Title: These Broken Wings - The Case of Michael Mueller
Author: Shenandoah Risu
Artist: Shenandoah Risu
Fandom: E.R.
Type: Slash
Rating: NC-17 - adult readers only, please
Word Count: 11,341
Characters/ Pairings: Michael Mueller/ Curt Oberg/ OCs, Dr Mark Greene, Dr Jing-Mei "Deb" Chen
Warnings/ Spoilers: explicit m/m, violence, abuse. Spoilers for the E.R. Season 6 episode "The Domino Heart".
Original artwork for the story is available in its proper landscape format in the posts on AO3 or LJ.
A comment or feedback would be very much appreciated.

Summary:
When Michael Mueller is treated at the E.R. for a seizure due to an asthma medication overdose Dr Mark Greene quickly discovers that Michael is a victim of severe domestic abuse and violence. His attempt to help may have prompted Michael to take desperate action to get out of his dead-end situation. What happens to him now? - About four weeks later Michael is back in the E.R. ...

Author's Notes:
This story was written for the 2012 casestory Big!Bang on LiveJournal. The title was inspired by the song by Mr Mister.

oOo

The first time I watched the episode "The Domino Heart" I cried in front of the TV.

The case of Michael Mueller (played by Justin Louis/ Louis Ferreira) hit me hard, and I could never quite get it out of my head after that. For years I wondered what happened to the character. Then, a short while ago I was privileged to be a guest at a CoDA (Co-Dependents Anonymous) meeting, and the story fell into place when I realized that Michael was a classic co-dependent.

So this story is dedicated to all the CoDA groups out there, the people who attend them and who make them work, with thanks for a truly eye-opening experience and for the beautiful and precious lives that are being saved. It is also for the co-dependent in all of us that keeps us spinning our wheels instead of moving forward.

Take these broken wings and learn to fly again...

Godspeed, Michael. I hope you will soar.

.

oOo

These Broken Wings: The Case of Michael Mueller

.

The Present

His hand hurts.

After hours of waiting in the ER it's the only thing he knows, the only thing that still makes sense: his hand hurts more than he can comprehend.

"Dr Chen will be glad to see you, sir," the kind receptionist says. Michael shakes his head.

"I'm here to see Dr Greene."

"Dr Greene is working on a firefighter with third degree burns. It will be a while."

"I'll wait."

The receptionist shrugs and leaves. Michael looks at his hand. It's very dark now, almost purple, and it looks… bloated, somehow. He closes his eyes.

"… would be able to see you."

Michael struggles to focus on the young medic's face. "I'm here to see Dr Greene," he whispers. The young man smiles sympathetically. "Yeah, well, he's busy with a case of eclampsia. He asked me to go see you."

Michael shakes his head.

"No. I'll wait."

The room fades again, centering on his hand. He's starting to feel hot, sweaty, his pulse thunders in his ears. He dozes off again.

"… Please let me help you." He squints, fights to open his eyes. The young Asian woman smiles at him. "I'm Dr Chen. I assure you I can handle your triage. I'm told you'd rather see Dr Greene, but he's dealing with a severe laceration."

"I'll wait," Michael slurs. Dr Chen gently reaches for his hand.

"May I? – Oh my god."

He's confused at the look of shock and horror on her face.

"How long have you been sitting here?"

Michael pulls his hand away, whimpering in pain as he cradles it inside his jacket.

"I don't know."

"You've been bleeding on the floor," Dr Chen says, getting up. "That's it. You can't wait any longer."

She waves at an aide. "He goes into a treatment room right now. I'll scrub in and swap out with Dr Greene if I have to. This is bad."

Michael offers minimal resistance as he's helped out of his seat and into a wheelchair. Suddenly he's the center of attention; he vaguely notices someone pouring biohazard spill powder near his waiting place, then he's gone. He must have blacked out because the next thing he knows is that he's lying on a bed and Dr Mark Greene is bending over him, tapping his cheek.

"Michael?"

He cracks a pained smile. "Hey, Doc," he mouths.

"Why didn't you tell someone to tell me it was you?"

"I tried," Michael sighs. "Everyone was so much worse off, so…"

"Get me the saw – this cast has to come off right now," Mark barks at Chen and she dives into a supply closet and hands him the saw within seconds. Michael turns his face away – the sound of the saw scares him, but he feels the near-instant relief of pressure as the cast comes off.

Chen gasps. "Good grief," she says. Mark throws her a look and she scrambles to deposit of the blood-soaked cast.

"Ice," Mark says, and an aide hands him a blue gel pack which he gently places on Michael's hand.

"Dr Chen, I need you to scare up one of the orthopedic surgeons immediately – do what you have to. A tissue specialist, too. And a neurologist, stat. Get them out of bed, have them kidnapped and brought here – whatever it takes."

"Right away," Chen nods, and as she leaves Mark gently places two more ice bags around Michael's hand.

Michael bites his lip and looks at him.

"What happened, Michael? This was a straightforward break. I cast it myself. It should have come off in another couple of weeks."

Michael nods and turns his face away, but Mark reaches out and forces him to look at him.

"Michael, what's going on? You might lose that hand – this is a serious thing… I'll have to do a few x-rays, but it's a compound fracture for sure, and it's been bleeding inside the cast for god knows how long. What on Earth did you do?"

And Michael can't help it, the tears start to come.

"It got stepped on," he says.

Mark's features darken in rage.

"Was it-"

"It wasn't Curt."

Mark gets up, changes his gloves and motions at the x-ray technician to help him with the lead aprons while he positions the mobile x-ray head.

"If that son of a bitch so much as-"

"He didn't. I haven't seen him in weeks."

"Then what?"

Michael shakes his head and falls silent. Mark swears under his breath as he takes the x-rays.

"All right. Look, we've got to get you into surgery immediately. I can't promise you'll wake up with your hand still attached, but we're going to try our best, okay? This is a prime case for gangrene – it may have already started, and it will kill you if we don't do something right now. It still can, so why the fuck did you wait so long?"

"I didn't… it wasn't so bad… I thought, maybe it can heal inside the cast… but then my fingers started turning purple, and I hoped it would go away, but I came here…"

Mark takes a deep breath, trying to mask his aggravation.

"Okay – we can have this conversation later. I'll get the aides to prep you, and I'll see you in a minute, okay?"

Michael smiles weakly.

"Okay."

He barely notices the three aides undressing him and putting him into a surgical gown, a nurse starting an IV in both of his arms. But he does see their concerned faces as they carefully move his right hand.

He sees hallways flashing by, faces, voices, people running, bright lights.

Mark leans over him. "Michael, this is Dr Hall and this is Dr Layson. Dr Keith will arrive shortly. They will do their best to save your hand, all right?"

Michael nods. "Thanks, Doc," he manages to get out. "Please don't go."

"I won't," Mark promises. "I won't leave you, Michael. Me and Dr Chen, we'll be right here, the whole time."

