Benton Fraser, Ray Kowalski and a whole bunch of these other people belong to Alliance, which if you ask me is slavery and isn't that illegal? This is an AU, wherein many things happened quite differently from the way they did in the series; however, there are moments of resonance. Rated NC17 for m/m intimacy ("That means 'sex' in Fraserspeak." "Thank you Ray.") Warnings: Unsafe sex.
Thanks to AuKestrel, Andre, Betty and Judi for help along the road. Special thanks to Betty for assistance with one particularly recalcitrant scene, and to Audra, Betty & LaTonya for unparalleled beta-work. My humblest thanks.
Soundtrack: V.A.S.T Somewhere Else to Be. Aside from that, mostly Melissa Etheridge, particularly How Would I Know? My Lover, Enough of Me, Truth of the Heart and Sleep, from 'Breakdown' as well as If I Wanted To and Come to My Window from 'Yes I Am.'
Somewhere Else to Be
© 2000 Kellie Matthews
"Hey, Doc! This baby giving you trouble again?" the tall, slender man in mechanic's coveralls asked, looking surprised. "You're gonna ruin my reputation here."
Benton Fraser flicked a thumb nervously across his left eyebrow. "Yes, well, I'm sure whatever is wrong must be my fault, Stanley, I'm just not very good with mechanical things," he said, absolutely truthfully. He was positive that what was wrong was his fault, as he had spent the better part of an hour working on the fan belt with a file to be sure it broke without looking like it had been cut.
"Ray," the scruffy blond said.
"Excuse me?" Benton asked, puzzled.
"My name's Ray. Not Stanley."
"Ah." Benton looked again at the embroidered patch which embellished the man's coveralls over the smooth curve of pectoral muscle. It plainly read 'Stanley,' just as he'd remembered. "Forgive me, I thought. . . ."
The other man looked down, following his gaze, and then back up, flashing a quick, spontaneous grin. "Yeah, well, okay, so my name really is Stanley, that's my first name, but I go by my middle name, Ray. The boss sees Stanley on the job application, though, and that's what goes on the patch. Three years I work here, and he still never got it through his head that I go by Ray, and then the new guy took over and I figure why fight it? So, just think of me like Superman or something. By day I'm mild mannered mechanic, Stanley Kowalski, by night I'm . . . Ray."
Ben was diverted by the flight of fancy. It was part and parcel of the easy manner and open friendliness that Benton found so appealing about the other man. Stanl. . . or rather, Ray, was the only person he knew in Chicago who didn't treat him like some sort of consumable, like the young women in his classes, or like a pariah for getting the fellowship that slightly less than half of the department had wanted to award to someone else. He knew it was pathetic for him to resort to sabotaging his own vehicle for a few moments of real conversation, but he was, frankly, desperate. He wasn't sure how he was going to survive another day of this.
When he'd accepted the fellowship, nine months in Chicago had not seemed like such a bad idea, and it would give him access to the collections he needed for his research; and though he'd been lonely, the first month or so hadn't been so bad. But each successive month got worse as departmental politics failed to resolve themselves and he discovered that some American women were rather . . . forceful about their attentions, leading him to have a strict open door policy during his office hours. He'd grown more and more homesick, and then on top of it all, summer had hit, and the combination of negatives became almost more than he could bear. Which is what had driven him here, of all places.
"So, what does Stanley's alter-ego do at night?" he asked, grasping at straws to continue the conversation.
Ray stared at him for a moment, eyes wide and surprised. Benton gazed back, wondering what he was so surprised about, and rather intrigued by the way his eyes seemed to catch the light, as if there were gold in their blue. He'd never seen eyes quite like that. After a moment Ray shrugged.
"Not much, really. No secret crime-fighting for me. Couldn't get into the academy. So I watch TV if there's anything good on, which there isn't usually. Once in a while I go out for a beer, shoot some pool. Sometimes I go over to the Senior Center and play chess with Albert Hanrahan."
"You play chess?" Benton winced, inwardly, sure his surprise sounded insulting. Still, he would never have guessed this man was a chess player.
A slightly defensive expression flashed across Ray's angular face. "Yeah. My dad taught me when I was a kid. I like to keep my hand in, and Mr. Hanrahan is a tough guy to beat. Strange old bird, crazy as a loon but plays a mean game. Now, let's see what's wrong with this baby . . . " Ray said, popping the T-clamps on the passenger side of the hood.
"I play chess," Ben volunteered diffidently, hoping that hadn't sounded as feeble as he thought it had.
Ray nodded in acknowledgment as he straightened and moved around to the other side, released those clamps, and lifted the hood. He planted both hands on the fender and leaned in, searching, poking, prodding. He had remarkably long, slender fingers. That was obvious despite the grease and scrapes that marred his narrow hands. He had the hands of a pianist, not a mechanic. Benton had noticed he wore no wedding ring, nor had Ray made mention of a girlfriend in his recitation of potential evening activities. For some reason Benton found that surprising. He would have thought a friendly, attractive person like Ray would be married or at least have a girlfriend.
"Here's the problem." Ray said, straightening up, the broken belt dangling from his hands. "Fan belt. Hunh. . . " Ray sounded puzzled. "I just replaced this puppy at your last tune-up. It shouldn't have broken this fast. Must've been detrac. . . I mean, defective. Look, I'll replace it free, okay? Don't want anybody thinking I'd use defective parts."
Oh dear. Now that he couldn't allow, not when he knew perfectly well that it hadn't been defective. He cast around desperately for a reason to refuse. "I couldn't let you do that, Ray. Wouldn't the cost of the part come out of your salary?"
Ray twisted around to look over his shoulder, grinning. "I don't think it's gonna break me, Doc. And I should have noticed if it was bad, usually I can spot a bubble or a flaw in a belt before I put it in. I must've been tired or something that day."
"That wouldn't be right," Benton said weakly. "I insist on paying for the cost of any needed repairs."
Ray frowned. "Look, Doc, I make good money, it's okay. Let me do it, I'd feel better. I mean, you've been in here twice a month for the past three months. That's not right. You shouldn't keep having problems like that. I mean, she's a good, sound piece of machinery even if she's got a few miles on her. And you're not that rough on her, it's not like Chicago's any kind of hardship for a vehicle like this. I can't figure why you keep having all these problems."
Benton could feel a blush rising in his face and hoped the spotty fluorescent lights hid it. "Yes, well, as I said, I'm not very good with mechanical things. And I was out on gravel roads last week, perhaps a stone was thrown up by the tires and nicked the belt." God. That had sounded unutterably stupid, hadn't it?
Ray shook his head, grinning. "Nice try, Doc, but theories probably work better in the classroom than in a garage. I gotta find a replacement belt, I'll be right back, okay? You stay put and don't touch anything."
Ray sauntered, away, and Benton stayed, despite being a little irked by the command, uttered as if he were a child who might hurt himself, or worse, damage some precious piece of equipment. He was half tempted to pick up a wrench or a tire-iron just to be contrary, but realizing that would prove him to be as childish as the command had assumed, he refrained. A moment later Ray was back, a new belt in his hands.
"This ought to do her," he said, leaning into the engine compartment again. "Y'know, I always wondered how a guy like you ended up with a jeep. You don't look the type."
Well, now what did that mean? It sounded vaguely insulting. "What type do I look, then?" he asked, before he could stop himself.
Ray lifted his head, studied him a moment. "Volvo. Maybe Saab," he allowed, then returned his attention to the engine.
Ouch. Now that hurt. "I see," he said morosely. "I hadn't realized I looked like a pretentious yuppie."
The mechanic lifted his head, rather too quickly, and whacked it on the hood. He winced and rubbed at the spot with the back of one hand. "I didn't say that," he said, frowning.
"I suppose not, but the implication is there."
"Is not. It's just. . . ." he paused, clearly groping for words, and gestured toward Benton with an oddly helpless little movement of his hands. "You're all. . . buttoned down, neat, tidy, tweedy. Jeep guys, they're usually jeans and tee-shirt guys. They have dogs. They go camping."
Ah. He was beginning to understand. "I have a dog," he offered. "Well, a wolf, actually."
Ray looked at him, surprised. "You do?"
Benton nodded. "Yes. And I camp. It's rather a hazard of the profession, actually. And most of my wardrobe is jeans and tee-shirts. I just don't wear them to work. You're looking at my one and only blazer," he admitted, looking down at the classic tweed jacket he'd bought at a second-hand store in Toronto.
Ray was looking at him like he thought he was being put-on. "Hazard of the profession? For a college professor?" He sounded incredulous.
Suddenly Benton didn't feel quite so badly about being surprised that Ray played chess. "I teach archaeology and anthropology. Most summers I spend in the field, on digs and doing research."
"Archaeology, hunh? Like Indiana Jones." Ray grinned. "Bet the girls in your classes write 'love you' on their eyelids just like in 'Raiders.' You got a hat?"
Benton smiled wryly. "Actually, yes. Not a fedora though."
Ray studied him. "Yeah, that wouldn't work for you. Wrong shape face. You got a whip, too?"
His eyes were sparkling, literally, with humor. It was contagious. Benton found himself smiling back, and replied without thinking. "Tried that once, it wasn't really me."
Ray's eyebrows went up, pushing several parallel furrows into being across his forehead. After a second he laughed, shaking his head. "You're full of surprises tonight, Doc. So this dog-wolf of yours, how come I've never seen him?"
Surprisingly, Ray nodded. "Oh yeah. Hadn't thought of that. But we're careful here. We got a lot of stray cats around, I always make sure things are disposed of so they can't get into 'em. Bring him with, next time, I'd like to meet him. How'd you end up with a wolf-dog?"
"Well, that's rather a long story. I'm sure you wouldn't be interested in that."
The sparkle went out like an extinguished candle and Ray nodded. "Right. Okay. Well then, I'll just finish up here and you can get on your way." He leaned back into the engine, deftly sliding those long, thin hands into the oddly-shaped, narrow spaces between parts to secure the new belt.
Benton was acutely aware that he had done something wrong, but he wasn't sure what. The conversation had been quite promising until . . . oh. Oh. Perhaps Ray had taken his reluctance to start what everyone had assured him was an extremely dull story as a reluctance to talk in general. He cleared his throat.
"You really want to hear about how I ended up with Diefenbaker?"
Ray frowned. "What's a Diefenbaker?"
"The wolf. I would tell you the story, but you'd probably just fall asleep. I'm told I have a tendency to ramble."
Ray chuckled. "You're a professor, you're supposed to ramble." He wiped his hands on a rag and put down the Jeep's hood, latching the T-clamps into place. "There you go. All done. Denise already went home, so if you go back out front I'll lock up, then bring this baby around and write up your ticket for you."
Benton nodded, went back through the door into the office area and Ray locked the door behind him. He stood, waiting patiently, pleased that he seemed to have restored the ease between them, looking at the generic mountain scenery calender by the door. Movement caught his eye and he looked through the window in the door to see Ray open a locker. Bored, he kept watching as Ray peeled down the zipper on his coveralls. He was about to turn away, embarrassed, when Ray shrugged out of the top half of the coveralls to reveal he was wearing a black, tank-style undershirt beneath it. Oh. All right. He wasn't being a voyeur after all.
Next Ray shimmied out of the lower half of the coveralls, revealing a pair of jeans which, though by no means tight, were still a great deal less baggy than the brown coveralls. The man had very long legs. He took a short-sleeved shirt out of the locker and hung the coveralls up in its place, and closed the locker, then pulled the shirt on over his tank and toured the repair bay, flipping switches. That done, he got into Ben's jeep and backed it out into the parking lot. He stopped, set the brake and jumped out, jogged back inside, pushed a button by the door, then dashed out again, ducking to avoid the garage door as it rumbled closed.
A moment later the Jeep was out front and Ray was walking in the front door. With a grin and a wink he tossed the keys to Benton, who caught them and tucked them into his pants pocket. Ray's gaze followed that motion, then slid away as he walked over behind the counter and flipped through the job orders until he found the one he wanted. He leaned on the counter, writing for a moment, then tore the top copy off and slapped it down on the spike next to the register. The other copy he held out. Benton took it, saw what he'd written, and sighed.
"I told you I wanted to pay for the repair. Your time is valuable, and the parts cost money as well."
"I guarantee my work, and that's the last I'm saying about it," Ray said stubbornly.
Benton didn't want things to end on this note. He recalled that Ray had said he sometimes went out for a beer, and decided to chance that. "Well then, thank you kindly," he said, then continued, awkwardly. "If you won't let me pay for the repair, can I at least buy you a beer?" Although he did not drink, himself, he had seen the ritual played out often enough amongst his students to know that it was a common offer, and would likely not be refused.
Ray hesitated for a moment, his gaze sharp on Ben's face, then he shrugged. "Sure, why not? I could use one. Where do you want to go?"
"You choose, I'm not familiar with the drinking establishments in this area."
