"Took you long enough."
Gerard was blinking, eyes adjusting from the dim barracks of the 29th Infantry, off-balance from the deactivation ceremony he'd just left, and at first he didn't recognize the figure out of uniform. Weak January sunlight gleamed on blond hair growing out shaggily from a regulation cut and curling towards the collar of a slouchy suit. Gerard gaped. "Bob? What are you doing here?"
"You invited me, remember?" Bob said dryly, waving a folded letter. "'If you decide not to return to Chicago, you'll always be welcome in New Jersey'," he recited, doing a passable imitation of Gerard.
Gerard had written that back in October, when he'd heard the 2nd Rangers were being deactivated in Virginia. He'd never heard back. His next letter, hoping Bob was well and giving his own deactivation date, had been sent without much hope of it finding its recipient. Apparently it had. A grin spread across his face, and he wrapped Bob in a quick hug. "I didn't think you'd come."
"My landlady in Virginia might be sorry to lose her maintenance man," Bob said, giving a tentative pat to Gerard's back before he stepped back, shoving his hands in his pockets. "Not that there weren't more vets coming through the base to take my spot. But...." He trailed off, looking uncomfortable.
Gerard jumped to fill the silence. "Ray and Frank will be so happy to see you, Bryar! And Lindsey. I think she'd have had my head if I hadn't invited you, you know, after hearing so much about you. And...you can meet Alicia, too," he added, stumbling a little over the words. Knowing his wife and sister-in-law were living and working together, the occasional note in Alicia's hand that he'd received overseas, both those things were different than actually seeing her. She'd never made him promise to bring Mikey home to her. She hadn't needed to; it was ingrained in his very existence as Mikey's older brother. And he was returning home a failure.
The shadow crossing Bob's face told Gerard that Bob was thinking about Mikey, too. Ignoring the long-familiar clenching in his chest, Gerard clapped Bob on the shoulder and said, too-brightly, "We'd better get to the train station - it's an hour to Trenton, and Lindsey's expecting me before supper time." Bob hesitated for a moment, then stooped to pick up a duffel that had been sitting unnoticed at his feet. For a second, he looked indescribably sad. Gerard was sure it must have been his imagination, because as soon as they turned towards the main gate, leaving Camp Kilmer behind, Bob cracked a joke. It was just like always, Bob's solid presence at his shoulder and their footsteps falling in time, but it was better, because this was Jersey soil under their boots. Gerard twisted his uniform cap in his hands and wondered why he still felt lost.
It was a short walk from the train station in Trenton to the quiet residential street where Lindsey and Alicia had moved shortly after their husbands enlisted. Bob and Gerard, accustomed to walking far longer distances, barely noticed. Gerard looked around curiously as they turned down side streets. He knew that both Frank and Ray had moved near here as well, when they'd returned to the States. Frank had gotten his ticket home in August of '44, a cripplingly deep shrapnel wound in his thigh. The doctors said later that Ray had saved his leg. Gerard had never blamed Ray for losing Mikey, never would consider it, but he knew Ray couldn't have handled having Frank's blood on his hands too. Ray had escaped injury; he was sent home after being fever-stricken in the fall of '45 along with a number of other soldiers from the Bremen enclave.
Gerard found himself narrating these thoughts to Bob, not knowing if he knew, if any of the others had been as faithful of a correspondent as he himself had. Bob didn't say much, letting Gerard's words flow past him like he always did. Gerard knew he was listening, though. Was sure Bob understood the twist of emotions behind the rise and fall of words. He reached out and set a hand on Gerard's shoulder once or twice, and when Gerard paused on the street in front of a modest little bungalow, he scuffed his boot in the gravel a few times before asking calmly, "Is this it?"
Gerard laughed a little, nervous. "I suppose so. It's the right address. I've never been here." He studied the peeling paint on the porch posts. Nothing about this house looked like Mikey, or their family home in Belleville. It had been such a long time since he'd seen Lindsey or Alicia, he wasn't even sure if it looked like them. A blue star and a gold star hung in the front window. The broad wooden steps were lined with a plethora of clay pots, holding grayish-brown winter dirt. He imagined them filled with geraniums, red like Lindsey's favorite lipstick. That was a little better. He took a deep breath.
"Suppose you'd better go knock, pal," Bob said mildly, and Gerard nodded once, then picked his way up the steps. Bob followed, a few steps behind. The door opened before he'd even finished his knock, and he got a split-second view of her flawless face - dark eyes, black hair, red lips - before Lindsey's arms were around his neck, both of them staggering with the force of the collision. He felt Bob's palm in the small of his back, keeping him steady, and breathed in Lindsey's spicy perfume.
Lindsey couldn't remember exactly what she'd been doing when the knock on the door came. She'd been in the kitchen, she knew that, fussing over dinner, drinking black coffee from her favorite handmade pottery mug. Lindsey avoided Alicia's eyes when Alicia asked what else she could do to help, painfully aware that she could now count the hours till her husband's return and that Alicia had no such tally of her own. What a hell of a thing guilt was. Mikey had been dead for over a year, and Lindsey had grieved along with Alicia, but she'd watched a measure of contentment creep back into Alicia's expression recently. If Lindsey was honest with herself, some of the guilt may have been due to the illicit thrill deep in her chest when she made Alicia smile.
Right now, though, the only thing that mattered was Gerard, his shoulder smelling like dusty wool against her cheek and his hands shaking where they clutched the material of her dress. "Gee," she breathed in his ear, arms loosening enough to pull back and kiss him, and he gasped into her mouth, fingers tangling in her hair. When she finally met his eyes, there were too many things swirling in them to identify, but she settled for returning his disbelieving smile. He looked younger, somehow, than the last time she'd seen him.
"I'm here," he said, a wondering tone creeping into his voice, like he didn't actually believe it.
"You're here," she reassured softly, before a shuffling sound caught her ear. Conscious now of another figure on the porch, she looked over Gerard's shoulder. A blond man stood behind them, and she caught a fleeting look of misery on the unfamiliar face that smoothed abruptly into bland politeness as she focused on him. "Who've you brought with you?" she asked, mentally kicking herself for the overly cheery tone as Gerard blanched momentarily. She felt him take a deep breath, then he shot a reassuring smile at the other man.
"It's Bob - Sergeant Bryar. He surprised the hell out of me today at the barracks. Guess he got my letter after all." Gerard beamed at Bob, who flushed a little and cleared his throat.
"Gerard told me I could stay for a while, but I - "
Lindsey cut him off with a polite smile. "I remember! Bob. Of course you're welcome. Now, both of you! Please come inside, it's cold and dinner will be ready soon." She laced her fingers through Gerard's, drawing him inside. Bob followed them silently into the living room, the string of sleigh bells on the doorknob jingling as he pushed it shut.
Alicia was standing in the kitchen doorway, one hand on the jamb. Lindsey could see the way her face and knuckles had both gone white at the sight of Gerard, but her voice was completely smooth as she said hello. Gerard went over to her immediately, giving her a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He whispered something into her ear that Lindsey couldn't hear, but it made Alicia relax her grip and wrap an arm around Gerard's neck. She forgot, sometimes, that they'd known each other so much longer than she'd known them. She watched Alicia's fingers slide along the collar of Gerard's shirt and bit her lip, turning to Bob. When the other two looked over, Lindsey made the necessary introductions and then asked, "Bob? A drink?" She watched the way Bob's eyes flicked to Gerard for a moment before he shook his head.
"No, thank you, ma'am."
"It's Lindsey and Alicia, Bob," she admonished him gently. "If you'll excuse us?" She squeezed Gerard's fingers as she walked past. Alicia followed her, but stopped her with a hand to the elbow as the kitchen door swung shut.
"Lindsey, stay with Gerard. I can finish up out here."
Lindsey shook her head. "No, Alicia, I can help."
They stacked plates, silverware and napkins in silence for a moment, then Alicia raised an eyebrow and stepped closer, lowering her voice. "Linds...Bob? We can't...how are we going to...." She trailed off. Lindsey grimaced. She knew what Alicia was trying to say, and it was true, they didn't really have enough room for another person. The apartment over the garage was vacant right now, but Eastern Aircraft had laid off all its women workers recently. Lindsey had been able to get her teaching job back for the spring semester, but Alicia wasn't working, and they really needed even the meager rent they could collect for that apartment. She looked up at Alicia.
"We'll make it work," she whispered back. "Please, Alicia? Gerard didn't know. He...we'll make it work." Alicia met her eyes for a moment, then nodded.
They set the table and served dinner. Lindsey could barely finish her portion, distracted between periodically reaching for Gerard's free hand under the table just to make sure he was still there and blinking whenever she caught sight of Bob's tall blond form, the strong, solid presence in place of Mikey's skinny bespectacled one drawing her eye, jarring her nerves. Not until later, when the lights were all out and she felt Gerard's naked skin fitted against hers, did the not-right feeling fade.
