Silver Oak Medical Center Prequel

Aiden Bates


Part One

Tom looked at his calendar and made a face. He'd had a full day already, and most of those meetings had been good. He'd presided over one group session that had gone spectacularly well, actually. He could wrap the feeling of that group session around himself when he went to bed tonight, kind of like a fuzzy blanket.

One of his patients had a breakthrough today. Lisa was ready to start trying, really trying, and Tom couldn't have been happier about that. She was ready to be there for her son, and nothing could have made Tom happier than a mother being ready to be there for her son.

If Tom's day could have ended there, he'd have been over the moon. As it was, there was one meeting left.

The meeting was mandatory. Tom didn't know what would happen if he skipped it. Would he just get a stern talking to? Would he be fired? He needed the job too badly to risk it, but the temptation was there.

He headed down to the big conference room, the one they used for giant meetings like when they had to tell people they were going to go through a hiring freeze, again. Tom hated this room. He hated the urine-yellow walls. He hated the chairs, which had been sent down to the rehab center the last time the main hospital had been redecorated five years ago and had been used hard before that. They'd been state of the art once. They weren't now.

He hated the motivational posters on the wall most of all. Some well-meaning person had donated them to the center years ago, thinking they might help the patients overcome their demons. Since no one overcomes a powerful addiction because they see a poster on a wall telling them to "hang in there, kitty," the posters had been shoved into staff areas. No one on staff didn't fantasize about burning them.

Still, Tom took his seat toward the middle of the room. His friend Monika slid into place beside him, nose wrinkling as she looked around the space. "Think they're going to announce layoffs?"

Tom shoved his unruly auburn hair out of his face and considered. "Nah," he decided after a second. "I think a furlough's more likely. Still not great, but at least we've still got a job while we polish up our résumés."

Monika chuckled. "Like you'd ever leave your patients like that."

"Probably not." Tom shrugged easily and grinned. He couldn't deny it. If he were motivated primarily by money he'd have picked a different field. Addiction counselors didn't exactly make bank. "We might not have a choice. For a part of the state with such a big addiction problem, this isn't an area that values treatment."

"I'm not sure anyplace else would be any better." Monika rested her head on Tom's shoulder for a moment. "But hey, we can always dream."

True, they could always dream. Tom threaded his arm around Monika's shoulders and gave a gentle squeeze, and then they adjusted into a more professional posture. They weren't lovers. Tom was gay; he'd never even tried to have a sexual interest in women. They both liked a certain amount of physical affection, though, and they knew other people sometimes found that affection to be off-putting.

Other colleagues filed into the room. Tom loved his colleagues, he did. Maybe in other parts of Silver Oak there could be some more rigid adherence to medical hierarchies, but at the Chemical Dependency Unit they didn't have any of that nonsense to contend with. They all had parts to play, and everyone recognized that their role only worked as part of the whole. Maybe the psychiatrist made more than Tom did, by orders of magnitude, but her work was all for nothing if Tom didn't get his work done.

Tom would never want to work at the main hospital, not in a million years.

Once the rest of the team had filed in, with a skeleton crew making sure patients were comfortable and not out looking for trouble, the Men In Suits walked in through a different entrance. Men In Suits never came in the same way regular employees entered the conference room. If Tom were cynical, and he didn't pretend he didn't have tendencies in that direction sometimes, he'd suspect that Silver Oak's senior executives didn't want to be contaminated by contact with the folks from the Chemical Dependency Unit.

Tom took stock of the folks at the front of the room. He recognized most of the people up there. Silver Oak's CEO, A. J. Van Kan, was up there with a tight smile on his face. Ted Locatelli, the CFO, stood beside him. Locatelli surveyed the room, the corners of his lips drawn down. Tom imagined Ted saw every face before him with dollar signs. Monty Orman, the Chief Marketing Officer, stood on Van Kan's left side, and Conrad Nani, the VP of Business Development, stood on Locatelli's right.

Monika leaned over to him. "At least no one from HR is there. That's a good sign, right?"

"Maybe." Tom's eyes found the two people who weren't part of the executive team. "Maybe they've fired the HR team already."

The two people at the front of the room who weren't part of the executive team stood out in every way possible. One was a woman. She was black, unlike the white men who surrounded her, and she wore a bright red suit to emphasize her difference from them even more. She held herself a little apart from them, and her lip curled when it landed on the motivational posters.

The man was the one who caught Tom's attention, though. He wasn't very tall, but everything about the way he carried himself screamed alpha. His shoulders were broad, and his tailored suit showed off his well-muscled body perfectly. Tanned skin and well-coiffed hair showed that this guy cared about his looks, and took care of them.

"Don't drool," Monika scolded into his ear. "It's unbecoming."

Tom tore his eyes away with reluctance. Short, Dark and Handsome was probably the new HR guy, there to lay them all off. And a guy who looked like that, who was so careful about his appearance, probably wouldn't give a guy like Tom the time of day.

Van Kan stepped up and drew everyone's attention. "Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for taking the time to be here. I want you to know that the executive team at Silver Oak appreciates everything you do for our patients and community over here at the Chemical Dependency Unit.

"Chemical dependency, opioids in particular, are a growing issue in the United States as a whole and within the Central New York community in particular." Van Kan tugged at his collar. "Solutions to this issue differ, of course, but I don't think anyone in this room would disagree that treatment is an important aspect of solving this epidemic. The region needs more in-patient beds, and we need more outpatient programs.

"I'm pleased to announce that Silver Oak Hospital has partnered with Match Pharmaceuticals to refurbish and expand the Chemical Dependency Center. Instead of forty beds, Match will help us expand to sixty so we can help more people with inpatient needs. The outpatient programs will expand as well, and we'll be able to better serve special populations such as pregnant women and juveniles." Van Kan beamed at the assembly.

Tom and the others exchanged glances. Sure, it sounded great to be able to expand services. Somehow, Tom doubted that whatever grant they were receiving was likely to include anything like raises, or money for additional staff to accommodate the twenty extra beds. And there was a bigger problem, at least to his view. He raised his hand.

Van Kan pointed at him, still insufferably proud. "Yes? You, with the earrings?"

Tom stood up. "Hi. I'm Tom, I'm a CD counselor here. Doesn't Match make like six of the most commonly abused opiates in the county?"

Van Kan glowered. Monika, beside Tom, winced. The hot alpha scowled, and the Black woman stepped forward with a grace that defied human existence. "Hi, Tom. I'm Valerie Prince, I'm the new CEO of Match Pharma. As a matter of fact, we do make six of the most commonly abused opiates. That's a matter of significant concern for us. One quarter of our R&D budget has been devoted to finding ways of making our prescription painkillers less liable to abuse, and I'm proud to tell you that we're making great strides in that direction.

"We're also conducting research into painkillers that are less liable to lead to addiction. We believe in relief of suffering, and nothing's going to put us off of that mission. That said, contributing to the current crisis facing our nation isn't relieving suffering." She spread her hands out in front of her. "Ever since I took over, a year ago, Match Pharmaceuticals has been committed to finding ways to continue with our mission in a less harmful way. And that's what we're all here for, right?" She smiled, while the executives around her nodded.

Hot Alpha's forest green eyes burned into Tom, and Tom's mouth went dry. Tom couldn't very well sit down now, but he wanted to. Oh, did he want to. He toyed with the key card that dangled from its clip, attached to his belt loop. "Hi. I'm Justin Amadori, I'm the Vice President of Healthcare Relations. I just want to make it clear that while we do manufacture opiates as a means of relieving pain, we make a good faith effort to help mitigate the effects of opiate abuse—such as one might see here. We certainly can't be responsible for other peoples' choices."

Tom opened his mouth to retort. When Match had been making money hand over fist on these people's addictions, they certainly could be held at least partially responsible for the addictions that developed. Hadn't they gone out of their way to bribe doctors to prescribe narcotics for commonplace injuries?

But Van Kan, and Locatelli, gave him another look, and Monica dragged him back into his seat, and Tom bit his tongue. This whole thing was a done deal anyway. His personal feelings about Match and about the pharmaceutical industry in general didn't matter.

Conrad Nani darkened the room and projected an image onto the wall. The new center looked nice enough, Tom supposed. Apparently they were going to take the existing building and enlarge it, but they were also planning to make the windows larger and rehab the full interior. Tom noted the way they'd colored the walls—nothing was colored like any kind of bodily function. He wondered if that would last beyond first contact with the deep discount rack at the paint store.

