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grace, too

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now you'll have to tell me when
tell me when it's imminent
so you won't have to rise and fall alone
or endure the wonder of survival
alone.

 

Prologue

It's not every day you confess to murder. That's got to be the hard part, telling someone. Telling Frank. That part's done--the rest isn't important, not worth caring about. It'll all be over soon. All I have to do is wait.

I let everything go. I feel nothing as we walk into the squad room, less than nothing as I write Ryland's name on the Board, another solved case for Lewis. I'm tired, that's all. Then Naomi comes over to us, her face streaked with tears, and tells us Gee is dead.

I drop the marker, stunned. I put my hand on her shoulder reflexively, my eyes stinging.

Frank slowly shakes his head, his eyes tightly shut, but then I see him put it away into whatever place he puts anything or anyone that he considers a distraction. Nothing else matters when he's got a murder to put down.

"Okay," he says, turning to me. "How are we gonna do this?"

I shake my head, lost. "I don't know, Frank--you tell me."

He grabs my arm and pulls me into the aquarium. "No, you tell me, you son of a bitch," he hisses. "'You take me in, Frank--who else?' That's what you said."

I push him away. "Gee is dead, Frank. He's dead." I try to let it all go again, but I can't. His death means something--it has to.

"You'll talk to Lewis," Frank says. "He's primary. I take you in, yes, but you have to talk to Lewis. It's procedure."

"You want me to talk to Lewis tonight? After what just happened?" I ask. Frank once told me he'd give anything for a murder that made sense. None of this makes any sense anymore. Maybe it never did.

Frank waits, but he won't look me in the eye.

"Fine, Frank, we'll talk to Lewis," I say wearily. "We'll go, you and I, we'll go into the Box, and you call Meldrick over, and we'll talk to him."

A couple of the female detectives from the second shift are sitting in one of the interview rooms already, some tissues and a couple cups of coffee on the table. Frank opens the door of the second room and ushers me inside.

I see him looking at the cuffs on the table. I sit down. I've never sat on this side of the table before. It doesn't feel that different.

Frank turns around and leaves. I can see him through the glass a few minutes later, making a phone call, probably to Lewis.

Naomi sticks her head through the door. "You okay, Tim? You need anything? Some tissues?"

I shake my head. "No, thanks."

"When do you think the service will be?" she asks, tearing up. "I don't--I'm supposed to leave on Monday. I'm going on a cruise. I don't want to miss the service, but it's too late to get a refund. Do you think they'll have the service before Monday?"

"Probably," I answer, considering. "Wouldn't they want to do it on the weekend, if they can? Have a, a mass?" They should have a mass for Gee, one of those long requiems with Latin and kneeling and communion for Catholics only.

"Yeah, you're probably right," Naomi answers, relieved. "I guess I'll see you there."

"Uh, yeah, yeah, sure," I say awkwardly. I won't be there. I'll be in jail. They'll take me to processing tonight, or maybe I'll spend the night in the Box, waiting for the State's Attorney and the public defender Lewis will insist upon to iron out the details. Either way, I won't be at Gee's funeral.

"It's good to see you back, Bayliss," she says, coming over to the table. She gives me a quick hug. "We've missed you around here--it's not the same without you."

"Thanks, Naomi," I say, hugging her back. It's not just the funeral. I doubt Danvers is going to want me to testify at the trial, not now. He'll have Frank's testimony, but Frank's not a cop, not anymore. Danvers needs me to testify. I was the only detective who heard James confess to shooting Gee--to killing him. I'm the arresting officer--that's on me.

"Okay, well, I'm going to go home," Naomi says, sniffling. "I'll see you later."

"Sure. Take care," I reply, distracted. She hugs me again and leaves.

Frank walks in carrying a case file and the Miranda paperwork. I don't have to look at the lettering on the top of the file to know it's Ryland's. He drops it on the table casually.

"Lewis'll be here in a minute," he says, gazing out the window.

"When do you think the funeral will be, Frank?" I ask him.

"What?" he says, startled into looking at me.

"The funeral. Gee's funeral. I told Naomi I thought probably this weekend, but you're Catholic, you'd know better than me."

"Uh, yeah, they'll probably do it Saturday or Sunday," he says. "Should be a regular media circus--I think I'll pass."

"What?" I shouldn't be surprised.

"I'll remember Gee in my own way," he says dismissively. "I don't need to be there."

"What the hell do you mean, you don't need to be there?" I say. Something snaps inside me, and the vague feelings of regret I've been ignoring turn into fury.

"Look, here comes Lewis," he says, ignoring me. "You know how you're going to play this?"

"How I'm going to--Crosetti was one thing, Frank, but come on, this is Gee we're talking about," I exclaim.

Lewis comes in. "What's this about Crosetti and Gee?"

"Nothing," Frank says, annoyed.

"He's not going, Meldrick," I say. "Frank's passing on Gee's funeral."

"You pulling this shit again?" Lewis asks, disgusted. "What the fuck do you mean, you're not going?"

"I'm not going," Frank says simply. "The church will be crawling with media, politicians, sycophants. I'll pray for Al Giardello on my own time, in my own way."

Meldrick looks at me, frowning. Then he glances at the file on the table. He looks at Frank, his eyebrows raised.

"I never went to Roshi Felder's funeral," I say to Meldrick.

"You didn't?" he asks, turning towards me. "Why not? You knew the guy."

"I don't know," I say, shaking my head. "I should have gone."

"Who's this Roshi Felder?" Frank asks. "He have something to do with Ryland?"

"I'd definitely regret missing Gee's funeral," I say.

"Well, it's a little late for regrets, Tim," Frank says.

Lewis stares at the two of us. He looks at the file on the table, frowning.

"Someone mind telling me what the fuck is going on?" he says, pointing at the Board. "It's not that I don't appreciate you two solving the Yin-Yang Harding murder for me, but did this James cat confess to killing Ryland, too?"

"Eric Thomas James didn't kill Luke Ryland," Frank says quietly, looking at me.

Lewis looks at the two of us again. He looks at the file, at the paperwork. He looks at me. He shakes his head.

"Oh, no, no, no, Frank," he says. "No. We are not doing this, do you hear me?"

"Not doing what? Last I heard, you were a homicide detective, the primary on Ryland," Frank says derisively. "Last I heard, the primary should take part in all interviews of a suspect."

"You down with this, Tim?" Lewis asks me. "This your idea of some sick joke?"

"It's no joke, Lewis," Frank says. "Bayliss told me--"

"Shut up, Frank. You just shut the fuck up for a minute," Lewis says, holding his hand up, his eyes still on me. "You got something to say to me, Bayliss? Because either you say something right now, or I'm going to forget all about this. I think I'll just go ahead and take Ryland's name off the Board completely--I doubt anyone would notice, especially tonight."

"You know, I don't want to miss Gee's funeral," I say, wondering how things could have changed so quickly. "I should be there, don't you think?" I ask Lewis.

Lewis answers without hesitation. "Absolutely."

"Are you kidding me?" Frank asks. "Meldrick, he confessed!"

"To you?" Lewis asks.

"Yes," Frank answers.

"That there is what you call hearsay," Lewis says to me. "Not admissible, Frank not being a police any more."

I nod. "Yeah, I know."

"You know something else?" Lewis says. "Luke Ryland, that was a death penalty case. The bastard would have died anyway if they hadn't fucked up and let him go."

"He was a predator," I say, wanting that to be enough, knowing it's not. "A serial killer."

"It was just a matter of time before he did it again," Lewis agrees. "I meet his killer on the street, I'd be as happy to shake his hand as to arrest him. That sick son of a bitch Ryland deserved to die."

"I thought better of you than this, detective," Frank says, looking at Lewis.

"You can think whatever you want, Frank," Lewis says. "All I know is, we lost one of our own tonight. I ain't ready to lose another, especially not over a scumwad like Luke Ryland."

"Screw you, Lewis. Screw both of you," Frank says. He walks out of the Box, slamming the door behind him.

"You okay?" Lewis asks me.

I shake my head. "Not even close," I answer, getting up and following him out of the room.

 

Part One

He said I'm fabulously rich
C'mon just lets go
I come from downtown
Born ready for you

I never thought I'd leave Baltimore, but I've done a lot of things I never thought I'd do. Joining the FBI seemed like a better idea than most, and if I ended up working out of the Las Vegas office, so be it. It's certainly better than the alternative. I try not to remember I ever considered anything else; looking at the view out my office window helps me forget.

After two years of pushing paper and taking MBA classes at UNLV part-time, I've finally wrangled an assignment that means something. No one, including Ed Bartlett, the senior agent heading up the investigation, knows for sure how many children are affected by what goes on in the most secretive of dozens of Mormon fundamentalist groups--the last agent who did any real leg work left notes saying he thought it was probably hundreds. Volunteering for Church Canyon is the closest I felt to speaking for the dead since I joined the FBI--it's a job where I can make a difference.

Even if only one fourteen year old girl is taken away from her family and given to a rapist, that's too many, but Bartlett was too chickenshit to really dig into it until I pushed him. The guy's a hump, shuffled off into Domestic Terrorism to spend his last couple years before he qualifies for his pension, heading up an area no one cares about anymore, not since last September, anyway. The Bureau's officially forgotten about Oklahoma City and Waco these days, and anyone who wants to move up the ranks has no time for that kind of domestic bullshit.

Me, I don't have much interest in fame and glory. Bartlett's a hump, yes, but he's willing to let me do what I can with this one neglected case, as long as I don't make too much work for him. Which is why I'll be leaving soon, heading east to the Arizona strip, posing as a fundamentalist who believes in the Angel Moroni, the Supremacy of the White Race, and the Holy Principle of Plural Marriage. It's all so I can make my way behind the walled compound in southern Utah known as the United Brethren of Church Canyon, led by the so-called Prophet Gideon Asher Hancock.

I'm in Salt Lake City now. I've been in town for a few weeks, staying in an Embassy Suites, living out of suitcases. It's a strange city, stranger than Vegas. Salt Lake is where boys from polygamist cults get tossed out like garbage when they're teenagers. Can't have any competition for the girls, after all. Some end up selling themselves--I never knew there were working girls or hustlers here, but I guess even the capitol city of the Latter Day Saints has some sinners.

Some of the kids dumped here will eventually make it on their own and may even return home, but not many, especially if they're from UBCC--the Bureau suspects boys from that particular town tend to get a little rougher treatment than merely getting tossed out a truck when they hit fourteen or fifteen. Not that we know for sure.

They tell me Salt Lake is as close as it gets to normal urban life in the state, with a sizeable minority of Gentiles, as the Mormons call garden variety Christians. No one asks anyone what they believe on certain streets, anyway, as long as they can pay. Tonight I'm in Rose Park, the closest thing here to a slum, looking for a kid supposedly named Eli, supposedly nineteen, who supposedly has information I need. That's if I can trust the background I was provided with when I agreed to take this assignment, which so far hasn't exactly been reliable.

The Rose Park neighborhood feels more familiar than any place I've been in the past couple years. I see corner boys slinging dope, pass boarded up rowhouses, see more brown faces than white, and hear hip-hop, in both English and Spanish, coming out of the beat up cars. Near Rosewood Park, there's a different type of corner boy. None of them are dressed in drag, and there are fewer than in Baltimore, but they've got the look--hungry, cold, and desperate. I only hope there's no Peter Fields among them.

I see the kid before he sees me. He's blond, too thin, and looks more like fifteen than nineteen. He's got a faded Jenifur t-shirt on over his tight cut-offs. He's shivering a bit--it's summer, but it still cools off quickly at night.

"You're a Jenifur fan, huh?" I ask him. That's supposed to be the signal.

"I'm a fan of tall men," he answers, looking up at me flirtatiously. "Tall men who want a good time. You want a good time?"

"You going to the concert tomorrow night?" I ask pointedly. "I hear Jenifur's a good time."

His shoulders drop. "Yeah," he says. "So you're the guy, huh?"

I nod. "Come on, I'll buy you a cup of coffee."

He follows me to a nearby diner, one that looks clean enough, with an appetizing mixture of smells wafting out the door. We sit at booth in the far corner of the nearly empty restaurant, and I tell him to order whatever he wants. "You sure?" he asks warily, but he must believe me, because he orders enough for three people.

We spend a few hours there. He tells me to talk to Heather, a young woman who escaped from the polygamists in Short Creek and formed an ad hoc network of runaways in Salt Lake City. He says she helped him out of Church Canyon; he's not sure, but he thinks she's still in contact with someone there. I make a note of her name and number--I'll have to give it to Bartlett.

I drink several cups of coffee, listening and taking notes, hearing what he's saying but not reacting to it, like it's just another interview of a suspect. The less I react, the more he tells me, so I guess it works as an interview technique.

He shovels food in, talking between bites. I figure his last meal was a while ago--I'll slip him some extra money when we're done. He tells me even more than I suspected about the psychopathic Prophet Gideon and his band of polygamist thugs. They sound like something out of a horror movie, but I get the feeling he's not really exaggerating. I wonder vaguely how the hell I'm going to survive this assignment.

I try to persuade Eli to come back to the hotel, tell him I'll pay for a room for him, but he refuses, says he's got to go, gesturing at the street. I give him the envelope I got from Bartlett plus all the cash in my wallet. I wish I had a spare jacket to give him.

"You give me this much, you're entitled to more than talk, you know," he says, looking at me appraisingly. "Or did you mean I should stay in your hotel room?"

"You're entitled to more than this kind of life," I tell him, exhausted despite the caffeine. "We could get you into a foster home, get you back to school. It's not safe out there."

"I'm in school already," he tells me, frowning. "Finishing up my GED, then I'm going to community college. I know you don't believe me, but I really am nineteen. Don't worry about me. I can take care of myself." He looks at me again. "And I could take care of you. You look like you could use a little relaxation, and I can tell you you're not going to get any in Church Canyon. Not unless your tastes run more towards young girls, which I'm thinking they don't."

"No, they don't," I say, suppressing a shudder. "No one should have to go through what those girls do."

"Are you sure you can handle this assignment? I haven't told you half the stuff that goes on there."

"I'm a Major Case Specialist for the FBI, son," I tell him, tamping down my annoyance. "I graduated from the police academy before you were born, and I was a homicide detective for seven years. I can handle it."

"Okay," he says. "If you say so. Just remember--it's harder to get out than it is to get in. I speak from experience."

"I know you do, Eli, but I'll be fine. I really do want to thank you, though. You've been a great deal of help."

"I could help some more, maybe," he says, and I realize he's coming on to me again. Shit. "Draw you some maps or something."

"We've done a few flyovers, but I'm sure we'd be happy with any additional information you have," I say briskly. "Just contact Agent Bartlett--you've got his number, right?"

"How about I contact you? No offense to Agent Bartlett, but I like you better."

"Eli, you can't. I'll be leaving in a few days. It's best you contact Bartlett with anything else--it's already risky, us meeting like this."

"Yeah, I guess," he says, sounding disappointed. Did he really think I was going to turn into some sort of sugar daddy? "I don't think they'd be able to find this part of town if they tried, but whatever you want. I'll give Bartlett some maps next week. Tomorrow, though, I'm going to the concert. You change your mind, maybe I'll see you there."

"Don't count on it," I say, smiling. At least tomorrow he won't be on the street. "Enjoy the concert."

"I will. Make sure you get in touch with Heather," he says, standing up.

"We will."

He gives me one last smile as we leave the restaurant, and I think again about taking him to my hotel, but having a nineteen year old hustler in my room is not a good idea, no matter how altruistic my motives. I'd probably come back from the bathroom to find him in my bed.

I remind him again to be careful. It's not enough, but it's something.

"You too, Mr. Bayliss," he says. I watch him walk down the street, already looking for his next trick.

***

The next night, as I'm studying the fictional life of Timothy Rawls, the identity I'm about to assume, I get a phone call from Bartlett.

"I need you to head over to Delta Center. They found a body after the Jenifur concert, and they think it's that kid you met last night, your contact."

Shit.

"You'll need to be careful, Bayliss," Bartlett says. "The local police don't think it's connected, but wouldn't want anyone to see you who might be part of Hancock's organization. Maybe I should send Lempke instead."

Typical. Sometimes I wonder how Bartlett ever got promoted to Supervisory Agent. I guess the bosses are the same everywhere, even in the FBI. "Has Lempke ever met Eli? He know what Eli looks like? Face it, sir--you need to send me."

He reluctantly agrees. A half hour later I'm at the scene, faced with a couple clean-cut local detectives who look like they'd need help finding their asses with a flashlight and a map. One of them tells me he's got a witness, but they haven't even gotten around to talking to him yet. At least they've managed to tape off the crime scene--I guess they're not complete amateurs. I recognize the body from the last night, even at a glance, and there's an angry guitarist--the supposed witness--I recognize from everywhere. I ignore him for the moment and check out the scene.

They took the kid behind a closed concession stand. He's on his back, his knees bent--looks like he was kneeling when they shot him. They beat on him first, but his face is still clear enough, even with the bruising. There are no shell casings, but it looks like maybe a .45 from the wound, close range, powder burns around the hole in chest of a new Jenifur t-shirt, right next to a scrawled autograph I can barely make out. He probably bought it tonight, before the concert, got Tallent to sign it then.

Once I've looked the body over and released it to the local ME's office, I start with the rest of it, the detectives and the guitarist. It's just like riding a bicycle.

"Who the fuck are you?" the guitarist asks as I head over to the two detectives.

I flash my ID at the guy and tell him I'll be with him in a minute. He looks pissed, but he waits where he's told. I ask detective number one to find a place where I can talk to the witness in private--he looks pissed too, probably bitching and moaning about jurisdiction. These locals should be happy I'm taking the case off their hands, but maybe they don't get enough murders in here in Utah to want to give any bodies up.

I call Bartlett. "Yeah, it's him, sir," I tell him. "There's a witness I'm about to talk to."

"You'll be talking to him after we get done with him," detective number one says.

"No one's talking to me until after I take a fucking shower, asshole," says Tallent, "and I already told you I didn't see anything, I just talked to the poor fucker."

"Listen, Mr. Tallent," I say after I hang up the phone, getting in his face, "do the words 'impeding a federal investigation' mean anything to you? This kid, Eli, is dead, do you get that? Your fucking shower can wait." I shift my attention back to the detective. "Now, about that room where I can talk to Mr. Tallent?"

"Fuck this shit. Follow me," Tallent says, gesturing at a stocky guy standing off to the side. "We might as well use my dressing room. Fred, do the girls even have a clue what's going on?"

"I don't think so, Mr. Tallent--they've been in their dressing rooms this whole time."

"Why don't you head over there and enlighten them while I talk to this--what the fuck is your name, anyway?"

"Major Case Specialist Tim Bayliss."

"--to this Major Whatever Bayliss. Go on, get the fuck out of here." He turns back to me. "What the fuck are you waiting for? Come on."

"Detective, I'll make sure you get a copy of all of Mr. Tallent's statements," I tell detective number two.

"That's not good enough," detective number one answers. Maybe he's the only one who can talk.

"It'll have to be--we're running this as part of an ongoing investigation. Look, it's not going to be a dunker, so just be glad it's not your responsibility, all right?" I add, trying to be reasonable.

"You'll hear from my lieutenant," he says pompously. Reminds me of that little asswipe who joined the squad after I left, what was his name, Hall.

"Fine," I snap. "Tell him to talk to Supervisory Agent Ed Bartlett. You need me to spell that? No? Then, if you'll excuse me, I have a witness to interview."

Tallent's waiting impatiently a few feet away, so I follow him down a hallway, through some locked doors, past some security and an open area with tables loaded down with food, until we finally get to his dressing room. It's smaller than I imagined--the guy is a rock star, after all--but it's got a comfortable sofa, a few chairs, and a table with more food and some bottled water. There's a door to what must be the bathroom off to one side, and there are a few scattered belongings--an empty guitar case on the floor, a couple books on the sofa, a pair of jeans and a t-shirt draped over one of the chairs.

He gestures at the empty chair and sits on the sofa, his legs stretched out over the cushions. "Okay, you've got me where you wanted me, now what?" he asks.

I take a moment to look at the man in front of me as I sit down, shaking off my annoyance at the idiots we left at the scene. Time to find out what this guy actually saw, if anything.

I never paid much attention to pictures of Billy Tallent before this, but when you're stuck in a small room with him you can't miss how attractive he is. Intense blue eyes, long fingers, spiked rock star hair, loose tan jeans paired with a tight vintage t-shirt, damp with sweat, cigarette drooping artfully from his lips--it all makes quite a package. I give myself a mental shake, take out a notepad, and ask him what he saw.

"Not much," he says, rubbing the back of his neck. "Local station was interviewing me before the show, and I decided to hang out and sign some autographs after they finished. This kid comes up to me--" he looks at me, frowning slightly. "I dunno, I recognized something in him, so I talked to him for a minute, signed his t-shirt. I saw him looking over his shoulder a couple times, thought maybe he was looking for some friends."

"But he was alone, as far as you could tell?" I prompt.

"Far as I could tell," Tallent confirms. "I was dealing with this girl who was determined to be the next fucking Pamela Des Barres a few minutes later when I noticed the scuffle. There were maybe three or four of them, a little older than most of my fans, you know, maybe forties? White, brown hair, beards, dressed in jeans, but the jeans didn't look right, like they weren't the fucking type to wear jeans and t-shirts. They argued with the kid--his name was Eli, right?--and he shoved them, trying to get away. One of them spat on him, and then they left."

"So you didn't see him after that?" I ask, making notes.

"Uh, no, not before, they, uh. . . . Security found him, then the fucking cops came and found out I'd talked to him before the concert. They made me, uh, they had me look at the body to confirm I'd met him, someone called you, and here we are."

"I'm sorry you had to see that," I say sympathetically--I doubt Billy Tallent has seen a dead body before.

He takes a bottle of water off the table, twisting the top off, his knuckles white. "Help yourself, if you're thirsty," he says, gesturing.

"Thanks," I say, taking a moment to open a bottle and take a drink, figuring he could use a breather.

"Do you think you could identify the men you saw?" I ask after he's finished half the bottle.

"Fuck, I don't know," he answers, thinking. "Maybe. I see a lot of people in my line of work, never really pay much attention."

"The description you gave would indicate otherwise. Is there anything else you can remember about them?"

"Yeah," he says, grimacing. "Fuckers gave me the creeps. They looked like they could be related, kind of inbred. And not one of them looked like they'd ever been to a rock concert before--they looked like teenage girls in tank tops was the most disgusting fucking thing they'd ever seen."

"All right. Thank you, Mr. Tallent; you've been very helpful. I'd like you to come down to the office and look at some pictures, see if you can pick them out."

"Long as I can take a shower first, I got no fucking problem with that."

I can't help smiling at him. "God forbid the Federal Bureau of Investigation should keep you from your shower any longer than absolutely necessary. I'll wait."

"You will, huh?" he asks, grinning around his cigarette. "I don't know about anyone else, but you're welcome to wait right here, Major--what the fuck am I supposed to call you again?" He puts his cigarette out, his eyes never leaving mine.

"People usually go with Specialist," I answer, resisting the urge to tell him to call me Tim.

"Okay, Specialist Bayliss. I'll be out again in a few minutes." And with that he casually strips off his shirt and unbuttons his jeans, letting them fall to the floor as he walks in his boxer briefs towards the bathroom.

The minute I hear the water start, I loosen my tie and take a deep breath, trying to think about anything other than Billy Tallent, naked, in the shower, a few feet from where I'm sitting. Jesus.

I've worked my way through the Orioles' current season, Gideon Hancock, and some of the more gruesome murder scenes I've witnessed, and it's starting to help. Then the water shuts off, and a minute later Tallent walks back out, a towel around his hips, a few stray drops of water on his chest, and I'm right back where I started. Worse, I think he's noticed.

"You all right there, Specialist Bayliss?" he asks with a smirk. "Sure you don't need a shower yourself?"

"I'm fine, Mr. Tallent," I say, looking away. "I'll, uh, I'll wait in the hall while you get dressed."

"No need for that," he answers, and I look back to see him pulling on another loose pair of jeans. "I'll be ready in a minute."

He's quiet in the car on the way to the office, just asks if I mind if he smokes. I shake my head and concentrate on remembering how to get back to the office.

We only have pictures of five UBCC members. Tallent pulls a pair of thick glasses out of his pocket before staring at them. He doesn't recognize any of them, although he says there's a certain similarity to the men he saw.

"Forgive my asking, but were you wearing your glasses earlier?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "Fucking suits at the label hate them, don't want me wearing them in public. I was wearing contacts, but I took them out after the concert."

The people at the label are idiots. "So these men, you think they might be related to the men you saw?"

"Maybe; they've got the same look. It's hard to tell--I mean, have you noticed that all these fucking Mormons look alike?"

"So the men you saw looked, uh, Mormon?" I ask, surprised.

"Yeah, I guess they did. More than the usual concert goers, anyway. Not the kid, though," he adds thoughtfully.

"Eli didn't look Mormon?" I ask, because he did--blond, blue-eyed, with the same basic features you see almost everywhere in this city.

"Looked like he could be related, sure, but he wasn't a fucking Latter Day Saint. Lapsed, maybe."

"What made you think that?"

"Well, last time I heard, Mormons don't allow fags," he says, glancing at me to see how I react.

"Eli told you he was gay?" I ask mildly.

"Told me? No, he didn't fucking tell me, but I could tell, the way he was looking at me."

"He was working as a hustler," I say. "Are you sure he didn't see you as a potential trick?"

"No, it wasn't that," he spits out. "The kid was alone. He was fucking lonely. He came on to me a bit, but he was looking for a friend, not a trick. Can't be too many people like him in this fucking place."

"No, there aren't," I say, although I'm sure there are more than he realizes.

"You knew him, didn't you?" he asks, and I wonder how he guessed.

"I met him last night," I answer. "He was helping with an investigation."

"Did he seem lonely to you?" he asks, his eyes meeting mine.

"Yeah," I say. "Yeah, he did."

"He came on to you, too," he says, surprising me again. This Billy Tallent is a lot sharper than I would have guessed.

I nod, figuring there's no point hiding it. "Yeah, he did."

"Kid had fucking good taste, anyway," he says, laughing.

I've never had a celebrity flirt with me before. I can't remember the last time I felt like this, but I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

"What are you investigating?" he asks.

"I can't tell you that, Mr. Tallent."

"You can't fucking tell me why the FBI is investigating a teenage hustler ex-Mormon?" he says, his eyebrows raised.

"I'm sorry."

He's quiet for a moment, then looks at me, a sly smile on his face. "Is it because I'm Canadian? The FBI have some new rule against Canadians? Because I have a fucking green card."

"What? No!" I answer, laughing.

"So it's because I'm a celebrity. An infamous fucking rock star."

"No, that's not it either," I say, smiling at him.

"It must be because I'm a fag, then," he says, his gaze as direct as his words. "Can't let any cocksucking Canadian celebrities know any state secrets, right?"

"That's definitely not it," I tell him clearly, meeting his eyes. It's not like I haven't ever done anything monumentally stupid before.

"Glad to hear it," he says, his smile warming. "Because I was beginning to wonder about you, Major Case Specialist Tim Bayliss of the FB fucking I."

"No need to wonder, Mr. Tallent."

"Call me Bill," he says, offering his hand.

I nod, shaking his hand, holding on. Giving up; giving in. "I'm Tim."

Bartlett picks that moment to knock on the door, and I drop Bill's hand like a hot potato. Great, just great.

We have to go over it all again with Bartlett. Bill doesn't seem very impressed with the guy, not that I can blame him. He answers all the questions Bartlett asks, but he's acting like a completely different person. It's like he's turned into some caricature of a rock star, demanding someone go out for some decent coffee immediately, looking bored, rolling his eyes at me when Bartlett can't see, and lighting up right next to the no smoking sign. He's laying it on so thick by the end that I can't believe Bartlett hasn't picked up on it. Fortunately, the interview doesn't last long, and sooner than I expected, Bartlett's ushering us out of the interview room.

"Go get some sleep, Bayliss," Bartlett says.

"I, uh, I'll walk you out," I tell Bill. He nods and follows me.

"So, your boss is a bit of an asshole, huh?" he asks, his eyebrows raised.

"He's not that bad," I say. "You, on the other hand. . . "

"What, you didn't appreciate the rock star shit?" he says, grinning. "Fuck you."

Jesus. "You need a ride to your hotel?" I ask, because I am, in fact, monumentally stupid.

"You see a tour bus anywhere around here? How about a taxi?" he says, his arms wide. "Yeah, I need a ride."

"Where are you staying?"

"Fuck if I know; that's what my manager's for. Where are you staying?"

I smile, shaking my head. "This is a bad idea," I say, but I can't seem to talk myself out of it.

"Shut up and take me home."

"Home is--shit. This isn't home, but I'll take you to where I'm staying."

"Good enough."

He's silent in the car again, but I feel his gaze on me the whole way to the hotel. I park the car, and when I turn to look at him I see him watching me. I lick my lips self-consciously, and he inhales sharply before brushing his thumb over my mouth. I close my eyes, hearing myself make a soft sound in the back of my throat. He leaves his thumb against my lower lip for a second, just resting there, and then it's gone. I fumble my way out of the car and towards my suite, knowing he's right behind me.

The minute I close the door behind us, he shoves me against it and kisses me, his tongue pushing into my mouth. We work our way through to the bedroom, kissing, panting, shedding clothing as we go. By the time we hit the bed, we're both hard, both naked. He pulls me on top of him, I grab his ass, and I'm thrusting desperately against him. He reaches down at the same time that I do, and our hands meet, fingers tangling, his palm on my dick, god, and then I'm coming, and then he's coming, and it's been no more than ten minutes since I opened the door. The last time I felt anything like this it involved a coffin.

I roll to the side to catch my breath. This was stupid. Really stupid. I'm about to leave for an undercover operation, and I just had really great sex with a material witness.

Bill turns to face me. He's flushed, sweaty, his hair still damp from the shower--he looks amazing.

"Something wrong?" he asks.

"What? Nothing. That was--it was great. Nothing's wrong."

He points one long finger at me. "Bullshit."

"No, really," I say sheepishly. "It's just, see, uh, I'm not supposed to have sex with a witness. It's not exactly professional, you know?"

"Too late," he says, smiling.

"Yeah, I know," I say, and I can't help laughing, because I feel fantastic.

"I'm leaving tomorrow anyway," he says, and I think there's a trace of disappointment there, if I'm not imagining it. "The tour, remember?"

"Right, the tour."

"I imagine you'll need to talk to me again about the case, though, right?" he asks. "I'm, like, your star fucking witness."

I look at him. "I think I'm the one doing the star fucking," I say. I try to keep a straight face, but I can feel the side of my mouth twitching.

"You got that right," he says, laughing. "You play your cards right, send me a special subpoena, maybe you'll get lucky again. When do you think you'll need me back here?"

"Uh, Agent Bartlett will stay in touch," I say reluctantly. "You'll probably hear from him sometime in the next couple days."

"Agent Bartlett--why the fuck would I want to talk to that asshole?" he says, surprised. "What about you?"

"I'm not going to be available."

"What, you leaving the country? Quitting the FBI? Going undercover?" he asks.

"I can't talk about it," I say, although right at this moment I really wish I could.

"'Can't talk about it'--fuck, you are going undercover, aren't you?" he asks.

"I told you, Bill, I can't tell you anything."

"Okay, I get it," he says, looking at me. "Just tell me one thing--you have anywhere to be tonight?"

"No, I don't. Not tonight. Not tomorrow either, unless they call me in."

"Good. One more question."

"Anyone ever told you you'd be a good interrogator?" I ask, jabbing at his chest.

"Fuck off. This place have room service?"

I smile. "Yeah, it does."

He slaps my thigh. "What the fuck are you waiting for? Tonight I played in front of screaming fans for two hours, got interrogated for another couple hours, flirted with a fucking FBI agent, and then had some really great sex. I'm fucking starving. What do you want?"

"Veggie lasagna and a garden salad, ranch dressing. And garlic bread. No, no garlic bread. Dessert. You pick. I'm going to, uh, go wash up." Yeah, that was smooth. Jesus.

"Veggie lasagna, salad, dessert, got it," he says, ticking the items off on his fingers. "You got an extra robe or something?"

"Back of the door," I say, pointing. I grab a t-shirt and boxers to take into the bathroom, but I come back out in a minute. "Uh, here," I say, handing him a washcloth.

"Thanks," he says, watching me watch him use it to wipe off. He hands it to me when he's done, and I toss it in the laundry basket in the corner.

I stay in the bathroom longer than I need to, staring at myself in the mirror. I don't look any different than I did this morning. Same greying hair and beard, same eyes and nose. More relaxed, maybe, but that's it. I don't know what the hell is going on, can't tell what the hell I'm feeling, but whatever it is, I haven't felt it in a long time.

When I come back in the room, Bill's wearing my robe, talking on his cell phone. "Yeah, Alice, what time's the flight tomorrow? No, I am not. The flight? Okay, have the limo pick me up. Embassy Suites. One o'clock, fine. No, I'm not. Fuck off and die, Alice," he says, laughing. "I'll see you tomorrow."

He hangs up and sees me. "Hey, uh, if it's a problem, I can call a taxi after we eat, get out of your hair."

"No," I say, crossing to the bed and sitting next to him. "No, I'm glad you're staying."

He smiles. "How long does room service usually take at this fine establishment, anyway?"

"Not too long."

"Too bad," he says, leaning over to kiss me.

"I thought you were starving," I say, laughing, as he runs his fingers under my t-shirt.

"Fucking food can wait," he answers, pulling my shirt over my head. "Didn't get a chance to really appreciate this earlier," he says, his fingers roaming my chest.

I loosen his robe and lean forward, nuzzling his neck as he reaches around my back.

"What the fuck?" he murmurs, his fingers stilling.

I sit back. "I got shot a few years ago," I say, turning to let him see.

I feel the warmth of his palm and a little pressure as he traces the edges. I can't help a slight shiver when his fingers move lower, over and around the tidy surgical scars. He stops again. "Sorry," he says softly, and I notice his accented vowels. "Does it hurt?"

"No." It doesn't.

"And here?" he asks, but I can't feel anything except his palm again, just below.

"No," I say again. "It's not--it's numb there, nerve damage; I can't really feel anything."

"But here," he says, and I feel his lips, warm and moist, just above. "What about here?"

"Yeah," I say, shivering again, "I can feel that."

His hands move up my shoulders, gently kneading. "Someone shot you in the back?"

"Yeah," I murmur. "He wasn't aiming at me."

Bill's hands stutter for a second before resuming their gentle strokes. "What was he aiming at?"

I shake my head. "It doesn't matter. It was a long time ago."

Bill pulls away abruptly. "Look, you don't want to talk about it, just say so. Don't give me some fucking 'it doesn't matter' bullshit."

I turn back toward him and meet his eyes. "I--it's a long story. I don't really want to talk about it, not now."

He considers for a second, then nods. "Okay."

I sit back against the headboard and gesture. He leans back against me, and I kiss his shoulder.

"So, what do you want to talk about?" he asks.

"Talking's over-rated," I say, my nose behind his ear, inhaling his scent.

He murmurs agreeably, turning to kiss me. We spend the next while in a leisurely exploration of smells, tastes, and textures with no real goal beyond knowledge that he's a little ticklish around his ears, this spot on his hip is covered with soft, downy hair, the skin over the tattoo on his upper arm is ever so slightly raised, and the stubble on his cheeks feels wonderful when it catches on the hairs on my thighs.

The exploration continues after dinner, only now it's directed, focused, intent. With each caress, each separate touch of Bill's tongue or lips or fingers or teeth, I'm driven deeper into sensation, until finally my orgasm seems more than a natural response, more than the inevitable culmination of our bodies working together. I watch his face as he comes, feeling an unexpected joy. Drifting off to sleep with his arm draped across my chest, his ankle stuck between my calves, his breath in my ear, is easier than it should be.

You'd think the kind of utter relaxation I feel as I fall asleep would guarantee pleasant dreams, but I learned a long time ago never to count on getting a good night's sleep.

Tonight's dream is Adena with a twist. She's in a canyon, bruised and battered, Eli's body a short distance away, another body further up. I know there are more around the bend, where something is burning, black smoke rising into the bright blue desert sky. I try to walk towards the smoke, but once I'm around the bend there's a wall, high and featureless except for the wire on top. I know I have to climb it, but I can't see any way over, and there's someone behind me. I can't see them yet, but I know they're there, and if I don't get over the wall they'll kill me like they killed Eli and Adena and the rest.

I wake up. The bed next to me is empty, light from the streetlamps outside filtering dimly through the curtains. The bathroom door opens just as I sit up to look around. Bill gets back into bed next to me. "Didn't mean to wake you," he says.

I shake my head. "No, you didn't; it's fine."

"What was it?"

"What?"

"If I didn't wake you, what did?"

"Just a dream."

"What about?" he asks, his hand moving slowly on my shoulder.

"An old nightmare about a case I had once, a girl who was murdered."

"Those are the kind of cases you work? Murders?"

"Not always, not now, but I used to be murder police, a detective in Baltimore. I worked homicides. The girl, Adena, she was my first case."

"How old was she?" he asks with what sounds like more than idle curiosity.

"Eleven." She'd be twenty-one next month.

"Fuck," he says, and there's definitely something more going on, but I don't know him well enough to guess what it is.

"Yeah," I say, looking at him, waiting.

"My daughter--she's eleven, almost twelve."

"You have a daughter?" I wonder if he's a good father--I bet he is.

"Yeah," he says. "She lives up with her mother in Regina most of the year, comes down and spends summers with me."

"What's her name?" I ask, wondering where Regina is, besides in Canada.

"Uh, her mom named her Billie," he says, ducking his head.

"After you?" I ask, smiling.

