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Matt's birthday fell on a Friday. When Tim mentioned making reservations at a nice restaurant in Manhattan, Matt sheepishly said that a party was already in the works. He invited Tim to join him at Reb's, a bar in his neighborhood. They were on their way there – walking even though Tim had offered to be the designated driver – when Matt told him that it was a bar frequented by firefighters, and that many of his friends would be there.

"Is this okay?" Matt asked. He hadn't introduced Tim to any of his friends besides Willie and Marsha yet, and he looked like he was panicking a little at dropping this in Tim's lap at the last minute.

"I figured we were going to be hanging out with some of your friends, Matty," Tim replied, brushing a hand over Matt's back. "It's fine. I'll have a beer and meet people."

Matt smiled and led the way through the open door of the bar. There was almost an immediate roar of people shouting "Hey!" and "Bomer!". Matt greeted everyone that he walked by, and Tim noticed that while the bunch was physically demonstrative with each other, they were careful not to upset Matt's balance when they did give him a pat on the shoulder or the back.

Eventually, they made it to the bar, and Matt leaned against a stool. "Two beers, Chief."

The bartender, an older man with grey hair and wise face, nodded and filled two glasses from the tap. "How you doing, Matt?"

"Pretty good. This is Tim. Tim, meet James. He was my chief back when I was on Squad." Matt did the introductions while James set the glasses in front of them.

Tim nodded at James, while the older man looked him square in the eyes for a long moment and then extended his hand. "Good to meet you, son."

James gave Tim's hand a sturdy squeeze before letting him go. He nodded once, firmly, in Matt's direction and then headed to the other side of the bar to refill someone's glass.

Tim just raised his eyebrows at Matt and turned so that he could survey the room. It wasn't crowded, but the bar was certainly busy. There were several tables full of people scattered about and some dart games going on in several corners. In the back, there were a couple of well-used pool tables. The clientele all seemed to be of the well-built and gorgeous variety, which made Tim shift self-consciously on his stool and lean toward his boyfriend. If Matt noticed, he didn't say anything.

Suddenly a tall, broad-shouldered man with short, dark hair, a well-kept beard and a wide grin pushed his way through the crowd to throw his arms around Matt and lift him a few inches off the bar stool. "Cat!"

Matt laughed as the man sat him back down and let go. "Joe! What's up?"

"Nothing much. Working, working, working. How's the bookstore?"

"Not bad. Marsha kicked me out today." Matt shrugged as if it were nothing.

"I'm assuming that was her birthday gift to you. Not having to deal with her PMS for the day."

Matt gave Joe a mock glare and laughed. "Hey, now. Marsha's not that bad."

Joe just shrugged and turned his attention on Tim. "New friend, Cat?"

"Oh, sorry! Joe, this is Tim. Tim, Joe."

"Nice to meet you," Tim said, holding out his hand.

Joe gave it a hearty shake. "So, Tim, what are your intentions with Matt here?"

Tim's jaw must have dropped because both Joe and Matt guffawed. "Wh-what?"

"He's just teasing," Matt assured him.

Putting a hand on Matt's shoulder, Joe grinned. "Matt doesn't usually bring dates to the bar. I just had to ask."

Tim gave Matt a surprised look and then smiled. "Really?"

"He likes to keep them hidden away like he's embarrassed of us or something. Like there's any reason for that." Joe was clearly teasing, but Matt blushed anyway.

"Or the other way around," Tim couldn't help but add, just to see if Matt's face could turn a deeper shade of red.

Matt took a long swig of his beer and shook his head at them. "I'm glad you two are hitting it off so well."

"We're just kidding around." Joe turned away for a moment so that he could order a beer for himself.

Tim elbowed Matt and grinned. "I like this place. It's got a great atmosphere."

~~!!~~

Somewhere between Tim's third and fourth beers, he was unceremoniously welcomed into the bar's tightknit family. Matt's friends had learned enough about him to include him in conversations, and they stopped ribbing him and started letting him in on the jokes.