The presentation ended, and that was all it had been—a presentation. As near as Tom could tell, no one from the Chemical Dependency Center had been involved with the new design. That included the head of the center, Dr. Piovene, who's drawn-together eyebrows and slight frown strongly suggested he felt about as good about this whole thing as Tom did.

Indeed, Piovene approached Tom as the meeting drew to a close. "You're not at all enthralled by this latest corporate partnership," he said, shoving his hands into his pockets.

"No." Tom shook his head, sending his hair flying into his face. "I'm uncomfortable with it for a lot of reasons. I mean, did you see how they wanted to arrange the new beds? How are the nurses supposed to monitor residential patients if they're separated like that? Whoever designed this has no idea what our staffing levels are really like."

"The expectation is that Silver Oak will increase staff to accommodate the increased number of patients." Neither Tom nor Piovene had heard Amadori, the hot alpha, approach, but here he was. His hands were by his side, and his smile was open and about as relaxed as he could get, but his shoulders radiated tension. "No one actually expects the same number of staff to accommodate that many patients."

"Really?" Tom turned on his heel to look directly at Amadori. The smaller man might be attractive. Tom might even consider sleeping with him, under the right circumstances. He wasn't going to let him get away with that level of ignorance. "And where exactly is the money for that kind of staffing going to come from?"

Dr. Piovene put a hand on Tom's shoulder. "While I'm sure we all appreciate the gesture Match is trying to make here," he began, and squeezed Tom's shoulder ever so slightly, "Silver Oak has a wide variety of staffing needs. If they didn't sign a document stating they intend to staff up, they're not going to staff up."

Amadori frowned, lips pressed together like he'd bitten into a lemon peel. "Oh come on. You don't really think…"

Tom shifted his weight. "We've both been working here a while. We know the drill by now."

Piovene cleared his throat. "Obviously we'll do what we can, but I'm not all that hopeful at the moment."

Amadori cleared his throat. "You have another issue with us, though, don't you?" Those green eyes bored into Tom again, and at such close range the effect was devastating. "Come on, admit it. You just don't like Match. What did we ever do to you? Are you a former employee and now you're bitter?"

Tom huffed out a laugh. "I'm not a former employee. I'm bitter at the thought of people struggling to get clean from your products having to walk into a building with your company's name glowing right on the top. That's never going to sit right with me. It just isn't, okay? It's good to have the funding, and I appreciate that Match is trying to help. I'm a little suspicious, because very few corporations try to do anything without getting something in return."

"Such as their name in big glowing letters on top of a building?" Amadori shifted his weight, so he was leaning back on his heels. Tom could kiss him. It would be easy.

"Exactly." Tom crossed his arms over his chest instead.

Justin bobbed his head from side to side. "You're not wrong about that. I mean, let's face it, we all want to get something in this world. You don't work here for free, do you? You get paid for the work you do here—and you should. Match feels strongly about helping with the opioid epidemic, and we're creating our own incentive." He smiled. "Valerie answers to our Board of Directors, and they answer to our shareholders. We need to be able to show we're not just throwing money into the wind here. This way, we can show there's a benefit to Match, there's a benefit to Silver Oak, and there's a benefit to the folks who are trying to get clean."

Tom made a face. He couldn't believe this kind of snake oil. It sounded great on paper, but there had to be a catch somewhere.

"Come on. If you're not too busy tonight, let me buy you dinner and I'll explain."

"Tom will go." Piavene jumped in before Tom could object. "He'll be happy to. Right, Tom?"

"Of course." Tom spoke through gritted teeth. He hated what Amadori was selling.

He hated the fact that he didn't mind looking at Amadori's face for an hour or two even more.

***

Justin racked his brain. Where could he possibly take this guy—was it Tom? Where could he take Tom, dressed as he was, that would be appropriate to impress a recalcitrant client?

Valerie walked up to him as soon as he pulled away from the little knot of Silver Oak people. "Did you just ask the skinny little troublemaker out on a date?"

"No." Justin shook his head. "It's not a date. Are you kidding me? When he first stood up I thought he was one of the junkies." He chuckled at his own joke, even though it made him squirm. "No, I just figured it's best if we can get buy-in from him."

"Why?" Valerie shifted her weight. Those high heels must have been killing her. "It's a done deal. He doesn't exactly get a choice in this."

"No, he doesn't. And I can't for the life of me see why he objects. But did you see the way the other workers here looked at him? No one, not even the director, was about to tell him to shut up. He's a leader. If we can get buy-in from him, we'll get it from the other employees. And if we get the employees to buy in, then we're dealing with people who are talking about how happy they are, and how grateful they are, instead of how Match Pharma ran roughshod over them and didn't care about their patients."

Valerie shrugged. "Fine, whatever. Don't say I didn't warn you when it blows up in your face."

Justin winked. Nothing blew up in Justin's face.

He headed back over to find his skinny companion for the evening. Tom, that was it. Tom was leaning against one of the wretched yellow walls, a little smirk playing around his lips. He didn't want to be here, doing this. The center director had stepped in and made it happen, and Tom had acquiesced. This definitely wasn't a date. Tom only dated the emphatically willing.

Tom looked him up and down. "So you convinced your boss this was a good idea?"

"Of course!" Justin rolled his shoulders. "She's completely on board. Do you feel like going into the city, or staying out here in the burbs?" Maybe they could hit the early bird special at someplace around here.

"How about Olive's Eatery? It's right in Baldwinsville, and it's got plenty of options."

Justin hadn't tried Olive's Eatery, or anyplace else out in the suburbs. He was willing to put up with it, though, if it got him a deal. He followed Tom's VW down to the restaurant, which turned out to be down near the river. The location was cute enough.

Tom led him into the restaurant, and that was enough to put Justin a little bit off kilter. Sure, Tom knew the place and where he was going and all that, but Justin was an alpha. He was just used to being the one in charge, damn it. He didn't make a fuss, but it left him squirming as he sat on the edge of his seat.

Tom was civil, and even pleasant, while they ordered. He wasn't Justin's type at all, not with all that wild auburn hair that hung in his face more often than not. And he probably couldn't help how pale his skin was, but Justin usually liked tan guys like him. And all those piercings in his ear, and the side of his nose, and was that a stud in his tongue? Those would have been a turn-off on anyone else.

They worked for Tom, though. Oh, yes, they worked for Tom. Especially when he smiled or laughed. It wasn't hard to forget that this was a business dinner, a sale, not a date.

When the food was delivered, though, Tom leaned his long body back. He poked at his dinner salad and lifted his eyebrow at Justin. "So. Since when does a pharmaceutical company that makes addictive painkillers care about people dealing with addiction, anyway?"

The illusion was shattered, and Justin couldn't help but be disappointed. He was back on familiar ground, back in his alpha role, and he hated it. "I'll be honest. We probably wouldn't have done something like this eighteen months ago. It's only since Valerie came on board that we've made a commitment to helping people who've been affected by addiction. I'm not sure I see it as our responsibility, but she does, so I have to be on board, right?"

Tom pursed his lips together, and his nostrils flared for a moment. "You don't see it as your responsibility?"

"Well, no." Justin shrugged. "I mean, maybe some folks get hooked on our painkillers, and that's not good. But we're not the ones prescribing them. We're not the ones choosing to take them. We don't sit there and look for ways to make them addictive, you know?" Justin shrugged.

Tom lifted his dark eyes to Justin's, and then he sat back. "So, pharmaceutical reps have been going around for years trying to convince doctors to prescribe painkillers for more conditions. That's just good business, right?"

"Sure." Justin leaned forward. "Our businesses—not just Match but most companies—are built on growth. We have to show growth, or else we get into trouble. Our salespeople will get fired if they don't show sales growth. I'll get fired if I don't show sales growth. Valerie will get fired if she doesn't show sales growth. Since our sales growth literally depends on doctors making those sales happen, we have to sell to doctors."

"Okay." Tom waved one large, thin hand. "But here's the thing. I met with three patients today in one-on-one sessions, and another two in intake, who were addicted to heroin. Heroin is one of the hardest addictions to get clean from."

"So I've heard." Justin smiled and leaned back. He'd seen everything on the news. He knew how this was supposed to work. Did Tom think he'd been living under a rock? "We don't sell heroin, Tom."

Tom scoffed. "I'm aware. Each and every one of those people had turned to heroin after using prescription pain medication. Three of those people were using Match products. When they couldn't get more of the drug they'd been using, whether because their doctor shut off their supply or because they couldn't afford it anymore, they turned to heroin. And now they're stuck in rehab, one for the fourth time, trying to kick a habit that most people never shake, because some doctor fell for a line from a sales guy thinking it was a great idea to prescribe heavy-duty narcotics for, say, bronchitis. Or a sprained ankle, in one case."

