WHAT GOES AROUND
Horatio had always gone to the beach to think after a hard case. Once he’d washed blood from his hand in the bitter salt water, uncaring of the waves spoiling his shoes and wetting his slacks. Sometimes he just sat and watched the waves. There was solace, closure in the steady rhythm of the surf, peace in the deepening colors of the sunset.
There was no solace today. No closure. No peace. Just an empty horizon, night descending in a darkening roof like the closing of a coffin lid over the still and silent body of his teammate, his friend, Tim Speedle.
The sky darkened and the stars came out, part of the endless cycle. Day, night, day, night. A circle as empty as the click of a hammer on a round in a jammed gun. Click. Click. Going nowhere, saving no one. Round and round, like the thoughts circling in Horatio’s mind.
My fault. All the things I could have done, should have done. No vest to protect him this time. No backup while I stood there like an idiot, when Speed saw the signs I should have seen, should have recognized. No gun to protected him because he never fucking cleaned it. I gave him the kit and he didn’t follow through and why should he because neither did I. I just let it go. Just assumed and fucking forgot and walked into that store with no protection no vests no backup no fucking brains and now he’s dead and it’s my fault.
A heavy fog had rolled in from the sea. Condensation pearled on Horatio’s skin, weighted his jacket, glued his shirt to his shoulders while Horatio chased his thoughts in those endless, futile circles.
What goes around comes around. I gave Tim a second chance and he blew it, fine, he blew it but where’s my second chance? Why does he pay the price because I failed to supervise a member of my team, because I failed to follow-up on a problem I recognized? I’m the one who didn’t get suspicious of the setup in the jewelry store. I’m the one who didn’t recognize a danger situation – me, with all the training and experience. It should have been me on that floor, bleeding, dying.
The sky had lightened only slightly through the dense fog. It was probably near dawn. Grief had faded into a sort of dreamlike numbness. The sound of the surf echoed hollowly through the fog; then another sound. The slow crunch of footsteps. Someone walking the beach even in the fog.
A figure gradually became visible – an elderly man, tall, slender, well-preserved, in a pair of jeans and a light jacket, thinning white hair dew-plastered to his temples. Kind eyes. He gazed rather surprisedly at Horatio, blinked, grinned in sudden delight, then sat down on the sand beside him.
"So," he said. "You out here thinking or drowning?"
Horatio gave a short, mirthless chuckle.
"Thinking, I suppose."
"Could’ve fooled me," the man said good-naturedly. The man’s voice sounded vaguely familiar, although Horatio couldn’t exactly place it.
"Do I know you, sir?"
The man grinned again, and now he looked vaguely familiar too.
"I’d say no," he said. "But you probably will someday."
Political candidate? Horatio made a brief attempt to search his memory, gave it up. He really didn’t care all that much.
"Life is like a wheel," the man said wryly. "You know why?"
"What goes around comes around," Horatio guessed wearily. The conversation had an odd, surreal quality to it, as if more than the air around him was filled with fog. Maybe he was dreaming.
"Nope," the man said, shaking his head. "Because it throws a bunch of mud up in your face and just keeps on spinning, whether you like it or not."
That startled a bark of more genuine laughter out of Horatio; before he could stop himself, it turned into a sob. He swallowed it relentlessly.
The man looked at Horatio with deep compassion.
"I’ll make you a trade," he said.
Horatio scrubbed harshly at his eyes.
"Unless you can turn back the clock," he said, "you’ve got nothing I want."
The man shook his head.
"Sorry, I can’t do that," he admitted. "But you can."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Horatio snapped. Dream or no dream, now he just wished the old bastard would leave him alone to mourn in private.
"Would you if you could?" the man pressed. "Turn back the clock. Save him."
"Of course I would," Horatio said angrily.
"Why?" Horatio repeated disbelievingly. "What do you mean, why? Because he died and he shouldn’t have and it’s my fault – "
"Bullshit," the man said cheerfully. "Try again."
"Because he’s too damned young," Horatio growled. "Because I was responsible for him."
"Nope," the man said. "Try again."
Horatio closed his eyes.
