which they agreed. He couldn't imagine giving him coffee, since he looked like a bowstring that was ready to snap. And for some reason soda and juice and the ever-present smoothies seemed ridiculous now.

Back at the couch he pressed the glass into Reichert's hands--he noticed that rather than the expected white dress gloves, he wore the fingerless gloves Jim had mentioned, but said nothing--so Reichert's fingers curled around it, and he reflexively took a sip--at least, that was what Matt expected him to do, but he downed the glass seemingly in one swallow. He made a face and pressed the back of his wrist to his mouth as if someone had punched him, then shook his head, but the glaze had left his eyes, so Matt poured another drink which he simply held onto for the moment. Matt glanced from side to side since something was niggling at him but he couldn't place it.

It finally struck him. "Where's your crutch?" he asked, realizing that Reichert hadn't had it even in the hallway.

Reichert just blinked. "How did you..."

Matt set the bottle down in front of him and came around the table. "How did you get here?" he asked, sitting down beside him.

"I ran." The slightest grimace flickered across Reichert's face. "I'm sure I'll be regretting it soon enough." He flexed his knee--Matt could tell he was wearing a light knee brace--and then took another drink.

"You ran all the way here? From that award thing?"

The look on Reichert's face showed that Matt's odd knowledge of what had been going on was starting to get to him. "You've been keeping tabs on me?" he asked, but Matt could tell he didn't expect an answer. He turned back to his drink and was silent for a while. "So it's pretty obvious I'm supposed to be getting an award right now." He lifted his arms to indicate the uniform he wore, and this time grimaced fully; he pulled the police cap off his head and tossed it across the table, then, having to set down the drink, scrubbed both hands through his hair as if he were crawling with bugs. "I look like a fucking doorman."

Matt picked his drink up and pressed it back into his hands, feeling that he wouldn't know what to do with them otherwise. "You look like a fucking cop."

"It's stupid anyway. You realize that? What I'm getting an award for?" Reichert didn't wait long enough for Matt to say, For saving at least three people's lives? "For getting buried under girders and shit and having to be dug out. I never knew they gave awards for that. They should be giving out a hell of a lot more awards today." He threw back his head and let out a barking laugh that just made Matt shudder, it was so out of place. "Like two thousand. Or is it three thousand? Something like that. Give or take a hundred. Granted, they'd need a different award since they weren't dug out. Maybe like, here's your bronze medal for getting buried. Here's your silver medal for getting buried and dug out. And here's your gold medal for getting buried and dug out and actually surviving. They can put up these three staggered levels, and we can stand on them, bronze silver gold, like the Olympics. Except I'm not sure how they'd build levels that big. They'll think of something. I know a nice big empty place they can build them in, too. Two big nice empty places." He let out the awful laugh again, and downed the second drink.

Matt said nothing, both because he knew no response was desired, and because he had nothing to say. A year ago, he never would have believed Reichert would say such things; he supposed things had changed more than he'd thought. He poured a third drink rather than say anything. Reichert accepted it and stared across the room in silence again, while Matt stared somewhere in his general direction.

"What took them so long?" Reichert murmured at last; Matt looked at him inquiringly but he didn't look back. "They say I was in there three days. Three days. Seventy-two hours. Actually more than seventy-two hours. I know I couldn't've been in there too deep because I could swear I saw daylight, at least I thought it was. And I wouldn't've lived if I were that deep. What took them so long? What took them three days to find me?"

Matt bit his lip and said nothing.

"It shouldn't've taken nearly that long," Reichert went on. "They had to have heard me. I mean I was screaming my lungs out as long as I could. I screamed until my voice gave out. How could they not possibly hear that? If they were really looking that hard? I swear I saw daylight. They must've heard me."

Matt still didn't speak, this time because he didn't think correcting him would be a good idea. Jim, the fireman, had given a few more details about Reichert's injuries and recovery, so he realized what was wrong with what Reichert was saying.

"But that can't be right," Reichert murmured after another moment, and his brow furrowed. "They tell me my lung was collapsed, and I wouldn't've been able to scream, at least not nearly that long. They said they didn't hear any screaming, and why would they lie about that? They said I was in such a space there was no way to get at me until they moved this huge load of shit from above me, and there was no way daylight could've reached in. If there was daylight, and I was screaming, they would've noticed. They said the only reason they found me was because they just found me. They actually thought I was a body and were bringing a bag for me. Then the guy who called out that they got a body thinks he sees my finger twitch, and surely he didn't really see that, but maybe?--he puts his fingers to my neck, at least what he can see of it, because I'm so bloody and dirty he can't see my face, and holy shit, there's a pulse. They say they didn't believe him when he yelled that they have a live one. Because it's been three days, and there's nobody else. They're looking for just bodies and remains by now. Sure, they hope after just three days maybe there are others, but three days searching for nothing..." He rubbed his finger against the glass and his perplexed look grew. "They say with that head injury I was likely unconscious the whole time. They said they were calling out for survivors the whole time, and no one responded. I know they're not lying. How come I remember screaming if I didn't? Why do I think I saw daylight? Why didn't I hear them yelling? I could've sworn I screamed until I couldn't anymore..."

"Stuff like this does weird things with your memory," Matt said. "It's not strange. You're not the first one."

"There must've been more people in there. I can't be the only one who lived through it. They spent three days looking for me and who knows how long just digging me out. I had a fucking steel girder on me, who knows how long it took to get rid of that. It must've been hours. How many people can you rescue in hours? In three days? All that time they spent on me they could've been digging up who knows how many other people. Why didn't they? Why'd they spend so fucking long on me?"

"There was nobody else to dig out," Matt said.

"That's bullshit. There had to be somebody else. I'm a cop so I'm a priority, is it? Cops and firefighters first?"

"That's not how it was and you know it."

"I don't know it. It makes sense. I couldn't blame them. Except why they wasted so much time digging me out when there were God knows how many firefighters, Port Authority cops--Christ--waiters, secretaries, janitors--needing out a lot more than me. I can't imagine how many they could've dug out instead of me."

"There was nobody else to dig out. You were the only one. They weren't digging just where you were, it was everywhere, and you were the only one left."

"Bullshit. I could've held on for how many more hours, days, while they dug out the others. I don't believe I was the only one because it makes no sense."

"Not everything makes sense. You were the only one. Did Jim tell you your heart stopped at least three times on the way to the hospital? You would've been dead if they'd waited one more hour."

"Yeah, well, big loss. They could've done something a lot more useful than waste time on me."

"That's bullshit. You think you're the only one who couldn't believe you were the only one? You know that by the time they dug you out, they figured there was nobody else? They had every reason to drag their feet getting you out because you must've been dead, but they didn't. And you know what, they would've hurried to dig you out whether you'd done something useful or not."

"Fucking useful, my ass."

"You saved at least three people, maybe more, you do remember that, right?"

"That's a fucking load of bullshit. They would've gotten out just fine whether I picked them up or not."

"Jesus, are you really that blind? Do you really think you're that insignificant? What the hell happened? I thought you felt guilty before, I never imagined any of this."

"Yeah, well, have a skyscraper fall on your head and then ask me what happened! I had the day off. I slept in. You know what woke me up, the only reason I got up at all? Sirens. I heard sirens. You know what my first thought was? 'Goddamn sirens.' I was pissed off that they woke me up on my day off. How dare they wake me up on my day off. So typical. Can't get back to sleep with all those fucking sirens, so I get up too early. Thing is, I don't know yet it's too late. Turn on the TV, don't even pay attention to it, get the orange juice and drink it right from the carton because I'm lazy that way. Look at the TV and think it's weird that they're showing some kind of action movie, I could've sworn this was the news. Huh, that's even weirder, it's the World Trade Center and it's on fire. It looks so real. How did they do that, computers? I've never heard of this movie before, what is it? Armageddon? I don't remember this scene. There's no Bruce Willis. Why are they showing it on the news? They even made it look like a news broadcast. Then it occurs to me to change the channel. Same movie. Third channel, same movie. That's how slow I was that morning, thinking, this has to be some kind of weird media event I'm not aware of, like War Of The Worlds or something. I notice the sirens are still going. Why are there so many sirens? Then it occurs to me to check out that lovely view you like so much, because you can see the Towers from where I live, if you lean forward and turn your head just right. And you know what really, really stupid fucking thing I think first? 'Holy Christ, they're filming it live, it looks real.' Second thing I think is, 'Holy Christ, this must be the world's weirdest dream, seeing a TV program out my window.' Granted, give me credit it took me a microsecond to think that before I finally got it. I think you know the rest."

He downed his third drink. Matt hesitated before pouring him a fourth, unsure if it would be a good idea, though, at least if he were just talking, he couldn't be out doing anything stupid. Reichert took a sip and coughed as if to clear his throat.

"Because shit like that does not really happen. I don't think I believed it until I got there. I go running on foot, believe it or not, because my car is in the shop, not that I'd've had the faintest notion to drive the thing now anyway. Practically get run over by the only other car in the area, the only other guy later than I am, and jump in. This patrol cop is telling me airplanes ran into them, on purpose. Who the hell does that? Am I in some kind of really weird movie and I don't know it? They can't make a movie this real. I wonder if maybe David Copperfield is around somewhere and that's why I can see only one Tower when I look up. Smoke and mirrors. Giant fucking mirrors!" Another barking laugh, though this one wasn't as convincing as before. "I'm too shocked to think something that logical. I just think I must be seeing things. Stop looking up and start looking around. Something hits the ground right in front of me. I can't tell you what it was, because after it hit, I couldn't recognize it anymore. Stop looking at that and start looking around, and try to dodge and duck, because there's another one, and there's another one. I know what they are by now but I still can't recognize them. Smoke parts a bit, I see the bottom of the North Tower. And I think, Jesus, Matt was right, it's beautiful. Except that smoke is pouring out of it, and the windows are broken, and there's red everywhere." He sipped and then looked at his drink as if curious about what it was. "You know the rest."

"Do you know the rest? Because I know three people, maybe even seven or eight, who insist they wouldn't be here without you. It's not my opinion. They say it. I don't see why you can't see that."

"Three lousy people, so what. I should've gotten more. If I hadn't gotten the fucking day off..."

