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Best of Friends

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Then

Valentine's Day was good when Don was in first grade. In class, he got candy from Mrs. Peters, cards from Danny Morton, Tommy Niemczura, Peggy Smith (who had a complex), Akisha Jones, Courtney Feldstein, Katy Johnson, Douglas Patterson, Kevin Johnson, all three Davids, Kathryn and Catharine.

He also got a kiss on the cheek from Jimmy Thompson and a rather enthusiastic punch on the arm from a grinning Mary Margaret Catherine O'Keefe (properly known as Charlie, and his best friend), whom he then chased around the playground at least seven times before he caught her and pinned her to the fence. He didn't hit her back, because Dad had told him that hitting girls was wrong. She cried and stomped on his foot, so he tickled her. Then she really got pissed off.

After recess, while he was showing off his spectacular black eye and having a hard time understanding why Charlie was spending all that time with Principle Potts, he made cards for Mrs. Peters, Danny, Tommy, Peggy (because Mrs. Peters said he had to), Akisha, Katy, Kevin, the Davids (one card for the three of them), Catharine and Peter Torrance, who was so quiet that Don wasn't sure he'd ever heard the kid's voice. Besides, he was pretty, and Mrs. Peters said he hadn't gotten any cards from anyone.

Don also made cards for Mom and Dad, and a paper-mâché wastebasket for mom, because Mrs. Peters had a thing for paper-mâché, and none of them could escape the task. Except Charlie, who was probably having a much better time in Mr. Potts's office. He'd buy her a water pistol with his allowance after school. And though he'd been planning to buy her the pink one, because it would annoy her, he changed his plan and decided to splurge on a green one.

Everyone seemed to like his cards, except for the Davids, who thought they should each get a separate one until he pointed out that theirs was the biggest card in the class, and that it had more footballs and cars on it than any of the others. At that point Tommy said, "Hey, no fair!" and Catharine said, "Well, mine has the most glitter," and strutted off to show Jane Parker. Peter Torrance gave him a shy smile that brought a bit of light to that corner of the room, but didn't say a word.

The next day, Peter pulled Don aside and gave him a band made of bright, plastic beads. "It's a friendship bracelet," he said.

"Why didn't you just make a card?" said Don.

"Because I see letters backwards," said Peter.

"Oh," said Don. "Okay, well, thanks."

"You put it on like this," said Peter, taking the band from Don's fingers and tying it in place. "And then we're friends forever."

"Okay," said Don, "but we can't be best friends, because Charlie's my best friend."

"That's okay," said Peter, though his face lost some of its light.

That night, Dad had nearly taken the thing away, but Mom had said it was okay for him to have it, and told him to keep it covered up. Dad had stomped up to the attic muttering something about fags. Don had wondered what bracelets had to do with cigarettes.

In second grade, the teacher, Mrs. Norris, was always telling them to 'read with expression', which apparently meant trying to sound like that woman on the cooking show that Mom was always watching. She also kept him from sitting next to Charlie, and Danny Morton had moved away. Peter Torrance sat next to him almost all the time, and something about it made Don feel a bit weird, especially when the kid wanted to go home with him every day.

But then, Mrs. Norris kept telling Peter that his parents had called, and he had to go straight home after school, so Don was able to go kick a ball around with Charlie and Tommy, and tease the hell out of Catharine, whom Mom said he'd probably marry some day. Mom was silly, of course. Don was going to marry Charlie, or maybe Peter, who asked him on Valentine's Day. Don wasn't too enthusiastic about this, but Peter was pretty, even if he never let Don alone. Don told Peter he'd think about it.

When he talked to his mom that night, and told her about the proposal, she got up and shut the door to the kitchen, locking it. When she turned around again, she was stiff and very pale. "Honey, you know you can't marry a boy, right?"

"Why not?"

"Because you have to marry a girl."

"Oh. Okay, I'll marry Charlie."

"Good," said Mom, with a relieved smile.

"Peter's pretty, but he won't let me alone."

Mom's frown came back. "What do you mean?"

"I have to play with him at recess. And he always wants to come home with me, even when I want to play water pistols with Charlie. And he cries if I don't wear the bracelet every day."

"Is he bigger than you, sweetheart?" Mom brushed hair off his forehead.

