Layers Within Layers, That One (Four Ways in which Alva Surprised Paul and One Way He Didn't)
Written for: Melody in the Yuletide 2007
by Laurel (Sailorhathor)
Big thank you to Deejay for the quick and dirty beta. Special thanks to Nicky for translating my English into French for the one segment. She's not a native speaker of French, so please excuse any minor errors.
The French in this story is
translated at the end. Spoilers for "The Battle of Shadow
Ridge," "Saint Debbie," and general character
Spoilers for "The Battle of Shadow Ridge," "Saint Debbie," and general character spoilers.
Paul had wondered what Keel could be doing back at the Jacobson's house while he went with the guy to take the sound equipment back to the rental shop. Now, as he walked through the grass, listening to it rustle and crunch under his feet, he saw what Keel had in mind for the afternoon.
A weird little stereo with a bow-bedecked cat on it sat on the porch steps, tuned to a local pop station that Renata and Gus liked. He knew the cat had a name, but damned if he could remember it. Before he could even try, he had to regain control of his befuddled brain, because it couldn't fathom the sensory information it was being given right now.
Keel ran the front yard of Renata and Gus's home, kicking around a soccer ball with them. They all laughed and carried on, not taking the ball in any particular direction, just aimlessly playing away the day. "No, you won't get it, it's mine," Keel laughed, and tried to keep the ball away from Gus, passing it to Renata.
"I'll be damned," Paul mumbled to himself. The other day, they'd joked about this very thing, and here was Keel, kicking around the soccer ball with the kids. He stuffed another pain pill into his mouth. Regarding the arm that he currently had in a sling, Paul decided that it must be the drugs.
The children's mother, Jennifer Jacobson, came over with a glass of lemonade for him. "It's easier to take those with something to drink." She held out the glass. "Does it hurt much?"
"Only when I move." Paul took the offered lemonade and drank some to wash down his pill.
Jennifer fondly watched Keel play with her children. "That's a bit surprising, isn't it? Your boss is usually so serious. I surely never expected a guy like him to be out here playing with my kids."
So she saw it too; Paul wasn't hallucinating. "You don't know the half of it."
Jennifer smiled and let out a brief guffaw. "Oh, Mr. Keel got something for you."
She reached over the railing of the wrap-around porch and grabbed a large framed picture off the bench, then turned it around so Paul could see it. He gasped when he saw the photograph of Henry Tucker's infantry battalion, the soldiers killed at the Battle of Shadow Ridge.
"He bought a print from the guy at the Hall of Records. Said you were really concerned for the soldier who was keeping the rest of them here and thought you might want it." She looked over the picture. "Which one is Henry Tucker?"
"This one," Paul replied, pointing to one of the men. He gazed at Keel, laughing like a child in the waning, late afternoon sun. How had he known? Paul guessed Keel was far more intuitive about people's feelings than he originally thought. "That man right there."
Georgia had once accused Paul of trying to turn flirting into an art.
"You flirt with me, you flirt with all the nuns, one time I think I caught you flirting with Poppi," she'd said, laughing at him.
He'd laughed back. "George, you exaggerate."
"Okay, maybe not Poppi."
"I leave the nuns alone too."
"You do not. You're just a flirt, Paul Callan." Georgia smacked his forearm. "Even if you have no intention of following through, you still go at it with every woman you meet."
He'd shrugged. "Better than being called a tease."
Paul mused that Georgia would probably refer to him as one right now if she could hear him carrying on with his date, a woman he'd met at church. She volunteered at the orphanage once a week. Pretty, dark hair, green eyes, lovely sense of style. Paul invited her out to an Italian place with a quaint atmosphere and an attached bar. They held hands across the table, wrists draped on either side of the lit candle that served as mood lighting.
"You really think I need one?" Paul asked with a big smile, a lick of his soft lips, a twinkle of his eye. He rubbed the back of her hand with his thumb.
Renée giggled. "Your hands would only benefit from a manicure, Paul. It would set them off just right."
"You don't think it's a little girly for a man to have a manicure?" There was playful laughter in his voice.
"Not at all. You've got sort of delicate hands, Paul - "
"Delicate?" Paul protested, trying to pull his hands away.
Renée held on with another giggle. "They'd take a manicure beautifully."
Gently kissing the back of her hand, he said, "Only if you give it to me," and winked.