"Just three people wasn't lousy to you way back when. Remember Kitty, remember, 'If I help just one person, one time'--? Where did that Justin go? And you told me yourself why you got the day off, you talked a guy in a bank into letting out the hostages and putting down his gun. September 10th. You said it took you over three hours. You aren't even a hostage negotiator. If that isn't a reason to get the next day off and sleep in, I don't know what is."

"Maybe it was, until airplanes started flying into buildings. There's no reason to sleep through that."

"Keep coming up with excuses to beat yourself in the head. Like you would've known it would happen. Three thousand people died because they didn't know it would happen. If you're that stupid and ignorant for not knowing ahead of time, then so were they. Are you ready to say that?"

"Those were people who couldn't've known any better and weren't expected to do any better. Police, firefighters, they're supposed to know better."

"Hundreds of those three thousand were police and firefighters. Try again."

Reichert fell silent. He rubbed his wrist against his eye and Matt could tell he was getting tired. His face pinched and he flexed his knee again; Matt guessed that the adrenaline had at last worn off. He very lightly placed his hand on it, as if that might do anything; Reichert's shoulders slumped and he hung his head over the glass. His breath hitched.

"Why did they take so fucking long to find me," he said, his voice barely audible. "Why did they waste all that time at all." Another hitch; he lifted his hands and the glass fell to the floor, spilling brandy across the carpet; he didn't seem to notice. He held his hands up in front of him as Matt imagined he'd done after grasping the heated metal beam.

"It doesn't make any sense. I've gone over it all in my head a thousand times and it makes no sense. Why it took so long. Why they bothered. Why I could swear I was screaming but I wasn't. Why I was the only one. None of it makes sense." He lifted his head now; Matt bit his lip again to see the tears streaming down his face. He hadn't even known he was crying until now. Reichert's shoulders started shaking as he had earlier; the tremor traveled down his arms, until it reached his fingers themselves.

"I keep thinking, maybe it never happened at all," he said, his voice shaking as well. "Maybe I dreamt it. Maybe I haven't woken up yet. It's still September 11th and I'm still sleeping in. Crazy dream. I've never had a dream that went on so long. Maybe I'll wake up soon." His breath caught and for a second he couldn't speak. "Maybe I'm still buried alive. Maybe I haven't been found yet. It's still September 11th and I'm still buried and screaming, or trying to. Or it's September 12th, September 13th, however long. Maybe they're still digging and maybe I won't even ever get out alive. Maybe I'm dreaming while I'm buried. Maybe I dreamt the whole past year." He lifted his head to look at Matt, and the strange, hunted look had returned to his eyes. "Maybe I'm dreaming all this right now. I don't know how to wake up. What do I do to wake up? How come it's going on so long? How do I tell if any of this is real or not? I want to wake up. I'm fucking tired of this."

An odd sound started coming from his throat. It took Matt a moment to realize it was a whine. From the sound of it, it was going to get higher and louder the longer it went on, like a teakettle or a siren. He shifted on the couch to face Reichert and grasped his wrists hard enough to pinch; Reichert's stare had moved to his hands, as if he saw something on them that he couldn't bear to see, but now his eyes flicked back to Matt's face, and the odd sound abruptly halted. Matt made a point of staring at him hard for a moment in silence, to make sure he really had his attention; when he determined that he did, he slowly lowered Reichert's hands, loosening but keeping his grip.

"Justin," he said; he couldn't remember the last time he'd directly called him by his name, so it sounded odd coming off his tongue in this manner. Reichert blinked as if he were unused to hearing it as well. "This is real," Matt said, keeping his eyes fixed on the detective's. "You're really sitting here talking with me. It all really happened. They really fell. You were really there, and that really happened. You were really buried. They really dug you out. You're really free. You're really awake and you're really here." He slipped his hands forward to hold Reichert's, squeezing his thumbs against Reichert's palms until he winced. "Whenever you start wondering what's real and what's not..." He unlatched the Velcro fasteners of Reichert's gloves and slipped them off, cradling the detective's bare hands in his own. White puckered furrows marred his palms; they were so deep, Matt had to wonder how he'd even regained full use of his hands at all, how he could still stretch and flex his fingers, yet somehow he could. He wondered just how much everything hurt, and how Reichert had gone this long without saying a word. He doubted most people could make it that long without breaking down completely.

He lifted Reichert's scarred hands, palms toward the detective's eyes so he had to look at them; Reichert cringed, but didn't look away.

"Whenever you start wondering what's real and what's not," Matt repeated himself, "look at these, and you'll know. It was real, and now it's over."

Reichert's eyes brimmed and his chest started hitching. His fingers curled around Matt's, hiding the scars again. Matt withdrew his hands to clasp them around both of Reichert's, and touched his forehead to the other man's; Reichert squinched his eyes shut so the tears spilled out and a sob escaped his throat. His arms went around Matt and he dragged him toward himself so violently that Matt had to grab at the edge of the table to keep from falling; he blinked to find Reichert's face buried against his shoulder, his entire body racked with sobs which Matt knew must have been accumulating, and getting shoved back down, for months. He felt his own eyes sting at the piteous sounds Reichert let out, and wrapped his arms around him as well, letting him cry and not saying anything else to stop it. Sometimes the only way for something to end was to let it wear itself out. He had the feeling this would go on much longer than a regular, trivial bout of crying, but didn't care; he'd been patient before, he could be patient again.

"What took them so long?" Reichert's voice came cracking and muffled against him as he shook. "Why am I the only one? What took them so long...?"

* * * * *

Matt didn't sleep. Sleep refused to come, but he didn't care. Reichert slept, probably because of the hours of sobbing which had at last worn themselves out, possibly also because of the brandy, likely as well because he obviously hadn't slept a full night in months. Matt stared at his face the entire evening and night, for that was how long he slept, and Matt didn't bother waking him. After the first hour, his sleep had grown fitful; Matt watched his hands start to twitch, then his face, his closed eyes screwing up as if he were cringing at something he was seeing. His breath grew faster, and a small moan escaped him. Matt reached out to clasp his hands and squeeze them again, until the touch seemed to reach through to him, at which the building tension slowly left his muscles, the whimper faded, and his face and hands relaxed. From the looks of it, either he didn't dream more, or else his dreams were more pleasant, throughout the rest of his sleep; though whenever he seemed to tense again, Matt made sure to caress his hands, just in case.

It was only when daylight had begun to filter through the window that Reichert dragged his eyes open. He blinked blearily at Matt a few times, furrowing his brow, seeming vaguely confused; Matt offered him a smile he didn't quite feel, and touched his cheek.

"You're really here," he murmured.

Another blink. Matt had thought he still wasn't fully awake, but the way his eyes flooded with tears at these three words told him otherwise. He reached across the foldout bed--Matt had taken it out just as Reichert's crying was fading, his eyes fluttering as he struggled futilely to stay awake--and Matt slid toward him so they embraced. Reichert burrowed his head against his shoulder again and they stayed this way for some time; Matt felt him shaking, but it gradually faded to the merest tremor.

"What time is it?" Reichert asked, his voice slightly hoarse, his eyes flicking toward the light starting to stream through the window.

"Who cares," Matt replied. "They gave you the eleventh off, look how that went, so they can afford to give you another stupid day off."

Reichert blinked. Matt bit the inside of his mouth, wondering if the comment had been a bad one. For a few seconds the detective didn't seem to know how to respond; he let out a hiccupping sound and started shaking and crying, though Matt realized, with some surprise, that he was actually laughing, or, rather, he was doing both. He lifted a hand to rub at his eyes, then drew it back and stared at his palm as if not remembering what happened to his gloves. He then noticed he was still in his dress uniform, and the look on his face grew very strange. He stared at his chest and arms like they belonged to someone else, or like he'd never seen a police uniform before. For the first time Matt noticed the black band wrapping around his badge.

"Why did you run?" he asked.

Reichert gave up on trying to figure out why he looked the way he did, and resumed rubbing his eyes. He made a face.

"I'm not sure. I want to say because I didn't belong there. But...I don't know." He lowered his hands and his eyes grew vague. "They started calling names and I couldn't breathe all of a sudden. Like my lungs had turned inside out. I thought my heart would beat itself out; it felt like it was being crushed. There were too many people around. All these uniforms. Police. Firefighters." He shut his eyes and winced; Matt took one hand. "The trees were too tall. Too big a crowd. I had to get out of there." He let out a breath and opened his eyes again, looking both tired and somewhat embarrassed. "I guess I left everyone hanging. Cinderella and her glass slipper. Det. Reichert and his shiny medal. I don't know where my crutch went...I didn't feel my leg or anything, I just had to get out of there so I could breathe. I don't get it, it's not like anything happened."

"You panicked." Reichert frowned at him slightly and Matt shrugged. "No one could blame you. If you didn't want to be there, you shouldn't've had to stay there, anyway."

"Yeah, well..." Reichert grimaced again, and Matt felt his knee against his thigh. "I'm regretting it now. Christ, it's killing me."

Matt put his hand on it again, as if that might do anything. He wasn't prepared for how sharply Reichert flinched back, nearly kicking the bed, and for a brief second was reminded of their first time together. The awful look didn't leave Reichert's face this time; Matt stared at him as he drew his knee up almost to his chest and wrapped his arm around it, cradling his elbow with his other hand.

"I'm sorry," Matt said, feeling his ears burning.

Reichert shook his head a little--difficult, as they were still lying down. "The fucking things hurt when it's hot, when it's cold, when it's too wet or too dry, whenever I might think a shiny fluffy thought or look at somebody funny. I don't know, maybe this is what I get. There's a price for everything."

"You're not being punished, you had a steel girder fall on you. Of course that'll hurt. It's not like the girder meant it or God sent it or anything."

"I don't know." The pained look on Reichert's face faded a little, and he slowly stretched his left arm, bending and straightening it a few times before doing the same with his leg. "This is nothing," he added, then, when Matt's expression must have turned questioning, "Nothing compared to what everyone else got. Don't keep telling me I'm beating myself up, I don't have to. You have to know it's true. I'd put up with this every hour of the rest of my life if it meant somebody else could have gotten out of there. I'd put up with it feeling like knives sticking under my kneecap and in my elbow if someone else had made it. I'd've gladly lost them both entirely if it meant somebody else could've been dug out before me. You might be right saying there was no one else left, but if there had been, I wouldn't've thought about it a second before having them pulled out before me, even if it meant that girder would finish the job. This is nothing."

"So you're saying you wouldn't've thought about it a second, leaving me behind here," Matt said quietly.