Gerard woke with the sun, as he had every day for the past few weeks, and he slipped gingerly out of bed without jostling Lindsey. He padded into the kitchen to its waiting percolator. He gave the windows of the garage apartment an abortive glance, as he'd done every day since they'd gotten the place mopped and dusted to their satisfaction so Bob could move in. But there were no signs of Bob, and so Gerard carried his mug of coffee into the dark living room and stood by the big bay window, watching the street.
A car drove by, its headlights momentarily cutting the early morning haze. After a few more minutes, Gerard saw a familiar figure - Frank, taking one of his dogs for an early morning walk around the neighborhood. The big boxer, Sinatra, was energetically towing his owner along the sidewalk. Frank had apparently taken advantage of Jamia sleeping late and had left his cane at home. His limp was more pronounced than Gerard had expected, and his jaw was set, face a determined grimace. Gerard had already started moving toward the front door, intending to call out a greeting, but the sight of those harsh lines of pain made him hesitate. It seemed intrusive, somehow.
Lindsey had rung up the Toros and the Ieros on the phone the other night and invited them over for dinner soon. She'd asked if he wanted guests, first, her gaze tracking from Gerard to Bob. He'd frowned guiltily into his coffee, pretending she didn't look so worried, and hadn't answered until Bob jostled his elbow. He'd looked over, but Bob's eyes were on Lindsey and he didn't look back. "Of course, Linds," Gerard had said. Of course he wanted to see Ray and Frank. They'd spoken on the telephone a few times, but it had been so long since they'd all been together - too long. Before the 29th was deactivated, when he'd been the only one of them left in uniform, he'd often imagined Ray behind the counter at his family's drugstore, Krista perched on a high stool in the back corner tallying the day's receipts. Frank, driving Jamia into town to the doctor's office where she worked before his day's classes, taking advantage of the G.I. Bill to pick up the college courses he'd interrupted in '41.
She hadn't set a date for the dinner party that night, despite his agreement, just murmured down the line to Jamia a quick, apologetic "I'll give you a call back." He'd wondered then what she'd seen in his face, heard in his voice. Whatever it had been, Bob had seen it too. Bob hadn't stayed long after dinner - he never did, now that he had his own place out back, and Gerard tried to stifle the same inappropriate swell of disappointment he felt whenever Bob walked out the door. He'd hugged Bob tight at the kitchen door, absurdly thankful that Bob let him hold on so long, knowing this craving for contact wasn't something he should indulge but too weak to resist.
He'd been resentful of his best friends, he thought to himself now, tracking the small, limping figure down the street till he rounded the corner. He'd waited too long to speak. Gerard glanced back up at the garage windows before draining the dregs of his coffee. He always waited too long.
The sheets on Gerard's side of the bed were already cool when Lindsey woke to the trill of her alarm clock. Running her hand across the worn cotton, she frowned a little. She fell asleep every night twined together with him, and woke every morning wondering in her half-asleep haze if she'd dreamed his return. Quickly tugging on a sack dress and cardigan, she grabbed a pair of heels and padded barefoot toward the kitchen. She collided with Alicia outside the second bedroom. Alicia was also fully dressed and had clearly been awake for some time. "You're up early," she said, still-tired and confused, and leaned against the wall to slip her shoes on.
"For someone who isn't working, you mean?" asked Alicia, a dangerous tone in her voice.
"Alicia...." She didn't know what to say. She knew Alicia's job at the plant had been the only thing to get Alicia out of bed some days, after Mikey died. She understood, and she didn't want to have this conversation again, but even the sight of her check register made her nauseous these days. "We knew the war industry would shut down when the troops started coming home. You'll find something else."
"At least I'm trying," the other woman muttered as they walked into the kitchen. It was quiet, but not so quiet that it didn't reach Gerard, who was sitting at the kitchen table studying the surface of his coffee. The tips of his ears turned red. It may not have been intended to hurt, but Lindsey could feel it like a blow to her chest.
"We're all trying," she snarled. Gerard's head snapped up, distress evident in his expression, his posture. Alicia's eyes were wide; she didn't know, hadn't seen how Gerard hadn't drawn a thing in all the time he'd been home, just spent hours sitting at his drawing board and staring at an empty piece of paper. How nightmares woke him nightly with a whimper or a cold sweat. "If you knew - " she murmured, for Alicia's ears alone.
Alicia's face twisted. "Well, I don't," she whispered back. She worried at her wedding band for a moment like she often did when she was thinking about Mikey.
Lindsey reached out blindly, closed her fingers around Alicia's elbow. "Please - " she started. Please don't worry. Please don't hate me. Please don't make me do this alone. Alicia covered Lindsey's fingers with hers for a moment. Lindsey jerked back instinctively, mumbled, "I have to go," and turned away and left the kitchen, only to run straight into Bob, who'd appeared in the doorway. His hands closed over her shoulders and kept her from stumbling.
"I've been fixing Alicia's Packard," he said quietly, setting her back on her feet.
"And?" she said slowly, dimly remembering him asking Alicia about the car in the garage the other night at dinner.
"And the mechanic at the local shop has some work for me. I can pay rent." He'd heard the whole thing, then. She hadn't even noticed him in the hallway. She felt her cheeks flush, and she tried to look away, but Bob put a firm hand under her chin, tugged till he could look her straight in the eye. She took a deep breath; it felt too intimate, her skin tingling in a way that mixed headily with the embarrassment and relief she felt at his involvement. "Don't say no," he told her, blue eyes blazing in contrast to his icy tone.
"What do you think you're doing?" she breathed.
"What I promised to do," Bob answered shortly; he was still watching her, but his face had gone inscrutable.
"You didn't promise me anything," Lindsey told him in a low voice.
"I didn't say it was to you." He let go and stepped around her, careful not to touch her again, and pushed open the door to the kitchen, and she watched the door swing back and forth till it stilled in the frame.
Sometime during those first weeks, waking with the sun turned into waiting till Lindsey's breath settled into a sleeping beat and sliding back out of bed. Gerard couldn't sleep; flames and blood danced constantly behind his eyelids. They weren't new, these nightmares. In the quiet of a suburban night, they'd only become more insidious, creeping up on him with the rattle of a loose shutter or the squeal of car tires down the street. He moved silently through the house, touching things here and there as he passed. The edge of his drafting table, shoved in the corner of their bedroom; the soft tangle of Alicia's knitting on the back of her armchair; the silver of Lindsey's cigarette case, left on the kitchen counter.
Strips of light spilled across the brown grass in the back yard. The garage lights were on; not the tiny windows of the apartment under the eaves, but the main bay itself. Bob was awake. Before he could think twice, Gerard pulled an overcoat on over his pajamas and slipped out the back door, winding his scarf securely around his neck. When he let himself in through the small side door, it was only slightly warmer. Bob was leaning into the open hood of the Super Eight, dressed in a grease-smeared coverall; he looked up, a quick flash, but didn't remove his hands from the guts of the engine in front of him.
Gerard stuffed his hands in his pockets and watched for a minute. "You weren't at dinner tonight," he said finally. Bob didn't answer right away, concentrating on the part he was bolting carefully back into place. Then he put down his wrench with a muted click and turned to Gerard, wiping his hands on a rag.
"I think I'll have this car running soon," he said. The work light clipped to the hood brought out the shadows under his eyes. For a moment he looked like something ghoulish, then Gerard blinked and he was just Bob, tired, dirty, beard gone scraggly with neglect. For some reason, the worn out expression on Bob's face made him terribly angry.
"You're working a full day for Whitesides and coming back here to fix this thing at night. Alicia can't even afford the parts for this car, you may all think I'm a mook but I know that much. Watching you work yourself into the ground is not why I invited you here, pal." His voice cracked on the last word and Gerard turned away, embarrassed.
"I want to be doing this," Bob replied gruffly. "I'm fine. You shouldn't be awake so late either, Gerard."
Gerard laughed humorlessly. "Why not? I can't sleep. Don't tell me you don't get the nightmares, Bob."
"Of course I do." Bob's voice was quiet, and Gerard turned back around. "Not every night. But I do."
"You never told me that before," said Gerard.
Bob rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. "Didn't want to worry you. It's better, though, being here - being around someone who knows - "
Knows what it was like, Gerard finished silently. "Is that why you came?" he asked carefully.
Again, Bob didn't answer right away, hands twitching like they itched to pick the socket wrench back up. Eventually, he asked, "Do you remember when we all met?" In England, during the endless weeks of preparations for Operation Overlord. Gerard would hardly forget that. Briefings and drills during the day, and the nights of drinking, slumped in the corners of grimy bars wondering if this time the invasion orders would be real. He nodded, and Bob continued, "Mikey told me to take care of you. I never told you, not even when you asked the same thing of me." He took a breath. "Didn't do such a great job, did I?"
"Bob, it's not your fault - " Gerard started, shocked and sad, but Bob cut him off.
"Then it's not yours either, don't you see that? Either way, he's gone," he said gruffly. "But I promised. And you - you and Alicia and Lindsey," he added in a rush, "well, no one needs me anywhere else. And you're here."
