Disclaimer: I don't own Pete, Jim, Mac, or Jean. I just borrow them to exorcise some ghosts, mine as well as theirs. I promise to put them back when I'm done.
Author's note: For Doc, Ray, Kim, and Justin...I love you guys. Thanks for being there for me, even when I'm not so good at taking care of myself...
"A friend will come bail you out of jail. A good friend will be there beside you saying 'Damn, that was fun!' But a TRUE friend will be on the phone with your wife saying 'I swear, it was all my fault!'"
The long hall was brightly lit and seemed to go on forever. The leg chain connecting his ankles would make it that much longer and added an element of psychological torture Jim Reed was sure the guy who designed the prison had intended for the convicted murderers taking their last walk. One last way to get back at them for their crimes. Before the gas chamber ended their lives, anyway.
There were so many guards, more than they could possibly think he would need, but he guessed that they though a man only moments from taking his last breath might do something crazy. But he wouldn't. There was nothing left to fight. He hoped he would face his death with strength and dignity the way his former partner Pete Malloy had faced death so many times as a police officer. God, he had loved being a cop! He missed that, almost as much as he would miss breathing.
But that was all over. It ended the night that he had gotten jumpy; shot an innocent boy he had thought was trying to rob him. He was no longer a cop. Now he was just a condemned murderer, a child killer, getting ready to take his last walk. Within the hour, he would breathe in the hydrogen cyanide, and it would burn through his lungs. And then it would be over. All of it.
He walked slowly down the hall trying to ignore the fact that when he reached the end, he would die. This was the last time he would walk. They said they didn't really know if it hurt to die in the gas chamber, but he knew that anything involving cyanide and sulfuric acid had to hurt. And then what? He had killed a kid. There wasn't a doubt in his mind he was going to Hell. Any pain he experienced in this bleak building would just be the beginning.
Finally making it down the long hallway, he was led to the chamber, the one where he would die. Where he would be strapped into a chair and forced to breathe in the poison. He would put on a brave front for his friends, wouldn't let them see him sweat or squirm. And most of all, he wouldn't let them see that he was absolutely terrified.
Those few years as an LAPD officer were the best years of his short life, and never once had he been actually scared to die. But in those years, he had never had a doubt that he was in the right. If he died, he would be dying on the right side, maybe not as a hero, but certainly not as the bad guy. Now, he knew he deserved to die. And that scared him more than any amount of pain the process might cause.
They strapped him into the chair cinching the straps painfully tight. It just being him, the guards and the executioner, he squirmed a little but managed to keep from trembling with fear. This is it, he thought. This is how it ends. Jim continued his prayer for forgiveness he had kept up for the past five years, but he thought maybe it was too little, too late. He had killed a boy. In cold blood. There was no forgiveness for that. But in a few moments, they would pull that curtain up, and there would be probably twenty people out there in the room. Most of them would be there to see his sorry, murdering behind die the death he so badly deserved, but there would be at least three there for him. So that he wouldn't have to die alone.
Pete. Mac. Jean. The three of them had been his constant visitors for the past five years, kept him from taking his own life out of guilt and saving the state of California the trouble. They would be there. He didn't want to even look at Jean as he was dying. She deserved so much better than a murderer pig for a husband, as a father for little Jimmy. Mac would still have the angry/wounded look he had for the past five years, since he had found out one of his officers was a killer, but he had stood behind Jim the whole time. But Pete…his best friend had never let him see anything but unwavering support the whole time, and wouldn't here. Jim knew it would hurt him so deeply to watch his former trainee die this horrible death, but he also knew that he was strong enough to take it. He could lean on Pete in his last moments, and Pete would hold him up. When they brought the curtain up, he would look briefly at Jean, let her know he was sorry and that he loved her, then he would find Pete's eyes and hold them in his sight until the end. Maybe then he could have the courage to handle this.
With one last check on the restraints, the guards left the chamber. Steeling himself for what he knew would be his last few moments, he took a deep breath. The curtain went up. More people than he could ever imagine were out there, probably close to 50 there to watch him die. He scanned the crowd, looking for the three he needed so badly right then. But all those people, smiling like they were at a church picnic…
He began to panic, breaking his resolve not to let them see him squirm. Where were they?! Where were his wife, his boss, and his best friend? Surely they wouldn't abandon him, leave him to die alone with all these vultures watching! Hyperventilating, he scanned the crowd once again. But it didn't help. They simply weren't there.
"Any last words, pig?" The grinning guard said, preparing to shut the door and leave him to die.
"Where are my friends?" He asked, in a full-fledged panic, pulling frantically at the straps holding him to the chair. "Please, you have to wait! Don't make me die alone!"
If possible, the guard's grin got even broader. "You ain't got any friends, piggy. Everyone is here to watch you die, and then there's going to be a big party."
