It was all the fault of the 'Road Closed' sign.
Scotty thought about it, but his splitting head couldn't lay the blame anywhere else, really. They'd been planning to hit the Holiday Inn by 2 AM; the sign had gotten them off the track, and they'd gotten lost on little dirt paths and access roads that weren't even on the map, for four fun-filled hours of going around in circles, so that by the time they fetched up against the hotel, it was close on six o'clock in the morning, and by the time they'd gotten checked in and the formalities out of the way, they'd fallen into bed at around 7 AM.
He hadn't thought he'd be so helpless when he woke; his eyes had throbbed with the familiar feeling, and his stomach had been a little queasy, but he'd naively thought – after all these years, yet – that he'd feel differently after a shower. Well, he had – he'd felt worse, worse than he could possibly have imagined, the violent slamming in his skull making him want to retch, effectively paralyzing him where he stood.
And that was how Kel had found him – wedged up against the bathroom door, fingers digging into his temples, eyes screwed tight shut, letting out little whimpers with every exhalation, small sighing sounds that he knew it was a weakness to make, but which were so comforting that he just couldn't bring himself to suppress them. Which was another thing he hated about migraines – they made his mind fuzzy and confused and generally made him act a whole lot more like a six-year-old than was dignified.
Finding him like that, his partner had known instantly what was wrong. "Not another one," Kelly'd said, lightly enough, but then he'd ground to a halt, gently laying a hand on Scotty's shoulder and muttering, "Oh, damn." His voice darkened, probably at the memory of the knocks to the head Scotty had taken back in Bracket, not forty-eight hours ago. Scotty knew he was remembering those punches, knew his partner well enough to know that, in some twisted way that probably only made sense to Kelly Robinson, he felt it was somehow his fault. He wished he could do something about that, wished Kelly hadn't had to watch him beaten, wished he didn't have to deal with the aftermath, but in this much pain, Scotty couldn't really bring himself to care. All he could do was lean on Kelly, who'd got an arm around him and was shepherding him slowly back to bed. "Hold up one second," he said, propping Scotty up against the nightstand. Scotty closed his eyes, the world fading, only vaguely feeling it as Kelly gripped one ankle, then the other, lifting his feet and pulling his pyjama bottoms onto him, pulling them up over his hips. "Gonna take you on a little field trip to the Isle of Ticking, won't that be fun?"
"…" Scotty opened his mouth to say something, then thought of the sound of his own voice vibrating inside his head, and the very idea of the pain that speaking would cause made him moan louder. Moan? He was… He supposed he must be.
"Gonna be fine and dandy. Just keep doing whatever you have to," Kelly said, which was big of him, Scotty thought in some part of his mind that wasn't paralyzed with agony, because he knew what a pain this kind of whimpering was to listen to. Kelly was a real good sport, he wanted to say, but he opened his mouth to speak and another moan came out of him, and he had to give it up.
He let himself be sat down on the side of the bed and allowed himself to be dressed in his pyjama top. He closed his eyes, which helped with the pain. Perhaps he ought to lie down, but it was too far...
Something cool was pressed into his hand. "You gonna hold your glass of water nice and tight, Alexander?"
His hand closed around the curved shape as a tablet was pushed into his other hand. He fumbled it into his fingers, noting that it was almost like.. no, it was… one of the heavy-duty painkillers from their emergency kit. "This isn't my regular migraine pill."
"This isn't your regular migraine."
The words were light, but Kelly's voice brooked no argument, and Scotty was hurting too bad to argue. He swallowed the medicine, grateful that the glass was plucked from his hand as soon as he'd taken the pill. There was a whisper of fabric. "Down you go." He felt Kelly's hands guide him into a horizontal position – his head touched the cool pillow, and the hammer beat less hard on his eyes – and then warmth enveloped him as Kelly pulled the covers up over his shoulders.
He pulled his knees slowly up to his chest, swallowing down the nausea that pulsed through him with every throb of his head. Suddenly, it became easier, and it took his sluggish brain a second to process that the awful spike of bright light piercing his eyeballs had dimmed, gaining him another inch of ground. He'd barely registered that when Kelly slipped a hand under his head, tucking terrycloth – a towel, he managed to make out – under his head. "Hold still, Duke."
