Dance Steps: A Houston Knights Series
Alone (based on Houston's Hero)by Wolfling and James Walkswithwind
Silence had descended in the truck, thick and foreboding. Lundy stared at the crack house, trying to pretend his interest was in wrapping up the stakeout and not in avoiding his partner.
He hadn't meant to say the words, but they'd slipped out. 'I wish you would', fly away and never return. He hadn't meant to say it.
LaFiamma for his part wasn't fooled at all by Lundy's pretense. He knew the other man wanted to be anywhere else but sitting here with him. The tense silence spoke quite eloquently. 'Seems our entire partnership's been one long tense silence,' he grumbled to himself. 'Every time I think maybe we've gotten past our differences we always end up back here. Sitting and not speaking till the goddamned silence makes me want to scream.'
Still, sometimes the words were even worse than the silences. 'I wish you would.' The phrase kept echoing in LaFiamma's head. He was surprised at how much those four little words could hurt.
Another five minutes passed, each second stretching into an eternity as Lundy tried to forget or at least rationalize what he'd said. Trouble was, he couldn't just up and apologize for them -- he did wish LaFiamma would go home, go someplace, anyplace but Houston. He was tired of working with a partner who fought him every step of the way. Every day there was something new. If it wasn't the actual investigation where they would disagree on everything from how to interrogate a witness to how to bag evidence, it was listening to the man complain about everything under the Texas sun. Sometimes Lundy wished he could tape LaFiamma's mouth shut.
'I wish you would.' Like LaFiamma needed a reminder that he was an unwanted outsider. Needed a reminder that he was here not because he wanted to be but because he had no choice. He'd been trying to make the best of it but it was hard. And finding out that his partner wanted him gone didn't make it any easier.
Lundy shifted in the seat. Another five minutes of total silence and he felt worse. It didn't help that he honestly believed they were wasting their time out here. But, he finally admitted to himself, that was no call to say what he had. He glanced over at his partner and saw by the hard, nearly dead look in LaFiamma's eyes that he had done worse damage than he'd realized.
"I didn't mean that," he offered softly. "You just get on my nerves sometimes... and sometimes I say things before I think." He waited to see if his apology would work.
"Sometimes that's when you say what you really feel," LaFiamma replied, not looking at his partner. The hurt that Lundy's words had caused was still a bit too raw.
Lundy winced. That had hit a little too close to home. Looking away he realized that what he really needed to do was climb out of the truck and give himself a good kicking. Why did he keep forgetting how LaFiamma had ended up here? Exiled from his home and family, sent someplace he didn't want to be -- even if Lundy loved his home state, that was no reason to think someone in LaFiamma's situation would welcome Houston with open arms.
Focusing again on the house across the road, he tried again. "Like I said, you get on my nerves. I wish you'd leave me alone and if that means you leaving town altogether... I know you don't like it here, Joe. I guess I just wish you could go home. Then we'd both be happy."
"Yeah, whatever." The monotone gave nothing away of how much more alone Lundy was making him feel. He stared straight out the windshield and silently wished for the Texan to stop talking.
Lundy shook his head. It was obvious his attempts to apologize were failing. He hadn't meant what he'd said... at least not as seriously as LaFiamma was taking it. Why in the world did they always reach this point? Couldn't go three days without arguing about something. The truce they'd found after dropping Farnham off at the border hadn't lasted long -- four days if you didn't count the jostling for control of the radio.
What on earth made it so hard to get along with this man? And more importantly, why did it bother him so much that they fought? It was clear they worked well enough together to get the job done and he had no doubts about trusting his partner on the job. Even if the job was a waste of time, LaFiamma's ability as a cop wasn't in question. It was the question of his ability to not annoy Levon Lundy.
Lundy shook his head. This wasn't something he was going to solve during one stakeout. Certainly not if LaFiamma wasn't even talking to him.
As silence descended between them again, LaFiamma slowly relaxed a little. He still hated the tension-filled quiet but for the moment it was much better than the alternative.
Reluctantly Lundy realized that LaFiamma wasn't going to say anything more about it. How could a man be as annoying quiet as he was talking? He stopped himself from glancing over again, not wanting to give his partner reason to snap at him again.