"I'm scared."

"I'm scared, too, Michael, I'm not gonna lie. But we're all going to do our best, and you will, too, right?"

"Yes."

"Now, just relax and take deep breaths. I'll be there when you wake up."

He can barely make out Mark's face, and then the world just falls away.

oOo

He notices quiet beeping noises, someone calling his name.

"Michael?"

The voice is soft, female.

He grunts in response. His head feels as if it's stuffed with cotton.

"There you are," the friendly voice says. "Come on, open your eyes. Hey, Dr Greene, he's coming around."

"Michael?"

Another voice, deeper, kind.

He groans, fights, manages to open his eyes, winces at the bright lights.

"Do you know where you are, Michael?"

"Mmh. Hos… hospital…"

And suddenly it lances through him like lightning and he struggles to sit up.

Voices raised in protest, gentle hands push him back down.

"No," he cries out. "No! Get away from me!"

He feels his throat getting tight, his breathing cut off. He panics, struggles.

"Michael, it's me, I'm Dr Mark Greene." – "And Dr Jing-Mei Chen. Deb, that is."

Somebody presses a familiar object into his left palm, guides it to his lips. His inhaler. He latches on to it, and the soothing mist fills his lungs. He sucks in a deep breath.

"Where is… I gotta…"

"You're safe, Michael. Nobody's gonna hurt you."

"No one can enter this room unless we say so. We can post a guard, too, if necessary."

Michael shakes his head. "No."

"All right, just relax, now – let the medication work, you'll be able to breathe easier in a minute."

He closes his eyes, tries to focus on his breath.

"There you go. Good news, Michael. They think they managed to save your hand. It was touch and go there for a while, but with a little luck you'll make a full recovery. It will take a while, because the septicemia has become systemic - we're working on it. We'll just have to make sure that…"

He doesn't hear the rest of it.

He'll be fine. He still has his hand.

He is safe.

Nothing else matters.

He sinks into the welcome warm darkness.

oOo

He wakes again, at someone shaking his left shoulder gently.

"Michael, wake up."

He yawns, opens his eyes. Mark Greene smiles at him.

"Hey Doc."

"You can call me Mark. It's okay."

He nods. "Mark."

"There's a police officer waiting outside to take your assault statement. You said your hand got stepped on. I'm guessing, if someone breaks your cast hand by stepping on it, it's a willful act, not an accident. So I need you to tell the officer exactly what happened. Okay?"

"No."

"What do you mean, no?"

"I don't want to talk to him."

"Michael, you were deliberately hurt, and very badly to boot."

"I don't want to press charges."

The doctor looks aghast.

"Michael?"

He closes his eyes, turns his face away. "I don't want to press charges," he repeats.

"Michael, please…"

"No. Tell him to go away."

No response. The silence stretches on.

Finally Mark sighs.

"All right, I'll tell him you're not ready."

"I won't be, ever. Please tell him I do not wish to press charges. That's all there is to it."

"All right, let me talk to him."

Michael watches him walk away, sees him talk to the man in uniform right outside the door. The officer leaves. Deb arrives, briefly talking to Mark, then coming closer.

"Give it some time, Michael," she says and smiles a little. "You have a lot of healing to do. If you'd rather talk to someone else, I'm happy to listen, and I'm sure Dr Greene is, too."

Michael nods. He doesn't want to talk about it. Not now, not ever.

They finally leave him alone.

oOo

He looks at his hand.

It's still very swollen, but the blackish-purplish coloration has begun to get lighter. He's grateful for the painkillers, but they make him dizzy and weak, and he can barely stand. He feels like a slab of meat, having to rely on others to feed and clean him, and most of the time he sleeps.

He dreams of his grandparents.

It's been a while now, but he took care of both of them for a few years, and for the first time he truly understands what they felt like when they were bedridden, unable to do even the smallest thing for themselves.

He cries.

Deb Chen sits with him a lot, holding his hand. She's good at keeping her silences, and Michael appreciates it. She dabs at his temples with a tissue, and she smiles, and he doesn't have to say anything.

He's happy when he's able to feed himself again, wipe his own bottom when he goes to the bathroom. And he can't believe how close he came to dying. All the nurses and aides tell him how lucky he is, and that he's doing great. He touches his hand, watches it turn back to a normal color, fingertips fleshy-pink.

He watches them change the dressings. He will have large scars on the back of his hand, some loss of mobility, mostly in his pinkie finger, but he can live with that.

What he can't live with are the memories and the nightmares.

They give him drugs to help him sleep, to fend off the dreams that make him wake up screaming, that make him want to run, and more than once someone has to track him down and bring him back to his room as he, half asleep, tries to escape from the skilled nursing unit where he's recuperating.

Mark Greene comes to see him, but Michael remains silent about what happened to him, and he refuses to talk to a therapist or a social worker.

"We can't force you," Deb tells him as he's about to be released. "But you know as well as anyone that you'll have to talk to someone at some point. You've obviously been through a lot of trauma. Just please promise me to get help, eventually."

"I will," Michael says and smiles. She gives him a quick peck on the cheek and a hug, and then she hurries off to answer her beeper.

Mark holds out his jacket. "Ready?"

He helps him put it on, then picks up his bag.

"Come on. I'll give you a ride home."

Michael bites his lip and nods, as he carefully zips up his jacket, his new cast tucked against his body as Mark shows him out.

oOo

"This is it?"

They stop in front of a dark, dingy high-rise apartment building.

"Yeah. I moved here after – well, you know."

"All right, let me get your bag."

Mark helps him out of the car and locks it, then grabs his duffle bag from the trunk. "Where to?"

"All the way at the top. It's just an efficiency, but it's what I could find on short notice."

Of course the elevator is out of service. Eight flights of stairs later Michael can barely stand and Mark holds out his hand for the keys. He hands them to him, leaning exhausted against the wall.

"Home, sweet home," Mark says and turns on the light.

The place is empty, except for a mattress on the floor and a few cardboard boxes. Mark stares, then picks up the bag and motions for Michael to enter, closing the door behind them.

"Sit down, Michael, I'll put your stuff away," Mark says, and Michael watches him put the toiletries on the sink and line up his medications on the counter in the kitchenette. A bunch of dried herbs catches Mark's attention.

"What's that?"

Michael's eyes light up.

"Spearmint. I grew it myself, it's wonderful. Would you… would you like to stay for a cup of tea?"

Mark smiles. "I'd love to. I've never had home-grown spearmint tea."

"Well, then."

Michael gets up and unzips his jacket. "Go fill up that water kettle. Cold water. Rinse it out, then fill it again, about a third of the way."

"All right."

Mark unbuttons his coat and gets the kettle ready while Michael adjusts the thermostat. "It takes a while to heat up," he explains. "It's central steam heating, and the hot steam takes forever to get all the way up here."

He picks up a sprig of the spearmint and sniffs it, exhaling with a pleased sigh. He hands it to Mark.

