The dog was large and floppy, bending in improbable places and dragging on its leash, towing its owner past the other walkers in the park.
Patrick watched the dog and the owner, barely daring to breathe. The plain, black long-sleeved jacket, baggy jeans, and hat jammed over fluffy hair were wrong, but the face beneath the sunglasses was utterly right.
The dog-walker —Pete— rushed past Patrick, muttering to either himself or the dog.
Patrick tracked Pete around the park, ducking and weaving then pausing for the dog to pee, to circle back around again.
This time, Patrick stood up as Pete and the dog rushed up, pushing past a parent with a stroller.
"Patrick?" Pete asked, stumbling to a halt and turning back, and Patrick nodded.
The dog dragged on the leash, hauling on Pete's arm.
"Yeah," Patrick said. "Do you have any idea how fucking hard you are to find?"
"Um, yes," Pete said, and the dog sat down on the walk and started to howl. "Can we do this on the move, before someone reports me for beating my dog?"
"Sure," Patrick said, shoving his hands in his jacket pockets as Pete and the dog took off again, heading for the corner, the dog bounding ahead on its lead.
When Patrick could see Pete's face, when Pete would let him, he could tell Pete was sub-vocalizing, reciting something, running over words.
Patrick had made a mistake to intrude.
The dog threw itself at the fountain, shoving its snout into the water and guzzling, splashing drops on both of them.
Patrick caught hold of Pete's elbow, the one not holding the dog's leash. "Look, I don't have a clue what's going on or what's changed, but I've been looking for you forever. If you don't want to say anything, fine, I'll just walk around the park with you and the dog. Just stop freaking out."
"There are eight spouts on the bottom level of the fountain," Pete said, tugging on the dog's leash. "And her name is Dickenson. I walk her around the park four times before I go to work. Who told you I was here?"
Dickenson waddled off ahead of them, more sedately this time with a belly full of fountain water sloshing audibly, and Pete followed her.
"One of Andy's ex-girlfriends saw you walking a dog here."
Dickenson stopped to piss on the grass, and Patrick shrugged his jacket closed against the cold wind blowing in from Lake Michigan.
Pete nodded. "We can walk."
Another two laps of the park, with Dickenson pissing her way around, and Pete stopped at an exit.
"I have to take Dickenson back to the apartment, then go to work," he said, looking up at the finches circling over their heads.
"It's okay," Patrick said. "I'll go."
"It's not okay," Pete said. "You don't have to go now."
"Do you want me to leave?" Patrick asked. "Was it a mistake to find you?"
Pete paused. "I don't have the keys to you anymore, I lost them when I lost myself. But you don't make mistakes, not in my memories."
Dickenson huffed, and Patrick shook his head. "I make huge mistakes."
Patrick followed Pete up the two flights of stairs to his apartment, and waited while he unlocked the door and disarmed the security system.
Dickenson headed for a couch, and Pete said, "Have a look around, if you want. I have to get changed."
The apartment was small and cluttered. The living room held a couch, TV, and shelves of movies, and the study had solid walls of books and a desk buried under scribble-covered paper. Food and dirty dishes in the kitchen indicated that Pete actually fed himself, rather than outsourcing the cooking.
The phone on the kitchen wall was a temptation, and Patrick was still wrestling with his conscience when Pete appeared in the door to his bedroom, wearing different jeans and T-shirt and carrying sneakers.
"I want to write down your phone number," Patrick said, pointing at the phone. "But I have no idea whether it will be some kind of breach of trust or not."
Pete dug through the clutter of envelopes and accounts on the counter, until he found a pen. "It's the only phone I have. If you want to call me, that's the number."
Patrick could feel himself staring.
"No cell phone, no internet," Pete said. "I'm unplugged these days, pretty much acoustic. I really only use this phone to order pizza."
"No wonder you never replied to my emails," Patrick said, taking the pen.
"I tried paying someone to deal with that stuff, at the beginning," Pete said. "Then it all fell apart, and everything became irrelevant anyway. One day I'll log in, and there'll be a million unread emails."
Patrick looked up from writing on the back of his hand. "They wouldn't let me in to see you. Can you tell me what happened? Nobody ever has."
Pete looked up, at the clock on the wall above the fridge.
"On the way to work, or I'll be late."
On the sidewalk, Pete knotted a bandana around his neck. "This way. The trouble with constructs, however artfully they're built, is that they're ultimately unstable. Mine became structurally unsound, and I had no idea how to hold it together, not once we'd stopped touring."
Patrick asked, "Why didn't you say something?"
"Like what? 'Hey everyone, I'm decompensating here!'? Then it got tangled up in the separation, and it seemed reasonable for me to be messy."
"I should have—"
"C'mon," Pete said. "You'd just moved in together, and were living in a different city. I think you were a little distracted at the time."
They stopped at the corner, waiting for the traffic, and Pete said, "So I had to start from the beginning, do all the things that I hadn't ever done. Get a job, be alone, keep to a routine, talk to people who didn't know who I was."
They crossed the street, dodging bikes, and on the other side Patrick said, "So that's what you do?"
"No, this is what I do." Pete pushed open the door of the café beside the laundromat and called out, "Hi Maude!"
The woman behind the counter said, "Two minutes late, Peter."
Pete pointed at a table at the back of the café and said to Patrick, "Grab a seat, I'll bring you a coffee. Sorry Maude, I ran into a friend and it's all his fault."
A minute later, Pete had pulled an apron on and poured a coffee. He slid into a chair opposite Patrick and pushed the takeaway cup across the table.
"You serve coffee?" Patrick asked, because of all the crazy-Pete-adventures, waiting tables was just about the craziest he had ever heard of.
"Not a chance," Pete said. "Maude won't let me make that kind of mess. I stack the dishwasher, wash the pans, that sort of thing. As long as I don't break glasses, it works out well."
Pete's smile didn't look brittle, just earnest, and Patrick found himself grinning back at Pete.
"I could never do that, I'd smash too many things," Patrick said.
"Kitchen!" Maude called out, from the front counter.
"How long are you here for?" Pete asked, at the same moment as Patrick said, "Are you busy tonight?"
"I don't have to go anywhere," Patrick said. He could cancel everything, indefinitely.
"Come over," Pete said. "Bring pizza."
Pete disappeared out the back of the café, through swing doors, and Patrick spooned sugar into his coffee then left.
"Okay! I'm letting the monster back in!" Pete called out. "Hope you're ready."
Dickenson bounced into the living room and onto the couch, on top of Patrick, woofing and licking.
"You're on her side of the couch," Pete offered. "You might want to move."
Patrick shuffled along on the couch, and Dickenson slid off his lap, into the space he'd vacated.
"Pizza boxes are disposed off, so she can't shred them," Pete said, sitting down beside Patrick. "And she doesn't seem to have done anything hideous in the kitchen in revenge at being confined."
Dickenson put her nose on Patrick's knee, and he patted her neck. "You didn't get Rigby in the settlement?"
"No," Pete said. "Even though Hemingway had been put down by then. Damn pre-nups. I'd have handed over anything, you know, to have kept Rigby. Now it's just me and Dickenson."
If Pete had lost his dog in the marriage carve-up, then asking about his child was just too painful. "You seeing anyone?"
"What? Apart from my therapist?" Pete asked. "Two sessions a week, good old-fashioned psychotherapy, none of this cognitive behavioral therapy bullshit. Apart from that, no. Dating seems too hard. What am I going to say to someone? 'Want to go out with me? I have a terrible relationship history.'"
Patrick had to smile back at Pete. "Fuck, yeah, I know what you mean. 'Hi, my name is Patrick. If you're going to leave me, could you do it after the first date and save us both a lot of time?'"
The movie they were ignoring rumbled on the TV, Dickenson whined, and Pete said, "What?"
Smiling was impossible. "She left."
Pete slid an arm around Patrick's shoulders and hugged him. "I'm sorry. I'd been assuming you were in this happy little bubble of bliss."
Patrick hugged Pete back. "I still don't know how to tell people."
"Yeah," Pete said, slumping back on the couch. "Not a problem I had. If you married me, I'd never leave you."
"And if you did anyway, I'd let you keep the dog," Patrick said.
"Then it's obvious. We need to get hitched."
Pete held out his hand, and Patrick slapped his palm against it. "Sure, once your divorce is through."
Dickenson clambered over both of them, sprawling in warm and furry contentment, and Pete propped his legs beside the dog, so he was draped across Patrick.
"Movie," Pete said, and Patrick didn't argue with him.
He was too damned comfortable and content to argue with anyone.
When the end credits rolled, Pete tugged gently on Dickenson's ear, waking her, then eased the dog off their laps.
"I have to go to bed now," Pete said. "It's in the plan."
"Your plan says you have to go to bed early?" Patrick asked, standing up carefully and shaking feeling into a leg numbed by the dog.
"Yes. Apparently I had atrocious sleep patterns before."
"You didn't have any at all," Patrick pointed out as he pulled his jacket on.
"So I go to bed at the same time every night now, and eat food, and take my meds, and keep how I'm feeling on the surface," Pete said. "In the hope my brain won't explode again."
Patrick hugged Pete, his throat tight and eyelids prickling.
