R-ish for language. Feedback and constructive criticism welcomed at the email link at the bottom of the page.

Written for Deana for the January '08 Sweet Charity auction. Much thanks to logophilos for beta work!

by Katie

Van jerked awake, heart pounding, the sound of his breath muffled by the air conditioner. He lay still for several moments, focusing on the rise and fall of his chest. He was breathing. He was alive.

He wasn't getting back to sleep. Five nights of this routine told him that. With a sigh, he got up, grabbed his jeans off the floor, and checked to make sure his keys were still in his pocket.

His dashboard clock read just after three a.m. Traffic was lighter on the highway, and the breeze blowing through his hair had a hint of chill to it. He drove mindlessly for a time, passing from mostly dark business district to mostly jumping clubs. He didn't have the radio on. He still needed to concentrate on the rise and fall of his chest.

No one would be at the Candy Store so late, but it had become a habit to end his nightly drive there. His steps echoed on the hard floor, the desk lamp Billie always left on in her office guiding his way. He headed for the couch. Deaq had left his leather jacket lying across the arm. Van pulled it over him like a blanket as he lay down. It smelled of Deaq's cologne, spicy and warm.

Half-asleep, he could fool himself into thinking it was Deaq's chest instead of cushions at his back, Deaq's arms instead of the sleeves of his jacket. He could relax, finally, and drift off.

The first time Deaq found Van sacked out on the couch at the Candy Store, his heart had skipped a beat. It wasn't like Van to be at work that early, and sure wasn't like him to be so exhausted he didn't hear Deaq come in. But Van, when he was awake, wasn't having any "mothering," as he called it. Deaq kept his concern to himself and one eye on his partner, just in case.

Now, nearly a week later, he would've been surprised if Van hadn't been on the couch. It had become so much a part of their routine that he automatically picked up two coffees on his way in. He hadn't given up on the worry, though. Something was up with Van that Deaq couldn't pull out of him, and normally Van wanted to talk about everything.

"He's going to be fine," Billie said from behind Deaq, her voice hushed. "He's been through a lot, but the doctor said he'd be okay."

Deaq turned to look at her. She'd been through a lot, too. The cut on her forehead still sported a yellowed bruise, and her eyes had dark hollows beneath them. She'd come out of her trip down heroin lane intact, but Deaq knew what a fight it had been. If that blonde bitch hadn't been blown apart by the bullets from Billie's gun, he would have wanted to strangle her for what she'd done. But no matter what hell she'd been through, Billie was on her feet, both physically and metaphorically. Deaq wasn't so sure about Van.

"The doc also said he should have given himself some time to rest instead of running around like a crazy man the minute he could stand up again," Deaq pointed out. Not that Deaq would've done it differently. He just wanted it all over, both of his people safe and things back to normal.

Billie just sighed. "We've got a new case," she said, visibly shaking off her own worry. "Nothing too complicated, but we need some good press with the powers that be right now. Putting Mark Reyland behind bars will go a long way toward getting our asses out of the sling."

"Mark the Shark?"

"The one and only."

"How are we going to do that?"

Billie smiled. "I've got a plan."

"So you want me to wiggle my ass at him?" Van asked an hour later, still blinking sleep out of his eyes and clutching the coffee Deaq had brought him like it was a lifeline.

"You're his type." Billie shrugged. "Skinny, pretty, a little bit scruffy. You got a problem with it?"

Van glanced at Deaq, who watched the proceedings unhappily. It wasn't so much that Van had a problem. He suspected Deaq did, though. Deaq had handled the news that Van was bi with the same lack of concern that he'd accepted Van's favorite color being blue, and with a lot more aplomb than when he'd found out Van listened to Neil Diamond. The man had an unreasoning prejudice against Neil that Van just couldn't understand. But when it came to Van using his wiles on other guys for a case, Deaq always got that look like he'd just been told Steve McQueen drove a Toyota. Van wasn't sure what was behind it. Deaq didn't care when Van flirted with women. What was the difference?