Oh, Paul knew what Georgia would say if she'd heard that one. She'd imitate the nosy neighbor from It's a Wonderful Life, Poppi's favorite movie. "Why don't you kiss 'er instead of talking her to death?"
As if in reaction to his thought, Paul heard Poppi's laughter in his ears. But that didn't come from inside his head.
It came from the bar.
His eyes widening, Paul turned to look, trying to see past several other tables into the bar beyond. Was that Keel he saw sitting on a stool next to a man who most definitely looked like Poppi from the back?
Paul released Renée's hands. "Will you excuse me a moment?"
She blinked in surprise. "Uh, sure."
What he found in the bar made his mouth hang open in surprise too. The two men were Poppi and Keel. They were each having a drink and discussing one of SQ's most recent cases, the one Poppi had asked them on which to consult. Laughing and carrying on like old friends.
Poppi saw him first. "Paul! What are you doing here?"
"Uh... you two are out together?"
"Looks that way," Keel replied. He didn't even try to explain. It was too much fun to see Paul so befuddled. Keel just took another sip off his scotch and looked at him as if he'd said enough.
"I came in to see you, and found Mr. Keel instead. We decided to have a drink and discuss the saint from California. You know, the Deborah Olson case," Poppi explained.
"Oh." Paul tried not to sound surprised. But just a few days ago, Poppi and Keel were practically snacking on each other's throats, and here they were now, having a drink together. It was, well, weird. "Just discussing a case. Nothing weird about that."
"Weird? Who said anything about it being weird?" laughed Poppi.
Keel shrugged, hiding a grin.
With an amused grin of his own, Poppi put a hand on Paul's shoulder. "I don't mean to startle you, Paul, but..." He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "Aren't you supposed to be on a date?"
Paul jumped as if he'd been shocked. "Oh, yeah! Renée!" He lingered a moment longer, then looked in the direction of his table.
Renée was standing there, watching him with a perplexed expression. She began to weave between the tables, heading toward him, her face suddenly lighting up when she realized to whom Paul was talking.
"Ah, Renée Cooper. A fine woman." Poppi opened his arms to receive her. "Good evening, Renée."
"Good evening, Father Calero."
He kissed her cheek.
"You should have taught this one better. He just left me sitting over there," she joked, swatting Paul with the tail end of her fringed wrap.
Still taken aback, Paul tried to recover. "I'm, I'm sorry, I just... Father Calero took my boss out for a drink. Uh, Keel, this is my date, Renée Cooper. She's a high school French teacher, and apparently enjoys giving manicures on the side." He gave her a mischievous smirk.
Keel swung around and flashed a handsome smile. "Enchanté, Mademoiselle Cooper." He took the woman's hand and kissed it, just as Paul had done. Except Paul could not speak French. "Je suis Alva Keel."
"Ah, vous parlez français?"
"Oui, mais je pense pas que votre companie le comprends. On peut le taquiner, le faire penser que je suis vous raconter des choses sauvages et romantiques." Alva winked at her.
Screwing up his mouth in a semi-pout, Paul wondered why Keel smiled so charmingly at Renée. And when did Keel learn to be charming, anyway? Did he just say something about romance?
"Oh, ça c'est tant méchant," she replied, giggling as if he'd flattered her.
Again at a loss for words because of the myriad of surprises he was encountering tonight, Paul watched with his mouth open in confusion and jealousy.
Poppi put a hand under Paul's chin and pushed up on it gently. With a playful grin, he said, "Close your mouth before I throw a fish in it."
As he stood at the bottom of the stairs that led up to Keel's apartment, Paul pondered the sounds that he could have expected to hear coming from up there... a television left on for background noise, a phone conversation in Norwegian, or even the echo of deep snoring. But the unmistakable twang of The Police?
Paul, while climbing the stairs, tried to place which song he was hearing. "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da"? No, the lyrics were making too much sense. "Invisible Sun"? No, too peppy.
"It's a big enough umbrella, but it's always me that ends up getting wet..."
Ah, "Every Little Thing She Does is Magic." That was it.
If Paul thought that Keel's choice of music was blowing his mind, he was even more woefully unprepared for what he saw when he mounted the last step and stood in the corridor that overlooked the living room. He stood next to the doorway into the kitchen, too, where Keel was cooking his dinner. Two pots filled with sauce, pasta, and vegetables bubbled away as he stirred them, filling the room with heavenly smells. But that was not what Paul found surprising.
