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The Space of a Breath

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He tells the AA group that he wants to change. He’s lying, but they don’t know him so they believe it.


Joe sees through him, though, like always. He doesn’t call him on it this time, not with words, but the look he gives Ryan lets it hang there unspoken.
The look that says, I would never ask you to change.


And Ryan knows it. Knows it like he knows Joe’s gone and that’s the one thing he wants to change now that it’s too late. But even so, his mind keeps trying so hard to bring Joe back.


In the prison that day, Joe—the real Joe—had called them soul mates, had made Ryan believe it and then let himself be executed, and Ryan can’t think of a strong enough word for how shattered that left him.


Ryan thinks of how Joe would know the perfect synonym, how it would roll off his tongue in the accent that haunts Ryan’s dreams, and he really wants a drink.

*


After the meeting, Ryan checks into a motel and decimates the mini bar. Then he walks two blocks to a liquor store, returns to the motel with an oversized bottle of vodka, and drinks until the room is spinning.


Joe doesn’t say a word, doesn’t bother to show up. Ryan keeps drinking because he misses Joe, because he shouldn’t miss Joe, because he feels trapped by the threat of Theo, by Gwen, by the baby.
He sits on the edge of the bed, lets himself fall back, laughs at the army of tiny bottles set up like chess pieces on the nightstand.


He lets himself fall asleep on the edge of a daydream about how he shoulda-woulda-coulda helped Joe escape.
Hours pass in the space of a breath as he dreams.


“Ryan,” Joe murmurs.


“Mmngh," Ryan groans and blinks open his bleary eyes—the room tilts, rocking like a boat on calm water, and it’s comforting. Familiar. A blend of drunkenness and dreams that gives him a temporary escape. Ryan opens his eyes and Joe’s sitting on a chair next to the bed, one hand stretched out like he meant to shake Ryan awake but thought better of it.


“Ryan,” Joe says again.


Ryan smiles and mumbles, “Hey, Joe,” staring up at him from the bed.


Joe gives him a strange look and says, “Are you awake?”


“No,” Ryan says, reaching out for Joe’s hand and smiling wider when it feels solid in his own. “But that’s okay, I love these dreams.”


He tugs Joe closer and Joe lets him, but Joe’s expression is somewhere between amused and disappointed when he sits on the edge of the bed at Ryan’s insistence.


“You’re incredibly drunk,” Joe says, like this is news.


Ryan grins because he finds Joe’s expression hilarious. Then the amusement fades and Ryan squeezes Joe’s hand, says, “I miss you.”


Joe raises his eyebrows and asks, “You fell off the wagon over me?”


“Mmm.” Ryan doesn’t bother with the effort to make real words—Joe already knows all of this, and he’s wasting their time asking depressing questions he already has answers to. Ryan reaches up for Joe’s face and slurs, “I think I love you,” and Joe should know that already too, but the way his breath catches says otherwise.


“Ryan,” he whispers, then just stares at Ryan, speechless.


Ryan chuckles because speechless is a first for Joe.


“C’mere,” Ryan says, pulling Joe down by his shirt collar. He tries to kiss him, but Joe puts his index finger on Ryan’s lips to stop him.


“You’re drunk,” Joe repeats.


Ryan flashes a grin. “Since when do you care?” he says, and pokes out his tongue to lick Joe’s finger.


Joe’s mouth drops open and Ryan surges forward to catch it with his own. This time, Joe gives in. His lips crash against Ryan’s, his tongue dives inside, exploring, caressing, and it’s the best kind of overwhelming. Ryan moans into the kiss, tangles his fingers in Joe’s hair to pull him closer. Joe leans down over Ryan, pressing him into the mattress. Joe is rock hard but when he reaches down he discovers that despite Ryan’s enthusiasm, Ryan isn’t.


Joe sighs into the kiss and, with some difficulty, pulls away. “You’re too drunk for this, Ryan.”


Ryan lets Joe break the kiss, but he doesn’t let him move away. “Don’t go.”
He pulls Joe down beside him on the bed, Joe laying on his back and Ryan on his side beside him.


Joe meets his eyes and gives him the tiniest of smiles. “You’re going to be very angry with me in the morning.”


Ryan smiles and closes his eyes and throws his arm around Joe, resting his head on his chest. “Only if you leave,” he says, and falls asleep.


Joe watches Ryan for a hesitant moment, then reaches up and threads his fingers through Ryan’s hair. “Goodnight, Ryan,” he murmurs. He lets his head fall back against the pillow and closes his eyes.