Brian Cassidy is twenty-four years old, magazine-pretty-boy good looking, and arguing with Munch.
“I’m just saying,” he says, leaning back in his seat with his elbow over the back of the chair, “that it was none of our business until the Japanese showed up and fucked with us.”
Munch snorts and rolls his eyes. “And all the Jews – “
“There’s no proof that the U.S. government knew that the Jews were being – “
“And no proof that Bush is an idiot, but we know – “
“That logic doesn’t – “
“My point, my young and very stupid friend, is – “
Fin rolls his eyes. He’s been listening to this argument for three weeks, since Brian Cassidy arrived for the semester. Cassidy’s one of those teachers, a guy who got most of the way through a college degree and then realized that he didn’t know what the fuck he wanted to do with his life so he ended up teaching. Great, fine, if you weren’t an obnoxious prick, but Fin’s pretty convinced he is. In his first three weeks as Munch’s student teacher, he’s sent Munch on more tirades than Fin ever has.
Kind of an accomplishment.
Except for the part where it’s annoying.
“Theoretically,” and Ben Stone doesn’t look up from the paper he’s reading, one of a stack (because he spends his lunch hours half-talking, half-grading, the king of the multitask), “that information could be proven, but only with the right resources.”
Cassidy grins. “See?”
“And you can prove that there’s gold at the end of the rainbow if you chase enough leprechauns.”
Munch delivers it so dryly that Goren, who no one knew was even listening in, starts laughing first, and Cassidy gets a pissed-off look for a good five minutes, sulking in his tater tots. Munch shows his triumph by looking over the top of his glasses in Fin’s direction and half-smirking. It’s like saying, “See? I’ve still got it.”
Fin rolls his eyes again. You don’t encourage Munch.
Except the grin he gets shows that he’s done exactly that.
“Are you tryin’ to make him crack?”
Munch looks up from the lesson plans he’s been tweaking for the last week – changes because he’s got someone else teaching his stuff, and unless you’re John Munch, you can’t teach his stuff, so that’s why he’s bothering with it – to see Fin hovering in the doorway, arms crossed and eyes all the way focused on him.
He sets down his pencil.
“I’m not trying to do anything. If he cracks, he cracks, and that’s a side effect of trying to educate him. You remember that mission statement? To prepare the generations of the future or whatever other bullshit Van Buren made us vow in the fine print about signing away our first born children.” He shrugs. “Do you care?”
“Nah.” It’s late enough for Fin to come around. It’s an art, because the kids don’t know and Munch doesn’t care, but Fin does. He’s weird about that sort of thing, and Munch figures that if he wants to be weird, it’s okay by him. It just means that Fin looks down the hall before wandering into the room and lets the door do its half-closing thing. “He’s squirrelly.”
He snorts. “He’s an intellectual gnat.”
“He’s tryin’ to get under your skin, John.”
“You say that about all the boys.”
He glances back up and catches Fin’s eyes, and Fin almost smiles. “I’m just sayin’,” and Fin keeps saying it as he comes over and puts his ass on the edge of the desk like he always does, just far enough from Munch that Munch would have to move for any sort of touch, “you could go a little easier on him. He’s here to learn. If he was here to get his ass handed to him by you, he would’ve signed up for Model U.N.”
“And woe betide us when he chooses to represent Brazil for its women.” He grins. “It’s too bad that I never get the student teachers who can stand up to me.”
“Who stands up to you?”
Fin snorts. “That don’t count.”
“It doesn’t? I’m pretty sure it counted last night, or was that some sort of new swim-team strategy you were showing me? The out-of-water wall-pin. Not very effective, though.”
“Why not? It shut you up.”
Munch can never really get over how Fin can say some of the cruelest things with fondness. He scoots his chair closer. “There are plenty of other ways to do that. I think you’re well-versed in several.”
Fin pulls in a sharp breath when his fingers trail over one of those wide, bunched thighs, and Munch knows it drives him crazy so he slides his fingers to the inside seam of Fin’s sweatpants. He must have been with the team before coming over to the history room, because he smells like chlorine and there’s a damp spot on his sweats, like he got splashed. It’s just high enough on his thigh that when John traces the shape of the splotch with his fingers, Fin’s voice catches in the back of his throat and he makes a tiny sound.
“John,” he murmurs.
“We can stay here,” he replies, his voice soft. Only Fin can hear. Even if the room was full of students, only Fin would have been able to hear. He raises his other hand and, chair steered as it is in front of Fin, Munch sitting and Fin’s weight almost entirely on the lip of the desk, it’s easy to pull the tie on his sweatpants and watch them slip. They’re stretched-out and old. They hide nothing, the way they’re slack against thighs and groin. “Or, we can start here, and then I can watch you try to walk all the way back to your room.”
“It’s always my room.” And Fin’s fingers slide, for a moment, through Munch’s hair.
“We tried it in my room the one time, but don’t you remember Goren’s face the next day? Never mind the stuttering. I thought for sure – “
The door creaks with the sound and Fin’s hand drops like a stone from Munch’s head. Brian Cassidy is in the doorway with a cardboard box of something, and Munch pushes his chair away from the desk before any real damage can be done. “Don’t you know how to knock?” he demands.
Cassidy looks at him. “What, was I interrupting some cross-curricular thing?”
“Swim team as a metaphor for jingoism. Just you wait.” When he glances at Fin, he catches the defeat in his eyes while he reties his pants. “What do you want?”
