Says Kitt, "It's less of a Christmas story than a story which happens to take place around Christmas, but the theme of hope and renewal fits with the holiday, too." Also: this story uses characters from the Alexa Radin universe, and while this story should be readable without knowing those stories, having read that fic first will give the reader a sense of place. For newcomers: at this point, Mike is Commissioner, Claire is District Attorney, Ben is retired. This story, although not included in the book, would be taking place in the final act of When All Is Said and Done.
"Here's the formal announcement," Claire told them one evening after dinner, as they sat in the living room and watched her boys attempt to tackle Benjy. "I'm counting on the both of you to make it." She thrust cards into their hands and couldn't restrain a half-grin when they looked down and then up at her, identical in their movements, two sides of a mirror.
"I don't know," Ben said first, and rested the announcement on his knee.
"What, you have plans already?" Claire cocked her head at him. "A month from now you happen to have plans on December 20th?" She glanced over at Mike, waiting for some encouragement.
Mike didn't speak.
"Now, I know you're coming. The Commissioner has to come."
Mike ran his finger over the invitation, testing the raised lettering under his fingers, the way he felt for his dead wife's name on her gravestone. "It might be bad timing," he said quietly after a long pause.
"Logan, it's a holiday fund-raiser, if we don't get some support here, it'll go nowhere. If I can promise...certain people that you'll be there, that Ben will be there..."
"Why do I have to be there?" Ben asked fiercely. "Nobody cares about me any more, I'm just the ex-DA. I like it like that."
Claire shook her head. "You know better than that, Ben. Everyone remembers you. Nobody forgets after only four years." Hearing a yell behind her, Claire turned to the boys, who were in the process of fleeing the room, pursued by Benjy Logan. "Excuse me a minute." And she jumped from her seat, running to her youngest to see what the tragedy was this time.
Ben glanced over at Mike and their eyes met a moment.
Claire's husband Caleb, sitting quietly in his customary easy chair and purposefully keeping out of the conversation until that moment, sipped his coffee. "Don't take it out on her," he admonished gently. "You know Claire has no head for exact dates. I'm the one who remembers birthdays and anniversaries, not her."
"So you remember," said Ben.
Caleb shook his head. "Not this one. You've got me here."
Mike sighed wearily. It was not the anniversary; his wife Alexa died on September 28, and once a year on that date he called in sick to work, so a party would have been out of the question, but this was the day he -- and obviously Stone -- recalled with the same clarity. He lived his life these past several years surrounded by ghostly anniversaries, ruled by the emotions they brought to him, how the turn of a calendar date could rouse up a significance that made him feel hollow and scraped out, since Alexa was not there to spend it with him. The 20th was just another day to everyone else in the universe, everyone else except himself and Ben Stone. It was the day, four years ago, when they moved out of Alexa's gingerbread house in Staten Island, the last time he ever saw that hated place, when they filled the moving vans with boxes and clothes and drove them to Ben Stone's house. When, for the first time, the fragments of Alexa's union with Ben Stone and Mike Logan had resided under one roof. All four of them, two men, two children, all broken, on December 20th. Defective Christmas toys. That was the meaning of December 20th, and Mike knew Ben felt the memory just as sharp as he did. It was the first day he knew for sure she wasn't coming back.
When Claire returned from chasing the children around, flushed and smiling, she sank in her chair and blew her hair from her face. "They're playing quietly for at least the next six minutes." She paused, waiting for some kind of reaction. "Well, then. How about the party?"
Regretfully, but with just a little bit of bitterness, Ben told her, "I'll go."
She clapped her hands together. "Superb."
Mike's brow knitted. He knew he had to go, but he wasn't going to make it easy on Claire. He had wanted to draw out his acceptance, to make her to remember what December 20th meant. But Ben ruined it, probably intentionally. Mike despaired, wondering if he would ever feel like he had the upper hand again, if there was ever a time something Ben would do wouldn't somehow irritate him. He bit, "Four years, sure, give or take, it's possible to forget just about anything in four years, eh, Ben?"
Ben sat up straight in his chair and gripped the armrests. "It is always a contest with you, isn't it."