Reichert's head jerked up and he stared at him for a moment. "I didn't say that," he nearly snapped; then, "You're honestly telling me you'd sit around and mope about me leaving you behind? I thought you weren't the type. I thought that kind of stuff was too sissy for you."

"You've changed some of your views since then?" Matt said, and shrugged one shoulder. "So have I. You don't have to be buried under a building to see things differently." He paused, debating whether he should say anything more. "Did you ever listen to your answering machine from that day?"

Reichert shook his head. "I couldn't stand to. The thing actually read '47.' Forty-seven! I didn't even know that many people know me or give a shit. Or that it had that much space on it. Christ. I shoved the whole thing in the bottom of the closet and got a new one."

"I can't count how many of the messages on it were mine. No matter how stupid and clingy I told myself it was..." He trailed off for a moment. "I kept hearing you in my head telling me what a baby I was being, to knock it off and man up or whatever, but when you're looking at hundreds, thousands of pictures on a wall..." His voice caught; Reichert was staring at him, a strange look coming to his face. "You know, this is the second time I've seen you in dress uniform, along with that picture. And you and your stepbrother looked like you were having so much fun. It's weird seeing all these smiling faces when most of them are already dead."

He didn't know if he'd ever seen such surprise--shock?--and disbelief in Reichert's eyes. "You went looking for me?"

"What else was I supposed to do?"

"Then..." Reichert twisted his head around and started taking in the rest of the apartment, as if he hadn't noticed it before. He especially scrutinized the shelves and table and counter of the kitchenette. Matt realized he must be looking for signs of somebody else. "You've been just sitting here this whole time waiting for me to come back?"

The tone of his voice made it sound like this was the most ludicrous thought in the world. Matt bit his lip, not wanting to say anything more; Reichert stared at him for such a long time he finally did so, just to break the silence, though his voice was barely more than a whisper.

"What else was I supposed to do?"

The look in Reichert's eyes started to change, as if stormclouds were rolling in, and they narrowed just a bit and his nose wrinkled just a bit, seemingly in disgust.

"You could've moved on."

Matt's stare didn't waver. "So could you."

They both fell silent now, reaching a stalemate. Matt held the stare more easily, as he knew and had always known what he felt, though he could tell it was more difficult for Reichert. He guessed that came with shutting things inside, something the detective had always been good at. He was surprised to suddenly realize, however, that this, their entire relationship, must have run counter to everything else Reichert had always done. For some reason it had never occurred to him that a relationship, especially an informal one, could present such difficulty; relationships had always come easily for him. Looking back on all of Reichert's past reactions, he realized it hadn't been nearly so for him. He felt a bit of disgust with himself for having been so ignorant when he'd thought Reichert was just stubborn; he thought he kept this from his face, but he just barely caught his reflection in Reichert's eyes, and it was like the old shame he'd seen there had bounced back into his own eyes, then back into Reichert's. He knew he couldn't possibly have seen that. But apparently Reichert had. The disgust left his face and his brow furrowed slightly--confusion, sadness, sympathy--Matt wasn't used to this last one, especially not coming from him. He'd never needed any sympathy. It grated on him that anyone might feel that for him. And then he understood what Reichert had been feeling.

For a second he thought something had gone wrong with the sunlight, something had moved in front of the window. His view of Reichert disintegrated into an indefinite blur. Something touched his face and he blinked, feeling the wetness in his eyes, but suddenly he could see again, and it surprised him that Reichert's hand was on his cheek, a gesture he should have been giving, not one that should be given to him. Hadn't he been the levelheaded one, the patient one, the one to be leaned on, the entire time, even right up to that morning? It made no sense for him not to be that one. He shut his eyes and felt the warmth streaming from them anyway, and tried to take a breath without it hitching, but was unsuccessful. Reichert's hold on his face tightened a little; he felt the bed shifting, and Reichert touched their foreheads together, and they lay like this for a while. Matt didn't sob as Reichert had--that had never been his style--but tears streamed silently from his eyes for some time, and eventually he had to take several deep breaths to try to regain his composure, which he realized was hopelessly lost. He pressed a knuckle to his eye and rubbed at it, opening them and blinking back at his partner.

"Fucking scared little pussy," Reichert said.

Matt snorted so hard it sounded like the air blasted from his nostrils. "Is that some kind of hint?"

"If you want."

Matt dropped his hand back to the bed as Reichert slid toward him and their mouths met. A thrill coursed almost violently through Matt's body, down his spine, making him shudder; he hadn't even known how much he missed this until now. It had been a year, after all. He knew no one else would have caused such a chill to run through him. He placed his hand on Reichert's face now and their mouths sucked hungrily at each other, their breath picking up, and they both shifted closer until their bodies touched. Matt wrapped his leg around Reichert's, careful not to do so too hard, and traced his toes up his calf. The motion made their pelvises press together; Reichert let out a slight sound into Matt's mouth, and, not breaking the kiss, Matt grasped the front of his uniform and rolled them both over to end up atop him, letting his legs straddle Reichert's waist as their hands started roaming over each other feverishly.

He'd actually wished for Reichert to be on top for a change, but feared that his arm and leg might not be able to support him. Perhaps another time. He undid the brass buttons one by one, pulling his shirt loose and slipping his hand under to run up Reichert's chest, making his breath hitch. Reichert broke their kiss, his own hands grasping the front of Matt's shirt.

"Take off your clothes," he panted, his mouth twisting in a smirk, "so I can see you."

Matt smirked back, crushed their mouths together again, but complied, sitting up to pull his shirt off over his head; he always dressed rather casually, and was wearing a T-shirt and shorts at the moment, so disrobing in a hurry was never an issue. He balanced first on one knee, then the other, rather awkwardly, to remove the latter and his underwear, so he sat upon Reichert naked, and leaned down to kiss his neck.

"You're kind of overdressed for this," he murmured, and Reichert let out his odd bark of a laugh, though it didn't sound nearly as awful this time.

"Yeah, well, I didn't choose it..."

Matt worked at his tie and collar, and then his shirt--any other time he could have simply torn it off, but it didn't seem quite right to do that now, no matter how much Reichert might hate the uniform. The entire time he worked, they kissed, Reichert running his hands over him, and when the detective's mouth moved behind his ear he shuddered and felt himself growing hard. He grasped Reichert's right arm and he pushed himself up, pulling off jacket, shirt, tie; his fingers couldn't work fast enough on the rest, especially considering that Reichert was growing excited as well, so they both had to do it, until with some awkward squirming and a kick they were both bared, and practically fell upon each other, biting and clawing. Reichert growled into Matt's throat, and Matt shivered at the sound.

Despite how long they'd been together now, how many times they'd shared the same bed, they'd never been inside each other--not Matt in Reichert, nor Reichert in him. There were times Matt longed for it, but he sensed the other man might not be ready or willing, based on his reaction their second time together. Perhaps he simply wasn't interested. It didn't matter that much, since they always found plenty of other things to do with each other. He remembered how they'd slipped into the shower following that time together--how Reichert had at first seemed to find it beyond bizarre to share the shower stall with another man, until Matt informed him they weren't there merely to wash themselves off; he couldn't tell if the flush that had risen in his face was from lust or embarrassment. It had taken a bit to get that started, but it had ended up well, Reichert tossing back his head and yelping at the spraying water as he sprayed, himself, the motions of Matt's hand stilling upon him while his own hand did the same. The memory was so vivid he pushed himself against Reichert without thinking and felt him jerk; he ran his kiss down to the hollow of his throat, which he knew the detective liked, and Reichert pressed his head back against the pillow, arching his neck and gasping. He dropped one of his hands to grasp at the bedcovering--another sight familiar to Matt, and one he was glad to see again, after so long. At least some small things hadn't changed.

He extended his leg, using his knee to part Reichert's thighs; Reichert obliged, spreading his legs so Matt could move his hips closer. The first time they'd done this, his partner had seemed alarmed, another reason Matt hadn't bothered taking it one step further. The alternative was almost as good. Reichert bent his right knee somewhat and pressed his pelvis to Matt's, briefly, and this time Matt gasped, his own hips pushing him back down to the bed. He ran his hand down Reichert's taut belly, feeling him flinch, Matt's fingers slipping through the dark line of hair that he loved so much, tangling at the base, stroking against Reichert's hardness. He could feel his lover's muscles tighten to press closer; Matt shifted himself until his penis slipped between Reichert's legs, rubbing against his buttocks; when he pulled back again, Reichert gasped and wrapped his hand around Matt, quickly stroking up and down. Matt hadn't expected it--in the haze of lust the thought had left his mind, he hadn't even noticed when Reichert had touched his body--but there was a difference, he could feel the rough scar over Reichert's palm when he stroked him. Matt jerked unexpectedly; the briefest twinge of a thought, the old guilt, flickered through the back of his mind, but when Reichert continued running his hand up and down, growing faster, the thought fled him completely; instead he found that the strange new roughness of his touch excited him even more.

He braced his knees between Reichert's and lowered himself, having to use his hands to support himself, hating that he couldn't stroke Reichert in return, but the detective didn't seem to mind too much. When he slipped back between his legs and started to rock himself forward and back on his knees, he felt Reichert's hardness rub against his belly, and the moan Reichert let out made it obvious the motion was just as pleasurable as Matt's hand would be. He reached up to grasp Matt's buttocks, drawing him closer with each push, his fingers sinking in each time Matt's muscles contracted, loosening when they relaxed. Their breath came in hot spurts; they continued to sporadically kiss each other, mouths, necks, chests, but eventually became lost in their motions, Reichert pressing himself against Matt with each thrust, so aside from Reichert's grasp on him, they had no more mind to kiss or caress, and focused only on finishing what was important.

Matt had never heard Reichert cry out the way he did now, repeatedly; he realized that going so long without must have affected him as well. He dug his toes into the bed to propel himself harder; when Reichert trembled against him, he raised himself a bit and pressed his knee down to lunge at him. Reichert's entire body jolted and stiffened and the sharp cry he let out this time was just this side of a short scream; Matt gasped and jerked back from him, and nearly ended up getting kneed in the crotch when Reichert yanked his left leg up. His teeth were bared and his eyes squinched shut; when he opened them just a slit, Matt saw the tears there, and let out his breath in a gust, his insides twisting; he nearly lost his erection, something that had never happened before.