He shuddered with relief as a cool, damp cloth, something smooth, silky and blissfully black enveloped his eyes, shutting out all the light. He moaned with relief as the sick pain receded another notch. But what was… He fumbled a hand up. "Your…" His voice was a hoarse whisper, and he had to take a couple of quick breaths to finish the sentence. "silk… shirt."
"The sacrifices I make for you," Kelly said lightly from above him. Bed. He's sitting on my bed.
"Don't hafta…" Scotty fumbled with the shirt, not wanting to ruin it, but unable to quite stand removing the protective, cool blackness. On the other hand, Kelly had been looking for a shirt in that fabric for months. "…'ll be OK."
"Damn straight you're gonna be OK." Kel's voice was firm. He took Scotty's hand gently, moving it away from the shirt, his warm fingers providing an anchor in the dark and pain and vertigo and nausea. Blindly, Scotty held on, too sick to be embarrassed, and Kelly obliged by laying his other hand over Scotty's, pressing it tightly. An instant later, Scotty felt one of Kelly's hands move up to stroke his pounding temple, gentle enough not to hurt. It helped take his mind off the pain, giving him something to hold onto, and he sighed, a little sound escaping him again as the grip of the agony eased. Kelly's thumb still rubbed soothingly over his knuckles, his other hand now moving over his hair, sending little chills through Scotty's over-sensitized scalp. "Cheer up, Chester," he said, voice low and comforting. "Magic pills gonna kick in soon, and you'll be back in the saddle in time for the rodeo..."
As Kelly kept murmuring softly, Scotty held tight to his hand, and let himself go. It was rare enough that he did, and somehow, the sensation of having his hand held and his hair stroked, like his Mom had, soothed him, allowed him to relax. But that was nothing compared to the warmth and comfort that radiated through him, sweeping all his aches and pains aside, when Kelly spoke to him like this.
The sound of his partner's light baritone, murmuring reassurances, thrummed through his pulsing, aching body and filled him with peace. Huh. The migraine and the meds must be spacing him out, making him think weird stuff – there was something about hearing that tone in a man's voice – funny, but it made him feel like a kid again, secure, protected, loved. Only he'd hardly ever felt this all-encompassing security as a kid, his hazy mind forced him to admit, and certainly not with— He'd be ashamed to say it even to himself if he didn't have the excuse of being so spacy. The notion of his father stroking his hair and gentling him through the pain of a migraine was laughable. Not something a man would do. He'd learned so much from Kel about what it was to be a man, really be a man… So much. He opened his mouth to tell him, but the ebb and flow of warmth and comfort was a gentle, irresistible tide, and he gave himself over to it, gladly.
When he next woke, the pain had retreated to the periphery of his awareness, lurking in the back of his head, threatening torment for when he next opened his eyes or looked into the light. So he didn't, keeping his eyes shut, the soft black silk over his face protecting them from the glare.
Sight out of commission, Scotty opened his ears and listened. The room murmured comfortably with the stirrings of someone taking care of things – his Mom had used to do that when he was sick, bringing her mending up to his room, sitting with him and getting her work done, folding laundry sometimes, reading a book, the comforting sound of flipping pages and rustling fabric telling him he wasn't alone. He smiled, closing his eyes tighter and burrowing his head into the pillow.
A moment later, there was a gentle hand on his shoulder, pulling the covers tighter around him, tucking him in and fussing with the makeshift sleep-mask. Quit mothering me, he ought to say, he knew he ought to say it, but… he felt real weak, and being taken care of and fussed over was just too darn nice.
Losing himself in the guilty pleasure, he let himself drift.
Wow. Had he really fallen asleep again?
Scotty cracked his lids gingerly; they opened to soft black fabric. He started to raise a hand to remove it.
"Whoa, whoa. Hold it a minute there."