"Everyone's bigger than me! Except Catharine, of course. But I'll catch up, right? Dad said so."

Mom laughed, quietly. "Yes, dear, of course you will. Has Peter ever hit you?"

Don scoffed. "No. He can't even kill a fly with a fly swatter! But I think he gets beat up, sometimes."

"Why do you think that?"

"He had a black eye last week. Said someone from school hit him."

"That's awful! Did you tell your teacher?"

"MOM!"

"Oh, all right. But look, Donny, I don't want you hanging around with him too much, okay?"

"Why not?"

"I just don't think it's a good idea. And don't tell your dad about this, okay?"

"Why?"

"It'll be our secret. Dad might not understand."

"Oh. Mom?"

"Yes?"

"Why do I have to marry a girl?"

The next day, Peter wasn't in school. At first, Don was sort of relieved and sort of worried at the same time. But after recess, Mrs. Norris came in late to the classroom, a police officer at her elbow and Miss Roberts from the Principle's Office behind her. Don knew instantly that something was horribly wrong. A hush fell over the classroom.

"Good morning," she said, her voice unsteady. "I'm afraid I have some very bad news. Peter Torrance is in the hospital."

"What happened?" said Charlie.

"Someone did something very bad to him," said Mrs. Norris.

"Did they beat him up?" asked Tommy.

"Yeah, he said he was kinda scared of going home," said Jimmy.

"He had a black eye last week," said Don. And then he noticed the police officer's eyes focusing on him, and felt exhilarated and sick.

"Your parents have all been called, and Officer Dickinson needs to talk to you all when they get here," said Mrs. Norris. "When you've talked to him, you can go home for the day. Miss Roberts will help—" At this point, her voice broke, and she turned away.

"Is he alive?" asked Don.

Nobody answered. That was the first time Donald Strachey was exposed to the no-answer answer. He never would learn to like it.

Peter Torrance's funeral was held three days later.

Two days after that, Jerry and Carolyn Torrance were on TV, handcuffed and being taken into the police station.

Six months later, Jerry Torrance was convicted for the rape and murder of his seven-year-old son.

That was the day that Don took off the friendship bracelet for the last time and put it in his secret treasure box.

Now

Don fingers a band of bright, plastic beads. Timmy will understand. At least Don hopes he will. Someday. There are certain days Don has always hated, and Timmy has always given him that space, with or without explanation. He just understands, the way he nearly always does. It's one of the hundred things that Don loves most about Timmy. It's also the thing that made it possible for him to propose that they make a life together.

Don's never told Timmy about Peter Torrance, and now, he wonders why. It's not like he doesn't trust Tim. Or maybe it is. That thought makes his stomach roil in the 'You're missing something important, Strachey' way. The one that always comes in Bub Bailey's voice, which Don thinks is really weird and kind of inappropriate until he remembers that there's something troubling him about the Morton case.

He fingers the bracelet again and thinks that he should put it back, but he can't make himself.

He jumps when he feels fingers on his shoulders, even though he'd know that touch anywhere. He doesn't look up, still gazing at the beads.

"Donald? Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I guess."

Timmy sits on the couch beside him and puts an arm around his shoulders. "Bad day at the office?"

"Kinda, yeah," says Don, absently, turning the bracelet over in his hands.

Timmy's fingers push upwards through Don's hair and cup the back of his head, stroking hair and tensed skin. "So what's that?" he asks, looking at the bracelet.

Don sighs. "Something from my past," he forces himself to say, at last.

Timmy shifts, but Don can still feel his tension and hear his swallow. "How far back?" he asks, at last.

"First grade," says Don. He looks up at Timmy, a bit surprised to find himself smiling.

Timmy's face begins to relax. "What was her name?"

"Peter Torrance." Don's smile fades as he turns back to the bracelet.

Timmy strokes his hair and rests a hand on the back of his neck.

"It wasn't anything serious," says Don.

"Donald."

"It was first grade!"

"I got my first crush in first grade. Felt pretty serious to me."

"Yeah? What was his name?"

Timmy groans.

Some of the shadow begins to lift. "Oh, now c'mon! I told you. You gotta tell me!"

"Johnnie Walker."

