(Thanks to Suz for having such sharp eyes. She noticed that I had Bobby in Vietnam when he's ten years too young to have been there. Thanks for the heads-up! I fixed the logistics problem and without substantively changing the flow of Bobby's story. Apologies! I'm just no good at figuring age by how someone looks! lol. The way I've worked it now he'll be 42 this year. I think that's a bit better.)

IX

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Darien watched Bobby pace the room for what seemed like the thousandth time that night, the concern he'd been feeling all evening only intensifying. The younger man had allowed his partner to stew for almost two hours, wanting to believe Hobbes would come to a decision and speak his mind eventually, but the tension in the house had finally become too much to handle. When Bobbi, too, began to whimper, unhappy with the pea-soup thick fog of repressed emotion, Darien spoke up.

"Bobby. Glue your feet to the floor for a minute and talk to me, will ya? You haven't stopped movin' since we got home from work. Whatever it is, I'll understand.... an' we'll work through it together."

At last, Bobby halted his perpetual motion experiment and raised his eyes to meet his partner's.

"Sorry. It's just.... this isn't easy. We need to talk about somethin'.... somethin really serious."

For a brief moment, Fawkes was jolted, wondering if Hobbes could possibly have had the same idea that he'd been harboring for weeks. A study of Bobby's pain-filled gaze told him otherwise, however. Turning his body, Darien stretched one leg the length of the couch, leaving his other foot on the floor, and held out a hand. Sighing quietly with relief, Bobby moved swiftly to the sofa and took up the speaker's place in what they had just recently begun to call their "Serious Discussion" position: his back against Darien's chest, Darien's left arm wrapped tightly around him in emotional and physical support.

"Okay. I've got you, love. It's safe now. Go ahead and talk."

"To start with, I gotta make an apology. You know a couple weeks ago, when I begged off lunch? I said I was just gonna... go sit by the water.... think a little bit where it was quiet. I lied. I called up my shrink for an extra session. I wasn't sure what she was gonna say.... how it'd work out, so I didn't wanna get you worried. I.... I finally told her about you.... about us."

"Apology accepted. And?"

"She's good with it. She said she could see how much in love I am. I had to tell her, had to make her understand..... or else she woulda said no to the real reason I was there."

"Which is the reason we're here." Darien chuckled softly. Bobby shivered lightly as the mild vibration of his partner's laugh traveled through him then he shook himself mentally and got back on topic.

"Yeah. I'll get to that. If it's okay, I wanna mess with the format a little tonight. No questions 'till I'm done. Puttin' this into words..... it's gonna hurt like hell. What I really need... is for you to just.... listen. Alright?"

"Of course it's alright. You know we only made one rule for this. Whatever you need, you get. No questions, no argument."

"I know. Still.... thanks."

Darien closed his lips tightly on the automatic 'You're welcome' and drew Bobby closer. "Okay.... where do I start, here? The beginning, I guess. Before they assigned me to you, I was a wreck. I hated the world.... feared it. I trusted nobody. Basically, I'd built a bunch of walls around my heart an' my soul. Not brick walls, either. We're talkin' two foot thick, steel reinforced cement with no doors. I wasn't lettin' anybody in. All of a sudden, they dump you in my lap. I read your file an' figured you for nothin' but a punk-ass kid who needed a serious attitude adjustment an' a hell of a lot of trainin'. That was before I met you down in Mexico. The first look in your eyes.... I was so scared I wanted to run for the border an' never look back. I covered a'course, but I knew.... damn it, I just knew I was lookin' at a human wreckin' ball.... somethin' even my walls wouldn't hold up against."

When Hobbes paused, Darien began to stroke Bobby's hair, neck and shoulders with his free hand, silently encouraging the other man.

"There was a lotta stuff behind those walls, ya know? Even as nasty as some of it was, I still felt like I had to protect it.... an' protect you from it. Man, did I try. I pushed you away, pissed you off, called you a snot- nosed punk every chance I got.... anything to keep you at a distance and keep my secrets safe. I thought it worked, I really did..... 'till I looked up one day.... and realized that every wall.... all those barriers I thought were so strong.... they all had this.... huge, Darien shaped hole in 'em. You'd just.... walked through.... like they didn't even exist. I'd spent so much time alone in there.... alone with the pain an' the anger.... I always figured, live that way, die that way.... an' I was okay with it. Then... you were there..... tellin' me it didn't have to be.... forcin' me to see that somebody actually gave a damn....."

By this point, Darien had laid his cheek on the top of Bobby's head and was valiantly fighting his own emotions, fearing a loss of control on his part would trigger one from Bobby and the most vital piece of the story, the one he felt Hobbes desperately needed to speak, might never come out.

"Now, I know I just said you broke through all my walls, but that ain't totally true. There's a couple even *I* didn't get through 'till last summer. That's the reason I did the lunch session with Doc Mason. She makes tapes of all our sessions an' just in case this got too hard for me.... I wanted copies of the specific sessions.... so you'd be able to hear what I couldn't say. Don't expect to hear about both of these horror shows tonight. One's gonna be hard enough.... I just.... I hope you can understand.... I didn't want you to have to break this one down. I trust you... like I never trusted anybody. I wanna open this wall up for you...."