By the time Scotty's hand had reached the shirt, the chair had creaked and the sound of hurried footsteps on carpet was followed by the click of a light-switch. He pulled the makeshift mask off to find the room was dark, lit only by the faint glow of the streetlights through the heavy drapes. "Romantic," he said. His voice was strangely slurred. Medicine, he supposed.
"How's the pain?" his partner asked. Predictable, that was ol' Kel.
"Gone. Feelin' kinda woozy, though."
"Eyes still hurt from the light?"
Scotty blinked. "Don't think so."
"Best not take the chance," Kelly said cheerfully.
"Slept all day," Scotty muttered, embarrassed to find he couldn't fix whatever was weird about his voice. "You been sittin' in the dark all day?"
"No, Holmes. Only turned off the lights just now to spare your delicate lil' peepers."
"Peepers? Jeepers." Scotty floundered in bed, trying to sit up. He knew it wasn't his fault he was sick, but he felt like someone was going to yell at him for lying in bed all day.
"Allow me, Gertrude." Kelly's arm was around his back, and then his partner was lifting him, plumping pillows behind him, adjusting his covers – "Gotta preserve your delicate health, Thelma – " and generally making him feel comfortable… and uncomfortable. Kelly wasn't Mom, wasn't even a woman. Scotty had no business being waited on like that by his partner.
"Hey, lay off," Scotty muttered as Kelly pulled the towel out from under him and the shirt off his face, laying them aside. "Ain't used to havin' no white guy waitin' on me."
It was dark – dark enough to spare him seeing Kelly's face fall. Not dark enough to hide the way Kelly paused mid-fuss, and never dark enough to hide the shocked hurt that radiated from his partner.
Scotty let his head slump back to the pillows in exasperation. He hadn't meant it the way it sounded, but he was too darn tired to explain, and there was no way saying something like that wasn't going to set Kelly off. He supposed he had to take it back, but it wasn't even untrue, only he meant it in a good way, well, not a good way, but he hadn't meant anything bad by it, just that…
Kelly was gone. Not from the room, just from his side.
Scotty frowned, the pain in his head bleeding back in around the edges. "Kel?"
"Sorry," came his partner's voice out of the darkness. "See ya in a few."
"Kelly, I don't got time for this."
"I do not know what you mean," Kelly muttered, putting on his jacket, his outline picked out by the streetlight, faint yellow lines on black, "but in any case, you have no business doing anything but resting, after…" The low, bitter voice trailed off.
In a blinding flash, it hit Scotty: the other reason behind Kelly's sudden withdrawal, what this was really all about, and he wanted to kick himself. "Kelly."
"It's cool," his partner said, silhouetted in a rectangle of light from the open door, "really."
What he really wanted to say was Kelly, I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, Kelly, please don't go, let me explain. What he said was, "Nuts."
"An eloquent observation, my good man."
Scotty's hand caught the bedside lamp, sent it crashing to the floor. It wasn't ceramic, though, wasn't even breakable, and Kelly just walked calmly back into the room and set it up again, drat, the walls were all in place, up high and impenetrable, and he wasn't well enough for this and why did his partner have to be so darn moody… "At least give me an aspirin before you go to drown your sorrows," Scotty grunted.
Kelly appeared to bite down on a retort, but he didn't tell Scotty to go get it himself. The sounds of the water splashing into the glass from the sink and the rustle of his partner rummaging through their bag for the pain pills reminded him of how wonderful he'd felt earlier in the day, when Kelly had been wrapping him in cotton-wool and taking care of him, and he should have said Thank You but instead it had come out as some kinda racial slur. Oh, nice going, Alexander, but he couldn't apologize when he didn't even know what he was going to apologize for, or how to… And Kelly should know him by now, for crying out loud, and…
The hands that gave him the pill and handed him the water were still careful and gentle, but the stiffness of Kelly's movements betrayed him. Scotty swallowed the pill, letting Kelly take the glass, refill it and set it on the bedside table within easy reach before he made sure Scotty's head was supported on all sides by pillows and that he was properly covered. His partner's thoughtfulness only made Scotty madder. If Kelly wasn't so darn oversensitive, they could be driving out for some chow, and bringing it back and eating in front of the boob tube, instead of pussyfooting around each other like strangers.