“I brought over the kids’ The Things They Carried project.” He sticks a hand in the box and pulls out what looks like a Boy Scout canteen someone beat up until it looked old, battered, and bruised. “I figured some of them might want them back.”
“You couldn’t have done that in the morning?”
“I knew you’d be down here. You usually are.” Cassidy grins and it’s Fin who looks away. “Tomorrow during planning period, can we go over some of the World War II stuff? I wanna make sure it’s right, you know?”
Brian Cassidy is earnest, which is the thing Munch kind of likes about him. He almost looks sorry for interrupting, and sorry for standing there, and it would probably piss Munch off if he were anybody else or if he wasn’t so eager to be at least a slightly decent teacher. He doesn’t have a chance in hell of doing it any time soon – he doesn’t use his head the way he should, and gut instinct only gets you so far in education – but he’s shooting for it. Munch can appreciate that. He does appreciate that.
“Sure,” he says, and Cassidy grins at him.
Fin glances at Munch but doesn’t say anything about it. He doesn’t say anything else until Cassidy’s gone into the hallway, grabbed another box, brought it in, and dropped it off. Munch knows that silence. That silence usually ends in yelling.
And then yelling and then more sex. They’ve got it down to an art.
Cassidy closes the door behind him.
“So,” and Munch draws out the word, “I think I was going to open your pants and get to know you better. What do you say?”
Fin’s watching him. “He’s got a thing for you, John.”
Munch rolls his eyes. “Would you stop saying that? You’ve said it six times now.”
“’Cause every time, he’s been like that.”
“Overeager? So’s Skoda’s Jack Russell, but I don’t read too much into that.”
“Keep sayin’ it. You might believe it.”
“I do believe it.” Munch snorts. “You’re always saying that there’s only one room in this relationship for a paranoid conspiracy buff, and at least I’m good at it.”
“Oh, we’re goin’ there?” Fin slides off the desk. His movements are abrupt. They’re usually more subtle and sly, and Munch recognizes it as his frustration in physical form. He’s the same way after they lose a swim meet or when Munch points out how inconsistent John McCain is in his campaign. “This ain’t paranoia, John. You seen the way he looks at you?”
“Like a student looks to a mentor.” He follows Fin to his feet. “Are you on Jack about his little shadow?”
“You mean Cutter?”
“Yeah. Are you turning that into some great star-crossed romance? Because that’s what Cassidy is. He’s a kid. An intellectual light-weight trying to cross over into sumo, and I’m the guy who can give him a point in the right direction. If I wanted to let him do anything to my bony ass, I would’ve done it weeks ago, before you started acting like a fifteen-year-old girl about it.”
“And it’s all that easy?” Fin demands.
“I don’t know. What was going to be easy was giving you a blowjob, but I’m starting to think my subscription to GayHitchhiker-dot-com was worth the money if you’re going to be like this.”
There’s a pause. It’s a split-second, but that’s all it takes because Fin’s pushing him against the blackboard. It smears the careful printing of due-dates – mostly written in Munch’s hand, all-caps and precise – and the chalk rail digs into Munch’s ass, but it doesn’t matter because Fin’s bulk is against him, firm and broad. He knows his strength, the strength Munch doesn’t have, and he knows how thin his sweatpants are.
Both work to his advantage.
“After all that, you think I’m lettin’ you off that easy?” Fin asks, and it’s a dark sound in the back of his throat.
Munch pushes his thigh against the bulge in Fin’s sweatpants. He considers a joke about Cassidy, about how the thought of his ass and Cassidy’s…eagerness…just might do something for Fin, but he doesn’t. Fin just might change his mind and string him up from a light fixture. “I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with,” he returns instead.
Fin just presses closer, and either the light is playing tricks on Munch’s eyes, or he sees a shadow disappear from the window in the door.
He doesn’t have long to process that, though, because then Fin’s moving his hands and his mind is in other places.
“So you see,” Munch continues, flipping through the last few pages of the chapter in his teacher’s edition, “I don’t necessarily hate the book, but it spends too much time talking about the United States as the magical Disneyland of rights and freedom and not enough time looking at Europe’s position in the war.”
“Right.” Cassidy’s brow’s furrowed and it’s probably because he doesn’t get it, bending over the book like that. The education of modern American educators could make a man sick: all feelings, no content. Cassidy wouldn’t know a fact if it reached out and bit him. “Do you supplement the text when you do it?”
“Nah, I do a couple extra lectures.” Munch flips through his e-mail. Benson’s talking about cheer camp (delete), Goren’s looking for his coffee mug (delete), Cragen’s reminding them to turn in the surveys from the last staff meeting (delete), Fin –
Munch checks the clock. He’s got Model U.N. in three hours.
Nah. Working curriculum. You?
“Can I look at your notes?”
Munch raises an eyebrow. “You think you can handle it? I don’t know how your European history is. There’s a lot more to it than, ‘And Hilter was an asshole.’”
He almost smiles. “Yeah, I know some of it. I mean, how hard can it be? I can Wikipedia the stuff I – “
“I’m going to do you an immense favor and pretend you didn’t just say that.”
“What’s wrong with – “
“Let me get my notes.”