Matt was clearly in his element. He was reveling in being the center of attention, especially after Marsha showed up with a cake big enough to feed the crowd. Pretty much everyone in the place had stopped by to talk to him at some point. Tim had always been good at putting faces and names together, but his memory was certainly being tested.

"Hey." Tim tapped Matt on the shoulder to get his attention. There was a guy in the corner of the bar that had been watching them but hadn't come over to say hi. He looked oddly familiar, but Tim couldn't place him. "Do you know him?"

Matt frowned and nodded. "That's Sharif. We used to be on Squad together, but we haven't talked in a while."

Tim almost snapped his fingers when he remembered where he'd seen Sharif before. He was one of the guys in the picture on the wall in Matt's apartment that Matt had his arm slung around as they sat on top of a fire engine.

Leaning toward him, Matt teetered on the bar stool and Tim reached out to steady him with his hands on Matt's hips. "You okay?"

"Yeah." Matt bit his lip, a habit that Tim had only known him to have when he was nervous or upset. Then, he moved so that he could talk into Tim's ear and be heard above the crowd and the jukebox, which was blaring 'Sweet Home Alabama' of all things. "Sharif and I were really good friends, but he blamed himself for me getting hurt, and we got into a big fight about it."

"Blamed himself?" Tim wasn't quite following, and Matt was starting to slur his words. It was probably time to see about cutting him off.

Sighing, Matt pushed himself away from Tim. "Can we talk about it later? It's a long story."

"Sure, okay."

Joe suddenly appeared behind them, draped an arm around each of their shoulders and grinned at them in turn. "Who's ready for another round?"

Tim opened his mouth to protest, but Matt beat him to it. "I think I'm done."

"After two? C'mon, Cat, it's your birthday!"

Matt laughed and shook his head, again almost toppling off the stool. Tim reached for him while Joe tightened his grip on Matt's shoulder. "Sorry, man. Can't hold my liquor like I used to."

Joe only nodded and looked over at Tim. "Matt drank me under the table one night a while back. We were doing shots of something."

"Whiskey. Jim Beam."

"Right. And I completely passed out in the floor before Matt even so much as slowed down."

Tim laughed and shook his head at them both. "That's crazy. You," he pointed at Matt, "are crazy."

"Yeah. I had the worst hangover of my life the next day."

"Oh, man, me too." Joe signaled to James to get him another beer but shook his head when James pointed at Matt and Tim.

"Can I ask you a question?" Joe's nickname for Matt had kept Tim guessing all night. He just had to know. "Why do you call him Cat?"

Matt and Joe exchanged glances and grins.

"What?" Tim was all the more curious now.

"He has nine lives, man," Joe said while Matt burst into a peal of laughter.

~~!!~~

The rest of the night passed in a bit of a blur. Tim met a lot of Matt's friends, and they told him stories about Matt that he wasn't sure could be believed. By the time James started throwing people out, Tim didn't know if he could get Matt home by himself. Despite declining several offers of beer, Matt occasionally took someone up on it, so he was pretty drunk.

Thankfully, Joe came to their rescue. He gently pried one crutch out of Matt's hand and pulled the shorter man's arm over his shoulder. Tim mirrored his movements and they headed the handful of blocks down the street toward Matt's apartment.

"Love's a many-splendor thing," Matt sang as he stumbled between the other men. "The April rose tha' only grows in early spring."

"Shhh, shhh, Matty." Tim didn't want the cops to be called on them for disturbing the peace. It was after two a.m. and Matt was singing at the top of his lungs.

"Don't know the rest," Matt mumbled. His eyes dropped down to his feet, and he sighed as he tried to get them to work with more coordination. They ultimately just got more tangled up and nearly sent them all to the concrete.

Joe shot Tim a frown and jostled Matt to get his attention. "You're doing great. It's not that far."

