A Prescription for Love

by shukyou (主教)
illustrated by iron eater

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/245760.html)

Jack Johnson, M.D., lowers the personnel file and narrows his eyes. He doesn’t like the man standing before him, the new face in the familiar hospital family. He’s young and handsome, what Jack was maybe fifteen, maybe twenty years ago. The young man sticks out his hand and introduces himself with a Mexican accent, thick enough to be exotic but not thick enough that Middle America can’t understand him: “Mariano Julio Vasquez, pleased to meet you.”

Jack’s face is defiant, his jaw set, his nostrils flared — but he’s a professional, and he’ll behave accordingly. “You’ll call me Dr. Johnson here,” says Jack, shaking Mariano’s hand with a measure of contempt. He lets show just how much he dislikes this arrangement.

Mariano’s young face looks troubled, but he doesn’t back down. “Of course, Doctor Johnson,” he says, pronouncing doctor with lilting emphasis on the second syllable. “I look forward to learning a great deal from you.”

“Well,” says Jack, looking down the six-inch height difference between them with his steely blue gaze, “even I’ll admit you come highly recommended. But this isn’t Mexico City. We do things differently around here. You’ve impressed some other people, to be sure, but that’s a far cry from impressing me.”

[Episode #1.4921, September 13, 1972]

~*~

Roger’s first morning on the set was a dull, angry September Monday, and to Terry’s eternal embarrassment, his first clear thought connected to his new co-worker was to wonder who’d given one of the janitors a copy of the script. Sitting on the edge of one of the sets as he thumbed through the pink pages, Roger looked unassuming in grey-blue scrubs that (Terry reminded himself later, in a piss-poor attempt salve his liberal conscience) weren’t many shades off from the jumpsuits the custodial staff wore. With his knees drawn up to his chest and his face hidden beneath the curtain of his dark hair, he was just this side of invisible even beneath the million-watt lights.

Terry had no time for wondering about incongruities on the set; he had to get to makeup. He sat quietly in his chair as Melinda dusted bronzer onto his face and brushed in wisps of grey back from his temples, listening to her chatter on about her children, of whom he was very fond, though he’d met them perhaps a dozen times total in the decade or so they’d worked together. He asked her questions whenever she wasn’t working on his mouth or jaw, which she answered merrily, and by the time he was ready for wardrobe, he’d forgotten that anything that morning had been other but routine.

As Julian fussed over trying to find the notes that tracked which ties Terry’d worn for the past several months, Herb walked in with a set of goldenrod pages. “Here you are,” he said, handing them to Terry. “Change of plans: thought we’d have the new guy meet you first instead of Donna.”

“It’s that time already?” Terry thumbed through the pages, glancing at material he hadn’t expected to film until Wednesday at the earliest.

“Sets it up better. Get the antagonistic mentor dynamic going, then the love interest. The green one,” Herb said, confusing Terry until he looked up and realized that Julian had been soliciting Herb’s opinion about a selection of ties. “And it makes more sense that he’d meet you first anyway, right?”

It had bothered Terry at first, the directorial practicing of neglecting to distinguish between actor and character even off-set, but like with so many other things, he’d adapted. “Is he here now?” he asked, knotting the green silk tie around his own neck. Herb nodded, and after one last tug from Julian to make sure everything was straight, Terry followed Herb back out toward the set.

The young man from before was still there, goldenrod pages having replaced the pink ones in front of his face. “Hey, Roger!” yelled Herb, and the man lifted his head. “Come here a second.”

As the man named Roger crossed the set, winding his way around cameras and lights and wires, Terry found himself giving a nod of approval. That was one of the nice things about being in television: everyone was attractive and everyone knew it, and no one had to hide that they knew it, regardless of the circumstances. Though a little shorter and a little swarthier than Terry was used to in his co-stars, Roger was as handsome a man as had ever stepped onto the set of A Prescription for Love. Before Herb could even start the introduction, Roger held out his hand. “Mr. Simon, an honor to meet you. Roger Medina.” He had a sweet tenor voice with just the faintest hint of an accent, clearest when he said his own surname.

Terry took and shook his hand. “Please, just Terry,” he said with a smile. This was getting curiouser and curiouser by the minute.

“Roger’s come to us from some Mexican soap, Las, uh–” Herb frowned, visibly racking his brains for a phrase in a language he didn’t speak.

Las Tres Familias de Hernán Arechavaleta,” Roger finished for him, the Spanish pouring from his tongue with fluent grace.

“Well, welcome,” said Terry, hoping his politeness would cover how he’d never heard of it before. “You need anything, let me know.”

“Thank you,” said Roger, his expression sweet and sincere. He’d seemed so diminutive before, but when he smiled, Terry could see why this had been the man the network had picked to get new, young, female eyes turned back to the show. An unconventional choice, to be sure, but unconventional was all the rage, and Latin Lovers really got ladies’ blood boiling — or so he’d been told. Well, it’d been over a month since their former heartthrob Tom had left the show for Tinseltown, and Terry wasn’t going to protest this piece of eye candy as his replacement.

Herb clapped them both on their backs, a father giving his approval to a fine match. “Well, I’ll leave you two to get acquainted while we’re still setting up. Oh! Terry, I almost forgot, but Esther wants to know if she should bring potatoes or greens on Saturday.” Before Terry could answer, Herb turned to Roger. “Terry’s got these get-togethers he does every so often, and my wife insists it’s only polite to bring a side, since Terry here’s got no wife to help him with the cooking.”

Sometimes Terry wondered what it was like to be Herb, to bluster through life in a way that had no concept of such a thing as an awkward situation, and therefore to be unable to tell when he’d created one for others. “Potatoes, yes, that’d be lovely. Would you like to come?” he asked Roger, before the lack of invitation could become uncomfortable. “I promise, you needn’t bring anything but yourself.”

“Well, that’s settled,” said Herb, before wandering off to do whatever it was directors needed to do before the cameras started rolling; Terry did his best not to care too much about what happened behind the lens, as it seemed that way lay only madness.

Roger looked at Herb’s retreating form, then back at Terry, his dark eyes lined ringed with the worry lines of the young, the ones that would fade without a trace. “I appreciate what he’s trying to do, but please tell me if I’m creating a problem, and I promise, I’ll have to call my mother or wash my hair or something else on Saturday night, no hard feelings at all.”

Right then and there, Terry decided he liked the new guy for more than just his extremely pretty face. He gave his best, most charming smile, the one that had won him his first ad campaigns over two decades previous. “The more the merrier.”

~*~

Mariano flinches as the door to Jack Johnson’s office slams shut with more force than is perhaps strictly necessary, enough to make the framed diplomas hung on the wall rattle with impact. Jack raises a finger and points it straight at the younger man’s face. “That is the last time you contradict me in front of a patient, do you understand?”

Though he’s been rock-steady until now, when confronted by the furious senior doctor in such close quarters, Mariano’s confident facade begins to crumble. And yet, he’s a proud man, one not prone to conceding defeat when he still believes he’s right. “If he’d taken that combination of drugs, Mr. Simms would have died,” cowed but steady.

“So tell me that after.” Jack points toward the door. “Pull me aside, tell me I’m needed for a second opinion on another patient, pretend my wife is on the phone for me — I don’t care! In the hallway, fine. In the locker rooms, fine. In my own office, fine. In another patient’s room, fine! But never — not ever — in front of the patient.”

“But you were wrong,” Mariano says.

It’s a blow to Jack’s own pride, but he’s seen doctors get so calcified that they wouldn’t even have accepted a second opinion from God, and he’s a stubborn old fool, but he’s not there yet. “I don’t care,” he says, his voice softer now but no less intense for the change in volume. “Joe Simms’ entire recovery depends on his believing I’m never wrong. He cannot second-guess me. If he gets into his head that little seed of an idea, that little germ that says maybe, maybe I’m wrong? He’s as good as dead anyway.”

Mariano throws up his hands in disgust. “That is the most arrogant, self-involved thing I’ve ever heard–”

“And you had better learn it too,” interrupts Jack, stepping into Mariano’s personal space and using his height advantage to loom authoritatively. “You are the closest thing some of these people will ever see to God. Reality doesn’t matter. It’s all about appearance.”

Opening his mouth, Mariano readies a response, but he’s interrupted again, this time before he can even speak, by a blonde figure who comes rushing through the door in nurse’s whites. “Doctor Johnson, Doctor Vasquez,” she says, holding her hand to her ample chest as she catches her breath. “Come quickly! Mr. Simms has taken a turn for the worse!”

The doctors remain fixed in place for a moment, just long enough for Jack to give Mariano a look that says I told you so in any language, then sprint off together toward the bedside of their kind-hearted but ultimately doomed patient.

[Episode #1.5025, April 8, 1973]

~*~

The dozen or so cast and crew around the table applauded as Terry put the cake down in the middle of the table, and Terry gave a polite bow as he cut through all seven chocolate layers to carve out the inagural slice. “Why, Terry,” said Donna, with a wry smile on her face, “you must tell me your recipe.”

“Oh, of course.” Terry placed a fork across the top of the plate and handed it to her. “It’s very simple. Been in the family for generations. Two eggs, half a cup of oil, a cup of flour, and then throw that all away and drive to West Third and Fairfax.” Everyone around the table laughed at the joke except for Roger, who laughed at everyone else’s laughing at the joke; Terry took pity on him and handed him the next slice. “Have you ever been to Du-par’s, Roger?”

Roger shook his head. “Can’t say I have,” he said, staring at the mounds of chocolate buttercream frosting now before him.

“Such a shame!” Esther patted Herb’s hand as she spoke. “You absolutely have to go sometime. Their banana cream pies are divine, just divine.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Roger, who got an almost deer-in-headlights quality about him whenever women spoke, especially firecrackers like Donna and whirlwinds like Esther. Since his arrival on the show, he’d been a regular guest at Terry’s occasional get-togethers, where he spent almost every meal in relative silence, speaking mostly when spoken to and asking questions only when the answers were of immediate relevance to his own life. Terry thought Roger couldn’t possibly be enjoying himself like this, but every time Terry presented another invitation, Roger responded with another energetic yes.

Over cake and sherry, the conversation grew louder and even more ribald, until Steve, the only cast member who’d been on the show longer than Terry himself, topped everyone else by bringing out the story of a very short-lived guest star. “I’m not naming names,” Steve said time and again, then proceeded to tell everything about the woman but her name as he set up the tale. Terry bit the inside of his cheek to keep from reaching over and throttling Steve just to make him stop, but he wasn’t enough of a star that he could get away with murder, so he sat back and sipped his sherry and smiled as though he weren’t dreading the punchline.

With enough sugar and alcohol in him, Steve told the tale in double time, sweeping straight to the meat of it: “All week, she’s been asking various people about Terry: what books does he like? what’s his favorite meal? does he have a sweetheart? Things like that. But she doesn’t ask the same person twice, so none of us puts it together until one evening, after we wrap shooting, I turn down the hall and see Terry coming back out of his dressing room all quick-like, white as a sheet, and he says– Well, tell them what you said to me, Terry!”