Ray's eyebrows went up. "Drinking establishments? Where're you from, anyway? Oh, never mind. I remember now. Some place North. . . um. . . Northwest Territories?"
Benton stared at him, nonplused, certain he had never discussed his origins with Ray. "How did you know that?" he demanded.
Ray closed his eyes and put his hand to his forehead, frowning dramatically. "Telepathy," he said, then he dropped his hand, grinned, and winked. "License plates on the Jeep."
He couldn't help but laugh at that. "Oh, lord, I hadn't thought of that! I wondered if perhaps someone had put a sign on my back."
Ray shook his head, still smiling. "No, no worries there. Where is that, anyhow? I mean, I get north and west, but north and west of what?"
"Pretty much anything," Benton said wryly. "It's north of Alberta, primarily."
"Alberta who? Oh, hang on." Ray dug in a drawer under the register and produced an atlas. "Here y'go. Point. I never was good at geology."
"You mean geography?" Benton corrected automatically.
"Um, yeah. That."
Benton thought he saw a bit of a flush on the other man's face, and felt badly about embarrassing him. He resolved not to correct him next time. Clearly Ray had not had an extensive education, but then, Benton couldn't repair an engine, either. He opened the atlas, flipped through it until he found a full-page map of North America, and pointed toward the coastline along the Beaufort Sea. "There. That's home. Inuvik."
Ray studied the map, whistled softly, and looked at Benton. "Geez, practically the North Pole. You ever see the uh, thing. . . the aurora?"
He nodded, suddenly feeling homesick. "Many, many times."
"Wow. Bet that's something."
"Yes, it is," he said simply, because there was no need for more.
Ray looked at him speculatively. "Bet the heat here's killing you."
Benton nodded. "I am finding it a . . . challenge."
"What are you doing down here, anyway?"
Benton sighed. "I often ask myself that very thing."
Ray gave him an understanding look, and nodded toward the door. "Let's get outta here. We'll go over to The Rose. You'll like it, it's air conditioned."
It was true, air conditioning was proving to be a godsend for him, no matter that he felt guilty for the environmental repercussions. He couldn't bring himself to purchase a unit for his apartment, but if it was already in use in the public buildings he frequented, that wasn't his responsibility. He nodded and followed Ray out of the little office. "Where is this place? I'll need directions."
Ray turned and pointed up the street. Benton followed his finger, and saw the big neon flower about two blocks away, and smiled. "I'm not really sure how I managed to miss that before."
Ray grinned. "People don't see what they're not looking for."
Benton looked at him for a moment, startled by the simple profundity of that statement, and nodded. "Yes, that's exactly right. Well, shall we?" he nodded toward the sign.
Ray nodded back, and Benton headed for the sidewalk. Ray looked surprised for a moment, then fell into step beside him. "Good idea. No point in driving two blocks." He looked around mock-furtively, and grinned again. "Don't tell anybody I said that."
"My lips are sealed," Ben promised, amused.
* * *
The Doc seemed to un-wilt a little after about fifteen minutes in The Rose's air conditioned comfort. Ray wondered why he hadn't just taken off the tweed jacket at the garage. Wool and button-down collars were not summer gear in Chicago. Maybe he was just so used to cooler weather that it hadn't occurred to him. As soon as they sat down, Ray noticed they were getting looks from the regular bar-chicks across the room. Not surprising, as the other man was almost ridiculously good-looking. He hadn't ever really thought of another guy as handsome or attractive before, not a real guy, one he knew, as opposed to some actor or singer. But this guy, wow. He was something else. Six feet, give or take a bit, with a build like a Greek statue and a face right out of a Superman comic. Perfect features, dark hair, fair skin, cloudy blue-gray eyes.
Ray also noticed he hadn't ordered a beer, or even a soft drink, just water. It made him feel a little funny about his own beer, but it was too late to change his order. He wondered if the guy was a recovering alcoholic. Didn't look like one, but you could never tell. So he sat across the scarred booth-top from the man, wondering about him as he sipped his beer, and tried not to feel self-conscious. A little to his surprise, things grew easier as they talked.
Professor Fraser did indeed ramble a little, but it was at least semi-interesting rambling, all about the place where he'd grown up, the Northwest Territories. Sort of like growing up in Alaska, Ray figured. The last holdout of the frontier. He liked the wolf-dog story, had laughed out loud when Fraser got to the part where the adolescent wolf knocked the timber into the mineshaft and brained poor Fraser for the second time. Fraser looked startled at that, then oddly pleased. Ray got the impression people didn't listen to the guy very often, not on a personal level anyway. And boy, he knew that feeling.
Even though he'd only drunk half of his beer, he was sort of starting to feel it after having skipped lunch. He glanced at his watch, saw he had time to eat before he needed to head over for his regular Thursday chess match with Mr. Hanrahan. He waited for a break in the rambling and then spoke.
"I'm gonna order dinner, you want something?"
The way Fraser's face lit up you'd think he'd just been invited to dinner with the President. Or the Queen, maybe, since he was Canadian. He must not get out much. But man, what a smile. It made Ray glad he'd asked. He signaled the waiter who brought over menus, and he ordered the house special burger and fries. He watched Fraser eye the burger side of the menu, sigh, and flip it over to the healthy stuff side, and grinned. Reaching across the table he flipped the menu back over.
"Go for it. You only live once."
"It's really not very healthy, Ray."
"It tastes good, Doc."
"Please, call me Benton."
Ray did a double-take. "Benton? Your name is Benton?" Fraser nodded, and Ray shook his head. "That's kind of a mouthful. You mind Ben, instead?"
The other man frowned thoughtfully for a moment, then shook his head, smiling a little. "No, no, I wouldn't mind that."
"Greatness. Ben it is. So go for it, Ben. Get the special, it's a double bacon-cheeseburger with barbeque sauce. Out of this world. Maybe even some fries. Live a little. It's not like you have to worry about your weight."
"Actually, I have to be quite careful here. At home I'm used to consuming far more calories than I can use here. I don't get the exercise I'm used to, and I don't expend nearly as much energy simply keeping warm."
Ray laughed. "No, you definitely don't have to worry about keeping warm here, at least not this time of year. Give it five months and you might. Still, it's not gonna kill you to have a hamburger now and then, is it?"
"No, I suppose not." He turned to the waiter, who had been hovering patiently through the discussion, and duplicated Ray's order. As the waiter took off, Ray could see past him, and he groaned as he saw the petite brunette woman who was coming toward the table.
"Oh lord. What the heck does she want? Just what I needed today. No, don't turn around, maybe she won't notice you. . . damn. Too late." He saw Frannie pause in mid-step, her gaze cataloguing and evaluating Benton Fraser, and he shot a dark look in her direction. She ignored the look or didn't see it, one or the other, and resumed her approach, this time with a sway in her backside that better belonged on a bar top in a strip club. She got to the table, struck a pose, and smiled sweetly.
"Hey there Ray."
"Frannie," he acknowledged sullenly. "Can I help you?"
"You could introduce me to your friend here. Your very interesting friend," she purred suggestively, leaning toward his companion a little, the scent of expensive perfume wafting off her, her Wonder-Bra pushing her smallish breasts into actual cleavage beneath her equally expensive silk knit tank. Ray knew silk when he saw it, he hadn't been with Stella all those years without learning that. He stifled that thought. Was it his imagination or did Fraser seem to edge away from her marginally? Maybe he was more savvy than he looked.
"I could but I'm not gonna, Mrs. Zuko," he said with deliberate emphasis. "Now go pick on someone your own size."
"Ray!" Ben exclaimed, sounding horrified.
Ray shot a quelling look at him. "My neighborhood, Doc. I know what I'm doing. You do not want Frannie's old man gunning for you. Does he, Frannie?"
Frannie's predatory look melted into a forlorn little sigh. "No, Ray. He doesn't. You're right. I'm sorry. It's just. . . well. . . oh, never mind."
Ray sighed. Poor Frannie. Married to a guy she didn't even like just because her brother wanted a piece of the guy's action. He toned down his outrage and gave her a sympathetic look. "I know, Frannie. I know. But you gotta not do this. You know what always happens. How many more guys do you want to end up in the hospital?"
"None," she said in a low voice. She sighed again, shot a longing look at Ray's companion, and made a wry face. "Well, guess I know where I'm not wanted. See you around, Ray. Nice not meeting you, handsome." She started to walk away, then stopped and turned back. She had an odd, apologetic look on her face.
"Um, Ray, you heard Stella and my brother set a date, right?"
He flinched, and nodded. "Yeah. I heard."
She nodded. "I figured, but I thought you'd probably want to know, if you hadn't."
"Thanks. Yeah, now I know when to plan my vacation."
She gave him a sympathetic smile, and then was gone. He sighed. Sensing eyes on him, he looked up to find Benton Fraser looking at him with a slight frown, his expression a mixture of curiosity and disapproval. After Ray looked at him, he took a breath, hesitated for a moment, then spoke.
"That wasn't very. . . polite."
"Yeah. I know. But believe me, you're better off. First off, she's married. B, she's married to a mob guy. And if that wasn't enough, Vecchio, that's her brother, is an even bigger mob guy. Trust me, Doc, the lady's not safe."
"She seemed nice enough."
"She is. Frannie's got a good heart, she just doesn't have much sense." He eyed Ben, seeing him watching Frannie where she stood at the bar, and wondered if he needed a bit more of a whap from the clue-bat. Yeah, maybe so. He seemed a little on the gullible side. "And like I said, she's married, to a guy you do not want to meet in a dark alley."
That did it. The eyes snapped back to meet his, and a distinct flush painted the other man's face. "I assure you, the simple fact that she's married would have sufficed," Ben said, clearly embarrassed.
Ray looked at him for a minute, and smiled. "Yeah? Okay. I'll remember that. Wouldn't matter to lotsa guys."
"It matters to me," Ben said firmly.
"Got that," Ray said, taking a long swallow of his beer, needing it after the invocation of Stella. He felt those eyes on him again, glanced over to see that Ben was watching him thoughtfully. He put down the bottle and lifted his eyebrows, encouraging him to ask the question he clearly wanted to.
"Ray, are there really 'mob guys' hereabouts?"
"You better believe it."
"Interesting. I suppose I had thought that stories of the dominance of organized crime in Chicago were exaggerated by the entertainment media for effect."
Ray stared at him, impressed. "Wow. You talk like that all the time?"
Ben looked puzzled. "Like what?"
Ray grinned, shaking his head. "Never mind."
Their waiter appeared and set two identical plates before them. Suddenly his burger and fries weren't nearly as appealing as they had been a few minutes earlier. Funny how thinking about Stella and Vecchio could completely ruin his appetite. Still, he had to drive, and he needed food. He picked up a french-fry and chewed, slowly. Swallowing it was like swallowing sand. He took another swig of his beer to wash it down, fidgeted with the label on the bottle, then put it down and poked at the garnish on his plate. Ben seemed to be having no difficulties with his meal. He watched Ben eat, pleased that his suggestion had obviously been a good one. After a few moments Ben wiped his mouth and looked up.
"You're right, this is quite delici. . . " Ben stopped, his gaze going from Ray to the nearly untouched sandwich on his plate and then back. His eyebrows lifted in concern. "Is something wrong with your food?"
"No. No, I just kinda got . . . not hungry."
"Ah." The other man tilted his head slightly, studying him with slightly narrowed eyes and a faint frown. "Might that have something to do with the woman Mrs. Zuko mentioned? Stella?"
Ray dragged a hand through his hair with a groan. "God, is it that obvious?"
"I wouldn't say obvious," Ben hedged.
"Yeah, you wouldn't say it because you're polite." Ray sighed. "Yeah. Okay. Yeah. It is. Her, I mean. I just can't handle thinking about her an Vecchio. Just kinda. . . eats at me, here." He rubbed at his chest, then swore. "Damn. Sorry. I got no business putting that on you. You don't even know me."
Ben sat back and smoothed his fingertips across his left eyebrow. "You're quite correct. However, I'm told I can be a good listener, when I stop talking long enough to realize the other person is speaking."
Startled, Ray looked back up at him. Ben was smiling a little ruefully, but sincerely.
"You really wanna hear about . . . her?" he ventured.
"You listened to my Diefenbaker story, it's only fair."
Ray made a face. "Not exactly the same thing. Your story was kinda fun."
"Still, I would be happy to listen, if, that is, you wanted to talk."
Ray shook his head, knowing full well no one in his right mind would want to sit and listen to him whine about his ex-wife. "Nah. Not right now. I gotta meet Albert for chess in half an hour, and Stella would take a lot longer than that to go through. But thanks for the offer."
He thought he saw disappointment flicker across the other man's face as his gaze dropped to his plate and he started poking at his fries like Ray had been doing a moment earlier. Well, obviously he couldn't be disappointed that he didn't get to listen to Ray bitch, so it had to be something else. . . oh. Maybe it was the meeting Albert thing. Maybe he wanted to hang some more. That was kind of cool. He perked up, suddenly remembering something the other man had said earlier. "Hey, you got plans tonight?"
