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Beggar's Banquet (The New Constellation Mix)

Chapter Text

we pass through each other trembling
and we pass through each other shrieking
and we pass through each other shimmering
the circle is neither unbroken
nor broken but living

It's been an hour since the buses pulled up to the gates at Bare Hill Correctional, eight since they were hustled out of Oz with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and the pills in their pockets, set adrift like some garbage scow with a cargo no one wanted, and Beecher can smell the rising sharp scent of restless crowded bodies.

He thinks about Gen Pop after the riot. Multiplies by 100. Looks around and braces himself.

It's another three hours before everyone's off-loaded - categorized and catalogued, some herded off to sleep four to a cell in the main complex, but most of them shuffled into the prison's gym, where Bare Hill admin has set up cots and bunks, barracks style, like the summer camp from hell, complete with black-suited SORT counselors patrolling the edges of their medium-security enterprise.

Probably no swimming lessons, but there'll be plenty of bareback riding before it's all over, Beecher thinks sourly, remembering.

He whips around at a touch on his shoulder, fists clenching reflexively, to find himself faced by Rebadow, who - by some miracle - has been assigned the same set of bunks.

"Bad?" Beecher says - resigned, rhetorical - and Rebadow nods.

"Oh, yes. It's going to get very bad."

The caterwauling - a perverse prison chorus of Tits! Tiiits! starts halfway through the night, shades of Kenny Wangler echoing through the gym from a double-dozen sorry motherfuckers on instant detox, but Beecher's more pissed by the reunion of Unit B's Bobby Steele and Gibson from solitary, which takes place right at his head, goddamnit, enthusiastic enough that their sheet-draped bower shakes two bunks in either direction. He wonders if that's what Chris had imagined for them, if he'd thought they'd kiss and touch and murmur soft words again, undercover of this disaster he'd set into motion before he'd ended up leaping to his death like some spurned, overwrought heroine in a Victorian novel or a bad movie.

Breakfast is boxed, cardboard - the food and the containers - mass-produced and greasy, already cold by the time he moves through the line set up at the gym's door. They're being kept separate from Bare Hill's general population as much as possible, but that doesn't stop Bare Hill guards from showing up when Beecher's only halfway through his rubber eggs and plywood toast. They're supposed to escort him to the warden's office, and he's only surprised it took so long.

"Three of you?" he says, raising an eyebrow at Murphy standing behind them, looking preternaturally buttoned up in his neat black uniform despite whatever long drive or motel bed or prison cot he's dealt with, still in the middle of the echoing din.

Beecher would almost swear he gets an eyeroll in return.

They want to know what he knows, and he shrugs and spreads his hands - Chris always was three steps ahead of him, always, always, 'til the day he died, including the day he died, and Beecher finally learned the only way to win the game was not to play. He ends up shoved and stumbling into some swank version of the Hole, laughing because, goddamn, it's got paint on the walls and a bench bolted down to sit on, like these soft medium-security boys are playing at what prison's really like. Someone outside bangs on the door until he shuts up, and then he sits on the bench, picking at his cuticles and brooding, wondering what Chris was thinking.

If they're lucky, he thinks, the motherfucker has sown the ground of that prison with something 1000 times more toxic than salt. Keller always was a drama queen - he'd accuse Beecher of it, but nobody could manage the grand gesture like Chris. Beecher's knuckles sting at the thought, and he looks down to find sharp white crescents dug deep into flesh, the marks of his teeth left where he's pressed a fist to his mouth.

Eventually, the door swings open with a squeal to reveal McManus, slouched and framed in the light from the corridor. He hasn't managed to look as put together as Murphy did, and his scowl deepens when Beecher raises an eyebrow at him.

"Sorry I overdressed," Beecher says, wry, rubbing palms against thighs as he stands - he's usually naked when he gets fucked in whatever and sundry way, whether it's Chris kissing him in the showers or Vern holding him down in the gym or McManus eyeing him as he hunkers against the back wall of the Hole.

He quirks a corner of his mouth as McManus narrows his eyes and tilts his head, taking in Beecher's grubby T-shirt and pants that might, at this point, be able to stand by themselves.

"You don't know anything about what happened to my prison, do you?" McManus says, and he sounds pissed, but Beecher knows he's at least been talking to Murphy, because there's no way McManus would accept that on his own, no way he wouldn't keep pushing and pushing and pushing, sure that he could find a crack and get in if he only tried hard enough.

Keller ghosts ephemeral fingers across the back of Beecher's neck, breathes phantom words in his ear, and Beecher shrugs him off.

"McManus, I know less than you do."

He can tell McManus catches the edge on that comment, even though it's nothing more than a routine thrust compared to the shit he usually has to parry, a shallow slice barely drawing blood.

"Go away, Beecher. Get out of my sight."

There's nowhere else to put him, so he's released back to what's become Gen Pop, escorted to the gym, and he can feel the eyetracks across his back as he walks the gauntlet to his bunk. He spots Poet and Walters staring openly, a trio of Aryans reunited from solitary cutting quick glances his way and back to whatever conversation they're having, but O'Reily won't meet his eyes. He can hear the whispers, although he can't make out what they're saying, yet, and he doesn't know how they know, when everyone who was in the Oz mailroom is dead, now - five of the Brotherhood gone to toast in hell with Vern, and two of the hacks as grim black-clad honor guard, Agent Spanky told him, when they wanted to know what he knew. Keller always was a goddamn drama queen, the best at the grand gesture, no half-stepping for him.

Beecher spends his second night in Bare Hill sitting with his back to the hard iron bars at the head of his bunk, knees pulled to his chest, weight dragging him down and a fist pressed to his mouth to hold in his own shrieks - laughter or anger or pain, he's not sure which, until he snaps and hauls down the sheet that separates him from Steele and Gibson, screaming at them to stop, to fucking fucking stop, right now, and punching Gibson in the face before the hacks can haul him off.

It's not until they're cleaning his knuckles in the infirmary that he realizes the blood there is his own, crescent-moon imprints and broken skin and all.

 

•••

 

Ryan runs into Beecher on the second day, coming back from the stinking portable toilets set up at one side of the gym, the smell of piss and unwashed bodies already permeating the air. He heard some of the hacks stuck in here with them bitching about Oz's piss-poor ancient hurricane evac program, which must be what this whole fool's exercise is built on. The resulting circus sure looks like some kind of fucking refugee camp, like the entire gym's been turned into Adebisi's version of Em City, with fewer drugs and the corresponding increase in blood-letting. Ryan could have told them the two were connected, he thinks, watching two hacks in SORT uniforms drag a couple of Unit B guys apart.

Beecher's got his head down, muttering about fucking panhandlers from hell, something about school and the bus line and cigarettes and no, he doesn't have a goddamn dollar, when he breaks off, eyes traveling up from Ryan's shoes to his face.

"O'Reily," he says. "Fancy meeting you here."

"I need to get to the infirmary," Ryan says, distracted, trying to see past the guards blocking the gym door. "I gotta see my dad."

He can feel it like the pulse of blood through his veins, this urgency beating at him, this need to get to the infirmary so he can get to Seamus, so he can get to Gloria. Seamus could still die, something could still go wrong, wound and gut jostled around and exposed to chilly air, crammed into that goddamn bus for hours - and then what happens? How long would it take for Ryan to find out in this zoo, how long until he finds out his dad's dead, his dad's died alone, until he finds out he's been left alone, like Gloria once predicted? They could take Seamus away and put him in a hole somewhere, and Ryan might not even found out until it's too late, until after the funeral, because he's stuck here where no one can find him, down here with the jerkoffs from B and J and C and solitary, away from Gloria, where Suzanne might not even be able to find him.

"O'Reily, I'm sure your father is fine," Beecher says, and Ryan kind of wants to hit him, just to bleed off some of this jittery energy, wants to grab him by the front of the shirt, wants to wind his fingers into Beecher's collar, tight, just to have something to hold on to when he can feel everything - Seamus, Gloria - slipping through his fingers right as he thought he finally had a firm grasp on her, on them. But Beecher ... Beecher's not gonna be anything solid to hold on to, Ryan knows that, he can see that, has seen it. Beecher means a long fall off a short ledge, literally, a fucking black widow like Wurtz called him. Ryan remembers the light going out of Keller's eyes, the dim blank stare, death and something else taking over, remembers looking up at Beecher looking down on them.

Gloria would never hurt Ryan like that, he knows it - he's just got to get to her, now, got to get to Seamus.

"I've got to get to the infirmary," he says, again, impatient, thoughts spilling out into words as he tries to push past Beecher.

"O'Reily, come on," Beecher says, grabbing Ryan's arm, and that's forced patience in his voice, Ryan still knows him well enough to tell that, still knows him well enough to hear the unspoken words - don't be your usual idiot - still knows him well enough to hear the condescension. Ryan doesn't know where Beecher, of all people, gets off being condescending, and he stares, disbelieving, as Beecher continues. "I'm sure Seamus is going to be fine. The infirmary's crowded, but they're going to take care of him. Come on. Ryan?"

He's got an arm slung around Ryan's shoulders now, easy, companionable, trying to lead him away somewhere, Ryan's not sure where, and he pulls away from the touch.

"What do you know about it?"

"O'Reily ..."

"No, what the fuck do you know about any of it, Beecher? Who do you have left? Nobody, that's who. I've still got somebody, a girl and a father, in all of this, and I'm going to get to them."

He thinks Beecher flinches, but Ryan's already turned his back and is marching up to the two hacks at the gym door.

"Hey! Hey, I need to get to the infirmary."

"Really," one of them says, shifting, shooting a look at the other from under raised brows, looking half-amused like there's something goddamn funny about the whole thing. "What's wrong with you?"

The other hack snorts.

"I got ... this pain," Ryan says. "In my chest."

"You're a pain in my ass is what you are," the hack says after studying him for a minute, and he gestures back into the restless mass of bodies in the center of the gym. "Get out of here. There'll be a doctor down here later today to pass out meds or whatever the hell it is you Oz guys need."

"Need to be tranked, all of you ..." the other hack mutters as he turns away.

"Hey," Ryan says, taking a step toward them. "I need to get to the infirmary. I need to see my dad."

He grabs the guy's shoulder and one of the SORT guys from Oz materializes out of nowhere, shoves at him, sending a sharp spike of anger through Ryan, a shot of adrenaline straight up his spine, straight to his heart and his fists, already jacked up on uncertainty and no news and two fucking days of this bullshit, and it's like a relief, a release, to find a target. Somebody grabs him from behind as he goes for the guy.

"Tell your boyfriend thanks for this," he yells at Beecher as they shove him away. "Oh, wait. You can't. He's dead."

 

•••

 

Miguel runs into Beecher on the third day, or maybe it's the fourth - literally runs into him, head down and hands tucked up under his arms, looks up from his contemplation of the gym floor to meet Beecher's surprised look and thinks, hey, as something clicks. He spent his first day and a half kicking away the rats who came to tug on their pants legs, his and Alonzo's, looking for whatever crumbs they might have in their pockets, but it's gone now, they're gone, all the pills are gone, and Miguel woke up the morning after that - he's not sure if it was yesterday or today - and he didn't have his morning D to even him out. He spent an hour or three sitting on the edge of his bunk, wondering what the hell he was doing it for, anyway. He missed breakfast, he remembers that, but he wasn't hungry. He thinks he's missed a few meals, even though Alonzo's brought back a couple of sandwiches in a box to the bunks - their center of operations, Alonzo's been calling it, like they have any operations going on, here - brought back some sandwiches and tried to get Miguel to eat, but he wasn't very hungry and he wonders if that's why he's got this hollow feeling, now. He spent last night staring at the bottom of the bunk above them, wondering when it was going to fall and crush him, trying to breathe under the weight of Alonzo's arm across his chest and whatever fucking darkness lives inside him, sitting on his lungs. He's been wandering for a while now, looking for something, anything that will let him breathe.

"Hey, you got anything, man?" he asks Beecher.

"What? No." Beecher sounds indignant, like some solterona who's been propositioned on her way to church or something.

"Come on, asere." Miguel sidles closer, leans in. He knows Beecher's history, and anyway, Beecher's the one who got them here, right? Miguel's got connections - Alonzo's got connections - and he's heard the rumors, what went down that got them evac'd out of Oz and why. This is Beecher's fault, stuck in a gym with 100 other mamapingos, lines of supply cut off - so he can just help out, now. "I'll blow you for some, man," Miguel tells him. "I'll fuck you so, so good. Just get me a hit."

"Jesus Christ, Alvarez." Beecher tries to shoulder past him. "What makes you think I want to fuck you?"

"That's the deal, man," Miguel says, low, leaning in even further, lifting a hand to trace a finger along Beecher's cheekbone. "A party for a party, right? You know about that, right? I remember you and O'Reily ..."

Beecher's face twists as he smacks away Miguel's hand, and Miguel grabs him, fists clenched in the front of Beecher's shirt, shoving him up against the end of the bed, jarring so that something in the top bunk clatters to the floor.

"I need something, man," he says, before Beecher sets both hands to his chest and shoves at him. He remembers that first day in Oz, the blow to his chest like a fist and the slide of the knife, and the wave of pain, drowning him, not like one of those delayed reactions you hear about, where guys walk around for half an hour before they realize half their guts are hanging out and they lie down decent and die. No, it was immediate and overwhelming, no less than the deep water drowning him now. He remembers clutching Beecher's leg - Beecher, because there was no one else, no one to help him, surrounded by hacks in black who couldn't or wouldn't stop the knife from cutting him open in the first place - and he remembers catching the heel of some fancy fucking dress shoe in the stomach as Beecher shoved frantically away, acted like a little bitch, banging on the bars and yelling to be let out, and Miguel shoves back, this time, both of them stumbling. He presses a hand over his eyes, hunching in on himself, arm crossed over his chest as he leans against the cold metal of the bunks.

"Jesus Christ, Alvarez," Beecher says, again, and his fingertips are cool where they brush against Miguel's temple, his cheek.

Miguel would shove him away again, but he's burning up and the reaction he's just had - physical and emotional spike, like a shot of adrenaline to his heart, his spine, his brain - has left him drained, already receding. He can hear Beecher asking him something, all inquisitive tone and hesitant hands, but he can't focus, can't understand the words - he's too tired, feels too lumpish and stupid. He drops onto the bed, just sitting there on the edge, and Beecher's muttering something under his breath now, but Miguel's blank, can't even bring himself to care what Beecher's saying as he sits down beside Miguel and pulls his hands away from where he's scratching himself, raising long red welts on his own arms.

He's tired but jittery, somehow, vibrating trapped beneath the weight, restless, and it's tearing him apart, making him feel sick, and maybe it's a good thing he hasn't been eating.

"I have to go find Alonzo," he says, but there's no energy in the words, no direction, and he can't make himself stand. "I need to get ... I have to find Alonzo."

"Alonzo doesn't have anything," Beecher says, sounding almost gentle, watching him, and Miguel can't make himself care enough to look back. He stares at the floorboard of the gym, long parallel lines running from wall to wall, running forever, as Beecher continues. "Nobody has anything."

"Well, that's bullshit," Miguel says, waving a listless hand at the gym's door. "There's a whole prison out there, and that means there's something out there, somewhere. And you've been out there."

"I've been in the Hole, Alvarez. I went from one fucking hole to another." Beecher looks around at the gym, the crowded makeshift beds, the trash collecting on the floor, the pockets of bodies standing huddled, doing whatever deals they can, and he gives a sharp little laugh. "And then to another."

"You've been in the infirmary," Miguel says, studying the bandage on the back of Beecher's hand, the crescent of bruising around his knuckles. He lifts a fingertip to trace tape and gauze - dirty, now, and ragged - skirting the edge where adhesive meets flesh.

"What, you think I can manage to lift something from the prescription cabinet without getting caught?" Beecher says, bitter amusement in his voice, and Miguel drops his hand, too heavy suddenly to bother with.

"I need to go find Alonzo," he says.

"Alonzo doesn't have anything for you," Beecher says. "Miguel, stop it. Stop."

He pulls Miguel's hands away from his arms where he's scratching himself again, and Miguel clenches his fingers in the sheets instead, in the front of Beecher's T-shirt, fisting and letting go, over and over. He remembers his wisdom teeth coming in, muelas de juicio, and the urge to bite down, to push enamel and bone through bloody, aching flesh - he can feel the same painful pleasure now in his fingers, his hands, his wrists. He wonders if he could manage to tear or slice himself open, would it let out whatever poison he carries around inside, whatever poison follows him no matter how fast he runs or what turns he takes, the poison that's going to end up rotting and choking and killing him, drowning him from the inside out?

Tanto nadar, he whispers, against Beecher's cheek. Tanto nadar ...

He falls asleep with his head in Beecher's lap, darkness cresting like a wave over him, but he can feel Beecher's hand on his face, fingertip brush catching rough on the stubble on his cheek. He can remember when he'd never let himself go unshaved, and he wonders if he'll ever care enough again.

He dreams of a locked room, no entrance, no exit, no doors or windows, rough concrete blocks surrounding him, tight, like a coffin, the beating of his heart echoing in the tomb, and he pounds his head against the concrete to block out the sound, striking painlessly again and again until there are more cool hands on his face, featherlight touch, and Father Mukada bending over him, holding his head still in gentle hands. Putting off heat like a furnace, he thinks he hears one of them say, but he's not sure which of them it is.

"Like being off his fucking meds," Beecher's voice says, acid, suddenly clear through the dreams and the cotton stuffing Miguel's head, and he can almost hear Alonzo's response, too low to make out the words, tone dulcet and still affected but without the typical mocking cadence.

When Miguel finally drags open his eyes, Beecher's gone. He wonders idly if this is even Beecher's bed they've commandeered, but it's too much effort to care, and he curls tighter into the scratchy blanket, into a ball in the middle of the mattress. He's not sure what time it is, what day it is, he's not sure he cares - all he knows is that it's darker, now, a couple of blankets draped around the bottom bunk like a bower, a bolthole where he can hide from the light and the press of bodies, and he thinks maybe Beecher stole them from some of the surrounding bunks.

"I can't get anybody to listen to me," Beecher says when he comes back. "You need some goddamn antidepressants, and I can't get anyone to give them to me. I suppose that's what I get for trafficking in fucking illegal prescription medication, right? Nobody's going to help, now."

Of course they're not going to help, Miguel thinks. They're not going to help, any of those people out there. You've got to help yourself. You've got to help each other.

Of course, the last time he grabbed onto Beecher, Beecher practically kicked him in the face, trying to get away, trying to get out, trying to leave him behind. Miguel was everything he wanted to leave behind.

His jaw aches, and he realizes he's grinding his teeth.

"Stop that," Beecher says, leaning over him, pressing cool fingers against the hinge of his jaw before crawling back into the bunk, sitting at Miguel's head.

"I need to go find Alonzo," Miguel says in the stuffy dimness.

"You don't need him," Beecher says, vehemently, venomously. "And he doesn't have anything for you, anyway."

"What do you care, Beecher?"

"Maybe it gives me something to do."

"Bullshit."

"Does it matter?" Beecher's combing his fingers absently through Miguel's hair, and Miguel would bet he doesn't even realize he's doing it. He's silent for a minute, and then he talks - of course he talks, Miguel thinks, because Beecher can't resist running his mouth, right? His inability to keep his mouth shut is probably what got him in half the trouble he's always in. "All that matters, after everything I've been through, six years in Oz ... all I know for sure is that what I believe in - all I can believe in - is life. That every life is precious. Mine, yours, all those assholes out there. And I have to act like it. I have to treat those lives - mine, yours, theirs - that way. All right? Now shut up and give me my blanket. Jesus."

"Fuck off," Miguel says, pulling the blanket tighter around him like a cocoon as Beecher wriggles partway down the bed. "Go steal another one. It's freezing."

"It's not freezing, you asshole. You're running a fever because you're detoxing like an idiot who got hooked on Destiny instead of going to the doctor and getting some fucking meds."

"Not addictive," Miguel says. He thinks he's slurring as he falls asleep again. "One of the selling points."

"Yeah, not addictive. Just the high you need to counteract your fucked-up brain chemistry since you wouldn't go to the doctor and get some meds."

Beecher's hands are a lot gentler than his words, one finger tracing the scar on Miguel's right cheek, and his chest is warm against Miguel's back, and the bones of his wrist feel too delicate under Miguel's clutching grasp as he wraps one arm around his chest. Miguel holds on, too tight, he knows, trying to keep his head above water, above the dark.

"Fuck," Beecher says, low, breath ghosting across Miguel's bare shoulder, and Miguel wonders if he's willing - if he's able - to let another person fall.

Chapter Text

They're two and a half weeks into their stay at Tanner Correctional when Beecher spots Arif standing at the fence line on the western edge of the dog run and wanders over to stand beside him, squinting against the mid-afternoon sun as he looks out on surrounding farmland. He turns up his face to the chilly wind and bright sunlight, struck by a sudden urge to wind his fingers in the fence in front of him, curl them through the chain links and maybe swing back and forth a little, like a kid on a playground. Too bad it's hot. He contents himself with swaying forward on his toes and then back as he peers through the fence at the post-harvest fields on the other side. They'd be picturesque if they weren't so scrubby.

Arif looks tired, a cut scabbed over at the corner of his mouth, some bruising on the right side of his face - Tanner's full of Five Percenters, and Beecher remembers Arif bristling like an offended cat around Supreme Allah, so he's not all that surprised, really. Alvarez and Bismilla, Walters and Sands have all been drop-kicked at various points into the Hole for fighting already - they just call it Ad Seg, here, but it's still another fucking Hole. Alvarez looked a little wild around the eyes when they got him back, but otherwise, they've all seemed to take it as due, pulled a little tighter, 500 miles from home, against the local bullies fucking with the new kids. The whole thing may have done Arif some good, Beecher thinks - solidified his shaky truce with Bismilla, an improvement over Bare Hill, when Arif spent his time wandering blankly through the rows of bunks, shell-shocked survivor like so many of them, and a pariah on top of it all, yellowed bruises still fading from the beating he'd taken when the truth about the printing press came out.

"We could still file an injunction," Beecher says, turning to watch him study the rolling hills on the other side of the fence, waiting until Arif finally shakes his head.

They both know the arguments, the same logic they heard when they first protested the transfer, the move away from families and orphaned children, across three state lines to rented prison beds, and those arguments will only hold more sway now the deal's done. Only temporary, Beecher can hear McManus say, less than a year, and nowhere to put them in a prison system already facing a federal injunction for overcrowding, one of Zelman's civil-rights suits coming back now to bite them in the ass. Dumping the population of Oz into other prisons already strained at the seams only made things worse - they were facing nine months to a year in the crowded gym at Bare Hill or sleeping in shifts, five to a cell, Downstate or out at Green Haven, until the state's newest prison finished construction - but Beecher remembers the sound of his daughter's voice over the phone, Arif's defeated look as he sank down on the edge of a bunk with a picture of three boys younger than Gary taped to one metal strut, and he wonders what's worse.

By the time any court challenge plays out, they'll already be back home.

"We can at least make them fight for it," he says, turning to look out at the trampled fields again, tucking his hands into the front pockets of the sweatshirt that's still enough, on the yard - the dog run, they call it - here at Tanner. It's amazing the difference a few hours ride and a state line or three can make. A faint scent of smoke from over the hills curls around them, marker of a second autumn, approaching a month and a half late, it feels like.

"How long do you think this will be here before they pave it?" Arif says, and Beecher remembers the signs of development, the SUVs and suburban bedroom communities looking like a long-ago and far-away native country through the mesh of the bus windows as they drove in.

"A while," he says. "There's only so much gentrification they're going to be able to handle before the area stops being too grateful for jobs and starts worrying about the prisoners on their back doorstep. What?"

"Go ahead and file your injunction." Arif's watching Beecher with a raised eyebrow, an odd look on his face, and he's shaking his head, but one corner of his mouth quirks, maybe the friendliest look he's ever directed Beecher's way. "At least it will give you something to do."

"I've got plenty to do, Arif," Beecher says, but he slants a look the other man's way, wondering how obvious he's been: jumpy, unmoored, adrift in a new place with only the barest feel for the prison's geography, walking a tightrope. Even as an outsider in Oz, he'd developed his own network, come to know who would leave him alone if he'd just leave them alone, those he could look to as allies or at least convince to stay off his ass - Said, then the uneasy truce with Arif, O'Reily on a good day, Hoyt and Sands as long as he stayed out of their way, which he was usually happy to do, and Pancamo, when Beecher wasn't talking himself into paying him off for some kind of tragically dumbass scheme - a cat's cradle of tenuous connections hard and painfully won over years.

Now, he's just trying to stay out of the way, trying to keep his head down. He doesn't want to have to deal with getting pushed around, because then he'll have to deal with getting pushed around, and the thought of fucking back if - when - someone tries to fuck with him is just so goddamn tiring. He's heard the whispers, some of the nicknames, and he's happy enough to let whatever poisonous rep he's developed do some of the work of keeping people out of the way and off his ass, but here's the thing - there will always be more Aryans.

"What do any of us have to do here, Beecher?" Arif asks him, shaking his head again.

"What we always do," Beecher says, rubbing a thumb along soft fabric where the inside edge of one of his sweatshirt's pockets has escaped its seam. "Read. Pray. Deal with the shit that happens around us, every day." He almost forgets himself, almost reaches one hand out to wind through the chain links at his side.

"You're going to fry yourself if you're not careful, Beecher," Arif says. "Stay away from the fence."

 

•••

 

They're three and a half weeks into their stay at Tanner when Torquemada slides into the eight-man multi-occupancy cell just before evening lockdown looking sly and smug and maybe a little relieved, throwing himself down on one of the lower bunks and watching them all with an enigmatic look until lights out, which is when he pulls out the first bottle of bright green pills he's managed to get his hands on, here in Tanner, rattling in the dim overnight light from the corridor. Beecher watches him smile as he presses the first pill in long weeks between Alvarez's lips, watches as Alvarez licks out at those fingers. He narrows his eyes as Torquemada looks up and meets his gaze, spreading his hands and shrugging in a "What?" gesture.

He remembers the night he woke to see Alvarez sitting up on the edge of Torquemada's bunk, knotting and unknotting the looped end of a sheet, remembers his own whisper in the still, humid air, and Alvarez's muted response, remembers Torquemada's eyes gleaming, watchful in the faint light as Miguel rolled himself back into bed and tucked himself into that long, lean body. He remembers the way Torquemada's gaze met his before Torquemada curved an arm around Alvarez, fingers braceleting one wrist, tucking both their hands still into the curve of Miguel's chest.

He remembers Alvarez hot and shaking against his own chest, desperate hands clenched in the front of his T-shirt, long red scratches and blank monotone voice, curled together in a dim stuffy cocoon of blankets on a makeshift bunk in the Bare Hill barracks, remembers his growing frustration as the doctor denied his requests, and he can almost understand - almost but not quite, because goddamnit.

 

•••

 

Beecher's standing at the fence line on the eastern edge of the dog run when Alvarez spots him squinting up at a pale blue curve of sky in the mid-morning sun and wanders over to stand beside him, turning his face into the brisk touch of a breeze sharp with the scent of cold and frozen ground and coming winter. He runs his contraband cigarette through two fingers, enjoying the crisp feel of the rolling paper - cigarettes are a lot easier to get your hands on, these days, and if there's anybody who's going to be able to get hold of contraband, it's him.

It's a sweet deal, after too long on the outside, too long walking the tightrope - Torquemada's managed to shift lines of supply, and they've got a nice little cottage industry going, already got money coming in and pull to spare, now that the little green pills are going out again - got some pull and some control despite the lack of any solid El Norte presence in Tanner, or maybe because of it. Not even the Oz admins were stupid enough to ship most of their Latino inmates into a hotbed of Al Sur activity - or Tanner admins weren't stupid enough to take them, more like - and the vicious gang rivalries have kept most of Alvarez's compatriots from Oz farmed out to various in-state prisons back home, or in long-term Ad Seg, or solitary, or some kind of protective custody like Unit J. Walking into Tanner, he wasn't sure if it was more of a curse or a relief to not have Chico at his back, to not know that Carlos and Luis would be sleeping two bunks over with all the weight of El Norte behind them, to slough off the growing tension in the wake of Morales' death and Guerra's bad D experience and face a whole new set of challenges from a whole new set of motherfuckers.

Most of the Al Sur inmates at Tanner, they've been easy enough to sell on the whole "enemy of my enemy" idea, and even if they're not friends, they're willing enough to be business partners if it means pills in their pockets and money crossing their palms. Doesn't mean Alvarez hasn't had to deal with some shit, because there's shit everywhere you go, right? He's just had to put some of these mamabichos in their place, teach them he's not going to mess with them if they don't mess with him - and not to mess with him in the first place.

"Got a light?" he asks Beecher, who makes a face at him, that indignant, disapproving look he gets, and Alvarez probably should be pissed off, but he can feel his morning D moving through his bloodstream, evening him out, can feel himself picking up, lifting off, like the drug is moving up through his body from his toes, through his hips and spine, out to his fingertips, buoying him, helping him float, so he just laughs instead, and tucks his cigarette behind his ear and bounces on his toes.

He rolls his head back on his neck and remembers being five, out on the shitty barrio playground with its bare dirt and two working swings and single see-saw, a chatter of Spanish in the background from his madre and the neighborhood women, Rafi with her long braids and a handful of sticky coquitos she was always willing to share, scratchy warmth of a cheap red scarf against his cheek wrapped tight by his mama's cold fingers, and the white-blue sky curved above him, smokestacks from the city's steel mills puffing away in the distance. He pulls air into his lungs, can feel his chest expanding like it's been caved in 'til now, and he has a sudden urge to throw out his arms and spin. He opens his eyes to pictures in the clouds, feathery brushes like the tips of angel wings, and remembers the cool touch of fingers on his cheeks.

"I remember this," he says.

"Remember?" Beecher says, beside him, disconcerting, and Alvarez blinks before he can pull his thoughts together.

"The clouds," he says, finally. "Being outside."

"That's right," Beecher says. "You were out for a few months, weren't you? Longer than I managed, at any rate. And they let me go."

"I remember the rain," Alvarez says, looking up at the sky, thinking about grey clouds and raindrops - he's pretty sure they were raindrops - on his face. "I was sitting on the bench at a bus stop, eating tamales."

He can feel the warmth on his fingers, remembers the spicy taste filling his mouth, snap of chiles and sweetness of cloves, and the oddly accented Spanish of the guy running the neighborhood stand wherever he'd washed up that night, Little Havana, Little Borinquen, Little Mexico, whatever diminutive part of some city where the familiar, liquid sounds of the language reassured him he could keep his head down and blend in, where the guy running the stand tucked an extra tamal into his hands after Miguel fumbled together spare change out of the pockets of the pants he'd stolen from the dryer of a local lavandería before prying open the coin slot on one of the washing machines. He remembers the bus driver staring at him from an open door and the spatter of raindrops on his face.

"I remember going on a picnic," Beecher says, looking out at the bare hills through the fence. He raises one hand, stopping just short of touching the chain links. "It was too cold, but Holly promised she'd wear two sweaters and we could buy hot chocolate at the refreshment stand at the park, and I paid extra to get whipped cream on them. We took a blanket, and she held my hand and told me all about her art project at school while we walked down to the pond. I remember the grass was brown, and it wasn't as soft as it was when I dreamed it, but it was soft enough, and we sat there for an hour and fed the crusts of our sandwiches to the ducks ..." He stops, suddenly, and laughs.

"What?" Alvarez says.

"Nothing. I'm just ... rambling. Being stupid. Again."

"Stupid, to want something like that." Miguel watches him, waiting, because he knows this is all a fool's game, but Beecher, he gets these weird ideas, these weird moments of something that look almost like hope to Miguel, almost like that redemption he remembers glimpsing a while ago, before he ended up back on his knees.

"It's stupid to want something like this," Beecher says, turning to face Miguel, shoving balled fists into the pockets of his sweatshirt and hunching his shoulders up like he could pull in his head like a turtle. He narrows his eyes. "Stupid when I don't know what you want. What do you want, Alvarez? What do you need from me, now that you've got your Destiny again?"

Miguel curls his fingers into his palms, remembering the shift of wristbones inside the circle of his touch, a crosshatched ragged edge of tape and gauze, the scratch of blankets against his hands and an ache in his fingers, his wrists. What he wants, he thinks, impressions fracturing in crystalline air like slivers of glass under the weight of Destiny, what he wants is to touch Beecher again, out here under the sun, with the wind clean on his face and across his tongue and in his lungs.

"I was out at night most of the time," he says, tucking his hands under his arms, turning to look sightlessly out over the empty fields, sunlight prisming into rainbows at the edges of his vision. "I had to lay low, you know, so they wouldn't see me. Be like a ghost. A city, it's never dark, you know that, right? There's always streetlights, and like, neon signs and shit, you can't see the stars. I didn't see a lot of stars, growing up. On really clear nights, when the mills were running slow and there were no clouds, you'd see a couple dozen, maybe, here and there, scattered across the sky. You gotta get out where it's really dark if you want to see the stars, right?" He looks over at Beecher, who's studying him, intent, and has to look away again, because he can't focus on finding the words if he has to work on meeting that gaze. "There was this one night, I was hitching a ride, right? Just, running, trying to get further away, where nobody would recognize me. And this guy, he picked me up and let me ride in the back of his pickup truck. It was fucking cold, freezing, but it was so clear out, and we were between cities, out where there were no street lights, and I rode for a couple hours just lying in the back of his truck looking up at the stars, at the way they were crusted over the sky, like God took a handful of diamonds and spread them out like they were nothing, like gravel or something. I remember wondering how all those stars could fit in one sky." He looks over at Beecher. "That's what I want. I want to look up when it's dark and see all those stars."

"Alvarez ..." Beecher says, and he almost reaches out, almost touches Miguel.

"Yeah, well," Alvarez says, dropping his head to press the heels of both hands into his eyes, sending starbursts flashing across his vision. "That's never gonna happen. We're all just gonna end up back in Oz, anyway."

"Or somewhere just as bad," Beecher says.

"What, you haven't heard?"

"Heard ... what? Alvarez, I have to admit, I don't have the connections you do, these days."

"They're gonna re-open Oz." That's the word through the grapevine, at any rate, come in with the latest shipment, like the knowledge is gonna buy them anything.

"Really." Beecher's voice is flat. "I know McManus was saying it, but you actually believe it?"

"Hey, it's what my contacts say," Alvarez says, bouncing on his toes again.

"Oh, your contacts"

"Be nice, Beecher," he says. "You were talking up my contacts two seconds ago."

"Would you want to go back?"

Alvarez shakes his head, more to clear it than in response to the rapidfire question. He takes a minute to think about it, to consider the months he spent locked in a solitary cell or taking care of Ricardo, the years walking an El Norte minefield and working with Eduardo in the infirmary, the sound of his mother's voice on the phone and the scent of her perfume in the visitor's room, about Chico and Alonzo and Destiny.

"I don't know," he says, finally. "It's where mi familia is. Would you?"

"I could just as well go Downstate," Beecher says, turning to look back through the fence again, his mouth turned down in that little contemplative frown he gets. "It'd be a couple hours drive in one direction for my family, instead of a couple hours drive in the other they have to make to get to Oz."

Alvarez turns back to the fence, too, and they stand there long enough that he thinks maybe the conversation's over.

"I'll probably end up going back to Oz," Beecher says, finally.

"You think?"

"What I think is that I'm never going to escape that shithole."

Well, that's the fucking truth, Alvarez thinks but doesn't say out loud. He's not sure what to say, but he's saved from figuring it out as a trio of guys wanders past, Sastre and Pérez and some fucking new kid who's been smirking at Alvarez since he came in a week ago, proving they still don't know what's good for them, when to keep their mouths shut and their eyefucking looks to themselves.

"Pocho," Novato spits at Alvarez, and "Maricón," says Pérez, and Alvarez just gives them a manic grin, spreads his hands in a "come on" gesture. They think they're gonna wear him down, but he's done with that, done with putting up with bullshit, done with people fucking with him. He can feel the D in his blood, pumping him up, and an ache in his fingers, his hands, as he clenches a fist, but the three of them ignore the gesture, wandering away, Pérez tossing his chin and flinging back a last "loco" as he turns away. Fucking posturing - afectados chingados, all of them.

"What was that about?" Beecher asks.

"Bullshit," Alvarez says, shrugging. "Them learning not to run their mouths."

Beecher shakes his head and huffs out something that sounds like a sigh.

"Don't," Alvarez says. "Just don't, all right?"

"Alvarez ..."

"Hey, listen," Alvarez says, cutting him off, and they stand there looking at each other for a minute, time stretching.

"What?" Beecher finally says.

Alvarez shakes his head again and looks down at the bare dirt of the dog run, shoots a look up at Beecher because he wants to ask, he does, because he's been wondering, but he doesn't know how. Shoving his hands in his pockets, he rocks on his toes again, looking up at the sky, at the feathertip clouds, and he can remember their touch, that touch, and he wants to ask, he does. He cuts another look Beecher's way, out of the corner of his eye, and gets caught this time.

"What?" Beecher says, sounding even more impatient but maybe kind of amused, too. "What is it, Alvarez?"

"I remember," he says, turning over the words in his head, slotting them into place, trying to remember exactly, "in Bare Hill. You said something. Something about how every life is precious."

He looks over at Beecher to see if he remembers it too, or if it was just one more of the dreams, one more of the twists in Miguel's fucked-up brain, but Beecher's nodding, head tilted a little, face serious now, watching with a little more calm and patience as Miguel fidgets, dropping his gaze back to the ground.

"Yeah," Beecher finally says, and he sounds a little defensive, like he expects Miguel to laugh at him, or something. "I did. And I still believe it."

"Yeah?"

"Yeah."

Miguel looks up at him and nods, and he nods back.

 

•••

 

There's crying somewhere, soft smothered gasps and hitching breaths, but Toby can't figure out who it is, can't fucking get to them, can't even find them in the dark as he turns, flailing and splashing in the water around him. He tastes salt on his lips and wonders if it's from the water or if he was the one crying or if there's ever been any sound other than the soft soughing and lapping of waves as they chase themselves in cold eddies around him, running ephemeral fingers over the back of his neck, teasing around one wrist like the soft nibbling of fish. They slap and lap over his face, and he sneezes and snorts, turning up to the lowering sky, starless, and the water's stagnant in his mouth, muddy with a dark metallic taste to it, dirty brown like rust.

I can float, he thinks, spreading his arms and looking up at a pallid moon, but there's a phantom touch at his heel, a tug, and he flounders, splashes himself in the face. Another tug, a yank, pulls him down, pulls him under, fingers tight around his ankle, and he smacks his hands against the water's surface like he can grab hold, make it solid enough to offer some support as it closes over his head. Vern's face turns up to his out of impenetrable depths, fish-belly pale and grinning, and Toby kicks out in panic, wallowing out of control and choking, looking down at their faces - Vern and his father, now - swimming up at him like sickly, underwater moons. They're reaching up with inexorable slow-motion grace to grab onto his ankles, to pull themselves up or to pull him down, he's not sure which, and he feels his father's nose squelch and smash rubbery under his heel as he kicks out again, trying to get his head above water, gulping at air as he emerges.

Hands brush at his legs, at his crotch, and he looks down into a flash of Adam Guenzel's face, sallow and painted with makeup, a leer of lipsticked mouth, slick and gleaming crimson through dirty water, sharp shark teeth behind it. Through the pressure and heat and wet and terror, he realizes he's getting hard against the fingers, and he chokes again, gagging on blackwater and bile, trying to push away the hands, his own arms weighted. He's being held down, pulled down again by more hands tangling like dead seaweed, his wrists braceleted by blanched and bloodless fingers. Andrew looks up at him with a half smile - the bottom half, Toby realizes in horror - blood caked over his face and lower jaw, over the front of his shirt, drifting in tendrils on dark water from the gaping wound where his nose should be, where half his face should be, rotted away, teeth shining white through blood and raw meat. Fingers snake around his other arm, and Hank turns up a blind face on Toby's shoulder ... the eyes, they eat the eyes first ... gaping mouth and empty eye sockets writhing with maggots, dirt crumbling from his lips and sifting out of his hair to mix muddy with blood and black water, smearing against Toby's face, in his nose and mouth.

He's still kicking, trying to push away from their tangling hold, going under again, when he feels small arms around his neck, tiny feet climbing him, and the water closes over his head again before he flails back up, splashing and gasping. There's someone on shore, he realizes, someone watching, still and cold as a statute - a woman, dark hair blown half across her face, and a smaller figure in her embrace, long red braids trailing. A soft cheek presses against his and Gary smiles at him, baby smile in a wan face, and clings, one arm tight and strangling around Toby's neck, reaching up with the other to pat Toby's cheek with a bleeding stump, and Toby can feel the knife tear of oxygen deprivation and water in his chest as the weight pulls him down, pulls him under ...
and he comes gasping up out of sleep, grabbing at the hands holding him down, shoving at them as he scrabbles toward the head of his bunk.

"Hey," someone says. "Hey, hey, you're OK."

He remembers Chris's hand brushing back the hair from his forehead, palm pressed over his heart, the image of Cathy Rockwell's body and his own grinning face, his own limp body, sprawled across the windshield of his car, and he takes one last huge gasping breath before nodding at Alvarez in the dim light. Bunk beds and crowded bodies and humid, stagnant air, the now-familiar grumbling of Meaney in sleep and Rawls' hissed admonishment from across the cellblock corridor to shut the fuck up, motherfucker, and he's back in Tanner Correctional, back in the multi-occupancy cell, back under Alvarez's hands and steady gaze.

"Yeah?" Alvarez says, peering at him in shadow as he struggles to pull air deeper into his lungs.

He waits for Beecher to nod before patting his chest and padding back to his own bunk where Torquemada is watching, waiting, eyes gleaming in the faint light.

 

•••

 

Alvarez is coming off a bad night when it goes down - nothing dire and immediate, just another night he spent awake, sitting on his bed and staring out through the bars, listening to seven other motherfuckers breath the same air he's trying to pull some oxygen from, choking over it as it clogs, hot and thick, in his lungs, along with the realization that he's gone from one prison to the next, to the next, and he's getting ready to move to yet another goddamn prison because Hart's Run will be done any day, and they'll all be moving back in-state, and it's all the same - the same shit, over and over - his thoughts running circles like rats around the certainty that it's all going to be same until the day he dies and they carry him out of whatever prison he happens to be in at the time, in a pine box, just like he did with Morales, just like they did with his grandfather.

So a D-Tab seemed to be in order with the dawn, and now he's peaking, flying, wondering why he spent so much time and energy worrying about that shit, anyway, because what could be wrong when he feels this good, this full of energy and kickass attitude? Hey, he's the lynchpin of this whole operation, right? He's managed to coordinate a multi-state operation, here, kept the lines running, been the crucial connection - Alonzo needs him to supply contacts with the other Latinos to distribute, and those other motherfuckers, they can call him pocho all they want, they can talk shit about how he's a whiteboy, but they need him to get their hands on the drugs so they have something to distribute at all. Alvarez, he's made something out of this pile of shit prison tried to hand him, right?

"Hey, pretty," someone says, somewhere off to his left, and "Fuck off," someone else responds, but Alvarez is too busy to pay attention, face turned up to the sun and the wind on the dog run, watching a steady succession of images in the clouds, angel wings and coiling serpents, starburst flowers and flaming crosses. The wind tickles across his face like fingers, and he tilts his head to let it drift down, tracing his jawline, and he's wondering idly what it would taste like if he opened his mouth when he realizes he's been hearing some kind of catfight for a couple of minutes, now. Blinking open eyes he hadn't even realized he closed, he spots Beecher getting shit - again, because Jesucristo there's something about that guy and his ability to attract shit, Alvarez can't figure it out. He's worse than Alonzo, who walks around all six-foot-three of attitude, somehow managing to look like he's still in hooker boots and makeup even in the suicide blonde job done over a cell sink with janitor-grade peroxide and the shitty orange scrub pants and grey T-shirts they've gotta wear in this place. But no, it's Beecher who manages to draw the lion's share of assholes like ... what is it? Something about something that's drawn to a flame, whatever it is ... he's sure he'll remember later, and anyway, Beecher's still getting shit from three guys, Brotherhood assholes, because the other thing you can count on, besides Beecher attracting shit, is that there will always be more Nazis.

At some point, his body has already made some kind of decision, and Miguel realizes he's grooving over there, muscles jumping to soundless music - the beat of his pulse in his wrists and his temples, the thrum of blood in his veins and the hollow echo of the breeze in his ears - and he's feeling the itch of restless energy under his skin, amped, jacked up, and huh, he thinks to himself.

Why not? he thinks. This is as good a way as any to burn it off, and anyway, hasn't Beecher had to deal with enough shit? He remembers stuffy dimness and fingertips on his face and figures he owes Beecher anyway, right? He's getting pretty sick of this anyway, of the Tanner chiquitos and the way they think they can fuck with Alvarez and Torquemada and Beecher and the handful of other guys from Oz who are here. It's gonna look bad for all of them if one of them gets his ass handed to him, if there's a chink in the armor, a weak link in the chain. And hasn't Alvarez made it crystal clear by now that people need to keep their hands to themselves? Haven't these Tanner putos learned to keep their hands off Miguel's boys? Pissant little ratfucks looking to get jacked, he thinks, now, and he knows just the person to do it.

They've ruined his good mood and his good morning, so it's not like they don't deserve it for that, on top of fucking with one of Alvarez's guys.

He's close enough now to overhear one of the guys telling Beecher they know about his rep, they want to know what's so special about him - he must be a really great fuck or suck if guys keep risking it, keep putting it in despite what might happen, but don't worry, because they're not limpwrist faggot pushovers like the boys across state lines, so he won't have to worry he's going to off one of them so easy, sweetness. The other two have grabbed Beecher, are holding him between them, and he snaps his teeth at the guy talking, like a rabid dog, snarling like he's been kicked. From a distance, Alvarez watches himself wonder if these three retrasados actually have heard everything about Beecher's rep that they claim - or at least everything that they need to have heard, if they're going to pull this shit. It's not like Beecher hasn't proved his mouth isn't dangerous, in more ways than one.

"Tough guys, yeah," Beecher says, and Alvarez snorts to himself because that's an impressive sneer Beecher's got going on for a guy who's being held down by two assholes with 75 pounds on him, each. "If you're such tough guys, why do you need to go three on one? Pussies."

"Three on one is more fun," says one of the guys holding him, close to his ear like he's whispering a secret.

Beecher yanks against the hold at those words, almost manages to tear himself free, but the guy curses and grabs him again, wraps an arm up under his, wraps his other hand around Beecher's neck from behind, arching him back and that's it. Everything snaps into sudden closeup focus and Alvarez goes for the one who's been running his mouth the most, coming up fast from behind, slugging him in the back of the head, both fists together, swinging his hands like he's got a pipe or a bat, and the guy spins out and goes down, on his hands and knees in the dirt, dazed.

"Motherfucker, you wetback motherfucker," says the other guy holding Beecher, and Alvarez gives the guy on the ground a good hard kick in the ribs before he turns back, nodding and grinning and making a little "come on" gesture to the second guy, who's let go of Beecher and is coming now for Alvarez.

Huh, Alvarez thinks, again. He's kind of big. But Alvarez remembers this, this crazy urge under his skin, flash of whitehot rage that left him blanked out and amped up, that got him into Oz in the first place, that kept him in Oz when he should have been able to walk out. It's a relief to feel like he doesn't have to keep it leashed, under control, even for a little while, to feel like he can let it out, just a little bit of it, like he can bleed off some of it.

Hot-headed dick, says a voice in his head, a voice still faintly inflected by the streets.

Beecher's struggling against Mr. Three-on-One, who's still holding him, still got a hand around his throat, and Miguel sees him - with startling clarity, given he's ducking a swing from the guy coming for him - throwing an elbow.

"You comin'?" Alvarez says to his guy. "Yeah? Come on, then, chingado" gesturing before he's momentarily distracted by Beecher - who's given up on the flailing and the punching - reaching down to 3x1's crotch and grabbing his dick, squeezing until the guy gasps and lets go of him, hunching forward and cursing.

There's no time to do anything more than huff out a laugh before Alvarez finds himself spun half-around, the side of his face suddenly numb and one ear ringing, and well, shit, he thinks - took your eye off that one, didn't you? He's staggering back, trying to find his footing, when he hears a sharp sound from the sidelines, a whistle, and spots a guy with a shaved head, lightning bolts tattooed across both jugulars, throwing up a quick brush of palm against palm, one hand skipping off the other in the wordless Tanner shorthand Alvarez has learned means "scatter," and everyone's melting away into a crowd busy with things to see on the other three sides of the dog run, leaving Alvarez and Beecher and some guy on his hands and knees, still hacking from Alvarez's foot in his ribs as a guard shows up and asks what the fuck is going on.

"Tripped," Beecher says, almost chirpily, pointing at the guy trying to get off the ground. "Sorry. Didn't mean to have my foot out like that. Didn't realize you wouldn't see it."

Even to Alvarez, it's clear the hacks aren't buying it, and they make vague threats about throwing them all into Ad Seg or assigning them punishment meals, and Beecher makes a face Alvarez can't disagree with because, God knows, he's been stuck eating that damn food loaf a handful of times since they got here, ground beef and mashed potatoes and watery-ass spinach mixed together and thrown into a pan and baked. They're all throwing up their hands and backing off, now, and then there's a spare Nazi helping up the guy on the ground, a hack shoving at his shoulder as they slip back into the mass of people.

"Thank Christ they're shipping you Oz fucks out of here in a couple of weeks," another hack says, eyeing them before he turns away, and Beecher gives him the finger behind his back, and Alvarez can feel the laughter welling up in his chest.

"Beecher, get over here," he says, slinging an arm around Beecher's neck and pulling him away to a corner of the yard, a shoulder pressing into his chest.

In the sunlight, Beecher's lit up like some kind of gilt-edged prayer card from church, like something Alvarez's abuela kept pressed between the pages of her Bible, eyelashes and hair and sharp cheekbones touched with gold, and Alvarez's fingers itch to touch, to see if some of that color will smear off on his own fingertips. He remembers cool fingers on his own face, Beecher's voice, murmuring, remembers this smell, this heat from him, both of them jammed together on a single bunk, and the press of Beecher's shoulder into his chest is like pressing a bruise where his heart should be, an ache that's almost satisfying, that you know is only going to hurt worse when the pressure's lifted and the blood comes rushing back in.

Beecher says his name, impatient, lifting his hand to push Miguel's fingers away from his face, but Miguel's thinking about those fingertips, and he catches Beecher's hand before Beecher smacks at him and shoves him away.

"Fuck off, Alvarez," he says. "I'm not your bitch. I can take care of myself. Or are you trying to take Cutler's role like you tried to take his wife?"

Miguel blinks and rubs his chest, disconcerted - if this was Alonzo and this kind of shit just went down, he'd be the one smacking off solicitous touches and chafing under too much attention, and anyway ...

"Fuck you, Beecher," he says. "It's not like that."

Except he remembers, vaguely, being so mad about those guys putting their hands on Beecher, remembers the way he thought about Beecher as one of his guys, as his, and what the fuck? He's not acting like that, is he?

Sunlight's still falling across Beecher's face, patterned into diamonds through the fence, and Miguel tilts his head to study it, reaches out a finger to trace the shadows.

"Christ, Alvarez," Beecher says and sighs, fingers wrapped around Miguel's wrist to push away his hand, again, gentler this time.

"I'm just watching your back, man," Miguel says. "Nobody else out there is gonna do that. Nobody in here is gonna do that." He gestures with his free hand. "They're not gonna help us. We gotta watch out for each other, right?"

Beecher studies him, unreadable expression on his face, and finally shakes his head.

"If you want me to watch out for you, take my advice," he says. "Get off that stuff. You're going to kill yourself."

"Nah, hermano." Alvarez flashes him a grin. "Everything's under control. You good?"

He holds Beecher's gaze - squinting a little, because maldición, it's some work to focus, right now - waiting for a response, until Beecher finally nods. Alvarez nods back with a grin and saunters back to Alonzo, who's waiting, disapproving look in place, who cups a hand around the back of Alvarez's neck, palm hot on his nape, to pull him in.

Chapter Text

"Watch," Felix says and bats playfully at Mariana's muzzle with tender fingers as she nods at him, tongue lolling. "Not you. Dame la pata."

He shakes the paw she extends, pulling an involuntary laugh from Alvarez, slouched against one of the tables that's been pushed aside to clear space in the center of the disused Hart's Run classroom area, pulling his attention back from the clitter-clack of claws on the floor, from dust motes dancing in the strip of sunlight falling from the single high narrow window in the room. He keeps being distracted by little things, for all he's calculated carefully, after figuring out he's too manic to hold it together when he's peaking. He's got to be either going up or going down for this - somewhere on the slope, not so far up he loses focus in the high, not so far down he can't keep afloat above the waiting quicksand that immobilizes him, deadweight on his limbs and his fucking brain. Down's better for holding it together, he's decided over days, a longer, sweeter slope, but it's a calculated risk.

At least the doctors here tried, but they put him on some shit that made him want to throw up, kept him jittery all the damn time, and he's not having that. With the D, he knows when to expect it, how to ride the waves, knows there will be waves and not some constant itch under his skin all the time, an itch he can only just keep himself from trying to dig out.

Felix is still watching him, looking expectant. So's Mariana, head tilted, one eyebrow peaked in something that looks almost like doubt on her furry face, and if she wasn't in work mode, he'd cup her chin, scrub behind her ears with his knuckles, bury his hands in the slide of her fur and lean close to catch her warm, stale breath on his face, maybe earn himself a few flicks of her tongue on his own chin.

"Nice trick," he tells them, finally. "But not that useful, right? ¿De qué sirve eso?"

"Que no," Felix says, flashing back a grin. "Not that. Watch ... ¡atención!"

There's six of them in this class, Felix and five others, Mariana and five others - twice the number they'd started with in Oz, and maybe they'll have a higher success rate, too. Hinden fought for every one of them, and Rivera did, too, and Alvarez, and he can't help thinking it was the pair of them who really saved the program, he and Rivera, standing on opposite sides of the warden's office with Rivera's woman still glaring daggers at Miguel like she'd love nothing more then to take the same scalpel that blinded Eugene and pull it across Miguel's throat. Rivera'd done a news spot, talking about the difference the program - and Julie - had made for him, and Hinden talked to reporters a couple of times, visited a few classrooms for photo ops, trying to drum up public support, although no one'd been willing to clear Alvarez to talk to anybody in time for any deadlines. Beecher'd read a newspaper article the other two had done too, and nicked the newspaper out of the prison library, but Alvarez still thinks it was the sight of them, he and Rivera, on opposite sides of the same room, both fighting for another chance for Man's Best Friend, that earned the program a trial at Hart's Run.

It makes him possessive, proprietary, and he meets Hinden's gaze as he looks around the room, assessing the six guys, the six dogs, the guards at the edges. There's something off today, the atmosphere a little tense, descentrado, and it's got the dogs a little bit anxious, distracted, sets Miguel's own teeth on edge, jacking up the lingering effects of his morning D, keeping him anxious and jittery against the normal downslope. He rubs damp palms together, over his stomach, against his thighs, trying to dry them as Hinden shakes her head at him, almost imperceptibly.

"¡Mira!" Felix says to Alvarez, again, nudging him and nodding at one of the guards on their side of the room, who looks ill at ease even as he starts walking across the floor.

All the hacks are wound tight today, even Peters, even Kodowski, who'd been learning at least the basics of how to interact with the dogs, taking their cues from Hinden, eyes flickering to her before they did anything when the class started four weeks ago, but increasingly secure, talking to Felix and Bianchi and a couple of the other guys in low tones at the end of a training session. Alvarez remembers LoPresti and his sharp, bitter comments in the chilly cafeteria in Oz. No better judge of a man's goddamn character than how he treats a dog, he thinks, now.

"¡Síguelo!" Felix says to Mariana, and she tugs at the leash, still not the smoothest start in the group, before waiting for Felix to follow her as she follows Peters, follows the order, across the floor, trailing the officer to the door, her handler in her wake. "¡Buena muchacha!" Felix adds, leaning over her, scrubbing up the fur behind one ear before grinning up at Peters, his smile tightening at the blank look on the guard's face.

Alvarez shifts to stand squared on both feet, wary, but movement catches his eye and he turns to see Hinden shake her head at him again, warning look in her eyes.

"I heard what you did," Felix is saying now, and Alvarez looks back to the kid, back to the dog, and walks over to drop down on one knee beside them. "I heard how you taught your dog Spanish and English. We've been working on it at night, after lockdown, she's been learning Spanish in her free time, haven't you muchacha?"

Alvarez meets Hinden's eyes again as she comes over to stand at Felix's shoulder, and the tense look drops off her face. For a moment, she almost seems amused, a small grin twisting her lips, and Alvarez rolls his eyes at her. At least somebody thinks it's funny.

He doesn't need any more of of these malditos crios, young and so painfully stupid, looking up to him, deciding he's some kind of role model or hero or whatever they think. That - he - got Velez killed the first time it happened, and he can't see how he's gonna do any better this time, some two-bit con with a handful of half-assed crimes and a bad attitude under his belt before he came in, who got himself jacked up and sent halfway around the bend so that he's gonna be stuck in here, half-crazy, maybe all crazy, until he dies. He'll only get them killed, too, but no, he's got them with stars in their eyes, halfway in love with him or whatever shit they got going on, awed by his fake-it-to-make-it business sense or the doting attention of his prison lover or the whispers that clear a path in front of him, whispers of blood and insanity and who the fuck knows what - teeth maybe, like he's some kind of goddamn werewolf and that's how he talks to these dogs.

Felix is whispering to Mariana as he checks her paws, a low murmur lost in the hum of the class winding down, but his eyes slide over to Alvarez as he leans in close, burying his fingers in her ruff. El Loco, Novato called him back in Tanner, but "como un zorro" - "crazy like a fox" - he remembers hearing one of these kids whisper, Felix's cellmate or brother-in-arms, young and stupid like Miguel used to be, thinking he knew better.

He'd only get them killed - but maybe that's what some of them want. He can't figure out these goddamn kids, and he thinks about Morales, sitting in his bunk, immobile, face blank in the wake of Annette's death, and he thinks he knows how Enrique felt. At least Felix and Montilla are only gone over the dogs. Miguel remembers one kid who talked to his scars, eyes tracing the line on his cheek, the raised welts in the hollow of his left shoulder, a prayer on his lips and a lingering glance that felt as greedy as Alonzo's gaze, Alonzo's hands, Alonzo's mouth. Something in the kid's face made Miguel feel more naked in the showers than he had in years, admiration and fascination and some kind of fire in the eyes of a kid who's been put in Ad Seg twice already after trips to the infirmary to sew him up, and he wasn't even trying to kill himself, Walters said - he had an audience while he did it, and they were prayin' over him.

He looks up to realize everyone else is gone, only one hack left waiting at the door to take him back to his cell, and that's when Hinden tells him: She's thinking about closing down the class, she says, and Miguel looks at her, trying to make sense of the words.

It's Pascual, she says - Pascual, who was pretty damn quiet in class today, Alvarez noticed - and Valero, who didn't show up with the other regular guards. Valero, who's been administratively disciplined, Hinden says, docked a day's pay and transferred and almost suspended because he was one of the two guys who went with Pascual - a minimum security risk, in on a three-strikes ID theft charge - to a presentation about the program in a freshman-year college classroom and bought him a hamburger at a fast-food drive-through on the way back to the prison.