Terry, having seen this coming, was prepared for his cue. “I said to you,” he recalled with the greatest dignity he could possibly muster, “excuse me, Steven, but can you help Miss We’re-Not-Naming-Names, as she seems to have wandered into my dressing room and misplaced all her clothes.”

That brought the house down, so to speak. Even though Steve had told that story what seemed to Terry like a million times, everyone around the table erupted in laughter — everyone, again, except Roger, who had the same affected, sympathetic laugh as before. Terry felt none of his earlier compunction to explain. Herb literally slapped his knee as he laughed and coughed out, “Too bad nobody told her before that she was barking up the whole wrong tree!” That brought forth another gale of drunken laughter, and Terry joined in so as not to seem too self-important to be able to laugh at himself.

The party wrapped up not long after that, with the late hour cited and apologies made and taxis called as necessary. Guests left in a swarm of kisses and handshakes, creating such a blur of activity that it was not until he shut the front door and locked it behind him that Terry realized that while he’d let a dozen people in earlier, he’d only let eleven back out. Roger was standing there in the hall leading to the downstairs bathroom, leaning against the stucco wall, his tie undone and his jacket slung over one arm. “Figured I’d stay and help you clean up. I mean, my abuela would have killed me for sitting down to a meal and at least not offering to help out a little after.”

The offer, though unexpected, was not unappreciated. “That’d be lovely, thank you,” said Terry. “I’ve got a girl who comes in a couple times a week, but I still like to get the dishes to the sink and the leftovers to the icebox before I go to bed.” He gathered up a stack of chocolate-smeared plates, and Roger did the same, following Terry’s lead into the kitchen.

Roger and he worked in tandem but in relative silence, speaking only when to ask for instructions or to direct cleanup efforts, respectively. Terry had started to regard Roger’s lingering as suspicious right off the bat, but he’d almost convinced himself that he’d just been paranoid when Roger said, “I was wondering why you weren’t married.”

“Ah.” Terry didn’t look up as he poured dish soap into the waterlogged sink. It was such an open secret among his friends and co-workers that no doubt Steve hadn’t even paused to consider who around the table might not have known. Terry put the grimier dishes in the water to soak; it’d make life easier on Bettina tomorrow afternoon. “So now you don’t have to wonder anymore.”

“And you been that way all your life?”

“As long as I’ve been aware.”

“Oh,” said Roger, and then Terry felt hands grab either side of his face and a mouth kiss him hard.

Terry wasn’t going to count how long it had been since he’d last had sex, because the answer was depressing. He wasn’t as old as the man he played on the small screen, though, and even had he been, his body still would have known what to do when pressed against the warm, eager body of a younger man — and that was to kiss back, despite damp hands and the water in the sink still going and not knowing what had brought this on. Left to his own devices about it all, Terry would never so much as laid a hand on Roger that wasn’t pure family-friendly friendship, so he was glad that someone else was directing this scene.

Roger’s hands pressed up against the front of Terry’s slacks, causing Terry’s knees to go to jelly, and he pulled back from the kiss as he steadied himself on the counter with one hand, leaving the other against Roger’s waist. “Pitch or catch?” he asked, brushing Roger’s cheek with his lips as he spoke.

“What?” Roger asked with a frown.

“Give or take?”

Roger caught his lower lip between his teeth. “Um…”

Terry smiled, charmed by the failed euphemisms across the language barrier. “Do you like to put it in or do you like it in you?”

“Oh!” Roger’s hands tightened against the sides of Terry’s face, letting Terry know he’d gotten the message. “Uh … in. In me.”

Flexible, but only to a point, Terry was pleased to hear that answer. “Then come on,” he said, grabbing one of Roger’s hands with his own and leading him through the night-dark house. It was a small enough place, but it sprawled in the way of most buildings that housed California’s well-to-do, meaning that from the kitchen, they had to walk through the dining room, down a hall, and up a half-flight of stairs to the large master bedroom. Even when he’d bought it, Terry’d imagined he’d live out his days in those walls with no cause to share the space, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t entertain.

He didn’t turn on the lamp; the ever-present Hollywood light pollution filtered in a warm orange glow from the half-shaded windows. Some of Terry’s acquaintances could barely leave a blind open without worrying about some patient paparazzo. There were times, he felt, where the small part of his small fame was something for which to be grateful. With a playful shove, he tossed Roger down on the bed and climbed atop him, kicking off his shoes before his feet met the duvet. Roger hadn’t worn a tie, so Terry stuck his face straight in the V of fabric that formed just above the first still-fastened button of Roger’s shirt, brushing his lips against the black, curly hair there. Roger smelled good, dark, earthy, like some aftershave made of cloves and soil. Terry undid the rest of the buttons, careful not to pull or rip the fabric, until Roger’s chest was bare before him, brown skin framed by light blue silk, teen heartthrob material indeed.

The rest of the disrobing amounted to only what needed to go: Roger’s shoes, Terry’s belt, Roger’s pants as far as his knees. Bare-assed, Roger got himself on all fours and presented his backside to Terry, panting as he braced his elbows on a pile of pillows. Dark hair forested his exposed lean thighs. Terry found the lube in the bedside drawer and began slicking up his own cock, which stood ramrod-straight in the face — or ass, he laughed to think — of such an unexpected treat.

They didn’t fuck long or hard, but they did fuck, which was more than enough for Terry, and seemed like more than enough for Roger too, given the way he grabbed the sheets and moaned. Terry smacked Roger’s backside once, just to see how he’d react, but when Roger didn’t seem to respond one way or another, Terry decided not to do it again. His knees ached a little in that position, but Roger was so good and hot and tight that it was worth it. When he was almost ready, he spoke the first thing either of them had said since the kitchen: “On or in?”

“In,” said Roger, his voice thick with air and his pretty accent. Terry didn’t need any more convincing than that, and he came a few thrusts later, right in Roger’s ass. When he pulled out, a drizzle of lube and semen came with him trickling down the back of Roger’s thigh. He reached around to Roger’s front, out of curiosity more than anything else, and found Roger’s cock already soft and soaked. It felt good and thick, though, and uncut to boot; Terry wished he’d taken the time for it earlier.

When Terry at last lay back on the bed, Roger collapsed forward and took a few shaky breaths, then stood. “Can I use your shower?” he asked, combing back his sweat-soaked hair with his fingers.

“Sure,” said Terry, pointing toward the master bath. “Towels are clean. Just leave them on the floor when you’re done.”

“Thanks,” said Roger, who walked in without further comment and shut the door behind him. Terry meant to stay up to see him off, but there was no way; he was asleep two seconds after he shut his eyes, and in the morning, Roger’s clothes and Roger’s car and Roger himself were all gone.

~*~

Jack sits alone in his office late at night, with only the green desk lamp for illumination, drinking amber liquid from a short tumbler. His tie unfastened, his white coat rumpled, he looks little like the lion that roams the halls during his rounds. Alone, contemplative, he seems almost diminished. Is he feeling uncertainty, even fear? His face betrays no emotion, but surely even he cannot be immune.

A knock sounds on the door, and though Jack gives no answer, Mariano walks in seconds later. “Rachel told me I’d find you here.”

“Rachel,” says Jack with an unkind little growl. He doesn’t respect Rachel because she’s a woman, and despite a history of firsthand evidence to contradict him, he still doesn’t believe a woman can do his job as well as a man. He’s told her several times now that she’ll never find a man if she keeps acting like one herself, and thus he doesn’t approve at all of how she and Mariano have been carrying on. They and he both pretend he doesn’t know about their relationship, but oh, he knows.

Mariano walks in and shuts the door behind him. “I heard the board adjourned until the morning,” he says quietly, dipping his toe into that troubled pond. “Thought you could use a drink.”

Jack raises his glass. “I have a drink.”

“Then maybe you could use a friend.” Without being asked, Mariano comes and sits in the chair on the other side of Jack’s desk. In that same place, countless patients have sat, to hear news either good or bad handed down from the great medical sage facing them. He’s held so many lives literally in the palm of his hand, giving hope and crushing entire futures with the space of single sentences, sometimes even single words. He is the power that drives that hospital, and has been for the past thirteen years.

And one mistake could take it all away.

Jack waits a moment, then takes a second glass from the tray behind him and fills it with whatever unspecified alcohol is in that heavy crystal decanter of his. “I’ve been like God in this seat,” he says, handing the new glass to Mariano. “No, not like God — some prophet, tasked with interpreting the will of God. A modern-day Jeremiah, proclaiming blessings and curses not to cities, but to bodies. Are you a religious man, Doctor Vasquez?”

Mariano knows this is serious, but he can’t help letting a sliver of a smile sneak onto his lips as he hears Jack use his title and surname together, a sign of respect hard-won over sixteen months of practice together. “Yes. I am a Catholic. I go to mass every Sunday.”

“Then next time you go, will you pray for me?” Jack stares into his glass as though it is a diviner’s scrying pool. “And for that little girl and her family. The board will forgive me, or it won’t, and I will lose my licence, or I won’t. But forgiveness is another thing entirely.”

With a solemn gaze, Mariano nods. “I will.”

[Episode #1.5249, January 30, 1974]

~*~

Terry looked up from the sky-blue pages of this particular revision. “Where are you going?”

“Home, like it says in the script.” With a wink, Roger thumped the pages of his own copy with the backs of his fingers. “Though not rushing to the bedside of my dying mother. My sister’s getting married, and my abuela doesn’t travel, so we bring the wedding to her.”

“Your…” Terry tried the Spanish word, but it miscarried on its way out of his mouth.

Abuela. Grandmother.”

Terry nodded, resolving to let that matter of pronunciation rest without any further contribution on his part. On the other side of the studio, two actresses in nurse uniforms threatened to blackmail one another — threatened badly, it seemed, given how many times Herb had cut and re-started the scene. At this rate, Terry might be waiting for his next scene until retirement. “And she’s in poor health?”

Roger shook his head, laughing again. “Oh, no. Healthier than I am. She’d wrestle a bull and win. But she doesn’t travel. And when you’re eighty-two years old and you demand everyone else come to Cuernavaca, in my family, that means everyone else comes to Cuernavaca. And I mean everyone.”

“Big family?” asked Terry, realizing as he did that despite having known Roger for well over a year now, he’d never found much cause until now to ask about his co-star’s personal life. Certainly they’d had plenty of time alone together — Terry still held his dinner parties from time to time, and every time Roger volunteered to stay after and help clean up, and every time they wound up fucking in the bedroom or over the dining room table or at the kitchen counter or wherever their bodies wound up meeting — but conversation had never been a large part of those encounters, either during or after. In public, Roger acted as though nothing had changed, and Terry followed his lead.

“You wouldn’t believe. All over México and California. There’s going to be five hundred people at the wedding, easy.” With a sigh, Roger closed his eyes and leaned back in his chair, stretching his feet out until his heels came to rest on the end of an empty craft services table. He’d started growing his hair out longer since his first appearance on the show, and now it dusted the back of his shirt collar in a way that wardrobe assured everyone was very fashionable. They didn’t make Terry do that, though, because Jack was an army doctor’s son who would never consider such a thing acceptable — yet another easy way for the scriptwriters to make him and Mariano butt heads as necessary. “Five hundred people asking me, ay, Rogelito, ¿por qué? Why aren’t you married? Aren’t there enough pretty girls in Hollywood?”