"Here, smell this."

Mark inhales the pungent aroma and whistles. "Wow."

"Amazing, isn't it?"

"Yeah. You garden a lot?"

Michael shrugs and tries to pick a few leaves off the sprig with his left hand, as Mark jumps in and helps him.

"Well, you know I'm a landscaper. So I do some herb gardens. And I have… had a container herb garden, back at ho… back there."

The water is boiling and Michael directs him to pour it over the leaves into a small tea pot. He gestures at the mattress on the floor and settles down on it with a sigh as Mark fetches the pot and two small mismatched cups.

Mark takes a sip.

"Oh, shit, that's – that's unbelievable! Celestial Seasonings has nothing on this stuff!"

Michael smiles and blows on his cup.

"Where do you go from here, Michael? What can I do to help? Where's the rest of your stuff?"

"Oh, this is everything I had at Curt's. Except for the mattress – that was already here. All my things are in storage."

"So you left him."

Michael looks away. "Not exactly."

"What happened, Michael?"

"After I ran over Curt?"

"Sure, let's start there."

Michael sighs. "I went back to the house. I couldn't sleep, I felt horrible. I must have passed out at the kitchen table, eventually. I went back to the hospital, and no, I didn't drive, I took the bus. I went to see Curt. He told me to call David."

"David?"

"His ex. They are still on good terms, David just moved when his corporation went to St Louis. And he told me to go home and get some rest. When I went back to the hospital David was already there, and he basically threw me out."

"I'm so sorry, Michael."

Michael nods.

"So I go home, and I try to clean up, and I call the hospital, but it's always David picking up the phone and he won't let me talk to Curt. I tried to explain, but…"

Mark pours him another cup of tea.

"Then David comes over to the house and tells me to get out, pack my stuff and leave. I'm like, but I live here! And David goes, you are done living here, and get out. So what am I supposed to do? I have nothing in that house, Curt wouldn't let me have any of my stuff, he insisted on buying all my things for me, so I get a few things and I go. A former neighbor of mine, her best friend Lisa just moved and her lease isn't up, so I got this place here. I was so lucky."

"You took over the lease here?"

"Yeah. Anyway, I went back a few days later, to feed Leo."

"Who's Leo?"

"He's a stray cat that comes around every few days… I made friends with him, shortly after I had moved in. I still had the key, so I went into the house to get the cat food, and then David came by and saw me there, and he… he just lost it."

"He beat you up?"

"He yelled at me for breaking and entering, and I showed him the key and explained about the cat and that I was just getting some herbs for tea, and he got so mad and he…"

Michael shakes his head.

"He threw a chair at Leo as he was eating, and I tried to check on the cat, and he kicked me and I fell and he… he…"

Mark takes the cup from his shaking hand and pulls him into his arms.

Michael cries.

"He stepped on your hand."

"He hit Leo, until he stopped moving. And I watched, and the cat screamed, and then he was dead. And he grabbed me and threw me out and told me to never come back, and that I tried to kill Curt, and that he'd kill me next."

"Would he really do that?"

Michael blows out a breath. "He's a lawyer, Mark. He could do it and make it look good."

"You said he was corporate, though, not criminal?"

"In his case, same thing. He covers stuff up. That's what he is good at."

Mark falls silent and hands Michael's cup back to him.

"So you came back to the ER," he finally prompts him.

"I did, a few days later. And I took some Tylenol first because my hand hurt. And I felt horrible about Leo, and I wanted to go back there for him, but I was too scared that David would shoot me, or send someone after me, make it look like an accident, you know."

"So you don't want to press charges because you're scared."

"I'm not making this up, Mark. I know he's capable of doing it, and he will find me anywhere. I don't care about the bills, I got insurance and I have my savings. It's not much, but I can start. And I can sell the house."

"I thought the house was Curt's?"

"Oh, that one was. No, I meant my grandparents' house. I'm renting it out – I didn't need it when I moved in with Curt."

"And then you went back to the ER."

"Yes. I was in so much pain, and I couldn't go anywhere else… you are the only one who knows the whole thing, and I couldn't trust anyone else."

"Have you spoken to Curt since then?"

"No. I never got him on the phone. But I bet he thinks I tried to kill him. And maybe I did. Maybe I did try to kill him. I just don't know."

"Would you like to talk to him? Because I can make it happen."

"Thanks – I imagine you can… but I'm not sure… I'm not sure how I feel about him… and if David found out, I'd be dead either way."

"How'd you meet him, anyway?"

Michael sighs.

"Well, you know how it all ended – I might as well tell you the rest."

"Make some more tea?"

"Sure. You know how."

"I do indeed. Thanks to you, Michael. Tell me more about gardening, and what you do."

And as Mark brews another pot of tea Michael explains.

oOo

.

The Past

He's always loved gardening. His grandparents grow all their own vegetables and herbs, and they raise him to appreciate nature and find joy in watching things grow, and gratitude in every harvest, delight in every meal.

His grandfather comes down with Alzheimer's, and he helps his grandmother to take care of him. Whenever possible, they spend time outside, together, and Michael drops out of college where he's a nursing major. He does take some special classes, though, to save on the home care bills for his grandfather. Shortly before his grandfather dies his grandmother has a stroke. Suddenly he finds himself as the sole caregiver for two very elderly people, and he learns quickly. Caring for them is a bittersweet joy; they're the only family he has. His grandmother lingers on for several years. Still, he discovers he can build himself a flexible schedule and pick up another job on the side.

Michael starts his own small business, taking care of neighborhood lawns, pet- and house-sitting, and helping people plan out their yards. He takes some online courses in landscaping and discovers he has a knack for it. It's tough going in the winter, when there's far less to do, but he does all right.

He teaches himself a CAD program for designing landscaping, but he's still happiest with his shovel and wheelbarrow, planting trees and bushes and flowers and laying down sod.

He takes pictures and shows them to his grandmother. She's not doing well. Michael takes a few advanced home care classes to cope with her increasing needs. His asthma flares up from time to time, when he worries about her and stresses out, but somehow he manages.

One day he gets a call from one of the fanciest neighborhoods in town – a recommendation from a friend. He meets the owner who has just bought a mansion and wants the yard re-done to suit her own tastes. It's an interesting challenge for Michael, as he has to deal with a Home Owner's Association and a million rules, but he comes up with a plan in less than a week. His new client is delighted and signs a big-ticket contract, and Michael begins work immediately.

It's a big job, so he hires a few students to help him with the first few steps. Everything comes together well, and whenever he goes home to take care of his grandmother he tells her about every tree, every bush, every flower he planted, and she seems to understand, and she smiles.

He notices the next door neighbor watching him work, and soon they wave at each other as he toils away day after day. On a particularly hot day the neighbor gestures at him to come over and he hands him an ice-cold bottle of coke.

"You must be miserable," he says. "I couldn't watch anymore."

