Three months from the day of the commendation ceremony, Bud White’s car rolled back into Los Angeles. It was a little dustier, a little more sand pooling in the space beneath its windshield wipers, but it was definitely Bud’s car.
Edmund Exley did not know this because he was having Bud followed, and he definitely did not know a guy in Bisbee that he’d called out of the blue one day, despite the fact that they hadn’t spoken since high school (and weren’t what you’d call “friends” even back then). He absolutely hadn’t asked this guy he barely knew to check back with him every few days about how Bud’s life was going, and even if he had, he didn’t do it because he was particularly invested in the other man’s wellbeing.
He just liked to be thorough. He was the kind of guy who followed things through, and besides, Bud White had helped him out.
Something interesting about Bud’s car: it was one occupant shy of its departing contingent. The missing occupant was not Bud White.
Another interesting thing about Bud’s car: it had been parked for the last week in a lot across the street from a run-down motel just a few blocks away from Exley’s house.
Exley was definitely not going to check in on him. He was too busy trying to get the L.A.P.D.’s shit together, which had been looking slightly less impossible lately, but still solidly hopeless. He didn’t have time to add another exercise in futility to his schedule. He would just drive by a few times, glance casually out of his window, and that would be it; the place wasn’t far from his normal route home from work. No big deal. Just a courtesy. He owed him one.
But no matter how many times Exley drove by, he never caught a glimpse of the man. He’d heard whisperings down at the station, of course—Bud was back on his feet and keeping busy, though he had a pretty substantial scar on his cheek now. He was doing a little P.I. work on the side, some security jobs at clubs. Sounded like he was doing alright, all things considered.
So Exley should probably leave him alone. (And why wouldn’t he? He certainly wasn’t thinking about how they’d parted ways just as they’d finally started to understand one another. It wasn’t profound or sad or some kind of huge, terrible metaphor—it was just life. He didn’t think about it at night and not sleep and drive past the motel at terrible hours. That would be stupid.)
But Ed Exley was every bit the fool everyone said, because one night while coming home from a late day at the station, he finally saw Bud’s car pulling into the motel lot and figured it wouldn’t hurt to tail him. He was a detective. It could be useful—lately he felt like all he’d been doing was filling out paperwork, and he reasoned that following the ex-cop might help him brush up on some relevant job skills.
Exley parked a block away and walked briskly to catch up with Bud, wincing as his footsteps echoed terribly against the pavement. He was wearing the wrong shoes for this sort of thing. Still, he proceeded relatively silently into the lobby, where the concierge was mercifully asleep at his post.
The place was really shit. It was the kind of hotel some out-of-towner would hole up in, waiting for their big break, insisting it was only temporary until their career took off even as days turned to weeks turned to a lifetime. Not the kind of place for any self-respecting L.A. native.
Exley tailed Bud from a safe distance all the way to the man’s own crummy little corner of the building, and to his surprise, he didn’t hear the lock click shut when the other man closed the door. It was probably broken.
On every rational level, Ed knew this was an awful idea. He didn’t really know what he was following Bud for, but since the other man had left, he’d been plagued by vague but persistent notions of the cosmic unfairness of everything. Bud hadn’t gotten a commendation; all he’d gotten were three bullets, courtesy the L.A.P.D. He’d almost died. It was pretty fucked-up. Ed could’ve smoothtalked someone, blackmailed someone, worked some angle. He could’ve tried harder to help.
Exley had been coming to terms with the fact that he’d pretty much shot his boss in the back because he’d thought Dudley had killed Bud, and just a few days before, they’d hated each other. He was still a little confused about that one. He’d had other reasons, sure, and they were pretty damned good ones, but when Dudley had shot Bud while he was down, something in his head had been quietly but momentously altered, like the filament of a lightbulb breaking in two and going dark.
So he loitered outside of Bud’s awful motel door for a while, until the pained creaking of the floorboards ceased and he was reasonably certain the man had gone to bed. Then, feeling equal parts foolish and creepy, he turned the knob and peered inside.
The room was dark, but thankfully Ed had decided not to listen anymore when people told him not to wear his glasses. Life was easier when he wasn’t faking 20/20 vision.
It didn’t look like anyone was in the room, and there was a closed door off to the side with a dim light seeping around the frame. Was Bud about to go to sleep? Did he read in bed, and if so, what would he be reading? Why the fuck was Exley breaking into his motel room, anyways?
Ed figured he’d have a look around, make sure the other guy was doing okay. He didn’t have any idea what had happened with Lynn, but it looked like they weren’t together, and he’d seen guys take breakups hard.
Whatever half-baked investigation he was planning on conducting was cut short, however, by a figure that appeared from behind the still-ajar door. Exley found himself being pushed roughly against the wall, and Bud White snarled “why the fuck are you following me?”
He’d let his hair grow out a little. It looked good.
“Not… sure,” rasped Exley, the air knocked out of his lungs by the stronger man, “uh… how’ve you been?”
Bud took a step back—more of a jump, really—and stared at Exley.
And for years, this bit would still get to Ed. Bud White started to laugh. Really, it was more of a chuckle, and it was fleeting, but Exley had never seen the other man laugh, even slightly. Not in a way that wasn’t rueful and harsh, anyhow.
“Shit. I thought you might’ve been this guy I caught pushing his wife around a few days ago. I think he's probably still in the hospital, though…”
Exley caught himself looking at Bud, slightly awestruck, for a little too long, so he stepped away from the wall and made a show of brushing himself off.
“I thought I was going to go through that wall. Jesus christ, this place is a nightmare. Why are you living here?”
Bud shrugged, flicking on the light switch. “Cheap, easy to move out if I need to. Want a beer?”