The computer beeps to tell him he has another e-mail – race orders for next meet. pizza tonight? - and he glances at it before wheeling over to go through a file cabinet. He’s got lecture notes on every era of every brand of history, but Cassidy wants U.S. (his least favorite) and that means digging through all the lectures he likes better. The room’s fairly quiet, except for Cassidy flipping pages in the book, and –
“Hey, you know,” and Cassidy says it so casually that Munch doesn’t bother looking up, “I was thinking of showing this movie in Asian history class next month. Memoirs of a Geisha. You seen it?”
He looks up and over the rims of his glasses. “Read it.”
“It was a book. You don’t know it was a book?” Munch groans and brings the folder over. He drops it in Cassidy’s lap, surprising him. He nearly falls straight off the chair. It’s funny, even if it’s a cheap thrill. “I didn’t bother seeing the movie because I read the book. And it was excellent, thank you for asking.”
“You think it’s good for class?”
“I haven’t seen the movie to know.”
“You want to?”
Munch is halfway through his response to Fin – Yeah, sure. I’ll bring the beer and other supp – when Cassidy asks it, and he looks over. He frowns – habit, maybe, or maybe the randomness of the gesture. He’s not sure. “You can’t watch a film and judge its educational use on your own?”
He smiles sheepishly. “Nah, I mean, sure, I can, but it’s not exactly the thing I’m best at. I think it’s pretty good but I don’t wanna get dragged in front of Van Buren ‘cause I picked something crappy. It’s a couple hours. I’ve got some booze and popcorn. It’d be fun.” His grin grows. “Unless you’re sick of having to walk me through everything. I mean, I’d get that.”
“Not sick,” Munch corrects, “just remembering all the reasons I didn’t want kids. High maintenance.”
“So – “
“If it’s the worst movie I’ve ever seen, I get those two hours of my life back.”
Cassidy grins at him. “Deal.”
When he starts going through the lecture notes, it’s with renewed enthusiasm. He’s into it, which makes Munch feel better when he sends the e-mail.
I’ve got work tonight. Tomorrow, though, you’re on.
“So do you think – “
“I don’t know what I think.” Those are the first snippets of conversation Fin hears as he sits down next to Munch at lunch, just like he always sits down next to Munch at lunch, while Munch and Cassidy are talking about something and Munch makes a face about whatever that “something” is. Sloppy joes are on the menu, and Munch licks his fingers off as he talks. “I thought as a movie, it wasn’t bad. As a visual representation of the book, it was disappointing.”
“So stop looking at it like it’s still the book.” Cassidy looks doubly incorrigible. It makes Fin scowl as he reaches for the ketchup. “Look at it as a movie for class. Did you like it enough for me to show it?”
“It’s your funeral.”
“Come – “
“Look,” and Munch holds up his finger to stop Cassidy from breaking further into his train of thought. “It’s your call. Would I show it? Possibly. Should you? Only if you’re going to focus on the period as a whole.” He finishes off the last bite of his sandwich. “I need another cup of coffee if I’m going to get through my last couple classes. Brian?”
The way the name sounds on his lips almost makes Fin want to vomit. “I’m cool,” Cassidy says.
Munch is feeling doubly incorrigible too, and Fin rolls his eyes. “You gonna come back?”
“Where else would I go?”
“I thought you’d take your bony ass off my hands for a while.”
Munch grinned. “You’d be so lucky.”
Fin is hyper-aware of his fingers trailing across his shoulder blades as he walks away, and ends up focusing on way he walks – lanky and loping, that’s John Munch – across the cafeteria. He appreciates that. Maybe he’s being too hard about the whole having-other-plans thing. It happens. No reason for him –
“You guys hang out?” asks Cassidy, his voice suddenly present. Fin looks up from his sandwich to see eyes on him. “I mean, you know. You’re friends or whatever?”
He nods. “Been friends since I showed up here. John’s gotta way of gettin’ under your skin.”
“Tell me about it. He married?”
A glob of beef hits Fin’s plate, having slid right off his sandwich. “What?”
“He mentions his wives sometimes, but I can’t tell if he’s married now, or he used to be, or whatever. I figured you’d know.”
He snorts. “Married? The man could barely convince his last three wives to marry him. He’s pretty much done in that department.”
“Does he date much?” Cassidy holds his eyes. “You know, I mean, just in general or whatever.”
The sloppy joe tastes like soot in his mouth, and suddenly, Fin knows what some of their kids – like that Lupo kid who runs around after Green making googly-eyes at him all the time, or El Stabler’s real bad crush on Dr. Huang in the psychology department – feel like. Getting pressed for information about the other guy they – what, they like? He’s not twelve. He doesn’t do crushes. He doesn’t like people. John Munch is John. They do…whatever they feel like doing. Sometimes it’s sex, sometimes it’s dinner, sometimes it’s sharing a bed. It’s whatever. They’re just –
“Peptid AC,” Munch says as he sits down, looking at Fin. He must notice the face Fin is making, horror and disgust. “Only way to get through sloppy joe day.”
Cassidy still is watching Fin. Fin has to look away.
“Somethin’ like that,” he mutters, but he’s not hungry now.
“You,” Munch says, and with such emphasis that it involves a sweep of his hand, “are paranoid.”
“He asked me if you were datin’ anybody!”
At one point, they had been watching that night’s basketball game, a hopeless attempt by the Knicks to convince the basketball-watching public that they were not pathetic, but that had long since become background noise to this. Fin isn’t sure if it’s the beers – there were four of his bottles on the coffee table and two or three of Munch’s – or just the mention of Cassidy that started it, but now that it’s going, it’s a freight train bound for hell.
