Rough Canvas
Chapter Fourteen

 Joey W. Hill

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The small hospital only had two on call doctors. Those capable of walking in had to wait for the doctors to finish with the victims of a more serious car wreck that had come in before them. Fortunately, there was only one other walk-in, a four-year-old with a bad tummy ache. She was being held by her mother, who kept eyeing them suspiciously.
"Because we look like we've been in a gang fight," Thomas muttered.
When they first came in, the nurse had regarded them in the same manner. "You been in a fight?"
"No, a really competitive golf tournament," Marcus had said dryly. Thomas winced at the "fuck off and mind your own business" New York undertone. She'd thinned her lips and thrust the clipboard at Thomas. "Fill this out." It had felt odd to help Marcus do that. His name, medical history. History of illness.
Though Marcus had claimed not applicable and "none" to most of it.
"I shouldn't have let you go out there by yourself." Thomas stretched an arm over the back of the bolted plastic seats, grazing Marcus' shoulder. He didn't want to be rebuffed for hovering, but he needed the contact.
"Let me?" Marcus eyed him from his one non-swollen eye, then closed it. "You my keeper now?"
"Sometimes I get the feeling you need one. Weird, huh?" Thomas shifted so he was sitting sideways on his hip. Propping his head on his fist, he reached out and pushed Marcus' hair back from his temple, rubbing his thumb against the unmarked slope of his left cheekbone.
"I'll say." But the fact Marcus submitted without further comment to the stroking told Thomas how bad Marcus was probably feeling. He snagged a pillow from a gurney and put it between Marcus' head and the wall to give him something to support his head and neck.
"It's not your fault, pet," Marcus murmured. "None of it."
"I should have been there sooner," Thomas repeated.
"It's just a face. Just flesh and bone. When you die, it all rots away." A corner of Marcus' mouth twitched. "Should I be worried? You're going to dump me if I stop being pretty?"
"You're pretty?" Thomas was glad Marcus' eyes were closed so he wouldn't see the war between anger and concern in his expression. "I mean, you're old, almost forty.
Your pecs are starting to sag like my grandmother's breasts..."
When Marcus swung a hand out to deliver a weak-knuckled slap to his abdomen, Thomas caught it. Instead of thrusting it back, he held on, a light grip of Marcus' wrist, his fingers tracing Marcus' palm. Marcus stayed still for a moment or two, then his fingers moved, a caress to Thomas' sternum with his knuckles before he pulled away to switch hands on the ice pack they'd provided for his face.
"What happened to that whole thing at the farm, your argument about not solving anything by being confrontational?"
"This was a little different. They hurt you."
Marcus made a noncommittal noise, laid his other hand on his knee, carefully stretching out one leg. "I think we're going to be here for a while."
"Let me check on things."
"Let you. That's more like it. Need to remember your place."
"Shut up and wait here." Thomas approached the front desk, the nurse who narrowed her gaze at him as he came. He knew he had blood on the front of his shirt.
Probably splattered on his face.
Maybe he should visit the restroom. But he didn't want Marcus out of his sight.
"I told you the doctor - "
"I know," Thomas said. He glanced back, saw Marcus had his eyes still closed, jaw held taut, breathing shallow. "Can he have something for the pain until then? He doesn't have any allergies."
"I can't administer drugs without the doctor's permission."
"Do they do good stitching here? He - " Thomas abruptly pulled out his wallet, fished out something he knew he shouldn't be showing, and slid it across the counter to her. "I know he's surly and unlivable at the moment, and even on a good day he can be like that, but that's what he normally looks like, inside and out." The wallet picture was one of many that had been done at one of Julie's post production parties by a professional photographer. Despite her budget trepidations, she'd known the promo brochure was important. Marcus had been listening to someone, his head turned at a slight profile, dipped a bit. The photographer had reproduced it in black and white and come up with a finished product that was reminiscent of a still of a legendary great, such as Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Rock Hudson.
Julie had given this one to Thomas. He kept it behind a couple of other things in his wallet that didn't get disturbed much. An old video club card, his county library card.
Even so, the corners of the photo had gotten dog-eared from the nights he'd taken it out to look at it in the quiet darkness of his room at home. He laid it on the nurse's clipboard.
"It's not who he is," he said in a low voice. "Not what's special about him, but it's still important. It's...his armor. His way of coping." As the words came out of his mouth, compelled by some instinct, Thomas knew it was true. It protected whatever it was Marcus so steadfastly refused to tell him, to tell anyone.
The nurse gave him a quiet look, reached out and patted his hand. "Dr. Tillman does very fine stitch work. My boy split open his forehead on a rock last year and you can barely see the scar anymore. You go sit down with your friend and we'll get to you as soon as possible, I promise."
Thomas nodded, tucked the picture away and returned to Marcus, whose eyes were still closed.