"Thanks," Michael says, somewhat surprised, and takes a gulp. "How about not watching me, then?"

The man laughs. "Not an option. The view's too good. My name is Curt, by the way. Curt Oberg."

"Michael Mueller. Nice to meet you."

Curt holds out his own bottle and lifts it in a toast, and they drink.

"You've done an amazing job with the Wilsons' yard," Curt compliments him. "I don't see how you got around those ten thousand HOA rules."

Michael shrugs. "It's all about reading the fine print, really, and always having alternatives. A tape measure comes in very handy, too."

Curt laughs, and Michael thinks what a nice man he is – and good looking to boot: well-muscled if still a little bookish, tanned and tall.

"Listen," Curt interrupts his reverie, "I was wondering whether you'd be interested in doing my yard next. I got the lawn and the pool, but I want something a little more – engaging. Something more landscape-y."

"Landscape-y?" Michael laughs. "You mean, some actual topography and plants taller than three inches and consisting of something other than a single green blade?"

Curt snaps his fingers. "Exactly. Come over some time, and I'll be happy to compensate you for your troubles. Maybe you can give me some options, and draw up a budget."

Michael agrees to meet with him the next day to get a layout of his yard.

They walk the perimeter and Michael takes some measurements, and they talk about Curt's likes and dislikes. He wants a small Japanese garden, and Michael is thrilled at the prospect, as it's something he's wanted to do for a long time. Curt gives him a very generous check.

"Had enough of the vanilla lawn, I take it?"

Curt nods, makes a vague gesture. "My partner was a vanilla kinda guy – couldn't be bothered with curb appeal. His corporation just moved to St Louis, so we called it quits. Neither one of us is into long-distance relationships."

"I'm sorry," Michael says, feeling a little awkward. Curt shrugs. "It's all right. We're still good friends. He'll come to visit."

"I take it moving to St Louis wasn't an option for you?" Michael bites his tongue, but too late.

Curt smiles at him. "I'm a lawyer. I have a very large client base here in Chicago. It would be such a drag for me to start over. David was corporate, so he's mobile. Me, I'm a partner in a law firm. Not so mobile. Truthfully, I guess I'm just too lazy to move."

Michael nods.

He hasn't been in a relationship for some time now. His last partner was actually a very nice girl, and he loved her, but she went off to college and met someone else, and that was that. Michael has had both male and female partners, although if he's brutally honest with himself he's always had better luck with guys. And the way Curt is looking at him… well, he doesn't want to think that way.

But it sure is nice to fantasize a little.

A few days later his grandmother dies, passing away quietly in his arms. He delays work on Curt's yard to take care of her affairs, and Curt surprises him by showing up at the funeral.

"I'm so sorry for your loss," he says. "I know how much she meant to you. I'm happy to help you with any legal questions you might have. If there's anything I can do, please let me know." And he gives him a long hug.

And indeed – Curt is there for him when he needs someone, he helps him with the taxes and the property issues and the sheer endless paperwork, and he never charges him a penny but still insists on paying him the full fee for the yard work he does for him. All the while he keeps working on Curt's property, and the little Zen garden becomes his pride and joy.

They sit and talk a lot at the end of the day, when Curt comes home from the office, and Michael notices the way he looks at him, and how good he feels when Curt is around, making him laugh and praising his work.

One evening Curt invites him in for dinner.

"Oh, no, no," Michael says. "I'm filthy and sweaty, and I'd stink up the whole house. That guano is good stuff but it sure reeks."

"So – take a shower first, Michael. I do have bathrooms in here, you know. You can use the guest room, and there are a few clean clothes in the closet – see if anything fits you."

And Michael gladly accepts. Curt has to explain to him how the fixtures work – it's one of those fancy rain showers with additional heads built into the walls. Michael has never seen anything like it. He feels like royalty when he emerges from the guest bathroom – the clothes are a little bit too big for him, but not terribly so. Meanwhile Curt has laid out a fancy dinner setting and Michael blushes as he sees it.

Curt pours him some wine and says "To my beautiful new garden!" Michael drinks, and he's never tasted wine like this.

"Bordeaux, 1967," Curt holds up the bottle, as Michael nearly chokes.

Somehow he manages to get through the dinner, and they put the dishes away together, and it feels like he's been doing this for a long time. And suddenly Curt leans in and kisses him. "Thank you for your company, Michael," he says, and Michael freezes in shock.

"You okay?"

Michael nods.

Curt takes his hand.

"You're such a wonderful person, Michael. I look at you, and I bless the day when you started working at the Wilsons."

And then he kisses him for real and Michael can't believe what's happening, and he's so turned on by Curt's hands on his chest, his neck, his back.

"I want to suck you off so badly," Curt breathes into his ear. "Please, Michael. Please."

And Michael is speechless and confused and flattered and he doesn't know what to do.

Curt's hands wander lower and cup him through his pants, and he can't help a small whimper escaping him. Curt silences him with a kiss, pushing his tongue into his mouth while fondling him hard.

Michael watches him unzip his pants and sliding them down past his hips, then pushing down his boxers as he kneels down in front of him.

"Oh god, Michael…"

And then he takes him into his mouth and Michael's world goes spinning out of control as Curt sucks his cock, holding on to his hips. His knees buckle and Curt gently pushes him back against the wall, spreading his legs a little so he can reach his balls.

And Michael comes with a strangled groan as Curt sucks him down. He feels the familiar tightness in his throat, starts feeling faint, and then Curt kisses him again, deeply, holding him propped up against the wall, grinding his hips into him. Michael can taste himself on Curt's tongue and the alcohol is making him dizzy and his senses go into overload.

Curt pushes into him hard, grasping him by the throat, and for a moment Michael panics but then he realizes Curt is coming, and he waits breathlessly for his grip to ease up on him.

Curt leans his forehead against his.

"Damn it, Michael," he gasps. "Damn it to hell… you are amazing…"

And then he laughs and pulls up his boxers and pants.

"I'm so sorry, Michael," he says. "But you are seriously the hottest guy I've met in a long time. You're so unbelievably sweet." He kisses him again. "I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Michael manages to get out. "You're… uh… you're very good at this."

Curt grins. "Thanks. I'd love to do it again. Maybe when you're ready. I don't mean to presume."

"I'm fine," Michael insists, his throat muscles relaxing a little. "I just need my inhaler for a sec."

Curt looks guilt-ridden as he takes a puff of his medicine and takes a deep, shuddering breath.

"I'm okay, really. It was just a surprise, that's all. Thank you for the dinner."

"Dessert was better," Curt smiles, and it makes Michael laugh.

"If you say so."

And Curt kisses him again, and this time Michael relaxes into his embrace, a sweet lazy deep kiss, and he realizes how much he's missed it.

It becomes their daily routine, and one that Michael starts looking forward to. Curt makes him feel good, he loves all the attention, and he loves Curt's strong personality, taking charge of his pleasure and giving him some of the most blazing orgasms he can remember ever having.