There didn't seem to be anything else he could say -- so far everything had failed miserably. He couldn't lie to the man, just to try and make him feel better. Even if he could bring himself to try it he had a feeling LaFiamma would see right through it. That would make things even worse.
But, dammit, why did it bother him so much to know the other man was hurting?
Lundy watched as his partner gave his regards to Lilly, and walked out of the room. LaFiamma's reassurances to her had been unexpected but he was grateful. He turned to Lilly and Joanne. "You call me, Lilly, if there's anything I can do."
She just nodded at him, and he saw the look in Joanne's face that said she would take care of the woman. Lundy turned and followed his partner out.
LaFiamma moved wearily across the bullpen to his desk. He was glad the case was over but found he could take no pleasure in having been proved right. Too many people had been hurt.
Lundy walked up behind his partner. Their fight had gone unmentioned as the investigation had gained headway. But now, with everything all over, there was still so much left to do.
He knew LaFiamma had not forgotten what they'd said. He just didn't know whether he would accept another attempt at an apology.
Dropping into his chair, LaFiamma sighed and started in on the post-case paperwork. He couldn't totally repress a moment of longing for the way things had been in Chicago; when he and Szabos had cracked a tough case, they'd leave the paperwork to the next day and go out and celebrate or commiserate, depending on the circumstances. But one thing never changed, they had gone together. Not having that here just drove home again how alone he really was.
There was no mistaking how his partner felt -- the slouch, the carefully neutral expression -- Lundy stepped closer and carefully laid a hand on LaFiamma's shoulder.
The sudden touch startled LaFiamma; he looked up at his partner warily. "What is it Lundy?" he asked tiredly. He didn't want to do this, not when he was already so emotionally off-balance.
"You wanna go grab some supper? Leave all this for later?"
LaFiamma studied the other man's expression for a long moment, trying to divine his motives, but finally decided that even if Lundy was being moved by pity it beat being alone. "What the hell." He stood up and grabbed his jacket. "Let's go then."
Lundy led them out of the station and towards his truck. A few glances towards LaFiamma told him his partner was humoring him. Better the devil you know than being alone as his granddad had said, always cheerfully mixing his cliches when it suited him. He saw the depressed look LaFiamma tried to hide every time he looked over and knew he was in part to blame. Hopefully tonight would repair some of the damage.
Starting up the truck Lundy pulled out of the garage, letting the silence give them both a reason to believe there would be no more rashly spoken words tonight.
"So where are we going?" LaFiamma asked disinterestedly, as he sat slumped in the passenger seat, staring out at the passing traffic. Not that it mattered. Wherever it was probably served everything either barbecued or deep-fried.
Lundy smiled, trying desperately not to grin. If he did he'd give away his plan -- his apology and penance. Hopefully it would work.
"A friend of mine has a small diner. She's closing it, actually, to move to Florida with her sister. She's having one last night -- feeding all her friends and regulars. I didn't expect to be free tonight, but since we are... " He glanced over. "I figured you could do with some good food for a change."
'Great,' LaFiamma thought. 'Another night with me being the only outsider.' Trying to shake the deepening cloud of depression that was settling over him, he made an attempt at their usual banter.
"I haven't had good food in a restaurant since I left Chicago."
The hard tone in LaFiamma's voice made Lundy feel even worse about the things he'd said the other day. But he smiled and accepted LaFiamma's attempt to keep things light and non-threatening.
"Well then, tonight you're in for a treat. Some of the best cooking in Houston--" He grinned. "Don't tell Chicken I said so."
"That's not saying much," LaFiamma replied halfway under his breath.
Lundy wanted nothing more than to stop the truck and explain it all -- tell LaFiamma just how sorry he was. But he'd already tried it, and his words had been ignored. He couldn't blame Joe, not really. How hard had he tried before now to show LaFiamma that he was welcome here? Night before last he'd asked himself that same question and had been ashamed to realize the answer. A quick visit to an old friend had given him his opportunity tonight to make amends, or at least begin them.