"No, no problem." Van looked back at Billie. "So you think I'm pretty?"

She rolled her eyes. "Our objective here is to get him to sell you a substantial amount of cocaine. I'm giving you fifty thousand, and I expect a good return for my money. Obviously, the better he likes you, the more he's going to be willing to let you into his ring of sellers. Once you're in, we'll assess whether we need to go ahead and make the bust, or whether we can string him along and use him as bait for bigger fish."

"What if I did the ass-wiggling?" Deaq said.

Van choked on his coffee, while Billie's eyebrows climbed toward her hairline.

"I was thinking maybe Van should take a back seat this time." Deaq wasn't looking at Van. On purpose, Van was sure. "Since it's our first case since he was sick and all. I can go in, get Reyland to sell me the coke, and Van can run back-up from here."

"Are you crazy?" Van asked, sincerely wondering. "I can't even count the things wrong with that idea. Starting with when the hell did you get willing to wiggle your ass for anyone with a dick?"

"There's nothing wrong with my ass. I have a fine ass."

"Be that as it may," Billie interrupted, "you don't have a skinny, scruffy ass. You have an athlete's ass, and Reyland won't be interested."

"Yeah." Van grinned, glad to be backed up, and then frowned as he processed what Billie had said. "My ass is not scruffy."

"No more talk about asses." Billie glared until Van had to look away and Deaq shuffled his feet. "Okay? Van is the logical choice for any a-- er, flirting. He'll be fine, but the minute he feels like he's not up to the job, he's going to tell me. Right, Van?"

"I'm fine."

"Right, Van?" Her eyes and her tone were both steel.

Van sighed. "Right."

"And Deaq, you're going to back off and let Van do his job." Billie's expression gentled even though she was still frowning. "He's going to be fine. Trust him to let you know if he's not, okay?"

"Have you met him?"

"Still in the room, guys."

Billie and Deaq both turned to glare at him, and Van sighed. He couldn't catch a break.

"Deaq, I promise I won't keel over and die on the job, okay?" If there was a thread of seriousness in his voice that wouldn't have been there a month ago, well, he'd said it before. Nearly flatlining was a bitch.

Deaq just shook his head. "You do and I'll kick your scruffy ass all the way to the cemetery."

"My ass is not scruffy!"

Mark the Shark favored the type of high-class restaurant with tables covered in white cloth dotting a veranda lined with potted shrubs to cut down on the noise from the street. It seemed a strange choice for a guy with a tattoo and a pet shark, not to mention access to millions of dollars in illegal drugs. Yet Reyland and his burly-but-nicely-dressed associate sat at the table as comfortably as if they owned the place.

Deaq trailed along as Van, wearing pants much too tight for Deaq's comfort, led the way through the tables to where Reyland was sitting. When Van held out his hand for Reyland to shake, Deaq couldn't help but notice he held on a moment too long, met Reyland's eyes just a fraction of a second more than normal between two guys meeting for the first time. Deaq didn't like Reyland's smile as they sat down. It looked like a cat that had just found the cream.

"So, Mr. Strummer, Mr. Hayes." Reyland's eyes lingered on Van. "You come highly recommended. Tell me, how is it you know Antoine Summers?"

They knew him because Billie had busted him once upon a time, but Deaq didn't think sharing that information would get them very far. Antoine was on his third strike. When Billie had approached him with a request for an introduction and photos of him dealing again, he'd been more than happy to help.

"He did time with my brother on the east coast before he came to L.A.," Deaq replied. "I gave him some work when he moved out here, and he wanted to return the favor."

Reyland nodded without much interest. Antoine would have given him the same story already.

"And what is it you want with me?"

Van's grin was as suggestive as Reyland's question. "We were hoping to do some . . . business."

Deaq was hoping he wouldn't throw up.

"Oh? What kind of . . . business?"

"We've expanded lately, and our old supplier can't meet our needs anymore." Deaq leaned forward slightly, breaking the tension between Van and Reyland. "We need someone who can handle larger shipments. Somewhere in the range of fifty thousand to start off. More later if everyone's satisfied with the transaction."