The man was dancing. Keel was practically cavorting merrily across his kitchen floor, using a mixing spoon as a conductor's baton, waving it in time with the music. Bouncing and sliding from the stove to the little round table with an empty plate in his free hand. He set the table for himself, just one lonely plate.
And he was singing. "Every little thing she does is magic, everything she do just turn me on. Even though my life before was tragic, now I know my love for her goes on..."
Paul had never heard Keel sing before. It was such a playful act, full of joy and life, and Paul had rarely seen Keel like that. The man would never make a career of it, but his singing voice wasn't half bad. Deep and rich, energetic and enthusiastic.
Keel felt happy.
Eyebrows raised in an expression of inquisitiveness that seemed perpetual for him, Paul knocked on the doorjamb of the kitchen and spoke up. "Keel?"
Keel stopped in mid-turn on his way back to the stove, looking in Paul's direction. "Oh, Paul! Good evening!" He crossed to the compact stereo and pressed a button to turn off the music. Paul gawked, his mouth slightly open, when he realized it was the pink Hello Kitty stereo. "What brings you here after hours?"
Paul was reluctant to step into the kitchen out of a fear in the back of his mind that he'd be walking into some sort of Hell dimension where Keel was an aerobics instructor... a demonic Richard Simmons. "I forgot to bring those files home with me like you wanted, so I could read them tonight. Um..." He took a step into the kitchen. The air didn't fold in around him. That was a good sign. "...where did you leave them?"
"Forget the files. They can wait until tomorrow," Keel declared with a dismissive wave of his hand.
If it was possible, Paul looked even more shocked.
"Paul, join me for dinner, won't you? I've got more than enough for two."
The food sure did smell good. "All right." Taking a seat, Paul eyed Keel curiously and remarked, "You're in a good mood," in a tone that betrayed his surprise.
Making an amused sound, Keel took one of the pots by its handles and carried it over to the table, placing it on a trivet. The oven mitts protecting his hands looked like geese with their beaks open. Paul imagined Keel in a frilly white apron and had to bite the inside of his lip to keep from laughing out loud.
"There's a good reason for that." Keel dipped out a few ladlefuls of ravioli and then smothered them in sauce. Paul's stomach acted like it might run up his throat and devour the food without waiting for him. "A good reason indeed."
"Oh, this looks practically sinful," said Paul, snatching up his fork.
"Wait for the squash," Keel instructed like a scolding mother. "We've got bread coming too."
"I knew I smelled bread." Unable to wait, Paul cut one of the ravioli in half with his fork.
Keel held out a hand, fingers pressed to thumb in the chef's indicative gesture of delicious food. "I just brushed it with a homemade garlic butter and then browned it under the broiler."
Paul grunted in anticipation. "Bring it on." He popped half a ravioli into his mouth, then slammed a hand down on the table as he chewed. "Oh, Keel, this is amazing. Mmm! You could sell this down at Campisi's, it's so good."
Keel looked wistful for a moment. "My mother's recipe." It was as if his shoulders had been coated with ice chips, but for only a short time; Keel quickly shook them off. "Bread will be ready in one minute." He brought the other pot to the table.
"What is it that has you in such a good mood, anyway? I didn't even know you liked The Police," Paul said, trying not to speak with his mouth full, but unable to stop inhaling the wonderful meal.
Keel smiled, a small closed-mouth one that only hinted at how relieved and content he felt inside. "A man should have broad horizons in the things he likes, don't you think?"
"But you still expect me to listen only to classical music." Keel watched Paul eat with a bigger grin.
Paul let out a small laugh. "Yeah, I guess."
After stopping to take the bread out of the oven, Keel picked up an envelope that was sitting on the counter. "I'll tell you why I'm in such a good mood." He held it between the fingers of both hands and shook it playfully. "The grant came in."
Paul nearly jumped up from the table and hugged the other man. "We got the money?"
"Wonderful! That's just the best news," Paul said, his voice full of mirth and delighted laughter.
The two men grinned at each other like cats that had just feasted upon a whole slew of canaries. Keel let out a sigh of satisfaction.
A beat of silence went by before Paul pointed at the food on the table with his fork, with which he'd speared a fat ravioli dripping in sauce, and said, "So are you going to help me eat this celebration dinner or what?"
"What are you doing for your birthday, Paul?" Evie asked over a pile of files.