"Justin, I'm sorry!" he exclaimed, realizing that in his heated state he'd aimed his knee poorly and had basically jammed it against Reichert's bad leg.

Reichert didn't reply, just continued gasping and grimacing; he grasped Matt's arms hard enough to hurt, though Matt tried to hide the wince from his face. He let out a startled sound when Reichert didn't push him off, but instead pulled him down, so abruptly he practically fell atop him, though he made sure to move his leg so he wouldn't hit him again. Reichert's mouth was against his before he could speak; Matt could do nothing but blink in surprise. Then, something odd--Reichert opened his eyes and they fixed directly on Matt's even as they still kissed. Matt didn't think they'd ever met each other's eyes while kissing. He saw a thousand things in there that he couldn't describe, as there wasn't enough time in the world, but his breath picked up and it felt as if his heart were battering at his chest.

They had to break their kiss to breathe; "Justin--" Matt said again, but the feel of his hand running down his belly and grasping him made him gasp and tighten.

"If I stopped doing whatever I'm doing whenever it acts up--" Reichert's mouth met his neck and Matt shivered as it ran down to his shoulder "--then I'd never fucking get anything done." Matt fought a whimper this time, trembling against his touch. "Keep going," Reichert whispered in his ear, making Matt shiver. "If you think I'd let that spoil anything..." Then Matt felt Reichert's hand on his, pulling it toward where their bodies met; he distinctly felt how hard he was, how he hadn't lost his excitement at all. That was all the prompting Matt needed. When Reichert nudged against him, he raised himself slightly so the detective could roll over; he couldn't support himself on hands and knees, but it didn't matter, they had plenty of free time ahead of them. He didn't feel so bad then that because of this he couldn't reach under and stroke him; when he pressed himself between his legs again and started moving, swaying back and forth, Reichert dropped his head and let out a muffled groan against the pillow. He kept his left arm curled up at his side, but dug into the bed again with his right hand, and Matt could feel his right leg tensing against him, toes doing just as his fingers did. He bent down to let his tongue run over his nape and up the back of his neck, enjoying the sharp cry Reichert let out, the feel of his buttocks tightening against him and the lithe arch of his back. When Reichert's moan grew--Matt could just barely make out the muffled entreaty, "Please, Matt--"--he lifted his head and, supporting himself with his hands, carefully bracing himself with his knees, picked up speed and force, pumping between his partner's legs to rub against him, panting hoarsely and slick with sweat by now as their bodies shifted, their hips pressing against the bed, again, and again, the slight creak of the springs just inflaming him even more inside.

They rocked against each other, motions growing faster, until the foot of the bed thumped again, but no one thumped back, perhaps used to this sort of thing by now; Reichert kept himself from screaming at the ceiling only by burrowing against the pillow even harder to smother the hoarse cry he was letting out. From having more experience, Matt could hold out longer; when he felt Reichert's body go rigid, fingers twisting the blanket and back arching so his buttocks tightened around Matt's shaft, he could tell that he'd come; Matt let himself loose as Reichert untensed and sank, and the hot stickiness spreading upon them both made him let out a final low moan into the pillow. Matt lay down atop him so their cheeks touched, their rapid breaths hot on each other's face, the sweat slowly cooling on their skin. He shut his eyes, trying to recover himself; he didn't know if he'd ever felt such an ache, so sharp it almost hurt. His partner let out a small noise; Matt nuzzled his neck, hearing his shuddery sigh, and was just about positive he must be feeling the same way.

Plenty of free time ahead of them. Matt didn't think much of keeping Reichert preoccupied in his apartment, murmuring again in his ear that he deserved a break; when Reichert murmured in response that this was a pretty hard break, Matt could only laugh at the unintended joke and agree.

"There's nothing wrong with a working vacation," he said, rolling his lover over and kissing him; Reichert loosely looped his arms about him and caressed his waist. Matt smiled softly down at him, and the slight smile Reichert offered in return made everything worth it. Remembering the past year, memories flicking through his head at the speed of light, taking only a fraction of a second--the unreturned phone calls, the empty apartment, the thousands of faces on walls, the bottomless void that seemed like it could never be filled again until the mere knowledge that he was alive was more than enough--and Matt once more pressed his lips to Reichert's, Reichert's grasp on his hips sinking in. Matt drew himself slightly back and slipped closer to the foot of the bed, taking Reichert's own hips in his hands; the detective shut his eyes and arched his neck with a whimper, apparently knowing what was coming next, and parted his legs again. His groin and lower belly, as well as a small area of the bed, were sticky with their fluids, which in the past one or both of them might have found distasteful and inconvenient, but Matt no longer cared, and neither did Reichert. In fact, Matt spent several moments running his tongue along Reichert's inner thighs, up the line where his groin met his leg, his lower belly, and his lover's groan grew louder this time, body thrumming like a bowstring. By the time Matt took him in his mouth, his breath was already coming hard and fast in sharp gasps, and both of them knew it wouldn't take very long this time. Matt stroked himself while working his tongue up and down; he loved how Reichert began to thrust his hips up at him, deep into his throat, his buttocks leaving the bed to form a hollow beneath him, where Matt used his free hand to grasp his contracting muscles. He was vaguely surprised when Reichert grasped his hair and gently but firmly pulled his head back so Matt gasped and blinked hazily.

"Come on," Reichert whispered, which seemed to be an effort, his breath still heavy. His eyes were glazed but managed to focus on Matt's. "This is hardly fair."

Matt blinked, then smiled, seeing him smile back; there was something almost mischievous in their looks. He clambered up and around, being careful not to kick or hit anything he shouldn't; he felt Reichert's hand on his thigh and swung his leg over, feeling the detective take hold of the other one even as Matt did the same with him, and without even a pause, brought himself down again, their tight abdomens meeting, mouths taking each other in. There was no more slowness or ease, no more gradual building up of desire; it was no longer needed. The two of them shifted rapidly upon, beneath, and against each other, muscles tightening and loosening, fingers sinking into each other's thighs, their breath shooting hard from their nostrils and from their mouths, when they had to pull back for air. Before long, the both of them were groaning, hips shaking with need, and this time, when Matt swallowed the hot seed that flowed into his throat, Reichert instead jerking his head back with a husky cry so Matt's fluid sprayed against his neck and chin, Matt was amused, knowing that his lover's reaction would no longer be nearly so disgusted as it had been before.

They were too exhausted by the time this was done to do much else but embrace each other in the bed, listening to the other's breath slow, taking in the scent of each other in the hot air. Matt promised Reichert he would let him go in the morning, to return to work, but before he left, he would need to visit the shower again.

"In someone's company, I assume," Reichert murmured, their heads touching.

Matt shrugged one shoulder. "It wouldn't be nearly so stimulating otherwise, would it?"

"So you mean you're going to hold me hostage here until we get hot and wet together."

"That's exactly what I mean, but hot and wet in the shower, because we've already gotten hot and wet."

He felt Reichert's breath snort against his neck. "How are you going to keep me from sneaking away if I want?"

"You can try, but I'll likely have a loaded weapon pointed at you."

This time Reichert's snort turned into a laugh. "Christ, I hate cop metaphors, they're so obvious; next thing you're going to tell me you'll have to cuff me and do a cavity search." His laugh rose into a crow which made Matt roll his eyes, a gesture that was usually Reichert's.

"You're the one going along with it! Me, I just wanted a shower."

"With me in it."

"It'd hardly be any fun otherwise."

"You know showers are for getting clean in, right?"

"You have to get dirty before you can get clean."

Reichert laughed again, but it wasn't so derisive this time; Matt had actually felt a slight twinge of hurt before. "I guess you'll be the one handling that," he said when he'd collected himself.

Another shrug. "Handling you, more like."

"Jesus Christ, this is getting stupid. I think we both need sleep. That's not slutty talk for something else, either."

Matt lifted a hand and laid it on his cheek. Reichert's annoyance had been feigned--he was good at pretending to be more upset than he really was--though Matt did see his eyes soften in the dimness. They stared at each other for a very long time; Reichert was the one to at last break it, shifting himself closer to burrow his head in the hollow of Matt's shoulder. Matt placed his arm over him.

"Last night," Reichert said, his voice barely audible, "that was the first time I've slept straight through the night in the past year."

Matt bit his lip; for at least a brief while, they'd both forgotten about what had originally brought him here, but it was always going to be hovering overhead, like drifting papers or smoke. It had been nice imagining that this could be some sort of quick fix; now that he realized it wasn't, he found that his heart hurt. After a moment or so, however, the slow, soft rise and fall of Reichert's ribs against Matt's other hand told him he was again asleep; and knowing that there was at least that one small respite helped lessen the ache. Matt pressed his lips to Reichert's forehead and shut his own eyes, taking longer to fall asleep, but enjoying the sound of his breathing too much to care.

* * * * *

A point came when Reichert arrived sans crutch, and not because he'd lost it along the way. Matt still occasionally caught him surreptitiously flexing his knee or elbow and grimacing when he thought he wasn't watching; he did this more often on rainy days, though not nearly as much as he had before. Matt wondered whether the pain was lessening, or if he was simply growing used to it. He wouldn't have been surprised if it were the latter. That was just how Reichert had always been.

Matt thought it might be a bad idea, but Reichert insisted on it; Matt however was the one who had to find a tape at the video rental place. He didn't have to watch the screen since he'd seen enough. He instead watched Reichert watching the screen. His face stayed blank at the sight of black smoke pluming through the air, of the second airplane and its explosion, of innumerable people walking across an otherwise abandoned Brooklyn Bridge with its WELCOME TO MANHATTAN sign ("FAREWELL FROM MANHATTAN," Matt thought the sign should more aptly read), of thousands of papers drifting lazily through the air; of first one Tower evaporating into a plume of ash, and then the second; of the strangely intact fragments of the bottom of the North Tower's walls jutting from the debris like bad teeth. When the credits rolled he said nothing; Matt returned the video to the store and never heard anything else about it. He couldn't make up his mind if this was good or bad, so decided not to press it.

One evening he was surprised to find Reichert sitting in the stairwell leading to his floor, even though he had a key; he was wearing what looked to Matt, who was still rather ignorant of such things, like some kind of riot gear, complete with vest and thigh holster and visored helmet and boots and full gloves. Matt actually felt a twinge seeing him like that; he found he rather liked some uniforms, though he'd never told Reichert, thinking he'd find it tacky, so whatever this was he was wearing was quite interesting. The look on Reichert's face told him he wasn't there to roleplay or any such, if he were even the sort; he grasped the bannister and pulled himself up so the two of them entered Matt's apartment together.