Justin winced. "Okay, that does sound kind of, you know, awful. Of course, those people should have sought help before they became addicted. Most people can use painkillers responsibly and not wind up turning to freaking heroin." He shuddered. "That stuff will kill you. You know, there's got to be a certain weakness of mind to those people. Something that makes them less able to be responsible than the rest of the population."

Tom narrowed his eyes at Justin. "You know, you're probably right. One of my clients has been dealing with spousal abuse for twenty years. I'm sure that's her fault too, am I right? And every time she got injured 'falling down the stairs,' they prescribed her more painkillers." He huffed out a little laugh. "But sure, in between hiding the abuse and trying to keep her family together, sure, she should have been focused on just bearing with the pain and not becoming addicted, because hey—that's the priority when you're trying to stay alive from day to day."

"It should be." Justin wasn't about to back down. "How the hell are you supposed to fight back against that stuff when you're high as a kite?"

"How about the other client, who found out after he fell into addiction that he'd been born with an addiction already? He was adopted as an infant and they never told him. Folks who know can avoid addictive substances. Folks who don't, well." He shrugged. "His doctor told him to take the pills, so he did. Now he's in rehab. You want to give me another song and dance about personal responsibility when he was literally born with it?"

Justin sighed. "Look, that sucks for him, it does, but we can't be everyone's nanny. What is it that you want us to do, let people suffer in agony? That's not what we're about. We're about providing relief."

"I'm not saying people shouldn't have the opportunity for relief from pain." Tom rolled his eyes. "I love how it comes down to that. If you want companies to take responsibility for their role in the opioid epidemic, you obviously want everyone in pain to just suffer through it, because you're just that big of a monster." He chuckled. "No. In a perfect world, opioids would be reserved for severe pain, and doctors who prescribe them frivolously would be penalized. As would companies who encouraged that sort of thing. I'll settle for people who were set on their path to addiction by a pharmaceutical product to not have to be reminded of the drug that started their spiral every day that they show up to try to get their lives back."

Justin gritted his teeth. There was no way to get a win-win here. The battle was already won, since the Match name was going on the side of that building and no one was going take it off. Justin had never wanted to be able to offer some kind of concession in his life. "It doesn't work like that," he said, and he looked away.

"I'm aware." Tom's mouth tightened. "I'd love to think that maybe, someday, people with addiction might be able to live their lives without someone trying to tear them down. But today isn't that day."

Justin straightened up. "Hey. We're refurbishing that dump of an office, okay? We're adding beds! That's got to count for something. I mean, you'll be able to help half again as many people as you were able to help before, right?"

"Sort of." Tom poked at his salad. "We've already talked about the staffing. And people who didn't get there by abusing pharmaceuticals, sure. It'll be great for them, barring staff overloads."

"So why do you stay there?" Justin tilted his head to the side. "I know it's not for the pay, considering what you said you do there. And it ain't for the ambiance, either. Unless those yellow walls are your thing?"

Tom grinned and ducked his head. That grin was magic. Justin would give a lot to see it more often.

"There are maybe fifteen places, other than Silver Oak, listed as drug and alcohol rehab facilities in the City of Syracuse. I think two of them are just labs, doing drug tests, and that's not me. I could leave Syracuse, but I actually like the folks I work with. We get along well, and we all have our patients in mind. We want them to get better." He licked his lips, and then he straightened up a little. "My mom didn't get better. She OD'ed when I was ten."

"I'm sorry." Justin bowed his head.

"Me too." Tom rubbed the back of his neck. "It took DSS a long time to find a foster home that would take me, you know? No one wanted to deal with a drug baby back then. They didn't know much about outcomes or anything like that. But they found a placement for me eventually, and I did okay after that. She was a good mom, you know? She did her best to hold it together, even with her addiction. She tried to get clean, a bunch of times. She just couldn't. She didn't have any support, and of course rehab wasn't covered by insurance in those days. Not that she could have done a residential program once I was born anyway." He brightened up. "So anyway. Here I am, doing my best for the next kid down the line. How about you?" His eyes blazed, wicked and a little sultry. "Was there a crossroads, and a pretty woman in a black dress?"

Justin laughed at that. "No, no crossroads, no black dress. The woman in the black dress wouldn't have done much for me in the first place, but believe it or not I do believe in our mission. I want everyone in the world to have the option to be free from pain, insofar as that's wise."

Tom finally tucked into his salad. "Insofar as that's wise?"

"Well sure. Sometimes pain is there to tell you that something's wrong. A guy as pale as you must get sunburns all the time."

"Sure." Tom shrugged. "So?"

"So, when you've gotten one, you know you've stayed outside too long and it's time to go back in. When you've sprained an ankle, the pain lets you know something's hurt and you need to stay off of it for a while. There's no reason after surgery, for example, you should lie around in agony. Or a cancer patient should just sit around and hurt all day. No. We can fix that, and we should fix that."

"Okay." Tom paused for a moment. "We're not going to agree about some of the tradeoffs involved, but I think we can agree on that basic premise." His shoulders got a little looser.

"Well that's something." Justin chuckled and took another bite of his pasta. "I don't suppose you like Pearl Jam?"

Tom relaxed a little more. "Actually, I'm a fan. I've got some other bands I like a little more, but yeah, I like Pearl Jam. My band just added a cover of 'I Am Mine' to our set list."

"Oh, you're in a band?" Justin sat up a little straighter.

"Yeah. Nothing big, you know. We play a few shows in the area. We're not exactly looking to get a big recording contract and play arena shows." He blushed a little bit. "We just like playing together. That's all. It's a good way to blow off a little steam."

Justin could think of a few ways to blow off steam that didn't involve a stage or an audience. "I don't suppose there's a place around here that we could walk to for dessert?"

Tom looked at Justin for a long time before shaking his head. "I can't think of any. But we could probably get dessert here, like an ice cream, and go walking with it."

"That'll have to do." Somehow that didn't seem like such a hardship, looking into Tom's eyes. "Tell me more about this band."


Part Two

Tom found himself making room in his schedule to see Justin, corporate vice president, four times over the next week. The guys in the band gave him no end of grief over it. He'd never been at all into the corporate type, but after that first dinner together he found himself wanting to know more.

Justin kissed like an angel, by which Tom meant his kisses could probably raise the dead. He found that out after their second date, when they headed into the city for a Chiefs game. They had a good time at the game, even though the Chiefs lost so badly it looked like a football score, and then Justin drove Tom back out to his Baldwinsville condo. There, in the hot and humid summer night, Justin kissed Tom by the soft yellow light next to the door of his townhouse.

Tom had already gotten more attached to Justin than he'd expected, but the kiss was a revelation. No one human should be able to kiss like that. He threw himself into the kiss and let his partner's tongue lick its way into his mouth. The feel of Justin's hands on his body, the scent of his soap and his aftershave, they were all too much for him.

He didn't have a hope in the world.

Of course, he couldn't take the relationship too seriously. Justin might kiss like an angel, and his hands might be able to bring someone back from the dead, but they couldn't undo the fact that Justin was behind the selling of poison to hundreds of people right here in Central New York. Every time Tom met with a patient that found their way to opioids through prescription painkillers, Tom's blood ran cold.

Tom and his band, The Salt Potatoes, played an outdoor show in Armory Square on a Saturday night about four dates into Tom and Justin's relationship. The show went off pretty well, at least in Tom's estimation. The crowd was good and mellow, the equipment held up, and everyone in the band was in a good mood. He couldn't ask for more.

They played three sets and an encore, and then they broke down. The encore was already above and beyond what they were being paid to do, and this late at night the drunks were going to start to get ugly. Tom, and the other guys, wanted to leave the fans with good memories instead of bruises. They had crew to help with the amps and everything, so teardown took less time than it might have otherwise, and they were ready to go in half an hour.

When Tom got to his little VW, Justin was leaning against the driver's side door. He was surprisingly dressed down—just khakis and a polo shirt, which showed off his incredible pecs—and his green eyes gleamed with hunger. "Caught your show tonight."

"Oh yeah?" Tom smiled and ran his hands through his unruly hair. "You did?"

"You bet. You were incredible. I mean, you were all pretty good, but you? Tom, you." He licked his lips. "Come home with me. Stay the night."

Tom's mouth went dry. He should say no. They weren't a forever thing, they weren't going to be anything more than a fling. Tom wrenched his thoughts away from those doubts. Why should he deny himself that little bit of enjoyment? "Okay. Yes. Where am I going?"