Terry stared down into his iced tea, shaking the glass a little so the ice cubes twirled in watery circles. “And what are you going to say to that?”

“I’m going to say, oh, Tía Rosario, you look fantastic, did you lose some weight?” said Roger with exaggerated concern, touching Terry’s arm as though he were the family member in question until they both laughed. It wasn’t a good situation, Terry knew all too well, but laughing at it was sometimes the only thing to do. His own Irish-Polish Catholic family had stopped asking him questions like that a long time ago. “And then I am going to drink heavily.”

The confrontation between the nurses finally wrapped, but when Terry and Roger both stood to take their places for the next scene, Herb shouted over that they should stay put a little longer, an instruction with which Terry was only too eager to comply. “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk about your family before,” he said, sitting on the edge of a low prop hospital bed, trying not to crease his slacks.

Though a little smile lingered on his lips, Roger shook his head. “We’re not not close, but we’re not close. It’s complicated.”

“I understand,” said Terry.

Roger frowned at him for a second, scrutinizing him with his piercing brown eyes, before giving Terry a well-considered nod. “That’s something white people say just to say something, I know, but I like when you say it. I know you mean it.”

Before Terry could answer, the lights came up on the set, and Donna walked up behind Roger, lovely in the yellow dress wardrobe had decided would serve as Rachel’s off-duty clothes. Terry turned his thoughts away from them and toward the papers in front of him; his eyes scanned the lines one more time, picking up the shapes of the sentences more than the exact sentences themselves, the way he always did. Terry Simon faded into the background, and Jack Johnson came forth, jaw set, shoulders squared, the last steady point in a shifting world, defiant and immutable.

~*~

The hand that strikes Mariano’s cheek is well-manicured, dainty, and brown; its owner is a face unfamiliar to everyone in the crowd.

Everyone, that is, except Mariano.

“How could you?” she spits at him, stomping her foot. She has the same accent he does, even thicker than his. Even furious, she’s beautiful, her dark hair piled atop her head and cascading down her swan-like neck, her eyes so dark they’re nearly black. “I cannot believe you!”

“Aurelia!” The slap that has pinkened Mariano’s cheek has also roused him from his stupor. “Aurelia, please!”

“What are you doing with this … this woman?” Auralia points one red-painted fingernail at Rachel, whose face is a perfect representation of the concept shocked. Rachel clasps her hands to her chest, crumpling the satin on the lovely lavender dress she’s chosen for their engagement party. She holds a flute of champagne, and Aurelia smacks it out of her hand, sending it crashing to the marble floor below. “I came all this way for you!”

Ever the man of action, Jack is the first to recover from his surprise and take action. He’s too old-fashioned of a man to lay a hand on a woman, but he does place himself bodily between her and the happy couple, crushing the broken flute beneath his feet as he does. “Calm down,” he says, holding his hands in front of him, palms facing toward her. “Perhaps there’s been some misunderstanding–”

“Misunderstanding?” Aurelia shrieks, her eyes brimming with tears. She shouts at Mariano over Jack’s shoulder: “I came all this way to America to find you! I came all this way to tell you.”

Mariano holds tight to Rachel’s hand, still behind the shield of Jack’s body. “Tell me what?”

Aurelia makes another step toward him, but Jack remains fast, and faced with his authoritative stance, she backs down; she hasn’t come all this way to make a scene, but seeing Mariano has overcome her with so many emotions that she can’t negotiate them all. “When he came home to see his dying mother,” she says, addressing the room at large now, “he came to be with me. He told me he loved me! He told me he’d come back for me! He promised me that we’d be married! Oh, you made such sweet promises, telling me of the life I could have here with you! And now–” Her voice catches, and she sobs into her cupped hands. “Now I’m carrying your son!”

And just like that, the engagement is over.

[Episode #1.5393, May 2, 1974]

~*~

Terry hadn’t even planned to be at the premiere, much less at the party after, but once the studios had decided to make a big deal about the connection between the show and Roger’s new movie, the invitation became all but mandatory. He still had occasion to wear his tux a half-dozen times a year, so he kept it clean and pressed, and when he put it on it fit about as well as it always had. He had every plan to show up, smile for the few cameras that recognized him, sit through the film, have a glass of wine at the celebration afterward, and call a cab before the evening wore on too late.

Which explained nothing about why he was on his fourth scotch, sitting on an otherwise deserted couch in the corner of some Orange County mansion, but plans had a way of changing. It was good scotch, though, and as long as it was going to be poured for him, he was going to drink it.

Roger had a date, a pretty young thing with bottle-blonde curls and a shiny silver dress. She was in the film as well, though she wasn’t the love interest who’d been paired with Roger’s character; they’d chosen someone far more famous and married in real life for that role, a woman who ran in circles that never even approached Terry’s. Roger’s date was named Ginny, and every time Terry looked over at her, she was laughing, her pink lips wide, her hands locked around Roger’s elbow. In heels, she was a little taller than he was, something Terry found charming. Maybe they were supposed to be dating. Terry hadn’t kept up with that.

Maybe he should call a cab now. It would probably be for the best. The show was on hiatus between seasons anyway; he could go home, fall asleep, and spend the whole next day rolling around in a hung-over haze. He had the luxury of enjoying the painful consequences of his own bad behavior; he might as well take it while could.

He didn’t realize he’d been staring until Roger caught his eye and gave him a little wave. Too drunk to be embarrassed by his rudeness, Terry lifted his glass in reply. Then Ginny asked Roger something Terry couldn’t hear, and Roger went back to talking to her, then to the new crowd of people who’d surrounded him. It was good, in Terry’s estimation, that all this was happening to Roger. The film had been mid-budget and forgettable, but it had been the first step toward establishing Roger as a Latin Lover of the Silver Screen, a new Rudy Valentino type. Fans of the soap would be drawn to the movie, and fans of the movie might be persuaded to check out the soap. Roger himself seemed to have blossomed in the public eye. There was no bad in this.

Terry had never been in a movie. He’d auditioned for parts large and small, when he’d been younger, but they’d never called him back, and eventually he’d taken the hint and stopped trying. He’d gotten his first steady job on a soap, a minor role as a bellhop in Hotel Tahiti, not because he’d always dreamed of being in television, but because he’d been hungry and just this side of homeless, and ads for small appliances and new cars hadn’t been paying bills the way they once had. The steady job had gotten him out of sleeping in his distant cousin’s garage and into a place of his own, and his work there had given him the credentials he’d needed to make it onto the longest-running daytime series on American television. He’d been damned lucky to have all that happen, and he’d done very well with what he’d got. But he’d never made a movie.

With a sigh, he drank down the last of the scotch and stood on legs that didn’t quite work right. He was nigh unto decade younger than Jack Johnson, M.D., but spending so much of every day in Jack’s skin meant it was hard to remember sometimes that he was still more than a few years away from turning forty. Sometimes, stupid as it was, he envied Jack: married to the same woman for two decades, lovely children, steady lucrative job, sure of his place in the world, respected by society, heroic in the face of adversity, strong, steadfast, confident, a lion in his field–

Ugh, he had to stop that. Too much scotch and his own internal monologue turned into the dreck the soap’s writers churned out on their weaker days. Terry didn’t envy them their jobs, but he wasn’t going to praise them any more than they were worth.

He also had to stop it with the scotch; he was getting maudlin, and he hated being maudlin. When a young waiter came by with a tray to pick up empties, Terry turned down his kind offer to fetch another drink. No, even the heavy-drinking Jack Johnson would have handed Terry a diagnosis of having had enough for one evening. He stood and stretched, then found his way to the nearest water closet, knowing how unpleasant the cab ride home would be if he didn’t.

The driveway out front was cluttered with limousines, but the valet told Terry he’d be more than happy to call Mr. Simon a cab, a courtesy for which Terry tipped him a five-dollar bill. He stood there, thinking on what a pleasant evening it was, when a hand on his shoulder made him jump as much as his drunken muscles would let him. Curious, he turned, only to find himself facing the man of the hour. “Thought you might have left,” said Roger, dateless now for the first time that evening.

“Working on it,” said Terry, pointing to the slow progression of expensive cars. He held out his hand and Roger shook it, a firm, friendly point of contact that lasted longer than strictly necessary. “I enjoyed the show. Your face looks great ten feet tall.”

Roger laughed, though he lowered his eyes at the compliment. “Yeah, well … the movie stinks. Even I know that.”

“It doesn’t stink.” Terry shrugged, trying his best at artistic diplomacy. “It wasn’t my cup of tea, maybe. But I’m not the intended audience, and none of that has any bearing on how you looked good.”

“Thanks.” Roger stuck his hands in the pockets of his ill-fitting tuxedo pants, and Terry frowned. “What?”

“You bought that suit off the rack?” Terry touched the lapel as Roger nodded, and Terry shook his head. “Remind me later, I’ll give you the number of my tailor. If you listen to only one piece of advice ever from me, make sure it’s this: get your own tuxedo. You’ll need it. You’re a big star now.”

Roger’s gaze dropped again. “Not a big star.”

“It’s coming,” said Terry, and it wasn’t jealous or bitter, but a plain statement of fact. “The way you looked up there? You’re not going to hang around my hospital long.”

“Terry, I–”

“Hey, no. It’s okay.” Terry chased any protestations away with a wave of his hand, rushing as fast as he could past the guilty look on Roger’s face. “You looked great up there. You should be being proud, not apologizing. You’ll never get anywhere in this town if all you do is apologize.”

After a beat, Roger shook his head and smiled again, the look of a young man polite enough to know he shouldn’t argue with his elders. “Did you at least have a good time tonight?” he asked, nodding back toward the house. It was some producer’s house, probably, if anyone even really lived there at all.

For a moment, Terry thought about lying; he was an actor, after all, and if there was one thing he knew how to do well, it was lie. But he’d drunk himself to the point of honesty, and before he could consider his answer much, he admitted, “It wasn’t my cup of tea either. But hey,” he added, seeing Roger’s face start to fall, “if I’d rather be having dinner with friends at my house than here with strangers, that just means I’ll have to have you all over for dinner soon, doesn’t it?”

That brought a full smile to Roger’s face, one that lasted only for a second, before Ginny called his name from the front door and gave a little wave. Roger waved back before turning just enough that she couldn’t see him sigh. “I have to go,” he said, taking a step backward toward the house.

“Go on, go.” Terry made shooing gestures with both his hands as his taxi pulled up to the space by the front walk; they both had compelling reasons to be elsewhere now. “She’s a lovely girl.”

“Oh, no question,” said Roger, and only Terry could have heard in his voice that that wasn’t the problem, or even that there was a problem at all.

~*~

¡Feliz Navidad!” With a bright, festive smile, Mariano puts a green-wrapped present on Jack’s desk. “But you can’t open it until Christmas Eve.”