When he pulled back, Pete was unguarded and wide open, holding Patrick's gaze for a moment before leaning forward again briefly to brush a kiss against the corner of his mouth.
"When I'm not coping, I count things," Pete said. "Trees, books on the shelf, cars going past. You know, if you wanted a pointer."
Pete's neck was warm, when Patrick rubbed his thumb against it, and Pete's crazily fluffy hair curled around Patrick's fingers.
"One," Patrick said. "Not two, not three. Just one."
He could see the laughter bubbling up inside Pete, feel his own throat letting go, everything inside him opening up.
Pete rested his mouth against Patrick's again, moving his lips gently, hanging onto Patrick's jacket, and Patrick kissed him back.
"Two," Patrick said. "One, two. Rhythm section, that's where I belong."
"Asshole," Pete said, pushing Patrick back, against the doorframe.
Patrick stopped laughing, stopped doing anything except kissing. Pete made tiny gasping noises, and Patrick knew he was moaning too, hanging onto Pete, trying to keep both of them upright.
They needed to find the couch, before the floor became the only option…
Pete backed away, mouth slick, slowly opening his eyes.
"Three," Pete said. "One, two, three. You'd better go."
Patrick was uncomfortably turned-on, and he really fucking needed to adjust himself, but he settled for patting Dickenson and sharing a smile with Pete, and let himself out of the apartment.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Pete said through the door, over the sound of Dickenson barking. "I can hear you."
The door swung open, and Patrick slid in through the gap, pushing the door shut quickly as Pete let go of Dickenson.
Dickenson wriggled and bounced, and Pete slung an arm around Patrick's neck, pulling him into a hug, dog sandwiched between them. The skin of Pete's face smelled so good, and Pete's mouth was pressed against Patrick's neck, then Pete "oofed" and pulled back.
"Sorry," Pete said, rubbing at the front of his jeans. "Emasculated by my own dog."
"Tragic," Patrick said. "Could this be revenge for veterinary procedures?"
"Of course," Pete said. "Want to watch me cook dinner?"
"I want to take photos of this," Patrick said.
"Fuck off," Pete said, grabbing hold of Dickenson's collar and pushing the dog into the open door of what must be his bedroom, closing her in.
Pete washed his hands then stirred a pan of something purposefully while Patrick sat on a stool at the counter.
Pete looked tired, despite the half-smile, something like worry creasing around his eyes as he cut up tomatoes and dropped them into the pan.
"Bad day?" Patrick asked, taking the celery stick that Pete offered him.
"Fucking awful therapy session this afternoon," Pete said, putting down the chopping knife and leaning across the counter. "I had to deal with why I hadn't contacted you."
"Why didn't you? I would have dropped everything, even if it had been the week of the separation. I would have been a wreck, but I would have been here."
"There are several versions of the answer to that," Pete said. "And none of them are anything except ugly. I can tell you some bullshit about needing to get better, to prove I was coping by myself, before I started leaning on you again. Or I could admit that I was so fucking humiliated by the mess I was in that I couldn't cope with you seeing me like that, just like the time before. Too much fucking ego, too invested in you, for you to see me wallowing in my own shit."
Patrick nodded. "I'd think there'd be stuff there, about how you promised me that you'd never let it get that bad again."
"Fuck, I'd forgotten about that," Pete said. "I got stuck on how I was so fucking jealous of her that I didn't think I could talk to you. As far as I knew, we'd been slamming doors on each other since sometime in 2005, and you getting all domestic again just as my marriage was falling apart was another example of terrible timing."
"It was terrible everything," Patrick said. "Did your mom tell you I was trying to contact you? Did you know I was leaving messages everywhere?"
Pete nodded. "Now we're heading into messy places, where I wanted you to find me as some kind of proof that you cared for me."
Patrick shook his head.
"Would you like to hear about the lengths I've gone to, to find you?" Patrick asked. "Which included pressuring the accountant at the label into telling me the details of where your correspondence went."
"To my attorney," Pete said. "Sorry."
"I know that now," Patrick said. "And I managed to get Ashlee to talk to me."
Pete looked up from where he was pushing celery trimmings around the chopping board.
"You did what?"
"She doesn't know where you are. She seems to think you're at your mom's. I didn't have to do anything illegal there, just visit your mom, to establish that wasn't true. That did make it clear you were in Chicago though, so I delayed the album I'm supposed to be working on and arranged to stay here for a while."
"And found someone who'd randomly seen me," Pete said. "Hardly as embarrassing as anything I've admitted, though still verging on obsessive and creepy."
"That's without sitting in Wicker Park for three days, waiting for you," Patrick said. "Fumes or something are coming from your saucepan."
Pete leaned back and stirred. "It's a reduction, it's supposed to steam."
"Why do you know about reductions, and what they're supposed to do?" Patrick asked. "What kind of bizarre life are you leading?"
"Hey," Pete said. "I work in a café, in a kitchen. I can make butter cream frosting and everything now. I have useful life skills, which I don't think you can claim."
Patrick caught hold of Pete's hand. "You're right, of course. What's a little track mixing compared to frosting?"
"No one can eat a mix deck," Pete said. "But almost everyone cries for coffee. I've got my priorities sorted out."
"Any priority that involves frosting and coffee is working for me," Patrick said.
Pete rubbed the pad of his thumb against the back of Patrick's hand. "See? This is making up for therapy, and the generally vile nature of the inside of my head. I feel like I should explain that none of this is new, but I'm finally being forced to confront all of it."
Patrick pulled Pete around the edge of the counter, so Pete was standing in front of him. "Like the inside of your head being vile is news," he said, sliding both arms around Pete. "Do me a favor, and stop being so fucking self-destructive?"
"That's the idea," Pete said.
He was wonderfully substantial to touch, T-shirt riding up under Patrick's hands, leaning forward, all slow mouth and caught breaths. Patrick would have been happy to keep going, with his hands under Pete's T-shirt, but Pete pulled back.
"Your reduction?" Patrick asked.
"Remember those priorities?" Pete said, sliding away to stir the pan, then adding celery from the chopping board. "We all have to suffer for frosting."
"That sounds dirty," Patrick said.
Pete grinned, and the weariness had gone from around his eyes. "Absolutely."
After dinner, which was so good that Patrick would have suspected Pete of having bought it already made if he hadn't watched it being prepared, they settled on the couch.
"Milo and Otis?" Patrick asked disbelievingly.
"Watch this," Pete said, hitting the remote control and starting the opening credits.
First bars of music, and Dickenson was off their laps and in front of the screen, whining and fretting.
"You're joking," Patrick said. "Your dog watches the ultimate pet snuff movie?"
"Shut up, she doesn't need to know that. She just wants to talk to the screen."
Pete slid closer to Patrick. "I'm kind of lost here."
"Yeah?" Patrick asked. "I think you're fine, you're on solid ground."
"Can't text, can't spam you with emails, and you seem to have cornered the market on stalking. Apparently normal people make phone calls, but how many is acceptable?"
"You rang me once," Patrick said. "And I rang you. I think two calls a day is completely reasonable."
Dickenson yipped and reached up to lick the screen, and Patrick said, "That's gross."
"Yeah, like you don't lick things you're not supposed to," Pete said.
The couch was covered in dog hair, when Patrick slid down on it, Pete over the top of him. He'd put up with worse things than the smell of dog, though, to keep Pete biting his neck and grinding against him.
Patrick got both hands under Pete's T-shirt, palms across the smooth skin of his back, fingers down the groove of his spine, and Pete slid a knee between Patrick's thighs, dragging denim and cotton against Patrick's cock.
"Fuck, yeah," Patrick whispered, over Dickenson whining at the screen in the background. He slid one of his hands down, to Pete's ass, curving his hand around denim and flesh, and rocked up into the friction.
"Fuck, sorry," Pete said, pulling away. "I'm so fucking sorry."
Pete sat up, on the other end of the couch, and Patrick pulled his legs up and sat up too.
"Don't say that," Patrick said, because Pete had his gaze on the rows of DVDs. "Hey, whatever it is, there's no need to apologize for stopping."
Given the endless list of humiliating, degrading and embarrassing things Patrick had seen Pete voluntarily do over the years, Patrick couldn't quite believe that Pete was turning red right then.
Patrick tried to, he really did, but he couldn't stop the laughter rising up. Impossible, infuriating and frustrating, it was good to know that despite the time that had passed, there were still circumstances when the only appropriate response to Pete was laughter.
Pete blinked at Patrick, then started to laugh too, falling against him on the couch.
"That was a stupid thing to say, right?" Pete asked, when Patrick had managed to make himself stop laughing.
"Completely," Patrick said, wrapping an arm around Pete.
"My head said that that was the hottest fucking thing that'd ever happened, but nothing was happening with my body. It's the fucking meds."
"So, we don't grope each other?" Patrick said. "It'll be just like every long term relationship I've been in."
Pete rolled over, so he could see Patrick. "Only without the hot bit at the beginning?"
Patrick shrugged. "And how much trouble have those hot bits gotten us both into in the past?"
Pete grimaced. "Um, yeah. Want to stay tonight? I promise my night time behavior is much less obnoxious than previously. I actually sleep for at least six hours now."