"Just checking," Mike told him, and turned to Claire. "Fine. If it means nothing to him, it doesn't mean anything to me. I'll go."
"What am I missing?" Claire spun her head around to Caleb, and then to Ben, whose face held an expression she had not seen in some time. "Oh," she said finally. "Damn. I've stepped on a memory, haven't I."
Ben smiled slightly. "It's all right, Claire. You're not supposed to have to know. We'll be there." He turned to Logan. "Won't we, Mike."
"Yeah," Mike said, with no tone in his voice. "We'll be there."
They flocked around him like pigeons to the seed. Hair, and so much of it, bubbling and bouncing, surrounding him on all sides. Mike backed up against a wall and still they did not give an inch. Within the fundraising crowd, Commissioner Mike Logan's face was familiar, but almost no one had met him. His M.O. was to donate from afar, make an appearance long enough to have his picture taken for the press, then duck out immediately afterwards. It was not typical of a public official, but Mike Logan had never been typical of the police top brass. Somehow, with the absolute minimum of personal appearances and evident greed for the job, Mike Logan had been handed the position of Commissioner three months ago, and already he was hating it. Mike was expected to be out and about, making statements, commenting for the press, and he had never been one to attempt to represent anyone or anything but himself. But he had known the right people, or more accurately the right people had known him, and the job was his. This was his first party, the first time he appeared and stayed at a function. And it made him irresistible to those who attended these parties regularly and rarely had anyone new to cluck over.
As he glanced helplessly down at the powdered and lipsticked faces before him, he felt something akin to being violated. These people, these beauties, these women in front of him, they knew everything about him, and still they came to flirt with him. They knew it was his first time out in a social-official manner since being appointed, they knew his name and his office number, and they knew he was single. Worse, they knew why he was single, and how he had come to be not only single, but the pitiable widower. He saw it in their eyes, that they pitied him, and he hated their compassion. They did not know of his ritual of mourning days, how not a month went by that some new memory made him paralyze with thinking of her, even if for only a moment. They knew nothing. The only person in the world who knew was Ben Stone.
And that in and of itself was nearly intolerable. So many indignities, all for the pleasure of calling Alexa his own, but they had been worth every minute. First she was his, then he was locked in a basement dungeon for weeks, and he lost her to Ben Stone. Then she was his again, but the baby inside her was not, a fact which took him almost a decade to finally realize. But she was sick, very sick, and some things took precedence. They left the baby -- no longer such a baby, he was Benjy and fully his ten years -- with Ben Stone, the new baby Caitlin with other relatives, and when they came back Mike's one son knew what had taken his father all that time to learn. And everything had changed. When Alexa fell ill again, and died, it broke Mike. Ben Stone saved them by bringing them to his house. December 20th. Four years ago. Not long enough. Not nearly long enough.
Forcing himself from the memory he returned to the here and now and faced his tormentors once more. It seemed not to matter if he even said anything to them; they talked amongst themselves when he was uncommunicative. They merely wanted to bask in his aura. Once, Mike had lived for this sort of thing; it had gotten him high to enjoy this much attention, no matter how often it happened. He had taken exquisite care of how he dressed, how his hair appeared, whether he was shaven, how he smelled in those days; now he could hardly summon the energy to worry about anything. He glanced over the women in front of him and fervently wished one of them would stand out and attract him, that one would be different from the horde. He wanted suddenly desperately to put Alexa and her porch coma out of his head; he wanted to take one of these women home and go at her with the abandon he once remembered he had, the way he had gone after Alexa in the beginning, and in the end. In-between their meeting and her sickness Mike had been more tender with her than with any other person; he so loved being with her that since she had liked their sex slow and prolonged, so had he. It wasn't until the end, when time was running out for them that she changed her attitude. In those last few years they had taken time for very little; when one wanted the other it was instantly mutual, and they took care of it as quickly as possible. It was less romantic, but they had lost the time for romance; all that was left was a great sucking vacuum of fear and need. Before she had gotten sick, Mike thought he could not love her more than he already did, but he had been wrong. Once their days had been numbered and Mike knew in his heart he would lose her, that Ben or no Ben she would leave him yet again, he loved her even more. It had been painful, and this, right now at the fund-raiser, was painful. And he wanted to stop being in such pain all of the time.