Gerard took an involuntary step closer. "To be taken care of?" he repeated insistently. "Bob, that is the last thing I want from you." Another step closer, and Gerard was maybe too close for comfort, for friendship. He felt Bob's chest rising and falling on a frantic inhale, saw the blue eyes dip quickly to his lips before returning Gerard's gaze; he recognized the look with almost-detached fascination before snapping back into himself with a strangled breath. They'd been much closer on occasion; huddled in foxholes, sheltering in the corners of bombed-out buildings, sharing cigarettes. Then, it had been safer to talk about home and leave the thoughts he'd had about Bob unvoiced. But Bob had never let him see this before, or maybe he just hadn't let himself notice. "We could have died over there," he said, tugging at Bob's collar till his face was a bare inch away. "And you never would have told me how you feel."
"We didn't die over there," Bob growled. "And there's nothing more to tell."
"Liar," Gerard replied, reaching out to trace the obscenely pink swell of Bob's lower lip, a deliberate sweep of his fingertip. An acknowledgment, maybe an invitation. Bob's eyes slid closed for just a moment before he groaned and wrenched his collar out of Gerard's grasp. Two steps away on the stained concrete floor, he breathed hard and watched Gerard with wary eyes.
"You weren't supposed to know," he said finally, matter-of-factly. "But you knowing...it doesn't change anything."
"It changes everything!" Gerard insisted.
"No," Bob replied shortly. "It doesn't." And he turned away, leaving Gerard to study the implacable set of his shoulders till he finally turned and retreated to the silent house.
It took him hours to stop shivering.
Frank and Jamia and Ray and Krista came over for dinner on the finally-appointed Saturday night. It had been difficult, with their varying schedules, to pick a date but they'd shuffled things and made it work. The four of them tumbled out of the Toros' car, rushing up to the porch and letting a curl of snow into the foyer with them. Instantly the normally-quiet house was full of raucous noise, voices crossing over one another in a long-postponed reunion. Lindsey and Alicia shuffled coats into the bedroom and casserole dishes into the kitchen, and watched as Ray beamed tearfully at Gerard and fired a million questions at Bob. They admired Jamia's softly rounded belly and asked how she was feeling. Frank and Gerard looked at each other for a moment, then wrapped each other in a fierce hug; Lindsey heard Gerard whisper "I'm sorry" into Frank's ear as she sidled by. It was all he said, but she could guess what he was sorry about, and apparently so could Frank, because he whispered back, "If you let it go this long again I will come over here and beat you with my cane, fucker." Lindsey snorted; she just couldn't help herself. Two sets of hazel eyes flew to her face, Gerard apprehensive and Frank vaguely contrite; she hoped it was just about his language because she agreed with the sentiment wholeheartedly. Then she said so out loud, for good measure. Frank's ridiculous squeaky giggle was the perfect icebreaker, and she shooed everyone into the living room to sit and catch up.
Bob and Gerard had both been quiet lately. Bob had barely even come into the house for longer than the duration of a meal, and sometimes not even that. Lindsey and Alicia had exchanged their fair share of helpless looks, but Lindsey hadn't had the heart to ask Gerard what had happened. Alicia had taken to making cold sandwiches with their leftovers and taking a plate out to the garage in the evenings. Sometimes she stayed for a while. Once or twice Lindsey had gone out too and listened to the stories. Bob would talk a little about Chicago, the jazz scene he'd been into before he enlisted. Alicia told stories about saving up money to buy the Packard from her father, filling it with boxes and driving cross-country from Missouri the day after her high school graduation. Bob would smile a little as he sorted through the parts piled on the workbench, and Lindsey would reach out and link fingers with Alicia before going back inside.
But tonight, all four men were reminiscing for the first time out of uniform. If the other two noticed anything out of the ordinary, they didn't let it affect the conversation. Lindsey suspected from the occasional wordless looks flying between the four men that some of their war stories were highly edited. She knew from the looks between Krista, Alicia, Jamia, and herself that all four of them knew it, but everyone seemed happy to let discussion of the war stay on a superficial level. When the conversation over dinner drifted to stories of school days, the atmosphere seemed to relax. Ray, Gerard and Frank had known each other for many years, and were unapologetically trying to one-up each other at every turn. Even Alicia got involved once or twice, laughing helplessly even as she protested, "That's not the story that Mikey told me, Gerard!" A few months ago, Lindsey knew, Alicia's voice would have wobbled more over Mikey's name, but tonight she merely smiled a small, hopeful smile at Gerard. Lindsey held her breath until Gerard returned it.
It wasn't until after dinner, when Gerard had eagerly carried the coffee service into the living room, that Lindsey overheard hushed voices outside while she stacked dishes by the sink. Bob and Frank were out on the back porch smoking. She heard Frank say, "So, Bob. I'm going to level with you," his tone unusually serious. Lindsey crept closer to the back door, which was slightly open.
"What are you talking about, Frank?" Bob sounded tired. Exhausted, really.
"I know why you're here," Frank continued. Bob started to growl something in response, and Frank cut him off. "I've always known how you felt about him, all right, Bryar? I didn't think I'd ever have to have this conversation, but you're here and it's obvious things aren't right between you. What happened?"
"Nothing happened, Frank." Bob said tensely.
"I don't care about that part, okay, except for the way it's making people I care about miserable. Does he know?"
"I'm also gonna take it that you two still haven't sorted things out."
"As if there was a way we could," Bob growled irritably.
Frank was silent for a moment, then he coughed a little, then was silent again before replying. "I don't know, man. That's between you. But I'm afraid someone's gonna get hurt, Bob. If you need a place, me and the old lady have room." His voice was surprisingly tender despite the terse words.
Bob snorted. "I'd kill you within hours, and then Jamia would be sad. I don't want to make Jamia sad." A brief scuffling sound, then a long-suffering "Get off me, Iero!"
"I'm telling Jamia you hit me with my own cane," said Frank's voice, strangely muffled.
She heard Bob laugh, a genuine laugh that was rare and strangely pleasing to her ear. "Now that's the way to threaten me, bozo. She's much scarier than you."
"I know," Frank giggled, and then the back door was pushed open and Lindsey snapped to attention again. She felt like a statue, paralyzed by shock and confusion, and she didn't think she imagined the apprehensive look Bob gave her as he passed by, but she just smiled carefully and wiped at the inside of the sink. Inside, her thoughts were not nearly so calm. She heard the kitchen door bump against the wall and let out a breath she didn't know she was holding.
"Linds?" Alicia must have crossed paths with Bob and Frank. "What's wrong?"
She turned to flash a smile at Alicia. "Nothing," she answered brightly.
"You know you can't lie to me, Lindsey. I know that look. It's the 'I don't want to burden you' look."
Lindsey frowned. "Well, fine. Then I don't want to burden you. And I won't." She expected a protest, but Alicia didn't look upset, just worried.
"You would have, a couple months ago."
"A couple months ago, I wouldn't have had to." It was as much as she could tell without admitting to eavesdropping, without an explanation.
Alicia moved closed, wrapped her in a hug. Lindsey felt Alicia's breath ruffle the hair at her temple as she replied. "I wish you would."
Lindsey wished she could, but she didn't have the words, or the heart. She let herself lean into Alicia for a moment more before pulling herself upright and reaching for the faucet handle. Then Krista came into the the kitchen with a smile and a handful of dessert plates, and the moment passed.
The phone rang one evening, and Gerard walked across the room to the telephone stand to answer it, thinking it might be Frank or Ray. The caller on the other end wasn't who he'd expected. When he hung up the phone after a very short conversation in which he did a lot of listening and not much talking, both Lindsey and Alicia were looking at him curiously, Lindsey from her perch on the sofa surrounded by essay papers, and Alicia peering over her flashing knitting needles. Lindsey asked, "Who was it," lisping a little around the red pen clamped between her teeth.
Gerard scratched his head absently before answering. "Mr. Delonge, an old editor of mine in the city. Said he had an artist cancel on him at the last minute, and when he tossed his Rolodex across the room, my card was the one that landed face-up." Alicia chuckled, and Gerard shrugged. "He's sort of a strange guy. Anyway...he wants me to do an ad for him. And he wants it in three days."
Lindsey set the pen down on the pile of papers in her lap. "Are you going to do it?" she asked, her tone careful.
"I don't know," Gerard mumbled. "It's such short notice, and I'd have to find and pay a model, and - "
"I'll be your model," Alicia interrupted. "I have the time, and then you won't have to pay someone else."
Gerard bit his lip and sighed. "Alicia...that's nice of you, but...Carousel is...well, a men's magazine. He wants a cheesecake ad. A lingerie pose?"
The corner of Lindsey's mouth twitched, and Alicia raised an eyebrow at him. "I'm familiar," she said dryly. Then she gave him a wicked smile over her knitting. "As long as you're willing to check my seams...."