"Did you offer her sex to get me in faster?"
"Should I have?"
At the squeak of wheels and a lingering shadow, Thomas glanced up, surprised to see an orderly pushing a hamper full of dirty linens stop to peer at Marcus. Leaning over further, he took a step forward, his light brown eyes studying the gash, or so Thomas thought.
"Dodger? Is that you?"
"This day just gets better and better," Marcus mumbled under his breath, so low Thomas was sure only he'd heard him.
When Marcus lifted the ice pack and raised his head, the orderly's face creased into a smile. He looked as pleased as if Marcus didn't have blood all over his jaw and shirtfront, his eye swollen shut, arm gripping his ribs as if he were holding his insides in.
"It is you!"
The nurse gave the orderly a sharp, admonishing look at the enthusiastic shout.
Immediately, he quieted with an apologetic look, clasping both hands over his mouth before he leaned over again, spoke in an exaggerated whisper through his fingers.
Perhaps in his late thirties, the man had lanky dark hair to his shoulders, combed back and held with a rubber band, eyes that were a trifle wide, and a mass of scar tissue around his left eye, which was hidden beneath a permanent patch.
Under his hospital smock, the man wore pressed jeans and a clean striped shirt. For some reason, his appearance gave Thomas the impression of a first grader setting out to school, carefully prepared by his mother.
"Your shoe's untied, Toby."
This from an older black man who approached and immediately flanked Toby with the protective demeanor of a parent. Putting a hand on Toby's shoulder, he compelled the younger man to kneel and begin the apparent thoughtful challenge of tying his shoe. "It's Dodger," Toby repeated.
"I see that. How you doing? Never thought I'd see anyone nail that face of yours." His face creasing into a well-used terrain of lines, the man reached out and shook Marcus' unoccupied hand. Since they were having to shake with the same side hand, Thomas noted it was more like they squeezed grips as long-time friends.
"They got lucky," Marcus said. "How're you doing, Owen?"
"He's head custodian," Toby said proudly. "Employee of the month. That looks like it hurts." He straightened and reached out to touch. Thomas watched, intrigued as Marcus sat still, let Tobias place his fingers with an odd gentleness on his jaw below the laceration.
"I didn't know you two were out here. Last time we'd talked you were still in Boston."
From the briefest flicker in Marcus' eyes, Thomas knew he was lying. And he understood why Marcus hadn't wanted to come to this hospital. From Owen's steady look, he apparently knew it was a lie as well.
"Yeah, well, this was better for Toby. Small town, everyone knows him. He does a good job here."
"Mr. Stanton." The nurse spoke. "The doctor will see you now, Exam One. Sorry, you have to stay." She gestured to Thomas. "You can come in after awhile, but..."
"The doctor has to make sure you aren't the one who beat me up," Marcus finished, giving her an arch look. "Does this pussy look capable of beating anyone up?" The nurse, unfazed, arched a brow. "Well, seeing as all the blood on him appears to be yours, I'd say yes." Her brows lowered. "But I'm here to tell you that I can whip your ass if you don't clean up your language and get yourself in Exam One before Dr.
Tillman decides to make you wait until tomorrow and goes to get herself a nice, well-deserved latte."
Toby giggled. "She's nice, Marcus. Mean, but nice. Like you. Don't be messing with her. She'll tear you up." As he rose, he patted Marcus' shoulder, then abruptly put both his arms around him, holding him. Thomas stiffened at the same time as Owen moved forward, but Toby held Marcus as if holding an egg. "I'm sorry," he said, and Thomas was amazed to hear the man muffle a sob. "Marcus. My friend. He's my friend."
"Come on now, boy. Marcus has to get his face fixed up." Owen's face was full of pain and regret.
Toby shook his head, grip tightening. "Better if he's ugly. Safer." Though he could see Marcus was being gentle about extricating himself, Thomas could almost hear the vibration of his distress. He rose, intending to help, and suddenly Toby turned on him. "Did you hurt him, like Nurse thinks?" He shouted it, lunging at Thomas.
Thomas fell back, startled. Despite his injuries, Marcus was surprisingly quick, vaulting forward and catching Toby by the collar, hauling him back, though he let out a painful grunt.
"No, Toby. No." He snapped it out through gritted teeth. "Thomas is like you. He takes care of me. He brought me to the hospital. He beat up the guys who hurt me.
Though he did take them by surprise," he added with grim humor. His face was white, strained lines around his mouth.
Thomas shot him a narrow look, but the teasing had fallen short. Owen was having a quick word with the nurse on duty, who was obviously getting a little concerned about Toby's agitated state.
"All of them? He beat up all of them? They're all gone?"
"Yes," Marcus said after a moment. Suddenly he looked tired and in desperate pain, for reasons that Thomas could tell had nothing to do with being beaten up tonight. "Now, go on back to work. There are people waiting for you to help them, okay?"