"Yeah, although why she did that I'll never know. I didn't even know about her until she was five. Mary never told me she was pregnant, just showed up a concert with her husband and her--my--kid. Billie's great, though. I think she takes after her stepfather; he's got more sense than Mary and me put together. I'll show you a picture tomorrow, if you want."

"I'd like that," I say, yawning.

"Come on," he says, pulling me down next to him. "I don't know about you, but I stopped getting by on four hours of sleep once I hit forty."

"Mmmhmm," I mumble, already falling back asleep. I don't wake again until morning, and I don't have any more dreams.

When I wake up, Bill's still sleeping, his breathing quiet and regular. I watch him for a few minutes. It's strange--for once I'm not wondering how it's going to be when he wakes up, what's going to happen next. I'm content just watching him sleep.

Eventually I look at the time. It's 9:16--late for me, probably early for Bill. I get out of bed, moving quietly into the bathroom. He meets me at the door as I'm coming back out, reaching up to put his hand on my cheek before disappearing behind the door.

He sticks his head out again a few minutes later. "Thought I'd take a shower," he offers. I smile and follow him back inside.

The shower's a bit cramped for me alone, so it's really tight with the two of us, but we manage just fine, warm spray of water and teasing kisses, soap and shampoo and hands on each other, laughing and rinsing in turn, deeper kisses and gasping breaths, until I almost pull the shower rod out of the wall. We move back to the bedroom and end up sprawled diagonally across the bed, feet sticking out on either end, mouths to cocks. It shouldn't work, but by some sort of magical physics it does, for long enough, anyway, and a moment after he moans and comes in my mouth, I come in his, my head thrown back and pillowed on his thigh.

A minute after that we've both got cramps in the back of our necks, but I don't mind. He doesn't seem to, either; he just laughs and rolls his shoulders. I move to the head of the bed and pull him towards me, digging my fingers into the tight bands of muscle in his neck until they loosen. Then he does the same for me, his fingers strong and sure.

"Mmm, that's nice," I tell him.

"Yeah, it is," he says, and I can tell he's smiling even though I can't see him. "Some food would be good, though."

"Room service okay?"

"Anything I don't have to leave the room for is great." He grabs the menu off the nightstand. "You a vegetarian?"

"Yeah. Eggs are good, though."

He nods. "Okay."

I put on some clothes while he orders, tossing an old BPD t-shirt and the pair of sweats that shrunk in the laundry on the bed for him. I glance at the clock again--it's already after ten. Fuck.

He finishes pulling the t-shirt over his head and sees me looking at the clock. He doesn't say anything, just looks at it himself for a few seconds, then goes over to his jeans, still thrown over the chair where he left them last night. He pulls out his wallet and walks over to me, handing me a photo.

It's a young girl, long brown hair, happy smile, and blue eyes like her father's. "She's beautiful," I tell him.

He ducks his head. "She's a good kid," he says. He takes the picture back and looks at it before returning it to his wallet. "You have any?"

I shake my head. "No. I always wanted to, but I guess it didn't work out that way."

The phone rings. I think about not picking up, but it's not like many people have the number. Sure enough, it's Bartlett.

"What's going on?" I ask him.

"The ME's report is back on your dead hustler," he answers. "They recovered the bullet. It was a .44."

"Figured it was something like that," I say. "Close range, too, from the stippling."

"Yeah, the ME thinks about three to four feet, execution style--the kid was kneeling, like you thought. They beat on him pretty hard before they shot him, too."

"Yeah, I saw the bruises," I say, wondering why they made him kneel. It had to be UBCC, but it still didn't make any sense. "Anything from forensics?"

"Are you fucking kidding me? Weren't you at the crime scene? We've got forensic evidence, some fibers and hairs, blood stains, but there were thousands of people at that concert. Don't count on any of it being usable."

"Fuck."

"I know it took a lot of persuasion to get me to agree to this assignment, Bayliss, but I'm convinced now--these fuckers need to be shut down."

"Yeah," I say. "Yeah, they do. Listen, you need anything else from me right now?"

"Nah. Sent a copy of that guitarist's statement over to the city detectives. It seems to have satisfied them. I don't think they're looking at it all that hard."

"I don't imagine dead hustlers get much juice from Salt Lake City murder police, even with as few bodies as they have here," I say bitterly.

"Especially if they're tied to the polygs," he agrees. "Speaking of which, you need anything this weekend?"

"No, no, I've got the files I need."

"Okay. Talk to you tomorrow."

I hang up and turn. Bill's staring at me, looking a little pale.

"Something wrong?" I ask him.

He swallows. "What the fuck is stippling?"

"It's, uh, it's a pattern of gun shot residue; you mostly see it if it was a close shot, within a few feet." I move closer to him, but I don't touch him. "Why?"

He walks away and sits on the sofa, rests his chin in his hand. "A friend of mine shot himself a few years ago. I heard the cops talking about stippling, always wondered what the fuck that meant."

"You were there when he shot himself?"

"No, I. . . I was supposed to be there, but I was on my way to the fucking band house to pack up. I was leaving."

"Leaving?"

"The band. Not Jenifur, my old band, Hard Core Logo. And Joe."

"That's the guy who killed himself, Joe?" I ask quietly.

"Yeah, that's the fucker who fucking shot himself, Joe Fucking Dick." He looks up at me, and I'm not sure what I see in his face, but there's something more going on, like last night when I told him about Adena.

"He was important to you," I say, coming over to sit next to him.

"Yeah," he says. "Yeah, he was important to me. I met him when I was thirteen; we started the band together. I loved him. Fucker."

I take his hand. He looks up, startled, but he doesn't pull away. "I'm sorry," I say.

He shakes his head. "Don't be. It's past, done. I made my choice, the fucker made his."

"Still, it's never easy, losing someone you care about."

"I'm guessing you know something about that, too, huh?"

I look down at our clasped hands, at the long fingers wrapped around mine, the skin just a shade paler than mine. "Uh, yeah. I guess I do."

When I look up again, he's looking back at me, searching my face. I don't know what he sees, but it seems to satisfy him, because after a moment he leans forward and places a gentle kiss on the corner of my mouth.

"What was that for?" I ask.

He shrugs, smiling a little. "Looked like maybe you could use it. Maybe I could, too."

I wrap my arm around his shoulders and pull him against my side, kissing his temple. "Yeah, maybe." We stay there like that until room service knocks on the door a few minutes later.

During breakfast we talk about sports, music, where Jenifur's headed on their tour, growing up in Vancouver and Baltimore. Every once in a while one of us will glance at the clock, then quickly away. It's 11:30 when he says, "You done eating?"

"Yeah," I say, taking his hand and leading him back to the bedroom.

***

He's got his jeans on again, but he's wearing my BPD t-shirt. I don't know if he's even noticed he grabbed that instead of the shirt he was wearing last night, but I'm not about to point it out.

He writes down his name, address, and phone numbers--home, cell, agent, manager, all of it--on a piece of hotel notepaper. The name he writes at the top isn't Billy Tallent--it's Bill Boisy. "My real name," he explains. "Came up with the other when I was a kid, never figured I'd get sick of it one day and not be able to get rid of it."

"I like it--Boisy, I mean. It's a good name."

He shrugs. "It's better than Billy fucking Tallent, not that you could have told me that a few years ago."

I squeeze his shoulder. "People change," I tell him.

"You got that right," he says, a touch of bitterness in his voice. "For one thing, I'm getting too old for fucking one night stands."

"Bill--"

"If you could call it that--you're no groupie, I'm not drinking anymore, and this--" He looks at me, puts his hand to my cheek. "I don't know what it was, but it wasn't a one night stand. I don't want it to be."

"Neither do I. I just--whatever it is doesn't change the fact that I've got a job to do. And so do you."

"No, I get it, you'll be out of touch, no forwarding address or voice mail, out saving the world for the fucking American fucking way for who knows how fucking long, so it doesn't really matter that I'm leaving for LA in an hour. It's just not what I'd choose, if I had a choice."

I take his hand and kiss the palm. "I'm sorry." I really am. This feels--it's different. I haven't had one moment in the past twelve hours where I wanted anything other than what was right in front of me.

His hand tightens on mine. "Don't be. Just promise me one thing. Whenever this thing ends, this thing you've got to do, promise you'll call me. I don't care if it's just to tell me you've converted to fucking Mormonism and have eight wives, I want to know you've made it through whatever it is."

"I promise," I tell him, knowing there's a chance I won't survive to keep my promise. "It might be a year or two, but as soon as I can, I'll contact you."

He grimaces. "A year or two, huh? Okay." He looks at his watch. "Fuck, Tim--I have to go." His cell phone rings. He answers it, "Yeah? Yeah, hold your fucking horses; I'll be down in a minute," then hangs up. Once it's back in his pocket, he pulls me into his arms and kisses me deeply, then backs away.

"Goodbye, Bill," I say, wanting nothing more than to follow him out the door.

"Don't do anything stupid," he says. "I'm holding you to that promise." Then he pats my cheek, turns, and walks out the door.

***

The next couple days are so busy I barely have time to think about Bill. I spend every waking moment reading files, analyzing what little we know about UBCC, and planning hiding places, information drops, and escape routes. My thoughts still stray to Bill at odd moments and before I fall asleep. I keep the piece of paper with his numbers on it in my wallet, even though I've memorized them all.

It's the night before I leave for Church Canyon, it's after two, and I can't sleep. I sit up, turn on the light, and I don't think about it, I just dial the phone.

It only rings twice before he picks up.

"This better be good," he says, pissed off, a little hoarse. He sounds wonderful.

"Hey, Bill, it's me," I say.

"Tim?"

"Yeah. Sorry to call so late--"

"I don't give a fuck about that," he interrupts, and I relax a little. "How are you? Where are you?"

"I'm still in Salt Lake," I say, leaning back against the headboard. "I leave tomorrow."

"So you're still doing whatever it is you're doing." He sounds disappointed.

"Yeah."

"And you just thought you'd call me at whatever the fuck time it is, the night before you leave for your secret fucking mission?"

"I did," I say, and I realize I'm smiling for the first time in days.

"What the fuck, are they sending you on some suicide mission to assassinate Osama bin Laden? Is this your last contact with humanity before you go fight aliens in another galaxy?"

"No, no," I answer, laughing. "I just--fuck, Bill, I just wanted to hear your voice, all right?"

"Oh, so it's more like, I don't know, Jimmy Stewart calling June Allyson before he goes off to fight the Nazis, is that it? Doesn't that make you kind of a girl?"

"I think if I'm Jimmy Stewart, that makes you the girl."

He laughs. "Yeah, I guess it does. Fucking June Allyson, that's me. It's good to hear your voice, too."

"How's the tour going?" I ask, because it's not like I can tell him how close his Jimmy Stewart scenario is. If I remember right, Jimmy Stewart died in that movie.

"Fuck, you know, it's a tour," he says. "I get up on stage, I play, and it's great, but the rest of it, the travel and the interviews and the other bullshit--it gets old."

"It sounds lonely," I say, because I'm an idiot.

"Lonely, yeah, I guess it is sometimes."

Maybe I should change the subject. "Hey, where are you now?"

"Uh, Seattle. In the hotel; the show ended a couple hours ago."

"So, the show ended, you, what, took a shower, then came back to the hotel?" I ask, remembering him undressing in front of me that night.

"No, I waited and took a shower here, asshole. I didn't have any hot FBI major case specialists waiting in my dressing room tonight."

"That's too bad."

"Yeah, it fucking sucks," he says, snorting. "Old days, I'd find someone else to keep me occupied, but now that I'm fucking June Allyson I seem to be stuck on Jimmy Stewart."

"I've been thinking about you, too," I say.

"Yeah?" he asks, his voice a little husky.

"Yeah. I'll be doing something, you know, work-related, and all of a sudden I can't concentrate on whatever's in front of me."

"Last night I almost missed a cue because I was thinking about your mouth. It was fucking embarrassing."

I kick the covers off, reach a hand into my boxers. "I get distracted in the shower now. I can't get the image of you in there with me out of my mind. I have to jerk off before I can do anything else."

He breathes in sharply. "You do, huh?" I hear some rustling in the background and wonder if he's doing what I'm doing.

"Yeah, I do," I say, my dick thickening in my hand.

"Fuck," he says quietly. "Fuck, Tim, I wish you were here."

"Yeah, so do I."

I listen to him breathe for a moment.

"So, in the shower, huh?" he asks finally, and I can tell he's smiling.

"It's practically a Pavlovian response," I confirm, "except it's the hot water and that cramped stall, not a bell."

"I'd like to see that," he says, and just like that I'm breathing more quickly, my dick twitching up again.

"You would, huh?" I ask, my voice catching in my throat.

"Yeah. That--uh, that and some other things I can think of. I could give you a fucking list."

"Jesus, Bill--I--fuck. You're right. This fucking sucks," I say, my hand moving, stroking.

"I guess we'll have to settle for phone sex, huh?" he asks slyly.

"I guess we will," I say hoarsely. "Hey, uh, I've never done this before--am I supposed to ask you what you're wearing?"

He laughs throatily. "I'm wearing your t-shirt, asshole, although I was about to take it off."

"You're wearing my t-shirt?" I ask, glad he can't see the huge grin on my face. "That definitely makes you the girl in this relationship."

"Relationship, huh?"

"Something wrong with me calling it that?"

"No, there isn't," he says. "Now can we get back to the part where you tell me what you want to do to me the next time you see me?"

He says it like he's sure it'll happen someday, and that turns me on even more. "I, uh, I'd start out by kissing you, soft and slow, just lips, no tongue, not at first. Because there's time--time for everything."

"Yeah," he murmurs. "We can take our time."

"Mmmm," I agree. "No hurry."

"We can just, we can just fucking make out for a while."

"Mmm," I say again, using my free hand to touch my lips, my chest.

Neither one of us says anything for a minute or two, although I can hear his breathing, can feel my pulse beating in my dick.

"After a while, though," he says eventually, "Fuck, after we'd been doing that for a while, making out, I'd, uh, I'd want to do more."

"Yeah?" I ask, stifling a groan. "Like what? What would you--Jesus, Bill, what would want to do with me?"

"I'd want--I'd want to touch you. I'd start out by getting my hands under your shirt, onto your skin," he says, panting a little.

"Yeah," I say, my hand on my chest again, tweaking a nipple. "I'd, uh, I'd take it off for you. Take yours off, too."

"I'd want everything off," he gasps, "fuck, Tim, everything."

"God, Bill--yes, everything. I want to see you, to feel you, all of you." I tease the head of my dick with one hand, my balls with the other, letting my legs fall apart, imagining his fingers in the place of mine.

"I need to get you spread out on the bed," he says, breathing in. "Get you spread out and, fuck, go over every fucking inch, you hear me?"

"I--Jesus, yes," I say.

"That body of yours, head to toe, all of it, front and back, broad shoulders and those long fucking legs and, and, fuck, that amazing ass."

"Your hands," I groan, "Bill, your hands, your hands moving down my body, wrapping around my dick, so fucking good--"

"I, fuck, I can't stop thinking about you, about your lips, your fucking mouth on me," he says hoarsely.

I can hear the slap of flesh through the phone line, and I am so fucking close.

"I wish I had my mouth on you now, wish I could taste you," I gasp, stroking faster and faster.

"Fuck, Tim--" I hear, and then a low, guttural moan, and hearing him, knowing he's coming, my hand speeds up even more, my hips jerk, and a minute later I'm coming too, banging my head against the headboard and knocking the phone off my shoulder.

It takes me another minute to catch my breath. I pick the phone back up, grabbing my boxers and using them to wipe off.

"You still there, Tim?" Bill asks breathlessly.

"Yeah, yeah," I answer. "Sorry--dropped the phone."

He laughs. "So did I. Fuck. That was fucking hot."

"Yeah. Yeah, it was."

Neither of us says anything for a while, but I can hear his breathing as it slows along with mine.

"You're leaving tomorrow, huh?" he asks eventually.

"Yeah," I say, looking at the clock, "in about six hours."

"You sure you don't want to tell the FBI to fuck off and come join me on the tour?"

"I wish I could, I really do, but this assignment, it's important."

"What makes it so important, or can't you tell me that?"

"It's--I can't--"

"No, I know."

He's silent for a moment, then, "How'd you get shot?"

I sigh. "It's a long story."

"You got some place to be?"

"Not for a few more hours, anyway."

"So tell me," he says, and I don't know why, but I just start talking.

"We were--there was this family in Baltimore, the Mahoneys, Luther Mahoney, and then he was killed, and his sister, she took over the business, the family business. The drug business. Her son, this asswipe named Junior Bunk, he, we arrested him for the murder of a judge, and he took a uniform's gun and shot up the squadroom. Three uniforms were killed, and a couple of the detectives were hit. It was a bad scene, and after it happened we ponied up to take down what was left of the Mahoney organization."

I take a breath and let it out, remembering that night, putting on my vest, all of us together, ready to take back the city.

"What happened?" he asks softly.

"Frank, he--" I swallow. "Uh, that was my partner, Frank Pembleton--he and I were around the back of Georgia Rae's cousin's house, and this kid comes out, and he's aiming his gun at Frank, at my partner. Frank, he was never a good shot, even before the stroke, and after--he's just standing there, holding his gun, one eye closed, and he's not taking the shot. Just like he couldn't take a shot the night before with Junior Bunk, because Frank--and I see this, and I can't let it happen. I can't let this punk take out my partner, take out Frank. So I push him out of the way, and the punk shoots me instead. He hit me in the back, but he was aiming at Frank. I was wearing a vest, but it didn't--the bullet went through it, hit a rib, splintered. I made it, though. I survived."

Bill's silent, but I know he's there, waiting. I take another breath.

"When I woke up--when I woke up I was stuck in the hospital, and Frank, he'd quit the squad."

"He quit because of what happened?" Bill asks, his voice tight.

"He said it was because of something else, another cop shooting a suspect, but yeah, I think he quit because of what happened that night."

"He was your partner, you said."

"Yeah, for six years."

"He know about this thing you can't talk about?"

"What?" I say, panicking for a second before I realize what he's referring to. "No, no, he doesn't. He, uh, I haven't talked to him in a couple years."

"You miss him."

"Yeah, I do," I answer, remembering Renee's soft voice in the hallway saying, "You loved him."

"I don't miss him as much as I used to, though," I add, realizing as I say it how true it really is.

"Yeah, I know what you mean," Bill says softly.

"Yeah. Listen, the thing is--fuck, the thing is, I have to leave in a few hours--"

"And you need to get some sleep. I get it."

"No, no, see, yeah, I should get some sleep, but--shit. I can sleep later. Tell me about your band. Tell me what it's like being a rock star."

I don't know what he hears in my voice, but there's another pause. Then he asks me quietly what I want to know.

We talk for a long time, a couple hours, maybe more, until I'm fighting to keep my eyes open. "I should let you get some sleep," he says finally, yawning audibly. "You need--you shouldn't go into whatever you're going into without at least a few hours."

"Yeah, you're probably right," I say reluctantly.

"You, uh, you going to have a chance to call again? Wherever you're going, they've got phones, right?"

"No. Fuck, Bill, I'm sorry, but I won't be able to call, not until it's over."

I hear the flick of his lighter. "A year or two, right?"

"Yeah, probably."

"That sucks," he says.

"I--yeah, it does. It really does."

"Okay," he says, just like he did the other day before he left. "Call me when you can."

"I will," I say, bowled over by his casual acceptance.

"Get some sleep, and I'll talk to you later," he says. After I hang up, as I'm falling asleep, I can almost believe it.

 

Part Two

You say your name like you're no longer convinced
But now they're strapping you in and closing the lid

The changing of the seasons is more subtle in southern Utah than it was in Baltimore, but it's more noticeable than it was in Las Vegas. We even had a dusting of snow a few times over the winter. Now it's summer again, the evaporative coolers working overtime to counteract the desert heat. After nearly a year, life in Church Canyon is both better and worse than I'd feared.

I attend services daily, twice on Sundays, standing and sitting and kneeling with the other men, the women and children doing the same on the other side of the temple. I go running every morning within the compound's walls, politely greeting the priesthood guards that cover all the trails. After I shower and eat, I go to work on UBCC's accounts, both official and unofficial. It's the job they offered me when they accepted my cover story and let me into the church.

I started working on the second set of accounts after my initiation into the priesthood in November. I spend my time adding and subtracting sums, concealing income, and taking mental notes that I hurriedly transcribe and hide in my rare moments alone. I act like a dutiful and pious Mormon fundamentalist, down to the blessed undergarments, and I wait. Once a month I send a coded progress report inside my electric bill, one of the few services UBCC can't provide for itself.

They accepted me into the all-male priesthood the day they sealed me to Sarah Hancock, aged thirteen. She left the house she'd lived in since her birth, the house she shared with her father's wives and other children, and came to live with me. She cleans, cooks, and manages the household with more efficiency than I would have thought possible from someone so young, even someone raised to believe that was her only possible role.

They sealed me to Sarah first, and then, at my request, to her eight year old sister, Ruth. It's an obscenity, but it's better than letting the prophet marry them off to his son, their uncle Joseph. Joseph is a blight on the earth who had his eye on both of them, Ruth especially. The only thing worse than looking into his crazy eyes is looking into the blank ones of his four surviving wives, who range in age from fourteen to nineteen. At least one other is dead, stoned after she was found talking to her male cousin without her husband's consent.

Sarah and Ruth's mother is also dead, although I don't know how it happened. They don't talk about it, and I don't ask. They have little enough of their own here. I take walks with them in the evenings, I eat the food they make me, and I keep them as safe as I can.

What little they know about the world they learned from their uneducated sister-mothers, who kept them completely ignorant of anything related to sexuality. I spent my two wedding nights lying awake at the edge of the bed while my garment-clad bride slept. Sarah and Ruth have shared the second of several bedrooms in the house since then, the most space either one of them has ever had to themselves. They seem content to be accepted into the tight-knit and tight-lipped community of wives.

My marriages were my ticket into the inner workings of the church, although I won't be a full member of the priesthood council until I've been sealed to at least one more wife. I should be relieved that I am finally filling the pages of the notebooks I've kept carefully hidden. I should be relieved I finally have something to say in my monthly report. Instead, all I feel is a kind of numb dread.

There's nothing I can do that I'm not already doing, so I keep up the pretense and pay attention to every detail. Most of my notes have to do with finances. Church Canyon has a diversified portfolio of investments in everything from a fast food franchise to gun dealers. It's taking everything I learned in grad school and at the Bureau to trace the financial connections--the drug smugglers in Mexico; the dealers in Salt Lake City, Phoenix, and Las Vegas; the popular car dealership in St. George. Luther Mahoney would envy their skill in money laundering, their careful tracking of every cent.

I do my work, living from day to day, repeating scriptures I don't believe, playing a role I abhor. It's not as difficult to pretend, not after all this time--it's become familiar, if no less abhorrent.

I don't think about anything else if I can help it. I can't think about my life before. I don't believe in love at first sight--not anymore, anyway, not after Emma Zoole. I refuse to fool myself into thinking I'll ever see Bill Boisy again. No, it's best he remains a fantasy, something to picture when I jerk off in the shower, the only time when I'm not bound by the literal and figurative vestments of my assignment.

***

It's a bright, sunny afternoon in July, just like nearly every other day here, not that you can tell when you're deep inside the UBCC headquarters. I've been working for hours when the prophet takes me aside and tells me he has a special task, "a test of your devotion to the priesthood." He approves of my latest reports on cash flow and appreciated the suggestion I made last week about distribution channels. If I complete this task, I will be given a third wife and admitted into the council.

My task is simple. I'm to take Gordon Day out into the desert, make him dig his own grave, and shoot him.

What that really means is that I've got to find a way to get him out of town safely with no one the wiser. It's not going to be easy, but I've got to find a way.

Gordon is sixteen, old for an unordained Church Canyon boy. Most are "brought to the priesthood," as they call it, around thirteen or fourteen, the same age their sisters often are at marriage. The boys are raised knowing most of them won't pass the priesthood test, that five out of six will fail. They're told the price of failure is exile from the church; the exiled are never heard from again. I don't know if any of the boys have a clue that the exile their prophet threatens them with is an unmarked grave.

I've got some ideas what to do about Gordon, plans made during my morning run. I've figured a back way to the highway that I think will work, but that's only part of the puzzle I have to work out. I know I can't talk to him, not where someone might hear us, so I've written some carefully edited facts down. The problem is, I don't know this kid well enough to know which way to play it--tell him the truth? Knock him out, drag him to Page, and hope for the best? I don't really know him at all, and I don't have a clue how he's going to react to the truth about the man he's been brought up to believe has a direct connection to God.

He shows up a few minutes early, skin flushed from the afternoon sun, knapsack thrown over his shoulder. The expression on his clean-shaven face is wary, a little suspicious. Good--I can work with that.

"Brother Timothy," he greets me cautiously.

"Gordon," I acknowledge evenly. "Are you ready for the Test?"

He nods once and follows me silently out to my truck.

Surveillance is a way of life in Church Canyon. Everyone knows everyone's business, and the guards are always patrolling, but the prophet knows better than to rely solely on fallible human eyes and ears. I've only been in the control room once, but I know there's at least one listening device in every house, every trailer. I sweep the house they've assigned me every week--kitchen, living room, bedrooms, bathrooms--and so far I've only found one bug, in a lamp next to the living room sofa. I guess I should be relieved they're not listening in my bedroom, as what they hear--or don't hear--could be a little hard to explain.

I don't bother sweeping the truck, figuring if the priesthood council wants to listen to me listening to bad country music on the rare occasions I drive somewhere, let them. I don't say a word to Gordon, just start the engine and pull out onto the dirt road in front of the house.

All the roads in Church Canyon are dirt, useable as long as it doesn't rain, which it rarely does. There are two gates in the wall surrounding the compound, one with another dirt road leading to US 89, the other leading into the back country of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. If you keep going east on the barely passable dirt tracks, you eventually get to the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but visitors there usually stay on Lake Powell. If you head north, there's nothing for fifty miles. Clinton named Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument in 1996, but it's still one of the most remote areas of the country outside of Alaska. Church Canyon sits on its edge, surrounded by millions of starkly beautiful, desolate acres, the perfect hiding place for bodies.

Once we've driven past the guards at the back gate and gotten a few hundred yards up the road I've been directed to take, I glance at Gordon. His lips are tightly pressed together, his expression grim. It could be because he's worried about being exiled from his home, but I don't think so--I think he suspects something. Maybe he's ready to fight for his life. That would make things more dangerous, but would also make it all somehow easier.

We drive a mile up the side canyon before I make the turn off road, driving carefully, avoiding the washes and slot canyons. Progress is slow, and the way Gordon's looking out the window makes me wonder if he's thinking about jumping. I can't risk that. I touch his arm to get his attention, then hold my finger to my lips, hoping he'll be smart enough to keep his mouth shut.

I slow down more, but I can't risk stopping, so I drive one-handed for as long as it takes me to pull the letter out of my vest. I put my finger to my lips again and wait until he nods before I hand it to him.

I keep him in my peripheral vision as he quickly opens and reads the letter, then turns to stare at me in disbelief. I shake my head and once again gesture to keep silent. He stares at me some more, his eyes wide. He rereads the letter slowly.

I see him thinking again about jumping, so I speed up a little, catch his eye, and shake my head. It takes another fifteen minutes before we get to the GPS coordinates the prophet gave me, but Gordon doesn't make any other moves, just stares at me, at the letter, and out the window in turn.

The designated location is a couple miles from any interesting canyons or rock formations. It's of no ecological or historical significance, just a bunch of monochromatic sand and rocks far from any designated trails. Once we get there I get out, leaving the shovel and the shotgun in the back and gesturing for Gordon to follow me a couple hundred feet behind the rocks, out of range of any listening device in the truck.

I knew he had a knife--I spotted it when he came to the house--but he still almost gets the jump on me. The kid's fast, but he's young and scrawny, and I've got weight, height, and police training on him. I have him pinned against the rock before he gets the knife all the way out of his pocket.

"Don't," I say, leaning on him. "You've got one shot, and one shot only, at making it out of here alive. You wouldn't want to do anything to blow that, would you?"

"The way I see it," he says, "that letter could be the Test. Maybe I'm supposed to show my loyalty, attack the traitor who's offering me a way out."

"You could try that, I suppose," I say, holding his arms with one hand and pulling my Glock out with the other, "but I wouldn't bet on a skinny sixteen year old against someone like me."

"Someone like you?" he asks, his voice breaking. "You're just like everyone else. Your wife is eight years old, you child molesting freak!"

I jerk away, horrified, letting him go so suddenly he stumbles and almost falls. He recovers quickly and lunges at me, holding the knife against my throat. I could break his hold, could pin him again, but I don't.

"What? I don't, I would never--" I stutter, then take a breath, leaving my gun at my side. "Gordon, I'm trying to help you," I say, meeting his eyes, willing him to believe me.

"You would never what?" he snarls.

"I'd never rape a child," I tell him tightly. "I'm here to help."

"You expect me to believe that?" he asks. "Who are you to help me?"

"Who am I?" I ask, swallowing. "You want to know who I am? I'm no child molester, I'm--" I stop, unable to continue.

"You're what?" he says. "That stupid letter sure doesn't tell me."

I shake my head. "You want the prophet to keep doing what he's doing? Keep marrying off your sisters to people like Brother Joseph?" I say harshly. "Then you go right ahead and use that knife, kid, because who I am is the prophet's worst enemy. I'm the one who's going to take him down."

"Prove it," he says, and I grab the knife, throw it on the ground, and shove him against the rock, holding him there easily.

"Did you get a look at what was in the back of the truck, Gordon?" I ask.

"Yeah," he says.

"What was it?"

"A shovel," he answers sullenly.

"Yeah, a shovel, that's right, and a shotgun in the cab. This here," I say, gesturing with my Glock, "the Holy Prophet doesn't know about this gun, but he knows about the shotgun. He gave it to me himself when he ordered me to take you out here, make you dig a hole, and shoot you dead. That's what your prophet does to boys who don't pass his test, son. He shoots them."

"I know," the kid mutters. "And he's not my prophet."

"Wait--you knew?" I ask, letting him up again.

"I hear things sometimes," he says, shaking out his arms. "We--I keep my ears open. You'd be surprised, some of the stuff I've heard."

"Why the hell did you get into the truck with me if you knew what was going to happen?" I say.

"I had a knife," he shrugs, "and it's not exactly easy to get out of the compound if you're not in the priesthood, or hadn't you noticed?"

I laugh bitterly. "No, I noticed. It's hard even if you're in the priesthood."

"People have done it, though, once or twice," he offers, watching me closely. "Boys like me. Sometimes they--we hear from them sometimes."

I nod. "Yeah, I know," I say quietly. "I met one of them in Salt Lake."

"When?" he says suspiciously.

"Last summer, before I came here," I answer. "His name was Eli. I met him--I met him right before they killed him."

The kid looks at me sidelong, and I know he's made me, if he hadn't already. I can't bring myself to care. At least he doesn't know what branch of law enforcement I work for or my real name. "So now what?" he asks.

"Now we dig a grave," I say, starting back towards the truck.

"No," he says, cool as a cucumber. "Now you dig a grave. I'm going to take that shotgun and find us a coyote or something. We don't bury a body, they're going to notice."

His arrogance is comforting. "Fine," I say. "You go do that."

I drive back through the gate alone three hours later, covered in sweat and dust, armed with the knowledge that there are a few kids here like Eli, kids who know what's going on, kids who want out. I don't know exactly what they've got set up or how it works, but that's probably for the best. Gordon gave me one name, Daniel Smith. Now I've just got to figure out how to talk to him without anyone noticing.

The next day I'm out running when that problem is solved--Daniel Smith approaches me. He presents another problem, though--he's got a gun, and he looks like he's ready to use it. Great--this is all I need.

"Hey, easy, easy, wait a minute," I say to him, my hands up.

He points the gun at me. "Sarah said you were all right, but I should have known better," he says thickly.

"Wait, Daniel," I say quietly. "Just wait a minute; take it easy. Whatever you think I did, I'm here to tell you I didn't do it, all right?"

"What I think you did is kill Gordon," he says, still holding the gun steady on me.

"Gordon's alive," I say soothingly, "but neither one of us is going to be if one of the priesthood guard comes along and hears us talking--not for long, anyway. I don't care if you keep that thing pointed at me, but we're not talking about this here." I turn around and walk quickly through the brush, away from the dry creek bed the guards travel regularly.

I can hear him following me, but I don't turn around again. If he wants to shoot me in the back instead of listening to what I have to say, I guess I can't stop him.

When I'm certain we're far enough away from the trail that we won't be seen or heard, I stop and say, as casually as I can with a gun on me, "I've been wanting to talk to you--Gordon told me you were the person to contact about getting some other kids out of here. He said a few of you were in touch with a couple people in Salt Lake."

"That's right," Daniel says reluctantly, holding the gun a little lower. "Only one of them is dead. My brother, he's dead."

"Eli was your brother?" I ask. He nods.

"I'm sorry, Daniel," I tell him. "Yes, Eli's dead, but Heather, she's still there, right?"

"How do you know about Eli and Heather?" he asks.

"I can't tell you that, Daniel, I'm sorry. And I know you can't tell me how you stay in touch with Heather, either."

"You don't know?" he says.

I shake my head. "No, I don't, and I don't want to, at least not now. The fewer people who know about that, the better, don't you think?"

He nods. "Only a few of us know. She says it's best that way."

"She's right," I say. "Now, what I can tell you is that you're not as alone as you think you are, and someday soon, things are going to change. They're going to get better. I promise."

"Can't get much worse," he says, lowering the gun the rest of the way. He's trusting me more than he should, given the circumstances--he's lucky I'm not who I've been pretending to be.

"No, they can't," I agree. "You have any ideas when they're coming for you?"

He shrugs. "Soon, but not too soon. They don't like to do it too often. It reminds people of who's missing. It'll be a month or two, maybe more. Sometimes they take a few at once. Don't know for sure, but I'll probably be next--I'm oldest, and I think. . . ."

"What?" I ask, putting my hand on his shoulder, looking at him.

He stares at his shoes for a moment and shrugs again, elaborately casual. "There's something wrong with me. I think maybe they figured it out."

"Figured out what, Daniel?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "It's nothing."

"It doesn't sound like nothing," I say gently. "If you think it puts you at more risk, maybe you should tell me. I might be able to help."

"I tried to tell Gordon once," he says, still looking down. "All I wanted--I just wanted him to know he didn't need to worry about his sisters none, not around me. He didn't understand."

"He--his sisters?" I say, unsure of what I'm hearing.

"Eli was like me, too," he says. "That's why he had to get out."

I take a sharp breath in. "Okay, Daniel. It's okay. I'll get you out, too," I say, squeezing his shoulder. "You're right--it's not safe for you here if they find out."

"You're not--aren't you going to tell me I'm going to hell?" he asks, looking up at me, his eyes red.

"What? No, no, of course not," I answer quickly, shaking my head. "I'm not--Daniel, I don't believe that there's anything wrong with--with being like Eli."

"You don't?" he asks incredulously.

"No, I don't." I keep my hand on his shoulder, wishing I could give him a hug, wishing I could tell him he's even less alone than he knows. "There are a lot of people like that outside these walls. They're not going to hell, and neither are you."

"Really?" he asks doubtfully.

"Trust me, Daniel," I say firmly. "You'll see, once we get you out of here."

"Maybe," he says. "What have you got planned?"

We can't take a lot of time for discussion, or the guards will notice I'm not back at my regular time, but we work through a few things. He still has some doubts I'm for real, but we agree to meet in this spot once a week, more often if we need to.

A few weeks after I talk to Daniel the first time, the Prophet calls me into his office. He tells me he's pleased with my work on the offshore accounts, and he appreciated my taking care of that favor he asked me.

"It's hard to believe you've only been with us for a year," he says. "It has been a year, yes?"

I nod. "A year last week," I say. "August tenth."

"You're an asset to the priesthood, Brother Timothy."

"I'm in your service, Prophet," I answer, bowing my head.

"It's time that you were rewarded for your faithful service, Brother Timothy," he says. "It's time for you to be sealed to a third wife and join the council."

I kneel, as expected. "Thank you for considering me for this honor, Prophet."

"I know you enjoy your young wives," the Prophet says, smiling benevolently, "but I must ask you to honor my special request and be joined to Elizabeth Barrington as your third wife. She could be your legal wife, if you so choose; she was widowed last year and is of legal age."

My heart sinks. This will not be another innocent girl content to sleep away her wedding night. She'll expect the marriage to be consummated.

"As you wish, Prophet, so shall it be," I say, accepting his blessing. I don't know how I'm going to manage, but I have to, somehow--the only way to gain access to the detailed records I need is to join the priesthood council, and the only way to join the council is to accept the prophet's choice.

I meet Elizabeth the next day. She looks about twenty-five but shyly tells me she's thirty-two when I ask. She volunteers nothing on her own, but the more I ask her about herself, the more eager she is to answer.

Like most Church Canyon women, she's fair and blue eyed. Her light brown hair is up in a tidy bun. She seems thin, although it's difficult to tell for sure what her shape is under the ankle-length skirt, loosely-fit, high-collared blouse, and long sleeves. She's probably got another two layers on underneath--no wonder her face is flushed.

She remains expressionless until I ask her about her daughter, at which point her face and voice become animated.

"She's pregnant; isn't that wonderful?" she asks, continuing with barely a pause. "I was scared she wouldn't catch, what with me just having her and no other, but it wasn't more than three months since she's sealed and she's blessed already."

"That's wonderful," I say weakly, remembering that the girl in question is fourteen. "Children are indeed a blessing." A blessing I need to find a way to avoid.

She looks like she wants to say something else.

"What is it, Elizabeth?"

"It's nothing," she says, dipping her head.

"If we are to be sealed, you must feel free to speak to me," I tell her sternly. "A husband must know what's in his wives' hearts."