Jack eyes the package with suspicion, as though this might be some kind of clever joke, a ruse to give the staff a laugh at the expense of the newly promoted senior physician. But he and Mariano are the only ones in his office on this bright December morning, meaning that if this is a prank, at best it will be one appreciated in absentia. “A Christmas present?” he asks, though it’s obvious the bow-adorned box could be nothing but. Jack has been quiet lately as the Christmas season has drawn near, and though he’s sure the rest of the hospital staff has noticed, they haven’t asked and he hasn’t explained.

Mariano nods, beaming. Ever since the misunderstanding about Aurelia’s child’s parentage resolved itself with the appearance of Mariano’s near-identical second cousin, he’s been in high spirits indeed. His relationship with Rachel has not rekindled, at least not romantically, but they’ve become friends again, and who knows what the future might hold for the two of them? “Okay, maybe you can open it a little early if you want. But you have to promise to share it with your wife and girls.”

There’s no way Mariano could have known in advance that the mention of his family would have angered Jack, but the stormclouds roll in over Jack’s previously blank expression. He looks out the window, his sour expression a sharp contrast to the sweet day outside. “They’ve gone to Eloise’s mother’s for the holidays,” he says, his voice measured, even. He is nothing if not even in control.

It takes Mariano a moment to understand the implications of that statement, but when he does, his bright face falls. “And you?” he asks, though the answer is obvious.

Jack’s jaw sets and he stares straight out the window long enough that Mariano relents and retreats from the office without saying another word. Alone again, Jack reaches over to touch the shiny green paper. He is too overcome with emotion at the thought of spending the holiday without his wife and three teenaged daughters, though, and he lets his hand fall to the desk, leaving it where it lands atop the piles of paperwork. Though he has reached new heights in his career, he is filled with a terrible loneliness. He has skill enough to fix literal holes in human hearts, but does not know the medicine to stitch his own family together again where it has fallen apart.

[Episode #1.5502, December 21, 1974]

~*~

In retrospect, scheduling a get-together in the week between Christmas and New Year’s had been a mistake, at least in terms of gathering a quorum. Plans had changed, flights had been cancelled, regrets had been made — and yet, Terry had not quite taken full stock of what this might mean for the number of people seated at his dinner table until Roger opened the door and Terry realized he was the only person remaining from the original invite list who hadn’t said no.

Stepping inside, Roger glanced around the room, but no one save Terry was there to meet his gaze. “Did … I get the time wrong?” he asked, checking his watch.

“No, but…” With an awkward sigh, Terry shook his head. “It seems so many people told me at one time or another that they’d be out of town that I didn’t quite realize everyone had told me they’d be out of town. Present company excluded.” Well, he supposed there was nothing like an otherwise empty house to give reason to cut to the chase. “So, perhaps, if you’d want to go back to the bedroom–”

A rumbling noise stopped Terry’s sentence in its tracks, and only Roger’s laughing bashfully and wrapping an arm around his middle helped him identify the sound as the growl of an empty stomach. “Actually, I … well, I got busy earlier, and then I had a phone call about an audition that wound up taking two hours, so … I actually haven’t eaten all day.”

“Well ,” said Terry, casting a glance toward the kitchen, “I did make a lot of spaghetti.”

He’d never learned to cook for one; growing up as the youngest of four children with two dozen assorted cousins in the vicinity, he’d more accurately learned to cook for an army. The sight of the mass of beige noodles still draining in the sink made Roger’s eyes go wide. “You did make a lot of spaghetti.”

“And sauce.” Terry pointed to the pot on the stove, where a vegetable-filled marinara simmered. “I never try to make so much,” he explained as he slid the great mass of noodles into a serving bowl and poured the bubbling red sauce over the top. “But every time I cook, I wind up performing my own loaves and fishes miracle. More accurately, I suppose, it’s that I hate waste. I try to reduce a recipe from six servings to two, but the recipe calls for one whole tomato, and what am I going to do with two-thirds of a tomato lying around? So in goes the whole tomato, and everything else increases accordingly, and when there’s more sauce than noodles, well, into the pot go more noodles so it’s balanced, but then, oh, what if the sauce is not enough–?” Shaking his head as he laughed at himself, Terry scooped out a small mountain of noodles onto a plate and handed it to Roger. “You may have noticed, I’m a deeply troubled man.”

Roger just grinned at him. “Too much food is a kind of trouble I like,” he said, holding out his hand until Terry filled another plate and handed it to him. With all the dignity of a career waiter, Roger spun on his heel and walked off toward the dining room, leaving Terry to follow him with an entire loaf of garlic bread in one hand and a great wooden bowl of salad in the other.

As Terry took his seat, Roger took a bottle of red wine from the rack on the far wall, peeled off the paper top, and uncorked it with ease. Terry couldn’t keep back a smile. “Were you a waiter?”

“When I was a boy, yes.” Roger brought the bottle and two glasses over to the table, then took the seat adjacent to Terry’s customary host’s spot at the head of the table. “My brother-in-law’s father owned a nice restaurant, so I worked for tips there after school and on weekends,” he said as he filled Terry’s glass first, then his own. “We weren’t poor, but my father thought it would be good practice for me. Build character. Put hair on my chest. At the very least teach me the economic value of being charming.”

Charming he was indeed, by any metric and with some to spare. “And did it work?” asked Terry, sipping his wine.

“Oh, I learned, it,” said Roger. “Learned it so well I said to hell with this, if my smile is going to pay the bills, I’m going to have it pay bigger bills. There was a telenovela filming in that part of town, and I went there to see if they could use me, and it turned out the they did. Jump ahead a few chapters, and here I am.”

“Here you are indeed,” Terry said, nodding. He picked at his own spaghetti, constantly mindful of his growing middle-aged gut, but smiled as he saw Roger take giant bites with pleasure. Ah, to be that age again, to have a young man’s metabolism.

“So, you?” Roger dabbed a bit of sauce from the corner of his mouth. “Ever wait tables?”

“Oh, no,” said Terry. “And I’d like to pretend it was because I was too dignified for such menial work, or something like that, but the honest reason is because I was a grill cook instead. Little paper hat and all.” He pointed to the crown of his thick chestnut hair, which had been even thicker in his youth. “Pulling french fries from the oil and dreaming of the stars. It taught me nothing about charm, but everything about how not to cook a hamburger.”

Roger smiled as he took a sip of his wine, but had nothing to say in return, and the conversation evaporated into an awkward silence, leaving Terry wishing more than a little that Roger had taken him up on his initial offer and they’d skipped all the intermediate steps. As Terry at last reached for the bread, just for something to do that wasn’t shoveling noodles into his face, he glanced over and saw Roger looking at him with a gentle, puzzled expression on his face. “Why don’t we talk?”

“What about?” Terry shoved a slice of buttered bread in his mouth with such haste that any talking on his part was taken off the table for at least another minute.

“No, that’s not what I meant, I mean … why don’t we talk? Ever. You and I. We don’t.” Roger waved his hand to the empty seats. “When other people are around, we talk to one another, not to them. When we’re on set, it’s how the show is going, what’s next, what’s your blocking, did you get the new script. But you and I, we don’t. It’s not what we do.”

Terry took a breath to begin a sentence of protest, but let it out in an exhale when he realized he had no ammunition for the fight. Certainly, he could think of a few conversations they’d shared that had dealt with more personal matters, but they were the exceptions that proved the rule, and too almost to short to count; the time they spent alone together in Terry’s house was made of anything but talking. “I think,” said Terry at last, sopping up the oily sauce with a second slice of bread, “that if you and I did talk amongst ourselves, eventually we’d have to talk about….”

After another brief, fraught pause, Roger finished the sentence for him: “Us?”

“Something like that.” Terry drained the rest of his wine glass, and when it was done, he filled it again. “May I ask a personal question?”

“If I can ask one later in return.”

“Fair enough. Have you ever before been part of an us?”

“What, you mean like…” Roger’s fingers traced an invisible line between the two of them, and Terry nodded. “Not really. No. Kids, sure, some of the boys and me, we fooled around, but nothing like….”

“Us.” With a sigh, Terry looked away. “If you had, you’d know there’s … well, there’s not much point in talking about it.”

“Oh,” said Roger, and he let the conversation drop, proving Terry’s point.

In a desperate bid to save the evening from complete disaster, Terry took the conversation back to the show itself, and Roger followed suit, listening as Terry related to him the disastrous tale of failed vacation plans and cancelled flights that had kept Herb and Esther from being there that evening, laughing at all the appropriate points, never steering the conversation back to either of their lives. What more was there to say?

When at last they’d eaten their fill, Roger helped Terry clear the table, put the leftovers away, and wash the dishes. They neared one another but never touched, not even when Terry handed Roger the clean-scrubbed Fiestaware for Roger to towel dry and put on the rack. It wasn’t strictly necessary, as far as cleaning went, but there was something pleasant to Terry about the collaboration. At one point, Roger even joked that they worked so well together like this, maybe they should look into performing surgery in real life as well, and Terry laughed because the thought was too absurd and perfectly plausible all at once.

After drying their hands and taking one more glass of wine each, they retired to Terry’s bedroom, where this time instead of just removing his pants, Roger stripped naked. Surprised, but pleasantly so, Terry did the same, and when he knelt on top of the bed, Roger turned and pulled Terry down on top of him, until their chests pressed together and their legs tangled as they kissed. Roger’s body was small, but he wasn’t slight; he was compact, possessing a mass equal to Terry’s, but in different dimensions. Terry had no problem imagining why young ladies filled the rows of movie theaters again and again, gasping and squealing as Roger’s dark, hairy chest filled the screen, covered fetchingly with gunpowder and sand as he raced along the beach in his daring escape. He also had no problem imagining what would happen to those legions of female fans if they saw their Latin dreamboat in the arms of another man.

Terry swatted Roger on the ass and got up from the bed, and when Roger frowned at him, Terry beckoned him toward the bathroom. “You’ll want a shower afterward,” he said by way of explanation. “Why not cut out the middle step?”

Which was how they wound up a short time later in Terry’s glass-walled shower stall, soaking wet from the warm spray and with Terry’s face right between Roger’s ass cheeks. With his face and hands pressed against the wall and his feet spread to either side of the basin to brace himself, Roger gasped and moaned every time Terry’s tongue pressed against his skin. As a man himself familiar with adolescent ‘fooling around’ and anonymous back-alley sexual encounters, Terry would have bet money that no one had done anything remotely like this for Roger before. He reached up and grabbed Roger’s balls, enjoying the thick carpet of hair that surrounded them, and Roger’s whole body shook. Seconds later, his whole cock began to throb as he came all over the shower wall, coating the glass with a patch of white seed before it was washed clean by the water.

Roger managed to stand until he caught his breath, but his knees gave out soon after, and he toppled back into Terry’s lap. Terry, grateful not for the first time that the low metal shelf built into the shower was sturdy, caught him and wrapped his arms around Roger’s waist. “Are you all right?” he asked, kissing Roger’s shoulder.

“I–” Roger began to speak, but the rest of the sentence dissolved into an exhausted laugh that made his belly shake beneath Terry’s hands. “I could hire you to do that to me every day.”

“Oh, I think I’d have to take that up with the union.” Terry combed his own wet hair back until it lay flat against his scalp, away from his face. “Negotiating overtime pay and all.”

