A Lonely Season


Part One

Another year, another set of holidays. He hardly marked its passing. Bodie'd learned a long time ago that Christmas came and went like any other day. On the boat, it had meant a single better meal; on the sun-drenched African plains it had meant nothing at all, except another day to live or die.

And now it meant only a warm pub meal, a flood of hot rum to soothe the chill from aching bones, and the fleeting solace of pleasure in a stranger's arms. The women were a blur to him, all so much the same, none allowed an instant's closeness to the buried center of his soul. He'd learned that lesson in blood and anguish, watched them die on city streets. Johannesburg or London, the concrete soaked up blood with equal indifference. Katerina... Marikka - the faces were equally indistinguishable from each other, the wounded cry of shock the same, haunting his dreams. Ghosts of the past and present sitting by his side.

No. He'd never take that chance again.

Downing the remainder of his drink, he eyed the pretty barmaid, considering. Her smile wandered in his direction and held. She'd wait for him, he knew with instant certainty, and yet...

The emptiness of it all struck home, and he grabbed for his coat, leaving her staring wistfully at his back. The cold night air met him hard, his breath misting in a silvery cloud. Church bells clanged in the distance as he sought his car.

The heater provided some relief from the damp chill, and he snuggled into his wool coat as he drove with absent deftness, skill so innate it guided for itself, landing him at his door long before he'd noticed. He stopped the engine and sat for a moment too long, considering the empty flat waiting for him, the prospect unappealing.

But there was little else to do, Cowley had insisted he take the time off. And certainly he deserved it, especially with Ray absent. Family called at this time of year, as long as you had one, and Ray was overly gifted in that regard. Bodie'd never tried to take count of the Doyle clan, and luckily Ray tended to avoid them as the societal menace that they obviously were. But duty was duty, and Ray was meeting his, leaving his partner to a now-familiar routine.

Sleep was the answer. Christmas would be gone within the round of hours spent in slumber, and he wouldn't have to consider it again for another year. It really didn't matter anyhow...

He moved like an automaton through bed-time preparations. Brush your teeth, wash your face, empty your bladder; as a long-time soldier, he knew the value of the simple routines. They filled the empty spaces between action and reaction, gave the mind time to relax before facing another spurt of danger...

The doorbell rang, loud, shattering in the quiet stillness of the darkened bedroom. Bodie paused, an instant from climbing into his bed. He turned a frown towards the shuttered main room of his flat, tempted to ignore the interruption. He wasn't in the mood for maudlin socializing, he wanted the easy, honest oblivion of sleep. But the bell was insistent, chiming again and again, warring for his attention.

So he went, wrapping his dark blue robe tightly around him. Flipping on the light as he reached the doorway, he undid the locks and opened the door to peer sullenly into the brightly lit hall.

"About time!" Ray groused at him, shoving past his startled partner to enter the well-heated apartment. "God, it's cold out there!" He dropped onto the sofa and sprawled himself out, shaking his headful of brown curls like a wet dog.

Bodie glared at him, unnoticed, then shut and relocked the door.

"What're you doing 'ere?" he demanded, moving over to stand above his partner.

Doyle looked up at him though half-shuttered eyelids. "Couldn't take another moment at 'ome. All they wanted to know was when I was gonna settle down and get married, or simply to sound off about the immorality of my job." He flopped back again, groaning. "You're lucky, mate, not to 'ave to put up with all that bloody interfering..."

Something broke silently inside Bodie, the barriers holding back the anguished flood of buried memories finally shattering beneath the pressure.

"Shut up!" he hissed through gritted teeth. "And get out!" He turned half away from Doyle, his shoulders hunched the effort not to explode into violence. His hands clenched with the need to strike something, anything at all.

Ray was stunned. He jerked upwards, staring with widened green eyes. He shook his head slowly, as though not quite believing he'd heard what he thought he had.

"Wha..." he began, but was cut off abruptly.

"You 'eard me. Get the 'ell out!" Bodie stalked to the door, began fumbling with the bolt he'd just shut.

Doyle was up in an instant, he ran over to seize Bodie's shoulder.

"Bodie..." He didn't get a chance to finish, the touch was the last straw. Bodie pivoted and slammed a fist into Ray's belly. The ex-cop doubled over, the breath torn from his lungs. He collapsed, gasping, to the floor. His bigger partner loomed over him, the hard bones of his face tightened into an angry snarl.

"Bo..." Doyle tried to speak, rolling over on his side to try to escape the dark-haired, raven-eyed thunderbolt aiming for him. He didn't make it. Bodie was in a mindless rage, years of pent up emotion welling up into a maelstrom of fury.

He hit out, kicked out, smashed into furniture. Doyle somehow managed to scramble out of the way, and Bodie turned on the inanimate objects around him, hardly noticing the absence of his original focus. Glass made a satisfying noise, and he gave a feral laugh as a chair took out the front window. Cold air rushed in, steaming moisture on the shattered fragments of the pane.

Bodie turned, looking for something else to smash, and was hit from behind by a wiry bulldozer. Doyle slammed him to the floor, seizing his wrists and fighting to hold him down. It was like riding a rodeo bronco, Bodie fought like a madman, kicking, scra tching, using years of training, a lifetime's experience in hand-to-hand combat. But Doyle held on desperately, fiercely, obstinately, never letting go, taking each blow, and returning it as gently as he could, trying to stop the other man without hurting him, wincing when he couldn't.