"The amount won't be a problem. Why don't you stop by my place tonight and we'll work out the details where it's more private?"

Somehow Deaq didn't get the feeling the invitation was for both of them. He probably should have found an excuse for not tagging along, but what came out instead was, "We'll be there."

If looks could kill, he would have bought it from two directions at once.

"Did I miss the part where we decided you'd play jealous lover?" Van kept his voice even, just interested, because if he let go of his control he'd probably take a swing at his partner.

"That wasn't jealous, that was business. We agreed that I'd be the hard-ass and you'd be the flirt."

"Except you didn't let me flirt! And every time he looked at me, you practically growled at him. What the hell, Deaq?"

"I did not."

"Did too."

"Did not."

"Like a dog, man. Like I was your bitch. Since when do we change the game while we're in the middle of the board?"

"Just because you were reading my signals wrong--"

Van reconsidered the hitting thing. Maybe he'd knock some sense into Deaq's thick skull.

"I read your signals loud and clear, partner. Look, I know we all got shaken up by the thing with McKusick, but you gotta back off and let me do my job or we're both going to wind up dead."

"You think I don't know that?"

Deaq's voice was rough, his hands on the steering wheel so tight that his knuckles bulged. Van closed his eyes and listened to them both breathe for a moment.

"I'm sorry," Deaq offered finally. "It's just--"

"I know, man, I know."

The bitch of it all was, Van was right. It screwed with Deaq's understanding of the world. Deaq had been acting like a jealous lover, and it wasn't just because he was feeling gun shy. He wasn't used to thinking about Van like that. Van was his skinny, scruffy, too-pretty-for-his-own-good partner. On the rare occasions when Deaq fooled around with another guy, he liked them just the opposite: big, muscular, and chiseled. He went for strong and silent, not annoying and mouthy with bizarre tastes in music. Right up until Van was lying on that hospital bed, talking about Billie replacing him, and Deaq realized he couldn't even imagine life without his partner in it. Or, more truthfully, he could imagine that life; he just couldn't accept it.

Ever since then, he'd been too aware of Van. When Reyland looked at Van like he was property, it had taken all of Deaq's will power not to reach across the table and strangle the asshole. And now he had to walk into the asshole's house and act like all he wanted was a good score. Sometimes being undercover sucked.

It turned out that Mark the Shark's namesake pet lived in his living room. The aquarium had to be at least four hundred gallons, and the shark swimming around it had to be close to two feet long. It looked like mini-Jaws. Deaq couldn't help but wonder how many fingers and ears it had eaten to get so large. Reyland stood next to the tank, feeding the shark what Deaq could only hope were worms. Posing, Deaq thought with a mental snort. The burly guy from the restaurant was standing by the window, looking for all the world like he was lost in a daydream. Somehow Deaq doubted that.

"Welcome, gentlemen." Reyland's smile was only for Van. "It seems like it's old home week around here."

"How's that?" Van asked.

"Jimmy Dorman flew in from New York this afternoon. He and Antoine worked together, so I figured you might know him."

As casually as possible, Deaq reached around for the gun he had holstered at his back. He knew Jimmy Dorman all right. He'd busted him twice.

"Hey, Jimmy!" Reyland called before Deaq could think of a way to talk them out of the situation. "Come meet my new business partners!"

It happened so fast Deaq could only react on instinct. Jimmy, just as tall and rat-faced as Deaq remembered, walked into the room. His eyes widened and his hand went for his gun even as he yelled out, "They're cops!"

Van's bullet must have been the one to take out Jimmy. The sharp report was still ringing in his ears as Deaq trained his own gun on Reyland. In the same instant, Reyland lunged away from the tank, his own gun pointed at Deaq.

"Drop it!" Reyland yelled.

"Like hell. Drop yours!"