"Because I never told him," Horatio barely whispered.
"There you go," the man said, nodding sagely. "That’s better. Right, then. It’s yours."
"Just like that?" he said.
"Well, not just like that," the man admitted. "It’s not quite that easy."
"So what’s the catch?" he said.
The man shook his head.
"There’s no catch," he said. "No price, no disclaimer. Just three pieces of free advice. Have to throw in the three, you know – mystic number and all. It’s probably in the rules somewhere."
Horatio raised his eyebrow.
"All right," he said warily. "What advice?"
"First off, tell him this time," the man said. "If you want him to care whether he lives or dies, give him a reason to care. Not everyone can live for the job. Some people need someone to live for."
Horatio took a deep breath.
"Make up your mind what you want," the man said firmly. "Your brother’s past, or your own future. All this moping and pining over Yelina isn’t getting you anywhere. She’s moved on, it’s high time you did too."
Horatio frowned. Whoever this man was, he was no politician. No beach bum who had read the newspaper or seen a television broadcast about Speed’s death and recognized Horatio. This was . . . someone else.
"And the third piece of advice?" Horatio asked quietly.
"Someday you’ll have the chance to do for someone else what I’m doing for you," the man said gently. "Do it. I think you’ll find it worth your while. What goes around comes around, after all." He grinned, and to his surprise, Horatio found himself grinning back.
"Just like that?" Horatio asked, raising his eyebrow. "So . . . what do I do now?"
The man chuckled and pushed himself to his feet.
"Well, I’d start by getting up off your ass," he advised. "Then just turn around."
Laughing, Horatio got up, bending down to brush off the sand caked to his trousers. He straightened.
"Now, what – "
The man was gone.
"What the – " He looked around. The fog was still thick. The man could have gone anywhere, but . . .
The tracks in the sand. Tracks that led up to his side, up to a butt-print in the sand. But did not lead away again.
Horatio took a deep breath, closed his eyes and turned.
He opened his eyes.
He only recognized Speed’s apartment building because he’d picked Speed up once, on the way to a call. Horatio walked over to the entryway call box, looked at the neat labels there. T. Speedle. Maybe they just hadn’t taken it down yet.
Horatio took a deep breath and pushed the call button.
Heart sinking, he pushed it again.
This time the intercom crackled to life.
"Yeah, what?" a sleep-slurred voice rasped.
"Speed?" Horatio croaked disbelievingly. He glanced up at the entryway video camera. "It’s – it’s me."
"H?" A pause. "Did a call come in? My phone didn’t go off – "
"No. No, there’s no call," Horatio said quietly. His heart was pounding so hard, it felt as if it might burst out of his chest. "May I come up?"
"Yeah, sure," Speed said hurriedly, his voice clearer now, more awake. The entryway door buzzed, and Horatio walked in before he could talk himself out of it.
Speed was already standing in the doorway to his apartment when Horatio reached it, looking alive and real and Speed in a pair of ratty shorts and a rumpled t-shirt, stubble and bedhair and red eyes. Hangover?
"You look like hell," Horatio said gently.
"Jeez, H, what do you expect?" Speed protested. "We were at the lab till three last night, it’s only 6:30!" Then he grinned sheepishly. "And speaking of looking like hell, you look like you slept on the beach, half in the water."
Horatio looked down at himself. He was wearing the same suit he’d worn the day before, but now thoroughly damp and deeply creased. Sand still clung to the cuffs.
"I had some . . . thinking to do," Horatio said quietly. "May I come in?"
"Yeah, sure," Speed said, grinning and stepping back from the doorway. "I’ll make some coffee. Looks like we both could use it."
Speed’s apartment was tidy and organized, but badly needed a more thorough cleaning – the counters and sink wanted scrubbing, the carpet badly needed vacuuming, and the refrigerator, when Speed opened it to get out a bottle of creamer, was a crime scene in and of itself.
Clean to outer appearances, dirty where it didn’t show. The metaphor sent a brief spear of panic through Horatio’s heart.
"Speed – "
"Black, one sugar, right?" Speed said, pouring the coffee.
