John Munch absent-mindedly squeezed the small plastic football given to him by his partner - no, former partner - Brian Cassidy on the day he left the Special Victims Unit. He wondered how Brian's first day in Narcotics was going and who his new partner would be. Was Brian being accepted or was he being tested - as fresh fish usually are. Would he make friends, feel at ease, prove himself to the unit? Munch remembered his own first days at SVU and knew that without Brian as a foil, it could have been much more difficult to fit in. Sex Crimes in New York City was a far cry from Homicide in Baltimore.
For some reason the thought of that unknown partner nagged at him, and he wanted to pick up the phone and call Brian - just to check in.
"You need help with something?" asked Monique Jeffries, Munch's new partner. "I was heading out."
"Go right ahead," he answered. "I'm leaving in a minute."
"See you Monday, Munch."
He didn't reply, but sat and fiddled with the football and watched Jeffrie's retreating form, her muscular arms set off by a tight sleeveless vest; Munch wondered for the umpteenth time if she were a lesbian.
Finally, having exhausted this line of thought, Munch sighed and stood up. He was mildly depressed, which wasn't really all that strange but seemed to be weighing him down more than usual. Jeffries was so damned serious; work just hadn't been as much fun lately - since Brian left.
Munch occasionally replayed his final moments with Brian, wishing he had said or done something different. He had tried to make the obviously emotional younger man feel okay about his decision to leave the Special Victims Unit, tried to encourage him about his chances for success in Narcotics. He wanted to make Brian feel better . . . see the hurt go out of his eyes. Munch had been his most gentle, his most empathetic self. But he should have told Brian not to go, should have insisted that Brian harden up a little and learn to handle the tough stuff. After all, Narcotics would have just as many heartbreaking scenarios as he and Brian had faced in their months together as partners.
He should have told Brian he wanted him to stay.
Munch lifted his jacket from the back of his chair and slung it over his shoulder. He might as well go get something to eat. There was a new Russian import playing at the Odeon's foreign film festival, and he planned to try to understand the dialogue without using the subtitles. The show started at 9:00, so he had enough time to find a decent restaurant and not rush dinner.
As Munch walked down the steps, he was surprised to see Brian Cassidy standing just outside the precinct house. Brian had been in his thoughts all day, and now here he was! Munch didn't speak immediately, taking in Brian's almost shy smile and florid complexion.
"Hey, John! What's up?" Brian said in what seemed to be a falsely cheerful tone.
Munch reverted to type. "Spoken with your usual flare for words," he answered. "If that's your idea of a greeting, I'll just say hello back."
Brian's smile wavered, but his blue eyes fastened on Munch. "Spoken with your usual flare for sarcasm," he said in a very soft voice. "But that's one of the things I love about you."
Munch tried not to show his surprise at Brian's comment, but failed. One eyebrow shot up a little higher than the other and he blinked, twice. Brian was now grinning.
"Gotcha' there, didn't I, Munch?"
Munch nodded. "Indeed you did. What's the idea?"
Brian motioned down the street in the direction of Maloney's, one of the unit's favorite bars. "Can we get a drink and talk?"
"Okay," Munch agreed, his spirits lifting. "We might as well catch up on things."
"Yeah. Good idea. Let's catch up."
Munch was very aware of Brian's physicality as they walked side by side down the street. Brian had the kind of distinctive walk that often signaled his mood, and Munch could usually tell when he was excited, angry or unhappy by the speed and posture of his gait. Now Brian seemed to be somewhat nervous, but definitely upbeat. Even Munch's long legs had to work to keep up.
Munch wondered about Brian's comment as they approached the bar. Why in the world would he choose the word 'love' to describe his reaction to one of Munch's annoying (he knew and didn't give a damn) traits? Brian's words often caught Munch by surprise, but not wittingly, he believed. This was definitely different. Brian had something specific on his mind.
Brian stepped in front of Munch and raised his hand, signaling Munch not to enter the bar. "Hey, John," he said, "how about going somewhere else? I'm not up for it."
Munch stared at him. "Whatever."
"Uh, let's go over to your place. It's not that far, is it? We could walk."
Munch sighed. "I'll try to keep up, but let's not make it a foot race."
Brian smiled. "Oh, sorry. I guess I was a little anxious to get away from the precinct. I really didn't want to run into anybody else."
"Anybody in particular?" Munch asked in an arch tone.
"Uh, yeah. Benson. I don't really want to see her right now."
Munch nodded. "Okay. Let's go to my apartment, then. But remember, it's the maid's day off."
Brian grinned. "Yeah, whatever."
Munch forgot about the Russian film and the thought of dinner at a nice restaurant. He forgot he had any plans at all before he caught sight of Brian waiting for him. He walked side by side with Cassidy.
The walk seemed like miles to Munch. The farther they went, the more troubled he became. He wasn't really sure what was raising his hackles, but something about the entire encounter seemed eerily inevitable - like walking a tightrope and knowing you're eventually going to fall off. The only real question is, how big is that net?
Munch hadn't had a real relationship since moving to New York. The move itself was partly to escape old, bad relationships. The closest he had really gotten to anyone was to his partner, Brian Cassidy. And you could hardly call that a 'relationship' in the sense Munch meant it. Sometimes discretion really was the better part of valor. And Munch was into discreet avoidance of late.