He was so busy being mad, he only snapped out of it when the door clicked shut.
It was after midnight, Kelly knew. A few more minutes and he'd have to get back, check on Scotty. He didn't belong there on his own, doped to the gills, with a crippling migraine.
'Course, he hadn't belonged in some hick town, getting his brains beaten outa his head, but there hadn't been much they could do about that, either.
Except for Scotty to leave, the voice in his head was saying. Leave, and find his own life. Maybe work with someone who lived in his own world, 'stead of someone who would never be in there with him. Teach at his alma mater, maybe…
Kelly paused, shocked at himself, then drained his glass. Who was he to plan Scotty's life for him? Sure they'd had some good times, but at the end of the day he was just some schmuck off the street, and he was damned lucky Scotty had let him hang around this long. It was inevitable, he supposed, this moment. For a while there, he'd thought they were brothers. Hell, they still were, in a sense, he knew that much – he'd give his life for Scotty, and he knew the cat had laid it on the line for him more than once – but ideals were one thing, and then there was the real world.
Kelly raised his glass to his lips, only to find it empty. Huh. It had been full just a moment ago. Signaling blearily for a refill, he waited till it was set in front of him and took a slow swallow, relishing the burn. He pushed his fingers against his eyes, digging in, leaving his hand draped across his face. All good things must come to an end. Wisdom, words to remember, words to the wise, and all that jazz.
A warm presence slid onto the barstool next to him. He didn't move. One more proof of his failure. Scotty coming to look for him when he was sick. To drag him out of the bars, drag his boozing self back home. Home. Where his partner was. Kelly slouched down a little lower.
A gentle laugh sounded by his ear, a mere chuff of breath. "You," said the voice of the laugh, "are wasted."
"More ways than one," Kelly muttered reflexively.
"Not gonna make it easy, are ya."
Kelly shrugged. There was no answer to that.
"No," the voice said, almost to itself, "he is not gonna make it easy. Uphill all the way."
Something snagged on Kelly's admittedly low awareness. "You-" he hiccupped embarrassedly, "oughta be in bed."
That infuriating laugh again. "So should you." There was a long pause in which he didn't reply, and the words started up afresh. "And here I was, thinking we could go out for some eats. Now we're stuck ordering room service, since I'm doped and you're drunk."
Kelly stopped to think about this for a moment. Yes, he was definitely drunk. "Fine." He let his head drop to his arm. He didn't even remember what he was drinking to forget, which probably meant he'd fulfilled his mission. Or something.
"I…" the voice was tentative. "I am sorry. I did not mean what I said in the way that you probably thought that I meant it, you see."
The instant Scotty apologized, it slammed into Kelly again. A white guy. Scotty's beautiful, beautiful head taking punch after punch as he stood by helpless to stop it, helpless to take the blows for his partner, because of his color—"Why'd you remind me?" he said petulantly. "I was doing a jim-dandy job of forgetting."
"Well, excuse me for apologizing."
Kelly rolled his head sideways on his arm to glare a little vaguely at Scotty. "You don't gotta apol—apol—ah, damn." He buried his face back in his arm.
He jumped at the feel of a cool hand on the back of his neck. "Simmer down there, Chester," Scotty said slowly, but the laughter was gone from his voice, replaced with something else. The soft touch ruffled his hair gently. "Yeah, I do so gotta apologize. That came out like—like something I did not mean. You're a white guy, but you're my white guy."
Kelly made a strangled sound. His partner's touch, which ought to be embarrassing but somehow wasn't, was working its magic, soothing him, as he struggled to make sense of the completely illogical feeling of warmth spreading through him. Scotty wasn't done yet, apparently. Still in that soft voice, he murmured lightly, "Hafta make you an honorary Negro."
Kelly blinked again, and this time it had nothing to do with the liquor. Scotty's hand stayed where it was, curled round the back of Kelly's neck, the pad of his thumb moving softly back and forth over Kelly's scalp. Finally, Kelly managed to turn his head again, and said, "Too bad – folks can't see – my hidden melanin, then, isn't it."