"Thank you," Horatio said, taking the cup. "Speed – "
"Sorry, haven’t got any milk," Speed said apologetically. "But there’s creamer, it’s hazelnut, kind of funky, I know, but – "
Startled, Speed closed his mouth, glancing at Horatio.
"What’s the matter, H?" Speed asked cautiously. "Did something happen after I left last night?"
Did it? Horatio thought. Or did I just have a truly horrible nightmare of a future that never really happened?
"Did you ever use that gun cleaning kit I gave you?" he asked, very softly.
Immediately Speed’s expression became wary, shuttered.
"Hey, listen, H, um . . . " he said uncomfortably.
"Never mind," Horatio said gently. "Forget I asked. Listen, do me a favor, will you? Clean your gun right now, while I’m watching. I don’t care how dirty your gun is, I don’t care how long it’s been since you cleaned it – I don’t care if you just cleaned it ten minutes ago, for that matter. Just do it again for me, right now. Humor me, please?"
"H, what’s this about?" he asked suspiciously. "Why all of a sudden – "
"Because I’m tired," Horatio said, slowly, deliberately, "of losing the people I love."
For a long moment Speed held Horatio’s eyes, the frown smoothing from his forehead. Then Speed silently put down his coffee cup and walked into his bedroom. He came back out with his gun and the kit, placing them both on the kitchen table. He glanced up briefly at Horatio, smiled almost shyly, then turned back to his gun, carefully breaking it down.
The morning was cool and damp, foggy, and they’d left the sliding glass door open – again. Horatio yawned and snuggled closer into Speed’s warmth, grinning as stubble ground into the back of his neck. Even now, with gray mixed liberally in with the black, what most people called a five o’clock shadow, Tim called a ten a.m. shadow and a five o’clock beard. Thankfully Horatio’s collar hid his perpetual beard burn.
Horatio’s bladder told him it was time to get up, and Horatio yawned again, stretched, and reluctantly slid out from under Tim’s arm. Tim made a sleepy, protesting grumble, then subsided back into sleep. No surprise. Horatio’s grin widened. They’d worn each other out last night. Horatio’s joints were feeling it this morning, he wasn’t as limber as he used to be, but there were a hell of a lot worse ways to get sore and creaky. A brisk walk on the beach and a hot shower would put him to rights, and he’d have time to have breakfast ready when Tim woke up. There was no hurry; they were off today unless some emergency cropped up.
Horatio pulled on a pair of old jeans and a jacket against the cool, damp morning. A dense fog had rolled in from the sea, but the sun would burn it off in a couple hours, he was sure; it was supposed to be clear today, and he and Tim were planning to cook out on the deck. Even after a year, the beach house was still new enough that they enjoyed the novelty of it. They only stayed here when they had time off, for now at least, because the beach house was too far out of town – but in a few years Horatio would be retiring, and Tim thought he’d take early retirement then too, and they’d probably move permanently then.
With the fog and the chill, Horatio had the beach to himself – at least as far as he could see, which wasn’t very far. He didn’t like to jog when he couldn’t see, but he walked briskly, down near the edge of the tide where the sand was firmer.
The slight crunch of his footsteps in the sand, the dull roar of the waves, echoed around hollowly in the fog. It reminded him of something, that fog, that sound, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it.
A dark spot up ahead, slightly off to the right – just a blur at first, then becoming more defined. A figure sitting on the beach, facing out to sea although whoever it was couldn’t possibly see anything through the fog. As Horatio walked on, the figure became clearer.
Suddenly it became quite clear indeed.
Horatio stopped. Blinked.
He thought of his lover back at home sleeping, waiting to wake to kisses and the smell of bacon. The same lover who, fifteen years before, had cleaned his gun to humor Horatio, and who had gone on later that day to use that same gun to save Horatio’s life – and his own.
The same lover who still, to this day, made Horatio watch him every time he cleaned that gun.
The same lover who wouldn’t mind a bit if breakfast got delayed for a while longer, if it meant exchanging sweat and beard burns.
What goes around, comes around.
Horatio grinned broadly and sat down on the sand next to the man staring out into the fog.
"So," he said. "You out here thinking or drowning?"