It was 8 on Friday and they had few leads and fewer suspects in their latest rape/homicide, so the four of them were in the conference room playing Facial Recognition Database. Esposito flipped through the last couple of folders in his stack, his eyes glancing over the photos clipped inside the covers like stones skipping on a pond. He shoved the folders into the "already checked pile" and rubbed his tired eyes.
Ryan was chewing on the cuticle of his thumb, unconsciously working at a loose tag of skin. Esposito reached out and swatted him on the arm; Ryan looked up guiltily. "Sorry, I'll go get my clippers," he said pushing his chair back and leaving the room.
Biting his cuticles was Ryan's one nervous habit and it drove Esposito insane. Ryan kept nail clippers in his desk, in his coat pockets, in their department car -- everywhere -- to try to keep it to a minimum, but it didn't always help.
"You know, they make this stuff for little kids who bite their nails," Esposito said as Ryan came back into the room. "They dip their fingers in it and it tastes awful. They used it on my niece and she quit in like a week."
"Yeah, I've heard of that," Ryan said distantly, focusing on the folder in front of him. Esposito noticed Beckett watching him from across the table.
"Have you tried it?" Beckett shook her head slightly and Esposito frowned at her, rocked his chair back on two legs, What?
"Yeah, it didn't work," Ryan said, obviously trying to shut down this line of conversation.
Esposito started to reply and saw Beckett's eyes widen in warning but really, what's the big deal? "Well, what if I helped or something? I mean, you're a determined guy, I'm sure with a couple weeks of real effort you could break the habit and be done with for good. I mean, why don't you just quit?"
Ryan shoved his chair back from the table so fast it flipped over; Esposito, shocked, let his chair settle back on all four legs.
"Why don't I just quit? Seriously? You think I wouldn't have quit by now if that was all there was to it?" He backed up against the wall and spat the words at Esposito, eyes flashing. "You all think you know me sooo well. You think because I can get up in the mornings and get dressed and come to work on time and I'm not twitching or frothing at the mouth, you think I must be okay, but you don't know what doing all those things costs me."
Esposito cut his eyes over to Castle (stunned into silence) and Beckett (gritting her teeth and watching the exit).
"Why don't you just quit?" Ryan mocked again, his voice gone high and slightly hysterical. "Seriously. Seriously? Right now that is my only self-destructive symptom and I'm pretty damn proud of that, thank you very much," he stared at Esposito wild eyed. "But if you'd like to play psychosis roulette I suppose I can put a lid on it and see what crops up instead, want to?" He leaned forward with his hands on his knees and breathed heavily. "Goddammit. Fucking being punished for faking normal too well. Fuck it."
He punched the door frame on his way out and walked toward the elevator. Esposito looked at Beckett for help. "Had to go and put your foot in it, didn't you Esposito?" she said.
"How was I supposed to know--?!"
"You weren't. I mean, that was the idea. It's not your fault," she dropped her head into both hands and pulled at her hair. "Go. Fix this. Don't come back until tomorrow morning and we'll hit it with fresh eyes." Esposito was out the door before she could get mad at him.
"It's not a nice story," that was all Ryan had told him nearly a year ago now, in explanation of why he saw a psychologist as a teenager. Esposito had been curious, but he'd also been pretty distracted at the time, so he'd filed it away under 'Kevin Ryan facts to investigate later' and let it sit somewhere at the back of his head. And then he sort of forgot.
He found Ryan sitting on a bench in the locker room. He'd put on his coat like he intended to leave, but then didn't. "I'm sorry," Ryan said without looking when Esposito walked in. "It wasn't fair to blow up at you like that. You didn't know."
"I know," he sat on the same bench as Ryan, a few feet away. "Thank you. I'm still sorry, anyway."
Ryan slumped his shoulders farther forward, refusing to look at Esposito, and shuffled his feet. "It's just, sometimes I get so wrapped up in everything that I know is going on in my head, and all the effort I'm putting into it to just get through the day, I forget that other people don't see how hard I’m trying." He paused, picked idly at a hangnail, then shoved it into his pocket self-consciously. “Most days aren’t this bad.”
"How come Beckett knows?” Esposito asked, trying not to feel hurt. “She tried to warn me."
"Because she's a good detective," Ryan sneaked a glance at Esposito's shocked face and grinned tightly. "And she's read my file. The locked one. It's not in there, but she sort of put things together I think." He rubbed his fingers through his short hair, making it stand up wildly. "How pissed is she?"
"Not very, I think. She said to go home and sleep, come back tomorrow." Esposito stood and held out his hand. "Come on, I'll drive you home." Ryan ignored the hand and stood. He felt exhausted, like he'd -- well -- like he'd been up for three days straight trying to catch a murderer and then thrown a temper tantrum, actually.
He shuffled toward the door and Esposito stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "You know you can tell me anything, right? I mean, you don't have to, but you can. It won't change how I think of you or anything." Ryan met his eyes (finally) with a wary, patronizing look that said he'd heard those words before: a well meant but impossible promise. "Really," Esposito put his other hand on Ryan's free shoulder and faced him. "I mean it. I know who you are: you're my partner and you're a brilliant detective and you're a good man. You're that person now and you'll still be that same person no matter what you tell me." Ryan stared at him, barely blinking and Esposito tried with no success to read his facial expression. "Okay?"
