Changes 11

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For several hours into the evening, Nick and Tina sat with Ian at his hospital bed, listening and nodding comfortingly as he expressed the frustration of having not been able to tell Geoff how he really felt about him, and the guilt he felt at Geoff's sudden death whilst Ian fled from his attackers. Slowly, a new mood came over the injured man, and one which did not sit easily with his friends.

"He really was the most wonderful man," Ian enthused at one point. "He gave me so much - pride in myself, love and companionship, and then - the greatest gift of all - my life. And he gave up his own life for me!"

Nick fought the urge to protest. He and Tina had been warned by the psychologist to re-inforce Ian's positive images, and to avoid the negatives of his relationship with Geoff. But the thought of the man who had been a criminal, a drug-dealer, achieving hero-status in his mate's eyes was just too much.

"For pete's sake, Ian, he was a crook. He was coming back to Sydney to face charges and a prison sentence!" he burst out.

"Maybe ..." Ian looked almost wounded at Nick's outburst. "... but he was coming back - that's the important thing."

"Coming back because he wanted you; wanted all you had to offer," Nick continued.

"Exactly!" Ian's eyes blazed now. "That shows just how big a man he was!"

Nick humphed in exasperation, and Tina spoke up, trying to head off a row between the two, and remembering the words of the counsellor.

"I'm sure he was, Ian. I think Nick just means that although he did all these wonderful things for you, Geoff gained a lot of benefits himself - not the least of which was you."

"Well, he deserved any good that came out of it," Ian declared. "He showed me the way life should be lived, showed me that you can be gay and proud, and not have to hide it!"

"Of course," Tina said, "And I'm glad he did. We all have that to thank him for."

Ian began to sob again as the enormity of Geoff's death once more crashed into his mind. Nick and Tina looked on helplessly, Tina holding Ian's hand as Nick stood beside him with his arm on his friend's shoulder offering unspoken support and sympathy. An uneasy silence descended as the three friends chewed on conflicting opinions and emotions. Afterward, Nick and Tina tried as best they could to keep the conversation bright and flowing, avoiding mention of Geoff as much as possible. From time to time Ian's mood fell again, and many times his eyes moistened as he fought against the hurt inside, rarely smiling or even participating much in the light banter of the other two.

Nick and Tina stayed with Ian as long as they were allowed, being ushered from the room by a nurse well after visiting hours had officially finished. As they walked to their car, they remained quiet, each mulling over the change in Ian's mood and his thinking. It was Nick who spoke first.

"I don't think I like this tip-toeing around Geoff," he said slowly. "It's all very well to want to help Ian recover as quickly as he can, but I hate pretending that Geoff Carruthers was a saint. The man was bad. He hurt Ian, hurt him badly, and I just don't believe he had changed so much that he would be coming back to face the police just because he loved Ian."

"I know, hon," Tina agreed. "But it's early days yet. Remember, Ian's been through the most incredible stress, and it's less than 36 hours since he saw Geoff killed. We just have to be patient, and do what the doctors say."

"Maybe," Nick conceded. "But I can't feel comfortable about it."

"It's the way Ian seems to be putting Geoff on a pedestal that I don't like," Tina added. "It's so hard to speak ill of the dead, and so easy to overlook their faults when someone's not around anymore to repeat them in front of you!"

****

The next day, Nick had to do some running around in the morning, letting his own employer know what was happening, and generally re-arranging his time. It was well after 11.00 by the time he made his way up to Ian's ward, and looked in on his mate again. Ian glanced up as the door opened, and a smile lit his face.

"Hi, Nick," he greeted his mate warmly.

Nick grinned back, surprised and relieved at the improvement in his friend overnight.

"Hi, how are you feeling this morning?"

"Still sore, but a lot better. They say they want to do some corrective work on my shoulder, probably tomorrow, but it will be under local anaesthetic, and only take a short time. And I feel much better in myself!"

"Great!" Nick responded warmly.

"Yep, I've had another long talk with the psych this morning, and brought up a lot of things with her, about me, and Geoff, and being gay." Ian's face momentarily clouded at the mention of Geoff's name, but he recovered speedily. Nick thought that had to be a good sign.

"And I've made some decisions, or resolutions, as well," Ian finished.

"Resolutions?"

"Uh huh. I had a lot of thinking to do, and I kept remembering what Tina said last night about how Geoff wouldn't have wanted me to just give up, but to get out and live. And I know how I'm going to do it!"

"Good ..." said Nick warily, unsure of what was coming.

"No more hiding, no more pretending. I'm gay, and that's it. Geoff always said that if someone couldn't handle him being gay then that was their problem, not his, and he was right. From now on, if anyone doesn't like the fact that I'm gay, then tough. They deal with it, or they don't deal with me!"

"Of course, mate, of course," Nick agreed. "If someone can't be your friend because you're gay, then they weren't worth having as a friend at all."