He glanced at her before going back to the one in his hand. "How'd you know my birthday was coming up?"
Tapping a folder in the pile, she answered, "It's in your file." Evie folded her forearms over each other and leaned on the table. "Did you think I wouldn't notice that it's going to be your thirtieth birthday?"
Paul almost winced. He didn't want anyone fussing over his birthday, even if it was a milestone. "It's not that, it's just that I'm not used to people making a big deal out of it." He looked at Evie pleadingly. "Please don't."
"But it's your thirtieth..."
"Thank you, but it's alright. It would just feel strange."
In the background, Alva listened while flipping through a book.
They were silent for a few seconds until Evie got up the courage to ask, "Did you not have good birthdays in the orphanage?"
Paul tensed up. He gave it some thought before replying. "They were good. Every kid got a birthday party with a cake and ice cream, and all the other children came to the party. I had a built-in cadre of guests every year."
"That sounds nice."
"It was." It was also a bit lonely, having a party without one's parents and other family members there. But Paul didn't say that out loud. One made do with what one had. "The orphanage had this program kind of like the Salvation Army's Christmas Angel Tree. People could 'adopt' an orphan for their birthday and get them a present."
"Did you always get what you wanted?"
Paul looked over at Keel in surprise. He was the one who had spoken. Paul didn't even know that he had been listening. "Sometimes," he replied. "Mostly we just got practical gifts, like shoes, coats... other types of clothes. But also toys."
"That's what you really wanted, huh?" asked Evie.
Paul laughed. "Doesn't every kid?"
The office fell quiet for a minute. Alva pretended to be interested in his book, but he was really picturing a little boy with no parents forlornly looking through boxes of socks and shirts for a beloved toy. "Did you... did you always get the ones you wanted, when you did get toys?"
Paul and Evie both stared at Alva, curious at his questions. "Why are you so... oh, never mind. No. I didn't always get the toys I wanted. I received some good ones, and I had a lot of fun with them, but there was one thing... one thing I wanted more than anything, which I never got. I guess it was too expensive."
"A remote control car," Paul replied with a wistful grin.
"Oh, those are expensive," added Evie. "I've priced them for Matty."
Nodding, he said, "No one's going to buy anything pricey for some kid they're just being charitable toward," and shrugged.
Alva mulled that over in his mind and finally made a "tsk" sound. "It's a shame, that people would have such limits to their charity."
"It was a long time ago," Paul commented, and opened another folder to read its contents.
Evie, with one side of her mouth curled up in a grin, leaned over the table and nudged Paul's arm. "Still, if you had to choose... what car would you have wanted most?"
An amused and childlike glee touched Paul's eyes as he considered it. "A fancy little convertible. Or a monster truck." And he snickered with a bit of embarrassment at even having thought of this at his age.
Three days later, Paul walked into the office, trying not to smile at the idea of what Evie might've cooked up for him even though he'd asked her not to. She did not disappoint his secret desire for just a little attention. After all, a man turned thirty only once.
A banner reading, "Happy 30th Birthday Paul!" hung over the conference table. On the table sat a cake, a colorful envelope, and a wrapped gift.
"Now, I know you told me not to make a fuss," Evie began, "but I just really had a craving for buttercream frosting."
Paul grinned back. "I guess a little fuss won't hurt me."
Alva stayed in his office, saying that he'd have a piece of cake after he finished annotating a file.
After Paul and Evie each had a big slice, he opened the envelope. "A gift card to Essex Brothers Clothing, my favorite store... thank you, Evie." He leaned over and kissed her cheek.
"It's almost like free money," she remarked, grinning.
Content and full of cake, Paul set about opening his other gift. The birthday wrapping paper with pictures of balloons on it crackled as he tore it away. His smile turned to a bewildered expression. Only seconds later, he swallowed hard, choked up, and turned the box over in his hands so he could see every side. Paul did not realize until that moment, blinking back the tears, just how much it had hurt to be a lonely little kid who wanted one special toy he never got. Until now.
Evie also seemed to be touched by the gift. Her own eyes glimmered with unshed tears. "Hey, you okay?"
Paul admired the pictures of the Mega Monster Truck Remote Control Vehicle on the box in his hands. "Yeah. I just didn't realize how much I still wanted it until now." He looked at her. "Silly, huh?"
"Not at all."
Kissing her cheek again, Paul said, "Thanks, Evie."