“And even if,” and Munch says it languidly, casually, stretched out like he’s some sort of sunbathing cat, “even if, by some twisted chance, he does think of me as some sort of sex object, and even if – again, if – you let him live long enough to keep thinking of me as some sort of sex object, there’s still the fact that I’m not interested in him.”
Fin tries to believe him, but there’s something in his stomach that doesn’t. “Yeah?”
“Yes.” Munch throws up his hands. “My god, what else do you want from me? Skywriting? An expensive engagement ring? Should I throw myself at your feet? I’m practically wrapped around your little finger. This whole thing is ridiculous!”
“What’s ridiculous is your sayin’ you don’t see him makin’ eyes at you, John.”
Usually, when Fin says his name like that, John, it winds Munch up. It makes him want to push Fin onto the nearest flat surface and find all the angles under his t-shirt. Fin almost expects it this time, but instead, John just looks straight at Fin like he’s been shot. Fin’s never seen him look that way – never that face, never that look in his eyes – and it makes him feel just sick enough that he gets up to get another beer.
Munch gets up, too.
“You want ridiculous?” There’s venom in his voice. “Because I can think of a few things.”
“Name one,” and he says it dismissively, on purpose, thinking Munch will drop the subject.
“The fact that you’re throwing a twelve-year-old’s hissy fit over some fictional flirting but still won’t be seen with me in the hallway unless there’s a five-foot protective circle of heterosexuality around you.” The words slam into Fin’s back, but he finds it too hard to turn around, so he freezes on the spot, in the middle of the carpet. “Or how about the fact that I’m supposed to find no one but you attractive but not ever show I find you attractive? Or what about the fact that, just once, I might want to put a name on something that isn’t ‘fucking’. Here’s a use for the word, though: fuck this. I’m going home.”
Home is Munch’s on-campus suite, a dingy little hell-hole with more books than clothes, mostly because his clothes keep migrating to Fin’s room. Munch very rarely goes home, unless he’s dragging Fin with him, so they can knock books from the bed to the floor and fuck sloppily on it.
Home means Fin’s really fucked up.
“John – “ he says, but when he turns around, it’s to hear the door slam.
The television has never been so loud, or the rest of the room so quiet.
“Hey, you’re in.”
Munch glances up from the book he’s not reading to see Cassidy, of all people, in the doorway to his classroom. Of course it’s Cassidy. Somewhere, Fin is stewing in his own irrational, closeted anger and leaving Munch to drink some of the booze he has hidden in the bottom drawer of his file cabinet and read-without-reading a book on a major Vegas con. He likes con-artistry and confidence schemes, maybe because it proves so much of what he’s always believed: that human beings are manipulative bastards who like to screw other human beings over.
Either way, it’s Cassidy walking into the room and flopping into the rolling chair at his desk, pushing it along the floor as though he’s been invited. All Munch can think of to say is, “Yeah, I’m in.”
“I figured you had plans.”
“Plans get changed.” He realizes only after he says it how bitter it sounds.
Cassidy grins. “Fight with the missus?”
“If I had a missus, it would’ve been a knock-down drag-out and I would’ve had something heavy flung at my head.”
“Haven’t you been married?”
“Three times. It’s how I know. Experience.”
Cassidy laughs and this is the one thing that, right now, Munch both needs and doesn’t need: someone who sounds happy. Happiness in his room, or at least the immediate world, and Cassidy has that. It should feel warm, though, and it doesn’t; the whiskey does, however, and he takes another belly-heating swig before offering it to Cassidy.
He receives a funny look in return.
“Consider it a toast to how fucked-up the world is,” he says.
“I’ll drink to that,” and Cassidy does, tipping the bottle back and taking a few greedy swallows, and Munch has gulped down just enough that his eyes watch the line of Cassidy’s neck. He’s good-looking. Fin has a point in that department.
No. No, Fin never has a point. Fin is a jealous closet-case who can’t admit to being jealous or a closet case.
He just always figured Fin would let stuff like this go, and they could be what they were. And now they weren’t.
There’s something sad to that, the idea that whatever they’d been no longer is, and Munch reaches for the bottle and takes it right out of Cassidy’s grip.
“Whoa,” Cassidy says, watching him drink. “What’s got your goat?”
“You really wanna know?” Because it seems like a good idea, this statement, while he wipes his mouth on the back of his hand.
“What, you think I’m gonna ask if I don’t?”
“The kids do.”
Cassidy scowls. “I’m not a kid.”
“You are a kid,” Munch informs him with a wag of his finger. “When you hit around forty, you’ll understand that everyone under forty is a kid in some way. You’re a kid, the kids are kids, and even Logan’s a kid on most days.”
He laughs, a little bark. “So, what? You, Goren, Stone, McCoy, Skoda, Cragen, you’re the only adults on campus?”
“Fin.” Munch uses the bottle to gesture. “No, you know what? Not Fin. Definitely not Fin. Fin is a giant child trapped in a man’s body. It’s like being in the fourth grade, you know? You want everyone to like you, so you work triple hard at it, until the people you really want to like you hate your guts.”
“More experience?” It’s almost mockery. Cassidy grabs the bottle and his fingers are warm. He’s probably been here all along, in the library or a room, working on his curriculum. If he’d come in from the dorms, his fingers would be cold.