He glanced across the room, over the tops of the women's' heads, and caught Ben there, alone, leaning up on the bar and staring into his glass. He wondered if Ben was in pain, in this kind of pain, and then decided he didn't really want to know. That managed to open up an entire different world of questions in his mind that he was not yet ready to address. With that thought, Mike knew he could never just have another fling; he would always feel himself in competition with Stone, as if by giving in to his loneliness and pain somehow Stone would prove to be the better man. If Mike ever met another woman he cared for, it would be like confirming that all along Ben Stone had been more worthy of Alexa's love, for Mike was certain Ben would never date anyone else. And that angered him.
Trapped yet again, Mike decided to escape, so he put on a charming smile and pushed through the wall of women in front of him, heading to the bar. Leaning up against it, next to Ben, he asked, "Having fun?"
Ben did not answer at first.
"Hey," Mike ordered. "I didn't hear you."
Ben's vision came back in focus. "Here or home, doesn't matter. All the same to me."
Ben turned slowly to face Mike. "What was that?"
"You're a martyr, Stone, and I bet you love it. You're just all tickled inside that you finally have something to sacrifice yourself over."
"Don't let me bring down your good time, Commissioner," Stone growled at him. "Shouldn't you get back to your harem?"
"You wanted to come, remember? You said yes first."
"So I'm a sado-masochistic martyr. Why in the world would you give a damn, Logan?"
Logan ran his hands through his hair. Four years, a lifetime -- it didn't matter. They were always at each other. He hissed, "Because I don't want to be a martyr with you. Because you make me feel like if I try to move forward I'm betraying something."
"And you believe you're not."
"The vows said until death do us part, Stone." Logan took a breath. "Only, you didn't take any vows, so it lasts longer for you, is that it?"
"God, are you a son of a bitch, Logan," Stone said, and glared at him. "I don't know how your mind works, but I'll tell you my thinking on this: I could care less what you do with the rest of your life, so long as it doesn't hurt Benjy. Or Caitlin. I really could care less. But I don't want to move on. Alexa was the one woman I have ever loved, and the only one I ever will love. There is no moving on for me. But you, you want to move on. That's probably healthy. You're probably the most healthy man in this whole room. I just wish you could have made this momentous decision all those years ago, when at least one of us could have been with the only woman he would want for the rest of his life."
Mike clenched his fists. This was it; after all this time he was actually going to hit this man.
Ben seemed to sense imminent physical damage, and said in a low, bored tone, "I wouldn't. Hitting me in front of all of these people will ruin you."
"I am ruined," Mike said, and stalked off to another bar in the room.
Sucking on a piece of ice from his G&T, Ben tasted the last remnant of the gin coating it, and was vaguely aware of Logan's withdrawal from combat. Presumably he drifted back into the party, but that wasn't Ben's concern. What interested Ben was in getting another drink. The party was still going on as far as he knew, and no one had seemed to mind one way or the other that one of the city's former DAs was in attendance, but after a few moments more, Ben looked up and saw Logan behind him, leaning up against the wall, his harem again in attendance, and he knew everyone was quite pleased the Commissioner had shown up. Ben wondered if Mike would have the balls to go home with one of the women with whom he was now eagerly speaking. In a way, Ben wished he would; it would once and for all break the stalemate that had sprung up between them, which Logan was now turning hostile. But Ben wasn't certain he wanted what might more naturally come next -- Logan's eventual relationship and remarriage, or even just the eventual relationship. His house was full now. Ben feared it emptying. He did not think he could live with the loneliness again. Years ago, he had not felt lonely, and he had his work. If Mike left, taking Caitlin, or Benjy, or both, Ben would not even have their old dog Clarence this time.
He had rarely felt so useless before.
I am never doing this again, Ben decided. This was his last venture into the social whirl. He wanted to be home right now, with Benjy, helping him with his homework.