"Don't worry, LaFiamma. I wouldn't take you someplace unsavory," he teased, tone as light as he could make it.
" I'd hate to see what you think of as unsavory, Lundy," LaFiamma shot back, feeling his dark mood lighten just a little bit at the familiar banter. Somehow it made him feel less alone, even if the feeling was mostly illusionary.
With a short laugh, Lundy shook his head. He was glad to see LaFiamma cheering up a bit. "It's food so long as it ain't movin' off the plate -- otherwise the barbecue sauce slides off, you see."
LaFiamma grimaced and spoke without thinking. "One of these days Lundy I'm going to have to show you what real food is like. You can come over some night and--"
Abruptly he shut his mouth and looked away. Was he really about to offer to cook for Lundy? 'Stupid,' he berated himself. 'He's made it more than clear where he stands. Stop giving him more chances to kick you in the teeth.'
"That sounds like an interesting idea. I assume that means you can cook?" He teased, knowing that the accusation would draw his partner out as surely as a sincere acceptance would make him close off even further.
"Can I cook? I'm Italian aren't I?" Even as he shot his response back LaFiamma felt something inside loosen slightly when Lundy didn't reject his half-voiced offer.
Lundy shrugged. "I knew an Italian girl in college, couldn't boil water. Didn't matter, though, because half the guys on the football team were ready and willin' to take her to dinner." He bit his tongue as he found himself almost making the next comment about LaFiamma fitting that same bill -- hot and sexy enough to get whatever he wanted.
Quickly he covered for the things he didn't want to say. "You saying it's genetic? Being Italian makes you talk funny and cook well?"
Well that was smooth. Lundy wanted to hit his head on the steering wheel and decided to concentrate on driving instead. He felt tongue-tied and hoped it wasn't showing as clearly as it sounded.
"Having an Italian grandmother who insists on teaching you makes you cook well," LaFiamma corrected. He paused for a second before adding pointedly, "And as for the talking funny bit, well I wouldn't be casting no stones about that if I were you."
"Mother Minnie tried to teach me how to cook once. I was about five -- broke three of her good dishes before she ran me outside."
LaFiamma's depression was forgotten in his curiosity at this unexpected glimpse into his partner's past. "Mother Minnie?" he asked.
With a silent sigh of relief, Lundy realized he had managed to hit upon a subject he could use to distract them both until they reached the diner. "My grandmother. She spent a lot of time lookin' after me." No need to go into why -- he was trying to cheer his partner up. "I was staying with her one summer and seemed like every day I'd come running in for lunch just when she'd get to working on some chore or another. Finally she decided to teach me how to fix my own lunches."
"Yeah? What did she try to teach you how to make?"
"I don't actually remember. Just that we had the pot out, some bowls and one of the plates. Broke everything but one bowl. I didn't learn how to cook until I was fourteen."
"That's one way to get out of helping in the kitchen I guess." LaFiamma was smiling as he tried to picture his partner as a five-year-old.
"Wasn't what I was trying to do... at least, not so far as I can remember." Lundy grinned, and settled back as LaFiamma's smile finally grew a little more real.
He talked about Minnie as they drove; fifteen minutes into a story about her catching him covered head to toe in green mud they arrived.
"Green mud?" LaFiamma repeated. He shook his head with a laugh. "I wish I could've seen that."
Lundy gave his partner a glare. He started to accuse him of having done just as bad when he was a kid, but didn't want to remind his partner how far away from home he was. Instead he pulled into an empty parking lot beside a small old diner and parked the truck.
LaFiamma peered out the window. "This is it?" he asked, doubtfully.
"Yeah, this is it." Lundy jumped out, knowing what was coming. He saw the kitchen light, dim behind the dark shades, but definitely on.
"Why is it closed? Get shut down by the health inspector?" LaFiamma asked, only half-joking, as he got out and went to stand by his partner.
Lundy walked up to the door; he knew LaFiamma would be expecting it to be locked. Before he could say anything, Lundy opened the door and stepped inside. The place was mostly dark, lit only by the light spilling from the kitchen door in the back.
Mystified, LaFiamma followed, wondering just what his partner was up to.