"I want to fuck you, Michael," Curt says one evening after he's sucked him off and Michael is a puddle of bliss on the kitchen floor.

"Okay," Michael says. It's been a while since he's had penetrative sex with a man, but he's certainly no stranger to it.

Curt helps him up off the floor and he follows him into the bedroom. Michael takes in the beautiful antique four poster bed, the tasteful decorations, the dim mood lighting. Curt strips him naked and ushers him down on the bed.

"You've done this before?" he asks, as he undresses himself.

"Yes," Michael says, and then Curt kisses him again and seconds later he feels a well-lubed finger slip into his ass. He feels strange lying on his back, but it appears to be what Curt wants, so he doesn't say anything. Curt withdraws his hand, squirts more lube onto his fingers and pushes into him again, two fingers this time. Michael tries to reach for his cock but Curt turns away and whispers "Not yet…"

He watches him roll on a condom and then kneel up between his legs. He tries to relax as he feels Curt's cock pushing into his ass, but it still hurts more than he remembers. Curt takes his face into his hands and kisses him deeply, as he can't help a tear slide from his eye.

"God, you're so tight," Curt says. "You okay?"

Michael nods, and he's not sure what's happening to him anymore, but there is Curt above him, slamming into his ass, fucking him hard and bellowing his release as he comes.

"Oh, fuck," Curt grinds out. "Fuck, Michael. You're so hot…"

And he kisses him again as he slips his cock out of him, holding on to the condom.

Michael isn't sure what to do, so he watches Curt take the condom off and get up.

He hears the shower turn on, and then Curt's voice: "Come join me?"

He winces as he gets up off the bed – he won't be able to sit down for a while, that's for sure. But then Curt pulls him into the shower and washes him gently, carefully, and he feels so accepted and cherished, and when Curt asks him to spend the night he doesn't hesitate.

Curt spoons up behind him, his cock against his back, and Michael sleeps like a log.

He wakes up with Curt's finger in his ass, and seconds later Curt is fucking him again. Michael is breathless, not quite fully awake yet, but Curt has him pinned down at his knees and all he can do is to let him finish. He watches in amazement as Curt fucks him hard, pulling on his cock, and he comes seconds before Curt does, and it's a big sticky mess.

Then Curt is off to work and Michael cleans up, changes the sheets and locks up. Driving home is sheer agony, his ass is so sore. And as he looks at himself in the mirror he finds himself smiling nonetheless.

Curt calls his cell phone around lunch time, says he has to go out of town on business for a few days. "But please, let yourself in anytime you want, take a shower, help yourself to anything in the fridge. Sleep over if you like. I'll be back on Saturday."

"Thanks," Michael says.

"You okay?"

"I'm a bit sore," he admits, "but I'm fine."

"I'm sorry, Michael. It's just… You really really push all my buttons."

"I do?"

"Yes. And I can't wait to push a few more of yours. Will you come over on Saturday?"

"Sure. Call me when you get in."

Michael walks on a cloud the rest of the day. He feels thoroughly sexed out and sated, and that's quite new to him.

He works hard on Curt's yard and makes great progress, installing the little bridge over the pond and putting gravel on the path. He goes into the house to take a shower, and somehow it's all different without Curt there – as if someone is watching, as if the walls have eyes. He gets dressed and leaves quickly, slightly spooked by his feelings of unease. He can't wait for Saturday.

"How was your trip?"

"Oh, you know, business… the usual…" Curt pulls Michael into his arms and kisses him deeply. "Damn, I've missed you," he says, "and I brought you something." He pulls out a necklace and fastens it around Michael's neck.

"The beads are made of petrified wood," he explains. "I saw it in a gallery and I just had to get it for you." And before Michael can say anything else Curt has his cock in his mouth and sucks him off, as his knees buckle helplessly and he steadies himself on Curt's shoulders. Curt makes quick work of him, then pulls him along into the bedroom and minutes later Michael is on his back with his legs on Curt's shoulders and Curt's cock in his ass.

"God, I've missed that," Curt pants, bracing himself on his hands and ramming into him so hard he's actually moving on the covers. Michael is breathless; being so completely at Curt's mercy turns him on beyond belief, and despite the pain he loves every second of it.

They barely leave the bed all weekend, and when they do they just have sex somewhere else in the house. In between Curt takes care of him, washing him gently in the shower, bringing him food, holding him and kissing him.

Michael twists out of his embrace. "Would you like me to suck you off for a change?"

Curt looks at him in surprise.

"I'm really actually quite good at it."

Curt smiles. "I don't doubt that for a second, Michael. I know you're fantastic at anything you put your mind to. But my cock belongs in your ass, not your mouth. I don't want to waste a moment elsewhere."

And he wrestles him back onto the ground, and even though Michael is shorter than Curt the hard physical labor gives him a good bit of strength, but Curt curbs any attempts of his to take over very quickly.

"Let me," he says and kisses him until he nearly blacks out. "God, Michael, you are so incredibly cute."

And he manhandles him swiftly onto his back and fucks him again. And Michael lets him, because Curt is very good at it, and because it makes him feel like pampered royalty.

"Move in with me," Curt says on Monday morning. "I'm addicted to you. I want you every day of my life – before breakfast and as soon as I come home from the office. And all night."

Michael chuckles.

"I got work to do."

"You can cut down – I have everything here. Seriously, Michael. I love you, and I want you to live with me. Be here with me. You can rent out the house, put your stuff into storage. I'll take care of you."

Michael looks at him. He's spent so many years caring for others, not thinking about himself. And here is this gorgeous man who offers him everything he's ever dreamed of, and so much more.

"All right, Curt," he concedes. "If that's what you want."

Curt steps up to him, embraces him from behind. "Yes, it's what I want. But only if you want it, too."

Michael nods. "Yes. I'd like that."

Curt smiles from ear to ear. "Great," he says. "Start packing. Bring only what you absolutely need. I'll take care of everything else."

And then he takes Michael shopping – to stores Michael hasn't even driven past, let alone gone in. He gets him a facial and a manicure and pedicure, a haircut in a fancy French salon. At first Michael is uncomfortable with all the attention lavished upon him, but he loves it when Curt smiles and tells him how hot he is. And he feels desirable and loved and wanted for the first time in his life.

He looks at the necklace – he loves the warm colors of the beads, the layered look of the wood fibers, the way they glow in the light. The larger beads have bits of petrified bark on them – a textured surface that feels good against his fingertips. People compliment him on it, and he never takes it off.

Whenever Curt goes on a business trip Michael feels lost and lonely, and the house still creeps him out a little bit when he's there by himself. Curt laughs when he tells him, and then he hugs and kisses him and makes love to him until he can't think straight anymore.

One day Curt comes home with a large shopping bag. "I want you to try something for me," he says, gesturing at the bag. Michael pulls out a leather harness, shackles and various restraints. "You ever tried bondage?"