"Friends, associates, business people, whatever!" Ian declared. "I'm gay and proud of it, and everyone is going to know."

Warning bells went off in Nick's head. "If it's relevant, of course!?!" he said, almost as a question. "There are times when a little discretion doesn't hurt. Gay or not, it's how you do your job that matters at work. The fact that you're gay shouldn't have any bearing on it."

"But that's not the point," Ian objected. "If people are going to deal with me, then they have to deal with the real me, not some pretense, some fa´┐Żade. And the real me is gay, so they are gonna have to accept it or find someone else."

"But Ian, you work in a very conservative profession. And your clients don't care what you do in your personal time. Hell, they don't even want to know! All they are interested in is how well you do your job. If you start waving your sexuality in their face you're going to scare them off for no reason!"

Ian looked hurt. "I thought you would understand, I thought you would support me," he said angrily.

"And I will! You're my best friend, and I'll support you no matter what. But I just want you to realise that there are times when being gay isn't an issue. I'm not saying that you should hide it, or deny it, but sometimes announcing it for no good reason may be counter-productive."

Ian looked downcast, and Nick began to panic that he had caused a depression to set in again. "Hey, mate," he said hurriedly, soothingly. "It's up to you. Tina and me, we'll be there for you. We trust you and your instincts, and no matter what anyone says, we'll always back you up! Okay?"

Ian nodded, brightening again, as Nick breathed a silent relief, and buried his worries for the moment. He was even less sure of this new tack than he had felt about Ian's deifying Geoff last night, but he reassured himself that there was plenty of time before either of them had to deal with it in the 'real' world.

Trying to change the subject, Nick spoke again. "I don't want to cause you any worries, mate," he said with a grin, "but if you don't call your folks and let them know where you are soon, there'll be all hell to pay when your mum finds out you've been in hospital and she hasn't been notified!"

"Shit, I know!" Ian swore. "I've been putting it off because I don't know what to tell her, but you're right, I'll have to call her, and soon!"

Together they shared a laugh. Ian's mother could be a formidable person when she wanted, especially if she thought she wasn't being kept informed of important matters concerning her children. As the grins subsided, one of the nurses entered the room and announced that the doctor would be doing his rounds shortly, and that she needed to do an up-date on Ian's observations before he arrived. Nick took the hint, telling Ian he would go outside for a coffee and some air, and come back later, and waving his finger at his mate. "Your mother!" he warned with a smile.

Outside the main entrance, Nick sat heavily on a bench, clutching a cup of awful coffee he had taken from one of the vending machines, and trying to sort out the changes in his friend over the last couple of days. He kept telling himself that it was all part of the mental healing Ian had to get through, but still he felt uneasy about the way the lawyer's mind was working at the moment. He pulled his phone from a pocket, and switched it back on, calling Tina to let her know of the change in Ian, and to share his worries.

Tina told him that she agreed with how Nick felt, but she also made him promise not to worry, and almost convinced him that Ian would revert to his normal self by the time he was discharged. He knew she was saying this more for his own benefit than Ian's but he was grateful for it anyway. He ended the call and was looking suspiciously at the dark liquid in the cup he held, when the phone chirped again, the screen telling him there was a voice mail message waiting.

The message was from Ian's secretary. She had called while Nick was in with Ian earlier in the morning.

'Hello, Nick, it's Jill, Ian's secretary. You said I could call you on this number if I needed to. I tried calling Ian at home but there's no answer, and the boss has been asking where he is. I was wondering if you could let me know when he'll be back at work, or get a message to him to call me. Thanks.'

Nick called Jill back straight away, on her direct line.

"Hello, Nick, you got my message?" she said brightly enough.

"Yeah, listen; Ian's still in hospital, and probably won't be released for a couple of weeks yet, and then he'll need time to recover at home before he gets back to work. I'll talk to him about getting a formal medical certificate to deliver to the firm."

Nick heard the surprise in Jill's voice. "Oh, I thought it was only something minor, I had no idea he was so badly injured," she said. "Maggie Jones, his supervising partner, has been asking after him ..." There was a short silence while Jill thought, then she spoke again. "I know Maggie's going to want to talk to someone about this. Do you mind if I put you through to her now?"

"Unh, okay," Nick said hesitantly. He had heard of Maggie's reputation through Ian, and knew she wouldn't be put off with vague hints or veiled excuses.

"Hello, Mr ... Leonidis, is it?" said a woman's voice.

"Yes, that's right."

"You're a friend of Ian Sterling? You called to let us know he's ill at the moment?"

"Yes," said Nick. "He's in hospital after being injured on Sunday. I believe he won't be out of hospital for about two weeks."

"Oh, I see." There was concern in Maggie's voice, and something more. "I had been led to believe he'd suffered some slight injury, nothing that would keep in treatment for so long. Is he able to have visitors?"

"Yes, I think so," Nick said slowly.

