The Reality of Fantasy
Jim returned to the world with a start. He blinked in the dimness and flailed underneath the covers until he was able to poke his head out. Things were oddly quiet – he couldn't hear the hum of the refrigerator, which usually rumbled loudly enough to be heard through the entire apartment.
A rapping noise thumped its way through Jim's mental fog – was someone... knocking? The noise repeated, much longer and more erratic. He heard a tinny voice call his name. The hell?
Jim padded to the living room, scratching his belly and trying to remember what day it was. The knocking began anew, and was threatening to become the absurd thunderous knock of that stupid old woman. "Yeah, yeah," he yawned, and pulled the door open.
Leonard stood there, looking exasperated. "Don't you answer your... uh..." Leonard trailed off as his gaze drifted southward. Jim waited patiently, until it occurred to him that he was unusually chilly in some... interesting places.
"Sorry. Just woke up." Jim stood aside to let Leonard in, and caught sight of his television – or, rather, the remains of the television. Wednesday's insanity came rushing back, and Jim suddenly felt very aware of his nakedness. He grabbed his jacked from the couch and fisted it to himself. "What are you doing here?"
Leonard looked confused. "I thought... don't you work today?"
Jim shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah. I..." Jim hadn't gotten as far as working out how he was going to get to work when he'd collapsed in bed the night before. He was too busy reliving the drama of his teenage years to actually be practical about his assumed situation. He tried to work it out right then and there, but the idea made his head hurt. Instead, he turned his attention to the fact that Leonard was acting like nothing unusual had happened. "The way you took off yesterday, I thought you were done with me."
Leonard looked even more confused for a moment, but then his face turned bright pink. He turned away and picked at some imaginary lint on his jeans. He mumbled something, but Jim couldn't quite make out what it was he'd said. "What was that?"
"I said I don't remember what I said or did last night," Leonard said, just a little too loudly. He cleared his throat. "I'm, ah, sorry if I did something I shouldn't have."
Part of Jim wanted to slug Leonard right in the mouth. Seriously? Don't remember? How could you not remember some shit like – Jim stopped himself before the words could slip out and make an even bigger mess of their friendship. There was another, bigger part of Jim that wanted to make all of the nastiness go away, to sling an arm around Leonard's weighted shoulders and promise that all was forgiven and forgotten. Leonard was there, and he didn't have to be, and it was a good thing that Jim hadn't given into his adolescent dramatics, because boy, would that be an embarrassing epitaph.
Jim decided to compromise with himself. He held his hand out, just as Chris had done the day before. "Forget about it," he said wryly. Leonard looked at the hand warily, but he shook it firmly, and held onto it a little longer than was strictly necessary. "I, uh, need that, Leonard. Gotta get dressed, you know."
Leonard grunted an apology and snatched his hand away as if the contact suddenly burned. Jim snorted and headed for the bedroom. "No coffee today, man," he called from his room, pulling the door shut behind himself. "I'm terrified to plug the coffeemaker back in. It might kill me."
Jim could hear Leonard chuckle through the door. "That's fine. We'll stop at a drive thru and pick up a couple. Why would your coffeemaker try to kill you?"
Jim pulled on the first pair of jeans he could find and opened his bedroom door again. To his surprise, Leonard was not still in the living room, but had come into the hallway to lean against the wall. Leonard looked at Jim with his usual ever-amused little half smile, but the look on his face changed when he saw Jim's current state of undress. Where opening the front door completely in the buff had apparently been baffling, opening the bedroom door with no shoes, no shirt, and a belt that was only half threaded through the loops seemed... engaging. Jim was used to receiving such looks in public, and was very used to inviting such looks in his bedroom, but he was not used to seeing them on Leonard. His face warmed slightly, and he returned to the closet, trying to get away from the hungry look on Leonard's face. "Uh... were you saying... something...?"
"What?" Leonard cleared his throat. "Oh, yeah. Coffeemaker. Trying to kill you?"
