If you call one wolf, you invite the pack.
- Bulgarian Proverb -
By some miracle, Ryan finished his paperwork that day. It took almost seven hours of him sitting silently in an unused interrogation room. He handed in a large stack to Hannah in IAB, who was still very pregnant as well as happy to see him. He kept his visit with her brief. The last thing he wanted to talk about was the past month of his life. She seemed understanding enough, keeping her questions to only the barest details she needed for her report.
By that time, it was after five. Most of the day shift people had already left for the night. Ryan was thankful for that. Just then he much preferred to be as alone as possible. He had too much to wrap his head around already without someone else interrupting his thoughts.
He stepped inside the dim locker room with his hands in his pockets. It was blissfully vacant. He walked to his locker and started half-heartedly spinning the dial on the lock. There was no avoiding it anymore.
It was time to go home.
Home. The word felt alien to him, he realized with a pang. He'd been gone so long, been under for so long... He wasn't sure he remembered home. He wasn't sure he remembered how to feel safe.
His locker clanked open. Inside was only a plastic bag full of the clothes he'd worn yesterday. He'd left his wallet, phone and keys all at home. The spare keys he'd given the team so they could check on his condo once in a while hadn't been returned yet.
Ryan picked up the bag of clothes and closed the locker. He was about to turn to go when he saw Horatio was standing between him and the door.
Horatio smiled at him. "Need a lift?" he asked quietly.
With a jolt, Ryan suddenly remembered that he didn't actually have his car here. A month ago he'd walked into the city and then Frank had driven him everywhere.
He grinned. "Thanks, H."
"It's the least I could do, Mr. Wolfe."
Ryan took another step toward the door, but stopped once he realized Horatio wasn't moving.
"Everything okay?" Ryan asked, his grin vanishing.
Horatio looked down at the floor, his sunglasses in his hands as usual. His lined face was somber. Ryan waited, practically holding his breath. He wished Horatio would just spit it out already.
Finally he did. "You know how much you mean to us, right?" he asked quietly.
Ryan blinked. What an odd thing to say. Horatio wasn't the sentimental type, at least not with his team. His emotions usually only showed when he was dealing with suspects, and then it was usually anger he expressed.
But then Ryan remembered something, even though it was so blurry in his mind that he wasn't even sure if it was real. When he was under the effects of the poison, sometimes he thought he could still hear and feel things. At the time, he hadn't been sure if they were real or just dreams. But the most tangible of all the supposed memories was a voice calling his name. It had sounded like Horatio's voice, but Ryan couldn't be sure. He'd been drifting in and out of semi-consciousness, not fully coming back to himself at all until Alexx had woken him up.
Now he was sure it had been Horatio's voice. Tom and Alexx had told him the day before that it had been the lieutenant who had found him dumped on the beach. Horatio had been the one to first think he was forever lost.
His voice had sounded so worried, so desperate to find him when it had called out...
Ryan swallowed the lump that had inexplicably risen in his throat, but he didn't know what to say.
"I would guess it's about the same as how much you all mean to me," he replied quietly. Which is a lot, he added silently.
Horatio nodded slightly, as if he'd heard Ryan's afterthought. "What you did..." he said. "What you faced for the sake of all those people... Ryan, not many men can bear such a burden and come out clean at the other end."
It was Ryan's turn to look at the floor. That was certainly true. He didn't feel clean. And he didn't mean the kind of cleanliness that comes from thoroughly bathing. It was deeper than skin. He felt it, but he had hoped that no one else could see it on him. Apparently he'd been foolish to think so.
"But you have come clean."
Ryan looked up at him, surprised. Horatio was surveying him steadily with pale blue eyes. The lieutenant gave him a small smile.
"You might not feel like it right now," Horatio continued kindly. "I don't blame you. But give it some time. I think you'll find that the man you were a month ago has always been inside you. He's no more dead or tainted than you are."
"Well, I was dead," Ryan joked weakly. "Sort of."
"And you came back to us," Horatio replied. "You'll come back to yourself, too. It just takes time."
That's what Eric said, Ryan thought. He wanted so much for both of them to be right. Maybe they were. At any rate, they were at least right about the time part. Maybe a couple of quiet days at home was just what he needed.
Ryan nodded slowly. "Thanks, H," he said quietly.
Horatio smiled a little wider. "You'll be okay. Just wait and see. You ready?" he asked lightly, turning to lead the way out of the locker room.
Ryan followed his mentor, still mulling over his words.
When Horatio told him he would be all right, it was hard to think otherwise.
The ride home felt incredibly long to Ryan. It was rush hour, but the traffic was steadily moving. He just gazed out the window at the scenery they passed. He rarely got a chance to enjoy it, since when he was here it was usually while driving and therefore his mind was occupied with more important things. Horatio didn't try to pull him into any conversation, which Ryan appreciated.
But as they neared Ryan's home, that sinking feeling sprang up in the pit of his stomach again. Suddenly being alone felt a whole lot scarier than anything else.
They turned the corner onto Ryan's block. He saw his condo. And then he saw the familiar cars parked on the curb in front of it.
At first he didn't believe it. Then he grinned.
He looked over at Horatio and saw the older man was smiling quietly to himself.
Ryan should have known he wasn't the only one who didn't want him to be alone that night.
"Seriously, though, how many vacuum cleaners do you think Wolfe has?" Walter asked. "I got twenty bucks says it's more than three."
Natalia laughed. "Hey, in order to need more than one, you have to actually be messy first."