Michael shrugs. "A little bit. Nothing… professional… like this, though."

Curt groans. "Just the thought of you in that stuff makes me hard. Wanna try it out?"

And Michael can't resist the hopeful look on Curt's face, and he nods.

The next morning Curt ties him up on the bed and Michael is truly surprised how much he enjoys it. He knows he's always been a bottom, but somehow the restraints make it easier, because he doesn't have to pretend to do anything but lie there and enjoy it.

Curt fucks him hard, then leaves him tied up – his arms stretched out towards the bed posts, knees pulled up and out. He gives him some water, carefully cradling his head. "You look so beautiful, Michael," he says. "I wish I could keep you tied up like this all day so I could just look at you and fuck you anytime."

"You can do that already," Michael replies.

"Yeah – but right now you can't do anything about it."

Michael has to admit he has a point – not that he'd ever be unwilling, but he understands the allure of a helpless partner.

And so Curt fucks him again and Michael's arms and legs are beginning to cramp up, but Curt is enjoying himself so much he just bears it. And later that day, when he can't feel his limbs anymore Curt sucks him off and shoves a large vibrator up his ass, and Michael can't help it – he comes like a freight train, screaming. He's never been so exhausted in his life, and he cries. Curt unties him and gently massages his aching arms and legs, and he cuddles him all night and all that Michael wants is to do it all over again.

Curt takes him downstairs to his workout room in the basement and ties him to a resistance strength trainer, and as he fucks him Michael struggles against the weights and Curt laughs that this has to be the best workout ever. And afterwards he looks at him for a long time, tied to the machine, completely exposed to him.

"What," Michael says.

Curt shakes his head. "Too soon."

And he won't say anything else, no matter how much Michael prods him.

In a few short months Michael's life has changed completely. He's there for Curt when he wakes up, and then he makes him breakfast while Curt gets dressed. Michael cleans the house or works in the garden or for some of his other clients until about lunch time when he drives to Curt's office downtown. Sometimes he brings him lunch but they rarely eat; instead Curt locks the door and turns the phone ringer off, and he fucks Michael right there on his desk.

At first Michael is mortified – even though Curt's office is well above street level, it's a corner office with floor-to-ceiling windows, but Curt assures him the glass is one-way and no one can see them.

In the afternoon Michael shops for groceries, does the laundry, works on some design projects and has a meal ready for Curt when he comes home.

"I feel like a 50s housewife," he says to Curt, laughing. "Oh, right," Curt nods. "I need to get you an apron, loverboy."

"A what?"

"Something appropriately short – with black leather and a few chains and a nice choker. So you can cook in the nude and I can admire your beautiful ass the moment I walk through the door."

They've moved most of their bondage sessions to the basement, and one day Curt fucks him with a dildo while sucking him off, when he suddenly stops, holding the toy firmly in place. Michael squirms but Curt steadies him with a hand on the chest.

"I've been thinking," he says.

"What," Michael gasps.

"You know what would really turn me on, Michael?"

Michael tries to relax around the large object in his ass.

"What's that," he grinds out.

Curt begins to slowly pump the dildo again. "I'd love to see you get fucked by a bunch of other guys."

Michael lifts his head to look at him. "Seriously?"

Curt nods. "Yeah. Just the thought of it makes my mouth water."

Michael contemplates the notion for a moment, feeling the dildo slide in and out of his ass, and he thinks that it's really not that different. And quite frankly, the idea of Curt watching him getting fucked is surprisingly appealing, and he comes with a shout.

Curt pulls out the dildo and kisses him gently.

"I take that as a yes?"

And Michael agrees, because Curt's eyes shine with excitement and he's like a little kid on Christmas morning.

Curt plans it all, deliberately keeping Michael out of it. "Let me do this for you, Michael," he insists. "It's my fantasy, after all." Michael can't argue with that, but he can't help but feel a little nervous.

"How many will there be?"

Curt gestures. "Seven… maybe eight… depends."

"Seven!" Michael swallows hard – that's a lot more than he expected. But Curt takes his face in his hands and kisses him and tells him he can handle it, and besides, he would fuck him first because as much as he wants to see him fucked by others he definitely does not want to share. And somehow, that actually makes sense to Michael.

He's grateful for the blindfold, though, and the fact that Curt has tied him up downstairs before the others arrive. He can't move at all on the bench press, but hearing all the other hushed voices and quiet conversations makes his heart beat wildly in his chest.

"Hey Michael, it's me," Curt says and rubs his palms over his chest, briefly pinching his nipples. Michael nods. "I'm okay."

And then he feels Curt's mouth on his cock, and he's so wound up and tense that he comes within minutes, as he barely notices the appreciative murmurs all around. He hears the squirt of the lube bottle, and he knows Curt's fingers in his ass, but then there's another hand – larger than Curt's, and he panics a little bit.

"It's okay, Michael, I'm still going first."

And yes, that's definitely Curt's cock pushing into his ass, his firm grip on his thighs, his heavy breathing, his bellowing release. He feels him withdraw and barely seconds later there's someone else.

"Relax, Michael," Curt says, and he takes a deep breath, and in his mind he imagines Curt fucking him with different dildos, as he's penetrated again and again. It's exhausting, and he loses count, and he feels the sticky lube everywhere. Somehow he feels strangely detached from what's happening to him; he hears Curt's voice, feels his occasional touch, a quick kiss, and he can deal with it.

"I'm doing this for him," he keeps thinking.

He never sees any of the men who fucked him that day, doesn't even know how many there were, but Curt is quiet the rest of the weekend and barely leaves him out of his sight, pampering him from head to toe, and he suspects that Curt is jealous.

He's confused and conflicted about his own feelings, because he did it to please Curt. He didn't really enjoy it but he didn't hate it either, and he's not quite sure why Curt is so clingy afterwards.

But he plays along and agrees to whatever it is Curt suggests, no matter how kinky – Curt always takes good care of him, and one day he realizes that his entire life revolves around making Curt happy. And it's not that he's in any way dissatisfied with the situation – his life is so much more meaningful, it seems, than before.

Curt never talks about his business trips but Michael suspects there's more to it than what Curt lets on. Still, he doesn't push him – it's not up to him to dig, and if Curt wants to have his own little secrets, well, he can live with that. He's happy with the way things are.

One morning he sees a large orange tabby cat in the yard. It's quite emaciated, and he quickly gets some leftovers from last night's dinner, and the cat literally inhales it. He doesn't wear a collar but is very friendly – he's probably been abandoned by his owners or gotten lost. He's there again the next day, and the day after, and so Michael buys some cat food. He names the cat Leo because he looks like a little lion to him.

Curt finds the cat food in the fridge and is clearly annoyed. "I'm allergic to cats, so don't you dare bring him inside," he says. "Besides, he probably has fleas, too."