“I… uh… don’t really drink,” admitted Exley.
“Of course you don’t,” said Bud, smirking a little, which wasn’t as startling as the laugh, but still kind of weird. He crossed the room, extracted a beer from the fridge, started toward the horrible sofa and motioned for Ed to join him.
“I’d offer you some water, but the taps are a little rusty. So, why did you break into my place?”
“I didn’t break in. You left the door open,” he said defensively, sitting gingerly on the couch. “…I guess I wanted to know how you were doing?”
Bud quirked an eyebrow. “There are easier ways to do that.”
“I, uh… yeah. I guess there are.”
Exley felt like there was something he needed to say, but at the moment he had no clue what it was. He stared at his hands—maybe he should’ve taken the beer, it would’ve given him something to do. Some not-particularly-companionable silence followed, and to his horror, Ed found himself blurting out “So what happened with Lynn, anyways?”
And for a second, he thought Bud was going to hit him, but then the other man’s shoulders dropped, and whatever threats or acts of violence he was considering disappeared.
“Too good for me. Fucked it up before it even started, really.”
“Oh.” (Why would he even ask him about that when he didn’t have the first clue how to actually talk about it? Stupid.)
Ed looked up—he was back to staring at his hands again—but the other man wasn’t looking at him.
“Lynn told me what she said to you,” Bud muttered. “Haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.”
“What?” said Exley blankly.
He wanted to say something insouciant to lighten the mood, something like “well, she and I didn’t really do much talking,” but then he’d basically guarantee himself a punch in the nose. They didn’t need to antagonize each other. They’d probably killed like twenty guys together; they were past that. He still didn’t get why the room suddenly felt too small, though.
Bud didn’t say anything, and Ed swore the man's face was redder than usual, and wasn’t that strange? The room was really hot, which Exley hadn’t noticed at first, either—but hey, it was L.A. It was normal. Everything was normal.
“What do you mean? What did she say?”
Ed remembered most of what she’d said, and almost all of it was about Bud. And he definitely didn’t mean that one thing she’d said that Exley remembered the most, because he still didn’t completely understand it.
Fucking me and fucking Bud aren’t the same thing, you know.
“Forget it,” said Bud, finishing his beer and quickly getting up to get another.
“Hey!” exclaimed Exley, confused and a little annoyed. He turned and, unthinking, put a hand on the ex-cop’s shoulder, pushing him back into the couch before he could fully stand.
Bud made eye contact with him then, and christ, Exley was not expecting him to look… needy and angry and wild, and he didn’t think Bud would glance down at his lips, this guy who’d punched him in the face not long ago and had probably been actively trying to kill him. The other man’s gaze lingered on his mouth and slid back with a hint of defiance to match Ed’s. Damn, his eyes were fucking blue. Exley felt himself gawking, his own eyes opened insanely wide, incredulous. He was glad he’d worn his glasses, otherwise he might not have figured out what was going on. And he would’ve missed the view.
But Bud pushed his hand from his shoulder, bitter, embarrassed, and probably going to storm out and go door to door searching for asshole husbands to hit. That is, if he wasn’t going to flat-out punch Ed right now. Ultimately, he just sighed.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Go home, Exley.”
“I don’t think I will,” said Exley slowly, and before he could overthink things, he grabbed the bigger man by the collar and kissed him, hoping he’d read the situation right. And he had, because Bud responded instantaneously, pressing him down into the sofa, loosening his tie, his hands everywhere, unbuttoning his shirt. He tasted like beer and cigarettes, and his slight five o’clock shadow chafed Exley’s immaculately-shaved jawline, unfamiliar, and he… liked it. A lot, actually.
“Just didn’t expect it,” Ed continued, a little hoarsely, against the other man’s mouth. “I’ve never – you know – and I really didn’t think you would –”
“How are you a detective?” said Bud, amused. “You fucked a woman while you were on duty because she kept talking about me. Had a feeling you might be interested.”
“When you say it like that…”
Exley ran a tentative thumb over the bullet scar on Bud White’s cheek, and the other man shuddered.
“When you shot that son of a bitch, I swear I got hard. And I was probably actually dying of blood loss.”
“Fuck. But what about Lynn?” Ed said dumbly, pulling back. “Weren’t you two… didn’t you…? I mean, she’s… she."
Bud looked at him like he was completely insane.
“You do know…” he said slowly, “that you can be interested in both? Jesus, I thought you went to college.”
How had he ever thought that this guy was an idiot? But maybe they both were. If anyone ever found out about this, his whole life would be fucked. And Exley was overcome with a certainty that this wouldn’t be a one-time thing, at least not for him, at least not if Bud didn’t want it to be, and that was fucking horrifying and exhilarating and simultaneously not at all what he wanted and exactly what he wanted. And even if he walked away now, he had a feeling it’d still be in his head forever. He’d been careful, stayed focused on his career, never built much of an attachment to anyone. He’d messed around with some girls when it was expected of him, smiled coyly on cue when the guys at the station snickered and made lewd insinuations about the women he’d brought home from the cop bars he’d been pretending to drink at, but it was never going to go anywhere and he’d never wanted it to.
And here he was, touching someone he wanted to see again—and he really did want to, he wanted to fuck up his whole life even if it was just to clumsily make out, because it was with Bud White and they’d murdered their boss for christ’s sake, why not just add sex in a truly deplorable hotel room to the whole thing? Or he could take him back to his place, he had a house, he had a nice house, they could go there—
“Hey Exley—are we doing this or not?” and he got the hell out of his head and realized that Bud was straddling him, clearly interested in Doing This, and he was just lying there thinking, which suddenly felt moronic.