Jim reemerged with a shirt properly covering the rest of his body, and began the hunt for his favorite canvas shoes. "Yeah, it shocked me yesterday. The wiring in this place is a nightmare."
"Shocked! What?" Leonard sounded terribly worried. "Have you looked in the law books about that, checked your rights? That seems like a nightmare waiting to happen."
Jim snorted and gestured all around him. "Uh, dude, it is happening." He laughed more kindly. "Well, I shouldn't say that. I like my place, I really do. It has its perks. It just also has its downsides, and man, are they down." He found his shoes hiding underneath the bed, and shoved his feet in them. "Yuck. I need to clean up under there."
Leonard got down on his knees beside Jim and peered under the bed. "Clean... There's nothing under here."
Jim blinked and moved his foot closer to Leonard's face. "It's dirty! Dusty, anyway." He sighed and picked a bit of lint off his shoe. "Man, this whole no-car thing has really fucked with my routine. I hate having a dirty bedroom."
Leonard put his hand under the bed, swept around under it, and pulled it back out. "This is dusty?" His hand had a fine layer of dust on the palm. "You're really fucking obnoxious. And what about the mess in your living room? You can't have a 'dirty' bedroom, but you can have a busted television in the front room of your home, with all the glass hanging out all over the place?"
Jim twitched. "Yeah, that... yeah. I'll deal with that shit tonight."
"Actually," Leonard said slowly, "you'd better pack a change of clothes. I don't work tomorrow, so I thought you could just crash at my place."
"Oh." That seemed a little extreme to Jim – why spend the night? They weren't girls in junior high, after all. "Uh... how many days should I pack for?"
"Just tomorrow. I'll drop you off at work, catch up on some sleep, come back for you, and bring you home in the evening. I just don't want to drive all the way up here tomorrow morning on my day off, you know."
Jim decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth. "Sure, yeah, okay." He grabbed his old backpack and stuffed a change of clothes in it, heedless of how fashionably correct they might be together. "Um, do you care if we skip the coffee? Because, you know, I really gotta take care of the mess in the living room."
Jim could practically Leonard's eyes rolling in his head. "Do what you gotta do, Jim – I'm going to the car."
The day was uneventful, for once. Lunch was at the ridiculously inauthentic Mexican joint a couple of blocks east of the library, and was definitely the highlight of the day. Jim even caved and had a little of the pitcher of beer Leonard ordered. They were friendly with each other, like always, but there was something subdued about Leonard's behavior that wasn't sitting well with Jim.
At quitting time, Leonard seemed even more subdued, more haggard. Jim had half a mind to ask for bus fare instead of spending the night in a strange place, but the thought of sitting on a crowded bus with too many screaming people was just as unappealing. Besides, at least the strange place would have Leonard in it – even if Leonard was being a little bizarre.
"All set?" Leonard's words were jovial, but his tone was flat and lifeless. He looked exhausted. A prickle of guilt needled Jim again. "I'm ready to get the fuck out of here, myself."
"Uh, yeah, I'm ready." Jim followed Leonard to the car like he was being lead to his death. "Are... are you sure about this? I mean, you gotta get up and all that in the morning if I go with you..."
Leonard's laugh was just as flat and lifeless as his words before. "It's a little late for that, Jim. No, it's fine. Besides, if you take the bus to work, you can take it just as easily from my house as you can from yours. Probably more easily, really. No, no, you just get in the car."
Jim hesitated. "I don't know, maybe-"
"Get in the goddamn car, Jim."
Jim sighed, but he sank down in the front seat of the car, and waited patiently for Leonard to amble over to the driver's side. When Leonard was in, Jim leaned over and stayed the other man's hand on the ignition. "I don't know if I've said this at all this week," Jim said, "but thanks. A lot."
The sourness seemed to drain out of Leonard's face, just a little. Still, it was enough to make Jim feel less uneasy about the evening ahead. "Sure, kid. You'd do the same for me."