Justin held out his hand, and Tom handed him his phone. Justin opened up the Maps app, and when he'd tapped his address into the search bar he handed it back. Then he disappeared into the night again. Tom watched him go.

He shook his head, although he hardly knew at what. Was it at himself, for basically responding to a booty call so soon after a show? Or was it at Justin, for just wandering off like that?

Either way, Tom had someplace to be. He looked at the directions. He'd expected Justin to live someplace more urban, more modern. Maybe he'd expected Justin to live in one of the condos born from old, derelict factories. Those were all the rage these days, for those that could afford them and didn't have children. Instead, Justin lived in Sedgewick Farms, where wealthy people who didn't want to admit they lived on the North Side lived.

Whatever. Tom wasn't going to have a chance to think too much about Justin's house when he got there.

He drove the ten minutes up James Street to get to Justin's oversized Edwardian palace. As soon as he saw Justin, all thoughts of housing, class distinctions, and urban blight flew from his mind. Justin had already divested himself of his shirt and stood in the doorway, a dark silhouette against the bright light from inside.

Tom parked in the driveway and all but glided up to the door. He almost felt like he'd been pulled. He didn't feel his aching feet as they landed on the stone walkway. He didn't notice the mosquitoes. His whole world had narrowed until it consisted of nothing but Justin.

Justin pulled him into the house and closed the door behind him. As soon as he had the door locked behind him, he crowded Tom against the door and claimed his lips in the roughest kiss Tom had yet known from him.

Tom ate it up. He ran his hands up Justin's firm sides. He let Justin swallow his tongue and his soul while he explored every inch of Justin's toned, muscular back. Justin nibbled along Tom's jaw and his throat, so Tom threw his head back as far as he could to give Justin access.

"I've wanted you since that first night," Justin growled into Tom's ear. "But goddamn, Tom. Seeing you up there on that stage, in those jeans? All I could think about was getting them off of you."

"Now's your chance." Tom struggled to find words. The only thoughts in his brain were want and need. Rational thought wasn't part of the equation right now. "I need you."

"Oh, I'm right here, baby. Come on. Let's take this party upstairs." Justin took Tom's hand and led him up an elegant, airy staircase.

Tom didn't notice details as he followed his lover. He knew the stairs were probably pretty. He noticed that the bedroom had a separate sitting room, but Justin didn't seem all that interested in leading him out there. Instead, he guided him over to the bed and tugged his t-shirt over his head.

"This damn shirt," Justin muttered, as he mouthed along Tom's collarbone. "Sticking to that body of yours while you were sweating away up there. Think I can make you sweat like that?"

Tom rolled his eyes and grinned. "You're getting there." He caught Justin in his legs and held on. "Show me what you got, Justin."

Justin stopped talking then, dedicating his mouth to erasing every memory of the earlier parts of the night from Tom's memory. He licked, and he sucked little marks into Tom's skin. He didn't bite, but he did let his teeth graze ever so slightly against Tom's skin, just the way Tom liked.

And he did peel off those jeans of Tom's, just like he'd promised. Tom's hard cock, thus freed, stood strong and proud, dark against the pale flesh of his body. He choked off a gasp when Justin touched it, ever so lightly, and cried out when Justin's sinful mouth closed around the head.

He didn't know where Justin had been hiding the lube, but the cool, slick finger that slid into him proved it had to be around there somewhere. He rocked onto it, begging for more, and Justin was more than happy to oblige.

When Justin finally sank into him, slick and hot and bare, Tom groaned out loud. He needed this. The worries about unprotected sex would come later. Right now, all he could think about was how incredible Justin felt inside of him, how perfectly he fit.

Justin set a vigorous pace, and Tom was transported. The bed was made of clouds, and Tom was well on his way toward earning his own halo. Every thrust from Justin took Tom higher and higher, until he thought he might break through the atmosphere.

Only then did his orgasm finally wash over him. Tom didn't so much crash back down to earth as float back gently down, just as Justin exploded inside of him. The sensation was, in and of itself, almost enough to send him back into the stratosphere again.

When Justin came back to himself, he pulled gently out and padded over to the bathroom for a damp cloth. They cleaned themselves off, and then Justin slid into the bed beside Tom. "I needed that," he murmured, taking Tom into his arms. "Thank you."

"Thank you." Tom kissed his cheek. "I needed it too." He ran the pads of his fingers over Justin's smooth cheek. "It was good. Incredible even."

Justin huffed out a little laugh. "I'm not usually that, ah, demanding. Something about all those eyes on you—other guys' eyes on you—got me going."

Tom buried his face in the crook of Justin's neck. Alphas got possessive sometimes, just like omegas sometimes needed touch. "Well, at least you channeled that energy in a positive direction." He wrapped an arm around Justin's waist, and they drifted off to sleep.

Tom hadn't set an alarm. He didn't have any place he needed to be on Sunday, and he was looking forward to sleeping in. Maybe he could enjoy a good romp with Justin in the morning before he left, like in the shower or something like that. When his phone rang at five-thirty in the morning, he considered not answering.

Not a lot of people would call him at five-thirty in the morning, and the people who would wouldn't do it lightly.

He fumbled for his pants and fished the device out of the pocket. "Hello?"

Jake groaned beside him.

The voice on the other end was just as sleep-thickened as Tom's own. "Tom? It's Dr. Piavene. We had an OD."

"What?" All of the fatigue fled from Tom's brain. Unfortunately for him, so did the deliciously sated feeling in his bloodstream. "Wait, with a resident? Who? How?"

"It was Jerry Warner. We're at the main hospital right now. I need you to go to the center, Tom. I need you to take charge there. You're the only one I can trust, and the patients can trust, to get to the bottom of this in a fair way."

Tom glanced back at Justin, whose green eyes glittered in the half light. "All right. I'm on it. Give me a chance to shower first. I had a gig last night. I'm a little grimy."

"Make it quick, Tom. I'm counting on you." Piavene hung up.

Tom put his phone away and turned to Justin, who propped himself up on his elbows. "Looks like I've got a job to do. Sorry about this."

"They can just call you in like this? You're a professional!" Justin flopped back down onto his pillow.

"Yeah, well, these are extraordinary circumstances. One of our residential patients OD'ed last night, and I have to go in and deal with it. Mind if I use your shower?"

"Of course not. What are you going to change into? Those clothes you wore last night are crusted in sweat."

Tom gestured toward his duffel, half forgotten under a chair. "I usually bring clean clothes after a show. It's all good." He ducked into the bathroom and took what might have been the world's fastest shower. He barely spared a thought for his intended shower activities before he toweled off and got dressed.

He did, however, drop a kiss onto Justin's lips on his way out the door.

The center was on strict lockdown when Tom arrived. Dr. Piavene had told the rest of the overnight staff that Tom was on his way to "take charge," and whatever they might have thought of the idea of one of the counselors taking charge of anything they seemed willing enough to follow someone else's lead for now.

Warner's room had been sealed, and it would stay sealed until Tom got around to searching it. First, though, he wanted to interview the other patients. Most of the forty inpatients were surprised, appalled, and a little repulsed by Warner's overdose. They hadn't known Warner all that well, and hadn't cared to either. They had enough of their own issues to deal with without trying to deal with Warner's.

Warner did have a few friends in the center, though. Like Warner, they were here involuntarily. Like Warner, they were having a difficult time understanding why they had responsibility for their own recovery. And now that Warner was in the hospital, they were all clustered in one guy's room, the one belonging to Greg Penzig.

Tom headed in there as soon as he'd assessed the situation. "Okay," he said from the doorway. He crossed his arms over his chest. "Who wants to talk first?"

Penzig snorted. "Ain't nobody going to talk, Tom. You know how it works. Snitches get stitches."

Tom nodded slowly, letting his eyes roam over the three men assembled there. Penzig was part of the same motorcycle club as Warner, He wouldn't talk, unless it could help Warner. Tobin Sedlak, who sat on the bed, barely spoke to anyone. Tom might get him to open up if he got him alone, but he'd stay silent if he were in a room with a bunch of other people.

The third man, though, had promise. Chad Lenz was a weaselly little man with a mullet, despite having been born long after mullets went out of style. Tom focused on him for a long moment. "Here's the thing. If I get voluntary answers, I don't have to involve the police. If I don't get answers, we have to start getting into things like fingerprints, and sources, and who got him whatever he OD'ed on. That's going to get messy. The three of you are in here as an alternative to jail, just like Warner. If we have to get the cops involved, then guess what?" He met Lenz' eyes.