Toby nodded, his brow creased. He gripped the handle of the cart with both hands and pushed it on down the hall, stopping to look back once, his expression puzzled.
Then he turned the corner, disappearing.
"Bed pan," Marcus said abruptly. Thomas lunged up but Owen was already there.
Marcus grabbed it, turned to face the wall and got violently sick. Thomas stood by, close, wanting to touch, help, but oddly restrained by Owen's light hand and a quick, silent shake of his head. When Marcus was done, he was sweating. He lowered himself into the chair, his arm shaking. The nurse fortunately appeared with a wheelchair.
"You may have yourself a bit of a concussion, Mr. Stanton. I think we better take you in this."
The fact he let himself be helped into the chair like an old man, rather than telling the nurse what she could do with the wheelchair, frightened Thomas worse than anything.
"I'm going with him."
"I'll come get you just as soon as Dr. Tillman says it's okay," she promised, but in a firm tone that brooked no argument.
"Marcus." Thomas closed his hand on his wrist.
"I want to get the hell out of here," Marcus said abruptly. He lifted his head and pinned Thomas with a hard green stare that was almost glassy. "No matter what.
They're not admitting me here. I want to go home after they stitch me up, even if I pass out. You got it? You nod and don't mean it, I won't forgive you." Thomas tightened his grip. "I'll take care of you, of everything. Don't worry about it."
"Promise me."
"Not if your life's in danger. If they say you have a punctured organ or a concussion, then tough shit. Get over it. You stay here. Anything else, I'll get you home."
Marcus sat back in the chair. "Asshole."
"Stubborn bastard. Let them take care of you." Thomas had to close his hands into hard fists to keep from reaching out again as they wheeled him down the hall and out of his sight. "Goddamn it," he muttered.
He whirled on Owen. "What the hell was that about?"
Owen ran a hand over his balding head. "Of all the places Dodger could show up, this would've been the last I'd guess. Like Fate, isn't it?" He shook his head at Thomas' searing look of impatience and moved back to his own cart. "Not my story to tell, son. If you're the right person to tell, he'll tell you. But I don't know you."
"He doesn't tell anybody anything."
Owen stopped, his hands clasping the handle. "Sometimes when you lose everything, the last thing you want to do is remember. And telling is remembering. You do what you said you'd do." His dark gaze fixed on Thomas. "If it isn't too serious, get him out of here. Best for him and Toby."
Watching Owen retreat down the hall, Thomas wanted to put his already swollen knuckles through the sheetrock of the hospital's sea green wall. Fortunately, it wasn't long before the nurse let him go back to Exam One. Marcus was stripped out of his shirt, his slacks open in the front. The doctor, a small-boned woman in her forties who barely came up to his chin, was checking out his ribs. A nurse had prepared a tray of sutures.
"Looks like they're going to give me a wrap, stitch me up and then we can head on," Marcus said.
"If the X-rays say so," Dr. Tillman corrected. "You his family?"
"Yes," Thomas said without hesitation. "Is he okay?"
"Other than being arrogant as hell, which I don't think can be surgically removed, I think he's going to be fine. He was lucky." She glanced sharply at Thomas, taking in his appearance. "Do you need medical attention?"
"No. Not my blood."
"He's obviously a better fighter than you," the doctor observed to Marcus.
Marcus curled his lip. "I'm getting tired of hearing that. I was taken by surprise.
They jumped me. He had the advantage of jumping them."
"Mmm. I'm going to go check those X-rays."
When the doctor and her nurse left them alone, Thomas approached the table, ran his hand up the curve of Marcus' bare back. There were bruises rising there from where they'd kicked him. He wanted to go hurt them some more. "You hanging in there?"
"Hanging. I just want out of here. Christ, what a stupid thing to do, wandering behind that place."
"Guess talking to Lawrence really stirred you up."
"Huh?" Marcus gave him a blank expression, then he shrugged, looking away.
Thomas dropped his hand, swallowed the hurt. "Who was on the phone? And who the hell are Toby and Owen, and why does Toby call you Dodger?" Marcus' eyes shuttered. It was a look Thomas knew. In the past it had frustrated him, annoyed him, made him angry. Now, fury just erupted. Somehow, if he'd known more about who was on the phone, Marcus wouldn't have gone outside to a place he never should have been, to hide the conversation from him.
"Not going to tell me, are you? It's okay to slap me down for leaving to take care of my family, but maybe that's because whatever happened with yours is so awful you don't want me to have anything to do with mine."
"Get out." Marcus' eyes went freezing cold, his face a hard mask, the cleaned but unstitched slash making him look far more dangerous. "I don't want to deal with this crap right now."
"I've never gotten in, so how the hell can I get out?" Thomas snarled. "You want me to be your family? You let family in. Knowing they'll hurt you, you do it anyway, because that's what love is. You let them in to hurt you, love you - "
"Leave you?"