Then abruptly it just stopped. Bodie slumped, went still, limp, unresisting, unresponsive. Doyle drew in a staggering breath, bruises erupting across the length of his body. He lay on top of his partner for a tense while, then slowly lifted himself up to a crouch.

"Bodie?" he whispered.

No response.

"Bodie?!" Louder this time, but still no reply. Fear sparking in his eyes, Doyle fumbled for a pulse, and to his relief, it was there. The vein pulsed fervently in Bodie's throat, signifying life, but unanswered by the mind and soul it fed.

Doyle dragged Bodie up into his lap, tried to ease back the eyelids to check the shuttered blue eyes. But Bodie reacted this time, he shoved Doyle away and scrambled to his feet. His voice was more broken than the window when he spoke.

"Will you leave now?"

"No." Doyle's refusal was simple and adamant. Bodie's hunched shoulders froze, then shrugged in a forced movement. His voice was shaky in its apparent unconcern.

"Suit yourself," he turned and fled for the bedroom. The door slammed shut just as Doyle reached it, the lock clicked loudly into place.

"Damn you, Bodie...open the door!"

Silence answered.

Furious now himself, Doyle didn't bother arguing further, he stepped back then swiftly delivered a sharp kick to the door, carefully aimed. The door broke open with a satisfying crunch, and Doyle leapt through, instinctively falling into a fighter's crouch.

But Bodie wasn't paying him any attention. He was sprawled out on the bed, face buried into the white pillow, the muscles of his forearms bulging with the strength of his grip on the soft cushion.

Doyle relaxed and moved to sit down beside him. His hand hovered over the broad expanse of Bodie's back.

"Bodie..." he called out, his own emotions in a turmoil. Unable to figure out what had set his normally placid partner into a blind killing rage, he was in a state of near panic. Usually relying on Bodie to provide the steady center of his own life; the unfamiliar role-reversal was a peculiar sensation. But he wanted to help, wanted desperately to find the right words to say to comfort his distraught partner. A rush of tenderness overwhelmed him, stunning him with its intensity. If only he knew the rig ht thing to say...

Bodie ignored him, his body motionless except for a small tremour. His fingers curled and uncurled, and then lay still. He didn't look up, didn't speak. Doyle hovered, anxious, waiting, struggling... then with characteristic directness, he lost his patience.

Plopping himself down heavily beside Bodie, he took hold of the larger man's shoulders and shook him.

"Damn it, Bodie! Talk to me!"

"Go away," Bodie replied, his words muffled in the pillow.

"Unh uh...forget it. I'm not going anywhere's until you talk to me. So you might as well get started, so's we don't 'ave to sit 'ere all night long."

Bodie was still and silent for another long moment, then a soft, breathless sigh of pure resigned irritation emanated up from the direction of his mouth. Slowly, he turned, wriggled upwards, then curled up against the headboard of the bed, drawing the pillow up between his chest and his knees.

"All right," he spit out between gritted teeth, his eyes still averted from Doyle's face. "I'm sorry. I apologize deeply and sincerely. Can you go now?"

Doyle shook his head, ran a weary hand through his tangled curls. Then he moved up to sit facing Bodie on the bed.

"Nope. Not going anywhere, I told you."

"You ought to," Bodie replied, resting his chin on the pillow, his eyes dropping towards his feet.

"Why?" Doyle encouraged softly, willing Bodie to just keep talking.

Bodie shrugged, and Doyle leaned in closer, hoping that proximity might stimulate some kind of reaction. He didn't get much.

"Why?" he asked again.

"Safer for you, innit it..." Bodie actually jerked his head up for a moment, a flash of surprise on his closed features at his own words, but the instant of emotion was shut away with rapid efficiency. Doyle seized on it, however, like a dog given a fresh, meaty bone.

"Why safer?"

Bodie somehow managed to close in tighter on himself, his voice growling out from his gut.

"Just forget it, OK? I apologize for knocking you around. I just needed to let off some steam. Let it go!"

"I can't," Doyle shook his head, then reached out to tap Bodie's knee. "Won't you please talk to me?" he pleaded.

Bodie gave a long-suffering sigh. "You never know when to leave well enough alone, do you, Doyle?"

Doyle grinned, happy at the almost sound of normality in that comment. "Nope, never could. So you'd better give in now, 'adn't you?"

Bodie shook his head, then leaned back and stared at the ceiling, feeling the weight of Doyle's stare on him. He shrugged again, struggled to find something his insatiably curious partner might accept.

"Look, I don't know, do I. Just felt...itchy...I DON'T KNOW!" His voice broke again, and he clamped his mouth shut, but Doyle was on him again.

"It was something I said...What did I say? About my bloody family..." Bodie grimaced as Doyle's eyes turned inwards, and the determined ex-constable began to recall the conversation. "I said you're lucky..."

Doyle's eyes flew wide open, and focused intently on his partner's face. His words trailed off, and a look of pure sadness transfixed his battered features.

"Oh God, Bodie...I didn't...I'm sorry..."

"Forget it," Bodie insisted, just a tad too loudly. He stopped short, took a deep breath, then rubbed at his eyes. "Look, can't we just leave it alone get some sleep. I'm tired."

But Doyle was preoccupied, a rush of guilt and concern flooding over him. He shuffled over to sit beside Bodie and reached out to hug him close. Bodie stiffened and tried to pull away, but Doyle wouldn't let him go.