"I hope I would," Jim said with a smile.
Jim's smile began to fade as they left the library parking lot. They went down the hill, not quite to the street that ran along the coast, and then headed south. Jim shifted uncomfortably – he lived north, right in the hustle and bustle of Los Angeles. This way was taking them deeper into the South Bay – almost polar opposite of where he lived. No wonder Leonard had commented on how interesting the ride to Jim's had been.
There were lots of ramshackle houses stuck between million dollar homes that spiraled straight up for a pathetic excuse of an ocean view. They veered off the increasingly narrowing side street onto the main drag, where there were bike shops and swimsuit boutiques and street cafes ever other door. There were at least two bars and one liquor store on each block, and, despite the fact that the sun was nearly down, about a gazillion people wandering up and down the street. It was like discovering that Hell actually looked like a Frankie Avalon movie. Jim shuddered and leaned back in his seat.
"You okay, there?" Leonard didn't take his eyes off the road, but he sort of leaned his head in Jim's direction. "You seem a little disturbed." Leonard chuckled. "I bet you ain't never had no cause to come down PCH before."
Jim frowned. "I've been on PCH plenty of times. Just... not... down here. I didn't even know it came down this far south."
Leonard's laugh was the most effusive it'd been all day – maybe all week. "Didn't know it came... Jim, it's the Pacific Coast Highway! It's a highway that runs along the Pacific Coast. What, did you think the water just stopped in Malibu?"
Jim rolled his eyes. "Look, there's no PCH by my house, which is north of here, so... you know..."
"You're gonna get real confused when we get to my place. If I weren't dead on my feet, I'd take you east all the way to the traffic circle. Let that fuck with you for awhile."
"...okay, why does Pacific Coast Highway run east, and why does it involve itself in a traffic circle?"
Leonard laughed so hard at that, Jim was half afraid they might wreck. "Okay, Jim, that's it, I'm revoking your California native card!"
Jim sneered. "Man, fuck you. There's more to California than just Los Angeles."
"Obviously, since you've never been down PCH in Hermosa Beach! Besides, you're the one that lives in Los Angeles!"
"Oh, you know what I mean," Jim said. "More than the so-called L.A. area."
"What, ain't you from West L.A.? You fit right in up there..."
Jim wrinkled his nose. "I don't even know what that's supposed to mean, but no, I'm not from West L.A. I'm from Riverside."
Leonard wiped invisible tears of laughter from his eyes. "From the sticks, eh?"
Jim turned in his seat and looked at Leonard in disgust. "It happens to have a rich cultural heritage, and is home to some of the nation's very oldest landmarks and traditions, and a burgeoning film and photography industry. Jerk."
"Oh, excuse me! I forgot, we mere outsiders should never speak ill of the greatness of all things California." Leonard snorted happily.
"Yeah, well, I don't see your ass back on the east coast, man," Jim harrumphed.
"And I don't see you in that rich cultural heritage, either. You're sitting right here in the County of Angels with me."
Jim tried to hold on to his righteous indignation a little longer, but County of Angels was a little too hilarious to not laugh at. Tension thus broken, they wound their way along California's Highway One, past the beach bums and tourists, until the street curved (east, Jim noted) and left the coast behind. A long stretch of major car dealerships rose from the concrete, towering over the pseudo-suburb they meandered through, and gave way to a sprawling shopping district. Jim began to feel more at ease, though he was no more familiar with the area than he had been with the laid back coastal zone.
The finely manicured lawns and shopping center soon disappeared, and in its wake was left some ramshackle motels and tattoo parlors - the other side of beach life. This was more Jim's speed, though he was surprised that the hoity-toity WASPs in the South Bay would allow such unsavory business practices to go unchecked.