They all fell silent as they walked the last block and a half. Tim dug the apartment key out of Matt's pocket and let them inside where Tim and Joe got Matt to the bedroom where he refused to sit down on the bed.

"No, no. Gotta take a piss."

"Do you still have one of those bottle things?" Joe looked around the room but didn't expect to see one.

Matt actually blushed and tried to move away from them. "No! 'M okay. Just give me a minute."

"Whoa. Hold your horses there." Joe kept a tight grip on Matt's arm. "The last thing we need tonight is a trip to the ER because you were being stubborn and fell and cracked your skull or something."

Matt was still trying to pull away, and Tim wasn't sure what to do. Joe seemed to have it under control though, so he deferred to the other man's apparent experience and helped steer them all into the bathroom where Matt took care of his business on his own.

Once they were back in the bedroom, Matt passed out pretty much the instant that he was horizontal, Tim took off Matt's shoes and jeans while Joe used all but one of the available pillows to prop Matt's upper body up and then turned his head to the side. Matt couldn't sleep comfortably on his side, so they did the next best thing to keep his airway clear, just in case.

Once he was settled, Tim offered Joe coffee, and they both moved into the kitchen.

"Are you going to stay with him tonight?" Joe hiked a thumb in the direction of Matt's room while Tim got the coffee maker going.

"Yeah, I'm staying. Have you done this before?"

Joe shrugged. "Few times. He usually doesn't drink that much. By the time he was out of the hospital, mobile, and off the heavy drugs, his tolerance was crap."

"Oh." Tim wasn't sure how to respond to that. He'd been very patient with Matt explaining things in his own time, but it was nights like this where he wished he'd been there and had that knowledge without having to dredge up the past.

"He's come a long ways. He always had a pretty positive attitude, but in the beginning…" Joe shook his head and looked away.

"What is it?" Tim wanted to know.

"The doctors weren't sure he would walk again. Hell, they weren't even sure he would hold a pencil again. It was terrible. He was hooked up to every machine on the planet." Joe rapped his knuckles against the marble counter a couple of times. "It was bad, but Matt got through it."

Tim nodded and pulled two coffee mugs out of the cabinet. He poured both and handed one to Joe. "He's a pretty amazing guy."

Joe smiled. "You have no idea. When he puts his mind to something, nothing will stand in his way."

Tim knew this, had already witnessed it more than once during his relationship with Matt. They were both silent for a minute, and then he noticed Joe staring down at the countertop as if it were the answer to life itself. He had a troubled expression on his face and Tim realized something. "You were there. In the Tower with him."

Joe took a long drink of his coffee. "I had the day off and was heading out of town for a friend's wedding in Pittsburgh. I heard the news on the radio while I was sitting in traffic, and I had to help. Walked all the way down there, and Chief put me to work as soon as he saw me. Search and Rescue."

Tim's breath hitched and he whispered, "You found him."

Joe nodded and drained his mug.

Tim reached over and squeezed Joe's forearm until the other man looked at him. "Thank you."

Joe was clearly at a loss for a response to that. Finally, he shook his head. "I was doing my job."

Tim had to look away. It took a couple of minutes for him to pull himself together, and then he poured refills for himself and Joe. There was something else weighing on his mind from tonight, and he thought Joe might have some answers. "Can I ask a question?"

Joe raised an eyebrow and nodded slowly. "Sure."

"What happened between him and that guy Sharif? There's a picture hanging on the wall of them with their arms around each other like they're best friends, but tonight he was practically the only person that didn't come over and speak to Matt."

"It's really Matt's story to tell. There are some pretty deep wounds there."

"Please. I want to help, but I don't know what to do. Matt seemed upset about it, and he told me that we would talk about it later, but I'm worried."