"True. At least he made our jobs easy," Walter replied, carrying the paper towels and bottles of cleaner back over to the closet where he'd gotten them from.
He and Natalia had ducked out of work early to come straighten things up for Ryan's homecoming. They had a sneaking suspicion their "clean" and Ryan's "clean" were slightly different, but they at least gave him a head start, if nothing else. They dusted, vacuumed, polished the tables and wiped down the windows until the whole place felt as well as looked brighter. Once they were through with it, they couldn't even tell that the place had been uninhabited for a month.
They both froze when they heard someone pull up to the curb outside. Through the big glass windows that lined the streetside wall of Ryan's condo, they saw Horatio and Ryan step out of a Hummer and start walking toward the front door. The sun was setting, casting long shadows behind everything.
Ryan got about halfway to the door when he saw Walter and Natalia through the windows. He stopped walking.
For a brief moment, Natalia was afraid he was angry with them. They probably should have asked his permission before letting themselves into his home and cleaning it...
But then Ryan smiled. Her worries were immediately alleviated.
Walter and Natalia were waiting by the door when Ryan let himself and Horatio in.
"Tada!" Natalia said with a flourish of her arms. "Welcome home!"
Ryan chuckled, looking around his condo. "This place looks great. You guys did all this?"
"Well, it wasn't like we had much to do," Walter pointed out drily. "This place was pretty much already spotless before we ever got here."
"Yeah, I thought coming back to a dusty heap and a refrigerator full of rotten food would be somewhat less than pleasant," Ryan retorted.
"Speaking of which," Natalia remarked, looking at her watch, "dinner should be here any minute."
Ryan raised an eyebrow at her. "Dinner?"
As if to answer, another car pulled up to the curb and within seconds Eric and Calleigh were walking in. Eric carried three boxes of pizza in his arms and Calleigh had a six pack of beer.
"Oh, good, you're here," Calleigh said cheerfully, patting Ryan on the shoulder as she passed him on her way to the kitchen to fetch plates. Eric followed her, grinning at Ryan's bewildered expression. "Let's eat!"
"I brought movies!" Natalia said. She walked over to an end table and picked up the three DVD cases there. "I couldn't decide, so I brought a selection."
Walter took the movies from her. "Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and The Departed?" he read. He made a face at her. "Did you think we didn't get enough of police work or something?"
"Oh, come on!" she protested. "These are all classics! And what cop in his or her right mind doesn't love a far-fetched Hollywood representation of their mundane lives?"
"Yeah, that's us...," Walter muttered. "Mundane."
Calleigh and Eric walked out of the kitchen. "Pizza and beer is in there," she announced. "Everyone okay with using paper plates?"
"Sounds good to me!" Walter said.
Calleigh walked over to Ryan, who hadn't moved from where he stood by Horatio, watching silently with an odd look on his face.
"I hope you don't mind," she said quietly, putting a hand on his arm. "After all that's happened... We just thought it would be nice to have some fun together for a change. Not that catching bad guys every day isn't fun, of course."
"Of course," Natalia echoed, a twinkle in her eye.
"We just wanted to make sure you were okay," Walter added quickly. "You know, make sure you settled back in all right."
"Don't worry, we won't sleep over," Eric jumped in, smirking.
"So what do you think?" Natalia asked hesitantly.
Ryan was at a loss for words. There simply weren't any that could possibly do justice to what he was feeling. His eyes inexplicably prickled and a lump formed in his throat.
Finally he grinned, shaking off the emotion. "What kind of pizza did you get?" he asked, starting off toward the kitchen.
All of them relaxed immediately, so glad he was okay with them spending some time with him that evening. None of them ever wanted to experience the feeling of losing him ever again.
"You sure you don't want to turn this into a sleepover, Eric?" Ryan called sarcastically as he dug a bottle opener out of a drawer. "We could make s'mores and talk about our crushes... Maybe I could even braid Walter's hair."
"As if you could reach!" Walter retorted.
Laughter filled the place, warming it more than the sun itself ever could. Food and drinks were passed around and the teammates all settled down in various places to eat and enjoy each other's company.
Ryan looked around at his friends as they talked and laughed in his living room. If he had known this was what he would be coming back to, rather than some dusty mausoleum, he probably wouldn't have been so nervous about it.
These people were more than colleagues or teammates. They were friends. They were family. They were people he loved and he would give anything to protect them. They made him happy and were there for him when he needed help. They made him feel safe.
Here with them, he genuinely felt like he was finally home.
Author's Note: I can't believe it's over. I was seriously tearing up while writing the last couple of paragraphs.
Thank you all so much for reading, and special thanks to everyone who reviewed. This story was such a joy to write. I can only hope you had as much fun reading it as I did creating it. With every story I finish, a little piece of me always sticks to it :P. I know that's sappy and cliche, but I think it's true. In the next few days I'm going to feel like something's missing, but it'll be a good kind of missing. Sorry, it's nearly 3 in the morning and I'm babbling.
As of yet, I don't know when I'll be back. I know I say that every time :P. But this time... I don't know. I'm finishing up school and then I'll be looking for work and I really need to get some solid work on my novels done... We'll see. I have a couple ideas floating in the back of my head right now for more stories, but nothing tangible yet. I will be back though.
I love this site and I love all of you so much. Thank you for helping to create a (relatively) safe ;P, fun environment for all of us to come and share our work with each other.
Until next time, friends! :D