"No!" Jim exclaimed, pulling at his arms until his wrists began to bleed. "You have to find my friend, Pete Malloy! Please! Don't make me got through this without him!" Any thoughts of facing the end with dignity were gone when he realized he was alone. Tears broke through and streamed down his face. "Please, find him!"
"Bye-bye!" The guard said, his face morphing into that of the boy in the alley. He slammed the door, and the crowd jumped to their feet, cheering. He heard the hiss as the sulfuric acid was released into the pan below him and began to dissolve the cyanide capsules. The gas began to rise around him, and he began coughing and gagging. His lungs burned, he was getting so dizzy. It was almost over…
Jim Reed screamed at the top of his lungs, sitting straight up in bed, sweat pouring off him in rivers, still gasping. He was in the dark in a strange place, not in the gas chamber he had been dreaming about, but he still felt like he was suffocating. He could still feel the burning in his lungs, still feel the agony coming not from the physical pain but from the fact that he had been left to die alone, without his friends, that no one seemed to care.
And before his head could clear, the light in the room came on as Pete burst into the room, yelling his name. He was still shaking, still sweating, tears streaming down his face. "Jim, relax! It's okay, you're safe!"
And at that, some of the fog cleared. "Pete?"
Malloy sat down on the bed. "I'm here. Calm down, just breathe…"
Breathe…Jim wasn't sure if he could do that. He fought to pull in a slow, deep breath, the hysterical pain he had initially felt at breathing fading. "Pete…glad to see you…" he gasped out.
Ten minutes later, his head cleared and his soaked t-shirt traded in for a dry, non-sweaty one, Jim sat at Pete's kitchen table, watching his friend make coffee. It was just after four in the morning. "Pete, you don't have to stay up with me. Go back to sleep. I'm okay."
Pete shrugged, watching Jim out of the corner of his eye. The younger man didn't look okay. He was paler than he had ever seen him, with dark circles under his eyes that were threatening to take over his face. He looked like he had taken a couple of punches. And the look in his expressive blue eyes clearly said that he would rather take a physical beating than the psychological torment he was enduring. Pete had no intention of telling the young man that Jean had intentionally gone out of town that night so Jim would stay with Pete. He wouldn't tell his wife about the nightmare that had been torturing him for the past three nights. Jean was often in the dark as far as the job went, and she knew it. So since she couldn't help her husband, she sent him to the one who could. "I was up already, couldn't sleep either." He brought Jim a cup of coffee and sat across from him. "So…nervous about the shooting board?"
Jim looked away, didn't answer, so Pete kept going. "You didn't do anything wrong, Jim. You know that…"
"Do I?" He still wouldn't look at Pete. "What if I'm wrong? What if I just got…jumpy?"
Pete looked at him, his heart breaking for the younger man. He had to handle this very carefully. Saying the wrong thing would make a bad situation so much worse. "I wasn't there, partner. I didn't see any of it. I don't know what really happened." Jim sucked in a sharp breath, and Pete plunged ahead to minimize the damage he had just done. "But let me tell me what I do know…" He waited until Reed looked up at him so he was sure what he said was sinking in. "I know you. I know that even without any conscious thought, you would do whatever you had to do to preserve life. I know that you have excellent police instincts, and that if you say you saw a gun, you saw one. And I know that you knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that you were in danger if you fired your weapon."
Pete held up his hand and cut him off. "No buts. You saw something. You say he had a gun. You say you shot the car and the other guy shot the kid. That's good enough for me."
Jim dropped his eyes to the coffee cup. "But not for IAD."
Malloy wished it was. He wished he could say something –anything- that would ease his pain. "I wish it was. But the investigation isn't the worst part, is it?"
Reed shook his head. "No. it's not." He took a long sip of the coffee, thankful for how strong Pete made his coffee but wincing at the unexpectedly bitter taste. The idea of going back to sleep –and back to the dream- made him want to throw up.
"Wanna talk about it?"
Pete ticked off the seconds on his fingers under the table. Jim always wanted to talk about it. He was on four before the distraught young man spoke up. "Pete, you're my best friend, right?"
That certainly wasn't what he expected. "Of course I am."
Reed was still staring at his coffee cup like he expected to find the answers he sought in the dark liquid. Or that he didn't want to look Pete in the eye. Maybe because he was afraid he would find answers there… "So…if I had to go through something horrible, you'd be there? I wouldn't have to di- to do it alone?"
Pete didn't answer immediately, but tapped the side of the coffee cup the lost-looking man was staring at until he reluctantly looked up. In a gentle voice usually reserved for injured children, Pete said, "What's the dream about, Jim? Tell me about it."