Gerard's eyes dropped involuntarily to her legs, and he flashed back suddenly to when he'd first met Alicia, racing the Packard across the city to after-hours jazz clubs. Alicia in the front seat, shimmying out of her stenographer's uniform and into a cocktail dress, Mikey trying not to crash the car and Gerard in the back trying not to spill the gin; the memory was so vivid he could still smell the piney alcohol mixing with the mouth-watering scent of her perfume. Could feel his body's instinctive response to the memory. He opened his mouth, then closed it again, then decided to take a sip of coffee instead. He looked at Lindsey. The slight quirk at the corner of her mouth was still there, and now it mirrored Alicia's. Neither one was looking at him, just at one another. He sighed. He didn't know what he'd expected when he'd returned home, but he should have expected that nothing about his life would make sense. Situation normal: all fucked up.
"I'll call him back," he said, abruptly decisive. "I'll tell him I'll do it." Both women grinned at him, then, and their happiness was contagious, but he still couldn't help but feel that he was looking at a puzzle with several pieces missing.
Gerard's insomnia combined with the stress of agreeing to a deadline piece and left him too keyed up to sleep. He sketched instead, out in the living room where the lamplight wouldn't disturb Lindsey. She poked her head in the room when she got up for work the next morning, and he shoved nervously at the small piles of crumpled paper littering the coffee table. "You're drawing," Lindsey said, looking delighted. She wavered in the doorway for a moment, then crossed the room to drop down into his lap and rubbed at his face with the side of her thumb. "Smudge," she said, showing him the black mark on her skin.
"Occupational hazard," he said, fitting his fingers into hers. "See?" He lifted their joined hands - more inky marks were transferring from his to hers.
"I'm an art teacher, no one minds a few smudges."
"In that case...." He pushed up her sleeve and wrote on the inside of her arm with his pen, blotting the ink with the heel of his hand and pulling her sweater sleeve carefully back down. "For later," he said, leaning forward to give her a kiss. When she left the room, he studied his hand, which had a mirror-image "I love you" in tiny block letters, and smiled a little. Then he got up, took a deep breath, and went to get his easel and a stretched canvas.
Alicia walked by the living room door in her housecoat with a steaming cup of coffee just as he was adjusting the easel's legs. "Ready to get started?" she asked. She seemed completely calm, while his stomach was a roiling mess. He nodded. "I've got a few things that will probably suit. Do you want me to just pick one?"
Gerard could feel himself go red. "Yes. Of course. That is, Tom didn't give me any specifics other than the ad props. Do you, ah, you'll need a garter. For the...well, I'll explain when you're ready." She walked back out of the room and he shook his head hard to clear it. Professional. He could be as professional as the day was long, and it still wouldn't make Alicia - Mikey's wife, he thought a little desperately - any less sinfully beautiful.
Alicia had chosen a simple black silk slip with delicate straps. She'd added black ribbon garters to her silk stockings. She saw him eying them and laughed a little. "They're real - no drawn-on seams here. This is the only pair that lasted through the war," she told him. He didn't know what to say. He never did, when Alicia or Lindsey talked about the war. Alicia was watching his face, and she said, "What is it, Gerard?"
"I'm sorry," he said finally.
She sighed. "Let's not talk about this right now. Tell me how the pose is set up." So he did; he handed her a small sliver flask to tuck in a garter, and a handful of playing cards.
"Hooch promotion," he told her. "Poker night. Sit in the armchair over there, and hold the cards sort of crooked, like...."
"Like I'm plastered and not paying attention?" She grinned mischievously.
Gerard hummed. "Keep that expression," he murmured, and picked up a paintbrush.
It was easier than he'd imagined. Alicia was a good model. The pose wasn't complicated. And if he was used to his models putting on a robe during breaks, Alicia simply wandering out to the kitchen for coffee in her negligee was very her, if not precisely the norm. He followed her, and took a cup of his own. The first time, they didn't really interact, but the second time she studied him over the rim of her mug and said, "All right, Gerard, now we can talk."
"Talk," he echoed. He was still in a creative haze, seeing tipsy Alicia-who-wasn't-Alicia sprawled provocatively in an armchair on his canvas. Alicia-who-was-in-the-kitchen waited for a moment, then sighed.
"All right," she said. "I'll start. When you both enlisted, I was angry that you and Mikey got to be together, you know. I would have enlisted too. And not for the WACs...to fight. I grew up in a little town in Missouri, remember - I could probably shoot a shotgun before you could ride a bike."
"I'm still not that good at riding a bike," Gerard murmured.
Alicia smiled a little. "That doesn't surprise me. But...I let go, Gerard. Mikey chose his own path, and I couldn't protect him once he took it. No one could. It hurts, Gee, to see the guilty look on your face every time you think of him. And you think of him every time you look at me."
"I don't - " Gerard started.
"You do," she said quietly, reaching out to touch his cheek. "Gerard - Mikey wouldn't want to see you like you've been. You were going to write a book. He wrote to me and told me all about it - the stories you'd tell the boys in the barracks. The cartoons you'd draw. What happened?"
"I can't sleep," he whispered, repressing a shudder. "When I dream...it's things in flames, people I love dying. That's all that's in my head, Alicia."
"Gerard...I won't pretend I know what it was like over there. But...don't you think that's what's been in my head too?"
Gerard went still. He hadn't thought about it that way. With a pained noise, he took the steps necessary to wrap his arms around her, skin-warmed silk under his hands. After a moment, Alicia pressed her face against his neck and clung. He wasn't sure how long they stayed that way, wrapped together in the kitchen filled with weak winter sun. Eventually, she pulled herself out of his arms and said shakily, "I just...I think now is the time we're supposed to move forward, Gerard. So let's move forward."
He ran a hand through his hair. What could he say to that, when he'd faced so many minefields? "Let's finish my painting and make some money."
She gave him a tentative smile. "That's a start."
They repeated the process the next day, with one major deviation. Gerard was awake early again, but his supplies were already set up in the living room, and he turned in several helpless circles before gritting his teeth and marching back to his bedroom. He'd thought about this last night, gotten out of bed a few times, but never managed to complete the action. He pulled open a drawer and removed several leather-bound books, carrying the stack carefully down the hall and setting it on the coffee table with a muffled thunk.
"Gerard?" Alicia poked her head into the room. He saw her notice the books, and he rocked back and forth on his heels a few times before ruffling a hand through his hair.
"Those are all the books I saved," he told her. "Years' worth of stuff: drawings, poems, stories. No one's ever seen them before."
Alicia frowned. "I don't want to see them if you don't want to show me, Gerard."
"I know," he said quickly. "I just...I can't keep hiding them away anymore. You were right."
She nodded in acknowledgment but didn't say anything more about them, just walked over to the armchair from the day before; between her memory and Gerard's painting, they did their best to replicate her pose. They worked for several hours, then he pronounced her finished. He kept painting, adding the additional details the advertiser wanted, and when he came up for air he discovered Alicia sitting at the kitchen table, one of his notebooks open in front of her, a scrap of paper bearing notes scrawled in her careful copperplate hand. She had a pencil tucked behind her ear and was tapping the tabletop distractedly with another as she studied the image, humming something under her breath, a melody he thought he recognized from a recent musical.
He looked over Alicia's shoulder at the page in front of her, resting a hand absentmindedly on the back of her neck. She jumped a little, but didn't shrug it off, so he left it where it was.
"Thank you," he said finally. "For posing."
She looked up. "I wanted to help. It was nothing."
"It wasn't nothing to me," he said, brushing a gentle hand over her hair. "I...just, thank you." She didn't reply, and he froze, noting that she'd gone completely still under his hand, and retreated silent and red-faced into the other room, where he couldn't upset anyone but himself.
Neither Gerard nor Alicia said much to Lindsey about the portrait sessions, but Lindsey got to see the finished painting before it was delivered to Gerard's editor friend, and it was gorgeous. Something had changed in Gerard; notebooks and sketchbooks also started appearing around the house, though she never saw him actually working in one. She knew he still wasn't sleeping much.
But where wrinkles smoothed out new ones appeared. Lindsey walked outside one late spring night to drop a forgotten bill into the mailbox just in time to see a car pull up in front of the house. Jamia was behind the wheel, and Bob was in the passenger seat. Lindsey walked down to the end of the driveway, and Jamia rolled down her window and said, "Iero taxi, round-the-block service." She was trying to sound casual, but Lindsey could hear the concern in her voice. She watched Bob get out of the car and walk around the hood. He was drunk enough that obviously Jamia had insisted on driving him.
She'd never seen him like this. Bob didn't drink around Gerard. It had been enough of a shock that Gerard had come home a teetotaler that Lindsey hadn't really noticed immediately. She'd asked Gerard about it, of course. He'd told her, "I met a paratroop officer in Normandy who was determined to drink his way to Berlin, and for a while I tried to do the same. Didn't work out so well for me," but he'd never brought up Bob's feelings on the matter. She, Alicia, and their friends still partook, but she didn't keep hooch in the house anymore. She looked back at the car and waved to Jamia, who pulled away from the curb, leaving Bob and Lindsey alone in the dark front yard.
Lindsey saw the glint of his eyes in the dark as he looked up at her, swaying minutely in place. "You gonna lecture me, Mrs. Way?" he asked snidely.