"I'm sorry," Doyle whispered in his ear, his breath hot on Bodie's neck. "I didn't mean it like that. My family just gets on my nerves sometimes, and I ... well, you know how I get sometimes. I can be a right prat, Bodie. But it wasn't fair of me to take it out on you..."

Bodie wriggled, trying to free himself from the protective embrace, but couldn't quite get loose. He really didn't try all that hard, the closeness to another human being was seductive, and the heat of Ray's body felt obscenely good next through his thin cotton robe. He sighed and sat still, submitting to the embrace.

"Look, Ray, I don't blame you. It's just the time of year. Gets to me a little, tha's all."

The blase tone in his voice didn't quite hold, the biting edge still apparent. Doyle's reaction was instantly protective. He was finding that he very much liked being the one offering support and comfort for a change, especially after years of leaning on his apparently solid partner. That brought a rush of guilt too, he knew there was pain in Bodie's past, but the ex-merc was so closed-mouthed about his life before CI5 that Doyle had let most of it slide by without pushing the issue.

He wanted to push it now. But he knew how stubborn his partner was; Bodie wouldn't play until he was ready. That powerful jaw was jutting, tight-set. Getting him to admit anything more would be worse than pulling teeth. Still, Ray badly wanted to give something back to his partner, to let the man know he wasn't alone. Above all, he wanted to ease the aching tension in that hard-muscled body, to bring a smile back to that shuttered face. Perhaps the digging out of emotional sores might have to wait; but there were other avenues to explore. His mind sparked with hidden delight, plans began to take fruit in the fertile soil of his imagination.

"OK," he replied, noting with some amusement the startled look his easy acquiescence created on his partner's surprising mobile features. 'For now,' he amended silently, promising himself they'd return to the subject later. He knew there was more to Bodie's outburst than simple holiday loneliness, and he was bound and determined to find out what. However, that could wait - he had other plans for the present.

Releasing Bodie, he got around to the edge of the bed and quickly divested himself of his jacket and shoes. Happy to be let go, Bodie didn't realize immediately what Doyle was doing, but when he did, he protested.

"What do you think you're doing?"

"Putting you to bed!" Doyle replied happily.

"What?" Bodie replied somewhat inanely. Doyle turned a toothy grin on him.

"You said you were tired..."


"So come on, into bed with you." Doyle reached out to tug down the covers, forcing Bodie to lift up first his hips and then his legs to allow Doyle to finish. Doyle held up the covers, indicating that Bodie should lay down. He gave Doyle a suspicious look, then did so, pushing his legs under the sheets. Doyle brought the covers up to his neck, then took the pillow from Bodie's hands.

"Head up!" he commanded. Bodie pouted, but the emotional explosion had left him exhausted, and he was a bit curious as to what was going on beneath Doyle's too-placid exterior. Deepening the suspicious glare he was training on his partner's face, Bodie obediently lifted his dark-capped head, letting Doyle slide the pillow beneath him. Doyle then pushed Bodie down, settling him into bed and securing the blanket and sheets around him.

"Close your eyes," Doyle commanded. Bodie refused for a moment, still glaring at him, but Doyle was adamant. Pursing his lips, Bodie obeyed again, closing his eyes and settling back against the pillow. He wriggled, overly aware of Doyle's presence, and finally turned to present Doyle with the back of his head and shoulders.

Doyle sat silently, watching and waiting. Bodie pretended to sleep for a while, but slowly and surely, the tiredness crept up on him, and his breathing began to slow down and even out. He slipped gently into slumber, but still Doyle remained seated by his side. Once he was sure Bodie was fully asleep, he leaned down to gently brush his lips on Bodie's cheek.

"Happy Christmas, sunshine," he whispered, carefully stroking the short, silken hair. Then he got up, walked noiselessly around the bed, and carefully settled himself down on the other side. Curling up close to the other man's bulk, he shut his eyes. The next day was Christmas, and if Ray Doyle had anything to say about it, this would be a Christmas that William Andrew Philip Bodie would never forget. His head full of wondrous, inventive plans, Doyle happily followed his best mate into sleep.

Part Two

Waking up hadn't been pleasant, and Doyle's effervescent mood hadn't helped. The mop-haired agent had apparently been awake for hours - had he ever slept? His extremely grumpy - and sore - partner had groaned, opened one lazy blue eye, then shut it instantly.

"Come on, sleepyhead, it's Christmas! Up and at 'em!" Doyle bounced on the edge of the bed, nearly spilling the tray of food in his hands.

"Go away!" Bodie commanded, refusing to even open his eyes. A heavy weight plopped in his lap with a clatter, and the warm, tangy emanations stimulated his nostrils. He twitched despite himself...that smelled like... he opened his eyes the slightest amount possible, and glared downward through a field of eyelashes. It was...

His eyes bolted open, and his hands snaked out from under the blankets to check the reality of the tray in front of him. Eggs and sausage and a mound of hot buttered toast, and steaming coffee to boot. Irrepressible hunger was hard to deny, and Bodie seized at the banquet before him. Yet, even as he hurriedly forked it into his mouth, he refused to look up at Doyle, a quick darting glance enough to read the open satisfaction and radiant amusement on his partner's face. Starving Bodie might be, but there was no way he was going to cope with a bouncy Ray Doyle this early in the morning.