He glanced in the mirror once more. Logan's harem was gone. There was just Mike, and one woman, a thin, dark blonde-haired woman with a small nose and wide mouth. It wasn't Alexa, but the, similarities were there. And Mike was very intent on whatever it was she was saying. Ben tore his gaze away, searching for the bartender, and ordered another drink. When he looked back again, Logan and the woman were gone.
"We could just get a room, you know," Mike told her, watching as she closed the door behind them. The latch clicked.
"Supply closets are so much more exciting," she murmured to him, and slid the chain strap of he handbag from her shoulder, resting it on a nearby shelf.
"What was your name again?" Mike felt fourteen, he felt illicit, he felt cheap, but he also felt driven to do this.
A spark flashed in her eye, but she laughed again. It was something he liked about her, that full-voiced laugh she had. "Joan." She folded her hands behind her back. "Anything else you'd like to know?"
"Do you know who I am?"
She stood much closer to him and gazed into his face. "Of course, Mr. Police Commissioner. I don't go into tiny back rooms with just anybody."
The attempt at humor only made him more uncomfortable. "I wonder if we should do this."
She pressed herself against him and he breathed her perfume; his throat closed a little. It was the same kind Alexa had used, it was one of the reasons he had started talking to this woman in the first place. "It'll be our little secret," she whispered, and craned her face towards his. "Was there anything else?"
"Do you think --"
She cut him off. "No," she said breathily, and kissed him. Her lips were full and lipsticky; Mike had forgotten about kissing lipsticked women because Alexa never had worn the stuff. It was fruity and slightly waxy, and the combination of the taste and feel of her mouth on his was intoxicating. He kissed her back, slightly hesitantly, and she pressed up against him harder, forcing Mike to lean against the cabinets for support. He closed his hands around her waist to steady her, and rubbed his thumbs on her stomach, which felt hard and muscular under his touch. Obviously Joan had a gym membership. Alexa had not; she had always been soft, if never heavy. Thus steadied, Joan arched her back to him and Mike could see down her dress now, into the cleavage there, so he let his mouth travel down her neck, to her collarbone, and to the rise in her breasts. All at once Mike could not remember why he had waited four years to be able to do this again; he cursed his long memory and resolved he would not be the pitiable widower any more, at least unless it brought him more of this.
Joan brought her hand down to his belt, and gradually lower, patting him through his pants, "Mmmm," she said appreciatively as Mike nuzzled her, pausing just for a second when she touched him. He hardened so quickly he had to close his eyes to get back in control, and slowly, eventually, he went back to her neck and chest. He was avoiding looking at her; something felt too intimate about remembering her face, and he had no interest in making a real connection with her. He reached behind her for the zipper on her cocktail dress and brought it down as she pressed against him, raising one leg and resting it on a shelf behind Mike. Her dress loosened, Mike reached under it and was pleased to find her hose was the kind that stopped at the thighs. She was warm and moist there, and he felt for her the same way she had touched him.
They slid her dress over her head and tossed it to the side, and while she stood there in matching underclothing, blue and lacy, and Mike had to take a moment to stare. Seeing her hurt him in an indefinable way -- he had so hoped under her dress she would be shaped like Alexa but of course she was not, her workouts showed on every angle of her lean, sculpted body. He could see her muscles, small and sinewy though they were, and though she curved where she was supposed to and had adequate, round breasts encased in her blue laciness he had the sudden image of being with a teenage boy, and closed his eyes a moment. He remembered Alexa, he remembered her curvaciousness, the way she had filled out her silver sparkly dress when they went disco dancing. He remembered her pregnant, swollen but in a way that made him even more attracted. His inability to go beyond remembering her angered him, and he reached for Joan roughly.
"Hey now, lover," she said, lightly protesting, and put her leg back up on the shelf, slightly bent, guiding his hand to it. Mike ran his hand up and down the firm, silky shape and brought his other hand to her breast, reaching under the lace. Despite the additional contact, he felt himself less aroused now, and tried hard to work himself back up. When that was not working, he brought her back towards him and guided her hand to his belt again. Joan needed little more encouragement. She undid him and lowered his pants around his ankles, something which held Mike in place and made him feel ridiculous.