Ben looked up from his plate, almost eagerly. "No, Ray, well, not other than grading papers, which, frankly, is absolutely the last thing I want to do. Why?"
He looked interested. He sounded interested. Ray didn't blame him. He couldn't think of much that would be worse than spending the evening grading papers. Maybe a root canal, or getting pulled over for speeding. "You said you play chess, right? I bet Albert would love to have somebody else to beat. He already knows all my good moves. You wanna come with?"
That light-up-the-dark smile flared briefly again, and once more Ray felt like somebody had just punched him. Geez, the guy ought to come with warning labels.
"Yes, I'd like that very much. I think I'd rather face the wrath of my entire class for not having finished the grading tomorrow than look at one more paper right now."
Ray grinned. "Great. Greatness. Albert'll be thrilled." Albert wasn't the only one. It had been a long time since he'd had someone to hang out with, someone his own age, who actually seemed to like him. After he and Stella split, most of their 'friends' had gone with her. He understood, that, really, after all, most smart people would choose to side with the half of the couple who's dating the mob guy. . . just to be safe. Feeling a little, no, a lot less morose, and also hungry again, he picked up his burger and took a bite. Yeah. Good. Very good.
* * *
Lord, it was hot. Ben had just about decided that he must have been an axe murderer in a previous lifetime, and that his tenure in Chicago was his punishment for that. What else could explain the fact that the only summer he had spent here in his life would coincide with one of the worst heat-waves in recent memory? His wardrobe was all wrong for the climate, having been purchased for the cooler Northern summers. Unfortunately he couldn't afford to buy new clothes out of his meager stipend, so he was suffering through it in heavy jeans, T-shirts, and hiking boots. During the day it wasn't so bad: he could hibernate in the various air conditioned campus buildings, and he kept Diefenbaker in his office most of the time, against campus policy, to spare him the worst of the heat. He'd actually thought about taking his bedroll to work and sleeping in his office, but he had a feeling the security guards would frown on that.
The nights, however, were awful. His apartment had next to no ventilation, so even though he left his single window open, mostly all that accomplished was to let in the constant city noise and the smell of exhaust fumes. His neighbors thought he'd lost his mind for leaving his window open, but as he had nothing in the apartment that anyone would want to steal, he wasn't overly concerned. What had so far saved his sanity were his weekly assignations with Ray and Albert Hanrahan, which in the last ten days of intolerable heat, had somehow transformed into nightly dinners out in blessedly air conditioned restaurants and chess matches at the air conditioned Senior Center, or in Ray's air conditioned apartment if it was just the two of them.
Ben felt vaguely guilty, hoping that Ray didn't think he was just using him to get cool, but it had been his friend's suggestion, after all. Perhaps he had just realized how much the heat was affecting Ben and taken pity on him. He smiled wryly at that. Apparently he was dependent on the kindness of strangers. How appropriate that was, considering Ray's real name. His parents should be ashamed of themselves, saddling a child with a name like that. He was still having trouble with the rather astonishing coincidence that Ray had once been married to a woman named Stella. He'd gotten that much out of Ray, though no more.
Even three weeks after his offer of a sympathetic ear, Ray still hadn't talked much about his marriage, or what had happened to end it, but it was clear he'd been badly hurt. Ben could empathize. He still burned with pain and humiliation every time he thought of Victoria Metcalfe. He hoped she was happy. No, that was a lie. She'd used him and hurt him and stolen from him and with uncharacteristic viciousness he hoped she was utterly miserable in her comfortable, well-paid, tenure-track job. He'd thought they were in love and he knew she was the only woman he'd ever felt so deeply for. And she'd encouraged that, used him, all the while making sure that the painstaking research that had gotten her that job could never be linked to him, its rightful author.
Knowing the depths to which that line of thought could lead, he tried to stop thinking about her, but it seemed as if the more he tried not to, the less he succeeded, and he felt the darkness pooling in his mind. No. It was foolish to have these thoughts. He hadn't loved her. It had just been an infatuation. That was all. To lose control like this over an infatuation was unconscionable. He started to pace, but it only seemed to make him hotter. He had to get out of here. Had to find some place cool, some place with people to distract him. But he couldn't leave Diefenbaker to suffer alone in this heat. Where. . .
He looked at the phone. No. He shouldn't exploit Ray like that. He couldn't. It was impolite. And even if he were to call, surely Ray would be busy on a Friday night. But, God, he was so hot. . . maybe for Dief. Not for himself. For Dief. He picked up the phone, dialed. It was answered on the second ring.
"Doc! Hey, I was just thinking about you. How you holding up?"
"I'm fine Ray, but Diefenbaker is having a little trouble in the heat. I was wondering, could I bring him over to your place for a bit? I realize it's a terrible imposition but. . . ."
"Getcher butt over here, Ben," Ray interrupted him. "Both your butts. Immediately if not sooner."
"Thank you, Ray, I do appreciate it."
"Anytime. See you when you get here."
Ben hung up, and quickly yanked a T-shirt on, pulled his jeans on over his boxers, and shoved his feet into his boots, not lacing them all the way up, hoping that would keep his feet marginally cooler. Finally he looked at Dief who was lying under the window, panting heavily.
"Come on, Dief. We're going to see Ray."
Diefenbaker answered with an ecstatic moan and leapt to his feet. Ben knew just how he felt. As they left the building the heat radiating off the asphalt of the parking lot seemed to lick at him like invisible flames, and Diefenbaker whined miserably, almost dancing to keep his paws from burning. Feeling badly, Ben stopped and crouched beside his companion.
"I'm sorry, Dief, forgive me, I should have thought." He slid his hands beneath Dief's chest and hips, and hoisted him with a grunt of exertion. He felt the lick of a grateful tongue at his arm. It felt cool. He put Dief in the passenger seat, already buffered with a ragged old towel so the vinyl wouldn't be so uncomfortable, and got into the vehicle himself. He could barely touch the steering wheel for fear of burning his hands. He sat for a moment, thinking of chucking it all and running home. He could get a job on an oil-rig, perhaps. Or work as a guide. Anything but this. If it didn't cool off soon, he was sure the heat would kill him. Cool. Ray. Yes. He started the jeep and pulled out, going faster than he should, just for the sake of the hot breeze it created.
* * *
Ray opened the door, took one glance at the utterly miserable-looking man on the other side of the door, and grabbed his arm, worried he was going to keel right over there in the hallway. Diefenbaker looked nearly as bad, panting, his feet leaving little damp marks on the floor because feet were the only place a dog could sweat. Dief almost shoved him off his feet in his eagerness to be in the cool haven of the apartment, and Ray pulled Ben inside and shut the door on the oven-like hallway.
"C'mon in, I'll get you both some ice-water. Jesus, you look like you're gonna pass out. Go stand in front of the air conditioner, on second thought hang on," he grabbed a chair and hauled it over in front of the cool blast, pushing Ben down onto it, ". . . sit in front of the air conditioner. Stay!" he said as Ben started to get up. "I mean that. I said I'd get you both water. C'mon, Dief. " He clattered around in his cupboards, finding the biggest mixing bowl he owned, filling it with tap water and dumping half a tray of ice into it then, finally, setting it on the floor. "There ya go, bud. Drink up." Once Dief had his muzzle in the bowl, he tossed the rest of the tray of ice into his largest glass and filling it with water too, then after a moment he grabbed a dishtowel, wet it down, and fished two cubes of ice out of the glass and wrapped them in the towel. He went back out to the living room and handed Ben the glass, then took the cold, wet towel and slapped it on the back of his friend's neck. Ben straightened with a gasp.
"Ray, what . . . ?"
"Cooling you down before you stroke out on me. Drink. Don't you know people die in heat like this? What the hell are you doing to yourself? Take your shirt off."
"Ray, I can't very well drink and take my shirt off at the same time," Ben said in a faintly exasperated tone. "And why should I take off. . . aaaah!" he yelped as Ray yanked his t-shirt out of his jeans and halfway up his back so he could apply his impromptu cold-pack to more skin.
"It's been over a hundred for eight days in a row, Doc. You gotta take care of yourself. What were you doing?"
"Nothing!" Ben snapped. "We were simply at home. I would have tried to sleep, but it's just so hot!"
"Run your air conditioner, you dense Canadian you."
"I haven't got one."
"Fan then, and a spray bottle."
There was a pause, a sigh. "No fan, either."
"No fan? None? Tell me you at least have a window."
"I do have a window, but just one, and it's impossible to get any cross-ventilation.
Ray groaned. "Okay, that does it. You guys are staying here until the heat wave breaks. I got a couch, I got a bed, they both work good. You can have whichever one you want."
"We couldn't inconvenience you like that, I'm sure we'll be fine at home, we just needed to cool. . . ."
Ray narrowed his eyes. "You refusing my hospitality?" he asked with what he hoped was a dangerous edge to his voice.
There was a short silence. "Well, ah. . . ."
Ray bit the inside of his lip to hide his smile, even though he was standing behind Ben and he couldn't be seen anyway. "Good. You want bed or couch?"
"I couldn't put you out of your bed. . . ."
'"Couch it is, then." He tugged some more on the t-shirt in his hands. "Raise your left arm."
Somewhat to his surprise, Ben complied, and Ray managed to get that arm out of the shirt. "Other one now." Compliance again. Quickly Ray took advantage and peeled the sweat-soaked shirt the rest of the way off, still a little stunned by his success. Would wonders never cease? In the few short weeks they'd known each other, he'd come to realize that the Canadian was just plain contrary, and somewhat of an alpha dog. Never say yes when no would do just as well, and never let anyone else lead.
The fact that Ben was sitting here letting Ray take charge, was acquiescing to Ray's demands, told him he was more of a mess than he looked, which was saying something because the guy was drenched in sweat and looked like shit. Well, no, that wasn't true. Even looking like this he didn't look like shit. Probably couldn't look like shit if he was dipped in it. So what the hell was he doing here of all places on a hot Friday night, instead of out with some luscious co-ed in a temperature-controlled loft paid for by Mommy and Daddy's money?
"Don't you have a girlfriend, Doc?" he blurted out nosily, then wished he hadn't when the back beneath his hands went tense and Ben jerked upright from the slouch he'd slipped into when Ray had finished wrestling his shirt off.
Whoooboy. There were stories in that word. Lots of 'em. Amazing how much a guy could say with a single syllable. It suddenly dawned on Ray that he wasn't the only person in the room with 'relationship issues,' as Stella had liked to call it. Well, that explained a few things.
"Bad, hunh?" he said sympathetically as he swiped the wet towel down Ben's broad, pale back, across his neck. After a moment the bent head nodded a little.
And that was all he was going to get, he could tell. At least at the moment. Hunh. Maybe that was why Ben had encouraged him to talk about Stella. Compare war wounds. He got that now, hadn't before. It just seemed impossible that somebody like Ben could have problems in the romance department. Ray let his hand rest on Ben's hot shoulder, briefly squeezing to convey his understanding, then, noticing that some time in the last few minutes Ben had managed to drink all his water, he reached over and took the glass from his hand. "Why don't I fill that up again?"
Ben gave up the glass without protest and Ray went back to the kitchen for more water and to rinse out the towel and put more ice in it. Dief had finished half the bowl of water and gone out to sit at Ben's feet, where the full stream of air from the window-unit could hit them both. Jesus, not even a fan. Ben was a smart guy, what the hell was he thinking?
"How come you don't have a fan?" he asked.
"A fan. Don't you read the alerts? We got an actual heat emergency going here, and you don't even have a fan! You trying to fry that big brain of yours? You know better than that! I mean, if you were up north and it was blizzarding, would you run around without a coat?"
"Of course not," Ben said, sounding a little miffed. "That would be silly."
"You bet it would. So's trying to get through a heat emergency in Chicago without a fan, at least."
Ben didn't reply, which was unusual enough that Ray hurried a little as he headed back to the living room, but relaxed when he saw Ben sitting there ruffling Dief's fur to let the air cool the underlayers. As he moved to stand next to them, Ben looked up, his expression a little sheepish.
"I suppose I hadn't thought of it in those terms before. I was just trying to be environmentally conscious."
"Yeah, well, so recycle my beer bottles or something. Don't kill yourself."
Suddenly the slouch was more profound, and Ben's gaze dropped to the floor again, and with a shock Ray suddenly realized that he'd thought about it. Maybe not today, but sometime. Jesus Christ! He'd actually thought about it. It was like he could see it written in the air or something, he just knew. He went to his knees next to the chair, and grabbed Ben's chin in his cold, wet fingers, dragging his startled gaze around until their eyes met.
"No. Not over a chick. No way. Not worth it. Y'hear me? If I could get through it, you can get through it. I know it feels like the end of the world but it's not. Got that?"