"And where is he, please?"

Nick sighed to himself. One more thing for Ian to worry about, but he couldn't avoid it. "Royal Prince Alfred Hospital," he said resignedly.

"Thank you very much," Maggie replied. "I'll try to get over there to see him this afternoon." She finished the call and Nick closed his phone, turning it off as he headed back up to Ian's room.

Back inside, Nick found Ian looking considerably less bright than he had been earlier in the morning. He worried instantly that Ian had been given bad news by the doctors.

"Hey, mate, is everything alright?" he asked quickly.

Ian nodded. "I've just spoken to my parents ... managed to convince them that there was no need for them to come to Sydney at the moment, although it took some doing!"

"I'll bet!"

"My mum is going to come down once I'm out of here. I told them I had been in a car accident - I just couldn't bring myself to go into all the details of what really happened over the phone."

Nick grinned. "I understand. Your secret's safe with me."

"You know," Ian said, looking thoughtful. "This telling people I'm gay isn't going to be as easy as I thought it would either. I just couldn't say it to them."

"Well, I hardly think a quick phone call, especially when you're telling them you're in hospital, is the right time," Nick noted.

"Maybe, but I was so determined not to hide it anymore, and I bomb out on the first attempt - and with my parents at that."

"I've never been in your situation, Ian, but I'm guessing that telling your family is going to be harder than telling most other people." Ian nodded agreement, and Nick went on. "You've got another problem as well ... your boss, Maggie Jones, is going to come in to see you this afternoon."

"Shit!" said Ian vehemently. "I'd better get her name added to the list of authorised visitors! This is going to be hard enough to explain without having her turned away at the front desk!" He quickly dialled the reception area and gave them Maggie's name as someone who should be allowed in to see him. "I wonder if I'll still have a job when she hears what's happened?" he said aloud.

"Sure you will! It's not like any of this is your fault," Nick tried to reassure him, squeezing Ian's good shoulder with his hand. As one they looked up at a knock on the door, to find the Detective, Michael Sciutta, with a quizzical look on his face.

"Good morning, gentlemen. Is this a bad time?" he asked.

"No, come on in," Ian said. Nick simply nodded a greeting, examining the cop curiously. There was something about the way this guy acted with Ian that just didn't seem 'police-like', but he couldn't put his finger on what the difference was.

"I would like to start going over the information Mr Carruthers gave you, if you're up to it?" Michael said almost apologetically.

"Yes, of course!" Ian said quickly, surprising both Michael and Nick. "I want to help with anything to do with Geoff's case as quickly as I can."

Nick coughed quietly. "I can see this is going to be a drawn out interview," he said. "I'll get going and leave you to it. Ian, I'll see you later this evening, with Tina, okay?"

"Yep, thanks mate!" Ian smiled.

"Don't wear him out!" Nick warned the police officer.

"Of course not, I'll take good care of him!" Michael promised with a grin. Again, Nick's curiosity was aroused, but he said nothing as he made his farewells and left.

"Do you mind if I record our conversation? Makes it easier later on," Michael said easily.

"No, detective, that's fine," replied Ian.

"Please, Mr Sterling, I think we're going to need to spend a bit of time together - call me 'Michael'?"

"Only if you call me Ian!" replied the solicitor with a smile. Michael's heart lifted at seeing the young man grin again. As they began, Michael coaxed Ian through the preliminaries, and slowly worked at getting him to remember all the names and details Geoff had confessed on their drive into Canberra a few days earlier. For almost an hour, the cop made notes and asked questions as Ian listed off all he could remember, occasionally going back to clarify different things he recalled, while the tape recorder whirred silently on the stand between them.

Finally Michael looked up from his writing just as Ian closed his eyes in silent pain at the memory of Geoff being attacked.

"Well, I think it's time for a break," said the detective. "I'm sorry to have gone on so long."

"No, that's okay, I'm fine," Ian lied.

"Still, there's enough here for me to get a good start. And you need your rest if you're going to make a full recovery!" The cop looked hard at the lawyer, seeing sadness mixed with the pain in Ian's face. "Ian, is there anything I can get you? Anything I can do to help?" he asked, quietly and sincerely.

"I don't think so, Michael," Ian replied, lost in his own thoughts and not picking up on the change from professional interest to a more personal tone in Michael's voice.

Michael put the pad down, and turned off the recorder. He leaned forward, his hand resting on Ian's arm. "You will come through this, you know. You're a strong man, and a good one. It will take some time, but everything will be okay ..."

Ian looked around and up, not at the detective, but at the door of the room which had just swung open. A woman's voice said quickly, "Oh, I'm sorry to interrupt. I'll come back later!"

As Michael withdrew his hand from Ian at speed, Ian spoke up brightly.

"Maggie! No, come in please!"

The tall woman re-entered, looking a little self-conscious, and trying to hide the bemusement on her face as she looked from Ian to Michael and back to Ian.