She doesn't want to run a program that's going to treat people like that, she says, her back to Miguel now - maybe so she won't have to meet his eyes, he thinks. She doesn't want the prisoners or the guards she's working with to be treated like that. She thinks they should get at least as much respect as the dogs get.

Miguel looks at her as she turns back to face him, finally, raising her hands and letting them fall, shaking her head.

He knows he must have bugged the shit out of the guards when he first heard rumors she was looking to start up the program here, trying to get a chance to talk to her, asking her to let him assist, even if he couldn't train one of the dogs because he might not be in kept in Hart's Run long enough to complete a training cycle. He was more honest with her than he's been with anyone - maybe even himself - in a while. Al garete, he told her, when he talked about how he was doing - the word they use on the street, like a boat that's drifting, no one to steer it.

He's walking the tightrope again, with that weightless sensation before a fall, running in a last hope to catch his balance, and he's afraid he's already lost it, that he's just in a controlled fall, alone in his cell, here in Hart's Run, alone with a new face and an unknown name in the other bunk, temporary home until one of them gets transferred or shanked or killed, transitory, nothing solid, all of the Oz refugees split up, spread out across cells, now that they've been pulled back instate. Admin's scared of alliances across the lines, he remembers Arif saying, in the cafeteria, and Beecher snorted, and Miguel thought, yeah, those would fall apart on their own soon enough without a common enemy.

Meanwhile, he lies in a bunk at night with a stranger underneath him and a thousand guys breathing his air and not even Alonzo to hold onto, to hold him up, no clever fingers gliding across Miguel's mouth or shoulder, wrapped around Miguel's dick or the back of his neck, no flesh under Miguel's fingers except his own, tracing the veins up his arms and counting the hours until his morning D. He is such a dumbfuck stupid asshole for getting used to it so soon, for getting hooked on the feel of another body under him, over him, around him. You can run a business from separate cells, but when you're hooked on something and there's a wall between it and you, it's always a long time 'til morning.

He remembers Julie, the slide of her fur and the beat of her heart under his fingers, the sure guiding pull of the harness in the darkness under his blindfold, the way she licked his fingers and sat straight and calm at Rivera's feet in the warden's office, still and composed during her trip back between prison walls. He thinks about Mariana and Roscoe, about Felix and Montilla, and about the way he's looked out across cells and seen Bianchi through the bars, sitting on the edge of his bed and talking to Maggie for hours, after lockdown, before lights out, her head titled quizzically as she sat patiently at his feet.

"Don't give up on the program," he says to Hinden, realizing he's reached out without thinking, wrapped his fingers around hers when she reached back. He's probably gripping her hands too tight, like the lifeline she is, probably hurting her, but he can't let go and she doesn't try to pull away. "Don't give up on these guys. You can't help them by giving up, OK? You can't give up on them. If this is the best that it gets, it's still better than nothing, you know?"

"It meant that much to you? Really?" She meets his gaze, studying him.

"It's the only thing I ever accomplished in my entire life," he tells her, honestly, and it hurts, madre de Dios, it hurts to hear her, to know that she knows, to know that she couldn't trust him any more, couldn't turn over one of the dogs to his care, to be his responsibility, even if he was staying in Hart's Run.

It makes him feel lower than dirt, for her to see what he's slid back into, but he can't leave it. This is too important, and so he reminds her of her own words, that first day of class:

"You told us, we could let them be pets, or we could teach them to help people. And that's what I did. So you look at Julie, and you look at Rivera, and you ask yourself if it matters what I'm doing now. It's about them, you know?"

"It's supposed to be about you, too, Miguel," she says, and she rests her hand on his bowed head for a minute before she leaves.

 

•••

 

The Coliseum rises around him, five tiers of stacked cells circling a small guardhouse in the center of an empty concrete floor, and Beecher rubs his eyes, blinking in the light as he emerges from the tunneled hallway that leads away to the prison cafeteria. He wonders who's watching from behind the guardhouse blinds, if anyone is watching at all, or if they've decided the paranoia bred in the state's new roundhouse - the sense of exposure, the knowledge that anyone could see you at any point, at any time - if that's deemed security enough. Fucking Devlin and his fucking pet project, trying to find a prison design that'll let him cut costs by cutting prison staff. Fucking Hart's Run - Beecher hates this place more than Oz, sometimes.

The noise from the encircling thousand inmates yelling and banging on the bars is deafening, the kind of sound you hear after the lions are released. It's cold and it's bright, all those cells with all those windows letting the white late-winter sunshine stream in, backlighting the inhabitants like a bad peep show. In Oz, he'd spent days aching to see the sun, spent hours on the dog run at Tanner greedily soaking it up; now, all he wants is to curl in on himself, like one of those grey armored bugs that would draw up tight when he and Angus poked at them with tentative fingertips. Potato bugs, his mother called them, but roly-polys, his father would say. He slams a lid on the thought.

Garrett shoves into him from behind, trips and swears.

"Move it, ladies," says the hack escorting them back from dinner.

Tier 3, cell 26, home sweet temporary home, and Beecher avoids the vertiginous look down as they circle 'round, corkscrewing higher, losing people two by two in front of each set of bars. Rader in 17 waggles a tongue lewdly, and Beecher gives him the finger in passing. Coming up on 25, he can see Alvarez hunkered in the bottom bunk, sheets draped against the sun to create a shadowy bolthole, like some wounded animal gone to ground.

"Alvarez," Beecher says as he comes abreast of the cell. "Hey, Miguel."

He pulls the apple from his sweatshirt pocket and tosses it through the bars; by the time the hack looks up to see what's going on, it's already landed soft in the blanket folds where Miguel's fingers are twitchily picking, half-hidden from sight. Beecher presses his face to the bars, trying to block the guard's line of sight as Miguel's hand hesitates, hovering over the fruit.

"Eat something, all right?" Beecher says. "You look like shit."

That hand moves again, and now it's offering Beecher an obscene gesture. He laughs.

"Don't make me hit you in the head next time," he says.

"Come on, Beecher," the hack says, and Beecher raises his hands and backs away from the bars, moves to stand in front of his own cell next door with Garrett, waiting for the hiss and clank of their quadrant's barred doors opening on automated hydraulic slides.

"An apple?" Miguel's voice drifts over, rusty, lethargic, but at least he's talking, and Beecher waits only long enough for the clang of the door sliding closed before he hunkers down at the foot of the bunks, against the wall that separates their cells, and leans his head against the bars. "You tempting me to somethin', Beecher?"

"I'm just watching your back," Beecher says.

"Yeah," Miguel sounds tired, voice almost lost under the rattle and clank as another set of doors allows another set of prisoners out for their turn at dinner. "Well. Maybe what I need is a poison apple."

"Don't do that," Beecher says, sharp. "That's not you talking. That's the depression. You know that."

"Maybe the depression is me, man. You ever think of that? I know you must. Maybe I just gotta, you know. Accept it. Just let it do what it's gonna do. I been trying for so long, trying to keep my head above water. Maybe it's time. Maybe I should just give in. Right?"

"Alvarez." Beecher's on his feet now, cheek pressed to one cold bar. "Alvarez ..."

"Oh, Miguel, honey. Whatever is the matter?" Torquemada's leading the parade down the tier toward the cafeteria, and he pauses to look at Beecher, making tsking sounds. "You're not taking very good care of him, my friend."

"Yeah, well, withdrawal is a bitch," Beecher says.

"At least he's not going to kill himself on my watch," Torquemada says with a sneer, and Beecher shoves away from the bars.

Even in the roar of the Coliseum, he can't help hearing Torquemada's affected tones, the low murmur of Miguel's response, and he remembers Torquemada's fingers curved around Alvarez's shoulder in Tanner's dim night light, the same possessive grasp as the hand constantly drawn to the back of Alvarez's neck, containing him, leashing him. He remembers those fingers curled into the short hair at Miguel's nape, and Alvarez's hand on Torquemada's face, controlling a kiss in a slip-slide of tongues even as Torquemada directed it. Alvarez never had to push very hard for Torquemada to submit, or vice versa, really, both of them crazy enough or high enough on Destiny that they never much cared about their audience, and Beecher almost thinks he can hear the sharp rattle of pills in a bottle. There's no way Torquemada would risk that with a hack right there, he tries to convince himself, not even with the press of dinner companions now passing, lending crowded cover. No, it'll be a quick touch, a caress, a press of flesh, a palming of pills passed from hand to hand, and at least that will limit the number Alvarez will have, even if it does blow three days clean, on this round.

Garrett meets Beecher's eyes in the mirror over the sink and shakes his head. Beecher's figured by now that the guy's a soft touch under the tattoos of flaming skulls and iron crosses and bike club slogans, greying hair pulled back under a bandanna to reveal tired eyes, and he never would have been here in the first place if he hadn't caught his old lady and his best friend actually in bed.

"Kid's a bad bet," he says, and Beecher nods tiredly.

"You remember Bare Hill, man, right after the evacuation?" Miguel's voice floats over, above the sound of retreating footsteps.

"I remember." Beecher thinks about close quarters and unwashed bodies, heat and stink, chaos and desperation and bloodied fists, about silky hair under his fingertips, damp at the temples and hairline, a shoulder filling his palm and an oddly fragile curve of neck, a flutter of soft eyelashes under his thumb as he tried to calm Miguel's restless sleep. He remembers his own voice, he's going to kill himself, and Dr. Nathan's, strained, Well, don't let him.

"I don't," Alvarez says. "Don't remember. Much. Most of it is like this black pit. I remember I just wanted to sleep. Sleep forever."

"Alvarez ..."

"Those D-Tabs, they wake me up, man. Keep me from drowning. Let me float."

"Bodies float," Beecher says, and he winces at the edge in his own voice, but his hand is pressed to the wall between them, like he could reach through the concrete and snatch away the pills Alvarez is holding.

The silence from the other side lasts long enough to nurse the skittering fear in Beecher's belly into bloom, choking him.

"It's gonna kill me." Alvarez sounds resigned. "Sooner or later, this is gonna kill me."

"Not today," Beecher says, and he ignores the snort from Garrett, sinking down again, at the foot of the bunks, stretching an arm through the bars, along the thick concrete dividing them, as far as he can reach. "Take my hand."

He waits, motionless, and waits some more. Tentative fingertips finally manage to touch his.

One day at a time, he thinks.

 

•••

 

Ryan shivers in the breeze, shoving his hands deeper in the pockets of his sweatshirt, lounging back against one of the concrete tables on the yard at Hart's Run, taking the prison's measure, searching out familiar faces. Frankie Urbano's talking to some kid - Binaco or something, another one of those Dago names - who's got another of those damn dogs that seem to be everywhere. Frank's holding out a hand to the dog until the kid shakes his head and says something with a rueful smile, and Urbano seems a little lost without Pancamo to provide direction, which is pretty fucking funny, considering. There was a guy Ryan underestimated, from the riot on through a near-death infection. Ryan would have thought the wiseguys in Oz would fall apart years ago, once Ryan took care of old Schibetta, once Adebisi neutralized Nappa. Unlike the Latinos, who seem to have an endless supply of El Cids and Moraleses to send to shitholes like Oz, the Italians, well, their lieutenants got enough money that they either don't get caught in the first place, or they get sent to some Club Fed. The ones coming through Oz are mostly low-level punks like Urbano or rock fucking stupid, like baby Schibetta. Chucky - he was a constant surprise. Ryan's not big on surprises, not ones he hasn't planned and executed, himself. Word on the grapevine is that Chucky's Downstate, and Ryan wonders if they'll keep him there, try to break the wiseguy side of the tits trade in Oz.

Ryan's spent three months in a limbo of bureaucratic red tape and bullshit, three months since this prison opened, three months while alliances were laid down, hands shaken, deals made, three months out of the game. McManus and Gloria both pulled strings to keep him in-state with Seamus, but once the Coliseum opened - and closed - its cell doors, it was only a matter of time before they moved him from Bare Hill to Hart's Run, no matter how much he agitated to stay just a little bit longer, to stay with Seamus, at least, even though Gloria was gone. A maximum-security prisoner, Murphy had told him, the irritated tones of McManus layered all through the message, and he needed to be in a maximum-security prison, which Bare Hill was not.

Fuckers might as well have left him in Bare Hill if they were going to stick him in here, three to a cell, on a mattress on the floor. At least at Bare Hill, there was Seamus, and some connection to Gloria. God knows Ryan wanted to kill the old bastard more than once, and he can sure as fuck remember why he moved out in the first place, after months of listening to the old man complain and demand and find fault with every single thing, for Christ's sake, until Ryan just wanted him to shut the hell up so he could spend a couple of minutes in peace. Couldn't he see Ryan was trying to keep them both alive in an unfamiliar place with only about a third of his usual contacts around?

Ryan remembers why, now, he left home at 16 and was never there much before that, sleeping at Sharon's place or on couches and spare bits of floor, when he wasn't on a Juvie mattress - at least once Cyril was old enough to find a girl and a bed to sneak into at night so Ryan didn't have to worry about him being alone with the old man. Ryan came home to one too many bruises, one too many reproachful, sullen looks, and always, in the back of his mind, was the spectral memory of a last gasping breath, a rattle that pulled him up out of sleep on the nights he was away, to stare sightless into darkness, his own lungs frantically pulling in air, heart rabbiting in his chest, lying awake without the steady reassuring rhythm of Cyril's breath to put him back under. And then those last couple of years, once Cyril started getting big enough, there was the uncertainty of whose body he might come home to.

No, better to endure the known than fear the unknown, at least until Cyril was old enough or big enough to take care of himself or to be tucked safely away in Juvie for a few months, and then Ryan was in the wind - the same wind he's twisting in, now.

Eyes on the prize, he tells himself, rolling back his shoulders, trying to roll off the demands and complaints, remembering Gloria's gaze on him as he tucked blankets around Seamus in the infirmary. She's gone, too, left Bare Hill even before Ryan was transferred out, moved Downstate to fill an empty position in their prison infirmary, and he knows she'll be happy to get back home, once Oz re-opens. Word is, they're scrambling to re-open - the Coliseum already is overcrowded, just three months in service, and probably would have been even without the influx of Oz refugees pulled back instate because it's cheaper than renting beds somewhere.

He remembers Poet's disbelieving look over dried-out meatloaf and mushy green beans, but Ryan's counting the days, looking forward, only a couple more months, now. McManus promised to have both Ryan and Seamus transferred back to Em City once the damn prison reopens. Meanwhile, Ryan's on the floor of a cell with Meaney and some Brotherhood banger, a guy who's not all that smart, but he's at least keyed into the Nazi grapevine that seems to traverse prison walls and state lines. It's been a chance to catch up on all the shit that's gone down while Ryan's been out of circulation, some of the info gleaned from outright gossip, some from bitching and moaning and boasting.

Ryan looks up at the sun on the yard and blinks in the bright light, eyes watering. He won't miss it, he tells himself. He'll be back with Seamus, with Gloria, and that's all that'll matter. He's jittery, missing her.

They're buried deep in a compound of prison buildings, surrounded on all sides by stone and concrete, a tiny manmade canyon carved out into a goddamn wind tunnel, and Ryan hunches his shoulders, pulling his head deeper into his collar as the late-winter breeze ghosts across the back of his neck, and he wonders if there's anyone with a contraband cigarette he can score. Torquemada blows him a kiss from across the yard, where he's lounging in a matching posture against the other table, like a bookend of Ryan, and Ryan sits up, scowling. Fiona's leaning into Torquemada, eyes busy darting around the yard, taking everything in. The pair of them are probably gossiping like a couple of chicks - most of Em City's gay population was kept in instate in Bare Hill, in a separate cellblock, but you'd think three months would be enough for them to catch up, Jesus Christ. Ryan's got to admire Torquemada's ability to keep and hold that loyalty, though - especially when he left them behind when it suited his purposes, allied with Alvarez and the Latinos.

Nearby, Arif's deep in conversation with Wyverns, some kid who works as an orderly in the infirmary, where they've got Ryan working three days a week, still, apparently figuring he knows how to empty a bedpan by now. Small and skinny, with an afro that looks like he stuck a finger in a light socket, Wyverns is a squirrel, flighty as fuck - Ryan's thought about bullying him into muling some 'scripts out of the medicine cabinets, but Jesus, the kid might drop dead of a heart attack. Who the fuck would think there'd be a guy out there more high-strung that Omar White?

Ryan shakes his head at the thought and catches Bismilla at the kid's shoulder, a sudden flicker of hands that also grabs Arif's attention in a wordless warning, and Ryan watches Arif look up to meet Bismilla's eyes, then give a slow nod before Bismilla and the kid melt into the crowd just as the hack walking up leans in and says something to Arif. Ryan's left considering the silent exchange carefully, because a unified Muslim front ... huh. Tanner seems to have solidified some internal alliances, not just created strange new allies.

Speaking of which ...

He looks back to Torquemada, follows his line of sight, and yeah. Right on cue, there's Alvarez, and there's Beecher. It's like Torquemada's got a goddamn invisible leash he keeps on Alvarez, and he might give it some play, but it ensures he always knows just where Alvarez is - Alvarez, who's leaning into Beecher, saying something, probably low, right in his ear. Ryan remembers how Alvarez can get right up in your space, right up on you, remembers that lilt of mockery in his voice that made you want to punch him in the mouth. Timmy Kirk used to say Ryan hated it so much because he didn't like it when other people pulled the same shit on him that he used. That's not how Ryan uses it, though. No, Ryan isn't about fucking around when he gets up in your space, he means business - he's going to pull you in and take you out. It's not about threat, it's about seduction, about pulling people in and planting an idea in their heads and making them think it's the best thing they've ever heard, what Ryan's suggested they do, that it's what they've wanted to do all along. He never even has to do much coaxing to get them to roll over - it's just a matter of knowing what buttons to push, what alternatives they don't want to contemplate.

Alvarez, he wasn't ever in Ryan's space to coax anything out of him, except a fist in the teeth - Alvarez got up on you to challenge you, to goad you into taking the first swing.

It's just ... that's not what this looks like.

Meaney mooches up and offers Ryan half a cigarette, and he takes it, pulling the smoke deep in his lungs as he watches carefully, squinting in the sunlight. He can see Alvarez leaning in again, and he can imagine that low voice in Beecher's ear ... but Alvarez is grinning ... and Beecher shoves him away ... but not angry, Ryan can tell, he's seen that shove, felt it. They're fucking playing, he realizes, the kind of horseplay Beecher would come out of his shell for with Ryan, back in the day, back before ... before.

Ryan narrows his eyes and studies Beecher more carefully. No, he's not using again. So what's his game? What would he need Alvarez for, if not drugs?

He remembers Beecher leaning over Alvarez in the cafeteria, saying something fast and low, chest pressed against Alvarez's shoulder, and Alvarez's answering huff of laughter, and Ryan's seen that, too. He remembers the narrow look Torquemada tipped their way.

Huh. Interesting.

He hands the stub of the cigarette back to Meaney and sidles up to Alvarez as Beecher walks away, leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets. Alvarez looks over at him.

"O'Reily."

"Alvarez."

"Something I can do for you?"

"No. But there's something I can do for you."

"Not interested," Alvarez says, shoving himself off the wall.

"Hey, man, it's just a little bit of advice," Ryan calls after him, and Alvarez stops. Ryan can practically see the internal struggle.

"Now what kind of advice could you have for me?" Alvarez asks, turning around, and Ryan shrugs. "More important, what kind of advice would you be willing to give me for free?"

Ryan pulls both hands out of his sweatshirt, palms up, fingers spread, and shrugs again.

"OK, I'll play along. What, O'Reily?" Alvarez crosses his hands over his chest, tucking them up under his armpits, because of course he's enough of a dumbass to come out in here in shirt sleeves, and Ryan's surprised the sleeves, themselves, have survived this long.

"I was just gonna say, maybe you need to be more careful with the missus," Ryan says.

"What the fuck are you talking about?"

"Just, maybe you need to keep the wife and the mistress a little further apart."

Alvarez looks at him for minute.

"Fuck you, O'Reily," he says, finally, and turns away.

"I'm just sayin.'" Ryan raises his voice to call after him. "You might want to keep Alonzo away from Beecher. I don't think he's too happy about your ... extracurriculars."

"I don't know what you think is going on ..." Alvarez stops again, still half-turned away from Ryan, and Ryan follows his gaze across the yard, and sure enough.

Beecher's watching them, head tilted, quizzical look on his face. Alvarez makes a quick downward motion with one hand in front of his chest, some more of that handjive the Tanner refugees brought back with them, something that brings a lift of Beecher's chin as his brows draw together, but then he nods, once, sharp, and Alvarez turns back to Ryan.

"Oh, I know what's going on." Ryan can't help laughing. "I could look at you two the first time I was out here and see what's going on."

"You don't see shit, O'Reily." Alvarez moves up into Ryan's space, now - low, crowding him, the way he does. "I don't see why you care anyway. Why would you care? I heard you talking that bullshit about him like the rest of those sapingos from Oz in here, like that Nazi fuck whose cell you're in. What did you call him? Oh, that's right. The Black Widow."

"Hey," Ryan says, refusing to step away. "A rep can only help him."

"You're all heart, O'Reily."

Ryan shrugs, leaning in close to Alvarez, crowding him, dropping the words right in his ear.

"I'm just sayin' you might want to be careful. Look at what happened to the last guy."

Because Jesus Christ, he always knew Alvarez had no self-preservation skills, but come on.

Chapter Text

They're still setting up the infirmary when they get back to Oz, shelves of medicine half empty and beds sitting unmade, and there are four guys moved right into the AIDS ward, but otherwise, it's a slow trickle of people in: a couple of burns from the kitchen, a case of appendicitis, some guy who gets bashed in the face during a pickup game in the gym by the ball or an elbow or a fist. They dig out the tooth embedded in his lower lip and give him three stitches before they send him on to the dentist. There's a round of allergic reactions bad enough to need meds, which has Miguel wondering, despite himself, if there was anything to Beecher's dire muttering over high-school chemistry textbooks in the Hart's Run library, whether any of them are related to whatever shit Keller contaminated the place with or whatever shit they tried to clean up with. He's also there when they get their first shanking, some throwdown between the Aryans and a couple of homeboys in Unit B, and well, that didn't take long.

"Everybody settling in just like expected, then," O'Reily mutters behind him, closer to the back of Miguel's neck than he'd really like, leaning in, breath hot on his skin, and Miguel's hands tighten into fists on scratchy new sheets, still stiff, sheets that haven't had time to be pounded to familiar softness and translucence by industrial washing and cheap bleach.

O'Reily's insinuated himself back into the infirmary, and it's like some distracting itch under Miguel's skin, something prowling and pacing, something that always bothered him, but more now than ever. It's been months since he's been in an infirmary, and the blue orderly scrubs, "INMATE" printed across the back, are just as stiff and new as the sheets, but he's worked long enough in here, in this space, put in years of his time before the evacuation, that he looks around at the high barred windows with their mesh screens, at the way the light falls across the raised ceiling and freshly painted walls, and he recognizes it, can tell the time of day, what season it is. He knows about the hump in the floor beside bed 7 in the AIDS ward that will trip you if you're not careful and the corner of the ICU behind the door where you can steal a minute for a stolen pudding cup and the way to press down on the dispensary door handle as it swings open to keep it from squeaking. It's the only place that's ever made him feel the least bit useful, the one place he ever got close to the feeling he had when Julie turned, smooth and easy at his command, guiding him through the obstacle course laid out in front of them. He feels it in his bones - this is his turf - and he's not sure if the knowledge relieves him or scares him, he's not sure exactly how pathetic it should make him feel.

It's like coming home, Eduardo's hand on his face, warm callused palm cupping his cheek, running one thumb under Miguel's left eye, where he knows he still has shadows. Dark eyes study him as Miguel swallows around a sudden lump in his throat and he lowers his own gaze until Eduardo cuffs him on the ear, a gentle echo of a long-ago, far harder smack upside the head from Ricardo, and the pulls him in for a hug, humming a pleased sound in his throat, shoulder soft under Miguel's chin where his scrubs have slipped to expose the T-shirt underneath, smelling of prison soap and antiseptic and the harsh bleach they use on the scrubs and the sheets, a smell that's come to mean "father" to Miguel, padre, all the papa he'll ever have. His eyes aren't wet, they're not, but he can't say he hadn't worried, some, about the things he's done, been, become since the last time he'd seen his father, about what kind of welcome might be waiting for him.

They're still setting up the infirmary, and packages of new drugs are still coming in, boxes and bottles, uncounted value in a prison, and two days in, Alvarez meets O'Reily's eyes beside one of the locked cabinets where prescription meds are kept, catching the calculating look. They barely have to talk about it.

"Don't think you're getting all that trade to yourself, asere," Alvarez tells him, leaning in, close, to whisper over his shoulder as O'Reily makes one of the beds in the main ward, pulling sheets tight, making a better hospital corner than Alvarez ever would have given him credit for.

"Slipping the leash again, Miguel?" Ryan grins mirthlessly as he straightens and turns, leaning even closer to Alvarez, refusing to back down, murmuring low, right in his ear. "Looking for a little something else on the side?"

"Shut the fuck up, O'Reily."

"Hey, just don't get me in trouble the way you're going to get Beecher in trouble, OK? I don't want to be all up in between you and the missus."

Alvarez just bares his teeth and moves on to the next bed. He knows how to run a boutique drug business, by now.

It's most difficult in the beginning - despite the sheer number of drugs coming in, they're being categorized and cataloged with as much fervor as El Cid ever maintained to make sure nothing was skimmed off the top. It'll be easier once everything's in place, easier to slip pills from dispensary trays and bottles from cabinets left unlocked, and then pay off whoever might have been awake and watching from their beds, buying silence with a handful of the spoils. It's a lucrative partnership, Alvarez finds - he has to give Ryan grudging props for his acting ability, the way he can create a diversion just as the dispensary cabinet is unlocked, feigning shock or surprise at an equipment readout or the angle of a bandaged limb or even a spilled bedpan, leaving Alvarez to slip past a hurriedly abandoned tray or open mesh door while Ryan keeps a nurse's attention with the charm of snake-oil salesmen everywhere. Maybe that makes Alvarez the snake, and he wonders if Dr. Nathan ever fell for that shit, and if she did, how she ever managed to get anything done, once O'Reily was assigned to the infirmary work detail, once he spent four hours a day demanding her attention.

They divvy up in the pudding corner, or back in Em City, splitting handfuls and bottles of pills, and O'Reily may joke about something on the side, but it's true - it's a fucking relief to have something in his life that's not tied to Alonzo again, now that he's left the dogs behind in Hart's Run. Desperate when he'd been dumped in a cell alone, Miguel hadn't even realized how much he needed that breathing space, with the dogs three hours a day and separated into different cells the rest of the time, spread out among the home population in the Coliseum, and Alonzo somewhere other than on Miguel's back 24-7. He hadn't realized how essential that distance had been to getting off the D again. He'd thought he was going to die at the time, but now, he remembers a cellmate who would stay on the other side of the goddamn room and space enough to stretch out and touch Beecher's fingertips through the bars.

They're back in business now, back in Em City, Alvarez and Torquemada, Miguel maintaining the personal and the professional because it's profitable, and because he's got a rep that's equal parts boon and burden, and he may as well wring what he can out of it. He puts off Alonzo's questions with sly smiles in the day and soft touches at night, raising his own brows when he sees the furrow between Alonzo's as he studies Miguel, head tilted, gears working in his effort to figure out what game Alvarez is running, turning down the D.

"More profits in pocket, baby," Alvarez tells him and shakes his head at the narrowed, worried looks.

At the end of the day, it's not so different from what he's always wanted, he tells himself - a warm body when he needs something to hang on to, something to ground him. He's still had to knock some sense into a couple of novatos, but his rep is doing an awful lot of his work for him these days - como un zorro, he remembers Felix and his boys saying, back in Hart's Run - and he supposes he can partially thank Alonzo for that. He'd have to be fucking loco to be mixed up with that batshit motherfucker, right?

He's probably just as goddamn crazy to get mixed up with O'Reily, but it gives him a little bit of freedom, and a little bit of supply, too, when he needs it, on the days when the darkness gets too deep, a pink or a blue or a yellow pill here and there to help him maintain, to prevent the worried looks from Alonzo and from Beecher when he gets too quiet, too tired. So he watches O'Reily, keeps an eye on him, trying to calm that itch that comes from O'Reily being up in his space, in his turf, breathing down his neck. He watches as Seamus comes in for a checkup, grumbling under his breath, watches Ryan grip his elbow, harsh, almost desperate, and Miguel remembers the weight of Ricardo's head in his hands as he moved his grandfather on the pillow, the flex of Ricardo's fingers as Miguel smoothed lotion over aged, dry skin, the strength in Ricardo's arms as he fought demons only he could see - older boys on the streets of Havana, romantic rivals on the streets of Miami, business rivals on the streets of New York City - mind roving free from the walls that imprisoned his decaying body, the godhead Miguel remembered from childhood photos and family stories stripped away by age and time and frailty and the encircling stone of Oz. He thinks maybe he recognizes some of the desperation in Ryan's grasp and meets his eyes briefly as Ryan looks around the infirmary, seeming lost, before he rolls his eyes at Alvarez and turns his attention back to Seamus.

They're both following in their fathers' footsteps, along their grandfathers' path, doomed to repeat the past. Miguel can see it now, he knows it, recognizes it - now that he can't get off that path, now that he can't get out - and he realizes too late.

He wonders if Ryan can manage to rebuild some kind of relationship with Seamus. There's an awful lot of bad blood under that bridge - at least Miguel was starting with a blank slate. He wonders if Ryan even really cares, when you get down to it. O'Reily's a fucking ardilla these days, anyway, a squirrel, constantly jumpy, ratcheting higher and higher, up to goddamn 11, like he's always waiting for something - yeah, and Miguel knows what he's waiting for.

She'll be back, he keeps saying, she'll be back, but Miguel's starting to wonder.

Prestopnik's back - that guy's gonna die here just like a lot of the guys in the cells, Miguel thinks, just sit his ancient ass down at his desk one day and never wake up - and a couple of the nurses are back, but people from before are mostly gone. There's a new guy, Dr. Ranier, and a woman doctor who shuttles back and forth from Oz to Parker Women's to Lardner, split three ways in one of the state's cost-saving measures, and there are a lot of new nurses. Most of the staff who were here before evac either transferred somewhere else in the system and are staying wherever they washed up - because who would want to deal with moving back? - or they left the prison system altogether, like anyone with any goddamn sense. Why would you come back unless you're stuck here? Miguel remembers Beecher's voice, What I think is that I'm never going to escape that shithole, remembers running and rain on his face.

You'd have to be crazy to come back. All Miguel's gotta do is take a look at who is back to know that - McManus, Sister Pete, Father Mukada, people who seem to think they have some kind of mission, some kind of calling, something that justifies miring themselves here. Murphy, who's got some weird vocation that seems to be McManus. Stella, down in the library with her books. O'Reily's mom, maybe, sometime soon, although she's fulfilled her community service hours. Fucking Querns, of course, but then he really is batshit. Plus he never left, was around to oversee whatever decontamination they've done - must have been a pretty sweet deal for him, the perfect setup: Running a prison with no inmates so there was no fucking around, no fucking up. It must look great on his resumé.

So they've still got the odd person trickling back in, a familiar face turning up in the hallways in black, or in the infirmary in scrubs or a white coat, when the shoe drops, when O'Reily finds out she never intends to come back.

 

•••

 

Prisoner #98A436, Rafael Andrade. Convicted: April 12, 1998. Murder in the second degree. Sentence: 20 years. Up for parole in 12.

Beecher eyes him across the cafeteria, poking disinterestedly at his reconstituted mashed potatoes. There's something about having a new podmate, fresh fish, just transferred into Oz, that busts him back to 14 years old, stuck in the lower echelons of high school and feeling vaguely as if he should invite the new kid to sit with him during lunch period. Rolling his shoulders, he tries to shrug it off. It's not like he wouldn't be inviting Andrade to sit at the geek table, where Rebadow's so buried in some scientific journal he doesn't even notice his cookies disappearing from the tray in front of him and Busmalis is still waving around pictures of the spawn he finally managed to sire under Bare Hill's more relaxed, medium-security visiting privileges. It's not like Beecher's cellmates aren't generally better off without him, he thinks, grimly turning his thoughts from Andrew, Ronnie, Adam - when he's not better off without them.

Andrade looks like he can take care of himself, anyway, big guy, mixed heritage evident in the lightness of his skin, the tilt of his cheekbones - don't fuck with the Dominicans, Beecher remembers Poet saying, as he moved through the food line - and aloof, quiet, something that doesn't look innate but learned, with a watchfulness bordering on wary, something that could make him vulnerable if he was any smaller or weaker or flightier. He's not. Career criminal, Beecher's heard on the grapevine, with a record that reminds him of Keller's, in and out since Juvie, a two-bit hood, until his last caper, when he ended up kicking the shit out of another banger who'd popped one of his compatriots in a drug deal gone bad six months earlier, killing him in the process.

He'd blinked a couple of times at Beecher's feral grin and demand for the top bunk before shrugging a shoulder and nodding, somehow making it seem less of a concession than it should have been. Beecher's caught the guy, a handful of times, watching him, out of the corner of his eye, with an expression maybe best described as perplexed, but overall, there's been a surprising lack of shit from him. He's got a penchant for swearing in Spanish under his breath and a handful of pictures - not photos, but actual pictures, shaded and crosshatched in standard No. 2 - tucked behind his toothpaste and mouthwash on the shelf by the sink: two men in prison uniform standing shoulder to shoulder against a fence and laughing; a younger man, bandanna tied around his head, slouched over a table or desk, face intent on whatever he's writing; a striking woman, slight and sharp with long dark hair framing her face. She's looking down, pensive, and Andrade - or whoever did the portrait - captured the sweep of lowered lashes against her cheek and the shadow of bars across her face with lush, delicate detail, even in pencil.

"So, what'd'you think?" Alvarez says, suddenly, leaning over Beecher's shoulder and stealing the apple from the tray in front of Rebadow.

"I don't know," Beecher says, shrugging. "I don't know what to do with a guy who seems to want to leave me the fuck alone."

"That's you, Beecher, más linda de Oz," Alvarez says and grins as he crunches into Rebadow's apple. "Prettiest girl in town," he translates, at Beecher's blank look.

"Fuck off." Beecher shoves his shoulder back into Alvarez's chest, sharp, and gets a wounded grunt and a laugh in return.

"Helen of Troy," Rebadow says, lowering the journal and giving one of his odd, pleased grins. "She brought down an entire city, too." His look shades into comic betrayal as Alvarez takes another crunching bite of the apple.

"Don't besmirch my heritage," Busmalis says, tucking the pictures back into his breast pocket. "Helen of Troy was a lot prettier than that."

"Oh, I don't know about that," Alvarez says through his mouthful.

"All of you can fuck off," Beecher says. He's heard the whispers, seen the stares, and it's only gotten worse since they were moved back to Oz. "It's just too bad this place didn't get lost for centuries. Come on. You don't think it's creepy McManus is trying to put it back together like none of it ever happened?"

"It's not exactly the same ..."

"It's all exactly the same, Alvarez."

"The infirmary's blue now."

"They didn't change anything - all they did was spend two years washing the whole place down with bleach, or something, and slapped a little bit of new paint over some of the rot."

It's fucking creepy, in fact, how much it's like the past two years never happened, walking back into the dim light and stuffy air of Em City like they were just back from breakfast, like they'd been just down the hallway, like the intervening time in Bare Hill and Tanner and Hart's Run never even existed. It makes Beecher's skin crawl, lying in the dark, trying to fall asleep, thinking about how time seems to have stopped, imagining the empty silence lying cold and thick in stone corridors, curdling in the corners of concrete cells.

When he was a kid, 14 years old, he spent three months consumed by all things archeology, heard jokes from his parents about how he was going to be Indiana Jones, right? What they never understood was the root of his obsession, buried in a world history textbook with a paragraph about Pompeii, a paragraph that sent him to the library, starkly captivated and reading whatever he could get his hands on about the city where time stopped one catastrophic morning and stayed frozen for millennia. He'd wanted to walk those same streets of Pompeii and Herculaneum, wanted to stare at the frescos and dirty graffiti, wanted to wander through the market stalls, stand in the forum, trying to make sense of it. He remembers his horrified fascination when he'd realized they'd made plaster casts of the bodies that had been covered over, the bodies of the Pompeiana who didn't escape the gas and the ash, the ones who were overwhelmed in the city streets, in their gardens and their bedrooms, buried where they'd fallen, trapped in their dying moments and forever. He'd been unable to look away from pictures of those preserved faces, those expressions of terror, studying them as if they'd held some answers they might give up.

Oz is like that, now, its hallways preserved like time stopped, but full of ghosts, living and dead.

"Pompeii," he mutters, under his breath, and Rebadow makes another humming sound of approval, but the others look at him blankly.

A sudden stab of nostalgia leaves him breathless, a memory of Ryan - clever, itinerate O'Reily - who'd read more National Geographics for the articles than anyone else Beecher knew, hell, who was maybe the only person Beecher knew who'd read the damn thing at all, even before he came to Oz. He can remember Ryan talking about Machu Picchu and Mount Everest, about the Acropolis and the Amazon, and all the other places he'd go once he got out of this place, back when it still looked like he - like either of them - might ever get out of this place. Ryan would have known what Beecher was talking about, would have been able to finish his sentence, wouldn't have even needed to finish his sentences, like so many times an idea had clicked into place between them, for good or ill. Ryan could always anticipate Beecher, better than anyone, certainly better than Keller ever managed - Keller, who was constantly surprised by Beecher's bullheadedness, his obstinacy, whether he was pulling Chris close or pushing him away. And Beecher thinks maybe, maybe, he's one of the few people who can anticipate Ryan, every now and then, when the moon's in the right house or the planets align or some damn thing. thinks maybe he knows Ryan better than almost anyone. He can remember Ryan's sly, clever face as their eyes met across a bank of dryers in the laundry room and they both knew what was going to happen to Andrew Schillinger without a word being spoken, remembers Ryan's eyes gleaming as he laid a finger to his lips in darkness lit only by the muzzle flare of the SORT team taking back Em City, as he pulled Beecher down behind a mattress, and he shakes his head, sharp, to clear it.

"Anyway, it wasn't even two years," Busmalis mutters.

"Yeah," Alvarez says and grins. "You think maybe we're all gonna die in our beds from whatever it was?"

"With the kind of cheap, half-ass job they probably contracted for? It wouldn't surprise me." Beecher half turns to look at Alvarez, who's lounging on the bench beside him now, apple core dangling from one hand as he leans his elbows back on the table. "So there you go. Someone will do your work for you."

"I told you, I got everything under control." Alvarez gives Beecher one of his shit-eating grins, and Beecher narrows his eyes, studying him. He's too moderated to be on D, but this cheerful Alvarez is ... unusual.

Beecher raises an eyebrow at him and Alvarez shrugs, palms up, still grinning. Beecher snorts in response. He's not entirely sure what's going on, but he's going to find out.

"You don't think we're really going to die in our beds, do you?" Busmalis says.

"Where would you rather die?" Rebadow asks.

"What was that shit, anyway?" Alvarez looks up from the apple core, where he's picking out seeds, flicking them from his fingers onto Beecher's tray.

"Some kind of jacked-up version of ricin, they were saying on the news when they talked about reopening the place."

"Ricin? Isn't that the shit they use to kill people on subways in Japan?" Urbano's walking by with an empty tray, and he pauses at the end of the table.

"That's sarin," Alvarez says, lobbing the entire apple core at Beecher's tray as he gets to his feet, and Beecher just stares up at him for a minute.

"I don't even want to know how you know that," he says, finally.

"Apparently, it's made by the same company that made the aging pills used in the experiment here several years ago," Rebadow says, tapping the front cover of his magazine. "They've been working for years to make a stable solid form that acts as quickly as gas."

"Well, there's some poetic justice for you."

There's a clatter at the next table over, and Beecher spots O'Reily shoving himself up from the bench, tray pushed into the center of the table, and Meaney standing up, saying something low and urgent in his ear as a couple of the hacks make their way over. Seamus is sitting on the other side of the table, mouth screwed up tight, a fucking pissy look on his face, as usual, Beecher thinks uncharitably, probably playing the old man card again. Jesus Christ, what a waste of space.

"I thought he was one of the people excited to be back," Busmalis says, eyebrows raised, head turning to watch as Ryan storms across the room toward the exit and the hallway back to Em City.

"Dumbass," Beecher mutters under his breath,

"Well, he was excited. Until he found out Dr. Nathan isn't coming back." Alvarez seemed to be on his way back to the table where there's an uneasy truce going on between Alonzo and Fiona at one end and a couple of the new Latino guys who are running D at the other, but he's paused, now, tracking O'Reily's progress along with Busmalis.

"Well, I could have told you that."

"Have you been talking to God again, Bob?" Beecher can't keep the amusement out of his voice, but Rebadow seems to take the question seriously.

"No. But I asked one of the other doctors last week when I was in for my dialysis appointment. She's staying at Downstate Correctional. Apparently there's an inmate there with leukemia, and she's working as the primary physician on his case."

"Leukemia?" Beecher says, into the silence that settles over them. "Like ..."

"Something like, yes."

"Do they want to do a bone marrow transplant?" Busmalis says.

"Do you think they're going to do a bone marrow transplant on a prisoner?" Beecher snorts. "They barely wanted to operate on Ryan when he had cancer."

"A committed doctor is one of the best things he can have."

"Florence fucking Nightingale, Jesus Christ," Beecher mutters, half under his breath. "Well, why not? She got what she was after, here."

"What are you talking about?" Alvarez shifts his weight from one foot to the other, crossing his arms over his chest, and Beecher looks up at him again.

"I'm just saying, you have to wonder about a woman who convinces you that frying your brain-damaged brother - who just happened to kill her husband - is less painful than the needle. Of course, you have to wonder about a guy who'll let himself be convinced."

Beecher flicks a gaze over to the doorway, but O'Reily's long gone, and his attention is pulled back to Alvarez, anyway, at the anger in his tone.

"Shut the fuck up, man. She's not you."

And what the fuck is that supposed to mean, anyway? Beecher tamps down on the sudden flash of anger, holding up both hands in a placating gesture.

"I'm just saying ..."

"She was one of the only people who gave a shit when they stuck me in solitary and left me there. She almost lost her job for me."

"Alvarez, I'm not saying she's not a perfectly nice person where anyone other than the O'Reily family is concerned. Not that the O'Reilys aren't enough to drive you batshit ..."

"You know what?" Alvarez holds up both hands, backing away. "I don't know why he's so interested in what happens to you. I don't know why you're so interested in what happens to him. But I can tell you, chico, I am not getting into the middle of whatever this ... this thing is with you and Ryan O'Reily."

"What 'thing?' What ... where are you going?"

He's already gone, though, and Beecher turns back to Rebadow and Busmalis.

"There's no 'thing' between me and O'Reily," he tells them.

 

•••

 

It should have been a homecoming, should have been a reunion, but no, now it's all turned to shit, and Ryan slouches in his chair, wrapped in a sweatshirt against the cafeteria chill, ripping idly at the hem of his T-shirt, sitting in a circle on stage and listening to a group of sadsack motherfuckers talk about their addictions. It's their first group session, one in a line of firsts - first shakedown, first lockdown, first in a long line of takedowns - since they came back to Oz, and it's like they've only been gone a day, the same whiny motherfuckers going on about the same shit like they never left.

"It's hard, you know?" Alvarez slouches back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest. "When the shit you want is right there, right where you can reach out for it whenever you need it."

Yeah, I bet, Ryan thinks.

"Maybe you should think about staying out of situations where the ... 'shit' is right there," Sister Pete says, and Ryan can practically hear the quotation marks around the word.

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Beecher mutters, half under his breath, and Ryan snorts.

He doesn't know what Alvarez has said to Beecher, but Ryan can feel Beecher's eyes on him, watching him, speculative, and he's pretty sure he knows what Alvarez hasn't said.

Yeah, if you knew what I know about your goddamn boyfriend, Ryan thinks.

If Beecher knew what Ryan knows about the pharm business they've got going on, and the handfuls of pills, and the ones that disappear into Alvarez's pockets, the ones Ryan never sees again, if Beecher knew that the good face Alvarez puts on is all that and that's all - face, front, lies - Ryan wonders with a faint hint of savagery what would happen then. The freezeout, the brushoff, the push over the edge? Alvarez may not want Sister Pete or Beecher to know he's still using, but Ryan knows he's skimming the surface, pretending, boosting himself with a little bit of this and a little bit of that from the medicine cabinets, sertraline and venalfexine, nortriptyline and citalopram, whatever's in the alphabet soup in his pockets, whatever they've been able to sneak off the shelves that week.

What I could tell you about your boyfriend, he thinks.

"Yeah, Mr. Squeaky Clean," he says out loud, and he's not even sure which of them he's talking to, although he's looking right at Beecher, washed out and pale in the sickly florescent lights of the cafeteria. "Like you want it any less when it's not there."

Sister Pete leans forward in her chair, dark eyes focused on Ryan, now, probing, as she asks him what he means, and he throws out words, something that will let him wiggle out from under her gaze.

"It's just that, if you need something - tits, booze, love ... whatever - taking it away isn't going to change that. You're always gonna want it."

If anyone fucking knows that, it's him, and he could laugh, sitting here in a group session to talk about being addicted to drugs and booze when he's got the worst addiction of all, an addiction that's crawled into his head and his bones and his heart, rattling him and choking him and stealing his breath like some kind of goddamn jones that won't let go. She's in his bones, and every day she's not here, he can feel the itch of it, the pull of it, and it's tearing him apart, the memory of Gloria's face as she watched him sit on the side of Seamus' bed in the Bare Hill infirmary against the push of Seamus' words, stupid angry motherfucking words, still, complaining about this and bitching about that, ricocheting around their pod at night, locked down but lights still up and nowhere for Ryan to escape for five long hours, no way to get away from it, no way to get away from Seamus, who seems to forget, now, that he was ever afraid of dying alone and why, stuck in a pod smaller than the roachtrap apartment Ryan grew up in, small as a goddamn coffin, and Ryan aching with it.

He's going through fucking withdrawal, as crazy up in his head as he was when they threw him in the Hole before the riot, all those years ago, back before ... before his world turned upside down, and he wants to beat his head against the walls of his pod, their pod, like he slammed his body against the walls inside the Hole, make his body hurt like his soul hurts for want of her, make the outside match what's all jammed up inside.

Alvarez mutters something in Spanish, huffing out a laugh as he looks down at the floor, and Ryan bristles.

"The fuck is your problem, Alvarez?" he says, leaning forward in his seat.

"Ryan ..." Sister Pete begins, warning clear in her tone.

"You said that when ... you said that in Bare Hill." Beecher's words run right over both of them.

"Yeah," Alvarez says, raising his eyes to meet Beecher's. "Tanto nadar para ahorgarse en la orilla."

"What?"

"So much swimming," says the big Dominican, the one who's been put in Beecher's pod, who's been silent, watchful this whole time, eyes sliding from one speaker to the next like he's watching a tennis match. He's watching Beecher now, even as he translates Alvarez's words. "So much swimming, to drown at the shore."

Alvarez nods, not looking away from Beecher's gaze across the circle.

"So I figured, why not just float, right?" he says. "And then, somebody told me, bodies float."

And cue the motherfucking violins, Ryan thinks. Jesus H. Christ. He can just bet who said it, too. Fucking drama queens, the pair of them. He snorts again and drops back in his seat, ignoring Sister Pete's disapproving look. Beecher finally - finally breaks Alvarez's gaze and looks over at Ryan, eyes narrowed, that peeved look he gets on his face when something's not going his way, and Ryan stares back, challenging. He's pretty sure he knows what's going on, he just can't figure out what's going on, can't figure out why, what either of them has to gain with this, whatever this is, exactly. But that doesn't mean he can't see what's in front of him. He can see them, see the way they are together, still, even now, back in Oz - Alvarez's shoulder pressed into Beecher's chest as Beecher leans over him for a quick look at his hand of cards, Beecher's fingers lingering at Alvarez's wrist as he pushes a hand away from his tray in the cafeteria, not angry, not sharp, fucking playing, punctuated by a quick smile and a hint of laughter. He can see Beecher's fingers shaping some arcane sign against his chest from across the common area in Em City, and Alvarez nodding, slow and careful, before Murphy or Armstrong or Hernandez or one of the other hacks rounds a corner. Both of them, Beecher and Alvarez, they might as well be wearing signs begging Alonzo to notice.

The things he knows about Torequemada's goddamn boyfriend, he thinks.

The things he sees about Beecher.

Fucking Beecher, who should be the person Ryan can trust, who turned out to be anything but safe, in any way whatsoever. The one who was supposed to be his brother, before it all went wrong, the one who can't be trusted at all, because who knows what he'll try to pull next? That's what he does, what he did to Keller, to Ryan, what he's going to do to Alvarez - get under his skin and leave him hanging, swinging in the wind, off balance and waiting for the final push over the edge.

Ryan knows better than to get that close, already pulled himself back once, just in time. He's just hanging on, waiting, and he's going to keep on hanging on. She'll be back, once she's done with whatever this medical case is, he tells himself. She'll be back once this problem is solved. She became a doctor because she wanted to help people, she wanted to help Ryan, and she's going to bat for this guy, this new case, but she's not going to have the same connection with someone else. He thinks about her, watching him, in the infirmary at Bare Hill, in the infirmary at Oz, and he's not giving up. He can wait. He can wait forever if he has to, he tells himself.

He's the one in this prison who can see the goddamn long game, and he's willing to play it.

Chapter Text

Prisoner #04P879, Joseph Peretti. Convicted, September 3rd, 2004. Possession of stolen goods, conspiracy to distribute, criminal possession of a weapon. Sentence: 12 years. Up for parole in six.

The guy cruises Beecher as he walks into the laundry room, a long slow look up and down, head to toe to head, an eyefuck that could have carried a challenge if he wasn't lounging that far back on the dryer he's propped against, leaning on his elbows, hip bones jutting under low-slung jeans and a tight, threadbare T-shirt, limbs gone languid and inviting. He tilts his head, a smile ghosting at one corner of his mouth as he catches Beecher's gaze from under dark lashes. So, another kind of challenge, then.

He reminds Beecher suddenly, sharply, of Dino Ortolani, the same kind of fluid grace even in repose, leashed power ready to explode, simmering just under the surface. He's late 20s, maybe, with a sturdy build and dark hair just long enough to start curling at the tips, around his face, into enigmatic eyes. Strong features and a nose just a little too big for the rest of him - handsome, not pretty - and Beecher thinks of Gen, of Chris, and he wonders if Joey D'Angelo knows about this kind of extracurricular activity going on under his nose by one of his guys.

For fuck's sake, anyway, he thinks in exasperation, standing half in the doorway, arms full of bundled sheets and underwear and a stray pair of pants. Whatever this kid's got to prove, he's not interested. The door closes on his back, goosing him, sending him stumbling forward, into humid air and the scent of laundry detergent.

"What are you looking at?" he says, narrowing his eyes and pulling his scowl firmly into place, and Peretti shrugs, studiedly casual, shifting against the dryer so his T-shirt pulls tighter across his chest, and Alvarez laughs from the bank of washing machines on the back wall, where he's pulling out a tangle of wet clothes.

Peretti's got that look in his eye, a weird sort of laser focus Beecher's been picking up from some of these kids, an intent look, greedy, that makes him feel like a trophy up for grabs, like big game in the rifle sights - not exactly like he felt when he was Vern's trophy, his hunting trophy, or whatever the fuck he was, but something like that, like an accessory, a status symbol. It's not new, although he thinks it could have gotten worse, coming back to Oz, birthplace of his legend, if he hadn't been back here with other people who remember Vern, with people who remember how everything began, people who'll never let him forget it. These new kids, though, they all think they know who he is, who he's supposed to be, now - the man who's caused prison empires to fall and men to throw away their lives for a taste of his charms - and they want a piece of him, they think, but not really. They want a piece of whatever he's become in their heads, whatever goddamn glamour and danger the whole thing lends him, and all of them with something to prove and thinking he's one way to do it, each of them thinking he's the one who won't get devoured, in the end.

It's a look that would have made fresh fish Beecher feel like dinner - if he even had the goddamn brains to notice it, because he sure hadn't with Vern. Now, it just makes him tired, maybe pisses him off a little.

Helen of Troy, Rebadow's voice whispers in his head, and he thinks about cities falling inside walls breached by treachery, kings at war with each other, tearing apart countries, tearing apart anyone who stood in their way. And for all that, Helen was just a prize, really, a pawn, a trophy handed over to the guy who picked a winning horse. Beecher's not stupid, he knows he's no prize. Andrade's unwound enough to tell him what he'd expected from Beecher's legend and how much that differed from the reality, and he'd only laughed harder when Beecher flipped him off. He supposes this is his 15 minutes, and he wonders if this is one cause of those looks he keeps catching from Torquemada, who's always wanted to be a bigger fish in the big pond. Beecher's got his own kind of fucked-up notoriety, celebrity, sealed in toxic waste and empty, echoing corridors, and yeah, he supposes Torquemada is fucked up enough to covet that. Probably can't stand that someone else is somehow more fabulous than he is.

Beecher unwinds a sock from his underwear and doesn't feel particularly fabulous. He'd bet three days of free time that Helen of Troy didn't have to do her own laundry.

He looks up to find Alvarez studying him. A lot of people wouldn't realize the guy's amused, but Beecher knows him well enough, now, to see the signs.

"Shut up," he says.

"What! I didn't even say anything," Alvarez protests, and Beecher narrows his eyes.

This, this is one of the reasons he avoids the laundry room on the weekends. If the Em City common area is the town square, site of neutral turf and meetings held and commerce conducted and the passing of gossip, then the unit's laundry room, set back in the entranceway and wholly separate from the industrial laundry used by the rest of the prison, set up for personal use, is some kind of side street, an alleyway, a place for what little additional privacy can be found in Oz. It's where the hookups made outside - for tits, sex, cigarettes, various contraband goods and services and sundries - where they actually go down, once the agreement's been made, where the trade's made once business has been transacted - and it's always business. Beecher knows that, used the place enough himself back in the day when he was looking for booze or drugs or a casual hookup, anything to numb what he was feeling.

Maybe you should think about staying out of situations where the shit is right there, Sister Pete, says in his head, and Beecher almost snorts out loud, because he'd like nothing better in this case. Dormant introvert and misanthropic tendencies honed to a fine point, he hates the laundry room at its busiest times, guys bickering for machines, impatient, taking offense at the smallest slight - and probably rightly - and meanwhile, hanging in the corners, in the air, always, right along with the sent of wet clothes and detergent and bleach, the tension of business going down.

He usually tries to get in here on random Thursday afternoons, grabbing the brief window between Sister Pete's office and dinner to get his clothes in the washing machine, breaking from the post-dinner pack to shove his stuff into a dryer on the way back into Em City, leaving it to tumble as they're locked securely in their pods for the night, rescuing it after count in the morning. Anything to avoid the busy times on the weekends when no one's got work detail and everyone's spent too much time on poker, and there's nothing on television, and everyone is jumping, everything's humming, just under everyone's skin, looking for some kind of release. Beecher should have done this shit two days ago, he's tried to time his underwear supply so that he doesn't have to be in here on a Sunday afternoon, but he didn't do it this week, and now he's barely going to have time to get shit done before lockdown, after his wait for the place to clear out some.

He looks over at Alvarez, who's laughing again - at Beecher, at this random kid still hanging out here and at his seduction technique, which includes every cheesy move in the book except wiggling his eyebrows, for Christ's sake, and it's going to take a lot more than that to get Tobias Beecher on his knees, sucking your cock, these days. This kid doesn't even realize how outclassed he is, how over his head. Beecher rolls his eyes and stuffs his clothes into the washer, bangs the door shut.

"Really?" Alvarez says, and Beecher swings around, but Alvarez is slouched back against the bank of washers, hands tucked in his pockets, studying Peretti and doing nothing to hide his amusement. "Get outta here. Go on."

"Hey, man, I didn't mean to poach on anybody's property," Peretti says, raising his hands as he backs out the door.

"Get the fuck out." Alvarez scoffs now, and Beecher can't tell if he's serious or still amused.

"Fuck off, Alvarez," he says, as they turn to look at each other in the blessedly empty laundry room. "Poaching, for Christ's sake."

"Just watching your back, man," Alvarez says, flashing him a grin.

"Yeah, OK, whatever." Beecher trails him to the dryers, hoisting himself up to sit on one as Alvarez fumbles, cursing, with a wet T-shirt wrapped in a sheet. He studies a ragged fingernail and considers being affronted, because, property, for fuck's sake, and anyway, he can take care of himself, whether Alvarez can understand that or not - and most days it seems he can't. "Speaking of property, where's your worse half?"

"Don't start," Alvarez says, warning, looking up at him.

"Doesn't trust you with his delicates?" Beecher raises an eyebrow.

"Beecher ..."

"OK, fine, whatever," Beecher raises both hands in a gesture of surrender. "It's just that your underwear is pink."

Alvarez gives him a murderous look before slouching over and stealing a dryer sheet from the pile of supplies someone's left behind on the table at one side of the room.

"Also, it's just that it's still a bad fucking idea, you know," Beecher says.

"Beecher, will you leave it, for fuck's sake?" Alvarez says, eyeing Beecher over the dryer door. "Everything is under control."

He sounds impatient, but that's hardly surprising - it's not the first time they've had this conversation. Beecher's been trying to get him away from Torquemada, away from the D, ever since he kicked the last time, ever since he kicked the first time, sweaty and jittering in the dimness of swaddling blankets, sunk deep in depression as Bare Hill descended into chaos outside, around them. Then there's O'Reily and the 'scripts to contend with, too, now - and Beecher can't think of anything he'd like less than to be juggling Torquemada's and O'Reily's attentions, particularly if Alonzo's not supposed to know about the side ... thing Alvarez has going on with Ryan.

Beecher doesn't know why Alvarez thought he'd be able to keep it a secret. Beecher's heard rumors here and there, and he'd finally asked Andrade what he'd heard, and his podmate's silence had been damning. Alvarez has kept the whole thing on the downlow, true enough, he's got some discretion about it, is letting Ryan front the business in Em City, but this is Oz, and nothing stays secret long. And if Beecher knows, then surely to God, Torquemada knows, or will know any day now. Beecher thinks about a hand closed around the back of Alvarez's neck, about eyes shining in the darkness as Torquemada folded Alvarez back into his chest, fingers braceleting Alvarez's wrists, caging his hands, and he can't imagine that Alonzo's going to be happy about Alvarez slipping the leash, even a little bit.

Beecher shrugs and picks at his cuticles for a minute.

"I'm just saying ..." he says, finally.

"What?" Alvarez slams the dryer door with unnecessary force. "What are you saying that we haven't talked about 20 times before this?"

"I'm just saying, maybe you shouldn't give that stuff to other people," Beecher says.

"Nobody's giving anybody anything, Beecher." Alvarez shakes his head at him like he's crazy.

"You know what I mean," Beecher says, impatient, because it was a goddamn figure of speech. He's not stupid enough to think that you won't pay and pay and pay for anything you get in this prison.

"Last time I checked, everybody we were doing business with was a grownup, Beecher." Alvarez hoists himself up on the dryer next to Beecher's, pulling up his feet and staring pensively out into the hallway, into the hack's office across the corridor where Murphy and Turner are shuffling through paperwork. "And fuck, half these guys can't get the meds they need any other way, you know that. We're practically modern-day Murrietas."

"What?" Beecher looks over, puzzled, and Alvarez turns his head to meet his eyes.

"Who," he says, and it takes Beecher a moment to realize it wasn't a question. "Joaquin Murrieta. El Zorro. Like, Robin Hood."