Ben nodded slowly, eyes still wide, looking at him like he was a teddy bear that had just snarled. Ray was a little startled himself. In fact, a lot startled. Where the hell had that come from, that sudden rush of anger and . . . feeling? He carefully didn't define that other feeling. Too dangerous. Especially not kneeling on the floor less than a foot from Ben's half-naked body, so close he could smell the dark, clean scent of his sweat. Realizing he still had Ben's chin in his hand, he let go abruptly and backed off. "Okay. Okay, good. Good. Here," he handed Ben the towel and glass, ". . . cool off. I'm gonna. . . um. . . use the can."
He escaped to the bathroom, nearly slamming the door behind himself as he tried to control the sudden rush of blood into his face, and. . . elsewhere. He looked at himself in the mirror. He looked wild-eyed and skittish, like something only half-tamed. Felt that way too, all the sudden. Wow. Where the hell had all this stuff been hiding? Howcome it was popping out now, like some kind of snake in a can? Sure, there'd been a few times in his life when he'd looked at another guy and thought . . . mmm, yeah. Interesting. But not like this. Not this. . . strong, this fast, this . . . God. Why this, why now, why Ben? Must just be way too long since he'd gotten laid. He liked Ben, a lot, but this attraction had really snuck up on him. And he wasn't going to mess up a friendship by acting stupid about it.
He took a few deep breaths, thought about Stella and Vecchio, and. . . yeah, that did it. No more incipient hard-on. Okay. He was good to go. He flushed the toilet and washed his hands just for cover. Opened the door, walked out again and took a seat on the couch a good three feet away from his half-nak. . . stop that. Ben. Just Ben. Ray stared at Ben narrowly, at his face, saw color rise and wash across those broad cheekbones.
"Okay, Doc. Spill. What's going on inside your head?"
"Really nothing that need concern you, Ray."
"Uh-hunh. Right. Look, I know we don't hardly know each other, and I'm not what you call your best friend, but . . . ."
"Yes, you are," Ben said quietly.
Ray looked at him, puzzled. "Yes I are. . . I mean, I am what?"
"My friend. I daresay even my best friend. Well, except for Diefenbaker," Ben allowed with a slight smile as the wolf made an interrogatory sound at his feet.
Whoa. That rocked him back a little. He liked Ben. A lot. (More than a lot, apparently, he thought, then pushed that thought away.) But he hadn't figured Ben was doing much more than killing time. The guy was smart. And fun. And incredibly good-looking. And apparently good at everything he did. Even if he was a little irritating sometimes, and a little on the weird side. So. . . why the hell would he say something like that? He felt himself blushing a little. "Um. . . you don't gotta say that, y'know."
Ben straightened, looking offended. "I wouldn't say it if I didn't mean it."
No. He wouldn't. Ray hadn't known him long but that much was obvious. He was so honest he sometimes made Ray cringe. Ben looked at his hands, raked his fingertips across his eyebrow in a way that Ray had come to realize meant he was nervous, and then looked up, eyebrows raised, his expression so earnest it hurt.
"I do mean it, Ray. I'm not. . . I don't. . . I don't make friends easily. I never have. I don't know why. My fault, I'm sure, I'm not good with people. I'm just not. . . like most people. I know that. I'm difficult, and opinionated, and not very tactful. I suppose it comes from being raised as I was . . . ."
"Which was? I mean, I know you're from the Northern Whatsis, but you never say much about it. Talk about college, about chess, about books, about your students, but not about you. How come?"
"I. . . suppose I never thought you would be interested."
Ray rolled his eyes. "Well I am, okay?"
Ben looked surprised. "Really?"
"Yeah. Really. So, tell me about you. Where'd you grow up?"
"All over the place, actually. Well, all over the Territories at any rate. I went to live with my grandparents when I was six. We moved a lot. They were traveling librarians."
"Kinda like a bookmobile?"
Ben smiled. "I suppose you could say that. They had a huge trailer full of books. We went to places where people had no easy access to such things. They had a circuit they traveled, lending on the way out, and retrieving on the way back."
Ray nodded, his mind still worrying at an earlier thought. "So, what happened when you were six? Howcome you had to go live with your grandparents?" Once again Ray wished he hadn't asked, as he saw Ben's face go still and closed. "You don't gotta say, if you don't want."
He watched the struggle between silence and speech on Ben's face, and finally speech won. "It's difficult for me, I'm sorry. My mother died when I was six. She was murdered. And. . . and then my father went to prison, so I had to go to my grandparents."
Ray's jaw dropped. "Your dad killed your mom?"
Ben looked up, startled. "No! Oh, dear, yes, I suppose that did sound like that. No, he killed the man who killed my mother."
Ray rubbed his face, stunned. He looked at Ben. "Wait, back up. Whole story, please. Who killed your mom? Why'd your dad go to jail if the other guy killed her?"
Ben stood up suddenly, and went to the window, staring out at the sunset. He took a deep breath. "My father was sergeant in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He discovered that a friend of his, a trapper and guide named Holloway Muldoon, was actually dealing in endangered species. When my father discovered this and attempted to arrest him, Muldoon shot my mother, assuming that my father would be too busy with her to come after him. However, intentionally or not, he killed her rather than wounding her, and my father went after him immediately. When he found him, he killed him, then turned himself in and was sent to prison."
Ray scowled. "That not right. Wasn't that like. . . self-defense or something?"
"No. It was revenge. Pure and simple. Not that I blame him. He loved my mother dearly and was deranged by grief."
Personally Ray thought it might've been nice if the guy had spared a thought or two for his son, but he kept his mouth shut on that subject. "He . . . um . . . he still in prison?"
Ben closed his eyes, shook his head. "No. Former officers of the law rarely last long in prison. He was killed by his fellow inmates a year and three months into his sentence."
Ray stared at him in shock. "God! That's. . . that's. . . Ben, I'm sorry." God. What a fuckup. Drag the guy's worst moments out for a look-see, why don't you, Kowalski? "Geez. Just tell me to shut up already, Ben. My mouth is way too big."
"No, Ray. It's all right. It was many years ago. It no longer carries the weight it once did."
Ben's mouth might say that, but his face didn't. He looked. . . lost. Like a little kid, like that six-year-old boy whose mother was murdered, whose father was suddenly gone, leaving him alone with two old folks who no doubt loved him, but had no idea what to do with him. Ray's first urge was to hug him. But Ben wasn't a chick, and he'd already gotten out of line once tonight. But Ben really looked like he could use one. Oh the hell with it. Ray got up and went for it.
He crossed over to stand beside Ben, put a hand on his shoulder, then pulled him in, close. Ben resisted for all of a quarter of a second, then he was there, holding Ray hard, really hard. The guy was strong, it was almost hard to breathe, and not for illicit reasons this time. He managed to keep his own hands chastely on Ben's upper back, patting gently, like he would a baby, managed to ignore the feeling of skin under his hands; managed to pretend he wasn't bothered by the faint rasp of stubble against his neck; managed not to rub his cheek against the soft, sweat-damp curls of Ben's hair.
He felt a faint shudder go through his friend and heard a sigh. Then Ben's arms loosened and he pulled away, looking flushed and embarrassed, but oddly. . . happy, too. Ben's fingertips skimmed his eyebrows again, and he licked his lip. Another of Ben's habits that Ray had become more and more attuned to in the last few weeks. Fingers on eyebrow meant nervous, lip-lick meant pause-to-think, and neck-crack meant really nervous and uncomfortable, usually related to discussions of certain of his female students and their continual come-ons.
"Thank you, Ray," Fraser said quietly.
"Any time, Ben," Ray said seriously, thinking how nice that had felt. He was instantly ashamed of himself. Oh, very un-cool, Kowalski. Put the moves on the guy when he's down. Not Smooth. He stepped back. "Um, you hungry? I could call May Wah for delivery, or Tony's, but we had pizza last night."
Ben looked as if he were going to refuse, but just then Dief whined, and he looked down at the wolf. Dief made several noises. Ray swore sometimes it seemed like the wolf was actually talking. And what was even weirder was that Ben talked back like he was making sense. Weirdest yet, sometimes Ray thought so too.
"Yes, you're quite right, I'm sorry. I could blame the heat for my forgetfulness but that's beside the point. Certainly." He looked back up at Ray. "Dief would like sesame chicken. I'll just have a few bites of his."
Ray looked at him for a minute, trying to decide if Ben was joking, finally decided he wasn't, and grinned, shaking his head. "You're a freak, y'know that?"
Ben seemed to understand he didn't mean it negatively. He smiled back, tentatively. "Understood."
Ray winked. "But then, so'm I. I'll go call in dinner."
* * *
Ben woke up sweating. It was hot again. Hot, and close, and far too quiet. His own rapid breathing sounded harsh and over-loud in the absence of any other noise. But the heat of the air wasn't the only reason he was sweating. He gritted his teeth and tugged at his now-uncomfortable boxers, trying to adjust them so they didn't bind as he recalled the disconcerting dream he'd been having. It must be the heat. Why else would he be dreaming such things about . . . Ray? Or was it just having someone seem to really care about him that had triggered such a response? Probably. How embarrassing.
He still felt a little off-balance from Ray's reaction earlier that evening. How had he known? How could he possibly have known that it had been just that bad for him at one time? He threw off the sheet and thin cotton blanket that covered him and sat up on the couch. Dief lifted his muzzle and whined a question.
"Shhh, I don't know. Perhaps it's on a timer." He started to get up, intending to go check the air conditioner. He would have to move very carefully in the dark to keep from banging into the furniture. Ray certainly liked a cluttered apartment. Suddenly it dawned on him that it wasn't just dark, it was too dark. Even with the main lights out, there should be some illumination from the street-lights outside, and from the faces of several appliances as well. He knew when he'd gone to sleep that Ray's VCR had been showing the time in faint blue numbers. Now there was nothing but darkness. Ah. Power failure. That explained why it was hot.
As he sat there trying to decide if he should get up and open the windows or just hope the power came back on soon, he heard a sound from the bedroom, then light flared, erratic and pale. A moment later Ray appeared in the doorway, flashlight in hand, illuminating a long, lean, mostly bare body. All he wore were a pair of thigh-length knit briefs in a heathery gray. Ben's dream flashed back through his mind, his body shocking him with the immediacy of its response. He twitched a fold of blanket across his thighs and lap, heartily glad of the darkness. Ray looked over when he moved, saw he was sitting up, and smiled.
"Hey. Too hot for you to sleep too?"
Ben nodded, refraining from adding 'in more ways than one.'
Ray stretched, yawned, and scratched his chest. "They're probably doing rolling brown-outs to conserve power. They do that when things get bad, wait until after dark so it's a little easier on everyone. Damn. Sorry."
"It's not your fault, Ray."
"I know, but I wanted you to be comfortable here. I'm gonna open some windows, you mind?"
"Not at all, let me help."
Ray lit a couple of candles for light, and together they got the windows open, both in the living room and the bedroom. A faint cross-breeze stirred the sheers, not exactly cool, but not hot either, and at least the air was moving. Ray put both hands on a window-sill and leaned down, looking out at the darkness. "Man, that's weird. No lights. Not used to that here. Haven't seen it this dark since the last time I was up at. . . well, shit! I'm stupid!"
Ben looked at him, concerned. "Ray, you're not stupid. Why would you say that?"
Ray turned toward him, a candle-lit smile curving his mouth. "Sorry. Can't read my mind, hunh? I just realized I have the perfect place to go to beat the heat. My uncle owns some property up in the Dells, it's a little cooler there, and there's a lake . . . well, really it's an abandoned stone quarry. They hit a spring, and the thing just filled right up. It's a great place to swim if you don't mind the water being colder than all get out. It should be just about perfect for this kind of weather. We can go up there tomorrow. . . or, I mean, today since it's about four, by my watch. You up for that?"
Dief's eager exhalation echoed Ben's own internal response. To get out of the city. . . away from asphalt and concrete and glass, to smell the earth instead of hot tar and exhaust, to feel the cool silk of un-chlorinated water on his skin . . . "It sounds like heaven," he blurted, and was glad Ray didn't look over to see his embarrassed blush.
"Greatness!" Ray pushed himself upright, raked a hand through his spiky hair. Ben had often wondered if he intended for it to look like that or if it just had a mind of its own. It would appear that the latter was the case. "Hell, we're both awake, probably not going back to sleep at this point, let's just go for it. Cooler driving in the dark anyway. We'll go by your apartment so you can pick up a few things, swing by McDonald's for break. . . " he looked at Ben's face, grinned, and amended his plan on the fly. "Okay, not McDonald's, but someplace for breakfast, and then head out. Sound good?"
Ben nodded. "Very good."
"Get dressed then."
Ray headed for his bedroom, and Ben picked up his jeans and t-shirt from the coffee table where he'd put them before falling asleep. His shirt was regrettably aromatic, but he could change it when he got home. As he pulled on his jeans, it dawned on him that he didn't own a swimming suit. He was still standing there, half-dressed, trying to solve that dilemma when Ray came back out of his bedroom in hiking boots, cargo shorts and one of his ubiquitous bowling shirts over a tank-style undershirt, carrying a duffle bag in his hand. He stopped short, studying Ben.