"This is my employer, Maggie Jones," Ian said by way of introduction, to Michael.

"And are you Ian's 'friend'?" Maggie asked, placing just the slightest hint of emphasis on the word. "Um, Nick, isn't it?"

Ian laughed quickly as Michael reddened. "No, Maggie," Ian corrected her error. "This is Detective Sciutta - he's investigating some aspects of what happened to me."

Maggie's legal instincts took over quickly, and her expression changed instantly from one of uncertainty to suspicion. "Ian," she remonstrated, "you should know better than to speak to the police without an attorney present! I didn't realise there was anything to investigate, but whatever it is, you're to say nothing more until I get someone from the office down here to represent you!"

Both men looked at her with startled expressions. Her demeanour showed she was ready for a fight.

"Ah, no, you don't understand," Ian sputtered. "He's not investigating me. I'm helping with an investigation into someone else ... oh, um, Maggie, I think you'd better have a seat - it's a long story!"

"You still don't speak to the police without professional counsel!" she declared, looking Michael up and down once more.

The detective stood up from his seat awkwardly. "That's okay, Ian. I should get going now anyway. I'll leave you to your visitor, and I'll be in touch again later."

"Okay, talk to you then," Ian agreed as Michael made a hasty exit.

Maggie watched him leave, and then seated herself in the chair he had just vacated. "Alright, young man," she began in a tone of motherly concern mixed with professional interest. "You'd better start at the beginning. I thought you'd been in a simple motor vehicle accident, but I find you in a security area, being interviewed by the police, and a detective no less! What's going on?"

Ian's eyes rolled as he looked at his boss, certain he was about to lose his employment. "Maggie, before I start, there's something about me you should know." He took a deep breath, strengthened his inner resolve, and went on. "I'm gay!"

She looked at him without any trace of reaction, answering quickly. "I suspected as much. Have done for a while. But how does that have anything to do with what's happened?"

Ian sat there, stunned for a moment. "You suspected?"

"It was only that - a suspicion," she answered, her tone softening slightly. "And it makes absolutely no difference to how I feel about you," she added.

Ian took a few seconds to regroup. He hadn't expected this to go quite the way it was. "It all started when I began having a relationship with someone - a client as it happens..." He looked again at her, could tell she was already examining any ramifications.

"Is there any ethical problem, or conflict of interest, arising here?" she asked.

"I don't think so," he answered truthfully. "I had finished the work we were doing for him - a simple purchase of business - when the relationship started. And he pursued me, not the other way around ..."

"I'm not surprised!" she said with an easy grin, trying to ease the tension. Ian stopped, thought, and allowed himself a laugh with her. That broke the ice, and slowly, but with growing confidence and ease, Ian went on to tell his story, including the growing relationship with Geoff, the break-up and subsequent questioning, the trip to Melbourne and the terrible return journey. He told her a shortened version of the information he had given Michael about Geoff's 'business' interests, and finished with a drawn out sigh, relief flooding over him that he had told someone the whole story from start to finish.

Maggie looked into her employee's eyes. She had always liked Ian immensely, and now she felt a mixture of concern and sorrow that he had been through so much, and anger that his sexuality had caused him so much grief. She saw now the growing confusion, knew that Ian needed reassurance.

"So, should I resign, or what?" he asked weakly.

She reached out and took his hand in hers. "Ian, did you ever meet my son, David?"

"Ummm, I think maybe once, a couple of years ago ..." he was surprised at the question, unsure of where she was leading.

"He is gay. I love him dearly, and I have seen him hurt because of unthinking, bigoted people who just don't want to understand or accept what that means. Being gay isn't something you can change, it's just another part of you. And it makes absolutely no difference whatsoever to how well you do your job. I'm just hurt and angry that being gay can cause so many unnecessary problems for people like you."

Ian's face showed her the gratitude he felt at her statement, and her implied support and acceptance.

"Did you love him; this Geoff?" she asked.

Instantly, the young man's eyes began to moisten, and he fought back tears, only able to nod that he did.

"Then as of now, you are on extended bereavement leave! Your partner has just died and you're entitled to it, just like any other employee. The firm will cover all of your medical costs, and you'll be paid full salary until the doctors say you're completely fit to return to work. I won't have any employee of mine, especially one as good as you, disadvantaged in any way by something over which you had no control."

Ian's mouth fell open, but no sound would issue. He gasped, and tried again. "Thank you!" was all he could manage in a hoarse whisper.

"Rubbish," said Maggie dismissively. "I want you fit and well and back at your desk. We can't afford to lose someone with your intelligence and your ethics." She allowed herself a smile, and went on in a less business-like tone. "Ian, I'll have to let a few people know about your relationship - I want someone looking into all the ramifications of this on your behalf. But don't worry - the vaguest hint of a lack of acceptance of you, and whoever is responsible will wish they'd never met me! Now you get well, okay?"