“I think I could make a case. Pressing personal need. Specific services that cannot be rendered by anyone else. Generous compensation.”

Generous, is it?” Wet and warm, Roger’s body felt good to touch, and once Terry was certain Roger wasn’t about to slip off and land on the floor, he ran his hands up and down Roger’s body, up thighs and hips and sides to his shoulders, then down again.

Roger reached behind them to grab Terry’s cock and pressed it to the small of his lower back, wriggling his hips as he did. “Very competitive,” he promised as he ground his hips up and down against Terry’s erection. There was nothing in reach available for more than even the most makeshift lube, and even that the water would have washed away in an moment, so Roger just moved as though he were riding Terry, grinding his cock between their bodies instead of pressing it inside. “Got a lot of men who’d like this job.” He spoke low, his voice almost part of the shower’s driving noise. “Even the ones who don’t know I like it like this, I know, they want to stick it in me.”

Aroused to a shocking degree, Terry hung on to Roger not for Roger’s sake now, but for Terry’s own. Roger’s body blocked most of the spray from Terry’s face, and Terry could see the muscles of Roger’s back move as he lifted and lowered himself on Terry’s lap in gyrations that were frankly obscene. “So, do we have a deal?” asked Roger with a wicked note to his voice.

Terry wanted to say yes, yes, they had a deal, they had a lifelong contract, he would sell his immortal soul for the chance that this would keep happening. He couldn’t concentrate long enough to speak, though, not like this. His hands tightened into claws against Roger’s thighs, neat fingernails gripping for what purchase they could have, and Roger laughed, that son of a bitch laughed, and that was all it took to send Terry over. He couldn’t even stay silent as he came, groaning as his warm semen coated both Roger’s lower back and his own belly.

He’d hardly begun to soften again when Roger turned in his lap and kissed him hard, a warm, wet, toothy kiss. It should have been uncomfortable like this, with his back up against the cool glass and most of Roger’s weight braced on Terry’s knees, but it was so pleasant that even after the initial burst of passion subsided, they kept kissing, and then kept kissing right up until Roger yelped and stood again. A fraction of a second later, Terry determined the cause of Roger’s distress — his ancient water heater was good, but it wasn’t that good, and they’d taken so long that it had given up the ghost. Fighting back a cry of his own, Terry lunged for the faucet and turned off the chilly spray.

They both toweled off and wrapped themselves up in bathrobes, and when they got back out to the bedroom, Terry expected Roger to go for his clothes and start saying his good-nights. However, Roger headed for the bed instead, and without taking off his fluffy blue robe, he buried himself beneath the covers. “It’s … so cold,” he explained through clenched teeth. “I may stay for a little. Warm up.”

“That’s fine,” said Terry, who had to admit, after the steamy closeness of the bathroom, the house was a little chilly — though by California winter standards, not by the Minnesota metric of his youth. Alas, the thing everyone up north had warned him about had finally happened: he’d gone soft. He took off his robe and changed into a pair of dark green pajamas, then crawled into his usual side of the bed. A half-second later, Roger had pressed up close to him; Terry extended his arm, and Roger lay his head on it like a pillow.

They stayed there together like that for several minutes, both awake but keeping their own counsel, until at last, Roger chuckled quietly. “Maybe some point in talking about it, hm?”

Wanting nothing more than not to have to admit Roger was right, Terry snorted and rolled his eyes for good measure. “So what’s your personal question?” he asked, realizing as he did so that somewhere in there, by reflex instead of conscious thought, he’d begun to stroke Roger’s back.

“I’ll save it,” said Roger, cuddling closer to Terry’s body. “Never know when it’ll come in handy.”

“Fine, fine,” said Terry, affecting irritation so he didn’t have to admit how glad he was to have dodged any further discussion. Besides, at this point, he hardly knew what he’d say.

~*~

He looks diminished, Mariano does, sitting there wearing the baby-blue paper gown of the hospital, a white knit blanket draped across his lower legs. The nameless nurse finishes drawing blood from his arm and leaves the room with the vial without having spoken a word to either of them. Mariano looks at Jack. “Tell it to me straight.”

Jack shakes his head, folding his arms across his chest. “You wouldn’t tell a patient anything when you know this little, and neither will I.” He clicks the pen in his hand shut and places it into his pocket with great, calm deliberateness. “You and I both know it could be any number of things.” He holds a clipboard with charts and turns them, reading each one, studying them for some clue that will make sense of this all.

Mariano takes a deep breath, ready to give Jack a piece of his mind — but in the end, sighs and lies back on the bed, careful not to disturb the IV unit strapped to the inside of his elbow. A bright bouquet of flowers has been placed by his bed, and he picks up the small card that sits nestled between the blossoms. “From the nurses,” he reads aloud, shaking his head. “I suppose collapsing in the middle of rounds and being helped from the floor into the nearest empty bed does make people worry.”

“Nurses worry all the time,” says Jack, dismissing (as he often does) the mostly silent female workforce that actually makes the hospital work. He’s had run-ins with some of them over the years, though, and has learned and grown from this incidents to a place where he’s far more respectful of nurses than he was when he was hired here. “You shouldn’t.”

I shouldn’t,” echoes Mariano. He looks at his clasped hands for a moment, then turns his gaze toward Jack. “Then why are you?”

Staring at the charts before him, Jack has no answer to that.

[Episode #1.5621, May 22, 1975]

~*~

Donna locked her hands behind her back and lifted them until her spine let out several loud pops. “You are going to break your back doing that,” Terry scolded her, though the truth was he had no idea whether that was bad for her or not.

“I’ll just make you carry me everywhere, old man,” she teased, kicking his calf with her bare foot. Dr. Jack Johnson was Dr. Rachel McGill’s senior on the show by several years, but Terry and Donna were the same age, giving rise to a great deal of both teasing and camaraderie between the two of them. With a groan, she raised her hands high above her head, then brought them down until she was touching her toes. “I’m starving. I haven’t eaten all day.”

Though he’d taken several bites out of it, Terry shrugged and extended his tuna fish sandwich toward her, and with a glare that could have curdled milk, she snatched it from his hand and shoved half of it in her mouth in one go. “You’re evil,” she said, showing off training that allowed her to enunciate beautifully even while chewing. “Going to ruin my diet.”

“If you get any skinnier,” said Terry, taking the remaining sandwich back from her, “I won’t be able to see you when you turn sideways.”

“Then I’ll just have to get implants.” Donna turned to the side and grabbed her breasts. “Then you won’t be able to see me, but you’ll see them.”

“Charming,” Terry said, rolling his eyes but smiling all the same. The tendency for their characters to butt heads onscreen was the utter opposite of the way he and Donna behaved while waiting between scenes, though not for any great difference between Donna and Rachel. Quite the contrary, Terry had said several times that if he’d known Rachel in person, he would have been over the moon to have her as both his doctor and his friend. As it was, he was pleased that Donna fit at least one of those criteria.

Donna lifted one foot atop a high shelving unit, using it as a makeshift barre as she stretched out her thighs. She’d been a dancer before Terry had known her, and he could still see that lovely, fluid grace in her every movement. “Admit it, you missed me this summer.”

“I admit nothing,” said Terry, though he had. The show was grueling to put on, all-consuming in such a way that when it wasn’t filming, Terry didn’t know what to do with all that free time. He rattled around his house like a lone marble in a cigar box, colliding with nothing but himself. He’d had two auditions this summer, both for commercials, both eventually winding up in nothing but very polite rejections. He wasn’t upset about not having the money; it would have been nice, though, to have something to do.

One foot done, she switched it for the other. “Good for Roger, huh?”

Terry frowned. “Good how?”

“Well, he got the part he was going for in that action film. Sunset Beach or Sunrise Beach or some other kind of sun-beach convergence, I can’t remember.” Donna pulled herself upright again, both feet flat on the floor, knees together, hands clasped in front of her as though ready at any moment to make a pirouette. “He’s the villain, but he’s a sexy villain. He really didn’t tell you about any of this?” She frowned, turning her full scrutiny on his expression.

Terry tried to wave away her concern, though he knew if he’d ever had anything about his face to see, she’d already seen it. “He’s been busy,” said Terry, which was true. He and Roger hadn’t seen much that summer, and when they had, there hadn’t been much in the way of talking between them.

She pointed toward the script in Terry’s hand. “Why else do you think he’s been sick?”

They weren’t talking about Roger anymore. “Ratings?” Terry guessed, though he knew the real answer even as he tried to pretend otherwise. They were on such a tight schedule, they had to adapt all the time; it wasn’t as though they could go a week or two without an actor, filming his scenes in advance or waiting to catch up. Everyone needed an out. Jack’s was his family, a wife and three daughters that had their own demands to explain his infrequent absences from the hospital. Rachel sometimes got called away to teach classes at other local hospitals and speak at east-coast conferences. And Mariano’s had been the occasional demands of the life he’d left behind in Mexico. But now….

Donna smiled at him and ruffled a few locks of hair into his face, just enough that the makeup crew wouldn’t get mad at either of them when they had to comb Terry before shooting could begin. “Well, everything’s for ratings. But you have to admit, it makes for a pretty good emergency exit.”

Terry supposed so. He supposed a lot of things. “Good for him,” Terry said, echoing her earlier sentiment. He was coming up on three years of knowing there was no point in trying to believe that this would be anything but a stepping stone for Roger, one more line on a resume before he moved on to better and brighter things.

With a sigh, Donna sat down next to Terry and took his hand, interlacing her fingers with his. She was pretty, and he’d always thought so — not the kind of pretty that would ever be on the cover of a magazine, maybe, but pretty all the same, with her freckled skin and dark hair; she looked real, which was more than Terry could say for a lot of her thick-painted colleagues. While he’d never wanted to marry a girl of any kind, he’d often thought that if he’d needed to, he could have been happy spending his life with someone like her. She rested her head against his shoulder, careful as always not to leave makeup or hairspray residue on his white coat. “It’s not bad, you know, having steady employment. Knowing where you’ll be next year, and the year after that.” She gave his hand a squeeze.

He squeezed back, though more so because she expected it than because he agreed with her. “We’re not precisely doing Shakespeare,” he said under his breath.

“Oh, please. You’d get so bored doing Shakespeare.” With her free hand, Donna swatted his knee. “It’s the same thirty or however many plays. Every night, Romeo dies. At least here, you’re as much on the edge of your seat as the audience is. Are we going to meet someone’s evil twin this week? Will a sexy new nurse join the hospital staff? Are those two ever going to get married?”

“Is the dialogue going to be as wooden as it was last week?” Terry said with a wry smile, and Donna batted at him again.

“Don’t be mean. They’re under the same deadlines we are.”

Abashed, Terry stared at his hands. On most days, he had nothing but respect for the writing staff and their need to churn out complicated, coherent plots at a breakneck pace. But thinking too long about Roger’s inevitable — and entirely predictable, he reminded himself — departure had soured his mood in a way he wasn’t quite ready to examine yet. “I’m sorry,” he said, and he meant it. Donna kissed him on the cheek, a little peck that wouldn’t leave more than a hint of her dusty rose lipstick. “Did you ever want to be a movie star? A real A-lister?”