"You forget how to work a zipper?" he asked, amused.
Disconcerted, Ben pulled his jeans the rest of the way up, fastened the button and zipped. "No, not at all. I just remembered I have no swim trunks."
Ray dropped the duffle-bag by the door and turned to grin at him. "It's private property, Benton-buddy. Nobody's gonna care if you got your Speedo on or not."
Ben's jaw dropped. He couldn't mean. . . well, yes, he could. Ray was quite a lot more casual than he was, about a lot of things. He cracked his neck with a quick jerk of his head, and ran a nervous thumb across his eyebrow. "Ah, I'm not . . . I don't . . . ." he began, trying to figure out how to say it.
Ray sighed. "Wear your boxers, Doc. Just don't expect me to."
Ben stood there for another few seconds, trying very hard not to think about the implications of that comment, then he shook it off and pulled on his shirt. He was tying his boots as Ray opened the closet and pulled out a cooler, then got into the refrigerator and dug around in it taking out various items. "Might as well take this stuff with, so it doesn't go bad if the power stays off. Got some beer, some of those mineral waters you like, some hot dogs. You eat hot dogs?"
"Not if I can avoid it," Ben confessed.
Ray chuckled. "You're a snob. Wonder if I have any marshmallows. . . ." he opened a cabinet, closed it again. "Damn, no."
"I have to say that sounds rather. . . revolting."
"With hot dogs."
"You don't eat 'em together, doofus. Hey! I know. We'll stop at the store and get some, get the other necessary things, too. Graham crackers and chocolate bars."
Ben looked at him, puzzled. "Ah. . . Will there be children present? If so I really think trunks are not optional."
Ray looked equally confused. "Just you and me, Doc. How come?"
"Graham crackers, chocolate bars and hot dogs simply seem more appropriate fare for children."
Ray laughed out loud. "I can tell you were way deprived up there in the North. Those, my friend, are camping essentials. Along with hamburger, onion soup mix, and aluminum foil. Maybe some potatoes. Yeah. Oh, eggs. Can't forget those. And bacon. Lots of ice. Um . . . anything you want?"
"Are we camping?" Ben asked tentatively, having thought they were simply going to go swimming.
"Well, kinda. There's a little cabin, almost more of a shack, but it helps keep the bugs away. I figured we'd hang there tonight, come back late tomorrow, put it off as long as possible. God knows I don't want to be stuck here, I can only imagine it's worse for you and Dief. Come on, help me with this."
Shaking his head in bemused wonder at this unexpected turn, Ben took one of the cooler's handles and lifted. Together they carried it out to the parking lot. They argued quietly for a few minutes over whose vehicle to take, but Ben finally acquiesced to Ray's insistence on taking his (a sleek, sporty black thing he called a "Goat" for some unknown reason) because it had air conditioning. As they settled in, Diefenbaker sprawled on the back seat, Ray started the car, then looked over at him.
"Need your address."
Ben hesitated. Ray noticed, of course, and looked offended. "Look, I'm not gonna come over when you're not home and steal your stuff. It's okay."
"Of course not!" Ben exclaimed, embarrassed. "I know that. It's just. . . well. . . it's not a very good neighborhood."
Ray snorted. "Like I live on the Gold Coast? Gimme a break. Where to?"
Ben sighed. "221 West Racine."
Ray frowned. "Holy cow! You weren't kidding bad neighborhood. Okay, I won't ask. We'll just go get your stuff, if it's still there."
"It's really not as bad as all that. My neighbors are quite nice."
"Whatever you say. Um, how'd you end up at First National Garage if you don't live around there?"
"It was recommended by one of my students. He said you were the best."
Ray grinned. "Yeah? Cool. Next time you see him, tell him I owe him a free tune-up for the good press."
* * *
It only took a few minutes to get to Ben's apartment building. There wasn't much traffic at this hour. Ray pulled up in front of the building, looked around, and whistled softly. "This is home?"
Ben nodded, looking embarrassed. "Yes. I'll just go up and get my things. You might want to wait with the car."
Ray nodded solemnly "Yeah, I can see that. Okay. I'll wait."
Ben got out, looked at Dief, who declined to move from his sprawl on the back seat. "Lazy," he admonished softly, looking amused, and then closed the door, heading up to his apartment. Ray sat for a moment, tapping his thumbs on the wheel. Boy, good thing Ben's old Jeep didn't look like as good a car as it was, or it would be long gone, left parked around here. He shifted a little on his seat, wishing he'd remembered to put a towel down so the backs of his thighs didn't stick to the seat. The only drawback to shorts, in this weather. Shorts. He looked at Dief.
"He gonna think to grab a pair of shorts?" he asked the wolf, feeling as silly as he always did when he talked to Dief, even though Dief talked back.
Dief groaned. Ray sighed. "That's what I thought. You wait here. Don't let anybody steal the car, okay?"
A faint yip answered him, and he grinned. "Thank you kindly."
He jogged up to the building, stepped into the lobby, and was surprised by how clean it was. Maybe Ben was right, the neighborhood wasn't as bad as he'd heard. He realized he had no idea even what floor Ben was on, and looked at the mailboxes, though he didn't figure they were marked. To his surprise, they were. Neatly, too. And someone had put a little heart and rainbow sticker on the one with Ben's name on it. Cute. Still, it gave him the number, Apartment 3-J. He looked at the elevator . . . the open-cage kind. . . and shuddered. Stairs. Definitely stairs. He didn't run, because the stairs were uncarpeted wood and he knew that would make a lot of noise and after all it wasn't even five o-clock yet.
He got to the third floor, impressed with his own fitness since he wasn't even panting, and found 3-J easily, partly because the door was standing wide open. He tensed, worried by that open door, until he stepped into the doorway and saw that Ben was okay. He was kneeling on the floor next to a narrow, single bed, rolling up a blanket and sheets into a neat bedroll. Oops, forgot to tell him he didn't need that. There was bedding at the cabin. No biggie, though. Reassured that Ben hadn't stumbled on a break-in, Ray looked around the tiny, airless efficiency and shook his head in amazement.
The place was clean as a whistle, which didn't surprise him a bit. The single other door in the room also stood open, revealing a closet in which hung surprisingly few items of clothing. He was a little puzzled by the fact that he could see no bathroom door. Was the access inside the closet or something? There was a small table, two mismatched chairs, the bed, and a footlocker. That was it for furniture. No television, no stereo, no bookshelves, though there were plenty of books. Stacks of them, neatly arranged along one wall. No posters or art, either, though there was what looked like a Smokey-the-Bear hat hanging on one wall. He smiled. Ben really did have a hat. Not a fedora. He imagined the odd, pinched-crown, flat-brimmed hat on Ben, and could actually see it. It probably looked great. He cleared his throat
Ben spun, startled. "Ray!" His gaze was wide, and wild, then he looked away, a flush spreading across his cheeks. "I thought you were going to wait in the car."
"Was, but I remembered I should tell you to bring a pair of shorts. Dief's on guard."
"Ah. Well, then. I ah. . . ."
Ben seemed oddly embarrassed. Maybe he was ashamed of his place? It was awfully . . . basic. Finally he seemed to get himself together, and looked at Ray.
"Yeah, shorts," Ray said, tugging at his. "Like this. You know."
"I'm afraid I don't own any."
"You don't own . . . ." Ray gaped. "Uh, you wear long pants on your digs?"
"How'd you keep from dying of heat prostration all these years?"
"Most of my fieldwork was done in the Northwest, as that is my focus area."
"Oh. Guess that explains that. No shorts, hunh?"
Ben shook his head. Ray sighed, then had an idea. "Got an old pair of jeans?"
Ben looked down at himself. "These are relatively old."
Ray eyed the still-dark denim and shook his head. "I mean old-old. Like, you wouldn't wear them except to work on the car or paint the kitchen old."
After a moment's thought, Ben nodded. "Ah. Perhaps." He went to the closet and took a pair of jeans from their hanger. "Like these?" he asked, holding them out.
Ray took them, noted that they were nearly worn through in the knees, and nodded. "Yeah, just like these. Now, do you have a pair of scissors, and can I sacrifice these to the Gods of Summer?"
Ben eyed him dubiously. "Excuse me?"
Ray grinned. "Can I cut 'em off? Easiest way I know of to make shorts."
Ben had that look he got sometimes, that sort of embarrassed, 'why didn't I think of that' look. "Of course. That's a good idea, Ray. Yes, I have some shears in the kitchen drawer." He crossed the room as he spoke, opening the drawer, getting out the requested item. Ray followed.
"Here, trade ya," he said, exchanging jeans for scissors. "Good, now put those on."
"You hard of hearing all the sudden? Yeah, on. You have to be in them or I won't get 'em the right length."
"Oh. Oh, yes, of course."
Ray watched, somewhat bemused, as Ben took them back and walked into the closet and closed the door. He shook his head, laughing softly. Ben had wandered around his living room in his boxer shorts, but once they were both fully awake he had to change in the closet? Funny. A moment later the door opened, and Ben stepped out again, wearing the faded jeans. Ray motioned him over. "C'mere, the light's better in here."
Ben complied. Ray knelt beside him, steadying himself with a hand on Ben's hip. It occurred to him that someone looking in the still-open doorway might think they were doing something indecent. That thought reminded him instantly of his earlier reaction to being this close to Benton Fraser, and his shorts started to feel a little tight. Damn. He distracted himself by trying to find a little slack in the outseam of Ben's jeans to make the first cut. It wasn't easy. Ben usually wore his jeans a little tighter than Ray did. Of course, he actually had the body to fill them out, as opposed to being a skinny-ass geek like Ray. Still, these seemed like they must've been bought when he weighed a few pounds less. They were snug with a capital S.
He finally managed to grab a fold of fabric at about knee-level and looked up to find Ben gazing down at him with a strange expression on his face-- almost fearful. He figured he might do the same thing if someone was waving a pair of scissors around in the general vicinity of his family jewels. "Don't worry, I'll be real careful. Take good care of the important bits." He grinned and winked, then turned his attention back to the task at hand and made the first incision, then turned the blades upward and cut along the seam until he got to mid-thigh. That should work. Not too short for Ben's excessive modesty, and not too long for the heat.
He began to shear the denim horizontally across Ben's thigh. He could feel some surprisingly nice definition there under his hand. Probably from running with Dief. Ben made a soft sound and shifted a little, Ray froze in mid-cut, looking up with a frown. "Hey, stand still or I won't be responsible for your safety!"
Ben nodded, tongue flickering nervously over his lower lip. Heat that had nothing to do with the room temperature washed through Ray. Damn. Stop it. Just because your nose is about three inches from his crotch does not mean you need to get all fired up. You're doing a favor, that's all. Unfortunately that got him thinking about what other favors he might be able to do in this position. Christ. You were a married man. You're still in love with Stella, aren't you? You. Like. Women. Lay off the horn-dog thoughts about the Canadian and do NOT look at his . . . don't even think about it. Concentrating on the task at hand, he started to cut again. Ben made that sound again. A low, throaty sound, almost a gasp. Ray stopped again.
"Sorry, that tickle?"
Something, almost . . . relief, seemed to flicker in Ben's blue-gray gaze, and then his eyes were shifting away as he nodded. "Yes, Ray. A little."
"I'll try to be more careful."
Somehow he managed to get the jeans cut off to his satisfaction, and then sat back. "There. Donesky. And you can swim in 'em too, if you want."
Ben nodded. "Yes, thank you Ray. I appreciate it. Why don't you go back out to the car, and I'll collect my things and be right with you."
"It's a plan," Ray said, heading back out to the car, faintly relieved that he hadn't managed to completely embarrass himself. It had been a near thing. That was the last time he'd volunteer to get that close to Benton Fraser's crotch. It was just too damned dangerous.
* * *
Ben was amused. Ray clearly didn't know the meaning of the word 'shack.' The cabin was a sturdy, two-room affair with a wraparound porch. It had a good quality wood stove inside, and a brick fire-pit with a built-in grill outside, which meant they didn't have to get the stove going in order to cook. In this heat, that was a good thing, though he estimated it was a good ten degrees cooler here than in the city. Part of him wondered how much of that difference was due to the asphalt streets and parking lots, black tarred-roofs, and solar-reflective windows of the city. It was amazing how much impact man could have on his environment without even trying.
The cabin was furnished in what Ray referred to as "early junkyard," mismatched but comfortable, somehow homey. He liked it. Ray threw his stuff down, rolled his shoulders, sighed.
"Lord, it's nice to be out of there for awhile."
"Out of the car?"
"Out of the city. Nicer here. Even without an air conditioner. Speaking of which, help me open things up, okay? You take the bedroom windows, I'll get the ones out here."