It was everything Matt could do not to come out and ask the question straight off. Reichert saved him the trouble, leaning on the kitchenette counter while Matt put away his groceries and thought about what to make him to eat. "So okay," Reichert started, the phrase he usually used whenever starting some story about his day at work, "there's this call about some sort of indeterminate threat in an office building downtown. Indeterminate threat, why can't anything be fucking specific anymore. Indeterminate threat means putting on all this shit--" he raised his arms to indicate his uniform "--just in case it's some nutbar picking people off from a rooftop, or a bomb or something, though I know for sure this would hardly help me if it were a real bomb."

"Come on, don't go there," Matt said.

"All right then. Turns out it's not a bomb. Isn't a nutbar picking people off with a rifle. What is it? Some guy on a rooftop. That's all, some guy. Apparently he was previously armed or something about him freaked them out in the building but by now he looks pretty harmless, and he's just hanging out on the roof alone. Nobody's been hurt, just spooked. No building damage or anything. Everybody's evacuated. I'm honestly wondering what the hell we're even doing there, and why we had to get all dressed to the nines for nothing. Then I guess, it's better to be safe than sorry, especially with some weird guy and an indeterminate threat in an office building."

"Did anything come of it?"

"They have some guys looking on through scopes and can see that he's standing right on the ledge. Apparently a jumper. All right, and this is the weirdest part, we're all crouching in the stairwell and as soon as we hear this, everybody looks at me." Matt glanced at him in time to see him roll his eyes heavenward. "I say, what the fuck? What do I know about jumpers? I know it's what they're thinking but nobody owns up to it, they just think maybe I'd do better because of that bank thing back in '01. Talk one crazy guy out of his gun, surely I can talk a guy off a ledge. So, I say what the fuck again, and go out there to talk to him."

Matt handed him a sandwich and a smoothie he'd prepared the night previous. Reichert made his typical face at the latter--"You really need to stop drinking these, I think they're making you even gayer"--but took a swallow anyway, then a few bites of the sandwich; Matt could tell he must not have eaten in quite a while, if at all that day. He wiped his mouth on the back of his glove and gestured.

"Tell the guy hi. What else can I say? I don't know him. Det. Reichert with the NYPD, not going to hurt him, just want to talk. Christ, the most annoying thing of this entire day is he's heard of me. Then again, who hasn't. Oh, he says. You're that detective. He doesn't say it like that but you know what I mean. You're that detective. Well, it's something, so I say yeah, I'm that detective, could you come down from there and talk to me? He won't come down, though he keeps talking. Doesn't look at me, though, just stares out over the city. Commends me for what I did and tells me not to be upset about what I can't help, I tell him I won't be if he'll just step down for a minute. Guy talks a bit more. Strange shit I can't really follow...I think maybe he is nuts. He sounds out of it, at least. All hazy and floaty like he's high. We go back and forth for a little while and...I get the feeling he's not really suicidal, but still..." Reichert furrowed his brow slightly. "I don't quite understand it. I could swear that if he'd told me he thought he could fly, he would've meant it, though he says no such thing. That's the vibe I get, though. I've managed to get close enough to hold out my hand if he wants to take it, but he doesn't. Come on down from the ledge, I say, and we can talk. Because I'm that detective and all. Sorry, he says, basically, though he's more flowery than I can talk. Some more weird comments I don't get, like I've started reading in the middle of a book and have no clue what's already happened. Don't blame yourself, he says. You couldn't've stopped it. And then he falls."

Matt blinked and nearly dropped his own glass, feeling his heart press up into his throat. The last sentence had come out so suddenly he hadn't expected it at all.

"He jumped?" he whispered.

Reichert shrugged. He looked at his smoothie, then set it down and shoved it aside. "Jumped. That's what jumpers do, I guess. I'm all right," he said as soon as Matt opened his mouth. He shoved his visor up higher and rubbed an eye. "The higher-ups and such don't think so--they want me back riding a desk, say I'm 'not ready' for active duty just yet, like two fucking years isn't long enough, how much readier will I get?--but the captain was more sympathetic and wants me to look in on something else." A long pause. "When he was talking," he said, referring again to the stranger on the roof, "saying not to blame myself, I thought he was talking about...you know. But when I play it over in my head, I don't think so anymore. He was talking about something else. I just don't know what it is." After another, longer silence, he reached for a small case he was carrying--Matt hadn't noticed it before, what with all his other gear--and set it on the counter, unzipping it and pulling out a manila folder. He flipped through it quickly so Matt could catch a quick glimpse of all the pages inside it.

"I can't show you all this, of course, because it's an open case, but that's the strange thing. I guess it doesn't hurt to tell you this much. From the sound of it this isn't unique. I mean, yeah, jumpers, not that original. But not so much jumpers specifically...more like the crazy stuff he was saying which I didn't quite get. I can't go over the details, because this is what the captain wants me to look into. I think he's torn between distracting me with something easy, and having me actually do something useful, otherwise he wouldn't have me on something having to do with people killing themselves for no particular reason. There are harder cases, but there are easier ones, too. Maybe this is his way of testing me or something." He paused. "I guess because I saw the guy jump, was right there, he thinks maybe I'm most qualified. Like the others in the stairwell, only look how right they were."

"What are you going to have to do?" Matt asked.

"Well..." Reichert rubbed his other eye. "That's kind of the point I was getting to...and why I'm dressed so stupid, because I've just been walking around the city all day mulling it over." Matt nearly grimaced at the thought of the detective seeing someone jump, then spending the rest of the day just walking around by himself. "The most recent of these other cases is something that happened in some kind of little city...well, I guess they're not that little, but I've never heard of it before, Mi-something." He flipped to a particular page and squinted down at it. "Minot. Rhymes with why-not. The Magic City, they call themselves, though whatever the fuck for, I have no idea. The captain wants me to head out there and look into this, maybe get the cooperation of their own cops if possible, because we aren't the only two cities who've had it happen, but they're the ones who seem to be taking it most seriously so far. This is honestly not the kind of case I give a shit about. But...that stuff that guy was saying. It was nuts. I know it sounds just as nuts, but I got a feeling something was going on that I'm not aware of, and this folder just verifies that. I don't know what it is. Maybe these guys in Minot do."

"How far away is it?"

"I haven't a clue, I'm no good with math. North Dakota."

Silence. Matt stared at him for so long that Reichert finally met his eyes, then fidgeted. He made a face--"Say something already!"--at which Matt offered a slow, slight shrug.

"North Dakota...? They want you to head out to North Dakota?" Reichert gave an agitated nod. "How will you get there?"

"Rental car." Matt opened his mouth to express disbelief over how long and inconvenient that would be, only for Reichert to hold up both hands and with one of them roughly pantomime an airplane flying into the vertical surface of his other hand. Matt felt the blood drain from his face, then roar back up, making his cheeks grow hot; he didn't know whether to feel incredibly ignorant, or incredibly offended. "Since I guess it wasn't obvious," Reichert said, by way of verbal explanation, and Matt didn't pursue it.

"So you think you're going to go look into it? You really think you might find something useful?"

Another shrug. "May as well. This might just be his way of getting me out of here, but if I'm actually doing something instead of just sitting around..." He bit his lip a little. "I'm not sure how long it'll take..." he started to say.

"It takes however long it takes. It might be a week, it might be a month." When Reichert furrowed his brow Matt lifted a shoulder. "You're a cop. If somebody's going to hook up with a cop, they have to expect everything that comes with that. You know, I used to watch crime dramas, and the stock scene where the cop's wife starts laying into him about being gone all hours of the day and he never sees his family anymore and what's more important, the job or her, bla bla bla, I want to stab someone's eyes out. If I was going to get clingy every time you go out on a case I would've just left you sitting the moment you said, 'I'm a police officer.'"

After a brief silence Reichert said, "You sure weren't preaching that when I ran away from that stupid ceremony."

"I get an exemption like everybody else in the city for that one."

"I figure it won't be anything horrifically long. Maybe it will end up a month. I've never dealt with anything like this. Apparently the cops there are a bit 'insular'--that's the captain's word, I would never be caught dead using a dumbass word like 'insular'--so I might have some trouble handling them. I mean, I can sympathize, I imagine if one of them came here and started calling the shots we'd get pissed off pretty fast. But I've never understood when different precincts don't cooperate, if it helps find somebody or save somebody's life. You said weepy cop wives make you want to stab out someone's eyes. Well, when a precinct won't let others play in the sandbox and somebody ends up dead because of it, then I want to stab out someone's eyes." He made a face. "Maybe if I flash my badge around and play the 'that detective' card. How much you want to bet they've heard of me in North Dakota? I'm honestly curious. Is there some kind of Reichert impact zone and it trails off at some point?"

"I would bet you they have, but I hate gambling. When are you leaving?"

"The captain said soon as possible. I guess that means tomorrow morning..." he rubbed an eye again "...because I'm tired as shit right now. If I'm going to be driving...how many hours is that? I won't be driving for a week or something, will I?"

"I guess you'll have to look it up. You can find anything on the Internet." Matt winced a little at the sudden realization that this wasn't exactly true; he could tell Reichert thought the same thing but was courteous enough not to mention it. "Are you dead tired, or just tired?" he asked.

Reichert pursed his lips. "Just tired, I guess. I've been worse. Why?" Matt let his stare run down him and up again; it took Reichert a moment to notice, and he looked down at himself as if expecting to find a knife sticking out of his chest. He finally lifted his head and blinked.

"This?" he exclaimed, spreading his arms; when Matt just smiled he made an awful face. "You're kidding me, right?"

"Well...it's either you let me take it off, or you can drag yourself all the way back to your place and do it yourself. Your choice." A slight pause. "I might be a bit slow taking it off, though."

Reichert rolled his eyes again and made a disgusted noise. "I just warned you those damn drinks are making you gayer..."

His half-complaint trailed off when Matt kissed him. He didn't protest being led out of the kitchenette and toward the couch, their arms going around each other as they pressed close; however, Matt found himself unable to be quite that slow taking off what he needed to.

* * * * *

There was no way to know that was the last time they would make love. Otherwise, perhaps Matt would have drawn it out, after all.