"You're serious."

"You know the trouble I had. I could count on a steadier supply of Destiny."

Alvarez looks away, down, won't meet his eyes, now, but Beecher remembers Miguel's hands twisting in the folds of a sheet, knotting and unknotting the tail end of it in dim light, remembers his face pale and drawn from whatever they'd put him on at Hart's Run, the sounds of retching from the next cell over in the Coliseum, and yeah, he knows the trouble Alvarez has had, up and down any number of times, pulled off for bullshit reasons or no reason at all, just because the prison didn't want to pay for his meds.

"Miguel," he says, and stops, scratching at a ridge in the enamel paint of the dryer top he's perched on and staring out at Murphy, who's digging through a drawer with increasingly obvious frustration, pulling out papers and pens and various office supplies in whatever futile search he's got going on, silent behind two layers of glass.

"What?" Alvarez says, finally.

Beecher can't make himself frame the question. He's not sure if it's worse to know or not to know. He shakes his head, watching Murphy slam the drawer shut. He's no lip reader, but it's not hard to tell what the other man says as he pushes back from the desk, frustrated.

"Hey," Alvarez says, pulling Beecher's attention back to the laundry room, back to him. "I'm telling you, everything's under control, OK?"

He's knocking his heels against the front of the dryer like a kid, and he kicks out sideways, suddenly, catching Beecher's foot with his own and sliding a grin in his direction, easy, uncomplicated, and that's when Beecher's stomach hollows out and his heart turns over.

He's been here before, he's been here before, in this laundry room, at this moment, and he can remember what happened here like it was yesterday, can remember what happened after that, remembers his own nervousness, half-sick, wondering if he'd misunderstood, misinterpreted, miscalculated. It's not like Chris was ever subtle, Jesus, but there'd always been the chance he'd turn on Beecher, and Beecher can remember hesitating, the moment stretching as he reached out a hand to touch, and his own need, deciding him, the need to say it, to own it, to claim his feelings. He remembers almost pulling back, but he could remember, even then, somewhere in the back of his head, what happened the time he hadn't pushed, for whatever reason, the time he'd let something like this slip through his hands.

He shoves himself off the dryer, suddenly, ranging around the room, washers to table to door, fidgeting with a towel that someone's left behind, tapping fingers against the plexiglass wall, leaving smudgy prints behind to mark his passage, roving, restless, trying to shake out the nervous energy under his skin, the recognition, the realization. He's here again, the same circling dance, trying to deny what's going on, trying to deny the silences and the moments stretched to snapping point as his eyes meet Miguel's across the circle in group, both of them shying away from it, not talking about it, because that's how they've been dealing with it, so far. He's not oblivious, he's just avoided looking at it, but he can't avoid it any longer, and fuck. Fuck. He should know better than to get attached again, should know better to get attracted again. This is a bad idea, and he's only going to get hurt again, only going to get badly messed up. He thought he was past this, thought he'd been able to move beyond this stupid stupid neediness he's got ...

No, he tells himself, clearly, stopping suddenly, stock still. You knew better. You just didn't want to admit it.

He's gazing out through the plexiglass wall, staring blindly again at the bank of desks in the guard's office across the hallway, but he's fetched up against the dryers where he started, close enough that Alvarez can grab him by the shoulder, pull him around to see his face.

"What's wrong?" Alvarez's voice is soft, a little hoarse, and he's leaning forward, a little taller than Beecher, now, from his perch on the dryer.

"I ... It's just ..." Beecher struggles, turning over and rejecting the words in his head, throwing up his hands, hesitating, finally letting one come to rest on Alvarez's arm stretched between them, closing his fingers around the soft skin inside his elbow. "It's ... this place. It's ... full of ghosts. Haunted."

He looks up at Alvarez, peers at him, willing him to understand.

"There's nothing here," Alvarez says, nodding around the room, tilting his head to the tumbling machines, the dusty corners, before turning his eyes back to Beecher's, and Beecher feels his breath trapped in his throat like a fist, feels the weight of unspoken words on his tongue, on his skin.

"Nothing?" he says.

He reaches up, hand hovering between them before he touches Alvarez's face, tracing the scar with his thumb, and Alvarez pulls in a breath, eyes closing, face tilting into the touch.

"I remember this," he says, sliding down from the dryer to stand close, so close, close enough for Beecher to smell soap and sweat and the faint hint of ashes.

"Remember?" Beecher's disconcerted at the word, and he tries to pull away, but Alvarez grabs his wrist, traces fingers up the back of his hand, along the hills and valleys of his knuckles, tickling touch that leaves a trail of warmth behind on Beecher's skin, warmth that matches the flush he can feel blooming along his cheekbones, scorching heat lying just beneath his skin.

"I don't remember much, but I remember this," Alvarez says, and Beecher can feel the edge of Miguel's jaw moving in the palm of his hand, the beginning prickle of stubble under the pads of his fingers. "You. I remember you, doing this."

He cups his palm around the back of Beecher's hand, pressing Beecher's fingers to his face, and Beecher feels his breath catch in his chest as he tries to inhale.

Alvarez moves closer, fingers tightening, keeping Beecher trapped as he tries to step back, tries to move away, and he keeps one hand on Beecher's wrist while he brings up the other to mirror Beecher's touch on his cheekbone. Beecher's breath is coming shorter, quicker, there's a hollowness in his chest, and he can feel his cheeks blooming color. He closes his eyes and Alvarez's fingertips flutter over his closed lids, and he feels so fucking stupid, like such an idiot, like some kind of damsel in distress, fucking Helen of Troy, waiting to be kissed. He startles, half gasps when he feels a touch against his lips, licks out to taste salt and can feel the roughness of Alvarez's fingers, has the sudden insane urge to catch them with his tongue, and then his heart almost comes out of his chest at a banging on the window and Turner's voice, muffled through the plexi, telling them to break it up.

Shit, he thinks, shit, shit, and he remembers Keller, taste and scent of raw moonshine, heavy broad body pressing him back and a sudden explosion of activity, three hacks in the room and a hand in the center of his chest, holding him back, and he stumbles, falls into Alvarez, feels a hand around the back of his neck, another at his hip, holding him up.

"Beecher, hey," Alvarez says, and Turner yells at them to break it the fuck up, and Beecher blinks, shaking his head, realizing he's planted one hand in the center of Alvarez's chest, has his T-shirt clenched hard in between his fingers in his effort to maintain his balance.

"I ... it's OK," he says, stepping back.

"Miguel," says a voice from the doorway, and Beecher wonders how long Torquemada's been there.

"Everything's fine," Beecher says "everything's cool here," - like if he says it, maybe it'll be true - and he uses the sudden distraction of Alonzo's narrow gaze to slide out from under Alvarez's touch and make his escape.

 

••••

 

Beecher isn't there when they actually toss the pod and shake down Alvarez - probably working in Sister Pete's office or got his nose stuck in a law book in the library. But he's sure as shit heard about what happened by the time he comes back to Em City, because he doesn't hesitate, just comes walking right up to Ryan, who's minding his own goddamn business, beating Meaney at poker again, and punches him in the mouth.

Wow, Ryan thinks, as he falls half out of his chair, banging an elbow on the back of the metal frame, ribs glancing off the edge of the table in front of him as he goes down, and fuck, goddamnit, that hurt, and really? Because he wasn't expecting that, and Beecher doesn't even have the kind of wild-eyed, unkempt crazy mountain-man biker ... thing that he gets going on to warn you he's taking one of his vacations to la-la land, those manic episodes he gets when he grows his hair and stops shaving - or spends hours shaving, creating some kind of goddamn landscaping on his face - those episodes when he snaps. But no, he looks normal, whatever the fuck normal looks like when you're standing in the middle of Emerald City looking like you'd like to punch someone's teeth down their throat.

Which, OK. It's Em City, so that's normal, Ryan supposes.

He can remember Beecher looking like this, back in the day, angry and self-righteous and angry, even without some topiary on his head, but not without a little bump or a hit of something to unlock it. He shakes his head slowly, trying to settle his mental landscape back into place, looking up at Beecher, equal parts bewildered and angry, and he thinks maybe Beecher is, too. There's also a tiny bit of admiration on Ryan's part - he's big enough to admit it - because Beecher's always been solidly predictable, once O'Reily had a handle on him, once he learned what made him tick, what buttons to push, but he didn't have a single damn clue this was coming. He's not sure if that says more about Beecher's state of mind or Ryan's own current lack of game.

Meaney's already out of his chair and going for Beecher across the table, in the split second it takes for the assessment to flash through Ryan's mind, and Beecher shoves him away, spilling cards in a flurry down onto the floor as Meany's hip catches the table. He bounces right back, and Beecher shoves him again, hands planted solidly in his chest, controlled fury in his face as he looks over Meaney's shoulder, barely registering his presence as he meets Ryan's eyes and tells him to get up, come on, get the fuck up.

Ryan rights himself in his seat and swipes at his mouth, wincing at the burn of his fingers against a spot where he's been laid open by one of Beecher's knuckles, wipes off a smear of blood onto the the knee of his pants before he stands up and tells Meaney to stand down, putting a hand in the hollow of his shoulder and shoving him back for emphasis.

"What is your problem now, Beecher?" he finally says, turning back to him, and Beecher punches him in the ribs, and OK, goddamnit, now Ryan's had enough.

He grabs Beecher, wraps around him - Beecher's stockier but Ryan's got a longer reach, and he learned fast, once Cyril started filling out and throwing punches, how to work it to his advantage - right up on him, too close for him to even be able to throw a another punch, grabs him around the waist and sets his own feet and shoves, pushes from his hips and shoulders. Beecher staggers, off balance long enough for Ryan to give him another push, and now they're up against each other, grappling, Beecher falling back against a hastily cleared table. Ryan feels it tilt precariously under them, and he remembers with sudden clarity, like a jolt of electric current, tables overturned and mattresses burning and muzzle flashes in the dark, Beecher heavy and solid against him, thigh to hip to shoulder, brush of hair over his face and rasp of stubble against his own unshaven jawline, and he jerks back, sudden movement that lets Beecher clip him in the side of the head with one flailing hand.

"What the fuck is going on out here?"

McManus' voice rises over the jeering circle of Em City denizens egging on the fight at their center, and he sounds pissed. Ryan shoves again, sets his hands against Beecher's chest, shoves himself away, out of reach just as hands grab him, pull him back. Beecher's got his own hands up, and he's slumped against the table as Hernandez holds him back, a palm pressed in the center of his chest, but Ryan can see his jaw still set as he flicks a quick look back at him, gives in an up-and-down once over to make sure he's not going to make a break again - because ow, motherfucker, his ribs - before casting his gaze up to Em City's top level.

McManus is out of his office, leaning on the railing, looking down like God or some shit, face screwed up in the bitch look that means something - or someone - isn't going the way he wants. Murphy's at his shoulder, and he shoots Ryan a look as he leans in to say something, low, in McManus' ear, and Ryan rolls his eyes, because now he's going to have to listen to some shit from Murphy on this, some pep talk with a story attached to it about boxing or sailors or who the fuck knows what.

"Everything's under control," Murphy says, raising his voice, somewhere between a statement and a question, one of those questions where you know the answer or you know what the answer better be, one of those questions Seamus was fond of, accompanied by a look that Ryan recognizes for sure. Beecher shakes off Hernandez's hand, and he looks like he's about to say something, but, "Shut up, Beecher," Murphy adds, leaning down, elbows on the railing. "Play nice. Or we can put you in the Hole. Maybe in the cell next to Alvarez in solitary."

Thanks, motherfucker, Ryan thinks, watching the murderous glare Beecher shoots Murphy's way. Thanks for winding him up even more.

He wonders where the hell Torquemada is, what hole he's crawled into, and why Beecher isn't directing all this where it belongs, for fuck's sake.

"The fuck, O'Reily?" Beecher hisses at him as the hacks walk away.

"What the fuck, Beecher?" Ryan parrots and grabs him by the collar, twisting his fingers in the thin T-shirt at the side of his neck, knuckles pressed up against Beecher's jugular as he hauls him under the stairs, looking for some sliver of privacy, somewhere he can figure out what the shit is going on without being interrupted. "What is your problem?"

"My problem? What's my problem?" Beecher shoves Ryan's hand away, pushes it off of his shoulder where Ryan's released his death grip on the T-shirt. He stutters for a minute, tripping over his words and slicing his hands through the air. Ryan gets the feeling he's incredulous at the apparent stupidity of the question. "What were you thinking, getting involved in this stupid 'script trade with Alvarez? He doesn't need to be getting busted and hauled off to solitary again. You know what he's like when he gets out of there."

"Hey, the last time I checked, Alvarez was a fucking adult, Beecher," Ryan says, leaning in, stabbing a finger vaguely in the direction of the pod Alvarez and Torquemada share for some kind of emphasis. "I'm not responsible for babysitting him."

"Would it matter if he wasn't?" Beecher says. "Or would you still use him the way you used your brother when it suited you?"

"Hey, fuck you, Beecher." The sudden flash of rage is like a shot of adrenaline up his spine, and Ryan finds himself right in Beecher's face, hardly aware of having moved. "You know what? Maybe this is what he needed. Hey, the best thing they ever did for me was throw me in the Hole. I been clean ever since."

"Bullshit," Beecher spits out, and O'Reily notices he's got one hand curled into a fist.

Oh, yeah, he thinks. Don't like that idea, do you? Don't like the thought that your little boyfriend hasn't been as clean you want to believe.

"And maybe you should be talking to Alonzo, if you're that worried about Alvarez," Ryan says out loud. He puts up his hands and takes a step back as Beecher's glare gets impossibly more vicious. "Hey, I'm not the one who's had him running D-Tabs all this time. And oh, yeah. I'm not the one who rolled on him. So what are you up my ass for? What do you care, anyway? Is this going to ruin your plans for him? Interfere with that piece of ass on the side?"

"Don't you pull that shit with me," Beecher says venomously. "Don't you try to pretend you don't have any responsibility for this, and don't act like this is ... like you don't know why ... you know. Don't. Just because you can't seem to deal with whatever happened between us."

He waves his hand in a vaguely circling motion in the air between them, and Ryan pulls himself straight, spine stiffening.

"Nothing happened between us, Beecher. I don't know what you think happened, but it was nothing. There was never anything between us."

"You asked me, once, to be your brother." Some of the fire's gone out of Beecher, suddenly quenched, and he slumps, looking down at the floor before glancing up to meet Ryan's eyes again.

"Yeah, well, brothers don't do what we did. So keep your fucking hands off me."

"What is your fucking problem lately, O'Reily?" Beecher flares again, and now he sounds more frustrated than angry. "You still want what you think Alvarez has? Is that it? Is that why you're crawling my ass these days?"

"What do you want, Beecher?" Ryan moves into him again, crowding him, careful to keep an inch-wide cushion of space between them. "You want me to ... what? Trust you again? Is that what Keller did when you got rid of him?"

He gestures to the top rail of Em City, and Beecher's head jerks back like Ryan slapped him.

"You motherfucking cunt," he grits out, before he shoves Ryan away and storms off.

Ryan looks over to see Andrade watching from a nearby table - probably not close enough to have heard, he thinks.

"What the fuck are you looking at?" he asks as he stomps off to his own pod, to Seamus, and Andrade shrugs, quirking an eyebrow.

 

•••

 

Miguel's still self-aware enough to know he's more than half-crazy when they finally let him go back to Em City, fucked up by the time he spent in solitary, walls closing in and breath coming short, tracing shapes on the walls 'til his fingers were raw, leaving bloody fingerprints to go with the spit and sweat and piss and shit he's left behind in the past, and having conversations with his grandfather, the old man predicting ever more dire futures, the breakdown of Miguel's sanity and the collapse of the walls.

He managed to hold it together the last time, the time before evac, before Alonzo and the drugs and the last vestiges of hope that he was ever, ever going to get out of here were snatched away. He was in a better place, then, still on the high of his success with Julie and the look on Rivera's face as he called her to him, on the idea that he'd brought a little good into the world, to counteract some of the bad he'd done, and on the idea that he'd accomplished something, managed to achieve something without it all turning to shit in his hands. Yeah, he was focused on something else, last time, focused on getting back into Em City, on making sure McManus was on his side, focused on what he'd need to do to make good with the parole board, and when he couldn't do that, he'd focused on what it would feel like to get his hands around Ruiz's neck, instead of just punching him in the mouth. He was running high on hope, a sweeter trip but a worse comedown than anything he could ever steal or sell.

Yeah, he was in a better place, then, and maybe he'll be in another better place, soon, although he's pretty sure that's not where he's going to end up. Maybe he's already died, maybe he's already in hell, and he's going to be stuck inside these goddamn walls for eternity, maybe Ruiz was the fucking Devil, pronouncing his doom in that tiny room where the parole board meets. Maybe Oz has just been some big fucking waiting room in the sky, or underground, and he's been sent back to whatever circle of hell he'll inhabit for eternity.

He's been up and down and every which way, and he tried to hold on, but he could feel the water closing over his head, and he knew he was never going to be good for anything - he'll be bouncing back and forth forever. He can't figure out why they didn't just leave him there, this time, why they bothered to let him out, unless it's to fuck with his head. Maybe they're playing with him like a cat with a bird before snapping its neck, before they take him back to solitary and leave him there forever, until he rots, like his grandfather. He looks around to make sure Ricardo isn't there, can't hear what he's thinking.

You should have let me die, he remembers saying, when he'd come so close, a knotted sheet and little time alone before Howell banged on the door in the morning.

Maybe they did.

He follows one of the new hacks into his half-empty pod - Alonzo's stuff is long gone and Beecher's is still rolled up and not yet unpacked, blankets on the top bunk and clothes folded neatly at the foot of the bed. Beecher, McManus told him, had requested to be Miguel's podmate. Beecher, McManus told him, wasn't giving up on him yet, for whatever goddamn reason. Like me, for whatever goddamn reason, McManus hadn't said, although the words hung in the air between them, and Miguel wonders how long he'll be coasting on McManus's guilt and Beecher's altruism.

He's doesn't even know why he feels like he owes Beecher anything, any more, but he's tried to put on a good face, and he really wasn't taking any of the D any more, but he can't say - especially now that he's spent time locked in that little room with only himself to look in the face in the polished metal of what passes for a mirror in solitary - that he hadn't been boosting with some of the shit from the dispensary, some of the 'scripts they were supposed to be selling, and Jesucristo, now that lifeline would be gone.

He'd wondered briefly, hemmed in and paranoid, if O'Reily knew it, if he'd figured it out, or maybe if he thought Miguel was selling those pills, skimming, taking more than his fair share of the profits. This whole production is exactly the kind of roundabout bullshit O'Reily would pull - never confront you to your face if he could stab you in the back, the lying motherfucker. Miguel remembers the way O'Reily played both sides against the middle - and against each other - back in the day, during the riot. Alvarez knows about that, recognizes it. It's the same kind of shit Chico would pull, the same goddamn shit that got Alvarez rousted again and again - only with O'Reily, he spread the shit out, with O'Reily, it was directed at whoever he was a pissy little bitch about on that particular day. McManus figured out Chico, but Alvarez isn't sure anyone's really figured out Ryan, and even if they did, whether they're buying the Daddy bullshit, being seduced by it, placated. They're bending over backward for O'Reily, these days, the little fucker's got them wrapped around his finger. Probably could have Beecher there, too, if he wanted, Miguel's seen the way Beecher reaches out, tries to touch him, seen the way O'Reily pulls away from the touch - like there's something there, something to pull away from, the way Miguel wanted to jerk away from Alonzo's touch, sometimes, back in the beginning, before he got used to scratchy stubble and narrow hips and the flat planes of a hard chest under his fingers, the way he wanted to jerk away, sometimes, at the end, from the hot hand wrapped around the back of his neck, when he didn't have enough D to smooth everything out, to soften everything up, including Alonzo.

"If you want me to go, I'll leave," Beecher says, standing in the doorway, and Jesucristo, Miguel doesn't want to think about how disappointed Beecher's going to be when Miguel's pulled back under.

He doesn't want to think about it, and he's not going to think about it, and fuck Beecher, anyway.

He turns to stare in the mirror like he can stare through it, like he can reach into it and touch the wild-eyed stranger looking back at him. He imagines smashing through it, the crystalline cut of glass or metal shards up and down his arms as he reaches in to strangle that motherfucker on the other side, bleeding out whatever poison he carries around inside, the poison that's going to end up rotting and choking and killing him, drowning him.

He can still smell it, antiseptic and lotion mixed with the scents of mothballs from the clothes still hanging in the bedroom closet and of yellow faded sepia photos like colorless pressed flowers, images of a young Ricardo that Miguel's grandmother would pull out and pass around at family dinners.

"Alvarez," Beecher says, wrapping a hand around his elbow and tugging him away from the mirror, toward the beds. "Miguel. Sit down."

He looks up to see his grandfather has followed him into the pod, standing with arms crossed over his chest, head cocked, the same pose Miguel, himself, adopts when he's studying a situation, and maybe that shit's genetic, because he knows he never saw the old man doing it when he was growing up, when the anciano already had spent years in Oz.

He remembers biting back the shriek, like a girl, the first time he looked up into the mirror and saw, over his shoulder, Ricardo watching him in the tiny solitary cell.

Estás muerto, hombre. Déjame en paz, he'd told the old man, but no, the anciano wouldn't leave him alone.

Usted me ayudó a morir, Ricardo told him. You helped me die.

Tal vez, estoy aquí para ayudarle morir. Maybe I'm here to help you die.

Ayudarle a aceptar que con un poco de gracia. Help you accept it with a little bit of grace.

Maybe that death had tied them together, somehow. It got to be so it was nothing to wake up and see Ricardo sitting there, in the dark of solitary night, perched on the end of the bed like some kind of fucked-up bird, head turned to contemplate Miguel like a juicy worm, eyes gleaming in the dark. He should be rotting in the grave, but no. He's still here, still in Oz, fucking with Miguel's head, and Miguel's started wondering if he was wrong, if he was wrong and the rest of the family was right and if Ricardo really was more than a man, if Oz was his temple and Miguel was some kind of acolyte, bred to be offered up and bricked in to die like a sacrifice to Ricardo's memory.

"No te puedes seguir aquí," he tells Ricardo, now. You can't follow me here.

"I can go anywhere I want," Ricardo says. "Yo soy como un dios,, I'm like a god. Anywhere you go, I can be there, just over your shoulder, chiquito. Siempre."

Beecher says something, breaking in, interrupting the old man, and Miguel looks back and forth between them, trying to puzzle through the words. Beecher's asking something about a shower, a change of clothes, and it'd be nice to be clean, to get the stink of solitary off of him, get rid of his own smells of piss and shit and sweat and blood clinging to him, get the scent of recycled air out of his mouth and nose and lungs, but he can't seem to make himself move. Move, he tells his feet, his hands, but they just sit there, he just sits there.

Beecher's on the other side of the pod, now, slamming a palm against the plexiglass wall, making Miguel jump, and telling the gathering audience to fuck off. He gives the finger to the guys standing around, slowing as they walk past, rubbernecking the car accident that's Miguel's life.

"This man can see your weakness," Ricardo says. "He won't respect you. No one will respect you. You must stand on your feet, be a man."

The words are like a stinging slap, reminding Miguel of the first time he saw Ricardo in the flesh, in Oz, a baby on the way. What does the word "grandfather" mean to you? he remembers Sister Pete asking.

"No," he says, hunching in on himself, rocking back. "He believes every life is precious. Cree que mi vida es preciosa."

Beecher sits beside him, and Miguel remembers the bunk at Bare Hill, fingertip brush on his cheek, strong as an anchor.

"Miguel?" It's Father Mukada, standing in the door of the pod, looking perfectly normal, grey sweatshirt zipped over black shirt and high white collar, head tilted as he studies the pair of them, sitting on the edge of the bottom bunk.

Alvarez blinks at him, looking over to Ricardo and back.

"Is he really here?" he asks Beecher.

"What?"

"The padre? Is he really here?" Miguel's whispering, not even sure which one he's asking about.

"Yes?" Beecher says, raising an eyebrow at him, forcing a laugh, and Mukada comes to crouch in front of them, makes an abortive movement, looking like he's going to reach out and touch Miguel before resting his hands in his lap, looking as if he's composing himself for prayer. His eyes follow the hesitant hand Beecher raises to brush back the hair at Miguel's temple, fingers combing through the short strands there, before he drops it to rest on Miguel's shoulder, and Miguel leans into the touch.

"How are you holding up?" Mukada says in his quiet voice, looking back at Miguel to meet his eyes.

"He told me, you know," Miguel says, and he's aware of Beecher and Mukada sharing a look. "He told me, they take your mind, first. Tomen su mente, luego su cuerpo va. Solitary, it's worse then the Hole." Alvarez struggles for the words he needs. "They can only leave you in the Hole for so long. They can put you in solitary and leave you there forever."

Leave you there while you slowly go crazy, while you lose your mind, counting row on row of concrete blocks, like his grandfather.

Mukada finally reaches out and lays a hand on Miguel's wrist.

He remembers the dreams about the locked room, no entrance, no exit, no doors or windows, rough concrete blocks surrounding him, tight, like a coffin. He remembers waking in the dark and dreaming in the dark and waking to dream again, remembers being unsure if it was just more of the dream. He remembers a fingertip touch like the brush of angel wings and Mukada's hands, remembers gentle fingers holding his head, stopping him from beating it against concrete walls, a cool touch on heated skin and Ray's breath ghosting across his face as he leaned in, kneeling at Miguel's feet in a narrow solitary cell, and Miguel's adrenaline spikes in a sudden shot of terror when he remembers how good those hands felt on him - fucking traitorous body, fucking Alonzo, fucking him up this way, the sex, the drugs, the Hole and solitary, and he recoils, pulling away from Mukada's touch. He's a priest, and Miguel shouldn't be thinking these things about him, shouldn't be turning those innocent touches into something else.

"Miguel," Ray says and reaches out, but Alvarez pushes himself farther back, into Beecher's body, against his chest, feeling the cheap blanket on the bunk ruck up under him, feeling it scratch against his palms as he clenches his hands in it.

"Shouldn't have come back here," Beecher mutters, turning his face into Miguel's neck and Miguel can feel the breath of the words against his skin, almost thinks he can feel Beecher's lips move against his throat as he speaks.

He doesn't know who Beecher's talking about - himself, or Miguel, or Mukada. He can see Mukada studying whatever picture the two of them make, Miguel pulled back into Beecher, Beecher curved into Miguel, and Mukada's brows draw together slightly, but he finally sighs and pulls back, stands up.

"Let me know if you need to talk," he says, and then he's gone.

"Todo," Miguel says, shaking his head, digging his fingers into the soft flesh inside his elbows as he hunches forward again. "Todo se convierte en mierda. Todo lo que toco."

"What?" Beecher asks.

"Everything I touch," he says. "It all turns to shit. I'm only going to drag you down with me."

"I'm not going down without a fight," Beecher says. "And neither are you. Vida preciosa, remember?"

"Your accent is for shit," Miguel says, laughing, sharp but despite himself.

Beecher slides down to kneel at his feet, taking Mukada's place where he can meet Miguel's eyes, looking up at him. Miguel thinks he sees his grandfather out of the corner of one eye, ephemeral in the back of the pod.

"I shouldn't have ratted out Alonzo," Miguel says.

Because that's what it comes down to, isn't it? He can try to shift blame to O'Reily all he wants, but he remembers Alonzo's eyes on Beecher across the Em City common area, remembers his words: You can have your little piece on the side, but remember, it's still you and me, Miguel. We're still partners. Miguel shouldn't be surprised that Alonzo was pissed off about the side business, right? They were business partners before they were ever anything else, whatever else they were, and Miguel doesn't know why he's surprised that motherfucker would roll on him like this over a little bit of 'scripts and pin money. It's not like he didn't know the fucker was crazy, right?

There's no doubt in Miguel's mind that Alonzo's the one who set this up. He thought about it, thought about it a lot while he was tracing circles and triangles and long parallel lines running from one end of his solitary cell to the other, running headlong into the walls at either end - it was one of the few thoughts that kept circling around in his head, who'd put him there, when a lot of the rest just fractured out. Ultimately, it made his decision easy. But however easy it was, he's just not sure it was a good decision to roll back on Alonzo.

"Fuck Alonzo," Beecher says, and Miguel laughs, leaning forward, elbows on knees.

"Yeah, I tried that."

Beecher looks down at his hands, at Miguel's clenched together, skin drawn tight and pale across the knuckles.

"Stop it," he says, reaching out, running his fingers lightly along the peaks and valleys and ridges. "Miguel, stop."

He smoothes his hand up Miguel's arm, over the red scratches there. Miguel vaguely remembers the sting of his own nails on his skin, but it was distant, like the slice of a scalpel into his face, like glass shards along his arms, nothing like the immediate blow of a knife to his chest or his forehead against the metal bars inside the door of his solitary cell.

"Tanto nadar ..." he says, and shakes his head, and Beecher looks up to meet his eyes.

He reaches out, and Miguel grabs onto his hand like a drowning man.

 

•••

 

Beecher doesn't see the speaker, only hears the sneering word spit in their direction - "¡Chota!" - as they turn from the line, turn toward their pod for lockdown, and then Alvarez is past him, halfway across Em City, half-ready to beat the shit out of somebody, anybody.

Beecher knows what it means, although he wouldn't ask Alvarez - he's heard it for two days now, and he finally hied himself off to Andrade this afternoon, to his new go-to guy for all things Spanish and curse-like, found him sitting at a table off to the side of the common area, one eye on some new kid sitting hunched in front of the television, a kid who looked like he'd sink through the floor by sheer force of will any minute, and one eye on the game of checkers he was playing with himself. Beecher had sat down across from him and folded his hands on the edge of the table and squinted at the board until Andrade kinged himself and looked up and squinted back, and Beecher'd asked what it meant and then cajoled when Andrade threatened to cut him off from translating services in payback for abandoning him with the new kid, Lawson, Larson, something or other. Beecher can hardly blame him - he hasn't seen anyone that rabbity since Tarrant, that crazy French motherfucker, and he's only surprised no one's stolen Layton's shoes, yet. Andrade won't let Poet get that close to him, Beecher supposes.

Chota, he'd insisted and snitch, Andrade had said, finally, sighing and looking up from the board at Beecher.

Snitch, and that's not what Beecher was expecting, and to be fair, they're not really wrong - although to be fair, Torquemada rolled on Alvarez first, and Alvarez was only back getting his own, honor among thieves and all that. Fuck fairness, anyway, because Beecher doesn't give a shit about Torquemada, consigned to Unit B and prison greys. He does care, somehow, about what happens to Alvarez, started to somewhere along the line, and he sighs and wades into this new scuffle, grabbing Alvarez's arm, yanking him back to their side of Em City, pulling him away, one hand to his chest and the other held out to keep the hacks at bay as he hisses at Alvarez to stop, stop it right the fuck now before they decide to throw him in the Hole or better yet, back into solitary. He can feel Alvarez quivering under his touch, trembling, could almost swear he feels Alvarez's heart beating in his chest, under Beecher's hand, and he turns toward him, into him, lays a hand on the nape of his neck, but Alvarez only throws him off and flings himself into their pod.

"Alvarez," Beecher says, and the door closes in his face. "Hey!"

Inside, Alvarez stands, fists clenched, in the center of the room, looking at the floor, and Beecher tries again to lay a hand on his shoulder, palm sliding down the arch of his neck, thumb rubbing at the top of his spine, slipping under the loose neck of his T-shirt to skin damp with sweat, but Alvarez jerks out of his grasp, goes to lean over the sink, hands clenched around its metal edges, and Beecher throws up his own hands and turns away, takes to his own corner, hoisting himself up into the top bunk. He lands hard on the sharp corner of a book, bruising his knee, as he twists around, cursing under his breath and rapping his knuckles against the pod wall as he flails, and movement at the corner of his vision draws his eye next door, through the plexiglass, to the O'Reily pod, where Seamus is sitting on the edge of the bottom bunk, looking up at Beecher from under his brows with a scowl on his face. He can see Ryan say something to the old man, can see Seamus reply without turning his head, without taking his gaze off of Beecher, and Beecher narrows his own eyes. If Seamus O'Reily wants a stare down, Beecher's just juvenile enough and just pissy enough to give it to him, but that's the point when Ryan says something that finally draws Seamus' focus and Beecher turns away, back to the tension in his own pod.

The click of the locks doesn't bring any relief - Alvarez spends lockdown pacing, prowling the edges of the pod, setting Beecher's teeth on edge, pausing now and again to lean on the locked door, staring out, staring down Luis Sandoval, who's mirroring him in a pod across the common area - and who's probably more pissed about the sudden crackdown on Destiny, the lack of supply coming in than about any transgression of Alvarez's, when you get down to it, Beecher thinks, tapping his pen against the pillow he's using as a desk and studying the tension quivering along the lines of Alvarez's body. Sandoval, like Beecher, probably doesn't give a fuck about Torquemada, really, but he was around Alvarez and Torquemada an awful lot, once they were all back in Oz, may have been a major player in Em City distribution. Stands to reason he wouldn't be happy about the shifting lines of power left in the wake of Alvarez's disturbance, Torquemada's disappearance.

Beecher's seen Andrade watching the movements of the wiseguys and the homeboys during recent weeks, seen him watching the swirls and eddies caused by the vacuum left behind when Alvarez was booted to solitary, when Torquemada and his pretty little pills were sent packing from Em City. Beecher's seen him watching because their gazes have crossed paths in the study, and Beecher can't begin to guess what interest Andrade might have in the political geography of Em City's drug cartels - well, yes, he can, because what interest does anyone usually have? - but he knows his own interests.

"Alvarez, get away from there," he finally says, exasperated, sliding down from the top bunk where he's been ignoring all the legal paperwork he's supposed to be looking through - accordion folders of briefs, yellow ruled legal pads and Xeroxed copies of hand-scribbled notes on Post-it's and napkins, some Death Row case Arif asked him to look into - in favor of picking at a ragged fingernail and watching Alvarez pace. He winces at a twinge in his left heel when he hits the concrete floor, leaning on the bunk frame, twisting the fingers of one hand around the cold metal. "Come on, come over here."

He reaches out to push Alvarez away from the door, pausing to give Sandoval the finger, slamming it up against the pod wall and grinning at the look it earns him before turning to manhandle Alvarez deeper into the pod, somewhere they can have a sliver of privacy.

"Fuck you, Beecher," Alvarez says, shoving him away, and he still sounds pissed. "Get your hands off me."

"Alvarez, what ... what the hell is your problem?" Beecher says, backing away, wary.

"Just ... Fuck." Alvarez turns away from him, toward the rear of the pod, pulls back a fist, and Beecher catches his wrist in both hands before he can punch the wall. Jerked forward, almost off his feet by the force of it, he slams into Alvarez's back, twisting to hit the wall with his shoulder, a sudden painful burst of motion, and he loses his grip as Alvarez yanks his hand away.

Beecher remembers this, remembers Alvarez wild-eyed and aching, searching for something, anything to even him out, fists clenched and twisted in the front of Beecher's shirt, remembers the bone-jarring rattle of metal bunks at his back before he set his hand to Miguel's chest and pushed.

"Stop it," he says, leaning against the wall, pulling in a deep breath and reaching out again. "Miguel, stop."

He waits, waits for Alvarez to stop struggling, stop fighting whatever's got him all jammed up in his head, and when his shoulders slump, Beecher smoothes his thumbs over the back of Alvarez's hand, over the hills and valleys of his knuckles.

"You gotta understand, OK?" Alvarez says to the wall over Beecher's shoulder, fingers flexing under Beecher's touch, and he tries to draw a breath but it hitches, like it's getting caught somewhere in his chest. "I did things with Torquemada, so it don't matter what I do now. Not to them. Not any more. People already see me a certain way. But I'm not gonna be anybody's bitch."

Well, that's fucking rich, Beecher thinks as Alvarez finally looks at him, finally meets his eyes - fucking rich coming from a guy who doesn't seem to have a problem with people talking about me like I'm his property.

"Neither am I," he says out loud. "And I don't care what people think."

"That's obvious, Beecher," Alvarez says, and Beecher narrows his eyes, but Alvarez laughs - it's short and sharp, but Beecher thinks there's some kind of amusement sliding under there, through all the self-deprecation and jagged edges, not irritable like he was before, and so Beecher reaches out with his free hand, traces the edge of Alvarez's jaw, watches him tilt his face into the touch before he pulls away, more gently this time, moving to study himself in the mirror over the sink.

"Ow, fucker," Beecher says, rolling his shoulder - that's gonna bruise where he hit the wall, he's pretty sure of it - and drops down on the bottom bunk. It already smells like Miguel, he notices, soap and sweat and that faint hint of ashes he carries around.

"I thought you didn't sleep on the bottom bunk," Alvarez says, looking up from the sink, wiping water off his chin and staring at Beecher in the mirror.

"So," Beecher says, picking at the blanket where it's pilled in the wash and ignoring Alvarez's jibe for more interesting things. "Exactly what kind of things did you do with Torquemada?"

"What, you got a checklist you need to fill out?"

"Wondering what kind of repertoire you might have, maybe." Beecher raises an eyebrow and attempts to look challenging.

"I got plenty of repertoire, Beecher." Alvarez turns to face him head on, shirt stripped off now, leaning against the sink with his arms crossed over his chest, classic defensive Alvarez posture, but there's still amusement edging his words, and there's something clearer in the air of the pod, stuffy as it is, tension thinning out, and Beecher finds himself able to take a deep breath again, wonders how long his chest has been constricted without his notice. "Trust me."

"What, so there's nothing he wouldn't do?"

"No. Well, nothing but fuck." Alvarez shrugs one shoulder.

Beecher tilts his head, studying Alvarez's face, trying to work out what he means by that, but he can't quite make it join up in his head. All the words are in English, but strung together like that, without additional context, he can't seem to make them make sense.

"What?" he says, finally, after a moment of mental gymnastics.

"He'd do anything but fuck." Alvarez looks studiedly blasé, and Beecher suspects he's amused - and pleased with himself, the fucker - at having tripped Beecher up in this particular conversation. "He's got this thing about his virginity. Like, jerking off is OK, and blowjobs are OK," he starts ticking off sex acts on his fingers, "and putting things up his ass is OK, but no dicks up there."

"Wait," Beecher says, still stuck, because it's not like he wanted to watch, but he remembers late nights in the cell at Tanner, and Torquemada considers himself a virgin? He leans back on his hands to study Alvarez, his facial expression, his body language, staring at him as he slouches against the opposite wall of the pod, hipshot, arms still crossed over his chest, because he's got to be fucking with Beecher. "So, wait. Blowjobs are OK? And, like, fingers, or what?" At Alvarez's nod, he snorts out another laugh. "So he'll put your dick in his mouth, and he'll let you put your fingers up his ass, but no fucking? Jesus, Alvarez." He leans forward on the edge of the bunk, elbows on his knees. "You're telling me you've been running around with the tallest Catholic schoolgirl on the planet?"

"What?" Alvarez says. "Beecher, I don't think I knew the same Catholic girls you did."

"Probably not," Beecher says and laughs. "But I bet you anything Torquemada's worn a schoolgirl outfit at least once in his life."

"Fuck you, Beecher," Alvarez says, pushing himself off the wall as the lights go down, leaving them in darkness, and Beecher's momentarily blind. "Now I'll never get that image out of my head."

Alvarez wanders back to the door of the pod, leaning against it, looking out into darkness, now, and Beecher studies him as he adjusts to night vision - the line of his back, the curve of his neck as he rests his forehead on one hand, the way the faint amber glow from the overnight lights on the guard platform limns his shoulder, the arch of a cheekbone, the length of his torso, the way it leaves shadows in the hollows of his wrists and the long curve of his spine. He remembers Genevieve, in L.A., their fifth anniversary, something he was able to expense, in return for a few hours in an office - three days, two nights in some posh hotel, and she stood at their 20-something-floor window that first night, looking out over the city, looking out on the sea of lights, her face faintly lit, half in shadow, like Alvarez's in the dim glow of Em City night. She was pregnant with Holly, he remembers, but not showing yet, not far enough along they'd told anyone, and Gary was at home with his grandparents, still young enough that Gen worried every 15 minutes about leaving him for the first time. Toby had danced her laughing around the front plaza of the hotel on their way back from dinner, he remembers, and he'd come out of the bathroom after a shower and just stood there, watched her in the reflected glow of the City of Dreams, tracing patterns on the window, before he'd gone over and folded his arms around her, pulling her body into his, back to chest, cupping his hands over her belly, over another tiny miracle, the still-hidden promise of life somewhere in there. They were so goddamnmed young, he thinks now.

"Hey," he says, walking over to stand behind Alvarez in the dark. His voice is soft, a little bit hoarse.

"Hey," Alvarez says and meets Beecher's gaze in their reflections in the plexiglass for a long moment before he looks back out at Em City.

His eyes are shadowed, and some of it is encroaching night darkness, but some of it is the aftereffects of solitary, still lying hard on him, two days back, and Beecher thinks about the sound of his breath last night, the way he struggled in sleep, the way his chest hitched under Beecher's hand as Beecher sat at the side of the bottom bunk, watching.

"What's wrong?" he says.

One shoulder rises and dips in the low light, muscles moving under black ink.

"People think this tattoo is for me," Beecher says, tracing the spiky shape on the back of Alvarez's shoulder - the Black Widow, he's heard them call it - and he laughs, a faint edge under the sound, not amusement, nothing like it, something like a blade waiting to twist free.

"Well, it's not," Alvarez says, shrugging him off but not emphatic enough a movement to discourage Beecher from putting his hand back, back on Alvarez, tracing the lines of tendons and muscles, over his shoulder and down his arm.

Alvarez twitches under the touch, a shiver running over his skin like he's caught in a breeze, and Beecher curves firm fingers around his biceps, studying his face in the plexi, before Alvarez reaches up a hand, catches his wrist to stop him.

"Don't," he says, meeting Beecher's eyes again in their reflected images, and he sounds tired. "All right? Don't touch me like that. Like he did. Like he wanted to own me. Like he did own me."

Beecher pulls his hand away from Alvarez's grip and watches him for a minute, eye to eye in the plexi, before he leans in, rests his chin on Alvarez's shoulder, wraps an arm around him. He presses one of the signs for quiet against his chest, over his heart, the sign that meant "chill," "lay low," like an "L" or a gun drawn in to the body, the sign that meant "I've got this," "rely on me," and he smoothes his other hand across Alvarez's bare left shoulder, a feathery touch outward, before lowering his head to place a kiss at the nape of Alvarez's neck. He remembers tracing Alvarez's cheek with one thumb, Alvarez's face tilting into his touch, and he wonders what kind of agreement they're making, what kind of deal's been sealed.

"Beecher," Alvarez says, trying to turn around, and his voice is tense again but not with the strain of earlier, tense now with the sound of something raveling, something unraveling, fraying apart in his chest, tense with the sound of trying to hold something together, not break it apart, and Beecher stops him, hand on his shoulder, pressing, keeping him turned away for a minute or two longer.

"Wait," he says and lays another kiss at the nape of Alvarez's neck before he traces one finger down from the spot, feather-light touch, down the center of Alvarez's back, down the arch and curve of his spine, skin slipping soft under his fingertip, to the words inked across Alvarez's lower back, across his hips, the bottom line only half visible, disappearing into the low waistband of his pants.

Beecher traces the letters, wonders what they would taste like, what they would feel like under his tongue, thinks maybe he'll have the chance to find out - yo quiero salir del mundo ... un carro de hojas verdes ... moriré de cara al sol - and he tries to work out what he can, high-school French classes so little use, now, and no calling on Andrade for assistance. Puerta is "door," and verde is "green," morir ... he thinks, he's almost certain, is "to die," but the one he's sure about is yo soy bueno, and yes, he thinks, laying his forehead against Alvarez's shoulder, and he's not even sure which of them he's thinking about.

"Vida preciosa," he murmurs, and he can feel Alvarez's skin warm under his lips.

"Beecher," Alvarez says, again, and this time he does turn around, catches Beecher's wrist, rubs the pad of his thumb absently over the thin skin on the inside as he studies Beecher in the faint light, eyes flickering across his face, and Beecher tries to hold still under the examination, imagines Alvarez can feel his pulse speeding up under the rough touch of his thumb. "Beecher, what are you doing?"

"I'm just watching your back," Beecher says, and Alvarez barks a laugh.

"It's not literal, hermano," he says. "Are you sure you're not just watching my ass?"

He cuts off Beecher's protest with his mouth, his hands hot even against the flush Beecher can feel starting in his face, palms soft where they cup Beecher's jaw, thumbs firm as they press against Beecher's cheekbones, tilting his face down just enough for Alvarez to reach his lips, and Beecher remembers low light and the sound of eight guys breathing the same air and the wet slick glide of tongues, remembers Alvarez's hands on Torquemada's face, tilting it just so, as he controlled the kiss, even as Alonzo directed it, and he remembers wondering what those hands would feel like. He remembers moist heat and the scent of laundry detergent and bleach, hard hot body pressed along his and a hand at his waist, heart pounding in his chest, and he wonders what ledge he's getting ready to step off of, this time.

He pulls back from Alvarez's mouth to study him for a moment, unfathomable eyes and slick lips, a hint of a flush on his cheekbones, even in the darkness, and he swipes a thumb across Alvarez's lower lip, lets Alvarez catch it lightly between his teeth. Alvarez is damaged, but he's not dangerous, not to Beecher - Beecher is pretty sure of that, even though he's always been shit at recognizing danger. Alvarez is only dangerous to Beecher in that he's dangerous to himself, only dangerous to whatever extent Beecher allows himself to be pulled into any downward spiral. Beecher knows that, recognizes the possibility all too well, like looking in a mirror. But Alvarez isn't going to choke the life out of him in an effort to hold on to him, won't drag him down and leave him gasping for air. The danger to Beecher in all this, whatever it is, whatever he's falling back into - that danger is himself, just like it's always been. This is dangerous, and it would be with anyone, because he's always going to be this damn stupid, always going to be blindsided by his own feelings when it's already too late.

He leans his forehead against Alvarez's, can feel hot breath on his lips, the touch of Alvarez's thumb tracing the curve of his cheekbone, tilting his head to the side as Alvarez's tongue traces the tendon in his neck before pushing him back, pushing him away.

"What?" Beecher says, but Alvarez only shakes his head, twisting his fingers in the hem of Beecher's T-shirt before he strips it off of him, up and over his head, and this time Beecher's the one who moves first, sliding his tongue along Alvarez's lower lip as Alvarez backs him toward the bunks, one hand on Beecher's hip, the other still tilting Beecher's head just so, and Beecher pushes into his mouth as Alvarez pushes him down on the bottom bunk, cheap blanket scratchy against his back.

Alvarez crawls in after him, pulls back to slide his mouth up Beecher's neck, biting at the underside of his jaw before he reaches up, slides his hands up Beecher's arms to rest his thumbs in the hollows of Beecher's wrists, pressed against the soft inner skin there, holding Beecher's arms above his head, cold metal off the bunk frame against the back of his hands, and Beecher has one sudden terrifying moment stretched too far, breath caught hard in his lungs and heart beating out of his chest, a body on top of him, holding him down, memory of sweat and tears and pain. He chokes, gasps, yanks hard against the hands around his wrists, shoves with hips and knees and elbows and hears Alvarez bite off a curse as he flails and falls against the plexiglass wall of the pod, elbow or heel or head rapping sharply against it as Beecher shoves himself upright, poised on the edge of the bed, breath catching like a fist in his throat, hands shaking as he raises one to rub across his face.

He can hear the rustling of the sheets as Alvarez moves behind him, sits up cautiously, he can feel the shift of the mattress, and he's still amped high enough that he's pricklingly aware of just how close the other body is in the cramped bunk, knows that Alvarez is leaving him a cushion of space as he tries to pull air into his lungs,

So much goddamn swimming ... he thinks.

"Hey," Alvarez says finally, soft and hoarse, and then he's leaning in, chest firm against Beecher's back, chin resting on his shoulder, arm around him, holding him up, and he presses a sign into Beecher's chest, over his heart, like a gun drawn into the body.

Chapter Text

Ryan's waiting when she comes into the cafeteria, waiting for the slide of the barred door and the sound of her voice, the light perfume he recognizes by scent, now, although he couldn't guess its name. He spots her as soon as she walks in, before she makes it up onto the stage at the other end of the long room, platinum hair shining even in the dingy glare of florescent lights. They're still washing up from breakfast, haven't started chopping and measuring for the afternoon meal that's too late for lunch, too early for dinner and supposed to stand in for both, so his hands are filmy with cheap detergent, fingers wrinkled and pruney from hauling trays out of the industrial dish washer every time Peretti opens the lid in a cloud of steam. He wipes them down the front of his stupid white overshirt and pulls it off as he doges around the end of the serving line to go meet her.

"Where the fuck are you going, O'Reily?" D'Angelo asks him, still heady from his promotion to overseeing the kitchen.

"Hey," Ryan says, gesturing at the stage. "It's my mom."

"She's hot," Peretti says, giving him a leer, and Ryan scowls at him.

"Shut up, asshole."

"No, really, man. How'd your old man manage to score that?"

"No, really, man. Shut your fucking mouth before I shut it for you."

It's not like Ryan hasn't wondered himself, sometimes, but you don't say stuff like that about a guy's mom, for Christ's sake. But yeah, Ryan's wondered it himself, plenty, even though he knows she must be so very different now from what she used to be. He wonders what it would have been like in that house, if she'd stayed, thinks about Tessie, beaten down and resigned, can barely imagine her like that. He tries to imagine, not for the first time, what life would have been like if she'd taken him with her - but no. She was a revolutionary, they might have been caught, they probably would have taken Ryan away from her and put him in foster care, and there wouldn't even have been Cyril with him. But maybe, maybe they could have been on the run together, hiding out, and Ryan still would have learned to hotwire cars by the time he was out of middle school, but it would have been so the two of them could escape the police, the FBI, and there would have been a succession of names, of identities, and it wouldn't have mattered if you fucked up, because you could just become somebody new. He could get behind life as a freedom fighter, he thinks, remembering the fire underlying Padraig Connolly's words.

He wouldn't have known Cyril though, and Cyril might have ended up like ... no. He doesn't say her name to himself, doesn't even think about it. She's gone, buried, and so's Cyril, now. There's nothing he can do, nothing he could have done.

Suzanne's face lights up when she sees him, and something warms in his chest, deep down - he knows she's not actually related to Cyril, but he remembers Cyril's face used to do the same thing, five years old and running toward Ryan with sticky face and sticky fingers, peanut butter and cheap purple grape jelly, trailing cracker crumbs and leaving the television turned loud behind him, Grover reciting words that began with "L" as Cyril grabbed Ryan around the waist and beamed up at him, face turned up and brighter than the sunshine that came through grimy apartment windows when Ryan would walk in the door from school. He's the one who's sticky with jelly now, and he smells like old bacon grease, and he's almost afraid to touch her, he hates to mess her up. She smells fresh, crisp, like dry leaves and smoke and outdoors under the light perfume, and her sweater is soft under his hands as she pulls him in, and he wraps his arms around her.

"You told me you were still working in the infirmary," she says, leaning back, looking up at him and framing his face in her hands, and he shrugs.

"Part-time," he says. He's still working in the kitchen in the mornings and on the day he's not in the infirmary, and he prefers it, almost, here where there's no painfully empty space, no memories of Gloria. There are a lot fewer shitty asses to wipe, here in the kitchen, but he won't ask for a full-time transfer back here because he wants to be there when she finally comes home, like he's here for Suzanne's arrival back, behind the wall, behind the bars. This is like Suzanne's real arrival back, even though she's been to see him in the visitor's room since they reopened Oz.

It's taken this long to convince Querns to restart the arts program - well, it probably didn't actually take this long to convince him, he probably knew all along he wanted to keep her coming back, but he probably didn't mind having her come in for endless meetings while they were supposedly working out the details. No goddamn plays, Ryan remembers her imitating Querns's guidelines, but she's started up the music classes again. She's truly volunteering, now, community service worked off.

She asks about Seamus, the question routine and polite, and Ryan answers the same way. He won't tell her the truth, that Seamus was clingy this morning, and querulous, that he knew Suzanne was coming back, as much as he tried to pretend he didn't, as much as he tries to pretend he doesn't care about her. He tried to get Ryan to go with him to his counseling session this morning, instead, tried to tell him that Sister Pete thought it would be good for them, like Ryan can't see that it's just Seamus' way of trying to keep him away from his mother.

It's true enough Sister Pete keeps offering to put Ryan in the same group session as Seamus - in addition to his usual group, she says, because she also wants him to have a chance to interact without feeling constrained by having his father there. He'd snorted in disbelief at that, and she'd given him one of her looks. She keeps talking about joint individual sessions with Seamus, too, family counseling, she calls it, and he keeps saying no, for fuck's sake. If she had her way, he'd end up spending his entire life in therapy, when he knows what his problem is: Seamus was a shitty father and Ryan has subsequent problems with authority, blah blah blah, the same bullshit he's been hearing since his first stint in Juvie, and earlier, even, in the guidance counselor's office in fifth grade after smashing the windows of the shitty little back building they called a gym, after he'd been cut from the basketball team. He remembers sitting there on a hard wooden chair, swinging his feet, sucking at his knuckles where he'd cut them on broken glass, remembers the taste of his own blood in his mouth and the thought of Tessie's tears and Seamus coming home from the bar, late, and bigger than Ryan, bigger than life. He remembers the thought of the belt and wondering how far he could get if he started running, if he could find some money in Tessie's purse - for him and for Cyril, too, he'd have to take Cyril, Cyril was still too young to take care of himself, Ryan couldn't just leave him in that shithole apartment - and they could just get on the subway and ride as far as it would take them, maybe out to the mythical suburbs somewhere, where people had lawns and pets and picket fences, and maybe somebody would be looking for two boys, two sons of their own, and he and Cyril could find a place to stay. Ryan was a pretty bad kid, but he could hide it, and maybe coast on Cyril's adorable blond looks and the lisp he still hadn't quite outgrown. Grownups always seemed to want to pat Cyril on the head, at least until he opened his mouth.

Ryan learned how to hotwire a car before he was out of middle school because it never hurt to have a backup plan, so he can just imagine what it would be like sitting there with Seamus talking about their feelings. What's there to talk about?

Christ knows, Seamus never needs a counseling session to say whatever the fuck goes through his head, Ryan hears it all the time, all the imagined slights, all the things the world has done to wrong Seamus O'Reily, all the times Ryan should have taken care of his father, should have been grateful, should have realized Seamus did the best he could for his boys, did the best he could to make Ryan a man, make sure he wasn't some crybaby fag. The worst times have been twice now when Seamus managed to score some of that rotgut moonshine from somebody making it in one of the homemade stills in Unit B or C or D, and Ryan still hasn't found out who sold it to him, but he's still going to, and then they won't do it again. A couple of the wiseguys, Peretti and Corio, got one up and running in the kitchen, spent three days trying to figure out what was wrong with it when Ryan kept wrecking it, because he didn't want Seamus having that kind of access, didn't want to have to deal with patting his back awkwardly while Seamus cried - cried actual fucking tears - over his fears of dying alone, over his lost chance with Cyril, like he'd given a shit about Cyril while he was growing up, when Ryan was the one who made sure he had some peanut butter toast for dinner and wiped his face before he went off to his own classroom in the mornings, or any of the three times Cyril had been in Juvie, when Seamus hadn't gone to visit him even once, or when Cyril was 17 and Seamus kicked him out of the house for good, told him to go live with his good-for-nothing brother.

Seamus never cared about Cyril until he was dead, and Ryan remembers Seamus telling him how he'd scored drinks off Cyril's celebrity, probably at the same time Ryan was sitting in a Death Row cell trying to coax Cyril out of the aftermath of another nightmare, like the whole fucking nightmare that was his life, from the time he was born into a house run by Seamus O'Reily. Cyril's lucky he made it as long as he did - not all of them made it out of that house alive, Ryan knows, but he slams a lid down on the thought, again.

She's still looking at him, studying his face, like she didn't just see him two weeks ago, so he shakes it off and hugs her again.

"I gotta go, Mom. We're still cleaning up, and I just wanted to say hi."

"You know I always have time for you, Ryan," she says, smiling up at him.

"Yeah. You know, I was wondering if you could do something for me." He looks down at his feet, slants a look back up at her face, shoving his hands in his pockets. He can see Busmalis waiting in the doorway, must be her first lesson of the day.

"Anything I can, you know that."

"I wondered if you could call Gloria for me. I've been writing her, but I haven't heard back, recently."

"I don't think that's a good idea, Ryan." She looks worried, and he can see this chance, maybe his last chance, slipping away.

"I just want to make sure she's OK," says, cajoling. "I haven't heard from her and it kind of makes me worry that something's wrong. I was hoping you would just check on her and ask her to write me or call me, OK?"

"Ryan, I can't check up on Dr. Nathan for you." She shakes her head, and he can feel desperation rising in his chest, choking him, stealing his breath and leaving him light-headed, frantic. "It wouldn't be right."

"So you won't do this for me."

"Ryan, no." She tilts her head and still looks concerned, and he wonders what she's so concerned about, when she won't help him, even this little bit. If she was so concerned, she'd help him get in touch with Gloria, help him figure out when she's coming back, how long Ryan has to hang on without her.

"Even though you said you'd do anything?" he says, and he knows the desperation is bleeding into his words.

"I said I would do anything I could. I can't do this."

"You can."

"No. I can't." She looks almost stern, now. "Ryan, what you're asking, what you're doing, it's wrong. Dr. Nathan is moving on with her life, and you should, too. You should stop writing her."

"No," he tells her, coldly, no room for argument, and when she tries to say something again he cuts her off, stepping backward, hands up between them, hating the way he sounds, angry at her and at himself, angry at Gloria for not taking the time when she knows what she means to him, when she's told him all this time what he means to her. "She's the only thing I have."

"Ryan, she's not the only person you have. You have me."

"And how am I supposed to know you're not just going to leave again?"

She looks like he slapped her, but she reaches out a hand to him, saying his name as he turns around and walks away, cold rage blocking out her voice, pushing him back the way he came. Let her call for him, let her see how she likes it when someone isn't there for her, the way she wasn't there for him, the way she still isn't there for him when he really needs her. She's going to let him lose the only real thing he's ever had in his life, and she's going to tell him he's wrong for trying to hold on to it? Fuck that, he thinks. She doesn't know, she wasn't there, when Gloria kissed him, and he can't explain it to her, can't tell her, just like he can't tell anyone that sometimes, when Seamus moves sudden at the corner of Ryan's vision, there's a flash of fear, instinctive, something he can never manage to turn off, no matter how much it pisses him off.

She wasn't there for any of that, she got out - and she left him behind. So she doesn't get to act like she knows what he has to do to survive. She doesn't get to judge him.

 

•••

 

Prisoner #92B669, Willie Burchett. Convicted, August 19, 1992. Murder in the first degree. Sentence: Death.

He's Beecher's latest cause du jour, a new addiction, another case file, another sorry motherfucker sitting on Death Row, and Miguel knows more about him than any other guy he's never met, more than he'd ever really wanted to know, to be honest. Beecher reads out loud to himself, case files and case law and legal briefs and other documents Miguel only halfway understands, lost in a tangle of words, like lines of Shakespeare before Suzanne Fitzgerald teased out their meanings, a low hum that puts Alvarez to sleep at night like a lullaby. That's the soundtrack of his nights, now, Beecher at work, and he wakes sometimes, in the night, to find Beecher still awake, crouched to catch the shaft of light from the guard station that falls across the floor at the foot of their bunks, and Miguel unwinds himself from the blankets, stumbles out of bed to coax Beecher into the bottom bunk, into the curve of his body, back to chest, to coax him into sleep.

