Beecher/Keller (canon-based AU)
We're all canon up to and including the phone call Sr. Pete arranges for Toby to have with Chris at Cedar Junction in "Orpheus Descending." Then...
...stay away from me...
He barely noticed Pete's shadow cross him as she switched off the phone speaker. Barely felt the gentle weight of her hand coming to rest on his shoulder. Chris' words kept replaying in his brain, over and over, as though if he ran them enough times—once, just once, the outcome might be different.
...turn your back on all this shit...run for your fucking life...stay away from me...
"He's trying to do the right thing, Tobias. For you."
The right thing? What the hell?!
He knew he was wearing his incredulity plainly, because Sr. Pete was slipping into shrink mode now, perching on the edge of her desk, glasses folded in her hands. All ready to explain it to him. Why Chris cutting him off was for the best.
"I understand that you're feeling hurt and disappointed right now. But I think you'll come to see, in time, that what Chris just did took a great deal of courage."
Oh, no, Sister. Not now. Just...no.
"Yeah, well he picked a fine time to discover the high road."
But he couldn't sit there any longer. Couldn't deal with another moment of Sr. Pete's luminous sympathy and barely concealed righteousness masquerading as concern.
"Look, I'll see you for work tomorrow, okay? Right now, I just need some time to wallow in my misery."
Toby pushed himself up out of the chair with effort, still feeling the suckerpunch aftereffects of the phone call to Massachusetts. He wandered numbly back to Em City and sank onto the stairs.
For that? He'd been waiting all day for that? Chewing his nails? Pacing, sweating, beating off furiously to dimming memories of restored warmth? Chris couldn't do this, could he? Couldn't just vanish off the horizon by hanging up a phone.
He was the constant, damn it.
Ever since he'd entered Toby's life, Chris had been the reckoning point. He couldn't just disconnect! Loving Chris, hating him, missing him, defending him, Chris was always there. His physical absence had been hard enough, leaving Toby fighting to find equilibrium in the eyes of a ghost. But now...even that much was gone.
"For a man on the verge of rediscovering his freedom, that's an awfully long face, my friend. Anything you want to talk about?"
Toby looked up and managed to summon a weak smile as he slid over so Said could join him on the stairs.
"I don't know. Just feeling a little disoriented at the prospect of getting out. All this—" Toby sniffed, and waved his hands around them, "has become weirdly safe. I guess Sr. Pete would call it diminished boundaries, or something."
Said nodded his understanding. "And you fear that once set free, you will founder?"
"Yeah. In here, after four years, I kind of finally got it figured out. But out there? I'm not so sure."
"You must have confidence in yourself, Beecher. Trust yourself. To know. Listen to the voice inside."
"Well, what do you do if you can't hear it?"
Toby felt a little bit like laughing at the predictability of the response, but he didn't want to insult his friend. Said meant well. He always meant well. Had always tried to help, in his way.
"I know we haven't done it in a while, Kareem, but... would you pray with me? I'm afraid I've forgotten how."
Small thanks, Toby knew, but Said's answer was a radiant smile.
It was too bright. Even with the tinted windows. Had it always been this bright? Toby shielded his eyes with his hand and slouched lower, silently overwhelmed by the enormity of the world, in the supple black leather passenger seat of Harrison Beecher's leased Mercedes.
Small talk had run out more than a hundred miles before, and now there was quiet Baroque classical on CD and the steady tha-thump of radials over steel join belts on a raised section of the Interstate. Toby stared out the window, watching rural pastureland give way to dreary subdivisions as they grew closer and closer to the city.
It still hadn't quite sunk in yet that he was free. Free. Somehow he'd hoped he'd feel different.
Another hour later, they pulled into the driveway of his parents' house. His childhood home. And as they got out of the car, the first thing that popped into Toby's head was Chris' voice.
...turn your back on all this shit and run. You understand me? You gotta fucking run for your life...
"Son? Something wrong?" Harrison asked, coming around to Toby's side.
"N-no. No, Dad, just tired from the trip," Toby lied, trying to keep the odd quaver out of his voice. Crazy. God, he hadn't been out for one day yet, and he was already going crazy.
His mother came to the door to greet them. Holly was still out in San Diego with Jonah and Margaret. It didn't seem likely that Vern was going to do anything now—now that Chris had taken care of that problem. But they didn't want to get any hopes up until they knew for sure Toby was actually going to get parole. And it was good for Holly to be able to spend time with her other grandparents, and to be reunited with her brother. (Her remaining brother, but nobody mentioned that.)
Maybe, hopefully, in a few weeks, after he'd had a little settling and adjustment time, both Holly and Harry would come home, to be here, with him. For good.
For good? Toby wished he could feel more certain of that. Wished he could feel more certain of anything.
Dinner was stilted and over-polite. It was obvious his father wanted a scotch, but was refraining for his sake. Toby supposed his parents had never figured out that he'd been able to pick the lock on their liquor cabinet by the age of thirteen.
Maybe Oz had been his destiny after all.
The next morning, Toby stood in front of the unscratched, undented, real glass mirror in the guest bathroom. He stared long and hard at his reflection, searching for some evidence of the man he was supposed to be.
In a few days' time, he'd start working at the firm again. Just paralegal shit now that he'd been disbarred. But employment was a condition of his parole, and this would be as close as he could get to resuming his former life.