Lundy headed inside to the dining area -- the entire front of the diner held seven small tables over which hung unlit chandeliers. On one table there was a wicker-wrapped basket. He headed for it, calling out towards the kitchen, "Rose?"
"You boys sit down! Dinner's almost ready!"
LaFiamma started at the woman's voice, old and heavy with an Italian accent. It made him think of his grandmother. "Lundy, what..."
"You heard her, Joe. Let's sit down." He couldn't wipe the huge smile off his face at the sight of his partner's shock. He nudged the other man towards the table just as someone flipped the lights on. Lundy looked over to see Mario carrying over two bowls of salad and a plate of bread.
LaFiamma was standing still, a stunned expression on his face.
Lundy reached over and tugged on his shirtsleeve. "Didn't your grandmother teach you to sit at the dinner table? Come on, Joe." Lundy shook his head, still smiling. It looked like his idea was going to work after all.
Mario set the salads and bread on the table and went back to the kitchen; as the door swung opened again they could smell what was cooking. Lundy only knew it as tomato sauce and oregano, but figured his partner could tell exactly what it was.
The scent that drifted out of the kitchen was heavenly; it smelled like his grandmother's kitchen, it smelled like home. For a moment all LaFiamma could do was close his eyes and inhale, not trusting himself to speak.
Gently, Lundy said, "Rose is an old friend... she sort of owed me a favor. Figured you'd appreciate her cookin'." Suddenly he felt awkward, wondering if he should just sit down and start eating. But LaFiamma still hadn't moved.
LaFiamma opened his eyes and looked at his partner, his heart visible in his expression. "Lundy I..." He stopped, shaking his head as his throat closed up. Didn't matter really. He didn't think he had the words to tell the other man how much this meant to him.
"Why don't we just eat? Rose is liable to come out here with the next course and give us hell if we ain't even started yet..."
Nodding LaFiamma finally sat down. They ate in silence for a few moments, then LaFiamma looked up and met his partner's eyes. "Thanks," he said simply, putting all of his emotions into that one word.
Lundy was surprised how much that one word warmed him. Maybe it was just knowing he had finally repaired the hurt he'd done, inadvertently and not so, since this whole mess began. He nodded. "You're welcome." Shifting in his seat he looked back to his salad, grateful that Rose had accepted his plea.
Glancing up at his partner, he saw him watching him with a strange look in his eyes. He met that look and for a few moments neither man said a word. Then LaFiamma grinned and his face turned into a boy's the way it always did.
"You sure you can live without barbecue for one night Lundy?" LaFiamma teased. He felt almost giddy; the look in his partner's eyes warming him deep down inside.
"I reckon I can manage. Rose promised me I'd like it." The Texan returned the smile he got with a wide one of his own. Yeah, things were not only repaired but well on their way to being downright good. Maybe, if he could remember to do something like this once in a while, they'd even get along for real.
"Tell you what, next time we'll go out for steaks or something equally Texan okay?" LaFiamma asked, then almost wished his words back when Lundy froze in mid-bite for a second. Had he gone too far when he assumed there would be a next time?
Lundy gave himself a kick, and told himself the invitation made perfect sense. LaFiamma owed him dinner. That was all. Well, that and the admittance that peace had been declared.
"I'll hold you to that, LaFiamma." Lundy wanted to kick himself again. Instead he turned to his dinner.
LaFiamma grinned, relieved. "So what happened with the green mud?" he asked after a few moments' silence. "You never did finish the story."
After a second Lundy returned the grin. "Oh hell, LaFiamma, I just said that so you wouldn't ask where we were going -- wanted this to be a surprise."
Something in LaFiamma 's face softened. "It was Levon." He grinned suddenly. "But I still want to hear the rest of the story."
With a shake of his head, Lundy relented. There was no way LaFiamma would let him alone until he did. "Well it wasn't exactly green mud... more like mud and algae, but it sure did stain. Like to never got it out of the dining room carpet...."
LaFiamma sat back and listened to his partner's story while he ate the first Italian meal he hadn't cooked himself since he'd left Chicago feeling strangely content. Maybe he wasn't alone after all.