"There's no alternative to prison anymore," Tom continued. "We get to give your room to someone on the waiting list, someone who wants to be here. And you get to have an unpleasant, non-medical detox someplace where you will definitely not have a private room."

Lenz made a disgusted sound. "It wasn't any of us that gave it to him, okay? We knew he got some stuff."

"Shut up, canary!" Penzig leaned into Lenz' space and hissed.

"No way. I ain't doing time for some snot, okay?" Lenz turned back to Tom. "He had a visitor. Said it was his doctor. Guy looked a little seedy, but I don't really got a leg to stand on there, you know? Anyway, everyone knows Warner was having a hard time with rehab. He hated it here. He wanted to be high. He didn't want to be sober. He didn't care none if he was an addict or whatever, he just didn't want to be sober." Lenz scratched at his arms.

Tom nodded. It sounded plausible. Lenz' story got added credibility when Penzig threw death glares his way. "All right. Hopefully we can keep your names out of this. Thanks for cooperating, guys. I'll see you in group later, okay?"

He headed over to Warner's room, stomach churning. If Warner had overdosed on something from a doctor, this could only spell bad things for Tom.

***

Justin didn't mind admitting Tom's early morning phone call annoyed him. If they were going to make this thing between them work, they were going to have to work out some way to make those calls stop. Maybe he could get him one of those Apple watches—they vibrated on the wrist when a call came through. That could wake Tom without waking Justin.

Tom probably couldn't afford it, not on what they paid those guys. Then again, Justin could just buy him one.

What was he thinking? It wasn't about waking Justin up, it was about taking Tom away from Justin. Here he was, getting all alpha again. He needed to stop that, sooner rather than later. Not that Tom had seemed to mind last night.

Justin rolled over and smiled to himself. Last night had been a high point. Tom had moved under him like all he'd ever wanted was to take it from Justin, like Justin was everything he needed. It was good to be wanted like that. Tom had been half wild with need, not much different from the way Justin had been seeing him up on that stage.

Oh, that had been something. Tom's face as he launched into a guitar solo hadn't been much different from the face he made as Justin thrust his way toward ecstasy. Justin could put that look on his face, without an audience or any kind of soundtrack.

He went back to sleep. Tom had to go deal with the overdose, and Justin couldn't really object to that when he thought about it like a rational man. Not only was that Tom's job, it was his mission in life. Justin wouldn't even want to interfere with that. He could content himself with sleeping on sheets that still smelled like Tom, and hoping he could convince Tom to come over and renew that precious scent again.

He woke, more refreshed, a few hours later and had a shower. He'd had plans for this shower, yes he had, but they couldn't put them into practice. That was just something they could do another day.

He caught up on some paperwork while he caught the game. About midway through the third inning, just as the cameras cut to commercial, his phone rang. He saw Tom's work phone on the caller ID, so he answered it.

"Tom, hey. How's your patient?"

Tom sighed. Justin could just picture him, rubbing sleep away from his face like a man that couldn't quite get enough coffee into his system. "They couldn't save him. To be honest, I can't be sure he wasn't trying. I don't know. He, ah… It was pills. Took a whole bunch of them."

"Pills." Justin frowned into his coffee. "He's supposed to be in an inpatient facility. How in the hell would he get pills?"

"A visitor brought them." Tom sniffed. It sounded like he'd been crying. "Do you know a Dr. Alec Read?"

"Sure. He's in a large private practice up in Brewerton. He sells a lot of product…" He trailed off as the implication hit him. "I'll be right up there. I need to make a few calls."

"I'll bet." Tom yawned. "Sorry. Long day. I'll talk to you later."

Justin hung up and dialed Valerie before he even took another sip of coffee. Valerie recognized the potential for disaster, or at least for major public relations headaches, as soon as Justin told her what had happened. "I can't decide if it's a good thing or a bad thing that your new boyfriend is an addiction counselor, Justin." She never sounded anything but cool, crisp, and put together. "It's probably a bit of both. Call Tye Hardwick and see what he has to say."

"He's just going to call you." Justin managed a wry grin as he lifted his mug to his lips.

"Probably, but at least I'll have had time to find clothes and change."

Justin wasn't going to argue with that. He called Hardwick as he looked for his shoes.

Hardwick winced. "Do we know it was Match products that the unfortunate man overdosed on?"

"No." Justin slipped his foot into a Docker and realized it was on the wrong foot. He guessed the situation was hitting him harder than he thought. "No, but I'm not sure that Tom would have called me if it wasn't. It's been something of a bone of contention between us." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "He asked about a specific doctor we're very close with."

"Crap. Well, if you can get other information out of him, that would be helpful to our defense." Hardwick groaned. "The wife is going to have my head for working on a Sunday, but there isn't any real help for it."

"Do you think we're liable?" Justin got his shoes onto the right feet at last.

"Not in a criminal sense, probably. In a civil sense, a jury would probably look at our incentive programs with doctors, and with Dr. Read in particular, and take a pretty jaundiced view."

"Crap." Justin stood up. "I guess we need to take care of this, PR wise."

"Oh yeah. It's going to be a long, hot night in the office. Bring iced coffee when you come in."

"Will do." Justin hung up. Instead of heading toward the company's refurbished West Side facility, though, he aimed himself toward the suburban rehab center where Tom worked.

Tom hugged Justin when he saw him. "Hey. Thanks for coming down." He ushered Justin into a tiny office that turned out to belong to Tom. Justin couldn't imagine working in such a small space.

"No problem." He picked up a miniature guitar, no bigger than the palm of his hand. "So were you close to this patient?"

"I guess, for a given value of close." Tom massaged his temples. His pretty brown eyes were sunk deep into his skull and bloodshot to boot. "Warner wasn't here of his own free will. He was here as part of a diversion program. He'd been busted for fighting down at the Loop like three times, and he was high as a freaking satellite every time. They finally sent him to rehab as an alternative to prison when he cut someone up."

"Jesus." Justin let out a whistle. "You have got to be kidding me."

"Wish I was. He's an okay guy when he's sober. He's got the usual long history of issues." Justin noted Tom's use of the present tense and tried not to grimace. The enormity must not have sunk in for Tom yet. "One of his buddies today told me that he just hated being sober. He didn't care if the drug controlled him or not, he hated not being high that much."

Justin took his hand and squeezed it. "That must be hard to hear."

"I wish I could say it was an extraordinary concept around here." He huffed out a little laugh. "No one's here because life sober is so much better than it is high, you know? No one gets into the hard drugs just because it seems like a good idea at the time. Everyone's running from something hard, and of course the stuff you get up to while you're covering for your addiction or supporting your addiction doesn't help you." He squeezed Justin's hand back. "I just… Anyway. I went through the visitor logs. He wasn't supposed to be getting any visitors from his enablers, but this one got through because he was a doctor."

"Yeah. I can see that. Have you already involved the police?" Justin leaned forward.

"With Read? Yeah." He nodded. "It's up to them to find out if the guy was acting out of malice or ignorance. We can't find any evidence that Warner called him here, but that doesn't mean someone else didn't do it for him."

Justin wrapped his arms around Tom. "I'm so sorry. So sorry you have to be the one dealing with this. You think… you really think he did it deliberately?"

"Deliberate is kind of questionable. He was desperate. I can't quite say if he just wanted to get higher than he'd ever been or if he was looking to end it. I know he died in agony." He bit his lip. "I'm pissed that someone decided to bring him pills. I'm pissed that some doctor was so desperate for cash that he sold pills to a guy in rehab, you know?"

"That's not how the incentive program is supposed to work." Justin rubbed circles into Tom's back. "It's supposed to encourage doctors to prescribe Match products for legitimate problems, not peddle drugs on the side." He frowned at the desk. "Where did he even get the pills in the first place? They're not supposed to get a stash. That's why pharmacists exist, for crying out loud."

Tom pulled back a little, eyes narrowed. His jaw was tighter than it had been, but for now all he did was shrug. "That's for the cops to deal with, you know? What I do know is that he shouldn't have had the pills in the first place, and he got them from someone who was part of your company's incentive program."

Justin bit down on his tongue. "I know you don't blame me and Match for your patient's death."

"Not entirely." Tom shook his head, and his beautiful amber hair tumbled into his face. "He never bought into the idea of rehab, and he took a drastic step for reasons only he can really understand. But come on, Justin. You said yourself that doctor was one of your top sellers."

"Okay, but that doesn't make us responsible for his crime. If he committed a crime in the first place." Justin stood up. He tried to pace in the tiny office, but he couldn't get very far. "We don't know that for sure. For all we know he was bringing a legitimately prescribed medication to this Warner guy."