"For going to visit a friend and knocking back a few? Hardly," she replied. "I'm not your mother, Bob, so take the attitude and shove it." Bob snorted at that and turned away. Frowning, she reached out and stopped him with a hand on his arm. "Okay, I've had about enough of this. You're living on my property, Bryar, but you're barely around. Apparently, you're out getting drunk with Frank, instead - which is fine," she qualified. "But you're supposed to be one of my husband's dearest friends, and every time you're around you clam up and he acts like you kicked his puppy. What happened?"
"Nothing," said Bob. Too quickly. His face was pale in the gloom.
"I don't believe that for a minute. Look - I've been patient. I haven't gotten involved. But I want him to be happy. He deserves to be happy. Please fix this, Bryar."
"You don't know what you're saying," Bob hissed.
"Do you really think so?" Lindsey shot back. "I think I do." She took a step closer. "I have boxes full of letters from Gerard, Bob. I've read them all so many times I have them memorized. There's a lot of you in those letters." She took a breath, then recited, "August 1944. Sometimes I feel that the only things carrying me through this chaos, Lindsey, are Bob's presence, which by the grace of God and General Bradley will continue, and the hope that eventually I'll get to see your face again." She paused to let the words sink in.
With a stricken look, Bob turned away, stalking toward the garage with shoulders held stiffly. He walked with the deliberation of the intoxicated, and Lindsey followed, quicker on her feet, slippers scuffing along the concrete. She caught him at the door. "Bob," she said urgently. Pleadingly. "Bob, he loves you. You have to know that. I know that. If you think he deserves this...why are you even here?"
His hand shot out, closed around her upper arm, dragged her closer. He was radiating heat, emotion she was unused to seeing from controlled Bob flashing across his face, and it made it impossible to think. "He's your husband. What do you expect me to do? Do you want me to leave?"
Lindsey fisted a hand in the front of his shirt. "No! Just stop hurting him."
Bob's eyes up close were wide, a little unfocused. He licked his lips, staring at her silently. "I don't want to hurt anyone," he murmured. He let his head fall back against the door with a thud, eyes closed.
"Then don't." As furious as she was, Lindsey ached to wrap her arms around him. He looked lost. "Hell," she murmured to herself. He made a disgruntled noise as she let go of his shirt and backed away. "Bryar, go sleep it off," she told him, then turned and retreated into the house without looking back to check if he'd listened. She stopped once she got inside, collapsing into a kitchen chair, mind racing. Abruptly, she remembered the conversation between Bob and Frank that she'd overheard in this very room. He knows.... Still haven't sorted things out. "Oh, hell," she repeated. In her worry over Gerard, she'd never considered how Bob felt. But Gerard had known. He knew, and he'd let Bob push him away. What right did she have to ask Bob to fix things by hurting himself? She dropped her head to the tabletop with a half-sobbed exhalation, turned it to look out the kitchen windows. The apartment windows were dark. Asleep? Passed out? Sitting in the dark, replaying her words - her rash, protective words - like she was? Lindsey wished she knew.
She managed to get to her feet and head towards her bedroom. There was a stripe of light under Alicia's door, and she almost stopped, almost knocked. She kept walking. Alicia, who'd been her one constant throughout the past three years, wouldn't hesitate to reassure her, she knew. But reassure her of what? Alicia, who'd never asked for more, no matter that Lindsey would have been willing...
...still haven't sorted things out.
As if there was a way we could.
Yes, she understood Bob. She understood Gerard. But Lindsey wasn't willing to give up so easily; she just didn't know what to do, not about any of this. She slipped into her room, crawled wearily into bed without bothering to change out of her housecoat. Gerard mumbled something and rolled over to wrap an arm around her waist. "Gerard," she whispered into his ear.
"Mm?" he hummed.
"Sorry, go back to sleep."
"No," he yawned. "What is it?"
"I love you."
Gerard kissed what was probably the first thing he could reach - her eyebrow, then her nose, then her mouth. "I love you too. So much."
Lindsey sighed and pulled him closer. At least she didn't doubt the truth of that. She didn't think she'd sleep, but at some point she drifted off. The next thing she knew, it was morning, and she was alone. Pushing her hair out of her face, she crawled out of bed and headed down the hall. Something smelled wonderful. She walked into the kitchen, and stopped short, tilting dangerously to one side before she righted herself. Gerard and Alicia were sitting next to each other at the kitchen table with the Sunday crossword spread out between them. Bob was standing at the stove, cooking bacon in a skillet. He met Lindsey's eyes; he looked a little worse for wear this morning, but his expression dared her to comment on it. She might have, if she'd still been angry, but she'd told him to fix things, and it looked like he'd listened.
Lindsey wasn't sure how she felt about that.
"Lindsey," said Alicia, beaming and getting up from the table to pour Lindsey a cup of coffee. "The Packard's running, and it's a Sunday, and it's warm enough to put the top down, and Bob said we should take it for a test drive." Their fingers brushed when she handed over the mug.
Lindsey took a few sips of coffee. "That sounds nice," she said, glancing over at Gerard. He was watching all three of them. She could see him thinking, and she mentally willed him not to say anything ill-advised.
"Maybe you and Bob should go out for a drive, Alicia," Gerard said.
Like that. She could see the frown gathering on Alicia's face. She was afraid to even look at Bob. "I think I'd like to go out for a drive today," Lindsey jumped in. "We can take a lunch, or maybe drive down to the park." Gerard looked over at her, and she stared him down. What are you doing, Gerard?
He waited until they were back in their room changing, and then started tentatively, "Lindsey, what - "
"Gerard," she cut him off, turning around to look at him. "Gerard, what did you think you were doing?" She waited, hands on hips.
"I...." He flushed a little and dropped his eyes. "I just want him - them - Bob and Alicia, I want them to be happy."
"And that was your best idea? I want that too, Gerard. But do you really think Bob wants you matchmaking for him?"
"Or Alicia?" he mumbled. At her questioning look, he added, "You just said Bob." He looked nervous. Lindsey held back a sigh. Sometime soon, they were going to have to talk about this.
"Gerard. Just answer the question."
He didn't answer right away. Finally, he said, "No. I don't."
He's trying, she reminded herself. She slipped her hand into his and squeezed as they walked outside. Alicia was sitting on the hood of the car talking animatedly to Bob, who leaned against the fender; she jumped off when she saw them. "I'm driving," she said with a grin. Lindsey gave Gerard a little push towards the back door, and crossed to the passenger side.
"Ladies first," Bob said quietly, waving her by.
She pulled open the passenger door and slid in, leaving him the back. Alicia revved the engine, glancing over with a half-smile as Lindsey leaned forward to play with the radio knobs with a surreptitious glance back over her shoulder. Bob and Gerard were talking quietly. Bob saw her looking and raised an eyebrow. Strangely, she could feel her cheeks color a little. She wasn't the type to blush. As Alicia wound her way across town, Lindsey tipped her head back and closed her eyes, letting the wind rush through her hair.
Alicia drove them to Cadwalader Park. It was a sunny spring day; Gerard wanted to walk to the deer park, but after a short hike around the grounds seemed content to slip his sunglasses onto his nose and sit in the shade. Lindsey hesitated, but Alicia dropped gracefully onto the bench next to him and started talking. Lindsey looked at Bob instead. "Would you like a walk along the canal?" he asked her.
"I think I would, yes," she answered. Gerard gave them an absentminded wave as he answered Alicia. Bob offered Lindsey his arm, and after a moment's hesitation, she took it, strolling toward the canal path at his side. They walked in silence for a while. Lindsey looked up at Bob's face, noticing maybe for the first time the sensitive mouth under his blond beard. Right now, it was curved in a slight frown.
"He talks to Alicia a lot. Does that bother you?" he said.
She chuckled as the implication became clear. "Does that bother - everybody talks to Alicia," Lindsey said fondly. "Even you talk to Alicia, and you, Sergeant Bryar, are not the most forthcoming man." His lips twitched a little. Emboldened by the sign of humor, she took a chance. "Alicia and I have lived together for five years, Bob. I haven't even lived with Gerard for that long. We've been through a lot; we understand each other. And she's known Gerard even longer than I have so she understands him, too. I...she's...important to me." Then she said quietly, "I need to apologize to you."
She felt his arm muscles tense under her hand. "I wish you wouldn't."
"Bob," she protested. "Everything I said last night was unfair. It was selfish. I'm sorry. Why wouldn't you want me to admit that?"
"It wasn't selfish," Bob countered, stopping and turning to look at her. "You were looking out for your husband."
"But who looks out for you, Bob?" Lindsey asked.
"I do." He turned away to study the surface of the water, stepping far enough away that her hand fell back to her side.
"Bob - " she started. "I'm still sorry." She reached out and linked their arms again, resisting the sudden urge to lean against his shoulder, and gently steered him back toward the car. When they were back within sight of Gerard and Alicia's bench, Gerard sprang to his feet. He was smiling at them both, and Lindsey took a moment to admire the expression as they climbed back into the car.