"I didn't mean to--" she stutters. "That is, if we are to be sealed--"

"Tell me, Elizabeth."

"It's just, you've not yet been blessed, as I understand it?" she asks. "Sister Ruth, she's too young, but I thought Sister Sarah--she's been bleeding a year now."

"She has not yet been blessed, no," I say, suppressing a shudder.

"I may be barren," Elizabeth says suddenly, her cheeks even pinker than they were a moment ago. "Rebecca's birth was difficult, and I never caught again after, much as I prayed and my husband--that is, my first husband--"

"It's all right," I interrupt wearily. "Whatever happens is God's will. There's time."

"Yes, of course," she says meekly.

We're sealed three days later. It's harder to keep up the charade this time, hard not to take the words even a little seriously. There's an adult standing next to me, vowing to love, honor, and obey me in all things, accepting the ring I put on her finger. When I lift her veil and kiss her, her lips are soft, full, and slightly open, and she kisses me back sweetly, if inexpertly.

That night, instead of a young, innocent girl, Elizabeth slides into bed next to me. I stare up at the ceiling, wondering how I can possibly make this work, fighting the urge to just get up and run away. She rolls towards me, placing her hand tentatively on my chest. Now that she's clad only in her temple garments, I can see that her breasts are full, her belly a bit soft, her hips nicely curved.

I kiss her, and her mouth opens, but she's limp and passive. I pull back and look at her again. She opens her eyes and looks at me. "Is something wrong, husband? Is there something you would have me do?"

"Could you--would you take this off?" I ask, running a finger under the hem of her top.

"Take it off?" she asks, sounding baffled. "Why?" She removes the garment shyly.

"So I can do this," I answer, kissing the exposed curve of her breast.

"Oh," she says, and "oh. . . " as I find her nipple.

It's easier after that. She's been married, had a child, but she's never had this, never had any kind of pleasure in her body, and now that I know that, I know I can make this good for her. As her pleasure grows, so does mine. It's nothing transcendent, but it's good, good enough, for both of us.

I lie awake for a long time afterwards, wondering how I'm going to avoid a repeat performance, knowing that, no matter what, I'm going to end up hurting her. If I could still pray with any sincerity or faith, I would pray that she really is barren.

When I finally fall asleep, I dream that it's Bill sharing my bed, that I'm watching him sleep, his breath in my ear, my hand on his cheek. I wake up to find Elizabeth's arm draped over my chest, and I move away slowly, careful not to wake her. I change into my running gear as quietly as I can, running quickly the moment I leave the house.

Some mornings in Baltimore, I'd leave headquarters after a night shift or a redball, and the fog would be so thick around the inner harbor I could barely find my way home. There's never enough moisture in the desert air to block my view of the compound walls, no matter how early I leave the house.

By the time I get back and out of the shower, Elizabeth's in the kitchen making breakfast with Sarah and Ruth. Judging by Sarah's expression, she's not impressed with Elizabeth's cooking skills. Once I taste the underdone eggs and burnt toast my newest wife has prepared, I can't help agreeing with her. If I understand the intricate politics of plural marriage correctly, however, Sarah's still the senior wife, even though Elizabeth is old enough to be her mother. Since Sarah loves to cook, hopefully she'll continue to take primary responsibility for feeding the four of us.

I've grown to enjoy my evening walks with Sarah and Ruth. They give me a chance to talk to them without our conversations being recorded, a few moments of relative freedom each night.

Now that I'm being brought into the priesthood council, I've been assured my home is no longer bugged, and I'm allowed into the surveillance room to hear what's going on in other Church Canyon homes. Fortunately, I'm only expected to take a couple shifts a week. I try to ignore what I hear, although it's more than a little uncomfortable to see a neighbor and know what she thinks of the senior wife in her family.

I'm not stupid enough to believe they ever stop listening to anyone, but it's best to pretend I do. I know there are rooms in the UBCC headquarters I still haven't been inside. I continue to avoid saying anything suspicious at home.

The day after our wedding, I invite Elizabeth on a walk. She takes my arm eagerly, looking up at me with a bright smile. We stroll leisurely along the dirt roads as she tells me more about her excitement about her future grandchild.

"May I ask you something, husband?" she says after she's exhausted that topic.

"Of course," I answer.

"It's about the schedule. Am I to be with you every third night, or would you prefer something different?"

I swallow, knowing I have to play this perfectly. "Have you ever had a revelation, Elizabeth?" I ask.

"A revelation? Do you mean, has God ever spoken to me?"

"God or one of his emissaries, yes."

"No, not clear like, although I feel he is pleased with me lately," she says, dimples showing, squeezing my arm affectionately.

"Well, he came to me last night, very clearly," I say, "and his commandment was not an easy one."

"Last night?" she asks, alarmed. "Why didn't you wake me?"

"His words were for me alone," I tell her, "although they will impact you, Sarah, and Ruth."

We walk a few feet as I work out how to say it. "There are trials ahead," I start, glancing at her to watch her reactions. "The faithful will be greatly tested, and we must prepare. The Last Days are approaching."

She nods seriously; talk of the Last Days is fairly common here. "What sort of trials?"

"Uh, difficult ones," I say. "Ones that will test each and every one of us, individually and collectively."

"I see," she says uncertainly. "And how will this affect our family?"

"It's an unsafe time for women and children," I say bluntly, brazening it out. "The Lord wishes to protect us, but there will be blood shed in the coming war. It is not a safe time for bringing new lives into the world."

She pales. "What are you saying, husband?"

"God commanded me last night, Elizabeth. He commanded me not to procreate, uh, not to have children, not now. Later, when it's safe, that's when new children must, uh, can be conceived."

"But what about Rebecca?" she says, her hand on her heart. "What will happen to her child?"

"Those who are pregnant now can bear safely," I say, scrambling, trying to sound properly ecclesiastic. "The trials are coming, but not as quickly as that. I'm sure Rebecca's child will be fine."

"Have you spoken to the Prophet about this?" she asks. "What did he say?"

"I told him this morning," I lie. "He agreed we must follow the Lord's commandment. He said he had a similar revelation. But he also cautioned me, Elizabeth, that this revelation must remain a secret. I only told you because we're so newly married that I knew you would question it if I just stopped our times together."

She looks at me, clearly upset. "Does this mean--what does this mean?"

"It means, starting tonight, you will sleep in your room, and Ruth and Sarah will sleep in theirs, and I will sleep alone," I say decisively, hoping she'll accept it without question, as a good Church Canyon wife should.

"We cannot even share a bed?" she asks. "Is there nothing we can do? What we did last night--" she blushes, but goes on, "before, what we did before, can't we do that?"

"No," I say firmly, hoping I'm not blushing myself. "What we did last night was part of the sacrament of marriage, and the sacrament of marriage is for procreation."

"Of course," she says, looking down. "I'm sorry for questioning you."

"It's all right," I tell her, relieved. "If you have questions for me, it's all right to ask, as long as it's at times like this, when we're on our walks. We may not be sharing a bed, but we'll still have time together. These evening walks with my wives are important to me, and I want you to know you can talk to me freely on them. Can you promise me you'll do that?"

"Yes, I promise, husband," she says.

"I'll share my thoughts with you as well, but that means I have to trust you to keep my confidences. You must promise me you'll share nothing we talk about with anyone else," I tell her.

"Not even sister wives?" she asks.

"Not even them," I say sternly. "I don't share what any of my wives tells me privately with anyone else, and I expect the same respect from them, from all of them."

"All right," she says.

We walk silently for about ten minutes before she says anything else, but it's just to ask me about my favorite foods. She looks confused when I tell her no meat, but she accepts it when I say it comes from one of Joseph Smith's early instructions.

"Sarah is used to managing the kitchen," I say. "You'll want to talk to her about this."

"Yes, of course," Elizabeth answers meekly. She stays quiet the rest of the way back.

That night, for the first time in years, I find myself thinking about Buddhism, about what it meant to me before I ruined any chance I had at that kind of peace. The four noble truths are appealing in their simplicity and elegance, especially in contrast to the convoluted, bloody-minded contradictions of The Doctrine and Covenants. It would be wonderful to escape into meditation during the Prophet's long-winded, violent sermons, but I don't dare.

The next night's walk is with Ruth. Since the moon is waning, I point out some stars, and we talk about planets, orbits, and the phases of the moon. I'm not sure how accurate my memory is or how much knowledge of astronomy I ever had, but I figure anything I can teach her is better than the garbage she'd learn from her mother's family. She's eager to learn, and she's smart--I only hope I can find a way to get her out of here and into a good school.

Ruth takes my hand on the way home, as she often does. I look down at her, and she smiles up at me, full of trust and love. I have to look away. She and her sister have been the only bright spots in my life for the past year. I don't think I would have made it this long without them.

My walks with Sarah, while just as essential to my sanity as my time with Ruth, are more challenging. She turned fourteen a few weeks ago, and she's starting to question the way things are here. I'm glad to see that she's aware of some of the inconsistencies in the religion she's been raised to believe is unassailable truth, but it's getting more difficult to answer her questions and encourage her to think for herself while still keeping her safe. She seems to understand the importance of keeping quiet, but she's so young, and she's lived her whole life in this place. I don't know, don't want to ever know, what would happen if she were questioned by someone from the priesthood council. I know I'd give my life to protect her and Ruth from the Prophet.

Sarah surprises me on our first walk after Elizabeth joins the household. Ruth and I found a rock last week with fossils in it, so we go there first, flashlight in hand, and look at the shapes of the fish and snails outlined in the stone. I tell her cautiously about evolution and what little I remember of the ages of the earth, warning her not to talk about it with anyone, flashing back for just a second to the exhibit of the Cretaceous period where Patrick Garbarek was killed.

She asks a bunch of questions, some I can answer, some I can't, and then hits me with, "Do you miss it?"

"Miss what?" I say, confused.

"The outside," she says. "I mean, I know I've never been, but you've spent all your life there until this last year, right?"

"Yeah, that's right," I say, stalling for time. "But now I'm here."

"But do you miss it?" she asks again.

"Yeah," I say slowly. "Yeah, kiddo, I do miss it sometimes."

"What's it like?"

"It's--it's hard to describe," I say, shrugging. "There's so much of it that's so different from here--the people, the clothing, books, movies, the music. It's not just that people's beliefs are different, although that's part of it."

"You mean the Principle," she says, her words more sure than her voice. "They don't believe in the Principle."

"No, they don't," I reply.

"You don't either, do you?" she asks.

"What?"

"You haven't--you're not like everyone else. Elsie told me about her wedding night. Don't worry," she says as I stare at her, stunned, "I didn't say nothing. I just listened, and was glad they sealed me to you and not anyone else, because you don't do that. Although I think maybe you did with Sister Elizabeth."

I don't have the first clue what to say to her--this scenario definitely wasn't covered in my FBI undercover training.

"Don't worry," she says again, "I won't say nothing to anybody. Like I said, I'm glad of it, for me, and especially for Ruth."

"Sarah," I say finally, "you're right. I don't believe in the Principle. And I don't believe anyone your age should be forced to marry and have children. Where I come from--the outside world you were asking about--where I'm from, we would never do that, because it's wrong. It hurts children, and that's what this place does, it hurts children, and sometimes worse."

She nods, looking at me seriously. "I've seen some of them looking at Ruth. Before she was sealed, yeah, but even now. Some of them are mad they didn't get her."

I ruffle her hair. "Yeah, I know, kiddo."

"You take good care of us," she says. "Don't think we don't know that."

"I'm trying," I murmur. I squat down on the ground, meeting her eyes. "Sarah, listen to me. There might come a time when I need to get you and your sister out of here. If that happens, we might not have a lot of warning. Can I rely on you to do whatever I say, no matter what?"

"Yes," she says simply.

"You promise?"

"I promise."

"You might have to just grab Ruth and go, and keep her quiet," I say urgently. "You can't tell her anything about this, okay?"

"Okay," Sarah answers, nodding.

"And you can't say anything to anyone about this," I remind her.

"I promise," she says again.

"All right," I say. "You made a promise to me, and I'm going to make a promise to you. Some day, Sarah, you and your sister will see the world outside. I promise that." I look her in the eye, and she nods. I've known all along that this assignment will end someday, hopefully with this horrible place razed and burned to the ground, but I've deliberately avoided considering exactly how it will affect Sarah and Ruth. No more. I have to plan for their safety, have to get them out of here, keep them from harm.

Sarah and Ruth are out on a walk of their own one night a few weeks later, having shyly asked my permission to go look at the stars with my binoculars. The nights are getting cooler--it's starting to feel like fall, even if we're a couple weeks short yet on the calendar. The girls go on walks by themselves most nights I walk with Elizabeth, even now that it's getting dark earlier--it's not like there's a lot of crime here, other than the obvious, thanks to the Prophet's tight-fisted rule. Elizabeth has gone to bed early tonight, complaining of "the bad flu," which seems to be her term for a cold.

I spend some time getting my notes up to date and then hiding them again. I keep half an ear out for the girls, or in case Elizabeth gets up to the bathroom, but I'm busy enough that I don't notice the time until I've finished. I look at my watch in shock--it's after ten, which is practically the middle of the night here.

I grab my jacket and flashlight and head out to look for them, jogging in the direction I think they went. The moon's nearly full, making it easy to find my way, but I don't see the girls anywhere. They can't have gone far--I can see the wall in the distance, but they wouldn't go there, they know better. They'd stay close to home. They wouldn't want to run into the guards. They have to be close. I jog back home and head off in the opposite direction. A few minutes later, I see Ruth running towards me.

"Ruth, honey, where's your sister?" I ask, my heart in my throat.

She's crying and gasping for breath, but she points behind her. "I was coming to get you," she says between sobs. "Sarah told me to hide, so I did, but I saw."

I pick her up and carry her with me, barely noticing her weight, looking around frantically for Sarah. Ruth grabs me tightly, and I can feel her shivering. "What did you see?" I ask, but she buries her head in my shoulder and shakes her head, crying harder. I start running, going as fast as I can over the rocks. Sarah has to be okay. She has to.

Ruth directs me to a small canyon, and I find Sarah on the ground around the bend. Her face is bruised, her clothing torn, but she's alive, and she's conscious. I put Ruth down and crouch down next to Sarah, holding my hand out. She flinches, then takes it and lets me pull her up. She grabs onto my waist and holds on so tightly I can barely breathe. She's shivering, too, harder than Ruth.

"It's okay," I tell her, even though it's not. "I've got you, honey--it's over." I take my jacket off and wrap it around her.

"He--" she says. "I couldn't stop him. I tried, but I couldn't stop him."

"It's not your fault," I say, my voice catching. It's mine. I didn't protect her. I swore I would, and I didn't. "Sarah, it's not your fault. Can you--can you tell me who did this to you?"

"It was Asher Chase. I saw him," Ruth says, quavering. "He hit her, and he pulled her garment off, and he did something, you know, down there."

"Okay," I say, feigning calm. "Here's what we're going to do. Sarah, once we get home, we can't talk about this--we can't let Elizabeth know, understand? We'll tell her you talked back to me and I hit you."

"No!" shouts Ruth. "No, we can't say that! It was Asher!"

"I understand," Sarah says hoarsely, loosening her hold on me but not letting go completely. "Ruthie, it's okay," she says, reaching out to her sister. "We have to do what Tim says."

I turn away and scrub at my eyes quickly, struggling for control. I can do this. I have to do this.

"Ruth, listen to me," I say when I can talk again. "I will make sure that Asher is punished for what he did, believe me, if it's the last thing I do. But for now, just for now, we have to keep this quiet. Elizabeth won't understand, and neither would anyone else." I turn back to Sarah. "Sarah, once we get back to the house, before you take a shower, I, uh, I'll get you a paper bag. I'll need you to, you need to put all your clothes in that bag. I know it sounds awful, but I need you to trust me and do it. Okay?"

She nods, her face blank.

"Remember, both of you, we can't talk about this in the house. Later, when the time is right, we'll need to talk about it then, but for now it's not safe," I tell them, knowing they may never feel safe again.

"Is it going to happen soon?" Sarah asks, looking at Ruth and then back at me.

I put my hand on her head, and she leans closer. "Yeah," I say, swallowing. "Yeah, I think it'll happen soon."

"I--I don't think he could tell," she stutters, and at first I don't know what she's talking about. "I don't think he noticed. But if he figures it out--"

No, no, no. "Don't worry about that," I say quickly. "Come on, let's get you home."

"But if he--if he tells anyone, they'll come after you," she insists, frantic.

"He won't," I say, willing her to believe me. "The penalty for fornication or the penalty for adultery, they're both the same, for men as well as women, especially for someone who's not on the council. He won't risk that." And if he does tell someone, I'll just have to get them out quick. "Come on," I say again. "Can you walk?"

"Yeah," she says, and she does, her head down, her steps tentative--just like every other Church Canyon woman I've seen over the past year. I have to swallow a few times to keep from throwing up.

I put her clothing into a couple of paper grocery bags while she showers, my hands shaking. I don't know where to put it, don't know where it'll be safe from contamination, but I finally just put it at the bottom of the laundry hamper with a layer of cardboard between it and the rest of the laundry. It'll have to be good enough. A rape kit would be better, a rape kit, and a nurse, and a rape crisis counselor, and a sex crimes detective ready to arrest Asher Chase before I kill him.

My heart is pounding, my fists clenched so tightly I can't feel my fingers. It's a familiar feeling, even if I've never felt it this strongly before. I've acted on it before, and I'm ready to do it again, to go out there and find him and make him pay in blood for what he did, but if I do that I'll forfeit the chance to make them all pay. I try to loosen my shoulders, slow down my breathing. I hear the shower go off, and I breathe some more, because the last thing Sarah needs right now is to see the violence I'm capable of.

I don't sleep much that night--I can't, not until I have a plan, a good one. I lie awake thinking of ways to get Sarah and Ruth out of Church Canyon, get them out quickly, make sure they're safely away from here. I've spent other sleepless nights on the same thing, but it's different now, more urgent. I go over and over it in my head, trying to make it work. If I knew when Daniel's test was going to be, maybe I could use that, but I don't. If I knew some secret way out of the compound--but I don't. I don't know how I'm going to get them out, and if Asher Chase says something to the wrong person, it's over. I'll be lucky if I have a few minutes warning.

Try as I might, I can't think of anything that will work if that's all the warning I have.

Elizabeth's still sick the next morning. She doesn't question it when I tell her Sarah's come down with the same flu and just wants to sleep.

"Are you coming down with it, too, husband?" she asks. "You look terrible."

"I'm fine," I lie, faking a smile. "Go back to sleep, and I'll check in on you later."

"You're so good to us," she murmurs, pulling the covers over her head. I walk out of the room and into the bathroom, so close to vomiting I can taste the bile in the back of my throat.

I splash some cold water on my face and get into my running clothes. I have to keep to my regular routine. The council will notice anything different. I can't do anything suspicious. I have to go running, take a shower, go to work. Follow the routine, even if it kills me to leave the girls alone.

I look in on Sarah before I leave, but she's not in her room. I find her cooking in the kitchen, the bruises livid on her pale face. "What are you doing, honey?" I ask her.

"Making soup," she says, throwing some onions into a pot. "Elizabeth's sick; I thought she'd like some." She looks at me, her eyes red but her face schooled into a semblance of her normal expression.

"I told her you might be coming down with it, too--I thought you'd still be in bed."

"I'd rather make soup," she says.

"I'm sure she'll appreciate it," I answer, my eyes burning. "Where's your sister?"

"She's reading, I think."

"Okay. I, uh, I'm going to go for a run."

"Be careful," she says. "Watch out for the snakes--Tamara saw some rattlers the other day."

"I'll be careful. Take care of yourself--go back to bed if you start feeling bad."

"I'll be fine," she says. "Don't worry."

"You sure?" I ask, unable to move.

"I'm sure. Go, and let me get back to my soup."

"Okay," I say, but I stand there for a few more seconds before I head out.

Running was never my favorite sport, growing up--I preferred basketball and swimming--but it's become increasingly important over the last year. I go every day I can, no matter the weather, and over the months my route has gotten longer as my muscles have adapted. I'm as thin as I was when I went back to work after I got shot, nearly as fit as I was when I was on QRT, all because the first week I spent here I couldn't stand my own skin.

Running here is like swimming used to be, solitary and uninterrupted. There are no distractions, no way to put on headphones or watch the television at the gym, nothing but the stark beauty of the landscape, unnoticed now, as I've run past these rock formations hundreds of times. I'm alone, away from the Prophet and his council, away from a household full of those I must protect. Sometimes, for brief moments, I can ignore the hooked pole I've never seen used, disregard the frequently visible wall that circumscribes my route. Sometimes, for brief moments, I can forget mentally drafting my notes on UBCC's offshore accounts, forget the delicate tightrope I walk every other waking moment, forget the way the temple garments, damp with sweat, chafe my skin.

The only other time I can forget is when I get back and I'm in the shower, when I sometimes allow myself to remember Bill's skin, his long fingers, his mouth. I take myself in hand on those days, and it never takes long. It can't take long.

By the time Elizabeth gets over her flu a few days later, you'd think everything was back to normal, as long as you didn't look too closely. I run daily, go to work, and take walks with a different wife every night, just like before. I listen in on my neighbors' private conversations, shuffle money, and take notes on illegal transactions. I try to figure out how to get the girls out of town. And then I do it all over again the next day.

If Elizabeth notices that Sarah and Ruth have stopped leaving the house alone, or that Sarah's lost some weight, she doesn't mention it. She does notice, I think, that I'm paying a bit more attention to my two younger wives, but she doesn't mention that, either, just gives me a puzzled look now and again.

When I walk with Sarah, she refuses to talk about what happened, insisting that she's fine. I try to follow her lead and talk of other things, watching her bruises fade as the days go by, the only thing that seems to be changing. She's fascinated by my stories of life outside UBCC's walls, and even though it's dangerous to feed her fascination, I can't help answering her questions--I recognize her need to escape in any way she can, recognize it all too well. Maybe telling her about the world outside is the only way either one of us can escape, at least for a few minutes.

Ruth has withdrawn, become quiet. She comes out of her shell a little on our walks, especially when I pretend I know enough about science to teach her. My knowledge of anatomy and physiology has more to do with the morgue than anything from high school or college, but it serves well enough for an eight year old, and when I can't remember the names of the constellations, we pick new ones out together.

My walks with Elizabeth are a chore, one more thing I have to get through every few days. She's fascinated by the coming Last Days, and my supposed revelation only fed the fire. It's a good thing I studied Mormon doctrine and history before I came here, because talking with her about it is almost worse than dealing with the ranting of the Prophet and the council. I can see she's struggling--she wants to be the dutiful wife, but she can't understand my insistence on sleeping alone.

The weeks pass. It's October, and the nights are getting cold, but there are no trees to change color to mark the season, no Halloween decorations on anyone's door. One night, about three weeks after she was raped, while Sarah and I are walking, she says she has something to tell me. My heart pounding, I ask her what it is.

"My bleeding time came," she says.

"You got your period?" I ask, unsure.

She nods. "I didn't catch," she says simply, and I pull her into my arms.

"Thank God," I say, hugging her tightly. She hugs me back, starting to cry, softly at first, then sobbing uncontrollably. I hold on, murmuring that it's okay, telling her it's okay, let it out, barely noticing my own tears, holding her until she's done.

I'm on my run a few days later, and when I turn the corner I see Daniel waiting for me. It's not a day we have scheduled for a meet, so I know something must be up. I follow him up to the side canyon where we always talk.

"You need to watch out," he says. "People are starting to talk about Sister Elizabeth. She's been hinting around about how people shouldn't be getting pregnant, how she's worried about any babies being conceived, and how she's not supposed to have relations. She's also complaining you're too partial to your other two wives and don't pay her enough attention."

"I'm not the only one people are talking about," I tell him, relieved that it's finally happening. However it happens, it's going to be over soon. I'll get them out, somehow I'll get them out, and it'll be over--it's just a matter of time. "The Prophet's planning a test sometime in the next week or so."

"So what do we do?"

"Jacob and Ephraim are guarding today until five," I say calmly, letting everything else go. "You and I, we're going to take a drive this morning. We'll tell them it's your test, and we'll hide Ruth and Sarah--I think they'll fit behind the seat. We'll throw some blankets over them, get past Jacob and Ephraim. It shouldn't be too difficult--"

"You're sure they're on until five?" he interrupts. "Because if it's anyone else--"

"I stopped by before I started my run," I answer. I always stop by before my run, always check to see who's there. "Don't worry, they'll be there, and neither one of them has the sense to question a member of the council. If they think it's a test, they won't look for me for a couple hours--I'll be able to get the three of you to Page."

"The three of us?" he asks sharply. "What about you?"

"If I don't get back in a couple hours, they'll know something's up and come after all of us. Besides, I've got some business to conclude before I can leave. Don't worry," I say vaguely. "I can take care of myself."

"You sure? Once they find out Sarah and Ruth are gone, that'll be it. They'll come after you, Timothy."

"I'll be fine," I insist. "Be at the house at 11:30, all right?"

"I'll be there."

I walk back to the trail and start to run, going fast, faster, as fast as I can. I run until I have to stop, chest heaving, my legs burning, sweat pouring off me. I'm still a mile from home, so I walk until I can run again. I'm tired when I get home, but that's okay.

I head into the bathroom the second I get in the house, ignoring Elizabeth's and Ruth's cheerful greetings. I start the water and get in the shower. I imagine Bill's hand on me instead of my own, letting the memories wash over me with the water, stroking myself impatiently until I come, the sound of the water muffling my groan. Once that's done, I wash up quickly.

I get dressed, go into the kitchen and glance at Sarah, tilting my head towards the door. She dries her hands on a towel and follows me outside.

"Do you know what Elizabeth plans for today?" I ask quietly.

"I think she's going to visit her daughter--she usually does on Tuesdays," she answers.

"What time does she usually go?"

"It depends--between dinner and supper. She pretends she loses track of time, but I think she just likes leaving me to do the cooking," she says with a tentative smile. "Why? Is it time?"

"Yeah," I say, touching her hair briefly. "It'll be today. You think you could persuade Elizabeth to leave early, in an hour or so?"

"Probably," she answers, thinking. "I'll tell her to take some of the lasagna over, have a good dinner--Rebecca loves lasagna, and Elizabeth's always on her to gain some weight for the baby."

"Then that's what you need to do," I tell her. She will, too. She'll do anything I tell her.

I've only got one shot--this has to work. "I need you and Ruth hiding in the truck when Daniel gets here at 11:30. You'll have to get behind the seats, under some blankets and my toolbox. Can you do that? You'll have to keep Ruth quiet."

She nods. "She'll mind me."

"Good. I have to go do some work, but I'll be back by eleven, all right?"

"It's really happening?"

I squeeze her shoulder. "You'll be out of here today, you and your sister both."

"We should tell Ruth it's a picnic," she says. "For her birthday in a couple days."

"That's a good idea," I say, trying on a reassuring smile. "A picnic it is."

I have an FBI-issued flash drive hidden with my notes. It's got a virus on it designed to disable most systems, plus enough memory to hold about a cd's worth of documents. I'm not sure if I'll be able to use it without getting caught, but today's obviously the day to try. I head towards UBCC headquarters with it in my pocket, nodding casually at the other council members on my way in.

There's only one other person working in the computer room today, Brother Warren. All I have to do is wait until he leaves--and hope no one else comes in in the meantime. I get to work on reconciling the illegal books, my mind working on the problem of which files to copy in which order to get the best evidence in the shortest time and still have enough room on the drive. All the illegal sources of income, the money laundering, the pay-offs to various state politicians, to judges, to other polygamist groups, all of it needs to get out. Al Capone was shut down for tax evasion, after all--even if I don't make it out with the location of the bodies, I can still make sure these people are put away for a long time.

Warren finally leaves at 10:30. I slip the drive out of my pocket and deliberately let my pen roll off the desk so I can slip behind the computer to plug it in. I have to be careful when I'm loading the virus and copying the files, turning my head to try to block the camera behind me, but I think I manage all right. After about ten minutes I've filled the drive with the best evidence I can put together--more than enough for a RICO case.

I work for ten more minutes on the books, then drop my pen again so I can pull the flash drive out and stow it back in my pocket. I head back to the house a couple minutes before eleven.

Sarah's in the kitchen. When I ask, she tells me Elizabeth left for Rebecca's house about five minutes ago and that Ruth is in their room, reading. I nod and head to their bedroom.

"Hey, kiddo," I say, and she puts her book down.

"Tim," she says happily, "Sarah made cookies this morning. Did you have one?"

"No, I didn't," I tell her. "I think I'll wait--I don't want to spoil my lunch. I thought we'd have a picnic; what do you think about that?"

"A picnic? That sounds fun," she answers.

"Yeah, I thought so. Listen, I want you to bring Solomon with you, all right?" Solomon's the stuffed bear her mother made her.

"Okay," she says, although she looks a little puzzled. She's been saying she's too old for stuffed animals now, but I know she'll appreciate having something familiar with her in the days to come.

"Come out front with your sister after you've found him. Bring your warm jacket, too," I add. It can get cold quickly, and they'll be walking a while. I need to make sure they have enough water.

"Okay."

I move into the bedroom to think. I can't send the clothes--the evidence--with them. There's no room, and even if there were, there's no way I'd make Sarah carry them. I finger the flash drive in my pocket. I'll send them with that and the notes on where at least some of the bodies are buried. That, and water, some food, warm clothes. It's enough. It'll have to be.

Ruth doesn't question anything when Sarah and I take her into the garage and tell her what she needs to do, that we're going to a secret place for our picnic. I swept the garage last week--it was clean. I hope it's still clean, because I don't have time to check again.

Ruth climbs behind the seat, her eyes wide. I touch her cheek, then Sarah's, before I cover them up with a blanket, some rags, and my toolbox. A few minutes later Daniel shows up.

We drive in silence past the guards and out into the desert, taking the same route I took with Gordon. I keep going for a couple miles on the road this time before moving off it and starting a slow, circuitous path back to the main highway. I have to hope the wind will cover the tire tracks.

Neither one of us says a thing, although Daniel looks at me nervously now and again. I smile at him reassuringly and focus on navigating through the canyons and sinks and avoiding the occasional bush or tree. We both smile when I pull onto the highway. It's almost over.

I pull off 89 between Wahweap and the bridge. Daniel helps me take everything off the girls so they can get out. The four of us walk quietly along the side of the highway for a few minutes. When we reach a rock formation about a hundred feet from the truck, I stop.

"Listen, there are some things I need to tell you before you go," I say.

"Go where?" Ruth asks, and Sarah tells her to hush.

"Okay," I say. The moment's finally here, I found a way to get them out, and I can't stand the thought of being away from them. I take a breath, forcing myself to speak.

"First, my name--my real name; you should know my real name. It's Bayliss, Tim Bayliss, not Rawls. I work for the FBI. I have--here," I say. I take the folded note paper and give it to Daniel, then take the flash drive out of my pocket and give it to Sarah. I bring her fingers up around it, holding her hand in mine for just a moment before letting go.

"Once you get to Flagstaff, you need to call the FBI field office and ask for Supervisory Agent Edward Bartlett. Tell them it's about the UBCC case, and they should put you through to him. Once you've got him on the phone, tell him the dam is breached. The dam is breached, have you got that?"

"The dam is breached," Sarah says, her eyes filled with tears. "You're, you're Tim, Tim Bayliss, we need to talk to, to--"

"Supervisory Agent Edward Bartlett," Daniel fills in, "and tell him the dam is breached."

"That's right, you've got it perfect," I say. "Good job."

"I don't like this," Daniel mutters.

"The FBI will protect you, keep you safe," I tell Sarah, ignoring Daniel's frown. "Give Bartlett the flash drive and the notes I just gave you."

"But what about you?" Ruth asks, reaching for my sleeve. "Aren't you coming with us?"

"No, I'm not, honey. I have to go back." She starts shaking her head. Sarah puts her arms around her, and I keep talking. "If I'm gone too long they'll start looking for all of us. If I'm there it'll buy you enough time to make it to safety. You just need to walk about a mile, mile and a half, and you'll be at the visitor's center. There's a pay phone there you can use to call your contact in Page--they can get you down to Flagstaff, right, Daniel?"

He nods.

I fumble for my wallet and hand all my cash to Sarah, who stares at it blankly. It's only about $350, but it's probably more money than she's ever seen.

"I don't understand," Ruth says, on the edge of hysteria. "I don't understand; I thought we were going on a picnic!"

I squat down to her level. "Ruthie, I'm sorry I couldn't tell you what was really happening. I needed to get you, Daniel, and Sarah out of town so you'd be safe. That's part of my job, to make sure people are safe, especially people I care about--I'm a kind of police officer."

"You can keep us safe at home," she protests weakly.

"No, I can't, not any more," I say, although the truth is I never could.

"Then you have to come with us. You're our husband, you can't just leave us alone. You have to take care of us," Ruth insists stubbornly.

"We're not really married, are we?" Sarah interrupts. "If you're not--if you're Tim Bayliss, we're not married."

"We never--the marriages in Church Canyon--they're not legal," I tell her. "Marriage is something that happens between adults, between two adults, two people who love each other. Not between an older man and a bunch of young girls. No child should be forced to marry someone old enough to be her father."

"But I liked being married to you," Ruth says plaintively. "I thought you loved us."

I put my head in my hands for a second, then look up, look into Ruth's face. "I do love you," I say to her, to both of them, needing them to hear me, Tim Bayliss, tell them this truth before I leave them here. "I love both of you very much--I just don't love you the way married people love each other."

"Do you love Elizabeth that way? She's old," Ruth asks, clearly stalling for time.

"No, I don't love Elizabeth, and I'm not legally married to her either." I shake my head in frustration. "We don't have time to talk about this right now--the three of you need to go."

"What's going to happen to you?" Daniel asks.

"I'm going to go back. I'm going to try to disable some of the defenses, and I'm going to wait. Once you give Bartlett my message, he'll assemble a team to take the town--they should be here by tomorrow. Everything will go more smoothly if I'm there to help when they get there."

Daniel and Sarah look at each other. He shakes his head. "Are you sure going back's a good idea?" he asks me. "Won't people notice that Sarah and Ruth are gone? And if the Prophet finds out I'm gone, too--"

"It'll be fine," I say firmly. "I can handle it. Just get the message to Bartlett, all right? I'll see you in a few days."

I give them all hugs, even Daniel, who looks startled but pleased. I point them in the right direction, and walk towards the truck without looking back. By the time I start the ignition, I'm focused on what I need to do to get through the next twenty-four hours.

I retrace my route from the highway, drive carefully off it, and finally back to the dirt road that leads to the gate. I drive up hours after we left, the shadows lengthening as the sun sinks behind the canyon walls. I can't help wondering if the virus has had enough time to do whatever it's going to do. I can't remember anymore exactly how it's supposed to work--I hope I installed it correctly. It's been a year and a half since the briefing with the tech guys, and they weren't very clear to begin with. I know I got the files copied, at least.

I have to steel myself to drive through the gate and back into town. I raise a hand to Ephraim and Jacob, not expecting any response, but they wave me over. I drive up and roll the window down.

"Is something wrong, Brother Jacob?" I ask, going for bored disinterest. Fortunately, these two aren't exactly the brightest bulbs on the council--they might notice something was up if I started waving my arms and announcing the second coming. Maybe.

"You made it back just in time, Brother Timothy," Jacob says. "The Prophet just ordered a lockdown--no one in or out, double guards on all the secure areas."

"Really?" I say, wincing internally. At least these two are too stupid to realize that no one in or out should logically include me. "Did he say why?"

Ephraim shakes his head. "Didn't tell us nothing, just told us to lock the gate up and wait for reinforcements."

"Okay, thanks for letting me know," I say casually, my hands clenched tightly on the steering wheel. They must not have said anything to the prophet about my taking Daniel out for his test--if they had, they wouldn't be letting me go so easily.

The situation hasn't changed that much, and the most important part is over, it's done. I won't be able to run, won't be able to get into the control room to check if the virus has disabled any defenses, but with a little luck I'll do just what I told the girls. I'll wait. The hard part is over--with a little luck I'll still leave Church Canyon with the team from the Bureau. All I have to do is wait.

Elizabeth's still gone when I get back. She's left a note saying she's spending the night with Rebecca. At least I don't have to deal with her questions about Sarah and Ruth.

I should be worried--I should be more than worried--but I can't summon the energy to care. Sarah, Ruth, and Daniel are safe; they have to be. Their testimony, the flash drive, and my notes about the bodies should be enough to put the Prophet and his council away for life.

It would help if I could get the rest of the evidence to the Bureau. I think they'll be able to find it, no matter what--I've mentioned its location in the last couple messages I sent. And I don't think anyone from the council could find it before the Bureau gets here.

It's just a matter of time. Either the priesthood council will come for me, or the Bureau will come for me first. Nothing I can do but wait and see.

I'm tired--mentally and physically exhausted. I haven't slept much lately. If I'm going to wait, I suppose I might as well get some rest. There's nothing else to do, after all. I strip down to my garments and climb into bed, falling asleep surprisingly quickly.

***

I don't know what time it is when they come for me. I don't wake up until they're in the room; they overpower me before I've done more than open my eyes. There's no time to find my glasses or anything else, because they're all around me, grasping my arms, my legs, hauling me out of the bed. They don't make any effort to silence me, but I know anyone who hears anything will ignore it.

I try to fight them off, struggling to break their hold on me, but every time I wrestle out of one grasp, another grabs me. There are six of them, the Prophet's strongest thugs, some armed with knives and baseball bats, but they don't hit me. I think at least one of them has a gun. I guess they've got more planned than just shooting me, because they drag me out and down the street to the council building.