Something to take care of, he remembers Hinden saying to a couple of the hacks at Bare Hill, when she thought he was out of earshot of the clinical discussion. It's good for them, she'd said, and they respond to that, and he remembers Julie's warm weight against his side, curled between him and the wall of the pod, the rise and fall of her breath under his hand, warm fur between his fingers as he drifted into sleep, and he supposes Hinden was right, about Felix, about Bianchi, about Miguel. Something to take care of, and they respond to that. God knows Beecher needs as much taking care of as the dogs ever did, sometimes, although he'd never admit it, would take off Miguel's head with cutting words as soon as hear it. So Miguel keeps his mouth shut and takes over when Beecher tries to rub the cramping out of his own hands and fingers after hours of writing, stuck in a pod, locked down but lights still up, without a computer or even a typewriter, scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. Miguel digs his thumbs into the well of Beecher's palms, feels the flex of Beecher's fingers under his, and he remembers the greasy smell of cheap lotion and Ricardo's hand curved into his palm.

The legal work lets Beecher feel useful, and Miguel can understand that, and it gives him something to immerse himself in, something to keep that overactive brain of his busy. Miguel thinks maybe it's Beecher's way of trying to do some good, for all the bad he's done. He talks about how he still believes in the justice system, but Miguel knows he also knows some of it is rotten to its core. You can't be locked up in Oz and not know that, not see a dozen examples of it every day. Beecher's a living example of it, Miguel too, a simple two-bit hood before everything went wrong, and now he's facing a death sentence in Oz as sure as Burchett, one that's long and lingering but just as final. And Miguel knows how easy it could have been him, sitting in Willie's cell, if he'd taken Rivera's life instead of his eyes, if any of the other lives he'd taken had been anybody that anybody cared about.

Willie Burchett's no Cyril O'Reily, no easy cause or pretty face, he's just a two-bit hood who shot the wrong man on the wrong night on the wrong street corner, brought down a father of two with a new-minted high-school diploma, a guy turning his life around when he was caught in the crossfire of a drug deal gone bad on the ghetto streets he was trying to leave behind. Any other day, nobody would have given a shit, just one more case of black-on-black crime, and they'd'a bounced Willie in and out of Oz or Sullivan or Green Haven on 20 years, but Tyrone Bailey was a sudden unlikely posterboy for his local school district, 19 years old and a goddamn front-page celebrity after the graduation ceremony of an alternative education program designed to rescue "at-risk" kids, whatever the fuck that means. A chance flash of a camera catches Tyrone in the lineup backstage, cheap green synthetic robe and dress shoes with holes in the soles, waiting for his diploma and dreaming of a day job and night classes at community college, of getting his girls out of the projects - two weeks and a stray bullet later, it means the district attorney is all over Willie Burchett's ass. He didn't even mean to shoot Tyrone, but he was aiming to kill his dealer, the guy who'd fucked him over with a dime bag of baking powder, and that was intent enough, felony murder, homicide during the commission of another crime.

He was aiming to kill his dealer, they know, because he'd told the cops so, opened his mouth and flapped his gums without a lawyer in the house, and now he's well and truly fucked unless Beecher and the rest of Arnold Zelman's legal team can convince a judge that Willie was so out of his mind on horse at the time he was picked up that he couldn't understand his rights. It's pretty hopeless, Beecher says, every time he comes back to the pod from the visitor's room or the phone room, after a strategy discussion with someone from Zelman's office. But it gives him something to do, at least.

He's been buried in the library for a couple of hours when Miguel wanders in, bored, tailed by Hernandez, on the pretext of picking up a book. He pauses to flirt with Stella at her desk.

"You should forget about this old guy," he tells her, low, whispering - because it's the library, right? - and grinning at Rebadow, who's narrowing his eyes and watching Miguel sideways, like some kind of bird sizing him up. "You could have yourself a Latin lover."

"Are you here for a book, Mr. Alvarez?" Stella asks him, prim, but he can see the smile tugging at the corners of her mouth and she sets down her pen in the warm circle of light thrown by her desk lamp on whatever requisition forms she's filling out, and she leans toward him where he's hovering over her, like she's in on some secret with him, their foreheads almost touching.

"Maybe you could pick something out for me," he says, and she laughs and waves him away.

He wanders past the shelves, pulls something at random, not even bothering to look at it before he drops into the chair across from Beecher, who's paused in whatever note-taking he's been doing, setting his own pen down precisely at the edge of an open book, watching Miguel.

"Hey," Beecher says.

"Hey." He knocks Beecher's foot with his own under the table. "Win any cases lately?"

"Fuck off, Alvarez," Beecher says amiably, leaning back in his chair, but his right hand sketches a quick interrogative in the air above the table, something that could mean "where?" or "when?" or "who?" or any number of things depending on context, the tilt of Beecher's head and a tiny furrow between his eyebrows as he studies Miguel lending meaning now.

Everything OK?

Miguel shrugs in response, rocking back in his chair, balancing on the back two legs.

"A guy can't come to the library to get a book?" he says, and Beecher raises an eyebrow.

"I suppose that depends on if the guy ever actually reads."

"I read," Miguel says, and he kicks Beecher under the table again. "I read plenty."

"Sports Illustrated," Beecher says, dismissive.

"I got a book right here, look," Miguel says, jabbing it with a finger.

"So what exactly are you reading, Alvarez?" Beecher says, leaning forward, trying to get his fingers under the front cover to close it, to see the title, and Miguel remembers that he has no fucking clue what book this is.

"Get your own," he says, shoving Beecher's hand away, front legs of his chair coming down with a thump, and Beecher laughs at him, a surprising, open sound, as their fingers slide across each other, and glances up to meet Miguel's eyes, half a smile on his face.

"You here to see your boyfriend?" O'Reily says, cruising by. "Christ, Alvarez, are you gonna pull his pigtails, next?"

"For a guy who's no fag, you sure are interested in my sex life, O'Reily," Beecher says, sharp, before Miguel can even respond, and well, he's not wrong, Miguel thinks. "Why is that?"

"Hey, I don't care what you do, as long as you keep it to yourself," O'Reily says, leaning over the end of the table. "But we can see what you get up to over there after lights out. I gotta hear all about it from my dad."

And, well, Jesucristo, it's not like Miguel thought they'd have any privacy in Em City, it's not like he hasn't done more, and worse, in a cell with six other people lying awake in their beds, but he's not sure what's more disconcerting, the idea of Seamus O'Reily watching him, or the idea of Ryan watching him, watching them, through the plexiglass, like some kind of porn movie, in some kind of grimy theater in the worst part of town, watching Miguel and Beecher, watching Beecher and what Miguel does to him, watching Miguel and what Beecher does to him, and he flexes his fingers, looking down at his hands, counting off breaths in his head. He can just imagine what Seamus O'Reily's had to say about it, and he's been high before this, or desperate, and it's not like Torquemada has an ounce of shame, but this is different. This is not for other people to see, to misinterpret, not for Seamus or Ryan to put their ugly spin on, and Miguel can feel a hint of heat in his face, thinks about shutting this down right now, thinks about how a good swift punch in the mouth might shut O'Reily up for a minute, keep him from running his mouth about what he doesn't understand.

Beecher, though, he doesn't seem the least bit embarrassed - and OK, thinking back over some of the situations Beecher's been in, this is probably minor, right? - but he does seem to be getting increasingly pissy, and Miguel can see the bitchiness moving into overdrive. Sometimes, he's kind of glad O'Reily's around to act as a target, to bleed off some of the worst aspects of Beecher's personality. Not in the middle of the library, he's not, though.

"Your father's a voyeur?" Beecher says, leaning back in his chair again, and this time he kicks back when Miguel kicks his foot, never taking his eyes from O'Reily's face.

"Hey! My dad's no perv."

"Oh, yeah?" Beecher huffs a little laugh, and Miguel can tell it's calculated, that he's not finding anything funny about this - under the breezy front he's putting on, he's pissed off, more pissed than Miguel would have expected this little bit of grief to make him. "Then why is he paying so much attention to what we're doing? And telling you all about it? Maybe the apple doesn't fall far from the tree?" Beecher shifts in his seat, leans toward O'Reily, lowers his voice like they're talking in confidence, but he never loses that faintly mocking tone Miguel can recognize, Tobias Beecher at his most goddamn infuriating, and Miguel knows he's doing it on purpose, he knows it, he's just not sure what he's trying to goad O'Reily into, and he tenses, waiting for trouble, waiting for O'Reily to lash out with words, with fists as Beecher gets right in his face. "Is that where you get it from? What do they say? Coming by it honest? As honest as you can ever be?"

"Fuck you, Beecher!" O'Reily recoils, backs away, gives ground, and Miguel blinks, thrown off balance, faintly surprised, but not so surprised he doesn't tuck away that revelation, that potential weak spot for further examination. "My dad's no perv, and neither am I, no matter what you try to pull."

"It was years ago, O'Reily. Get over it," Beecher calls as O'Reily storms out of the library, slamming one hand against the doorjamb as he goes, earning a sharp "Hey!" from Hernandez.

What the fuck? Alvarez thinks, slouching in his chair again and shaking his head.

"If you're going to cause a disturbance, I'll have to ask you to leave," Rebadow says, appearing at the end of the table, oddly formal, and Alvarez rolls his eyes.

"What?" Beecher says to Miguel, voice lowered again, and Miguel leans in, across the table.

"You are one pair of loco motherfuckers."

"You haven't heard? You're the one who's loco."

"Beecher ..." Miguel begins, but Beecher's making a face now, looking like he's torn somewhere between disgust and amusement and likely to fall on the side of disgust.

"What?"

"Jesus Christ. Seamus O'Reily has been watching me have sex."

 

•••

 

Prisoner #06N121, Thomas Novak. Convicted: January 18th, 2006. Murder in the second degree. Sentence: 14 years. Up for parole in eight.

"I didn't mean to actually kill him," the kid says, and Beecher rolls his eyes.

"So you were only going to what? Kick the shit out of him?" he asks.

"Well, yeah."

"For using the word 'nigger?'" Poet leans over the head of the cafeteria table. He seems half amused. "White boy, what do you care?"

"Hey, people who talk that kind of shit about my friends need to have their asses kicked."

"So, let me get this straight," Beecher says, laying his fork beside his tray and tilting his head to study Novak. "You killed a guy because discrimination is wrong?"

"Well," O'Reily says from across the table - and he's completely amused, Beecher can tell, no halfway about it, but butter wouldn't melt in his mouth at this particular moment. 
"It is wrong."

The Brotherhood is going to have a field day over this kid, Beecher thinks. He's not sure whether McManus was having a flash of brilliance or making some kind of twisted joke when he assigned Beecher to be Novak's sponsor. Why the fuck does he keep getting the young ones? And why does McManus trust him, anyway, even when he doesn't know details of Beecher's various complicities? He doesn't have the best track record of keeping his kids safe in Oz. He doesn't have the best track record of keeping his kids safe from him. Hell, he doesn't have the best track record of keeping them alive.

Of course, neither does McManus, when you get down to it.

Beecher eyes Novak across the table, poking at his mushy grey green beans with a cautious look on his face. He's the polar opposite of Andrew, of Adam - lowkey, almost unassuming, right up until you get in his face, and then he's got a hair-trigger that reminds Beecher of O'Reily, of Miguel on his bad days, on his manic days - touchy and more high-strung than you'd think, looking at his usual lazy, half-asleep expression. Novak, at least, has the excuse of being barely 21. Beecher squints at him like he can peel back the layers, figure out what makes him tick, what's going to keep him alive in Oz. He's lean, rangy, but there's whipcord muscle layered over it, and he's not afraid to use his fists. Like a greyhound, Beecher thinks, one of those dogs built for bursts of speed, and bred within an inch of its life, and trembling at a touch, from nerves or anger or both.

Beecher hopes to Christ he's smarter than he looks. He's going to take some serious shit from Bader and Roth and Krause, the rotten buds of the new Aryan bloom of youth in Oz - which, fine. Beecher hates those Nazi fucks, anyway. If they want to try taking on some kid who's apparently willing to kick in another guy's head over a racial slur, he's perfectly willing to watch. Two days in, Beecher's already seen Novak throw down, almost get himself sent to the Hole, a flashfire explosion of fists and teeth and snarling curses out of seemingly laidback nowhere when Sandoval pushed him too far, typical hazing for fresh fish in Oz, particularly from guys trying to prove they're as badass as the oldtimers, those of them who were here before evac, who were moved back after.

Novak's quick to flare into temper, but unlike O'Reily, he doesn't seem to nurse his grudges, except against the Aryans, and those guys he hates with the venom reserved for the young and the superior, with an intensity that frankly amuses Beecher. He disapproves of Em City's tits trade with the same kind of disdain, and Beecher's already seen him, a couple of times, heads together with Santino, or with Peretti, like he's trying to put together some kind of Em City Rainbow Coalition, proselytizing with more or less effect - more on Santino, less on Peretti, Beecher suspects - and with the kind of zeal Beecher remembers from Said, that he can see blossoming in Arif, less fiery but just as intense. He's got "XXX" tattooed across his lower back in six-inch high letters, and he's never had a drink in his life, he tells Beecher over a frustrating chess lesson.

"No," Beecher says. "You just killed a guy because discrimination is wrong."

He wonders if, maybe, he keeps repeating it, some of the absurdity will wear off.

Novak momentarily looks up at him from under a fringe of dark hair before returning to his study of the board, fingers tapping an absent rhythm against the table's edge.

"We can't just play checkers?" he says.

The kid's maybe kind of an asshole, but Beecher likes to think he's learned more patience, over the years. He remembers Ortolani's advice to him on his first day, don't smile, ever, and he remembers the bars closing with a final, chilling clank, the sudden shove of Alvarez's shoulder against his and the huff of air gasping out beside him as Alvarez fell, bleeding. He remembers pounding on the bars, and how he pushed Alvarez away, frantic with fear, remembers fingers clutching at his pants legs, and he gets up, now, leaves Novak studying the chess board, wanders over to where Miguel's settled himself the next table over, half sprawled across the table top, fingers drifting over the figures in some book Stella found for him in the library, something that looks like a math textbook, geometry, maybe, lines and angles and numbers.

"Hey," Beecher says and brushes his knuckles down the nape of Miguel's neck, a quick light touch before he leans in, some kind of apology in the gesture, tucking his hand into the hood of Miguel's sweatshirt like a pocket.

"Hey," Miguel says, looking up from his book, corner of his mouth quirking faintly. He sits up, just a bit, and his shoulder presses solid and warm into Beecher's chest, his body curving almost imperceptibly back into Beecher's, and Beecher remembers Sunday morning sunlight, his mother with her crossword as she sat in the breakfast nook, his father bringing her a cup of tea, the way sunshine fell across her face as she looked up at him, and something in his chest turns over. He'd been in junior high, maybe, and he'd felt like an intruder in his own house as he stood in the doorway of the kitchen, embarrassed to see his parents like that, like he'd caught them naked.

"What are you reading?" he says.

"Nothing important," Miguel says, closing the book, and Beecher can feel the shrug against his chest.

"Do you think you can come play checkers with this kid?"

"Your turn to babysit, Alvarez?" Ryan smirks as he ambles by, an unsurprising background presence, hovering.

Ryan keeps showing up. He tries to be casual about it, but Ryan's never realized he can't play casual for shit, Beecher thinks, looking up at him from over Alvarez's shoulder. He's like a guy wanting to know if the new kid can come out and play. Or if he can play with the new toy. Or something.

"Well, little Tommy can come out to play with you, if you ask politely," Beecher tells him, ignoring the mumbled "fuck off" from Novak behind him.

"Don't know what he's doing with you, anyway, Beecher," Ryan says, leaning on the chair back in front of him. "He ain't no Other. They put him in a pod with Meaney, anyway. Should have left him with the Irish."

"O'Reily, his name is Thomas Novak."

"Yeah, so? What's your point? We got nothing against the Polacks."

Beecher straightens up and reaches over to shove him in the head, two fingers against his temple, and Ryan smacks at him, trying to step away.

"I thought discrimination was wrong?" Beecher says.

"Right. That's why we got nothing against the Polacks." O'Reily grins at another muffled "fuck off" from Novak.

"O'Reily, I can get us a dog, if you want a pet." Alvarez has pushed back from the table now, lounging in his chair, legs crossed in front of him, arms loose over his chest, picking absently at a hole in his sleeveless grey sweatshirt.

"Oh for fuck's sake ..." Novak says, shoving to his feet. "All of you can fuck off."

They start calling him "the pup," after that, and he growls and bares his teeth and smacks away Ryan's hand when Ryan tousles his hair, but he leans into the touch, too. His sister comes, every week, to visit, and she can't be more than four or five years older than Holly, and she's tiny, and rangy as he is, her mess of dark hair scraped back from her face into a sloppy knot at the back of her head. She's constantly swallowed up in a black sweatshirt washed out to grey, a tattooed pattern peeking out of the sleeve on her right wrist that Beecher eventually realizes is a doubled bass clef, not a heart. She always shows up alone. Their mother never shows, and Beecher turns his back and pretends he isn't listening, in the phone room, to the messages left on her answering machine.

It's a lot like training one of the dogs, Beecher thinks, watching him work the bag in the weight room with Alvarez beside him, face intent on the roll of his fists and whatever low words Alvarez is saying at his shoulder, watching him sit poised over a checkerboard, eyes flitting from laundry room to guard platform to stairs and head tilted to take in Ryan's litany of information about Sandoval and Walters and Hernandez and Murphy, watching him nod and slip out of the press of bodies as Beecher brushes a curved finger down the bridge of his nose, gone before the hacks arrive to bust the heads of whoever's standing in the crowd around the latest dogfight between Roth and Abrams in the cafeteria at breakfast. They're trying to make sure he can navigate Oz, the way the dogs can deal with obstacles in their path and noise everywhere and oncoming traffic without shying away.

They're trying to instill a little bit of loyalty.

 

•••

 

Beecher's so deep in concentration he doesn't even notice when Ryan shows up in the library, too busy bent over a book and scribbling down notes in that cramped handwriting of his - Ryan doesn't know how he manages to read it even two days later, he should have been a doctor instead of a lawyer, swear to Christ - and you'd think he'd have learned to pay attention to what's going on around him by now. That's how they'll get the drop on you, every time, Ryan thinks. All you gotta do is lower your guard for just one minute, just think you can relax, ignore what's going on around you. He leans in the doorway for a minute, watching as Beecher rubs a thumb over his right eyebrow, sure sign of perplexity, the tell that always let Ryan know when to move in for the kill, at poker or checkers or life. Beecher's ridiculously easy to read, and Ryan's never understood why anyone's ever been surprised at anything he does. The guy telegraphs his every move in skywriting.

He jumps and half-raises his pen when he feels the touch on the back of his neck - and Ryan knows what kind of weapon a simple pen can be, you can ask Marty Montgomery about that, but fuck if he's going to be afraid of one in the hands of Toby Beecher - and then he turns and realizes it's Ryan's hand cupped around the nape of his neck. Ryan squeezes and Beecher leans into it, just the tiniest bit, just like Ryan knew he would, still, like he's seen with Alvarez through the wall of the pod, like he remembers from years ago, always eager for attention, affection, eager to touch and be touched. Ryan misses that, from back before things got weird, before all the intervening shit went down, and the realization is a surprise, a revelation of something he's blocked out, shut down in recent months.

Seamus isn't a hugger, isn't a toucher - something for which Ryan is deeply grateful, although he took pains to hide that from Gloria. He'd been afraid, at first, that Seamus' startling deathbed conversion was going to include some kind of father-son embraces to make up for lost time, some kind of huggy stuff that would have been even more awkward than the time Ryan spent sitting with him, trying to think up something to talk about, before they fell back on poker, when Ryan triumphantly won away all of Seamus' buttons - the only thing they had for markers in the infirmary at Bare Hill, and stolen at that, from coats and shirts and whatever else Ryan managed to get into, in the staff closet - and Seamus got pissy and Ryan got irritable and the doctors kicked him out for three days.

No, Seamus isn't a hugger, and Ryan wonders if he's ever seen that man touch anybody in his life except to slap them around or drag them down while he's trying to get up.

He misses it, he realizes. He misses Beecher leaning against his shoulder as they toke up together, misses bumping fists with Cyril, slinging an arm around his neck as they leave the gym, misses fingers brushing as he passes Gloria a folder or a tray in the infirmary - he misses the simple touches, the everyday closeness, left over from nights when he'd wake and reach out a hand to make sure his baby brother was still there, from days when Cyril would greet him at the door, after school, toddling over to fling arms around Ryan's waist, from nights when he'd stumble home with his brother, holding each other up, before Ryan would curl around Shannon in bed as he fell asleep. Standing in the middle of the library, palm still cupping Beecher's nape, thumb rubbing up into his hairline, something hollows out in Ryan's chest, and he tamps it down, quick, before it has a chance to spread.

Beecher bats at him, flash of familiar irritability, and Ryan pulls away. He drags a couple of fingers down the length of the tabletop, casual but guaranteed to draw attention, before he turns to drop into the chair opposite Beecher and leans in.

"Mr. Jailhouse Lawyer," he says, and Beecher rolls his eyes and looks back at his notepad, dismissive, like it's going to do him any good, like Ryan doesn't know how to pull focus, how to get and hold attention when he wants it. "That Burchett's appeal?"

Of course it's Burchett's appeal, and he knows it, and Beecher must know he knows it, what else would he be working on? But Ryan's not dumb, and he's not dumb about Tobias Beecher, and he knows how to set the hook, how to draw attention, what's going to grab Beecher's attention, get him talking, and he waits for it ...

"For all the good it's going to do him," Beecher says, rubbing his eyes.

He grinds the heels of his hands into the sockets before he looks back up at Ryan - he's tired, skin stretched tight across sharp features, eyes bruised with shadows from restless sleep or no sleep, and maybe Alvarez doesn't know how to take care of him quite as good as he thinks, Ryan thinks. Beecher's emotional state always was written all over his face, in more than his expression, and you didn't even have to be Ryan O'Reily to read it. Ryan gets a flash of the pink-and-gold, fresh-faced Lawboy who first walked into Oz, long gone now.

"We're going to lose," Beecher continues. "He's going to lose. I can't stop it." He shakes his head, raises a hand in an aborted futile gesture and drops it back down on the pages of the book that's lying open in front of him, fingers moving restlessly, twitchily over ink and paper, and Ryan stifles the urge to reach out and still him. That's someone else's job, now, again, and anyway, someone might see, might think something of it, something wrong.

"Hey, don't talk like that," he says, instead, leaning in, over the table, fingers distracted by smoothing over a place where someone's carved a heart with "MOM" in the middle, over a lightning bolt insignia, and he tilts his head to catch Beecher's eye. "You're gonna pull some kind of amazing Lawboy magic, and your dad's law firm, they'll convince the judge."

"OK, Ryan," Beecher says and gives a sharp little laugh, squinting back down at his book.

"You know, I kind of miss your glasses," Ryan tells him and is rewarded by a glance up, sudden and surprised.

What he misses, really, he thinks, is the guy who wore the glasses, the sulky expression behind them and the way that guy would bite you even when he was down, bite your goddamn ankle if he couldn't get up to your throat, take you down at the knees. He even brought Ryan down in unexpected ways, and sometimes Ryan thinks he's still doing it. He's got a fucking mouth on him, as bad as Ryan or worse, the kind that would have gotten him belted good growing up in the O'Reily household, and he already knew how to say "yes sir" in a way that made it sound exactly like "fuck you." Ryan's always admired that in a guy. Cyril could do that, back in the day.

"Shut up, O'Reilly." Beecher looks half irritated and half pleased and maybe half more irritated at himself for being pleased, but what are you gonna do, Ryan thinks, when faced with the O'Reily charm? It gets them every time, whether they want to be got, or not.

Ryan can remember when Beecher wanted to be got, and he watches him start to say something, stop himself, look down study himself picking at the edge of a sticky note on the the top of the folder in front of him.

"What?" Ryan says.

"I'm not working on this with my dad's firm," Beecher says, and the admission has the air of a confessional. He sketches a look up at Ryan, then goes back to studying the industrial grey tabletop, the battered manila folder in front of him. "It's Zelman. It's funny how, with Harrison Beecher dead, his old law firm suddenly doesn't want to have much to do with his jailbird son." He drags the words out, like there's a punchline coming, mid-era cynical Beecher at his best, but then his mouth twists and he falls silent again.

"They're gonna kill him, aren't they?"

Ryan knows the answer, he knows it because he's heard the details of Burchett's crime, along with everyone who's seen a news program in the past two months, and he knows - they're not gonna be able to get him off this. Dumbass. But he can't help hoping, can't help thinking that Beecher will say something, anything, that will make a difference, that there's something that will take them down at the knees. He needs Beecher to not give up, needs that endless surprising tenacity, that unwillingness to stay down.

"Ryan," Beecher says, low, and looking at Ryan now, studying him intently. He looks a little bit ... worried, brows drawn together and quizzical expression. "You don't even know this guy."

"I know that," Ryan says, but it's not entirely true.

He's seen Burchett, in the infirmary, once, back when they first re-opened Oz, when they first moved him here, when they set his last execution date, his fifth or sixth, before it was postponed again for this final appeal. They'd brought him into the infirmary for a physical, because they have to make sure you're healthy enough to die before they kill you, Ryan thinks, bitterly, remembering the aftermath of electroshock, the way Cyril had drooled and shaken in Suzanne's arms. Burchett had sat with his head down, hair cropped short and greyed at the temples, ashy features and soft around the middle, a dozen fucking years on Death Row sitting heavy on his shoulders, and Ryan had wondered if maybe he was just ready to go, ready to get it over with, until Prestopnik tried to take his blood pressure, and they'd had to pry his arm out, away from where he'd curled it into his stomach. He'd jerked the arm out of Prestopnik's hands, flung himself back, away from the nurses who'd tried to hold him, and they'd had to put him in restraints, just to draw blood. He'd rolled his head to the side and met Ryan's eyes, and Ryan knew he was seeing a preview of the death chamber, that when the time came, Willie would no more offer up his arm for the needle than he'd done in the infirmary, that he'd fight, the way he's fighting now, the way Beecher's fighting now, with this appeal, the way Ryan almost didn't fight for Cyril.

He wakes up, since then, hearing Cyril calling out to him in fright, remembers that last night in the cell with Cyril, thinks about it, the walls closing in and time ticking down, the surety of death layering heavy in his lungs, in his limbs, thinks about it as he sits night after night in his pod, listening to the sound of Seamus breathing heavy and labored, cigarettes and whiskey in his breath, still, always, in the bottom bunk. Sometimes Ryan thinks his brother - his real brother - was dead for years before they put him in the ground. Sometimes he thinks Cyril never had a chance. Sometimes he thinks maybe he never had a chance, and he wonders if any of them actually made it out of that apartment alive. He wakes up sometimes in the dark and wonders if it's the grave, thinks about cold dirt and cold breath and about how warm Gloria was, when he touched her, her skin under his fingers, her smile.

What a goddamn fucking waste, all of it, Ryan thinks, then shies away from the thought, from the idea that it all might not have been worth it. He can't think about what he would do over, if he had to do it over again.

"Ryan?"

He's been staring into space, he realizes, and Beecher still looks worried.

"No, I know," Ryan repeats. "It's just that ..." He looks around to see who might be listening before he leans back in, across the table, drawing Beecher in to meet him. "This is gonna be the first one. The first time since Cyril ..." The words catch in his throat, get stuck on his tongue behind his teeth, and he makes an impatient sound, irritated at himself, irritated at the weakness. "The first time they've had an execution. And I don't think I can take it, you know? My dad, he's driving me nuts, and I can't deal with him right now, not with this, too ..."

He keeps his voice low but urgent, trying to impress Beecher with how important this is, and when he looks up, Beecher's staring at him, studying him intently, and he stares back.

"It's wrong," Ryan says, finally. "Just fucking wrong. All of it." He's not sure if Beecher understands everything he means, not sure if he wants Beecher to understand everything he means, not sure if he hopes Beecher doesn't understand, and he drops his eyes back to the tabletop.

Beecher moves his fingers, almost imperceptibly, where they've both got their hands spread in the middle of the table now, leaning into each other, Beecher bracketed by Ryan. They brush against the side of Ryan's hands - pinkies pressed against Ryan's pointers, bare ring fingers tucked into the arch where Ryan's thumbs meet his palms, featherlight brush against the webbing there. Beecher just sits there for a minute, light pressure against Ryan's fingers, and Ryan can feel the weight of his gaze. When he looks up, Beecher nods.

"OK," he says, even though they both know it's not gonna be OK, that it's not a promise he can keep. "OK."

He bends back over his notepad as Ryan slips out the door.

Chapter Text

Miguel remembers Cyril O'Reily's execution, remembers his executions, both of them, both those nights, the aborted and the real. He remembers midnight lit up like day in Em City. McManus kept the lights on, bright as noon, his own way of marking what was going down somewhere deep in the rotten heart of Oz, and Miguel remembers his face, the wondering look, something like elation and something like vindication as he turned in the center of Em City to watch them all, like they'd proved him right, somehow, like it was about him and his unit and not about finally standing up and saying that what's been done to you, in this prison, in the system, in courtrooms and in schools and in hospitals, on the barrio streets, the shakedown and the solitary walls and your whole fucking life, that it wasn't right.

There'd never been any love lost between Alvarez and O'Reily, but even Miguel knew that execution was bullshit, knew there was no way Cyril O'Reily should have been on Death Row, no way he should have been in prison in the first place, no matter what he'd done at Ryan's behest. Miguel had been feeling the sting of his own recent brush with what "justice" looked like in the system, justice in the shape of Luis Ruiz and the stretch of a looming lifetime in Oz, a stretch ending in a pine box or a body bag, like they'd used to carry out Cyril, once they'd pronounced time and cause of death, justifiable homicide, murder in the name of the state.

Willie Burchett's no Cyril O'Reily, just a two-bit hood who shot the wrong man on the wrong night on the wrong street corner. If Willie'd been shanked by the Aryans in Unit B in some random fight blowing off steam, none of the Latinos would give a shit, if he'd been taken like a good soldier in some internal power struggle over which of the homeboys was going to run the tits trade in Unit C, the Italians wouldn't give a damn. Hell, if he'd choked on a chicken nugget in the cafeteria one night, most of the homeboys wouldn't have given it more than a passing thought. But somewhere along the line, they've all decided every life is precious, at least when it's the state bringing him down, because that shit, it ain't right.

Willie Burchett's no Cyril O'Reily, but he could have been Miguel Alvarez, and Miguel Alvarez could have been Willie Burchett, just a two-bit hood who shot the wrong man on the wrong night on the wrong street corner.

Neema's never come back from Green Haven - part of the power vacuum deliberately created in post-evac Oz, Redding and Chucky gone, no clear replacement for Morales ever brought in, an attempt to break the tits trade and other power concentrations in Oz, in Em City, like there aren't guys rising up right now, through the ranks, fists full of blood on their way to consolidating their hold on their little bit of this shithole. Prison politics are still just politics, the same politics as the streets, Miguel knows, the same politics as the halls of the county courthouse or the state capitol, Beecher says, and the absence of a leader means anarchy. And so, when Neema never came back, it was Arif who stepped up on this one, Arif and Bismilla who stepped forward to be the moral and ideological heart of Em City, and Miguel remembers Arif coming to Beecher, to talk about it, to get details of the execution. He remembers Bismilla standing in the doorway, eyeing him where he slouched against the back wall of the pod, arms crossed, waiting to see how Beecher would react.

Beecher knew when he started, knew there was barely any hope, he'd said so, told Miguel every time he came back from the visitor's room or the phone room, after every consultation with the other lawyers on the case. But he'd been so tied up in it, so invested in it, by the end, it wrecked him when the decision came down. Miguel remembers Arif's hand on Beecher's shoulder, his low voice murmuring about doing all you could and making them fight for it. He'd looked back at Alvarez as they left the pod, he and Bismilla, had cocked his head and raised an eyebrow, and all Alvarez could do was shrug and rock his fist in front of his chest in a motion they both would recognize, a sign they would know meant "still alive" - down but not out, still breathing, hanging on, not done yet. Miguel was pretty sure of that, no matter what Beecher was going through. Burchett might be doomed, a lot of them in here might be doomed, but Miguel had seen Beecher, too many times, crawling if he couldn't walk, digging in nails and teeth, willing to draw blood - his own and everyone else's around him - to keep dragging himself forward. Sometimes it was a blood-letting, like some archaic healing ritual, and sometimes it was like a knife blade between your ribs, a blow to the chest like a fist, slicing you open.

Beecher's problem always has been that he doesn't know when to lie down and play dead, doesn't know when to fucking give up. Miguel supposes he's got that to thank for where he is right now, standing shoulder to shoulder with Beecher in the dark of Em City night, senses on alert, breaths loud in the small space, Beecher's pulse fluttering like pale moth wings against the fingers Miguel has circled loosely at his wrist, trying to ground him, fingertip touch strong as an anchor.

Miguel remembers Cyril O'Reily's execution, remembers midnight in Em City bright as day, but no one's expecting it this time, no one who matters, no one with any real power. Willie Burchett's no easy cause or pretty face, and Miguel wonders what it must be like to stand on the guard platform at the heart of Em City and hear dozens of small sharp taps moving around you, a message passed from pod to pod in the darkness. He wonders if anyone out there even noticed the small sounds, like pebbles foreshadowing an avalanche, anticipating, signaling, warning, and then, not more than two strong beats from above - Arif, a fist against the wall of his pod, invisible on the upper tier, almost directly above their heads, striking midnight - and then Beecher taking it up, hitting their pod wall, three four, and then from across the length of Em City, five six, and then a rolling wave of thunder rumbling out of the darkness, gaining volume and momentum, like a heartbeat waking to life.

A few of the guards give angry shouts, but it's happening too fast, it's too overwhelming for them to have any hope of containing it, and when somebody finally throws the lights, Miguel can see Murphy, standing on the guard platform, face resigned. They've got to have a senior staff member in all the blocks on an execution night, he remembers Beecher saying, SOP, standard operating procedure, for shit like this or worse, and they'd gambled on this, rolled the dice, and they'd won, and so Murphy's the one who yells at the rest of the hacks to stand down, shaking his head as he looks around, raising a hand to stop Hernandez from dialing the phone for SORT backup, letting it go.

Miguel thinks of Sister Pete, who's probably outside with the other death penalty protestors, at the gates - he's seen the footage, they've all seen it, from previous executions, from Cyril's execution, dozens of candles like fireflies in the darkness, like flickering stars, and he thinks about the poster on the wall of her office, something about lighting a candle instead of cursing the darkness. Usually, he thinks it's pretty much bullshit, but there's no way to stand against this, no way not to feel it in blood and bone and heartbeat, no way not to be swept up in in it at least a little bit. Fireflies in the dark, beating against the walls of Oz, insisting every life is precious, todos son preciosos, and he's adding his own noise now, adding to the swell of sound, primal, like the throbbing of drums in a cave, rolling around Em City, growing in cacophony. He wonders how many other cellblocks it's happening in, how far they've managed to arrange this, this sound that swells like thunder but doesn't die.

Murphy's on the phone now, to McManus, Miguel would bet, especially as he shakes his head and finally rolls his eyes and holds out the receiver to catch what he can of the sound. Miguel can see him look their way, thinks he's probably looking for Beecher - an obvious stake in this, who else? with his work on the case - but Murphy's eyes slide over them, next door to the O'Reily pod, and Miguel looks over to see Beecher's attention drawn there as well, over to where Ryan's standing, wedged into the front corner of the pod at the end of the bunk beds, pounding with the rest of them. His face is white, and still, almost dead, but there's something behind his eyes, and he's hitting the wall of the pod with such ferocity, Miguel wonders if he's going to crack the plexiglass, break his hand, and he has the fleeting thought that maybe the stillness of O'Reily's expression is a result of the control he needs to keep from shaking apart. Seamus is sitting up in bed, watching, shaking his head, looking vaguely incredulous, like he still can't believe this is going down.

Beecher's been more frantic about this in the past couple of weeks, in the home stretch, pacing their pod at all hours and muttering to himself, and Miguel thought it had something to do with being forced to wait, all his work turned in, someone else making the arguments, sitting around waiting for a ruling, but he's also seen Beecher's eyes following Ryan, and abruptly he wonders what one has to do with the other. O'Reily was the first place Beecher looked when they heard the news that the appeal had been denied, Miguel remembers that now, sitting in front of the TV, the outbreak of boos and shouts and derogatory comments, someone's balled-up sock flying at the television, still sweaty from being on a foot, inside a shoe - Miguel had followed Beecher's eyes to O'Reily, and he saw the wince, from both of them, like taking a blow, when the execution date was announced, two weeks, and they sure didn't waste any fucking time. What the hell is it with O'Reily, anyway? What other hold is this giving him over Beecher?

O'Reily slumps against the wall when it ends, the wall that separates their pods, and Beecher stumbles over as the hacks make their rounds, released from the temporary hold Murphy put on them, telling everyone to get back in bed, right fucking now. Beecher's got a hand to the pressed to the plexi, words spilling from his lips, a low hum Miguel almost can't make out, a murmur of "come on Ryan come on come on," even though MIguel knows he knows O'Reily can't hear him through the wall.

O'Reily finally looks up, and his gaze flickers over to Miguel before he looks back to meet Beecher's eyes, a lost look that Miguel can't quite understand, and then O'Reily's looking back at Beecher, and he moves his hand. They're off at first, not quite meeting, but then Beecher shifts a little and O'Reily shifts a little and then they're palm to palm, eyes locked through the wall. Miguel can see Ryan take a couple of deep breaths ... and then he flinches, perceptibly, and looks over his shoulder at Seamus, who must have said something.

Ryan's lips move in reply as he turns, moves away from the wall, but he's turned too far to make out his response. He doesn't look back.

Anders is banging on the wall of the pod, telling them to get in bed, right now, dammit, and Miguel goes over to collect Beecher from where he's still standing, watching Ryan climb into bed, and pulls him away. He's shivering, fine tremor running under his skin, from stress or adrenaline or the emotional aftermath of what just happened, and he presses against Miguel, wraps around him as the lights go down, face tucked into the side of his neck. Miguel pulls him to the bed, to the bottom bunk, and tumbles him down, rolls them on their sides and threads his hand through Beecher's hair, frames Beecher's face in his palms and kisses him, breathes into him, murmurs words in Spanish and English against his lips until the shivers die down. He rocks and hums, some melody that he pulls from deep in his brain, something he remembers his mama singing to him when he was tiny, only snatches and fragments of the words remaining: toda mi esperanza, eres tú ... como una lluvia fresca de mis manos ...

He climbs over him and curls around him in the dark, pulling him back into the curve of his body. He keeps their backs to the O'Reily pod.

 

•••

 

Prisoner #04S237, Mateo Santino. Convicted: March 5, 2004. Trafficking in cocaine, possession with intent to distribute. Sentence: 20 years. Up for parole in 12.

He's small and sturdy, deep-chested, built like a bulldog, easy-going but implacable when he gets wound up, although he barely blinks at whatever's said to him, and Beecher keeps one eye on him because he's pretty sure which way he'll fall if Alvarez ever needs backup. He's quiet, studies what's going on around him, constantly smoothing that goatee he wears and watching, taking in everything, and maybe a little creepy for it. He's a little bit in love with Alvarez in that straight boy way that would give up his ass if he was a little younger, a little less sure of himself, if Alvarez was a little less scrupulous, a lot more desperate, a little less ... Alvarez with his own skewed but stubborn set of morals. Beecher can see it, can recognize it, somewhere between Felix and Bianchi and some of the really strange ones in Bare Hill, the ones who'd look at Miguel's scars the way Peretti still looks at Beecher's body sometimes, in the laundry room, in the showers - covetous, keen, like there's something there, underneath, that they want, in among the blood and the bones, and they're willing to get inside you, hot and slick and red, to do it.

Santino's early 20s maybe, maybe, with the rough hands of a laborer, and Beecher would bet he didn't have a lot of experience dealing when he got picked up and bounced into Oz, and he probably would have walked on probation if he'd been white or had a better lawyer or just a little bit less cocaine in his pockets. Then again, maybe not, because he's got a bad on-again, off-again taste for his own product - but only coke, no horse, no smack, no D, like he's some kind of tits connoisseur, or something - and Beecher's seen enough dealers in his days in Oz to know that sampling your own shit is gonna lead nowhere good. But he didn't have much personal stake in the whole D-Tab business, and the one thing Beecher can count on is Santino's hero worship of Alvarez.

He's got janitorial duties on the third floor of the prison, west and south wings, and that's how Miguel got access to the infirmary staff's private locker room, and that's how Beecher found himself here, bent over a rickety plastic table with his hands clenched in the woolen blazer someone's left tossed over the back of a chair - probably Ranier, from the scent of roasted coffee and Hugo Boss in its folds, filling his head - and Miguel's tongue up his ass, licking him open, hot and slick, demonstrating his repertoire, for fuck's sake, but it's not like Beecher's going to complain. He couldn't complain if he wanted to, and he's not sure why he would want to, not with the fluttery hot teasing of Miguel's tongue and fingers sparking little currents of pleasure through him, through his ass and his hips and his stomach and his chest, clenching his fingers in scratchy damp wool, catching his breath in his throat, helpless gasps that he'd probably be at least a little ashamed about if it didn't feel so fucking good, if he wasn't rolling his hips, trying to lay himself out, trying to spread his legs farther against the bind of his pants around his thighs, trying to get Miguel's tongue and fingers deeper inside him.

Miguel talks, too, a low steady constant undercurrent of filthy words whenever he pulls away, lips moving against the curve of Beecher's ass or the small of his back as he pushes two fingers inside, stroking, riding out the frantic roll of Beecher's hips back onto his hand, murmuring details of what he's going to do to Beecher, how he's going to lay him out and lick him open, get him all slick and ready for Alvarez to slide right in, all the way, so deep inside that Beecher's going to feel him for days. Sometimes he'll fall into Spanish phrases, broken idioms, loose, liquid vowels and purring consonants, and even when Beecher can't understand the words, he knows the tone, understands the low growl and burr in Alvarez's voice. Latin lover, Beecher thinks, although he'd never say it out loud.

Those slick, nimble fingers pull out of Beecher, and he bites back a curse, earning a laugh from Miguel, who leans forward, over Beecher's back, pressing his lips to the top of Beecher's spine, whispering "Quiet, tranquilo, quiet," and combing the fingers of his free hand through Beecher's hair as he uses the other to guide himself in, hot and thick and blunt, and Beecher pushes back against the burn of it, cursing again when Miguel grabs his hip, holding him, pressing another kiss to his shoulder, determined, for all his dirty words, to go slow. Beecher reaches back, grabs his hand and pulls it forward, pulls him forward, winding their fingers on the table, white-knuckled, as Miguel sets a steady rhythm, still whispering for quiet, for tranquilo as Beecher turns his face to the table, tries to muffle his moans against his own wrist as he pushes back against Miguel.

Quiet, he knows, always quiet, like a cloak-and-dagger game, a secret affair, a halfway romance conducted in staircases, closets, under cover of night in their pod, half turned one way then the other, away from eyes watching through transparent walls, and Beecher remembers stuffy dimness under stolen blankets, a bolthole, a bower, and the feel of Alvarez's stubble under his fingertips. Everyone knows, there's probably no one in this goddamn prison who doesn't know, but the same hacks and administrators who allowed Schillinger to torment him for months, for years, were the ones who suddenly, inexplicably kept him from Keller when they needed each other most, kept them apart after months of Chris being buried in another prison, another state, after Beecher thought he was lost forever, and if there's one thing Beecher knows about in Oz, it's uncertainty in the face of authority and the willful disparity between a good day and a bad day on the block, between the day everything goes right and the day shit rolls downhill. If they know how much it means, it's a tool they can use against you, and he's not to willing to risk exposing this.

Miguel moves, sudden, sharp, demanding attention, and Beecher hisses in through his teeth. He's almost there already, so close after the teasing, and he needs to touch himself, but he can't, can't reach, not without losing his balance and tumbling face-first into the table, and he pushes back against Miguel, shoves up with his shoulders, the blazer slip-sliding under him, and Miguel wraps a hand around his waist. He pulls Beecher up, back to chest, head rolling on his shoulder, both their hands sliding around Beecher's cock, now, Miguel's thumb slipping over the head, almost painful as Beecher pumps his hips up and up, and he can feel Alvarez's chest sliding against his back, the flex of his biceps against Beecher's side, the scent of sweat and sex and ashes around him, and he comes in a flurry of cries that Alvarez muffles with his other hand, lips hot against the side of Beecher's neck. Beecher goes limp, leans forward, hands clutching the edge of the table as Alvarez thrusts, rolls his hips twice, three times more, almost as an afterthought, and comes.

Beecher reels him in and kisses him after he pulls out, after they both clean up and tuck themselves back in their pants, although Beecher grimaces slightly as leans back against the table, shifting his ass and wondering what excuse he can use to convince Sister Pete to let him get back to Em City early, to find time for a quick shower before dinner. She's probably wondering where he is already - it shouldn't have taken this long for him to drop off the files he brought to the infirmary. He leans back on his hands and watches Miguel adjust himself inside the baggy orderly scrub pants, puts a hand on his wrist and tugs him back in before he can pull on the shirt that Beecher skinned off of him when Miguel first pushed him up against the inside of closed the door. He runs his hands down firm muscle, fitting his fingers between Miguel's ribs and opening his mouth as Miguel deepens their kiss, almost always the one to get his tongue involved first, like he's greedy for the taste, the feel of Beecher under his mouth, like he's pulling air from Beecher's mouth, from his lungs.

He tastes unexpectedly like candy, lips sticky and sweet, and as he breaks away, he brings the lollipop back up to his mouth with a grin tilted Beecher's way, and Beecher rolls his eyes. Miguel's still got fingers woven in Beecher's hair and he combs through it at the back of Beecher's neck where it's getting too long, leaning into him, and Beecher slides a hand around his hip, tracing the scar there. Giles, he remembers, now, remembers hearing about fucking Howell and how livid she'd been, a stabbing on her watch when the guys on her unit shouldn't be able to do anything, sealed up in their goddamn boxes.

He's been talking to Zelman, to Elisabeth Valletta, one of the lawyers in his office, phone conversations and letters stuffed with copies of medical journal articles he's Xeroxed, psychiatrists talking about some newly coined prison psychobabble, some new alphabet soup, Security Housing Unit syndrome, SHU, and what caught his eye was the symptoms, a familiar list: the confusion, the self-destructive outbursts and the free-floating anxiety, the fucking psychosis that's a result of solitary confinement, and he's thinking there's some argument to be made there, some seed of interest for the advocate groups Zelman's so good at stirring up. There's already been some movement on that front, he knows, from his preliminary note-taking and his research and from the fact that something convinced the Oz admins to parade their solitary inmates in a chained circle in the gym every day, like the day Giles stabbed Miguel, in fact, and Christ, he wonders if any good is even going to come out of stirring it all up.

He thinks about what Miguel looked like right after he got back, huddled at the edge of the bunk, long red welts up his arms from his own nails, scabs on the tips of his fingers where - he told Beecher later, in the dark - he'd drawn on the walls in his own blood, and Beecher knows that he's got to at least try.

He traces the lines of the scar again, inquisitive, Miguel shivering under the touch. It almost matches Beecher's own scar, where Vern stabbed him, where he almost bled out on the gym floor, and Beecher cups his palm around Miguel's waist, slides his hand to cover it, remembers Chris holding him on the gym floor, holding him together, despite blood on his hands, the break in his voice.

Miguel moves against him, again, nudging against his cheek with his nose, turning Beecher's face to press another kiss against his mouth, to lick in between his lips, insistent, and he seems off, although Beecher can't quite put a finger on how. One thing that draws him to Miguel, he knows, is that he's got nothing to prove by being with Beecher, no move on the chess board, nothing to gain, but he's strangely insistent, oddly demanding today, and Beecher can't figure out why.

He lifts one finger to trace the curve of the earth, inked on Miguel's arm, and wonders what he's falling back into.

Chapter Text

The pup's tapping out some kind of rhythm, syncopated, almost jazzy, against the edge of the next table over as Ryan tries to concentrate on his cards - king of diamonds, pair of twos, seven of clubs and a ten of hearts, a handful of crap - but it's not like he can blame the kid. Ryan got antsy, too, when Beecher tried to make him play chess, with all its arcane rules and moves and checks. Poker, Beecher always says, throwing up his hands, poker's got a shit-ton of rules, but poker's rules make sense and anyway, Beecher just gets pissed off because he sucks at poker. Ryan's not a chess player - Keller always had more patience for that sort of thing, or maybe just more focus, or maybe just more focus on Beecher.

The pattering's increasingly obvious and insistent - the pup's close to breaking, close to shoving away from the table and chess be damned, and then, Ryan knows, the kid's got some M&Ms from the commissary, something Ryan wouldn't mind winning off of him at cards, in addition to the contraband smokes Meaney flashed under the table when it was his turn to ante up, the ones Ryan's going to take from him. He could just demand one, when he wants it, but it's so much sweeter to rake in the winnings.

"You have got to fucking stop that," Meaney says, smacking down his cards onto the table and turning to look at Novak, who's busy scanning the upper level of Em City - probably on the lookout for Bader, who's been giving him increasing shit in recent days, ever since getting a tooth knocked out in the showers during a quick early morning throwdown.

Novak's a grumpy bitch when he's just rolled out of bed.

Ryan follows the pup's gaze - Peretti and Corio and D'Angelo leaning against the top railing, taking the same kind of temperature check of Em City; Poet and Walters sprawled on the bottom bunk in Poet's pod, probably tripping; Roth and Krause in the laundry room, batting at each other in a mock fight, probably talking shit. Andrade's fallen asleep sitting up in front of the television with Lawton beside him like a mouse, and Anders, up on the guard platform, looks like she's not far behind, leaning desultorily on the railing while Hernandez shuffles through some kind of reports beside her. Beecher's squinting at the black and white chess pieces in front of him like they're gonna move on their own or under the power of his mind or something, Alvarez on the far side of him, hunched over another book, fingers sketching shapes on the pages. Some Latino kid - Santini? Santorino? - fiddles with the slick pages of a magazine stolen from the library, absently folding it into some kind of bizarre origami, sitting close enough to be in Alvarez's orbit but far enough that he's not actually sitting with him, and Ryan shakes his head.

Bader's nowhere to be seen, but Novak's eyes stop on Sandoval, his back to them, Aztec sun inked on his right shoulder, snake curled around his left arm, shaving at the sink in the showers, and the pup's eyes narrow, and huh. Ryan wonders what that's about, what's gone down between those two when he wasn't looking.

"Seriously, quit it," Meaney says, leaning to smack at Novak's hands, and the pup looks over at him, finally, wounded, like he's been kicked, and Ryan laughs. "Easy for you," Meaney adds. "You don't have to live with him. All the goddamn time, banging on something."

"Fucking bang you," Novak mutters, and Seamus grunts, derisive, at Ryan's side, where he's watching something soundless on TV.

It's Mighty Mouse, granted, and there's not much need for a soundtrack to that, but Ryan wishes to Christ the old man would just go watch it like a normal person, go sit down in a chair in front of the TV wall and put on some headphones so he can hear what's going on. He won't go away, increasingly stuck to Ryan like shit on the bottom of his shoe - clingy, like Cyril at his 4-year-old worst, when Ryan was already 7 and in school and fascinated with Danny Gillespie, who could shoot a snot rocket halfway across the room when the teacher's back was turned, or at 11, when Ryan was already 14 and trying to find some time to get Mary Anne Reynolds alone before Seamus got home from the bar and Tessie got back from the store on a Tuesday afternoon - tugging on Ryan's sleeve, following him around, asking stupid questions and always with a scowl on his face when Ryan pushed him away, tried to find a little bit of space.

So Seamus is stuck to Ryan's side, watching television when he's not commenting on Ryan's cards, because he refuses to play any more, and if that isn't fucking typical, Ryan doesn't know what is - you take the old man's buttons once, and he takes his marbles and goes home forever. It was sweet, though, Ryan's gotta admit, with more than the typical thrill of raking in the pot - there was a small, vicious stab of victory in his chest as he swept up the red cardigan button and the plush green silk button from some chick's fancy blouse, a real wooden button still showing the grain and one covered in some kind of fake brown leather with a cross-hatch pattern, an assortment of cheap plastic in blue, three fake pearls of various sizes and colors, and two tiny white buttons from a button-down collar.

No one knows it, but Ryan's still got the collection, gets up and runs his fingers through them sometimes, at night, when Seamus' words and Cyril's cries prod him awake, runs his fingers through them and rubs his thumb over the broad white button from Gloria's lab coat like it's a talisman, a good luck-charm, something to guide him through the days and nights in Oz. More and more, Seamus is reminding Ryan of his grandfather, the cranky old man who sat in his chair half-drunk and all crazy, muttering under his breath through the few family holiday dinners Tessie and Ryan and Cyril ever went to - Seamus was never there, always disappeared beforehand and came home drunk, after - and Ryan hopes to Christ he doesn't end up like that when he gets old, if he lives long enough to get old, alone in this prison with his goddamn pile of letters and his absent girlfriend who won't even write him back, for fuck's sake, when he's doing his best to deal with Seamus, to take care of him like she told him to, in anticipation of her return.

Seamus mutters something again, something that sounds like "fags," and Ryan's pretty sure he's not talking about Mighty Mouse - well, OK, sort of sure, because who the fuck knows, these days? He meets Novak's eyes as the pup looks over at the old man, sees something in there akin to murder before Novak subsides, backing down, and Ryan knows he's been getting shit. That's written all over his face, in the dark circles under his eyes and the increasingly evident scowl and the scab at the corner of his mouth, the one he keeps worrying with his tongue. He's on edge from whatever shit got thrown his way this morning over rubbery eggs and plywood toast, plus he's being an asshole because that's what guys his age do - Ryan remembers Cyril being an asshole just for the sake of it, because he was feeling snotty and was big enough to get away with it, who was gonna stop him? And he's also just kind of an asshole sometimes, but Ryan appreciates that - it's something you need, to get by in Oz, in life. He waits until Novak looks up again and wiggles his own tongue lewdly, and the kid snarls at him and gives him the finger.

"You're not paying attention, are you?" Beecher says, looking up from the chess board.

"Fucking teenagers," Seamus mutters, not even under his breath this time, and finally, finally gets up and wanders off, leaving Ryan with his mouth hanging open while Beecher laughs, some kind of crazy cackle, like Seamus O'Reily is some kind of fucking comedian, or something.

He wouldn't laugh if he knew some of the things Seamus has been saying about him, although Ryan doesn't know that they're any worse than some of the things he's heard Beecher say about Seamus, some of the things Beecher probably doesn't even know Ryan's overheard, although maybe he does, maybe he doesn't care, maybe he thinks whatever history they have gives him leeway to talk shit about Seamus. For whatever reason, he doesn't do a very good job of hiding the fact that he thinks Seamus is a waste of space, and the feeling is mutual, antagonism crackling between them like the tension that used to lay between Shannon and Ryan's Aunt Brenda, and Ryan remembers having to listen to Shannon rail against the way Brenda talked to Ryan, the way she talked about him, like Ryan didn't know, OK? Like there was shit he could do about that old bat and her complaints about Ryan and Cyril and what they got her precious Matthew involved in - Matthew, who stole the first bottle of whiskey Ryan ever shared at 13 years old. But no, Shannon would go on and on, until he found a way to shut her up, which usually involved storming out of the apartment and down to the bar on the corner or pushing her up against the wall and shutting her up with his mouth - which led to fucking like bunnies a lot of the time, so Ryan always had mixed feelings about family Sunday dinners. It was kind of a relief when Shannon insisted on their own Sunday dinners, which usually consisted of eating out, anyway.

But Ryan knows what his father's thinking when he looks at Beecher, at Alvarez. He knows because Seamus has said the words plenty of times out loud, too, plenty of times to Ryan, and he hears them in his head even when Seamus isn't saying them, even when Seamus isn't around, when Ryan sees - although they don't know, or maybe they don't care, maybe they think whatever history they have gives them leeway - Beecher's fingers light at the base of Alvarez's skull, sliding down the soft cotton of his T-shirt, over the ridge of his spine before he sits down in the cafeteria, or Alvarez's shoulder pressed to the center of Beecher's chest as Beecher leans over his chair in the common area, their bodies curved together, or Alvarez's thumb smoothing over the inside of Beecher's wrist as Beecher traces Alvarez's cheekbone in the dim light of their pod at night.

The two of them say more with their hands than with words, Ryan thinks, and not just in that handjive the Tanner refugees brought back.

Seamus always did a lot of talking with his hands, too, but it was never anything Ryan particularly wanted to hear, and it always ended in bruises, and he thinks about Beecher's fingers pressed light against his on the top of a library table and wonders what, exactly, he was saying.

They oughta be more circumspect, he thinks, scowling to himself. Half of Novak's problem is the shit he takes about them. They've settled into some kind of equilibrium, some kind of balance, a background status quo, backed up by Alvarez's fists and crazy rep, if not Beecher cutting tongue, but it doesn't mean people gotta like it - like Seamus, like the way he'll sit here, but everyone knows what he's thinking. So the pup's been taking some shit, even though he's pretty good at shutting up mouths - best scrapper Ryan's seen since Cyril, although he's never had any formal training, not until Alvarez put him on the bag in the gym. He's more Ryan's style - street fighter, although he doesn't understand yet, that whatever move it is, it's not dirty if it helps you win.

Beecher meets Ryan's gaze, still oddly amused at Seamus' parting shot, holds it for an endless stretching moment, smile sliding off his face, head tilting slightly to study Ryan, and Ryan can see a flash of pink tongue as Beecher touches it to his upper lip, brow furrowed, considering.

Going to suck off your boyfriend? Seamus says, echoing in his head, words from the night of Burchett's execution, and Ryan flinches like did then, leans forward in his chair, slides an easy shit-eating grin into place.

"Hey, papi," he says. "Leave Pup alone. He's just rebelling against Mom and Dad."

Beecher scowls at that and flips him off, but Ryan just laughs, forcing it out, because it's like they've got a kid, in some weird way, right? What's next, a goddamn picket fence? Although come to think of it - and Ryan tilts his own head consideringly - Beecher probably did have a white picket fence before he got himself stuck in Oz. No wonder he's trying to build - rebuild - a picture-perfect little family, or whatever funhouse version of it you get in Em City.

"That's no example to set for the kiddie," he says out loud.

"Fuck you," the pup says, standing up from the table, chair clattering as it falls back behind him, and he's more infuriated than he ought to be by some careless shit-talking.

"Sit down, little man," Ryan says, smoothly, refusing to be baited. He looks back down at his hand and discards, tossing out the seven, the ten.

Alvarez is the one who unexpectedly comes to Ryan's defense - or maybe Papa's just trying to maintain domestic order, Ryan thinks, watching from underneath his brows as Alvarez finally looks up from his book, rising from his spot beside Beecher and reaching out a hand to get the pup by the scruff of the neck.

"Hey, Mastínico," he says, and he shakes Novak a little, like a recalcitrant puppy, even as the kid struggles against his grip. "What's wrong with you? You're being a pissy little bitch."

"I'm not gonna be anybody's bitch," Novak says, savage, flushing.

"Jesus Christ," Beecher says, pushing away from the table. "Why do we always have to have this conversation, every single time? Nobody is going to be anybody's bitch."