With a nod, Donna laughed. “I’ve yet to meet the person who came to this town thinking, you know what? I want to be … an extra!” She punctuated that last word with a comical wave of her free hand. “But I’ve been one, and as long as the work’s there, it’s not so bad.”

Bustling noises from behind the set wall indicated that the previous scene had cut; they’d be winding their way over to Jack and Rachel soon, ready to let them shout at one another to their hearts’ content. “So what you’re saying is, I should be content with mediocrity,” said Terry, attempting levity but falling a little short of his goal.

“I’m saying,” Donna said, giving his hand one more tight squeeze before letting go and standing, “that if you’re happy with what you’re doing, then it’s okay to be happy with what you’re doing.” With an unladylike tug, she reached inside her blouse and adjusted her bra before many more of the predominantly male crew members were in a position to see. “Or at least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself recently, when it’s two in the morning and I can’t sleep. There’s worse things than being Donna Ellis. And there’s far worse things than being Terrance Simon. Hey, not even Cary Grant was Cary Grant.”

~*~

When Mariano wakes again, blinking into the bright world, Jack is standing at his bedside, his face unreadable. Mariano is weak and pale, and dark circles bag under his eyes, as though he hasn’t slept in days — when really, for two whole weeks, that’s all he’s been doing. “How did,” he begins weakly, but the sentence dissolves into a coughing fit; Jack is silent and waits for his lungs to still again. “How did the biopsy go?”

Jack does not respond; from the other side of the bed, though, Rachel puts a hand on Mariano’s shoulder. “You had a seizure while you were under. We kept you sedated for a while to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.”

“Oh,” says Mariano, forcing as much of a smile as he has energy to give. “That explains why … why I dreamed of … a disco.”

Ever the optimist, Rachel laughs, though her red-rimmed eyes threaten to spill over with tears at any moment. She and Mariano have danced around one another in the year and a half since the end of their engagement, but they have decided that they work better as friends, and Rachel has even been going on dates with a pediatrician from the next ward over. That doesn’t mean she’s forgotten about her feelings for him, though, and seeing him like this brings all of their stormy, passionate relationship back to her. She takes his free hand, the one not pierced with an IV. “You know that cancer treatments can sometimes be very difficult things,” she says. “Sometimes we think it’s going so well, and it turns bad on us, and sometimes we’ve almost given up hope just at the time when it starts to work.”

The feeble smile remains on Mariano’s face; he’s resigned himself to this, his coming end. Is there a knife of fear behind his eyes? Perhaps, but only the same fear all young people feel when facing down an end come far too soon. “How much time do I have left?” he asks, cutting bravely to the chase.

Rachel’s lower lip quivers, and she catches it between her teeth as a pristine tear spills from the corner of her eye and rolls down her freckled cheek. Too overcome to speak, she can only shake her head. Dark eyes opened a little wider, Mariano turns to the other side of his bed. “How much?” he asks again, this time more firmly. He can understand the emotional outburst from Rachel — tough as she is, she’s still a tender woman beneath her professional medical exterior — but he wants it straight from Jack; he’s never expected any less.

But even Jack hesitates, looking down at the clipboard in his hand and taking a steadying breath before he looks up again. “You don’t understand,” he says — and is there a hint of tenderness in his voice, a tremor that bubbles up beside his best efforts to remain calm. “All the things we’re doing for you — the radiation, the chemicals, the drugs — they’re not failing. They’re succeeding.”

[Episode #1.5793, February 1, 1976]

~*~

Roger really did look like death warmed over — at least, from the chin upward. The costume department had wrapped his throat in bandages for the various in-bed scenes he’d had to do that day, and where those strips of white had been, his skin was still its usual healthy shade. He laughed as he looked at himself in the mirror, though, poking at his cheek. “I look like a zombie,” he said, glancing over his shoulder at Terry.

“At least you’ve got the kind of cancer that washes right off,” said Terry as Roger picked up a damp towel and dragged away the pale paint from the bridge of his nose. “So, how was Vancouver?”

“You might not believe this, but freezing.” Roger dabbed the corner of the towel in cold cream, then rubbed it on in circles, making his face even whiter. “Also, the farthest north I’ve ever been. They had to do some quick rewrites because someone slept through kindergarten science and forgot that when you go to Canada in the middle of winter, you get a lot of dark.”

Though he’d already wiped off his makeup for the day, and therefore had no real reason to hang around, Terry sat in one of the chairs, leaning forward over his knees instead of lying back the way the makeup artists always instructed him to do. “But you had a good time?”

Roger nodded. “I had a good time.” He stuck his face straight into a towel and scrubbed until his skin was rosy, but once again clean. “There’s even talk of making it a franchise. Get a two- or three-picture deal out of it.”

“Sounds great,” said Terry, mustering all the enthusiasm he didn’t feel. He was tired, that was his excuse, especially since having one of the five show principals in a coma for two weeks and recovery as necessary following meant the weight of the storylines had fallen on the other four. At least Abe and Jacalyn were still new enough to the cast that ‘Lance, the chairman’s son, uses his business school skills to try and manage things and gets annoyed with the rest of the hospital when they get annoyed with him’ and ‘street-smart nurse Tandy learns the ropes at a suburban hospital’ stories, respectively, hadn’t become too old. They were lovely people, but both were younger even than Roger, making Terry feel more grandfatherly by the day. “Say, are you doing anything this evening?”

“Anything like…?” Roger peeled off his skin-toned undershirt, leaving his furred chest bare. Because three other crew members were milling about them, Terry forced his eyes under penalty of death to stay north of Roger’s collarbone.

“Anything that would keep you from going and getting a beer with me,” said Terry, hoping that was a neutral and friendly enough invitation to raise not even the most suspicious of eyebrows. Everybody knew about him, to be sure, but he had no business getting that on anyone else. “I haven’t seen you since you got back, and I’m sure you’ve got plenty of Canadian stories. Tales of daring escape from moose and the like.”

“One or two, maybe.” After a moment’s hesitation, Roger nodded. “Sure, let’s go,” he said, tugging on a light sweater that had surely seen better days. “You’re buying, though. And driving.”

“Fair enough!” Terry laughed, and not long after, the two of them were walking out the door, arm’s length apart, talking about the show, about beer, about nothing.

The walk from the door to Terry’s car was not long at all, but as sometimes happened around studios, a small group of fans had congregated nearby: three girls, who looked to Terry to be in high school, all of whom lit up like lightbulbs to see Roger walk out onto the lot. They flew to him like iron to magnets, bouncing with the kind of enthusiasm Terry associated with teenagers, presenting Roger with pens and precious scraps of paper. He signed everything put in front of him, then chattered on with the girls for another several minutes, listening more than talking, as Terry stood in the background, for all intents and purposes invisible. Tomorrow, Terry was sure, the girls wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a lineup. They only had eyes for their new heartthrob now.

At last, as they always seemed to do, the fans wandered off in search of other famous faces, leaving Roger and Terry alone together on the lot. Terry waited, but Roger offered no comment on the encounter, so after a moment’s pause, Terry headed on toward his car, with Roger close behind. Terry got in first, then reached over and unlocked the passenger door. Roger got in and closed his eyes, taking in and letting out long, silent breaths. Terry stuck the key in the ignition, but did not turn it.

“Your place?” Roger said after a full minute of silence, and Terry started the car.

From the way Roger stared out the window as they drove off the lot, Terry expected this trip to be as silent as most of the other times they’d spent together, conversation tied up by their having little in common to begin with and less shared between them every day. But traffic stalled them at a light not far from the studio, by a lovely park where two separate bridal parties were posing for photographs. Terry was just thinking on how best to phrase his great distaste for the one group of groomsmen’s powder-blue tuxedos when Roger sighed and drummed his fingers on the window. “Did anyone ever pressure you to get a girlfriend? You know, professionally?”

“No.” As traffic began to move again, Terry shook his head. “That’s one of the perks, I suppose, of being me. In the grand scheme of Hollywood, I’m still what you might call small potatoes. My fans are the type who may pick up a TV Guide in the checkout line at the grocery, but may never even know that I’m not married, much less wonder why. So … no.”

“Oh.” Roger shifted in his seat and raked his fingers back through his handsome mane of hair. He fidgeted and scratched at the knee of his beige corduroy pants, looking for all the world like he was thinking of jumping out the car door at the next red light and making a break for it, fleeing into some local wilderness. “So … what would you have said if they had?” he asked, this time more quietly.

Terry wished the question had come as a surprise to him, but the only surprise to it was that Roger hadn’t come to him with the dilemma any sooner. “I don’t know. It would depend.”

“On?”

“On … everything. Who’s asking? Who’s the girl? How much does she know? What’s in it for her? What’s in it for me? Am–” Terry’s voice caught as he tried to figure out how best to phrase the question. “Am I with someone else at the time?”

Roger let out a sigh so great it deflated him, until his shoulders sagged and his chin lay against his chest. “So what would have to be in it for you?”

“Something I wanted a lot.” The late-afternoon traffic moved in fits and spurts, which gave Terry the perfect excuse to keep his eyes on the road and not look over to see all the things that must have been written on Roger’s face. “Something that would have to make it the exchange worth it. If I had to marry Donna to save my life, or hers? Without question. If I had to kiss a stranger to get a turkey sandwich, I’d … well, I’d probably start shopping at a different deli.” Terry heard Roger’s quiet laugh at that last example, which made him feel a touch better about the conversation as a whole. “If I had to fool a nice girl into thinking I was in love with her to get a starring part in a movie….”

He knew he’d hit a tender nail right on the head when he saw from the corner of his eye how Roger’s body twisted in the seat, turning as far away from Terry as the Oldsmobile’s front seat would allow. “I’m not saying I would or wouldn’t,” Terry continued. “But I’m saying that is a very, very grey area.”

Roger chuckled again, a weak little sound further muffled by his having his face in his hands, such that for a moment, Terry could tell if the noise was laughing or sobbing. “Thought you’d be mad, actually.”

“Mad?” Terry frowned as he pulled the car onto the freeway. “Why?”

“Because….” Roger made little whirling gestures with his hands, conducting the invisible symphony that might have been able to play his answer for him. “Because you haven’t. You never did. I thought someone for sure must have given you the choice and you said no, and now you’re all noble and getting to do what you do and….” Out of steam, Roger sunk deeper into his seat; if he went any farther, Terry thought, he might disappear, or at least make it all the way back to the trunk.

Left at ends by the suggestion, Terry could do little more than shake his head. “I do what I need to do for me. You do what you need to do for you. I’ve got opinions and advice if you need them, but I’m not going to judge. Nobody needs me piling on. This,” he said, gesturing back and forth between the two of them, then back out into the general world around them, “is hard enough for anybody.”

The rest of the drive took barely ten minutes, even with traffic, but those ten minutes passed in silence; Roger asked nothing else, and Terry offered no more of his thoughts. There were more questions to be had, to say the least, but every time Terry constructed one in his head, he deemed it intrusive and sent it away. Until Roger solicited more specific responses from him, the whole situation was, to put it mildly, none of his business.