They take me into one of the locked rooms, this one bare of anything but an altar and some chairs. They tie my hands behind my back and force me onto my knees. The Prophet and the rest of the priesthood council enter and sit down. It's an awkward position, but I stay as upright as I can, looking at their faces. I know what they look like, even though their features are blurry without my glasses. I could identify every one of them.

"Where are your wives, Brother Timothy?" the Prophet asks mildly, like we're just making conversation.

Someone had to notice Sarah and Ruth were missing eventually--too bad it happened so quickly. "I don't know," I answer, wondering where Elizabeth is. If she's with Rebecca like she said, she should be fine. "I'm a little concerned, to tell you the truth. Do you know where they are?"

Brother Joseph, the Prophet's favored son, backhands me across the mouth. "You will address the Holy Prophet with the proper respect. Where are your wives?"

"I don't know, Prophet," I answer obediently, tasting blood, biting back the sarcasm threatening to creep into my voice. I don't know what they know--might as well play it safe, try to keep my cover going if I can. The longer I can play the game, the better. They can't find out about Sarah and Ruth, no matter what.

"I don't believe you," the Prophet says calmly. "Where are they?"

"I told you the truth, Prophet," I retort. I shouldn't let my annoyance show so clearly. I should be more careful, but it's just one more thing I don't feel like bothering with, not anymore. "I don't know where they are. I only hope they're okay." That much is true, at least, and I put as much sincerity in my voice as I can muster.

The Prophet shakes his head sadly. He gestures at Joseph, and Joseph tightens his grip on the baseball bat he's carrying, but he doesn't hit me with it, not yet. I push my shoulders back, raise my head, and look the Prophet in the eye.

"Your wives are missing," Joseph sneers, "and something has attacked our security system. I think maybe you know something about that, Brother Timothy."

"I don't know where my wives are, and I don't know anything about the security system," I reply. I sound composed, almost serene. These people don't know me well enough to realize what's underneath that apparent serenity. They don't know me at all. "Maybe your son here had something to do with it," I add, glancing at Joseph sharply. "He's had his eye on Ruth and Sarah for a long time."

Joseph smiles. His smile reminds me of Ryland's. I look at the prophet and his council of toadies, see the contempt on their faces, and I know I should be frightened. Unless the FBI gets here soon, I don't think I'll be around to meet them after all.

"Perhaps my son will be getting to know your wives better soon," the prophet says, gazing at Joseph benevolently. "Of course, should you wish to keep them, you need only tell me where they are."

"I can't do that. But I will tell you one thing. You'll be sorry if you hurt them," I promise. "Believe me, you will be sorry." My bound hands are clenched into fists, and I can feel my heart pounding in my chest.

I should be terrified--anyone in their right mind would be--but anger has replaced the numb acceptance that's gotten me through so far.

These people are a blight on the earth. This so-called prophet is the worst kind of sinner, a man who rapes and kills children, a man who promotes oppression and torture. This town deserves to be wiped out, and no matter what happens to me, that's going to happen soon. I can't help smiling at that knowledge.

The prophet sees my smile, and I don't think he likes it. He doesn't look benevolent anymore--he looks like someone's defaced his favorite picture of Brigham Young. It's ridiculous, so ridiculous that I start laughing.

The prophet gestures at Joseph again, and this time Joseph uses his bat on my ribs and kidneys, knocking me onto the ground. I can't laugh any longer--it hurts too much. The pain's impossible to ignore, but it doesn't take away my conviction that whatever happens to me, Sarah and Ruth and Daniel are safe, and the FBI is coming to raze this place to the ground. It's enough.

I straighten my body, twisting my face into the semblance of another smile. The prophet asks me one more time, "Where are your wives?"

"I told you already, you sick son of a bitch, I don't know where they are," I snap, furious. "Even if I did, I wouldn't tell you, no matter how many times you have that thug hit me," I add. Joseph doesn't even wait for a signal from his father this time, just lays into me with the bat. A few members of the council join the fun, some using their fists, some kicking me with their steel-toed boots. I curl up on the ground as best I can, but they still do some damage. I can feel my eye starting to swell shut by the time they drag me back onto my knees, and it's hard to breathe--I think they cracked a rib or two.

"Would it surprise you to know one of your wives came to us tonight?" the prophet asks once I'm back facing him. "I see it does not," he adds when I decline to comment. "Sister Elizabeth came to me this evening, distraught. She didn't know where you or her sister wives were. At first she claimed to be curious, nothing more, but after I blessed her she confessed everything. Joseph and I suspected some of it, of course, but we had no proof until tonight. No corroborating evidence, you might say," he adds, watching me closely.

I don't react--I can't. Whatever she told them, whatever they suspect, I can't say anything. Anything I say, they could use against Elizabeth, and she doesn't deserve that. All she did was tell the truth to someone she believes has a direct link to God. I can't blame her for that.

The door opens and they drag Elizabeth in. As soon as she sees me, she reaches toward me and starts to cry. I shake my head at her, but she ignores it.

"No, no, I didn't mean for you to--" she says, trying to get to me. I shake my head again, but it's too late.

"Silence, woman," the prophet says, and Joseph slaps her so hard she's knocked down. "Women should be seen rarely and heard even less, much as I found her story interesting. According to Sister Elizabeth, you never consummated your earlier marriages. Is this true?"

"I don't rape children," I say coldly. "That's your game, not mine."

That earns me another blow from Joseph's bat. I'm expecting it this time, so I manage to roll and deflect some of its force. Elizabeth stays on the floor, rocking back and forth on her knees.

"It's all right, Elizabeth. It's not your fault," I tell her, hoping she hears me. I turn back to the prophet. "Let her go," I tell the prophet. "She didn't do anything wrong."

"Oh, but she did," the prophet replies. "She betrayed her husband."

"Betrayed? What are you talking about?" I ask, although I really shouldn't be surprised.

"No true wife would tattle on her husband like a jealous child," Joseph says derisively.

"I was wrong," Elizabeth interrupts, sitting up. "My husband is a good man, a godly man. Nothing he did was against the church. He only followed the path God set out for him in a vision."

"Elizabeth, no," I say, but it's too late. Joseph clubs the back of her head viciously with the bat. She goes down hard, and this time she stays down. She lands close to me, close enough that I can see how the blow has dented her skull. I can't tell for sure, but I don't think she's breathing.

"You didn't have to do that," I say desperately. "She never did anything but what she thought was right, what she was taught. She believed in you."

"And what about you?" Joseph asks. "Do you believe in the Prophet's church? Do you truly claim to have visions?"

I struggle to my feet, and for the moment they allow me to stand. "No," I say, then I say it again, louder. "No, I don't believe in your sick, twisted excuse for a religion. If there is a God, he'll see that you all burn in hell."

"You admit you are an unbeliever? An apostate?" the prophet asks.

"You can't be an apostate if you never believed in the first place," I answer bitterly. "Like I said, I don't rape children."

"Then you shall know the wrath of God and the One True Church!" the prophet spits. Joseph and a couple others grab me and hold me still. The prophet takes a knife, cuts the collar of my garment, rips the cloth, and tears it off my body.

I almost start laughing again, but I stop myself. It's ridiculous, laughable, to be standing there, completely naked, in front of these psychopaths--it's like something out of a bad movie, with me playing the role of the bloody, unbowed hero, upright in spite of the pain and fear. But that pain and fear are getting more real by the moment. If I let go enough to laugh, I could just as easily cry, start begging for my life, even tell them what they want to know. I'm on the edge, barely in control, but I need to stay there.

They're going to kill me. It's not just a distant threat, something I can push to the back of my mind--I'll be dead by morning, if not sooner. The Bureau's not going to get here, not in time to save me. This is it, this is all there is, all I have left: Sarah and Ruth are safe.

I take a breath, let it out, take another, trying to ignore the pain, fighting to stay calm. They'll take every opportunity they have to make it as painful and humiliating as possible. It's not like when I took that bullet for Frank--I'm going to die alone, slowly, in agony. That I won't be wearing the garments of their perverted religion is small comfort.

The prophet turns his back. "Take him," he says dismissively.

They manhandle me out the building, Joseph taking advantage of the opportunity to shove me into a few walls along the way. It's cold outside. They push me quickly into the back of the prophet's Hummer, behind the seats. Joseph drives it out to the edge of the compound; the others follow in their own trucks.

I can't see a thing--between the black eye and not having my glasses, everything's a blur. I'm crouched on the floor, but I can't get my balance with my hands behind my back, so I'm knocked against the side of the truck with every bump. At least it's warm.

I know where we're going--I've run past it countless times. I've never seen it used, but I know what it's for. We all do.

The pole's out a half mile or so from the wall. It's wedged in some concrete, and there are a couple sharp hooks sticking out of it. They don't use it often--as far as I know, they've only used it once in the last year, shortly after I got here, although I didn't even know that for sure until after I'd been brought into the priesthood council. Only those in the council are permitted at stonings, and no one talks about them openly, but everyone in the compound knows when they happen. People avert their eyes when the pole is in view.

There's a moment after they get me out when no one's got a hand on me, a brief opportunity. I throw my shoulder into the goon closest to me, grunting with effort, and make a break for it. I run as hard and fast as I can manage, ignoring the stabbing pain in my ribs, the aching of my bruised muscles, the rough ground abrading my feet. For a few seconds, I almost believe I'm going to make it.

I don't get far, maybe twenty yards, before they take me out. I barely hear the gunshot over the blood rushing in my ears, and then I'm down, the sand and rocks digging into my bare skin. It's not the pain that brings me down--they shot me in the leg, my right leg, just below the knee. I try to get up, but my leg won't hold any weight, collapsing under me. Then the pain hits, completely overwhelming me. I lose where I am for a few seconds, aware of nothing but my leg, unable to do anything but gasp for breath.

They come up on me, grabbing my arms to drag me back. I lose more than a few seconds when one of them takes his club and strikes my knee. I can hear the bone crack. I didn't think the pain could get worse, but it does, for long enough that they're able to untie my hands and drag me over to the post before I even know what's happening. They pull me upright and fasten my hands to the hook behind me. I lean on the cold metal, whimpering through clenched teeth, hoping to take some of the weight off my arms and my left leg. My right's a mess; it's got to be broken. I can't focus on it, can't focus on anything.

Joseph lays into my knee with the bat a few more times for good measure. I hear myself scream--I can't help it, can't suppress it, not any more. I lose a couple minutes this time--the next thing I know they're all getting back into their vehicles, the engines barely audible over the hoarse noises I seem incapable of containing. As they drive away, one of them leans out the window and shouts, "We'll be back at sunrise to finish you, if you last that long!"

I lean against the pole, fighting to get my breathing back under control. I glance up at the sky, wondering whether I'll see the sun rise. Everything's happened so fast that the smudge I can see of full moon has barely moved from when they first dragged me out of the house.

Time slows to a crawl.

As far as I can tell, my leg isn't bleeding badly, although I can feel the skin tightening as it swells from my ankle to the top of my thigh. The pain has settled to a constant level I can bear as long as I breathe shallowly and keep any weight off it. I have no clothes, not even socks, and it's maybe 45 degrees out here. I can feel the metal behind me leaching any remaining heat out of my body.

My teeth start chattering first, then I start shivering. I try to slow my breathing down and think warm thoughts, but it doesn't work. My whole body starts trembling. I can't stay upright anymore, so I slide down to the ground, moaning as I let my leg down. My hands are rucked up behind me, my whole body is shaking, and the pain in my leg is excruciating.

After a while the shivering slows and stops. The pain becomes more distant. I close my eyes. I know I'm going into shock or hypothermia, but going to sleep and never waking up has got to be a better death than what the prophet has planned for me. I close my eyes and let my head drop forward. Better to sleep.

Caesura

And if you go to hell
I'll still remember you

There are no dreams at first, just blackness. Then it changes. I start dreaming of Bill. He's calling my name.

"Tim, fuck, Tim, come on," he says urgently. "Wake up. Fuck, please, wake up!"

It really sounds like Bill. It couldn't be, of course. It's just a dream.

"Tim, you fucker, come on," he says again. "Don't you fucking die on me. Wake up!"

There's a hand on my face, patting my cheek, grabbing my chin. His fingers are warm--I can feel them. I open my eyes, and I see him. I see Bill.

There's a smudge of dirt on his cheek, and his hair's darker and kind of flat. The sky behind him is starting to brighten--it'll be dawn soon. He's kneeling in front of me, alternately chafing my face and my upper arms.

"That's it, Tim, come on," he says. I can hear the relief in his voice, and that's what finally convinces me I'm not dreaming after all.

"Bill?" I blink at him stupidly for a moment, starting to shiver again. It hurts. God, everything hurts.

"Yeah, it's me," he says. His hands are on my shoulders, then they're gone. "Come on, we have to get you out of here."

"What are you doing here?" I ask, confused. I can't see him anymore. I can't figure out where he's gone.

"Came to get you," he says, grunting from behind me as he cuts through the tough ropes binding my wrists. "Can you stand?"

"No, Bill, wait, you've got to get out of here," I say. It's getting lighter--he has to go.

"That's what I've been trying to tell you, you stupid fuck, we've got to leave," he says, rubbing my arms.

"No, you've got to go," I tell him. "You don't understand." Why doesn't he get it? "They're coming back. They can't find you here; you have to go."

He comes around front again. "I'm not going anywhere without you." He quickly takes off his jacket, shirt, and t-shirt.

"What are you doing?" None of this makes sense. How did he get here?

"This needs--fuck, it needs more than I've got, but you can't go without something on it," he says, wrapping his t-shirt around my leg. "It'll probably hurt like a fucker, though."

"Okay," I say, trying to prepare myself. I still grey out as he ties it, though, the pain overpowering me once again. "God. Bill--"

"Shut up," he says, throwing his jacket back on. "Fuck, Tim, what did they do to you?" he breathes, looking at my feet. He tries to remove some of the burrs embedded there by my brief escape attempt, then gives up. "You stay with me," he warns me, and I manage a nod.

He toes his boots off, then very gently puts one of his socks on my right foot. It's thick, soft, and still warm from his skin. He puts the other one on my left foot before putting his boots back on. "That's the best I can do," he says, standing up. "Come on, let's get you up."

I blink at him, overwhelmed. I still don't know how he got here.

"You with me, Tim?" he asks, leaning down to touch my shoulder.

"Yeah," I say thickly. I swallow. "Yeah, I'm with you."

I clasp his arms, and he hauls me up. I have to bite my lip to keep from screaming when my dangling foot brushes against the pole. My arms are still tingling and a little numb, but somehow the two of us manage to get me vertical.

"Can you hold there a second?" he asks.

"I think so," I gasp, wishing I could just let go and pass out again. What I can see of my right leg is misshapen, swollen, misaligned. The white of Bill's t-shirt is already discolored by blood and dirt. The pain is breathtaking. I know there's no way my leg will support any weight, and the thought of trying to move, of the pain that will cause, is almost as terrifying as the thought of what they'll do to Bill if he's here when they come back.

Bill bends down, grabs the flannel shirt he was wearing, and ties it around my waist.

"All the time I've thought about you naked this past year, this wasn't exactly what I had in mind," he says, his hand lingering on my hip.

I put my hand on top of his. "Yeah, me neither." He looks up at me, his face in shadow, the sky getting brighter behind him, and I wonder what he sees in mine.

He moves to my right side, and I put my arm around his shoulder again. "Okay, let's do this," he says.

"Bill, listen to me," I say, and it's not that I'm afraid of the pain. I am, but I'm more afraid for him. "There's evidence, and if I'm not--if I don't make it, someone has to let the Bureau know where it is. If they come back before we make it out, you have to go without me."

"Fuck that," he says. "I'm not going anywhere without you. Come on."

I keep talking. "Sarah--you don't know her, but she was, she was raped, and I kept her clothes, and they'll be able to use that; it's evidence. They're in a couple paper bags hidden at the bottom of the dirty laundry--"

He grabs my chin. "Listen to me. That fucker Bartlett is organizing a raid with the ATF," he says urgently. "I don't know how soon they're gonna get here, but they are coming. Sarah and Ruth and Daniel are safe; they're in Flagstaff with Heather. And you and I are going to walk out of here right now."

"What? What are you talking about?" I ask, shaking my head, trying to clear it. "How do you know--"

"We don't have time for this," he says, adjusting his body to take more of my weight. "Like you said, they could be coming back anytime. No more talking--it's time to go."

"Sarah and Ruth are okay?" I ask again, needing to hear it.

"They're fine," he says firmly. "Let's go."

I take a hopping step, crying out when my right foot drags against the ground. I hop again, then once more, and I can't help moaning with every slow, painful hop. Bill's the only thing keeping me from falling, the only thing keeping me from giving up. Despite the cold air, I'm sweating by the time I've made it ten feet, and I can feel a trickle of blood escaping the makeshift bandage around my leg.

I have to stop every few feet, and it's harder to move again every time I stop. It's gotten brighter, long shadows growing sharper as the sun comes over the horizon, the world made of color once more. After some immeasurable time, just as we're getting ready to move again, I hear faint engine noises in the distance.

"Do you hear that?" I ask.

"Hear what?"

I listen carefully. Trucks, more than one, getting closer. There's no more time. They'll finish what they started, just like they promised. "They're coming," I say quietly, hoping he'll listen this time, knowing he won't. "You have to go."

"Fuck you," Bill says, holding on and taking a step, pulling me with him. "Come on, move your sorry ass. We're getting the fuck out of here, both of us."

I know he means it, so I move as fast as I can, but it's not fast enough. The wall's still a few hundred feet away, and the trucks are getting closer.

"Bill," I say, and he turns to look at me. "We--when is the raid happening?"

"Soon, I hope," he says.

I laugh sadly. "Soon would be good," I say. "The sooner the better." Then they're on us.

We both fight as hard as we can, although I'm not good for more than a couple punches. I'm down in seconds, and once I'm down, I stay there, moaning, folded around my leg. Bill keeps fighting, staying in front of me, letting them use him as a punching bag to try to buy us a few more minutes. They knock him down again and again, laughing, but he keeps getting up. Most of them are armed with bats, clubs, and guns, and when they start using the clubs and bats more than their fists and feet, he finally stops fighting back.

He doesn't give up, though--he just changes tactics. He stands up again, bruised and battered, the rising sun lighting his hair, and he talks to them. They laugh when he offers them money, so he threatens them. He uses his celebrity, says people are going to notice he's missing, that their best bet is to just let us go and he'll keep quiet, but even if any of them know who he is, they certainly don't care. I try to back him up, but they ignore everything we say. He's stalling for time in every way he can, but eventually Joseph loses patience and threatens to shoot me right then unless he shuts up. Bill stops talking immediately, holding his hands up in surrender.

They tie us up and throw us in the back of a truck for the drive back to the pole. I'm starting to fade out again, but I can feel the warmth of Bill's body curled around mine. Then we're there, back where we started.

They use both hooks this time, one for each of us, so that we're standing back to back against the pole. I can't see Bill anymore, but if we both press up against the pole we can at least touch each other. Joseph can't resist a couple more vicious swings of his bat against my right thigh, and I'm on the ground once more, a scream ripped out of my throat as my knee impacts the ground. I lose a little time again.

I come back to awareness on the ground, my head resting against the back of Bill's thigh. I can hear the murmur of voices, but for the moment nothing's happening. I hear my own gasps for breath, feel the shattering agony in my right leg. The sun is up, the air no longer as cool. I notice the warmth of Bill's leg through his jeans, hear him telling me to hold on, smell blood and sweat and the faintest taste of a distant rainstorm, and just for a moment that's all there is.

There's a sting of pain in my shoulder, a grunt from Bill as something rocks him back, and then a rain of small, sharp blows. There's a roaring in my ears, like the storm has come, and then the sun and Bill and the storm are gone and there's nothing.

 

Part Three

It's a time for more to happen sooner
a time to be a person you still know

There's nothing, and sometimes there are voices, sounds--shouts, sirens, Frank yelling that his partner's down. No, that's a memory, but Bill's yelling, and there are words I've heard before, my name, Tim Bayliss, is that right? Is that my name?

Then there's nothing again.

***

There's a steady beeping. My brain is wrapped in cotton. Beeping in a regular rhythm, a soft hissing, and the smooth sound of an electric motor, then nothing.

***

The beeping is back, and the motor, but now I hear voices, a woman and a man. The woman says something about Mr. Bayliss. That's me, I know that. She's saying that I may come out of it any time. My brain is still wrapped in cotton, my limbs distant, my fingers miles away, but I try, and I think I move my hand, but I'm not sure.

There's a cool mist blowing into my nose, and I know what that is, I know what it all is. I'm in a hospital bed. The man's voice snaps into focus. It's Bill. He's squeezing my hand gently, saying, "Tim, can you hear me?"

I open my eyes. There are lights everywhere, bright ones. It's hard to see, but Bill's there, sitting next to me.

"Hey," he says softly, brushing his fingers across my forehead. "You're here."

"Yeah," I say through a dry mouth. I lick my lips, but it doesn't help much.

"Here," Bill says, putting a couple ice chips in my mouth with a plastic spoon. They're cool and wet and so wonderful I have to close my eyes for a second. I open them quickly when Bill says my name.

"Hey," he says again, smiling.

"You got any more?" I say hoarsely, trying to smile back, and he gives me another spoonful.

"Where's here?" I ask after the cup is empty.

"You're in Phoenix, Mr. Bayliss," says a woman's voice from the other side of the bed. I can't tell what she looks like beyond a vague impression of purple scrubs and brown hair, but she sounds nice. "I'm Marilyn, your nurse. Do you remember what happened?"

I swallow. "Yeah. Yeah, I do." I look at Bill. I can't see him well, either--my eye's still swollen shut, and everything's blurry through the one that's working. I can still see the faint shadows on his face, though, and I think he has some sort of bandage on his face. "Bill, are you okay?"

"Don't worry about me," he says, brushing my forehead again. "I'm fine--a couple cracked ribs and some bruises, nothing big."

Even with everything that's happened, knowing he's here, that he's okay, warms something inside me.

"How do you feel, Mr. Bayliss? Are you in any pain?" the nurse asks.

"Call me Tim," I rasp, and try to concentrate, but everything's fuzzy. "Headache," I say, "and I'm pretty sore--" I stop, panicked, trying to move. "My legs--I can't feel my legs."

"It's okay, that's just the epidural," she says.

"Epidural?" I say, sure I must have misheard. I try to see what's under the blankets, but I can't tell. My leg, it was bad, really bad, and now I can't feel it or even see it, and it feels like the temperature in the room just dropped ten degrees.

"Continuous anesthesia," the nurse says smoothly, like that explains everything, but it doesn't, because I still can't see or feel my leg, and everything's numb and cold. "With all the damage to your leg, they had to do some pretty intensive surgery, so the anesthesiologist ordered an epidural for pain relief," she adds. "It'll keep you comfortable for twenty-four hours or so, and then they'll take it out."

"So it's not--my leg, it's still there?" I ask, worried. I'm cold, really cold, starting to shiver.

"It's still there," Bill says from far away.

"Still there," I say, and then I'm out again.

There are dreams this time, dreams of ice and cold, of blazing heat, of men with bats and stones, and Bill telling me to hold on.

When I wake up again, it's dark in the room, although I can see dim blurs of red, orange, and green light from the machinery surrounding me. There's something squeezing my arm tightly, but it's letting up--a blood pressure cuff, I guess.

The oxygen tube is still blowing into my nose, and I can hear the steady beeping that's got to be my pulse, or heart monitor, or something. And I can feel my legs, both of them.

My left feels stiff, and it's got something wrapped around it, but it seems to work okay when I wiggle my toes experimentally. I try my right, and the agony overwhelms me immediately. I don't even realize I'm making any noise until I hear Bill say, "Tim, fuck, what is it?"

"Hurts," I get out through clenched teeth.

"Fuck--here," he says, reaching across my chest and doing something. "Hold on, give it a minute," he says, grabbing my hand, and then he pushes the call button with his other one.

By the time the nurse answers, the pain's begun to ease, and I can feel the fuzzy distance of really good narcotics taking hold.

"You still with me, Tim?" Bill asks.

"Yeah," I say. "Yeah, 'm still here."

"Good," he says, and the relief in his voice is unmistakable.

The nurse comes in, flipping the light switch. I have to squint against the brightness, but it helps with the fogginess from the drugs. "You're awake," the nurse says, coming over to the bed. She sounds surprised. "That's good to see." She's not the same one as earlier--her hair is red.

"Why?" I ask. "How long was I out?"

"Three days," Bill answers.

"What?" I say, thinking I must have heard wrong.

"You developed a nasty infection, Mr. Bayliss," the nurse says. "Between that and your head injury, you gave us quite a scare. We've had you on antibiotics, but it took a while to get your fever down. You had us worried. How are you feeling?"

"Better now," I answer, because what else would I say? I'm awake, and the pain's faded; therefore, I'm feeling better. Frank would be proud of that logic.

"Can you tell me what you remember about what happened?" the nurse asks, shining a penlight in my eyes. The swelling's almost gone; I can open them both easily.

"I got beat up and shot in the leg," I answer, not sure how much I'm allowed to say, but figuring that much has got to be safe. Besides, she called me Mr. Bayliss.

"That's right," she says encouragingly. "Do you know where you are?"

"Hospital--Phoenix, I think," I say, trying to remember.

"Good," she says, and she sounds pleased, so I guess I'm doing okay.

The nurse gives me a little plastic container to drink when I ask. I never thought apple juice could taste so incredible. They're tiny, but the nurse only lets me drink two of them.

"That thing you had, what was that?" I ask Bill after I've drained the second.

"It's called a PCA," the nurse explains. "You push the button when you feel pain, and it gives you a small dose of morphine."

"Uh, okay," I say, thinking that sounds vaguely familiar. I look at Bill. He's wearing his glasses, his hair's a mess, and he looks exhausted, the bruises on his face standing out against his pale skin. He's got a couple butterflies on a cut over his eye. "Three days, huh?" I ask him.

"Three fucking long days," he says, frowning. "Don't fucking do that again."

"I'll try," I say, fighting a yawn, "but I'm probably going to fall asleep again any minute. Those are some good drugs in that PCA thing." I blink a few times, trying to stay awake, but things are getting fuzzier by the second, and the pain has faded to a dull ache.

"Fine, but the next time you wake up, your mother might be here," Bill says, patting my cheek. "Fair fucking warning."

"She's here too?" I ask. I guess it really has been three days.

"Consider yourself lucky she agreed to sleep at the hotel and leave me the pull-out," he answers. "She wasn't exactly pleased to meet me."

"That sounds like her," I say, reaching up to touch his face, "but I'm glad you're here."

My eyes are closing, but I can feel him smiling with my fingers. "Yeah, me too," he says.

And then I sleep again.

When the aide bringing my breakfast wakes me the next morning, I feel more clear headed. The pain's pretty bad, especially when the aide raises the head of the bed so I can eat, but it's manageable after I push the magic button. The aide hands me my glasses, and I can see more than a few feet in front of me for the first time in days. I see the oatmeal and juice on my tray, and I can see Bill sleeping on the sofa-bed against the wall. He's on his side, facing me, his mouth open a little, snoring softly.

By the time I've finished breakfast, he's starting to stir. He sits up, rubs his eyes, and smiles when he sees me looking at him.

"You still gonna be awake in a few minutes, or are you about to fall asleep again?" he asks.

"I think I might try for a couple hours this time," I reply, smiling back at him.

"Freak. I'll, uh, I'll be back," he says, gesturing at the bathroom.

The nurse, an older woman named Elaine, comes in while he's in there. It takes her a while to do her thing, checking all the equipment, but then she calls Bill over when she's ready to look at my leg.

"Go ahead and push the button for your PCA," she tells me. "This might be a little uncomfortable."

She's got some swabs and ointment, but it's Bill who actually uses them. He's a little tentative at first, joking that it's different when I'm awake and watching, but his touch is gentle; she barely has to coach him. I'm so caught up in watching him work around all the hardware encasing my leg that I hardly notice the hardware itself.

"You're doing great, Bill," she says at the end. "I think maybe you can do it without my help next time. What do you think, Tim?"

"Uh, sure, I guess," I say, "although I have no idea what you were doing."

Elaine takes that as a cue to tell me more about external fixators, which is apparently what the hardware is called. I'm not sure I want to think a lot about the fact that the pins I see puncturing my skin go all the way to the bone, but I guess it explains why I don't have a cast.

She also tells me about something the hospital does involving Care Partners--I can hear the registered trademark and capital letters in her voice. Bill has volunteered to be mine.

"If that's okay with you," he says, sounding a little nervous. "Because your mom volunteered, too--"

"No, no, that's okay, that's definitely okay," I say quickly, remembering my mother's attempts to help during my last hospitalization. "She's, well, I love her, but she doesn't exactly--"

"She seemed a bit squeamish when I asked her if she'd like to help with your bath," Elaine says, a twinkle in her eye.

"My bath?" I ask, horrified.

"Don't worry, once she heard the details, she reluctantly admitted it might be more appropriate if I took the job," Bill says, grinning.

"Thank goodness," I say sincerely.

I guess the fact that I am no longer covered in dust and sand means they did clean me up at some point in the last few days, but I'm still thankful for the chance to wash up. I need Bill's help to get the last of the gunk out of my beard. I never knew washing my face and brushing my teeth could feel so good. I also never knew just lifting a toothbrush could make my whole body hurt so much.

Simple tasks were difficult, even painful, the last time I got shot, but this feels even worse than I remember. I'm zoning out again after another hit on the PCA when there’s a knock on the door. It's my mother.

"Tim," she says, moving hesitantly towards the bed, "Oh, Tim, son, you're really awake?" Bill moves away to let her approach.

"Yeah, Mom, I am," I answer. She kisses my cheek, crying, and I embrace her awkwardly, floored by just how glad I am to see her. She looks exactly like she looked the last time I saw her, a year and a half ago, when she came to visit me in Vegas--hair up in her customary bun, sensible shoes, dowdy sweater-vest. "Wow, Mom, I've missed you," I tell her.

She wipes her eyes. "I've missed you, too," she says, but she doesn't have time to say anything else, because there's another knock at the door.

“Agent Bayliss, I’m glad you’re awake,” the guy says as he comes in. “I’m Dr. Taggart, the attending orthopedist on your case.” He looks like he’s in his thirties, with sandy, thinning brown hair and glasses, and his handshake is firm. “How are you feeling?”

He asks a ton of questions, all the stuff they usually ask about everything that’s ever happened to you. I try to stay alert enough to give him coherent answers. My mom fills in a few things I’d forgotten about, although I’m not sure how important it really is that I'm allergic to strawberries.

Bill's on the couch holding a book, but I think he’s listening. When Taggart finishes his notes and starts doing his examination, Bill puts the book away and moves towards us, nodding politely at my mother. She nods back just as politely. I know there's more going on between the two of them than surface courtesy, but it's taking all my energy trying to follow what the surgeon is telling me, so I figure I'll worry about that later.

What the doctor seems to be saying is that I'll be in the hospital for at least another month, I'll have to have at least one more surgery, and I've got a long recovery ahead of me. That information is buried in explanations of floating knee fractures, external versus internal fixation, and the impact of polytrauma and high energy gunshot wounds and open tibia fractures. I feel like I'm back in the morgue talking to Griscomb--this guy has the same sort of grisly enthusiasm. He adds that I have three broken ribs and have mostly recovered from kidney contusions and a concussion that nearly fractured my skull.

"Your general excellent health is reassuring in terms of the odds the fractures will heal in a reasonable amount of time, but open tibia fractures are at high risk for non-union, and you've got patellar and distal femur involvement as well to complicate things. That six month figure I gave you is the best case scenario--you could be looking at a couple years before we achieve a good union," he says. I stare at him blankly, wondering what the hell that means. Whatever it means, it doesn't exactly sound good. I glance at my leg surreptitiously, reassuring myself that it's still there, freaky hardware and all.

"And what's union, again?" my mother asks.

"That's when the bone is in one piece again, Mrs. Bayliss, when none of it is cracked or broken anymore."

"So, once the bone is in one piece, I'm okay?" I ask, because no one's come right out and said that.

"It'll take another one to four years before the bone is back to normal strength, if it ever gets there," he answers. "I'm hoping to get you on crutches after the next surgery, and as long as everything goes smoothly we'll switch to a cane six months from now, but you'll probably need that for at least a year or two."

"But I'll be okay after that? I'll be able to walk again?" I ask, relieved.

"I think you will," he says, "But I won't kid you, Agent Bayliss. You've got a long road ahead of you, and if the infection comes back, there's a good chance we'll have to amputate. You're lucky to be alive--we barely avoided amputation as it was, and if you'd been out there much longer, you wouldn't have made it at all."

"What's it going to be like for the next few weeks, before this second surgery?" Bill asks.

"You'll be on bed rest another couple days," Taggart says to me, "and then we'll see about getting you up to a chair, and maybe a wheelchair by next week, for short periods, anyway. I understand we'll be keeping you up here in ICU for the duration, but that's mainly for security reasons. You've earned at least three weeks of IV antibiotics, but we'll d/c the PCA by the end of this week, and I think we can take that catheter out today."

"Please," I mutter.

"What the--what does d/c mean?" Bill asks Marilyn under his breath.

"Discontinue," she whispers, smiling.

"You'll be on blood thinners the whole time," Taggart continues, "to keep you from developing any blood clots. The nurses will explain any of the other meds I've ordered."

"Uh, okay," I answer, overwhelmed. "Thank you."

Once Dr. Taggart leaves, my mother pulls up a chair and takes my hand. Bill catches my eye and goes back to the sofa.

I can tell my mother's determined not to cry again, that she's trying to be strong, but she can't quite manage the calm smile she attempts. "So, how are you feeling, son?" she asks brightly, but then her face crumples.

"Hey, hey, Mom, it's all right," I say, squeezing her hand, worried. "I'm okay; I'm going to be fine." It's not like her to be so openly upset. The whole time I was in the hospital in Baltimore, she radiated this kind of freakish strength, at least as long as she didn't see anything medical actually happening. My sister told me later she was fine while I was in surgery and while I was unconscious afterwards, but the one time she came in when they were doing a dressing change, she had to leave in a hurry, returning a few minutes later, wiping her mouth and looking green.

She shakes her head. "I know, Tim. It's just hard. After your father, and your cousin Kurt, and then I thought I'd lost you a few years ago. I didn't hear from you for so long--"

"Mom," I say, and she shakes her head again.

"No, I understand, I knew you were going undercover, but the first thing I hear in a year is that I need to go to a hospital, a hospital in Arizona, for heaven's sake, and I'd better hurry because you might not make it," she says tearfully. "I didn't know what to do."

"You haven't lost me, Mom," I remind her gently. "I'm right here. I'll be here for weeks, apparently, so we'll have plenty of time to catch up. How's the family?"

That distracts her, fortunately, although it keeps me from sleeping. By the time lunch arrives she's caught me up on my sister, my niece, and my cousins' lives. She looks at Bill a few times, but she doesn't ask about him, and he continues to hang back.

After lunch the nurse comes back in and takes out the catheter, which means my mother finally leaves my side. Once the nurse is done, she opens the curtain, but my mom stays on the sofa and Bill comes over. "You ready to piss like a man again?" he whispers, glancing surreptitiously over his shoulder at my mother, startling a laugh out of me.

"I hope so," I whisper back.

The nurse tells me I have to change position to avoid bed sores, which means I have to move. She and Bill slowly and gently turn me on my side, supporting my leg the whole way, propping me with several pillows. Despite the care they're taking and frequent hits from the PCA, it hurts like hell. I can see my mother wincing from across the room. Once I'm settled into the new position, Bill takes the chair and holds my hand as I grit my teeth, trying to breathe, and wait for the drugs to help. After an eternity, the pain starts to ease, and as it does I fall asleep.

When I wake up, he's still sitting beside me, reading again. The curtains are drawn, but they don't block much of the bright Arizona sun. "Hey," I say.

He puts the book down. "Hey," he answers, smiling over his glasses. He still looks tired, but his hair's spiked again. "How're you feeling?"

"Not bad, I guess, as long as I don't have to move," I answer. "How long was I asleep?"

He looks at his watch. "It's 2:30, so, about an hour, I guess?"

"Is my mom still here?"

He shakes his head. "She went back to the hotel, said she'd stop by after dinner. I think she was kind of shook up."

"Yeah, I think you're right," I say. "She seemed pretty upset earlier."

"She's been worried--fuck, so have I," he says, frowning. "The way the docs were acting, it was like it was a fucking miracle you were still breathing. She didn't say much to me, but she did tell me a little about when you were shot before. She said they thought you might not make it that time, either."

"I guess I'm lucky," I say, grimacing.

"Yeah, I guess you are," he says seriously.

"Bill," I say, then stop, because I don't know how to tell him what it means to me that he came for me, that he's here with me now. I'm afraid to even think about it.

"What is it?" he says, touching my shoulder. "Are you okay? Do you need me to get the nurse?"

"No, no, it's not that," I say, shaking my head. "I just--I wanted to let you know, wanted to say--" I reach for his hand. "Bill, you saved my life, and I wanted to thank you. Thanks is, well, it's completely inadequate, especially with all you've done, with all you're doing, but thank you."

"You're welcome," he says, sitting back, still holding onto my hand. "Fuck, I'm just relieved I got there when I did, after what that doctor said."

"I still don't understand how you even found me."

"It wasn't easy, that's for fucking sure," he answers, looking down, frowning a little. "Heather contacted me a few days after you left. She heard from Bartlett how Eli'd gotten killed at the concert, and she got in touch with my manager, who for once was smart enough to give me the message."

"You talked to Heather?" I ask, surprised.

He nods absently. "I think she just wanted to find out if Eli'd actually met me, at least at first. We got to talking, and she told me a little about where she came from, and how the town he'd come from was worse than that. I figured that's where you were," he adds, glancing at me, "but I didn't tell her anything. She called me again a few months later, said she hated to ask, but she needed my help. I gave her some money to set up some kid who'd left. She kept in touch, and a couple months ago she said a kid told her there was someone in the town who was helping them out. I knew it had to be you."