"Yeah," Patrick said, touching fingertips to Pete's chin, just to feel stubble, skin and muscles move as Pete smiled. "Love to stay with you."
The way Pete pushed his face into the side of Patrick's neck was endlessly familiar, but Patrick didn't think it had ever meant quite the same thing before.
Dickenson whined and yelped, and when Patrick glanced at the TV, Otis was splashing through a stream.
"Silly dog," Pete muttered.
"Very," Patrick agreed.
When the movie ended, Pete pulled on his jacket, ready to take Dickenson out for her final pee of the night.
"Borrow whatever you need in the bathroom," Pete said.
Patrick nodded, and watched Dickenson wriggle and squirm as Pete clipped the leash onto her collar.
"Are there things we need to say?" Patrick asked.
Pete stood up, letting go of the leash, so Dickenson was free to bolt to the apartment door.
"No need," Pete said. "I'll scribble some lyrics about it eventually, and you can write the music for them, and it'll all be said then."
"It's not an efficient method of communicating," Patrick said, as Dickenson dashed back to wind herself around Pete's legs too fast for Pete to catch the leash again.
"But it's worked for years," Pete said, finally grabbing the leash. "And we make great songs this way."
The bathroom cabinet wasn't recognizably Pete's. One side held basic supplies; a razor, toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash, dental floss, an almost-empty bottle of cologne. A new packet of toothbrushes was propped behind the mouthwash, so Patrick helped himself to one, and opened the other side of the cabinet while he brushed his teeth. That side held only a shelf of medication in bottles and packets, with a list of meds, dosages and frequencies written out in Pete's hand, stuck inside the door, with 'Take them, you fucker' scrawled across the top.
Patrick put his toothbrush beside Pete's and pushed the bedroom door open.
The lack of mess on the floor possibly said more about Dickenson than any change in Pete's personal habits, so Patrick pulled his T-shirt over his head and dropped it over the back of the chair, along with the other clothes on the chair. The dresser held a clutter of photos in frames and a small stereo, and the nightstand was stacked with books. Patrick pushed his shoes into the closet, out of Dickenson's reach, and tossed his jeans on the chair.
He flicked on the reading light clipped to the bed head and switched off the main light in the room. The bedding was rumpled, and dog hair clung to the blankets, but he could see which side of the bed Pete slept on by the pillows.
Something—hope or frustration—made him pause after dragging down the sheet and blankets, and take off his boxers, adding them to the clothes on the chair.
Pete let himself back into the apartment a couple of minutes later, and Patrick listened to him setting the security system and talking to Dickenson.
The toilet flushed, and water ran in the bathroom. It was soothing, lying in a bed that smelled of someone else, listening to them clatter around in the bathroom, then turn the shower on. Patrick reached over and took a book at random off Pete's nightstand, then wriggled down the bed, grinning at the sound of Pete singing in the shower.
Dickenson pushed the bedroom door open wider, then propped her nose over the edge of the bed and inspected Patrick.
"Hey there," Patrick said, patting the bed, and Dickenson hopped up, tail wagging, and flopped down at the bottom of the bed.
The shower stopped, and Pete wandered in, towel wrapped around his hips, toothbrush in his mouth. He took the toothbrush out, and said, "I have stuff I do, to help me sleep. It's probably in your own best interest if I take the time to do those things."
"Any option that doesn't involve you kicking me for hours, then waking me at four in the morning to talk to you because you're bored is going to work for me," Patrick said.
"It's all fun and games until I have an existential crisis," Pete said, making flicking motions with his toothbrush, but only managing to get toothpaste foam on Dickenson. "There's no net here for me to vent on to."
"Ring your therapist with the existential crises," Patrick called out, as Pete went back into the bathroom to gargle.
Pete wandered back in, a moment later, completely naked, and Patrick contemplated renouncing breathing, at least temporarily.
"She doesn't do existential crises," Pete said, fiddling with the stereo. "She said I had to talk to a philosopher. I tried that, but the philosopher was an ass."
Patrick looked again at the pop culture philosophy text on happiness in his hands, and reconsidered its place on Pete's nightstand.
Music started, down low, and Patrick closed his eyes for a moment. Bach's Goldberg Variations, but he couldn't place the recording…
Pete slid into bed beside him, and Patrick listened to the rustle of paper and the scratch of pen against the gentle notes of the piano piece.
Dickenson snuffled, the Bach repeated, Pete scribbled, and Patrick read. Patrick could hear vehicles passing occasionally, outside the apartment, and a phone rang nearby.
"I'm ready to turn the light out," Pete said. "That okay?"
"Hmm, half-asleep," Patrick admitted, handing his book and glasses to Pete.
Pete took them, then kissed Patrick, a quick brush of his lips, and it reminded Patrick that this wasn't just him crashing over at Pete's place. This time was completely different.
The music stopped, and Pete turned the light off. Dickenson was a solid lump against Patrick's feet, and he could feel Pete's warmth radiating under the bedding, across the gap between them.
Patrick closed his eyes and listened to Pete's long slow breaths, gentle on the inhalation, measured and smooth on the exhalation. It made him want to grab Pete and shout, "This is what you should have been doing all along!" but that would have defeated the purpose of it all, and he might have found himself sleeping on the couch.
Better to lie there, in the dark, and listen to Pete fall asleep from something other than exhaustion.
When Pete had gone slack and rolled onto his side, breath rumbling loosely, Patrick rolled over too, and went to sleep.
The momentary confusion on waking was common enough—Patrick had spent the past dozen years waking up in places he didn't recognize. It took a few seconds to work out he was sandwiched between a snuffling dog on one side and Pete on the other, and both of them seemed to have a firm grip on the blankets, stopping him from rolling over.
Pete moved, behind Patrick, resting a hand on his hip, each fingertip a tiny point of warmth, and Patrick reached back, finding Pete's arm, returning the touch.
Pale light slid through the slats of the blinds when Patrick opened his eyes fully, and Pete whispered, "Patrick?"
"Hey," Patrick said.
Pete breathed against Patrick's shoulder. "Please tell me you're awake," Pete whispered. "Please."
"Yeah," Patrick said. "I'm awake."
The feeling of Pete's mouth dragging across his shoulder, teeth and stubble, then the kiss against his neck, had Patrick clenching his teeth to keep from moaning. He'd woken up hard, with frustration scratching at his skin, and an early morning make out session was only going to end in one way, and that was with him jerking off in the bathroom...
The hand on Patrick's hip moved, sliding around, and Pete jammed himself against Patrick's back and thighs, miles of bare skin, all of it warm and so fucking available.
Pete bit, and Patrick grabbed behind him for Pete's hip, pulling him even closer, because fuck, Pete's cock was riding across Patrick's skin, digging in, insistent and fucking hard.
"Wanna," Pete said, hand on Patrick's cock, and yeah, Patrick wanted it too, but he wanted other things more, in ways that burned right through him.
Patrick rolled over, pushing Pete onto his back, then shoved the blankets and sheet out of the way.
"Out, Dickenson, off the bed," Pete said, hands on Patrick's shoulder, in his hair, against the side of his face while he crawled down the bed.
In the half-light of the room, mouth pressed against Pete's hip bone, Patrick wanted to say something like I've waited forever for this or I wish this was half a lifetime ago. He didn't, because Pete had one hand wrapped around the base of his cock, and the fingers of the other hand dug into the back of Patrick's neck, and Patrick could feel Pete's stomach muscles fluttering.
Better to breathe in Pete's skin, heavy with sleep, and ease Pete's hand off his cock, licking his fingers, then the head of his cock.
"Fuck, yeah," Pete said, and when Patrick sucked down the first time, Pete's groan went right through him.
Pete was so fucking easy to go down on, opening his legs wide so Patrick could touch his balls, rocking and sliding. In the growing light Patrick could see Pete had both hands above his head, firmly wrapped around the struts of the bed head, and the bed creaked faintly each time Pete tried to shove his cock further down Patrick's throat.
Dragging nails down the inside of Pete's thigh made Pete twist and yelp, then Pete said, "Fuck, gonna… Close…"
Patrick looked up again, and Pete gripped his cock with thumb and two fingers and stroked himself.
Pete grinned at him.
"Can I?" Patrick asked.
"Is that… some kind of… fucking trick… question?" Pete asked, breath sticking with each stroke.
Pete's fingers collided with Patrick's chin, his hip twitched under Patrick's hand, and somewhere in Patrick's brain, a tape was looping, playing back adolescent fantasies on scratched and stretched VHS tape.
Pete came, sharp and hard, and Patrick rested his face against Pete's belly, listening to the roar of Pete's breathing, until Pete pulled on his shoulder.
"Tell me," Pete said, pushing Patrick against the pillow, holding him there with warm hands. "Tell me all the things you've wanted, and haven't had."
Pete was heavy, holding Patrick down, and it made Patrick hot inside.
"Touch me," Patrick said, and Pete exhaled against his neck.
Patrick turned, underneath Pete, and if he could feel what this was doing to Patrick, he didn't let on.
"Lube?" Pete whispered, fingers blunt, nails scratching down Patrick's back.