"I will," he squeaked.

"Good. I'll be back to see you again in a day or so."

"Thank you, Maggie!"

She said nothing, but smiled at him again, and winked in an exaggerated show of complicity, before leaving him to rest. After the events of the day, Ian thought he would be turning everything over in his mind for hours, but instead exhaustion took hold. His body was still recovering the physical wounds, and he fell asleep, resting well into the evening.

****

Michael Sciutta was angry. Angry with himself, and getting more so by the minute. His day had started well enough, businesslike and professional, but from there he had run through a range of emotions from joy to confusion and now this anger, had almost broken one of his own 'cardinal rules', and been brought back to earth with a thud.

His morning had begun with the advice from the prosecutions section that they believed that with the information from Ian Sterling, and the evidence they had already from Geoff Carruthers' apartment, there was a strong possibility they could get convictions against several of Geoff's contacts, and could make a big dent in the organised drug scene in the city. Eager to get moving, Detective Sciutta had sorted his paperwork, and hurried over to the hospital to see Ian Sterling and take a full statement.

The details the young lawyer provided were powerful and convincing, and Michael had a growing feeling of satisfaction as he sensed a result at last from all the months of observing Carruthers. Yet while he sat there, listening intently to Ian's dialogue, asking occasional questions and sorting through the mountain of information, he also experienced a strangely pleasant sense that he was helping the other man. He had at first felt sorrow for Ian Sterling; for the way he had been treated, for the trauma he had undergone; but that had developed as he sat there, listening and taking notes, into more of a feeling of being needed. Ian needed him to get the details out, to justify in some small way Geoff Carruthers' life, and death. And from that Michael found himself admiring the lawyer - his determination, his sense of right and wrong, and his loyalty.

To pretend that Ian sterling was unattractive physically would be futile, but there was more to him than his good looks, and as Michael spent more time with him, the policeman became reluctant to end their meeting. But he could see that Ian was tiring, and the forced remembering of Geoff's last minutes alive had brought tears to his eyes. Michael called a break to their discussions. Despite Ian's protestations, he decided that that was it for the day, in terms of Geoff and all he meant. He could see Ian's face cloud over with a combination of pain and hurt, and he asked if there was anything he could do.

Absently, and distantly, Ian replied "I don't think so, Michael."

Michael felt a sudden welling of pity and hurt on Ian's behalf. He put the pad down, and turned off the recorder. He leaned forward, his hand resting on Ian's arm. "You will come through this, you know. You're a strong man, and a good one. It will take some time, but everything will be okay ..."

He wanted to reassure Ian, to go on and tell him that Michael would be there for him if he ever needed help, to offer him friendship, company, perhaps something more, but at that moment the door had swung open and a middle aged woman, whose bearing said she usually got what she wanted, had interrupted them. Michael had been overcome with a sudden sense of guilt, quickly removing his hand from Ian's arm, and sitting back awkwardly.

The woman had been initially friendly, as Ian introduced her as his employer, and had even implied that she thought Michael was Ian's boyfriend, but then had mistaken him for Nick Leonidis. When Ian had corrected her misapprehension, and explained that Michael was a police officer, her entire demeanour had changed instantly. She became cold and dismissive, warning Ian against speaking to Michael unless he was with a lawyer!

Michael had felt confused, and out of place. Hurriedly, he had made his excuses and left. But as he did, he was struck by what the woman had said. Ian was a potential witness and a lawyer. He should have known better than to talk to the police alone! Of course! Why would he want to talk to Michael at all, if not on a professional level? Michael had let his guard down, had started to express some personal feelings for Ian, when there was no reason for it, and no grounds for him to think Ian would have any mind to reciprocate. He was just a cop after all, and should have been just doing his job. How many times had he told himself? Never mix business with pleasure!

That was where his anger had come from, and why it was growing. He was angry with himself for nearly breaking his own rule, and angry with himself for allowing himself to think that someone like Ian Sterling would be at all interested in him. He was just a cop, and would never be any more than just a cop. Venting some of his emotions, he slammed the pad and recorder down onto his desk back at the Police Centre, then gathered the tape up and took it off to transcription services to have a typed copy of the interview prepared. As was his usual way, he wiped the emotions from his brain by immersing himself in his work.

***

The next few days passed quickly, if physically uncomfortably, for Ian. Nick and Tina had turned up later in the evening after his confession to Maggie Jones, and he had told them all about it. Tina had beamed, and Nick smiled happily at the reaction he had received from his employer. The following morning, Ian's follow up surgery had gone well enough, and Nick was there again after he returned to his ward. But at Ian's insistence, Nick had gone back to work. There was little he could do, and Ian was getting the best of care in the hospital, thanks to the combined efforts of Michael Sciutta and Maggie Jones.