He thinks so long about fingers and their relative temperature that he loses the plot, and realizes only belatedly that Cassidy’s still watching him and waiting for an answer. “Even my fourth grade year was better than that.”
There’s a long pause, one in which a great deal more whiskey is gulped down. When Cassidy puts the bottle on the desk, it’s with resolve. When he slides his chair close, it’s with more of the same, and Munch can smell his cheap aftershave and see the stubble from going the whole day (or maybe a couple) without shaving.
It’s hard to think clearly.
“Not everybody hates you,” Cassidy says quietly.
“Who said I was talking about me?”
It’s the last comment he makes, and it’s because he’s suddenly aware – hyper-aware – of what Cassidy’s doing. The way he’s leaning in. How he wets his lips. How, when he hits the tipping point, his hand goes to the arm of Munch’s chair.
How soft his lips are against Munch’s. How warm the little sigh of air is against his face, when it escapes Cassidy’s nose. How much heat radiates off him.
He kisses like everything Munch likes about him – the eagerness, the want to please, the moment’s indecision before he really dives in – and that’s all Munch needs. He finds a place for his hand – a knee that’s not bony but not strong, just a knee, almost descriptive in how nondescript it is – and tilts his head so he can kiss Cassidy too, all lips and tongue and teeth that he personally knows how to use but Cassidy doesn’t, and after a few seconds of the way he always feels when he first kisses someone (this has real potential to be at least a masturbatory aide for a few weeks), he starts to feel odd.
Stubble isn’t facial hair.
A darting tongue isn’t a thick, lazy one.
There’s no meat on the knee, no musk in the scent, no dark noises when Munch pulls back and nips at a lower lip, and the lower lip isn’t full enough.
He pulls away and puts a hand out to stop Cassidy from surging forward again. “Stop,” he says, plainly. Decisively.
“What?” Cassidy’s eyes are open and his lips are red and puffy. Munch suddenly wants something stronger than whiskey. Crack cocaine, perhaps. “I thought – “
“You’re my student teacher.” Because even half-drunk and half-hard, even with his hands still on Brian Cassidy, he can’t tell the truth. He can’t let Fin’s secret out of the bag, and if that makes him a complete pushover, so be it. “It’s inappr – “
He’s half-drunk and half-hard and Cassidy overpowers the firmness of one hand and pushes against him, fighting for his lips again. It’s a struggle, and while he’s used to struggle and sex being paired together like wine and cheese, he isn’t used to losing. He’s not used to real force, because Fin’s never used real force, and he finally uses the chair to his advantage and bodily forces himself away.
Cassidy fumbles and then sits up, looking like a confused deer, caught in the headlights of a semi-truck.
“I said – “
Those are the only words on his lips.
Because his eyes have drifted to the doorway, and there’s Fin.
There’s Fin, standing there in the same thing he’d been wearing when Munch left an hour ago, with a bottle of something alcoholic in one hand and a brown paper bag in the other, but he’s doing just that: standing there. Like he’s been shot, or shocked, or some other sh-word that Munch doesn’t know, because their eyes meet and that’s all that’s left.
“Shit,” Munch says, and tries to stand up, but the whiskey has gone to his feet and the blood to his groin and it’s a mess of limbs that teeter but never really go anywhere. “Fin – “
“You don’t gotta say anything,” and Fin’s voice is pin-drop quiet. “I shoulda known.” He holds up the bag and the bottle and comes just far enough forward to put them on a desk. “Got your favorite. An’ figured, since we ain’t ordered the pizza, Chinese’d be good. Won’t be needin’ it, now.”
“Fin, would you just – “
“Just what?” He looks across the room and meets Munch’s eyes. Munch can only imagine how it looks, how they look, and he can’t find the words in time because Fin’s shaking his head. “You wanna tell me it’s over? ‘Cause I get it, John. I’m out.”
He closes the door behind him, not a slam but a too-calm and too-careful tug, and for a moment, Munch can only stare after him. He’s waiting for it to open, waiting for Fin to reappear, and when he doesn’t, he feels all the whiskey start to climb up out of his stomach and into his throat.
Cassidy frowns. “What’s his – “
“Get out.” He doesn’t look at him.
“What – “
“Get out, or I’ll call Officer Eames right out of her bed and have you escorted out.”
Maybe he leaves, maybe he doesn’t. Munch doesn’t know, because he only sees Cassidy get as far as halfway to the door when the whiskey comes all the way up, and the next thing he knows, he’s vomiting into his garbage can and shaking with the force of it.
When he’s finished, when he’s heaved his last and wiped his face and mouth, there’s no one left in the room.
Fin spends three days processing it all.
They’re three long days, mostly because there’s no way of avoiding Munch unless he wants to quit his job, and he doesn’t. He tries to deal with how he feels by working the kids hard in gym and at practice, but on the third day of Cyrus Lupo flopping down on the self-defense-class mats and complaining, “You trying to kill us, Coach?” and the third day of Jack McCoy sending him a nasty e-mail about making Mike Cutter late for mock trial, he figures he’s not dealing with it in any healthy way. Not looking at Munch is easy. Not sitting next to him is easy. Not talking to him is easy.
Not thinking about him, not noticing the way Cassidy still talks to him, not smelling him on the sheets? It’s hard, harder than it should be, and after swim team practice on day three he goes home, strips the bed, tosses the sheets in the laundry bin, and lays on the mattress. He pretends it doesn’t still have some of Munch in it, but he does.