Ben nodded and opened the door to the bedroom. He noted instantly that there was only one bed. His second thought was to imagine Ray there. Oh, dear. This was not going to help the little problem he'd been struggling with since he'd looked down to see Ray kneeling at his feet. As he'd done in his own apartment a few hours earlier, he told himself to breathe. Just breathe. Slowly, deeply. Control. Calm. Yes, there. Some semblance of sanity was returning.
The transformation of his jeans to shorts had been, without doubt, the most uncomfortable few minutes of his life. He'd had to resort to thinking about the dullest textbooks and lectures he'd ever endured in order to get through it. Fortunately conjuring memories of Professor Gilbert Wilkins had been just about the least erotic thing imaginable, and suitably wilting. Even with that hoary, snarling visage berating him for shoddy scholarship firmly in mind, he'd still been half-hard after being that close to Ray, for that long, in such an inadvertently intimate position.
He should have refused as soon as he'd realized what Ray intended to do, but he hadn't been able to think of a way to do so that didn't involve confessing why he was refusing. From what he'd learned of American culture, that would not have gone over well at all. Despite his rather conservative upbringing, he knew from his studies that sexuality was more flexible than most people assumed. He'd just never encountered a man who attracted him. Until now. And Ray did. Very much. Yes, he felt friendship, strongly, but he also felt. . . more. Ben was attracted, physically, to Ray. He liked his lean, rangy body, his wild dark-blonde hair, his angular face, his blue-gold eyes, that incandescent smile . . . everything.
The more he thought about it, the more he realized that he had been attracted all along. In fact, the lengths he'd gone to in order to ensure that he could see Ray on a personal, rather than strictly professional basis were nothing short of mortifying. Good lord, filing through his fan-belt . . . a blush burned his face. He'd behaved like a teenage girl with a crush. Well, at least he'd recognized the problem before it really became a problem. He could back off, put a little distance between them before he alienated his friend completely. Sexual frustration could be dealt with in a way that didn't involve embarrassing Ray. Unfortunately there would be no opportunity for that sort of thing in the near future. It was just as well there was only one bed, he'd be more comfortable on the couch which was in an entirely different room.
Behind him he heard Ray opening windows and shook his head. Windows. Open the windows. He completed his task quickly and a cooling breeze feathered through the fine-mesh screens. He stood for a moment looking out at the trees surrounding the cabin. They were thick, lush, and threw plentiful shade. To be able to look out and see plants, earth and sky; and a hint of topographic relief rather than cars and buildings seemed to ease the homesickness that had been building in him lately.
"Nice view, hunh?" Ray asked quietly, from far too close.
Ben jumped, startled, staring at the other man, who stood only inches away, looking out the window, too. Out the window. . . "Oh, yes. Yes, it is, very nice."
"I know of a nicer one, though. C'mon. Let's go freeze our asses off."
"I beg your pardon?"
Ray grinned. "Swim."
"Ah. Yes, of course."
"You bring a towel?"
He felt foolish. "No."
"'Sokay, got some here. In the bathroom. Forgot to tell you."
Ray nodded at one of the two doors off the bedroom. "There. Uncle Josef put in a septic system. There's a well, too, so we got water without too much trouble. Could run the generator if we want electricity."
Ben smiled, shaking his head. "This is a pretty nice 'shack,' Ray."
Ray looked a little sheepish. "Yeah. Guess it is, at that. I forget when I haven't been up here in awhile. Stella hated it, she's the one who called it a shack."
Ah. Stella. Ben almost didn't ask. Every time her name had come up, Ray had managed to divert the conversation to other things. But he wanted to know. Needed to know. "It doesn't sound as though the two of you were very well suited," Ben said carefully.
Ray sighed. "Yeah, you got that right, in the long run, anyway. I could have done it, stuck with it. Me, I'm kind of a dog when it comes to relationships."
"A . . . dog?" Ben queried, puzzled.
Ray gave a wry, lopsided smile. "Yeah, you know. Faithful, loyal, and dumb as a post. Drool a lot," he looked at Dief apologetically. "No offense, Dief."
The urge to reach out and hug was almost irresistible, but somehow Ben managed not to. A childhood spent with undemonstrative caretakers stood him in good stead. "Ray, I'm certain that's not the case. You're certainly not 'dumb,' nor do you drool. And I don't see how being loyal and faithful could be considered negatives."
"Yeah, well, it's dumb when your wife has an affair with the local mob boss and you don't know about it until someone rubs your nose in it. D-U-M, dumb."
Ben looked at him steadily. "I don't believe it's 'dumb' to think that you should be able to trust your. . . " he paused a moment, searching for a word that included his own past relationships as well as Ray's, and came up with a rather awkward but appropriate one, ". . . your significant other."
Ray stared at him for a long moment, then shook his head. "My delusion and welcome to it. Nice to know I'm not alone in the nut-house, buddy."
"No, you're wrong, Ray. It is, perhaps, idealistic, even naive, but not stupid or delusional. Believe me, I've given a great deal of thought to this, and come to the conclusion that trust is perhaps the single most important aspect to any human relationship."
"Not love?" Ray asked, his eyes narrowed, almost dangerous-looking.
Ben shook his head. "No. Not love. Love, that is, romantic love, which I believe you mean, is made of equal parts friendship and lust, but without trust, it is simply inadequate to the task."
Ray's hard, brilliant gaze seemed to pin him in place for several seconds, then his brow furrowed, and his eyes fell. "Y'might be right there, Ben, you just might. Hell, I know you're right. Trust, that's the hard thing. Especially after . . . after you get burned."
Ben nodded. "Yes. It is."
They stood in silent commiseration for a few seconds, then Ray cleared his throat. "Come on, grab a towel and let's go see just how cold that water is. And after we chill, we can swap war stories."
Ben smiled. War stories. Strangely appropriate. "I'd like that," he said quietly. Trust, indeed. He stepped into the small bathroom and found a towel in the linen closet, then followed Ray outside.
It was an easy half-mile walk to the quarry, the path through the woods so overgrown it was hard to see, and Ray seemed to be relying more on memory than on vision. It made him feel strangely at home to see maples, along with red and white oaks, hickories, and basswoods. He saw several chokecherry bushes, though the fruit wouldn't be ripe for some weeks. He also noted the position of a good stand of poison ivy, pointing it out to Ray who laughed, and said he remembered from baths in calamine lotion that the woods here were full of the stuff.
The feeling of something other than cement under his feet was delightful, and Diefenbaker was acting like a puppy, frolicking and chasing squirrels, though he didn't seem particularly intent upon catching one. The land was surprisingly heavily forested and wild. He supposed he should have done a little more investigation about the area outside of Chicago. If there was wilderness within a two hour drive, he'd been unnecessarily depriving himself of something that was completely necessary to his soul. If he could get out, get away like this periodically, he might just survive his appointment at the university.
"There she is," Ray said, coming to an abrupt halt.
Ben turned to pay attention to his companion instead of Diefenbaker, and looked past him to the inviting expanse of water ahead. It was larger than he'd expected, roughly twice the size of a regulation Olympic-size pool. The approach to the water was littered with tumbled limestone boulders, their creamy beige a pleasing contrast to the cool jade color of the water and the darker greens and browns of the surrounding trees and plants.
"Look good?" Ray asked him, a faint smile on his face, a knowing look in his gaze. He knew the answer already. Ben replied anyway.
"It looks wonderful. How deep is it?"
"Depends on where you are. I think it's about thirty feet down at the deepest point, over against the west side, but over here it's more like six." He shaded his gaze and peered toward a tree whose branches overhung the water. "Hunh, looks like the tire-swing's gone. Rope probably rotted through. Too bad. It was kinda fun. Watch the rocks, they're not unstable but since they're uneven it's easy to lose your balance. Geez, lookit that, somebody's been up here littering."
He crossed the rocks and picked up several long-necked glass bottles and what appeared to be old fast food refuse. He looked disgusted as he threaded his way back over to where Ben stood. "They could have the decency to take their trash with 'em when they left." He looked at the bottle and made a face. "Yuck. Coors. I guess if you're gonna drink this crap in the first place, you probably don't have enough class or brains to clean up after yourself." He put the trash down, shaking his head. "Don't let me forget to take this stuff back to the cabin when we go."
Ben nodded, inordinately pleased by the fact that Ray cared about such things. For some reason it just made Ray even more . . . perfect, to him.
"Well, time's wastin'," Ray said and sat down to take off his rather disreputable running shoes, and socks. Leaving them at the beginning of the rock field, he scrambled across the rocks with startling grace to a large, squarish boulder right at the water's edge and put down his towel. Ben started to untie his hiking boots to leave them with Ray's shoes, then glanced up to see what Ray was doing and stopped, staring. He found himself mesmerized as Ray pulled off his faded orange bowling shirt and dropped it on the rock, then grabbed the hem of his tank and with a lithe twist pulled it off over his head, letting it fall to join the shirt. When his hands went to the waistband of his baggy cargo shorts, Ben felt heat flood his face even as he caught his breath in anticipation. Suddenly Ray turned his head and looked straight at him. After a moment a wry smile curved his mouth, and his hands dropped away from his waist.
"Sorry, Doc. I won't embarrass you," he said, then he turned, and jumped. He hit the water with a tremendous splash and went under, only to surface seconds later with a howl of what sounded like pain, followed by unintelligible sounds. Ben tensed, ready to dash across the rocks and dive to the rescue, until he realized Ray was laughing and gasping at the same time.
"Jeeeeeeesus it's friggin' cold in here!" Ray yelled, grinning. "C'mon in. It feels great!"
Great? Judging by Ray's reaction, he wouldn't have made that assumption but he supposed it was all relative. He finished untying his boots and after removing them placed them, socks inside, next to Ray's shoes. He made his way across the rocks to the one Ray had chosen as a base of operation and put his towel there too. He removed his own t-shirt, carefully folding it and placing it where it wouldn't get splashed. Leaving his shorts on, he took a deep breath, and jumped, following Ray's lead.
Cold. Searing, sweet, familiar cold, stealing breath, sending heart-rate skyrocketing, making every square centimeter of skin contract in shock, instantly easing that heavy feeling that had been plaguing him since Ray had knelt at his feet that morning. Yes. Perfect. It did feel good. Delightful. He surfaced, gasping, feeling the water sheet off of him, feeling the sun warm his hair, his face, his shoulders where they broke the water. It occurred to him he should have brought sunscreen. He would have to take care, since his skin was so seldom exposed to the sun that he burned easily.
Ben turned in the water, found Ray just a foot away, his water-flattened hair and cocky grin making him look about seventeen.
"Wonderful," Ben said, hearing the relief and reverence in his voice, feeling his face crease in an unaccustomed smile.
"Figured, from that grin," Ray said. "Where's Dief? Does he swim?"
"Sometimes. He's probably still trying to catch a squirrel, though he's gotten so soft I doubt he'd know what to do with it if he actually managed to do so. He'll be fine, don't worry." Even in the cold water, Ray's proximity was a little disconcerting, and Ben slipped sideways in the water with a little kick and stroke, increasing the distance between them. Better. Looking around the quarry, an outcropping of pinkish stone on the far bank caught his eye, and he swam over to examine it more closely. The faint ripples in its upper surface and the lack of wear on the cut sides exposed by quarrying confirmed his suspicions. He turned, excited.
"Ray! This is quartzite!"
"Yeah? So?" Ray called back.
"To find it occurring in such close proximity to limestone indicates that this area was once an extremely ancient sea-floor. Quartzite is, in fact, a form of sandstone, yet unlike most stone of this type it's incredibly hard, one of the hardest rocks you can find. If you come over here you can even see the ripple marks from duneing, when it actually was sand. "
Behind him he heard splashing, a lot of it, and he turned to watch Ray awkwardly dog-paddling toward him. He frowned, wondering why he wasn't using a more efficient stroke. He finally made it over to Ben's side and trod water, breathing a little heavily.
"Okay, doc. Lecture time?" Ray asked between breaths, grinning."
Ben blushed. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't . . . ."
"No, I like it. I like to learn stuff, watch Discover all the time. Don't tell anybody but sometimes I actually wish I'd paid more attention back in high school. Just couldn't seem to focus then. Hell, still can't, but now I can learn stuff in little pieces and that works better. Now, show me your rock."
Ben reached up to touch the exposed upper surface of the stone. "See this? The wave-like pattern?" Ray nodded, and Ben went on. "It's fairly unusual to find such perfect preservation of the dune effect. The fact that it's there would seem to indicate that this rock is close to two billion years old, created well before there was much in the way of life on the planet, although the reddish coloration of the stone means that there were probably iron-eating bacteria present which stained the stone. Judging from the extreme tilt of the formation, on the order of twenty degrees, at least, it's also clear that this area was once subjected to tremendous orogenic activity.
Ray looked at him dubiously. "Oro-what?"