"You were in contact with her all that time," I say wonderingly.

"She needed help, and I thought maybe helping her would help you," he says, shrugging.

"It did," I say, "but. . . ."

He looks at me, waiting for me to continue.

"Never mind," I say after a moment.

"Anyway," he says, still looking at me, "I told her to tell whoever she was in contact with that they could trust you. She believed me for some fucking reason," he adds, snorting. "Then I get a call from her last week, the day before, you know, saying this guy in town's in trouble, she thought I'd want to know. I flew to Phoenix, then Flagstaff, talked to her, talked to that asshole Bartlett, who was practically fucking useless. So I rented a car, drove up, and used the tunnel under the wall she told me about to get in and find you."

"But why?" I say, confused.

"Why?" he asks sharply, pulling away. "What the fuck do you mean, 'why'?"

"Why did you do it?" I answer, waving my hand. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm really glad you did, but I don't--" I shake my head, frustrated. "Bill, you could have been killed. You risked your life for someone you barely knew, and you didn't even know it was me, not for sure. Why didn't you just wait for the FBI?"

"No, I didn't wait for the fucking FBI," he snaps, pointing at me. "Bartlett was taking his own sweet time, getting all his fucking ducks in a row to take down the whole town, working out his fucking jurisdictional issues with the fucking ATF and Homeland fucking Security. He was maybe gonna get there by next Thursday, the way he was dicking around. He wouldn't tell me, not for sure, but I could tell from his reaction I was right--you were there," he says, angrily. Then, more quietly, "You were there. So I pushed him--I fucking had to."

"What do you mean, you pushed him?" I ask.

"I told him I'd go to the press if he didn't move to get you out of there," he says calmly, meeting my eyes, daring me to object. "Even after that, the fucker still wasn't going to get his people up there until the next morning. From what those kids told Heather, you didn't have that much time."

"Wait--you threatened to expose an undercover FBI operation to the press?" I ask, incredulous. "Are you insane?"

"Fuck the FBI--I don't give a shit about them or their investigation," he says, clearly pissed off. "What the fuck else was I supposed to do? I couldn't just sit around on my ass and wait for you to die." He looks away, avoiding my eyes. "Not doing that again."

I shake my head in disbelief. "Bill, that was--jeez. That was stupid, really stupid. You could have ruined the investigation--ruined everything we'd been working for. And you could have gotten yourself killed."

"Yeah, fuck you too," he says, looking out the window.

"No, really," I say. "I mean, thank you. Really, thank you--you saved my life. But it was still stupid."

"Maybe," he says, meeting my eyes. "But I'd do it again. And don't give me any bullshit about barely knowing you."

"Bill, I--" I reach for his hand again. I look at his fingers, at the scrapes on his knuckles from fighting for his life, for both our lives, just a few days ago. I look up, meeting his eyes.

"I was in Church Canyon for a long time," I say finally, and he nods. "After a while I started telling myself that night with you couldn't have been--that I had made it into something it wasn't. I told myself I needed to forget about it, that it was crazy to think I could just call you again someday and, I don't know, that you'd still be interested. It didn't matter how many times I told myself that, though--I still thought about you every day."

"Yeah," he says softly. "So did I."

He takes his hand from mine and brings it to my face, lightly running his thumb over my bottom lip, careful of the scabs. I close my eyes and open my mouth, touching his thumb with the tip of my tongue, astonished at the rush of sensation running like a live wire through my body. I open my eyes again in time to see him leaning closer, and then he kisses me, his tongue gently sweeping over mine before he pulls away.

"Wow," I say after a moment, and his mouth turns up at the corners. "I, uh, with all the drugs in my system, I wouldn't--I didn't think I could get it up if I tried, but maybe I was mistaken."

His smile broadens. "I'm not sure that's what they had in mind when they asked if I wanted to be your care partner," he says. "Besides, it's probably not the best idea, between all the people who could walk in at any moment, plus the fact you're in the fucking intensive care unit hooked up to ten different machines." He touches my lip again. "I can wait."

"Dr. Taggart said I'd be here at least a month," I say, surprised again by his matter-of-fact acceptance of everything that's happened since we first met. "I appreciate all you've done, but I can't ask you--I know you need to get back. I mean, I don't even know if you're still touring, but I can't imagine they're happy you just dropped everything and flew to Arizona."

"We're supposed to start cutting the new album next week," he says, shrugging, elaborately nonchalant, "but I told them something came up."

"Bill, you don't have to stay," I say, even though I hope he will.

"I know that. I want to," he says. He shakes his head, scowling. "They don't like it, don't want to give me some time off, they can find another fucking fame whore guitarist."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah, I'm fucking sure," he says, and he looks like he means it. "You're fucking stuck with me, got it? Anyone who doesn't like it can fuck off. Okay?"

"Okay," I answer, smiling. He's staying.

"Okay," he replies. "Glad we have that straight. Are there any other issues we need to discuss, or can I go smoke?"

"You could always quit," I say. My leg is starting to amp up again, and I'm stuck in this hospital bed, but I can't stop smiling.

"Fuck you," he says, grinning.

"Maybe later. I'm recovering from surgery."

He laughs. "I've got to run some errands, make some calls, so I might be gone for a while. Thought I'd pick up some dinner--you want anything in particular?"

"You think there's a vegetarian restaurant anywhere?"

"I'll ask the nurses; they should know." He writes something on a piece of paper. "This is my cell number, if you think of anything else you need. I'll be back by dinner time. Don't go anywhere."

"I'll be here," I say. I don't look at the number--I've had it memorized for over a year.

Once he's gone, all the sounds and smells of hospital life seem more obtrusive. The heart monitor's there, beeping quietly, and I can hear the motor cycle on and off in the IV pump, hear carts going by in the hallway, smell antiseptic and traces of cheap deodorant soap on my skin.

A couple nurses come in after a while and roll me onto my other side. It hurts even more than it did earlier. I lie there for a few minutes afterwards, breathing, alone for the first time since the night the council came for me.

It's strange. I look around the hospital room, and I see the television and the phone. I hear voices, people walking and talking, having ordinary conversations outside my room. I see Bill's suitcase open on the floor, his guitar case next to it, his book and his glasses on the table next to my bed. There are magazines on the coffee table. All of it is perfectly normal, and I've seen nothing like any of it for the last year.

I'm back in the real world again, back where I can watch television and read the newspaper. I can be with Bill--he's staying here with me. It's over.

A few minutes later I notice my fists clenched in the sheet, and the monitor is beeping faster than it was. I wish I could get out of this bed, leave the room, go find Bill. Just leave--go, I don't know, somewhere. Anywhere. Maybe LA. Go for a run.

I try to get my breathing under control. I'm okay. It's over. Bill will be back, and we'll eat some dinner, maybe watch some television. I haven't watched anything on television for a long time. There were no televisions in Church Canyon. No televisions, no magazines, only a couple phones.

My breathing speeds up again. Where did they take Sarah and Ruth? I have to talk to Bartlett. I have to find out how they are.

I reach for the phone before I realize I don't know the number for the Phoenix office, if that's even where I need to call. I wonder if I should call the nurse to find me a phone book, and then I remember that Bill told me there are Bureau agents outside.

I make myself let go of the phone, push the call button for the nurse, and explain what I need. A few minutes later I hear her open the door and let the agents in.

There are two of them, a balding African American named Hays and Lempke, a handsome, dimpled guy I met in Salt Lake what seems like a million years ago. He looks younger than I was when I joined Homicide. They give me as much of an update as they can--the raid went well, no other agents were injured, and only a handful of the priesthood council were injured or killed. As I thought, Elizabeth is dead--Joseph fractured her skull.

The prophet--Hancock--was captured. So was Joseph, thankfully. But they think a couple of his sons were in St. George and are still on the run. The Bureau hasn't released my name; the official word is that an undercover agent died before they could get him out. They're hoping that keeps anyone from trying to hunt me down, but the protection detail's with me for the next few weeks no matter what.

They heard that a couple girls and a teenage boy got to Flagstaff and were put into protective custody, but they can't tell me any more. They give me Bartlett's phone number but tell me not to call him until the next morning--it's Sunday. It's Sunday, and for the first time in over a year I haven't spent most of the day in Church Canyon's temple.

Hays tells me he'll try to find out about Sarah, Ruth, and Daniel once his shift is over in a couple hours. Lempke tells me to let them know if I need anything else. He also gives me a couple of the magazines, then shows me his dimples again as he wishes me a good afternoon. The Bureau'd better be using him for more than protection--between the charm, the dimples, and the sheer charisma, he's a born interrogator.

I look through the magazines for a few minutes, but I can't seem to work up any interest in whether Jennifer Aniston's marriage to Brad Pitt is in trouble. I try to watch some football, but it's difficult to see the screen in the position they've got me in, so I give up on that pretty quickly.

I had a lot of time by myself in Church Canyon, but there I could always go for a run. I won't be doing that again any time soon--maybe never.

I flip the television on again, then off. The nurse comes in to check on me, and someone from admissions makes me sign about a dozen different permits, mostly for things they've already done. I keep trying to sign them Timothy Rawls, having to go back and change the R to a B and finish the rest of the last name correctly. I fall asleep again after the admissions person leaves.

I wake up when my mom comes back into the room. She's on edge, apologizing for waking me up, looking around the room and having a hard time deciding where she wants to be. She goes to the window and opens the curtains, and I have to squint against the sun, low on the horizon and shining in my eyes. She notices me squinting and pulls them shut again, looking around the room, at Bill's suitcase, and at the door. Just watching her fidget is making me want to go back to sleep.

"He's not here, Mom," I tell her wearily. "He went out for a while."

"Oh," she says, flustered. "Will he be back soon?"

"He said he'd be back by dinner time, so, yeah, probably."

"I see," she says, finally settling into the chair next to the bed.

"Spit it out, Mom," I say, wanting to just get it over with.

"What?" she says.

"Whatever it is you didn't feel you could say when Bill was here."

"Tim," she says reproachfully, "give me a break. Imagine how I felt, flying here from Baltimore and meeting this, this, musician, or whatever he is, in your hospital room. I still don't know how the two of you met or how long you've known him--he wouldn't tell me anything!"

"He's a guitarist with Jenifur--the band, not a person," I say. "You've probably heard of them--they're pretty famous. I met him a few days before I went to Church Canyon. He's involved in the case. He's a witness, and not just to what happened to me, which is probably why he didn't want to tell you much. And he saved my life. What else do you want to know?"

She gives me a look. "Believe me, son, I'm grateful to him for helping you," she says, patting my hand. "But if he's just involved in the case, why is he insisting on staying? I can see he's doing a good job, but I don't understand why he's here, not at all."

"We met because of his involvement in the case, but he. . . " I pause, unsure how much to say, but unwilling to hide this from her. There's so much that I never told her. "We really made a connection with each other. He's important to me, Mom," I say cautiously. "I care about him."

"I noticed," she says. "So you're friends?"

"We're friends, yes, but I'm not going to lie to you and say that's all there is between us," I say, watching her closely to gauge her reaction. I've never come right out and talked to her about my sexuality, although I think she's suspected it for a long time--probably before I ever acted on it.

"I see," she says, although I know she doesn't, not really. "Tim," she says hesitantly, "have you just completely given up on women? Are you gay now, is that it?"

I laugh, pleased by her candor. "No, I haven't given up on women--not entirely, anyway," I tell her, and she smiles. I can't help smiling back at her. I can tell she's still uncomfortable, but she's also a lot more open to the idea than I thought she would be. "This thing with Bill, it's still new, and I can't say for sure where it's going, but I can tell you one thing." I stop, unexpectedly reluctant to say it out loud.

"What is it, son?" she asks seriously.

"He makes me happy," I tell her finally. "And I think you know I haven't been happy, not for a long time."

She nods slowly. "I suppose I do," she says, then leans over to kiss my cheek. "I do want you to be happy, Tim--I hope you know that. I love you."

"I love you too, Mom," I tell her, relieved.

We sit there for a moment. "So this Bill really is a big deal, isn't he?" she asks eventually. I think she's looking for something to talk about.

"You mean as a, uh, a celebrity?" I ask. "Yeah, he's a pretty big deal."

"I thought rock stars were supposed to travel with entourages or something," she says. "He seems fairly down to earth for someone so famous."

"Down to earth, yeah, he is," I answer, smiling at her insight.

The phone rings; when I pick it up, it's Bill.

"No luck on the vegetarian restaurant," he says. "How's Mexican sound?"

"That sounds great," I say, and just like that I'm ravenous. "Hey, Bill, hold on a second, okay?" I turn to my mother. "Mom, Bill's picking up some Mexican--what would you like?"

"Oh, no, honey, that's okay," she says, waving her hand anxiously. "I'll be going soon."

"Mom," I say, "Please. Stay for dinner. It'll give you and Bill a chance to get to know each other."

"All right," she answers hesitantly.

I smile and tell Bill to pick her up some food too.

"Fantastic. Uh, okay, will do," he says. "You sure about this?"

"It'll be great," I answer, smiling.

"Famous fucking last words. I'll see you soon," he says, hanging up.

The nurses come in to turn me onto my back, and this time my mother stays by my side, holding my hand and telling me it'll be okay. I find a pre-season basketball game on ESPN, and we watch that until Bill comes in with bags full of take-out.

"Basketball, huh?" he says when he sees the television. "I bet you play."

"I did, yeah," I say, and his face falls.

"Fu--shoot, I'm sorry, Tim," he says, glancing at my mother uneasily. "I wasn't thinking."

"It's okay," I say, shrugging. "I never had much of a jump shot anyway." There were no basketball courts in Church Canyon. I haven't played in over a year, and now I may never play again. That should upset me more than it does, I think. None of it feels particularly real.

"Don't believe him for a second, Bill--Tim and his cousin, Jim, were the stars of their high school team," my mother says proudly, patting my hand. "And, you, Tim, you don't know what's going to happen. For all you know, you'll be shooting hoops again by next summer."

"Hey, I'd be happy to be using a cane and maybe doing a couple free throws," I answer. Bill's looking at us like we're speaking a foreign language.

"Did you play any sports in high school, Bill?" my mother asks.

The expression on Bill's face is priceless--I don't know what he was doing in high school, or if he even graduated, but I'm certain sports weren't high on his list.

"I played Pee-Wee hockey like everyone," he says finally, clearly uncomfortable, "but I didn't really have the build for the high school team. I, uh, I'm going to go find a microwave to heat this stuff up. Here, the chips and salsa are in this one."

"Do you need some help?" my mom asks. He looks at me again, and I give him a little nod.

"Sure, Mrs. Bayliss," he says, giving her a winning smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "Help would be great."

"Call me Virginia," she says, taking one of the bags and leading him out of the room.

When they come back in, he's charming her with everything he's got. It's almost frightening to see him turn it on like that, and I give him a couple warning glances. He gives me the finger surreptitiously and keeps playing the family friendly version of Billy Tallent, celebrity and all-around great guy. By the time we've finished dinner, she's eating out of his hand, and I'm pissed off.

"Could you tone it down a little?" I hiss at him when she goes off to the bathroom.

"What?" he says, smirking. "I thought you wanted us to get along."

"I wanted the two of you to get to know each other better," I snap, "not for you to play her like she was some sort of small-town reporter with stars in her eyes."

He puts one hand over his heart and the other on his forehead. "Oh, no, the rock star shit offended you?" he asks sardonically. "I thought you knew that's what I do best."

"Don't be a jerk," I retort. "Do you think you can manage that, or is that too difficult for you?"

"Fine, whatever the fuck you want," he says, but it's better when my mom returns--he acts a little more naturally, and now that she's relaxed around him, she's able to accept his occasional blunt words or sarcastic responses more easily. I fall asleep to the sound of the two of them talking about movies.

Bartlett comes to see me the next morning. He's got my notebooks in his briefcase, and he's brought a US attorney along with him to videotape my testimony for the Grand Jury. I haven't given testimony about anything for a long time, and never from a hospital bed before, but I'm certainly familiar with the procedure. There are just a lot more details to talk about this time, that's all.

"Bayliss, good to see you," Bartlett says gruffly, shaking my hand. "Boisy," he acknowledges. Bill nods at him before going back to his book, but it's clear neither one is particularly happy to see the other.

"Good to see you, too," I reply mildly. "What can you tell me?"

"We're still looking for a couple of them," he admits reluctantly. He's definitely on edge. "Captured Benjamin Smith last night, though."

"Who's still missing?" I ask, curious.

"Peter Hancock and Asher Chase," he says, not meeting my eyes.

"What the hell?" I say loudly, and Bill looks up from the sofa.

Bartlett holds up his hand placatingly. "I know you've got a personal interest in seeing Chase brought to justice, Tim, and I promise you it will happen. Give it some time, and give us some credit. I've got agents combing the country for these two."

"He raped a fourteen year old girl, Ed," I say tightly.

"Ninety percent of the men in that town did the same or worse, as you well know," he reminds me, like I need to be reminded, when I lived there and saw it every day. Jerk. "I know those two girls mean something to you--who could blame you? But you knew what went on in Church Canyon when you accepted the assignment."

He's right, but he's also wrong--I'm the one who failed to protect Sarah. That's on me.

"How are Sarah and Ruth? Can I talk to them?" I ask.

He shakes his head. "They're in protective custody. You'll have to wait until we've captured Chase and Hancock to talk to them, but I will tell you that they're fine," he says. It's not a surprise, but it's still a disappointment.

"They know I'm okay, right?" I ask. The way Bartlett's been running things, it wouldn't exactly shock me if no one ever thought the kids might appreciate knowing I wasn't actually dead.

He looks at me for a second, his face blank, then frowns. Yeah, no one told them--shoot, they must be upset. He pulls his cell phone out and dials a number. "Campos, it's Bartlett. Yeah, you know that situation up north? Yeah, that one. Did anyone let those two witnesses know that our other witness survived, that he's doing okay now? They did? Okay, good. Yeah, I'll pass it along. Thanks."

He hangs up and says, "Yeah, they know you're all right--the agent in charge up there told them you were in the hospital. As a matter of fact, they've been driving her crazy, asking when they're going to get to see you."

"Okay," I say, sighing in relief. "Thanks."

"You're welcome. You ready to get started now?"

"Sure," I answer. What else am I going to say?

"Okay," Bartlett says, gesturing to the US Attorney. She introduces herself as Jodie Pelletier and asks Bill to leave. He's pissed, but I tell him it's procedure.

"I don't give a flying fuck about procedure," he snaps. "Thirty-six hours ago you were still in a fucking coma, do you get that?"

"We all get that, Mr. Boisy," Pelletier says soothingly.

Bill turns to Bartlett. "Two hours, that's it. Anything else you need, you come back later. Got it?"

"Got it," Bartlett says, offering his hand. Bill shakes it reluctantly.

"You sure you're okay with this?" he asks me.

"I'm sure."

"Okay. I'll be back in a couple hours," he says, squeezing my shoulder before he walks out with one of the agents.

Bartlett waits until the door closes, then says, "You mind telling me how the hell you justify getting involved with a material witness?"

"It wasn't the smartest thing I've ever done, but I can't say I'm sorry it happened, especially since he ended up saving my life," I retort. "You've got more than enough evidence to convict--you don't need Bill's testimony about Eli, if it comes to that."

"That doesn't change the fact that it was against regulations. That asshole's a loose cannon, a threat to this investigation. If things had happened differently, you'd be facing a disciplinary hearing instead of being the Bureau's hero of the hour."

"If things had happened differently, I'd be dead," I remind him, annoyed. "Start that up," I tell Pelletier, pointing at the video camera. "Let's talk about the proph--about Hancock's methods for dealing with a surplus of teenage boys."

I start with Hancock asking me to shoot Gordon, and then I keep going. It's a huge relief to finally be doing something, finally telling someone official about the evidence I worked so hard to collect. I hardly notice when my mother and, a bit later, Bill, come back into the room. They're both escorted quickly out again. I notice even less when someone drops a tray of food in front of me.

It seems like we've barely begun when Bartlett looks at his watch. I see my water pitcher is completely dry at the same moment. Bartlett gives Pelletier a headshake just as she's about to ask me another question.

"That's enough for today, I think," she says reluctantly. "Why don't I come back tomorrow morning?"

"Uh, that's fine," I say, abruptly conscious that my leg is killing me and I'm shaking with exhaustion. I'm hungry, but I'm so tired that both the pain and hunger seem far away, although I do pick at the roll on my tray. I try to surreptitiously press the button for my PCA, but Bartlett notices.

"I'm sorry we kept you going for so long," he says, standing up. Pelletier's already leaving the room, camera in hand. "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," I say, "just tired. Could you send Bill in?"

"Of course," he answers, but he doesn't have to, because Bill walks in a second later.

"It's been three fucking hours, asshole," he says to Bartlett. "Tim, you okay?"

"Fine, just tired," I repeat, wondering vaguely what the main course on my tray is supposed to be.

"I'll see you tomorrow, Bayliss," Bartlett says, nodding at Bill. "Oh, and here," he says, dropping a paper bag on the table.

"What is it?" Bill asks suspiciously. I upend the bag, and my FBI ID and wallet fall onto the table with a couple soft thumps.

"I thought you'd like to get those back," Bartlett says.

"Yeah," I answer, tossing them into the drawer. "Thanks."

"I'm sorry I lost track of the time," Bartlett says, nodding to Bill.

"Fine, you're sorry. Now get the fuck out of here," Bill says, pointing to the door.

"Bill," I say after Bartlett leaves, "seriously, you didn't need to bite his head off."

"Yes, I fucking did, and if you could see what kind of shit you look like right now, you'd agree with me. Did you even eat?"

"No," I answer. "I'm not sure I want to." Bill's pacing back and forth, but watching him is too much effort. The morphine's made the pain bearable again, but it's making it even harder to keep my eyes open.

"Bullshit. You just don't want to eat that shit, not that I fucking blame you. I'll go down to the cafeteria and get you something, or do you want me to order a pizza?"

"Pizza. I'm going to sleep until it comes, okay?"

He finally sits down, looking at me for a second. "Yeah, sure," he says quietly. "You want me to wake you when it's here, or just let you sleep?"

"Wake me--I'll probably be pretty hungry once I've gotten a nap."

"Okay," he says, brushing my hair back from my forehead. "Sleep well."

I do, pretty much immediately.

I wake to a darkened room, the smell of pizza and a soft kiss on the corner of my mouth. When I open my eyes, he puts his finger to his lips and nods toward the sofa. I put on my glasses and see my mother asleep, a book in her lap.

"I figured best to let her sleep a bit longer," he whispers. "She seemed pretty tired."

I nod, staring at his face, his eyes, his mouth. "What?" he asks, and I touch his cheek, feeling the warmth of his skin.

"I just--you're really here," I murmur.

He smiles. "You just noticing that? I guess those are some good drugs."

"Shut up," I say, reaching up to touch his face. I trace his lips with my finger, and he takes my hand and kisses the palm, then leans closer. His lips touch mine carefully, gently, but when I put my hand around the back of his head and open my mouth, he moans softly and starts kissing me back in earnest.

It's hard to get my arms around him--I've still got too many things attached to me. I do the best I can, feeling the shift of muscle and bone under his t-shirt, the welcome, solid feel of his chest against mine, the faint taste of coffee and cigarettes at the back of his mouth, until suddenly he pulls away.

"Fuck, Tim, I'm sorry," he says, grabbing the ice water.

"What?" I ask, and then I lick my lip and realize it's bleeding a little. "Bill, don't--it's nothing."

"Did you forget the part where you're on fucking blood-thinners? Asshole--hold this," he hisses, putting some ice in a washcloth on my lip.

I laugh. "Come on, give me a break. It's my lip, not the stitches on my leg."

"Fine, you explain it to the nurse. Or, better yet, to your mother when she wakes up."

"I'll tell her it happened when I was eating," I say as reasonably as I can around the ice cube. "Really, Bill, it's nothing. That kiss was worth a little blood, more than worth it."

He has his head in his hands, but he looks up, and after a second he starts grinning, then laughs. "It fucking was, wasn't it? Fuck, Tim, someone who looks like you do right now has no fucking right to be so hot."

"Yeah, well, you've had better days, too, Rock Star," I say, touching the butterfly dressing above his eye.

"Just feeding the legend, baby," he says, a shadow crossing his face for an instant. "You hungry?"

"Starving," I answer.

Later, after we've eaten, after my mother's gone back to the hotel, after the night nurse has made her rounds, Bill makes up the sofa-bed and then comes over to sit on the edge of mine.

"Hey," he says softly. "How're you doing? How's your lip?"

"It's fine," I answer, taking his hand. "Why? You want to make out some more?"

He shakes his head. "We've got time, Tim. Unless you've got some other secret undercover mission you haven't told me about, I think we can wait until you're a little less, uh, encumbered."

"We've got time, huh?" I ask. I still can't quite believe he plans on staying here with me.

"Yeah, we do," he answers. "Although, I don't know, you might get sick of me or something--this hospital shit doesn't exactly have the cachet of clandestine phone sex."

"I don't think that's going to happen--me getting sick of you, I mean," I say, smiling. "Because the phone sex, that I'm in favor of."

"Really?" he asks, feigning shock. "'Cause I'd have thought you'd prefer the alternative."

"Well, now that you mention it," I answer. "But I'm guessing that's not happening any time soon."

"Not soon, no," he says, with a subtle emphasis that warms me to the core.

We sit there quietly for a moment, and I use the opportunity to study his face. His bruises are starting to fade a little, and he looks more rested, the lines on his forehead more relaxed, his mouth tilted up at the corner. "I still can't believe you're really here, that it's really over," I say eventually.

He shakes his head, smiling ruefully. "I know what you mean. Fuck, for over a year, every time the phone rang, I hoped it was you."

"I wanted to call you," I admit. "This one time, about six months ago, I was in St. George, in WalMart if you can believe it, picking up supplies, and I must have stood in front of the payphone for five minutes. I even put some money in and started dialing before I managed to stop myself. I was lucky Brother Jacob didn't catch me."

"'Brother Jacob'?" he asks, eyebrows raised.

"Uh, yeah," I say, embarrassed. "That's what we called each other, the adult men, anyway."

"So you were 'Brother'--'Brother' what? What name did you use?"

"Timothy," I say, looking away. "I was 'Brother Timothy.' I went by the name Timothy Rawls."

"Rawls, huh?" Bill muses. "How'd you come up with that?"

My mouth twists. "I dated a guy named Chris Rawls for a while. I thought, I don't know, I guess I thought having that last name was an inside joke or something."

"It didn't help, huh?" he asks perceptively.

I shake my head.

"I like Bayliss better anyway," he says. "It's a good name."

I glance up at him, startled, remembering. "Like Boisy," I offer.

"Yeah," he says, smiling in recognition, "like Boisy."

Bayliss and Boisy.

"Was it bad, being there?" Bill asks, pulling me back to reality. "Fuck, what am I saying--I saw what they did to you. Of course it was bad. Sorry."

"What they did to us," I correct, touching above his eye.

I see him decide not to argue with me, although he shakes his head.

"What did they--" he says, then stops himself deliberately. "Fuck. You don't have to--I mean, it's okay if you don't want to talk about it."

I shrug, looking away again, my chest tight. "It was--yeah, it was bad. There were things going on, horrible things, but everything was under the surface. Beatings and rape and, and murder. Kids getting killed. Adults too--women. And everyone just played along with this idea that it was some sort of fucking perfect community of pious, godly, chosen people," I say bitterly. "And you know what the worst part was? After a while it all started to seem normal, or, well, not normal, exactly, but I couldn't see anything else anymore. I was there and I wasn't ever going to get out." I shudder, tasting bile at the back of my throat.

Bill touches my cheek. "You did, though," he reminds me. "You got out, and that shithole is gone. It's gone, Tim--there are kids who are going to grow up with normal lives, thanks to you."

"Yeah, maybe," I say. I don't have the heart to tell him I don't think any kid who grew up in Church Canyon can ever hope to live a normal life. "Look, I'm pretty tired--"

"Fuck, I'm sorry; I'll let you get to sleep. You need anything?"

"No, no, just get the light?"

He nods, but instead of getting up he stays there for a moment, watching my face carefully. Then he takes my glasses off, kisses my temple, pushes the button on my PCA, and pulls the covers up. "Thanks, Mom," I murmur sarcastically, and he ruffles my hair and tells me to shut the fuck up and get some sleep. I'm out as soon as I shut my eyes.

My dream's too disjointed to be a typical nightmare, more a jumble of images, Sarah and Adena, my uncle, the Prophet, and more, but the overall tenor is clear enough. I wake suddenly, gasping for breath, covered in sweat. Bill's hand is on my shoulder, warm through the hospital gown, and his voice, just as warm, is saying it's okay, it was a dream, Tim, just a dream. He raises the head of the bed and pulls me into his arms, murmuring reassurances into my ear, and I bury my face in his neck, my breath hitching. I don't even realize I'm crying at first, but then his arms tighten around me, the tenor of his voice changes, gaining a hint of urgency, and I realize the dampness I feel on his neck is coming from me. I try to pull away, embarrassed, but he won't let go, not until I've stopped.

Once I do, he pats my back one more time and reaches for the light switch.

"Sorry," I stutter, looking for the tissues, but he just shakes his head.

"Fuck that," he says, "so you were crying. I don't give a fuck. Jesus, after what you've been through, who the fuck wouldn't need a little manly weeping?"

"'Manly weeping'?" I snort, laughing. "That's one way of putting it." I blow my nose.

"Okay, so you're a bit of a girl, is that what you want to hear?" he says gently. "I don't give a fuck about that, either. You want to talk about it?"

"No," I say, shaking my head. "Not now."

"Okay," he says, watching my face closely. "You let me know."

***

The next few days are pretty much the same routine, minus any further manly weeping, thankfully. It feels like I'm spending the majority of the time I'm awake with Bartlett and Pelletier, which means I'm not much good for conversation with Bill and my mom, but they seem to understand. Bill's been through his own FBI interrogation and is gearing up to testify at the Grand Jury hearings.

I still spend a lot of time sleeping. My dreams aren't exactly restful, but they're not as bad as they could be.

They take me off the PCA before I ever learn what it even stands for, switching me to pills with an occasional IV chaser. I use a wheelchair for the first time, one that's the wrong size, and Bill yells at people and ends up ordering a custom-fit chair I hope I won't need for long. My leg still hurts, but the rest of my body's starting to heal.

The hospital food isn't all that bad, but Bill still gets us take out for dinner most nights. He's gone out in search of Chinese one night, a week after I woke up, when the phone rings. It's not Bill calling to check my order, though. It's Sarah.

"Tim? Is that you?" she asks hesitantly. I don't think I've ever heard anything that sounded as good.

"Sarah?" I say, my voice breaking. "Yeah, yeah, it's me. Sarah, oh, honey, how are you? How's Ruth?"

"I'm okay," she says, starting to cry. "We're both okay. Here, Ruthie wants to say hi."

I can hear her hand the phone over, and then Ruth comes on the line and says hello.

"Hi, Ruthie, how are you?" I ask, trying for a normal tone of voice. "Is your sister okay?"

"Oh, she's fine, she just wanted to blow her nose," Ruth answers dismissively, sounding so much like a typical younger sibling that I can't help smiling.

"It's so good to hear from you two--how are you doing?" I repeat inanely. "I'm sorry I missed your birthday."

"I'm fine," she answers. I can barely hear her, but then there's a voice in the background reminding her to hold the phone closer to her mouth.

"I know!" she says loudly into my ear. I don't know if she's ever even talked to someone on the phone before. "Sarah told them about my birthday, so I got a cake and some presents," she continues. "It's weird here, but I can have pizza any time I want, and they actually bring it to the room--isn't that great?"

I laugh shakily. "Yeah, pizza delivered to your door is great. What kind do you get?"

"Pepperoni and sausage and mushrooms," she says. "It's delicious. I know you don't like the sausage and stuff, but if you were here you could pick the meat off, or we could get a veggie one."

"Yeah, we could," I say. "That sounds good."

"I miss you," she says. "I know we're not married, but I still liked living with you. Special Agent Martha said you were a loco parent or something, but I told her you were lots better than sister moms."

"I was acting in loco parentis, yes," I answer wistfully. "That means I was acting kind of like your dad."

"Is that what you meant when you said you loved us, but not like people who are married?" she asks.

"That's exactly what I meant," I say slowly, admitting it for the first time. "I love you and your sister like you were my own kids."

"I love you lots more than my father," she says. "He was--he was a bad man, like the Prophet," she adds, her voice dropping to a whisper. "Sarah thinks he killed our mother."

"I'm sorry she's dead, honey," I tell her gently.

"That's okay--we have you now, right?" she asks, breaking my heart. "Agent Scott says we might be able to come see you next week."

"That would be wonderful, Ruth," I tell her, swallowing hard. "I can't wait."

Sarah comes back on the line. "Hey, kiddo, are you all right?" I ask her.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she says, sniffling. "I was just--I was just worried about you, and I've been wanting to talk to you."

"Yeah, I know what you mean," I tell her. "I'm sorry we haven't been able to talk until now. I've been worried about you, too."

"They say maybe we can come down there and visit you soon," she says, sounding a little tentative.

"Hey, that's wonderful news," I say warmly. "I can't wait to see you and your sister."

"Yeah, me too," she says, her voice subdued.

"What's wrong, Sarah?" I ask gently.

"I don't know--it's just, I always thought about what it would be like to see the outside, but now. . . " she trails off.

"It's different from what you imagined, huh?" I prompt.

"Yeah. We've been staying in a hotel, so it's not like I've even seen that much yet, but next week we're being placed with a foster family. I don't even know what a foster family is."

She sounds so lost--I wish I could tell her everything is going to be all right. I wished I believed it myself. "It's, uh, it's a family that takes in kids, kids who need, who can't stay with their own parents."

"Like being adopted? Kids with only two parents, if their parents die, they get adopted, right?" she asks hopefully.

"Yeah, it's kind of like that," I say, my heart sinking. "Except it's more temporary, at least to start. Kind of a chance to figure things out."

"Oh," she says.

"Do you know anything about the family you'll be staying with?" I ask, hoping for some good news.

"They're LDS, they said," she says, and I drop my face into my hand. Shit--I can't help thinking the last thing the girls need is another family of Mormons, even if they're not fundamentalists. "I think that's supposed to be better or easier or something, because we all know the Book of Mormon, so we'll get along, but I don't know why that's supposed to help."

"Well, at least it will be something familiar," I say, trying to be positive for her sake.

"I guess. Anyway, Agent Perkins says we need to go now," she answers.

"Okay, kiddo. Do you have the number here?" I ask, feeling like I've failed her and her sister again.

"Yeah," she says.

"Call me any time, all right? Day or night, if you or Ruth need to talk, you just call."

"Okay," she says, still subdued.

"Any time, Sarah, anything you need," I say.

"I know," she says. I hope she does.

"I'll see you soon, honey," I tell her.

"Yeah, that'll be good. Bye, Tim."

I hang up the phone, then sit and stare at the walls until Bill comes in carrying dinner.

"What's going on?" he asks, looking at me closely. "Your leg hurting?"

"My leg's fine," I say dully. "I just talked to Sarah and Ruth."

"Oh--uh, good," he says, obviously confused. "How are they?"

"They're fine. They're going to come visit."

He looks at me for a moment, considering, then says, "Can I ask you something?"

"What? Uh, sure," I say, coming out of my reverie.

"Who exactly are they?" he asks, and I turn to look at him, startled. "I mean, I get that they're important to you. I got that back, you know, when you were so worried about them that morning, but I don't know fuck all why."

"Oh," I say. "Okay. Uh, jeez, I'm not even sure where to start," I say, uneasy.

"Sarah and Ruth," he reminds me. "Start with them."

"See, the thing is--" I say, struggling. "Shit. You know what goes on there."

"I know it's a fucking nasty polygamist cult. So, what, you going to tell me Sarah and Ruth were your wives or something?" he asks, smirking a little.

"Uh," I say, feeling sick, "in a manner of speaking, yeah."

"What the fuck?" he says, moving away. "I thought you said Sarah was only fourteen!"

"She was thirteen when she was sealed to me, and her sister was eight," I say wearily, wanting him to know everything, hoping he'll understand. I take a breath, trying to find the energy and the words to explain, but he interrupts.

"That's--Tim, come on," he says, disbelieving, pushing his chair back halfway to the sofa. "Tell me--fuck, Ruth is eight?"

"Bill, no," I say, holding my hand up, horrified, tripping over my words. "They--nothing happened; there's no way I'd ever--they're kids. I didn't--I wanted to protect them, keep them safe, and if Hancock had sealed them to anyone else--" I shudder, remembering the dead eyes of so many of Church Canyon's young girls.

"So nothing happened; you wanted to protect them, okay," he says, staring at me, his hand waving. "Shit, so, so, nothing happened, what the fuck does that mean? You were married to them, what does that even mean? Someone else married them, what would have happened?"

"They called it being sealed," I mutter, ashamed. "Sealed for eternity, what a sick fucking joke. I had to play along, though."

He looks down, his head in his hands. "You had to play along," he says after a moment.

"Yeah."

"It was part of your cover," he adds slowly, looking up.

I nod. "The thing is, I had to be sealed to multiple wives to get into the inner workings of the church. I had to join the priesthood council to get the information we needed, and in order to join the priesthood council, I had to be sealed to a minimum of three wives."

"Wait, three?" he asks sharply, angling his body towards me.

I nod again. "The third one, she was, she was older, she was thirty-two. Her name was Elizabeth."

"Was?" Bill says, sitting completely still, his hands clasped between his knees.

"She, Elizabeth, she told the proph--she told Hancock I hadn't consummated my marriages," I stutter.

"That's why they picked you up?"

"It's one of the reasons, yeah," I confirm.