Dinners are never crowded and especially not on Fridays, because the kids can usually get passes into the city and would rather go eat at some greasy pizza joint than have chicken pot pie in the cafeteria. He slinks in through the back way to grab a pot pie and something to drink, figuring he won’t see anyone except Goren (who never eats anywhere else).
Instead, who’s in the line?
Cassidy’s joking and Munch is smiling at him, and Fin looks away when he grabs his tray because it feels like someone’s poured hot oil in the pit of his stomach and he can’t deal with that feeling. Munch looks happy with Cassidy, grinning while listening to his stupid shit, and who can blame him? Cassidy’s the poster child for stupid-but-sweet, he’s kind of endearing, and he’s young and good-looking. Probably hasn’t ever gotten his ass kicked at a Harlem public school for saying he thinks he might like guys. Probably never got shit for being black and conservative. Probably never fell for a freaky conspiracy nut that made him laugh as much as pissed him off.
Nah, they had that one in common.
He grabs the pot pie, grabs an apple, grabs something else to keep himself busy and doesn’t even see George Huang behind him until he says, “Should we expect to see great things from the team this year, coach?”
Fin’s fruit-cup spills on the tray and Huang offers him a napkin. Assistant Principal Cragen, who used to teach math before his promotion, hangs behind Huang, watching him sop up the mess. Just when he’d thought he was safe to get the hell out of dodge. “Yeah. Sure. I mean, the kids are workin’ hard. I’ve got faith in ‘em.”
“Are you staying for dinner?” Cragen asks.
“Nah. Goin’ back to the room. I’ve got stuff to figure out.”
“The table’s going to look a little sad with just us, Munch, Cassidy, and Goren,” Huang needles. It feels like profiling. Huang wants to be a profiler, or so Skoda’s said, but right now, Fin just thinks of him as a pain in the ass. “I wanted to hear a bit more about Serena Southerlyn. She’s on your team, right? I’ve been training her for peer mentoring, and…”
Huang goes on, the slow voyage of the damned into a girl Fin can’t stand’s readiness to guide her classmates, and Fin walks off with his tray and heads towards the table. Munch and Cassidy are already seated along with Goren, and he swears that Cassidy reaches out and touches Munch when and only when he looks in that direction. It’s just a nudge but it’s enough to make Fin’s hands tighten on his tray. Behind him, he can still hear Huang, but now it’s white noise because he’s watching Cassidy’s smarmy little smile.
It’s the first time he’s ever wanted someone dead.
He can’t decide if the feeling is liberating or just fucked up.
“What do you think?” Huang finally asks, as Fin sets down his tray in a seat that’s all the way across from Munch, and watches that same little smile at another joke from Cassidy.
“I think I need a soda,” he replies, and pushes his chair out of the way to go get one.
“I’ll come with you,” Cassidy offers, and he’s standing up too, smiling that shit-eating smile of his, like he’s hot stuff and knows it. Of course he knows it. He’s got Munch – he’s won, and fuck if that thought doesn’t make Fin want to go throw himself off a building or, if that doesn’t work, throw Cassidy off it instead – and he’s a smart, sexy kid who will probably end up sleeping with some cute student teacher when he’s forty, too.
He’s John Munch, the younger, dumber version.
“I’m cool,” he tells Cassidy.
“No, let me come with. I want to talk to you about – “
“I said,” and he says it very slowly, very plainly, very simply, just in case he might be misunderstood, “I’m cool.”
There’s a tension in the way that Cassidy steps towards him and then back, like he can’t decide what he wants to do and moving around will change that. Fin is standing just behind Cragen’s chair, Cassidy behind Munch’s, and they’re an arm’s length apart.
Cassidy smiles and takes that step forward again. “Come on,” he presses, and puts a hand on Fin’s arm.
Fin allows himself exactly one second to breathe before he punches Brian Cassidy squarely in the jaw.
Cassidy goes down like a bag of bricks and Fin’s hand hardly hurts from it, but in the time it takes everyone at the table – Huang, Cragen, Goren, and Munch – to stand up, he’s climbing to his feet and raising his fists. “Fuck you!” he declares, and makes a swing for Fin.
“What the hell is going on?” Cragen demands.
“Fuck me?” and the only reason Cassidy misses Fin’s nose is that Goren’s grabbed him from behind, holding him back. “Fuck you!”
“What’d I ever do to you?”
“You know what you did, you little bastard.”
“Fin!” Munch announces, breaking into the melee. Cragen’s got a hand on Fin’s arm but he’s not moving. Cassidy’s bleeding, and that’s all he can really ask for. “What the fu – “
“Yeah, go ahead and defend your little boyfriend.” He raises a finger and jabs it at Munch. “I shoulda slugged you.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“Did you just forget the other night? Damn, I knew you were a stupid fuckin’ asshole, but not that kind of stupid fuckin’ asshole!”
“You never let me explain and now you’re causing bodily harm to people because of it? Are you un – “
Whatever un-word Munch plans to use – probably unglued, one of his favorites – doesn’t matter because suddenly, Cassidy’s free and swinging at Fin. Munch turns around and accidentally catches the blow, arms windmilling as he reaches for the table to right himself. It should vindicate Fin but instead, he’s just angrier, and without a second thought he surges forward and punches Cassidy again, sending him into Goren and nearly knocking them both down. He’s angry, he’s frustrated, he’s upset, and as insult to injury, Munch is bleeding from his lip. It’s enough emotional turmoil to last a lifetime.