"Hey," she said quietly. "What happened?"
Crouched down by his knees Joan gazed up maliciously at him, that twinkle in her eye, and Mike hated her then, almost as much as he was hating himself. "Oh, it's still there," he managed gruffly, hoping to sound just a bit menacing. "Go on," he ordered.
Joan wasn't used to being talked to that way, but she was curious. She reached up with her long manicured nails, under the cuffs of his boxers, and the tingling sensation ripped through Mike with a suddenness he could not have expected, and he craned his head back, whacking it into the metal of the cabinet, seeing stars. His arms reached out for some kind of purchase and spread like that he gripped the edges of the shelves. After a moment or two she put her mouth on him Mike made a low moaning sound and bit on it. He had never been quite so vulnerable before, or so he felt, for while the door was locked if they were heard... if they were suspected...but all of that fell by the wayside as she worked at him. All Mike could think to do was pat her head and touch her hair, letting himself ride the warmth, letting himself go. It was glorious, and for the second time he cursed himself for being such a sentimental idiot. He had known what he was missing all along, and had been too interested in trying to prove something to Ben to remember what really mattered. He felt he could have a second chance at things, go back to doing whatever he liked. For Christ sakes, he was the Commissioner, and if he wanted to fuck everything in sight, who was going to say no? The President even had a girlfriend everyone knew about. These days, who gave a shit?
He was on the verge, as heavily drugged as he could remember, being in a very long time, when she took him out of her mouth. The sudden cool air and the appearance of her face before him came as a shock, and he opened his eyes. "Well?" he growled again.
"Calm down," she said, and reached over his shoulder to her handbag. Her face was flushed and her eyes bright. He reached up and touched her mouth, which he suddenly worshipped. She paused at what she was doing and took his finger in her mouth, playing with it, and he wanted her badly. After a moment she pulled away from his finger and removed something from her bag, sliding the purse back on the shelf, then pressed up hard against him, running one hand through his hair, kissing his cheek, his jaw, his neck, and finally his mouth. He plunged his tongue in her mouth, trying to taste everything at once, and still got some of that fruity, waxy lipstick taste back. He rubbed himself between her legs, where the silk of her underclothes stroked him. "Not bad," she murmured, and he heard plastic tearing.
But he was surprised when she unrolled the condom she had gotten from her purse. "You never know," she winked at him. "Shall I or do you roll your own?"
Mike had absolutely no idea. Of course, he had every idea once, but it had been nearly fifteen years, and he hadn't protected himself since he met Alexa. In some remote corner of his mind he was grateful that Joan had the foresight, because he had no intention of making a very big mistake in this tiny supply closet, but the sudden clinical efficiency of this woman began to erode his interest again. There was a whole feeling about it, a very planned and businesslike air to the way she moved, as if this tryst was nothing unusual for her. From her well-defined angles to the easy availability of a condom -- and Mike had the sneaking suspicion she had more than one in that small purse of hers -- he felt all last vestiges the seductive thrill coming to the closet had initially presented fade.
She had taken his lack of speech as a cue to put the condom on herself, but began to struggle. "Jesus," she murmured. "You're like a leaky tire."
Humiliated, Mike slapped her hands away and squeezed his eyes shut, hearing the condom falling away, making a soft rubbery sound against the floor. After a moment he opened his eyes again to see her standing there, shocked. The frozen, surprised look on her face made him furious, and Mike leaned over, trying to keep his balance, snatching up her dress. "Here," he said, offering it to her. "Get dressed."
Mutely, she took the dress, her face hardening. "You son of a bitch," she muttered, and slapped him.
Mike's chagrin did not extend into his feeling he deserved to be hit. "Get out," he growled, and pulled his boxers up. "Get out."
In one seemingly fluid motion she threw her dress and zipped it from the back. "You're pitiful," she spat. "And you're in charge of the cops in this city? What a fucking washout."