Still, he laid quick waste to the breakfast, and finally brought his eyes up as he sipped at the coffee. Doyle was still grinning at him - God, the man's mouth was going to have cramps from staying too long in one position. Bodie growled at him, trying to ignore the sense of well-being that a good meal always gave him.

"So wha's this all about, then?"

"It's Christmas!" Doyle replied, still smiling inanely.

Bodie shrugged, his entire manner symbolizing a defiant "so what." Doyle was unabashed, he grabbed up the tray, barely allowing Bodie time to rescue his unfinished cup of coffee, and bustled out of the bedroom. At the doorway, he turned and commanded over his shoulder.

"Out of bed with ye now, we've got a busy day ahead!"

Bodie reacted instantly, those words hitting a well-trained signal. He groaned. Work, bloody 'ell, he'd at least hoped for one day spent in bed. This damnable holiday could at least give him that much! Muttering imprecations under his breath as to the parental origins of a certain Scottish Major, he hurried to the bathroom and showered briskly. Then he rummaged through his drawers, finally selecting clothes for comfort over style, a pair of dark cords and matching v-neck sweater, and a warm brown-leather jacket to complete the ensemble. He was easing his shoulder holster on when Doyle returned.

"What are you doing?" Doyle demanded, coming up to breath on his neck.

"What do you think I'm doing?" Bodie replied crossly. "We're called in to work, aren't we? Gotta wear my gear..."

"Work?" Doyle dropped the word as though it was contaminated. "What ever gave you that idea? Got the whole day off, we do. And we're bloody well going to take advantage of it too."

Bodie's jaw dropped, his eyes sparked. He turned and gave Doyle a fierce glare. "You said we 'ad a busy day..."

"Yup, we do. But not work, you dumb crud. Now come on, I think I found a place that still has a couple trees available." Doyle seized Bodie's arm and gave a mighty tug.

The bigger man stumbled, his mind still behind their movements, but catching up fast.

"'Eh, wait a minute. You mean I got up for nothing!! I could've...what do you mean a tree?"

"A Christmas tree, silly," Doyle enunciated carefully, still dragging his partner through the flat.

Bodie stopped short, his heels digging in. The weight of his coming to a halt threw Doyle off-balance, and he stumbled backwards into his partner's body. Bodie took hold of him automatically, steadying body against body. Doyle leaned quite willingly against him, but Bodie's mind was elsewhere.

"No way!" he protested. ""Sides, it's too late! Innit!"

Doyle proceeded to give the bigger man a quick hug, then hurried on towards the door. Grabbing for his coat, he argued over his shoulder.

"Nah, never too late. Come on, the shops are only open in the morning, so we 'ave to 'urry if we're goin' to get the stuff we need. Just like you to leave it 'till the last possible moment."

"Oh no...no...no..." Bodie was still protesting as Doyle literally dragged, pushed, and shoved him out of the apartment.

By the time they returned to the warmth of Bodie's quiet apartment, the broken window gaudily patched with towel-draped cardboard, Bodie was in an utter daze. He knew how much energy his partner could distill when he put his stubborn mind to a task, but he'd never been drawn through quite so wild a whirlwind. Doyle had dragged him to a tree farm, four grocery stores (only one of which was actually open), and had forced his way into a pair of closed department stores, making shameless - and totally illegal - use of his CI5 identification. Bodie had gone along with the little bugger out of pure amazement, wincing silently as his arms were piled with assorted stuff.

When he was finally allowed to collapse on the sofa, his arms ached, his shoulders hurt, his sides felt like someone had been using them as a punching bag. Well, actually, someone had, he suddenly remembered. A small stab of guilt hit him then, as he recalled his untoward explosion of the night before. He took a sneaking glance up at Doyle, who was busily maneuvering the tiny, slightly crooked pine tree into just the 'right' position in the corner. Bodie really did feel badly about the previous evening, and he couldn't help noticing the stiffness of Doyle's body and the bruises that purpled his right forearm.

"Bloody 'ell," Bodie swore under his breath, every nerve in his body wanting to deny all of this, especially his untoward loss of control. Bodie never lost control - unless it was in the process of pounding some well-deserving bastard into the pavement. But not like this - not bleeding all over his partner. He felt suddenly sick to his stomach, and curled up into a surprisingly small ball on the couch for such a big man.

It took Doyle a while to finish his appointed tasks, but the moment he turned and saw Bodie, he was across the room in an instant.

"Bodie?" he asked in a voice, soft with tenderness.

Bodie ignored him, came unraveled with a fierce burst of motion and hurried in towards the kitchen.

"Dinner time yet?" he inquired gruffly without turning to look at his partner.

Doyle frowned at Bodie's back, struggling manfully with the urge to seize the irritating sod, dump him on the floor, and sit on him until he finally talked. Biting at his lip, Ray forced himself to wait, storing up the questions itching at him for the much promised later. In the meantime, food was a wonderful distraction, especially for Bodie, and the process of making the large meal turned into an extremely pleasurable game.

Bodie was an inveterate pest in the kitchen, especially when Doyle was cooking, and it was a long-standing habit for Bodie to attempt to steal as much as he could from the preparations. Doyle was a sharp hand with a mixing spoon, and he gave Bodie a few good whacks, gaining wide-eyed, childlike pouts in return. Finally, he set Bodie to chopping up vegetable for a salad, and was able to finish basting the turkey.