"Just like this," Patrick said.
"Oh, fuck," Pete said, and Patrick clenched his mouth to keep himself silent at the feel of Pete's nails on his ass.
"Yeahyeahyeah," Pete whispered, then Patrick heard him spit, and felt a finger push in.
Patrick yelled, too close to the edge to hold back, and Dickenson threw herself onto the bed, barking and wriggling.
Patrick wasn't stopping for anyone, or any dog, and Pete, to his credit, didn't break the beat either, despite alternating between laughter and shouting at Dickenson.
Once the dog was removed to the other side of the bed, Patrick rolled over.
"That was…" Patrick said.
"Hindered by the audience participation?" Pete suggested.
Patrick wriggled the skin of his back against the sheet. "I'm so glad I never take my clothes off for anyone I don't know really well, because I can feel the scratches Dickenson has left."
"Boundaries," Pete said. "I'm going to work on boundaries with her."
"Can you even spell the word?"
"Fuck you," Pete said. "I have a therapist who spells the difficult words for me, the ones I'm in denial about. Do you want coffee?"
"As diversions go, the coffee one is good," Patrick said. "And effective."
Pete grinned and rolled out of bed.
"I'll make you coffee, once I've taken Dickenson out for her early morning walk."
Once Pete had pulled on jeans and a hoodie, and disappeared off with the dog, Patrick burrowed under the blankets and closed his eyes contentedly. He could go back to sleep for ten minutes.
"Your plan, the one that says you go to bed early, what else does it say?" Patrick asked, passing Dickenson's leash back to Pete, when Pete had dumped the bag of dog turd into the trash.
Pete looped the leash around his wrist and shrugged. "All kinds of things, mostly about not being stupid. Why?"
"I was wondering if you had something in mind for the future, apart from washing dishes in a café," Patrick said.
Pete slid his free hand into the crook of Patrick's elbow. "Once every three weeks, my mom and I fly out to LA, because I'm not allowed to have unsupervised access."
"Shit," Patrick said. "I'm sorry. I didn't know."
"Yeah. When I've been not-crazy for another four months, the court will review that ruling. My only plan is to stay not-crazy for four months. It seems that holding down an ordinary job will help persuade the court-appointed psych of this, so I keep on going to work. No tabloid photos, no arrests, no blogs, no random girls, no drama. Just me and the dog, and now you."
"Am I going to be an issue?" Patrick asked. "Do you need me to disappear for a few months?"
Pete shrugged. "You're my best friend, and have been forever. I don't think anyone can complain if we hang out together. And despite your patchy personal history, you're squeaky clean compared to Joe, for instance. Or, really, anyone else I know. I'm also not sure that you reappearing, being around for a few days, then going away will be good for not being crazy."
"We don't have to be lovers." Patrick said, keeping his voice level. "It can be just a onetime thing that happened."
Dickenson was determinedly attempting to defend Pete from the Bad Person on the Wheeled Machine who was riding past them, so Pete had to pull Dickenson back beside them before he could say anything.
"Really, I have no idea where that dog formed her ideas about bicycles," Pete muttered. "If Chicago is ever invaded by armed gangs mounted on tricycles, we can just turn her loose. You don't want to do that, do you?"
"Invade Chicago by pedal power?" Patrick asked.
"No, not sleep together again," Pete said. "I was pretty sure you weren't personally energetic enough to want to stage a hostile takeover of the city using environmentally responsible alternatives to petrochemical engines, even if we both know people whose inclinations run that way."
Dickenson had thrown herself belly-down on the grass and was rolling around in something that probably smelled bad, so they were thankfully standing still, people on rollerblades whizzing past them on the path. Patrick didn't want to have to think about putting one foot in front of the other, not at that moment.
"If we stop, for four months or forever, I'll cope," Patrick said. "It'll be difficult to get past it, at least at first, but I'll do it."
Patrick wanted to say more, because if this was going to slip away from him, he wanted to tell Pete, just once, before the doors slammed again.
Dickenson stopped rolling and threw herself at their feet, and Pete looked up from watching her.
"No," Pete said, and Patrick knew the grimness around Pete's mouth, only previously it had always been followed by a brawl over something they were working on together. Stubbornness wasn't just a lifestyle choice with Pete; it was a character flaw that could be seen from orbit.
"I don't want to make things difficult for you, with the hearing," Patrick said.
"Do you think I didn't ring my divorce attorney? She said, and I quote, 'It's the fucking LA Superior Court. If they're not familiar with the California Sexual Orientation Discrimination Laws, I'd like to read them out to the court.' She also said that it would be better for appearances if you weren't tall, tanned and ripped, with a string of convictions for cocaine dealing. I was able to reassure her on all counts. It's not like I'm running around banging hookers or swapping spit with strangers. I'm in—"
Pete stopped suddenly, and Patrick waited, Dickenson collapsed against his legs and drooling into one shoe.
"This is going to be good," Patrick said, when Pete shoved his hands in his pockets and tracked the people jogging past with his eyes. "You going to finish that sentence?"
"Um, no," Pete said.
"Was it going somewhere embarrassing?"
Patrick grinned, and Pete tugged on Dickenson's leash, setting her in random motion again, the pair of them following. "Good. Your dog has ruined my shoe."
"Buy yourself another pair. You want to know what I'm missing most from before? Apart from early morning blowjobs, that is."
"The gigs we used to play. You know the kind I mean? All ages shows in basements, complete with bad sound, poor ventilation and infinite possibilities."
"I remember those gigs far too well," Patrick said. "I haven't been to one for years."
Dickenson orbited Pete, on her leash, almost knocking Patrick over, and Pete was smiling wistfully when Patrick looked at him.
"Do you want to go to a gig?" Patrick asked. "Or do you think that's a bad idea?"
Pete grinned at Patrick. "An all ages venue? It would be drug and alcohol free, so no one could complain about that. And if anyone recognized us and blogged it, no one would believe them."
"I'm personally of the opinion that even if you left your ink visible, wore clothing from your own label, straightened your hair and put on eyeliner, you'd still only look like you're masquerading as yourself at the moment," Patrick said. "Like the old you is still driving around LA somewhere, permanently caught in four in the morning."
"The old me is," Pete said. "Hopped up on caffeine and exhaustion, phone in one hand, no gas in the tank, nowhere to go, running every red light to get there. I'm probably calling you, and wondering why you're not answering."
"Tell the old you to do something stupid and public tonight, so you've got an alibi," Patrick said. "And we'll find a shitty basement gig to go to."
Pete grinned and stepped over Dickenson's lead, and Patrick took out his phone.
"There is one thing I'll have to do first," Patrick said. "And that's call Andy and tell him I've found you, so he stands down the ex-girlfriend network of his. If I don't, he'll get a dozen texts and emails, saying you've been spotted."
"Stand down the ex-girlfriend network?" Pete asked. "What?"
Patrick sighed. "That's how I found you. I got Andy to alert all his girls to look for you and report back. Did you know he maintains an email list, and writes regular newsletters? He pretends it's for Friends of Fuck City, or something, but it's actually for exes he might want to fuck again."
"You're kidding?" Pete said. "That's a huge amount of effort."
"He says the cost/benefit analysis pays off, in terms of home-cooked meals, steady sex and company. I guess if he circulates his travel schedule in advance, it would work that way."
"I'm a little in awe of him," Pete said. "And a lot scared."
"Yeah, well, hot vegan anarchist babes across the planet have been looking for you, successfully, I should point out."
The gig was in a community hall, not a basement, and even though they'd turned up late, kids were milling around the car park and the house lights were up.
The girl at the door took their five dollars and stamped their wrists with a blank face, and they pushed their way along the back of the hall.
"Do you think she's one of Andy's?" Pete asked, inside the hall.
"Leather boots, and too vacant," Patrick said. "He's only dating college graduates, or women with equivalent workplace experience, now he's graduated himself. Apparently there's a fitness test too. I found the whole thing hilarious, which he did not appreciate."
"You laughed at him?"
"Possibly," Patrick said. "There might have been jeering involved, too."
"Just because he has standards?" Pete said.
"He has fucking selection criteria."
Patrick leaned against the wall, and winced involuntarily at the rubbish that was passing as sound check.
Some kid on the stage said, "One, two, one two," into a mic a couple of times, while someone else banged on a floor tom. The gain was off on the voice mic, and the pick-up on the floor tom was shit.
"Fuck," Pete said, leaning sideways so only Patrick could hear. "That's not good."
The person checking the voice mic moved on to making odd noises with a bass, and Patrick craned his head around, to check the age of the kid in the sound booth. He looked about sixteen.
"Okay," Pete said. "If this was an Arma gig, and there'd been someone in the crowd that could have made my mic sound less shitty, I would have really appreciated it if they had."
Patrick looked back at Pete, then at the kid, who was giving the thumbs-up to the stage.
"I'm just putting it out there," Pete added.
Patrick nodded. "Sure. I'll go see what I can do."
The kid looked up from the sound board when Patrick climbed up the crates that were serving as a ladder.
"Hi," Patrick said. "Want a hand?"
"Um, sure," the kid said. "Do you know about this kind of board? I've not used one of these before."