"What happened to her?" he asks, but I think he already knows.

"They killed her. She betrayed her husband," I answer bitterly. "They got her to tell them what she knew about me, and then Brother Joseph fractured her skull."

"Fuck, Tim," he breathes, sitting back.

"I, uh, I figured if I picked the youngest girls, they wouldn't know," I say, needing to get it out. "They wouldn't question anything, wouldn't know any better. They wouldn't wonder why I wasn't--why they slept in their room and I slept in mine."

"They wouldn't wonder why you didn't rape them on their wedding night, is that what you're trying to say?" Bill says harshly.

"Yeah," I say, wincing.

Neither one of us says anything for a while. Bill doesn't get up, though. He doesn't leave the room. After a long minute or two of silence, he sighs, scooting his chair closer.

"So Sarah and Ruth were lucky," he says, and I look at him in shock.

"Lucky?" I exclaim. "They've lost everything and everyone they ever knew. They're in protective custody, and they're about to be put in a foster home, Bill. Sarah--Sarah was raped a month ago, and her sister saw it happen, all because they dared to go for a walk one night. How is that lucky?"

"Okay, maybe lucky's not the right word," he says, holding his hand up apologetically. "Still, they were with you, not with someone like that Joseph fuck with his fucking bat. They--you got them out of town. You kept them as safe as you could. You care about them. Compared to the other girls in that shithole, they're much better off."

"Maybe," I say.

"Definitely," he answers firmly.

"So you believe me," I say, unsure, caught in the memory of Joseph killing Elizabeth.

He frowns. "Of course I believe you, asshole."

I breathe out. "Okay, good."

He scoots his chair the rest of the way back towards the bed. I scrub at my beard with my hand, trying to get the image of Hancock and his council out of my head. It doesn't work.

"So what are they like?" he asks after a moment.

"What?" I say. He knows what they're like; he saw what they did. Does he really want to know more?

"Well, you lived with them for a few months," he says, and I stare at him, confused. "Sarah and Ruth," he clarifies. "You care about them--what are they like?"

"Oh," I say, relieved. "Uh, Sarah was with me for nearly a year, Ruth a couple months less. They. . . Ruth's still a little kid, you know?" I say.

He nods. "Eight, yeah, I remember when Billie was that age."

"She's nine now," I say. "Her birthday was last week. But still, eight or nine or fifteen, where she grew up. . . . She doesn't understand--she never questioned anything, never learned to do anything but what she was told. She's smart, though--she wants to learn, picks up stuff like a sponge, and once I let her know she could ask me anything, she really started to come out of her shell, started actually looking at the world around her."

"That's good, right?" he says uncertainly. "It's got to help."

"Yeah, I hope it will," I answer. "There's not any formal schooling in Church Canyon, especially for girls. I tried to teach her, tried to teach both of them a little bit about, you know, what I could remember of astronomy and biology, grammar and math, talk to them about history, geography. . . I tried to find things for them to read that wouldn't get them into trouble. Tried to encourage them to learn as much as they could."

"That's good, too," he says.

"I think it was," I say. "But it was hard, really hard. Neither one of them could read much, for one thing."

He frowns. "They never learned at all, or what?"

"They learned a little from their mother, but she didn't know much herself," I explain. "Women and girls, they really were chattel there, and chattel don't need school. They were born into that crazy belief system, grew up in a place where any independent thought was rooted out and punished. Sarah, she--the first time I saw her, I caught her glancing around the room during services instead of looking down at her hands like she was supposed to. She was being careful, but she wanted to see the world around her. That's when I decided I'd try to--that I'd ask for her, because maybe she was someone I could help."

"Sounds like you did," he says quietly.

I shake my head. "I don't know about that."

"Just because some fuckwad raped her doesn't mean you didn't help her," he says, frowning. "I'm not excusing--fuck, anyone who does something like that should be strung up by his fucking balls. But those two are still better off, thanks to you."

"I was supposed to protect her, Bill." So many children with no one to protect them.

"What happened to that girl wasn't your fault. Wasn't her fault, wasn't your fault--it was the fault of the fucker who did it, and the people in that shithole that taught him raping kids was the way things were supposed to be."

"If you say so," I say wearily.

"I do," he says firmly. He pulls some containers out of the bag on the table. "Come on, let's eat. I've got Kung Pao tofu with your name on it, not that anyone else would ever want Kung Pao fucking tofu."

"You should try it--it's really good," I say, trying to work up some interest in eating.

"No thanks," he says, shaking his head. "Freak. What made you become a vegetarian, anyway?"

"Partly health reasons, partly because I was practicing Buddhism for a while."

He looks at me. "Really? With the meditation and the chanting and all that?"

I nod.

"Why'd you stop?"

"I didn't know how to be a good Buddhist and a good cop at the same time," I say, shrugging, too tired to change the subject.

"Fuck, if Steven Seagal can be a Buddhist, I don't know why a cop can't be," he says, smirking.

"Steven Seagal only kills people in the movies," I answer distractedly.

"Wait, so you killed someone?" he asks, curious.

I sigh, wondering why the hell I can't just keep my mouth shut sometimes. "Yeah. A homeless guy, he killed a Buddhist monk, and I tracked him down. He pulled a gun on me, fired a shot, and like a good cop, I drew my weapon and fired. I killed him."

"So you shot him," Bill says, confused. "You did your job, right? Or am I missing something here?"

"The first precept, the most important precept, it's not killing," I explain. "I broke that precept." Twice.

"Well, it's a good thing you did, or we wouldn't be sitting here," he says mildly, studying my face. "You want your egg roll?"

Bartlett and Pelletier don't come in the next day; Bartlett says they're too busy interrogating Hancock and the others. He mentions that the bosses have decided to release my name now that they've caught the last of the fugitives. He's not sure when it's going to happen, but it'll be soon.

My mother flips out. She starts bugging the protection detail, questioning the orderlies, and giving the nurses strange looks. Heaven forbid anyone walks into the room without their hospital badge clearly displayed--it's a good thing she's not carrying a gun. It takes all day, some skillful soothing from Bill, and a conversation between her and Bartlett before she finally concedes I'm not about to get shot again.

Marilyn sticks her head through the door the next morning. "You might want to put on CNN. The FBI press conference is on."

Bill grabs the remote and finds the channel. Director Mueller is introducing Bartlett.

"Earlier this month the FBI, in cooperation with the ATF and the Department of Homeland Security, raided the United Brethren of Church Canyon, Utah, a polygamous group accused of terrorist activities, multiple homicides, and other criminal acts," Bartlett says, reading from his notes. "At the time of the raid we announced that the agent who had gone undercover in Church Canyon had been killed. This was a deliberate falsehood designed to protect his safety and identity."

My mother's got her hand to her mouth, and there are tears in her eyes. Bill keeps glancing between me and the television. I wish they'd both just relax--it's over now. It's not that big a deal.

"Now that we have successfully captured and indicted all of those responsible," Bartlett continues, "I'm happy to announce that Major Case Specialist Tim Bayliss, who spent over a year undercover in Church Canyon, survived and is recovering under FBI protection."

"See, Virginia, just like he told us," Bill murmurs to my mother, and she nods. I stare at the television, caught by the sound of my name.

"Specialist Bayliss gathered extensive information about all of UBCC's illegal activities, despite great personal risk, information which is essential to the case against UBCC. Thank you; that's all I have," Bartlett finishes.

CNN flashes a shot of me from about 1995 on screen and mentions I'm a former BPD detective. It's odd--I've been on the local Baltimore news before, and Brodie's documentary won an Emmy, but no one actually saw it. This is a whole different thing.

"Wow, you were really fucking hot in that horrible suit," Bill says after my mother's gone back to the hotel, when they're re-airing a soundbite on Headline News. "Welcome to the big time, by the way. Where the fuck did your clothes come from, Sears?"

"JC Penney, big and tall section," I mutter, looking down. At least they didn't track down Brodie's documentary and use the shot of me in my bathrobe.

"How long ago was that picture from?" he asks.

"I think it was eight or nine years ago," I answer.

"No shit?" He laughs. "Fuck, you looked about twelve. I liked the hair, though. When did you grow the beard?"

"Uh, I had one a few years ago. I shaved it when I joined the Bureau, but they wanted me to grow it again for the assignment," I say, feeling my chin self-consciously.

"Yeah, I guess those fuckers did all have beards, now that you mention it," he says. "Hey, you have any pictures without it? Something newer than what they showed?"

"No," I start, and then I remember. "Wait," I say, opening the drawer in the bedside table. "It's not great," I say, pulling out my ID and handing it to him.

"Oh, yeah, right," he says, looking at it. "That night I met you, I didn't really see anything but the FBI logo."

I take my wallet out of the drawer. I stare at it for a moment. I open it slowly, looking at the slip of paper from the hotel in Salt Lake that's folded and stuck next to a credit card. I take out my driver's license, the one from Nevada I got almost three years ago. It hasn't even expired yet. Timothy J. Bayliss--that's what it says.

"There's this, too," I say, handing it to Bill.

"Not bad, for a driver's license," he says, tapping his finger against the plastic. "You look good without a beard. What's the J stand for?"

"Uh, James," I answer. "After my father."

"Mmm," he says, nodding absently. "Hey, you ever been on TV before this?"

"Yeah, yeah, lots of times," I say. "In Baltimore, whenever there were redballs--uh, big cases. Oh, and this guy, Brodie, he made this documentary about our unit that aired on PBS. It won an Emmy, if you can believe that," I add, snorting.

"A documentary about the Baltimore homicide unit?" he asks, bizarrely enthusiastic. "That sounds interesting."

"It was stupid," I say, annoyed. "He picked the worst possible case, this undertaker who was taking the bodies home at night for his own disgusting purposes--"

"Wait, wait, I think I saw that," Bill interrupts, grinning. "Fuck, that was you, wasn't it? Weren't you wearing a bathrobe and carrying a beer?"

"You saw it?" I exclaim. "Shit, Bill, no one saw that--"

He starts laughing, pointing at me. "Okay, I admit it--I googled you after we met. I found out about the documentary that way, bought the fucking DVD. I bet a lot more people might be watching it now that you're the famous fucking FBI hero."

I put my head in my hands, mortified. "Great, just great."

He sits back, frowning. "It was a good documentary. The titles were pretty amateurish, but the story was interesting--I can see why it won an Emmy," he says. "And you and the rest of the cops came off pretty good, considering. Believe me, it could have been worse. It could have been a lot worse."

"Worse than showing me in my bathrobe holding a beer?" I ask. "Worse than a case about a necrophiliac undertaker?"

"You really bothered by this shit?" he asks, putting his coffee cup down with deliberate care.

"By the idea of people across the country seeing me like that?" I ask, wondering what his problem is. "Yeah, it bothers me. Why wouldn't it?"

He doesn't say anything, just shakes his head. I look over at him after a moment. He's gazing at the wall, his face shuttered. "What is it?"

He turns and looks at me. "You get the part where I'm fucking famous, right?" he says, his shoulders tight. "Billy Tallent, the fucking rock star, pictures in all the tabloids? You don't want to be in the public eye, maybe I should just head back to LA now before anyone in the media figures out I'm here."

"What?" I say, sitting up. "No, no, Bill, that's not--shit, that's not what I meant."

"Then what the fuck did you mean?" he asks grimly. "Because sooner or later someone's going to connect the fucking dots between you and me."

I lie back against the bed. "I never--I guess I never thought about that."

"Unless you're planning on spending the rest of your life in this fucking hospital, you'd better fucking think about it," he says, pointing at me again. "You'd better fucking think about it right now, because either I leave or you've got more fucking fame in your future."

"Leave? I don't want you to leave, Bill," I say intently. "That's not what I meant."

"You sure about that?" he asks.

"Yes. I just--I didn't think."

"Well, it's gonna happen," he says. "You want me around, you'd better get used to the idea."

"Okay, okay, I get it," I tell him, holding my hand up. "Shit, Bill, you have to know I want you to stay. If it means pictures in the tabloids, I'll just have to deal with that."

He takes a sip of his coffee and nods deliberately. "Okay then."

"How do you think it'll go, exactly? Just so I can be prepared," I say cautiously.

He shrugs warily. "Depends. I've been able to keep Billie out of things, mostly, but that's because she spends most of her time in Regina. I've never talked to the press about my private life, and I'm not about to start, but I'm guessing they'd find the idea of the FBI hero paired with the guitarist with a past pretty fucking interesting."

"Yeah, I guess they would," I say.

"It would probably work better if we don't try to hide it," he says, looking at me closely. "We could make some sort of public statement and hope they got bored soon."

"A public statement?" I ask, trying to sound calmer than I feel. "Is that really necessary?" A statement from the director of the FBI is one thing. A statement from a celebrity like Bill--like Billy Tallent--is something else. It's about time I remembered that.

Bill narrows his eyes. "You don't want to be outed?"

"No, no, it's not that," I exclaim, shaking my head. "Shit, it can't be worse than having a murderer out me to the whole department--"

"What the fuck?" he asks, leaning forward.

"It's a long story," I say, waving my hand. "The thing is, this is just a lot to get used to. That doesn't mean I think we should hide our, uh, our relationship. It just means I need a little time to get used to the idea. You said we've got time, right?"

"Yeah," he says. "I just don't know how much."

"Okay," I say, trying to think it through. "Have you--does anyone in LA know?"

"Nothing specific. They know I'm out here helping a friend who's in the hospital. I think Jen's convinced it's an old lover dying of cancer or AIDS or some shit like that," he answers, grimacing comically.

"Maybe you should talk to--I don't know who you talk to about something like this," I admit. "Your manager?"

"My publicist, more like," he says, his mouth twitching.

"You have a publicist? Shit, of course you have a publicist; forget I said that," I say. Idiot. I'm not in a tiny walled community, not anymore. This is the real world. "Talk to your publicist, then, maybe have them put together some possible statements."

"I can do that," he says, nodding. "We can look them over, figure out how we want to handle it. She might want to come out here and meet you."

"Uh, okay, that would--the Bureau will want to talk to her, too," I say, considering.

"You sure you're going to be okay with this?" Bill asks. "Because if you're not--"

"I'm sure," I interrupt. "Bill, I am, I'm sure," I tell him, meeting his eyes, because he's just about the only thing I'm sure of right now. "I just needed to get used to the idea."

He smiles. "Okay. Good. I'll, uh, I'll call Nina after lunch."

"Good," I say, making myself smile back. "You do that."

***

It's been over a week since I woke up that night in the ICU; I got the kids out of Church Canyon two weeks ago. My mother's heading back to Baltimore in a few days. She says she'll be back for Thanksgiving, which is right before Taggart plans my second surgery.

Bill's finished his Grand Jury testimony, at least for now, but he still makes himself scarce every morning. Sometimes he heads to a coffee shop to work on some lyrics, or he goes down to the second floor and visits a sixteen year old with leukemia who's a big Jenifur fan. That's where he is the morning that Sarah and Ruth finally visit.

The nurses have ganged up to get me into the chair, and I'm sitting there trying to read the paper when the door opens, and there they are. They're here; they're really here. Ruth runs over and throws herself in my arms the moment she sees me, bumping against my leg, but for once I barely notice the pain. I grab on and hold her close, filled with relief and joy.

Sarah makes her way over to me more slowly. Ruth's in a dress I've seen before, her hair in its familiar long braid, but Sarah's in jeans and a t-shirt, her hair short and spiked. She's obviously trying to fit in to this new world, but I can see the confusion and fear that she's trying to hide.

"Hey," I say, freeing one arm from Ruth's grasp and holding it out to Sarah. "You look great, kiddo."

She comes up to us tentatively, folding into my arms for a brief, tight hug. "Thanks," she says, tugging at her hair self-consciously. "It still looks a little weird in the mirror, but I think I like it."

"I think it looks dumb," Ruth says. "She looks like a boy."

"Who asked you?" Sarah snaps.

"I know it's different from what you're used to," I say to Ruth. "A lot of stuff must feel that way, but I bet you won't even notice it soon. Give it some time, okay?"

"Okay," she says doubtfully, "but I'm not getting my hair cut."

"And that's your decision to make, just like Sarah made hers," I say diplomatically.

"Exactly," Sarah says, glaring at her sister. "My decision, Ruth, not yours."

"Hey, how do you like Phoenix, Ruth?" I ask.

"It's really big," she answers, eyes wide. "I thought Flagstaff was big, but Phoenix is, like, a million times bigger!"

"Yeah, it's a pretty big city," I say, hiding a smile. "Sarah, what do you think?"

She shrugs. "It's big, yeah, but it's not like we've gotten to see much of it. We haven't seen much of Flagstaff yet, either."

"Have you met your foster family?" I ask.

Sarah shakes her head. "We talked to them on the phone yesterday, but we're not meeting them until after we get back tomorrow."

"They're going to meet us at the airport," Ruth adds. "Their names are Caroline and Phillip Brandon, and they have a son and a daughter named Amy and Marty."

"That sounds nice," I say noncommittally.

"Do you have any?" Sarah mumbles quickly, glancing up at me and then looking down again.

"Any what?" I ask.

"Kids," she says, meeting my eyes. "Do you have any kids?"

"Oh. No, I don't," I answer.

"Are you married? I mean, really married, legally?" she asks, her cheeks pink.

"No, I'm not," I say. Her shoulders drop a little, and she nods, eyeing the floor.

"So who's taking care of you?" Ruth asks indignantly. "We should be here. You don't have anyone to take care of you."

I give her another hug. "I appreciate the thought, Ruthie, but it's okay. My mom is here, and my, uh, my friend, Bill, and the nurses and the doctors are taking good care of me. You and your sister just concentrate on taking care of yourselves, all right?"

Ruth backs away. The two of them look at each other, then turn to stare at me. "What is it?" I ask nervously. I don't see how they could have figured out about me and Bill, but I don't know what else could have made them look like that.

"Your mother is still alive?" Sarah asks in disbelief.

I blink at her for a second. There are very few women in Church Canyon over fifty. I never found any organized system to get rid of them, but not many seemed to make it past their childbearing years.

"Yes, she is," I answer carefully. "I told her about you, and she's looking forward to meeting you. You'll meet Bill, too--he should be back soon."

"Is Bill the one that Heather knows?" Sarah asks.

"Yeah, that's him," I confirm.

"Heather wanted us to stay with her, but they wouldn't let us," Ruth interjects. "She's twenty, but they said that's too young. That doesn't make any sense. Twenty is old enough to have kids, even out here, isn't it?"

"Uh, she could have one of her own, but foster parents need to be at least twenty-one," I answer.

"That's dumb," Ruth says, "but I don't want to live with Heather anyway."

"Ruth, quiet," Sarah says warningly, but Bill comes in before I can get to the bottom of it.

"Hey," he says, stopping at the threshold.

"Hey, Bill, come meet Sarah and Ruth," I say. He nods, smiling a little, and comes into the room.

He greets them with respect and a little caution, shaking their hands and looking them in the eye. They're shy at first, but he doesn't push, just hangs out with us, sitting back, letting them come to him. He doesn't play them like he did my mother, doesn't try to charm them; instead, he's gentle, quiet, genuine. I watch him with them, confirming what I knew instinctively the night I met him. Billie's a lucky kid.

He tells them about Billie, pulling her picture out of his wallet, catching my eye and smiling. He confirms for Sarah that he is the same guy she saw in Agent Perkins' People. He agrees to play them a song or two on his guitar later. By the time he's been there an hour, they've gotten pretty comfortable with him. It's nice to see, especially considering their usual response to adult men.

Sarah's brought some cookies, and when Bill brings the container over to me he puts his hand on my shoulder. He leans over me just a little longer than he needs to, his hand warm through the thin cotton of my t-shirt. I can feel his breath near my ear when he reaches over me with his other hand to take a cookie for himself. I can see Sarah and Ruth sitting on the sofa, safe and healthy. I take a shaky breath, overwhelmed. Bill squeezes my shoulder and presses his lips quickly to my temple.

"You okay?" he asks softly.

"Yeah," I answer, reaching up to cover his hand with mine. "I'm--it's good, having them here. And having you here."

"You are such a girl," he murmurs, turning his hand over to clasp mine briefly, then letting it go. "Eat your cookies already."

I can see that Sarah's watching us, but she doesn't look upset, just a little curious. I smile at her as Bill moves towards the sofa, and she smiles back.

They brought more than just cookies--there's macaroni and cheese, an apple pie, and drawings from Ruth, "so you can decorate your room." I've got gifts for them as well, a laptop and cell phones. They're excited, but they've never used a computer before, so Bill says he'll take them down to the lobby later to introduce them to the web using the hospital's free wireless. I program my room's phone number into the cell phones so they won't have to rely on their foster parents' long distance to call me.

My mother shows up just after lunch. At first she's a bit taken aback by their fascination with her, but she warms to them quickly. Before long she's talking with Sarah about pie crust recipes and with Ruth about Baltimore. I catch her looking at me quizzically now and again, but when she sees me she always smiles, and they seem as delighted by her as she is by them.

Both girls have had turns in the lobby with Bill by late afternoon. He comes back with Sarah and asks if anyone's getting hungry. Bill asks Ruth if she'd like to join him and my mother when they go pick up dinner, just as I'd asked him to do once I knew the girls were coming to visit.

Sarah almost heads out the door with them, but I stop her with a hand on her arm. "Hey, kiddo, why don't you stay and keep me company?"

"Okay," she says, waving the others off.

She immediately asks me some questions about my leg she's obviously been saving for when Ruth's not around, so I guess I'm not the only one who was waiting for some time alone. I think I'm able to reassure her that I really am doing all right, although she's a little distressed when the nurse and orderly come in to help me back into bed.

"I'm glad you're okay," she says after I've reassured her some more.

"Yeah, me too," I say. "And I'm glad we got a chance to talk."

"I miss our walks," she says, sighing. Then she looks at my leg and turns red. "No, I mean--I miss talking to you. I didn't mean--"

"It's okay, Sarah. I miss our walks, too," I tell her. "But we can still talk, and we'll go for walks again some day. You can always talk to me, no matter what--you know that, right?"

"Right," she says, looking down.

"How's it going, Sarah? Are you really okay?" I ask, putting my hand on her shoulder.

"Yeah, I'm okay," she says, looking up. "Really."

"Have you talked to anyone about what happened?" I ask gently.

She frowns. "Yeah. I talked to your boss, and I talked to Agent Perkins, and I talked to a counselor."

"That's good--the counselor, I mean," I tell her. "Are you going to see her again?"

"Once a week. They said I had to," she mutters. "Ruth's going, too, but she's seeing a different one."

"Don't you like the counselor?"

"She's okay," she admits grudgingly. "Her name is Hannah. I just--I'd rather not talk about it anymore, you know?"

"Yeah, I know," I say, "but I think it'll help. Are you still having nightmares?"

"Not every night," she says.

"Good, that's good," I say inanely. I don't know what to say to her--nothing I could say would ever be enough.

She fidgets with a magazine for a minute, then says, "Can I ask you something?"

"Of course you can."

"This guy, Bill, how did you meet him?"

That wasn't the question I was expecting, but I can go with it. "I met him a few days before I went to Church Canyon. He plays in a band, and Eli--did you know Eli?"

"Yeah, Daniel's brother," she says, nodding. "Agent Scott said he died."

"That's right," I say, wincing. "The thing is, Eli was helping me get ready, helping the FBI prepare for the investigation, when he was killed. He was a fan of Bill's group, Jenifur, and they met before the concert--Bill met Eli, I mean. Bill saw some of the people who killed Eli, so I had to interview him, get his statement about who he saw. That's how we met."

I brace myself for questions about Eli's death, but instead she asks, "Is he gay?"

"What?" I say, stunned. "Do you even know what 'gay' means, Sarah?" I ask cautiously.

"I think so," she says slowly.

"What do you think it means?"

"It means homosexual," she says, watching me carefully. "It means men who like men more than women."

"Two men together, yes, or two women," I clarify, watching her just as carefully.

"Girls can be gay?" she asks, surprised.

I nod.

"The Prophet said it was a mortal sin," she says after a moment.

"The prophet said a lot of things," I answer slowly.

She frowns. "Do you--people out here--Hannah said we don't have to believe what the Prophet said, not anymore?"

"That's right," I answer.

"Daniel is, isn't he?" she asks warily. "Gay, I mean?"

"Yeah, he is," I say as mildly as I can. "How do you feel about that?"

She shrugs, but I can tell she's looking to me for cues. "Hannah said there wasn't nothing wrong with it."

"I don't think there's anything wrong with two people loving each other, do you?" I ask gently, my heart pounding.

"No, I guess not," she says, shaking her head. She thinks for a moment. "No, there isn't," she says more firmly.

"Good," I say, more relieved than she could possibly know.

"So, Bill is too?" she asks again. "I read in a magazine that he was."

"Yeah, Bill's gay," I answer, risking a smile.

"I thought so," she says. She pauses, looking at me for a moment.

"What is it, Sarah?" I ask, pretending nonchalance.

"Does he--I think--does he kind of like you?" she asks tentatively.

"Yeah, honey, he does," I answer, rubbing my forehead, hiding a smile.

"Wait," she says, her eyebrows raised. "You--wait. You like him, too?"

I nod. "Does that bother you?"

"No, I guess not," she says, considering. "I just, I thought you liked girls. I mean, women."

"I--it's kind of complicated, Sarah. I've dated, uh, I've been with women before, but I, I'm with Bill now, just Bill," I stutter, hoping she'll understand.

"Because you don't believe in the Principle," she says, looking at me slyly, "so you can't be with more than one person."

"That's right," I say, laughing in relief.

"Did you like Elizabeth the same way you like Bill?" she asks, and my laughter changes to coughing. I sip some water, trying to recover some equanimity. Sarah waits patiently for me to finish and answer her question.

"No, not really," I say eventually, trying to figure out how much to tell her. "Elizabeth was, uh, she was attractive in her way, but I, she, she wasn't really the type of person I'd want to spend a lot of time with."

"Because she believed in the Prophet?"

"That was a big part of it, yeah," I say, nodding. "The thing is, though, I didn't love Elizabeth," I answer.

"But Bill," she says hesitantly. "You, do you love him?"

I take a breath. "Yeah," I say quietly. "Yeah, I do."

"Good," she replies firmly.

I smile. "Yeah, I think it's good, too. You know, though, Sarah, not everyone would think so."

"We're not--but it doesn't matter what the Prophet would think, not anymore," she says, worried. "Right?"

"That's right, you don't ever need to worry about him again," I answer quickly. "But there are other people, a lot of other people, who think, uh, being gay is, that there's something wrong with being gay."

"Really?" she asks. "It's not just the Prophet?"

I shake my head. "A lot of people think only a man and a woman should, should be together. The LDS church sees it as a sin," I say carefully. "Some of the same things the prophet taught, they came from LDS doctrine first."

"Oh," she says, swallowing. "So--the Brandons, so they. . . ."

"Probably. I mean, I don't know, and neither do you, not until you meet them. But it's probably best not to talk about me and Bill being together, not to them, not until you know how they'd react."

"Okay," she says, unhappy. "What about Ruth?" she asks, looking up at me.

"Should we tell her, do you mean?" I ask, and she nods. "I don't want to hide anything from her--do you think she'd be able to keep it quiet? Would learning about it upset her at all? She's a lot younger than you are," I add, smiling at Sarah.

"She'll mind me," Sarah answers with a tiny smile. "I think she'd want to know--she's worried you don't have no one to take care of you."

"Anyone," I correct absently, ruffling her hair. "Okay, we'll tell her later."

"Okay," she agrees.

"You're fantastic, you know that?" I ask, squeezing her shoulder. "I don't know how you managed it--managed to stay so independent after growing up where you did, but you did. It's amazing."

She smiles shyly. "You helped with that, you know. If you hadn't--if I'd gotten sealed to someone else, I--" and suddenly her eyes are filled with tears.

"Hey, it's okay," I murmur, holding her close, knowing it isn't. "It's okay, Sarah. You're safe now."

She pulls away after a minute, wiping her eyes. I hand her the tissues from the table. "Thanks," she says after blowing her nose.

"You're welcome," I answer. "Sarah--you know, if there's ever anything you and your sister need, anything at all. . . "

"I know," she answers. "I just wish. . . ."

"What do you wish?" I ask gently.

She shakes her head. "I know it sounds stupid, but sometimes I miss it. Not the, not the town, or the people, or any of that, the bad stuff. Just, it was nice, our house, wasn't it?"

"It was," I agree, knowing neither one of us is talking about the walls and the furniture.

"Hey, tell me about how it's been going with your tutor," I say after a moment, figuring it's time for something with less emotion attached to it. "What have you been studying?"

"Everything," she says, waving her arms theatrically, smiling gamely. We talk about history and English and geography until Bill, Ruth, and my mother return with dinner.

They stay until the beginning of night shift, until Ruth's about to fall asleep. Agent White still has to practically drag them out of the room. They promise to call me soon, but I know they may not have much opportunity once they're living with their new foster family.

Sarah calls me the next afternoon, and I talk to both of them a few days later, but they're pretty busy with school and trying to fit into their new life, so they can't talk long. The Brandons don't sound like any better a fit than I thought they would be, especially for Sarah, but I try to remain neutral and supportive. What else can I do?

Bartlett comes in the next day, but it's mainly to update me on the investigation. I've finished giving my testimony; all that's left is occasional clarification. All the UBCC defendants have been indicted, and most of them have been denied bail. All that's left are the trials, and they probably won't start for close to a year.

My mother's flown back to Baltimore, Ruth and Sarah are busy with their new foster family, and Bill's getting ready to leave for LA. I'm not looking forward to the time alone, but Bill says if he spends a few days there now, he'll get them off his back for the next few weeks.

"Besides, I've got the new shit to play for them," he says the night before he leaves.

"Those songs you've been working on?" I ask.

"Yeah. I don't know if they'll want to put them on the new album or not, but they might," he answers.

"They should," I tell him, cuffing him on the shoulder. "They're really good."

He shrugs, but I can tell he's pleased. "Hey, Nina had an idea she wanted me to run by you."

"Who's Nina again? Is that your manager? Or is it your agent?" I say, teasing.

"No, Alice is my manager, and Gary's my agent. Nina's my publicist," he says, pointing at me. "You talked to her on the phone, when was it, oh, yeah, two days ago. Asshole."

"Oh, right, right," I say, grinning. "Nina. What's her idea?"

"Like I told you before, she thinks the best plan is something we have some control over, picking one media outlet and talking to them, letting them break the story, right? She says a smaller outlet is better--like, better to pick, uh, The Advocate than People. She thinks maybe MuchMusic is our best bet," he finishes, looking at me expectantly.

"I know it makes me sound like a dilettante, but what's MuchMusic?" I ask.

"You are a fucking dilettante," he says, pointing at me again. "You're also from the wrong fucking country. Much is basically the low-rent Canadian version of MTV," he continues. "They were pretty decent when they covered Joe's death, and they're not as big or corporate as all that MTV-Viacom shit. They don't air in the US anymore, but that's not necessarily a bad thing--the information will come from Toronto, not fucking LA. I've done some interviews with them before, and I think they're probably as good as it's gonna get."

"Okay, that makes sense," I say. "So how would it work?"

"They'll send someone down here to interview me. Interview us," he amends. "Probably Hannah Sung or Chris Nelson. I've talked to both of them before, and they were fair enough. I imagine they'll concentrate on the Jenifur angle, but they'll want to talk to you, too. They'll work with us, in terms of what information we want out there, but they'll still probably ask some questions you may not be comfortable with."

"That's okay. I do have some experience dealing with reporters, you know," I remind him.

"Yeah, sure," he says, laughing, "but I doubt you have any experience dealing with reporters like these."

"I don't know, Maria Delgato from WBAL was a pretty heavy-hitter where I'm from," I say, smiling. "When do you think we should do this?"

"Nina thinks pretty soon after I get back from LA, so, a week or two--before your surgery, anyway," he answers.

"Okay," I say, looking at him. The bruises are just about gone, and the new scar over his eye has already started to fade. "If I admit I'm really going to miss you, does that make me June Allyson?" I say, touching his cheek.

He smiles, taking my hand. "Fuck yeah. I get to be Jimmy Stewart for once."

"Just don't let your plane get shot down by the Nazis," I say, then wince, because I am an idiot.

A shadow crosses his face, and he shakes his head. "No, no Nazis."

"No," I say, squeezing his hand. "No Nazis, and no more crazy fundamentalists, either."

"Done," he says, and then he kisses me. I pull him closer, deepening the kiss, but he pulls away after a couple minutes, brushing his thumb against my lip apologetically. "Nurses," he says, eyebrows raised. "And doctors, and orderlies, and you're still hooked up to a couple machines."

"Yeah, yeah," I reply, frustrated.

"We'll figure something out when I get back," he says.

"You promise?" I ask.

"I promise," he says, grinning, "but I'm not bringing you a fucking pony, you fucking baby."

"That's okay," I tell him, pointing at my groin. "I don't want a fucking pony. I want a fucking blowjob."

He laughs. "I don't know how the fuck I can do that with that shit on your leg," he says, "but I guess we'll figure something out."

"Good," I say, "because I'm getting tired of waiting."

"Yeah, I get that," he replies, looking at my mouth. "We'll figure something out," he promises again.

I'm brushing my teeth the next evening, looking in the mirror. I catch myself staring at my reflection, at the guy with more grey hair than brown, at the scraggly beard. I remember the first time I grew a full beard, how I shaved it off when I accepted the FBI's job offer. When Tammy comes in to do her evening assessment, I ask for a razor.

Part Four

in straight lines through shadows you're there
where the future lies
There's no escaping this dream

Bill's been gone a week, and he's due back this afternoon. It's been pretty boring without him; I haven't even talked to Sarah or Ruth for longer than five minutes in a couple weeks. I don't think the Brandons are any too thrilled at our conversations, but at least they haven't taken the phones away from the girls. I wish they'd get a chance to come visit again, but it doesn't seem very likely, and it's not like I can just pop up to Flagstaff in my wheelchair with my FBI protective detail. I'll have to wait until I'm released from the hospital to see them again.

Bill had to stay in LA a couple days longer than he'd originally planned, and I've missed him even more than I thought I would. I've talked to him every day on the phone, usually more than once. Even given the intensity of the time we've spent together, it's crazy to be as certain as I am about him--all told, we've still spent less than a month together--but he's become the center of my life.

The nurses and aides have been gentle, competent, and thorough, but they do everything so efficiently I'm reminded of the assembly-line feeling I got in the hospital in Baltimore. I suppose after nearly three weeks they know me a bit better than they usually know their patients, but that doesn't change the basic fact that taking care of me is their job, nothing more.

This morning it's Harriet who brings me what I need for my bath. She and Miguel, the respiratory therapist, help me into the chair. She changes the bed and leaves before I'm done shaving, leaving me alone to finish up, which is a lot easier than it was even a couple days ago. My leg is still impossible to ignore, but the rest of me is in much better shape than those first few days after I woke up.

I'm just pulling a shirt on when there's a knock at the door. Bill comes in, wearing the Baltimore PD t-shirt I gave him that morning in Salt Lake City. My heart skips a beat when I see him, and I start grinning like a fool.

"Hey," I say, "I wasn't expecting you until later."

"Got an early flight," he says, and he's grinning too. He crosses the room, dropping his bags next to the sofa, and comes to the chair. "Hey, you shaved--it looks good. You look good--like you're doing good," he adds, kissing me.

"I am," I reply, pulling him closer for another kiss. "How was LA?"

He shrugs, still smiling. "It was fucking LA. I did my job, and now I'm back. How was here?"

"My ribs are pretty much healed, and the new chair came, and I got rid of the beard," I say, shrugging. "That's been the highlight until now."

"Until now, huh?" he asks, touching my cheek.

"Yeah, until now." I finger the collar of his t-shirt. "This looks familiar."

He ducks his head. "It was in LA, at the house."

"I'm glad you kept it."

"Why, you want it back?" he asks slyly.

"No," I say, shaking my head, unable to stop smiling. "No, you keep it. It looks good."

"So do you," he says. "Fuck, you look great," he murmurs, fingers lingering on my cheek.

"Yeah?" I ask, leaning into his touch.

"Yeah," he says softly. Then he reaches up to knock the Orioles cap my sister sent me off my head. "Except your hair. Your hair looks like shit," he adds, laughing.

"I need to wash it," I say sheepishly. "I could use some help with that."

"Sure. I'll just go tell the nurses, make sure one of the sinks downstairs is free, make arrangements with your security detail, and then we'll go wash your fucking hair," he says, ticking things off on his fingers, his eyebrows raised. "Glad to be of use."

"Hey, hey, you're supposed to be of use," I tell him. "You're my care partner, remember?"

"Yeah, well, I didn't know you were gonna be such a fucking slave-driver," he replies. "How the fuck did you survive without me?"

"Oh, it was terrible," I tell him. "The nurses ignored me, no one fed me, and I haven't had a bath in a week."

"I can tell," he says, wrinkling his nose at me.

"Fuck you," I say, laughing.

We end up having to wait until after lunch to go downstairs. I barely notice what's on my plate; all I can do is stare at Bill, at his fingers, his mouth, his eyes. He's watching me just as intently. Neither of us says much, but it feels like the night we met--that same current running between us, both of us hyperaware.

When he helps me into the wheelchair, I breathe in, taking in the scent of his skin, the soap he uses, the faint traces of tobacco. His arm tightens as he pulls me up, and for just a moment I'm upright, balanced on my good leg, leaning into him, and I have to fight the urge to bury my face in his neck and taste his skin. We stand there for a moment, both of us breathing more deeply than is strictly necessary, and then he kisses my cheek and lets me gently down into the chair, his hand caressing the back of my neck before he moves around to help position my legs and feet.

"You ready?" he asks after he takes off the brakes.

"Yeah," I answer hoarsely. "Yeah, I'm ready."