They passed a huge hospital run by Kaiser, a sprawling affair that took up a whole city block and a half. It was almost certainly bigger than the Kaiser Jim frequented, and, judging by the way traffic slowed to a crawl, seemed to be subject to traffic rules and street design that had nothing to do with anything based in reality. Then the scenery shifted again, and they were driving through a port town, complete with the delightful aroma of fishy smog. Here, Leonard turned onto what looked like a freeway onramp, which turned out to be a pair of bridges that dipped and soared over the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. The bridge tapered down to a wide boulevard lined with skyrises and twinkling street lights, and a conga line of cars. Half a mile down, and the buildings shifted to small, quaint apartments, two to six units a piece, with a magnificent, if inaccessible, view of the ocean to the south. Another beach town, but there was something different about this one. Not so uptight as the marshlands Jim passed through to get home, but not so laid back as the madness they'd passed through early in the ride home.
They turned off onto a one-way side street packed to the gills with parked cars. Like any other beach town, people were out and about, but they weren't dressed like extras for Baywatch – they looked more like the hipsters in Old Los Angeles, long sleeved hoodies drawn up over sunglass bespectacled faces, an open book in one hand, a cup of coffee in the other.
Leonard cruised for a while, in and out of side streets, around the same three or four blocks in various configurations, until he jerked to a stop and made a wide u-turn from the right hand westbound lane to the right hand eastbound lane. Jim covered his eyes with both hands and hoped like hell they didn't wind up broadsided.
When he uncovered his face, Jim was surprised to see that Leonard was nearly done parallel parking between two large SUVs. "Uh... wasn't there a car here?"
"It was leaving." Leonard finished maneuvering his car into the space with amazing ease. "You gotta be quick about the parking out here, you know? Never any spaces." He turned off the car and yawned loudly. "Man oh man, am I glad to be home. Come on." Leonard got out of the car and sprinted across the street without waiting for traffic to fully clear. He called to Jim from the other side, waving his arm, as if Jim couldn't figure out where the hell he'd gone.
By the time traffic cleared enough for Jim to cross safely, Leonard was gone. Jim trotted across the street to the last place he'd seen his friend, which was in front of a sky blue apartment trimmed in white. The porch light came on, and Jim caught movement in the corner of his eye. The door furthest to the right was slightly open behind its screen, and a light was on inside. Jim hesitated, but slowly went up the step. Just inside the door sat a pair of green eyed tabbies, one fully silver and black and very small, the other white chested and brown striped and ridiculously huge. They stared at Jim as if he were a visitor from another planet, before they suddenly realized that they were sitting next to each other, and began World War III in the doorway.
"Cut it out you two!" Leonard's bellow was clear and loud. "I swear I'm gonna throw both you girls out into the damn street!" Jim chuckled as the threats continued, and pulled open the screendoor. The cats broke up their fight and took off towards the interior of the apartment.
"Leonard? Leonard, you in here?" Jim hefted his backpack higher on his shoulder and looked around the apartment. It was furnished nicely enough, but there were liquor bottles everywhere. A couple of sealed bottles were on a bookcase near the door, along with some large half finished bottles of very expensive brandies, bourbons and whiskies, but mostly, the living room was littered with empty beer bottles, wine bottles, wine cooler bottles, flavored malt bottles, and a couple of smaller bottles of the same expensive whiskies and bourbons. There were also tiny sampler bottles of even more expensive bottles of booze scattered all over the sofa, the coffee table, on the floor, under the desk... everywhere. Everywhere.
Jim thought about the ride home the night before, the way Leonard honed in on that liquor store, the way he caressed the bottle in the black bag while giving Jim the boot. Lunch breaks in bars and cantinas, a bottle of wine for one – a pattern emerged, a pattern that should have been clear to him.
Jim walked deeper into the apartment. The living room was cordoned off by a curtain, which led to another, darker, den-like room deeper inside. Again, there were liquor bottles strewn about the floor, on the little round glass dining table, just everywhere Jim looked. There was a dresser in the room with a few photographs on display – a pretty little round bodied girl with big brown curls and a deep dimple in one plump cheek featured largely in all of them. In the largest, the girl was sitting in the lap of a smiling Leonard McCoy, snuggled up against his chest as best she could, though she looked like she might just slide right off the edge of his knee.