He’s considering punching Cassidy a third time when a voice announces,
“What the hell are you doing?!”
The voice carries even in the melee and everyone – brawling teachers and the sea of gawking students that Fin is just now noticing – turns to see Anita Van Buren standing in the doorway with Officer Alex Eames, the school’s on-site police liaison. Never before, Fin thinks, has he seen Anita this pissed off, and never before has he seen Alex pull her pepper spray from her belt.
The students immediately snap to and either scurry out of the room or slink back into their seats, completely horrified at being caught red-handed in their voyeurism.
Of course, that hardly matters compared to the fact that Van Buren is stalking towards the teacher’s table in her heels and suit like hell itself is about to open up from under the centerpiece and she is the only hope of stopping it.
“Anita – “ Cragen starts, but she practically shoves her hand in his face.
“You – “ She looks pointedly at Fin. “ – and you – “ Pointedly at Munch. “ – in my office.”
Munch opens his mouth to protest, but –
“Now.” She doesn’t even wait for them to hop to before turning on Cassidy. “And as for you, I don’t know what you did, but when I find out, you’re going to be lucky if you get to teach anywhere other than Timbuktu.”
Cassidy, with his bleeding mouth and nose, just looks befuddled. “I – “
“If I were you, Mr. Cassidy, I’d shut up and head for my room in hopes I don’t get thrown out of this building.” Her eyes drift to Fin. He’s still standing there, stuck in time, not sure if he should say something to his defense or just do as she says.
Her eyes narrow. “Didn’t I just give an order?”
“I’ll take them,” Cragen offers, and grabs Fin’s arm. It’s easier to lead him away now, Fin figures, because he doesn’t want to fight anymore.
Munch looks at him for a long moment. He’s holding a napkin to his lip. He’s going to have a bruise in the morning.
Fin drops his eyes and doesn’t look at him again.
“I have been a high-school administrator for fifteen years,” Anita says, her hands flattened on the desk and her eyes trained on Munch, then on Fin, and then back on Munch, “and never before have I seen the staff act more like children than you two just did. I don’t care what you, as adults, get up to as long as it doesn’t end up in scenes like that, because when it does, it becomes my responsibility.”
Munch never thought Anita’s office as small as he thinks it is now, bunched into a chair that’s too low to the ground with Fin leaning against the wall across. His lip isn’t bleeding anymore but he holds the ice pack to it anyway, just to numb the pain. He wants to go back to his room and sleep for a month, then stab Brian Cassidy, and then sleep for the rest of his life. Rip Van Munch, the glorious king of snoring. He’d never have to deal with this again.
He’d never have to deal with the way Fin keeps glancing at him, hurt hiding under all of the anger and indignation, if he slept forever.
“Listen,” Fin cuts in, glancing towards her, “what’s goin’ on’s over. We’re cool. I’m just gonna go to my room and – “
“No,” Anita says plainly. “You’re not cool, and it’s not over. You are going to sit down, shut up, and figure this out or god help me, both of you will be looking for work in the morning.” Her eyes move to Munch. “Do I make myself clear?”
“Plate glass,” he mutters.
“Good.” She sits down in her chair, crosses her arms, and waits. “Talk.”
Fin looks at the floor.
Munch does, too, but not because he thinks the carpeting’s particularly stylish. He can’t look at either of them. Anita’s been pissed at him before, but maybe never for the right reasons. Fin’s been pissed at him before, but maybe never for the wrong reasons. It’s muddled in his head, like wading through mud, and when he spends five minutes in the suffocating silence, studying the shag, all he can finally think of to say is, “Cassidy kissed me.”
He hears Fin suck a breath in. It’s like a bomb’s dropped in the room.
“He did.” Anita never asks a question unless she has to.
“We were drinking in my room, talking about some stuff. And he leaned over and kissed me. Kind of aggressively. I had it under control.”
Fin snorts. “Yeah, real under control.”
Munch turns on him. “Well, excuse me, Mr. Chinese-Food-and-Good-Booze. Did it ever occur to you to ask for five seconds what happened? Never mind the fact that if you had just said, ‘Hey, sorry, I’m an asshole,’ an hour earlier than you did, I wouldn’t have gone down to my classroom and ended up with him all over me in the first place.”
That brings his head up. “So it’s my fault?” Fin demands, and the restrained anger in his voice trembles. “It’s my fuckin’ fault you’re blind to some good-lookin’ kid wantin’ to get in your shorts?”
“It’s your fault that you didn’t believe me when I said I want nothing to do with him!” He throws up his hands. “Has the thought ever entered that tiny Neanderthal brain of yours that maybe, just maybe, I like being around you? Maybe I like drinking beer with you and like staying over and that maybe I can even like those things without needing you to attend a pride parade or tell the staff we’re sleeping together? No, you figure that the first time some other guy comes along, I’m just going to stop wanting to be with you because he’ll kiss me in my classroom without locking the door first.”
There’s a second’s hesitation before Fin rolls his eyes. “You ain’t with me, John.”
Munch’s mouth feels like the Sahara, and when he tries to wet it, his tongue is a shriveled mass. It takes him three tries to say anything, and when he does, it’s with a shrug. “I was always with you. I just never felt the need to check off little boxes on the right forms.” When Fin says nothing, he can’t stop himself, so he continues, “And I never needed you to. I just wanted to have you around. I understand why you’re not into PDA or wearing your heart on your sleeve – after three wives, you get to understand a lot of shit you wouldn’t have understood otherwise – but I never got how you got so convinced I was going to run off with Cassidy, of all people, when I was pretty transparently clear about being in love with you.”