When he felt Darien nod a little against his scalp, Bobby drew a deep, slow breath, expelled it and continued.

"You've told me more than once that you were convinced I was born salutin' and quotin' military regs. You were closer to the truth than you ever knew. I've always been a.... straight arrow, I guess. It hasn't always been a good thing. Back.... back in college.... it got me in trouble.... trouble that stuck with me a hell of a lot longer than my classes ever did. It was early spring.... '79 I think. We were on an ROTC bivouac out in some national forest somewhere.... about a dozen of us, just sittin' around flappin' our gums one night. I guess maybe a couple of the guys.... they just got tired a'me pushin' the rulebook at 'em all the time. They decided to... loosen me up. One of 'em, I never did find out who, slipped some LSD in my food. What they didn't know was that at nineteen I already had an ulcer.... an' I'd just taken a dose of my meds. The two drugs.... they didn't exactly play nice together.... an' my system kinda.... went berserk.. The docs told me later that what happened... it was a one in a million shot. They didn't think it could ever happen to anybody else.... lucky me, huh?"

Slowly, imperceptibly, Darien slid his other arm around Bobby's chest as well, hoping to increase his love's sense of safety while not disturbing the flow of his thoughts.

"Anyway, I ran off into the woods. I was so confused..... scared outta my mind. The one guy who tried to stop me.... they said I beat him down pretty bad.... I don't remember it. I.... I was missin' for almost forty-eight hours before they found me. The paramedics... they said I was havin' a Grand Mal seizure.... For a long time the whole two days was a blank. It wasn't 'till later that the memories started showin' up.... as flashbacks, ya know? Brutal nightmares.... By that time I was already with the feds. I tried to hide it, make out like I was okay. 'Sure, I'm sleepin' fine. Nah. Nothin's wrong. I'm doin' great.' If anyone had really looked at me, they'd have known I was lyin'.... Doc Mason thinks maybe that's where the paranoia started. I was tryin' so hard to be normal.... to hide what was goin on. I got to thinkin' everybody knew.... that any minute somebody was gonna grab me, throw me in a hospital..... an' I'd never see the outside world again. Eventually, I had an episode in front of somebody else.... on assignment, yet. It was bound to happen, I guess. That forced me into therapy.... which saved my mind and my life even if it ended up costin' me my rep an' my job. I... I haven't had a flashback in... wow, four years. Man, it seems a lot longer. I still have the memories.... an' a nightmare once in a while. That an' the paranoia are probably gonna be with me forever.... but mostly.... I'm okay, now."

Sensing the tale was finished, Darien leaned in close to Bobby's ear and whispered, his tears falling gently on the other's shoulder.

"I love you so much. Thank you. Look.... I have something to ask you. I wasn't sure before, but now.... I know it's right. Damn.... how am I supposed to say this?"

"You're afraid a'what I'll say?"

"Not really. I'm more afraid you'll laugh if I put this wrong.... Robert Hobbes. Will you stand at my side, in front of Claire and Eberts, and make a commitment to me, to our child and to our love?"

Stunned, Bobby closed his eyes and reached a hand back, searching for and eventually finding Darien's face, using the slightly rough texture of the other man's cheek to ground himself. As in the ultrasound room, it did no good, but he rejoiced in the fact that this time his urge was not to run, but to shout his delight to the world. At first his heart beat erratically then it began to race frantically and for several seconds he was sure Darien was going to have to call an ambulance. Only when his emotions had calmed a little was he able to speak.

"It won't be legal.... but why do I think you couldn't care less?"

" 'Cause neither do you. It can only make everything easier. No license.... no blood test to worry about. Legal hell.... as long as it's real. And we both know it's real...."

An ear to ear smile spreading over his face, Bobby tilted his head back and produced a smothered laugh and a request.

"Ask me again."

{.... three years ago I couldn't conceive of ever asking anybody this question. Now... I'm putting everything I am in his hands.... I feel like I'll die on the spot if he says no....}

"Bobby Hobbes, will you marry me?"

{.... and to think that three years ago I never wanted to hear those words again.... Now.... everything comes down to this.... if he's playing me I'll die....}

"Absotively, posolutely..... yes, I'll marry you. Name the place, name the time."

Picking up the glass of juice he'd left sitting on the coffee table nearly an hour before, Darien lifted it so Bobby could see it and made a toast.

"Here's to... hearts being healed.... walls being broken down.... and the most incredible love I've ever known being mine forever."

"To love...." Bobby echoed quietly, accepting a small sip from the glass when Darien offered it. Darien took his own swallow of the sweet, warm liquid, then replaced the glass on the table. The two remained huddled together, silent, content to simply be close to each other until Bobbi, sensing their joy, demanded an invitation to the love-fest and dinner, in that order.

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