"That's Joanna," Leonard said from the lit doorway in the back of the room. "We set that up just a few months ago. She's gettin' too big to stay in my lap, though. Gonna be tall, like my momma." Leonard tipped his head back and drained a bottle of Corona Extra like it was water. Hell, judging by the bottles all over the damn place, it probably was like water. "You hungry, Jim? I'm in the mood for Thai, I think. Thai..." Leonard turned and stumbled back into the lit room.
Jim set down his bag and followed Leonard into the light, and found himself in the kitchen. Leonard was leaning into the refrigerator, which was nearly as empty as Jim's had been – except there were about three bottles of beer, a six pack of cheap canned beer, and what might have been a large wine bottle on its side on the bottom shelf. Jim was amazed. It was like the man was living another life off the clock. Jim shifted uncomfortably and clamped right the fuck down on that train of thought.
Leonard straightened up after a bit, though he was empty handed. "Hey. Did you lock the door behind you, Jim? Up front? I don't want my babies to get out."
"No, sorry." Jim hustled to the front, where the fighting cats were slowly making their way to the screen door again. "Scoot," he said, nudging them aside with a foot. He pushed the heavy wooden door shut and turned the deadbolt. Behind the door had been a paperbag, full of glass bottles. Jim leaned down and picked one up, turning it over in his hands. The few drops of booze that were left behind in the bottom of the glass were still flowing. This bottle was freshly drained. "Looks like I'm not the only one numbing shit," Jim said softly.
"I'm ordering from down the street," Leonard called from the back of the apartment. "They have the most amaaaaaaazing noodle dish. You're gonna love it – it'll cure you of that damned styro-crap noodle junk you always have."
Jim tried to make himself comfortable on the sofa, but he couldn't take it. The bottles were rolling all over the damn place, falling on the floor, bumping against each other like deformed cue balls, disappearing underneath furniture... no wonder Leonard hadn't thought anything of the dusty mess under Jim's bed. Jim popped up and found a few grocery bags strewn amongst the empty bottles, and began stuffing the bottles in the bags. He'd filled all six plastic bags he could find plus another paper bag, and still had a couple more bottles left out.
"Uh... wow. You... uh... you didn't have to do that," Leonard said. Jim wasn't sure if that was awe or embarrassment in Leonard's voice.
He didn't much care, either. "Yeah, I did." He gestured to the phone in Leonard's hand. "You order?"
Leonard shook his attention from the bags full of glass and grinned widely. "Oh, yeah! Yeah, they deliver pretty quickly. Should be here within the next half hour or so." He picked his way towards the cleared off sofa and plopped down on it before patting the cushion next to himself. "Take a seat!"
Jim hesitated, but he walked around the slightly less messy coffee table to sit at the other end of the sofa. Leonard laughed and patted the cushion between them. "I don't bite Jim, geez!"
Jim chuckled lightly. What the hell was he being paranoid about? A voice in the back of his head told him to keep some distance, that things could get ridiculously messy very quickly, but Jim found himself sidling up to Leonard easily. "This dinner better be good."
"It's gonna be great. You'll see." As if on cue, someone knocked at the door. Leonard leapt from his seat and ran to the front door, gleeful as a child. He opened the door to a small man carrying a large bag in both arms. "Yes," Leonard hissed as he finished the transaction.
Before long, a veritable feast was spread out before them, and the two tabbies were wandering around the coffee table, tails held high, like a pair of striped, misshapen shark fins. "Get the hell away from my damn dinner," Leonard growled, and picked a bit of chicken out of the pile of shiny translucent brown noodles in front of Jim. He tossed it towards the center room that had the actual dining table, and watched the two cats sprint for the precious table scrap. "Damn sharks," he said under his breath.
"That's weird," Jim said. "I was just thinking they reminded me of sharks."