Reichert returned from Minot some time later; he told Matt nothing specific about how the investigation had gone, just gave a vague smile and said it was too weird and hard to explain. Matt never saw him not looking rather distracted after that, as if his mind were elsewhere. He racked his brain trying to think of what might have occurred or changed, but knew that asking the detective directly would result in nothing. He seemed more preoccupied with his work, or at least, less preoccupied with Matt; that wasn't to say he was aloof or indifferent, for he responded whenever Matt kissed or hugged him, and they still slept beside each other more nights than not, but Reichert never initiated anything, and his heart didn't seem to be in it. Perhaps Matt somehow knew that particular night that the next day wouldn't be typical; as they lay together, he behind Reichert and with his arms looped loosely about him, he didn't sleep, but instead listened to Reichert's breathing, the barely audible beating of his heart. He didn't realize at first that he was trying to imprint them on his memory; when he did, he told himself it was just in case, in case he spent another three days not knowing if he was alive, another year before seeing him standing before him again. He shut his eyes, but didn't sleep; he tightened his hold around his partner, hearing him stir slightly before falling still again, and tried to will the morning to come later than usual.

He'd never believed in signs or omens or portents or "strange feelings," but many things had changed in the past two years.

Reichert had a later shift that day, but didn't sleep in; he never slept in anymore, Matt noticed, always awakening at the latest around 8:30 (8:46AM, Matt reminded himself, that was in fact the time before which he awoke--he knew Reichert didn't notice this, but he did). Instead he said he planned to go see his family, since his contacts with them had been so limited since his return from North Dakota. After that he would be heading back to the police station; he should stop by again later that night. Matt kissed him a little longer than usual, seeing the perplexed look in Reichert's eyes, but neither of them commented on it, if they'd even had anything to say.

To fill up the empty time--he'd never really found much else to do whenever Reichert wasn't around, something about which Reichert himself had criticized him--"You could at least find yourself some more considerate piece of ass to keep you company when I'm out"--Matt stopped by Ross's bar, sitting at the counter and sipping his drink, chattering with Ross, courteously deflecting the few come-ons that came his way. Even Ross told him he could at least have something going on on the side, "What with how that ungrateful ass bailed out on you for a year." Matt knew he'd wanted to say asshole but had refrained, knowing Matt's feelings. Matt didn't take it personally, since he could see where Ross was coming from, but he decided it wasn't worth wasting the time trying to explain.

He returned home in the evening, made himself something to eat though he wasn't that hungry--everything inside him felt off today--then lay on the couch, staring at the ceiling. Once in a great while, when he sat very still, he thought he could almost still smell ash; he'd cleaned the apartment thoroughly several times after learning of Reichert's rescue, but supposed that some things never went away for good.

It was quite late, later than he'd expected, when he heard a soft knock at his door. These two facts made him uneasy. He unlocked and opened it a crack, but it was merely Reichert, as he'd expected, and he was alive and in one piece, which by now was just about all that Matt wished for anymore. He'd given up a lot of trivial wants over the last two years.

The look in Reichert's eyes was what brought the uneasy feeling back; it wasn't unease anymore, but almost dread. The two other times he'd seen such an awful look were when they were first together, when he fled the apartment in a panic, and when he'd arrived in his dress uniform without his crutch, when he'd fled the award ceremony. Both times he'd been running away. So without even a word shared Matt knew on some level what this would be.

He opened the door silently to let him in and shut it behind him. "Forgot my key," Reichert murmured, and sat on the couch, putting his head in his hands. He let out a great sigh as if exhausted; Matt sat beside him and waited, calm on the outside, tossing and churning on the inside.

"Paid a visit to the family," Reichert said after a while, and cupped his hands to rest his chin in them. "Everyone's doing well. Tim's still bugging me to take him to work sometime. I think he's finally getting old enough, but eh, the folks have enough to worry about." A very long pause. "I told them," he said at last, and the three words hung in the air for an even longer time. Matt sensed that he was meant to speak, to keep the conversation going, but something about it made him hesitate. He felt that asking for specifics would be pointless, since the way that Reichert had shown up at his apartment made everything rather clear.

He decided to approach it at an angle. "Why?" he asked, instead of the expected "How did it go?" or "What happened?"

Reichert shrugged. "Something the cops in Minot told me, I guess. They seem a bit more 'progressive,' to use your word, over there, or else it doesn't bother them as much. This one detective there, partner of the guy I dealt with most, had this boyfriend and they didn't shove it in anyone's face but they didn't hide it, either; it wasn't even like they had to hide it or not hide it, they just were. It was just normal. I don't know. I guess I'm just getting tired of this." A small pause. "Seeing them, I had this stupid thought that someday it would be nice to take you over, let you meet Tim at least. I think you two'd get along famously. He's the sensitive one, whereas I'm the asshole."

Matt knew that him telling of this thought--merely thinking it--was incredibly difficult. Although the more idealistic of the two, Reichert wasn't in the least bit romantic. The one time Matt had gotten him a valentine he'd laughed so hard at the "joke" that Matt hadn't spoken to him for the next several days. Some part of him had thought that Reichert would be perfectly content never letting anyone else know what wasn't their business.

When Reichert offered no more details, Matt asked the question he knew he was waiting for, the one that didn't need to be asked at all anymore.

"How did it go?"

Reichert continued staring across the room toward the kitchenette, head in hands. He screwed his mouth up as if either having tasted a lemon or pondering what to say. As with certain other things, Matt knew this could take a long time, and rushing it served no point.

"Tim looked kind of surprised. I think maybe it was faked. He can tell things that lunkheads like me can't. Christ, he probably knew before I did. Stepdad? Looked the same, had nothing to say. We've never gotten close so I have no idea what he thinks, but I don't think he was faking it." He fell silent long enough to let his eyes wander around all the details visible of the kitchenette and counter, as if just to give them something to do. Matt sat still.

"Mom?" Reichert murmured. "Pretty much said she wouldn't have some pervert coming to their house with Tim there, who knows what I might do to him, abomination that I am--her word, not mine--since that's what people like me do, is mess with little boys, she wouldn't have me ruin him too; and someone so disgusting could never be her son, so I'm welcome to pick up what things of mine are there and leave and not come back." He'd said this all in the same soft but almost unconcerned tone; the next comment, however, looked as if merely saying it drove a spike through his chest. "She says if I even try calling Tim she'll take out a restraining order and try to get me on some sex offenders' list." He took a shaky breath. "Tim spoke up, Mom told him to go back to his room. Stepdad actually told her to calm down a minute and listen--weird, I always figured he didn't really care much about me--she shouted him down. No pervert can be her son, no pervert is welcome in her house." He let out a shaky breath this time. "Told her I didn't need to pick up anything, already have everything I need, and left. Barely argued. Wasn't worth it. You know what little I did argue?" He finally lifted his head and turned it slightly toward Matt, meeting his eyes. "I mentioned her interviews on the TV, her hero son, her hours at the bedside, the pride in her eyes at the ceremony, how she accepted the medal for me after I left. Keeps--kept--it in a frame on the mantel, alongside that nice ridiculous dress uniform photo of her hero son. Her hero son who saved some people's lives and almost lost his own. It seemed to count before. Everyone else says it does. Maybe I'm more naive than I thought, I figured it would win me some points." He turned to stare across the room again. "She said that son may as well be dead--should've died a hero, instead of living as an abomination--and took down the medal, the photo, everything else from that day and that ceremony. Said I was free to take them since she didn't want trash in her house. I left it. Never wanted that medal anyway. She can keep it."

"I'm sorry," Matt said after another pause. He hated the sound of the trite words coming off his tongue; they'd never sounded more ineffectual, more empty, more laughable, even.

Reichert shrugged; his believable nonchalance bothered Matt even more than his story had. "Don't know why I should be so surprised. It's the impression I'd been working under all these years." He bit his lip and furrowed his brow a little, looking genuinely perplexed. "I honestly thought one thing could cancel another out. I guess not. I shouldn't go using people's lives for leverage anyway, like I only pulled them out so I could say I did. This is what I get, I guess."

"That isn't why you did it, you never for one moment thought that way, and it isn't true. Some people just..." Matt trailed off, hating to sound like an after-school special. "Some people just can't handle some things," he said at last, feeling quite lame. They both fell silent, staring off into space; it was a while before Matt shook himself out of it, glancing at the time.

"You went to work today? They kept you this late?"

"Not late, just more walking." Those words--recalling Reichert sitting on the steps in his helmet and vest and other gear, having just been out "walking"--started to tell Matt the rest of the story, and so little else the detective said surprised him greatly anymore. It was almost as if everything since he'd seen him huddled in the bar had led to this moment.

"Work?" he made himself prompt Reichert, when there was no further clarification.

The corner of Reichert's mouth twitched. "To top off a day of all days..." He sat up to stretch his arms out in front of himself, wincing when he was done and rubbing his left elbow. "Pretty much the same as always. Things've been slow lately, aside from that weird jumper. Almost boring. Maybe that's why, number one, people seem to be more annoying in general, and number two, I seem to be feeling more annoyed in general. Or maybe it's because I was already in a pissy mood..." He pursed his lips again. "Almost at the end of the day. I almost made it. Then the station's resident asshole--which, surprisingly, isn't me--starts in on that young guy, I've told you about him before, the beat cop. Christ, how long has this been now? You think a few thousand people dying might make people change their priorities, open their eyes a little, I don't know, not be such assholes anymore. Fuck, I am so naive today it would be funny if it wasn't so pathetic. Inside me lately it feels like there's this cord or something. I'm not sure how to explain it. On a regular day, it's just a cord and it's just there. A day like today, it's pulled so tight I think it might break if I'm not careful with it. I never had this cord before a couple of years ago, weirdly enough. You can let things get to you or you can let them slide off. Well, I guess I'm through letting things slide off. The resident asshole sees this beat cop just doing his things and minding his own business and starts in on him, all the same old broken-record shit, doesn't even bother hiding it anymore. Even asks the guy straight out. Hey, so how are you doing today? Giving it or taking it? Careful you don't let him eat your gun, or will you eat his? Guy just ignores them. I have no idea how he does it. He deserves a medal. Me, the cord twangs and snaps like an elevator plunging down a shaft. I don't even give it a chance to hit the bottom.