They walked up to the third-floor apartment and Munch unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door. He snapped on a light and turned as Brian entered. Brian closed the door slowly and took a deep breath. He turned to Munch.
"Well, here we are," he said.
Munch nodded. "Right. We're here," he echoed. "Coffee? Wine? Vodka? What can I get you?"
Brian swallowed before asking. "Uh, nothing right now. I just need to talk."
Munch motioned at the sofa. "Make yourself comfortable," he said and, when Brian sat down, he started to join the young man. Then he thought better of it and chose a nearby chair.
"Why so glum?" Munch asked casually. "Was your first day in Narcotics that bad?"
Brian looked at him, seeming surprised. "You knew this was my first day?"
"Uh, yes. Cragen mentioned it."
"Yeah, well it wasn't really that bad. Except-"
Munch waited a beat, then got impatient. "Except?"
"Except you weren't there," Brian finished.
Munch took a breath, trying to decide what to say. He wanted to continue to straddle the tightrope and see if he could make it across this dangerous territory, but what would he find on the other side? He suspected it would be more of the sameness of his life - the life which hadn't seemed half bad until Brian Cassidy left the unit.
"Did you want me to leave SVU, John?" Brian asked in that boyish voice that fascinated Munch. Brian could seem so na´ve - even ignorant - while he was really a damned fine detective and quick study. But that voice belonged to a kid hitting on the girl sitting next to him in study hall. It was adorable.
Adorable? Munch stopped himself from thinking. His head spun. What had Brian asked him?
"What?" he said, realizing he sounded as silly as Brian sometimes did.
"Did you want me to go? Did you think I should transfer?"
Munch tried to gather his scattered thoughts. Should he say the thing he believed Brian needed to hear or what he felt Brian wanted to hear? Or what? Should he just say the truth?
"I don't know, Brian," he finally said. "I wanted whatever was best for you."
Brian swallowed, and Munch could sense the emotions just behind those blue eyes. "Uh, yeah, I figured that. I thought maybe you didn't want me to go. But then I thought maybe you did."
"I really didn't think you cared all that much what I thought, Brian. You seemed to have your mind made up."
Brian nodded. "I did. I do. I had to get away from sex crimes. It was messing with my head, Munch! But . . . I didn't want . . . to get away from you."
One of Munch's cloudy thoughts presented itself to his mouth, and he let it escape. "You didn't seem all that interested in me at all, Brian. You were mooning around after Benson like some kind of lovesick kid." Munch was surprised at how bitter his own voice sounded.
"That was a mistake, Munch. I shouldn't have done that. I just had to prove to myself that I was still a man and could be with a woman. And I wanted to be close to someone. Then . . . she didn't want anything but sex. She treated me like I was some kind of brainless dick! I really felt used."
Munch wanted to reach out and touch Brian's hand, but restrained himself. "It happens," he said. "Some men would consider themselves lucky."
"I knew you were mad at me about it, the way you talked to me about 'don't ask, don't tell.' I just felt like a total screw-up."
The look on Brian's face worked like a solvent, dissolving Munch's aloof demeanor; he stood up and walked to the couch. "You were never a screw-up," he said, squeezing down next to Brian. "You just made mistakes that we all make when we're young."
Brian didn't give Munch a chance to reach for him; he threw his arms around Munch and squeezed. "My mistake was not telling you how I felt about you," he said vehemently, tickling Munch's ear with his breath.
Munch tried unsuccessfully to extricate himself. Brian was stomping on the end of the tightrope and Munch felt his balance slipping. The room was starting to spin.
"Brian," he said, pulling back.
"John, I love you! I know it sounds crazy and faggy and all that, but I really do. It's not just because you were a great partner and because you're so much smarter than I am, it's because-"
Brian threw back his head. "Fuck, I don't know, Munch! I don't know why it is! I just know what I feel."
A dark unknown was opening beneath Munch, and he fought to steady himself. He didn't want to fall. He felt sure there was no net.
"Just tell me what you feel, John. Do you feel the same way, or were you just being nice when you hugged me that day? I'm not asking you to fuck me or anything. I mean, not if you don't want to. I'm just asking if you love me." Brian's eyes were pleading. "Do you?"
Munch knew he could control this situation if he could just think clearly. If the room would just stand still for a minute, he could fashion a clever reply - something that would lighten the moment and let Cassidy know this was an impossible situation. He was sitting so close to Brian, he could smell his cologne and feel his warm breath. If he could just manage to stand up and move away, he knew he would be all right.
Brian was waiting expectantly, waiting for that indefinable amount of time you wait before you realize a declaration has fallen on deaf ears and the object of your unwanted affection is either embarrassed or - worse - pitying and trying to find a polite reply. His face showed every beat of the moment, moving from hope to fear to disappointment to despair. His eyes filled with tears.
"Just tell me if you want me to go, John," he said in a voice choked with emotion. He started to stand up.
Fuck this, thought Munch, deciding to jump from the thrumming tightrope. If he landed in a splat, at least he'd go out with style.
He reached out a hand and pulled the young man back down. "No, Brian. I don't want you to leave. I want you to stay."
He said it.
Then they kissed.
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