Patrick looked at the board. "Home made? Sure," Patrick said. "Move over. Tell the person on the stage to pick up the bass again."
The kid made hand signals, and the noises from the bass started again.
"I'm Trav," the kid said.
"Patrick. Got some light? I don't think you've got sound to all the speakers, though it's hard to tell without any LEDs."
The kid stared at Patrick for a moment and said, "Shit, um, sure, of course."
Patrick took the flashlight the kid handed him and shone it on the mess that was the underside of the deck. "That's not supposed to be black and charred," Patrick said, pulling cabling free from a fried 4PDT switch. "Have you got some spare leads? And a patch bay? We can get around this."
Trav rummaged around in a carton, and handed Patrick a collection of cabling and a small patch bay, which was enough for Patrick to pull out the dead leads, replace them with XLR inputs, and plug the lot into the patch bay, switching the whole speaker system live suddenly. The speakers hummed and crackled around the hall, and Patrick grabbed the sliders and pulled everything back.
"Hey," Trav said, standing back up again. "How did you know the switch had gone?"
"I think I've played using this board," Patrick said. "Levels, again, this time with all the board."
Three minutes later, Pete hung over the side of the sound box.
"Bass still sucks," Pete said. "Think it's an amp issue? I had a look and they're running an ancient Marshall. Bet the magic hamsters inside it are dead."
Trav stared at Pete, and Patrick frowned. "I told you never to mention the magic hamsters in front of other people."
"Yeah, well you'll have to go and change them," Pete said. "I'm phobic about dead hamsters."
Patrick patted Trav on the shoulder and started climbing out of the box. "Tell Pete about the patch bay, in case it fries again."
"Hi there," Pete said, sliding in behind Patrick. "Keep your eyes on Patrick during sound check, because he does these freaky hand signals I can never figure out."
Patrick flipped two fingers at Pete, and pushed his way down the hall to the stage, to where the person who'd been soundchecking was waiting to pull him up.
"There's something wrong with the amp for the bass," the guy on the stage said. "I think it's fucked. But we don't have another one."
"Do you know any of the other bands playing tonight well enough to borrow an amp?" Patrick asked.
The guy shook his head.
"I can fix this. Show me where the other bands are."
The guy took Patrick out the back, to a storage room packed with amps, guitars, drum kits and band members. Musicians appeared and disappeared, sliding in from a kitchenette and the bathrooms, and from the car park.
"Hey!" Patrick shouted. "Listen up!"
Silence settled over the room, and someone whispered, "That's…"
"I'm not here, but if I was, I'd be scouting for Decaydance. One of most important things I look for in a band I'm signing is the ability to cooperate. If you can't play nice, I'm not interested in you. Who wants to lend an amp to the band that's setting up right now?"
He walked back onto the stage, followed by a collection of people carrying an amp and cables, and took the bass off the stand.
"Tune your guitars, people," he told everyone who was bustling around, replacing the amp. "And by that, I mean choose an accepted tuning arrangement, and stick to it."
He tweaked the bass' tuning, and handed it to the nearest person, then climbed down off the stage.
It was crowded in the sound box, with all three of them there, but Patrick squeezed in front of Pete anyway.
"How does it look now?" Patrick asked.
"Good enough," Pete said. "What did you do to get them to replace the magic hamsters?"
"You don't want to know. Okay, Trav, give them signal, we're done here."
"Thanks, both of you," Trav said.
"No problem," Pete said. "And remember, it's a secret."
When Patrick had climbed out of the sound box after Pete, and they'd found a stretch of wall to lean against as the houselights went off, Patrick said, "It's not a secret, since I kind of announced who I was backstage."
Pete put his arm around Patrick's shoulders in the darkness. "And did you say I was here too?"
When Patrick glanced at Pete, partway through the first set, Pete was grinning in the gloom, teeth shining in the light from the Exit sign over his head.
"Are you having fun?" Pete shouted in Patrick's ear, over the noise.
Patrick turned his head and shouted back, "If they play any of our songs, I want fucking royalties."
"Loser," Pete shouted.
At the end of the set, Pete said, "The way I remember it, the options now are to fight our way to the bar to buy super-concentrated caffeine and guarana drinks, or to fight to the bathroom."
"There's a third option," Patrick said. "And we won't have to compete with anyone else for the use of the band van this time."
"Good idea," Pete said. "Let's pick up some underage girls in the car park and make out with them in your car!"
"Won't your divorce attorney have something to say about that?"
"Damn," Pete said, looking disappointed. "Hey, you're old enough this time, aren't you?"
"Across all state lines," Patrick said. "Absolutely legal. We can go all the way, if you like."
"Old enough, and easy," Pete said. "Fuck, I remember these gigs. My standards for having a good time seem to have stayed exactly the same, just like the sound and the bands."
Two minutes later, when Patrick banged his head on the roof of his car sliding across Pete's lap, he said, "I was joking, you know."
"I was too," Pete said, sliding his hands up Patrick's thighs as Patrick lay back on the seat. "At least about going all the way."
The backseat wasn't big enough, Patrick was uncomfortable and cold, and the whole making-out-in-the-car thing was looking more and more like a stupid idea.
But then Pete lowered himself down over Patrick, thigh across Patrick's groin, kissing slowly.
"I don't think I can get hard," Pete whispered against Patrick's ear. "Same as last night. So, relax, because I'm not going to lose it."
Pete bit lightly at Patrick's neck, and Patrick could hear the people in the car park around them, and the band soundchecking inside the hall. The smell of the hall, of sweaty kids, pervasive mold and electrical cabling, was in Pete's hair. It clicked suddenly, inside Patrick's head, everything humming, like a blue note, and he fucking got it.
Pete was opening one of the slammed doors, one of the missed opportunities between them, going back to the beginning.
"You fucking terrified me," Pete said, his voice muffled. "You still do. I couldn't deal with it back then, with going to the edge and trying to jump off. I can only do it now because I'm so fucking desperate."
The rumble of bass and drums from the hall was a familiar subtext, the background noise to half of Patrick's life, and he didn't care that the car door handle was digging into the back of his head, as long as he got to hang onto Pete.
"You're not the only desperate one," Patrick said.
Pete made a rough noise against Patrick's neck, his teeth sliding against skin, and his hand pushed up Patrick's thigh.
"If I didn't need the chemicals in me," Pete said, "if I didn't have a world of reasons for not exploding, I'd be fucking you through the upholstery of this ridiculously small car."
The heel of Pete's hand pushed down on Patrick's cock, and when Patrick opened his eyes, the light at the end of the car park lay in a single stripe across the inside of the car roof.
Inside the hall, the band had moved on to playing, and Pete whispered, "Lemme get you off…"
Everything inside Patrick expanded, like a bubble that just kept growing, and he hung onto Pete tighter, smiling in the darkness. "Tomorrow morning, when we wake up."
"'Kay," Pete said, and Patrick could hear he was smiling too.
Pete held Patrick's hand, as they pushed their way back through the kids in the hall, and Patrick didn't stop Pete from pulling him into the pit.
Patrick still had an apartment in LA. It was convenient, when he was in town on business, and meant he didn't have to stay in yet another hotel or anonymous serviced apartment.
His place was kind of dusty and empty, and the odd smell wouldn't clear until the air conditioner had been running for a couple of hours. But, with Dickenson rumbling through the rooms exploring, the mustiness would be replaced with dogginess very soon anyway.
Pete tossed his bag on the bed and flopped down beside it. "Have I said thank you?" Pete asked.
"Just a few times," Patrick said, opening the bathroom door so Dickenson could explore in there too, then regretting it as the dog nosed into the toilet bowl and began to drink the water.
"Thank you," Pete said. "My mom says thank you as well, because she hasn't had to fly out here with me this time."
"You're just lucky everyone agreed I'm a responsible adult," Patrick said. "Rather than realizing that there's no way I should be in charge of you and a child."
Pete rolled over, so he could see Patrick. "Are you in charge of me?"
"I think the LA Superior Court believes I am."
Patrick crawled onto the bed, beside Pete, and Pete slung an arm across him. Dickenson hopped up onto the end of the bed and rolled across their legs.
"I hate this," Pete said. "Coming here like this, then having to go away again. It's like someone, somewhere, looked inside my head during my worst time and found the nightmare that made me scream the loudest, and now I have to live it over and over again."
"Four months," Patrick said, hanging on to Pete. "That's five visits. Then this is over forever."
"Or it is forever," Pete said. "If I crash and burn the psych test."
"Do you have any reason to think you will? Has your own therapist said that?" Patrick asked.
"No," Pete said, sounding distant. "She's convinced I'm playing with a full deck, and that everything that went wrong was circumstances and bad management, but she's not the psych I have to persuade of that."
"Then stop panicking," Patrick said.
"Do you think taking Dickenson with us is a good idea?" Pete asked.
"I think it's an awesome idea," Patrick said. "Also, I'm not letting you leave her here alone in my apartment. The building has noise tolerance policies, which I don't think she's read."
"You don't own Milo and Otis?"
Patrick stared at Pete for a moment.
"No, I don't, oddly enough."
"I should have packed it."