Joe sighed and swallowed at least half his coffee in one go. "They were in the same Squad together, and they responded to the call that day together. They got separated inside the Tower, and there was some problem with the comms. Sharif heard the call to evacuate and made it outside. Matt doesn't remember, but we think that he didn't get the call. Sharif's blamed himself ever since."

"For what? Not leaving a building that was imminent danger of falling down?"

"For not making sure Matt was outside. For not sticking with him. For not looking for him before he evacuated. You have to understand how hard it is as a firefighter. It's life or death every day, and the other men in your house are your brothers. Sharif feels like he let his brother down, let him get hurt."

"Matt doesn't seem to look at it that way."

"Matt's not that kind of guy."

Tim nodded. He knew that, of course, but that didn't make the story any easier to hear. "It's been years though," was all he could say.

Joe shrugged and finished off his drink. "Like I said, those wounds are deep."

"Thanks for telling me. There are times when I really wish I'd been there for him." Tim rubbed the back of his neck and yawned. He was tired despite the coffee, and he was ready to strip down and crawl into bed with Matt.

"There were a lot of people there. I know it doesn't seem like it today, but he's pretty independent and does his best to push us away when we call or check in." Joe started heading toward the door. "He really cares about you, Tim. Don't let him down."

"I have no intention of that, I can promise you."

Joe held his gaze for a long moment, and then nodded. "It was nice to meet you."

"Same here." Tim made sure the door was locked behind Joe before he flipped off the lights in the kitchen and headed back to the bedroom. He'd deal with the coffeemaker in the morning.

He pulled off his jeans and t-shirt as quickly as possible and slid in between the covers beside Matt, who shifted and flung an arm out until it was laying across Tim's chest. He mumbled something, and Tim propped himself up on an elbow to hear better. "What's that?"

"Love you."

His heart skipped a beat. They'd never said those words to each other, and he was surprised to hear them now.

"Tim? Don't go." Matt's head rolled in his direction, but his eyes didn't open. He must have been dreaming.

"Not going anywhere. Sleep, Matty."

Matt sighed and drifted back into slumber.

~~!!~~

The next morning, Tim was the first one up, but he lay in bed and contemplated the merits of moving versus staying in bed all day. Unfortunately, his bladder had other ideas.

Matt was waking when he returned to the bedroom. He groaned and threw a forearm over his eyes. "Why's it so bright?"

Tim glanced out the window as he sat back down on the mattress. "Because it's after nine. Not feeling so hot, huh?"

"Just shoot me, now, please."

Chuckling, Tim leaned over and kissed a trail up Matt's arm and then bussed his forehead. "I'll get you some water and Tylenol."

Matt hummed and pulled Tim's pillow over his face.

It didn't take long for Tim to fill two glasses of water and find the industrial size bottle of Tylenol that Matt kept in the bathroom medicine cabinet. "Do you need anything else?" Tim asked, when he got back to the room.

"No, thanks." Matt pushed himself up and took the pills and water from Tim. He'd almost drained the glass by the time Tim lay back down beside him.

"I say that we set up camp here today and watch old movies until we actually feel like eating."

Matt leaned closer until his head was on Tim's shoulder and his arm was across Tim's bare waist. "Sounds perfect."

Tim flipped through channels, trying to find something that would interest them both. He glanced over when Matt cleared his throat.

"I've been meaning to ask you something. I know this is probably a weird time, but I figure last night was kind of a make or break situation anyway, so there's no harm in asking now."

Tim wanted to stop him before he rambled them into a silly break up, but Matt hadn't even paused to catch his breath.

"Would you like to move in with me?"

It took a moment for Tim's brain to understand the unexpected question, but when it did, he grinned and pulled Matt into a kiss. "I would like that very much."

"Yeah?"

Tim pressed his forehead to Matt's and closed his eyes. "Yes."

Matt released his breath and crushed his lips to Tim's, kissing deeply and passionately. Tim didn't hesitate to return the sentiment.

~End

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Art Credit: Banner by kanarek13