"'What the fuck is with you?' I yell at him. 'What's your fucking deal with all this? All you can come up with every time you guys run into each other is who's fucking who and how they're doing it and what the fuck should you care? Is it your business? I'd think you're a little too interested if I didn't know you're just an asshole who needs to learn to shut the fuck up and keep your shit to yourself for a change.'

"I don't know if I've ever seen anybody's eyes so wide," Reichert added, not noticing, or else ignoring, how wide Matt's had gone. "Not just the asshole's, either--I won't dignify him by calling him a detective, how about I just call him a dick--but the young guy, him too, and everybody else in the room, because that's where we are, right in the main station. Don't know how many people heard that, at least a dozen. I'd be embarrassed if that cord hadn't already snapped. Some things you just can't take back, so I figure, I'm all in. 'What's with you?' the dick asks me, and he sounds really surprised, he's not faking it. Christ, everyone is surprised. 'Why are you so damn touchy about this?' Ah, and now it starts to hit him, unless he's just joking, which it could very well be, knowing how ignorant he is. 'What, you involved in this somehow? You speaking from personal experience?'

"'You know what?' I say, and don't bother lowering my voice like I would've before, it's not worth it after everything this day. 'Yeah, I do speak from experience. You think the kid's the only one in this house? You wanna bet? Well, you're wrong.' I spread my arms out; may as well kick up the drama while I'm at it. 'I'm gay. I'm a faggot, a homo, a queer or a fairy or whatever fucking word you want to use. I like going at it with guys. I enjoy it. Eating his gun and letting him eat mine. Surprised?' I don't even have to ask, Jesus, his eyes look ready to fall from his skull. 'Yeah, I thought so. You could call me every name in the book you like, I would let it roll off me because I'm not a fixated asshole like you. Yeah, fixated--I'd think maybe you're in the same camp if it wasn't such a cliche and an insult to me. But you go after some kid just doing his job, and probably doing it a hell of a lot better than you, since he isn't fixated like you are, on who's sticking who in the ass, then you'll be dealing with me too. I'm sure he can fight his own battles, and would probably grind your ass into the dust, but me, I've fucking heard enough.'"

He paused, sat upright forward with his hands clasped on his knees. "I think I could use one of those stupid fruity smoothies right about now," he said, and Matt pushed himself up from the couch to retrieve one from the fridge. When he returned and handed it to Reichert, it was downed in barely four swallows; he wiped his mouth and held onto the empty glass, staring toward the kitchenette for a moment or two before resuming.

"I know it's another lame-ass cliche but you could hear a pin drop. Seriously. It's funny, I didn't really notice it at the time, but some other guy'd just brought in a couple of hookers for booking, and another lady has this guy who's obviously a druggie, and they're all staring at me too. This is amazing, this would probably be the most utterly humiliating moment in my life if I actually gave a shit anymore, but I don't. May as well go all the way. Make my bed and sleep in it. I don't give the dick a chance to respond, if he can even dredge up any response in that shithole he calls a brain. I guess I've said all I have to say, to him at least. I look at the kid--he's just as shocked as everybody else, I used to wonder if he knew, now I can tell he didn't--I do feel kind of bad that I pretty much turned this gigantic unwanted spotlight on him, but it's kind of late to back out now. He's taken care of himself before now, he will again. 'Sorry to single you out like this,' I tell him. 'And that I didn't speak up sooner. Good luck.' It's trite and pathetic, but I can't think of anything else. I really should've spoken up a lot sooner, and I don't mean just a limp-wristed 'Leave the kid alone, guys.' And I think after this he's going to need all the luck he can get, but you were right, he can take care of himself.

"Turn back to my desk. Nobody else has spoken or moved an inch. Looks like the entire place has been frozen that way. My sometime partner is sitting at his desk across from mine. Just staring. Used to wonder if he knew, now I know he didn't. Weird, I guess you and Tim are the only ones who can pick me up on your gaydar. And here I was all this time thinking I had to hide it. Anyway. I don't have anything to say to him just yet, because I figure I'm through. The captain keeps the blinds to his office open most of the time and I can see him at his desk, looking out at me, probably wondering what the hell all the noise is and why everybody's apparently stuck in place. I go to his office, knock--now I bother to be polite--hear him call me in and enter, shut the door behind me even though it's unnecessary. Turns out he hadn't heard the specifics of what was going on, just the noise. What's going on? he wants to know.

"I don't think I've ever talked to you much about the guys I work with. The captain's a decent guy. I know I would've never had any problem with him. He might think I'm weird or something, but he knows it's not his business. If he'd known about the shit they were giving this kid, he would've stopped it, but nobody's going to be a rat about it. What's going on? he wants to know. Is everything all right? Christ, I think he thinks I'm having another freakout like I did at that award ceremony. Do I really come across as that nuts? Whatever. If I asked for it he'd probably give me six months' paid leave or a vacation in the Caribbean or something. I don't bother giving him the news, he'll learn it from the others and besides, I'm tired of outing myself so much in one fucking day. Never thought it would be this annoying. Just tell him I plan on leaving, this station isn't the right place for me anymore, could I please get the papers for a transfer. He just stares at me."

Matt's heart had slowly been starting to feel as if it were twisting in his chest. At the word transfer, it almost leapt into his throat. "You quit?" he whispered in disbelief.

Reichert shrugged slightly. "I guess I'm done with that place. I feel like I stopped being useful ages ago. I don't think I could ever give up being a cop, though. I don't have much else to take up my time."

"Transfer to where? Another precinct?"

Reichert's silence was long enough to tell him, without words, that he was off. "Another city," he murmured at last; Matt felt his insides crumbling, even though part of him had seen this coming from the start. "When I was in that dinky city, Minot--not so dinky, but nowhere near New York--I guess I must've impressed them or something, because their chief offered me a position there should I ever decide to transfer. I figured it was a joke, because who the fuck would transfer from New York to North Dakota, right? But I thought about it...I jumped the gun with the captain, but I called them after I left the station, and they mean it. A position open, if I feel like taking it. I don't know what they want me to do, file papers, for all I know, but...it's something. A change of pace." He took a breath as if to steady himself, let it out as if going empty, and stared at the kitchenette, suddenly looking quite weary. "I asked the captain to sort out my papers with them. I wouldn't be coming back. He finally believed me. I can tell he didn't want me to go. Thinks it's some kind of loss, go figure. But I think I can only do them a favor by leaving, now. I've done everything I needed to do here, now it's time to move on." He set down the glass and rubbed his eyes. "Told me he'd get my papers sorted out. Going to turn in my badge and gun on the way out of here, I imagine I'll be getting some new ones soon enough. It's funny, the first time I went to that place, I actually tried throwing my weight around, flashing my NYPD shield like I'm so important, they didn't bat an eye and didn't give a shit because I wasn't one of them." He laughed. "Got what I deserved. Fuck New York, they have no jurisdiction there."

"When are you leaving?" Matt said. He was barely able to speak.

Reichert didn't answer for a moment; Matt wondered if he even knew. "Not soon enough," he said at last, staring at his hands. The silence drew out for a while, the only sound the distant noise of cars in the streets, a muffled voice or two from other apartments. "I nearly forgot," he said at last. "The rest of the story. Leave the captain's office to pick up my stuff, not like I ever kept much stuff there, but whatever. The place is starting to come back to life but I can tell they're all still looking at me kind of funny when they think I don't see. I don't care. My partner--I've never told you much about him either, we weren't partner partners, I mean we weren't glued to each other's side 24/7, but he was a decent guy as best as I know, though we never really were close or chatty or anything. Still sitting at his desk and staring at me. I get one of those boxes, you know the sort, the brown file boxes with the lids?--you see them on TV all the time when there's a cop who's been told to clean out his desk and split?--well, that's really what it looked like. Clean out my desk. Toss my nameplate in the garbage, who needs it? Like what would I do with it? Notice that in the very bottom of the bottom drawer is one of those stress balls...sorry, they really need a better name. Partner got it for me a while back. It was presented like a joke; you squeeze this thing and rubber eyes pop out of it like a cartoon frog getting squished or something. I know there was some seriousness behind it though. I never told him I knew. I felt so stupid about the thing I must've stuck it down here. Set that on his desk. He finally talks and all he says is, 'Reich...?' That's what most of them called me, 'Reich,' hardly ever 'Justin.' It's a question, like, what the hell are you doing? And the way he says it tells me he doesn't give a shit either. Like the captain. I might've made his eyes pop out like that stress ball but other than that, who cares. Tell him I won't be coming back, good luck with your next partner, and that's it, I leave, end of story. I actually feel kind of bad about this, that I thought maybe he was the same sort of asshole as the rest. Guess we never got to know each other as well as we should." He poked the smoothie glass, but Matt didn't get up to fill it. "It's weird how long you can know people without ever knowing them at all," he murmured, as if losing himself in thought, and Matt knew he wasn't just talking about the other police.

"You're leaving tomorrow?" he asked quietly.

The slightest flinch passed over Reichert's face, and he shook his head, still staring at his hands. "Tonight," he said, his voice so soft that Matt wasn't sure if he'd heard him right. He rubbed at one eye with the back of his wrist. "This place...I don't know. This is the only place I've ever known. I've lived in this city all my life. I know it almost like the back of my hand. I know it's the same city, but...it's not the same. Something's changed. Not just the skyline. I'm not sure what it is." He lifted his head and took a small breath; Matt saw that his eyes had gone slightly glassy. "I used to wake up every morning and not even think about it, take it for granted, that this was just my home, where I happen to live. Now whenever I wake up...it's like I have to figure out where I am. It doesn't feel like the New York, like the Manhattan I grew up in. It doesn't feel like home." He took another breath and let it out, pressing his hand to his eyes as if trying to will the glassiness away. "I know it sounds stupid and sappy and shit...but I can't think of any other way to put it. Everything--except the obvious, yeah, but still--looks the same. But it feels all wrong. It's like pretty wrapping paper covering up some kind of ugly gift you don't want to open. But wrapping paper starts to tear away eventually." He lowered his hand and clasped them both together between his knees; Matt looked down at his gloves. For some reason they were what he fixed on. Perhaps because they were the one thing that didn't look the same.