When at last they arrived at Terry’s place, Terry parked in the garage and went first into the kitchen, then fetched two bottles of beer from the door to his refrigerator. Roger took his with a broad smile, but before Terry could offer him the bottle opener, Roger slipped two fingers behind the wide brass rectangle of Terry’s belt buckle. “Want to see a neat trick?” he asked, a note of good humor having returned to his voice.

“I’d love to see a trick.”

“Okay, hold still,” said Roger. Bottle in one hand, opener in the other, Terry leaned back against the counter, and Roger put the cap of his bottle up next to the buckle, with the metal edge just behind the cap’s crinkled rim. He gave it one sharp hit downward with the heel of his hand and the cap came flying off, rattling to the ground as Roger stood straight again, smiling and holding his now-accessible beer.

Terry applauded as best he could with his hands full. “Oh, very impressive. Where’d you learn that one?”

“Dive bars.” Roger took a drink and wiggled his eyebrows. “Though it’s more impressive when you get the vaqueros in there with the big, fancy buckles. Well, maybe not more impressive. More reliable. I’m counting myself lucky right now that I didn’t spill beer all down your front.”

“That makes two of us,” said Terry, who opened his own bottle in a much more civilized fashion. “You’re looking a lot better than you did a when we left the studio.”

“Kind of feel lighter. Not having to hide it and be afraid you’ll find out. Guess I’m still a Catholic at heart.” With a pompous sniff, Roger genuflected with the beer bottle, then laughed again. “Though don’t ask me how long it’s been since my last confession. If I ever went back, me and that priest, we’d be in there all night.”

“That makes two of us again.” With a wink, Terry elbowed Roger in the side, and Roger elbowed him right back. It felt good to laugh in general, and good to laugh with him in particular, and it would have been so easy to take that good feeling out into the rest of the evening. But try as he might to give into distraction, Terry’s mind wouldn’t let him turn from the dark cloud hanging over both their heads. “So … were you just afraid someone would find out, or were you afraid I would find out?”

Staring into his beer bottle, Roger sighed; the happy face worked so hard to put on the situation fell away. “I’m going to pretend I’m drunk already and say … both.”

“What’d you think I’d think?”

“I didn’t know what you’d think! That you’d be angry, or that you’d yell at me for selling my soul, or, I don’t know, something else.” Roger pushed away from where he’d been leaning against the counter and began to pace through the kitchen, his accent thickening a little as his pitch rose. He brought so much of himself to Mariano, anyone who knew him off-camera would say the same, but this tight, tortured streak, this was all his own. “Maybe you’d think I deserved to get yelled at.”

He was no lightweight, but half a beer on a full day’s work and an empty stomach had already begun to soften Terry’s perception of the world. “It’s your life,” he said with a shrug.

“I wish it was,” said Roger between swigs from his bottle. Judging by the liquid he could see through the amber-dark glass, Terry could see that they were both keeping about drinking pace. “Look, what do you think I should do?”

“Why do you care what I think?”

“Because I care! Because–” Roger took a deep breath, pressing the lip of the bottle to his mouth. “Because I look up to you. And what you think matters to me. And….” With that same nervous energy, Roger drummed his fingertips against the bottle’s sides, beating out a musical rhythm. “There’s a lot of choices in front of me right now, and I know you’ve been there already, at least for some of them. I’m starting to get opportunities where if I pass them up, I don’t know if they’re ever going to come again. And I like you, but I don’t know if I want to be you.”

It was a testament to the honest, open expression on Roger’s face that Terry knew the moment he’d heard those last few words that they hadn’t been intended as as an insult, not at all. “I,” Terry began, but he stopped himself when he realized he didn’t know where he was going with that statement. He took a deep breath and tried again: “I think you….”

After a moment’s pause, Roger gave a nervous little laugh. “You think I … what?”

“I think you need to decide what’s important to you, and based on that, you need to decide what to you can do to get that and still sleep at night. And I think that despite what I said earlier, I may not be the most impartial advisor.”

“Why not?”

Why not indeed. Well, as long as Roger was being honest, Terry might as well just step up to that same plate: “Because I know where you are now. If you stay on the show, I know where you are. Hiatuses notwithstanding, I know where I’ll find you and when I’ll see you next. You leave, and … and you leave. You just go. Somewhere better. And you don’t ever come back.”

Roger didn’t say anything to that, nor did he even react for a full minute, for so long that Terry began to worry that he’d said something wrong, confessed too much. He’d barely known these things himself before they’d come out of his mouth, and now they were there, he found himself wishing he could take them back again, or at least commandeer a scriptwriter from the show to get his foot out of his mouth again. At this point, he’d even try melodrama.

But at last Roger looked up, and drank down the end of his beer, and came over to where Terry stood, leaning in until their chests pressed together. “Then come with me,” he said, stepping up on his tiptoes until he could touch Terry’s forehead with his own.

There were a million reasons why that wouldn’t work, but Terry knew that despite the kind offer, Roger knew them already, and that there was no point in rehearsing the whole argument. “I can’t,” he said, leaving it at that.

For a moment, Roger looked as though he were going to speak, to offer some kind of rebuttal to that, but instead he just sighed and placed his forehead against Terry’s shoulder. Terry put down his bottle and wrapped his arms around Roger’s waist. They stood there, fully clothed, making no sound but soft sighs of their breathing, as the last bits of day disappeared from the sky and the light in the kitchen went from blue to indigo to black.

~*~

No one else in the operating room seems bothered by the temperature, but Mariano is sweating; the kerchief across his forehead is soaked to a darker blue where it touches his skin. As he’s only been back on duty at the hospital for two months following his last cancer surgery, he’s only assisting — and assisting Jack Johnson in surgery mostly means standing back and watching the master work. The body before them on the table is here for a routine gallbladder removal, something Mariano’s known how to do since his early years in medical school, but Lance has declared, in his infinite business-school wisdom, that safety should mean that Mariano be called to observe several procedures before he’s allowed on his own again.

Mariano fought the requirement, but Lance’s word is final on matters like these. Now, however, he’s not thinking about that, but about how unpleasant the room has become. Isn’t it hot in here? It’s so hot, in fact, that his hands are shaking, rattling the tray of instruments he holds. Surely that can’t be normal.

Jack is the first one to hear that rattling and associate it with something’s being wrong, but by the time he makes the connection between the noise and what’s causing it, it’s too late. The relative silence of the operating room is shattered by a great metallic crash as the tray slips from Mariano’s hands and smashes against the floor. Mariano himself pitches and his eyes roll back in his head, and the only thing that saves him from landing atop the instruments he’s dropped is Jack’s strong arms around him. Together, they succumb slowly to gravity, until Jack catches himself braced on one knee and Mariano slumps against his chest.

The surgery is nearly done, and the patient has been all but stitched up, but that’s not what Jack is worried about now, not at all. Eyes wide, he turns to Tandy, the nearest nurse, and for a moment, what is written across the indomitable face of Dr. Jack Johnson is pure, honest fear.

“Don’t just stand there!” he shouts, scaring Tandy out of her frozen, shocked state. “Help me!”

Nurses and orderlies bustle around them, and voices blare across the loudspeaker, but Jack pays no attention to any of them. He looks down at Mariano, whose breathing is shallow and whose eyelashes flutter as though he’s having a fever dream. Jack’s hands are still bloody from the surgery, and wherever he touches Mariano’s clothes and body, thick red smears remain.

[Episode #1.5868, June 3, 1976]

~*~

As he braced himself against Roger’s thighs and slipped his lubed-up cock into Roger’s ass, the last thing Terry expected to hear Roger say was, “Ask me to move in with you.”

So far as startling statements went, it wasn’t enough to make him lose his erection, but it did give him pause at a most awkward position, half in and half out. “What?” he asked, certain he’d misheard.

Roger wrapped his legs around Terry’s waist and pulled him in close, until Terry was balls-deep in him, but otherwise in no position to move. “Ask me to move in with you,” he repeated with a grin. His voice was little more than air, but there was no mistaking the sheer determination in the statement.

“This is extortion,” said Terry, looking down at their joined bodies. He’d known when he’d thrown that evening’s dinner party that it would be the final one that Roger attended as a part of the Prescription for Love family, and he’d expected a certain amount of last-request talk. What he hadn’t expected was to find himself, mid-sex, conducting housing negotiations.

“Don’t care.” With a wild grin, Roger tightened his legs until he’d locked his ankles together behind Terry’s body. “Ask me to move in with you.”

“And then what?”

“And then you get to keep fucking me.” Roger ran his fingernails down the parts of Terry’s back he could reach, leaving lines that Terry knew rose strawberry-red against his pale skin; Terry shivered, first at the touch, then at the burn left in its wake. “And then you get to keep fucking me.”

He’d had a lot to drink that evening, maybe, but Terry still had most of his wits about him, and even those wits weren’t quite sure what was going on. “What about you?”

Using the extra muscle he’d been putting on in preparation for his upcoming blockbuster, Roger grabbed the headboard behind him and pulled them both upright until he was still impaled on Terry’s dick but they could look at one another eye-to-eye. “Let my apartment lease lapse. Move in to your spare room. Go away for shoots. Come back.” Roger grinned. “Get fucked.”

“You’re drunk,” Terry pointed out; he could smell the wine on Roger’s breath.

“Might have lost my nerve otherwise.” Roger ground his hips against Terry’s once, shifting Terry’s cock inside him in one slow, warm thrust. “I’ll take the blue bedroom. This house is huge. You could go a week without seeing me. If you didn’t want to.”

While Terry’s first impulse had been to believe that this had been a spur-of-the-moment decision, a drunken fantasy brought on by arousal and the worry of having a semi-steady supply of sex dry up, on reflection of that evening, Roger’s request didn’t seem quite so sudden. “You were talking tonight about….” One side of Roger’s pretty mouth lifted into a grin. He had been talking that evening, about how he didn’t like his neighbors, about how difficult it would be to find someone to maintain a place in California if he ever had to be away long on a shoot, about what a nice place Terry had here, about how big it must be for just one person. This wasn’t an impulse; this was an up-and-coming star’s demonstration of the importance of timing.

With a little push, Roger toppled Terry backward. It was an awkward transition, and most of Terry’s legs remained bunched up between where his upper half fell and the bed’s backboard, but Roger never once let Terry go at either end. When they came to rest, he was astride Terry’s hips, braced with his hands pressed to Terry’s shoulders. “You’ll always know where I am,” he said, beginning to pump his body up and down. “Or at least, where I’ll come home to. You’ll have a guarantee I’ll come back. You’ll have my stuff.”

Terry let his hands rest on Roger’s thighs, feeling those taut muscles beneath his fingertips. Still, despite the fact that a gorgeous man was riding his cock at the moment, Terry was old and experienced enough to be able to think with both heads at once. “And if one of us meets someone else…?” he asked, despite the fact that the last four years had, by all accounts, been the steadiest and most curiously monogamous of either of their lives.

Roger smacked Terry’s shoulders playfully. “Then I’ll still come back. And we’ll still be friends. Or,” Roger said with a bashful little smile that pinkened his cheeks and made his stiff cock twitch where it lay against Terry’s belly, “neither of us meets someone else, and I keep coming back anyway, and we see where this goes, with you and me, and us.”