The corners of her mouth turned up a little more. "It's not from me, Paul." She looked past him and gestured with her chin toward Alva's office.
Alva noticed them looking at him. He just smiled back softly when he saw the box in Paul's hands and the vulnerable, stunned look on his face.
Neither man spoke. Instead, they regarded each other for several quiet moments in profound understanding. Paul comprehended a little more just how much he meant to Alva, and Alva finally knew what it felt like to make Paul truly happy.
After nine months of working with Alva, Paul had learned a few things about him. Such as that the man was about as far from a morning person as one could get. Paul imagined that his boss was more like a bear just waking up from hibernation, looking for the human equivalent of spring's first sustenance in a cup of coffee and a cruller. He had learned that Alva slept in the silk pajamas of a well-to-do man but really had very little money. And Paul had learned that Alva could be very touchy-feely, laying his hands on the shoulders of others and touching their arms when he spoke to them, but when it came to intensely deep feelings, Alva froze and faltered awkwardly like a performer with stage fright.
As Paul stood at the bottom of the stairs that led up to Alva's apartment as he had many times before, he thought of how it had all started with a simple headache. Evie, with her hand to her forehead, rubbing her temple, asking if anyone had any aspirin. Less than a week later, it had ended in a seizure. It might've been the scariest thing Paul had ever witnessed - Evie jerking and making strangled sounds on the floor with her eyes rolled back in her head - but that's because this was personal, because Evie was his friend. And Paul had seen some pretty scary things in his time with SQ.
The bullet had moved.
The trip to the emergency room and subsequent tests revealed the grim truth about Evie's little metal friend in her head. The bullet was pressing on Evie's brain in new and dangerous ways, unlivable ways, ways that could no longer allow it to remain there because of the threat to her life. Alva had been keeping a brave face throughout all of Evie's trials. They all tried. The two men did not see her cry but once before, and that time had been over the fate of Matty too.
"What will happen to my baby?" Evie said, her voice shaking with tears. "What will happen to my baby if I die?"
Everyone tried to be comforting, but Matty was still only four, and being separated from his mother during her hospital stay was proving to be traumatic for him. It was hearing Matty wail and carry on for his mother while he squirmed in his grandmother's lap that finally broke Paul. He had to leave the hospital waiting room, eyes wet and body quivering with emotion, and retreat to a private spot where he could cry it out.
Alva had not cried. Not where anyone could see.
But as Paul now stood at the bottom of Alva's stairs, wanting to check on him with Evie's surgery the next morning looming over them, he heard a sound that did not surprise him in the least. Really, he had expected it.
Alva was crying.
Alone in his apartment, he sobbed mournfully into his hands over the pain of not being able to put everything right, to make everything go back to normal and give Matty his mother again. He also cried for himself and Paul, who might lose their dear friend. Without her, the two men went unbalanced - they had lost their fulcrum. The world had fallen on its side.
Paul climbed the stairs and found Alva on the couch; Alva looked up with a startled expression. Usually, Alva would have been embarrassed and tried to stop crying, consumed by his compulsion to hide every human emotion he had, but many things had changed since Paul had come to work for SQ. Things might be as they once were once Evie recovered (if Evie recovered...), but for now, Alva did not feel the need to hide how he felt. He did not pull away or fidget as Paul sat on the couch and hugged him. They cried together for an unknown time; Paul said over and over, "She'll be okay... she'll be okay... she's going to make it through."
After a coma that lasted three days, Evie proved Paul right. Alva got his wish as Matty regained his mother, and Sodalitas Quaerito regained its fulcrum.
Paul had not been surprised to find Alva crying because he'd known it for quite some time... Alva loved Evie, as he loved everyone close to him, even if he often wore a stoical facade. Sometimes, Alva's actions or lack thereof surprised Paul.
But not this time.
Enchanté, Mademoiselle Cooper. - Enchanted, Miss Cooper.
Je suis Alva Keel. - I'm Alva Keel.
Ah, vous parlez français? - Ah, you speak French?
Oui, mais je (ne) pense pas que votre companie le comprends. On peut le taquiner, le faire penser que je suis vous raconter des choses sauvages et romantiques. - Yes. I don't believe your date does, though. Let's tease him a bit, and make him think that I'm saying wild, romantic things to you.
Oh, ça c'est tant méchant - Oh, that's so bad/mean.