"Orogenic. The process of folding and uplifting which eventually forms mountain ranges. As I recall from my studies, this area was once on the edge of the continent, so this may have been a subduction zone, that is, created through the movement of one tectonic plate beneath another. I believe this area is too far south to be part of the Laurentian Shield, so we're probably in the Central Lowland here, although I suppose it could be part of the Till Plains . . . and, sorry. I think I'm getting carried away," he said apologetically, noting the slight glazing of Ray's eyes.
"'Sokay, Doc, like I said, I learn better in little bits and pieces. So this stuff's quartzite, and the paler stuff is limestone, right?"
"Right," Ben said, hoping he sounded encouraging but not condescending. It occurred to him to wonder if Ray had ever been tested for Attention Deficit Disorder, or hyperactivity, or both. His short attention span and usual frenetic energy level seemed symptomatic. He made a mental note to ask, sometime when the conversation seemed appropriate.
"Good. Learned something. You earned your hot dog and s'mores tonight."
"You'll see," Ray said smugly. "I'm getting cold, I'm gonna go lay on a rock for awhile. You still okay?"
Ben nodded. "Yes, I'm used to colder temperatures, plus I have a good deal more insulation than you do," he said, smiling.
Ray snorted. "Yeah, I'm skinny."
"No!" Ben said, dismayed. "That is, I really only meant to say that due to genetic and other factors, my subcutaneous fat layer is thicker than yours. I meant no offense."
"Look, I know I'm skinny, you don't have to make a big deal out of it. Scrawny, funny-looking. I got no illusions, Doc."
"But that's not true, Ray. Not at all. You're not skinny, and you're not funny-looking. You're quite an attractive man."
Ray stared at him, frowning slightly. "You think?"
Wondering if he was digging a hole from which he couldn't escape, Ben swallowed. "Yes. I do."
"Hunh," Ray said thoughtfully, then flashed a shy smile. "Thanks."
That response was unexpected. Ben was still struggling with it when Ray started to swim away from him, then turned back abruptly.
"Sometime after I get warm you wanna show me how to do that whatever you were doing when you swam over here?"
"That . . . you mean the Australian Crawl?"
"That what it's called? Yeah, that. Never really had much in the way of swimming lessons, just pretty much know how to float, tread water, and dog-paddle."
"I'd be happy to show you. It's really quite easy."
"Greatness. But I gotta warm up first." He turned again, heading back toward where their towels lay.
Ben turned his attention back to the quarry. After a few moments Ray's splashing stopped, and Ben glanced over to see him standing on the rocks where they'd jumped in, toweling off his hair. A moment later he dropped the towel, and his hands went to his waist, unfastening the shorts, unzipping, then the shorts were sliding down, and off, leaving him in the same heather-gray knit boxer-briefs he'd worn earlier that morning. Only now they were soaking wet, and clung to every line and curve beneath them. Every single, not inconsiderable inch, every au-naturel curve. His temperature rose despite the cold water. Lord, the man certainly had nothing to be ashamed of in that department.
Ray wrung out his shorts and bent to drape them over the rock to dry, and water flooding into Ben's open mouth alerted him to the fact that he'd forgotten to keep treading water. He closed his mouth abruptly and resumed his strokes, and when he looked back Ray was lying back on the rock, arranging himself in the sun like a cat on a cold day. He looked eminently pettable. Ben scowled, annoyed with himself. Now that he'd become aware of the attraction, it was suddenly hard to keep it in hand. . . which was not really a very good metaphor to be using at the moment, even in his own thoughts. This was going to be more difficult than he'd thought. Spotting another striation in the rocks, he swam over to examine it, using geology to keep his mind off Ray.
* * *
Ray lay in the sun, soaking it up, grateful for the warmth now, after being thoroughly chilled. Sometimes it took a shock like that to make you appreciate its opposite. He heard the quiet slosh of Ben's smooth, graceful strokes through the water, and turned his head to watch as he swam along the wall of the quarry, examining the rock face. He smiled. It had been a good idea to bring him here. Not only cooler, it was. . . natural, at least a hell of a lot more than an apartment in Chicago, and it was becoming very clear to him that Benton Fraser was Nature Boy incarnate. What the hell he was doing in Chicago was the $64,000 question. He was clearly miserable there.
That thought made Ray a little sad, because he knew it meant that the minute he could, Ben would be heading home, back north, without a backward glance. Not that Ray could blame him for that. It was only natural. But he'd miss him. A lot. Funny how attached you could get to someone in such a short time. He was like that, though. He'd been that way with Stella, too. He'd seen her, and known, right then, that she was meant for him. Of course, it had taken him years to convince her. And he probably shouldn't have bothered.
No, that wasn't true. They'd had some good years, some good times. It was just, after a while something had changed. He was never enough for her. She always wanted more, and better, always wanted him to be classier and smarter and richer than he was. He'd tried to be what she wanted, but it just wasn't. . . him. And in the end, that hadn't been enough. He sighed, rubbing at his eyes, and watched Ben climb out of the water to examine something over on the other side of the quarry. Wet or dry, his shorts clung like a second skin, and the man had a really amazing ass. Near-perfect hemispheres, just a suggestion of tuck beneath them that hinted of softness beneath the firm curves. Better than most chicks, even.
No longer tamed by the cold spring-water of the quarry, Ray's cock twitched a little at that thought, and he decided he needed to look at something else. A rustling in the woods caught his attention, and he turned to watch Dief trot out from the underbrush, looking wolfily pleased with himself. Ray wondered if there was one less squirrel in the woods now. Oh well. Survival of the fittest and all that. The animal paused to sniff their shoes where they sat at the end of the trail, then scrambled over the rocks to where Ray lay, licking his face, his ears, his. . . yuck, mouth, then as Ray shoved his muzzle out of his face, moved down to Ray's groin, sniffing there too. Ray pushed the wolf off his crotch with one hand and glared at him.
"Jesus, Dief, quit acting like a dog! That's private property there!"
Dief looked offended, and stalked away to sit on a nearby boulder with his back ostentatiously toward Ray. Ray grinned, ridiculously pleased to have gotten the last word with the wolf. He closed his eyes and lazed, not quite asleep, but almost. Sometime later, splashing brought him up from his doze, and made him turn to look toward the sound. Ben had abandoned his geological survey and was swimming back toward Ray. As he reached the near shore and climbed out of the water, Ray couldn't help noticing again what a nice build he had. He was awfully pale, though, like fresh, whole milk. It looked good. He looked good. Especially at the moment, with his skin wet and sleek, dusty-rose nipples hard from the chill of the water. Christ. Just stop noticing things like that, moron!
"Had enough?" he queried.
"Yes, for the moment," Ben said, reaching for his towel, ruffling his hair with it, then blotting moisture from his torso. "I'm afraid I'm terribly out of shape. I was getting somewhat fatigued. I thought that the runs I take with Diefenbaker would be keeping me fit, but I can see now they're not enough."
Ray stared at him, then snorted. "Yeah, right. You're out of shape. On what planet?"
Ben looked puzzled, as he sat down a couple of feet away. "Well, on this one, clearly, but I suppose I would be equally unfit on any planet, unless the gravity were less than Earth normal."
Ray laughed, shaking his head. "Doc, I am amazed your students don't eat you for lunch. Do you really not know that 'on what planet' is the same as saying 'you're out of your mind?'"
Ben looked at him, and slowly a tide of color washed across his face. "Oh. No, I'm afraid I didn't. So that means you . . . disagree with my assessment?"
"Oh yeah, you could say that. Jesus, Ben, you're . . . well, put it this way. If I was to look up 'perfect' in the dictionary, your picture would be right there next to it." Oops. Well, just go putting your foot right in it why don't you, Kowalski? He prayed fervently that the deeper implications of what he'd just said would go right over Ben's head.
Ben's color deepened considerably, and he looked down at himself, then over at Ray. "I suppose one's self image is always substantially different from how others perceive one," he said quietly. "Case in point, your insistence that you're 'scrawny,' which I don't see, at all."
It was Ray's turn to color. "You really think I'm attractive?" Shit. Fine time for his internal censor to go on vacation.
Ben looked at him, and his tongue flicked out to moisten his lips as if they had suddenly gone dry. "Yes, Ray. I do. Very much so."
Well, that was blunt. A little disconcerting. This wasn't really a subject that two guys usually talked about. Still, it was kind of nice to know. Or was it? What did it mean? How did you react when someone told you they thought you were attractive. . . when that someone was another guy?
He wondered for the first time if maybe Ben was feeling some of the same things he was. That . . . well, there was no other word for it, that attraction. He thought back to when he'd been kneeling there, cutting Ben's jeans, and remembered that sound he'd made. Hadn't sounded like he was being tickled. At all. Nope. As a matter of fact, it had sounded a almost. . . sexual. Aroused. It was a sound he suddenly wanted to hear again.
Ray's fingers curled into fists as he fought the urge to reach out, to touch that pale, perfect skin, to stroke a thumb over one taut nipple, to lick the water droplets off Ben's neck where they trickled from his damp hair, to cup his hand between those thighs and feel the rise of flesh against his palm . . . God! He looked up into Ben's eyes, and saw something there, something familiar, and a little frightening, all things considered. Whoa. He wasn't really ready to go there right now. He sat up.
"Um, I'm getting a little warm again, gonna hit the water," he said quickly, and then he was sliding off into the water, the cold shock of it stealing his breath momentarily. He knew he'd just been rude and it made him feel guilty, but hell, he had no idea how to deal with what was happening. He'd never before experienced the overwhelming desire to kiss another man, to touch him intimately. He'd never seen that desire reflected in another man's eyes before. It scared him. It exhilarated him. It confused him.
He swam out for a bit, realized he was near the tree that used to hold the tire swing, and he wondered if he could find the tire, maybe pull it out of the water and get some new rope to hang it from. It seemed wrong to let it clutter up the bottom of the quarry. The bottom here wasn't that deep, maybe ten, eleven feet. He'd been down there lots of times. It would be a good distraction, anyway.
Taking a deep breath, he dove down and looked around. A shadow some feet away in the hazy green depths seemed about the right size and shape. He surfaced, swam over until he thought he was above it, and tried again. His hands found the flexible, treaded surface easily. Yeah. That was it. He pulled at it but it was surprisingly resistant to being moved. He needed better leverage.
Swimming back up to the surface, Ray scouted the shore until he found a dead branch, which he proceeded to pull into the water and take with him over to the spot above the tire. He dove down again, holding it, which wasn't easy because of its buoyancy but he finally managed it, and he got one end of the branch under the tire and pushed, and it lifted. He put his feet under the tire to keep it up, let go of his lever, moved forward and caught the tire in his hands, then started toward the surface with it, only to be stopped dead. Something seemed to be wrapped around his leg, and keeping him from moving. He reached down and felt it, realized it was a section of rope that was still tied to the tire. It was also wrapped around his ankle, and apparently snagged on the bottom.
He couldn't seem to get a good purchase on the rope, his fingers slid on the algae-covered stuff without impacting the twist that held him. He tried going back down toward the bottom to loosen the tension on the rope, but it didn't make any difference, the knot held. Damn it, he had to get. . . his lungs were starting to ache, his head to pound. It began to dawn on him that he was going to drown. He almost panicked, but what the hell good would that do? He'd just drown quicker that way. Fuck. Think. How can you get out? He tugged on the rope, trying to free it from whatever it was caught on, without success. The water seemed to be getting darker, or was that his vision fading? Christ, he didn't want to die. He really didn't.
Suddenly a pale shape flashed into his field of view. For a moment he thought it was Diefenbaker, and then he realized it was Ben. Broad, strong hands slid down his body, searching, finally finding the problem. They tugged at the rope as well, and then suddenly were gone, and Ben turned in the water, his face mere inches from Ray's as his hands came up to frame his face, and he sealed his mouth over Ray's, tongue prying at his lips, trying to get him to open them. It was surreal. He was going to die, and Ben was kissing him? He must be hallucinating. He supposed if he was going to die hallucinating, he should be glad it was a good one. He opened his mouth, feeling his hard-held, exhausted air escape in bubbles from nose and mouth, and then suddenly he was breathing in, and air, not water, was filling his lungs. Warm, moist, Ben-flavored air.
Shockingly, Ben's lips left his, and cold water replaced their warmth. Clamping his lips closed again, Ray opened his eyes, saw Ben make a circle with thumb and forefinger, an 'okay' sign, and then he was swimming away. What? Where the hell was he going? Was he just going to leave? Some sliver of rational thought surfaced, and he realized that Ben probably had some sort of plan. He'd just have to trust him, trust that he'd be back before he ran out of air again. Trust. His life was in Ben's hands, and he trusted him. Absolutely. It was a stunning revelation. He just wished he was having it under less drastic circumstances.