"That's because they're a couple of damn sharks! Circlin' my dinner like there's something here for them!"
They laughed and ate their fill, communing with the ease they'd had before Jim had asked this favor of Leonard. Jim stilled at the realization that their relationship had suffered for his assumptions. It never occurred to Jim that he was asking Leonard to double his commute time all week – the strain of dealing with road rage and gridlock was enough to drive anyone insane under normal circumstances, and neither of them lived particularly close to the library.
Jim must have been silent for too long. "Penny for them," Leonard said, still smiling softly.
"Leonard, why are you doing this?" Jim's voice was barely a whisper.
"What am I doing?" Leonard was even softer, a warm breath on the electrified air between them.
"This..." Jim waved his hand around them, as if that were explanation enough. "This. This."
The corner of Leonard's mouth eased up just so. "What?" He edged closer to Jim, so their thighs touched, knee to hip. "Tell me."
Jim could smell sweet, sticky plum sauce on Leonard's lips. It smelled better on him than it had on the chicken. "I... can't." His voice sounded hollow and breathless to his ears.
"Then how do you expect me to answer? You have to know the question before you can ever hope to understand the answer." Leonard reached up and wiped at the corner of Jim's mouth with the pad of his thumb. "Got a little peanut sauce there..." He deliberately took his thumb from Jim's mouth and placed it between his own parted lips. Jim's breath caught in his throat. Leonard smiled, so innocently. "Too good to let it go to waste, you know."
Jim's skin tingled from head to toe. This wasn't the usual anticipatory skin tingling, either. This was tight, vibrant and hot. He felt like he could have touched the business end of a lightbulb, and the resulting light would be powerful enough to raze a concrete slab. "Okay. Why are you doing that?"
Leonard smiled around the thumb still in his mouth. "Hm?"
"That. With your thumb. Being... obscene."
Leonard put his hand in his lap and leaned back in his seat, effectively breaking the spell. "I don't know. It just seemed like a good idea." He got up and collected the remains of their dinner and took them to the kitchen.
Jim remained on the couch, flabbergasted. What the fuck was that about?
Leonard reappeared a few minutes later with some blankets and a pillow. He set the bedclothes at one end of the sofa and took a few haltering steps back. "I usually leave around a quarter to nine, so, uh, set your clock however early to be ready by then, okay? You need to make lunch tonight or anything?"
Jim shook his head. "I'm fine." He reached for the covers and began arranging them. "Where's the bathroom?"
"Uh, that other door that wasn't the kitchen. My room is on the other side of the bathroom – you can also get to me from the kitchen, either way. It's like a loop. I don't know who designed these buildings, heh." Leonard shifted nervously, and looked away. "I hope you don't mind sleeping with the cats – they usually like it out here."
Jim sighed and shook his head. "Goodnight," he said pointedly, kicking off his shoes and scrambling under the blanket.
"Night, Jim." The light clicked off, and soon all was silent inside the apartment. Outside were the sounds of evening revelers, wandering up and down the street, jolly and probably drunker than they needed to be. Occasionally someone would cry out, and a group of merry makers would erupt in laughter.
Jim tossed and turned on the sofa, hyperaware of the light that flooded the large living room window, of the jovial caterwaulers hoofing it up and down the street, of the cars that whizzed by the ground floor apartment. There would be no sleep for Jim in this strange, unfamiliar place.
In the passing hours, Jim made up his mind to take the bus, regardless of his discomfort during the trip. The few hours he spent trapped in public transit were nothing compared to trying to sleep on another man's hunk of fur covered furniture, and that was no real hardship at all. There was a certain unease growing between Jim and Leonard, one that Jim was afraid they'd not be able to patch up if things continued as they had been. No, Jim would take the bus and hope his car situation would be resolved soon, and they would go back to being... whatever they had been.
Satisfied with that decision, Jim proceeded to toss and turn and fret all night about whatever it was they had been, and whether or not going back would be something Leonard actually wanted.