Mike felt pierced. When had women become like this? Even when he had dated several over a short period of time, they had never turned cruel. Mike had always been the one in charge, he had always tried to end things well. But Alexa had softened him. He had gotten used to her and her idiosyncrasies, he was accustomed to the way she did things. In all of their years together she had never made fun of him, or poked fun at his shortcomings, and he suddenly missed her with a force he had not remembered since her funeral. How could he possibly do this thing on this, one of the ghostly anniversary days? How could he even think of it? He missed her so horribly just then, he realized how ridiculous and abased he looked, standing in a supply closet of a hotel with his pants around his legs and an angry strange woman before him, that he sank down to the floor and pulled his knees up, resting a hand over his eyes. He wished more than anything that Alexa was there. She wouldn't have laughed at him. While they were together something like this had happened twice, perhaps three times, and always she had been kind. She would have put her arms around him and held him, and she would have touched him everywhere, all over, as often and as long as it took to make him feel better again. He had never felt more stupid in his entire life, and rarely so alone. He buried his face in the crook of his arm and let out a gasping sob, something he tried desperately to choke back down, but once it was out the sound of his own pain was too much, and his face contorted as he began to weep. At his own pathetic self, at the fact that he could not see a light at the end of anything, that he was still stupid enough to get into this kind of situation, where he could he so easily picked off by unfeeling, muscled women.
The frightened look which had come across Joan's face when Mike first collapsed faded with her anger, as the realization that he was not just using her for a quick blow job. Concern crept into her eyes, and she crouched down to him, reaching out a hand to lightly touch his shoulder. "Hey, I'm sorry. Really. I didn't mean that stuff."
"Please," Mike wouldn't look up at her. "Please go."
"I didn't know."
"Nothing to know."
"I want to help."
"I don't want your help," he said to the floor. "I don't want any help at all."
She reached into her purse and withdrew a small piece of paper. "Here," she said quietly, slipping it under his arms. "It's my business card. Maybe you'll let me buy you a drink next week." She paused, awkward in her retreat. "I am sorry."
He took the card but still could not bear to look up at her. "I know," he said. "It's not you."
After another minute or two, he heard the door latch closed behind her as she left. Mike raised his head when he was sure she was gone, and stared at her business card without seeing it. While he had been obliviously married, it had become a world of hard bodies, vacuum-packed protection, and business cards of apology. He knew she meant well, but she was no one he cared to see again. They spoke different languages; even sex was no longer universal. He ripped the card in half, throwing it and the condom into a nearby trash can, and refastening his pants.
A mirror above a sink at the other end of the supply closet caught his attention, and he ventured over hesitantly, stepping around a chair with a radio. This was obviously a place where maintenance people could come for a quick break. Mike stared into the dirty mirror, thinking he looked older than Ben just then, bags dark and heavy under his eyes, which were red rimmed as if he had been drinking, and there was a high, flustered color to his pallor that was unnatural. He looked disheveled, and tried wetting his fingers, running them through his hair to erase the wild look it now had, then retucked his shirt into his pants, smoothing everything down. Just as he finished a cold hand passed through him and he had to lean on the porcelain of the sink to catch his balance. His breath returned and quickly he looked back into the mirror. It would do. But just as he exited the supply closet, Mike thought to himself, I was right earlier. I am ruined.
Ben sat right where Mike had left him, crouched over the bar, sipping his drink, occasionally glancing off to the side. Mike paused at the entrance to the room and could not explain exactly why he found comfort in seeing his old adversary there. Ben was a constant, Ben sat there and he drank and was miserable; he was totally unable to put up a front, he was the physical embodiment of the way Mike felt inside. And that was comforting: Ben was the only person in the world who had some idea of what it meant to lose Alexa, and knowing that he was not really alone in this gave Mike a small sliver of peace. It made him possible to come back to the room. I suppose, Mike thought, I never really thought about it that way before.
He strode to the bar and took a stool next to the former DA.
"You were gone a while," Ben said absently, without turning to face him.
"Busy," Mike said, wondering exactly how drunk Ben was at this point. He hadn't moved in a while; he might not even know himself.
"I thought so," said Ben.
"What're you drinking?"
"G&Ts. I lost count which one."
Mike waved at the bartender. "Scotch please. Neat."
"Having fun yet?"