Late that evening, when they had all gone their separate ways, Lindsey shuffled through the house and found Alicia curled up in a corner of the sofa with a book. It was, in fact, one of Gerard's notebooks. Alicia looked at her over the top of her reading glasses and patted the sofa cushion next to her. Lindsey curled up next to her, leaning close to study the text on the page. "So you're the one who's been leaving Gerard's books all over?" Lindsey said, voice pitched low in deference to the hour.
"He gave me some of them to look through," Alicia replied. "I've been trying to convince him he needs to publish some of this."
"Really? The drawings too? Like that writer from The New Yorker...Thurber, is that it?" Alicia nodded. As long as Lindsey had known Gerard, he'd been an advertising artist, and a successful one, but the notebooks and sketchbooks were always piled up by the bed. He didn't start talking about writing until he was in England, and by then they only heard about it secondhand from Mikey.
"You should talk to him too," Alicia said. "I don't really know anything about art. He'd probably like to hear it from you."
"Gerard respects your opinions, Alicia. I know he does," Lindsey told her.
Alicia didn't answer right away, just traced idly up and down the spine of the notebook. "It didn't feel like it this morning," she said finally.
Lindsey pressed a hand over Alicia's. "He has good intentions," she said slowly. "He didn't mean...he wasn't trying to get rid of you." She looked up. Alicia was looking right at her; they stared at one another for a moment.
Without breaking eye contact, Alicia murmured, "Sometimes I feel like maybe it would be better if I did leave."
"No!" The word felt ripped from Lindsey's throat. She closed her eyes, rested her forehead against Alicia's. "This is your home," she whispered. She felt the warning puff of Alicia's breath a moment before Alicia's lips closed over hers, featherlight. There was time enough to pull away, but she swayed into it instead, sliding her fingers through the silky weight of Alicia's hair to cup the back of her skull. She made a tiny noise, and the notebook thudded to the floor as Alicia closed her hands around Lindsey's elbows and held on.
She didn't know how long they stayed like that, hands and mouths six gentle points of contact. She never heard the footsteps come down the hall, but she heard it very clearly when Gerard said questioningly, "Lindsey?" from the doorway. She sat up, pulse pounding in her throat and eyes wide. Alicia scrambled to her feet, Lindsey's hands falling from her hair.
"Alicia - " she said painfully. "Wait."
Alicia swayed on the spot for a moment, head bowed, hand over her mouth. "I'm sorry," she gasped when she let it drop to her side. She turned and stalked from the room, hesitating as she drew close to Gerard, then sidling past. Lindsey flinched when her bedroom door slammed, then slowly lifted her gaze to Gerard, still standing motionless in the doorway.
"How long?" he asked quietly.
She could only say, "What?"
"How long has this been going on?" He'd taken several steps closer till she could see his face clearly, could see the dark smudges under his eyes. Her chest ached. Her eyes burned. And she couldn't keep the retort in her head from flying off her tongue.
"Well, how long has there been something going on between you and Bob?"
Gerard went pale. Paler. "There's nothing going on between me and Bob."
"I know. Five minutes."
He frowned. "Five minutes?"
She stood up. "That's the answer to your question, Gerard. Maybe you'd like to ask another one?"
He ran his hands through his hair, leaving it sticking up like a rooster's tail. "I...Lindsey, she's Mikey's wife!"
"She's Mikey's widow," Lindsey replied gently. "Should I tell you how hard she grieved, or for how long? I was here for every day, and if you'd seen how strong she was, for herself, for me, despite it all...you'd understand. God, Gerard, she's more than that anyway, she's Alicia. And she still loves him. What do you want for her? She'll be his widow forever - but why can't she go on with her life?"
"With us," she said, urgently. "What, do you really think you'd lose me?"
She could see him flinch from where she sat. "I'm good at losing people," he said, looking away.
"It seems to me like the opposite's true, Gee. Why else would there be a soldier from Chicago living above our garage?"
He laughed bitterly. "Bob? Bob's just here because my little brother made him promise to take care of me. Obviously he thinks I need it." And the look in his eyes as he said it...Lindsey's heart ached for him.
"Is that what he told you? Even I know that's not why he's here, Gerard, and I think you do too," she sighed. "And I knew why you brought him home with you, at least; I didn't know if he knew. I certainly didn't know how he felt about you; at least not at first," she added heavily.
"Lindsey...you never said a word."
"What was I supposed to say, Gerard? I love you. I know you love me." She took a deep breath. She had to say this exactly right. "I won't say it was the easiest thing, but if there was someone else, someone who you needed, why would I assume that takes something away from me?"
He took a step closer, knelt by her feet to pick up the fallen book. "And you're trying to tell me...you needed Alicia."
"Need," she said, cupping his cheek in her hand, smoothing her thumb under his eye. "And I need you, too. Can you understand that?"
Gerard tugged her off the sofa and into his lap, pressing a kiss to her temple. "Yes."
She was desperately afraid, somewhere deep and hidden, that it wasn't all she needed, but some things she didn't have the words for. Lindsey tucked her head down onto his shoulder, leaning against him and the side of the sofa. She could feel the pulse in his neck flutter, calm. "I should probably go talk to Alicia."
He wrapped his arms around her a little tighter. "Just stay here with me for a few minutes."
"All right." After a minute, she whispered, "Gerard, Bob needs you."
She could feel him shake his head. "Bob doesn't want me." It wasn't exactly the same thing. She didn't believe that either, but she didn't know how to make him believe it.
The morning of May 30th was a crystalline late-spring day. Gerard stood for a long time in the center of his bedroom floor, staring at the dress uniform laid out on his bed. Lindsey had left the room a while ago in a swirl of bright red. Her lipstick was still sitting on the edge of her dressing table. Gerard picked up the small silver tube, turned it over in his hand a few times, then set it back down. He dressed slowly, straightening the ribbon bars on his jacket carefully before slipping it on. A quick glance in the mirror to adjust his garrison cap showed him a pale face with wide, dark eyes. He picked up the last object on the dresser - an age-worn photograph of two little boys - and slipped it in his breast pocket before leaving the room.
The others were waiting on the front porch. Lindsey glowed in her red cotton dress. Alicia was subdued in blue but had a poppy pinned in her dark hair. He looked at Bob last, in his own crisply tailored uniform with a profusion of ribbons gleaming on his chest. He was still hatless, and his hair caught the sun and reflected it back like a halo. The look on his face was far from serene, though. This Memorial Day ceremony wouldn't be easy for any of them.
When they arrived at the park, the Ieros and the Toros were already there. Lindsey and Alicia slipped away to the seats that Jamia and Krista had saved. Gerard watched them wend their way through the throng of people, holding hands. A couple weeks had gone by since he'd walked in on the two of them kissing. Alicia hadn't spoken to him for days afterwards. He wasn't sure how much Lindsey had told her of their conversation. Eventually Alicia stopped avoiding him, though a couple of times he'd caught her watching him, with an expression that flickered between wary and challenging. He was sure she didn't mean to goad him, but it gave him a feeling he could only describe as overheated. Itchy. Other times he found himself wanting to trace her long fingers as they idly twirled a pen over a sheet of newsprint.
Gerard was doing a lot of not-thinking about things lately.
For instance, he was not thinking about the occasional brush of Bob's wool-clad arm against his own as they walked around the pavilion to stand with the rest of the uniformed veterans. He wasn't thinking about Frank gamely forgoing his cane as he had been doing recently, standing next to the butcher's son, whose Navy uniform trousers were pinned to accommodate his missing leg. He wasn't thinking about the picture in his pocket, and he wasn't thinking about it so hard that he lost track of the ceremony, the droning timbre of the Methodist minister from First United blending into a buzz in the back of his brain; the hot sun beating down, glinting off the decorations on the uniforms surrounding him.
When the first volley of the rifle salute sounded, he froze, lungs seized and muscles locked. When the second volley sounded, he started shaking. By the time the third volley faded into the blare of the brass band, he wasn't aware of anything but Bob's arms, wrapping around him and marching him off somewhere cool and blessedly quiet. He stood obediently in the circle of Bob's embrace, his face pressed against the sun-warmed fabric of his jacket, until his breathing slowed a little and he could hear over the rush of blood in his ears. "You're safe," Bob was murmuring, over and over, a soothing rumble of sound.
"Gee?" said a quiet voice. It was Ray, standing a few feet away. "Look at me." He transferred his eyes to Ray's face. Cool, calloused fingers sought the pulse at the side of his neck. "You need to keep taking nice, deep breaths, okay? It will get easier to breathe. Just try to relax."
"We're here," said Frank, appearing on Bob's other side and pulling off Gerard's cap. He pushed his hair gently off of his sweaty forehead and pressed a cool, damp cloth to Gerard's temples and the back of his neck.
"This...better be a clean...handkerchief, Frank," Gerard managed to get out around a spurt of breathy laughter.
"Can it, Gee," Frank replied without heat. "I'm sure you don't even have one on you." Gerard could hear the concern and fondness mingling in Frank's voice under the mocking tone, and he smiled into Bob's shoulder. He didn't feel quite so panicky anymore; he shouldn't be leaning on Bob like this, but he couldn't make himself pull away.