Marcus surged up now, coming nose to nose with Thomas despite having to hold his side to do so. "Why should I pour out my guts to someone who considers me family only when it's convenient, which means he's never considered me family at all? You've got a permanent hard-on for me, but hey, join the rest of the world. You're right. Go home. Go home to North Carolina and be everything your family wants you to be." His expression hardened further. "But you better be ready for the fact it will never be enough. Years from now, when you've done what you think they wanted you to do and you're coming home every night to sit in your recliner with your beer gut and your passive aggression drowning in cable, you'll be hating that girl you married. The family you thought you loved. And you still won't be enough, because what they want is for you to be truly happy being someone you were fucking never meant to be!" Venom was pouring off Marcus. Thomas didn't know if it was aimed at him or if it was a poison Marcus was coating his whole world with, but it was all bullshit. All defenses against what he didn't want Thomas to know.
Thomas took one step back, looked steadily at him. Took a deep breath. "Is it that bad?"
Marcus stared at him. Myriad emotions chased each other through his expression.
"Worse," he said flatly.
"Does anyone know all of it? Have you ever trusted someone more than me?" Marcus wanted Thomas to keep fighting, keep it on the level of irrational anger, but Thomas wasn't obliging. And if he couldn't ride out all of tonight's shit in fury, Marcus wasn't sure how he was going to survive it.
"No," he said, sinking back down on the table, feeling the pain in every bone and muscle.
"Okay, then." Thomas spoke after a moment, as if that was an answer he could accept.
"See if you can get that nurse in here and get this done," Marcus said, looking down at the tile floor, a depressing checkered pattern of white and green illuminated far too much by the fluorescent lighting. "Then we'll go back to the house and get you packed.
You're supposed to go home tomorrow."
"But I could stay..."
"No." Marcus shook his head. "We said the week. You needed to go back by the weekend. Tomorrow's Saturday. You need to go."
"You want me to go."
The hurt was there. Marcus thought the agony of it, joining the pain in his ribs, was going to squeeze the life from him. He needed Thomas to go now. Not tomorrow, this minute.
"You've got a great start on some excellent pieces," he managed. "Take them home, finish them, let me know when you think you can estimate a completion date. I'll get them picked up and brought to New York - "
Thomas planted his feet between Marcus' braced ones and startled him by catching his face in both hands, tilting it up so Marcus was forced to look him in the eye.
The position crowded him. With his ribs throbbing, there wasn't much he could do to shake Thomas off. God, those artist's hands touching his face, Thomas' expression unsmiling, the dark eyes searching Marcus'. His thumb traced the cut, then moved down over Marcus' bottom lip. When his hip brushed the inside of Marcus' thigh, it was too tempting not to put his hands on Thomas' waist, his hips, draw him forward.
He couldn't fuck a Cabbage Patch doll right now, let alone Thomas, but that wasn't what he wanted anyway. His hands were holding onto Thomas' waist much too tightly, almost violently digging in to his shirt. Almost like Thomas had clutched him, that day Marcus had come to see him at the hardware store.
His arms were rigid bands of muscle as Thomas ran his hands down them, moved just an inch or two closer. It freed Marcus' head to go where it would and he was tired, tired enough to let it fall forward, just barely brushing Thomas. He wanted...but he wouldn't move forward any further. He felt as if he moved at all, he'd break. Thomas closed the gap, that one last step forward, then Marcus' forehead rested solidly in the middle of Thomas' chest. Marcus could feel Thomas' heartbeat through the throbbing of his own skull.
He drew in a breath, looking down at the slope of Thomas' abdomen, the thighs that looked so damn good in jeans, the curve of his cock beneath the zipper. Shoes with socks. Size twelve, wide. Thomas' hands stroked his hair, curled over his head.
Bending, he brushed his lips on the crown of Marcus' head.
"I don't want you to go," Marcus muttered. His hands tightened as if he could hold Thomas with just his touch.
This was the root of it. The fight, the anger, the memories of family. It was all about Thomas leaving.
Thomas propped his chin on Marcus' skull, overlapped his arms around his back, holding him loosely. "We knew it would suck, didn't we?"
"If I could stay, if it was only about what I wanted, I'd stay until you got tired of me and kicked me out. I swear it."
Marcus closed his eyes, breathed him in. For Thomas' wellbeing, he should let him go. Just let go.
"Okay?" When Marcus didn't answer, just sat there, breathing in everything that was Thomas, Thomas sighed, held his tense body closer. He rubbed Marcus' back, easy, caring strokes.
His steadying touch and presence were like a carefully timed release valve, allowing some of the pressure to dissipate so Marcus could breathe. Even when the doctor came back to report the X-rays were clean, he found he couldn't bring himself to draw back, let go.
Not until he had no other choice.