Mike turned back to Ben, hearing the same words as before, but hearing an ironic twinge to them, something that acknowledged every sliver of pain, mortification, and sadness all at once. That tone had never registered with him before, though he immediately realized it had been there all along. "Never better," he responded in the same tone, and tapped his glass to Ben's. "Bottoms up." And Mike downed the whole thing in one gulp, wincing and licking his lips.
Ben had turned and was staring at Mike with a slightly glazed expression. "You look like hell, Mike."
"Thanks." Mike chuckled once to himself.
"I look drunk and old," said Ben, but not too harshly.
Mike did not answer, but did not think an answer was really needed. That comfort returned to him again, the sense that he was part of something special still, even if it was a share in a company called misery. Misery does love company, he thought. But with that realization he began to feel obscurely less miserable, less weary with all of it.
A woman slid on the stool next to him, and he felt watched, doing his best not to pay her any attention. "Mike," she said with Claire's voice, and he felt the sudden tension in his spine release. For some reason his eyes began to burn, and he focused all of his will on not letting them spill again, as he had in the closet. No more of that. No more crying.
Claire's hand rested on his shoulder. "How's everything," she wondered.
He laughed once, a grating sound. "Oh, things are just clicking along."
"I shouldn't have forced you to come, should I."
He shook his head. "No," he said. "I have to do this. It's my job. I don't have a choice."
A small sigh escaped her, and he glanced into the bar mirror to catch her nodding a little. As DA, she knew exactly what he meant about public functions. It was as much a part of the job as being in the office. They were owned by the State, no getting around it. For the first time he wondered if she herself even wanted to be here. "I understand," she said eventually. "You looked magnificent earlier, you know."
"And now I've gone to pot."
"Everything's relative," she told him gently. "You still have quite an effect on the room. Brought me over."
He turned a bit, realized most everyone was beginning to fade out and go home, shouldering on coats, pressing business cards into palms. Mike covered her hand, still on his shoulder, with his own. "Thanks, Claire."
"You know, you are going to be all right. So is Ben. One of these days you're going to wake up and it will be all right."
He glanced at his drink. "How do you know, Claire? How can you be so sure?"
"You, Ben, both of you...you're good people. You're smart. Trust me on this one."
Ben turned at his name, listening.
"Some days...some days it is all right," said Mike. "There are whole blocks of time when I don't think about it."
" Benjy..." murmured Ben. "Caitlin. I can't look at them and not think of...her."
"And why shouldn't you?" said Claire. "You don't have to reject everything or accept everything, Ben. Just take what comes to you. It's a gift, just like a present."
"What are you saying, Claire?" Mike's brow creased.
She heard her name called, glanced over her shoulder once quickly, and slid from her stool. "This isn't the end of your lives, gentlemen. I don't see it. 'Stop all the clocks' does not apply here. Christmas will be here in what...five...four days now. God, time does fly. Hasn't it ever occurred to you that the presents you open on the 25th are just bonus? That you don't really have to look any further to realize that every day there are always more gifts to be opened?" She smiled once, thin and purposeful, and turned to the bartender. "Time to go home, every one of us. One more for each, and then cut these gentlemen off."
When his drink came, Ben held it up before his face, but did not take it in right away. "So," he said, and for the first time Mike heard his words blur. "How was your liaison. You never did say."
Almost, somehow, Mike had begun to forget. His ears reddened. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"A liaison with a liaison," said Ben, "How was she?"
"You're drunk," he growled.
"And old, don't forget old," said Ben. "But that begs the point. Or were you just taking a stroll around the block with the Mayor's press liaison, Mike?"
Mike's head raced. He had thought she was a nobody, someone who just happened to be at the fund-raiser. He should have read her card, though by then the damage had been done. "Press liaison..." he muttered. "Shit."
"You haven't done anything stupid, have you, Commissioner?"
Mike glared at him. "It's none of your god damned business,"
Ben shrugged. "Probably not. I just thought I'd ask, you being able to go 'whole blocks of time without thinking about it.' Since nothing bothers you any more."
"Oh, shut up, Stone," Mike bit. "Your smarmy attitude makes me sick."