Patrick closed his eyes briefly. "Do you want to change your T-shirt? Then we can continue this discussion in the car."
"Okay," Pete said, climbing off Patrick.
Patrick reached back and grabbed a pillow, and pulled it over his head, just to hide from the world for a moment. Pete lifted the pillow off, and peered worriedly down at him.
"I can take Dickenson around the block, if you need some downtime."
Patrick shook his head. "No, you're fine. We should get going."
The late afternoon sunshine bounced around the living room of Patrick's LA apartment, too bright and hard. Patrick sat down on the couch, and Dickenson hefted herself wearily up beside him and put her head on his knee.
He watched Pete walk past him, and into the bedroom, then heard the shower start a short while later. Pete's face had been shuttered on the drive back to the apartment, his head turned away from Patrick as he stared out of the window, earbuds jammed into his ears, music loud enough to be static to Patrick's hearing.
Patrick had left him be, because saying goodbye in the driveway of Pete's former home had been unbearably painful, even to watch.
The minutes ticked by, Dickenson drooled and sighed, and the shower still ran.
"That's enough," Patrick told the dog, pushing Dickenson off his lap gently and standing up.
The bathroom was thick with condensation, so that Pete was just a blur through the glass of the stall, his back to the door. He didn't turn around as Patrick closed the bathroom door.
Patrick kicked his shoes off, and dumped the rest of his clothes on the floor, then slid the shower stall door open and stepped in behind Pete. The water was far too hot, stinging his skin, and he turned the hot water faucet down, easing the force of the shower.
Pete didn't say anything, just leaned back against Patrick, letting Patrick hug him from behind.
"The world is full of precipices," Pete said. "Everywhere I look, each turn I take, there's another oblivion begging me."
"Don't walk off the edge, please," Patrick said, resting his face against Pete's shoulder.
Pete turned around, slippery against Patrick, and clung onto him.
"For the three of you," Pete said.
"Three?" Patrick asked.
"I'm not letting anyone else look after Dickenson," Pete said. "They won't understand that she has very specific walking expectations."
"Or about the whole Milo and Otis thing?" Patrick suggested.
Pete burrowed his wet face against Patrick's shoulder.
"How did my dog wind up as weird as I am?" he asked. "She was supposed to be part of keeping me normal."
Patrick sighed and hugged Pete tighter.
"How was it?" Pete asked, when Patrick let himself into the apartment after seeing Pete's therapist.
Patrick bent down to pat Dickenson, then hugged Pete, who smelled of dishwashing detergent and coffee, just home from work.
"Interesting," Patrick said. "I like her."
Pete nodded. "And? How was the session?"
Patrick sat down on the couch in the living room, and Pete knelt on the couch beside him.
"We talked," Patrick said. "About how I feel about you. About how I've felt about you over the years."
Pete sat back on his heels and nodded. "You look tired. Was it difficult?"
"Hey," Patrick said, reaching out a hand to Pete, who was pulling further away. "Any difficulty was because I don't know yet how to be like you, and keep what I'm feeling on the surface. I did talk about why we hadn't got together sooner, which is something that's been bugging me."
Dickenson climbed up onto the couch, and Pete sat down properly, giving her a lap to overfill.
"Me too," Pete said. "All that missed time."
"But it wouldn't have been like this," Patrick said. "Ten, or even five years ago. It would have been messy and disastrous."
"I was out of control then," Pete said.
"We were both out of control," Patrick admitted. "We would have just exploded."
"Immolation is never attractive," Pete said. "And now? Are we out of control now?"
Patrick shook his head. "I'm tired and scared, but have both hands on my own personal steering wheel. Whatever is happening to your go kart is your responsibility."
"I might be going too fast, but I'm driving within the lines. I've been thinking about what might happen next," Pete said. "When the LA Superior Court decides one way or the other, and I can stop pretending to hold down a normal job."
"What do you want?" Patrick asked back. "Do you want your old life back?"
Pete rested his head back and closed his eyes. "These months, living here alone, and now with you, have been the quietest and calmest of my life. I've written more and felt more than I knew I could. I don't want to go back to how it was before."
Pete opened his eyes and turned his head to smile at Patrick, Dickenson rolling onto her back as Pete scratched her tummy.
"Then we keep doing this," Patrick said.
"Can we make some music too?"
Patrick nodded. "Sure, just hand me the lyrics."
Pete's smile was open and warm, and Patrick knew his own answering smile was goofy and affectionate.
Pete was a fucking wreck, sitting on the bed in Patrick's LA apartment, partly dressed in a suit. Patrick sat beside him, glass of water in his hand.
"Take this," Patrick said, holding out a tablet and the glass of water.
"What is it?" Pete asked.
"A tranquilizer," Patrick said. "Your therapist gave it to me, to give to you today."
"I fucking can't," Pete said. "I can't turn up at the court out of it."
"Take a quarter, or a half then," Patrick said. "I'll take the rest with me, so it's there if you need it. You can't go into the court freaking out either."
Pete took the fragment of the tablet that Patrick broke off for him, swallowing it with half a glass of water.
"I can't do this," Pete said, burying his face in his hands so his voice was muffled. "I can't walk in there, and listen to some shrink tell a room full of people that I'm still fucking crazy and can't see my kid."
"You said your assessment went well," Patrick said. "You got through it without breaking down, or getting angry."
Pete's face was bleak when he took his hands off it and looked at Patrick. "They're going to talk about what I was like before, about when I had the breakdown."
"And then your attorney is going to show everything you've done since then to get your life together again."
Which would include Patrick taking the stand. Patrick and the attorney had spent an hour prepping, the day before, just in case the cross examination turned ugly.
"Fuck," Pete said. "I can't do this, not all over again."
"You're going to," Patrick said. "And you're going to hold it together, no matter what happens. Then we'll come back here, and you can freak out, or punch walls, or get drunk. But for the next few hours, it's all about breathing and thinking and talking."
Pete nodded. "Just don't leave me alone."
"Not unless I get tossed out of the court," Patrick said. "In which case, you're going to have to hold your attorney's hand instead. Bet she bills you extra for that."
"You do not want to know what this is costing me," Pete said.
Patrick picked Pete's tie up off the bed and handed it to him. "Put this on, and some trousers. The car will be here soon."
Pete's attorney had booked a car for them, at Patrick's request. While Patrick could drive Pete to the court, getting Pete home again if things went badly would potentially require both of his hands and all of his attention.
Pete sat in the back of the car, Patrick's fingers gripped tightly in his own, and Patrick could see Pete's throat moving as he sub-vocalized, counting to himself.
A block from the courthouse, Patrick's phone rang.
Pete turned his head, eyes flat with worry.
Pete's attorney spoke with Patrick for a moment, then Patrick put his phone away.
"Go around the block," he said to the driver, leaning forward.
"What's the problem?" Pete asked, when Patrick sat back again.
"The press have got Ashlee cornered at the entrance. We need to give her time to get clear," Patrick said.
"Fuck," Pete said. "Is there a back way in?"
"Only the one the people who are in detention come in through," Patrick said. "Do you want to give that impression?"
When the car drove past the courthouse entrance, Patrick could see the knot of reporters with cameras on the four or five steps outside the glass doors to the courthouse.
Three minutes later, on the next pass around the block, the press was spread out, some down on the curb, scanning the traffic.
"Okay," Patrick told the driver. "Pull over."
"This is not how I wanted to do this," Pete said.
"I know," Patrick said, straightening his tie. "But just push past them, and don't say anything. You know how to deal with this."
Pete fidgeted with his mirror shades.
"I meant you and me."
The car rolled to a stop, behind a taxi, and Patrick said, "What?"
"I wanted to do this right, not as part of fucking court testimony."
Patrick smiled and squeezed Pete's hand. "Believe me, that's not what I'm worrying about at the moment. C'mon, I'll even hold your hand."
The car door was opened by someone from Pete's legal team, and Patrick stepped out and waited for Pete to slide across the seat and join him, the shutters on the cameras sounding like cicadas on a summer evening.
Pete grabbed Patrick's hand, as soon as he was out of the car, and with the attorneys holding their elbows, they pushed their way through the pack of photographers, heads down.
Pete stumbled on the steps, and as Patrick and the attorney steadied him on his feet, Patrick wondered if Pete had his eyes closed behind the mirror shades, blocking out the world. Patrick didn't blame him.
The glass doors slid open, and they were through, away from the press. The attorneys kept moving, toward the bank of elevators, where someone was holding one open for them.
Inside the elevator, Pete leaned against Patrick, and Pete's attorney said, "Pete? Are you ready to focus?"
Pete nodded and took his sunglasses off.
The court was a closed session, and Ashlee only had her sister and mother sitting behind her, not the massed rank of her entire clan, which was a relief. Patrick wasn't up to dealing with the whole Simpson troupe, and he possibly never would be again.
Pete leaned back in his seat as Patrick was switching his cell phone off.
"Can you slip me the rest?" Pete whispered. "I'm either going to throw up or pass out, and there's nothing to count in here."
Patrick glanced up, at the blank walls and bland contemporary art, and pulled his notepad of scribbled musical notation out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Pete.