"Bitch," Ryan says, a reckless feeling - looking for trouble - and something like hysterical amusement rising in his chest. He grabs the two cards Meaney's dealt him, looks down at his hand and blinks at the Christmas Special he's suddenly holding, diamonds and spades and hearts, three kings looking back at him.

"Fuck off, Ryan," Beecher says, glaring at him.

"You're a good one to talk about, 'Oh, I'm not gonna be your bitch,'" Alvarez says accusingly, turning to look at Beecher, hand rubbing absently at Novak's shoulder, like a manager encouraging a prize fighter or a parent soothing a cranky child.

"You fuck off, too, Alvarez," Beecher says, but he sounds easier, like some kind of tension's been broken. "You were the one with your head in my lap, moaning about how you needed some tits."

"Kind of mixed up, there, aren't you, Miguel?" Ryan says, raising an eyebrow, looking back up from his cards to meet Alvarez's eyes as he gives the pup a last shake and releases him with final pat on the back.

"Fuck off, O'Reily."

•••

 

Alvarez is working in the infirmary, setting up doses of medication, letting the little pink and blue and yellow pills run through his fingers into tiny paper cups, when they bring in Seamus, sweaty and pale and doughy and wheezing, eyes rolling terrified in his head as he fights for breath. Armstrong elbows Alvarez in the ribs as they bustle by, sends him stumbling into a tray stand, and then they're past him, through the swinging doors, swarmed by nurses and Prestopnik already snapping on latex gloves.

Fuck, Alvarez thinks, raising a hand, scrubbing at his mouth with the back of his wrist, considering, Fuck, and then he straightens, grabs Andrade, who's standing there blinking, and tugs him around.

"¿Dónde está Ryan? ¿Dónde carajo está O'Reily?" Alvarez says, urgent, giving Andrade a shake to get his attention away from the doors they just rolled Seamus through, and when he waves a hand vaguely in the direction of the dispensary, finally looking down, Alvarez pushes him in that direction. "Go. ¡Vaya!"

He stumbles over the sheets Andrade dropped as he turns back toward the double swinging doors, cursing some more and kicking the tangling material viciously into a corner, out of the way. Pushing his way through the doors, he can hear Seamus gasping and wheezing; two of the nurses are already pushing needles into him and hooking him up to the cardiac monitor, there's a steady rustle of paper as supplies are ripped open, torn apart, and someone shoves a handful of discarded trash at him, a brown hand emerging from the sea of white and blue and green scrubs to push it at him in a rustle of tattered waxed packaging, and he holds out his hand numbly, on autopilot, crumpling the paper in his fist as Seamus jerks, sudden and sharp, and a hypodermic goes flying across the room, accompanied by a low curse.

A loud bang behind him heralds Ryan's arrival, hitting the swinging doors at high speed, yelling "Dad!" and barreling past Alvarez to try shoving his way into the press of bodies around the bed - Alvarez winces as he clocks M'damba in the side of the head, but she's been a nurse here long enough that she just grits her teeth and swears half-heartedly at him as she tries to hold onto Seamus, who's flailing, back arched, pushing out painful sounding gasps between babbling, whites of his eyes stark as he rolls his head on the stretcher. Alvarez can see Armstrong lean in and try to grab Ryan, earning himself an elbow in the ribs as Ryan hisses and strikes out blindly, without any kind of direction or forethought. One of the other nurses, Wikowski, maybe, yells at someone, anyone to get him out of the way. Alvarez can seen Armstrong reaching for his nightstick, and it's like some hold on him finally breaks and he drops the crumpled handful of trash he's holding and moves, ducks in under Armstrong's reach - giving him another good shot in the kidneys with his own elbow as he goes - and grabs Ryan, himself.

He struggles to hold on to the twisting body - it's like Ryan's doing some spastic imitation of Seamus' flailing on the stretcher, trying to escape Alvarez's grip - wraps one arm around Ryan's chest and the other around his neck, arches him back, unbalancing him to try to find some advantage against the taller body, setting his feet and fighting Ryan away from the stretcher. Wrapping himself as far as he can around the body against his chest, he hangs on and hisses in Ryan's ear to stay back, stay cool, let them fucking take care of it, don't get himself thrown out. Ryan's just stopped struggling enough for Alvarez to drop the arm around his throat, to hold his hand out in an attempt to ward off Armstrong, who's practically stalking the two of them down the side of the stretcher, when one of the machines they've managed to hook Seamus to starts a high-pitched whine, and his eyes roll up in the back of his head and he goes limp.

"Cardiac arrest," Prestopnik says, and there's some yelling at each other around the stretcher, some handing off of instruments.

Ryan's cursing, a long low constant stream of words, and Alvarez thinks there might be some begging in there, too. He goes limp against Alvarez when they shock Seamus' heart back into life, almost taking both of them down, and Alvarez braces himself, hauling Ryan back up, keeping one arm around his chest, dropping the other to clench in his ratty T-shirt at his waist. He keeps Ryan arched back, maintaining some advantage as he pulls him farther away from the stretcher, looking around wildly for some kind of help, finally spotting Father Mukada in the doorway.

"Father," he says to Mukada, "Padre, please."

He knows what he needs, knows what he needs the priest to do - he needs to get Beecher here, needs someone to go find him. Beecher can keep Ryan together on this, can do the emotional heavy lifting, Alvarez knows he can, but he's got to get him here, somehow, and he can't leave Ryan for that long, can't even fucking let go of him, at this point, for fear of what he might do. But Beecher ... Alvarez knows Beecher can handle this, and he stumbles over his words, trying to explain, trying to convince Mukada to help. Whatever dance Beecher and Ryan have been doing around each other, whatever is or isn't going on there, Beecher's the one, at this point, who can deal with this, the one Ryan might let deal with this. Maybe the only one, Alvarez thinks, remembering Em City midnight lit up like day and the sound of dying thunder and two palms pressed together through plexiglass.

Mukada looks at him, reluctant, and Alvarez closes his eyes, breathes for a minute before looking back up at the priest, eye to eye, trying to convey his urgency, trying to frame his words carefully.

"I know I've asked you for a lot of shit in the past, but I'm asking you now," he says, and he can feel Ryan's heart under his palm, like it's going to beat out of his chest. "If you ever ... If you ever wanted to help me out, you'll go get Beecher."

Mukada watches Alvarez for a minute, eyes flickering over his face, studying him, and he finally nods, and Alvarez feels something in his chest loosen, like he can breathe again. Mukada gives a last glance at Seamus on the bed before disappearing back through the door.

"Fuck, let me go, Alvarez," Ryan says, and Alvarez hangs on and puts his mouth right up to Ryan's ear, murmuring to him - just hold on, he says, just let them do their job, OK, let them try and help, just hold on - the same low, soothing cadences he'd used with the dogs, the same ones that would get the shyest of them on their backs, legs in the air, offering their bellies to be rubbed.

There's a whine from the stretcher, the jolt and snap of electricity again, and Ryan's body jerks against Alvarez at the sound. M'damba reels off vital signs, and Alvarez feels a hand on his shoulder, knows without even looking around that it's his own father. He remembers that hand on his shoulder as he sat and watched Ricardo, listened to his grandfather sing to himself, a low tuneless hum that thinned out into increasingly slower breaths and finally stopped, remembers Ricardo's hand going limp and heavy on his arm, remembers the scent of lotion and the weight of Ricardo's head in his hands, just an old man, a legend brought low.

Would you like your grandfather to mean something to you? Sister Pete's voice aks, in his head, and he thinks about Ryan gripping his father's elbow, helping him off of an infirmary bed, tucking a blanket around his shoulders.

... help you accept it with a little grace, his grandfather whispers, and Alvarez tightens his grip on Ryan, leans to whisper in his ear again as the cardiac monitor whines for the third time, and he looks over to see Beecher in the doorway, face pale, flanked by Mukada and Murphy, frozen as they shock Seamus again, and again, before Prestopnik finally shakes his head and glances at his watch to call time of death. Seamus' hand falls limp from the stretcher as the space around him clears, and Alvarez loosens his own grip on Ryan, who pushes toward the bed, toward the figure who looks smaller now, in death.

Alvarez turns away, toward his father, and Eduardo pats him on the cheek before pulling him in, the smell of prison soap and antiseptic and the harsh bleach they use on the scrubs and the sheets filling Miguel's head.

He watches them later, Beecher and O'Reily, Toby and Ryan, in the office Prestopnik and Ranier share, watches Beecher kneel in front of Ryan, murmuring words too low to hear from the doorway. Ryan stares over Beecher's shoulder at the far wall, blank and lost, fingers curled tight and white-knuckled around the arms of the desk chair, back stiff and ramrod straight until Beecher slides a hand over his shoulder, smoothes the palm of his hand up the curve of O'Reily's neck. Beecher moves to cup the back of O'Reily's head with one hand, combing fingers though his short hair, and O'Reily finally pitches forward to hide his face in Beecher's chest, fingers curled into the front of Beecher's shirt, holding on tight, so tight, and Alvarez studies them for a minute, watches the way their bodies curve into each other.

He turns away, again, to stand guard at the door.

 

•••

 

"This doesn't change anything between us, you know," Beecher says.

He flicks a quick glance over, at Pup's back, where the kid's lounging in the door of the pod - arms crossed, studiously observing the common area, a bundle of his possessions waiting at his feet - before he looks back at Miguel, who smoothes one hand under his chin, something that almost looks like the sign for "lie," for "liar." Beecher reaches out hesitant fingers to trace his cheekbone, along the scar on the side of his face, uncertain how he's going to react, if he'll pull away or shrug off the touch.

"Yeah. It will," Miguel says, but he gives Beecher a rueful grin and flickers a quick touch over the back of Beecher's hand as he tries to pull away, fingertip brush skimming his knuckles, and he tilts his head, barely perceptibly, into the well of Beecher's palm. "But. Another vida preciosa, right? Another lost cause?"

"I'm just watching his back," Beecher says, and his glance is pulled to the pod next door, to the chair where Ryan sits, where he's been sitting for the past, God, 16 hours? 18 hours? since coming back from the visitor's room after Suzanne's latest visit.

Beecher woke in the middle of the night and saw him there, one finger flicking at the edge of the prayer card Suzanne brought back from Seamus' funeral as he studied it in a shaft of low amber light falling across the pod, and he'd gone to stand beside him, pressed one palm to the plexiglass between them. Ryan just shook his head and turned back to his contemplation of St. James with his staff and his waterskin, leaving Beecher to watch until he felt a soft press of lips against the back of his neck and fingers curved around one hip, pushing under his T-shirt to brush against his skin, urging him back to bed, where he lay awake until morning count.

Six hours and a visit to McManus later, Beecher's come back to find Ryan still sitting there, only now he's back to writing, another one of those goddamn letters, like Emily fucking Dickinson in her garrett or something, and Beecher can guess who it's to, what it says, one more step on the Quixotic quest that Ryan won't abandon, writing letter after letter, week after week, until Beecher wants to tear them out of his hands, tear them to pieces. Beecher's not even sure Ryan's bothering to mail them any more. Maybe they're just piling up somewhere in the pod like so much trash.

He's beginning to fear for Ryan's sanity. He won't let Beecher near him since the infirmary, since Seamus' death, threw him off when Beecher crouched beside him and slid a hand up his arm to grip his shoulder, bringing details about funeral plans, passed to Sister Pete from Suzanne - Suzanne, who took charge of arrangements, because who the hell else would, and she was willing to do it for her son if not the husband she escaped all those years ago. The details finally were passed along to Beecher, because Ryan wouldn't listen, wouldn't hold still long enough for anyone else to talk to him. He got himself thrown in the Hole when McManus told him Querns wasn't allowing him to go to Seamus' funeral - too dangerous, he'd decided, and too much of a flight risk. Fuck McManus, anyway, and Murphy, Beecher thinks - McManus and Murphy who'd been all sympathy as long as Ryan was sitting there, taking it. It's not as if Seamus was any kind of decent father - it's not as if he was any kind of decent human being, Beecher thinks, with a little flare of remembered anger - but for God's sake, to throw a guy in the Hole because he gets upset when he can't attend his own father's funeral?

Bitterness stirs, tight and coiled in his stomach, at his own memories, his own father's funeral, one more thing taken from him by this prison, and sometimes he wonders if he's bled enough, if any of them have bled enough for their sins, if there's any kind of redemption and whose blood they really have to be washed in to achieve it. Beecher can remember his own withdrawal, the ice-cold shell he built around himself in the wake of Chris's betrayal, can remember the way that shell fractured and sheared away, bit by bit, under the slippery-slide of hot blood in his hands - Schillinger's, Keller's, Beecher's own, from his wounds and those of his father, his son, his brother.

Hell is other people, all right - it's what happens to other people, what happens to the people you love. What you do to the people you love.

Ryan - he's lost Cyril, he's lost Gloria, and now he's lost Seamus, and maybe he's to blame for a lot of that, but not for all of it, and Seamus is to blame, too, and Beecher's got enough blame tucked up inside him, still, like a tumor, like God, to blame Gloria all over again for making Seamus her carrot, for tying her own needs to some kind of cruel attempt at redemption for Ryan - like if she could turn him into something else, turn him into something better, someone better, then the feelings she had for him, need, love, whatever, would somehow be OK. Beecher knows all about that, knows from experience, and he's moved on, he has. That's why he can't help being pissed off at Gloria for setting Ryan on a fool's errand, for tying herself and Seamus together in whatever fucked-up version of O'Reily logic spiderwebs its way through Ryan's head, before she finally found the balls - or the sense - to cut him loose, to get her shit together.

If she actually did just finally get her shit together, Beecher thinks darkly. If she wasn't always just a step ahead of O'Reily, always, always, if it wasn't just some plan to hurt him the best way she could find, the way Beecher targeted Vern's parole, targeted Andrew, to deny Vern his sons. O'Reily likes to think he's some kind of master player, but he's still a fan of poker, not chess, and Beecher's pretty sure he doesn't spend a lot of time examining his own fucked-up motives, the stupid leftover bullshit from growing up with Seamus O'Reily that still drives him, and he's got blind spots, just like everyone.

He shakes his head, trying to dismiss his natural paranoia.

"You're just watching his back? Even if he doesn't want you to?"

The question pulls Beecher's attention out of his head, back to the present, and he smoothes his thumb over Miguel's cheek, feeling the uncharacteristic roughness of stubble at the point of his jaw, bringing a flash of memory, heat and dimness and the flutter of Miguel's heart under his palm.

"I pushed back against you often enough, when you told me that."

"Yeah." Miguel looks down, maybe thinking about how that turned out. When he finally looks at Beecher again, there's tension in his shoulders, in every line of his body, and he clenches one hand into a fist, tapping light against Beecher's jawline with his knuckles. "You know he's never going to love you back, right? Not the way you want him to."

"Miguel ..." Beecher huffs out a laugh, trying to release the sharp stab of pain with it, like an icepick between his ribs. He trails off, studying Miguel where he's slouched against plexiglass, tucked between the cold metal of their bunks and the cold concrete of the back wall of their pod - Miguel's pod soon, Miguel's and Pup's - tucked into what little corner of privacy they can find. Beecher moves closer, close enough that the arm still crossed over Miguel's chest brushes Beecher's chest as they breath, counterpoint, in and out and in. He stands there until Miguel drops his arm to drape it around Beecher's waist, thumb tucked into the waistband of his pants, stroking absently against his skin. "This isn't about that. I just ... he's slipping away, somehow. I'm afraid we're going to lose him."

"OK."

"It's not like I'm going anywhere, right? I'm going to be right next door."

"Who are you trying to convince?"

Beecher opens his mouth to protest, closes it, feeling wrong, somehow, uncomfortable. He doesn't know, can't figure out, what's going on between him and Ryan, what possibilities or certainties or uncertainties lie between them, but he knows what this is. But he and Miguel don't talk about these things, not in words - words lie too easy, are too easy to misinterpret, can't contain the things he needs to say, and so he does the only thing he can think to do, leaning in for a kiss, giving himself up to it as Miguel tilts his head, just so, and opening his mouth as Miguel slicks a tongue across his bottom lip, across the sharp edges of his teeth, as Miguel kisses him like he needs it like breathing, like air.

He rests his forehead on Miguel's when he pulls away, eyes closed, and he feels Miguel's thumb on his chin, moving up to brush over his lower lip before Miguel releases him and he turns away to pick up his things and carry them next door, to O'Reily's pod.

Chapter Text

Cyril's crying somewhere, soft smothered gasps and hitching breaths, but Ryan can't fucking get to him, can't find him in the dark, doesn't know where he's gone when he was just right here, phantom warmth still painted along Ryan's arms and chest, sour-sweet scent still filling his head, memory of blond hair catching against his face, against his cheek and lips as he rocked his brother in his arms. He turns, searching, finds Brenda in the way, mouth pursed tight and, bad boy, she says. You always were bad for him, she says. You've got the devil in you. Backing away he bumps into Tessie, tear streaks glistening on a face drawn in angry lines, and, bad boy, she says. I always knew I couldn't trust you with my son, she says. I always knew you'd hurt him.

Shut up, Ryan wants to say, shut up, but the words stick in his throat and he pushes Tessie instead, shoves ... (I'll give you something to cry about) ... and registers her silent slow-motion fall out of the corner of his eye as he spots a gleam of light off white-blonde hair. He turns to see Suzanne, sad-eyed, shaking her head as she croons to the figure in her embrace.

Cyril? Ryan wants to say, Cyril, Cyril ... and he should be relieved to find his brother safe in Suzanne's arms, but the curious coiled way Cyril's poised at her breast spikes fear through Ryan's own chest, icicle cold and sharp. He can only stand, frozen, as Suzanne meets his eyes, tilts her head to whisper in Cyril's ear, still looking at Ryan. He can only watch as Cyril raises his head from her shoulder, as long blond hair falls over his face and Suzanne raises a hand to brush back the strands. He can't see Cyril's face until he turns, and then Ryan sees the burned patches, red and black and oozing on his forehead and his cheeks, on his chest and wrists. There's a raw strip along his jaw where skin has pulled away, stuck in a bloody smear across the breast of Suzanne's crisp white blouse. As Cyril approaches, Ryan realizes his little brother smells like burnt bacon, and he fights down a reflexive gag.

Cyril smiles at him, a smile full of mischief that was always only ever for Ryan, and runs a blackened hand through his hair. Hey, bro, he says, and a tuft of the hair sticks to his fingers, pulls from his scalp as he lowers his hand. He raises it again, expression quizzical, then laughs as he moves his hand in the air like he's conducting an orchestra, making the blond strands float and dance. They gleam, golden in the gloom, and Cyril looks up, meets Ryan's eyes. He raises both hands now, buries his fingers in the blond mop and combs them back, pulling the hair from his face. Ryan almost expects him to tie it back, into the neat ponytail he wore before ... before, but Cyril tugs at it and grins, meanass grin from before, the grin that was always only ever for Ryan - the grin no one but Ryan ever believed in, until Cyril opened his mouth - and the long locks fall, clenched in his fingers.

He holds out a handful.

Here, he says. You wanted it for a souvenir. Something to remember me by, now that you and your bitch killed me. Now that you're finally rid of me. Now that you can replace me.

Ryan shakes his head, folding his arms across his chest, and he wants to step back as Cyril moves toward him, but he still can't move, can't run, and so he pushes Cyril instead, shoves him away, stumbling, and hears a chuckle that runs along his spine like a knife, slips a sliver of ice deeper into his heart.

Apple doesn't fall far from the tree, his father says, and as he speaks, as Ryan turns to see him, a worm slides out of his mouth ...
and Ryan comes yelling up out of sleep, catching someone - perched on the bed, looming over him - upside the head with one flailing fist. The figure falls off Ryan's bunk, onto his ass, hitting the floor with a stunned look and a curse.

"Cyril?" Ryan says, and the man pushes himself to his knees, leans back into the bunk, and, "Don't," Ryan says, shoving himself out of bed, pulling away from Beecher's touch.

He flings himself restlessly around the darkened pod, closed doorway to back wall to the edge of the beds, wrapping his hands around their frame, feeling the metal bite into his palms, the itch of adrenaline still running under his skin. Beecher approaches him, hands out, and Ryan backs away, gives ground helplessly, pressing himself into the corner behind the toilet. He can't let Beecher touch him. He isn't sure what will happen if he does, but he can't be touched right now.

"Stop it," he says and pushes Beecher, shoves him away, stumbling.

The beam of a hack's flashlight slices between them, and Ryan raises a hand to shield his eyes from the sudden light.

"In. Bed." Armstrong says through the plexiglass, motioning, and Beecher waves him off, climbing back into bed, into the bottom bunk, Ryan's bunk, folding himself down, wrapping himself in the thin synthetic grey blanket.

Shadows fall across the sharp planes of his face as the hack wanders away, but his eyes gleam in the faint, ambient night light of Em City as he sits, watching, keeping an eye on Ryan, who's wrapped empty arms around himself and stands shivering, cold, still pressed back against the wall, feeling the pull of it, in his bones, the remembered warmth of Beecher's touch, the light press of fingers against his, against the push of Seamus' words, stupid motherfucking words. They eye each other across the pod.

"Go to bed, Beecher."

"I'll go to bed when you go to bed, O'Reily."

"Give me my blanket," he says, and Beecher shrugs out of it, stands up.

Ryan edges around him to drop into his bunk.

 

•••

 

Cyril's crying somewhere, soft smothered gasps and hitching breaths, gasping rattles that sound too much like a final exhale, but Ryan can't fucking get to him, can't find him in the dark, doesn't know where he's gone when he was just right here, phantom warmth still painted along Ryan's arms and chest, and he flails, fumbling in shadows and faint yellow light, and falls out of bed on his ass.

"Cyril?" he says.

It's Beecher, caught up in the grasp of his own ghosts, and when Ryan manages to stand, to haul himself up and lean against the metal bunk frame, manages to fight his way through flailing hands and get hold of a shoulder, a wrist, as Beecher thrashes against the sheets, Beecher comes gasping up out of it, tearing himself out of Ryan's hold, scrabbling away and slamming himself back against the wall of the pod. He catches Ryan in the chest with his heel, hard, as he goes, like a punch that sends Ryan rocking back, crossing instinctive arms over his heart.

"Goddamnit, Beecher," Ryan says, rubbing at his chest, but he can't find much heat to put behind it. He eyes Beecher where he's pressed himself up against the plexiglass wall of the pod, panting. "Come down from there. Come on. Get down here."

"No." Beecher says, eyeing Ryan and pushing himself back harder against the wall, heels of his hands skidding in the sheets of his bed.

"Beecher, come on. You're gonna fall on your head, flailing around like that up there, and die, and then McManus will put me in the Hole or something. Get down here. Jesus Christ."

"No." Beecher says, again, and Ryan has a flash of Cyril, hair in his face, lower lip poked out, and what the fuck? he thinks.

"Beecher, get down here. Now."

"Fuck off, O'Reily," he says, and at least he's communicating in more than single words, now.

There's a knock on the plexiglass; when Ryan ducks to look between the bunks, Alvarez is sitting up, next door, might as well have his nose pressed to the wall, looking pissed. What the fuck are you doing, O'Reily, his lips say soundlessly, and his eyes are saying a lot more, and Ryan rolls his own eyes and gives him the finger before poking his head back up to look at Beecher on the top bunk.

"You're worrying your boyfriend," he says and shrugs at Beecher's glare. "Listen, it's not like I give a shit what he thinks, but if something happens to you, he'll blame me, and things will get all stirred up and then I'll have to make time to kick his Puerto Rican ass, so, come on, Beecher." He folds his arms on the bed and leans in, resting his chin on folded hands. "I need an ask, all right? Come down from there. I'll owe you one."

"You're not getting the top bunk, O'Reily."

"For fuck's sake, Beecher ..." he says, but Beecher moves, then, finally, slipping and sliding down, into Ryan's arms, a brief, warm weight against Ryan's chest as he steadies himself, hands on Ryan's shoulders, head down, hair and breath a familiar feathery brush against Ryan's cheek, against his collarbone, exposed where his T-shirt hangs, loose and pulled out of shape.

"Here, come on, sit down," he says, pulling Beecher to the edge of the bunk, blanket scratchy under the palm of one hand as he leans in, studying Beecher's face, and he remembers Beecher unblinking in the dim Em City light, wrapped in this blanket, on this bed.

Beecher looks back at him, chest still heaving, trying to pull in air, gasping, and there's something behind his eyes, something haunted and wild. Ryan can feel his own breath tighten in his chest, can almost feel something in the pod with them, something he senses in his fingertips, running along his skin, tingling, and he reaches out instinctively, pulls Beecher in to him, combing his fingers through the hair at the nape of Beecher's neck, remembering a sketch of blood-warm skin under his lips, scratchy stubble and the sharp-sour scent of sweat, familiar, too familiar.

He remembers holding Cyril like this, after nightmares, and his first memory of Cyril is vague - a cheap blanket against his palms, warm weight against his chest, the scent of powder and milk in his nose, blond fuzz and soft skin under his lips, a pair of bigger hands reaching, grabbing, and a voice, telling him, No, Ryan. He crosses thin arms over his thin chest, trying to hold on to some of the residual heat. He remembers that sharp, adult "no," but Cyril is soundless in the memory, no baby coos or gurgles, just big blue eyes that darkened as he got older, wide and unblinking, trying to focus on Ryan's face. Cyril always was a quiet fucker, never cried when he broke his arm falling off the swings in kindergarten or when fucking Peter DeLaria punched out a tooth in fourth grade, just got back up again.

Ryan was only singing to him, and they took him away and didn't want to give him back.

He's singing now, he realizes - absently and half under his breath, words scratchy and sketchy and half-formed ... somebody's baby is born for a fight ... pressing a quick kiss to the forehead laid against his shoulder and wondering where the words and their lullaby cadence came from. He can't ever remember Tessie singing them to Cyril.

He breaks off, suddenly self-conscious, and pats Beecher's shoulder awkwardly, looking around. Alvarez is still watching, cool impassivity in place of anger and worry, but there's a hint of something there, something Ryan can't quite read but can guess at as he locks eyes and stares back.

"Hey," he says to Beecher, nudging him with a knee. "Hey. Your boyfriend is still eye-fucking me. How do I tell him to fuck off? You know, in those hand signals you guys learned?"

Beecher's half asleep under Ryan's hands, and he laughs, the sound soft and shockingly unguarded in the darkened pod.

"A middle finger is pretty universal, O'Reily. But probably not necessary."

Beecher sits up, and Alvarez presses two fingers in a V - victory or peace - against the plexiglass. Beecher puts his hand against it on their side, briefly, pressing his palm to the wall against the two fingers before Alvarez pulls his hand away and rolls over, back to them.

"What?" Beecher says when he looks back at Ryan.

"Nothing," Ryan says. "Go to sleep."

Beecher rolls over in Ryan's blanket, in his bed, and does.

 

•••

 

The gym's dark, lights down, stale smell of sweat lingering in the air, and Toby twines his fingers through the fence separating the basketball court from the weights, remembers the wind on his face. There's a dark spot on the court, a splotch of something stained and ground into the wood, marring the circling sweep of McManus' maze, and he's almost certain it's where he bled out when Vern stabbed him. His side aches where the blade slid in, so sweet and easy, like a kiss with the weight of a punch behind it. He startles at a clanking sound behind him - weights shifting on one of the benches - freezing at a soft footstep even as his heart rabbits up in his chest. There's something, someone moving in the empty room, and he can't see in the dark, head up and ears strained, can't figure out who's there until a figure steps out of the shadows.

Wanna' wrestle? Chris asks, and Toby shakes his head, tries to step away, but the fence is at his back. No? Play some chess?

I want you to leave me the fuck alone, Toby thinks, but the words lodge in his throat.

Chris shakes his own head and spreads his hands, shrugging. He's holding something ... an apple? ... but Toby's too distracted to focus as Chris takes another step forward, glides into the light. He's been sliced open from heart to hip, sweet and easy, layers of flesh and muscle parted cleanly and peeled back to the bone, pinned like an anatomy model.

What? Chris says. Don't you love me no more, Beecher? Don't you want me with you? He takes another step as Toby sidles away, sliding down the fence, metal scratching light against his back, breath like a fist in his throat. I thought I was going to be with you forever.

He's close, so close, and Toby breaks, makes for the gate, but Chris is too fast for him - always one step ahead, always, always - blocking him with a quick little Hup! - mocking, cat-and-mouse, pressing him back into the fence. The fingers of his free hand twine through the chain links above Toby's shoulder.

I made sure, Beecher. I made sure I'd be with you forever. That you would never be free of me. He leans in, stench of meat and dirt on his breath, hot against Toby's cheek. I love you, Toby, he whispers, and Toby plants both hands on his shoulders, sinking wrist-deep in raw meat, in exposed flesh and muscle, to shove him away. Chris stumbles in slow-motion, laughs, catching himself and turning back to face Toby. His amused grin slides away slowly as they face off, his look turned sharp and assessing, probing, like he can peel back the layers of Toby's own skin, peer into his brain and his heart, into his guts, divine something there through instinctive augury. Toby can feel his own chest heaving, the air pulled into his lungs with each panting breath.

Chris brings up his hand, and Toby can see, now, that he's holding a heart - his own? - as he raises it in salute before bringing it to his mouth and ripping out a bite, shark teeth flashing, lips and chin painted slick and red, and Beecher feels the knife-blade tear in his chest, the weight of a punch behind it. It shoves him back, one step, two, until he hits the railing, leans out over the floor of Em City suddenly under him, teeters on the edge as Keller glides toward him, leans in ...
and he comes scrabbling up out of sleep, grabbing frantically at air, at blankets, at Ryan above him, clutching at him like a drowning man, gasping and panting.

"Hey, hey, it's OK, it's all right, you're OK, come on" Ryan says, fighting Toby's hands long enough to get his own through the clutching grasp and grab hold of Toby's shoulders. "Beecher. How many times do we gotta do this?"

They get him down from the top bunk together, and Toby flails, falls, stumbling as his feet hit the floor, held up by Ryan's hands, his body, shoulder digging into Toby's chest, one hand scrabbling across his back and fisting in his T-shirt as the other tightens around his hip, wrapped around him. Toby rakes in another hitching breath, pulling in the smell of clean flesh, harsh prison soap and sharp sweat, Ryan's scent in his head and the back of his throat, and he remembers this scent, this taste, remembers the current under his own skin, following Ryan's touch, pulling him like some kind of unholy electromagnetism, remembers the slide of Ryan's cheek against his shoulder and the warmth of Ryan's chest against his back, the slick softness of Ryan's lips under his fingers through the golden haze of tits and smack and a soft place to rest, a firm place to stand in his early days in Em City. He remembers close quarters and unwashed bodies, heat and stink, chaos and bloodied fists, and underlying it all, the electric hum of expectation, in Oz and Em City and between them, the building explosion that finally sent them spinning away from each other, and he laughs.

"Beecher. Beecher. Come on. Sit down."

Did O'Reily think it was so easy for Beecher, either - those touches, those kisses, in the dark, before the final explosion that sent them spinning away from each other, hard-won in the face of the memories of Schillinger's hands and mouth on him, memories of Schillinger against his lips and thick on his tongue, bruising inside him?

Beecher thought it was over, thought it was done, and O'Reily seemed to think so too, like Keller made Beecher safe again, the pair of them awkward and distant with each other only until there was someone else to draw Beecher's focus, to turn those attentions away from Ryan. But Keller's gone now, and Gloria, too, and it wasn't dead, just buried like the rest of Beecher's ghosts, and they're still pushing each other, the pair of them, Beecher and O'Reily, Toby and Ryan - still pulling, inexorably drawn together. He laughs again, sharp, as Ryan guides him down to sit on the bed, and he only realizes he's still shaking when he looks at his hand on Ryan's arm.

"Beecher ..."

He looks up at Ryan, and Ryan's looking back.

Chapter Text

O'Reily tips a wink at him on the way out of the cafeteria, cocky motherfucker, and Alvarez rolls his eyes. There's no telling what kind of mierda O'Reily spouts during Confession, and he can't possibly tell Father Mukada half of what he actually does. The sacerdotico never seems half as traumatized as he'd have to be, if he'd heard that kind of rundown.

Miguel isn't sure how seriously O'Reily takes any of these weekly Confessional jaunts, every Saturday afternoon, in preparation for Mukada's Sunday Mass. Miguel's seen him kiss that cross he wears around his neck the same way Tía Lucia used to kiss hers, only she meant it. O'Reily means it, too, in some superstitious way, Miguel thinks, but in the same way you touch wood or walk out of a room right foot first or hang the Virgin over the front door. O'Reily's sitting in Sunday Mass every week for something to do, some break in the routine, three seats over and two rows up from Miguel, Pup at his side as fidgety as Cyril used to be, only there because O'Reily insisted, for some reason Miguel can't fathom - superstition or routine or maybe even defiance. O'Reily left God by the wayside a long time ago. Miguel did too, maybe, sometime around when he sliced himself open, memory still lingering of a fragile skull cradled in the palm of his hand and his son's dark eyes looking up at him, when God wasn't anywhere to be found, when he realized God left him, first.

Miguel still believes in God, but whatever defiance and anger O'Reily carries around in the wake of God's abandonment, they burnt out of Miguel a long time ago, and most days, he's just tired. Now, he just wants to get by with as little damage as possible, to himself and to the world around him, and so he turns to God's earthly representative, instead, hoping for some good advice, since he's given up on being guided by grace.

He sits down, back to Father Mukada, in the big empty cafeteria, halfway between the serving line and the stage, far enough away that the guys still waiting in line at the door can't hear them, where tables have been pushed to walls and chairs folded to make room for two seats in the middle of the broad, empty swathe of concrete floor. He sits down and stares straight ahead, at the concrete block wall, bisecting the blocks in his head, diagonal lines, two triangles to each block. Between them, parallel lines run from one end of the cafeteria to the other, run headlong into the walls at either end.

He remembers this, from solitary, lying in bed, unable to make himself move, to get up, remembers tracing the concrete blocks at his shoulder, dissecting them, bisecting them, a diagonal line down the middle. He remembers drawing on the clear wall between his pod and the one Beecher and O'Reily share, the oil from his skin, from his fingers leaving smudges on the plexiglass.

"Miguel?"

"In the name of the Father," he responds, "and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It's been three weeks since my last confession."

He goes through the motions, mumbles the words unthinkingly, by rote, the same words he learned in second grade, preparing for First Confession, his brain stuck in a loop, rummaging around in his own head, like he's been doing for a while, now, ever since he came back from solitary, ever since Beecher touched him, ever since he touched back.

This new thing between Beecher and O'Reily, this new level, it makes him jittery, uncertain - al garete - and he's had to deal with too much of that in Oz, not knowing where he stands, how firm the ground is under his feet. He's still walking the tightrope, and he doesn't know why he ever thought he'd found a place to stand. Maybe he should have listened to O'Reily in the first place, listened to a whisper in his ear in a chilly wind, taken the crafted false concern for real.

I'm just sayin', you might want to be careful.

He doesn't need this kind of uncertainty from Beecher, dammit, and Miguel should have known he wasn't dependable. He's been hot and cold and crazy ever since he walked into the doors of Oz, and Alvarez should know it - who should know it better? He's been there for it ever since he got stabbed and Beecher shoved him away and left him lying there, trying to escape, to escape danger and Oz and Miguel.

An image of Beecher and O'Reily flashes through his head, curled together on their bottom bunk in the low light of Em City night, like a couple of goddamn puppies in a box - it's not even sexual, but there's an intimacy to it - to Beecher's hand curled around O'Reily's hip, O'Reily's hand cupping the back of Beecher's head, fingers buried in his hair - that opens up a hollow in Miguel's chest. He remembers Ryan at the foot of the bed, slumped half asleep, with a hand on Beecher's ankle, thumb circling ankle bone.

Thing is, Beecher's always been a little bit in love with O'Reily. O'Reily can say he saw what was going on with Miguel and Toby before anything even happened, but Miguel could see - anybody could see, everybody could see - that Beecher was a little bit in love with Ryan even back before the riot, years ago, smitten like some colegiala, like a schoolgirl with her first crush. Thing is, nobody cared, certainly not Miguel, not then. They all wrote off Vern's prag for a long time, didn't care about him wagging his tail like a dog for the one person to offer a kind word. Maybe Ryan cared, but not enough. Ryan was safe - safe in his own cocoon, safe for Beecher, then, when Beecher couldn't face the idea, yet, of being in love with another man, safe for Miguel now - because there's no way Ryan would ever, no way, with his protestations and his ruffled dignity and lightning ability to take offense and macho swagger. No way, with the voice of his father in his ear and in his head - fag, Miguel remembers the old man saying, low but deliberately loud enough to be heard, remembers his own incredulousness that the old man would dare, the realization that Seamus was counting on Miguel's, on Beecher's relationship with Ryan to give some kind of immunity from the ass-kicking anyone else would have faced.

Una frechada, a front, all of it, that's all, and now when Beecher looks at Ryan, Ryan's looking back, and he doesn't seem as safe, not for any of them. Beecher can say this doesn't change anything, but O'Reily's finally looking back, and what if Beecher takes him up on it? Closed circuit, and then what happens to Alvarez?

Fuck.

He slouches down in his chair, feeling the top edge of the cold metal digging in between his shoulder blades, leaching heat from his back, and he studies the wall, the concrete blocks.

"Can we not do this?" he says, finally, the sound of his voice surprising him.

"What?" Father Mukada sounds baffled, and Miguel can feel him shift, half turn to look back over his shoulder, and he turns, himself, to meet the priest's eyes.

"Yeah," he says. "That. See, this is what I mean. We both sit here with our backs to each other like we don't know who we're talking to."

"Well, it's certainly not required." Father Mukada hooks his elbow over the back of his own chair, baby face making him look like nothing so much as a guy blowing off class for whatever more interesting is going on in the back of the room. Miguel got a lot of that in school, a lot of attention like that, before he left looking for better attention, more attention, somewhere else. "Some people like the privacy of the confessional. They find it easier to talk if they're not looking at someone they're afraid might judge them."

"You gonna judge me?" Miguel says it challengingly, and at least half serious - once he might have known the answer, for all the water under the bridge between them, but Mukada's been scarcer in recent years, even while they were still in Oz, and some of the things he's seen since they came back ...

Mukada meets his eyes, level gaze, open expression, and Miguel drops his own gaze to his hands, fingers hooked over the back of his chair.

"No. I wouldn't do that, Miguel."

They shuffle around, metal chair legs screeching on concrete as they readjust, and Miguel finds himself face to face with that level, open look, now, disconcerted and suddenly wondering if this was a good idea.

"What would you like to confess?" Mukada asks him, and he sits for a minute, turning shit over in his head, trying to put into words what's going on.

"Jealousy," he finally says, because that's what it is, isn't it?

He remembers the list of questions when they prepared for First Confession, the Examination of Conscience - Am I jealous of what another has? Am I envious of others because I don't have what they have? Is my heart greedy?

¿Es mi corazón ávido?

And fuck, he thinks, suddenly. It's not making him weird, like Alonzo, is it? He doesn't want to be like that about Beecher, the way Alonzo was like ... that, about Miguel, at the end of it all, but also about everything, really. Jesucristo, is this what happens when you turn gay? Because he's having some second thoughts, now, about this whole fucking other guys thing, if it's going to turn him into this kind of crazy pathetic motherfucker.

"Miguel," Father Mukada finally says, and Miguel looks back at him from his sightless study of the empty stage. "Would you like to go on?"

He's got that look on his face - kind, that's the only way Miguel's ever thought to describe it, like he actually cares, and Miguel's a sucker for that shit, responds to it, when he's not out of his mind with fear or uncertainty or drugs or whatever whacked out chemistry gets unbalanced in his brain when he doesn't have his meds. Sometimes, even when he is.

Of course he responds to it. That's what got him into this position in the first place, isn't it?

"Do you think every life is precious?" he asks.

"Of course." There's no hesitation in Mukada's answer, and Miguel nods his head, looks away again.

Of course.

"Miguel?" There's the barest hint of uncertainty in Mukada's voice, now.

"A third wheel," Miguel says. "That's what people say, but that's stupid. If you've only got two wheels, if you're only supposed to have two wheels, that's a bicycle, and you can get a lot further in a car than you can on a bicycle, and you need four wheels for that, right? No, it's like ... it's gotta be three."

"All right."

"I've been trying to figure it out, and I thought about it like a tripod, you know? Like three legs holding everything up?" Miguel leans forward in his seat, hands sketching shapes in the air. "But that's not it, that's not right. It's like that thing in math class, that theory, you remember? About triangles and their sides and how, when you add them up, they're never equal. About how, when you add two of the sides together, they're longer than the third side. Together, they're - how did they put it? Greater than the third side. See, I thought about it, and I thought about it. I spent time in solitary, drawing triangles on the walls. I think I was already trying to work it out in my head."

Mukada moves, small, aborted, like he's going to reach out and touch, before he stops himself. He folds his hands in his lap, looking down at them, sitting quietly for a minute while Miguel watches him, something in his face Miguel can't quite read.

"The Triangle Inequality Theorem," he finally says, and Miguel gets the sense he's picking his words carefully, shaping them in his mind before he allows them out. "If it wasn't true, it wouldn't be a triangle. If the length of those two lines, together, wasn't greater than the third line, by itself, than the first two wouldn't meet and form a corner."

"OK."

Mukada holds up both hands, index fingers and thumbs forming a triangle to demonstrate, pulling his thumbs apart to approximate lengthening the line between them, pulling the tips of his two index fingers apart, before he continues.

"They wouldn't be able to prop each other up. They'd just fall down on top of the third line without ever touching each other. And then you'd just have a line. On top of a line, on top of a line. I don't know that I'd want to be the line on the bottom."

"Yeah?"

Mukada lowers his hands to fold them in his lap again, a smile quirking at one corner of his mouth, even though Miguel thinks there's something in his eyes that he can't quite figure out, sadness or regret or something.

"The thing to remember, Miguel, is that it's true for all three sides," he says. "The first side and the third side - they're more, together, than the second side. The second side and the third side - they're more, together, than the first side."

Miguel nods, Mukada mirroring the motion.

"OK?" Mukada asks.

"Yeah?"

"OK. Now listen, Miguel. For your penance, I want you to go to the library, all right? We should have some math textbooks in there, even if we haven't been able to start GED classes up again. And if they don't have what you need, I want to you to schedule some time in the computer lab. I want you to research something called Fermat's point, all right?"

"Fer ... what?"

Mukada fishes a pen out of his pocket, spells out the words while Miguel writes them across his palm. Miguel stares at him for a minute after handing back the pen.

"OK?" Mukada asks, again, finally.

"OK. But, that's it?"

"You want more?" Mukada does grin, now. "OK, fine. Ten Hail Marys and a Profession of Faith. All right?"

"Yeah. OK." Miguel's still not sure about this, but Mukada seems convinced.

"So, is there anything else you want to talk about?"

"I ... no. That's all."

"You're sure?" Mukada's peering at him, head tilted like he can dig out whatever's sitting behind Miguel's eyes.

"No, that's ... That's good. I'm good. If I forgot anything, I can always come back next week, right? It's not like I'm going anywhere."

He recites the Act of Contrition by rote, mind still busy turning over Mukada's words. At some point, he realizes he's slipped into Spanish, the cadences of grade school rolling over his tongue: Propongo firmamente, con tu gracia, enmendar y evitar las ocasiones próximas de pecado, confesarme y cumplir la penitencia. Confío en que me perdonarás, por tu infinita misericordia. He catches Mukada whispering along with him, words that he almost recognizes, the sound of them slightly off: ... adiuvánte grátia tua ... peccandíque occasiónes próximas fugitúrum ...

When Mukada offers absolution - give you pardon and peace ... absolve you from your sins ... - he takes the opportunity to lay a hand on Miguel's shoulder, and Miguel has to look down again from that open gaze as he makes the final sign of the cross.

"Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good," Mukada says, completing the ritual. "Go in peace, Miguel."

He lays his hand on Miguel's head in a benediction, and Miguel's reminded suddenly of an empty classroom, dust motes dancing in sunlight, and Alicia Hinden's touch.

 

•••

 

Prisoner #04S165, Luis Sandoval. Convicted: February 10, 2004. Aggravated assault in the first degree, attempted murder, parole violation. Sentence: 12 years. Up for parole in eight.

Beecher tries to ignore him, but he's lounging in the doorway of Sister Pete's office, shadowed by Turner, gaze heavy and distracting as Beecher tries to concentrate on the dates and information he's tapping into the computer, and he's got the ghost of a smile on his face, like he finds the whole situation terribly amusing, like Beecher's some kind of private joke to him. Beecher catches himself slamming a file folder into a drawer and can understand why this works so well on Pup, how Sandoval seems to work his way, jagged, under Novak's skin. Beecher's seen the two of them circling each other in Em City, like dogs at the edge of adjoining territories, this same sharp edge of dark amusement under Sandoval's baiting and a barely leashed violence under Pup's response.

Sandoval's temperamental, Beecher knows, prone to shit-disturbing and quick to take offense, striking lightning fast, like the snake inked on his arm. He's thin and wiry, a lot of goddamn trouble packed into a small frame, but smooth-skinned and smooth talking, fine features in a baby face that belies his years - more than a dozen of them in and out of prison since he was 17 - saved from any camouflaging air of innocence by the sharp look in his dark eyes. Beecher looks over at the fall of dark lashes against his cheek as Sandoval picks at a ragged edge on the bottom of his T-shirt, and he wonders if Torquemada has had him on his knees yet, on his back, if he's run fingers and tongue over the stylized sun on Sandoval's back, over the serpent that spirals from shoulder to wrist on his left arm.

Beecher knows Sandoval is still Torqemada's eyes and ears and hands in Em City. He displays his irritation at being pushed out of control of the tits trade like another tattoo inked on his skin, taking it out on whoever gets in his path, not just the wiseguys who turned on him or the homeboys who pushed him out to take what he seems to think of as his rightful place. Beecher knows he's come to blows with Santino a couple of times, too, over El Norte politics or drug supplies or whatever internal power struggles are going on among the Latino contingent in Em City, power plays Beecher can see Miguel watching intently, although he stands aside, and Beecher can feel the change in the air of the room, shifting currents of tension and electricity evident before he even looks up again, and he's unsurprised to find Miguel edging his way through the door for his afternoon appointment with Sister Pete, carefully avoiding even an accidental touch from Sandoval as he slips by him.

"Alonzo dice, 'Hola,'" Sandoval says, and he crosses his arms over his chest and grins, sharp, tilting his head as he holds Miguel's gaze, and Beecher's half-turned in his chair now, poised for he doesn't know what.

"Yeah, you tell Alonzo 'Hi,' back," Miguel says, as he backs into the room, never taking his eyes off Sandoval, not turning his back on him.

"He'd like to talk to you, I think," Sandoval says, and his grin gets sharper.

"We'll have to make an appointment, then," Miguel says, and Sandoval laughs, throwing his head back, still sounding amused.

"Y tú," he says, and he's turned his head to face Beecher but his eyes are still on Miguel, teeth as sharp as his smile, as his words, as his eyes. "¿Cómo está tu neuvo novio?"

Beecher thinks he's probably not supposed to get that, is pretty sure it's for Miguel, but he's picked up enough Spanish, from Miguel's mumbled words and Andrade's tutelage, that he's pretty sure what Sandoval is asking. He looks between them, taking in the quirk at the corner of Sandoval's mouth, the tightening in the lines of Miguel's face, of his body, and he curls his fingers into his palms, fighting the urge to press cool fingers at the hinge of his jaw, to smooth out that tension.

"Miguel, you're early," Sister Pete says, stopping in the doorway, "and hello, Luis." She sounds inquisitive, like she wants to know what he's doing there, and yeah, Beecher's wondering the same thing, now.

"They told me I had an appointment with you, but someone must'a had their wires crossed, Sister." Sandoval lays a hand on his chest, tilting his head at her, and he's utterly charming, and Beecher suddenly remembers that - among other things he's been arrested for in his criminal history - he pimped his girlfriend. Beecher shoves down a sudden thought of Hank Schillinger.

"Well, I'll tell you what," Sister Pete says, considering, eyes taking in the trio in her office. "Luis, you come with me, while I freshen up my coffee, and we'll talk about setting up a time for you. Are you almost finished, Tobias? I can't have you in here during a session."

She turns away, and Sandoval looks over at Miguel a last time before he follows.

"Hable con Torquemada," he says. "Sería bueno. Para los dos, ahora.."

"Talk to Alonzo," Miguel mutters under his breath. "Yeah, I'm sure it would be just great for both of us, now."

Beecher's still trying to puzzle out the sudden seriousness in Sandoval's expression when Sister Pete sticks her head back around the doorjamb.

"Behave yourselves," she says, and then she's gone again, and Beecher turns to Miguel, who's propped himself against the edge of Sister Pete's desk, arms crossed over his chest, studying his shoes.

"Hey," Beecher says.

"Hey," Miguel says, looking up, and he seems preoccupied, half stuck in his head somehow, but he quirks the corner of his mouth at Beecher.

Beecher taps out a couple more numbers before saving the file he's working on and shutting down the computer, leaving it to go lean against the desk beside Miguel, mirroring him, legs splayed out in front of himself, arms crossed over his chest, and bumping him with a shoulder.

"Hey," he says, again, and he makes a quick interrogative in the air with one hand - Everything OK?

"Everything's fine," Miguel says, rubbing one hand up his arm to scratch at a shoulder. "It's ..."

He breaks off, dropping his gaze to the floor again, and now Beecher's starting to get worried. Usually, if you push Miguel like this, he gets impatient, irritated at the fussing, and pushes you away, but now he's just ... standing there, looking a little bit lost.

Beecher throws a quick glance at the door, at Turner still standing bored guard in the hallway, leaning against the wall and staring blankly down the corridor, and then he turns to face Miguel, resting one hip against the desk, leaning on one hand, leaning in so that his chest presses solid against Miguel's shoulder, studying his face in the warm afternoon sunlight coming in cross-hatched through the mesh screen in the window.

"What?" he says, low but fierce, determined now to find out what's going on, if he has to drag it out of Miguel with his fingernails.

"It's OK, you know," Miguel says, glancing over at him, a quick tilt of a look before he goes back to studying his shoes. "I mean, it will be OK."

"You're going to have to tell me what you're talking about here, all right?" Beecher says, and he huffs out a little nervous laugh, ducking his head, trying to meet Miguel's eyes. "I'm getting a little bit worried, here ... Miguel?"

"I just want you to know that I'm not going to get in the way, all right?"

"What are you talking about, not getting in the way of ..." Beecher shakes his head, trying to puzzle out what's going on, what he's missed. "What are you ... Miguel, are you breaking up with me?"

He nudges Miguel's elbow as he makes the joke, but there's no response, and Miguel's still looking down at his feet, arms still crossed over his chest, tension in the lines of his body, and it hits Beecher.

"Holy shit," he says, dumbfounded, feeling a little bit like someone actually hit him in the back of the head with a board. "You are trying to end this."

"Beecher ..." Miguel starts.

"No. What the fuck? What are you doing?"

"It's not that ... I'm not stupid," Miguel says, looking up at him, words a little bit heated, a little impatient, finally breaking out of that dead calm that worried Beecher so much, reminded him of detox and the aftermath of solitary. "You've always been a little bit in love with him. Keller may have been the guy you loved most, but he wasn't the guy you loved first."

He's never going to love you ... not the way you want him to, Miguel's voice says, in Beecher's head, and How's your new boyfriend?, Sandoval asks, and oh, Beecher thinks. Oh.

"Wait," he says, out loud. "Are you talking about O'Reily? Is that why you're all ..." He waves a hand around, a bubble of hysterical amusement rising in his chest, and then he laughs out loud. He can't help it. He can't do anything else.

He can tell it's not at all the response Alvarez wanted, the response he expected when he ... what? Decided to be fucking chivalrous or noble or some such shit, take some kind of hard decision out of Beecher's poor little hands, step back to leave Beecher free for Ryan to take over like he's some kind of goddamn prize? He thinks about cities falling inside walls breached by treachery, kings at war with each other, tearing apart anyone who stood in their way, thinks about his certainty, his surety that Alvarez is damaged but he's not dangerous, not to Beecher, that Alvarez isn't going to choke the life out of him in an effort to hold on to him, and he laughs again, this time, the sound sharp and bitter, like a blade twisting free. Yeah, this is so much more civilized isn't it, a polite handing over of the goods?

He'll never love you ... not the way you want him to.

Neither of them looks at him the way the others do, he knows, neither of them looks at him like he's some kind of trophy, like a status symbol, like they've got something to prove. Neither of them wants him like that - but he's not entirely sure how much either of them really does want him, when he bothers to think about it, when he lets himself think about it.

For fuck's sake, he thinks. O'Reily still writes Gloria a letter every goddamn week, and it's not like Alvarez ever actually chose him. Alvarez stayed with Torquemada while running around with Beecher on the side, or whatever the fuck they were doing at that stupid, clueless point, and then he rolled on Alonzo to get himself out of solitary. He'd better not ever act like that decision had anything to do with Beecher, with choosing Beecher over Torquemada, with choosing Beecher at all. He chose getting out of solitary over Torquemada, chose his own skin - literally, in some ways - over Alonzo, and Beecher can understand that, but he's got no illusions about it, either. Alvarez did it for himself. Hell, Beecher thinks, if Alonzo hadn't pushed the issue, they'd probably all three still be in the same state of suspended animation, suspended expectation, holding their collective breath, wondering when the next shoe was going to drop. And the next one, and the next.

Beecher's spent all this time feeling like everybody's goddamn mistress - never quite good enough for polite company, never what they're really looking for, never what they'd really want if they had a choice - although he supposes that's better than feeling like everybody's prag. Still, if he was the old Beecher, instead of new, Zen Beecher, or whatever he's been working at being, he'd probably be kind of ... pissed? Yeah, pissed off, he decides. Pissed off that Alvarez is calling his commitment into question, here.

Instead, he's just going to be fucking amused, OK? It doesn't seem quite as unproductive.

"You're a dumbass," he says, looking over at Miguel.

"Never mind," Miguel says, turning away, toward the far wall of Pete's office, and Beecher reaches out to grab him by the elbow, tugging at him, turning him back and stepping into him, and he's always amazed at how small Miguel actually is, when he somehow takes up so much space.

"Wait," he says, and he slides his hand down from Miguel's elbow to his wrist, pressing his thumb into the hollow there, smoothing over the thin skin on the inside and thinking maybe he can feel Miguel's pulse, his heartbeat, under his touch. "Listen. Miguel ... don't be stupid about this, OK? I think you're making too much out of it, but even if it was true, even if ... even if O'Reily was the first man I fell in love with, would it matter?"

"What do you mean, would it matter?" Miguel says, sounding baffled, impatient, and he's studying Beecher now, trying to read something in Beecher's face, in his eyes, and Beecher tries to hold still under the scrutiny and searches for the words he needs, as carefully as he ever crafted a legal brief or a closing argument.

He has to let Miguel know this, has to make him understand, has to tell him that Beecher may have loved Ryan first and Chris most, but he loves Miguel ... best, he finally decides, struggling to articulate it, even to himself. Being with Miguel makes him a better person, and even if Miguel didn't choose him, he's still what's best for Toby.

"It doesn't matter," he finally says, daring to lace his fingers through Miguel's, raising his free hand to rest it on Miguel's shoulder, stroking a thumb along his neck, and he can see Miguel fighting to keep from going heavy lidded, like a cat being petted. "It doesn't matter who was first. Being first isn't the important thing. Being last is."

"What's that supposed to mean?" There's an edge to Miguel's laugh, but he's got one hand on Beecher's hip now, fingers sliding under Beecher's T-shirt to tuck into the waistband of his pants, thumb stroking up and down Beecher's side absently, sending shivers over Beecher's skin when he grazes one end of the scar there.

"You gonna be my last man standing, Miguel?" Beecher asks, leaning in, breathing, almost whispering the words against Miguel's lips, and he brings up a hand to cup Miguel's jaw, presses a thumb hard against his cheekbone, holding him still, both of them painted in bloody light and shadows from the setting sun. "The last one left when everyone fucks off?"

He closes the last inch of distance, kisses him, a wet press of lips and a slick glide of tongues, tilting his head to catch Miguel's bottom lip in his teeth, opening again to let Miguel lick into his mouth, and he pushes Miguel back against the desk as Miguel pushes into his mouth, into his hips, hard against Beecher's thigh and bringing up his knee to press against Beecher's cock, firm against his balls, pulling one of those gasps out of Beecher's throat, swallowing the sound, kissing him like he needs it like air, like breathing.

When they pull apart, Miguel runs a thumb over Beecher's bottom lip, and he's almost smiling, and Beecher can almost ignore Sandoval in the doorway again, puzzled expression sliding down to sharp, narrow calculation.

 

•••

 

Ryan's handing out pudding cups when Andrade comes crashing through the door to the long-term care section, stumbling over his words - emergency and blood and Alvarez - and Ryan sees the splotch of crimson on his shirt, still fresh, stark against the pale blue scrubs, and starts putting two and two together, clickclickclick in his head. The thought strikes him like a fist to the gut: Beecher. Beecher's hurt, and Andrade's asking where Alvarez is, and a wave of anger rises like bile, because why Alvarez? Why not Ryan? But then there's a final click, everything in place and he gets it, like a shot of adrenaline up his spine, and for one disorienting moment, he thinks he's going to throw up.

He shoves the tray he's holding at Andrade, words spilling out - where and how and what the fucking fuck - even though he knows where, right now, and how doesn't matter, not yet, not like it will matter when he learns everything, after he has everything under control, not like he's gonna make it matter to somebody. Pudding cups go all over the floor, but he doesn't give a shit because everything is telling him he needs to get there now. It's thoughtless, instinctive, he's not even sure why it's so urgent, driven by fear and anger and adrenaline, tangled up in the memory of a doctor's flurried hands and squealing monitors and gasping, rattling breaths, an arm around his chest, strong body curved against his back, holding him back, holding him up, and quieting words murmured in his ear.

Beecher, he thinks. Beecher is going to have a shit fit over this, and he focuses on Beecher's face, brows screwed up and mouth pursed in that irritated schoolteacher expression he gets when he thinks you've fucked up, he focuses on what Beecher's reaction is going to be when he finds out Alvarez got himself hurt. Fuck, he thinks wildly, the monitors in his mind flattening out to one long steady whine, and he shies away from the thought of what Beecher's going to look like if ...

He trips over a pudding cup, curses and kicks it into a corner as he slams a palm into the swinging door. He's not thinking about that, because he's got to find out what's going on, got to get this under control, got to find out from Alvarez what happened, who did it and why, how it's going to affect Beecher, how it's going to affect Ryan, somehow, and he pushes his way through the door, back into the main area of the infirmary, where Andrade came from, almost doubling over as the familiar scene hits him like another slam in the gut: bodies clustered around a stretcher against one wall under the high barred windows, relentless daylight pouring in on the scene, all frantic motion and red splatters on white sheets and white coats, punctuated by black where three hacks stand around useless, in the way, in Ryan's way.

He can barely see Alvarez through a moving thicket of arms and hands, in the space between doctors and nurses and orderlies standing around, leaning over the stretcher, but he can hear him cursing, English and Spanish, and Ryan's momentarily disconcerted by the familiarity of it, by the way it reminds him of how Miguel sounded the couple of times Ryan has ... not eavesdropped, no, because he wasn't interested, he's no perv, but the couple of times he's overheard the two of them, Alvarez and Beecher, Miguel and Toby, together, while Ryan's keeping an eye out, acting as lookout, making sure they don't get caught, even if they don't know it because the pair of them don't have any goddamn sense between them, and if he's overheard them, it's their own fault and they're just lucky he's the only one who's ever caught them, the one who made sure no one else did. But Alvarez is cursing now, the same kind of low, steady cadence, a stream of words focused yet helpless at the same time.