Michael is a little surprised at Curt's reaction, but it's no big deal – Leo never tries to come into the house anyway, so he just puts his food down on the back porch. And he feels terrible about having upset Curt. "I just wish you'd asked me first," Curt says, and so Michael doesn't mention it anymore. Thankfully Leo has the good sense to hardly ever show up when Curt is around.

"I'm sorry he doesn't like you," Michael says to the cat. "He's really a great guy. Maybe he's had a bad experience with cats. Don't hold it against him."

But the little nagging voice in his head tells him again that Curt is jealous.

He tries to talk to him about it but Curt refuses to discuss the matter and shuts him up with a kiss and a quick fuck.

And suddenly Michael notices that Leo is his only other friend these days, that apart from Curt and his buddies he hasn't seen anybody or spent time with anybody else. He immediately feels guilty, because he loves Curt and he's so grateful for everything, and he simply can't blame him.

Curt teaches him to play ice hockey that winter. Michael isn't very good at it at first, but he sure tries and Curt is a good teacher and very patient with his first clumsy attempts at the game. Curt gives him a nice set of hockey sticks and skates for Christmas. Michael is sure they cost a fortune, but he's learned not to ask and simply accept the gift.

He agrees to a few more gang bangs with Curt's friends, but the thrill of the first time is gone, and he just doesn't enjoy it anymore. Besides, even though those sessions are always Curt's idea, his overwhelming fussiness afterwards smothers him a little bit, and he doesn't know how to make up for it, to show Curt that he still loves him.

And he sees that his entire life centers on Curt; what little outside work he still does has to fit in between Curt's needs and running the household and taking care of Curt's insatiable sexual appetite. It's not a bad life, Michael knows it, but he starts feeling just a little bit empty inside.

All these months Curt has never allowed him to suck him off even once, and eventually he stops asking.

In the Spring he notices that Curt is moodier than he used to be; Leo continues to be a point of contention and Curt says he's thinking about trapping and relocating the cat. Michael begs him for days not to do it; the stray is the highlight of his day, and he hates to admit to Curt how much the animal has come to mean to him. Curt finally relents but he's clearly unhappy with the situation.

And then one day in the summer Michael forgets to pick up the dry cleaning – two of Curt's business suits. Curt has plenty of other suits, but he's upset nonetheless, and it's the first time that he hits Michael.

Michael just stands there – he has no idea what's happening, his face hurts, and there's Curt, staring at him in abject horror.

"Oh my god, Michael, I'm so sorry… I don't know why I did that…" And he looks so utterly distressed that Michael hugs him and tells him it's okay, and he shouldn't have forgotten about the dry cleaning in the first place, and that it was all his fault. And Curt cries and Michael doesn't know what to do.

It touches him strangely to see Curt so weak for a change – Curt is always the strong one, always in charge, always so sure of himself. Seeing him cry rips Michael's heart out, and he loves him more than ever, despite the bruise in his face that takes days to fade.

Later he tells people it was a hockey thing.

Curt takes him out to dinner and buys him new clothes and then he makes love to him for hours, and Michael feels he doesn't deserve all the attention. Curt was stressed out, and he doesn't think twice about it.

But it happens again.

A few weeks later Michael forgets to pay the water bill and when Curt comes home he discovers the water has been shut off. He flies into a rage, and Michael doesn't fight back when he hits him. It was his fault, after all. He cries when Curt puts an ice pack on his bloody nose and gently cleans the cut under his left eye. Curt cries, too, and he calls the water company and has the water turned on again, and then he takes the next day off to take care of Michael.

There are more business trips, and Michael finds a receipt for a restaurant in St Louis in Curt's laundry. He's suspected that Curt is still seeing David, and he doesn't even care that much – they had never agreed to be exclusive – but somehow he feels that he has failed Curt and his heart aches when he thinks he's not good enough, that he doesn't give Curt what he needs.

Curt has a few big cases at work that make him twitchy and aggressive, and Michael bears the brunt of it at home. His frequent beatings are a punishment for – he's not sure for what, but something he did wrong. It doesn't take much to set Curt off – the hockey gear isn't packed properly, or Leo shows up outside while Curt is at home, or the car is ten miles overdue for an oil change.

And Michael loves Curt all the same, because he always takes care of him afterwards, and he forgives him even when his bruises hurt.

He agrees to every gang bang that Curt wants to have, because he knows how much Curt loves to watch him getting fucked by other men. And when David shows up to spend Thanksgiving weekend with them Michael doesn't hesitate for a second when Curt tells him to let David fuck him so he can watch.

David is a big athletic guy with muscles like a body builder, and he's very strong and Michael can barely move after he fucks him. He's not gentle, either, as Michael is on his knees, his face pressed into the covers, and he can barely breathe. He has an asthma attack then and Curt gets angry with him for spoiling the fun as he gasps for air. David laughs. "I think it's kinda sexy," he says.

Michael cannot imagine someone gasping for air as being sexy, but David kisses him and tells him to relax and he gets his inhaler.

Michael finds himself having attacks more frequently, taking more pills and using his inhaler, sometimes even just to calm himself down, when he's too scared of screwing up and that familiar tightness in his chest and throat threatens to take over.

After David leaves things return to normal – almost. Michael works hard to prove to Curt that he's there for him, and the more Curt finds fault with him, the harder he tries. He does everything Curt tells him to without questioning him, he's always at the ready when Curt calls, and he keeps his first aid kit well-stocked.

He looks at the deep purple bruises on his chest, and he cries a little, and he loves Curt and he doesn't know what to do.

They play hockey, and Michael fumbles a play and their team loses. Curt is furious with him and he hits him with the hockey stick. Michael has an asthma attack and Curt runs to get his inhaler.

He stays with him in the locker room until the medication takes effect.

"I'm sorry, Michael," Curt says. "I just really wanted to win this match."

Michael closes his eyes and nods, trying to calm his breathing.

"I'll make it up to you, Michael. It's just a stupid game. I shouldn't have gotten upset."

Curt is so sweet to him and everyone else smiles as they watch him take care of Michael, waiting for him to feel better. Curt holds out his hand: "Give me the keys – I'll drive us home."

Michael shakes his head. "No, I'm fine. Just give me a moment."

Curt goes to take a shower and change and Michael takes another pill, and he starts feeling better. He takes off his gear, showers and gets dressed, as Curt waits impatiently.

"Let's go," Curt says, then sends Michael ahead as he stops to talk to a team buddy.

Michael waits in the car, feeling the panic rise again, and he quickly takes another puff off his inhaler. He has no idea how they made it home; he cooks dinner while Curt puts the gear away. He's silent as they eat, claiming a headache, and he goes to bed early. His chest hurts from where Curt hit him.

The next day he takes another extra dose of medication before they set out for hockey practice and he goes out to warm up the car while Curt finishes checking his email.

Curt's cell phone rings as soon as he gets in.