He heard the clicking of women's heels across concrete, the hesitant cry of, "Gerard?" Then Lindsey was there, pressing close to Bob and himself, her hands gently cupping his face as she scanned his expression. "Gerard, are you all right?"
Bob's free hand settled gently on the back of her neck. "Let's get Gerard home," he said, and Lindsey looked from Gerard to Bob and nodded, biting her lip.
"I'll get the car." Alicia was watching from a few feet away, an unreadable expression on her face. She turned and hurried toward the parking lot while Lindsey and Bob settled into position on either side of Gerard, arms overlapping around his back.
Lindsey stopped to hug Frank and Ray and told them, "Your wives are waiting back at the pavilion. Tell them I'll call." Then it was just the three of them. The four of them, as Alicia came roaring up in the Super Eight. No one talked on the ride home. Gerard saw it all through a kind of haze, like he was watching a play from the wings. He let Lindsey guide him down the hallway, strip off his uniform with gentle hands, and coax him into pajamas. He lay down obediently and watched as she drew the blinds. "Do you need anything else?" she asked quietly when she was done.
"I need to talk to Bob," he told her.
She nodded. "All right. I think he's in the kitchen. I'll send him back." She leaned over and kissed him, and then she was gone. Gerard leaned his head back against the pillows and closed his eyes.
He heard the door open a few minutes later; when he looked over, Bob had just pushed the panel closed. He was still wearing his dress uniform. Gerard took a moment to study it; some of the patches and ribbons for the Rangers were different, and Bob had a lot of decorations. Bob just waited. "Thank you," Gerard said finally. "And I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize, Gerard. I...I didn't know it was that bad for you." He paced back and forth between the window and the door.
"It isn't, not always," Gerard said quietly. "Bob...stop pacing!" Bob stopped, and raised a curious eyebrow. "Look. Come here, will you?" He sat up, swinging his legs over to dangle off the side of the bed. Bob walked across the room and after a momentary hesitation, lowered himself to the mattress beside Gerard. They sat side by side for a minute. Bob studied the hardwood floor. Gerard studied him, then reached out a hand and set it on Bob's shoulder. "Look at me."
Bob looked up, blue gaze steady, and more open than Gerard had seen it in a long time. Gerard leaned forward deliberately and closed his lips over Bob's. This time, Bob didn't pull away, just sighed into Gerard's mouth and kissed back. Gerard let his hand slip around the back of Bob's neck, strands of hair tickling the back of his hand, and pulled back enough to talk. "I love you," he said simply. "I don't know what that means to you, but I'm tired of letting you hide that from yourself."
"You're married, Gerard. I knew that when we met, and your wife - "
"Knows how I feel. Knows how you feel." Bob's fists clenched in the bedspread, but Gerard pressed on. "I love her, Bob, and I would never do anything to hurt her."
"Deliberately, maybe," Bob shot back. "You don't know no one will get hurt."
"No," Gerard said slowly. He felt tired; worse than tired. Exhausted down to his bones. "I don't. But I'm tired of being scared, too."
Bob closed his eyes, took a deep breath. "So am I," he muttered. He went still for a moment, then swayed forward, hands bracing on either side of Gerard's hips as he licked into Gerard's mouth. Gerard let himself be pressed back into the pillows, tangling his hands in Bob's hair, the fabric of his coat. They kissed until Gerard's heart was racing, skin tight and hot and craving Bob's touch, throwing his head back with a gasp as Bob mouthed along the side of his neck. His hand clenched in Bob's hair, and Bob stilled, dropping his forehead to rest against Gerard's shoulder, shoulder blades jutting like wings under Gerard's hand.
"Thought you weren't afraid of anything," he whispered into Bob's ear.
Bob smothered a wry laugh into Gerard's shoulder. "'Cautious' sounds better. I...God, Gerard, this is new to me," he said, voice sobering. His beard rasped softly along Gerard's jaw as he sat up. Gerard stayed where he was; some of the dizzy, sick feeling had come back to him.
"I won't push any more," Gerard said softly. "Just don't shut me out again. Promise me."
"I promise." Bob got to his feet, a little unsteadily. Gerard gave him a long look, taking in the flushed cheeks, the tension crackling across his skin. "I just...you need to rest. I should go." And he did. Gerard didn't try to stop him, just tilted his head back against the headboard and closed his eyes.
Lindsey and Alicia both heard Bob leave the house through the front door, avoiding the kitchen where Lindsey sat watching Alicia mix bread dough. Alicia looked over her shoulder. She still wore the blood-red poppy in her hair, an apron over her dress to catch the splashes of flour. "Do you want to talk about that?" she asked.
"Not really," Lindsey answered, idly tracing the wood grain of the tabletop with a fingernail. "I'm sorry," she added. "It's just...."
"Complicated?" Alicia guessed, with an ironic twist of her lips. "One would think you'd be used to that." Some days, it was eerie how much her expressions reminded Lindsey of Mikey.
"One would think," Lindsey echoed. She stood up from the kitchen table and crossed the kitchen, backing Alicia into the cabinets and stretching to kiss her. She left her cheek pressed against Alicia's for a moment, then admitted softly, "I'm pretty sure it's worth it, though." Alicia didn't answer, but she did wrap her arms around Lindsey and squeeze gently before Lindsey pulled back to look at her, licking her lips. "You taste like flour."
Alicia rolled her eyes. "Big surprise. Now get out of here, you're distracting me." Lindsey chuckled and headed down the hall to look in on Gerard.
Later that afternoon, Lindsey was sitting in the living room idly flicking through the newspaper when she heard the sound of footsteps coming down the hall. She looked up, thinking it might be Gerard, but it was Alicia. She watched over the top of the paper as Alicia curled up in her favorite chair and reached for her knitting. "I went and checked on Gerard," she told Lindsey.
Alicia nodded. "He's still sleeping. Probably a good thing, right?" Alicia had been calm at the park, but her expression now had a residual edge of panic, and Lindsey didn't know what to say. She didn't know what to do for Gerard other than what they'd done. Even Ray hadn't known.
"Probably," Lindsey agreed. She was glad he was sleeping. Maybe all he needed was time. But she didn't know, and she couldn't bear that.
She waited until later in the evening and then slipped out of the house, letting herself into the garage and climbing the tiny, steep staircase to the apartment under the eaves. She knocked, and after a moment's hesitation she heard Bob call through the door, "Come in."
Once inside, Lindsey leaned against the wall beside the doorway. "I haven't been up here for a while," she said, a little breathless. "Those stairs - it's like storming a castle!"
Bob had stood automatically when she let herself in. Leaning against the side of the armchair he'd been sitting in, he drawled in response, "A castle? Does that make me the princess or the dragon?"
He was awfully good at throwing her off balance. More than that, she was starting to think that he enjoyed it. "A little bit of both, I think," Lindsey muttered. Let him interpret it any way he wanted. She couldn't think about it right now; she was just there to thank him. "Look. Bob. About today.... I just came to tell you that I was - "
He cut her off. "Jealous? Grateful? Scared as hell?"
She frowned. "I was going to say grateful."
He laughed. "Reason B. Of course you were. You'd never admit to reasons A or C. Not to me, anyway. Doesn't mean I'm wrong." She scowled. "I know how you think, Lindsey."
"Don't put words into my mouth. I'm not jealous of you," she emphasized. "But if you want the truth? Yes, I'm worried. Worried about both of you. Worried about us all."
"That's Reason C," he said flatly. "Scared as hell." He toasted her with the juice glass he was holding, then raised it to his lips and took a swig of whatever amber liquid was inside.
"Oh?" she retorted. "So is that liquid courage, Bob?" she asked, transfixed by the sheen of moisture that clung to his lips before he carelessly blotted it away with the back of his hand.
"Maybe. Since we're telling the truth. Do you have a better idea?" he challenged.
"Maybe." She crossed the small room and plucked the glass out of his hand, sitting it on his side table before leaning back in and crushing their mouths together. He tasted tangy and sharp, like booze and cigarettes and sweat, and he made a choked noise before grabbing her and yanking her even closer, hands desperate and ungentle on her back. She whimpered as he bit at her lips with strong, dull teeth, was rewarded with a groan when she dug her nails into his shoulders through his thin undershirt. When they finally fell apart, Bob was panting as if he'd run a race. Lindsey knew she was too, but she felt strangely satisfied at seeing him undone. He scrubbed his hand over his face before letting it fall to his side; when he looked up at her his eyes were still dark, pupils blown.
"It's not easy to surprise me," he said finally.
"Are you trying to say I have? Thought you said you knew how my mind worked," she added.
"You surprise me all the time," he said in a low voice. "Truth? It's hard to believe. By all rights, you should have sent me packing months ago. But you keep...giving me things."
"I haven't given you anything that wasn't already yours. You're paying for the room and board, for God's sake, and you refused to take no for an answer on that. Our friends were yours." She paused a beat. "Gerard was yours."
"And you? When did you come into this?"
"Recently enough that we can still forget this happened, if that's what you want." Lindsey folded her arms tight across her chest.
"Oh no," Bob said softly. "I won't forget about this. I am still waiting for you to tell me why, though."