That had to cook for a long while, so Doyle dragged Bodie into the sitting room, a platter full of biscuits and cheese in tow, and they curled up with the TV. One station was showing a long run of old black and white movies, and they watched a couple straight through - Bodie finally beginning to relax enough to do some particularly horrible imitations. Doyle was caught between the intensity of his relief and his disgust at the attempts...but his amusement won him over, and he ended up collapsed in a hopeless fit of the giggles. Not that he could resist pounding Bodie with a cushion - and that precipitated a wild pillow fight.

But at last, it was time to eat, and Doyle was more than satisfied by his partner's appetite. Actually, he did his fair share of damage, and felt supremely happy and extremely bloated by the time they were finished. He let them both lay back for a little while, suckling at some eggnog, before hustling Bodie into the kitchen for cleanup. As usual, Bodie protested vigorously, then set about the tasks laid out for him with characteristic efficiency.

When everything was spotless and shiny enough to pass Doyle's critical eye, he pushed Bodie back into the living room and settled him down on the couch. Bodie sprawled out, feet propped up on the coffee table, his blue eyes falling shut.

Doyle smiled happily at him for a moment, sat down beside him and gave him a shove.

"Eh, wake up! Still gotta open presents, don't we?"

"Presents?" Bodie came abruptly alert. He turned a pair of wide, dark-lashed sapphires on Doyle. "But..."

He stopped short. He hadn't bought anything for Doyle, unless you counted the joke gifts they'd exchanged before Doyle left to visit his family. He gave him a suspicious glare, but the curly-haired moppet was smiling, his own bright green eyes twinkling with mischief as he tossed a flat, rectangular package at Bodie.

"Go on, open it!" he demanded.

"But..." Bodie repeated, ducking his head as he admitted softly, "I didn't get you anything."

"Tha's OK, and who said you didn't? Gave me today, didn't you? Best Christmas I've 'ad in years!"

Bodie didn't manage a reply to that piece of sentiment, especially since they'd spent the last four Christmases working, either holed up in some stinking hole or worse yet, out on the cold streets getting shot at. Still, it was a nice thought, and it warmed a small corner of his insides.

Turning the colorful package over in his hands, he raised it to his ear and shook it roughly.

"Ey, take it easy on that!"

Turning up his best suspicious glare, Bodie eyed Doyle over the top of it. "So what is it?"

"Well, open and find out!" Doyle retorted, his manner suddenly drawing in on itself. That sobered Bodie instantly, and he attacked the wrapping with suddenly shaky hands. The thin paper gave way easily to reveal a small picture frame, and he turned it up to the light to catch a better sight of the photo within.

He blinked in surprise, coming face-to-face with himself and Doyle, both grinning shamelessly. Bodie's elbow was propped on Doyle's shoulder, both men were gripping drinks raised in drunken salute. They looked ... happy ... unbelievably at peace with themselves and with the world. When...?

And Bodie didn't realize he'd spoken the question aloud until Doyle answered him.

"Cole's going away party, remember?"

Memory struck, the good and the bad of it, and he nodded. Doyle reached out to tap his hand.

"Not our fault Cole went bad, or that Cowley almost got into trouble. Got 'im out of it, we did!"

Bodie grinned, nodded. "Yeh...was kind of funny, in a way, wasn't it? Us tracking down Cowley like that!"

Doyle chuckled. "Yeh - and you bugging his motor." They both shared a laugh at that memory, then Bodie turned a solemn gaze on his partner.

"Thanks." The word was almost whispered, so soft it could hardly have been heard, but Doyle was able to read it as much as hear it, and he smiled warmly, toothily, delight lightening up his eyes.

"You're welcome." And with a burst of sudden good fellowship, he leaned forward and squeezed Bodie into a hug.

Bodie hugged Ray right back, burying his face into a tangle of curls, enjoying the hot feel of his friend's body pressed against his own. It felt so good, more right than anything had in a long time, it felt...

His head jerked up, then his body followed, nearly leaping to the other end of the sofa. Left abruptly bereft, Ray stared after him with open-mouthed surprise. The silver-framed picture was left abandoned between them.

"Bodie...what's wrong?" Doyle essayed gently.

Bodie shook his head, forced a smile that didn't touch his wary eyes.

"Nothing," he insisted. Then picking up the picture, he settled it onto the table, balancing to stand upright against the metal bar that swung out from the back of it. Fingers traced the top of it, darting quick, then drew back as though burnt.

"Well, we'd better call it a night, 'adn't we?" Bodie said, his eyes averted.

Doyle took a deep breath, then moved in closer. They weren't going to call it a night be any possible stretch of the imagination, not until he got some answers.


"Don't Ray," Bode warned, his entire body tensing. But Doyle was not going to be dissuaded.

"Talk to me, Bodie...PLEASE!" he urged, creeping closer until they were almost touching hip to hip. Bodie flinched away, Doyle followed, seizing hold of his arm. "At least look at me..."

Doyle just about regretted asking that when Bodie turned towards him. That handsome face had settled into a look of such open anguish, the dark blue eyes appearing more as bruises within the pale, luminescent skin than as windows to his soul. But windows they were, and the fear that leached through them struck Doyle harder than any punch in the stomach could have.

"Oh Bodie...won't you please tell me what's wrong!" Doyle was pleading now, desperate. His fingers clutched at Bodie's arm. "What's happened? Is it something I said..."