"I don't think I can do it discreetly. This is not the time to get busted. First recess," Patrick whispered back. "Count that instead. "
Pete nodded, taking the notepad. "Don't let me drink any coffee."
At the lunch break, as Patrick walked out of the court, his arm around Pete, Jessica came over.
"Um, hi, Patrick, Pete," Jessica said. "Ash wants to know if she can talk to Patrick, if that's okay?"
Patrick glanced at Pete, then at Pete's attorney.
The attorney nodded, and Pete said, "Sure, go find out what she wants."
"I won't be long," Patrick told Pete, and he walked over to where Ashlee was standing by herself, in the hallway.
"Ashlee?" Patrick said. "You wanted to see me?"
Ashlee nodded. "Thanks, I know this must be difficult for you."
"For everyone," Patrick said.
When Patrick looked across, Pete was standing with his attorney outside the courtroom, head down, and he looked defeated.
"Can we make this quick?" Patrick asked.
"Is Pete really okay, inside himself?" Ashlee asked. "Everyone is saying he is, you know, the psych and you, but he doesn't look it. But you'd know how he really is, wouldn't you? You'd tell me the truth?"
"He knows how to sleep, and to dream, now," Patrick said. "Only today, he thinks the world is going to take his dreams away from him."
Ashlee nodded, looking like she was about to cry, and Patrick walked back over to Pete.
In the waiting room, Pete took the bottle of orange juice Patrick handed him and rubbed at his face.
"You were good," Pete said quietly, his head tipped toward Patrick, when Patrick had sat next to him.
"I answered the questions," Patrick said. "That's all."
"It was what you said."
"It's not difficult, talking about how strong you are," Patrick said, his voice low enough not to carry to the two women sitting opposite them, sipping takeaway coffees.
Pete rolled the bottle of juice between his hands. "I owe you. I owe you so much."
"No, you don't. You don't owe me a thing," Patrick said.
Pete took the cap off his orange juice and drank some.
"You've not switched your phone on?" Pete asked.
Patrick shook his head.
"I don't want to know," Patrick said. "I can deal with all that when we get home. I spoke to Andy and Joe yesterday to warn them, and they're both braced for the press onslaught. I pity the poor journo who manages to get through Andy's defenses and then finds out what Andy actually thinks."
"Andy was blunt when I spoke with him," Pete said. "Even for him."
"He was trying to spare your feelings when he spoke to you directly," Patrick said. "You should have heard the uncensored version."
"Do you think he'll do a repeat performance for me, when this is over?" Pete asked.
"I doubt we'll be able to stop him."
Pete drank more of his juice, then passed the bottle to Patrick.
"What did Ash want?" Pete asked. "Is it something you can tell me?"
Patrick drank the last of the juice. "She was worried about you."
Pete nodded. "I'm worried about me, too."
"You both worry too much," Patrick said, looking up as Pete's attorney gestured at them from the doorway of the waiting room. "Intermission's over. Time for the second set."
"This time, Ashlee's singing," Pete said, following Patrick out of the waiting room.
In the courtroom, while Ashlee was being sworn in, Pete's shoulders were hunched over, and Patrick could see his attorney had a tight grip on Pete's hand. There'd been no good way to prepare for this part, where Ashlee gave testimony about Pete's breakdown again. Pete had never been able to talk coherently to Patrick about the first time, at the hearing where he'd lost custody, and Patrick guessed there were very good reasons.
Ashlee's attorney asked her, "Do you have any reason to think that Mr. Wentz has not made a full recovery?"
"No," Ashlee said. "I'm satisfied that he is in control of his life and himself. I'd like the existing custody and access order amended to a more equitable arrangement that better reflects the needs of our child."
The Family Law Bench Officer leaned forward and asked, "Ms Simpson? Would you trust Mr. Wentz to be alone with your child for an extended period of time? Today? Tomorrow?"
Ashlee looked over at Pete, and for a moment, Patrick could see the old Ashlee, from before everything had gone wrong.
"Yes," Ashlee said. "I trust Pete."
Pete was making odd gulping noises, and his attorney was hissing, possibly from what Pete was doing to her hand.
Ashlee's attorney stepped away, and Pete's attorney declined to ask any questions.
"Five minute recess," the clerk called. "All stand."
Ashlee didn't look at Pete and his attorney, she just walked out of the court with her mother and sister buzzing after. Patrick slid down, to squat beside Pete, who'd put his face down on the desk.
"That was unexpected. Hang in there, Pete," the attorney said. "Just a few more minutes."
"I'm out of coping," Pete said, without lifting his head.
"Bullshit," Patrick said. "Pull yourself the fuck together."
Pete turned his head to peer at Patrick under his elbow.
"And that is why you are one of my three favorite people in the world."
Patrick frowned. "Um? Are you telling me Dickenson is a person?"
"Are you willing to tell her she isn't?" Pete responded. "Because she sure thinks she is."
Ten minutes later, Pete hung tightly onto Patrick's arm and walked out of the court, into the hallway.
Ashlee was waiting outside, away from her family and lawyers, and she walked over.
"Pete?" she said. "Can we talk?"
"Yeah, sure," Pete said. "Thank you, for what you did."
"It was the right thing to do," Ashlee said. "So I did it. I'm going to make a statement outside the court, on the steps, about the ruling. Did you want to make it a joint statement, from both of us?"
Pete glanced sideways at Patrick, who shrugged.
"I can't," Pete said. "I'm probably never going to say anything publicly about any of this, it's all too difficult. And I'm pretty much incoherent now."
"I'll do the talking, and you can stand beside me. I just thought I'd offer."
"Give me ten seconds," Pete said, and he turned and leaned against Patrick, and said, "Oh, fuck."
Patrick hugged him, and said, "Why don't you do it? It says good things about the two of you cooperating."
Ashlee smiled weakly at Patrick, looking as tired as Patrick felt, and patted Pete's back.
Pete nodded, against Patrick's shoulder, and said, "Okay."
Ten minutes later, Patrick stood half-hidden behind Pete's attorney, and watched Pete and Ashlee face the crowd of press on the steps of the courthouse.
"What was the ruling?" someone shouted. "Who got custody?"
Ashlee put her arm around Pete's shoulders, and Pete pushed his mirror shades on more securely.
"We're both very happy with the outcome of the hearing today," Ashlee said. "It really was the best possible result for everyone involved, especially our son. It's been a bad year, but it's over, and we can all move forward."
"Pete!" a reporter shouted. "A comment from you?"
Ashlee turned and hugged Pete, and he hugged her back, then their attorneys swooped, pushing through the press and bustling them both out, down to the waiting cars.
Patrick made his way around the back of the tangle of people, and to the other side of Pete's car, fast enough that he didn't get left behind.
Once the car was moving, Pete took off his sunglasses and loosened his tie, then let out a long breath.
"That was some fucking huge rabbit hole we just fell down," Pete said. "Let me know when we hit the bottom."
"Sure," Patrick said, pulling his own tie undone. "But this time, there's a big, squishy trampoline down there, not jagged rocks."
Pete grinned without opening his eyes.
At Patrick's apartment, Pete threw his suit jacket on the couch, then kicked his shoes across the room and pitched face first across the carpet.
"Please tell me that was real," he said. "Please tell me I didn't dream the whole fucking thing."
Patrick slung his jacket on top of Pete's, and sat down next to Pete.
"Congratulations," Patrick said. "Joint custody, and two days unrestricted access a week for the next year, then you've got a 50/50 split."
"I can't get my head around this," Pete said. "It's like the idea is too big. Also, your carpet smells bad."
"Blame your dog for the carpet thing," Patrick said.
Pete rolled onto his side.
"Want to move to LA with me?" he asked.
Patrick pulled the laces of his shoes undone, and ditched them across the room.
"Sure. We'll need a bigger place, and a yard for the dog."
"It's not going to fuck up your work, is it?" Pete asked.
Patrick shrugged. "So it takes longer to fly to New York when I work there. On the other hand, working in studios here will be just around the corner. I might demand that everyone records out here. I'm sure I can be a primadonna about it, if I try."
Pete flipped over, onto his back. "Want to celebrate?"
"What did you have in mind?" Patrick asked.
"I'm thinking takeout Chinese, which we won't have to share with Dickenson since she's with my mom, and then a DVD that doesn't star quadrupeds."
Patrick took his phone out of his pocket and switched it on, then held it out to Pete.
"Sounds good, since I don't think leaving the apartment is wise. And speaking of your mom, you'd better call her."
Pete nudged Patrick with his toes. "Boot your laptop," he said. "And load some real estate sites. Let's find somewhere to live while we eat."
Patrick let himself into the house after a day of meetings, dodging packing cases and kicking the door closed behind himself, then called out, "Hey, anyone home?"
Dickenson barreled down the hall, skittering on the bare boards and sliding into Patrick, forcing him to lift a knee to protect himself, and another dog charged around the corner of the hall, woofing excitedly, then slamming into Dickenson.
"Pete!" Patrick shouted. "There's another dog in the house! Budding or binary fission is not an adequate explanation!"
Pete slid around the corner of the hall and collided with the wall.
"Hi!" Pete said, steadying himself on the wall and grinning. "That's not a new dog, that's Rigby. She's come to visit."