He yells suddenly and jerks against the hands holding him, throwing M'damba momentarily off balance, back from the bed, and Ryan can see Dr. Ranier pressing low on his left side, under his ribs, latexed hands slick with blood, and he has a disorienting moment of no, his head, he was hit in the head, before he claws his way back to the present. Alvarez's sweatshirt is splotchy with blood, his hands are covered in it where he's probably tried to hold himself together, and it's streaked up his bare arms where he's hacked off that sweatshirt. If it was Ryan lying there with blood all over him, the blood on his hands would be someone else's, you could be sure of that, but Ryan would lay good money that's not the case with Alvarez because, well, it's fucking Alvarez isn't it? The guy's just as much of a victim waiting to happen as Beecher is, and just as much in need of a goddamn babysitter, it's amazing the pair of them haven't fallen down the stairs or choked on a chicken nugget or tripped and hit their heads on the bed or some equally stupidass way to die, for fuck's sake, never mind getting shanked. Watching each other's backs, Jesus Christ. Neither of them can find their ass with both hands - with two pairs of hands - for anything useful, and Alvarez shouldn't make this kind of thing so easy.

Fuck, Ryan thinks, standing in the doorway. Beecher's going to have a shit fit over this.

The hallway doors burst open, and there's another black-suited body in the mix, hitting the room about as fast and frantic as Ryan did, and Ryan tries to grab him, but Mukada pushes him off, shoves him away and forces his way into the crowd by the stretcher, already talking to Alvarez, voice low under Alvarez's insistence that he's fine, he's fine, he's fucking fine before Ranier shifts and moves a hand and Alvarez hisses in through his teeth and curses some more.

"Oh," says a voice, softly, at Ryan's shoulder, and he looks down at Sister Pete, about five steps behind Mukada, one hand over her mouth.

Ryan grabs for her - it's all he can think to do - and realizes Turner has him by one arm, grabbed him in the brief scuffle with Mukada, and the hack's shifting his hands, now, tightening his grip, and Ryan can't help shrugging against it.

"Beecher," he says to Sister Pete. "Somebody needs to get Beecher."

Somebody needs to get Beecher, because he's going to have a shit fit over this, and he's only going to be more pissed off if he doesn't find out what happened right away - distantly, Ryan can remember the determined set of Beecher's shoulders and the metallic taste of blood in his own mouth and the dig of a table's edge into his ribs - even though Ryan thinks Alvarez is going to be fine, he does. Even Seamus was fine, eventually, right? It's not like it was the shanking that did him in, finally, and Alvarez has been shanked before this, about 50 goddamn times, the guy's a fucking pincushion, and he's always managed to stay alive before this. This can't actually be the time he dies, Ryan figures, and somewhere, distantly, he can remember the warmth of a hand cupping the back of his neck, murmured quieting words, a worn T-shit clutched in his fingers and the smell of detergent and sweat and Beecher underneath the antiseptic of the infirmary.

"You gotta get him, Sister," he says, and he knows he sounds pleading, but he doesn't care. "Please."

He's thrown off Turner's grip and is ranging back and forth at the foot of the stretcher, cursing and pacing, when he spots Eduardo Alvarez standing to one side, face impassive, hands clenched into fists at his sides, and he remembers those hands on Miguel's face, the day they walked back into the infirmary, the way Eduardo held his son, skull cupped in one palm, and studied him with dark eyes. He remembers spotting Beecher in the infirmary, running his mouth, constant non-stop chatter on errands and deliveries from Sister Pete's office, bugging Wikowski and Silvera, any of the nurses who knew sign language, to teach him something, remembers Beecher talking to Eduardo, Ryan walking in one day to find Beecher perched on the side of a half-made bed, running his mouth while he attempted something with his hands that bore an odd resemblance to the sign the Tanner refugees still use to give each other a heads-up at a hack's approach. He remembers Eduardo tilting his head, expression of bafflement on his face as he turned to raise an eyebrow at Miguel, who ducked his head and turned red like a goddamn 12-year-old with her first boyfriend.

The point wasn't being able to bug Eduardo, Beecher told them, impatiently, over chicken nuggets and cold, stiff mashed potatoes that evening. It's not like Eduardo couldn't hear him. The point was being able to understand him if ... when Beecher could cajole him into "talking" back.

Ryan thinks about Beecher bent over his legal briefs in the library, and about a St. James prayer card, and about 25 years in prison, and he's pretty sure Eduardo isn't that great at being a dad. He's pretty sure nobody could measure up to the way Beecher's built up his own father, in his head, of course, but here's the thing about Eduardo and Seamus: Even if Eduardo wasn't very good at being a dad, at least he wasn't actively shit at it, the way Seamus was.

And he's the only living father left in this clusterfuck they've got going on, which must mean something, right?

"This won't end here," Ryan tells him. "Don't you worry about it, papa. Whoever did this to your boy - they're not going to get away with it. I'll take care of it."

There's movement in the doorway, and Ryan looks over to see Beecher, finally, finally, breath heavy and fingers clenched tight on the doorjamb, standing stricken, like he can't even move, Sister Pete at his shoulder. Beecher looks from the bed to Ryan, and Ryan remembers the taste of blood and the sting of a torn lip, and he flinches from the anger he expects in Beecher's eyes, anger that he deserves, because he's the one who can see the long game, right? He's the one who knew this was coming, the one who should have been on the lookout for it, who should have seen it in time to head it off. This is how they get the drop on you every time, he thinks. All you gotta do is lower your guard for just one minute, ignore what's going on around you.

He's thrown off balance when he meets Beecher's shocked gaze, thrown by Beecher's surprise, by the way his lips move in soundless baffled outrage - who? and what? - and Ryan almost can't believe it.

Didn't Beecher see this coming? Didn't Alvarez?

He can't figure out how unprepared Beecher seems for this, and he's struck again by their stupid naïveté, by how he, Ryan, let this happen when he should have been on guard, because he was clearly the only one with the goddamn brains to see it coming. He'd tried to warn Alvarez, and the stupid motherfucker wouldn't listen, and Ryan had known it, and he hadn't done anything about it.

After Alvarez has been sewn up and sedated, Ryan stands by the doors to the main ward, watching through the tiny square of window as Beecher stands at the foot of the bed, hands clenched in the blanket that Eduardo's tucked tight around Miguel. Andrade comes up - he's changed his shirt, blood gone like it never happened - and he looks through the window in the other door for a minute, watches the same tableau before turning to look at Ryan."

"He's gonna be OK," he says, and Ryan thinks he's trying to sound reassuring, and there's something in his eyes that Ryan can't entirely read that looks uncomfortably like ... concern? recognition? pity?

Whatever it is, it makes Ryan itch, just beneath his skin, just where he can't get to.

"Yeah," he says. "I don't think they were even trying to kill him."

"Maybe they're just bad at it," Andrade suggests, but even he doesn't sound like he believes the idea.

"No. It was a warning," Ryan says, and he pushes through the doors to stand at Beecher's shoulder.

Chapter Text

Ryan's keeping an eye on Beecher, watching him - Beecher can feel the weight of his gaze, appraising, like a hand heavy on his neck, like fingers pressing down the curve of his spine, drawing the limits of his body, setting the boundaries of his breath. Ryan's keeping an eye on Beecher, has been since they left the infirmary, since McManus showed up for some kind of tête-à-tête with Murphy in one corner and sent them back to an empty Em City with instructions to change clothes, to shower off any blood.

Out, damn spot, Beecher thinks, standing under the water's spray, and he remembers the sudden shocking deadweight of Schillinger at the end of his sword, the wide-eyed look of surprise on Vern's face, and he'd laugh at himself, at his melodrama, if he could dredge up any feeling at all, anything from inside. All he can feel is heavy water pounding down on his shoulders, pounding down onto deadened meat. Shock, he tells himself, after, standing in the doorway to the pod that Alvarez and Novak share, hair still wet and towel wrapped around his waist, feeling a trickle of water run cold down his back, and even that observation happens from far away. He stares blankly at the grey T-shirt, sleeves hacked off, that's been tossed carelessly onto Pup's upper bunk, at the corner of a textbook sticking out from underneath Alvarez's pillow, at the tube of toothpaste fallen into the sink. Alvarez never would roll the damn thing from the bottom.

Beecher leans in the doorway, thinking about Miguel lying in an infirmary bed, slipping into sleep under the drugs the nurse had given him. Hey, the good shit, he'd mumbled, and Silvera had smiled at him, even brushed the hair off his forehead - a dormir, ahora, she'd told him - and Beecher had seen the hungry way Ryan's eyes followed her hand on Miguel's brow. She'd looked up and met Beecher's eyes, though, and he could see how shaken she was, could remember her hands shaping his fingers into words and her almost silent laughter at something Eduardo had signed to her in the infirmary yesterday morning.

He remembers watching Miguel's eyes get heavy, remembers clenching the blankets hard in his fists, softer against his palms than the scratchy synthetic wool on their bed in the pod, but still thin, cheap stuff, and he thinks about Alvarez's soft, croaking Hey, the way he rocked a fist in front of his chest, still alive, and Beecher's heart clenches again. He couldn't smile back, still can't smile, thinking of it, thinking about what could have happened and how he wasn't even there, but he can still see it, in his mind, the huff of air gasping out as Miguel fell, bleeding.

Ryan's at his shoulder - has to be Ryan, there's no one else in Em City during dinner hour, and Hernandez stopped in the guard's office to shuffle through some kind of paperwork, and anyway, Beecher would know Ryan anywhere, in the dark, in chaos - the sound of his breath, the press of his fingertips, like Beecher can feel each individualized fingerprint, on the surface of his skin, in his flesh. Ryan stands silent for a minute before putting a hand on Beecher's shoulder, sliding it along damp skin, pressing firm fingers into aching muscle, up along the nape of his neck, combing through Beecher's hair.

"Come on," he says.

From somewhere distant, outside himself - shock, he reminds himself, again - Beecher watches his halting progress around their own pod, his and Ryan's, pausing to dig out socks, neatly folding his towel, pulling on pants, and he feels the weight of Ryan's gaze still on him, watching him, keeping an eye on him.

"You don't have to babysit me," he says, a flare of anger finally heating his face, his belly, and he remembers the feeling of blood on his hands, shockingly warm and slip-sliding between his fingers - his own, Keller's, Schillinger's - remembers the weight and heft of a shank, tucked securely into his palm, sweet and easy.

Miguel's wound isn't deep, Beecher heard Ranier tell Murphy. It was just messy, and no one had been able to guess whether that was deliberate or simply the result of incompetence, or who did it, or why. Well, everyone seems to know who did it, even if they don't know - everyone who matters, at least, O'Reily and Alvarez holding eye contact for an endless stretching moment before Ryan nodded and turned away, both of them shutting Beecher out of this like he's a child to be protected, like he's got no more resources than Cyril had, like he can't figure out for himself who did this. He remembers the lean length of a body against the fence in the gym, eyes on Miguel in the weight room, remembers a mocking kiss blown his own way across the cafeteria, remembers the sound of eight guys breathing and the gleam of eyes in the dark, Miguel folded back into a hard chest, fingers around his wrist, holding him still and quiet, and he knows. Alonzo wouldn't have done it himself, but whoever did was acting as his hands.

O'Reily's muttering under his breath now, as he yanks on a T-shirt, still ignoring Beecher, saying something about carelessness and warnings and knowing it, goddamnit, and anger flares again in Beecher's belly, in his chest, a welcome relief from the numbness, a flash of light at the top of a mineshaft, and he stretches out for it, clinging.

"What the fuck is your problem, O'Reily?" he snaps, hands clenching into fists at his sides.

"You didn't see any of this coming?" Accusatory tone, and Ryan rounds on him now, throwing his hands wide, raising an eyebrow at Beecher and shaking his head like he's dealing with a particularly stupid child. "Because I told Alvarez months ago ..."

"Shut up, Ryan."

"I told him this would happen ..." Ryan leans forward, stabbing a finger in the air for emphasis.

"Shut up," Beecher says again, violent, a yell deadened by the close walls of the pod, the close air of Em City, and he hangs, poised for an endless moment, glaring at Ryan from under lowered brows, their eyes locked - almost like Ryan's challenging him.

Beecher almost expects a little "come on" gesture, an urge to bring it, reminding him of Miguel on the dog run at Tanner, and a wordless sound pushes out of his chest, out of his throat, as he swings around, pressing fists to the plexiglass at the front of the pod. He stares out at the empty expanse of Em City as he leans there, hanging in space, and it's so much bigger without anyone in it, without the bodies crowding it, jostling for room, for air.

"Beecher," Ryan says, as the minute of silence stretches to snapping. "Hey, Toby ..." and he lays a hand on Beecher's shoulder, pulling him around, and something clicks, like the closing of a circuit, electricity arcing between them in the tense air of the pod, a slap shocking Beecher awake.

He steps closer to Ryan, into him, fisting hands in his T-shirt to hold him, and kisses him, pushing into Ryan's mouth, frantic tongue and teeth moving like he can lick, bite, gnaw his way into O'Reily, bit by bit. He pushes as Ryan's other hand comes up, pushes as two hands cup around his shoulders, pushes as Ryan opens his mouth to pull in breath or force out words, Beecher doesn't know, but he pushes and feels Ryan respond, finally, a hand sliding up into Beecher's hair, cupping his head, tilting his mouth just so as Ryan fights him for the kiss. O'Reily's leaning into him now, murmuring words against Beecher's mouth, hot brushes of breath and stumbling touch of lips - "shouldn't" and "Toby" and "Christ" and "fuck" - as he stumbles forward, one step, two, pulled by Beecher's hands still clenched in the front of his shirt.

Beecher's pressed between the wall of the pod and Ryan's body, pressed against transparent plexiglass where anyone could see, if there was anyone to see. Ryan pulls away from his mouth, breath harsh against Beecher's lips, his jaw, and he braces himself on one hand above Beecher's shoulder, leaning in to run two fingers over Beecher's face like the muzzle of a gun, cocked and loaded, hovering, just barely not-touching, a line of warmth following his path as he sketches across Beecher's forehead, over the arch of an eyebrow, and he shakes his head as he traces down cheekbone and jawline and chin.

Beecher's breath catches as a finger grazes his throat, like it's snagged on that fingertip, like every nerve in his body is snagged on that fingertip. From somewhere outside of himself, he can hear himself, clearly, precisely: No, he thinks, and yes. He pushes again - chest, hip, thigh - arching into Ryan, who makes a high, pained noise and slams him back into the wall, knocking his breath back out in a rush.

He asked O'Reily, once: Do you still want what you think Alvarez has got? And he was mocking, a knife's edge twisting under his words, made all the sharper because, yeah, Beecher knew then, like he knows now - Ryan wants this, just like Beecher still wants it. Ryan's wanted it for a while, he just hasn't been desperate enough to take it, but Beecher's desperate enough for both of them.

Ryan, he's like glass, Beecher knows - he's hard, and it's easy to slide off of him - but he'll shatter with a tap in the right place, and this won't be the first time Beecher's smashed something wide open. He's just got to want it bad enough, got to put enough controlled dedication and passion and fury behind the blow.

Beecher strains against Ryan's body, feeling the pull in muscles and tendons, feeling Ryan hard in the hollow of his hip, and he's light-headed, trying to pull in enough air. He rolls his head to meet Ryan's gaze as Ryan looks at him through narrowed eyes, greedy, intent, one hand still cupping Beecher's head, combing his fingers through the hair at the nape of Beecher's neck, sliding down to press into the bunched muscle along his shoulders.

Beecher remembers how Keller used to do to him what he wanted done to himself, like show and tell, wordless demands that he couldn't articulate, code and sign language Beecher learned to interpret, tracing the same patterns on Chris's body that fingertips had drawn on his own, and so he unclenches one aching fist from Ryan's T-shirt and palms his way across a collarbone, tugging at the loose material, leaning in to him, to slide a hand around the back of his neck, fingers slipping under his T-shirt, thumb rubbing up into the short hair at the nape of his neck. He leans their foreheads together, closing his eyes, palming Ryan's tense shoulder muscles, soothing, feeling Ryan's struggle in the flex and arch under his fingertips, stretched to breaking for an endless moment until something gives, until Ryan gives - gives up, gives in. He drops his face into the curve of Beecher's neck, and Beecher can feel hot mouth and hot breath against the skin there.

Ryan presses a palm to Beecher's jaw, tilts Beecher's head back and drags his mouth down Beecher's bared throat, tongue leaving a hot trail along the column of his neck, pulling a desperate roll out of Beecher's hips. He freezes for a moment as Beecher pushes his hard cock against his hip, and then Beecher jerks against the sharp sting of Ryan's teeth scraping at the well of his throat, hits his head against the plexiglass behind him with a muffled thud and a curse as Ryan bites down.

He remembers losing Ryan, after the riot, in more ways than one - thrown into Gen Pop alone while Ryan went to solitary, the way they edged around each other, careful, cautious, after that, when everyone came back to Em City. He wonders, now - if he hadn't had to fight for survival, if he'd had a chance to get himself back before being thrown to the wolves, if he hadn't been alone and half-wild and so angry, drawing all his strength from the deep well of rage and self-sufficiency finally tapped in the days before the riot, when he finally turned on Vern ... if he hadn't been so wounded and scabbed over, still, when Ryan pulled away, freaked out by what was growing between them, by the cancer - what then?

But Ryan had pushed and Toby had given, curled in on himself and licking his own wounds, and then there was Gloria, who meant life and normalcy and safety and who knows what, all tied together, up in Ryan's squirrelly little head. Ryan thinks he's a player, but Beecher's pretty sure he doesn't spend a lot of time examining his own fucked-up motives, the stupid leftover bullshit from growing up with Seamus O'Reily that still drives him, and he's got blind spots, just like everyone.

They weren't ready for each other, Beecher knows that now, can see the way they circled each other, wary of a touch, until Gloria was there, until Chris was there, to act as some kind of buffer, standing between them - Chris who was ... not safe, never safe, but at least open to what he stirred up, dredging up what Toby thought he'd safely locked down. There was Keller, and a long hard look in the mirror, and Toby finally had to face what was going on, inside himself, if nowhere else. He still can't say he'd have been willing to go to those places, to acknowledge his own feelings, if a guided missile hadn't blown them wide open. He tells himself that if he had the choice, he'd choose for it never to have happened. It's too tied up in everything else - too tied up in Oz, too tied up in Vern, too tied up in Gen and Gary and his father - and if he could save that pain, his own as well as everyone else's, he knows he'd give up his self-knowledge, go through his life half-blind to possibility, and count it a small price to pay - his price, compared to that paid by everyone around him. By what right would he clutch this close to his heart?

But at the end of it, he can't hate Chris, and he can't turn back the clock, and he can play all the what-if in the world - would it have been worse without Gloria Nathan? without Chris Keller? But it comes down to this: It is what it is. And he can't hate what self-knowledge Chris brought into his life, even if he'd be willing to un-know it to save all the pain. He can't escape the fact that whatever he's got with Alvarez - fingertip touch strong as an anchor on the fluttering pulse inside one wrist and a kiss on the nape of his neck and a body curved around his in the dark, quick breath and sticky fingers and Alvarez hot inside him, hot around him - he owes that to Chris. What he's got here, now, with O'Reily, whatever he's got - slick tongues and hot mouths and the catch of breath in his chest when Ryan breathes his air - he owes that to Chris.

He and Ryan weren't ready for each other, and he doesn't know that they'll ever be ready, he can't see that Ryan will ever be ready for this, and that's one of the reasons it's so stupid and futile, but there's no escape, there's no escaping Oz, there's no escaping Ryan - this always comes back, keeps hitting him, just when he thinks he's over it, one more craving he can't kick. And he can have it, here, now, in this moment. He knows what he's doing, knows what this is about - he can feel the cold fear somewhere, still, tight at the bottom of his stomach, remembers the sense of vertigo, holding himself up, holding on to the open door of the infirmary, taking in the blood and the chaos and the sound of Miguel's voice, slurred with pain, the sight of Ryan wild and frantic, pacing the edges of the room. He can still feel that fear, the same kind of fear that lay behind Seamus O'Reily's eyes, the fear he communicated to his son, the fear of being left alone, and Beecher wants this, he wants.

He winds his fingers in the short hair at the back of Ryan's head, still damp under his palms, sleek with moisture, and yanks at it to get Ryan's head up, kissing him again, eager and greedy, little nudges of his mouth this time, little licks to open Ryan's lips. He wants Ryan's mouth, wants to know Ryan can taste him, wants to know Ryan can't pretend he's anybody else. He remembers Ryan pulling him down in the dark, behind the barrier of a mattress, where no one could see what they did with the world ending, apocalypse around them, and Beecher suddenly unexpectedly lucid, everything slick and hot, tongues and teeth and desperation.

He gets his hands under Ryan's T-shirt, pushing it up, palms spread over Ryan's back, over hot skin, thumbs grazing the sharp angles of Ryan's shoulder blades, and he can feel Ryan pressing into him, rangy, long muscles strung along arms and thighs, but not all hard planes and angles, not like Alvarez, who spends hours in the gym. Ryan's a street fighter, and Beecher can feel the years of use in the body against his, can feel some of the softness of captivity setting in, Ryan's stomach snugged against his own as Beecher pushes against him, ass flat under the palm of Beecher's hand. He thinks suddenly, sharply of Gen, standing sideways in the mirror, hand pressed to her stomach, face still soft and rounded with baby weight as Gary slept in his crib, remembers the droop of her breasts, heavy in his hands, filling his palms after she stopped nursing Holly. He remembers the way she made him turn out the light and still hid her face in her hands even as she laughed through her fingers when he slid down her body to kiss the curve of her belly, their first time after Harry was born, remembers the way her thighs spread, lush and heavy against his sides as he kissed her open, slick and wet under his tongue. He thinks about lost plans to grow old together, thinks about growing old, growing old here in Oz, and he can't help a little noise into Ryan's mouth, and Ryan whispers against his lips, soothing murmurs, even though they both know it's not going to be OK, that they aren't promises he can keep.

Beecher wants, he wants, wants to kiss and touch and hold, wants to feel Ryan's cock heavy in his hand, on his tongue, slick and sticky against his lips, wants to feel Ryan hot and tight around his fingers, his cock, he wants to feel Ryan's thighs clenched hard around his sides, wants to pull Ryan down on the bed and curl up around him, wants something, Jesus, God, that he can hold on to, the way he held on to Ryan once, the way they held on to each other while the world was ending around them, muzzle flare and blood and bodies in the dark.

They've got to help themselves. They've got to help each other.

He rolls his hips, pressing his cock hard against Ryan's hipbone, grinding into him, gritting out a low sound from the depth of his chest. They haven't even got their clothes off, and Beecher's going to come. He raises a knee, presses a thigh firm between Ryan's legs, pulling a high, sharp sound out of him, and Ryan scrambles suddenly, smacking at Beecher's hands, pushing him away, shoving himself back, sending them spinning away from each other. Beecher lunges after him, but Ryan thrusts him away again, shoves him, stumbling, and Beecher hits the metal frame of the beds, almost falling, scrabbling at the upper mattress to hold himself upright. He hangs there a minute, panting, trying to wrap his brain around what's going on, because what the fuck?

"What the fuck, O'Reily?" he finally says, out loud, and his voice sounds wrecked in the still air of the pod.

"I can't do this, Beecher. Not now. Not ... yet." Ryan's panting, too, face flushed as he braces himself against the back wall of the pod, one hand half-raised like he expects Beecher to come after him again, and Beecher feels a wave of anger and frustration cresting in his chest.

"What do you mean, 'not yet?'"

"Beecher. Toby ..."

"No, Ryan. No. Now. Or never."

"Don't, Beecher." Ryan draws himself up and shakes his head, voice sounding warning.

"What ... what are you so afraid of?" Beecher says, sagging back against the bunk frame, throwing up his hands in bafflement.

"I'm not afraid ..." Ryan begins, and he sounds pissed off, now, but Beecher's still running on adrenaline and fear, and he can feel that anger swell again, somewhere in his chest where he'd tamped it down earlier, and he runs right over the words.

"People already think this is going on, anyway," he says, lip curling in a sneer.

"Don't." There's that edge of warning in Ryan's voice again, and his face hardens, but Beecher's tired, too tired to care, tired of this dance they've been doing for fucking years, indignation and anger sinking into weariness.

"I'm not you, Ryan," he says, stepping toward him, within arm's reach, half hoping Ryan will move, will do something, anything. "I'm not going to wait forever. I'm not going to wait."

He meets Ryan's eyes for one endless stretching moment, and even as he turns away, he knows it's a lie.

 

•••

 

Novak's sitting on the edge of Alvarez's bunk, flipping aimlessly through the pages of some book, something that looks like a school book, when Ryan wanders by and leans in the doorway of the pod. He's avoiding Beecher for a while, spent too long around Beecher already, and he has to be careful, so careful. He's still moving blind, on instinct, all the pieces aren't in place yet, and he can't tip his hand before he figures out what to do. He's got to focus on now, he can't spend time thinking about Beecher, about what happened with Beecher back in the day, about what happened after, what happened with Gloria.

He's got her button in his pocket and he rubs a thumb over it absently as he leans in the doorway of the pod Alvarez and Pup share, his last connection with her now that Seamus is gone, Ryan's letters still unanswered, piling up un-mailed, now. He did what she said, and it still wasn't good enough, goddamnit. What more did she want from him? Does she even want him, any more?

Beecher wants him, he's made that clear, but Beecher ... he's not anything solid to hold on to, right? Ryan thinks about Beecher, about his fists clenched in the blanket of Alvarez's bed in the infirmary, about his fists clenched in the front of Ryan's shirt, about his fingers trailing over the inside of Alvarez's wrist and across the top of Ryan's shoulders, slipping underneath his collar, and he remembers the taste of blood in his mouth and an edge of hard fury in Beecher's eyes.

Ryan knows Beecher will take you down at the knees if he can't reach your throat, the way he keeps taking Ryan down, endlessly, unexpectedly, crawling into his head, into his bones, rattling him and stealing his breath.

You going to suck off your boyfriend? Seamus asks, in his head.

"Fuck," Ryan says out loud, bringing up a hand to press his fingers against closed eyelids, like he can press far enough back behind his eyeballs to rub out this tension and uncertainty. Pup's looking at him, wary, still quiet, when he drops the hand and opens his eyes, and it's enough - thank Christ - to distract Ryan. "How you doing, kid?"

Maybe Pup is something that will take his mind off all this, he thinks, something to distract him until Alvarez is back, until Ryan can figure out the next step, until everything slots into place in his head. The kid's played a few games of checkers with Beecher the past couple of days - when Beecher's not getting himself kicked out of the infirmary, pretending to be there on an errand from Sister Pete - but Ryan thinks by and large, they've been neglecting him, leaving him to his own devices with Santino and sometimes Peretti, or for stretches of time like this, holed up in his half-empty pod like some animal gone to ground. Ryan's watched everyone keeping to themselves, all of them careful like they're bruised and battered in the aftermath, torn open just like Alvarez. They're all moving gently, painfully, afraid to bump each other, afraid of hurting their raw edges, maybe, and Ryan knows he has to calculate carefully, has to move precisely, to keep everything on track, to keep everything running the way he needs. So he can feel the muscles in his neck and back loosening, some of the tension running out of him as he contemplates a simple game of poker with the kid, or checkers, or anything that takes up some of this biding time, anything that doesn't involve picking his way through a minefield, like he's back in that apartment or that pod with Seamus, waiting, wondering, never knowing what's going to light a fuse.

He's got too much to deal with, right now, and he needs some downtime, some time to let the half-formed plan he's got shuffling around in his head come together. There's a missing piece, somewhere, and he's not sure yet what it is, something that's still got him shifting stuff, trying to see where it fits, like one of Tessie's endless jigsaw puzzles when he was tiny, at the beginning of his memory, before Cyril, even. He remembers kneeling up on a phone book she'd put in his chair, to make him tall enough to reach across the table, maybe 3 years old, the last time he could hold still for any length of time, and obsessively trying pieces, one after another, putting together a patch of blue sky. He remembers the taste of chalky cheap hot chocolate mix on his tongue and his upper lip, remembers her smile as she passed him possible pieces while she picked through her own pile, orange and crimson and gold from some fall landscape, her fingers already rough from bleach and toilet cleaner and scrubbing powder from the maid jobs she was working in a couple of hotels. There was sunlight falling through the windows of the apartment kitchen, back when they got cleaned with any regularity, and it shone on her blond hair, still golden, and Ryan supposes Seamus had a type, or maybe he just went out and found a replacement that would slot neatly into place, once Suzanne was gone.

The puzzles stopped when Cyril came along, Ryan remembers - she was busy, after that, for a while, while Cyril was so small and Ryan not old enough yet to take good care of him, and then Cyril started to toddle around and got into stuff, pulled apart the pieces when she tried to do the puzzles again, so it took three times as long to put anything together. Seamus complained about the one that sat at the end of the table for three weeks, until he swept it off, onto the floor, drunk one night, and Tessie picked it up after he passed out in bed. Ryan watched from around the doorjamb, quiet as a mouse, as she put the pieces in the box and put the box in the closet up on the highest shelf where he wouldn't be able to reach it, not even with a chair, and closed the door.

He found a piece, two days later, still lying under the table, a piece of blue sky that he carried around in his pocket until it got dirty and soft around the edges, picture paper peeling away from the cardboard backing, and then one day Tessie washed his pants with the puzzle piece still inside a pocket and all he had left was a blob of cardboard that he threw away. She didn't seem to care any more, not until she was in the hospital, that last week before she died, when she patted his hand, clutching briefly against a stab of pain the morphine couldn't counter, and mentioned their afternoons in the sun at the kitchen table. He thought about bringing her one, even went to the store and bought one, 1000 pieces and a paper picture pasted on the box top, a mountain scene like the stuff she'd always had when he was tiny - mountains and deserts and green rolling hills, pictures of exotic places she'd never be able to go - but then it seemed kind of fucked up, cruel somehow, to take that into her hospital room, to hand it to her on her death bed, so he'd left it in its plastic bag in the closet, and then she was dead. He stole a National Geographic, a couple of months after that, tempted by the wide stretch of glossy blue sky in the picture on the cover, smooth as silk under his fingertips.

He wonders if that last puzzle is maybe still in the closet of Shannon's apartment, gathering dust, or if Shannon threw it out, along with the rest of his stuff, out in the trash, on the curb, getting wet in the rain and dirty with grime from ash in the air, swelling to colorless cardboard pulp.

"You wanna play some poker?" he asks Pup, idly thinking that maybe he'll let the kid win some buttons off of him, but Pup just shakes his head and looks back down at the book in his lap.

"He's gonna be OK, right?"

"Yeah, of course," Ryan says, slouching lower in the doorway, and Pup nods at the words. "It wasn't anything serious. Probably just a warning."

"It was Torquemada, wasn't it?" Pup says, looking up at Ryan again, eyes narrowed, and there's something back there, a flash of something hard and calculating and angry, for just a moment, and Ryan blinks but congratulates himself - the kid's not stupid, and he's learning to feel his way around this prison pretty good.

"It wasn't Torquemada," he says, holding Pup's eyes. "You don't do it yourself."

It's a good rule to live by, Ryan thinks, one he's mostly lived by, one that's helped him pick his way through the minefield of Oz - make sure the dirt, the blood, is on someone else's hands. It's all about pulling people in and planting an idea in their heads and making them think it's the best thing they've ever heard, what Ryan's suggested they do, that it's what they've wanted to do all along. It's just a matter of knowing what buttons to push, what alternatives they don't want to contemplate. He can see the kid looking at him speculatively.

"But whoever it was, they were doing it for him, weren't they?" Pup says, and Ryan shifts his shoulders against the doorway, still watching him, close.

"Yeah," he says.

"I need to ..." Pup says, looking back down, and then he stops, hesitating, before he finally gets it out, still not looking at Ryan, who's already straightened, sensing ... something, he's not sure what, something that prickles over his skin, sends the first tendrils of adrenaline curling up his spine, out to his fingers, something that's nudging at his awareness, putting him on alert. "I need to tell you something. I think I fucked up."

I think I fucked up, and Ryan thinks about Alvarez, hands and arms slicked with his own blood, a hiss of pain between his teeth, about Beecher, wild-eyed and pale in the doorway of the infirmary, about fingertips pressed together on a library table and a palm pressed to plexiglass, smothered gasps and blood in his mouth and soft fingers against his lips, an arm around him and a hard chest against his back, holding him up, and he takes two steps, three, over to the bunk and lays his hand on the nape of Pup's neck, curls his fingers around to press the tips against the jugular, thumb rubbing up into Pup's dark hair. He can see the tension in his own fingers and wrist and forearm, temporarily held in check, and he can feel Pup trembling under his touch, a fine tremor running through him as he fights to stay still, and he's pretty sure the kid knows his goddamn life is dependent on his next words.

Ryan's got no problem putting down his own dog if it comes to it, but when he realizes what's really going on, he thinks he might be sick. From somewhere outside himself, he listens to Pup rattle off the details, voice self-deprecating when it's not dull - a few months back, a janitor's closet, a couple of guys sent by Torquemada, Pup knows it, he's sure of it. It was a message for Beecher - his official, on-the-books sponsor, the one who was supposed to help Pup navigate this prison - he's pretty sure of that, too. It's part of why he didn't tell anyone - it's not going to do anyone's rep any good once it gets out that you've been pragged, but he also knew how Beecher would react to the whole thing, and he looks up at Ryan, at that point, like he's looking for confirmation, but he's doing better than Ryan is. Ryan can barely spare an idea of what Beecher would do, he's too busy consumed in his own reaction, in his own cold desire to watch Torquemada bleed out at his feet, to watch him choke and gasp on his own blood.

I think I fucked up.

I think I did a bad thing, and Ryan can remember Cyril's troubled face, the tears starting in his eyes under tangled hair, and Schillinger's smirk.

Of course this is about Beecher, he thinks, about Beecher stealing Torquemada's bitch, just like Cyril was about Beecher, really, when you get down to it, because what the fuck did Ryan ever do to Vern besides steal his little prag's attention and affection? Ryan would like to have just one goddamn day in this prison when Tobias Beecher isn't more trouble than he's worth.

Yeah, more trouble than he's worth, jeers a voice in his head, and it's not even Seamus' voice. If he was really more trouble than he was worth, you'd fucking cut him loose, wouldn't you? So what's he worth to you?

What's he worth? Ryan thinks to himself. He takes the hand off Pup's neck and uses it to rub at his eyes again before he crouches down, studying Pup's face.

"I thought he'd backed off," Pup says, finally meeting Ryan's eyes, like he's looking for confirmation. "I thought that would be the end of it. There was your dad, and then Beecher moved into your pod and everyone thought ... everyone was talking about how ..."

Everyone was talking about Ryan and Beecher, about Ryan-and-Beecher, about what was going on between them, whatever the hell was going on between them, and thinking maybe Beecher'd moved on, left Alvarez behind. But Ryan thinks about the light going out in Keller's eyes, and he knows that he should know better than anyone: Beecher's not gonna let go once he's got his hooks into you, once he's under your skin, once you're under his. Torquemada must have realized, at some point, that Beecher wasn't letting Alvarez go, Ryan thinks, and goddamnit. This is his fault, isn't it, really? None of them can take care of themselves, they're as bad as Cyril, and Ryan remembers Cyril's puzzled face, the look of bafflement as he went down, the back of his head caved in, and he thinks maybe his brother - his real brother - was dead years before they put him in the ground. He remembers a last gasping breath, the sound of cries abruptly cut off, thinks of how he didn't protect her, either - too small, too scared of his father. He looks up into Pup's troubled face and thinks that it was supposed to be different this time.

This time, he was supposed to get it right.

Ryan's the one who can see the long game, but he's missed what's under his nose, what's going on right in front of him, where Torquemada stepped into them, right up against them, so close he thinks they can't even swing to land a punch. But Ryan's a street fighter, and he knows: Whatever move it is, it's not dirty if it helps you win. He can see the pattern now - Pup's rape, Alvarez's shanking - and he knows what the next escalating step will be. He can't guess the details, the specifics - although his mind can supply plenty of bloody possibilities - but he can be pretty sure which way the gun's going to be pointed the next time Torquemada fires it. And this is it, he realizes, the missing puzzle piece he needs to slot everything into place, that lets him know what his next step has to be.

"Don't worry about it," he tells Pup, getting to his feet. "I'm gonna take care of this."

"You can't tell him," the kid says, looking up at him, reaching up to grab a wrist as Ryan turns away, and Ryan knows he's talking about Beecher. "You know what it would do to him. Swear to me, O'Reily. Fucking swear."

"All right, I swear, kid," he says. "But you're going to have to tell him, sooner or later."

"No," Novak says, hand clenching around Ryan's wrist, fingers digging in, and Ryan wonders if he's going to leave a bruise. "I won't. Not if there's nobody else left to tell him."

He holds Ryan's eyes, moment stretching between them, and then Ryan grins mirthlessly.

"I get Alonzo," he says and waits until the kid nods his head.

Ryan nods back and congratulates himself - the kid's not stupid, and he's learning his way around this prison pretty good.

"Remember," he says, looking back before he slips out of the pod. "Don't do it yourself. Find a reason for someone else to want to do it."

 

•••

 

Alvarez has been back in Em City ten minutes, tops, when Ryan comes storming up to him like righteous wrath personified, made flesh and and sent down to earth to kick all their asses for their sins.

"You're back," he says, cornering Alvarez in the showers, crowding him against the wall by the sinks.

"Yeah," Alvarez says carefully, wrapping his towel around his waist, wondering why this shit always has to go down in here, when he's practically naked. Chico, then O'Reily, and can't a man take a goddamn shower in peace? Or at least be allowed to put on some pants?

"Already," O'Reily says.

"Yeah?"

He can't figure out what O'Reily's problem is, exactly, but come on - that can't be a surprise. It's not like it's his first time at this dance. Everybody always seems to want to stick him, it's like anybody's automatic first reaction to whatever's going down in this fucking prison: Oh, let's shank Miguel Alvarez. He knows the routine by now. He knows what to tell the doctors so he can get out of that infirmary. He's never really wanted to get out before, and knowing what to tell them has always meant knowing what not to tell them - knowing when to act stupid or incompetent, knowing how to look like he doesn't know how to take care of himself and his injuries, so they'll keep him in there as long as possible, in clean sheets washed by someone else and a daily supply of pudding cups and a steady stream of nurses to charm. It's not like there was ever anything to come back to, except Em City, or worse.

This time, though, the infirmary meant endless running in mental circles, turning over who did this to him, and why, and what it meant - because it's clear this was a warning, not an actual attempt on his life, albeit from someone who's willing to let him die. You don't gamble a piece of metal in the guts of a guy you're dead set on keeping alive - no, that was part of the warning, too, that he'd rather see Alvarez dead, if that's what it would take to have his way. Alvarez is perfectly well aware he's got nine lives, or something - El Gato, Andrade called him with a grin, cruising by his bed with an armful of infirmary sheets - and even guys who've tried to kill him haven't managed it - fucking Guerra, madre de Dios, can't even turncoat competently. But this time, it's like the guy wasn't even trying. It's like the only way it would have killed him was if someone accidentally hit something vital.

Being stuck in the infirmary has meant lying around, wondering what this meant for Beecher, on his own, without a babysitter, because who the fuck knows if O'Reily's going to step up to the job or is going to flake, again. And yeah, about that - being stuck in the infirmary this time also meant being given the runaround by O'Reily, who worked there four hours a day, four days a week, but couldn't be fucked to do more than drop a pudding cup in Alvarez's lap and walk away.

So Alvarez has played el buen muchacho this time around, took all the meds they handed him and demonstrated all the knowledge he's gathered from the last dozen goddamn times this happened, showed them he knew not to get the stitches wet and not to exert himself, and blah blah blah. He worked at irritating the hell out of Ranier about when he was going to get out of there until the guy snapped off the latex gloves and scribbled his initials viciously on a discharge notice as Alvarez sat on the edge of his bed, scraping the sides of his pudding cup with a plastic spoon and smirking his most shit-eating grin, and it was all in order to get back to Em City, to get back to some of his contacts and his network, to get some more details, to get to Beecher and make sure there were no other warnings waiting in the wings. It just fucking figures that he doesn't even get a shower before he's got O'Reily all up in his grill, finally. He leans back against the slick tiles of the shower room, already starting to sweat in the sticky humidity, and his side twinges, a quick stab of pain in the middle of the dull rotten ache between his ribs, and he can feel his upper lip curl in a tiny sneer like a cat with one whisker pulled.

"Weren't in there long," Ryan says, crossing his arms over his chest, looking down at his feet as he scuffles in a puddle on the floor, antsy, jittery, a restlessness that communicates itself to Alvarez like static, and he can feel his irritation level rising.

"Yeah, well," he says.

He's a lot younger and a lot stronger than Seamus was, plus he's not a goddamn llorón, crying and looking to milk the whole thing for a few months of sympathy, but he keeps his mouth shut on that bit. He'd like to think it's because he's been turning into a better person over the course of the last couple of years, but really, it's probably because he's tired and his ribs ache and his stitches are pulling and he itches, goddamnit, because it's been days since he had a proper shower. He's standing here with nothing hidden in his towel, and given recent events, is it any wonder he feels more naked without a shank or a razor blade to hand than he does without his pants? Plus, he's dealt with too much shit from O'Reily recently, dealt with too much shit because of O'Reily, and he doesn't want to spend his time doing this ... whatever the fuck this is. What he wants is to make sure nothing's gone down over the past three days while he was gone, which means finding Beecher and talking to him, since Ryan clearly can't be fucked to tell Miguel anything that's going on. He wants to feel Beecher's pulse strong under the bracelet of his fingers, wants the warmth of a body against his back as he curls into someone's chest, the sound and touch of someone's breath on his shoulder, breathing with him.

Also, maldición, he wants a shower.

He looks longingly over at D'Angelo, standing under the hot spray of the middle shower head, watches the water slick down his back and bead on his shoulders until Joey tosses his head and wipes his eyes and catches Alvarez staring. What the fuck, his look clearly says, and Alvarez shrugs and looks back at Ryan, but not before the fleeting thought - too bad it's not Peretti. It's not like Miguel's interested, but at least he could have gotten under the hot water, into the steam, while the guy was trying to pull him in.

"Yeah, well." Ryan parrots his own words back at him. "It's a good thing you're back, because you need to get your bitch under control."

And wait, what? Miguel shakes his head because he knows he couldn't have heard that right. And, well, shit, a small, clear voice says in the back of his head, you better not let him hear you say that, 'cause he's not gonna be anybody's bitch, and then, wait, he thinks again, motherfucking what?

He flails, as thrown off balance as if O'Reily had reached out and physically shoved him. He knows Beecher went after O'Reily when Alvarez got busted and put in solitary a while back - it's not like they ever talked about it, but the confrontation had been public enough that Alvarez heard plenty, because what else is there to do in Oz except gossip like a bunch of high-school girls or a group of abuelas on the barrio corner? Miguel heard about it from plenty of places, and someone can shank him again before he'd admit it, but he'd kind of enjoyed hearing about it, wished he could have seen it, imagined the fierce kitten expression on Beecher's face. Not many people would do that kind of shit for Miguel Alvarez. Plus, it made him laugh, every time, the mental image of O'Reily falling out of his seat, and the comic expression of surprise he must have had, because, really, when does O'Reily not need to be taken down a peg? The thought of Beecher doing it, that made it even better.

But what fucking idea could Beecher have got in his head this time around that's made him blame O'Reily for Alvarez getting shanked? Sure, even in the infirmary, Miguel's already heard a couple of whispers about Ryan and Beecher and Ryan-and-Beecher, and how Ryan's taken out romantic rivals before this, but Beecher wouldn't really think ...

"What?" he finally manages to say out loud, like some idiota.

"You need to get your bitch under control," O'Reily says again, all up in Alvarez's face, chest about two inches away from Miguel's. "I told you, you dumbass motherfucker. I warned you, all the way back at Hart's Run, to do a better job of keeping them apart."

And, oh. Huh. Miguel blinks at him, but that makes more sense, at least - he's talking about Alonzo, and it's not like the thought hasn't occurred to Alvarez, too. He remembers Alonzo saying it, telling him, you can have your little thing on the side, Miguel, but remember, we're partners, you and me. He'd thought Alonzo didn't care about Beecher, thought he didn't care whether that turned into something, or what it turned into, he'd thought Alonzo had been pissed about the side 'script business. But something's been flipped, and Alvarez has just been too stupid to realize it was him - and he's got a suspicion he was deliberately played - but he's got it now, OK? He had plenty of time to figure this out when he was lying in his infirmary bed being ignored, for Christ's sake, plenty of time to realize it wasn't the 'scripts Alonzo was pissed about at all, that rolling on Miguel's side business was just a means to an end, a message that Miguel was too dumb to read right. Well, a shank in the side was a message not even he could miss, and he's got his head out of his ass now, all right?

"You know, he's gonna go after Beecher next," O'Reily's saying, shifting to look over his shoulder, through the transparent walls of the shower room, and Alvarez glances over to where Beecher's standing in the doorway of the pod he shares with O'Reily.

His stitches twinge as Ryan turns back to face him, looks him in the eye, and oh. Oh. So that's what went down while he was in the infirmary. At least, he's pretty sure it did, from that look on Ryan's face ... except maybe not? You'd think it would have calmed Ryan down some, if he was getting some, if Beecher had finally managed to get in his pants, but he's not calmed down at all. He needs a goddamn tranquilizer, and is there some reason he always has got to be such a fucking headache for Alvarez?

"Beecher's gonna be next," Ryan says, rolling right on like Alvarez is actually paying attention, getting more and more worked up, "and hell, maybe I'm going to end up coming under fire, the way I've got all mixed up with you sorry motherfuckers, and by the way, he raped Pup. Are you listening to me?"

"Shit, I'm surprised everyone isn't listening to you, Jesus Christ," Alvarez hisses, grabbing O'Reily by the arm and trying to drag him over into the corner, away from the sinks in the center of the room where he's got Alvarez pressed up against the wall. O'Reily shoves him off, shoves him back against the wall, forcing a hiss out of him as pain slices into his side again.

"No," Ryan says, low, leaning in, stabbing his finger into the hollow of Alvarez's shoulder. "You deal with this. You get your business in order. Because Alonzo might not be my business, but Beecher is my business, and so is Pup, and so is my own goddamn ass."

He storms out like some kind of telenovela diva, throwing Alvarez a last vicious look over his shoulder as he flings open the door, and Alvarez rubs a hand over his face, just leans there a minute, trying to marshal his resources. Beecher's standing there when he opens his eyes.

"Hey," Beecher says, and his fingers twitch like he wants to reach out and touch, but all he does is throw up a crooked finger, an interrogative, and Alvarez can only respond by rocking one hand in front of his chest: still alive.

Beecher leans against the low half wall that separates the showers from the room's entrance, tracing patterns in the moisture beading on the tile as Alvarez washes off the collected grime of three days worth of infirmary life, doing his best to keep his right side dry. D'Angelo pushes past on his way out, throwing Alvarez a look that's almost sympathetic, and he shrugs in response, hissing again as the stitches pull.

He pauses at one of the mirrors once he's done, scrubbing a hand through his hair, but he only swipes half-heartedly at the water still beaded on his skin, achy from the shank and from days confined to bed. They're alone in the room now, he and Beecher, as alone as you ever can be in Oz, with its transparent walls and its hacks and its masses of humanity, and Miguel wonders if that's deliberate, what kind of space they're being afforded. Beecher studies the bandage under his ribs as he walks over, eyes sliding over Miguel's stomach and chest, and he lifts a hand to trace ragged tape and gauze, skirting the edge where adhesive meets flesh, finger cool against the inflamed area surrounding the wound, even in the steamy heat of the showers. Miguel flinches, tightening his stomach muscles as Beecher lays a hand directly over it, touch aching, and something flits across Beecher's face, an expression Alvarez can't quite dissect, can't pull apart and figure out, something haunted. He's slouched against the wall, their slight height difference gone, and Miguel reaches out to run a thumb along his cheekbone, stubble rough against the pad. Beecher finally raises his eyes from where he's got his hand on Miguel's side, looks up to meet Miguel's eyes and tilts his face into the touch, into the well of Miguel's hand.

Miguel remembers being with Alonzo, the surprise of scratchy stubble under the tips of his fingers, remembers his slow-growing familiarity with narrow hips and the planes of a hard chest against his own, remembers strong fingers braceleting his wrist, a flat chest against his back, tucked into Alonzo's body in the dim light of prison night, the scent of masculine sweat and the bleachy smell of sex, sharper on his tongue than the sweeter, mellow taste of Maritza, of the other women he'd fucked and touched and tasted. Alonzo's the one who opened him up to this, the one who showed him the possibilities that led him here, to what he has now, to what he's discovered between himself and Beecher and maybe even O'Reily, even if he can't really work out what that thing is, where all the planes and angles lie, what the distances are from the center, or even where their center is - even if he's still working to find that balance point, trying to figure out where Fermat's point lies in their triangle.

Maybe he should be grateful to Alonzo for this. But he remembers hot fingers curled around the nape of his neck and the bitter taste of Destiny on his tongue and the hard twist of a knotted sheet in his hands, and he knows Torquemada, king of the night, can't ever be anything more than a symbol of despair and a danger to Miguel. He wonders if this is how Beecher felt about Keller at the end - Keller, who Beecher will so rarely talk about. Miguel thinks about the few stumbling, self-deprecating words Beecher's been willing to say, facing away like he's in a confessional, like it's easier to get out when he doesn't have to look at someone he's afraid might judge him. Beecher tried to walk away, thought he could do it - every life is precious, his voice says, low, in Miguel's head - but Miguel's smart enough to know the danger he'll leave at his back, at all their backs, if he tries to walk away. He knows O'Reily's right, God damn him. There's no walking out of this valley, out of this shadow of death. No one here gets out alive, not really.

Miguel sketches his touch down to Beecher's mouth, and Beecher's lips part, his breath hot and damp on Miguel's fingers, and Miguel pulls in air to fill the hollow space at the bottom of his chest. He thinks about the solitary cell, the concrete walls, the iron door opening in front of him, closing behind him, closing him in, parallel lines running forever around the walls, never touching, thinks about the beating of his heart loud in the silence and trying to breath under the weight of whatever fucking darkness lives inside him, sitting on his lungs. He thinks he's going to be sick, but he knows what he has to do.

Beecher's tracing his fingers along the line of Miguel's collar bone now, a light touch that makes Miguel shiver, and he's back to studying his own fingers on Miguel's skin, face intent like he's relearning Miguel's body.

Crees que eres inmortal? Te vas a morir, igual que yo. Miguel remembers Ricardo's words, whispered late at night in the darkness of solitude.

Alvarez is all too aware that he's not immortal. He knows he's going to die just like his grandfather. And maybe that's OK. He was never going to get out of this prison alive, anyway, but maybe he can make his life mean something, finally. Maybe he's figured out how to help someone, and he remembers his grandfather's words.

Maybe I'm here to help you accept it with some kind of grace.

 

•••

 

"We need to talk," Miguel says, and Christ, Beecher thinks, nothing good ever starts out that way.

"OK," he says, carefully, setting aside the folder he's sifting through, inching to the edge of Ryan's bunk.

Miguel studies him for a minute, the moment stretching as he leans in the doorway of the pod, and Beecher watches him, the careful way he sets his feet and shoulders, the contained way he shifts as the stitches pull in his side. He wants to get up, go over and touch, and he closes his fingers around the blanket under him, scratchy against his palms.

"What?" he says, but Miguel shakes his head looking down at the concrete floor of the pod.

He shoots a quick look up at Beecher before he studies his feet again, and Beecher has a sudden flash of bright sunlight and a chilly breeze stroking his skin, Miguel's face turned up to blue sky and blinking at clouds. When Miguel finally wanders further into the pod, hands shoved in his pockets, he stands at the sink and studies Beecher in the mirror for a minute, like the remove of the reflective glass will take some of Beecher's scrutiny off of him, and he's got one hand on his stomach now, scratching restlessly at the material of his worn T-shirt. Beecher meets his gaze, wondering what the hell has got him so antsy.

"What?" Beecher says, again, impatient, studying Miguel in the glass, and his own fingers itch to smooth away the worried lines he can see at the corner of Miguel's eyes, at the corners of his mouth. He thinks about dim night light and Alvarez's back against his chest, flex of muscle and breath, Alvarez's skin warm under his hands and a sign like an "L," like a gun, drawn into the body, and he starts to get up, because the look on Miguel's face makes him want to lean against him, curve around him, but Miguel shakes his head again, dropping his eyes to the metal sink. "Are you being a dumbass again?" Beecher continues, and he doesn't want to say, doesn't want to joke - are you breaking up with me? - because the last time he tried to be funny that way, it turned into a whole big thing that he doesn't want to deal with again.

Miguel turns around to look at him, leaning hipshot against the sink, arms crossed over his chest, classic defensive Alvarez posture.

"Beecher," he says and stops, seems to think about his words. "This thing, whatever it is, you got going on with O'Reily ..."

"Miguel, stop. OK? We already talked about this. Whatever's going on with O'Reily, whatever's not going on with O'Reily ..." He breaks off, sudden distress rising at Miguel's look of uncertainty, a spike of adrenaline and fear and a little bit of worry because he can't figure out what the fuck is going on, exactly, and Beecher remembers them, heads together, remembers watching them in the showers, behind muffling plexiglass as they fought when Miguel came back from the infirmary. "Miguel ..."

He starts to push himself up from his perch at the edge of the bed, but Miguel moves, finally, two steps and he's dropping down to crouch at the bottom bunk, careless of the wound in his side, looking over his shoulder, a quick flick of a glance through the walls of the pod, around Em City, before he turns his gaze back to meet Beecher's eyes. Beecher tilts his head, studying Miguel's face, trying to puzzle out what's behind this, trying to anticipate where it might be going, like untangling an opening statement or a closing argument from opposing counsel, trying to anticipate and counter the places he's going to poke at your defenses, trying to shore them up against the attempt to unravel them. Alvarez's discontent is contagious, and it's got Beecher nervous, jittery, and he smoothes his palms against his thighs, feeling the softness of worn cotton, and picks at a loosened seam along one side until Alvarez reaches out a hand to stop him, pressing his hand over Beecher's to hold his fingers still against his thigh.

"Miguel," Beecher says, and he fists his hand under the touch. "Hey ..."

"Beecher," Miguel interrupts, and he hesitates again, looking down as he pulls a couple of fingers across the back of Beecher's hand, light touch on Beecher's skin. "Cielito lindo ... whatever's going on with O'Reily, it's OK, all right? OK? I like knowing somebody besides me has your back, that somebody else is watching out for you in this place."

"I don't know how many times I have to tell you," Beecher says, giving an impatient little huff of laughter, because he knows, OK? He rolls his eyes because he knows what both Miguel and Ryan think of him sometimes, that they think he doesn't have any more sense than Pup. "I can watch out for myself."

"No," Miguel says, leaning forward, intent, and his hand closes hard around Beecher's now, harder than Miguel ever holds him, harder than he's held since clinging to Beecher like a lifeline in the stuffy dimness of a blanket-draped bower, harder than he's held since Beecher shoved him frantically away under the spell of pain and tears and ghosts, something like desperation in the grip. "You need somebody to watch your back. We all need that. I went without it long enough to know. We're all we got. We gotta rely on each other." He peers up into Beecher's face, expression serious. "I gotta know, Toby, can you rely on him?"

"To do what?" Beecher asks, and he laughs again, a little bitterly, thinking about Ryan shoving him away, hand held out to stave him off, but Miguel looks so troubled, Beecher reins in his cynical amusement, touching his face. "Hey. You leave O'Reily to me, OK? I can deal with him."

It's false confidence, maybe, because he's not sure he can, still not sure where they stand, not when Ryan keeps running hot and cold, driving Beecher half out of his mind with confusion and irritation and want, touching him and then backing away like some kind of fucking cocktease - a hand hot on the nape of his neck and a palm sliding across his shoulder as Ryan sat behind him watching television, one finger edging under his collar to graze bare skin and a thigh pressed against his under the table as Ryan sat down to dinner last night, a hand in the small of his back, a shoulder pressed to his chest as they moved around each other in the pod before lights out, too close and then too far, circling and touching and edging away, just out of reach.

Ryan spent hours after lights out simmering with some kind of nervous energy and banked anger, anxious and volatile, and Beecher woke in the middle of the night to find him leaning in the doorway of their pod, face and shoulder limned by the dim night light from the guard platform, shadows curled in the hollows of his spine and his wrists, sliding across his face, masking his eyes as he looked from one end of Em City to the other, watching, studying, looking for something, Beecher doesn't know what. Some kind of escape, maybe. Beecher didn't trust himself to get up, to go over and touch, but then he woke in the small hours of the morning to the shifting of his mattress and Ryan's knee in his thigh as he climbed up into Beecher's bed in the top bunk. Beecher had barely woken enough to remember his own sleepily irritated attempt to shove Ryan off, over the edge, but he remembers Ryan clinging like a limpet, like a goddamn leech, and he woke this morning to Ryan's chest against his back, curled around him from behind, fingers pressed into Beecher's hip and the briefest touch of Ryan's mouth, breath hot and moist, against Beecher's shoulder before Ryan rolled out of the bunk.

Not ... yet, Ryan whispers, in his head, anger and frustration bled out of the words.

Beecher doesn't know what Ryan's game is any more, but it sounds good though, when he assures Miguel, sounds confident, like he actually has some idea what he's talking about. Miguel drops his eyes at the words, looking back down, where his fingers are curled around Beecher's fist, and he lifts his hand to trace Beecher's knuckles, grazing over the arches and skimming into the dips, intent, like he's memorizing something, more intimate than sexual, catching Beecher's breath in his chest, making him feel dizzy and off balance.

"I just want you to know what this whole thing has meant to me, OK?" Miguel says, not looking up from where he's lacing his fingers with Beecher's, gently prying Beecher's fingers out of their clenched position, running a fingertip down the exposed palm to the soft skin on the inside of Beecher's wrist. "Not a lot of people have believed in me. A lot of people still don't believe in me, don't think I'm ever going to amount to anything. And the ones who do, it's like I always let them down. I don't want to do that any more. I want to get something right."

His words sound a little bit like they've been rehearsed, like he tried to formulate them ahead of time, a carefully prepared opening statement or closing argument, and Beecher feels more of whatever distress Miguel's been carrying around for the past few days bleeding into him, leaving him even more on edge. He's already trying to figure out O'Reily, trying to figure out Alvarez, trying to figure out O'Reily and Alvarez, what's going on and how to make it work, if he can make it work, where the balance is - and it's hard, because O'Reily won't fucking give and Alvarez gives too much, and Beecher's afraid of losing his solid place to stand, his bedrock, and it's not like he doesn't know it's selfish to worry about that, selfish and stupid, typical bullshit.

And now, this, and he needs to be somewhere other than this plexiglass terrarium, this zoo, where they're on display for everyone in Em City, somewhere with some privacy because this is wrong, it's wrong somehow, but he can't figure out how, and he shakes his head, trying to shake his circling, scurrying thoughts into some kind of order. He needs to get Miguel somewhere alone, somewhere he can really touch him, somewhere he can speak with something other than words, because words lie, they misdirect or get misinterpreted, they can't encompass everything Beecher needs to say, and he can't figure out what Miguel is trying to say, can't puzzle out what's behind the words. Even at night, in the dark, helpless fragments of Spanish and English falling from his lips, Miguel never talked like this - like he's dying, for fuck's sake. This is the kind of thing Beecher would have expected to hear in the infirmary, if he was going to hear it at all, and he wants to know what's going on. He rubs the palm of his free hand against his thigh again, drying it against soft cotton, and he realizes from a vague distance that his breathing has sped up.