"Warner didn't have a legitimate prescription for any opiates or opioids." Tom's voice was soft, but cold, like a blanket of snow. "We're pretty thorough when we do intake, and we'd have noticed if he was having issues related to pain. People who are determined to rehab won't say anything. People who have no intention of getting clean will let you know just how much they're hurting." His mouth twisted into a grim smile. "I do have a certain amount of experience here, you know."

Justin glowered. "Sure, you've worked with the junkies and meth heads, but you're not a neuropsychologist. And you're not a goddamn pharmacist. You have no idea if Warner was hiding a secondary addiction or not."

"That still doesn't make it appropriate for your doctor buddy to feed into it to line his own pocket! And you incentivized that behavior!" Tom threw his hands into the air and jumped to his feet. His thin eyebrows drew together. "You know that's a system that's liable to abuse, but you're too caught up in profits to worry about it!"

"Because someone else's choices don't rest on me! It's not Chevrolet's fault if I decide to ram my car into a telephone pole. And it's not the dealership's fault, either. Sure, they know there's a possibility that someone might decide to ram their car into a telephone pole every time they sell one, but it's still not their job to police what you do with their car once the title's changed hands." Justin pointed at the door.

"Every single one of those people made their own choices, Tom. Don't give me that crap about extenuating circumstances, or personal pain, or addicted mothers. Your mother was addicted while she was pregnant with you, and she was still addicted ten years later. You're not addicted. There is no reason under the sun why any one of those people out there shouldn't have been able to become what you did—a good, functioning member of society."

Tom's lip curled. "I knew you were too good to last. You know half the reason people take so long to seek help is judgmental assholes like you, right? Tell me, Justin, have you ever tried to climb out of a hole you've dug? Needed help?" He smacked himself in the head. "I'm sorry. Silly me. Guys like you don't make mistakes, do they? You bury your issues in numbers, push them farther down the chain. It doesn't matter if a few 'junkies' and 'meth heads' suffer, because at least you're making up profits you lost elsewhere. Jesus Christ, Justin, read a book, would you? Different people, with different brain make-ups, are more or less susceptible to addiction. Some of it is down to choice. Some of it is down to neurology." He shook his head. "Just go."

Justin's jaw dropped. For a second, it seemed like all the air in the room had evaporated. "You're seriously kicking me out?"

"Hell yeah I'm kicking you out. You don't respect the work we do here. You don't appreciate how hard we work to try to rebuild lives. All you care about is judging the people who come here for help, trying to affirm your superiority over them. Seriously? It takes more strength for someone in recovery just to get through a day than it does for you to sit there and drive up profits far enough to make your bonus, and these people do it."

"You didn't seem so dismissive last night." Justin didn't mean to snarl that one out, but he wasn't exactly at his best right now.

"More fool I." Tom pointed to the door. "Out, Justin. And don't come back."

Justin's jaw moved for a few seconds without making a sound. He probably looked like a fish, but he didn't care. "Are you dumping me?"

"Yes." The harsh fluorescent eyes overhead reflected on the tears in Tom's eyes. "But you know, since I make that same decision every day that these people do, to not use even when I really kind of want to, it shouldn't be all that hard for you to walk away." He waved his hand in a shooing motion. "Go."

Justin turned on his heel and fled the center. He didn't want anyone to see his face. He knew he was probably crying, and he didn't know how to fix it.

He hadn't used the L-word with regards to Tom yet. It was far too soon in their nascent relationship for anything like that, but he'd already been thinking ahead. He'd planned for things like gifts, future dates, future encounters. He hadn't planned for splitting up with Tom at all, but here he was sitting behind the wheel of his Lexus and crying.

All because of the drugs.

No, all because of the products. Nothing Tom said was going to change Justin's mind about addiction. It was a choice, damn it. Tom could wring his hands about all the hard cases out there, but what about all of the people living the exact same hard lives who didn't fall into addiction? Who didn't take those same painkillers Match made and abuse them, making something intended to help heal and improve lives into a poison that destroyed?

Justin knew he was in the right, but that was cold comfort as he looked at Tom's lonely little VW in the parking lot.


Part Three

The police came to the center, of course. They spoke to Tom. He showed them to Warner's room, and he showed them the pills. It didn't take them long to conclude their investigation, only about two weeks. Apparently they'd had an eye on this Dr. Read for a while, for pushing pills.

That would have been good to know before he rolled on up to an inpatient facility and gave a desperate man the means to overdose, but Tom held his peace. The cops weren't likely to have a lot of sympathy for a guy like Warner anyway—a known brawler who was only here on the path back to Jamesville—and they weren't overly concerned about the rest of the patients either.

Tom had learned when he was very young that the police didn't have a lot of time for people dealing with addiction. Now that he'd been with Justin, it hurt just a little more.

The cops reminded him of Justin. The patients reminded him of Justin, with their drive and their scorn. His car reminded him of Justin because he'd been leaning against it. His condo reminded him of Justin, because Justin had never been in it.

Okay, he knew he was being ridiculous. Who got all mopey about someone he'd been with for a week and a half, tops? To make matters worse, fatigue and nausea crept in about a week after the cops finished their investigation. It wasn't bad enough that Tom had been forced to dump Justin, that Justin had turned out to be exactly what Tom had expected.

No, now Tom had to be pregnant, too.

He tried not to see this as the end of the world. He had a job, and that job came with decent benefits. They wouldn't axe him for having a baby, for crying out loud. He might bitterly resent the way Silver Oak treated the Chemical Dependency Center, but he knew they weren't about to sack a pregnant person.

He didn't have a family, though. He didn't have anyone who could help out when he got called in to work at five-thirty in the morning. And while he made okay money for a single guy, he didn't make enough to live on, and provide child care.

Justin made enough. Would it be a terrible thing to ask for child support? The baby was his, after all, and Justin should share in the costs. Tom wasn't eager to go there. Justin might ask for visitation rights. That sounded perfectly reasonable on the surface, but the baby hanging around with Justin meant the baby picking up on Justin's ideas.

If Tom's kid was going to decide everything Tom had worked for was a lie, Tom would rather he did it on his own. If he came up with his own ideas, his own rejection, Tom would live with it. If Tom carried a child under his heart for nine months only to lose him because his father dripped poison into his ear, that would be more than he could bear.

He knew he was just making an excuse, though. He wasn't calling Justin and telling him because he didn't want to get back together with Justin because of the baby. He wanted Justin to come back to him and apologize. Justin had the right to his own opinion, even if it was ill informed and impossibly arrogant. He didn't have the right to expect Tom to just sit back and take it when he trashed the people Tom worked for and refused to take any responsibility for the damage his product caused.

He wanted Justin to come back to him, not for the baby but because he valued Tom. It was an unreasonable expectation, but a treasured fantasy. He dreamed that Justin would come back, apologize, and they could try again.

The third week stretched into the fourth. Tom had to accept the fact that Justin wasn't coming back. He started researching child care that accepted infants, preferably close to the center. The cost made him want to throw up, even more than he already did. He did his best to trim down his expenses by cancelling his cable service and cutting back his diet to rice and beans. Hopefully those savings would add up.

At the end of the fifth week, he sat down to a dinner of rice and beans. He read as he ate, and researched secondhand baby things on CraigsList. He didn't know if he'd get any good deals, but he wanted to save as much money as he could. The sooner he started keeping his eyes open, the better it would be.

His doorbell rang. He got up to answer it, leaving his rice and beans on the tray table.

He might have fantasized about Justin coming back to him, but nothing could have prepared him for the sight of Justin standing there, on his doorstep, eyes downcast. "Justin?" Tom blinked. "Are you okay? Did your car break down?"

Justin huffed out a little laugh. "No. My car didn't break down. I'm right where I expected to be. Um. Do you mind if I come in?"

Tom bit his tongue. Once again, he knew he should object. He shouldn't just let Justin in, not after five weeks without contact. Tom had been the one to kick him out, though. Tom had told him not to come back. "Sure." He stepped aside. "What's going on?" A horrible thought occurred to him. "Are you sick?"

"I'm not sick." He smirked and took a seat on Tom's threadbare old couch. "Trust me, if I'd been sick I would have called you before now. I just… well, I miss you."

Tom ducked his head and looked away. "I miss you too." He could barely get his voice above a whisper. "It seems stupid, you know? We weren't together all that long, but here we are. I miss you."

"Meh. Alphas and omegas, you know? We get more attached, I think." Justin shrugged. "Here's the thing. I think we make a good product. I do. I think people have a right to have their pain taken seriously, and managed. Relief from pain is not a sin, and it is not a shame."