Patrick looked down at Dickenson and Rigby, who were rolling together at his feet, and stepped over the tangle of canine enthusiasm with difficulty.
"Okay," he said, nodding to himself. "I can deal with this."
"Isn't it great?" Pete said, hugging Patrick, once Patrick was past the packing case mountain in the hall. "Looks like there was invisible ink on the custody and access order that said I got to have Rigby too."
Patrick hugged Pete back. "I'm really glad for you, and for the dogs."
Pete's grin was huge.
"Please tell me you at least got the bed set up," Patrick said. "And there's something to eat for dinner."
"Bed, couch, TV, basic bathroom, minimal kitchen, enough clothes for you to go to work tomorrow," Pete said. "Today, I'm winning at unpacking."
"Couch," Patrick said, pushing past Pete, into the living room that held only a couch, a TV, and empty bookshelves.
He sat down on the couch, which was covered in dog hair, and smiled.
"I'm on preschool pick-up duty tomorrow," Pete called out from the kitchen as both of the dogs bounced onto the couch beside Patrick. "So I wouldn't encourage you to raise your expectations too high for then. This might be it for a couple of days."
If Patrick twisted around on the couch, he could just see Pete, who was chopping and frying things in the kitchen, making good smells.
"Cookies?" Patrick asked hopefully. "Are you making cookies again tomorrow?"
Pete threw a something at Patrick, which sailed over the couch and landed on the floor. Dickenson hopped down and sniffed at the carrot chunk, then ate it, before climbing back onto the couch.
"Who's the preschooler?" Pete asked. "Who am I actually making the cookies for?"
"I don't see why you can't make enough for everyone," Patrick said. "Can't you just do something like double the recipe?"
Pete started laughing, and Patrick turned around enough that he could see Pete properly.
"What?" Patrick asked, Dickenson clambering over his back inconveniently.
"More like quadruple it," Pete said.
Rigby pushed her nose under Patrick's arm, and Patrick patted her.
"I don't think this couch is big enough," Patrick said, watching Pete add stuff to the pan. "Do they make couches big enough for two adults, one kid and two dogs?"
"Have to," Pete said. "Realistically, I think we need a bigger bed, too. I was single, with one dog, when I bought the last one."
"Two people, two dogs now," Patrick said. "Unless you want to explain to the dogs that they sleep somewhere else?"
Pete looked scandalized. "Rigby might accept that, but Dickenson won't."
Patrick let Ashlee in, and said, "Don't fall over anything. We're still unpacking."
"Hire professionals," Ashlee said. "End everyone's suffering. Do you think there's any chance you'll have a second bedroom ready by Saturday? I need to fly to New York, and Mom is busy."
Patrick said, "Follow me, and don't trip over the guitars."
He pushed open one of the other bedroom doors, showing Ashlee the assembled and made up bed, the shelving, the drawers and drapes.
"No toys yet," Patrick said. "Pete wanted to find out what to get, to duplicate what you had at your place. He figured identical toy collections would lead to less grief."
"Did you do this?" Ashlee asked, following Patrick into the kitchen.
"Not a chance," Patrick said. "I'm deep in label and production meetings, as well as finishing off The Cab's latest. Have a cookie."
Ashlee took a cookie from the tray that Patrick pointed to. She leaned against the counter, and watched the two dogs and two humans wrestling on the lawn, through the kitchen window.
She was smiling sentimentally when she looked back at Patrick. "I added your name to the approved-person list at preschool, just in case Pete gets stuck in traffic or something."
"Okay," Patrick said. "What do I need to do? Show some ID?"
"In theory," Ashlee said. "But after the photos in People, they'll probably just hand the brat over to you."
"What photos? You know I don't read shit like People."
"Celebrity Dads We Love," Ashlee said. "Looked like the three of you were doing some serious negotiating over coffees somewhere. I do hope at least one of you was drinking a babycino."
"I don't let Pete have too much caffeine," Patrick said. "Celebrity Dads? Really?"
Ashlee held out the tray of cookies.
"Have a parenthood cookie."
"Um, thanks," Patrick said, taking a cookie.
Ashlee watched as Dickenson sent Pete sprawling across the lawn.
"I had to do what I did," Ashlee said.
Patrick said. "Pete's never talked about what happened, but things must have been really bad for you all."
"I wasn't being vindictive."
"Pete was a fucking big, dangerous mess?" Patrick asked, and Ashlee nodded.
"It's hard to remember now. And I don't know how the two of you got from blog entries saying you'd both been sighted at underground gigs in the Chicago 'burbs, to signing a contract with Interscope for an acoustic album together and suddenly becoming the Parents Everyone Adores, but it can't have been as easy as it seems from the outside."
The door to the yard crashed open, then Patrick could hear the dogs guzzling at their water bowls and the faucet running in the bathroom.
"The hard part for me was finding him," Patrick said.
Ashlee smiled at him, and turned around and bent down with her arms open.
Pete rolled over so he was draped half over Patrick, and Patrick thought about complaining.
"C'mon," Pete whispered. "You can go back to sleep afterward."
"I don't have to go to work today," Patrick reminded Pete, turning over to face him. "You really going to let me go back to sleep again?"
"Sure," Pete said, his hand inside Patrick's boxers already.
Patrick had to pull Pete's clothes out of the way, and it took his half-asleep brain too many seconds to remember why they were both sleeping with clothes on…
"Pete?" Patrick said, because talking was not easy, not when Pete was really concentrating on what he was doing.
"There are no dogs on the bed."
Pete chuckled. "Want to do something to make the most of that?"
"And the TV is on."
"So, Dickenson has finally worked out how to use the remote?" Pete said. "You can focus better than this."
"Pete…" Patrick warned.
"Shit," Pete said.
Pete scrambled out of bed and grabbed a pair of jeans off the chair at the bottom of the bed.
"You're going to need more than a T-shirt," Patrick pointed out, watching Pete ease himself into his jeans and do the fly up.
"How high do you think he can climb?" Pete asked, pulling a hoodie on.
"I think you're about to find out," Patrick said, rolling over again. "Close the door on the way out."
Patrick had to put the pillow over his head to block out the squawking and thudding from the kitchen, but he'd lived on a tour bus, he could block out worse things than Pete, a child and two dogs in a kitchen.
Pete woke him again, after a long enough time that the room was completely light and Patrick felt like he might be able to cope with being human.
"Hey," Pete said, sitting on the edge of the bed and holding out a mug of coffee. "We made you breakfast, too."
Patrick sat up and put his glasses on, then took the coffee.
"Is it a reasonable time?" Patrick asked. "A non-resentful time?"
"After nine," Pete said.
"Okay, I'm willing to consider breakfast. Is the food any good?"
"I made the omelet," Pete said. "So I can vouch for that part of the menu. Any complaints about the standard of the toast or juice should be taken up with the shorter chef."
Something about Pete made Patrick think of dominant scales, with raised third notes and flattened sevenths. Patrick touched Pete's knee, through the hole in the denim.
"What is it?" Patrick asked.
"I dreamt last night, and when I woke up, I could remember it, you know, the fragments. But I didn't write it down, because I'm all here already and I don't need to catch the little bits anymore."
Patrick must have raised an eyebrow or something, because Pete said, "Don't look like that. I'm not manic or anything. If I was, you wouldn't have had to prod me repeatedly last night to make me stop snoring."
Patrick nodded. Pete definitely had been asleep through the night.
Later, they all sat on the bare floor of what would be the music room, in the middle of a jumble of guitar cases, dogs and toys. Patrick played a Phyrgian scale, with a raised third note and a flattened seventh, as part of the bridge of one of Pete's dream songs, and Pete rolled a toy car back across the boards.
"What was that?" Pete asked. "It wasn't there last time."
"I thought of it this morning," Patrick said, failing to remove Rigby from his legs before playing the bridge again. "If you want to argue about it, we should wait until later."
Pete paused, looking confused, then said, "Um, I don't want to argue about it. I like it."
Patrick looked up from where he was still negotiating lap space with Rigby, and blinked.
"Okay. A new phase in our songwriting relationship. I can work with this."
Pete lay back on the floor, which was effective in tempting Rigby away from Patrick's knees.
"Are people just going to want to, I don't know, hate us or whatever, for how sickening these songs are?" Pete asked.
Patrick frowned. "Um, not with titles like 'Failure of Self' and 'The Color Between 2am and Coffee.' If you want to change the track list, I'll have to go back tomorrow and kneecap people to arrange it."
"Artistic control," Pete said. "Didn't we have it?"
A toy car whizzed past Pete's head, and Dickenson charged after it, claws clattering on the bare boards.
"There's control, and there's pitching the concept of an album then changing our minds," Patrick said. "And you handed over responsibility for all that to me, remember? Leave me alone to do my job."
Pete grinned and drummed his fingers against the boards while Patrick played the bridge again.
Soon, it would be five o'clock, but there'd be no heart-breaking good-byes. Instead, there was a week ahead of preschool pickups and cookie visits, and another weekend to follow.
And once the sun had dropped lower, they'd walk Dickenson, four times around the park, because she had very specific walking requirements, at least according to Pete.