Stupid, he thinks, walking out on that ledge again, too stupid to see his own feelings until it's too late, every time - one step behind, always always - but he knows, now, OK? And he needs to give Miguel this, and he'd rather be somewhere he could touch him - staircase, closet, like a cloak-and-dagger game, a hidden romance, always quiet, but actions don't lie, can't be misinterpreted. So he steels himself, reaches out, like he did once before, remembering the scent of bleach and soap and sweat, the tang of liquor against his mouth and the press of humid air against his skin. He raises his free hand to Miguel's shoulder, smoothes the back of his fingers up the curve of Miguel's neck and nudges underneath his jaw to tilt his face into view.

"I love you," he says. "You know that, right?"

Miguel looks up at him, searching his face, and Beecher tries to hold still under the scrutiny, and then Miguel nods and Beecher nods back.

"I don't know what's wrong, but whatever it is, it's going to be OK," Beecher says. "All right?"

He runs a thumb along the line of Miguel's jaw, and Miguel closes his eyes, leans into the touch as Beecher's hand cups his face. He keeps his eyes closed, like he's afraid to open them, maybe, Beecher thinks, afraid of what he might see, afraid of who might be looking back at him, of who might be looking at him, at them, but he leans up into Beecher and kisses him, soft press of lips and a flick of his tongue over Beecher's mouth, one hand sifting through Beecher's hair, combing the strands at the back of his neck, before he pulls away and stands up.

"So, I don't suppose you'd like to tell me what's going on," Beecher says, as Miguel heads for the door, and Miguel looks back at him, wordlessly, pulls one hand into his chest, fingers in the shape of an "L" or a gun.

Chapter Text

"We need to talk," Alvarez says, and Ryan looks up from his cards, new deck slick in his hands, thinking how ridiculously easy it was to get here.

Andrade's narrowing his eyes from the next table, watching them over the top of a Sports Illustrated Ryan suspects is concealing something featuring a little more T&A, and Ryan realizes he's not the only one who saw that exchange in the pod. He looks at Andrade and raises an eyebrow, inviting him to get lost, but the guy just raises an eyebrow back and won't move, and Ryan can almost see the wheels turning. This guy, he thinks - this guy is probably smarter than Beecher and Alvarez put together, and he tucks away the observation for further examination at a later date.

"Come on," he says to Alvarez, scooping up his cards, pushing himself away from the table. Best get away before Andrade can start asking questions, poking holes in Ryan's plans, getting Alvarez all agitated in ways he doesn't need to be.

He drops into a chair the next table over, somewhere this shit can go down with what modicum of privacy you can find in the middle of Em City, kicking back and shuffling the deck before he looks over at Alvarez straddling the chair across from him, face set, fingers tapping in agitation against the checkerboard painted in stark red and black on the tabletop.

"What the fuck is it, Alvarez?" Ryan says and starts dealing out simple five-card draw. "You here to tell me you've dealt with your shit, yet?"

"I need to know something O'Reily, and I need you to be straight with me." Alvarez leans forward on the back of his chair, ignoring Ryan's snicker at his choice of words, intent on making it through the speech Ryan's sure he's got put together, the one Ryan's hoping he's got put together, the one that'll let Ryan know things are playing out the way he planned. He's just got this little detail to take care of, and then he can take care of business. "I need to be sure I can trust you," Alvarez continues. "I need to know you can take care of Beecher and Pup, if anything happens."

"I haven't made it perfectly obvious that I can't be trusted to take care of anybody?" Ryan says, picking up his cards. For fuck's sake, he thinks. He couldn't keep Cyril alive, he couldn't keep Seamus alive, he couldn't keep Carolyn alive - he knew it would happen, but he still can't believe Alvarez is coming to him with this. Three diamonds, he thinks, looking at his hand - need to keep those - and he studies the queen of hearts before discarding her, along with the four of spades.

"Yeah, O'Reily, you've actually made that pretty clear in the past," Alvarez says, biting off the words, hackles raised at Ryan's show of casual unconcern. He shoves at the pile of cards in front of him, pushing them to the center of the table. "That's why I need to know if I can count on you, now."

"I bet Beecher wouldn't appreciate you talking like he's some kind of prison bitch you're turning over," Ryan says as he deals himself two replacement cards.

"Fuck!" Alvarez shoves back from the table, ready to take off, and Ryan figures he better do some damage control, cool things off before he sets the next step in motion.

"Wait," he says, leaning forward. "You're serious. What do you need me to take care of them for, Alvarez? What exactly do you think's going to ... 'happen' to you?" He works at putting sincerity in his voice, like he doesn't know what's coming, like you couldn't see it a mile away, and he eyes Alvarez over the top of his cards - a ten of hearts to go with the ten of diamonds now, and the eight of diamonds, still, and double-draw, he decides, discarding a useless two along with the diamond five.

Alvarez won't meet Ryan's eyes, and he mumbles something under his breath, and it'd be almost goddamn adorable, wouldn't it, if Ryan didn't need him to come on and get to the point already?

"Alvarez, what the fuck?" he says.

"I've got something to take care of."

"Excuse me, what?" Ryan turns over his two new cards - ten of spades, eight of clubs - and look at that, he thinks. A full house.

"I've got some things I need to take care of," Alvarez repeats, a little bit louder, a little bit more gritted through his teeth, a little bit more pissed off.

"Some things that are going to what? Take you away? On a tour of the fucking Continent? What?" Ryan says, leaning forward again, shoving Alvarez's hands out of the way to turn over the pile of cards in front of him. King of hearts, he sees, shuffling through them, a pair of fives, the spare ten and another useless two, a handful of crap.

Ryan wins. What a surprise.

"Come on, O'Reily. You know he can't take care of himself. I need to know you'll do it for me."

"Fuck. That." Ryan leans further over the table top, shoving his own cards into the center and rising half out of his seat to get right in Alvarez's face as he spits out the words. "What are you gonna do, huh? No, I know what you're gonna do. You're just gonna go up to Alonzo at breakfast tomorrow morning and put a shank in him right there in the middle of the cafeteria, aren't you? Right?" Alvarez looks down at the cards he's shuffling around on the table top, and Ryan has to marvel at the sheer naïveté, the stupidity, even though he'd expected it. "Jesus Christ," he continues. "You are, aren't you? That's exactly what you're planning."

"Fuck you, O'Reily, I'm not just going to do it in the cafeteria ..."

And there, Ryan thinks. Gotcha.

"First of all, no," he interrupts as Alvarez continues to protest. "And second, no. You can't manage to kill anyone without getting caught, you dumbshit, because that's what you do - you pull out a shank and slice a guy's throat in the middle of the common room, and just ... no. What the fuck? What do you think's gonna happen to you if you pull that bullshit?"

It's not like Ryan didn't know exactly how this was going to go down, he tells himself - there's no reason he should be quite this outraged, quite this irritated at Alvarez's lack of foresight, the way he's willing to carelessly throw away his life. But he is, and he lets it show, lets it bleed through in his voice. Alvarez is looking straight ahead, over O'Reily's shoulder, and one of his legs is jittering now. His jaw's set and he's got a mulish look Ryan's more used to seeing from Beecher, and one of his hands clenches into a fist, but Ryan doesn't give a shit, because he's right, he knows he is. He remembers an arm around his chest, murmured words in his ear, Alvarez holding him in the infirmary, holding him up, pulling him back from the edge, keeping him from doing something stupid, and he sets his shoulders and pushes back from the table to stand.

"When you do get caught, you think you're just gonna get your ass thrown in solitary?" he says, leaning over again, full height now, and stabbing the tabletop with a finger to make his point. "You've killed so many guys and gotten caught so many times, you're gonna end up on Death Row, you dumb motherfucker. Nuh-uh. No way, Alvarez. I'm not going through that. Not again. I'm not going through it, and I'm sure as hell not going to deal with the shit I'm going to have to deal with if Beecher goes through it."

"You're going to act like you're worried about Beecher?" Alvarez is on his feet now, shoving his own chair away. "OK, O'Reily, what about this: You know he'll go after Beecher next. You said so, yourself. It's not about the goddamn D-Tabs for him."

"OK, fine," Ryan says. "But you let me take care of this. You suck at it."

He almost holds his breath, waiting, because Alvarez could wipe a whole intermediary play off the board with his next words, could make an entire angle unnecessary, make this whole thing just a little bit easier, if he'll just agree to let Ryan take care of this. Come on, he thinks. Come on, Alvarez. Be smart, for once in your life.

He knows it's not going to happen.

Alvarez reaches out, maybe placating, maybe trying to ease the denial Ryan can see coming like it's written all over his face, and Ryan slaps away his hand. He's vaguely aware of the scrape of Meaney's chair as he stands, a couple of tables over, scenting blood in the air, and his senses prickle as Santino leans forward across the room, eyes on Alvarez, attention suddenly caught, on alert.

"If we're going to do this, I'll be the one doing it," Ryan tells Alvarez, leaning into him, getting in his face. "I should have known I was going to be the one to have to deal with it. No, get the fuck away from me. Jesus Christ."

He shoves, hands on Alvarez's chest, his shoulder, and Alvarez laughs as he stumbles backward.

"Oh no," he says, grinning, shaking his head, putting up his hands. "I got you, O'Reily. I know what you're doing. You want me to hit you, so they can put me in the cage, or in the Hole, and I can't do what I gotta do."

Ryan stares at him for a minute, surprised. Huh, he thinks. That's actually not ... a bad idea. Too bad for Alvarez it's not the plan O'Reily went with. No, Alvarez is getting ready to face the wrath of someone who's gonna give him a ton more shit for this idea than Murphy or McManus ever would. Ryan can almost feel sorry for him.

Not sorry enough to call it all off.

"What?" he says, playing at casual. "Pfft. Nah, man. I ... OK, fine. you got me. Whatever."

He shrugs, waits for Alvarez to nod and open his mouth to say something, and then Ryan feints, takes off toward his pod. He can feel Alvarez's fingers skate across his shoulder, trying to snag in his T-shirt, but you don't grow up playing streetball with Cyril O'Reily and the Donaghan brothers without knowing how to dodge a tackle. He yells for Beecher as he goes, tossing the next ball into play.

"What the fuck, O'Reily?" Beecher's at the door of the pod, expression like a wet cat. "What the hell is going on?"

"It's your boyfriend, papi," Ryan says, hanging on the doorframe, leaning in to stage whisper. "He's threatening to kill Alonzo."

"Oh no, he's not," Beecher says, and Ryan squashes the insane urge to laugh at the look on Beecher's face.

"I know, right?" he settles for, grinning maniacally.

For God knows what reason, Beecher thinks Ryan's against Alvarez's plan because they can't kill Torquemada at all, and Ryan gapes at him as Alvarez slouches in the doorway of the pod, throwing Ryan a look that oughta be murderous all on its own.

"Even Ryan knows we can't just kill him," Beecher says to Alvarez, throwing up his hands, as they argue back and forth, circling each other in the middle of the pod, and what the fuck? Ryan thinks again.

"Are you back on the tits, Beecher?" he says out loud. "Of course I think we should kill him."

"See?" Alvarez says, throwing up a hand in the air. "I told you so."

"I just know Alvarez can't get away with it." Ryan says, smirking as he leans an elbow against the end of the bunks.

"Oh, fuck you, O'Reily. I knew I shouldn't have said anything to you in the first place."

"Nobody is killing anybody, Jesus Christ," Beecher says, turning from Ryan to Alvarez, who's leaning against the back wall of the pod now, arms crossed over his chest. "What could possibly make you think I'm going to agree to anyone doing something like this?"

"Beecher ..." Alvarez shuffles his feet, looks down at the floor, troubled look on his face, already starting to give, and Ryan knew it, he knew Alvarez wouldn't be able to go through with this, wouldn't be able to stand in the face of Beecher's objections. "This is ... it's not up for negotiation."

"Excuse me?" Beecher says, and all the bitch queen Ryan's ever heard in his voice is there now, Tobias Beecher at his goddamn worst.

"This is ... it's not like it's even ... it's like self-defense," Alvarez throws up his hands, throws a look Ryan's way, wiling to take backup from anywhere, apparently. "That's one of those lawyer defenses right? One of those defenses that means it was OK to kill the guy, right?"

"How is this self-defense? It's premeditated."

"It's preemptive," Ryan cuts in. "You know he's not going to stop."

"Beecher," Alvarez says, taking a step toward him. Ryan watches Alvarez half-raise a hand, clench it into a fist before he drops it, clearly thinking better of trying to touch. "You're going to be next. He's already fucked with Pup. It's only a matter of time. We're just watching your back."

"You're ... wait." Beecher shakes his head. "What?"

"I don't think ..."

"What's he talking about?" Beecher says, turning to Pup, who's been hanging in the doorway for the last five minutes, head turning back and forth like he's watching a tennis match - Pup, who suddenly cuts his gaze at Ryan, eyes narrowing, suspicious.

"You think he's going to stop with having Pup raped?" Alvarez says.

Ryan barely has time to hear Beecher's incredulous What the fuck? before Pup's inside the pod, punching Ryan in the face, and what the fuck? he thinks.

 

•••

 

It was ridiculously easy to get here.

Ryan's gone up against some of the best Oz has to offer - brute force and cunning minds and guys with armies of resources - but Beecher and Alvarez? They are not two of those guys. Those two don't realize they've been played, they never seem to realize that shit until it's too late. Neither of them could see any kind of long game to save his life - literally, Ryan thinks, now, as he loiters in the hallway near the empty gym, waiting.

It's a good thing they've got Ryan, isn't it?

He shifts his lazy hipshot lean against the wall, rolls his head and looks down the corridor and thinks about the showdown in Em City, the way this all played out, and he lets a smile curl one side of his mouth. Suzanne couldn't have staged that play better, Jesus Christ: Alvarez so fucking tortured, manning up, like a puppet on the strings Ryan was pulling, determined to do the right thing, and Beecher, all outrage and offended morals and indignation snapping the leash on him, just like Ryan knew he would.

He could have done without Pup punching him the face, he thinks and pokes at his nose experimentally, wincing. He'd known Alvarez would let that info slip, had counted on it, but he didn't expect that kind of reaction from Pup. Sure, Ryan's the one who told Alvarez, but he only promised to keep his mouth shut around Beecher, and Alvarez is the one who told Beecher. The kid couldn't have punched Alvarez?

Still, everything else has been smooth sailing - ridiculously easy, as usual, to predict Beecher's reactions, every emotion, every move written all over him, and with this new Zen bullshit he tries to pull, of course he'd protest, try to say they couldn't, shouldn't do it. Ridiculously easy to push those buttons, as easy as pulling Alvarez's strings, and Ryan sends a silent mental thanks Beecher's way, now, for taking care of Alvarez, for playing his own unwitting part. The last thing Ryan needs is Alvarez getting in his way, now that Ryan knows Torquemada needs to die. He doesn't need Alvarez getting sent to Death Row for it - he wasn't lying about that - but he also doesn't need some kind of botched attempt, doesn't need Alvarez giving Torquemada or the hacks some kind of heads-up, some kind of warning that Ryan's figured him out and is gunning for him.

No, Alvarez would only fuck it up, one way or another, he needed to be taken off the board entirely, because Ryan's not going to allow this to be half-assed. That's the reason he's taking care of it himself, and if there's any additional satisfaction at the thought of his own hands around Torquemada's throat, well, a man should get something out of his work. Usually Ryan's satisfaction is in a game well played, but he won't pretend there won't be a little something extra in this one. It's what they all want, Alvarez ready to march off with his goddamn cross to slit Alonzo's throat over breakfast eggs in front of 100 witnesses or some such bullshit, and Beecher ... Beecher with his protests and his lip service to the idea that he doesn't want Torquemada dead, but Ryan knows him, knows Toby, has known him longer and better than almost anyone in this prison, and he knows he wants it, so bad he can probably taste it, like blood on his tongue, no matter what he says, what he makes himself do, what he prevents himself from doing.

Beecher thinks Ryan's stupider than he really is, thinks Ryan can't see underneath the surface to motive. If Beecher wants to underestimate Ryan, well, so much the easier to pull this off. He thinks about Gloria's hands around his throat, the awful relief and release in her body when she turned all her rage against him, when he made himself an available target, let her think he was responsible for all that anger and despair, for what Keenan did to her. Sometimes, you just have to give them what they need, whether they realize it's good for them or not, whether they understand they need it, yet. Sometimes it's a bloodletting, and sometimes that means lancing the wound, and sometimes that means a thrust to the heart, sweet and easy.

Eventually, they figure it out.

What it comes down to, finally, is that everybody wants Alonzo dead, it's just that Ryan's the one with the brains and the will to do it. So he's just going to take care of this, and then he'll sit back and see if Pup really can take care of Sandoval, because Ryan knows he's the fucker the kid was thinking of when they sealed their deal, knows Sandoval's the one who cornered Pup in some filthy janitor's closet. If it turns out the kid can't take care of it, Ryan will deal with it, but he might as well let Pup try to cut his teeth first.

Don't to it yourself, don't get your own hands dirty, Ryan had instructed, and it's usually good advice, but Ryan's got blood on his hands before, and it was sweet, the satisfaction he felt watching Keenan bleed out. Ryan hoped it hurt, still hopes it hurt, hopes the fucker felt some of what he'd done to Gloria before everything went black. He hopes Keenan still feels it in hell. And now, he's waiting for Torquemada, waiting to see if Sandoval delivered his message, had one last chance to kiss Alonzo's ass before he dies. Ryan leans against the wall, hips cocked, head back, calling up some of that mojo he used to have, the kind that let him slide up to Adebisi and Scott Ross, string them along with teasing looks and fleeting touches, the kind he'd packed away after Beecher and Gloria and breast cancer, when Seamus' voice had started up in his head.

There's a sound at the end of the hallway, a low noise of admiration, and Ryan knows he's still got it.

"Very nice," Torquemada says out of the gloom, and Ryan tilts his head and smirks, lets his hips go just a little bit looser, spreading himself out like bait on the hook. "I hear you wanted to see me, O'Reily."

Closer, Ryan thinks, just a little bit closer.

"I think we have some mutual ... interests we can discuss," he says out loud, stretching the pause to lend dramatic weight.

"Oh, yes?" Torquemada leans on one hand against the wall at the other end of the hallway, and Christ, Ryan thinks absently, this guy's legs go on for days.

"Yeah," Ryan says, pushing himself to stand, hip cocked, in the middle of the hallway. "Alvarez. And Beecher."

"And you think I'm interested in this ... why?" Torquemada's pause is twice as dramatic as Ryan's, his tone still dripping affectation, but he shifts his weight and Ryan lets a grin touch his lips, looks up at Torquemada through his eyelashes.

"I was waiting for you to make your move," Ryan says. "I've seen you watching."

"Perhaps."

"Having him shanked, Alonzo?" Ryan whistles. "Boy, that was kind of risky, wasn't it? Kind of pissed him off, you know."

"I hear you kept him from killing me," Torquemada says, and he strolls a few steps down the hallway, harsh light from a bare bulb falling across bone-white hair, that dead white eye, shadows sliding like knives across his cheekbones, into the hollows of his throat as he tilts his head to study Ryan. "I have to ask myself, why are you so interested in my well-being?"

"You don't do me any good dead, Alonzo."

"No?"

"No."

Torquemada watches him in the stark light, waiting, and Ryan looks back, steadily, matching breaths, in and out and in. Closer, he thinks, and leans against the wall again, bracing himself on one shoulder. Just a little closer.

"Why don't you tell me what you want, O'Reily?"

"Beecher." There's no hesitation in Ryan's response, no stumbling or stuttering, pushed out with all the assurance he can muster. "I want him. I want him away from Alvarez."

"Yes, I hear you've been a naughty boy, Ryan." Torquemada trails one hand along the wall, tracing the groove between concrete blocks absently as he arches an eyebrow. "I thought maybe you'd succeeded in stealing Tobias away for yourself, but maybe not?"

"I think you know the answer to that, Alonzo." Ryan grins up at him, wolfish. "That's where you come in. You can have Alvarez, if I get Beecher."

"And how do I know you can deliver on that?" Torquemada drifts the last few feet toward Ryan, eyes narrowed.

"Hey, I got moves," Ryan tells him. "I just need you to keep Alvarez occupied. I'm getting tired of him sniffing around."

"And is this evidence of your ... moves?" Torquemada looks skeptical as he reaches out, tucks a finger under Ryan's chin, and Ryan allows the touch, allows his face to be tipped further into the light, lets Torquemada run one finger down the bruise at the side of his nose, curling a lip at the ache raised by the press of his fingertip.

"You should see the other guy," he says, and he reaches up, but Torquemada makes a tsking sound and shifts away, steps back.

"I hear it was your little one," he says, and Ryan's almost knocked to his knees by the sudden wave of rage, the need to wipe the smirk off his face. It's like a shot of adrenaline straight up his spine, to his brain and his heart, curling his fingers into fists.

Closer, he thinks, and he scans the hallway, a quick flick of a glance up one direction and down the other, making sure no one's around.

"Yeah, well," he says out loud. "He must not like the idea of mom and dad breaking up."

"Breaking up over Uncle Ryan?" Torquemada asks, and he leans in to study Ryan's face again. "I didn't even realize you swung such a way, O'Reily. I thought you were ... how is it you put it? No fag?"

"There's a lot about me you don't know, Alonzo," Ryan says, tilting his head, baring his throat as Torquemada leans in, and he reaches up as a hot tongue licks a wet stripe along his neck, closes his hands around Torquemada's skull, and then he twists - hips, shoulders, thighs going just a little bit looser - and turns, side-steps, shoving Torquemada off balance, arcing him around to bash his head into the wall.

Torquemada staggers, pulling in a harsh gasp, and Ryan moves, fast, manhandling him down, on his knees, and fuck, he's big, Ryan thinks absently, feeling one of his shoulders wrench hard against the weight, feeling the strain and pull across his back, arms and legs everywhere, but Ryan's got three days of concentrated fury built up, images of Pup being held down and spread out, memories of Alvarez slicked in his own blood, dozens of nightmare still frames of Beecher, of could-bes and what-ifs - Beecher bloody in the showers with his throat slit, Beecher in a pod alone with vomit on his chin and staring eyes like they must have found Andrew Schillinger, Beecher held down by Luis Sandoval, Beecher on his knees in front of Torquemada, Beecher sprawled in the gym in a spreading pool of blood from a ruined face, a ruined skull - and all of them ending in cold, dead meat, in a last rattling gasp of breath.

There's a low burn, down in Ryan's gut, and heat rises in his chest, curls into his toes, his fingers, as he digs them into that bleached blond hair, digs them into Torquemada's scalp and slams his head into the wall again, twice, three times - two sharp cracks and then a wet smashing sound - and Alonzo goes deadweight, slumping down onto the floor, dragging Ryan with him. Ryan drops to his knees, straddling Alonzo's body, tightens his thighs around Alonzo's sides, and he leans in, puts his hands around his neck, smoothes both thumbs up the long, arched line of Alonzo's throat to tilt back his head, stubble scratchy against his fingertips as he brushes back to both points of Alonzo's' jaw.

"You stay away from what's mine," he whispers, leaning in, close enough to feel the stiff strands of bleached hair brush against his lips, close enough to feel his own breath reflected back at him from Alonzo's skin, mixed with a wet metallic smell, and everything else around him is blurred, muted in the sound of his own heartbeat in his head, his chest.

He pulls back, hands around Alonzo's throat again, and then he presses down, presses hard into flesh, riding the roll of Alonzo's hips as his body arches up, struggling for air.

He almost thinks he can see something in that one good eye, that one dark eye, slitted in Alonzo's darkening face, and Ryan hopes it hurts.

 

•••

 

Tobias Beecher wants things that are bad for him. Always has, maybe always will.

Booze. Smack. The love of a bad man.

He knows Ryan O'Reily, knows him better than most people, better than Ryan probably realizes, better than Ryan will ever admit. He can see Chris in Ryan, can hear him. If he closes his eyes, he can almost sense him. I did what I did out of love, Chris says, just like it was yesterday, ghosting ephemeral fingers over the back of Beecher's neck, and Beecher remembers the way Ryan watched Gloria. He can see Chris in Ryan, how alike they are, and it's one of the things that scares him, one of the things that makes him wonder what drew him to Chris in the first place, makes him wonder if Chris was a substitute for something, something he was missing, something he'd let slip through his hands, if Chris was just the one willing to walk unafraid - hell, to run, more like it - into what Beecher and Ryan never managed to have.

He wonders what that says about his relationship with Keller. Was he just using him? Were they just using each other?

No, he wants to say, looking at himself in the mirror, leaning over the sink in their pod, circles under his eyes from a sleepless night spent wrapped in his blankets like a protective cocoon, like a shroud, with the weight of Ryan's gaze like a hand heavy on the back of his neck, like fingers pressing down along the curve of his spine, drawing the limits of his body, the boundaries of his breath.

Whatever else there was between them, Beecher knows Chris loved him. And he loved Chris. He knows it, he knows it, something primal, no way to stand against it, no way to avoid that pulse in blood and bone and heartbeat, no way to avoid being swept up in it, at least a little bit. That's the difference - whatever is going on with Alvarez, whatever's happening between them, it's something slow, something elemental, a bedrock, something Beecher can feel himself growing into, day by day, something wholly different from the feeling of being swept off his feet, the feeling he always gets from booze, from smack, from the love of a bad man.

The feeling he gets from Ryan.

He should stay away, he knows. He remembers thinking it - he loves Miguel best. Miguel makes him a better man. He needs to be a better man. He knows that, realizes it - no matter how hard he tries to pretend, how much he tells himself he's learned, changed, grown. He realizes again and again how fickle he is, whatever moral ground he thinks he stands on capricious and changeable, tripping him up just when he thinks he's got a solid foundation, sending him stumbling. No matter how much he goes on about how precious life is, no matter how much he believes it ... he still knows, he knows he was not only willing but eager for Ryan to kill Torquemada.

He looks at himself in the mirror, tilting to study his own face, the sharp cheekbones, the dark circles under his eyes, the lines at the corners, looking for some outward sign of the darkness within, like a tumor, swallowing everything good and whole and clean, and he can feel it, gnawing at the edge of his awareness, the craving, the need to block it all out. He rests his forehead against the cool glass, closing his eyes, trying to shut out Pup's face, Miguel's, the slippery-slick slide of blood on his hands and semen on the backs of his thighs, the images of Schillinger laughing and Torquemada's slow, malevolent grin blurring together, and he remembers the weight and heft of a shank in his hand, thrust sweet and easy, like a kiss with the weight of a punch behind it, and he realizes again how fickle he is, how goddamn unstable. He clenches his hands around the edges of the sink like it'll hold the world on an even keel.

"Are you coming or ..." It's Pup's voice, Ryan and Miguel already out in line for the morning march to breakfast, and he breaks off as he gets halfway into the pod, as he spots Beecher at the sink, spots the Mason jar of clear liquid, open in Beecher's hand, and his eyes narrow as he looks at Beecher in the mirror. "You shouldn't do that," he says. "You don't want to do that."

"Fuck off, Novak," Beecher says, closing his eyes again, resting his forehead against the mirror, and he can hear how ugly his own voice sounds, but what the fuck does this kid know?

Beecher wants it, he wants, more than he can ever remember wanting anything, right at this moment, and Novak's never had a drink in his life, but he killed a guy because discrimination is wrong.

When Beecher opens his eyes again, Pup's gone, and he fights the urge to throw up as he pours the moonshine down the toilet, sharp scent rising to fill his nose, his throat, to reach rank, raw fingers down into his roiling belly.

He waits until Arif is finished prayers over breakfast before he approaches, and Arif follows him to the unoccupied end of a table, sitting across from him as Beecher looks listlessly at the brownish-grey lump masquerading as oatmeal on his tray.

"You want a drink," Arif says, finally, and Beecher remembers Arif wasn't always this way, this calm, that he must have pulled himself up out of this.

"Do you ever?" he says, looking up to meet Arif's eyes.

"I would be lying if I said I never felt that pull, that temptation," Arif says, looking away, studying his hands where they're folded on the table. "I pray to Allah, and I read his holy Word, until it passes, until it ... lessens. I can pray with you, if you'd like."

He looks up at Beecher, studies his face, expression open, and Beecher looks back in the sickly florescent light of the cafeteria, the roar of a hundred sorry motherfuckers around him, and he feels tears prick at the edge of his vision, remembering Said and the way Said kept trying to help him, even when he didn't understand, even when he didn't approve of Beecher's actions. He shakes his head, because that's not why he's here. He's not here for himself, this time, or maybe he is, some last-ditch effort to save himself, to save some part of his soul, because he's so close to giving up another part of it, walking another edge, another ledge, and so close to stepping over.

It's not like he tried very hard to stop Ryan, he knows. He could have said something more than oh, dear, you really shouldn't kill him, it wouldn't be very nice, you know. He thinks maybe if he'd pushed it, he could have kept Ryan from ... OK, no, he almost has to laugh at himself for that idea. Nothing he could have said, nothing he could have done would have kept Ryan from leaving Torquemada's body bruised and battered in a pool of his own blood in an empty Oz corridor. Maybe Beecher kept Alvarez from doing it. But Ryan ... Beecher knows Ryan, knows him better than anyone, probably knows him better than Ryan would like to admit.

Beecher cut Keller out of his life - or tried to, at least - because of this, because Keller would not stop, because Keller couldn't see what the constant, endless death was doing to Beecher, the way it was dragging him down, hollowing out his soul. He remembers Keller's words, I kill what's in my way, and Ryan's certainly proved he's willing to do that, over and over, and Keller also killed to avenge or protect Beecher - and Beecher thinks about Franklin Winthrop's twisted body in an empty Oz corridor, about an abandoned, echoing prison - and well, Ryan's proved he's willing to do that, too.

So how is Ryan different? Beecher has to ask himself, has to look in the mirror and question. How is Ryan any different, and yet they're playing this game, this plausible deniability game, Ryan denying what he's done, disavowing any role in Torquemada's death, and Beecher acting like he believes him, taking what uncertainty Ryan's willing to give, like Beecher doesn't know, even if Ryan won't admit it. He's taking what Ryan's willing to give - whatever Ryan's willing to give - which is not inconsiderable, Beecher has to admit. He just can't help wondering why he's constantly drawn to guys who want to drag dead bodies to his doorstep like mice. He thinks he'd rather Ryan be a little more conventional and just want to fuck him.

He snorts out a laugh and shakes his head when Arif tilts a questioning look at him.

He's actually pretty sure Ryan wants to fuck him. He wishes Ryan was willing to fuck him.

He still wants it, still wants Ryan, and that makes him a hypocrite, doesn't it? A hypocrite who has some kind of ethics right up until someone pisses him off, and then he just lets them get taken down. Taken out. Taken down and out.

God, he thinks. He wants. He wants a drink. There's a stab of regret, somewhere in his chest and the back of his brain and over his tongue, at the back of his mouth, as he thinks about a pint of perfectly good moonshine poured down the toilet.

"I don't need your prayers, Arif," he says, flattening the stiff oatmeal mush, pulling it into spikes with the tines of his fork. "I need your help."

Beecher can barely admit what he knows - what he suspects, what he knows - to himself, but he has some idea of what the fallout could be, now that Ryan's got the bit in his teeth and Torquemada's dead. He's pretty sure he can continue to keep a leash on Alvarez, but he's not allowing himself any illusions where O'Reily is concerned, and what if this escalates into an all-out war?

He's not here to ask for himself, though. At this point, maybe he deserves whatever he gets.

"It's Pup - Novak," he tells Arif, and Arif leans back in his chair, looking wary but still willing to listen.

Beecher asked this once of Said, asked protection for Adam, and was refused, turned down because Said wouldn't shield a rapist. But Pup - Beecher knows there are places his interests and Arif's intersect, even though Arif doesn't always approve of Pup's methods. And if Beecher can convince Arif ... He thinks about Pup's narrowed eyes watching him in the mirror this morning, about the ugly sound of his own voice, remembers Adam naked on his knees, curled in tears on the gym floor. This is prison, and Beecher knows the willful disparity between a good day and a bad day on the block, the day everything goes smooth and the day shit rolls downhill, and Pup's kind of an asshole, sometimes, and so's Beecher. But Beecher knows, if he can convince Arif ... Arif will hold him to it, he won't let Beecher take it back, won't let him withdraw protection for Pup if Beecher gets himself into a snit, the way Chucky let him take away that protection from Guenzel. Beecher knows this, he's convinced of it, and it's just a matter of convincing Arif in the first place.

They may have fought for Said's attention, but Arif must know this is something Said would have approved. Said always was trying to save Beecher from himself.

"I don't know what could happen," Beecher says, leaning forward, choosing his words carefully, trying to maintain the same kind of plausible deniability for Arif that Ryan's offered - he figures he owes the man at least that much. "With Torquemada dead, there's no telling what Sandoval might take the chance to do, and he and Novak, they've been at each other's throats for months, now ..."

"Sandoval is dead," Arif says, looking up from his contemplation of the table top, raising an eyebrow as Beecher's mouth snaps shut. "You hadn't heard?"

"No," Beecher says, pushing his tray out of the way so he can lean his elbows on the table. "What ... what happened?"

"Like Torquemada, no one knows who did it," Arif says, meeting Beecher's gaze for a long moment before he looks around the crowded cafeteria. "He was electrocuted. In the kitchen. They think it might have been an accident. Of course, no one can explain what Sandoval was doing in the kitchen, when he worked in the dress factory upstairs."

Arif pauses in his narrative, folding his hands and leaning forward, looking at Beecher expectantly, almost as if he's waiting for him to pick up the narrative from there, but Beecher flounders, at a loss, spreading his hands and shaking his head.

"Those who think it wasn't an accident, they're remembering the bad blood between Sandoval and the Italians," Arif finally says. "People are thinking this may be one more casualty of the drug wars in this prison."

And yeah, Beecher thinks, with a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach, it would make sense - the kitchen is wiseguy territory, and god knows, Sandoval never lost any opportunity to shit-talk D'Angelo or his guys, just like he antagonized and alienated plenty of people in this prison, all on his own. But Beecher thinks about Ryan and Pup with their heads together over forgotten cards, Pup's eyes darting around Em City, taking in everything, everyone, under Ryan's tutelage, and he remembers, two days ago, taking the chance to wash his sheets when the laundry room should have been empty, remembers Pup and Peretti, at one of the dryers, Peretti lounging just that much farther back on the dryer he was propped against, Pup with the same kind of easy, flirty presence Ryan had, back in the day, the kind he would use on Adebisi, on Scott Ross, the kind that made those first touches so easy, and Beecher remembers seeing Pup lean in to whisper something in Peretti's ear. He wonders what kind of business went down, what kind of deal was sealed.

Well, he thinks, sitting back, running a hand over his face. Fuck. Learning how to survive Oz, indeed. Star fucking pupil, isn't he, their pup?

"What?" Arif asks, studying his face. "Do you know something about this?"

Does he know something? Does he know? Well, no, Beecher thinks, and he shakes his head. He doesn't know anything for sure. He never seems to know anything for sure, and it doesn't seem like he wants to.

Goddamnit, Ryan, he thinks.

"Please," he says, looking up at Arif, because he needs Arif's help more than ever, now, needs to save this one piece of his soul before he gives up another part of it.

Chapter Text

Alvarez is pretty sure he's been played.

He looks up from his dried-out meatloaf and a sticky paste of something that's supposed to be creamed corn, and O'Reily's watching him from the slop line across the cafeteria, smirking as Alvarez catches his eye, and Alvarez is pretty sure he's been played like a violin, like an entire orchestra. He's just not sure how he feels about it. He's off balance as surely as if O'Reily had reached out and physically shoved him, that weightless sensation before a fall, running in a last hope to catch his balance, to figure out the new planes and angles of whatever lies between them all. He looks at Beecher's set face, watches O'Reily's angular shrug and everything that's being said behind it, everything that's not being said, and he's afraid they've already lost whatever balance point they'd almost achieved.

Beecher's quiet beside him, poking at his canned pears with a fork, only half willing to be drawn out of his shell by the photos Busmalis is passing around of his baby girl's fourth birthday party, cake smeared over her face, with frosting in blues and greens that just don't happen in nature, and Jesus, Alvarez thinks, it's been that long since Bare Hill? He remembers asking Beecher why - why he pulled Miguel into that blanket-draped bunk in the first place, why he touched Miguel, why he cared? Miguel's here now because of Beecher's belief that every life is precious - he's here, at this point, with Beecher, and maybe, probably, still alive at all because of that belief.

Vida preciosa.

He tells himself he'd do the same thing Ryan did, but would he? Would he have gone through with it, knowing Beecher's feelings? Ryan saved Alvarez from Solitary, may have even saved him from Death Row - and he also saved him from being the focus, the target of the emotional turmoil Beecher's going through right now, the bullshit he's putting himself through, the bullshit he's putting Ryan through. Alvarez tells himself he'd have killed Alonzo for Beecher, for Pup, for Ryan, if not for himself, if it came down to it - he'd already come to that conclusion, already made his peace with the necessity. But there's a part of him - a small, selfish part that feeds itself on memories of Beecher's hand on Ryan's hip and Ryan's hand in Beecher's hair, a thumb circling an anklebone or the point of a wrist - that's relieved he's not the one Beecher's pushing away right now.

He also realizes the blood on Ryan's hands bought that reprieve for him.

Beecher spent two days after Torquemada's death miserable and conflicted, and now he's settled into being pissed off that Ryan slipped the leash. He's not vocal about it, no, but it's a sullen kind of bitchiness that's impossible for any of them to miss. Ryan only makes it worse by acting like he doesn't even notice, or acting like he doesn't understand what it's about. But Alvarez has seen him, watching when Beecher and Alvarez touch, when Beecher pushes a thigh against Miguel's under the table in the cafeteria, when he presses his chest against Miguel's shoulder, leaning over him to check out what he's reading in the library, and Ryan's gaze is damning. The only reason Alvarez is still a refuge is because Ryan stepped up to do what Miguel should have done a long time ago. Miguel owes him - owes him for Beecher, for keeping Beecher safe, for keeping Miguel clean enough to keep Beecher, and he owes him his life, twice over now. But it also doesn't escape Miguel - Ryan's set this up in a way that means he can keep his distance from Beecher, that ensures Beecher will keep his distance from Ryan, although Miguel wonders if Ryan had any real idea of what he was doing.

Alvarez is still trying to get a handle on him, still trying to figure out the answer to the question he asked Beecher, the question he asked Ryan, himself, without getting a straight reply: Can you rely on him? Can Beecher rely on him, can Alvarez - or is he going to get spooked again, get jammed up in whatever bullshit goes through his head and slide out from under a touch three days from now or three weeks from now or three months from now and be in the wind again? Alvarez has watched him run hot and cold and crazy with Beecher for months, for years, and he still finds himself turning it over and over in his head, searching for a certainty that hasn't even been bought in blood, trying to figure out if O'Reily is going to be anything solid to hold on to, or if he's just going to keep holding himself aloof - like he doesn't want this just as bad as any of them, like he wasn't willing to kill for it. Literally, Alvarez thinks and snorts out a laugh, shaking his head when Beecher turns to raise an eyebrow at him.

Miguel woke up in the middle of the night to the familiar muttered grumbling of Pup in restless sleep and rolled over to find O'Reily sitting awake, tucked into the corner of his empty bunk, knees drawn up and leaning against the plexiglass wall, and he could practically see the cigarette dangling from Ryan's hand, the contraband he'd have been sucking on if he hadn't lost his last pack to Meaney in a half-hearted game of poker that afternoon. Miguel had knocked on the pod wall, caught Ryan's attention before realizing he had no shorthand way to ask O'Reily what was going on, how he was doing, if everything was all right, no quick hand signal Ryan would know to make his meaning clear, no way of communicating his concern that couldn't be misunderstood, misinterpreted, lost.

Peretti drifts by their table, leaning down to whisper something in Pup's ear, something that makes him shove back with an elbow, but Peretti just laughs as he turns away, and if Alvarez didn't know better, he'd almost think Pup was un poco azorado and a little pink around the edges, flustered by the attention, something he's going to have to work on, Alvarez thinks. You can't let yourself get thrown by that shit, not in Oz. You'll spend your entire life off balance. Beecher's gone twitchy beside him, agitated tapping of his fork against his tray, without the control or rhythm of Pup's typical beats, and Miguel turns to him, wondering what the fuck it is, this time.

"I don't like him hanging around with that guy," Beecher mutters, almost to himself, half under his breath.

"You worried abut bad influences in Oz?" Miguel asks, incredulous, and looks up as Ryan appears at the head of their table, a tray in his hands suspiciously absent of corn glue and with more than his fair share of pears.

"Don't forget your curfew - papi here might ground you," Ryan drawls, leaning in to poke at one of Pup's cheeks with an index finger before he drops into a chair, and Pup smacks him away, scowling, and flips him off.

"She's reading already," Busmalis says, waving around another picture, "Norma knows how important it is to get them reading early. She's a big proponent of literacy, you know. It helps shape your brain properly."

"That's certainly true," Rebadow says, looking up from his journal.

"Man, you're just pimping your girlfriend's books," Alvarez says to him, taking the next picture of little Alma Vanora as it makes the rounds. She looks like a typical kid to Alvarez, hair a little ratty under her shiny pointed birthday hat and pink cowboy boots that clash with her red dress, but Beecher holds the Polaroid for a minute before passing it on, looking wistful.

"She's going to be in school before you know it," he tells Busmalis.

"You realize by the time she graduates, you're gonna be in a walker and adult diapers, right?" Alvarez says, and watches out of the corner of his eye as Ryan casually pushes his tray with its extra pears closer to Beecher.

"He won't be out by then, anyway," Rebadow says, primly.

"Bob, you doubt me?" Busmalis puts a hand over his heart and makes a face of woe, and Alvarez watches Beecher edge Ryan's tray farther away from his own, back to some haphazard angle in front of O'Reily. "I can dig out of here by then. You don't think I'd miss my little girl's graduation, do you?"

Pup's telling Ryan some story about his sister, how she used to follow him to school when he first started, even though she wasn't old enough to go, herself, and how he'd have to chase her away from the bus stop, and Alvarez thinks about the girl he's seen in the visitor's room, every week, without fail - Sara, she told Miguel her name a few months back - still tiny, messy hair and messy heart and a ferocity to match her brother's, although hers is all there on her sleeve, not banked and waiting to flare into life like Pup's.

"I tried to tell her there wasn't nothing so great about school," Pup says, dismissively, stealing an uneaten pear slice from Beecher's tray and getting himself poked with a fork for his trouble.

"Maybe back in the days of peanut butter and jelly and juice boxes and nap time, school was pretty great," Beecher says.

"What about you, Andrade?" Busmalis asks, looking further down the table. "You got any kids?"

"My girls were always more grown," Andrade says with a sly smirk, and Lawson snorts out a laugh beside him, looking vaguely shocked at his own temerity in the aftermath.

It's low, almost an undertone, almost lost behind the clatter of trays and the scrape of table legs as they start pushing back, getting ready to line up for the march back to Em City, but Alvarez catches Ryan's word's, meant for Pup's ears.

"You took care of her, right?" Ryan says. "Because you're supposed to take care of your little sister."

Alvarez never had any brothers or sisters - Eduardo was sent up too soon after his birth for any more little Alvarezes to be hatched, and Miguel's mother was too fiercely loyal to think about a second husband or more kids - but he supposes you're supposed to take care of your little brother, too. He remembers Ryan's self-deprecating words and his own response - I haven't made it perfectly obvious I can't be trusted to take care of anybody? ... You've actually made that pretty clear in the past ... - and he's still trying to work out how much he can rely on O'Reily.

He's pretty sure he's been played. But he thinks about the look in Ryan's eyes as he watched Beecher from the showers, that day Miguel came back to Em City with stitches still in his side, and he wonders now how much of it was part of the play and how much of it was real. He would have staked his life - literally would have staked his life and almost did, before Ryan countered the move - that it was real. Ryan used it to manipulate him, Alvarez is sure of that, but he's got no doubt O'Reily would be willing to use his own honest feelings in pursuit of a longer goal. He's got no doubt O'Reily has done just that sort of thing in the past.

He thinks about the look in Ryan's eyes, about the two of them in the dimness of Em City night, curled together, Beecher's hand on O'Reily's hip, Ryan's hand buried in Toby's hair, an intimacy beyond sexual, something apparent even in sleep, more apparent in sleep. He thinks about the look in Ryan's eyes and lets himself hope that maybe, with Seamus gone, maybe with Suzanne's influence, maybe, maybe with Ryan left alone with no one else and needing someone so badly, maybe it will overcome some of the bullshit he carries around in his head, now that they seem to have crossed some kind of barrier, whatever went on while Alvarez was in the hospital - if Miguel can only keep this together now, if he can only maintain some kind of balance.

He wanders over to the slop line as the rest of them line up for the march back to Em City, standing awkward at the end of the tray rail, hands in his pockets, watching O'Reily shrug back into his white overshirt.

"Hey," he says and pauses, waiting until O'Reily looks at him. "I just wanted to say thanks."

"For what?" O'Reily says, raising an eyebrow.

"For taking care of business."

"Hey, man, I don't know what you're talking about," O'Reily says, spreading his hands, shrugging his shoulders.

And well, that just figures, doesn't it? Alvarez thinks, shaking his head. He's already turned away before he hears O'Reily's next low words.

"I'm just watching your back."

 

•••

 

"He won't come down," O'Reily says, dropping into a chair beside Miguel in front of the television, leaning sideways and tugging at the wire of his headset.

Ryan shrugs - easy, seeming unconcerned - as Miguel looks over at him, but Miguel can see something behind his eyes, some kind of worry or apprehension, some kind of distress, something that scrapes biting and raw at the inside of Miguel's chest like a serrated blade, and he half turns in his seat to study Beecher, sitting on his bunk, wrapped in a blanket. They all have their rituals, their ways of marking these days. Ryan resolutely ignores the anniversary, every year, Miguel's come to realize, throwing himself into some scheme or machination, emerging more or less bruised from his encounters once the date of Cyril's execution is over. Miguel mostly leaves it to Father Mukada, attending the memorial Mass the couple of times it's been on a Sunday, visiting the padre in his office otherwise, an appointment for an extra Confession, but no special prayers, just noting the lighted candle on the file cabinet illuminating a prayer card of St. Bridget, an infant in her arms.

Beecher - he doesn't so much commemorate his day as survive it, and when O'Reily says he won't come down, Miguel knows he means more than Beecher won't get out of bed, won't come out of their pod. Beecher won't come down from his bed, won't get out of that top bunk, and that must be driving O'Reily nuts. Before this latest clusterfuck, Beecher developed a habit of taking to Ryan's bed - empty or not - when he was upset or off balance, wrapping himself in Ryan's blanket or pushing Ryan out of the way to make room, folding himself in sideways with a book in his lap and one ankle across Ryan's, tucking himself down into Ryan's side in the dark, back pressed against Ryan's hip, wordlessly seeking touch, reassurance - pushing in a way he never did with Miguel. But then, he's never had to demand with Miguel the way he did to get past O'Reily's defenses, whatever shit Ryan's been carrying around, whatever's kept their relationship ... not chaste, no, Miguel thinks, remembering Beecher's fingers on Ryan's jaw, O'Reily's hand pressed to Beecher's hip in the dark, the look on Ryan's face when he glanced back over his shoulder at Beecher in the doorway of their pod.

These days, Beecher's as likely to push away, to glide out from under Ryan's touch as skillfully as O'Reily ever avoided Toby's.

"I told him, you gotta think about the other two, about Carolyn and Harry, but he won't listen," O'Reily says.

"Holly," Rebadow says absently, from behind them, from behind his scientific journal.

"What?"

"His daughter's name is Holly," Rebadow says and turns a page.

"You just gotta give him some time," Miguel says, because Ryan's never figured out you can't grab at Beecher, can't hold him too tight, never figured out you've got to wait until he pushes, then give in. You've got to let him chase you until you catch him.

He cuffs Pup in the back of the head as the kid cranes around to stare, too, headset half off to expose one ear.

"Ow," Pup says, and Miguel makes a crybaby face at him, pretends to wipe away tears. "Fucker. What's wrong, anyway?"

Miguel looks over at Ryan, but Ryan's still studying Beecher, agitated, one of his legs bouncing up and down a mile a minute.

"It's the anniversary of his son's death," Rebadow says, and Busmalis makes a sympathetic noise, attention pulled from the exercise program on TV.

"Awful, terrible thing," he says, and Miguel looks back at them, at the touch of fear on Busmalis' face, the thought of everything that could go wrong, and at the terrible understanding in Rebadow's eyes, the memories that still haunt him.

Miguel remembers the curve of a small skull in the palm of his hand, blood-warm and delicate, and dark eyes blinking up at him from a tiny squashed face, and he rubs a thumb over the scar on his palm, the one that bisects his fate line. He looks back at O'Reily, still watching Beecher through narrowed eyes.

"I'll go talk to him," he says, pushing himself to his feet, and he brushes a light touch across Ryan's shoulder as he goes, trying to fill some kind of gap, in whatever way Ryan will allow.

He leans in the doorway of the pod for a minute, studying Beecher, the lines of his face, the bitten lip and pale skin drawn sharp over bone, the smudged circles under his eyes, like bruises. He's picking restlessly at the cheap blanket he's pulled around himself, synthetic material pilled in endless rounds of industrial washing, and a faint drift of scattered fuzz has fallen around the beds, a smattering like dirty snow in a loose semicircle, flung by restless hands. Miguel fights the urge to go over and lay his own hands over those moving fingers. It's bad this year, he can tell - not as bad as it's been some years, when his strongest impression of Beecher was of the chiflado, loco de remate, who sat rocking in his bunk, snarling at anyone who got close to him, like a wounded animal. But Miguel can remember last year, when Beecher sat quiet most of the day, hands folded, monk-like and almost contemplative, and he'd been docile enough when Miguel pulled him down to the bottom bunk and silently curled up around him after lights out, chest to Beecher's back, a hand pressed over Beecher's heart as he matched their breaths, in and out and in.

Alvarez tries not to think about what must be running through Beecher's head when he gets like this, tries to avoid awakening his own ghosts. He's worked at burying it, keeping it locked down somewhere with the voice of his grandfather, afraid to let it loose, remembering an empty pod and a lullaby on his lips and his son's eyes looking up at him from empty arms. He's got all the reminder he needs on his face, a reminder of just where his pride could get him, a reminder of when God walked away from him, and he remembers the touch of Beecher's fingers on his cheek, tracing the scar with his thumb. If there's one thing Alvarez has learned, it's that you can't control fate, no matter how much blood you shed or whose it is - your own or someone else's.

Beecher still hasn't shifted position, but he's cut his eyes over to the doorway, watching Miguel, and there's something wary now about the set of his shoulders, about the lines of his face, and something achingly tired, and Miguel wants to throw up a crooked finger, an interrogative, but he knows how stupid that would be, and he already knows the answer. Instead, he gives up, gives in, walks over to the bed and lays his hands over Beecher's.

"Stop," he says. "Toby, stop it."

Beecher goes still under his touch, and Miguel can feel fingers press back into the palms of his own hands, slightest touch, before Beecher curls them around the blanket in his lap.

"I thought it was my fault, you know," Miguel says, and he remembers the doctor's voice, talking about the drugs, and his son's lungs, remembers the walls closing in around him and the wave of helplessness, drowning him, remembers the cold crystal slice of the blade, not even any pain in those first few seconds as he drew the scalpel along his flesh. "And I thought I could make a deal with God. But there wasn't a damn thing I could do about it."

Beecher turns his head to study Miguel for a minute, and Miguel knows how futile the words were.

"There was plenty I could have done about it," Beecher says, shaking his head, and Miguel's pretty sure the disgust in his eyes is for himself. "There was plenty I could have not done that would have kept it from happening."

Miguel looks down at their hands, traces a light path over Beecher's knuckles before he nods and turns away. He knows he's not going to break Beecher out of this.

Ryan's hovering in the doorway of the pod when he turns around.

"Leave him be," Miguel says.

They bring him an orange, later, after dinner, when Beecher's shifted to lean back against the wall that separates their pods, face drawn but hands stilled and some kind of life back in his eyes, the day's vigil almost done.

"Eat something - you look like shit," Miguel tells him, holding out the orange, and Beecher flips him off.

"Take the fucking orange, Beecher," O'Reily says from where he's tagged along behind, peering over Miguel's shoulder. "Or you'll get scurvy, or something."

"Pirates get scurvy, you asshole," Beecher says, scowling down at them, but he holds out a hand and lets the orange roll into the well of his palm when Miguel tips it toward him.

Miguel watches him roll it between his hands and feels something loosen in his chest, like he can breathe again.

••••

 

The last weekend of October comes and goes without any mail, and Beecher writes off his latest plan with regret but little surprise, and so he's nonplussed when Murphy interrupts a game of chess on the last day of the month, telling him he's got a visitor. He follows obediently as they walk, not to the regular visiting room, but to the flat yellow of the family room, paint job that's supposed to look cheery but manages jaundiced, leftover crayons and oversized puzzle pieces strewn across one of the low tables. He stops in the doorway, fingers closing hard on the cold metal jamb as she raises her head at the sound of their entrance.

Her clothes are black, her nails are black, her hair is black - the bad matte dye job of teenaged rebellion, but his heart clenches at how much she looks like her mother with the heavy dark mass surrounding her face. She's branded a logo across the backs of both hands, the surface sheen of magic marker rather than the ingrained permanence of tattoos, and he recognizes it - sXe - no surprise, really, given what she's been through, what he and his addictions have put her through, but it scares him to death, to think where she might be looking for an empathetic shoulder.

He makes an abortive movement toward her, to wrap his fingers around her wrists or his arms around her shoulders, he's not sure which, but she flinches away from him, deeper into the hard cushions of her chair, and he clamps down on the urge. He's learned not to grab, not to clutch, has seen how it sends Ryan skittering away and has learned, at least a little, how to coax a wary animal to his hand.

"Holly," he says, not entirely able to keep the surprise out of his voice.

It's been a long time since she's agreed to come to Oz - a couple of years since the weekly visits became a visit every two weeks, then once a month; months since increasing sullenness and resentment erupted in her impassioned declaration that she hated this place and she hated her life, and she hated him and it was all his fault. He agrees with most of those sentiments - some days, he agrees with all of them - and so he hadn't fought when his mother and grandmother recommended a break from the visits. He's not sure what's brought her back, and he wants to hunker down on the low table in front of her, thread his fingers through hers the way he did when she was taking her first, halting, stumbling steps, but he can guess what kind of reaction that would get, so he moves one of the other chairs to face her. It's only once he's seated that he looks around, confused.

"Where's your grandmother?"

"She's not here. I took the bus up." Her face is hard with defiance in expectation of his objections - chin raised, jaw set - and she suddenly doesn't look like Gen at all. Beecher recognizes the mulish expression, has seen it in the mirror.

"Jesus Christ ..." he starts, then pauses, collects himself. "Holly, you can't just jump on a bus by yourself and come up here. That's dangerous."

"So coming to prison is more dangerous than being in one?" She rolls her eyes at him.

"Yes," he says, exasperated. "And ... how did you get here from the bus terminal, anyway?"

"I took a cab. Jesus, Dad, I'm not five, any more."

"You're calling your grandmother to come pick you up."

"Yeah, no."

"Yeah, yes. I'll call her and let her know she needs to come up here."

"Whatever." She somehow manages to fling herself even deeper into the chair, wrapping her arms around herself.

They sit in silence for a minute, and Beecher contents himself with reaching out a hand and placing it on the arm of her chair, holding himself back from touching her.

"Holly," he says, finally, and waits, but she refuses to look at him. "Holly. I'm glad you came. I've missed you. But I'm just ... I'm wondering. Why now?"

The look she slants his way is calculating, and he sits back as she leans forward to rummage in the messenger bag at her feet, pulling out a small box.

"I was the one who opened your letter," she says, running her thumb over the cardboard, studying the top of the box. She looks up at him. "They're ..." She breaks off and shrugs. "They're still intact. But they tested them before they'd let me bring them in."

They tested them - of course they did. They might have brought her to the family room because she's still a minor, but they're not going to take the chance he's having his 14-year-old daughter somehow mule some kind of white crystal in here without making sure it's really sugar. After all, she's, what? Two years younger than Andrew was when he showed up in here? Three years younger than Kenny Wangler? And her father's back in here because of a drug charge.

Oh, yeah, and he's fucking - being fucked by - a guy who's had his fingers in the prison drug trade.

Two guys who've had their fingers in the prison drug trade.

She hands the box to him. Two small candy skulls nestle inside, swaddled in tissue paper.

"One for Mr. Alvarez's baby, like you said," she says when he looks up at her. Her chin is raised again. "One for Gary."

The words hang in the air, as clear a fuck you as he's ever heard, and he wishes she'd slap him, or punch him, or take those black-painted nails to his face - anything rather than simply sit there, carving into him with her hurt and wariness, the same anger in her eyes he remembers from Ryan, from Andrew. He wants to double over, keening, the pain almost as great as Gary's death, to see the same look in his little girl's eyes he's seen directed at Seamus O'Reily or Vern Schillinger. He suddenly understands the desperation Seamus showed on his deathbed, can almost pity the man. He wonders if Holly will ever forgive him, the way Ryan's worked at forgiving Seamus.

"Daddy?" she says, and something of his feelings must have shown in his face, because her voice is suddenly uncertain, the slightest wobble in the word.

It's OK, he wants to say, but it's not OK. It will never be OK.

"I'm sorry," he says, instead. "I'm ..." sorry I cost you your mother, your brother, your grandfather, your childhood.

He can't finish. He can't look at her, so he puts the box on the table and puts his face in his hands.

"Is he your boyfriend?" she finally asks, breaking the silence.

She sounds wary but ... curious, he thinks, and he scrubs at his face before looking at her. Her gaze flickers from his face to the box and back again.

"I don't know what he is," he tells her, honestly - it's way too late to start treating her like a child, he figures. "Things in here ... you can't label them the way you can out there."

She sniffs and drags the cuff of her dark sweater sleeve across her nose, making a face.

"Yeah, well. Scotty doesn't want to say that he's my boyfriend, but that's just because he wants to keep splitting the check when we're out," she says.

Loser, Beecher thinks, indignantly, and it takes him a minute to work out that she's affronted on his behalf, thinks Alvarez might be jerking him around.

Mercy is what you get when you don't get what you deserve, Sister Pete's voice says, in his head.

Chapter Text

They're playing poker when Beecher shows up, Ryan winning two times out of three, although Christ knows how they're going to keep track with no money or chips, now that Ryan and Pup have eaten all the M&Ms that Ryan rousted from Pup after his latest trip to the commissary. Ryan's been in a foul mood lately, though, and the second time Alvarez's sharp "Hey!" had him tensed for a fight or a flounce - who the fuck knows which to expect with O'Reily - Miguel just let it go.

"Go find some peanuts or something," he tells Pup, and Pup scowls and flips him off as he gets up, but Miguel just grins at him before looking back at his cards, a handful of shit, two threes and a queen of diamonds, a jack of clubs, a seven of hearts.