Michael had been back a couple of times during that week as well, to clarify one or two things, and just to keep Ian informed of any progress. Yet somehow he seemed different; colder, more 'clinical'. Ian wondered at the change, but dismissed it as unimportant. Perhaps he had still been too emotional that first day when he had poured out all the details to the cop.

Maggie, too, had visited him often, fussing over him like a surrogate mother, and very unlike the detached lawyer she usually was. He was grateful for the attention and acceptance, and her reassurance did much to speed his mental recovery. He had also re-examined his determination to announce his 'gayness' publicly. With the guidance of the counsellor, and the gentle urgings of Nick and Tina, he had realised that there was a time and place for everything. He still insisted he would never again deny or hide his true self, but he also accepted that in some circumstances, it simply wasn't relevant, and therefore not necessary for him to make a show of announcing it.

His mother had been on the phone almost daily, not prying exactly, but pestering him for updates on his recovery as she made plans to travel south from her home in Queensland to oversee his convalescence.

Eventually, just on two weeks after he was admitted, Ian received news from the doctors that he was ready to be discharged, as long as they were satisfied that he would have appropriate care at home, and subject to regular check-ups over the following weeks. He was still beaming at the medic when Michael arrived.

"Hey, Michael, I'm going home!" he declared.

"That's good news," said the detective, even more reserved than usual. Ian raised his eyebrows at the lack of enthusiasm, but said nothing. Michael looked as if he were about to add something when Maggie walked through the door.

"No need to tell me!" she held up her hand, a huge smile on her face. "I've been ensuring the doctors kept me up to date on your condition. I've already arranged for a 24 hour home care service for you, for as long as you need it."

Ian grinned. "They'll have to fight off my mum once she arrives," he said. Maggie chuckled at that, yet Michael remained quiet and unsmiling. Finally he broke his silence.

"Err, Ian, I have some other news," he said haltingly. "I'm not sure how you're going to take it, but I thought you should hear it from me rather than one of my juniors ... the coroner has completed his autopsy, and is ready to release Mr Carruthers' body." He stopped, looking intently at Ian's face, knowing this could not help but hurt the young man.

Maggie butted in. "Doesn't - sorry, didn't - he have any family?"

"I don't know," Ian said. "He never mentioned anyone to me."

"As far as we can tell, no!" Michael added. "Our checks reveal that he was an only child, and both of his parents are dead. We can't find any other family at all, so either we leave the whole thing to the Public Trustee's Office as just another bureaucrat's problem, or ..." Michael's voice faltered at that moment, unwilling as he was to voice the words.

"Or I take responsibility," Ian sighed, weighed down again by the emotions he felt.

"I thought you might want to. You were the closest person to him!" Michael said softly. "You were his partner, for a while at least, even if that was over ..."

"I'll do it," Ian stammered, holding back the sobs. "I owe him that much at least."

"I'll help as much as I can," Michael offered, throwing aside his professional caution to rest his hand on Ian's arm. "I'll sort out the paperwork for you to have the body released - just tell me which funeral parlour you decide on, and we can do it from there for you."

"Thanks," Ian said, clearly grateful for the offer of assistance. "I'll get Nick to help out as well, make it as soon as possible, and very small, very private. I don't want it becoming some kind of circus."

Maggie also offered whatever assistance she could give, although Ian asked her to keep the knowledge of the funeral to only those who needed to know at work. She agreed for his sake, but her eyes gave a different message. Clearly there was something more to this which she was considering carefully. But she said nothing, yet.

****

With Nick's help, and Michael smoothing the way in terms of formalities, four days later a very small memorial service was held at the La Perouse Crematorium. Ian was helped into the chapel by the full-time nurse Maggie had arranged for him, and joined by Nick and Tina, Maggie, and Michael, as a civil celebrant offered vague words of comfort, and then read a eulogy which Ian had written. He had wanted to read it himself, but the effort of simply getting up and out to the cemetery had exhausted him, and Nick and Tina had convinced him that it would be better if someone else spoke the words. He agreed when he accepted that it was unlikely he could get through it without breaking down in tears again.

After the coffin disappeared behind the curtains, Ian was comforted by his four companions, two of whom had never even met Geoff. All of them were there for Ian's benefit, a point which was not lost on him. It saddened him even more to think that Geoff had no family or even friends who could mourn him other than Ian himself.

The little group returned to Ian's home after the service, where Tina played hostess with drinks and refreshments. They were there more to support Ian and to offer him whatever assistance they could, each in their own way, than to remember Geoff. Michael was the first to leave, feeling out of place amongst the others, who could call Ian a friend. He told himself was still nothing more than a cop who had been involved in the whole affair, and he excused himself with a story about needing to get back to work, although in truth he made his way home alone, feeling far more upset than he knew he ought. Ian's tears and hurt seemed to affect him deeply, and he wanted desperately to hide his feelings from the lawyer and his friends.