Don grins. "Is he why you hate the whisky?"

"Forget it," says Timmy. And then he presses his lips together and shakes his head. "And that's not the point."

Don turns back to the bracelet. He hasn't talked about Peter since he took off the friendship bracelet all those years ago. "He wasn't mine, but I think I might have been his."

Timmy squeezes his shoulder. "Tell me."

"None of us knew anything about him. My teacher told me to make him a Valentine's card. She said he hadn't gotten a card from anyone. He was pretty." He pauses through a wave of unexpected emotion. "But he never said anything. Kept to himself. So I made him a card that said, 'Let's be friends'. The day after that, he gave me this." He thumbs the bracelet. "I didn't know what it was. He told me it was a friendship bracelet. Tied it on my wrist and said it meant we'd be friends forever."

Timmy rubs his shoulders.

Don sighs and leans into the touch. "He always tagged along after that. I told him we couldn't be best friends 'cause that was Charlie, but he wanted to be with me all the time. It was...."

"Annoying as hell?"

"Yeah. But there was something about him. He was always trying to get me to invite him home. He always wanted to play with me, when all I wanted was to play with Charlie and Tommy and the Davids."

"Sounds like a fifties band," says Timmy.

"Yeah, I guess it does."

"So did you let him play?"

"I tried sometimes, and I liked him. I really did, but ... he was so quiet."

"And the others didn't like him?" Timmy's voice is like velvet, his hand so warm against Don's neck that it almost drives winter away from Albany.

"More like they didn't know what to do with him. He was ... I was going to say fragile, but it was more that he was so ... pretty. It was eerie, you know? But I liked him. I really did."

"So you said," says Timmy, with the peculiar gentleness that always means, 'Shut up and tell me something.'

"He proposed to me," says Don, quietly. "Almost a year after he gave me this. On Valentine's Day. Mom got worried."

Timmy kisses him quietly.

"She said she didn't want me hanging around him so much. I was going to tell him in the morning, but he wasn't in school. And then the teacher came in with a policeman and told us he was in the hospital. I never got a chance to say goodbye, or tell him I was sorry for not wearing his bracelet that one day when he made a big deal about it and I told him to stop being such a baby. I only ever saw the black eye that one time. He said some kids at school did it, but he wouldn't tell me who they were. And then they arrested his dad."

Timmy squeezes him closer. "How did he die?"

Don pulls away. "No. I can't tell you that. Not ever."

"Of course you can."

Don can't look at Timmy. Can't look anywhere, even as he stares at the friendship bracelet. "He was ... mutilated. Raped. His dad...."

Timmy takes the bracelet from Don's fingers before the fragile plastic can break.

It isn't until Don is folded into Timmy's embrace that he realizes he is crying. Not sobbing, like he did over Kyle. Just slowly, quietly mourning the loss of a sweet little boy who never had a chance. "I'm sorry," he says, with the eerie feeling that he is apologizing to Peter more than to Timmy.

"Hey." Timmy's voice pours warmth into Don's soul.

Don unlocks himself and wraps his arms around Timmy. "I didn't want to miss our date, you know. I just..." He trails off, not trusting his voice.

"Hey. Sweetheart...." Timmy rocks gently. "There'll be other nights."

"I never tell people I love them enough."

"You tell me."

"Not enough."

Timmy's fingers cradle Don's face. "What brought this up, tonight?"

Don wipes tears against Timmy's shirt before he sees the studs and remembers to realize that Timmy is wearing a tux. "Sorry." He pulls back and daubs at the moisture with his sleeve.

Timmy catches his hand.

Don sighs. "I don't know. I haven't looked at that bracelet for years, but this case I'm working on...."

"The Morton case?"

"Yeah."

"I thought that was another cheating wife case."

"It is. And I trailed her to the guy she was cheating with."

"And?" There is a light that always comes into Timmy's voice when Don is talking about a case. Don is never sure whether he loves or hates it more.

"She's sleeping with the guy's brother." Don lets out a sigh.

"Oh. That's interesting."

Don manages to laugh. "You've been with me too long." He kisses Timmy's cheek, stroking the skin there for a short moment. "She's sleeping with Danny Morton."

"Should I know that name? Is he from the Mortons of the Morton spice company?"