"Okay." Tom looked into Justin's eyes. "That doesn't change the fact that people get addicted, and the fact that some people have a predisposition toward addiction. People have a right to treatment for that addiction. They have a right to compassion, just as they would if they had cancer or ALS."

Justin grimaced. "Not sure I agree with you there. But you feel that way, and you feel strongly about it. And I can accept that. And maybe, just maybe, some of the practices we've been using with doctors and healthcare facilities have been part of the problem instead of part of the solution." He squirmed. "I'm not saying that's a definite, but it's a maybe."

Tom snickered. "Okay, don't strain yourself." He sat up a little bit straighter. "Honestly, I'm glad to hear you say that. I don't think stopping pain is a problem. I think we're building a stigma around addressing pain, in an attempt to address addiction, and that's just as bad. But that's not why you came over."

Justin shook his head. "I was mad. I was mad for a while, but I was still upset. And then once that initial anger wore off, I was just sad. I missed you too much." He reached out and took Tom's hand. This time he didn't grab, didn't take. It was a tentative touch, at best, like he expected Tom to snatch his hand away and maybe deck him. "I wanted to ask you if we could maybe try again."

Tom's whole chest tingled. "The circumstances are a little different now, Justin." He blushed and looked down, but didn't let go of Justin's hand.

"Is it someone else?" Justin paled.

"Sort of." Tom's palms went clammy with sweat, so he wiped them off on his jeans. "That one time, that night we spent together, you were bare."

"Are you sick?" Justin clutched at his throat. "Because we can get through it together, Tom, but the sooner you get treatment—"

"I'm pregnant." Tom slouched in his seat.

"Pregnant." Justin stared off into space for a long minute. "Wow. I, ah. I wasn't thinking about starting a family with you so soon, but I can certainly think of worse fates.” He swallowed hard. His face looked ashen, but he still smiled. "So our son, he's going to look like me but tall, right?"

Tom couldn't help but laugh. "Sure thing, Justin. I'll make sure of it."

Justin kissed him then, affectionate and playful. "Wow. A baby." He looked around. "I know it's early. I mean, we only just got back together a few seconds ago. But, ah, I'd like to make a go of it. And I think we should try to make a go of it, you know, together." He looked around again. "Are you hugely attached to this place?"

"Not excessively, I guess. It's close to the center, but otherwise, no." Tom scratched at his head. "Why?"

"I'd be thrilled if you would move into my place. If you need your own space or whatever, I've got plenty of room there. But if we're going to live together, I've got the bigger place. We can talk schools and stuff a little further on down the road." Justin licked his lips. "Plus, the bed doesn't smell like you anymore, and I don't like that."

Tom giggled. He sounded a little hysterical, and he didn't care. "Um. Maybe we could try it for a week and see how it goes?"

"Or we could do that." Justin stared at Tom with wide, hopeful eyes, and Tom couldn't say no.

"Okay. Let's grab my things." He headed into the bedroom and packed a suitcase, and then followed Justin back down to his place in the city.

Now that he was going to be staying here for a week at least, Tom could appreciate the beautiful design of the old Edwardian mansion. The place, unlike many homes of its generation, didn't feel poky or cramped. Indeed, it felt light, sunny, and airy as Tom walked in.

Justin handed him a key and showed him around. Then he escorted him upstairs. "Like I said, you're welcome to pick any bedroom you want, but mine has plenty of space for two. I'm just saying."

Tom didn't want to make any decisions that day. "How about if I stay in here tonight, and you can show me everything else in the morning?" He held out his hands toward Justin. "Is it a bad thing if I just missed you?"

"No," Justin murmured, and took his hands.

Justin's mouth was as soft as a cloud this time. It was still divine and still beautiful. It was just a little bit different. Tom didn't mind. This kiss sealed a promise, instead of just igniting an evening of passion. It was a different premise, but it still brought his body temperature up as their bodies moved together.

Justin fumbled in the nightstand for a bottle of lube. It was the only time his hands left Tom. His eyes never deviated, not even for a moment, and Tom lost his breath at their intensity. This, then, was what it meant to be loved so strongly.

Justin stripped them both down, and he spent a good amount of time worshipping Tom's body. His mouth and fingers were everywhere, and Tom couldn't think for all the heat and need in him. Justin's hard, muscular body felt incredible against his own.

And to think he'd almost lost this. To think he'd given up on this!

He widened his legs and canted his hips as Justin sought entry. Justin's entry was slow and gentle this time, shallow thrusts that reminded Tom of the future with each little surge. When he snapped his hips back and started to move in earnest, setting up an intense pace that left Tom breathless and wanting more, Tom could only grab Justin and hold on.

It was perfect.

His orgasm took him like a wave, pulling him into a sea of white. He cried out and let himself go. The wave could take him wherever it wanted. He was past caring at this point. All he needed to do was drift.

When he came back to himself, Justin was just pulling out of him. "You all right there?" Justin asked.

"Never better." He rolled over and let his hands trail over Justin's face. "I swear you're like an addiction in and of yourself, you know that?"

"You do seem pretty blissed out every time we do this." Justin relaxed for a second, and then disappeared to get them a cloth to clean up. Once they'd done so, he lay back down. "Hey, Tom?"

"Hm?"

"Were you ever going to tell me?"

Tom didn't have to ask. "I didn't want you to come back for the baby." He looked up at Justin. "It's stupid. I wanted you to come back for us, not because you had an obligation."

Justin frowned and sat up. "Did you really think that poorly of me?"

Tom sighed and heaved himself into a sitting position. "I thought well enough of you to think you'd want to be a dad," he said. "The thought that you'd turn your back on your child never crossed my mind. I didn't want to put you in a position where you didn't want to be with us, if that makes sense."

"It does." Justin slumped against the back of the headboard. "I guess I'm just a little oversensitive. I mean, we broke up because of the whole addiction thing. You thought the worst of me."

Tom scowled. "Well, you were disparaging the people I work for and everything I do. I think that makes sense, in that particular context." He relaxed, just a bit. "But in this context, it doesn't. I'd never think you'd treat your child like that. You're an upstanding citizen and a good man."

Justin's face brightened and he slid back down beneath the covers. "So you're still willing to give us a shot?"

Tom looked around at the oversized master suite. All at once, he could see the future before him. He could see the bassinet in the corner, with baby happily sleeping a way inside.

Tiny little feet ran in from down the hall as a little boy, with tan skin and auburn hair, raced into the bedroom and threw himself onto the bed. The child squealed with delight as Tom and Justin wrapped him up in their arms and dragged him up in between them, calling out "Group Cuddle!" in hushed voices so they didn't wake the baby.

It was a perfect scene, a scene of pure joy.

"I'm willing to give our family a shot," Tom said, and rested his head on Justin's chest.

***

Justin woke up the next morning, and he knew it was the first day of the rest of his life.

It wasn't just a cliché. He hadn't expected things to move so quickly, so soon, with Tom. He wasn't going to complain that they had. He had the man he wanted most in the entire world by his side, willing to at least try to live with him. They were going to have a child together. They were going to raise that child together.

It didn't make sense. Neither one of them was the other's type, but they would make it work, because they wanted to.

Tom stayed the whole week, and then another, and another one after that. He finally gave up the pretense just as they were getting ready for September, and they cleared out Tom's condo and got ready to put it on the market. They started up an IRA for Tom with the money left over once they'd paid off the mortgage, and that was the end of it.

The threadbare old couch, which Justin had hesitated to even sit on, went to Goodwill. Someone would find it useful, Tom said, whether it was a college student or a person at the end of their rope. Either way, the old thing still apparently had some life to it. Justin didn't care, as long as it didn't wind up in his house.

Most of the people in Tom's life reacted to the news about the baby with happiness. Monika, his best friend at work, was over the moon. Tom's boss and apparent mentor, Dr. Piavene, mostly approved. He'd wanted Tom to go back to school, on Silver Oak's dime, and get the necessary credentials to take over the center when Piavene retired.

Tom initially demurred. Even without a baby, he didn't think he was PhD material. He barely thought he was Master's degree material, and that had only been because his bosses had made him go. Justin talked him into agreeing to do it, once the baby was born. He loved the center, and he loved the work. It made sense for him to take the next step, and he'd shown he had what it took to be in charge of a facility like that.

And so Tom applied, and took a deferred enrollment. He wasn't sold on it being the best decision he'd ever made, but as he himself pointed out, "I wasn't sure you were the best decision I ever made until you put your tongue in my mouth, so."