That suggestion sent Terry’s train of thought soaring off the track and down into the ravine. They were friends, of course, he and Roger, and they were often lovers in the most physical definition of the word, but nowhere in all their time together had Terry ever let himself begin to think that this, what the two of them had, might go any deeper than that. That wasn’t what men like him got.

But Roger wasn’t like Terry; he wasn’t like anyone Terry had ever met. Maybe that was enough to make all the difference. “Us,” Terry echoed, feeling the weight of the word sink into him, as heavy as the weight of Roger’s body across his pelvis.

Roger tapped Terry’s nose with his index finger as he rocked back and forth on his hips, building a steady rhythm that made the bedsprings creak and whipped Terry into butter. “So ask me to move in with you.”

“Fine,” Terry agreed, trying to sound as annoyed by the situation as a man possibly could while both having his cock ridden by a big-screen heartthrob and agreeing to have that heartthrob move into his house on a semi-permanent basis. He’d been nominated for Daytime Emmys every year they’d had them thus far, and not without reason.

Without missing a beat, Roger threw his head back and laughed. “No, ask me.”

It was ridiculous, but Roger was ridiculous, so it was only appropriate, and not only was it better than losing track of him, it was better than nearly anything else Terry could think of at the moment. “Will you move in with me?” he asked, and he couldn’t keep a smile from his face as he did.

“Thought you’d never ask,” said Roger with a grin, and then he shut up and rode Terry hard, working them both into a sweat. Every time Terry tried to reposition them, to take control, Roger fought back, until at last he grabbed Terry’s wrists and pinned them to the bed, then fucked himself on Terry’s cock with abandon. He came first like that, gasping as he shot long, hot ropes of come all over Terry’s chest. Terry himself lasted only moments past that, and then he came inside Roger as Roger held him down and grinned and grinned.

Afterward, Roger collapsed against the bed with a great sigh and curled up against Terry’s body, kissing Terry’s neck and petting his wet, sticky belly. They were a mess, and they should definitely shower before falling asleep, but for now, as far as Terry was concerned, it was good to be just like this.

“I’d like to ask my personal question now,” was the first thing Roger said as they lay there together and their heartbeats slowed.

Good grief, Terry barely remembered that, and it had been sure long ago that Roger had forgotten. But he’d agreed, and he was a man of his word. “All right,” he said, stroking the long, dark hair that brushed the back of Roger’s neck. “What’s your question?”

Roger kissed the side of Terry’s neck, and Terry could feel the way his lips curled into a smile. “You feel like seeing where we could take this ‘us’ thing?”

He’d just agreed to let the man move into his house; why not give him a chance to move into his heart? “Maybe,” said Terry, in a tone of voice that meant yes.

~*~

The tidal pulse of the respirator is slow and telltale; he doesn’t have long now. After so much hope for remission, Mariano’s cancer has come back, and there’s nothing even the best medicine can do. The machine breathes for him now, and he can hear and understand, but he can’t speak. He passes the days in a fog of sleep and painkillers, and most of the time Rachel sits by his bed.

She’s gone home to sleep and shower, though, and the chair where she would usually be is empty. Mariano is not alone, though; a tall, white-coated figure stands a silent vigil by the far side of his bed. Jack’s just come off a twenty-four-hour shift, and he should go home to his wife, with whom he’s tentatively reconciled, and their younger daughters, the ones who haven’t gone off to college yet. Instead, he stands there in the room, a silent sentry.

Mariano stirs and his eyes flutter open, and Jack steps into the halo of light created by the halogen above the bed. “She’ll be back,” he says, nodding to the empty chair. “She needed a break. I’m taking her place for now.”

Though the tube down his throat prevents much movement, Mariano turns first to Rachel’s customary post, then back to Jack, and when he raises one feeble hand, Jack takes it in both of his — an uncharacteristic show of tenderness for a man in his position, perhaps, but nothing is normal here. “Do you need anything?”

Mariano shakes his head just a fraction, enough to indicate that, no, he has what he wants. A button by his other hand is tied up to a morphine dispenser, and Jack watches as he taps it twice. “There’s a governor on those systems,” Jack says, though Mariano certainly already knows this, “that won’t let you overdose. If you ask for morphine more often than it thinks you should have it, it won’t give it to you.”

With what ghost of a smile he can manage, Mariano looks up at Jack, but Jack — ever stoic, ever leonine — only responds with a grim set of his jaw. “I wanted you to know … I thought you should know that in the time I’ve known you, I’ve come to see that you’re a fine doctor,” he says. The words are awkward, perhaps, but he delivers them with such sincerity and understated conviction that anyone hearing them would be moved to tears. He opens his mouth as though to say more, as though he might be on the verge of delivering an entire speech — but then he stops, and frowns, and looks down at his feet. “And a good man.”

A few seconds later, Mariano closes his eyes, and the dueling rhythms of the respirator and the heart monitor again become the only sounds in the room.

[Episode #1.5879, September 10, 1976]

~*~

What was supposed to be Roger’s good-bye party was quickly reappropriated into a combination send-off from the show and housewarming. Roger took great delight in showing off the whole house to those who’d never been there before, especially the parts that Terry had designated as his: a large bedroom, a three-quarters bathroom attached to it, and the separate entrance that went straight from there to the back patio. He’d already made great strides in decorating by the time everyone arrived for the party, and the walk-in closet still full of boxes was a silent testimony to how much more was yet to come.

Though he’d retired from directing the year before, Herb made an appearance as well, claiming he wouldn’t have missed this for the world. “Careful with a young roommate, though,” he joked, patting Terry on the shoulder. “He’ll be sneaking girls in and out at all hours, keeping you up all night!” The circle of people around when he said this laughed at the mental image, and Terry laughed along with them, mostly out of relief that no one seemed to have suspected.

No one, that was, except for Donna, and even then, Terry wouldn’t have sworn to just what it was she suspected. She came up to him as he was giving Jacalyn a tour of the plants in the backyard, and after their new co-star had wandered off again in search of more wine, Donna slipped her arm inside of his. “I worried about you all these years, being alone,” she said while everyone else at the gathering was out of earshot.

Terry kept his face composed. “Does my having a roommate make you less worried?”

A wry smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “I think a roommate like Roger may be exactly what you need.” And before he could even decided if he wanted to ask her just what she meant by that, she kissed him on his cheek and went off to join the rest of the party.

Roger was the man of the hour, of course, and every time Terry looked around to find him, he was surrounded by people alternately talking about how they’d miss having him on set and wishing him well on his new film ventures. He was in the middle of telling a group of admirers about how part of the shooting was going to take place in India, and how he’d be out there for about a month, when he caught Terry’s eye and gave him a warm, enthusiastic smile.

Terry smiled right back, happy to hear Roger tell all about upcoming blockbuster adventures, and just as happy to know that he’d be back on the same sets on Monday, filming even more of the same story he’d been playing out for nearly half his adult life. No, it wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was a good story, and there was value enough in a good story to more than justify his helping to tell it, day after day, week after week — and, even more than that, justify his being happy doing exactly what he was doing. Roger was happy making the most of his big-screen dreams, and Terry was happy making the most of TV cameras and Dr. Jack Johnson, M.D., and now they could be happy coming home to one another after a long day or week or month of doing both of those things.

A late afternoon breeze set to singing a cluster of wind chimes Roger had hung from the awning over the back porch and carried up the smell of azaleas from Terry’s garden. The sweat from the iced tea in his hand ran over the backs of his knuckles, and from the other side of the backyard, a cloud of laughter rose, Roger’s the loudest and merriest of all. There were worse things to be, indeed. In fact, right now, Terry couldn’t think of many better.

~*~

The crowd in the Catholic church looks appropriately sad, dressed in their best black dresses and dark suits. The afternoon light filters in through colored windows and soft organ music plays as Dr. Jack Johnson — without his white coat, a rare sight indeed — makes his way to the pulpit and begins to speak.

“I first met Mariano almost exactly four years ago,” he says, looking over to the center of the chancel. A lacquered white coffin sits atop a marble bier, topped and surrounded with flowers of all sorts. In the center of the largest wreath is a picture of Mariano in a neat grey suit, smiling at the camera, caught in a moment of being ready to take on the world. “And I was skeptical at first. He seemed green, too green. Too inexperienced. Too soft. Not enough respect for authority. Not enough of an understanding of the way the world works. Still little more than a medical student. Not enough to be a doctor.”

In the front row sits Rachel, her eyes rimmed with tears, crying into her handkerchief; she will fall in love and marry someday, but for the rest of her life she will wear the simple engagement ring Mariano gave her on the fourth finger of her right hand. Beside her is Lance, representing the hospital even though he didn’t know Mariano that well, because he felt someone should; his father’s refusal to be there himself is a terrible mistake in Lance’s eyes, the first flaw in his otherwise-adoring image of the old man that will one day lead to a powerful confrontation between father and son. Tandy is on his other side, heartsick because she was the nurse most responsible for Mariano’s care, and she only got to know him as he was dying; he gave her his stethoscope, and she will use it so long as she works at the hospital, a quiet reminder to be both compassionate and brave in everything she does.

And Jack? Life will go on for Jack, too. His middle daughter goes to college soon, and his eldest will be getting married in the fall. He and his wife will take the final steps toward reconciliation between them, and they will take that second honeymoon he’s always promised her — only not to Paris, as he said so many years ago, but to Mexico City, where he will see the place Mariano grew up. He will have other colleagues and other doctors to teach, and he will treat them as he judges them on their merits, no more and no less. And sometimes, when the hospital is quiet at night, he’ll sit at his desk and stare at the empty chair on the other side of it, and think about who used to sit there and what it means that he’s gone.

“But as I came to know him, I realized something else — I realized that he was so many of these things, but that when he was them, it was all right. He was inexperienced, but that meant he was ready to learn. He was soft, but that meant he had a heart. He didn’t have enough of a respect for authority, but that meant he was willing to tell me when I was wrong — rare, maybe, but it happens.” The hospital staff in the congregation laughs at this joke. “And he was a doctor. He was a fine doctor, who healed bodies and hearts alike. And though he could not heal himself of this last disease, in dying he taught those of us who were with him about the courage to face death.

“Death came for him, but it did not defeat him. In the end, he agreed to go. And those of us who are left behind him have a task ahead of us, and that task is to learn to live in a world without him. But we know now better how to do this because we have his example. We learned from him in life, and now we must go on with what we’ve been taught. And maybe, just maybe, one day–”

Jack is not a religious or a superstitious man; he does not believe in ghosts or luck, and he believes in God for little more reason than those put forth in Pascal’s Wager. But as he looks up, in the middle of his sentence, he sees the door at the back of the church open on to the outdoor afternoon, and in the the middle of the daylight glow stands a figure seen only in silhouette. It could be anyone, of course, including a complete stranger. And yet he seems familiar — the height, the build, even the way he lingers only for a moment before turning away from the scene before him in the church and walking out the doors, retreating until he is swallowed up in light.

And Jack smiles.

[Episode #1.5882, September 15, 1976]

illustrated by iron eater

Author’s Notes

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