"No." Bodie tried to get up, but Doyle yanked him back down.

"Doyle, for God's sake, let it alone."

"No, I won't. I care about you, damn it! Why won't..."

"Don't say that!!" Bodie's interruption was savage, torn from somewhere deep inside, it erupted out of him.

Doyle was stunned. He tightened his hold on Bodie's shoulders. "Why not? 'S the truth? After all the years we've spent covering each other's backs? You're my partner, and my best friend, and I..."

"DON'T!" Bodie yelled again, curling up in on himself; he was trembling openly now.

"Don't what?" Doyle demanded, insistent know on getting to the bottom of this. "Come on Bodie...I want an answer. You owe me one, you close-mouthed bastard. What's got into you?"

"Just don't say you care about me. It might just be OK if you don't say it."

"What?" Doyle was dumbfounded by that piece of idiocy. He dropped into silence for a moment, his mind tumbling over itself.

"Bodie, I don't understand. Why shouldn't I say it? I mean, I know it's not the kind of thing us macho men say to each other, not mostly, at least, but it's Christmas..."

"No, you don't understand..." Bodie cried out, hugging at his arms, as though trying to shrink into as small a space as possible. Doyle reacted instantly, he reached out and hugged Bodie tightly, ignoring the man's immediate struggles to get free.

"Then explain it to me," he urged into Bodie's ear, his breath stirring the ebony curls on Bodie's neck.

Bodie shook his head. Doyle simply hugged him harder, and Bodie finally gave in with a sound terribly reminiscent of a whimper.

"If you say you care about me, you'll get killed." The words were barely a whisper, but they dropped like a bomb between them. Doyle jerked, his head bolted up.

"Wha...Bodie...you..." Ray stammered, his mind reeling. Suddenly everything made a terrible kind of sense, all of it came clear. His partner's behavior, not just this past night and day, but for the past several years. "Oh God, Bodie..." Doyle abruptly tightened his grip on the other man's shoulders, pushing up to try to pull as much of him into the embrace as he possible could.

Bodie shivered, then struggled to get free. "'S not such a big deal, Ray. Just don't SAY it, OK. Things will be all right then."

"Bodie, that's silly! I'll feel it whether I say it or not."

"But if you don't say it, then maybe you'll still be alive. Not like..."

Bodie trailed off there, not wanting to name the ghosts that stood over his shoulder. But Ray was past letting anything remain unspoken.

"Like Marikka...and the girl Krivas killed..." and he took another stab at it, "like Claire...but she lived..."

"Yeh - just barely," Bodie replied, the normality in his tone a sheer pretense.

"Oh Bodie..." Ray began again. "None of that was YOUR fault. You have to know that?"

"Wasn't it?" Bodie mumbled.

Ray pulled the dark head into the crook of his shoulder, stroked the satiny strands with a tender hand.

"No, it wasn't. Look...I know how you feel. God only knows I'm an expert at guilt." Ray chuckled bitterly. "My mum was an expert at instilling that quality in her kids. But there's a limit, Bodie. You couldn't control Krivas, or the bomber, or Willis' mob. You didn't make any of it happen, you have to KNOW that!"

"I do...sort of...but it's still...it's just safer if you don't take chances with it. You know..." But Bodie had relaxed slightly into Doyle's embrace, and his breathing had evened out just a little. Doyle nuzzled the side of his head, struggling for eve ry advantage.

"Maybe, but it's stupid to let might-be's take away the few good things you 'ave in this life."

Bodie was silent for a moment, then he responded, his voice muffled against Doyle's shoulder.

"What do you mean?"

Ray squeezed Bodie one more time, then pulled away, tugging at Bodie's head until they were looking straight into each other's eyes. "There are no guarantees, Bodie. I can't promise you that either of us will live to see tomorrow, much less next week. Especially given our crazy way of making a living. But that's exactly why you HAVE to say you care NOW, while you've got the chance. It won't make dying any more likely, really it won't, but if - God forbid - that does happen, at least you'll know you said it! At least you won't have that additional regret on top of everything else."

Doyle really meant this, and his eyes drilled into Bodie's, trying to communicate the importance of it. Bodie was hesitating, years of certain anguish still haunting him. So the older man smiled, leaned forward and kissed his friend's forehead. "Just think about it, will you?"

Bodie paused, then nodded solemnly. "OK." He could promise that much at least, and he did feel strangely light, as though a massive weight had been lifted off his chest. He felt almost as though he could have floated away, if Doyle hadn't been there holding him down. He closed his eyes, feeling suddenly very, very tired. Doyle gathered him close again, and Bodie snuggled into his embrace.

He didn't know if Doyle was right; he still balked at tempting fate by speaking aloud the emotions that ran through him, but Bodie was more than content to steal this moment from life. Shutting his eyes, he drifted in shelter of Doyle's arms.

Ray leaned his cheek down on Bodie's head as a tear stung the corner of his eyes. Damn it, he hadn't expected this. And he still wasn't sure how to cope it, or with the groundswell of his own emotions. Dragging out this painful confession from his friend had thrust him into the realization that "care" was hardly a strong enough word to describe his feelings for the difficult, contrary, beautiful man cradled in his arms. But if Bodie freaked out so badly at the sound of "care" then that other word could d rive him far far away. So Doyle would have to hold it silent for now, take what he had for the moment, and let it grow.