He's trying to figure out if it's worth discarding or if he should give in and fold when Beecher shows up, sits down straddling the chair beside him and wordlessly hands him a white box - the width of Alvarez's palm and almost as deep - holding it out until Miguel stretches out his own free hand in response.

"Don't look at my cards, chingado," Miguel tells Ryan, waving them around before laying them facedown on the table, and he looks back at Beecher, who shrugs.

His face is a mix of emotions, and Miguel studies him, trying to pull them apart, trying to piece them together, a jigsaw puzzle that might resolve itself into a roadmap of the inside of Beecher's head, a map of his brain and his breath and his heart. He looks vaguely smug, pleased with himself, but tired too, that bone-deep weariness Miguel sees on the days circled in red on the dog-eared calendar that sits behind the toothpaste and the mouthwash, the days marked "H" and "H" and "G," his kids' birthdays. He nods at the box, an insistent tilt of his head, so Miguel looks down again, running his thumbs across the marled top, and opens it.

He spends a minute or two looking down at the smooth shape of the skulls nestled in cotton wool, the tiny bright pieces of foil that mark the eyes and cover the sweep of the crowns, the hard sugar icing tracing out curlicues along the sides. He studies them, then looks up at Beecher, who looks back steadily.

"For the baby," Beecher says, leaning forward, elbows perched on the back of the chair he's straddling. "And Gary. Well, I wasn't expecting that second one, but. Anyway."

Miguel can't help himself, he snorts out a laugh.

"I'm Cuban," he says.

"What?" Beecher looks baffled.

"I'm not Mexican, you dink," he says, but he finds himself holding onto the box, rubbing one thumb along the swirls marking the outside surface.

He's not Mexican, but he had an abuela who was, an aunt of his mother's, and he remembers the altar in her living room, and calaveras de azucar on el Día de los Muertos, and other stuff - the sweet sticky scent of candles melting into streaks and drips and pools of hot wax, gold and white and crimson flower petals, candy and cigarettes and jewelry nestled among their blooms, things he'd always wanted to touch when he was five and his mother would pull away his hands, but Tía Teresita would just smile.

Babies and children on the first day, she'd said - nenes y niños, primero - y las otras en el segundo.

"Oh?" Beecher says, and he's clearly not getting what Miguel's lack of Mexican heritage - or the mere sketch of it, really - has to do with anything.

"Yeah. Oh," Miguel says, but he's still not putting down the box.

He slants a look over at Beecher and then back at the box before he finally sets it on the table, reaching in with a finger to stroke delicately across the bare white forehead of the skull with the purple foil eyes, remembering the curve of a small head in the palm of his hand, blood-warm and delicate, as hazy dark eyes blinked up at him. A bit of cotton wool snags on his fingertip, and he rubs his fingers together and pulls them away.

"Thanks," he says, looking back up at Beecher, who still looks a little bemused.

"So it's good?"

"Yeah. It's good."

"I'm sorry there's not a third one for ... you know. For Cyril," Beecher says, shifting his attention to Ryan, leaning his elbows on the back of his chair. "I never expected the second one, actually - she just showed up with it."

"It's fine," Ryan says and gestures at Miguel's cards. "Here, give me those."

His hands make short, sharp motions on the table, scraping up the cards, and his eyes are narrow, and Miguel studies him, can see it in every line of his body, his face - a slow burn Ryan's had going on for days, amped up suddenly, simmering just under his skin and ready to spark into something, something that prickles along Miguel's nerves, along his skin.

"Ryan?" Beecher's leaning in now, whatever unease still lies between them momentarily forgotten, although he sounds uncertain, and Miguel recognizes that look on his face, familiar look like the one Beecher wears when he smoothes a thumb between Miguel's brows, traces a light finger along the scar on his cheek, tries to brush away whatever worries are bearing him down, and there's a small flare of hope in Miguel's chest. "I can have her bring another, next time."

Miguel keeps still, afraid to move, almost afraid to breath, afraid to throw off the delicate balance suddenly and unexpectedly achieved, the humming possibility between them. He knows whatever's between them, whatever's between all of them, can be salvaged, here and now. Beecher can keep Ryan together, whatever's going on - Beecher can do the emotional heavy lifting, as long as he's willing. Miguel knows it, and he holds his breath as he watches Beecher lean in, try to catch Ryan's eyes. Beecher can handle this, if Ryan will just let him.

Come on, O'Reily, he thinks. Be smart, for once in your life.

He can tell it's not going to happen. Ryan's jaw is set, and Miguel sees it coming, and he tenses, getting ready, waiting for trouble, waiting for O'Reily to lash out.

"Yeah, sure," Ryan says, finally looking up at Beecher, face set, and his words are sharp, barbed like weapons. "Maybe she can bring another one next time, and I can be part of whatever morbid witchcraft you've got going on. Maybe Carolyn can bring one for my dad, too, and one for Father Meehan. Go ahead and get her to bring one for my mom, while she's at it." He smacks his handful of cards down on the table with a sharp crack that reminds Miguel of a gunshot. "Sure, get your little girl to bring them for all of my goddamn dead, and we can just make a whole pile of them in the corner of the pod."

Ryan's standing, by this time, chair shoved back, looking down at Beecher, and Beecher ...

At one point, that gaping look he's got would have turned into some kind of kicked puppy expression, Miguel is pretty sure, but he's not that Beecher any more. Miguel's seen both his jaw and his eyes harden like that before, and he knows this isn't going anywhere good, and he should do something, intervene somehow, he knows he should, but there's something ... something Ryan said that he can't figure out ...

"Carolyn?" he finally asks, turning to Ryan, because what the fuck? Who the hell is Carolyn?

"Don't you mention her," O'Reily spits at him, stabbing a finger in Miguel's direction, and maldición, Miguel doesn't know what's going on, but that's it, that's enough, he's had just about enough of Ryan being a dick, enough of the constant uncertainty, of not knowing where any of them stand with O'Reily.

He's up fast - gotta move fast with Ryan, Miguel's stronger than him, in better shape, spends more time working the weights, but Ryan's still a rangy fuck, and taller than Miguel, and pretty mean when he's cornered, and you can't give him time to think, to react - and he grabs O'Reily by the shoulder of his T-shirt, that green T-shirt that he stole from Beecher, and hauls him back, muscling him around to slam him against the wall of the pod behind them. ¡Jesucristo! he can distantly hear someone in the pod saying, but it's kind of hard to hear anything through the angry pounding of his own blood in his ears.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" he asks between gritted teeth, pulling O'Reily toward himself just to slam him back into the plexiglass wall again, and there's an answering thump from the other side that somehow manages to sound aggrieved, but Miguel doesn't have the attention to spare. "Seriously? What the hell is your problem, O'Reily? Do you really want to put all that shit in front of Beecher?"

"What the fuck are you talking about?" O'Reily shoves at one of Alvarez's wrists, pushing against his chest with the other hand, but Alvarez has his fingers set in the material of the T-shirt now, cotton bunched hard in his palms and between his fingers, and O'Reily's hand just skids up his bare arm. He can feel the sting where the tattered edge of one nail raises a red welt.

"With all the dead he's got around his neck?" Alvarez says, and he keeps going, rolls right over O'Reily when he opens his mouth, not letting him interrupt, because they were so close, so close he could almost reach out his hand and touch it, and he is sick and tired of O'Reily making this whole balancing act harder every time they turn around. "Look. You got dead. I got dead. We all got dead. But come on, man. He actually feels bad about most ... all ... OK, most of his. Not just a few here and there."

"Fuck you, Alvarez."

"Come on, O'Reily," Miguel says, leaning in, ducking his head to force eye contact. "Don't act like you give a shit about most of the people who are dead because of you."

"You don't know shit about what I give a shit about," O'Reily says, and he's wild now, whites of his eyes showing like an animal as he shoves at Miguel, tries to knock him away, but Miguel tightens his hands in the front of his T-shirt and shakes him, slams him back against the wall again as the hacks swoop in like vultures. Miguel feels fingers around his biceps, trying to pull him away.

"Seriously, O'Reily," he hisses, fighting against the hands holding him. "What is your problem? Why you always gotta be an asshole?"

They finally manage to shove him away, yanking O'Reily's T-shirt half off in the process, and Murphy grabs for Miguel, but he jerks away from the touch.

"What the fuck, man?" he says. "Don't touch me."

"Why don't you tell me what's going on here, then, Alvarez?" Murphy says, long-suffering look on his face.

Miguel knows the guy's being an asshole on purpose, and OK, fine, he has to admit he'd be pretty damn sick of them, too, by now, he is pretty damn sick of them by now, this crazy sideways tension going on between him and O'Reily, edges rubbing rough against each other, and the humming electricity between O'Reily and Beecher, taut as elastic about to snap - but screw Murphy. He ain't gotta live with it 24-7.

He shrugs sullenly.

"Why don't you tell me why you guys always gotta make my life difficult, huh?" Murphy continues. "Do I have to remind you that somebody's going to bed up in B, and somebody's going to end up in J, and somebody's going to end up in the Hole if you keep pulling this stuff?"

"I don't like it when Mommy and Daddy fight," a mocking voice says from the sidelines, someone who sounds like Mauer, the little Nazi fuck who's just moved over from B, and Ryan snarls again, looking over Miguel's shoulder. Miguel can see his body going taut to breaking against Hernandez's hands holding him, and then there's a thudding, smacking sound and an outraged yell from Murphy, a brief scuffle of activity behind them before Beecher's voice rises above it all - "For fuck's sake, Novak, leave it be or I'll ask them to dropkick you into the Hole, myself." Somewhere in the back of head, Alvarez remembers his mother's tone of voice when she would call him by his full name.

"Don't worry," he says, shaking it off, turning back to Murphy, holding up his hands to demonstrate his harmlessness. "I won't touch him again. I won't lay a fucking finger on him."

"Yeah," Ryan adds. "We're cool. Everything's cool." He raises his own hands. "It's nothing."

As soon as Murphy's back is turned, Alvarez grabs O'Reily by the collar, twisting his fingers hard in the thin T-shirt at the side of his neck, knuckles pressed up against his jugular, and drags him under the nearby staircase, looking for some sliver of privacy, somewhere he can figure out what the shit is going on without being interrupted. Ryan's like some kind of indignant cat, spitting out something about Alvarez and his goddamn punk of a boyfriend both pulling this shit, and the last time this happened, and how, goddamn he's sick of motherfuckers who keep closing ranks against him, goddamnit, and then he shoves at Alvarez from behind, almost sending him face first into the underside of the stairs.

Miguel stands there for a minute, fingers clutched hard around the edge of one step where he caught himself, and he feels like he ought to be pissed off, but somewhere in Ryan's diatribe, this whole thing became so surreal that he's just left bewildered.

"All right, O'Reily," he says, rounding on him, putting all his effort into being big enough to crowd Ryan back into the deepest corner of their small alcove. "You're being a pain in my ass. Is there some reason you're being a pissy little bitch?"

"What do you care anyway, Alvarez?" O'Reily's voice is low, vicious.

"What do I care? What do I care?" Miguel almost turns away, almost turns his back and walks before something pushes him back in O'Reily's face. He has the sudden urge to get his hands on Ryan again, to shake him like a rag doll, like a dog with something between its teeth.

It's not even anger, really, not something he can shake out and figure out and work out, not the heat of normal rage. There's some kind of cold clarity to it, something from the back of his brain as well as his gut, and the thought flits through his head that maybe this is what it's like in Ryan's head all the time. Distantly, he can feel his lips pulling back in a snarl as he grabs O'Reily by the front of his T-shirt, and he pushes him up against the wall, holds him there, ducking easily when O'Reily tries to smack him away. He's dealt with both Alonzo fucking Torquemada in a snit and Tobias fucking Beecher in a mood - O'Reily don't even need to try and think he's going to be bitch-slapping Miguel Alvarez.

He remembers flashing teeth, blood, Chester setting his jaws into LoPresti's neck, and he wonders what he's going to be good for, after this. Como un zorro, Felix's voice says, in his head, and he leans in to O'Reily, pressing against him, holding him in place with his body.

"Shut up, you asshole," he says. "Just shut up. This thing we got, the thing we all got - that's mi familia now, O'Reily. Our familia. I bled for it. You killed for it. What we got is each other, hermano. That's all we got. And you are fucking. It. Up."

"You don't even like me," O'Reily says, shoving at Alvarez's wrists. "You wouldn't even want me around if Beecher didn't want my ass."

Alvarez blinks at him, baffled again, because shit. What?

He can hardly make sense of what O'Reily's saying now. Even if it was true, what does that have to do with anything? What would it matter? You don't have to love your brothers. You don't even have to like them. You just have to stick by them. He'd have thought O'Reily would've understood that about family, the way he stuck with that miserable bastard of a father. No one will ever convince Miguel that Ryan felt anything for Seamus O'Reily except resentment - and guilt about it - until the day that anciano tacaño died. If there's anything Alvarez thought O'Reily understood, it would have been family loyalty in the face of anything, in the face of everything.

"O'Reily ..." he says and stops, huffs out a breath, because he's not the word guy.

He wishes he'd let Beecher handle this, let Beecher do this heavy lifting - except the way things were going, the two of them just would've gone at each other like mastínes, torn strips out of each other and stalked off to lick their wounds still pissed, and then they'd all be on fucking edge, at least until Beecher and O'Reily broke down, gave in and had one of their weird little non-fuckfest fights in the pod two nights from now or two weeks from now or, God help them all, two months from now, if they all managed to live that long, if they managed to last that long without killing each other. Jesucristo, O'Reily's even worse than Torquemada, like sticking a tongue down another guy's throat or a dick up his ass is what's going to make him queer, the way he looks at Beecher already, the way he touches him, the way he's touching Alvarez right now, pressed chest to hip to thigh, fingers still braceleting Alvarez's wrists, breath panting hot and damp on Alvarez's lips as Alvarez tilts his head up at him. The way he licks his lips and refuses to meet Alvarez's eyes. The way he's hard against Alvarez's thigh, for fuck's sake ...

The thing to remember, Miguel, is that it's true for all three sides - Mukada's voice is clear in his head, and yeah, Miguel thinks. OK. All right. Maybe this is what they need to do, to close the circle. But not yet, not quite ... yet ...

"O'Reily," he says again, finally, unclenching the fingers he's got fisted in O'Reily's T-shirt, laying his palms flat against O'Reily's chest, feeling the moist heat coming off of him, sweat from their scuffle and rising body temperature from the close quarters. "Hey, O'Reily." He refuses to go on until O'Reily looks back at him. "Is this anything I would have imagined? No. Would I have chosen it? Probably not. But it's what we got, right? Right?"

Ryan looks at him, face tilted down to study Miguel's eyes, his jaw, his mouth, a moment stretched to snapping before Ryan finally nods and Miguel takes the chance to lean up into him, loosening one hand from the fabric of his shirt and sliding it up his chest to cup his cheek, tilt his face, press a kiss to his mouth. He expects a fight, expects to wrestle for control of the kiss, but just like that, Ryan folds, gives, leaning in to lick at Miguel's lips, into his mouth, and Dios mío, Miguel thinks. What the hell was taking Beecher so long, if Ryan could be set off so easy?

Ryan's got one hand fisted in the collar of Miguel's shirt, pulling him in, like he can climb inside Miguel, straining against him, material rubbing hot against Miguel's neck where it's pulled tight until O'Reily scrabbles at him, paws against his shoulder and the nape of his neck, fingers slipping inside the material to dig hard at the muscles of Miguel's shoulders. He rolls his hips, pulls a sudden sharp, hard grunt out of Miguel as their cocks press together, and Miguel tears himself away from Ryan's mouth, gasps for breath. They've gone zero to 60 in under a minute, and it's going to be all over if Miguel doesn't get back some kind of control.

O'Reily bucks into him, pressing their cocks together hard, again, and Alvarez grabs him by the hip, by the wrist, slams him back against the wall, dropping his face to the hollow of Ryan's shoulder, breathing in his scent, sweat and soap and a faint hint of sweetness underlying it all from the candy he's been winning. He can feel Ryan's hand combing through the short hair at the back of his skull, and he presses into the soft flesh of Ryan's wrist, his hip, with his thumbs.

"Hold still, just fucking hold the fuck still," Miguel mutters, lips moving against Ryan's collarbone where his shirt's stretched out of shape from Miguel's hands, and Ryan shudders against him, pressed between Miguel and the wall, splayed out and open. Miguel puts his lips back to Ryan's skin, mouths his way along the soft underside of Ryan's jaw, nudging his head back, before he licks his way to that exposed collarbone. He nips, small, sharp, and Ryan makes a sound, jagged and raw, somewhere deep in his throat, and he pushes against Miguel's shoulders, but not with any real strength, arching and rolling his hips again, and fuck, Miguel thinks, shoving a thigh between Ryan's legs, pressing up into him with one knee. They rock together, Ryan with one hand under Miguel's T-shirt now, fingers clenching hard in the flexing muscles of Miguel's back, and Miguel manages to get one hand between them, yanks at the fastening of Ryan's pants, panting against his neck, rhythm of his breath and his hips punctuated by the steady curses tumbling from Ryan's lips.

Ryan goes up on his toes when Miguel curls a hand around his cock, brushing a thumb over the sticky head, and Jesus Christ, what kind of dicking around has Beecher been doing, that he hasn't been able to get Ryan here yet? Miguel wonders, distantly. Ryan's breath hitches as Miguel gets the hand more firmly around him, twisting his wrist, wishing he had time and space to slick Ryan up properly, but the drag of his palm pulls a hitching, stuttering whine out of Ryan that makes it sound like he's dying, and he's pushing his hips up into Miguel's hand in a steady rhythm, so Miguel figures it has to be OK.

"Motherfucker," Ryan grits out, and Miguel laughs as he presses his own cock hard into Ryan's hip. Ryan's head tilts back, eyes unseeing, as he comes, hips jerking hard, and Miguel can feel release coiling in his own belly, in his hips and lower back, at the sticky warmth coating his hand, at the way the muscles of Ryan's throat work under his skin, and he leans in again, presses his teeth to Ryan's neck, feels a last frisson run through Ryan at the sharp touch, tipping Miguel over the edge.

He makes a face at his hand when he comes back down, wipes it on the tail of Ryan's shirt, pushing away the hand that tries to smack at him. Miguel's licked cum off his own fingers before, teasing, watching a sly smile drift across Alonzo's face, watching Beecher's eyes darken, but he was always high at the time, on Destiny or hormones, and the thought of cold jizz in the clear-headed aftermath - well, relatively clear-headed, anyway - isn't anything close to appealing. It's not particularly appealing in his motherfucking pants either, he thinks, as he shifts, trying to find a comfortable spot - the heat of passion cooled, Ryan's suddenly turned bony and angular, and Miguel's gotten used to Beecher's sturdy frame. He shifts again, snugging up against Ryan, who stays slumped against the wall, letting Alvarez hold him up, face still turned to the ceiling, not meeting Alvarez's eyes.

"Hey," Miguel says, stroking a thumb absently over the soft skin of Ryan's hip again. He keeps his voice murmuring, low, suddenly aware of just how public a spot they're in. "What's going on with you, cheche?"

Ryan shrugs, rolls his head to look away, but Miguel's not going to be put off that easy.

"Come on," he says. "What's got you all messed up?"

"I talked to my mom, yesterday," O'Reily says and puts a hand over his face, as Alvarez nods, smoothing a palm down Ryan's chest and patting his stomach.

"OK," he says, waiting.

"She's got cancer," Ryan says, and oh, Miguel thinks. Oh.

"She's not doing so hot, I guess?"

"It's just more of the same shit."

"Well, she's a tough lady." Miguel thinks of his own mama, remembers her words in the prison visitor's room, If you think you're so tough, think what that says about the bitch that bore you. "She has to be, with you for a son, right? You beat it. She'll beat it, too."

"Yeah, but she won't beat the next thing, maybe, or the thing after that." O'Reily's got one hand wrapped around Alvarez's wrist now, and Miguel can't tell if he's pushing or pulling. "She's getting older, just like my dad did. Someday, that's gonna be it. And I'll be in here, alone."

He breaks off, scrubbing the heel of one hand across his face like a miserable 5-year-old, leaning back against the wall behind him, tilting again to study the shadows of the ceiling or the unseen sky or heaven. "Gloria told me that would happen, you know that?"

"Now you're being fucking stupid, O'Reily," Alvarez says and smacks him upside the head, ignoring his indignant "Hey!" "You ain't ever gonna be alone in Oz. You should know that."

"That's not ..."

"What makes you think they're gonna let me out, hermano?"

Miguel pulls away, untangling himself from Ryan to lean against the wall beside him, making another face at the state of his motherfucking pants and peering through the slats of the stairs, wondering what kind of show they just gave, and to who, before he rolls his head against the wall to look at Ryan again.

"He misses it, you know. Whatever you guys used to ... do. Be. Have."

"Couldn't tell it." O'Reily finally looks over at him, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

"Yeah, you can," Miguel assures him. "He's just kind of an asshole sometimes. Like you."

 

•••

 

Dear Gloria,

I know you'll be surprised when you get this letter. I stopped sending these letters to you a long time ago, back when my dad died. I thought maybe you wouldn't care any more. I thought maybe I didn't have anything that made you love me anymore.

You told me you looked at me different when I took care of Cyril and when I took care of my dad. I thought it meant you finally loved me the way I loved you.

Did you love me? Do you love me?

I don't know the answer to that but I wanted to tell you I'm taking care of people again - people who need me. Some of them need me like Cyril, and some of them need me other ways. I hope maybe it makes you still proud of me. I hope it makes you love me a little bit at least.

I've been writing you every week. If you ever want to know how I'm doing, I can send you those letters. But I'll stop sending them again after this one unless I hear from you. I'll probably be writing to you less from now on because these guys I'm taking care of take up a lot of my time. They need a lot of taking care of but I guess you know all about that - right?

Don't worry about me. I'm the same Ryan you remember and nothing will change that.

I'll always love you, Gloria.

Love,
Ryan

 

•••

 

Prisoner #98A436, Frederick Bader. Convicted: May 29, 2002. Aggravated assault, conspiracy to commit murder. Sentence: 20 years. Up for parole in 14.

His background couldn't be more different from Vern's - dilettante white kid growing up bored and disaffected in the suburbs, and instead of wannabe rap and baggy pants, some chance encounter turned him to boots and braces, a goddamn middle-class kid who should have known better, mean and spoiled, and if his victim hadn't lived in the same kind of comfortable neighborhood Bader had grown up in, if the guy hadn't been a member of the neighborhood watch and the neighborhood homeowners association, if he hadn't worn suits to his investment banker job, if he'd been slightly less the "right kind" ... well, who knows what the charges or the sentence would have looked like. Beecher's pretty sure that if the city hadn't been in such a state of racial unrest over the Lowen case, prosecutors would have smacked him with an ethnic intimidation charge, some kind of hate crime rider, instead of hanging the conspiracy charge on him, something they were pretty sure they could sell even to a jury stacked by Bader's lawyer, who probably bankrupted Mama and Papa in his defense of Freddy.

Dilettante white kid from the suburbs, but he'd kicked the shit out of a black man for daring to marry a white woman, got him down in the gutter with two other booted buddies and tried to kick the life out of him, and he already had a swastika tattooed on one arm, wavering shitty lines of an amateur job in someone's bathroom after too many beers, and he could quote Mein Kampf with the amoral admiration of the bright-eyed young and stupid, and once he was in prison, the Brotherhood took care of the rest. His background couldn't be more different from Vern's but Beecher can see something behind his eyes, some kind of will to fucking power that's awfully familiar. He's got lightning bolts tattooed inside both wrists, now, and Beecher watches him - wary, always wary - out of the corner of his eye as Bader props himself against the wall in the showers, head down, water beating on the back of his neck, sliding through cropped hair, one thick black jagged bolt on display, and he remembers a light touch on the inside of his own wrist, remembers a pulse of blood under his fingers through thin skin, and a shudder shakes him.

Bader looks up and shakes water out of his eyes, gaze sweeping the shower room, and Beecher narrows his own eyes as their sights lock. Bader's been giving Pup shit again, still, and it's not about the rape, Beecher knows, the rape that's still so shockingly secret - somewhere there's a last guy in Unit B keeping his head down and his mouth shut, hoping Pup doesn't remember his face, Beecher's sure. It's only a matter of time, though - there's no keeping secrets in Oz. But that's not Bader's beef, not the thing that keeps him circling Novak, snarling and constantly on the offensive - that's been going on since the kid walked into Em City, a white man who killed another white man to defend a black guy's honor, and the fact that Beecher is his sponsor - Beecher, a former Brotherhood bitch, a race traitor who's now being fucked by some wetback - that's just the cherry on top. Bader's got no interest in Beecher the way Peretti does, the way a double dozen other guys in this prison do, keen and covetous. His gaze is just as avid, but less speculative, and Beecher knows that it's something personal, that Bader would like nothing better than to bring him to heel. He can feel Bader's eyes following him as he walks out, turning his back in a calculated show of unconcern and disregard, can feel the hair on the back of his neck standing on end, the weight of Bader's gaze heavy like a hand clamped there, bearing him down, and he remembers Vern's laughing face, the slip-slide of semen on the backs of his thighs, blood in his hands, and he clenches his fists at his sides.

Miguel catches him halfway across Em City, tugs at his elbow and pulls him under the stairs, propping himself on a shoulder against the riser from underneath and studying Beecher in the dimness. Slashes of light filter through the steps across his face as his eyes rove back and forth over Beecher's features, like he's searching for something, looking for some kind of way in, trying to peel back the layers and get inside Beecher's brain.

"What?" Beecher says, raising an eyebrow, tilting his own head, tossing the extra towel he's got in one hand over his shoulder. "What?"

"Stop being a bitch, OK?" Miguel says. "It's not fair."

"I don't know what you're talking about ..." Beecher's impatient, already on edge, and he tries to push past Miguel, tries to walk away, but a hand in the center of his chest stops him.

"Yeah, you do," Miguel says, thumb brushing lightly, absently against Beecher's skin, catching a stray water droplet and smoothing it in. "You'd'a gotten more mad that that if you didn't know what I was talking about. You know exactly what I'm talking about. And you know I'm right."

He drops his hand to circle Beecher's wrist with his fingers, a loose bracelet of a touch, and Beecher considers pulling away, but he's tired, so tired of all this, and he fights the urge to drop his head into the curve of Miguel's neck, to shut his eyes, shut out everything in the warm press of Miguel's body and the scent of him, soap and sweat and ashes.

"Stop shutting him out," Miguel says.

"Miguel, I told you, you know how I feel about this." Beecher shifts uneasily on his feet, trapped by the hand on his wrist. "If I'm going to say that every life is precious, I have to act like it."

"What about O'Reily's life? What about my life?"

"Miguel ..." Beecher reaches out his free hand, but Miguel catches it, too, wraps his fingers around it.

He's holding Beecher by both wrists, now, like he's got him handcuffed, thumbs pressing hard into the soft skin on the inside, holding harder than he ever does, harder than he has since he clutched at Toby like a lifeline in stuffy dimness inside a blanket-draped bower, since Beecher pushed and shoved and slapped away ghosts in a darkened pod, since Miguel tried to say goodbye. He hesitates, visibly searching for words, and Beecher has a flash of blue sky and chilly wind, early winter sun slanting across his face, but Miguel doesn't look down this time, doesn't shuffle his feet or look away. He holds Beecher's gaze like he's holding his wrists, some kind of desperation behind it.

"That blood on his hands," Miguel says. "That's blood between us. I owe him my life, Beecher." He shakes Beecher's wrists for emphasis, and Beecher tries to hold himself still inside that grasp, studies Miguel's face, dark circles under his eyes, lips set in a thin, unhappy line. "That's twice he's saved me from Death Row."

Beecher shakes his head, because, what? He can't figure out what Miguel is talking about, rummages in his memories, looking back, trying to remember, trying to figure out what he's forgotten from before, before the riot maybe, before evac almost certainly, but it's not like Ryan ever had that much more to do with Miguel than Beecher did, in those days, right? Not until chance and chaos and Beecher, himself, threw them together ...

"Rivera's life," Miguel says. "Torquemada's death."

"Rivera," Beecher says, a statement more than a question.

"Yeah," Miguel says, dark eyes still studying Beecher's face, gauging his reaction, and he's gentling his grip now, rubbing his thumbs over the inside of Beecher's wrists instead of clinging like he's afraid Beecher might slip from his grasp. "You knew that, right? That he was the one who donated the blood that saved Rivera's life?"

"I ... yeah, Miguel. I'd heard about that. But ..."

"No, Beecher. No 'but.'" There's a touch of heat sliding under Miguel's voice, threading its way through his tone. "Don't tell me I wouldn't have been dead, sitting on Death Row right beside Donald Groves, if Rivera had died after what I did to him. If I'd killed a guard? With the way Glynn was always gunning for my ass? No. I act like I was lucky, but I wasn't lucky. O'Reily saved my life."

"He didn't do that for you," Beecher says, leaning in, suddenly vicious, taking the offensive in another, desperate bid for escape.

"No," Miguel agrees, shrugging, shifting his grip on Beecher's wrists, refusing to back down. "He did it for his brother. So Ryan could protect him. Keep him safe, in this prison."

He tries to pull Beecher closer, but Beecher twists his hands, trying to break free, mouth set in a grim line as he pulls, and Miguel lets go, like Beecher knew he would, releasing him before he can hurt himself, before he can bruise himself in Miguel's grip. As he steps back, he stumbles on the towel that's fallen from his shoulder onto the floor, and Miguel reaches out to catch his elbow, hesitatating as Beecher rights himself and holds out a hand to stave off the touch.

"He needs you, cielito lindo," Miguel says.

"No," Beecher tells him. "It's too much. There's too much wrong with it. I don't want to deal with it any more. I don't want him any more."

He can hear the desperation in his own voice, and he remembers the feeling of blood on his hands, shockingly warm and slip-sliding between his fingers, remembers the slide of the blade - hot, like it was just tempered, not cold like steel should be, like a kiss with the weight of a punch behind it. He remembers his apology and Vern's answering words - How the fuck could you ever make that up to me? - like a mirror mocking him, remembers Chris's hands holding him, holding him together as he bled out on the gym floor.

Liar, Alvarez says, calling him on it, smoothing the back of his hand under his chin, and then he does reach out, tugs on Beecher's elbow, pulling him in, and Beecher gives in, gives up, goes, tilting his head for the kiss, leaning into Miguel's touch against his cheek.

Now, he thinks. Or never.

"Don't be an asshole," Miguel says, against his lips.

Chapter Text

Ryan's waiting at the end of the hallway when Alvarez and McManus turn back into Cellblock 1, all in white and lounging against one of the hot cabinets the kitchen staff uses to take meals to Unit J and Solitary and Death Row. He's swinging slightly as he pushes the wheels back and forth, an air of expectation clear, and yeah, Alvarez thinks, this is his day on slop duty, but how the hell did he know Alvarez would be here?

Alvarez didn't tell anyone about the parole hearing this morning, didn't tell Beecher or Pup or Santino, certainly didn't tell O'Reily, and it didn't even take much effort to hide it. He didn't bother to dress up, other than making sure he was wearing a shirt with its sleeves intact - under pressure of some mental voice that was a horrifying combination of Beecher and his mother, which doesn't bear thinking about - and he dressed down for pretty much the same reason he didn't bother to let anyone know where he'd be spending his morning: Why bother? He's not going anywhere, he already knows that, knew it before he walked into the door of the tiny windowless room with its grey chairs and grey walls and grey-white glare of florescent light, to face a parole board that still includes Luis Ruiz, back in Oz, just like all the rest of the motherfuckers here. He knew it before he looked at that smirking face and heard the words, as clear as if they'd been spoken out loud, again.

I'm gonna watch you ripen 'til you rot.

No, Alvarez knew he wasn't going anywhere, and there wasn't any need to get anyone's hopes up - least of all his own - and there wasn't any reason to get anyone worked up or worried or otherwise thrown all the fuck sideways, descentrado, not when they were just starting to maintain some kind of precarious balance again, all three of them, and Pup trailing along behind.

Fucking Ruiz, Miguel thinks, bitterly, still sitting on the parole board, like he was waiting for Oz to reopen, waiting for Miguel to come back. He's going to have to wait for that mamabicho to die before he can think about getting out of here, and how likely is that to happen before Miguel is in the ground himself? They're gonna be carrying him out of here in a pine box, just like he did to Morales, and Ruiz is gonna stop them and open up the lid and look down in Miguel's dead face and wave goodbye.

This is what we got. This is all we got. He remembers his own words to Ryan, and he's pretty sure this is all he'll ever have, because he's not going to be out of here in the next three years, not in the next 30, not ever, and he can feel the walls closing in, can feel the still air of Oz heavy in his chest, sitting in his lungs.

"Don't you have somewhere to be?" McManus says, face screwed up, and O'Reily smirks at him.

"I'm waiting for my escort," he says. "They told me not to go past this point." He gestures down at his feet, which are halfway across a blue line painted on the floor, presumably where Cellblock 1 officially ends and some kind of administrative area picks up. "So, I'm not moving. Come on, McManus. You know how I feel about the rules."

Alvarez raises an eyebrow, and O'Reily's lips twist in something that looks almost like an honest grin in the face of McManus' irritation. Surprising, maybe, that Ryan's in such a good mood this morning, but then again, maybe not so surprising. Any day he can bug the shit out of McManus presumably is a good day.

"All right, I ... Alvarez, stay here a minute, OK? And you, O'Reily, you don't move."

"Not moving," O'Reily agrees, nodding.

"I'll be right back."

"We'll be here," O'Reily says, giving him a half-assed salute, and McManus stops halfway down the hall, eyes narrowed, mouth already half-open to say something before he gives up on the bait and turns into an office doorway.

Alvarez leans against the wall and studies O'Reily - still swinging lightly against the hot box - out of the corner of his eye and waits. O'Reily's as bad as Beecher, worse maybe, with his inability to keep quiet, to keep his mouth shut, and finally he talks, of course he talks.

"No go," he says, and it's more of a statement than a question, really.

"No," Alvarez says, rolling his head against the wall in lieu of a shake, and he closes his eyes for a minute, catalogues all the stress he's carrying around in his shoulders and his lower back and his hands, for fuck's sake, you'd think he was Beecher scribbling away at his cramped little notes 12 hours a day, but it's only from the clenching of his fists as he sat in that stuffy room and listened to Ruiz run down a roster of his crimes and infractions. "How'd you know I'd be out here, anyway?"

If anyone wondered where he was, they should have figured he was at his weekly appointment with Sister Pete.

"I got connections, you know," Ryan says, and he moves to lean against the wall, too, Alvarez following him by sound, by the sense of another body suddenly in his space, by the arm against his, a solid firm pressure.

Miguel opens his eyes and looks over to study Ryan, who's mirroring his pose, legs and arm crossed as he lounges against the wall, head back and eyes closed like he's taking a nap. He's trying to figure out what's going on, exactly. He'll yell at Beecher about it, but it's not like Miguel hasn't spent months frustrated by Ryan's continued squirrelly behavior, too, by the way he runs hot and cold, the way he spent all that time shutting down on Beecher - and a little bit, on Alvarez, but mostly Beecher - and wondering when they're going to get their shit together. And he can't say he wasn't expecting the O'Reily Morning-After Freezeout. Ryan makes you pay for the soft kisses, the fraught touches - Alvarez has seen enough, in the past, of Beecher dealing with those sudden sharp turns, the way the walls slam up, the withdrawal of affection and the way Ryan pushes back, pushes away in response to his own perceived vulnerability. If Beecher can only halfway tame Ryan, Alvarez sure doesn't think he's going to snap his fingers and fix all the bullshit Ryan's got jamming him up in his head. So he can't quite figure out what's going on with this easy camaraderie, can't suss out what O'Reily's game is.

"When are you up again?" Ryan asks, opening his eyes and turning to look at Miguel, freaking him out a little bit, honestly, making him flounder.

"Three," he says. "Another three years. Every three years for the rest of my goddamn life." He laughs, sharp and bitter, shaking his head. "Tanto nadar ..."

"Swimming, right?" O'Reily says, shifting to face him, leaning on one shoulder against the wall. His white jacket falls open and Alvarez can see the tiny gold cross laying against his chest, against the green T-shirt Alvarez is almost positive he stole from Beecher.

"Yeah," he says.

"You know the story of the black Irish, right?" Ryan says, as McManus appears at the end of the hallway, black-suited hack in tow.

"What?"

"The black Irish? See, back in, like, the 1400s or something, there was the Spanish Armada, and they got their asses kicked by England, right? All those boats, totally destroyed."

"O ... K?" Miguel squints at him, trying to figure out where this is going.

"All right, O'Reily, let's get moving," the hack interrupts, coming up on them. "The boys in Solitary want their breakfast."

"So all these Spanish sailors, they washed up on the beaches of Ireland," Ryan's leaning in now, close, talking fast and low. "No idea how to speak English, didn't know anything about the place, right? They had to learn how to survive. Figured it out, little by little. It's why we're survivors, us black Irish. It's in our blood."

"All right." Alvarez raises an eyebrow at him as O'Reily takes one step away, two, backward toward his cart.

"O'Reily, come on! Get a fucking move on!"

"And in the beginning, Alvarez? Those guys came from the same motherfuckers that your people come from." He turns and sets his foot to the bottom of the hot box, pushing it into motion before he looks back at Alvarez. "So don't you pussy out on me now, all right?"

•••

 

Ryan knows he can cook eggs - he used to make them for Cyril when he was home sick from school, for Shannon when she came down with some bug - and some things are like riding a bike, you just don't forget. He doesn't have any of the cream cheese or the sour cream he'd use to make them light and fluffy, once he had his own place and some disposable cash, but he mixes up some of the powdered milk they've got stored on the back shelves in industrial-sized boxes and beats in a little before he pours the eggs into the pan. They only ever use the milk dry and even then only in bulk recipes, and he can see why, when he swirls it around in the cup he uses to stir it with water - it's thin and blue and stays watery until it's thick with grit and he has to dump it out and start over with a second batch, but it's better than nothing. He steals some of the onions Peretti is already chopping for lunch and makes off with some cheese, slivering a few bits from the acid orange block in the back walk-in, and he's got four, no, five motherfuckers already over his shoulder before he's even done sauteéing up the onions, the scent drifting out of the kitchen and into the cafeteria, mixing with the shocking sound of Frankie Urbano, who spends his weekly music lesson sounding like he's practicing for the fucking Met, or something.

"O'Reily, what the fuck?" D'Angelo says, following his nose back into the kitchen from the front serving line. "What do you think this is, fucking fine dining?"

"Hey, it's for my mom," Ryan says, bringing all the indignation that he can to bear.

He takes the tray out to her when she's finished with Urbano, in the few minutes before Poet's lesson is due to start - "I'm almost done!" Arnold keeps yelling down the length of the room, "I'm almost ready!" before Joey shuffles him back into the kitchen, where O'Reily can hear the hiss and slam of the dishwasher, finishing up the last of the breakfast trays. Poet's more of a rap kind of guy, but his lessons with Suzanne, punctuating early lunch prep twice a week, are the first time since before evac that Ryan's heard any of Poet's own rhymes come out of his mouth, and he knows his mom is something special.

She's picking out something at the piano when he reaches the stage, a hint of a melody, something that sounds vaguely like a nursery rhyme, like one of the simple songs she and Busmalis have been trading back and forth before the days Norma and Alma come to visit, but a sketch of remembered words runs through Ryan's head ... ... somebody's baby is not coming back, sang the crow on the cradle ... and he tilts his head quizzically as she breaks off.

"What is that?" he asks, but she just shakes her head.

"Just an old song. What is that?" She gestures at the tray in his hands.

"It's for you," he tells her. "Come down here and eat. You need protein, I bet."

He sits and watches to make sure she has some of the eggs and cheese, although he doesn't say anything when she silently refuses the onions - it's why he kept them separate, after all, remembering his own changing ability to keep food down from day to day on chemo. He picks through them, himself, instead, as he sits with her, studying the fall of florescent light on her white blonde hair, and he stamps down on the image of Cyril holding out a handful of long floating strands, dream-silent, avoids the thought of how long it'll be before she starts showing up in wigs, how long it'll be before she stops showing up at all. Risk factors, he remembers Gloria's voice saying, and hereditary predisposition, but they'd all been thinking about Tessie at that point, none of them had even known about Suzanne, except Seamus. Ryan shouldn't have been so surprised, shouldn't have been knocked sideways when she told him. He can't help feeling like he infected her, somehow, even though he knows that's not the direction this stuff runs.

She's telling him all about a yoga class one of her doctors recommended and wondering aloud if she could convince Querns to allow one in the prison when she stops, putting her fork down beside her tray with a precision that reminds him of Beecher's finicky habits.

"What is it, Ryan?" she asks him. "You look so worried."

"Nah," he says, shaking his head at her. "I'm just thinking about your treatment."

"Don't lie to your mother, young man. There's something else going on."

"No, it's ..."

"Ryan." Her voice is firm, even as her face remains inquisitive, and he remembers suddenly, Beecher's voice, pushing, pushing - What are you so afraid of?

He studies her for a minute, waiting, hoping Poet's going to show up for his lesson, and then he sighs, looking down at the tabletop, spreading his fingers on the sticky surface, remembering fingertips pressed against his.

"If I tell you, will you promise you'll eat some more?" he asks.

He watches her fork up the eggs and cheese, small bites, eating for him, eating for his approval, and he struggles with the words he wants to say, the words he doesn't want to say, the words he can't even find.

"You love me, right?" he says, finally.

"Oh, Ryan," she says, putting down the fork again. "Of course I do."

"No matter what?"

"Ryan, I might not approve of everything you've done, but I'll always love you."

He nods, looking down at the table again.

"Ryan," she says, finally. "What is this about?"

"It's just, what's the point?" The words burst out of him, impossible to hold in any longer. "What's the point of trying to be a better person, or whatever bullshit, when you're just stuck here anyway, and everybody is going to leave you? What's the point of loving anybody? Everybody's going to leave. Everybody's going to die."

He watches her face as he speaks, watches the emotions run across it, sees her flinch, and that's not what he wanted, not what he set out to do, but it's bullshit, all of it, and she asked, he tells himself fiercely. She asked. People die, and they leave, they get paroled, and there's nothing solid to hold on to, Ryan knows that, he's learned that in here. Seamus warned him, Gloria warned him, both of them told him he'd end up alone, and then they'd left him. He's going to end up alone, and even from the goddamn grave, the old man's going to win.

"Ryan," she says when he subsides. "You can't refuse to love someone because they're going to die. You'd never be able to love anyone. We're all going to die, sooner or later."

"What if people don't die?" He smashes an onion with the extra fork he brought out before he looks back up at her. "What if they just leave you? Leave you behind?"

"Even when people leave, it doesn't mean they stop loving you."

He rolls his eyes and nods at her words, and she reaches out to lay a hand light on his wrist.

"Ryan, I'm sorry ..."

"Don't fucking apologize," he grits out, struggling not to snatch his hand away, not to hurt her any more than he already has. "It's not your fault. It's not ... even all about you."

"Ryan, is this is about Gloria again?"

"No," says, staring at the tabletop, and Seamus whispers in the back of his mind again, and he can feel heat in his face. "No, it's not ... Gloria."

"Oh," she says, and she sits there a minute before picking up her fork again, taking a couple more small bites, before she continues speaking. "You know I love you no matter what, right?"

"I know," he says, and he's all in, now, and he's waiting, poised for the final turn of the cards, and he could lose everything. "I just ... Dad ..."

"You're going to listen to Seamus O'Reily?" she asks him, and her gaze is keen, and he only just stops himself from shifting, trying to avoid the probing look.

"Did you ever wonder," he asks her, poking at the onion again, "how different things might have been if you and he had worked stuff out? I mean, I know he was a bastard, but what if he'd been willing ..."

"Maybe the question you need to ask is, how different will things be if you work stuff out?"

 

•••

 

Prisoner #06L1047. Darryl Lawson. Convicted: November 3rd, 2006. Armed robbery, aggravated assault, criminal possession of a weapon. Sentence: 15 years. Up for parole in seven.

The kid reminds Beecher a little of Reggie Rawls - Rawls, who they left behind in the Coliseum - small and skinny, with a tendency to disappear into the background whenever there's anyone else around him to take up any space, any air, any attention, at least until he cracks out some sharp, shockingly funny remark that has O'Reily cackling or Alvarez blinking or Pup smothering a laugh, usually at Andrade's expense. He's still a little jumpy, even after all this time - although maybe that's just around Beecher, because Lawson had no problem overturning a table in a fury and trying to punch Poet in the throat in the common area two days ago, almost getting himself bounced into the Hole, when Poet made some comment about his skinny ass and its appeal to Andrade. He sticks to Andrade like a burr, like a duckling following its mama, and Beecher thinks about Kenny Wangler, about what a dick he was, but still so young, too young to be in here, barely younger than Lawson when he got here, barely younger than Pup's sister Sara when he died here, and Lawson can't be more than two or three years older than Holly, in so far over his head.

O'Reily's never believed the kid had the balls to do anything to get into Oz, and he occasionally badgers Beecher for details, trying to wheedle out whatever info could be gleaned from the files in Sister Pete's office, from the data Beecher inputs on the computer. True to form, he's only ever been temporarily put off by Beecher's insistence that the info was confidential, that Sister Pete trusted him, OK? He'd returned to the question again and again, worrying it like a dog with a particularly intriguing bone. Beecher has to admit, he thinks Ryan's at least partially right: There's no telling what was going through the kid's head when he got his hands on a street weapon and held up some neighborhood bodega, but Beecher's pretty sure the aggravated assault charge is bullshit. There's no way Lawson ever intended to fire that gun at anybody, Beecher's pretty sure, and he can imagine the look of surprise and dismay on the kid's face as his shaking hands betrayed him, sending a shot careening wide and wild through the tiny store.

Lawson has been letting his hair grow out into small dreadlocks - it makes him look older, Beecher thinks, or at least older than 12 - and he pushes his fingers through them impatiently, leaning forward on the edge of the bottom bunk and scowling at Andrade as Beecher lounges in the door of their pod. Andrade's ignoring him, studiously paging through a magazine in front of a half-finished game of checkers on top of one of their trunks. It looks like he's been letting Lawson win, Beecher thinks, looking at the collection of red checkers laid to one side, the two black checkers that already have been kinged.

"Come on, man," Lawson says. "I'm this close to winning."

"Three more vocabulary words, and you get another turn," Andrade says and flicks over another page of his magazine.

"Motherfucker ..." Lawson says irritably, but he subsides as Andrade arches a brow at him, and he pulls a textbook into his lap, running a slim finger down the page as he searches for his place. "Impudent," he reads out. "Disrespectful, rude." He looks up at Andrade's snort. "Shut up, man."

Beecher can't help his own laugh at that, and he drops down in the spare chair they've dragged into the pod, looking bemusedly back and forth between them until Andrade looks up from the magazine, tilting a questioning look his way.

"Tactful," Lawson mutters behind them. "Able to say something in a way that doesn't cause offense."

"I think I need some more of my own vocabulary help," Beecher says, and Andrade crosses an ankle over his knee, leaning back in his chair, expectant.

"Obstinant," Lawson says, and Beecher absently corrects his pronunciation, and he's pretty sure he's stalling.

"¿Qué?," Andrade says finally, and Beecher rubs his hands against his own knees, feeling worn cotton under his palms, stomach hollowing out in some kind of fear or anticipation, he's not sure which.

"¿Cielito lindo?" he says and watches a knowing grin slide across Andrade's face. "What?"

 

•••

 

"You can't hold him down," Miguel is saying when Beecher walks into the pod after dinner, Pup trailing behind him. "He doesn't like that. I'm serious, O'Reily. You don't want to fuck around like that. You'll get yourself belted in the mouth. I'll tell you what he does like, though - there's this spot, right under his ear ..." He leans forward from his perch against the sink, gesturing at his own neck.

"This conversation had better not be about what it sounds like it's about," Beecher says, stopping in the doorway.

"Don't act like we never compared notes, Beecher."

"Is that where you got that biting thing from?" Ryan asks, sprawled on the bottom bunk, leaning back on his elbows.

"No." Beecher says. "Wait. He bit you?"

"I can't hear this," Pup says, turning on his heel and bolting.

"I don't know if I should hear this," Ryan mutters, suddenly avoiding Beecher's eyes, gaze sliding across Miguel, out to the common area, anywhere but at Beecher, and Beecher's sure there's no way he'd ever admit it but he looks a little pink around the edges, like some kind of goddamn virgin, all embarrassed sensibilities and blushing naïveté.

"I think maybe you both better shut up," Beecher says, holding out his peace offering. "Here."

"You know, I work in the kitchen three days a week," Ryan says. "I can get an extra brownie whenever I want."

"Whenever you want?" Alvarez asks, leaning back against the sink, hands shoved in the pockets of his sweatshirt now.

"Whenever we have brownies."

"Take the fucking brownie and act like you're grateful, all right?" Beecher says.

"Fine," Ryan says, sitting up, leaning forward at the edge of the mattress. "Is it a Bukowski special?"

"It's a brownie, O'Reily - no drugs, nothing baked in. Nothing special about it." Beecher shoves it at him, into his hand, and Ryan licks the side of it as crumbs fall off.

"Oh, it's special, all right," he says around his mouthful. "You brought it to me, didn't you?"

"Fuck off, Ryan," Beecher says, and Miguel snorts, shaking his head. "What?"

"You are one pair of loco motherfuckers," Miguel says, and Ryan flips him off.

"Hey," Beecher says, watching Miguel straighten, watching him stand up from his perch against the sink, ready to make his nightly exit for count, and he puts out a hand to stop him, steps into him, close enough that the hand Miguel has over his stomach brushes against Beecher as they breath in counterpoint, in and out and in.

"Hey," Miguel says, and a small smile quirks at the corner of his mouth, and Beecher raises a hand to press two fingers to the edge of it, slides them back to trace light along his cheekbone.

Miguel circles his fingers around Beecher's wrist, pad of his thumb brushing light on the inside, as he pulls in a breath, long deep inhale, eyes closing, face tilting into the touch, before he turns his face to kiss the palm of Beecher's hand, and Beecher's heart turns over in his chest. Miguel moves closer, pressing against Beecher now, dropping a hand to slide fingers under the hem of his shirt, inside his waistband, along bare skin, and then his mouth is on Beecher's, kissing him like he needs it like air, like breathing. He keeps his forehead pressed against Beecher's when he pulls his mouth away, standing close, eyes closed.

"I love you. You know that, right?" Beecher says, soft, against his mouth, and Miguel pulls back and slides a thumb across Beecher's bottom lip.

"Cielito lindo ..." he says, and Beecher knows what it means, now.

Cielo, it means "sky," Andrade had said, and he'd laughed at Beecher's skeptical look. Cielo lindo, beautiful sky - it's like, heaven, he'd added, and Beecher had felt his face heat. He flushes now, again, thinks about blue sky and chilly wind and sunlight slanting across Miguel's face, about stars strewn like handfuls of diamonds across the night sky, and he presses his cheek into Miguel's palm for an endless moment.

"Don't be an asshole, all right?" Miguel adds and steps back, releasing him.

Ryan's been observing from where he's standing now, leaning against one end of the beds, tucked between the cold metal bunk frame and the cold concrete of the back wall of the pod, tucked into whatever privacy there is to be had in Em City. He's got his head cocked, open interest in his gaze, and Beecher watches closely as Miguel turns, pausing in front of Ryan on his way out of the pod. He puts two fingers to Ryan's jaw, tips his face, just so, to catch his lips, directing the kiss even as he lets Ryan control it, as he lets Ryan lean in and lick into his mouth, and Ryan fists a hand in Miguel's collar, holding on tight, tight. Beecher shifts, realizing he's half hard, and OK, he's still a little disconcerted by whatever truce these two have going on between them, whatever kind of vague détente, but he could watch that some more, sure.

He and Ryan stand on separate sides of the pod, eyeing each other, once Miguel is gone, the air around them pregnant with expectation.

"I feel like maybe you have designs on my virtue," Beecher says, finally, and Ryan scoffs.

"Beecher, I lived next door to you for months, you and Alvarez in that pod right over there," he says, gesturing with a hand. "How much virtue you think you can convince me you got left?"

"Couuuunt!" Murphy yells from outside.

The atmosphere is actually less strained once they're into lockdown, Beecher thinks, crawling into Ryan's bed, folding himself down at one end and shuffling through case files and case law and legal briefs and other documents, ankle draped over Ryan's in some kind of no-man's land, a demilitarized zone in the middle of the mattress. Ryan pages through a travel magazine for a while, finally getting bored and wandering off to play checkers with Pup through the wall, borrowing Post-It notes and yellow legal sheets and various scraps of paper to display instructions to Pup about where to move his men, muttering curses under his breath and flipping him off when the kid deliberately fucks up his moves, grinning at him through the plexiglass. Miguel starts out with some kind of textbook and ends up just sprawled on his bunk, one hand on his stomach under his rucked-up T-shirt, half dozing already and tracing invisible designs on the pod wall between them. Beecher looks up once, meeting his eyes, and puts a hand to the plexiglass, against the two fingers Miguel has pressed to the wall, holding his gaze for an endless moment before he drops his hand and goes back to his paperwork.

He shucks his pants once the lights go down, and he can feel Ryan's gaze on him, like fingers splayed along his shoulder blades, tracing down the curve of his spine, following the arch and length of his bones, and he remembers this, this kind of electric anticipation, coming together after fighting for it, after fighting each other and everyone around them. He pushes himself into Ryan's bed, the way he's done dozens of times before this, curling up against him and draping a hand over his hip, eager for attention, for affection, eager to touch and be touched, and he can feel Ryan's fingers absently combing through his hair. It could be no different than other nights of bad dreams and comfort in the dark, but there's something in Ryan's touch, some kind of possibility, fingers tracing the line of muscle in Beecher's shoulders, sliding under the collar of his shirt to graze bare skin, and Ryan lifts his other hand to drift over Beecher's cheek, lazy, dreamlike. Beecher turns his face up to the touch, catches Ryan looking down at him, gazes locked for a stretching moment, and Beecher can feel that wave of anticipation moving, up from behind his balls, through his stomach, into his chest, all the possibilities and certainties and uncertainties that lie between him and Ryan coming down to this moment, coming together in a shared bunk in the dark of Em City night.

He smoothes a hand up O'Reily chest, over bare skin, catching a taut nipple with his thumb and Ryan makes a small sound in his throat. Beecher's already holding himself in check, trembling with it, ready and eager but trying to stay still, so still, afraid Ryan will slide out from under his touch, trying to hold but finally breaking. He wants, he wants, wants to kiss and touch and hold, wants to feel Ryan's cock heavy in his hand, on his tongue, wants to feel Ryan's hands and thighs close hard around his sides, holding him, wants something that he can hold on to, and he pushes and Ryan gives up, gives in.

Now, he thinks. Or never.

He wants Ryan's mouth, and he presses his lips to Ryan's, nudges against him, leaning up into him, catching a breath as he feels Ryan's palm hot against the edge of his jaw, moving to cup his cheek, tilt his head. He closes his eyes as Ryan's thumb brushes over his eyelid, and he turns his face into Ryan's palm to lick at the salt taste there, presses into it as he feels Ryan's hips roll under him. Ryan pulls away to study Beecher in the dim light from the guard platform, and Beecher braces himself on one elbow, lips bitten and mouth hot, and he watches Ryan's eyes darken as he slicks his tongue out across his lips.

Ryan presses a thumb to Beecher's lower lip, and Beecher opens his mouth, flickers out his tongue again to taste, salty, soapy, and Ryan curses, voice breaking, hips stuttering, as he pushes the thumb into Beecher's mouth. Beecher pushes his hard cock into Ryan's hip, arching his back, feeling the strain in his muscles, in his tendons, afraid he's not going to last long. He looks and can see Alvarez watching them, on the other side of the plexiglass, gaze avid, and he watches a flicker of pink tongue against Alvarez's lips, and he feels wanton, willing to press himself against the glass, splay himself wide open for the eyes watching him. He makes an imperious gesture with his hand, and Alvarez laughs silently behind the glass, but he pushes back the sheets and Beecher can see he's already got his cock out, already got his hand wrapped around it, stroking slowly as he watches them, watches Ryan and Beecher.

"Jesus Christ," Ryan says, voice breaking.

Beecher slides up Ryan's body, cock hard in the hollow of Ryan's hip, and he remembers this, oh, he remembers, current sliding under his skin, Ryan's scent in his head and the back of his throat, Ryan's tongue in his mouth, Ryan's hands in his hair, frantic teeth and touch, and Ryan moving under him, moving against him, and underlying it all, a hum of expectation. His knees slip on the sheet between Ryan's thighs as he tries to brace himself, and he can feel Ryan's hand sliding up his back, under his shirt, hot on his skin, pushing the material up, and he ducks his head to wiggle free, hands catching, sprawled out on top of Ryan's body, and Ryan takes the chance to catch Beecher's mouth again, to push hips and hard cock up against him, pulling a raw sound out of Beecher's throat as he grinds down, frantic, scrabbling with the material around his wrists until he can shuck it off onto the floor, catching Ryan's laugh in his mouth.

Ryan's got one hand down Beecher's underwear by now, hot on the curve of his ass, pulling Beecher into his body as he rolls his hips up into Beecher's, and he rolls his head on the pillow as Beecher arches against him. There's a thud against the plexiglass, Ryan's hand smacking against it, and Beecher spares one swift pitying thought for Pup in his top bunk before he looks over and sees Miguel, palm pressed to the glass against Ryan's, eyes moving from Ryan's face to his splayed hand, from the fingers curled into the small of Beecher's back, now, and back to Ryan's face, their gazes locking through the wall. Beecher can't help the small helpless sound pushed out of his throat.

"Over," Ryan says, his voice wrecked in the still air of the pod, and, "off, get these off," pulling his hand away from the glass long enough to help Beecher frantically shove down his boxers, kick them to the floor, and then he rolls Beecher over to face the wall, to face Miguel, curling around him from behind, chest hard and hot against Beecher's back, cock hot and hard against Beecher's ass, sliding and catching between Beecher's cheeks, between his thighs, and they should have used something, Beecher thinks, something slick, but Ryan makes a raw sound against the back of Beecher's shoulder as his cock drags against Beecher's skin and thrusts harder.

Hiss mouth presses hot against Beecher's shoulder, his arm presses hard against Beecher's side as he reaches forward to lay a hand against the glass again, meeting Miguel's palm on the other side, and Beecher looks up, meets Miguel's eyes as he wraps a hand around his own cock, twisting in time to Miguel's thrusts on the other side of the glass, arching back into Ryan as he brings himself off into his own fist.

Stupid, to want something like that. Beecher remembers Miguel's voice, the words resigned, but something in the tone behind them hopeful, expectant, as he watched Beecher, sunlight falling across his face, like he was waiting for Beecher to prove him wrong, to prove what could be had, and Beecher isn't sure, exactly, what they do have, how this all fits together, this shifting balance they've got going on, but it's what they've got. It's all they've got. They're making some kind of place for themselves, carving it out of flesh and blood and bone, fighting for it, fighting each other for it, if they have to.

It's worth fighting for, he thinks.

He presses back into Ryan's chest, limbs gone loose, now, in the aftermath of his release, and he tilts his head to let Ryan bury his face in the curve of his neck, feels warm breath against his skin, hears him mumble, broken words, sleep and got your back. He looks up at Miguel through the glass - sleepy face, drowsy eyes, and he never could stay awake long after sex - and he signs a quick interrogative, waits to close his eyes and slip into sleep until he sees Miguel rock a hand in front of his chest.

Still alive.

it starts when you say We
and know who you mean, and each
day you mean one more