It wasn't an order, more of a plea, and it broke through Reed's walls, through his whole 'being tough' demeanor. "I'm found guilty. Sentenced to death. I'm walking toward the gas chamber, knowing I'm going to die."
Pet's heart twisted in his chest. "Oh, Jim…"
Reed looked away again and finished very rapidly. "That's not the worst part! I go in there and they strap me in, and I'm ready to die because I know I'm guilty and I think that I can get through it if I can just find you or Jean or Mac in the people watching and catch your eyes and then I can die okay, but none of you are there! Everyone watching is cheering and waiting for me to die and I'm all alone and-" He finally had to stop and take a breath, tears threatening and him trying not to hyperventilate as the emotions threatened to overtake him again.
Pete reached out and grabbed his friend's arm. "Hey! Relax! It's just a dream!" Giving him a moment to compose himself, he was quiet until Reed was in control of himself again. "No listen to me and listen good. I'm going to tell you something I thought you already knew, okay?"
The no-nonsense tone of his Training Officer from years earlier snapped him back to reality, eyes widening as he gave Pete his full attention. "First of all, that is ridiculous. You've done nothing wrong, they will prove it, and this time next week the nightmare- literally and figuratively- will be over. Second, even if things go horribly awry, the whole board, and the DA have complete mental lapses, you're looking at negligent homicide at the worst. You wouldn't be executed."
"But-" Reed tried to interrupt to point out that he knew that, that he wasn't completely loosing it, but Malloy cut him off.
"Nope…listen to me, Junior. I'm getting ready to explain to you what your brain already knows. Ready?" Reed nodded, easily slipping back into the role of a nervous probationary policeman taking in every word the senior officer had to say like it was food and he was starving. "What you saw is the way it would be. Understand?"
Hurt, Reed shook his head. "No. You mean I would be alone?"
Pete softened his voice slightly. "You told me once that if anything ever happened to you, that you wanted me to take care of Jean, right?" He nodded. "Well, then, would you really want her there to see you die? Would you want to put her through that?" Upon receiving no answer other than a pained twisting of his mouth, he continued. "I would have made sure she was either at home with her parents or somewhere with a sedative after saying her final goodbye to you. That's what you would want, right?"
Reed wiped the forming tears on the shoulder of his shirt, then nodded. "Right. You're right. I wasn't thinking. What about Mac?"
Pete relaxed a little. Jean was the hard one, Mac was no problem. "Mac was off somewhere on the phone, trying to make a last-ditch deal with the governor to spare you. You know he wouldn't give up on you, not while you were still breathing."
The last few nights of sleeplessness suddenly catching up with him, Jim felt his eyes trying to close. "No, he wouldn't, would he? Does he really have that kind of connections?"
"It doesn't matter," Pete said quickly. "There won't be any need for the governor in a simple shooting review board."
Fighting back a yawn, failing, and trying to cover it with the back of his hand, Jim realized just how tired he realized he was. "Right…" He took another drink of his coffee. He was so sleepy…
"Ready to go back to bed, buddy?" Pete asked.
"Yeah…No, wait! What about you? Why weren't you there? You said you wouldn't leave me to go through that alone!"
Pete helped Jim to his feet, and led him back down the hallway toward the guest room. "I know, partner, but it wouldn't be my choice."
They had reached the room, and Jim sat down on the bed. He was weak, tired, and sleepy, but Pete had to finish explaining that before he went to bed. So his best friend would abandon him? But he said…
"Like I said, it wouldn't be my choice." Pete broke into a grin at that point. "You see, I'm two cells down from you, scheduled for my own appointment there a week later." Reed looked at him quizzically. "I told you that you wouldn't have to go through it alone. After yours became a capitol case, I found the little bastard in the green Volkswagon and put a bullet between his eyes!"
Even Jim managed a weak grin at that. "You couldn't do that, partner!"
Malloy nodded. "I know. But it won't come to that. I'll never let that happen. You're my best friend. I have to take care of you. Especially when you can't do it yourself!"
Jim nodded sleepily. "Okay. You say it will be okay, it will."
"Of course it will. Now, try to get some sleep."
Pete headed out of the room, started to pull the door closed behind him, then stopped. "I'm going to leave this open. If you need me for anything, just yell."
Reed made a face. "Pete, I'm not a ten-year-old!"
Malloy gave him a look that had once terrified the young trainee. "Tonight, you are. If you need me…"
Jim smiled, a real smile for the first time in days. "Okay, Pete. If I need you, I'll yell." He laid down in the bed, and in moments was asleep.
Pete checked back in on him after rinsing out the coffee cups. Jean had sent him to Pete threatening several forms of hideous demise if her husband didn't get some decent sleep, and Pete had given her his word. He would keep both her promise to her and his responsibility to his partner, his friend. All it took was a dose of antihistamine crushed up in the younger man's coffee…