"All right, bro," Ryan grasped Esposito's arm with one hand. "Thanks."
"Mind if I stay?" Esposito asked softly, breaking the silence of their ride home.
Ryan shrugged, "I'm just gonna get drunk and play some video games, come on up if you want." He slammed the car door and Esposito went around the block for a parking place.
Ryan left the door unlocked and Esposito could hear the shower already running when he entered the apartment a few minutes later. The pair of sweat pants draped over one of the bar stools made him smile. In the past year he'd stayed over so often that he swore Ryan's couch had a permanent imprint of his body worn into it.
He'd accidentally left a couple pair of sweats in Ryan's laundry hamper once and somehow they’d taken up residence in one of Ryan's drawers. It was just one of those things they did. Because Ryan lived closer to the precinct and because sometimes Esposito still had nightmares and didn't want to wake up in his empty house and because they were partners.
The shower kicked off and Esposito quickly changed into the sweats before Ryan came out, wreathed in steam and wearing a t-shirt and pajama pants. "I was thinking about ordering pizza, that good with you?" Esposito asked him.
"Sure, it'll go well with my booze." He opened a cabinet in the kitchen and retrieved a bottle of tequila.
"You sure about that, bro?" Esposito asked, already dialing the pizza place. Ryan nodded firmly.
"Tonight is one of those nights I need to be able to quit trying for just a little while." He gestured at Esposito with the bottle. "I normally don't do this with other people around, but you wanted to stay, so it's on you." He poured a generous measure of tequila into a coffee cup and took a swig.
Ryan never got really drunk when they went out to bars or at the office Christmas parties. Esposito had never really thought about it, but he realized this must be why. Somewhere about five drinks in Ryan breathed a sigh of relief and melted into the sofa, Esposito glanced over at him and quickly looked back again.
He looked like himself, but somehow not quite, in a way that ruffled the hair on the back of Esposito’s neck. There was something ineffable in the set of his face and the line of his shoulders that was just different enough to change everything. Esposito couldn’t quantify it. He got the unsettling feeling that he might be seeing the real Ryan for the first time.
The layers of carefully controlled emotions and the false fronts and the tension that Esposito had been so used to seeing he hadn’t even realized it was there all slid off Ryan at once and he lolled his head back on the couch, held the coffee cup up to the light and turned it back and forth.
"Shit, I really fucked that up, huh?" he slurred.
Esposito shuddered; shook it off. He felt a weird sense of déjà vu. This side of Ryan felt familiar, like he’d been missing it all along, expecting it. Ryan suddenly made more sense. His voice sounded—it was hard to describe but he’d settle for ‘unfettered’. Esposito pressed a slice of pizza into his hand. "Have some pizza with your tequila. I don't think it's going to be a big deal. Tomorrow it'll be like it never happened."
"Nah, but, I mean, now you guys know. I mean, Beckett kinda knew before but now she knows. And you know Castle's never gonna let it go."
"I think you scared the shit out of Castle. He'll stay away. And if he doesn't I think Beckett will kill him, so you're in the clear." Ryan giggled and took a bite of pizza. "Besides, I mean, what do we really know? Not much. Your secret is still safe with... you."
Ryan looked at him and his eyes went wide, "I want to tell you. I mean, all the way home, I wanted to tell you." He frowned. "I want you to know, but I don't know how to say it."
"You just say it man, one word in front of the other." Esposito turned to face him on the couch. Ryan opened his mouth to speak and froze. He tried again. Shook his head.
"It just, I dunno. It just won't come out. I can't do it." His voice sounded thin and sad and Esposito rested one hand on his knee. He remembered the way Ryan had wrapped himself around him when he was having a melt down after they were kidnapped. He wished he could do that for Ryan now, but he just wasn't that kind of a guy, and he was pretty sure Ryan wouldn't take it well either. Ryan sighed and studied him, eyes narrowing.
"It's okay. No rush--," Esposito started but Ryan interrupted him with a sharp shake of his head, placing his pizza on the coffee table.
"No, I need to tell someone," he chewed on his lip. "What if I show you something?" He tugged up the hem of his shirt with one hand and Esposito fought hard to keep his eye brows from shooting up into his hairline. "See?" He asked, but Esposito couldn't see anything unusual about Ryan's pale stomach in the dim light. He shook his head. "Scars," Ryan said. He swallowed hard and reached for Esposito's hand on his knee. "I have scars." He brushed Esposito's hand across his stomach right above his waistband.
Esposito could feel them now, raised lines that bumped under his fingers. He leaned a little closer and noticed the thin white ridges of scar tissue running vertically down Ryan's stomach and disappearing into his pants, down to-- Where? There were lots of them, so faint it was no wonder he'd never noticed them in the locker room before. "Do-- Did---" There were so many questions, he couldn't even think of where to begin, especially with Ryan so obviously nervous.
"I have some issues. Sexually." Esposito leaned up so he could look Ryan in the face. "I have scars, and I have some issues," he licked his lips. "I told you it wasn't a nice story." His wide, frightened eyes flinched and Esposito could feel the tension in his breaths, begging Esposito to tell him that it was okay -- that he was okay.
"All right," Esposito leaned their shoulders together and stroked his hand over the scars again, feeling them bump by under his fingertips. "So far so good, still the same Kevin."
Ryan grinned at him, ridiculously relieved and ridiculously drunk. "Thank you."