Maggie stayed a little longer, and also took her leave, after checking that there was nothing she could do. She reasoned that Ian had the professional nurse with him, and even more importantly, his close friends, Nick and Tina. And she had things to do at the office, matters to be looked into that she didn't want to put off any longer.

An hour and a half later, Tina nudged Nick in the ribs, and taking his cue Nick stood slowly.

"Well, Ian, it's about time we were off as well. Are you sure you're going to be okay?"

"Yeah," his mate replied. "I'll be fine, honestly."

"Okay then. Try to get some sleep - you have another big day facing you tomorrow."

Ian winced. His parents were arriving the following day, flying down from Queensland in the afternoon. "I know! I keep telling myself I'm ready for them, but I just don't know how they're going to take hearing the whole story."

"You'll be fine. They are good people, and you know it!" Nick said with conviction. "Their flight gets in at 5.30, so I'll leave work early and meet them at the airport, and bring them here. I'm guessing we should be here by 6.30."

"And I'll come around just before 6.00, so you'll have us here for a while," Tina said. "But we won't stay. I think you should have time alone with them, no matter what you decide to tell them."

Ian nodded his reluctant agreement, and said his good-byes as the couple left. He was determined to 'come out' to his parents, and to tell them the whole story, but he simply could not predict their reaction.

***

"Nick Leonidis! How good to see you again after all these years!"

Nick grinned widely at the enthusiastic greeting and the arms held out by the short, energetic woman who hurried up the ramp and into the arrivals lounge.

"Hello, Mrs S," he said in response, then nodded at the tall, quiet man who accompanied her. "Mr Sterling, how are you?"

"Very well, Nick, thank you."

"It's been so long," Ian's mother stated in a slightly disapproving voice. "I hear you're married - any children on the way?"

"No, not yet," Nick chuckled as he shook himself free from her embrace and led the couple toward the baggage carousels. On the way they made polite small talk and reminisced about the days when Nick and Ian had hung around together as kids. Mrs Sterling chattered almost incessantly while her husband simply stood quietly in the background, listening to everything but saying nothing. They hadn't changed at all from the way Nick remembered them both.

Once their bags were collected, Nick had them wait while he collected the car and loaded their luggage into the boot, then pulled out into the river of vehicles which seemed to never cease around the circle of the domestic airport terminal area. Into the peak hour traffic he ventured, taking his time as they headed for Ian's home.

"So what's that son of mine gone and done to himself, now?" Ian's mother asked as she watched the warehouses and factories near the airport whistle past.

"Well, he was injured pretty badly," Nick offered. "But he seems to be past the worst of it now."

"Must have been some kind of car accident!" she declared.

"Ummm, I'm sure Ian will fill you in on all the details," Nick said cautiously.

Mrs Sterling started to say something more, but a soft cough from her husband silenced her for a second, and she changed topic in an instant.

"So what's wrong with you? Why don't you have any children?" she asked in a jovial tone.

Nick groaned and began to stutter as he tried to find a way out of this one. But he was not unhappy. He enjoyed Ian's parents' company very much, had always liked them and gotten on well with them, and he was sorry that he had lost touch with them for so long after they retired to the sunshine up north.

Finally they pulled up in front of Ian's home.

"Nice place," his mother commented. "Although I don't know that it would be big enough for a family - he'll need to find somewhere else when he gets around to having my grandchildren!"

Nick did his best to hide the grimace he felt. 'Good luck, Ian' he said to himself, as he led them up to the front door.

Tina was there waiting for them, and Nick hurriedly made the introductions. Mr Sterling shook hands politely and smiled a genuine, pleased greeting, while Ian's mum looked Tina up and down approvingly. "Nick's done well for himself!" she stated. "Do you have a sister, young lady, someone who might be interested in meeting my son?"

Tina laughed aloud at the comment, and Ian's mum joined in, although the two women found the comment amusing for different reasons. She held the door wide as they came into the house, and called out to Ian, ushering his parents into the lounge room where he was waiting. With a slightly emotional reunion, Mrs Sterling fighting back tears at seeing her son look so weak, and Mr Sterling offering a concerned, silent `hello', Nick and Tina left the family alone, Tina making coffee and fetching some cakes she had brought for the afternoon, while Nick collected the luggage and carried it upstairs to the guest bedroom.

When the couple rejoined Ian and his parents, the young lawyer was still trying to convince his mother that he was alright, that his recovery was under way. She was determined that he no longer needed the services of the nurse that his employers had provided, but he insisted that professional care was essential to his speedy return to health, and that while his mother and father were there to help, they were also to have a break themselves, and enjoy their visit with him.

After about half an hour of chatting and pleasantries, Nick and Tina took their leave. "You'll want some time to catch up, just the family!" he said, throwing Ian a knowing and sympathetic look.

"Ian, I've made some soup, and a salad," said Tina. "It's not much, but it saves any of you the trouble of preparing a meal for tonight anyway. Mr Sterling, Mrs Sterling, nice to meet you both. I hope we see a lot more of you before you head home."