Until he could finally look into the impossibly blue eyes and say the words that had blossomed so suddenly and irretrievably within his heart. Three simple words.

Part Three

New Year's Eve was much more Bodie's style. A holiday devoted to the simple pleasures - free spirits, plentiful food, good fellowship and the joy of having survived another year - it was a time to celebrate being alive. And there was no better way to do so than with his compatriots from CI5.

The Squad's parties were always a wild frolic. They worked hard and they played even harder. Living on the edge of death as they did, when it came time to let off steam, they let loose with unabashed fervor. Awash in a bright sea of champagne, succored by sweet chocolates and berried tarts, Bodie was in his element. Doyle was close by his side, Murphy was leading a rousing song, even Cowley was approaching a hint of good humor.

Bodie swigged the rest of his champagne, tugged at his partner's sleeve, then wandered off in chase of another bottle. He got stopped twice along the way, once to share a minty kiss with Susan, the second to mediate a bet between Anson and McCabe. Sending them satisfied upon their way, he rounded the corner to the tiny kitchen, and drunkenly began to rustle through the cupboards.

"'S not in there," Doyle warned, leaning lazily against the doorjamb, the sounds of merriment loud behind him.

"Wha's not in where?" Bodie asked, suddenly forgetting what it was he was looking for. He settled back against the table, surreptitiously trying to use it as support. The world swam pleasantly around him; he was suffused with simple contentment.

Doyle grinned widely at him, baring a mouth full of slightly crooked, pearly-white teeth. The expression made him look obscenely young, childlike with his halo of bronzed curls and the vivid too-large eyes. They were dilated now, deep hazy pools of green, focusing blearily in Bodie's general direction.

"The champagne, silly," Doyle responded, wavering a bit as he eased forward. "Tha's what you wanted, innit?"

Bodie blinked for a moment, then beamed with the memory. He HAD wanted another of the bubbly drinks.

"Of course it is, idiot, what else would I be looking for?" He attempted to look annoyed that Doyle would think he didn't know what he was doing, even if he had actually forgotten for a moment. It didn't make an impression, though, Doyle approached him with balanced, careful step of a man who realizes he's drunk.

"Well, it's not 'ere, is it?" Doyle said. "They put it outside, to keep it cold."

"Outside?" Bodie frowned. "Wha's wrong with the fridge?"

"Not enough space, not with all the food," Doyle informed him gravely. He'd gotten close enough to peer directly into Bodie's eyes, and he did so with serious intent.

Bodie glared back at him for a moment, then sighed and shoved at Doyle's chest.

"Move it. Gotta find the champagne."

"I told you, it's outside," Doyle said firmly.

"I know that," Bodie responded, taking hold of Doyle's arm and dragging him towards the back door. "So le's go get it."

"Ahh..." That did make sense to Doyle, and he moved along willingly enough, though not without pressing in closer to his partner's body. Bodie gave off heat through the thick wool of his sweater, and Doyle sopped it up. Swaying against Bodie, he buried his nose in the bigger man's chest.

"Doyle, what the 'ell you doing?" Bodie demanded, struggling to hold both of them upright even as the room began to sway around him worse than a ship at sea. Doyle clutched at him, somehow managing to snuggle even closer.

"Feel good, you do. Warm..." he murmured.

"Lemme go!" Bodie grunted with frustration, though the combination of too much champagne and a night's worth of good fellowship had mellowed him out considerably. Besides, he wasn't the only one who felt good - in fact, Doyle not only felt nice, he smelled wonderful as well. His hair tickled Bodie's chin, and the taller man leaned down to bury his nose in those thick wayward curls, sniffling up the warm, soapy scent of them. It brought back memories, the two of them curled up on a drowsy Christmas Day...

Oh no, oh no, oh no... An instinctive flare of panic chased the alcoholic haze from Bodie's mind, dropping him into a emotional pit of icy water. He stiffened, shoved at Doyle's shoulders, ignored the sorrowful look he received as he turned away towards the door. Squaring his shoulders, he reached for the doorknob and wrestled it open.

Behind him, a not-so-steady Ray Doyle was gazing after him, a mixture of frustration, anguish, and concern filling his wide green eyes. His mouth drooped, his shoulders clenched, but he forced the emotion aside. Joining Bodie at the door, he pushed past his partner and reached for the snow-dusted cardboard box that held the remaining bottles of champagne. Unfortunately, the white layer of snow hid the slick of ice below, and his feet slid out from under him with abrupt loss of control.

Ray gasped with surprise, his feet sliding across the slippery surface, then rising up in the air as he fell. He hit bottom hard, too close to the edge of the building to miss striking the brick wall. His skull impacted with a loud crack, and he slumped to the ground, instantly unconscious.

It had all happened so quickly, Bodie didn't even realize it was happening until Doyle was sprawled out on the ground before him. He yelled, "RAY," and was on his knees a heartbeat later...a heartbeat too late.

Hands trembling more with shock than with cold, Bodie felt for a pulse, his breath of relief at the gentle throb beneath his fingers misting in the air before him. He gathered Doyle up into his laps, cradling the wounded head against his thigh.

"Ray?" he demanded, more softly this time, then his voice rose again, "RAY!"

The limp body in his arms didn't move, and panic struck. Under better circumstances, perhaps, Bodie would have reacted with more reason and less emotion, but he was fuzzy with the alcohol, and twisted by the frightening mix of emotions that had troubled him since the recent, explosive Christmas Eve. All he could think of was the possibility that once again he could lose the one thing in his life worth living for.