"Like Superman. Only show your superpowers to a chosen few."
Kelly grimaced. "Wish to God I did have a superpower," he said bitterly.
Scotty sighed, really sighed out loud, and it was so unusual that Kelly sobered a little. "It's crummy, ain't it, having to watch."
Kelly frowned. Scotty had hit the nail on the head, but – "How would you know?"
It came out a bit more savage and accusing than he'd liked, but Scotty apparently took no offense. "Spain," he muttered, and no amount of drunkenness could blind Kelly to the pain in the refined features.
"Hey—" This was too important, and he struggled to prop up his head with his fist. "Not the same, man. You know that."
"Same difference," said Scotty tightly.
"Nope." Kelly reached for the carafe, wobbled, and suffered his sick partner to pour him a glass of water. He downed it, and went on. "In Spain, didn't have anything to do with—it wasn't because of…"
"Still made no difference, Clyde," said Scotty smoothly. "There you were with your back all…" He swallowed. "…cut up, and your joints shot to heck, and me in the pink of health."
"Better that than the other."
"Oh, no you don't. Not going that route, not today, Fred C, uh-uh. What you prefer or don't prefer don't come into it. Sometimes I take the lumps, and sometimes you do. That's just part of the job."
"Still don't—you've got a migraine, and I'm responsible."
"Oh, do tell. You smacked me in the mouth maybe 'stead of Tiny when I wasn't looking?"
Kelly felt bleak despair settle over him. "Even did that, one time."
He heard the clunk of Scotty's head hitting the bar before he saw it, having briefly closed his eyes. His head snapped up, in time to hear Scotty going, "Ow! Ow, ow, ow!"
"Bartender! Some ice over here!" snapped Kelly. The man brought the requested ice; Kelly wrapped it in a napkin and held it to Scotty's head. "Any more bright ideas?"
"Now this—is really—all your fault," groaned Scotty, leaning into Kelly's hand. "I cannot win, can I, if you insist on bringing up ancient history to prove you're in the—" he hissed as Kelly moved the pack around, then relaxed, "the wrong, man, that's just – I do get that you were so – ow – real uptight when – they had that fight, but – you think I can't hold my own in a fight? Think you gotta take my knocks for me?"
"Don't be – easy, there – don't be silly. You know perfectly well what I meant."
"Well—Kelly…" Scotty's pained eyes looked up at him from beneath the ice-pack, and Kelly knew he was lost. "Could you maybe, just this once, cut your sick and invalided pal a break, and give it a rest? Admit that, difficult as it is to believe, not everything in this world is under your control, and sometimes things work out crummy, however you slice it?"
Kelly slid off the barstool, and helped Scotty do the same. He had a feeling he'd started out being upset at something else, and that his partner had somehow misdirected him. Be that as it might, there was a warm feeling in his heart, and a migraine-afflicted Scotty in his arms. He knew what his duties were. And damned if he didn't feel better. He could hardly remember what he'd been upset about anymore. He was sure it would come back to him – some things had a way of doing that – but now he knew what his priorities were.
"So, assuming, for the sake of argument, that I were to take your request seriously," Kelly said, softly, in case loud noises still hurt Scotty's head, "what kind of dinner - or supper, I'm not sure what the time-uh-what kind of nourishment would, would Your Royal Blackmailship wish to partake?"
"Hm?" Kelly placed an arm round Scotty, letting his partner hold the ice pack to his head, and used his other hand to support Scotty's elbow.
"Of. You partake of. It's a prepositional verb."
"Now how am I supposed to believe that you are sick and suffering when you are pedantic about such things as pre-preo-propositional verbs?"
"Prepositional. Proposition's what you do to everything in a skirt, man."
"My point stands…"
"Are you gonna feed your invalided partner and go to sleep with visions of sugar-plums dancing in our heads, or waste time falsely and basely accusing him of..."
Kelly shepherded Scotty back to the elevator. And if it was visions of laughing conversations and room-service meals that were dancing in his head, well, it was a perfectly acceptable substitute for sugarplums.