The word hangs heavily in the room and Munch half expects to wake up now and find himself in bed, nursing a wicked hangover while Fin bangs around purposely, just to piss him off. Instead, when he glances over, he sees that Fin’s looking right at him but saying nothing, and he feels his stomach slowly starting to turn to stone. He’s never seen that look from Fin – bare and raw, open and terrified – and it’s hard to breathe when he does see it. He wants Fin to say something – anything – but there’s no response.
Just that word. Hanging there.
It’s finally Anita who says, “Are you two settled, then?”
“Yeah,” Fin replies, and it’s heavy. Hard. He pushes away from the wall. “Like I said. We’re cool.”
Munch watches him move. Cross the room, pass him, and close the door.
He snorts. “So much for that,” he mutters, and if Anita says something, he doesn’t hear her.
He’s just hearing the sound of the door closing, over and over again.
“If you look at it from a half-wit’s stance, sure. All about some guy getting shot.” Munch speaks slowly when he lectures, and watches the students write everything down. “But if you know what you’re talking about, there’s a lot more to it than that.”
“But wait,” and Claire Kincaid makes the comment before her hand is raised. “Why do they tell us it’s just about the Arch-duke getting shot, then?”
“Because people suck.” The bell rings, and Munch shrugs. “Class dismissed.”
It’s Monday, and the students aren’t as lively as they usually are, which means there’s not a lot of cheering or noise when Fin steps into the room. He’s been watching Munch teach for the last ten minutes from just outside the door, but Munch’s a man possessed when he’s lecturing and doesn’t notice anything past himself. A kid could probably give birth in his class and he’d still go on about empires and jingoism. It means that he doesn’t look up as he clears his notes off the podium, or as the students start shoving stuff into their bags. The desk in the corner is empty, and it’s only because he ran into Briscoe in the hall that Fin knows why: Brian Cassidy asked to go to a different school for the rest of the semester.
Too much Manhattan Prep, from the sounds of it.
“You gotta go into the whole thing about arms,” he says once Munch has been quiet for a good minute, and his head snaps up fast enough that Fin expects he’ll get whiplash. “That’s a good one.”
He hasn’t seen Munch since Friday, and he looks half like he’s aged and half like he’s just tired, and maybe the lines around his eyes are going to rub out with a little effort. Fin didn’t mean to avoid him, not really, but there was something about the thought of being too close that scared him further away. Except now, here he is, and there Munch is, and Fin feels a lump crawling into his throat because three days is the longest they’ve been apart since… Well. Since they’ve known each other.
Finally, Munch snorts. “They never get that one. They think an arms race involves biceps and a track.”
“But you teach them.”
“Molding young minds gets tiring after a while, Odafin. I should just throw them in water and see if they float.”
He very nearly grins. “Some of ‘em do, some of ‘em don’t.”
“Law of averages.”
Fin’s not sure when his feet started moving, but they stop just far enough in front of Munch that he can look him in the eye. He’s leaning one arm on the podium but it’s a tense stance, like he’s getting ready to dart away at any moment. The track boys have that stance once spring practice starts, because they never know when they’re going to be told to start running.
Fin just appreciates the way Munch’s muscles look when he stands like that.
“I was thinkin’,” he informs Munch, putting a hand on the edge of the podium. “’Bout what you said at Van Buren’s.”
“And I’m thinkin’ you’re a sentimental bastard.”
The comment catches Munch off guard, and he smiles. It’s barely there, just a twist of lips, but it’s something. “You’re the resident expert on this?”
“Resident expert on you.”
“That doesn’t take much. It’s like studying ancient man. Bits and pieces with no true history. Keeps you on your toes.”
“Always has.” He picks a chip of paint off the edge of the podium. “’Cept, you should probably know somethin’.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Enlighten me.”
There are still three students in the classroom, one of which Fin knows is Claire Kincaid because Claire always hangs around just a half-beat too long after class to talk to teachers. Drives Fin crazy, because after gym, all he wants is the kids out and on to annoy somebody else. The other students could be anybody, from Religious Rey to Asexual Alex.
He doesn’t care.
Because Munch’s lips feel like something he’s always known when he leans in for a kiss, and even if it’s painfully short and almost chaste, when he looks away, Munch’s blank expression blossoms into a full-on grin.
“Really?” he asks archly, but his face betrays him. “Because I was thinking a little more of – “
His hand snakes slowly around Fin, and he smacks it out of the way. “You wanna get yourself hurt?”
There’s a spark in Munch’s eyes then, just one, and he nearly kicks himself. It’s the cardinal rule: you don’t encourage Munch.
Except Munch looks happy and Fin almost feels it, like the world’s a little better now, even if there are things they’re still going to have to figure out, never mind the fact that Anita’s spent the last two days e-mailing him links to restaurants with no other text in the e-mail.
It’s too late not to encourage Munch.
He’ll take the consequences.
“Just in the usual way,” Munch replies.
“Maybe after dinner, John,” he retorts smoothly, and when the hand on the podium lands on Fin’s – not on his ass, not on his thigh, just on his hand – he smiles and amends, “Or maybe not maybe.”