"Fishing for compliments, Bob?"
"No, just the truth, remember?" He cocked his head slightly to the side, waited.
"Fine, you want it? Yes. I am scared, okay? I am scared all the goddamn time, and I am doing my best but sometimes I get tired, Bob! You're this white knight for Gerard, for Alicia even, and I don't need a knight but I do need some place...safe to stop." She was shaking now, just a little, and Bob wrapped an arm around her, pushed her gently down to sit in his chair. He knelt beside her on the floor, one hand wrapped around her ankle, thumb stroking gently along the bone. She wasn't sure he realized he was doing it, but she closed her eyes, focused on the tiny brush of skin against skin. Her eyes were still closed when he stopped, hooked a hand around the back of her neck, and pulled her mouth down to meet his again.
"It's yours," he murmured against her lips.
Gerard sorted fruitlessly through his half of the closet for the third time before giving up and calling out, "Lindsey, I can't find my red tie!"
"Then just wear your striped one, Gerard," he heard her call back from the hallway. "It's a christening, not an audience with the Queen!"
"I think Frank might disagree with you there," he mumbled as he struggled to knot a Windsor while walking down the hall. Frank had called twice in the week and a half since Memorial Day, and he'd mentioned it at least five times. "I...oh!" He stopped short. Lindsey was in the foyer, and so was Bob. He had her pressed against the wall, an arm held above her head, with both their hands grasping her Kodak. They both looked over at him then, and Lindsey said, voice exaggeratedly casual, "Gerard, please tell Bob that if he breaks my new camera I will tie him up and toss him in the river."
Bob replied evenly, "Gerard, please tell Lindsey that if she points this thing at me again, I am not responsible for my actions."
They both looked at him expectantly. Gerard was still studying them, the easy way their bodies flowed into one another. He licked his lips, said warily, "Could someone please tell me if I missed something here?" Lindsey's eyes went wide, and she looked up at Bob, who leaned down and whispered something in her ear.
"Nothing we can't catch you up on," Bob said to him, letting go of Lindsey's wrist and taking a step towards Gerard. "If you want?"
"I want - to be sure I understand," he said slowly. Things he hadn't thought to hope for were suddenly buzzing insistently in his mind, making him a little lightheaded.
"You said it months ago, 'this changes everything'; so I think you were the first one to understand," Bob countered. "It took us both a little longer." He held out a hand; Gerard's fingers felt icy as he laid them in Bob's, let Bob pull him closer. He met Lindsey's eyes as he felt her fingers gently encircle his wrist.
"I think we all need this, Gerard."
Gerard breathed in their mingled scents of soap, perfume, and cigarettes. He needed them both to stop touching him before he started something that would inevitably muss all their church clothes. Lindsey was watching his face with a knowing little smile. "Are you enjoying yourself?" he said in sudden amusement.
"I'm just happy," she answered, sounding vaguely surprised. Gerard thought about it for a second, mapping the gentle wave of warmth creeping through his limbs from the places their bodies touched. The look on Bob's bearded face was pretty close to happy too; Gerard thought with a wry smile that in Bob's case it may have been part satisfaction at distracting Lindsey from her camera.
"Where's Alicia?" he asked suddenly.
"At Frank's mother's house, feeding Frank and Jamia's dogs," Lindsey answered absentmindedly. "We need to go pick her up." Her expression slid almost comically quickly into dismay. "Oh, no, we're going to be so late for Isabella's christening."
"Not if we go now," Bob said calmly. "Unless we let Gerard drive."
Gerard scowled at him, and Bob leaned over to kiss him lightning-quick. He was out the door before Gerard could react, jingling the car keys in his hand. Gerard looked over at Lindsey, who was tugging on her gloves, pink-cheeked. He picked up the Brownie that Lindsey had set aside on the hall table and offered it to her with an exaggerated flourish. "Your camera, dollface. All in one piece." Then he offered her his arm. She took both, leaning in to press a kiss to his cheek.
"Thank you," she said, eyes sparkling.
Gerard made it through the christening and a couple hours of the barbecue afterwards, but eventually the crowd of people got to be too much for him. He left Lindsey and Bob talking to Krista by the garden and retreated from the backyard to a corner of Frank and Jamia's front porch, one that was shaded by a slightly overgrown grapevine. No one else was around, and he took the opportunity to smoke a couple cigarettes, ashing them into an oyster shell. He heard the stairs creak after a while, and soon Alicia came into view. She stopped at the top of the stairs to tug off her shoes, padding barefoot across the boards and sitting Indian-style next to Gerard.
"Thought you might be out here," she said. "Too many people?"
"You know how it is," Gerard answered with a vague gesture. He'd always been wary of crowds.
"Yes, I do, that's why I asked," Alicia replied. "But there's one person here you do have to talk to. Promise me?"
"Who's that?" he said skeptically. Alicia reminded him so strongly of Mikey sometimes, that one person who seemed to know - or get to know - everyone in the room.
"You remember meeting Frank's aunt, the one in the purple dress and pearls?" Gerard nodded. "Well, her husband's brother is apparently an editor at The New Yorker. I was telling her about your work. She said she'd like to pass some along to him. Will you promise you'll set something up?"
Gerard hesitated. "Why are you so determined to get me published?"
"Because someone has to be," she said matter-of-factly. "You have a gift, Gerard," she added. "I've known that since I first met you, and do you know why? Mikey. He never stopped talking about you. Maybe I feel like I need to carry it on." Gerard didn't reply, just stared at her.
"Mikey would want me to do this," he said finally.
"Mikey did want you to do this. You're still uncomfortable talking about him with me, aren't you?" Alicia asked quietly. "Or are you just uncomfortable around me now, period?"
"Alicia...no. I mean - yes. I can't...it's nothing."
"Doesn't sound like nothing," she muttered, looking down at her lap, where her fingers were twisted together. Nerves, he thought suddenly.
He stilled her fingers with a heavy palm. "You weren't this nervous to pose in lingerie for me," he said consideringly.
"That was art. This is different. This is Lindsey, and me, and you, and.... God," she said, tugging her hands free and rubbing her temples, "forget I said anything."
"I'm afraid I can't do that," he said meaningfully.
"I loved Mikey," Alicia told him. "But his hero-worship was pretty contagious. I always admired you, and then you brought Lindsey into the family and I admired her, and then you all went away but her." She twisted the plain silver band that she still wore. "Some farther than others. And you came back, Gerard, and it was hard, because you're so much like him, and I knew you understood how I felt. But I started feeling...more, and I was afraid - am afraid - you wouldn't understand."
"I'm trying to understand," Gerard said, turning to her and taking both her hands in his own. "You fell in love with Lindsey. I can understand that, Alicia, really."
"It's not just her," Alicia mumbled, looking away.
Gerard's pulse thumped a little harder. "Who then, Bob? Believe me when I say I can understand that too."
She blushed. He hadn't even known Alicia was capable of blushing, but there was the proof, blooming pink along the tops of her cheeks. "Bob is wonderful," she whispered. "The more I get to know him, the more I see what you see. But that's not what I was trying to say...it's you, all right?" she blurted out, the fierce look returning to her eyes. He stared in silence, mostly shocked that he didn't feel more surprise. "Please tell me now, Gerard, if you can accept that - "
"Yes!" he interrupted, lifting her hands to his mouth and kissing her fingers one by one. "I can...I will, I'm glad. I've stopped caring if what we all have makes sense. It makes sense to me. We need you to be part of this; you, me - "
"Bob and Lindsey?" Alicia said wonderingly, using their joined hands to nudge his face towards the porch steps. Sure enough, Bob and Lindsey were there. In the absence of spectators, they were holding hands, and Gerard took in Lindsey's wobbly, bright-red grin, Bob's steady blue gaze, Alicia's strong white fingers still wrapped together with his own, and something in his chest cracked and burst free.
"Them too. All of us," Gerard whispered. He watched Alicia's face, wondering if she'd known this was happening, if he'd been the last piece of the puzzle. He thought probably he had, but it didn't seem so important now. He turned to the others and asked, "Did you need us?"
"Always," said Lindsey fondly. "But really, it's just getting late, so maybe we should all say our goodbyes?"
"I hate to hold you up, but Alicia tells me there's someone I have to speak to," he said seriously.
"I suppose we can wait," Bob answered with an exaggerated sigh.
"Go," said Alicia. They helped each other to their feet and she shooed him in the direction of the backyard. He hurried off, and as he spoke with Frank's aunt - who, unsurprisingly, really liked to talk - he watched with enjoyment as the three of them wove through the crowd to Frank, Ray, Jamia, Krista, and their other acquaintances in an easy counterpoint.
When he finally escaped the backyard, the moon was rising in the darkening sky, and they were all waiting in the car. He slipped in the back seat next to Lindsey, curving an arm around her and kissing her cheek. She sighed contentedly and laid her head on his shoulder. Bob caught Gerard's eye in the rear view mirror. "Took you long enough," he said dryly, putting the Packard in gear.
"I'm here now," Gerard replied, a smile curving his lips. "Let's go home."