Justin's parents were a different story. They didn't exactly have a match picked out for their darling son, but they had a vision for the sort of person their son should be choosing. He should be from an appropriate background—middle class, at least, with parents who could be evaluated to determine whether or not they were Our Kind of People.

A man who grew up partly in foster care, whose mother had been a heroin addict, and who spent his days with drug addicts was not Our Kind Of People.

Justin didn't care. He watched their disappointed faces and their stiff, cracking smiles at dinner the night they met Tom, and he asked Tom to wait in the car as soon as dinner was over. Then he turned to his parents, his brothers and sister. "Look," he said, stuffing his hands into his pockets. "I get that this whole thing is a little whirlwind for you. And I get that Tom isn't the kind of guy you thought I'd end up with. The fact is, and the only fact that matters is, I'm in love with him. I'm in love with him and he's having my baby in March. That's your grandchild—" He pointed at his parents—"and your nephew." He pointed at his siblings.

"The choice is yours. You can choose to be a part of the kid's life or not. But I have a responsibility to my omega, and to my child. It's my job to support them. That would be my job even if I didn't love them, which I obviously do. My advice would be to sit on this, think about it for a little while, and decide what you want to do. You know where we'll be." Then he left the house.

It took Justin's family a while to come around, and it didn't happen all at once. The first was Justin's older sister, who was a pediatrician in Fayetteville affiliated with Upstate. She reached out, not to Justin but directly to Tom. "So, I know we've gotten off on a bit of the wrong foot, but I understand you're carrying my nephew. Or niece. We should totally talk."

Tom was reluctant at first, but he made the effort because of Justin. He met up with Danette for lunch one Saturday. After couple of minutes, they decided to get along like a house on fire, and Justin knew he was doomed.

Danette, more than Justin, paved the way into the family for Tom. Tom still didn't look like the Amadoris. He didn't act like them, either—he lacked their polish, and he lacked their panache. What he didn't lack, though, was wit—and wit was something the Amadoris prized over everything else.

Dr. Alec Read went to trial in October. He wound up charged with drug trafficking. Sure, he had a legitimate prescription pad. Plenty of his patients turned up to tell all about how Dr. Read diagnosed their cancer when no one else would listen, or how no one believed them about their macular degeneration until they went to Dr. Read. Justin supposed he might even be swayed by that, if he didn't see the rest of the evidence.

And, of course, if he didn't know that doctors weren't supposed to be operating dispensaries.

According to the prosecution, Dr. Read was running a good-sized drug ring right out of his office. He would prescribe drugs like the ones Match manufactured. Sometimes he would even prescribe them for legitimate purposes. One witness, who had been through rehab, explained that he'd been a patient of Dr. Read and had gone to him for a torn ACL. Dr. Read had prescribed him opiates until he could get to a specialist, and then made sure he offered a refill.

When he was sure the patient was good and hooked, he told the patient he couldn't prescribe him the opiates anymore, lest he run afoul of the DEA. He could, however, prescribe him "small amounts" of medical grade heroin. It was a long shot, but it should tide him over.

Justin knew that doctors didn't prescribe heroin, at least not in the United States. That information wasn't exactly hard to find. Five seconds with Google and an internet connection would have assuaged any doubts, and maybe this guy should have looked it up before trusting a doctor who looked like an extra from a porno shoot. Then again, the guy in question mentioned how Read had lured him in. Maybe things weren't as black and white as Justin thought, and maybe pain helped people to think a little less critically than they might have otherwise.

Justin had to testify, too. He had to get up on the stand and admit that yes, Dr. Read had been one of the top performers in their sales program. No, he hadn't thought to ask why. He wasn't a drug investigator. In hindsight, yes, those numbers were suspicious.

The defense attorney raked Justin, and through him Match, over the coals. How could Dr. Read be blamed for selling drugs when Match had created such a perfect incentive program for them? Surely Match had considered the consequences of their medical and healthcare sales program. After all, they knew they were selling a potentially addictive substance.

Justin wasn't ready for how those words made him feel. Fortunately for him, he had prepared to respond to them anyway. "In the days immediately following the overdose of Mr. Warner, we did review the sales incentive program. And we've made a lot of changes to it. I think some of the changes might be a little less popular with the medical community, and we have taken a slight hit to profits as a result.

"Match—our CEO, Valerie, and I—don't care about that hit. We don't think it brings value, in the long term, to our shareholders to give others incentive to harm. When the program was conceived, its sole intention was to encourage physicians to prescribe Match opiates over opiates manufactured by other pharmaceutical companies. The harm caused in this one case is too much. Our shareholders don't want to be associated with that sort of thing. I don't want to be associated with the agonizing death of a man who was trying to get his life back on track. And I know Valerie doesn't want to, either.

"Match is actively pursuing cutting-edge painkillers that are less likely to be drugs of abuse. We're trying to use more positive methods to encourage providers to choose Match, instead of our old programs. We're working directly with rehab centers and addiction specialists to try to find ways of marketing ourselves that minimize harm, and ideally that will eventually prevent this from happening again."

He looked out over the crowded courtroom and found Tom, who was scheduled to testify. Tom beamed at him from his uncomfortable bench seat, and Justin felt the warm glow fill his being.

Silver Oak took a slightly increased interest in their Chemical Dependency Center after the scandal. The center was a cause célèbre now, at least throughout the region. Donations were pouring in, but they were all restricted gifts earmarked for the Chemical Dependency Center and the greater hospital couldn't touch them. That allowed the center to staff up, once those extra beds and programs were added, and alleviated a lot of the tension between Match and Center employees.

Dr. Read was convicted on all charges after three days of deliberations. The jury foreman said the kicker for them was the recovering addict's story about the heroin, and the way the man had abused his role as a doctor to sell drugs to a man in inpatient rehab. He lost his license, and was sentenced to ten to twenty at Auburn.

Jerry Warner's family sought out both Tom and Justin, to thank them for their testimony. "We know it can't have been easy for either of you," said his widow, Teresa. She was a thin, grim-faced woman whose courtroom dress looked out of place on her. "I know he's never going to get sent up for what he did to my Jerry, but he's going up for a good long while. That's got to be enough for us, and you helped put him away."

Justin smiled and said what platitudes he could and tried not to be obvious about looking for track marks. Tom greeted her like a friend. He shook her hand, gave her a hug, and talked to her about her family and made sure they were all doing okay.

Time churned along. They lined up child care for their child, at the same place Danette sent her kids. Maybe an infant didn't need schooling, but they would eventually, and it would be best for the baby to be in the right place to get it when the time came.

On March 15, at three o'clock in the morning, Tom's water broke. That meant he'd probably been feeling pangs for hours if not days but had ignored it. Justin made plans to talk to him about it later. In the meantime, he would focus on things like getting them to Silver Oak, and trying not to pass out until they got to the hospital.

Tom's doctor was Carter Idoni. He might have been a little young, but he was a superstar when it came to omega medicine. He ushered Tom right into a delivery room and got down to business. He agreed with Justin's supposition that Tom had probably been feeling twinges for a while now but didn't push him about it. "A lot of people decide not to make a fuss, especially not on their first baby. They think it's just gas. Anyway, say the word and we can get some good painkillers loaded up and ready to go."

"No. Thank you." Tom pressed his lips together as another contraction wracked his slim body. "I don't need that."

Idoni raised his eyebrow, and Justin cleared his throat. "He was born with an addiction, and doesn't want to trigger anything."

"Fair enough." Idoni shrugged. "For what it's worth, we can give you a non-narcotic epidural. It's totally not a problem, if you decide you want to go that route."

Tom insisted on sticking it out for a few hours. When Idoni offered him the non-narcotic epidural, he almost cried from relief.

Justin took the time to send a quick text to Valerie about the non-narcotic epidural, because that was the most brilliant thing ever. Then he got right back to his position holding Tom's hand, from behind the curtain, and tried not to pass out.

Their son, Eli Benedict Amadori, was born at eleven o'clock that night. He was twenty-three inches long, and barely eight pounds. A fine coating of amber hair covered his little head, and he waved his little fist at the world. "Well, there's no mistaking whose son he is," Justin laughed.

"No. I guess there isn't." Tom rested his head against Justin as he looked down at their son. "It's exhausting being born, isn't it?" he cooed at the baby.

"Happy?" Justin asked his love.

"Remarkably, I am." Tom smiled up at him. "Are you?"

"Absolutely." Justin touched Tom's face. "I've been hooked on you since the day I met you." He kissed Tom's head. "Rest now. There's plenty more life ahead of us."

Wanna read the first full-length novel in the series, Infectious Love?

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