"I told you about when I was in the park at that ceremony. How the trees seemed just way too tall, and there were just way too many people...like I was having a bad trip or something...same trees, same people, all wrong. I go to my same old apartment building and I see the same old elevator I always used to take and instead I always take the stairs. It's the same but it's different. I look out my balcony at the view and keep thinking I should move into an apartment more floors down, and not because of the climb, so I just stop looking out my own window and pretend I'm closer to the ground. The same but different. I walk by skyscrapers which are a dime a dozen here and feel like I can't breathe so now I just stay away from the really tall ones whenever I can. The same but different. On my way here..." He trailed off and seemed reluctant to continue, but made a face and did so anyway. "On my way here...I heard a plane fly over. Not over, no, but someplace not too far away. I don't know what this was. I think I started running a little bit and then I ducked into this entryway set back a little from the sidewalk. Then noticed the place has nice big windows and a nice big lobby. Then ducked away from it. Then a firetruck went by and I tried to get away from that too. You should've seen me, you probably would have found it hilarious. Justin Reichert, NYPD, Hero Cop, able to run away from elevators and airplanes and firetrucks and tall buildings in a single bound."

"That's all normal, Justin. You're not the only one who's ever felt like that."

"Yeah, well...I don't know anymore. You can say it's normal all you want. Whatever it is, it's not what I used to know. I thought maybe if I waited it out things would go back to normal but after today, after everything else that's changed in one day, I honestly don't see that happening anymore." He bit his lip and lowered his head a little to look at the table. "It seems like all I can ever keep doing is running away. Run away from here. Run away from that ceremony. Run away from a building. Run away from my family...my work...why stop running now. Seems to have served me just fine before. Some days I think the only reason I'm alive is because I keep running. I'm just not sure when I can stop. I'm getting tired of running, but I feel like if I stay here, that's all I'll ever be doing anymore." When he lifted his head again, Matt saw that his eyes were wet. He sniffed a little, seeming to try to cover this up, though it was only a halfhearted attempt, and Matt knew there was a sense of finality in this small gesture.

"This place stopped being my home two years ago. I just didn't want to admit it yet. I don't have a home anymore. So I don't really have much left to run away from. If I can at least be a little bit useful someplace else, and stop running for once, maybe I can justify keeping myself going." A small pause this time; he peered toward Matt, just barely meeting his eyes. "The only thing I have left holding me here is you." Then Matt blinked; tears flooded Reichert's eyes and he squinched them shut, his chest hitching and head lowering as the tears streamed down his face. "And the thing that kills me is that that's not enough."

He lifted his hand and put it to his eyes now and his shoulders started shaking. Matt sat in silence for a moment or two and let him cry. He considered leaving the room, which was what he felt like doing most, considering how else he was feeling now after being told all that; that would be the easiest and least messy way out, to just leave the room, and let Reichert leave on his own when he felt like it. The thought of protesting didn't even enter his mind. He knew it would change nothing. Whatever either of them thought, Reichert would be gone before morning. There wasn't any point in drawing things out; no point in trying to fix something that couldn't be fixed.

He pushed himself to his feet, took a step aside to turn for the kitchenette or the bathroom, whatever other space was available to leave this room. Reichert didn't do or say anything to stop him. He took a few steps away from the coffeetable, turned, and took a few more steps. Sat back down on the couch, right beside Reichert this time. Reichert flinched slightly--Matt could tell he'd been thinking the exact same things he just had--then Matt put his arm around his shoulders to draw him close. The look on Reichert's face grew worse, but he didn't pull away; he lowered his head to Matt's shoulder when Matt held him. He could feel the other man's tears dampen the back of his shoulder. Eventually, Reichert reluctantly slipped his own arms around him, and they sat this way for a short while, neither of them saying anything; Reichert didn't cry aloud, just hitched his breath, and for a time that was all that there was to hear in the small apartment.

"I'm betting by now you wish you'd never picked me up in that bar," he murmured, his voice muffled.

"That actually wasn't what I was thinking at all."

"I knew from the moment I met you that drama isn't your thing, but that's all I seem to carry along with me. I know you could've done without all this. I know things would've been a lot easier for you if you'd just walked on by. Maybe for me too, who knows."

"Justin." Matt pulled back so he was forced to lift his head, and put his hands on both sides of his face. He was reminded of the first time he'd taken a good look in Reichert's eyes, how expressive they'd struck him as being, how sad he'd found it that he didn't make eye contact more.

"If I had all the time since I first saw you to do over again," he said, and actually felt a little surprised that he meant it, "the only thing I'd change is I'd appreciate it more."

Reichert stared at him. Matt saw his throat work and could tell he intended to say something pissy, the old Reichert he knew so well, the annoying, irritating, overly idealistic Reichert he found that he missed, the cynical Reichert who wasn't too cynical to think maybe he could fix some things, or that it was at least worth trying. But no words came out and he lowered his head a little as if this fact ashamed him. He carefully pulled away from Matt's grasp and rubbed at his eyes with the heel of his hand, taking a few breaths to steady himself. When he shakily stood, Matt immediately followed suit, at last feeling a sharp twinge, that maybe he should at least try to change things before it was too late, maybe that was what Reichert was waiting for him to do?--but at the same time, he knew that even if he were to beg, and Reichert were to agree to stay, it would never be right as he would never be happy. He could hardly make him stay, just for his sake. He realized Reichert was thinking the same thing, that he couldn't ask Matt to follow him just for his sake. Matt would have, if he'd asked, but he didn't, and so Matt didn't offer. Perhaps what he really wished for was a clean break. Completely clean. Nothing left to keep him here. Matt could hardly make himself into an anchor when what Reichert obviously needed more than that was to just sail away.

"Car rental place closes late," Reichert murmured, still rubbing his eye. "Better get going though before they do. No fucking idea how long I'm going to be driving this time, I imagine I'll have to find someplace to live."

"You'll make sure you rest somewhere along the way?"

"Of course. It'd be incredibly stupid to live through the shit I've lived through and then die because of something lame ass like dozing off at the wheel."

Matt opened his mouth to ask, Will you call me when you get there--? Let me at least know you made it safely? But he stopped himself from doing so, because it was just a pathetic attempt at delaying the inevitable. If he wanted a clean break then that's what he would give him. "You'll look after yourself," he said, meaning it as a request but phrasing it as a statement, to save them both some face. "And take it easy when you can."

"Of course."

"Not too easy, though. Don't need you going all soft and mincy."

"Fuck you."

"That's the spirit."

"Fuck you infinity. And lay off the stupid fruity drinks."

"Fuck you infinity plus one."

"Yeah, well, your mother. And your sister and your dog too."

He turned for the door and Matt trailed after him. He considered tossing out another insult, infinity times infinity plus one two three, however long it would go on, just to keep things going somehow, but again refrained. He mulled over the thought that, if Reichert had never returned after that first time, he wouldn't have kept holding out for him. He'd have had better things to do. He didn't believe in dwelling on things. Now he realized that had changed, at least somewhat. He'd sat and waited a year, after all. He wondered if he would ever have it in him to wait a lifetime, and if he did, if there would be any point in it or if it would just be stupid, as Reichert might insist it was.

Reichert opened the door and Matt was going to just say goodbye and draw things out as little as possible to make it easier for him, since he could tell how difficult it was, but the detective halted and turned to look back at him. They met each other's eyes and he couldn't be sure if he was reading him correctly. With anyone else, he might have thought they were begging him to ask them to stay, but he knew that wasn't the case here. He knew Reichert wanted to say something but had no idea what it was. After a second or so in silence the likely answer struck him. He wasn't begging to be told to stay, he was asking permission to leave. Matt felt something twist in his chest, but all he did was place his hands on Reichert's face again and pull his head forward a bit so their foreheads touched, just as they had their first time together. They didn't break eye contact. Reichert's eyes were glassy; Matt had to blink, and realized that his were, too.

"I hope you find what makes you happy," he whispered.

Reichert's eyelids lowered just slightly, and they filled with tears that didn't fall. They both knew they were doing the right thing, but that didn't make it any easier.

Reichert murmured, "I hope you find something better."

That was all; after another second or so, he pulled away and turned back for the door. They didn't hug, they didn't kiss, they didn't say good luck or goodbye. Matt barely saw Reichert lift his hand to his eyes as he stepped out into the hall, but he didn't say anything else; he stepped into the doorway to watch the other man walk away, but Reichert never looked back. He seemed to hesitate, just a little, when he reached the stairs, but maybe that was just Matt's imagination; he tensed his arm to wave just in case he turned, but Reichert didn't, and soon he disappeared from sight.

Matt waited a moment, then reentered his apartment and went to the unassuming window with its unassuming view that was nowhere near as impressive as Reichert's balcony view. He knew Reichert would have to head off in that direction. After a few minutes, he saw him, on the sidewalk and then crossing the street. He knew that Reichert was aware of the location of his window and that it overlooked his route away from there. Matt told himself he shouldn't have been surprised when Reichert didn't look back at him. Another moment, and he'd again disappeared into the growing shadows, not pausing or hesitating once. Matt did notice that, just before he vanished, he'd lowered his head and lifted his hand to press it to his eye, but that was all and that was the last thing he saw.

He stood staring out the window for another minute or so, why, he had no idea, then retreated, closing the blinds since he'd never cared much for the view anyway. He sat down on the couch and stared at the telephone sitting nearby. After a brief pause, he reached out to pick it up and dialed a number he'd dialed over and over again one morning without ever getting any answer. He was mildly surprised to hear it ring; apparently it hadn't been disconnected yet. Reichert had told him he'd disconnected the old answering machine long ago, unable to listen to the dozens of anxious messages recorded on it, and had replaced it with a new one. Matt had left messages on the new machine a few times since then, when Reichert had been out. So he knew the recorded prompt to leave a message, but he waited for it to pick up and waited to hear what it said anyway.

Click. "Hey, this is Justin Reichert. I'm alive, surprise surprise. Leave your name and number and I'll get back to you, barring anything even more unfortunate. Which you have to admit is pretty unlikely. Ciao."


Matt had somehow never been able to tell him how he'd kept calling his apartment, even knowing that nobody was there to answer, maybe nobody would ever be there to answer again, just so he could hear his voice. It had been better than nothing. Even now as he found himself doing the same thing as back then he could practically hear Reichert's voice, not recorded, in his head.

You could've moved on. Fucking scared little pussy...

Matt set the receiver back in its cradle without leaving a message. He turned himself about and lay back on the couch, staring at the ceiling, patterns he'd never noticed before. He shut his eyes, but he didn't sleep.


39,400+ words

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