The suits Mother had pulled out of storage and hung in the closet here were all too big on him now. Four years in Oz had burned away the softness of expense account martini-porterhouse-beer-beer-beer "celebration" lunches, like the one that'd been sitting heavy in his belly the day he drove into Kathy Rockwell.
He supposed he'd have to see about getting the suits altered. Seemed like there'd been a time that he liked getting dressed up all sharp every morning, joking with Gen about going out to slay the beasts. But... in the meantime, he was secretly glad he could get away with an oxford and chinos. Maybe wool was just an acquired taste he'd forgotten.
He sat at the kitchen table with Mother, savoring the ordinary decadence of good coffee, and drawing up the long list of things he had to take care of in order to reintegrate himself into free society.
Check in with his Parole Officer, find a local meeting that wasn't held in his parents' church, look into the process for petitioning to have his driver's license reinstated. He wondered idly if there was some kind of critical mass involved, that once he'd checked off item number five on the list, number seven, that something would automatically click into groove and he would be reintegrated. That his old life, a normal life, would feel normal.
It occurred to him that he ought to want to go outside, but the prospect seemed more frightening than anything else at the moment. Some kind of prison-induced agoraphobia. He decided to add 'shrink' to the list.
Grandmother and Angus came over to visit, and although Toby was genuinely glad to see them both, he felt exhausted by a second long day of not talking about prison. He'd understood it on an intuitive level, of course, but now Toby recognized consciously that his time in Oz was going to be one of those things that Wasn't Discussed. Defined by avoidance. A classically orchestrated Beecher family conspiracy of silence.
Well, wasn't there a kind of comfort in seeing that at least some things didn't change?
Getting ready for bed that night, looking in that still bizarrely clear mirror, Toby was initially startled by his appearance, until he realized that in spite of staring at himself like a parakeet for nearly an hour that morning, he'd forgotten to shave.
He paced around the graciously, neutrally decorated guest room, wishing he was tired. Wishing he didn't feel so hopelessly adrift. So alone.
Finally, he went back into the bathroom and retrieved the long, plush terry cloth mat from the floor beside the tub. Returning to the guest bedroom, he cleared aside an overstuffed ottoman and spread out the mat, facing, near as he could guess, East.
And he prayed. As Said had taught him. Again, and again. Waiting to hear. Down on his knees, his hands in the air. Again. But the only voice that came through, was Chris.
...I'm on my knees and I'm begging you...
Shit, Keller. Me too.
Toby sat up and let out a sigh. Somehow he didn't think this was quite what Said had in mind.
In the morning, Toby neglected to shave again. And by the end of the week, Mother was dropping careful hints that her handsome son was beginning to look a little grizzled.
He spent the next few days consuming newspapers, watching television. Trying to stay distracted. And Sunday evening rolled around surprisingly quickly, filling him with a twitchy, nervous energy. Returning to work at the firm the next day was going to be a huge test. He puttered around the kitchen, drumming his fingers against open cabinet doors, checking the refrigerator, never knowing what he was looking for. What would satisfy.
"Toby, dear—" Mother's voice stilled him, and he looked up at her. Her forehead was wrinkled into her 'I'm a little bit concerned' expression.
"You weren't planning to go in tomorrow like that, were you? I can hardly even recognize you."
Toby jammed his hands into the kangaroo pockets of his zippered sweatshirt. "Uh, yeah, I'll do something with it. You know, I think...I'm going to go out. For a walk. Would you like anything from the store?"
"Oh, Toby, I didn't mean to—"
"No, Mother, I know. I'm fine. I just... the air will do me some good."
Almost the moment he stepped past the front door, Toby felt the oddly disquieting sensation of the universe expanding around him, stretching off to infinite distances. He walked quickly to the all night convenience store on the avenue, breathing deeply with relief once safely inside. He wandered the aisles aimlessly before finding himself staring into the bank of sliding glass-doored drink refrigerators, two units of which were entirely devoted to case upon case of frosty cool oblivion. Imported. Domestic. So easy.
Toby turned sharply and returned to the front of the store. After another lengthy deliberation, he selected a plain green pack of spearmint gum from the count boxes shelved below the counter and smacked it down decisively. The clerk, a skatepunk looking kid of about fifteen, gave him a suspicious lift of the eyebrows.
For a moment, Toby felt a huff of indignation rising. What, did he have 'ex-con' stamped to his forehead? But... he'd been in the back staring at the beer for an awfully long time. Especially considering that he wasn't buying any now. Between that and the beard, maybe it did look like he was up to no good. Then Toby suppressed a rueful smile. Hell, he had been up to no good for a moment there.
Peeking out from a display mounted on the wall, partially hidden behind the clerk, Toby caught a glimpse of a row of oversized comb-bound volumes, covers invitingly splashed with international symbols and regional photographic collages. He tilted his head to get a better view. Autumn foliage, glittering skylines, saw-toothed mountain crags, desert scrub, expansion bridges, no, no, no, bronze statue of...Paul Revere?
"You all right, man?"
"Sorry, yeah. I'll take one of those—" Toby pointed, trying to maintain a calm facade. "Massachusetts."
The clerk let out a bored sounding sigh and turned to get the road atlas,
while Toby dug for his wallet with trembling hands.