We make small talk with Lempke and Phillips on the way down to the room the hospital's set up as a combination barber shop and beauty salon for long-term patients. We nod at the stylists who are volunteering that day, heading for the back of the room. They've got sinks like the ones in commercial salons, some with chairs, some adapted for wheelchairs. One of the stylists comes back to see if we need help, but Bill waves her off.

The first couple times we did this I just wanted it to be over as quickly as possible. I wasn't used to the wheelchair yet, and my leg was killing me. The medications made me nauseated, and I was half out of it from the narcotics. Bill had to work around the IV poles, and neither one of us had figured out the best way to work with the wheelchair.

As my pain became more tolerable, though, I grew to enjoy our trips downstairs. I look forward to them these days, although it wasn't the same this past week. Bill laughed at me when I told him how much I missed him washing my hair, but I think he was secretly pleased.

I'm still aware of the pain in my leg. It always hurts, especially any time I have to change position, but for now it's settled into its usual dull ache. I lean back, and there's a towel on the rim of the sink to support my neck, then there's perfectly warm water cascading over my head, and Bill's long fingers are working the shampoo through my hair. I close my eyes, blissful.

Either he's enjoying himself as well, or he's just noticing how much I am, because he takes his time, his fingers lingering on my scalp. As I'm toweling my hair off afterwards, the stylist, a young woman with long, red, curly hair, comes back in. She looks at me, frowning slightly, then looks at Bill and raises her eyebrows.

"Yeah, I know," he tells her, shaking his head.

"What?" I ask.

"I have some time available, if you'd like a haircut, Mister--?" she says.

"Call me Tim," I say, looking at Bill. "Is it really that bad?"

"Have you looked in a mirror lately?" Bill says. "I mean, I know you weren't exactly in the fashion capitol of the world for the last year, but it looks like you used a fucking weedwacker."

"Okay, okay, I give up," I say, laughing.

The haircut leads to hair products, blow-drying, and styling, which seems a little ridiculous for someone confined to a hospital room, but Bill and Tanya, the stylist are into it, so I go along with it. Every time Tanya turns her back, I see Bill watching me, his eyes focused and intent. A couple times he looks like he's about to reach out and touch my hair himself, but then he'll drop his arm and give me a sheepish smile in the mirror.

I'm half hard, have been off and on since he walked into the room this morning, and I've caught Bill adjusting himself surreptitiously once or twice. I turn and see him doing it again when Tanya goes out of the room for a minute. He meets my eyes and slowly licks his lips, and it goes straight to my dick.

I'm grateful for the blanket covering my lap on the way back up to the room, and Bill's standing closer to the wheelchair than usual. We're in the elevator heading back up to the seventh floor when I try to turn around. Turning around in a wheelchair is just about impossible, especially with a broken leg stuck out in front of you, so I give up and speak to the closed elevator door, knowing the agents standing behind us can't see either Bill's or my face. "Hey, Lempke, uh, you know, Bill and I have a lot we need to talk about, get ready for his testimony next week, so I was wondering if you could do us a favor."

"Sure, Bayliss--what do you need?" Lempke says.

"Do you think we could get some privacy for a while?" Bill asks, his thumb lightly stroking the newly exposed part of my neck. I close my eyes and lean back just a little, glad no one can see my expression.

"Yeah, a couple hours should do it," I say, opening my eyes reluctantly. I can't see the agents' faces, but I can imagine their expressions. They don't give us a hard time, though, just affably agree and suggest we might want to stop at the nurses' station and let them know as well.

We run into Marilyn, who's coming on shift, as we're getting off the elevator.

"Hi, Bill--welcome back," she says. "Tim, you look great."

"Thanks, Marilyn," I say, smiling awkwardly. "Listen, uh, Bill just got back today, and we've got some stuff we need to catch up on, and we'd like to do it without worrying someone's about to walk in. You think you could make sure we're undisturbed for a while, say, uh, say three hours or so?"

"Don't worry about dinner," Bill says casually. "I'll go pick something up after we're done, or you can just hold Tim's tray for him if you want. Just, you know, we'd really like some uninterrupted time together, if that's okay."

"Sure," she says, eyes twinkling. "I just need to get your vitals and do a quick assessment for the beginning of the shift, Tim, and then I'll put a sign up on your door, block your calls, that kind of thing. I'm sure these agents can make sure no one goes into your room, am I right?"

"Yes, ma'am," Lempke says, not even trying to hide his amused grin. "Don't worry, Bayliss, we'll keep everyone out."

"Great," I say, my cheeks flushing. "Thanks. I appreciate it."

"Any time, Tim," Marilyn says. "I know it's not easy--no hospital patient gets much privacy, and it's even worse when you've got twenty-four hour FBI protection. All you have to do is ask, okay?"

"Okay," I say. "Thanks, Marilyn."

"Yeah, thank you," Bill says, and then pushes me down the hall.

As soon as he gets me in the door to the room and shuts the door, we both lose it. He leans over and rests his forehead on my shoulder, shaking with laughter. "Those people out there," he wheezes, "they did not buy your story."

I shake my head, trying to get my breath back. "Not a chance. If any of them had any doubts about us before, they're gone now."

"Fuck, I don't fucking care," he says, pushing me over to the bed and setting the brake. This time, when he pulls me up, I put both my arms around him, cup one around the back of his head, and kiss him. His mouth opens, his tongue meets mine, and I can feel his dick getting hard through his jeans, pressing up against my thigh. We kiss until I lose my balance. I barely make it onto the bed, panting, my erection tenting my boxers.

"Come on, none of that," Bill says breathlessly. "Nothing good's going to happen if you end up on the fucking floor."

He gets me settled, touching me much more than necessary, fingers kneading my shoulders after he moves the pillows, a hand gliding up my thigh until I grab it.

"Fuck, Bill, you'd better stop, or Marilyn's going to get quite a surprise when she comes in."

"No, you're right," he says, pulling away. "I can wait. I, uh, I'm just going to go, uh, go," he says, jerking his head at the bathroom.

I try to read while I wait for Marilyn, but once I hear the water start running in the shower, it's a lost cause. I remember the night we met, listening to Bill shower, wondering, and then later that night, and the next day, God. I groan in frustration and flip on the television, searching until I find a hockey game. It distracts me enough to let my erection subside just before Marilyn knocks on the door.

She has a smile on her face when she tells me my pulse and blood pressure are up a little, but she acts completely professional. She leaves a pain pill by the side of my bed, telling me I can take it if I need to and tell her later. She doesn't say much else, just listens to my heart and lungs, checks out my leg, and does the rest of her normal exam.

I hear the water go off while she's there, but Bill doesn't come out until after she leaves. He's shirtless, wearing faded jeans, toweling his hair dry, and as soon as I see him, it feels like all the blood in my body goes straight to my dick. By the time he makes it over to the bed and sits down on the edge, I'm hard again, getting harder with every heartbeat, and I can tell by the way he's sitting that he's having the same reaction.

"You shaved," I say, cupping his cheek, smooth and warm.

"So did you," he says, touching my chin with his thumb. "You look good without a beard." He looks at me for a moment. "You sure you're ready for this?" he asks, taking my glasses off. "Your leg's okay?"

"Oh, I am definitely ready," I say roughly. "I'm so ready I'll probably embarrass myself. It's not going to take much."

He smiles and starts unbuttoning my shirt. "Is that so? I guess it's a good thing we might have time for a second go-round, then."

"Hey, we've got three hours," I say, leaning towards him, running my hand down his arm. "Maybe we can go for three."

He collapses against my chest, laughing. "You are one ambitious fuck," he says.

"Yeah, that's me," I answer. I put my arms around him, my hands on his back, stroking up and down, feeling the warmth of his skin, finally. I can't stop touching him, reveling in the sensation of his bare chest against mine, his hands traveling up my neck, through my hair, and over my face as he starts mouthing my neck. Finally, fuck, it's finally happening. I moan, pulling him up into a long, deep kiss, feeling like every single nerve ending in my body is firing.

He backs up long enough to finish unbuttoning my shirt and help me out of it, then says, "Lay back," pushing the button to make the head of the bed lower. He pulls the covers down, then takes my boxers off, carefully pulling them over the crap on my leg, and I lie back and watch him do it, breathing hard, my dick twitching, my fists clenched in the sheets, waiting.

He kneels on the bed, puts his hand on my chest, and just stays there, looking at me. I don't know why, but it seems like it's important to him, like maybe he needs to take a moment to realize what's happening here, what we've both been waiting on for well over a year. And I get that, I do, even though I feel like I'm about to come just from him watching me.

"Fuck, Bill, please," I say eventually, because I can't wait any longer, not one more second. He nods, kisses me quickly, and takes his hand off my chest and puts it on me, finally, stroking firmly, and it only takes a few strokes before I'm coming, moaning long and low, the sensation ripping through my entire body. Bill keeps his hand on me until I'm done.

When I open my eyes, he's staring at me, his pupils dilated, face flushed. I reach for the button of his jeans, and he takes a shaky breath, closing his eyes, as I free his dick. He lifts up enough to pull his jeans down to just above his knees. He carefully lowers his body onto mine, moving so he's straddling my left leg and avoiding the right, his erection hot and damp against the crease of my hip. He just stays there, his hips twitching slightly, his head down, holding his weight on his elbows, and I can't figure out what he's doing. Then I get it.

I wrap my arms around his back and pull him to me. "It's okay," I whisper in his ear, "I'm not going to break. It's okay, Bill, come on." He takes a deep breath, then something snaps. I feel a shiver roll up his spine, and he lunges into motion against me, thrusting hard, mouth on my shoulder. I grab his ass and urge him on until he shudders against me and comes without a sound.

I rub slow circles along his back as his breathing slows. He's heavy, heavy and warm and real, and I don't want him ever to leave. He relaxes against me for maybe a minute before I feel the muscles in his back tighten up as he starts to roll off. I hold on tightly. "Stay," I tell him. "It's fine; I feel great. Stay."

He lifts his head. "You sure?"

"Are you kidding me?" I say, laughing. "I just got off for the first time in weeks, Bill. I am feeling no pain. You have no idea how much I needed that."

He smiles. "Yeah, you and me both," he says, brushing my hair back, his voice full of affection. I have to fight the urge to hold him tighter instead of letting him go. He gets up and goes into the bathroom, and I clumsily scoot over until I'm crowded against the left side of the bed. It's getting easier to move on my own, although it still hurts like hell more often than not. I think about taking the pill waiting for me, but decide I can handle a little pain--I don't want to fall asleep, not yet.

Once Bill gets me cleaned up, he slides into the bed next to me, resting his head on my shoulder. "You let me know when you're ready for round two," he murmurs, his eyes closed. "I'll be over here. You might need to wake me up, though."

"I'll do that," I answer, kissing his forehead. "Are you really tired?" I ask, trying to sound calm. I want--I need--to tell him how I feel, but I don't know how he's going to react.

He opens his eyes. "Didn't sleep well the last couple nights. My bed was too fucking comfortable, or maybe it was that I didn't have nurses coming in at odd hours, or your snoring--"

"I don't snore!" I protest, laughing. "You, on the other hand--"

"You go right on believing that," he continues, patting me on the chest. "I don't give a fuck, and I never claimed I didn't snore. I'm just looking forward to a good night's sleep tonight."

"I missed you, too," I say.

"Fucking girl," he mutters, but he's smiling.

"Bill. . . "

He waits for me for a few seconds, then says, "What is it?"

I screw up my courage. "I love you."

"Yeah?" he asks softly, scooting up a little so his head's on the pillow next to me.

"Yeah. For the first time in my life, I don't want--I'm not thinking about any other options, wondering."

He puts his hand on my cheek and just looks at me for what feels like an eternity. I don't know what he's thinking, what he's going to say, but he doesn't look unhappy or upset.

"When I was with Joe," he finally says, "I never told him I how I felt. He knew, but I couldn't tell him. He already had too much fucking power over me. Fuck, we were twenty years of fighting, lying, manipulation. . . . The fact that he admitted he loved me was one of the few weapons I had, and I used it. I used it every fucking chance I had."

He hasn't talked about Joe since the morning he left my hotel room. I nod, waiting for him to go on.

"I found out about Billie on our last tour, and then Joe killed himself. I threw myself into fighting to be part of her life, for her acceptance. None of it was easy," he says, and I nod again.

"I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, but I kept fighting, because I knew how to do that. Eventually I was able to let go a little, and that's when it really started working with her, but it took years."

He pauses. "With you," he says quietly, touching my mouth, "fuck, Tim, loving you is like breathing."

I shut my eyes for a second, kissing his fingers. I open my eyes and exhale. "Yeah?"

"Yeah," he says. "Don't get me wrong, I could definitely do without the part where you almost died, and I'm sure it's not all going to be fucking hearts and flowers, but--this is--fuck, Tim, with you it's easy."

"That's--uh, that's good," I say, my eyes burning.

He runs his thumb under my eye, smiling. "Such a girl."

I laugh shakily. "Back in homicide, they called me the sensitive one."

"The sensitive one--of course they did," he says, his hand on my cheek.

"Yeah, yeah," I say, rubbing at my eyes, embarrassed.

He gives me a moment, then slaps my chest playfully. "How the fuck did you ever make it through cop school, anyway?" he says.

"'Cop school'?" I say, my eyebrows raised.

"Seriously, did they beat you up every day, or just on weekends?"

"No one beat me up, Bill," I tell him. "I graduated at the top of my class. I was taller than anyone else, I was the best shot, and I was in great shape. Plus I was a few years older than the worst of the assholes," I add as an afterthought.

"You were? Why?" he asks.

"Uh, because they joined the force right out of high school, and I went to college first," I answer.

"You went to university?" he says, surprised.

"Yeah," I answer, realizing he didn't. Of course he didn't. "Bachelors in criminal justice, minor in drama. I, uh, before I went undercover I was working on my masters part-time," I add. "The Bureau doesn't accept special agents over uh, older than thirty-seven, so they recruited me as an MCS with the understanding I'd get an MBA. I was never supposed to be a field agent, but then I started working the Church Canyon case."

"You--okay, MBA, fine, what the fuck ever. You minored in drama?" he chokes, laughing.

"Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm a fucking girl," I retort, pulling him closer. "Shut the fuck up and kiss me already. Girls don't have to worry about refractory periods, and you promised me a round two."

He cracks up again, but his hand moves to my groin and starts leisurely fondling my dick. "Fuck, I guess you're not a girl after all," he says as it responds to his touch.

"I'm really not," I agree, heaving myself onto my side with a grunt. "Ow, shit--stick that pillow under my knee, would you?"

"You okay?" he asks as he fishes a couple pillows off the top of the bed and positions them under my leg. "I see Marilyn left you some drugs--you need to take them? I can get you some water."

"I told you already, I'm fine," I say irritably, pushing him back, ignoring the twinges in my ribs. I wish I could roll on top of him, but I settle for holding him down, glad I've regained some upper body strength from PT. "I have a broken leg, that's it; everything else is healed."

"Don't fucking bullshit me, Tim," he says, jabbing me in the chest. He stares pointedly at the bruises from the shots of blood thinner, the white compression stocking on my good leg, the healing contusions and new scars. "I get that you're feeling better--believe me, I'm pretty fucking happy about that--but you've got a shitload more going on than a simple broken leg, or you wouldn't be here."

"Yeah, yeah, I know, I was in a coma for three days; you told me," I retort. "I'm awake now, in case you hadn't noticed. I have been for weeks."

"Awake, yes, but on about a dozen different medications," he says, eyes narrowed.

I drop my head and sigh. "Yes, okay, all right. Point taken. Seriously, Bill, I feel fine. Could we please get back to round two?"

"You really okay?" he says.

"I really am," I reply, tamping down my annoyance. "Yes, my leg hurts. My leg always hurts. But I don't need any pain pills, not yet. What I need, what I need right now, is for you to shut up and put out already."

"That's what you need, huh?" he asks, starting to smile.

"Any time now, Boisy," I answer, running one finger slowly over his collarbone. "I mean, if you're up to it. You are my care partner, right? Take care of me already."

"What, like this?" he asks, then leans in and kisses me softly.

"Yeah, like that," I say between more kisses, "only more."

"I can do that," he says, and that's the last thing either one of us says for a long time.

Both of us fall asleep after round two, neither of us waking until Marilyn buzzes to remind me I've got a nine o'clock antibiotic.

"Okay," I say blearily, "uh, give me a few minutes, all right?"

"No problem," she answers cheerily.

I look at Bill, see him gazing back at me. "So much for round three."

"Hey, two plus a nap is pretty fucking great, as far as I'm concerned," he says, smiling. "We're not teenagers anymore."

"Adolescence is over-rated," I say, waving my hand dismissively. "We're in the prime of our lives, here."

"Maybe," he says. "I wouldn't mind doing it in a regular bed again one of these days, though. I think I pulled something in my back."

"Where?" I ask, reaching around and massaging his lower back.

"Mmmm, there's good," he murmurs. "Fuck, it was totally worth it, though."

"It was, wasn't it?" I ask, grinning. "Too bad the nurse is going to be here any minute."

"Shit, I'd better get dressed," he says, moving to sit up.

"Wait," I tell him. "Just one more minute, okay?" He kisses me agreeably for a moment, then pulls back.

"Sorry," he says. "I know Marilyn's seen you naked, but that doesn't mean she needs to see my skinny ass."

"I like your skinny ass."

"You would," he says, getting out of bed, grabbing his clothes, and heading into the bathroom.

Marilyn comes in a few minutes later. "How are you feeling?" she asks, and the twinkle is definitely back in her eye.

"Good, good; I feel good," I say, sure I'm blushing. "I'm hungry, though," I add as Bill comes out of the bathroom.

"We had a party for Charlene tonight," Marilyn says. "It's her first night on evening shift after her orientation. There's plenty of food, if you guys want some."

"Oh, you don't have to do that," I protest, but my stomach growls right after I close my mouth, and Marilyn just laughs.

"It's no problem," she says. "I think we've started thinking of you as some sort of unit mascot, Tim. Consider yourself an adopted member of the family. You too, Bill."

"Adopted, huh?" I ask, startled.

"Absolutely," she says, smiling. "It won't be the same around here when you're gone. You'll have to come back and visit us."

"We will," Bill answers. I turn and look at him, musing, and then suddenly everything's clear. Well, almost everything.

Marilyn finishes hanging the antibiotic and leaves, and I'm still staring at Bill.

"What is it?" he asks.

"I--I think I'm moving to Flagstaff," I say, surprised at how simple it sounds. "After I get out of here, that's where I'm going."

"Flagstaff, huh?" he says, looking down and rubbing the back of his head. "For Sarah and Ruth?"

"Yeah. I want to adopt them, Bill," I say in a rush. "I want to get them away from the Brandons and adopt them, and the first step, it's becoming their foster parent. And I can't do that unless I'm living in the same county as they are."

He sits back in the chair. "No, I guess not."

"They don't have anyone else, Bill," I say urgently, willing him to understand. "Their parents, their real parents, they're both dead. Shit, their father probably killed their mother. And I--yeah, I love them, I love them like they're my own kids."

"No, I get it," he says slowly. "I've seen you with them--the three of you are a family already. I was thinking maybe you'd come to LA, but I get it."

"A family, yeah, but--" He wanted me to come to LA. If it weren't for Sarah and Ruth, I'd be wherever he was, no question. "Listen, come with me," I tell him, because I'm an idiot and didn't say it right away.

"What do you mean?" he asks, looking at me intently.

"Move to Flagstaff with me," I say. "I mean it, Bill. Come with me. Be part of my family, of, of our family. Even if it's just for weekends, even if you have to be in LA during the week, live with me, with us, when you can. I need you there. I want to be with you."

He looks at me, his chin in his hand, elbow resting on the armrest. After a moment he drops his hand and sits up. He leans forward, and then he nods, rubbing his thumb behind his ear. "Flagstaff, huh? I guess it's not much further from LA than Phoenix, right?"

"You're a rock star--you could always buy a jet," I joke nervously. "A direct flight can't be much more than a couple hours."

He nods again, smiles, holds out his hand. I take it, we shake, and he says, "Done."

"Just like that?" I ask, not letting his hand go. He squeezes it and nods.

"Why the fuck not?" he says, shrugging, his smile broadening. "It's not like there's anything in LA besides the band. Billie's up in Regina, and she can come to Arizona as easily as California. I spend half my time on tour, anyway, and I'd rather come home to you than an empty house."

"That sounds--fuck, Bill, that sounds great," I say. He leans over and kisses me.

"I should have known you'd start this fucking emo shit again," he says, catching the corner of my eye with his thumb. "You are one weepy fucker."

"Yeah, that's me," I say, pulling him closer. "Shut up and kiss me again."

He does, laughing as he bends over the bed rail. "I have one condition--a decent bed. A big one--you take up a lot of room, even without a fucking broken leg."

"You've got a deal," I tell him. "Shit, I don't even own a bed anymore--I sold all my furniture before I came to Salt Lake to prep for the assignment."

He looks at me when I say that, but he doesn't say anything about it, just mentions he'll see about finding a realtor tomorrow.

"A realtor?" I say, surprised. "Oh, yeah, yeah, I guess that makes sense." I blink as the reality of what we've just decided sinks in.

"What, you think you're going to live in an apartment with me and two kids?" Bill asks, eyebrows raised. "Plus Billie, when she visits? We need a house with at least five bedrooms. I'm richer than fuck, so we can afford it. And don't give me some bullshit about not accepting charity," he adds, looking at me sharply, "because I expect you to contribute a sizeable chunk of that salary you've been racking up for the last fifteen months."

I think about protesting, try to rustle up some righteous pride, but in the end I agree and shake his hand again.

***

Hannah Sung from MuchMusic arrives with her crew the next afternoon.

My first impression is that she's beautiful. My second is that she knows Bill, or Billy Tallent, anyway, better than I do. She greets him with a hug, and he kisses her on the cheek and asks how her dog is doing.

"And this is Tim," he says, after they've finished the small talk.

"Nice to meet you," she says, her handshake firm and professional. "We'll mostly be talking to Billy, but I'd like to ask you a few questions as well, if that's okay."

"Uh, sure, I guess," I say, "although you know I can't talk about the UBCC case."

"Oh, believe me, your boss has made that perfectly clear," she says, smiling. "Don't worry--we're a Canadian music network, not CNN."

The interview goes smoothly--Sung has an unthreatening, conversational style, and she's clearly very comfortable in her role. At the end she assures us we'll get a look at the rough cut before it airs, which will probably be in a week.

"That fast, huh?" I ask, looking at Bill.

"Soon as the FBI signs off on it, it'll be good to go," she confirms. "If we didn't have to wait for that, we'd probably run it tonight or tomorrow."

"Thanks, Hannah," Bill says, shaking her hand.

"It's always a pleasure, Billy," she answers, moving towards the door. "Tim, it was really nice to meet you. You two take care, and make sure you keep me in mind for your next exclusive."

The next morning Bill goes down to the gift shop and picks up the Sunday Daily Sun to check out the listings. I read the rest of the paper while he goes through the real estate section, making notes, asking me questions now and again. I tell him I've never bought a house, plus he's got people to do things for him, so he's in charge. He laughs and makes some more notes.

I've just about exhausted my interest in the paper when the phone rings. It's Ruth, and she's crying. I sit up, worried, flashing back to the night Sarah was raped.

"What is it, Ruth? What's wrong?" I ask. Bill puts the classifieds down, leaning forward to listen better.

"Sarah's in trouble, and I'm lost," Ruth wails. "She didn't want to go to church, and the Brandons got real mad. Mr. Brandon hit her, and Mrs. Brandon called her ungrateful and locked her in the closet."

Fuck, oh, fuck. How can something else be happening to those girls? "Where are you, honey? Are you okay?" I ask, striving for calm.

"I'm in the woods," she says. "I told them I'd go to church, but then I ran away so I could call you." Oh, smart girl, smart girl with a cell phone, thank fucking god.

"Are you in the woods near the house, or near the temple, the church?" I ask, gesturing to Bill to get his phone.

"Near the temple. I told Mrs. Brandon I had to go to the bathroom, and I ran out the back."

"That was very smart, Ruth. Okay, I'm going to get you and Sarah out of there, all right? I'm going to hand the phone to Bill in a minute," I tell her, and Bill nods, putting his cell phone on the table next to me. "I want you to talk to him while I call some people to pick you and Sarah up. I don't know for sure who it will be, not yet, but I promise they'll come get you and take care of you, okay? You just need to stay put."

"Okay," she says uncertainly. "They'll get Sarah, too?"

"I promise," I tell her. "They'll come for both of you. It's gonna be okay, sweetie. Tell Bill anything you can about where you are, and I'll be back on the phone in a few minutes," I say, and then I give Bill a quick summary and hand him the phone.

"Hey, Ruthie, it's Bill," I hear him say soothingly as I dial the Flagstaff field office.

"This is MCS Bayliss," I say to Garcia, who picks up the phone. "I need you to go pick up Sarah and Ruth Hancock immediately; you should be able to trace the GPS on their cell phones."

"Excuse me, but why the hell are we picking them up?" Garcia asks, annoyed. "I know you developed some sort of friendship with them, Bayliss, but--"

"Shut the fuck up and listen to me," I interrupt. "Those asswipe foster parents some idiot in DCYF stuck them with hit Sarah, and then they locked her in a fucking closet, and if you don't fucking go get them right now, I will fucking break out of this hospital and come get them myself, do you understand?"

"Okay, okay, I get it, take it easy," Garcia answers. "That still doesn't mean we're the right ones to pick them up, though. Have you talked to the local cops?"

"I don't know the local cops," I say, frustrated. "I know you. I know Bartlett. They're still witnesses in a federal investigation--can't you use that?"

"Listen, I'll put you through to Bartlett if you want, but I think we'll still need to deal with the Flagstaff PD," Garcia says soothingly. "I think one of the secretaries here has a brother on the force--you talk to Bartlett, and I'll talk to the locals. One way or another, we'll get those girls, Bayliss, don't worry."

Bartlett has some pull with the local department, but it still takes a bit of time to work out jurisdiction. Fortunately the local police are quick to act on child welfare cases, and they pick both of the girls up without waiting. Within an hour Sarah and Ruth are back in protective custody, even if no one's quite sure yet whose protection they're under, and the Brandons are in a different kind of custody, about to be interrogated.

I talk to Sarah and Ruth once they're safe. They're scared, both of them, but we're all relieved to have them out of their foster home. Talking on the phone's not as good as being able to see them, but maybe that'll happen soon, and at least now we'll be able to talk as long and as often as we want to. They're safe, anyway, away from the Brandons, and DCYF has agreed to hold off on placing them with another family until the OLCR has reviewed my application to become a foster parent. I've got an interview with the girls' caseworker coming up next week. I was already on edge about it, but now it's more urgent than ever--I can't bear the thought of Sarah and Ruth getting shuffled off into some new foster family, not after everything they've already been through.

Once Flagstaff agrees to let the FBI do the protecting, which takes most of the day, Special Agent Martha Perkins steps up to take the girls. She's been missing her college-aged daughter, knows Sarah and Ruth from earlier, and agrees that they can stay with her as long as they need to. It helps that Bartlett finally agrees to give their caseworker clearance to know where they came from--I think half the reason she thought placing them with an LDS family made sense was that she thought they came from Kanab, not Church Canyon.

I talk to them every day. Both girls were terrified by what happened, but Ruth seems more affected than her sister. She can't stand to be away from Sarah, and she's having nightmares every night. She calls me a couple times late at night, and I stay on the phone with her until she can go back to sleep, but there's not a lot I can do from my hospital room. I know hearing about my plans might help, but I'm reluctant to say anything to them yet--the last thing they need is more disruption and disappointment in their lives.

Bill's up in Flagstaff the day the girls' caseworker comes to the hospital. It turns out they've replaced the woman who sent Sarah and Ruth to the Brandons. The new caseworker, Roberta Dawes, is too professional to give me any details, but the impression I get is that the first woman was fired. I can't say I'll lose any sleep over that decision. Roberta reminds me of Adena's mother, reminds me of the mothers of some of the kids killed as collateral damage in Baltimore. Everything about her implies she'll be the type to fight for the children in her care. I'm comforted by her competence and passion and impressed by her interviewing style, which is direct and thorough.

When she asks me about my relationship with my father, I tell her the truth, and when it leads to a question about abuse, I tell her about my uncle, relieved she doesn't ask for many details. My breath catches in my throat a couple times when we're talking about my detective days, but she doesn't ask about more than the basics, moving quickly on to my relationship with Bill, which is surprisingly easy to talk about.

At the end I'm wrung out, exhausted, and unsure. I'm certainly not ideal parent material, even leaving out. . . what I leave out. Roberta smiles at me at the end, reminding me to get my paperwork in and let them know as soon as Bill and I have found a house. She says she's going to interview Bill tomorrow up in Flagstaff and that I'll hear from her soon. Her attitude suggests I might have passed the test, but I don't trust my read of the situation.

After she leaves, I try to look over some notes Bartlett sent me, but I can't concentrate. I flip on the television, trying to drum up some interest in the news, maybe catch a game on ESPN, but instead I end up staring out the window wondering what the fuck I'm going to do if DCYF decides that the combination of a fucked up, crippled cop and his lover, the gay Canadian rock star, aren't exactly appropriate parents for foster children. Not that Bill's going to be a foster parent, not that he could even adopt with me if he wanted to--not that we've even really talked about that, but it doesn't matter, because in Arizona gay couples can't adopt together, so it'll just be me, but he'll be there too. If it even happens. Fuck, please let it happen. My thoughts just keep going round and round in circles, but that's what it comes down to--please, please, let it happen.

Bill calls an hour after Roberta leaves, pulling me out of one freak out and leading me right into another one. He's found a house--six bedrooms, 6000 square feet, plus a pool. It sounds more like a mansion than a house to me--I think my apartment in Baltimore had 600 square feet. I don't ask how much it is, and he doesn't tell me, but he does say he's sending pictures by messenger.

"The décor sucks, and there are a couple problems, but it's the best I've seen," he says. "I checked, and it's got a gate and security cameras. Lempke's down here this week, so he looked it over--he said it would work. And it's available immediately--we can close by the end of the week."

"That soon, huh?" I say, surprised. Yeah, get with the program, Tim--you wanted this. You want this.

"Yeah," Bill says. "It'll give us enough time, barely, to get it ready before we move in. If you like it, I mean--but, seriously, we're not going to find anything better. I think we should just fucking go for it."

"Wow," I say, exhausted just thinking about it. "I guess we're buying a house, huh?" I hope we'll be able to use those bedrooms. Holy shit.

"You okay, Tim?" he asks sharply.

"What? Yeah, yeah, I'm fine," I answer, distracted. "I guess I just miss you, is all." And I do--all of a sudden his absence is huge, all the air sucked out of the room.

"I'll be back tomorrow night," he says. "Think you can arrange for us to have some time alone? Tell Marilyn we have to decide what color we're painting the living room. That kind of delicate decision making requires complete fucking privacy."

I laugh weakly. "I'll see what I can do."

I dream about my uncle that night. He follows me in to the bathroom. Then Ruth's there, and he's telling her what he used to tell me. I wake up gasping for breath, and I can't get back to sleep. Eventually I just turn on the light and look through the pictures and floor plans some more, making to do lists and wondering what I'm getting myself into, what Bill's getting himself into.

I spend most of the next day on the phone, arranging for wire transfers and moving companies, talking to real estate agents, decorators, and Bill. I focus on the details, because looking at the whole picture is terrifying.

We're buying, redecorating, and furnishing a house that will be ready for us--for all four of us, hopefully--to move into by the time I get out of the hospital in a couple weeks. It's amazing what money will do when there's so much of it to throw around. Amazing how quickly things can happen.

I push everything else out of my mind--nothing else matters, not right now; not knowing doesn't change anything. I keep reminding myself that Bill will be back tonight. It'll be easier when he's here, when he's a solid presence next to me rather than a disembodied voice in my ear talking about escrow and closing costs and moving companies.

Eventually all the papers are signed and faxed, and all the calls that can be made have been. When the phone rings I expect it's Bill telling me he's about to get on the plane, but instead he's calling to tell me the flight's been cancelled.

"Shit," I say, disappointed.

"Yeah, I know, it sucks," he says, his voice flat. "They say the weather should be better in the morning--who knew there were blizzards in fucking Arizona, anyway?"

"I guess it's the altitude, huh?" I say wearily.

"What's wrong?" Bill says. "Is it your leg?"

"No, I'm just tired. Didn't sleep well."

"More nightmares?" he asks.

"Yeah. It's no big deal," I answer.

"Fuck, my battery's about to die," he says hurriedly. "I'll be back tomorrow before lunch. Try to get some sleep, okay?" He hangs up, and I'm left staring out the window again.

I get to sleep fine--that's never the problem--but for the second night in a row I'm back in the bathroom in the house I grew up in, my uncle looming over me.

I wake with a start to Bill's soft voice, his hand on my cheek. I bite back an embarrassing yelp, trying to slow my heart down.

"Hey," he says soothingly, "Hey, it's me, it's okay." It's dark, as dark as it ever gets in the room, anyway, but I can see him standing next to me in his t-shirt and boxers.

"Hey," I answer, turning towards him. "When did you get here?"

"Couple hours ago," he says, sitting on the edge of the bed. "I decided not to wait for morning and just drove on down."

"You didn't have to do that. I'm glad you did, though," I tell him.

He smiles. "Yeah, me too. You ready to go back to sleep?"

I grimace. "No, not yet."

"It was a bad one," he says quietly.

"I--you woke me up before it got too bad," I say. "Thanks."

"You want to talk about it?" he asks.

"Not really," I say, and then realize that's not what's important. "Yeah, maybe." If I can tell Roberta, shouldn't I tell Bill?

"So," he says, after a moment of silence, "what was it about? Was it that girl in Baltimore again, what was her name, Elena?"

"Adena," I correct absently. "No, it wasn't Adena. It was my uncle."

"You have nightmares about your uncle?" he asks, squeezing my hand.

"Yeah," I answer. I take a breath. "Yeah, I do. See, my uncle, my father's brother, he'd follow me into the bathroom, and he'd--for years, starting when I was five--" I stop, because it's not any easier to talk about, even in the dark, because even now I can hear my father calling me a liar.

"He molested you," Bill says flatly.

"Yeah," I say quietly, relieved it's out there. Suddenly it is easier--easier than telling Frank was, anyway.

"Fuck. Shit, Tim--I didn't--fuck," Bill says, rubbing the back of his head. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," I tell him. "It happened a long time ago. I just, I dream about it sometimes."

"Why now?"

I shrug. "Roberta--the girls' caseworker--she asked, you know, she asked about my childhood. I told her," I say. I look at him for a moment, wondering what he's thinking. "That, and the holidays coming up. He--he always came over for Thanksgiving, Christmas, family stuff."

"Fuck," Bill says again. "Goddamned motherfucking. . . ." He takes a breath, looking down at our hands, the lines on his forehead deepening.

"It's okay," I tell him again, meaning it.

"Yeah?" he asks softly. "Is it really? Because I gotta tell you. . . ." He turns away.

Shit. "Bill?"

He shakes his head. "No, I wasn't molested by an uncle, or a father, nothing like that."

"Something, though," I say, sure of it.

He laughs harshly, looking away. "Of all the things we could have in common--fuck. This is pretty fucking ridiculous."

"What happened, Bill?" I ask, using every trick I learned as a detective to keep my voice gentle, my tone mild. "Tell me. Who was it?"

He tugs at his ear, looking down. "Joe," he says after a moment. "Joe, he. . . "

"What did he do?" I ask tightly.

"Last tour--not the reunion tour, the last real tour, before I left for LA--he was being a cunt, same as always, fucking with everyone and everything, fucking pissing in Seymour Stein's drink. Fucking dink. I was so fucking pissed, got shit-drunk, passed out. I woke up and he was nailing me."

"Joe raped you?" I ask quietly, my hands clenched.

He grimaces. "Yeah, I guess that's what you'd call it," he says reluctantly.

"That's what it was," I say, furious. "Shit, Bill--"

He holds his hand up. "It's like you said--it was a long time ago. I left, and he's dead." He looks down. "Yesterday was eight years since the fucker offed himself, so I guess I won, huh?"

"I guess," I answer, at a loss. Bill's right--this is a hell of a thing to have in common.

He shakes his head. "Yeah, I won."

"I'm sorry," I say, putting my hand on his cheek.

"Yeah, you're sorry, I'm sorry, everyone's fucking sorry, except Joe and your uncle." He looks at me. "He still alive?"

"No," I answer, remembering George at the end, how small and broken he'd been, such a contrast to the man who terrorized my childhood.

"Good," Bill says, nodding once. "Good fucking riddance."

"It was--I hated him, you know?" I say. "I really hated him. I expected to feel, I don't know, something, when he died. But I didn't, not really."

"You didn't feel anything?" Bill asks.

I shrug, wrung out. "Relief. I guess I felt relieved--at least it was over."

"Yeah," Bill says. "I get that."

"C'mere," I say after a few seconds, pulling him towards me. "I missed you."

"Yeah, I missed you, too," he says, his thumb against my cheek. We stay there for a moment, then he leans in to kiss me softly.

"Mmm," I say, my palm on the back of his head, just resting there, and he licks his lips and kisses me again, the tip of his tongue gently tracing my upper lip.

I run my hands up his back, under his t-shirt, deepening the kiss. He sits back after a moment, looking at me, his fingers on my neck. I can feel my pulse against his fingertip, can feel it in my dick, too. I touch his cheek, then pull him into another kiss, and he climbs on top of me, thrusting his tongue into my mouth. I tighten my arms around him, suddenly desperate for his skin, his touch, and he responds, moaning, kicking the covers down, hands shoving my t-shirt up. I fumble at his boxers, but then he pushes himself away, breathing hard.