"Don't jump down my throat just because you can't handle your libido, Logan."
The room felt too close, and Mike could no longer stand being in such close proximity to Ben. Any comfort or rapport he felt earlier vanished the moment Ben began to make this an issue. Mike slid from his stool and his legs buckled slightly. "I'm getting a cab home," he told Ben. "Take the damn Town Car and drive off of a bridge with it for all I care. You don't know shit."
Ben watched him to see if he was bluffing, and caught his sleeve. "Hold it."
"Fuck off," Mike told him, and steadied himself against the bar.
"Look, I pushed too hard. I had no right asking you those things. It's your business, Mike."
"What do you want from me, Stone?" Mike whirled on him. "I don't want my life to be over. I'm not ready to throw in the towel. Stop treating it like it's something you want to prosecute."
"Maybe," said Ben in a voice that seemed not at all drunk, "maybe I just would like to know how you're doing it."
That struck Mike. He had gone from misery to comfort to rage and now to dumbfounded silence. He doubted he would ever truly understand the man sitting on the stool before him. "I thought you were carrying the same torch I was."
"I am," Ben said. "I just want to know how to put it down sometimes."
"I wish I knew." Mike blinked, staring out a window at the dark December sky. "Look, nothing happened between Joan and me. If that matters. Well, something happened, but nothing happened. I just made jerk out of myself, and she left."
"I'm sorry, Mike."
"The good thing is she doesn't seem like she'll carry a grudge." Mike rested his hands on his hips, feeling the alcohol in him like a heavy weight. "Who else saw us, do you think?"
Ben shrugged. "I couldn't guess. Nobody, probably. It's not like cherubim descended from the heavens as you two departed." When Mike did not respond, he noted, "We probably should head home."
"Yeah," said Mike. "Nothing more here to see."
"I don't know if I can make it off this stool," said Ben, holding on to the side of the bar, closing his eyes when his feet touched the ground.
"Oh," said Mike, touched for a moment with a soft dark humor, "I think you'll make it just fine."
Mike wandered the kitchen restlessly after getting home, loosening his tie, wanting something and not sure what the craving was asking for. He let Ben walk the babysitter next door; the house was silent, the children asleep, the only sounds made by the house itself, as the refrigerator murmured gently, the beams protested slightly whenever the wind blew. Mike's own room and apartment was in the basement, but he turned away from the downstairs steps, stepping lightly to his daughter's room, creaking the door open. A long triangle of light from the kitchen cut a swathe that divided the former family room, and he caught Caitlin's upturned nose in the glow from the moon melting through her window. She was perfect, perfectly still, perfectly beautiful, perfectly his, and his heart grew watching her sleep. That odd burning came to his eyes, and after a long moment he closed her door and turned to the upstairs, climbing slowly, but neither wearily nor warily, but with an expected belief that everything would come as it was meant to.
And Benjy was there, as he should be, in his own room, curled in a loose shape under his comforter, hair splayed in all directions. He, too, was perfect, and if not perfectly Mike's, it made no difference any longer. Finally, there was no division in Mike's soul for ownership; certainly not of people.
While he leaned against the doorjamb soft steps crept behind him and Ben Stone appeared in Benjy's doorway, hands thrust deep in his pockets, looking collapsed within himself, smaller somehow, but with a beatific smile crossing his face, a faint, delighted thing. And Mike began to think once more about what Claire had told them, of the gifts given every day, not just on Christmas morning. How when he came into Ben Stone's house that warm comfortable feeling returned, not just tonight, but every day when he came home from work, knowing his kids were there, knowing there was a tremendous part of himself vested right here. That was a gift. And what slept downstairs, and what slept right before his eyes...those were gifts beyond his own ability to measure.
"Mike," Ben wondered gently, a barely-spoken voice.
"Hmm?" Mike asked back, muted, watching the older man.
"Do you suppose Claire was right?"
Mike closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. "About what."
"That one day we're going to wake up and it'll all be all right."
With that Mike's eyes opened wide, piercing, and like the clear December sky they knew the answer. "I surely do, Ben. I honestly do."