Finding it difficult to get to his feet and carry Doyle at the same time, Bodie settled for crawling backwards on his hands and knees, dragging Doyle with him. It took a seemingly endless struggle, but he finally got them both inside the door. Kicking it shut behind him, he reached out to gather Doyle up into his arms. Quickly ascertaining that the pulse was still beating, Bodie looked anxiously around him. Loud music filtered through from the other room, and Bodie's shout for help was drowned in a rousing, ragged chorus of a prurient drinking song.

Doyle moaned and shifted in Bodie's grip, fighting his way back to awareness of his surroundings.

"Ray?" Bodie asked again, and was rewarded with another groan. Cradling the curly-haired head against his belly, he touched every inch of his partner he could reach.

"Ray, can you 'ear me, mate? Answer me, sunshine!"

"Oooh, don' shout," Doyle muttered, one hand fluttering up to probe at his skull - an action he regretted the instant his fingers made contact. Bodie seized the offending appendage instantly.

"Don't mess around with it. You've probably got a concussion! What the 'ell were you playing at out there...you could've gotten yourself killed!" His voice broke on the last word, dragging Doyle's attention away from the hammer pounding on his brain. He tried to look up at Bodie without moving his head, but even the slightest motion was enough to stir another moan from his lips.

"And don't move!" Bodie told him crossly, his voice rising with irritation. Doyle simply couldn't help it, as bloody painful as it was, he started to smile, the smile became a toothy grin, and then the laughter began to bubble out of him, frothier than the champagne they'd been searching for.

The sound only irritated Bodie further. He frowned deeply, his mouth pursing into a thrusting pout. Doyle laughed all the harder, until it simply hurt too much, and he stuttered towards silence.

"You've gone hysterical," Bodie complained, trying to ease Doyle down towards the floor. Doyle clutched at him, wincing at the motion, but insistent on keeping Bodie close.

"No, 's just funny. All the times we've been shot at or beaten up, or almost blown up in the past few months, and what 'appens? I nearly kill myself on a bleeding patch of ice!"

"'S not funny!" Bodie shouted, his entire body tensing. He turned his head away, refusing to meet Doyle's gaze. But his partner reached up and pulled him down again, boring into Bodie's back and shoulder with emerald drills until the weight of his regard forced the trembling man to turn around.

"Bodie, I'm OK. Really. I'm fine," Doyle reassured him.

"But you could've..." Bodie couldn't finish the sentence.

"Yes, I could've," Doyle repeated with blunt honesty. Bodie tried again to pull away, but again found himself trapped by insistent hands. "Look, I told you before, anyone can go at any time. Tha's just the way it is. So you have to take what you've got, when you've got it. Only way to live, mate. If you don't you're not really living and you might as well just go ahead and die."

Bodie shook his head, a pounding certainty in the center of his chest that this accident was somehow his own fault. Doyle read it easily, and thumped him hard in the belly.

"Don't you dare start blaming yourself, you 'ear me? Try it and I'll kick your ass from 'ere to Scotland."

"Ray!" Bodie's voice was torn, uncertain, his face closed tightly in on itself, though confusion bled from his dark blue eyes.

Doyle tugged on him, indicating he needed help sitting up, and Bodie gave it willingly, drawing him up into a sitting position, wrapping powerful arms around his shoulders to support him. Ray leaned into that proffered strength for a moment, then drew the pale face down closer to him so that they could taste each other's breath.

"Is it really that hard to say, Bodie? What if I had died a few minutes ago? Wouldn't you have felt better if you'd said something to me beforehand? Or would you rather bury me without ever saying how you feel?" That was a rough demand to make, but Doyle had been storing it up for over a week, struggling not to push, testing the limits of his patience. He KNEW from a thousand little signs and signals that his feelings for his partner were returned in equal measure, and the inability to speak it aloud had been driving him nuts. Afraid of driving Bodie into running away, he'd held back, but this accident had been the last straw. Even if Bodie wouldn't say it, he damn well would.

"Well, I can't live with that," Doyle continued, ruthlessly ignoring the anguish twisting Bodie's mobile mouth. "I can't go on not knowing if I'll ever get the chance to say how I feel before you die. Could 'appen any time; you could fall down like I did , or get hit by a car, or 'ave a bloody 'eartattack, or anything. I dunno, and it doesn't matter. I love you, you irritating, arrogant, impossible bastard, and I'm going to tell you so whether you want to 'ear it or not!"

With that finally off his chest, Doyle closed his aching eyes and snuggled deeper into the comforting warmth of Bodie's lap. The room was abruptly silent, except for the strains of music and laughter echoing in from the party, and the steady sounds of their breath. So the whisper, when it came, buried into the auburn curls at the crown of his head, seemed both too loud and far too faint at once.

"Love you too..."

And at that very same instant, as though in brilliant confirmation, a multitude of bells chimed, a vigorous round of cheers erupted from the neighboring room, the popping crack of fireworks sounded from the streets.

Doyle struggled to turn his head, to meet Bodie's eyes, to verify his senses against the power of his own need. Bodie refused to look up, simply tightened his embrace and dug his nose deeper into the curve of Doyle's neck. Ray sighed, but snuggled closer. A rough whisper was hardly the stuff that dreams were made of, but this one was, if nothing else, a beginning.

-- THE END --

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