I try to pull him back, but he shakes his head, panting. He takes his shirt off and points at the call button. I nod, understanding, and press it.

"Can I help you?" the voice asks after a moment--I think it's Tammy.

"Uh, yeah, Tammy, this is Tim, Tim Bayliss," I say, hoping I don't sound as out of breath as I feel. "I was just wondering, uh, were you planning on coming in any time soon?" Bill, who's in the middle of taking my boxers off, starts laughing, muffling it against my hip, which, fuck, having his mouth that close to my dick doesn't exactly help.

"I can be there in a minute if you need something," Tammy answers, concerned.

"No, no, I don't need anything--in fact, I was hoping you could, you know, stay away for a while. Keep everyone out of the room."

"Sure, I can do that, no problem," she says, sounding like she's fighting a case of the giggles. "I'll need to come in around 6:45 to check your vitals. Will that give you enough time?"

I glance at the clock--it's 2:34. "Uh, yeah, we--I'll see you then." The intercom clicks off, and I shake my head.

Bill looks up from my hip. "You are so fucking smooth," he says, laughing unsteadily.

"I am, aren't I?" I say, pulling my t-shirt over my head before reaching out to touch his hair with a shaky hand. "The thing is, I am smooth. You're really lucky, because you're about to have awkward sex in a hospital bed with me and the hardware on my leg, Bill, because I am really smooth."

He slides up my body for another deep, incendiary kiss. "I'll show you fucking awkward," he says, moving back down the bed. He positions himself on his knees, his feet stuck up against the footboard. He looks ridiculous. He looks incredible. He takes my dick in his hand, leans over, and puts his mouth on me.

Later, after some experimentation, we find a position that lets me return the favor, although he almost lands on the floor trying to avoid falling back onto my leg after he comes.

"You know, in a few weeks we'll be having sex in a regular bed again," he says, climbing in carefully next to me after a trip to the bathroom to brush his teeth. "I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to not putting my life in jeopardy just getting a fucking blow job."

"It sounded like it was a pretty good blow job," I say, moving back to give him some room on the pillow.

"Oh, don't get me wrong," he says, his hand tracing slow circles on my chest. "It was a fucking great blow job, at least until I nearly fucking killed myself. I just, you know, would like to try it in that king sized bed you promised. The one without the evil side rails."

"Sounds good to me," I say, kissing his neck, "but this is good, too." Neither one of us is ready to go to sleep yet, so we talk about the house for a while, then start kissing again, which segues naturally into long, slow, easy sex. We fall asleep afterwards, jammed into the bed next to each other, and neither one of us wakes up until Tammy comes in with the blood pressure machine at 6:45.

"Good morning," she says, smiling broadly. Bill grins back at her, and I hide my face in the pillow and offer up my arm for the blood pressure cuff, relieved we managed to pull the sheet and blanket up before we fell asleep.

"So fucking smooth," he whispers in my ear when she turns her back. I snort.

Bill has to head back up to Flagstaff that day, but he comes back in the evening.

"Your mom called me this morning," he says while we're eating dinner.

"Really?" I ask. I guess she really has gotten comfortable with him. "What did she want?"

"Wanted to see what I thought about Thanksgiving," he says, watching me closely. "I guess your sister and your cousin might want to fly out here, but she wasn't sure how you'd feel, wanted to get my opinion." He pauses. "You never told her about your uncle, huh?"

"No," I say, "I didn't. Shit, Thanksgiving's next week, isn't it?"

"Yeah. I told your mom I'd talk to you about it. What do you think?"

I consider the idea. "Martha's already planning on bringing Sarah and Ruth down for the day." Then I register what he said a minute earlier. "Wait--my mom told you my cousin was coming? My cousin Jim?"

"Yeah, him and your sister," he says. "Why?"

"Did she say--did she mention talking to Jim about it? About me and you?"

"Not specifically, no," he says. "She said the two of you were close, like brothers growing up. I figured you'd be happy to see him."

"I would be," I answer. "I'm just not sure how happy he'll be to see me, given the situation."

"You mean me?" Bill asks. "Cousin Jim have a problem with fags?"

"I--I'm not sure," I say, shrugging helplessly. "I've never really talked to him about it."

"You're like brothers, and you never came out to him?" Bill says, eyes narrowed. "That doesn't make any fucking sense."

"Fuck, Bill, I never even admitted it myself until I was in my thirties," I tell him sheepishly.

"Really?" he asks, surprised.

I nod. "And Jim--we were like brothers, and I love him, but he's--he's set in his ways," I say. At least Bill's Canadian, not Turkish--fuck, that's not fair. Jim's racism, as Frank said, may run deep, but I can't remember him ever making a comment that was particularly homophobic, and I know he's always wanted me to be happy.

"My mother must have told him," I say, thinking. "I'm sure it's fine. I'll call him later. I haven't seen him in--shit, it must be three, no, four years now, right after he and Shannon got divorced."

I look at Bill. "I'd like to see him again. Thanksgiving's as good a time as any--better than most, probably."

"I could probably convince Mary to let Billie take a couple days off school," he says cautiously. "I was up there for Thanksgiving already, but no reason not to do it twice."

I blink at him. "Oh, right. Canada. When was it in Canada?" I ask, because I honestly have no idea.

"Last month, before you--before all this. Speaking of which," he adds, meeting my eyes, "seems like we've got some shit to be pretty fucking thankful for."

"Yeah, we do," I say, nodding. It hits me what we're talking about--I'll be meeting Billie, and my family will be meeting Bill, Sarah and Ruth. That's big. I mean, yeah, Bill met my mother while I was unconscious, and I guess this is going to be easier than that, but still.

"Okay, let's do it," I say quickly, before I can change my mind. "Only--shit, Bill, where the hell will we put everyone?" I ask, looking around the room. "What will we feed them? You can't have Thanksgiving without food."

"Leave that to me," he says, gesturing decisively. "I'll take care of it."

"All right, I'll let you 'take care of it,'" I say, waving my arms. "What the fuck does that even mean, you'll 'take care of it'?"

He shrugs, one corner of his mouth twitching. "It means I'll make a couple phone calls. I'll take care of it."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah, I get it," I say, pointing at him. "The rock star's going to, what, call his people, throw around some money, and make it happen?"

He grins. "Might as well use my fucking fame and fortune for something useful."

"Okay, fine," I say, dropping my head into my hands. "You're buying me a house, you bought me a custom wheelchair, and now you're buying off my family with some expensive holiday party. I'm just going to have to resign myself to being your boytoy."

"My--you--" he says, laughing and pointing. "You are not my fucking boytoy, asshole," he says with false gravity. "You're more like my kept man. No, my kept woman."

"Fuck you, June," I say, and he gives me the finger. "What about the other holiday that's coming up? What are we gonna do for that?"

"What, you mean Christmas?" he says, his mouth still twitching with laughter.

"No, I mean the day after tomorrow. It's your birthday, right?" I ask.

He looks at me, eyebrows raised. "It is, but I don't remember ever telling you that."

"Detective, remember?" I say, tapping my finger against my temple. "Major Case Specialist with the Federal Bureau of Investigation." I need to remember to thank Juanita. She took Bill's information when they treated his injuries and remembered his birthday was in November. Otherwise I never would have thought to check it out, not that he needs to know that. "You gonna answer my question?"

"I don't really give a fuck," he says. "It's not something I tend to celebrate."

"We don't have to do anything big--shit, it's not like I can throw you a party, although I bet the nurses would."

"Those nurses would throw a fucking party for Scott Taggart's dog's birthday," he points out.

"True," I agree. "They do like parties. But what do you want? I mean, I don't want to ignore it, but we don't have to do anything big if you don't want."

"You tell whoever's your nurse that night we need some time alone again," he says, leering. "I don't need a fucking party."

"Okay," I say, smiling, "I'll do that."

I don't have to say anything, though, because the night nurses make a point of telling us when they're planning on coming in. I see a lot of smiles and hear a lot of giggles, and Bill says he's seen groups of nurses suddenly stop talking when he approaches, but there's nothing overt.

Marilyn makes a surprise appearance on Bill's birthday, hours before her normal shift. She says they do have a party planned for later, but suggests Bill and I take a walk now, maybe go get a snack in the cafeteria. She says she's heard they have some really good cookies today. Butter wouldn't melt in her mouth.

"You know what this is about?" Bill asks me. "You have some sort of surprise planned?"

"It's not anything I did, but something's definitely up," I answer as he pushes me into the elevator ahead of Agent Lempke. "Do you know what it is, Lempke?"

He grins. "Not a clue."

"My keen detective instincts tell me this man, this FBI agent, is lying," I tell Bill.

"You know why?" he asks. "It's because he's lying. Come on, Lempke, spill it."

"Nope, sorry, no can do," he replies affably. "The nurses, man, you can't mess with them."

So we do as we're told, go hang out in the cafeteria, which is deserted save for a group, obviously the family of some patient. They descend on us as soon as the youngest woman recognizes Bill. He spends the next half hour signing autographs, answering questions, and posing for pictures. I sit back and watch him do his rock star shit.

Tiffany, the one who recognized Bill, is a dark haired, pony-tailed, bubbly high school student who has to be a cheerleader. She finally notices Bill's not the only one sitting at our table and starts eyeing Lempke appreciatively. I can't blame her--Lempke's got his dimples on full display again. "Who's that, your bodyguard?" she asks Bill flirtatiously.

Bill looks at me, meeting my eyes and smiling warmly. "No, he's not mine. I'm not important enough for FBI protection."

"Actually, Boisy, I'm supposed to keep an eye on both of you," Lempke says, "although it's true he's more important. Special Agent Mark Lempke, FBI. Nice to meet you," he adds, shaking Tiffany's hand and turning his smile up another degree.

"Nice to meet you, too," she says, turning pink. She peers at me, clearly confused and intensely curious. I take pity on her.

"And I'm Tim Bayliss," I tell her, shaking her hand in turn. I still feel a sense of relief every time I introduce myself to someone using my real name.

"Wait a minute, that name's familiar," the older woman says. She bears an obvious resemblance to her daughter, although her hair's been dyed blonde--I bet she was a cheerleader in high school, too. "Where have I heard of you?"

I look at Lempke, and he shrugs. "Isn't that interview supposed to air tomorrow?" he says. "I heard the bosses gave it the okay."

"Yeah," I say, looking at Bill.

"Get used to this," he advises me quietly, "because it's gonna be happening a lot." He nods at Lempke.

"This is Major Case Specialist Tim Bayliss, ma'am," Lempke says smoothly, pointing at me. "He's been in the news a bit lately with the UBCC case."

"Church Canyon? You were the agent in Church Canyon?" the woman says, her hand on her heart. "Oh, my goodness, what you must have been through! You're doing all right, though?"

"I'm fine," I tell her, looking at Bill, who winks at me.

"But how do you know Billy?" Tiffany interrupts. "Did he help you out on the investigation?"

"He did," I say, smiling at him. "As a matter of fact, he saved my life."

"And they lived happily ever after, the end," Bill says, moving behind me and putting his hand on my shoulder. "Maybe we should head back upstairs now."

"Wait--Billy, are you--is this the guy you were talking about in People a couple months ago? Is he your boyfriend?" Tiffany squeals.

"Yeah, I am," I say to Tiffany. It's easy to say--maybe that will change as it becomes public knowledge, but it doesn't feel like it will. Bill squeezes my shoulder.

"Boyfriend?" Lempke mouths silently, wiggling his eyebrows at me. I grin back at him.

"Yeah, he is," Bill says, taking the brakes off the wheelchair. "He's also, although he'll try to tell you different, still recovering from some really bad shit, so if you'll excuse us, I'm going to take him back to his room now."

"Oh, of course," the woman says, smiling at me benevolently, although her oldest daughter, the one with the baby asleep in the stroller, is scowling. "You take care, Agent Bayliss. And you, too, Mr. Tallent," she adds hastily.

The rest of them tell us to take care as well, even the one who looks at us like we're something she'd scrape off her shoe, but eventually Bill manages to start push the wheelchair out the door.

"Hey, you talked about me in People?" I ask when we get to the elevator.

"Well, not by name, asshole, since you were undercover trying to be a fucking hero at the time," he says. "They wanted to know if I was available, and I said I wasn't. I told them that I was seeing someone."

"That's real sweet, Boisy," Lempke says. "Very romantic."

"Fuck off," Bill says genially. "You think they're ready for us to come back? Fuck that, we're coming back anyway."

Lempke just laughs and escorts us down the hall to the room.

It seems like half the nurses from the floor are inside, most of them standing in front of the bed. They move away when Bill pushes my chair further into the room, letting us see that the bed's--the bed is different.

"What the fuck?" Bill asks. "Is it my imagination, or--"

"It's not your imagination," I say. "It's bigger."

"Surprise!" Tammy says, grinning--well, smirking. "It's a new model--the hospital only got them in a few weeks ago. Marilyn got Dr. Taggart to order one for you."

"Because you're so tall, Tim," Marilyn says, smiling demurely. Three quarters of the room laughs, including Bill.

"Uh, thank you," I say. "It looks, uh, very comfortable."

"It's got some new features, too, that should help you getting in and out," Tammy adds, still smirking.

"Great," I say weakly.

"Well, we'll let you try it out," Tammy says, and then she can't take it any more and starts sniggering again. "Happy birthday, Bill!"

The whole horde of them troops out, leaving me and Bill alone with Marilyn.

"I'm sorry if we embarrassed you," Marilyn says apologetically. "Tammy gets a little out of hand sometimes."

"I think it's fucking awesome," Bill says, grinning at me. "Best birthday present I've gotten in a long time."

"It's, it's very thoughtful," I say, my face burning. "Really. Very thoughtful. Thank you."

"You're welcome," she says, starting towards the door. "Oh, and by the way, Dr. Taggart put another new order in your chart, after he ordered the bed. You're not to be disturbed between 11:30 and 6:45. He said that plus the new bed should help your, uh, insomnia. We all thought you were looking a bit tired lately."

Bill snorts, and I start laughing as well. "I'm sure it will help," I finally manage to get out, "with the insomnia, I mean."

"I'm off tonight, but I'll see you tomorrow," she says cheerily. "Happy birthday, Bill."

Bill and I try out the bed's various official uses until dinner. I give him a card, the best I could find in the hospital gift shop, and a set of leather picture frames with photos of me, Billie, Sarah and Ruth that he can take with him when he's on tour.

"This is a pretty fucking girly gift," he says, tracing the edges with his finger. "I like it, though. Thanks."

"You're welcome," I answer. "Happy birthday."

Then the nurses bring in the cake. They really do love any excuse for a party.

It may not be king-sized, but the new bed is definitely adaptable. We find some uses for it that I doubt the manufacturers intended, and then we sleep more comfortably than either one of us has in weeks. When Tammy comes in to check my blood pressure at 6:45, Bill doesn't even wake up. I just smile at her and go back to sleep.

***

Billie arrives the day before Thanksgiving, about an hour before my mother. Bill picks them both up and then brings them to the hospital. Billie's older than the pictures I've seen--she's thirteen now, almost as old as Sarah. Her brown hair's perfectly cut and styled, her outfit right out of the pages of a magazine, and I think she's got some lip gloss on, but despite her outward sophistication, her wide blue eyes have an innocence that's been missing from Sarah and Ruth for months. I can't help but wonder how the three of them will get along when they meet tomorrow.

Billie's a little shy, but she and Bill are obviously crazy about each other, and she seems happy to see him happy. I'm not sure how she feels about me, but she seems to like my mom. Then again, everyone likes my mom.

I get the phone call I've been waiting for while all three of them are out shopping. I tell Bill about it that night, but we decide to wait to tell everyone else until the next day. I have a hard time not saying anything to Sarah and Ruth when I talk to them on the phone, but it'll be better in person.

They arrive the next morning, and I almost spill the news right then, but I settle for hugging them tightly. The rest of the morning is spent with just Bill, me, and the three kids. My mother and Martha go off to run some last minute errands, or so they say--I think they just want to give the five of us some time alone. I'm nervous as hell, and I can tell Bill is, too, but after some initial awkwardness, the three girls settle into getting to know each other.

Billie takes the lead, clearly enjoying the opportunity to show off her vast knowledge of everything from popular music to Rodeo Drive. Ruth is star-struck, hanging on every word--I wouldn't be surprised if she were ready to get her hair cut tomorrow, if Billie were there to advise her. Sarah's more reserved, but I can see she's just as fascinated as her younger sister. Bill sits on the bed next to me, fingers loosely tangled with mine, and the two of us mainly just watch the girls, interjecting a few words here and there.

Thanksgiving in Phoenix is as bright, sunny, and warm as it's been every day for the last month. Jim, Lisa, and Emily are on the same flight, and it arrives on time that afternoon. The room's getting a little crowded when Bill clears his throat and says it's time to go downstairs. He's taken care of Thanksgiving dinner by having the meal catered in one of the hospital's conference rooms.

The room's nothing special, just the kind of windowless basement room with accordion-folded walls that allow expansion for big medical conferences, but the long table's been set beautifully by the caterers, with candles and fine china and an abundance of delicious food. Everyone's talking to each other, everyone seems to be getting along, and my mother and sister keep looking at me and smiling.

It's the first holiday I've spent with family in years. Maybe it's that I haven't seen any of them at all in so long, or maybe it's the strangeness of the setting, but for once I'm able to simply enjoy myself. It's nice having them there--my mother, hugging everyone she sees. My sister Lisa, greyer than the last time I saw her, brown eyes a little careworn, but relaxed and happy to see me. My niece Emily, in high school now, tall and beautiful and sharp as a tack. My cousin Jim, seemingly doing well since his divorce, more at peace than I've ever seen him. Bill, Billie, Sarah, and Ruth. My family.

Once everyone has dessert and coffee, Bill turns to me. "You ready?" he asks softly.

"Yeah," I answer, nodding. He pulls my chair out from the table and stands next to me, his hand resting lightly on my shoulder.

"Uh, everyone, if I could have your attention," I say, "I have some news." Everyone turns toward me expectantly.

"Is it about your surgery, son?" my mother asks.

"That's part of it, yeah," I answer, wondering how they're going to react. I've never come out to--well, I've never really come out to any of them, except for Sarah, although it's got to be pretty obvious by now. That doesn't mean they'll understand the decisions I've made.

"Spill it, Teej--what's going on?" Jim says. I never did call him, but he's shown no signs of discomfort with the situation. He shook Bill's hand cordially enough when they met, and he's smiling now--maybe he really has found enough peace in his life to accept my sexuality.

"Yeah, yeah, hold on a minute," I say, my hand up. "Yes, my surgery's been scheduled. It's going to be on Tuesday morning, and if everything goes well, I'll be released from the hospital by Friday, a week from tomorrow."

"That's wonderful news, son," my mother says.

"What happens then?" Ruth asks.

"I'm glad you asked, honey," I say. She and Sarah are sitting next to each other, watching me closely. "Bill and I bought a house in Flagstaff. We're moving there when I get out of the hospital."

"Flagstaff?" Ruth whispers, turning to her sister in disbelief.

"There are, uh, the new house is big," I say, unable to take my eyes off the two of them. "It's got a couple guest rooms, a room for Billie--and rooms for Sarah and Ruth."

I take a shaky breath. "Girls, I didn't want to tell you until I knew for sure, but I applied to be your foster parent. Roberta called yesterday to let me know the application was approved. How would you feel about moving in with me and Bill?"

Everyone's quiet. Jim's smiling, but there's some sadness there, too--he's probably missing his kids. My mother reaches into her bag for a kleenex, handing another to Lisa. Ruth jumps up and throws herself into my arms, her eyes shining, but Sarah just stares at me in disbelief.

"Sarah?" I say gently, worried. "Are you okay, honey?"

She nods slowly. "Really?" she says finally, her voice breaking.

"Yeah, really," I say softly, stretching my free arm towards her.

She smiles, tears in her eyes, and stumbles over to join us. She hugs me tightly, then Bill, then her sister.

"You got your wish, Ruthie," she says.

"You wished for this?" Bill asks, putting his arm around Ruth.

"Me too," I murmur, scrubbing at my eyes, and Sarah hugs me again.

"I wished for it on my birthday, when I blew out the candles," Ruth says. "I can't believe it came true--is it really true?"

"Yeah, honey, it is," I tell her. "If the two of you are happy about this--"

"We are," Sarah interrupts, kissing my cheek. "We--this is--" She stops and takes a breath, wiping her eyes. "We're happy, aren't we, Ruth?"

"We are," Ruth answers, nodding enthusiastically. "Really happy. Really, really happy."

"Good," I say, ruffling her hair. "I'm really, really happy to hear that, because the thing is, I've got some more paperwork, and I've got a lawyer. It'll take time, maybe a year or so, but I don't want to just be a foster parent."

"You're going to adopt us?" Sarah asks.

"That's the plan, yeah," I answer simply.

"That's--" she says, starting to cry again, "that's--"

I pull her into my arms, and Ruth immediately grabs on to both of us, squeezing tightly. When I look up, I can see Bill smiling.

Epilogue

That's what I'm here for
Armed with will and determination
And grace, too

 

The ICU nurses throw a party for us the last night I'm in the hospital, although they moved me down to the orthopedic surgical floor a couple days after the surgery. What with the changed accommodations--the bigger bed didn't make the trip down to the fifth floor with me--and the party, I don't get much sleep that night. I don't think Bill does, either. He's been spending most nights since the surgery at a hotel, since my new, much smaller room boasts an aging recliner instead of a pull-out sofa bed.

I'm tired the morning after the party, and I know Bill is, too, but we're both so ready to get out of the hospital that I don't think either one of us cares. We have to wait through morning rounds, one last x-ray, PT's evaluation, and discharge instructions, but Marilyn finally wheels me down to the car a couple hours after lunch.

"Well, here we are," she says as we wait for Bill to pull into the hospital driveway. "No more FBI escort, just me and you."

"You've been great, Marilyn," I say. "All the nurses have been. I can't say it's been a pleasure, exactly, but I know we're both going to miss you."

"Maybe it wasn't for you, but it's certainly been a pleasure for us," she answers. "It truly has been an honor to care for you this past month or so, Tim. You and Bill and those kids of yours better keep in touch."

"We will, I promise," I tell her, and she bends down and kisses my cheek.

It takes some maneuvering to fit me and my new cast into the white Escalade Bill bought a few weeks ago, but eventually I'm settled into the back seat. It's surprisingly comfortable. Despite the thrill of seeing something, anything, other than the walls of my hospital room, I fall asleep an hour or so out of town. I wake up when my ears pop.

It's dark outside, and the window my face was pressed against is cold. Outside the window is a well-plowed two-lane road surrounded by snow-covered trees. I can smell the pine even through the closed windows.

"Hey, you awake?" Bill asks from the front seat.

"I think so," I say blearily, rubbing my eyes. "Where are we?"

"We're almost there."

"Really?"

"Yeah, it goes by quicker when you're asleep, asshole," he says. "You have a nice nap back there?"

"Yeah, yeah, it was okay," I tell him, trying to sit up so I can see better. I move wrong and knock my cast into the back of the seat. "Ow, fuck."

"You okay?" he asks, concerned.

"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine, just bumped my leg."

"You're a bit of a klutz, aren't you?" he says.

I laugh. "Sometimes."

A couple minutes later Bill turns onto a well-kept but narrow road marked "Private." A few minutes after that he turns up a long driveway, stops at a gate, and punches in the security code. Once we're through the gate, I can see the house. My overall impression is more rustic cabin than mansion, although it's difficult to see the whole thing in the dark, despite the subtle outdoor lighting reflected by the snow. There are more trees than I'd realized--ponderosa pines, they must be. Bill drives up into the garage, hits the button to close the door, and shuts off the car.

"Here we are," he murmurs, then gets out. I'm still fumbling with the seatbelt, trying to figure out how I'm going to get out, when he opens my door. "Crutches or chair?"

"Crutches," I answer decisively, although I'm not very steady on them yet. I want to enter the house on my own, even if I have to switch to the chair to see the rest of it.

He nods and helps me out of the car. There's a moment before I get the crutches settled under my arms where he's holding me up, and my nose ends up behind his ear. I breathe in his scent, and he reaches his spare hand up to my cheek. I lose track of where we are--it's enough, this is enough, this is everything.

"Come on," Bill says after a second. "You first--I'll get the bags and the chair."

He hands me the keys, and I slowly make my way up the three steps to the door, ignoring the freshly painted ramp on the side. I almost drop the keys trying to get the door open, but then I make it through.

The garage door opens onto a hallway, a laundry room off to the right, and just a few steps to the kitchen. There are a couple dim lights on, but I fumble for the switches to light up the kitchen and the living room beyond.

There's a huge basket of fruit and gourmet food sitting on the island in the kitchen, the realtor's card and a "Welcome Home!" sign sticking out the top. The kitchen is pristine, the granite countertops and wood floors glowing softly, and the appliances look like they belong in a restaurant. Sarah's going to love it.

"The kitchen's nice," I say inanely, overwhelmed.

"Yeah, Joanne did a good job," Bill says from behind me. He's right--the decorator he hired has totally transformed the busy, floral décor into something clean and uncluttered, yet comfortable. "You hungry? Marilyn foisted some leftovers from last night onto me before we left."

"No, I'm okay," I say, awkwardly moving to the living room to check out the plasma. Living room--now I see why the realtor called it a great room, because it's enormous, with high ceilings, huge windows, and matching sofas facing the largest flatscreen television I've ever seen, another sofa facing the fireplace. "Wow," I murmur. I've seen pictures, but they didn't prepare me for how beautiful--and how big--the house really is. I can't believe I'm really going to be living here.

"Hey," Bill says, and I maneuver slowly around in a circle so I can see him. He's backlit in the darkened dining room; I can just make out the curve of his ear.

"You can see the rest later," he says, his voice husky, and I realize the lights I can't see must be in the bedroom. Our bedroom. The one with the new bed that he and I will share, starting tonight.

I start hobbling towards him as quickly as I can, because I no longer give a shit about the television, the living room, or anything else.

"I don't know about you," Bill adds, "but I could use a shower." He pulls his sweater over his head and drops it on the dining room table.

"Fuck, Bill," I breathe, my fists clenching tightly, catching myself leaning towards him so much that I overbalance and nearly fall.

"You need the chair, or can you manage to make it over here without fucking killing yourself?" he asks, his smile broadening. He reaches down and unfastens the top of his jeans.

"Oh, I can make it," I promise him, although it's even more difficult to move quickly on crutches when you've got an erection.

"Good," he says, disappearing around the corner.

By the time I arrive in the bedroom, Bill's in the bathroom, his jeans tossed on the sofa. The covers of the bed are already turned down, and the suitcases are out of the way against the wall. I hear the water start. Once I get into the bathroom, I see Bill waiting for me, stripped to his briefs.

"How long'd they say you could leave that thing off?" he asks, pointing at my cast.

It's really tempting to lie, but I figure we've got time. "Ten minutes a day."

He nods. "So I guess we have to stick to, you know, actually showering, at least while we're in there. Fuck, it'd be a shame to waste that fucking huge bed, anyway," he adds, smiling.

"I'm just glad I can take showers again," I say, moving over to the bench to start undressing.

He helps me into the shower, making sure I can reach the soap and shampoo. He turns his back, and the two of us do our best to ignore each other and focus on getting clean. It helps that the shower is designed for two people--it's bigger than my bathroom in Baltimore.

He turns around to rinse his hair, meeting my eyes for a moment. I take a breath, ignore my dick, and wash up as quickly as I can.

He turns again, soap in his hand, slowly moving over his belly and down to his dick, fuck. My hand stutters to a stop, and I drop my own bar of soap. He smiles at me and reaches out to help me up.

"I think we're clean enough," he says, pulling the two of us under the spray. He runs his hand slowly down my back, fingers lightly stroking before firmly gripping my ass, supporting some of my weight but also making me moan. I can feel his chest expand as he takes a deep breath, can feel him exhale against my neck as I reach behind him to turn the water off.

He helps me over to the bench again, handing me a towel, and after he's dried himself, he kneels in front of me and dries the parts of my leg I can't reach. Neither one of us has said anything else. Our silence continues as Bill takes a new cast liner and pulls it gently over my foot. He looks up briefly before pulling it over my ankle, his hand resting on my heel, and I swallow, remembering the morning he found me.

I watch him, and when his hands reach my knee, I cover them with mine before taking the top of the stocking and continuing to pull it up my thigh. He leaves his hand on my knee, looking down, then turns to grab my cast. He fumbles with the fastenings, and I can see his pulse beating rapidly in his neck.

The two of us finish with the cast. Bill stands, offers me his hand. "Come on," he says. "Let's get you up."

I nod, taking his arm, and he helps me over to my crutches. I put both of them under my right arm, keeping my left around Bill's shoulder, and together we make our way over to the bed.

He lets me down carefully at the edge, crossing to the other side to climb in next to me. We lie there a moment, not touching, just looking at each other. It's the first time we've had this kind of freedom, the first time since Salt Lake City, and this time nothing's going to take it from us. I touch his face, and he rolls towards me as I move towards him, and our bodies come together, mouths and chests and bellies and thighs and, god, yes, I can feel his erection against mine as we kiss.

Bill breaks the kiss after a few minutes, but his hands stay on my hip and around the back of my neck. Both of us are breathing hard, and I can feel his dick twitch, hot and damp against my hip. There's a light sheen of sweat on his skin, and his hair is still wet from the shower. I know both of us are close, could easily just go for it like we did the night we met, but tonight, finally, for the first time, there's no deadline hanging over us.

"We've got some fucking room for once," Bill says huskily, "and some time."

"No one's about to come in, no one can hear us, and we've got this bed, here," I agree, touching his lower lip.

"So what do you want?" he asks. "Because I don't know about you, but I've had a lot of time to think of what I wanted to do to you once we got here."

"Yeah," I answer as he licks my finger. "Mmm, yeah, I've been thinking about that, too."

He sucks my finger slowly into his mouth, letting it go with a pop. "So, what did you come up with?"

"God, Bill," I moan, closing my eyes, then opening them again, seeing him staring back at me, his pupils dilated, his cheeks flushed. "I want you to fuck me," I tell him, and he swallows audibly.

"That--fuck, Tim," he says hoarsely, his hand tightening on my hip. "Can we--will that work with your leg?"

"I figure if I'm on my side it should be okay," I say, watching him closely. "If it's not--well, then we wait until I get this damned cast off."

He takes a shaky breath, his eyes squeezed shut. Shit--I'm an idiot.

"Hey," I say, concerned, brushing his hair back. Fuck--I'm such a fucking idiot. "Uh, we don't have to--the thing is, if you're not--"

"Shut the fuck up," he says, opening his eyes. "You think I haven't thought about this? Just because I haven't--I mean, I have, but--fuck. I want this, you got it?" he says fiercely.

I nod. "You're sure?" I ask, wanting to believe him, needing to know he's really okay with it.

"Yes, you asshole, are you fucking kidding me?" he says, his hand moving from my hip to my ass, stroking lightly. He takes my hand and puts it on his dick, gasping as I rub my thumb over the tip, spreading the moisture around. "You believe me now?" he asks roughly.

"Yeah," I answer, my breath caught in my throat. "Yeah, I believe you."

"Good. We, uh, we got what we need?" he says.

"You didn't see Tammy's going away gift?" I ask, smiling in relief.

"What, she give us condoms and lube or something?" he asks, smirking.

I just grin.

"She gave us condoms and lube?" he asks, disbelieving. He kisses my ear. "You're shitting me!" I bury my head in his shoulder, laughing, completely, ridiculously happy. He wraps his arms around me and holds on, laughing with me.

"Check the front pocket of my suitcase," I say when I can talk again, lifting my head.

He slaps me lightly on the cheek, sits up, and goes over to the suitcase. "That nurse is one fucked-up individual," he says, holding up the rainbow-colored gift bag. "I like the way she thinks."

"She told me she used to work labor and delivery," I say. "I don't want to think about what she said to those patients." He shakes his head, snorting. "You planning on heading back to bed anytime soon?" I ask, pointing at my erection. "Because I'm waiting, here."

"Patience is a fucking virtue, you know," he says. He drops the condom and lube onto the mattress, then lies down next to me.

I grab his shoulder and pull him to me. He smiles, kneels over me, and starts biting my neck, tongue flicking my ear, hands roaming over my chest. I slide my palm behind his head and urge him up, and he obliges, our mouths meeting in a slow, messy kiss.

I try to keep it slow and easy, but I can't, I can't hold back, not anymore. I arch up against him, moaning, and he pulls back, gasping for breath. He looks at me again for a moment, puts a shaky hand on my cheek, then says, "Yeah, okay. Turn over."

I turn onto my right side, bending my left leg up, and he gets behind me, grabbing a pillow and sticking it under my knee. His mouth brushes the back of my neck, then slides lower. He stops for a few seconds, the palm of his hand over the indentation just below my shoulder, his lips lightly resting above it, his breath warm on my skin.

"New deal," he says softly. "No more getting shot."

"I promise," I say, reaching back to take his hand and bring it to my lips. He strokes my face once, and then I hear him open the lube and the condom wrapper.

His fingers are cool and gentle, and then he's pushing into me slowly, carefully, and it's good, so fucking good. He groans, holding back, his hand shaking, then tightening, on my hip. "Fuck, Tim, I can't--" he says brokenly.

"It's--I'm--fuck, it's good, Bill--please," I gasp, and he starts to move. It's more than good, it's amazing. The angle shouldn't work, but it does, the sensation breaking through me with every thrust. My leg aches, because he's beyond being careful now, and his hand has moved from my hip to fumblingly stroke my dick, stuttering to a stop as he strains into me, his moans loud in my ear as he comes, and I'm so close, so close, and I put my hand over his and stroke a few times and then I'm coming, too, vaguely surprised by the amount of noise we're both making, but too caught up in feeling to care.

We lie there catching our breath for a couple minutes. Bill's pressed up against me, a lot of his weight still on me, his hand on my chest. Just when my leg's bothering me enough that I'm thinking about saying something, he starts to pull out.

"Ow, fuck!" he exclaims suddenly, rolling away.

"What's wrong?" I ask, fumbling with the pillow so I can turn towards him, noticing absently how much more mobile I really am these days. Bill's clutching at his thigh, and there's a stripe of red, irritated skin visible between his fingers.

"Lost half the fucking hairs on my leg to that fucking velcro," he exclaims, frowning.

"You what?" I say, but I can't say anything else because I'm laughing too hard.

"Fuck you," he says, but then he's laughing, too. "The shit I put up with to have sex with you just never fucking ends."

"It's a good thing I'm worth it, huh?" I ask, stroking his thigh soothingly.

"You got that right, asshole," he says, smiling. "You'd better keep it up." He grabs some tissues from the table and starts cleaning us up.

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," I say. "I don't know about you, but I'm hungry. Sex with you always makes me hungry. What's that you were saying about leftovers?"

He laughs again. "Put some fucking clothes on and come out to the kitchen if you're so hungry," he says, rolling off the bed and grabbing his jeans.

"Have you forgotten I have a broken leg?" I ask, pointing at my cast. "Can't you bring me something?"

"Last I heard, they let you out of the hospital," he answers, heading for the door. "Consider it part of your rehab."

"Fuck you," I say, laughing. "You could at least hand me my crutches!"

"They're right next to the bed, you big baby," he says, grinning, but he stops and stands in the doorway, watching to make sure I can make it out of bed.

***

I wake the next morning to find him just as tightly pressed against me as he was all those nights in the hospital. When he opens his eyes, I smile at him.

"You look awfully fucking happy," he murmurs, kissing my shoulder.

"I am," I answer, kissing his forehead in return. "I really am."

"You going to start on some stupid shit about how today's the first day of the rest of our lives?" he asks, his eyebrows raised. "I guess no one ever told you full-time parents don't actually have lives. We're probably never having sex again. Why do you think I let Billie stay in Regina most of the time?"

"Yeah, good morning to you, too, sunshine," I say, laughing.

"What's so funny?" he says, a mock scowl on his face.

"The thing is," I tell him, "the last few weeks you've been complaining constantly about how much room I take up, how crowded we were in that hospital, how we needed a king-sized bed."

"Yeah, so? I didn't hear you complaining last night," he says, leering.

"Look at us. Look at you," I say, gesturing at the open expanse of the rest of the bed. "You're still sharing my pillow, for chrissakes."

"You got a problem with that?" he says.

"No, no problem," I answer, sinking my fingers in his hair. "No problem at all. I just think it makes you a bit of a girl."

"Yeah, fuck you too, June," he says, reaching down and fondling my dick. "Come on, we've only got a hour or so until the kids get here. I don't think we should waste it, do you?"

"No, I guess we shouldn't," I say, sitting up. "With that little time, we should probably multitask. I bet there's a lot we could accomplish in that shower in ten minutes."

"I'll show you some fucking multitasking," he answers, grinning.

The shower ends up taking fifteen minutes, which is longer than I'm supposed to leave the cast off. But it's not like either one of us is likely to tell my orthopedic team I left it off so Bill could finish blowing me.

Once we're out of the shower and dressed, all that's left to do is wait. Bill makes some coffee, and the two of us sit on the dining room chairs, looking out the window until we see Martha's van approaching. I'm up on my crutches and at the front door before they're even through the gate.

Predictably, Ruth is the first one out of the van, the first one to run up the sidewalk towards me. Once she gets there, she stops and looks up at me, unsure.

"Hi," she says uncertainly. I'd reach down to her, but I can't, not with the crutches.

"What's wrong, honey?" Martha asks from behind her.

"You're too tall for her," Sarah says, laughing happily as she jogs toward us. "I forgot how tall you are!"

"I've got it covered," Bill says, picking Ruth up so she can give me a hug.

"Welcome home, Ruth," I say, kissing her cheek, bending awkwardly to kiss Sarah's in turn. "Sarah, welcome home."

END