"Fifth cousin, or something. I knew him back in first grade before he moved away."

Timmy strokes Don's hair and smiles into his eyes. "Was he a good friend?"

Don is lost in Timmy for a moment and just gazes, wondering if Peter would have grown up to look a bit like him. And then he realizes that Timmy is golden where Peter was pale, and muscled where Peter was lean, and he remembers Peter's blue eyes – the ones that always struck to the core of his being, and that he has never seen since that Valentine's Day—

"Darling?"

"Yeah. He was. I missed him when they moved. I ... kind of had a crush on him."

"Did Peter know him?"

"Yeah." But Don isn't really thinking about Danny or Charlie or any of the others. He's thinking of Timmy and how lucky he is, and what would have happened if Timmy's parents had been different or Peter had been allowed to live. He shakes himself back to the conversation. "Yeah. He was jealous as hell of Danny, but tried not to show it. I think he kind of liked it when Danny moved, which made me really mad."

Timmy shifts and lies back, cradling Don in his arms. "Not exactly the best way to endear oneself."

"No." Don shifts to find a more comfortable arrangement, but finds Timmy's tux an obstacle. He sighs against Timmy's chest. "So how come you didn't come in yelling at me?"

"Oh, I was going to." That's Timmy's warning voice, which has never boded well for Don. "But then I saw you sitting here like you did that time we had the fight in the bar, and I thought I should check you for bullet wounds, first."

Don finally gives up on getting comfortable and sits up, tugging Timmy into his arms. "No bullet holes, this time. Just an arrow straight through the heart."

"Sappy romanticism will get you—mmmph!"

Don kisses Timmy for all he's worth, pouring every ounce of himself into it.

"...Anywhere," gasps Timmy, when it ends.

"I love you." There are tears in Don's eyes again – the hot, sappy kind that he used to hate but has come to love with nearly equal passion. "So much that I might actually start to not hate Valentine's Day."

There is a suspiciously bright sheen to Timmy's eyes as he looks into Don's. "Before tonight, that would have impressed me." He kisses Don, opening himself so wide that Don gasps. "Now, it makes me want to spend a week in your soul."

He doesn't know how he manages, but Don stands up and pulls Timmy up with him and into a slow, soundless dance. "You're already there."

The next day, Don buys tiger-eye beads and figures out how to make a friendship bracelet for Timmy. It takes him a total of five tries over eight days, interspersed with cases and events that Timmy needs him to attend, but it's worth it when he ties it onto the wrist he loves so much to kiss. "You know I love you," he says, as he over concentrates on fastening the bracelet, "even though I don't tell you enough—"

"You tell me all the time."

"Okay." Don finishes with the bracelet and holds Timmy's hand lightly in his own, loving the way the tiger-eye falls on Timmy's perfect skin. He blinks and shifts his grip, clasping Timmy's hand against his chest. And then he has to look Timmy in the eye. "But I've never told you what an incredible friend you are and how much that means to me."

"Don...."

"You kick my ass when I need it, you put me back together when I fall apart, and you let me be me. Hell, you help me be me."

Timmy blinks very fast when he's flustered. "That reminds me. Charlie called—"

"Tim." Don brings Timmy's wrist up and strokes it. "How do you like your bracelet?"

"It's beautiful." Timmy blinks for a different reason. "I'll wear it always."

"See what I mean?" Don kisses Timmy, tenderly. "Good friend. And you don't have to wear it all the time. I just wanted you to have it."

"I love you. Man."

Don laughs and hugs Timmy close. "Right back at ya. So much."

"But I'm not playing touch football with you and Charlie."

"Oh, god, no! She'll break your jaw." Don feels his own jaw, which has finally settled down six weeks after a block went horribly wrong.

Timmy looks at him funny. "No, she wouldn't. You'd take the hit."

Don strokes Timmy's face. "Yeah. I would."

Fifty-one weeks after that, Don slips a band of colored plastic beads into a carefully made channel and replaces the turf over it. He rises, steps back and takes Timmy's left hand in his right, thumbing the tiger-eye beads that warm over Timmy's wrist. "Thank you, Peter. You're still my friend. Happy Valentine's Day."

A kiss of wind caresses his cheek and lifts into the February sky.






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