And then Burly Guy came at Van, knocking Van's gun from his hand. Van grunted in pain as Burly Guy drove a fist into his stomach. Deaq couldn't help him, couldn't take his gun off Reyland.

Burly Guy had Van in a headlock. With his free hand, Burly Guy smashed the tank lid to the ground, glass shattering loudly as it hit the floor. Burly Guy shoved Van face-first toward the tank. Into the tank, and Van was going to fucking drown while Deaq just stood there and watched.

Deaq took a deep breath, trying to regain control. "Let's all take it easy, okay? No one has to get hurt."

He didn't look at the gun pointed at him. Reyland's eyes would tell him if he was about to die. "Tell your guy to let go of my partner. We'll work this out."

Was Van struggling less? Deaq couldn't tell. All he knew was that they were running out of time, and he couldn't lose Van again.

As if reading his mind, Reyland smirked. "Give it another minute, you won't have a partner."

The door slammed open behind Deaq. Taking a chance, he whirled and aimed, blowing the top of Burly Guy's head against the nearby wall. He turned again, expecting to meet a bullet, but Reyland was down, a red hole between his eyes.

"So maybe I'm a little over-protective too," Billie said, walking into the room with a pair of guys in SWAT gear on her heels.

Deaq flashed her a grin as he moved toward Van. "Couldn't have asked for better timing."

Van had shoved himself away from the tank, but that seemed to be as far as his strength would carry him. He lay doubled up on the floor, gasping like he had that day in the hospital.

"Take it easy, man." Deaq pulled him around so that he could sit up a bit, leaning against Deaq's shoulder. "You can breathe, Van. Just take it slow."

Van's hand clutched at his shirt. Deaq chose to take that as a good sign.

"How is he?" Billie crouched own beside them, then called over her shoulder. "We need an ambulance. Officer down!"

"No," Van croaked, weak but understandable. "I'm okay. Just give me a minute."

Deaq shifted his grip to help Van sit up, but didn't let go. Couldn't let go, not while Van was still shaking.

"You sure?" Billie eyed him suspiciously.

"The shark is totally more traumatized than I am," Van assured her. He looked up at the tank and grimaced. "Man, I'll never look at Jaws the same way again."

Deaq couldn't resist a look at the shark. It was circling its tank, tail whipping furiously as it searched for the intruder. Deaq shuddered and turned away, not wanting to think about what could have been.

"Let's get you dried off." Deaq pulled him to his feet, keeping a hand on his arm to steady him when he seemed wobbly. "I don't think Reyland's going to care if we use one of his towels, do you?"

Billie waved them off and turned to start the clean-up. Deaq guided Van toward the door that Jimmy Dorman had come through, hoping for a hall that would eventually lead to a bathroom. Luck was with him. The second door he tried had a full bath with a nice stack of fluffy towels in the bathroom cabinet. Whoever had decorated Reyland's house had done a good job. Deaq couldn't quite feel sorry that Reyland wouldn't be around to enjoy it anymore.

"Well, I guess we can chalk that up in the win column." Van scrubbed at his hair with the towel. "All's well that ends well, and all that shit."

Emerging from under the towel, he gave Deaq a hopeful grin. Something inside Deaq, something that had curled up in fear when he saw Van lying in that hospital bed, stretched and broke.

"The hell with this." He grabbed Van's shirt in both hands, pulling him close. Van's mouth was still open in shock when Deaq's lips closed over his. It took a minute, but when Deaq's tongue teased the roof of Van's mouth, Van finally got with the program and started kissing back.

Deaq wasn't quite prepared for the shove that pushed them apart, or for Van's sharp, slightly cynical look.

"This isn't because I almost died again, is it? Because you could just buy me a beer and call it even."

Deaq took the question seriously, but it still only took him a few seconds to come up with an answer.

"This," he said, "is because your skinny, scruffy ass still looks hot even when you're soaking wet."

"Oh." Van's grin could have lit up the whole room. "That's okay, then."

Deaq got back to the business at hand, only to be shoved away again.

"My ass is not scruffy!"