"Thank you, dear," Ian's mother nodded. As Nick and Tina left, she added loudly, "I think we should have some private time, just the family!" This was said firmly and with a glare at Veronica, the nurse on duty at the moment.

"Mum!" Ian warned.

"That's okay," said the young woman, not taking offence. "I'll take my coffee outside, give you some space," she smiled easily.

"Now, what have you done to yourself?" Ian's mother demanded of him as soon as they were alone.

Ian sighed. "It's a long story, mum. My shoulder and upper arm were pretty badly cut, but the doctors tell me they should heal in time. I'll have scars, even after plastic surgery, but they hopefully won't be too bad. Fortunately, the knife didn't sever any major arteries or veins, although it did chip part of the bone."

"Knife?" his mother said suddenly in alarm. "I thought it was a car accident. What's this about a knife?"

"Unh, I told you it was just an accident because I didn't want you to worry. I'm sorry about that, but I knew you'd be on the first plane down if I said anything different. It's a long story ..." His eyes misted a little and his brow creased involuntarily.

"I have plenty of time!" his mother declared with a trace of anger.

"Calm down, Anne!" his father said, speaking for the first time since Nick and Tina had left. "Take your time, son, and tell us what you can."

Ian looked from one to the other. His folks were so different from each other, yet a perfect complement. He loved them both dearly, and wondered just how much he was about to hurt them. With a deep breath, he began.

"It all happened on the way back from Melbourne. I had flown down on the Friday night to catch up with a ... friend, and ended up staying until Sunday morning, when my friend and I decided to drive back to Sydney."

"Drive? Why - it's so far ..." Anne Sterling asked, but was silenced again by her husband's hand on her arm.

"Geoff - that's my friend - couldn't fly, so we were going to drive back together. On the road he had a phone call from a, erm, business associate, who asked him to call into Canberra on the way back. We went to see this other fellow, and Geoff went inside while I waited in the car ..." Ian's voice began to choke, and he stopped, fighting to keep control.

His mother leaned forward, her hand on his good arm. "It's okay, Ian, darling, take your time," she said in a soft tone of concern.

After a few moments of silence, her son continued. "There were people waiting for him, inside the room. They stabbed him, and killed the man he had gone to see. One of them tried to kill me, but Geoff pushed him, and he missed, and that's how my shoulder and arm were cut." Another period of silence followed as Ian battled his emotions, and his parents sat silently, surprise on their faces, waiting for their son to recover.

"They killed him for that," Ian said in no more than a whisper. "Crushed his skull with a table lamp. They chased me, tried to shoot me, but I got away. The police caught them, but Geoff was dead."

He stopped. They knew there was more to the story, but that this was all their son could manage for now. He was close to tears, holding back the flood for his parents' sake, and his body shook with the effort.

Anne Sterling could wait no longer. She moved to her son, wrapping her arms around him, careful not to further hurt his injured arm. "Ian, Ian," she cooed as she held him and her own tears began to flow. His father stood behind them both, his hand comforting on Ian's head, his other arm around his wife's shoulders.

Ian's mother pulled back a little, and looked deep into her son's eyes. "Ian," she said in little more than a whisper, "Is - was - this friend, Geoff, was he ..." she fought for the words. "Was he your lover?"

Ian gasped, pushing back from his mother and looking at her with a shocked expression, unable to believe that he had heard correctly. His mouth fell open, then closed again, as his head reeled. He looked up to his father, then back to his mother again.

"Yes!" he said, so quietly he could barely be heard. "How did you know?"

"Oh, my darling, my darling," his mother cried softly. "A mother always knows ..."

Richard Sterling broke his silence yet again. "Ian," he said firmly but lovingly. "We've suspected for some time now. You're our son, and we love you more than life itself. Nothing will ever change that. The only thing we want for you is happiness, no matter where or with whom you find it!"

Ian looked from one to the other again, and now he really did begin to sob. Sobs of relief, of joy, of love. He felt overwhelmed, and exhausted. Slowly his crying eased, and his breathing softened, and despite his best intentions, he fell into a sound sleep.

"I suppose the rest of the story will have to wait until tomorrow," his mother commented. His father smiled at her, and gently lifted his son bodily from the sofa, carrying him into his room under the watchful eyes of the nurse. As he placed Ian carefully on his bed, he bent low and kissed him on the forehead.

"I'm so proud of you, my son!" he said quietly to the sleeping man.

Read next part

This story is a fantasy, it is not real and only happened in my imagination. YOU MUST REMEMBER that in the real world, you can DIE from having unsafe sex. It is your right and your duty to make sure that condoms are always used, whether you are giving or receiving. It doesn't matter how good looking or how ugly he is, and it doesn't matter whether you are top or bottom, USE A CONDOM!

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