"Oh, hey David!... Yeah, sure, we'll be home all weekend… Michael is eager to see you, aren't you, Michael?... Of course he will, that's a given!... All right – let me know when your flight gets in – I'll send Michael to pick you up at the airport... We have a few new toys to try out…"

Michael has barely heard half of it; he's having trouble focusing on the road. The street is slick with freshly fallen snow and driving is tricky. Curt's voice suddenly has an echo, and he can't understand a word he's saying. His arms and legs are tingling, as if they were crawling with ants, and he barely sees Curt lunging for the steering wheel.

A sharp shock. The airbag deploys, smashes him back into his seat.

Pain blossoms in his hand.

Then nothing.

oOo

.

The Future

"You threw up when they brought you in," Mark remembers.

"I did?"

"Yeah. You were pretty out of it, I don't think you even knew." Mark looks at him and smiles. "And don't you worry – it happens all the time. It's a very common post-seizure reaction. You were lucky you didn't pee yourself."

"I guess."

"Anyway, thank you for sharing that, Michael. And I wish I had the answers, to make it all good and make you feel better."

Michael nods. "That would be too easy."

"But the good thing is: you're in charge now. You decide what to do next. And if there's anything I can help with, I need to know."

"I wish I could have buried Leo. I don't even know what happened to him."

Mark pulls out his cell phone. "I got an idea."

Michael sits there quietly, lost in thought as Mark calls Deb Chen and asks her to go over to Curt's house, pretend to be Leo's owner and say she had heard he's been hanging out at the house since she lost him. "Yeah, right now is good – you just got off work, that's when you'd stop by anyway. All right. Call me and let me know."

Michael smiles.

"He was a good cat. I think Dr Chen would have liked him."

"Can you have cats here? Maybe you should get one. Keep you company."

"Maybe. I'm not sure I'm ready. I need my clothes and stuff."

"I can go to your storage space tomorrow, if you want. I'm sure Deb will come along – she's off this weekend, too."

"You guys are so nice. I don't deserve-"

"But you do, Michael. You deserve to have friends who care and who help you out. It's what friends do." Mark gets up and gathers the teapot and cups.

They wash the dishes and Mark talks him through his medication, and what to take when.

"Right now, more than anything else, you need rest. And I'll ask my dad to stop by – he's going stir crazy at my place, and he's a real doer, he needs a project. Plus he has a truck, to help you move in properly."

His phone rings. He takes the call, then hands it over to Michael.

"Michael, it's Deb – Dr Chen. I'm at the house, and it's up for sale. I walked up and peeked through a few windows, and it looks completely empty. I know it's the right address, though. I called in to the hospital, and Curt Oberg was released a week ago. He's gone, too."

Michael hands the phone back to Mark, stunned.

Mark talks briefly with Deb, then shuts the phone off.

"We can put out an APB, Michael."

He shakes his head. "No use. You're talking about two lawyers here. They know how to disappear. Probably left the country, too. David has places to go; they'll never find them."

He sits down. "It's over."

"That's right, Michael. It is over. And you need to heal and get better. Can you get your house back – give notice to the renters?"

"They're moving in the Spring anyway."

"So you stay here until then, and then move back home. And you'll figure out what to do after that."

Michael bites his lip and nods. "I'm scared."

Mark puts his arm around him. "It's okay to be scared. It's good, even. It makes you careful. It makes you live."

Michael pulls away, holds up his injured hand. "I want to go back to nursing school."

Mark smiles. "That's a great idea, Michael. If you still want to do it, with all your experience and certifications, you'll have no trouble getting back in. You can apply now, get ready and start in the Fall – maybe take some prep classes in the summer. Tell you what – come by the E.R. next week. You'll have to, anyway, to get your hand looked at. And I'll get one of our Teaching Nurses to talk to you, see what you need to do."

"That would be great."

"I think you'll make a great nurse, Michael. You're a good man, and you're caring and sweet, and I can't imagine a better person than you for this career."

"Except that I tried to kill my lover."

"You really believe that?"

Michael shrugs. "I don't know. Maybe I did. When you told me I needed to get out, when I came in the first time, I'd never thought about it before. It was just such a turning point for me. I still love him. I think I do – we had such a good time together, I can't just erase that…"

"And you shouldn't. It's good to hold on to those memories, Michael. And it's good to remember the bad ones, so you don't fall into this trap again."

"I never thought I was in any real danger, that I had a problem, until you told me to go see a social worker. When he came in and told me not to get the CAT scan, it was just like you said – he made all the decisions for me. And I think I just snapped."

"Michael, listen. You were injured – you had your hand in a cast, and you'd just had a massive seizure. You had no business driving, and a stick shift at that. Curt just had a little cut on his forehead, no concussion, he should have driven."

"Curt can't drive stick at all. I do – just hadn't done it in forever."

"Still, I can't believe he put you in that situation. Actually, yes, now I can. Like the officer said, just a bunch of unlucky circumstances. Nobody blames you."

"I know. I just… I'm not sure I believe it myself. I think maybe I really just wanted to run him over. I don't remember."

"Well, you didn't, and Curt is fine and he's gone, and you will be fine, too."

Mark picks up his jacket and puts it on.

"Listen, there is a self-help group that meets in the hospital annex every Sunday evening at 6. I'd like you to go. It's a CoDA group – Co-Dependents Anonymous. You'll find lots of kindred spirits there. And maybe a way out."

"One of those Twelve Step Programs?"

"Yes. I've been to a number of meetings myself. Most caregivers are prime candidates for being co-dependents. Why don't we both go this weekend? See if you like it, if it's something that might help."

"All right, I'll give it a shot."

"Okay, then. I'll send my dad by tomorrow morning, to take you to your storage space to get some of your stuff. Let him do the work, he'll be itching to help."

"I won't have to explain anything to him, will I?"

"Of course not. You're a friend who needs help moving, and you have a bum hand from a – a hockey injury. Make him some tea – he'll enjoy that."

"I will."

"I'll pick you up on Sunday – say, 5:30?"

"Okay."

"Take care, Michael. You have my number, and Deb's. Call, all right?"

Michael nods. "Thanks again, Mark. I don't know where I'd be without you."

Mark smiles. "Right here, making tea. But I'm glad I came along."

And he leaves.

Michael takes his medication, picks up his inhaler, sets it back down. For the first time – he doesn't know in how long – there's no vise clamped around his chest, no weight crushing him.

And then he takes a knife and cuts the petrified wood necklace off.

He looks somehow naked without it. Different. New.

Yes, he's scared.

But he's also free to start over. And this time, he'll have help and friends who care, and a plan for the future. His heart skips a beat as he thinks about going back to school and getting his degree and starting a real job, helping others, just like he always wanted.

He puts the necklace on the window sill.

Maybe one day he'll be free from Curt, and all the things he thought he wanted and needed. Maybe he'll get a cat, or two, or three. He'll move back into his house and paint and renovate.

And he'll build a real Japanese Zen garden for himself in the back yard.

oOo

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Thanks for reading! A comment or feedback would be lovely.

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