He closed his eyes, trying to relax, trying to use the least amount of oxygen he could, then he heard a muffled sound, and looked up to see Ben beside him. Once more his friend leaned in, put his mouth over Ray's and this time Ray opened his lips without prompting, taking the air Ben gave him, tasting him again. When Ben moved away, Ray could see he held something in his hand. A broken beer bottle? What was up with that? Then, as Ben sank lower in the water and began to saw at the rope with the edge of the bottle, he understood. Brilliant. The broken glass cut through the rope a strand at a time, taking an ungodly long time, but finally he was free, and Ben was grabbing his hands and hauling him toward the surface.
Air, and light, and warmth on his face. Ray floated on the water, gasping, realizing for the first time just how good it felt to do something as simple as breathing. He was vaguely aware that he was moving, Ben was towing him with an arm around his chest, but he was too busy discovering the delights of having air in his lungs to really pay much attention until he felt strong hands under his arms and he was being dragged out of the water and draped across a boulder, and Ben was straddling his butt, hands on his back as he pushed, hard. All his newly-breathed air whooshed out of him in a rush and he coughed, then wheezed a fresh batch in. He felt Ben's muscles tense, realized he was going to do it again, and managed to croak a sound around his coughing.
The hands left his back, the weight on his rear-end lifted. He was roughly turned onto his back and then Ben was over him again, this time straddling his front-side, which felt almost as good as breathing. Ben stared into his eyes, his gaze intent, and worried.
"Ray? Are you all right?"
Ray nodded. "Yeah," he croaked. "Yeah, fine!"
"You're sure? You didn't breathe in any water?"
Ray shook his head. "No."
"You're absolutely certain? Water in the lungs can lead to pneumonia . . . ." Without waiting for an answer, Ben bent his head, put his ear against Ray's chest. "Breathe, deeply."
Ray obliged again, and as he did, he felt some of the tension ease from the big body over his.
"Your lungs sound clear," Ben said quietly, and his almost painful grip on Ray's shoulders eased, fingers fanning out, almost a caress, almost an embrace, his head still resting against Ray's chest. He stayed like that until Ray started to wonder if he was all right.
"Um, Ben?" he said tentatively.
Ben lifted his head, and Ray was shocked to see tears gleaming in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Ray. I'm just. . . relieved that you're all right. I was afraid I couldn't get to you in time, that I wouldn't be able to free you quickly enough. I thought you might . . . ." the tears spilled a little, streaking down his face, and he looked away.
"Yeah, I know. Me too," Ray said huskily. "But you did good. You got me. I'm okay."
Somehow it seemed completely natural for him to reach up and use his thumb to brush away the moisture from Ben's face, to let his thumb slide along the line of that perfect cheekbone, down to the jaw. It felt right to let his fingers slip around the back of Ben's neck, cupping the base of his skull, exerting just the barest pressure. The way Ben yielded to that urging also seemed right, as did his confused, hopeful gaze as Ray urged him down, and their lips met, and this time it really was a kiss, not just shared breath. Sweet, warm, just lips at first, then a tentative flicker of his tongue into Ben's mouth was welcomed and echoed. Even better.
Suddenly Ben drew back, looking worried. "Ray, you've had a shock. . . ."
"Shut up, Doc," Ray said succinctly, reaching for him again. "I wanted this before I got shocked." Sudden worry shot through him, and he backtracked. "I mean, unless you don't want . . . ."
Ben's mouth covered his before he could complete the sentence. No, Ray had definitely not misread the signals. Oh no. That fascinating tongue slid along his lower lip, licked at his teeth, caressed on his own tongue in a delicate thrust that made him shiver. He licked back, and felt an answering shudder in the body that pinned his own to the rock. After a few more forays like that, Ben had abandoned his straddle and stretched out over him. They matched all along their lengths, shoulder to shoulder, belly to belly, hip to hip, and . . . oh yeah, definitely that too, cock to cock. Ray lifted his hips, pushing his own burgeoning hardness into the matching one above, heard-felt Ben's groan against his mouth, and suddenly wondered if he was still hallucinating. It was the world's longest hallucination, if he was. He threaded his fingers into Ben's hair and tugged gently until Ben lifted his head.
"This real?" he asked, though why he thought a hallucination would tell the truth was a question he avoided asking himself.
Ben studied him for a moment, seeming to come back into himself from a long way away, and then he smiled, slowly, and nodded. "Oh, yes. Very real."
"Okay, good. Just checking." He pulled Ben back down to him, and his free hand came up to rest just above the swell of Ben's butt, stroking softly, pushing those hips down against his own. God, it felt strange, but so good, to feel that hard swell against his own, even separated by layers of wet cloth. What didn't feel good was the way his back was getting scoured against the rock. Reluctantly he broke the kiss again.
"Um, wanna hand me a towel or something?"
Ben looked puzzled. "Why?"
"Well, to be honest, the rock's not really very comfortable. . . ." he said sheepishly.
"Good Lord! Ray, I'm so sorry!"
Ben scrambled off of him in seconds, blushing madly . . . or was he getting sunburned? Uh oh. The last thing Ben needed was a sunburn, considering how poorly he dealt with heat to begin with. Ray rolled to his feet and stood, extending a hand to Ben. "Time to move this party indoors, I think." Ben stared up at him for a moment, a question in his eyes. Ray felt heat wash through him, a scalding tide of need. He licked his lips. "Don't. . . um. . . don't want you to get sunburned," he said, giving them a good excuse. Ben nodded.
"Yes, that's a good idea."
Ben took his hand, and Ray braced him to his feet. Their hands stayed linked for a few moments, then they looked at each other, grinned in mutual embarrassment, and let go. Silently they gathered their things and headed back through the woods. As they walked, Ray felt a growing sense of . . . something. A strange combination of anticipation and fear. Damn. The delay made things awkward. Made him think about what they were doing, instead of just acting and reacting. Made him wonder what the hell he thought he was doing, what the hell Ben was doing, and why, and brought up all the fears he'd ever had about whether he was normal, or even sane.
When they stepped into the cabin, Ray stopped to drop his shoes, towel, shirts, and shorts by the door while Ben took the garbage from the quarry to the trash, then put his things down neatly on the formica counter, then stood looking out the window, his back taut and straight. Suddenly realizing that Ben was probably feeling and thinking exactly the same things that he was got Ray moving. He crossed the small space that separated them, standing next to Ben, but not touching him, trying to give him enough room to be comfortable, or as comfortable as they could be.
"You okay?" Ray asked after a moment.
Ben looked at him then, finally, catching his teeth in his lower lip for a fraction of a second, an action almost as sexy as the little licking-thing he often did. "Yes, I'm fine. You?"
"Fine," Ray said automatically, then it struck him how ridiculous they sounded and he shook his head. "God, listen to us. We sound like strangers. I know this is hard, I mean, I know it, deep, because I think we're in the same place, like what the hell is going on here but it's good, too. So no more strangers, this is us. You and me. And what I mean is, are you okay, really okay? Are you okay with what we did? Do you . . . ." he stopped, swallowed hard, and plowed ahead. "Do you want to do . . . more? 'Cause it's okay if you don't, and I think it's okay if you do, because I could do that, I think, I mean I could go either way, heck, I'll try anything, but I don't know if. . . ."
He stopped. "Yeah?"
Ben smiled a little. "You're blithering."
"It's all right. I think . . . well, it's not an easy situation."
"No. That's true."
"So. . . ah . . . ." Fraser began hesitantly.
"Yes," Ray answered firmly.
Ben looked at him quizzically. "I didn't ask a question yet."
Ray grinned. "Doesn't matter. Yes."
"How can you say that if you don't know what I was going to ask?" Ben asked, still quizzical.
"Because I trust you," Ray said, meeting that questioning gaze head on.
Ben looked like someone had just socked him a good one, and before Ray could do more than wonder why, he had a mouth on his again in a hot, open, almost desperate kiss. He met it, welcomed it. Felt strong arms slide around him, pulling him in close, feeling again the unfamiliar but not unwelcome weight and shape of Ben's cock against his own, hard enough to feel through denim and chrome-plated copper buttons. Wow. He'd never thought about how that would feel . . . to someone else. Or the way someone else would feel to him. Very strange, yet strangely. . . erotic.
He let one hand slide down Ben's bare, damp torso to even damper cloth, and he cupped his palm over that familiar yet alien hardness, fingers spreading, curving, delineating. Ben shivered against him, pushing his hips forward, his erection into Ray's hand and moaning into his mouth. It was the sound of need, of desire, pure and uncomplicated, unlike everything else in the universe. All the potential awkwardness fell away in the face of that need, and the emotional involvement it implied. Even after only a month Ray knew instinctively that Ben could never do this with someone he didn't care for, care about. This was . . . right. He could do this. He wanted to do this.
Feeling strangely in control, all things considered, Ray started moving forward, slowly, urging Ben backward. It was a lot like dancing, the rhythm and sway of bodies in movement, together, matching, dancing without music. A nudge here, a step there, all the time his hand working, stroking, gripping, fingers sliding that first button free, then the second, the third and, oh, they were there already? He pushed a little and the bed caught Ben behind his knees. He went over onto his back, boneless. . . almost, and Ray followed easily, slipping those last two buttons free, finding thin wet cotton beneath the heavier denim, feeling the heat and pulse in the hardened flesh beneath that flimsy barrier. Ben moaned and pushed up against his palm, one hand covering his eyes, as if he were afraid to watch. Ray grinned and reached up, pulled his hand away.
"Look, Ben. Look at me, at you, at us. Watch."
He eased his fingers beneath the waistband of Ben's boxers, and pushed them down with the back of his hand, carefully, freeing the thick, hard shaft. Flushed, and perfect. Uncut. That was new, different, wow. He touched, tenderly, with just a fingertip, stroking. Ben's breath caught, making his stomach tighten, making his cock tighten, too. Ray looked up, looked at Ben's flushed face, eager, anxious eyes, at his parted lips . . . had to have those again. He leaned in, nipped lightly at Ben's lower lip, then converted the bite to a kiss. Ben's hands came up, holding him, kissing back deep, his tongue slicking hotly into Ray's mouth, exploring, thrusting, all the while making little noises in his throat as Ray stroked him, pumping hard into his hand.
Ray tightened his grip, stroked harder, faster, found himself rocking against Ben's hip, matching their rhythms, and then Ben's hands were sliding down Ray's back, gripping his butt, pulling him hard against the soft indentation below his hipbone. He shuddered, taken utterly by surprise by the intensity of his reaction to that touch and pleasure exploded through him, wracking shudders of delight. Before the pulses in his own body began to ebb, Ben shuddered and damn. . . grunted, a sound that dragged more shivers of release from him as the thick silky heat of Ben's semen flooded over his fingers. Good. So damned good. Amazing. Perfect. Yeah.
Breathing slowing, Ray could feel the previous night's lack of sleep creeping up on him, and from the soft yawn he heard, it sounded like Ben was feeling it too. He moved closer, burying his nose in the curve of Ben's shoulder, loving the smell of him, and the smoothness of that pale skin. Ben's arm tightened around him, and he felt the brush of his cheek against his hair, then Ben was pushing him away a little. He fought that, wanting to stay close, wanting to just be, with Ben. Ben pushed a little harder. Ray shook his head.
"Nuh-uh. No. Don' wanna."
"Just for a moment, Ray, we should clean up a little," Ben answered with surprising coherence.
"Don't need to."
"Well, if you really want to be stuck to your clothing when you wake up . . . ." Ben said, sounding amused.
Oh. Right. That. Okay. Good point. Ray sighed, and rolled away, preparing to strip off his damp-in-more-ways-than-one briefs. God. He hadn't come in his shorts since he could remember. It would have been kind of embarrassing, if they hadn't both done it, sort of. He heard rustling, felt movement, but didn't watch as Ben stripped off his own shorts and boxers, knowing how awkward it was to undress in front of someone for the first time. He reached down to take off his own briefs, and was startled when Ben's hands came between his, and his waistband.
Ray tried to pretend indifference, but for some reason he suddenly felt shy as those big, square hands slipped between fabric and skin. He closed his eyes.
He lifted. Felt the garment peeled away, carefully, down his thighs, and off.
"There. Down again now."
He let his butt meet the bed, and then was startled to feel fingers against his now-bare cock, stroking. He jerked a little, mostly in surprise, a bit in sensitivity. "Shhh, it's okay," Ben said, then he was touched again, softly, so softly, with heat, and. . . moisture? His eyes flew open as he lifted his head to look, and oh God he hadn't imagined that! Ben's eyes were closed, pleasure written on his face as his tongue slid up the length of Ray's softened shaft.
"Holy cow! Ben! What are you . . . you don't gotta do that, you know!"
Ben's eyes opened, their slate-blue depths full of amusement, and . . . something more. Something Ray wasn't quite ready to really think about . . . yet. Maybe after a nap. Ben bit his lip, looking a little. . . sheepish.
"I wanted to. You taste . . . good," he said, with a hint of an apologetic smile lurking around the corners of his mouth.
Fuck. Ray let his head fall back against the bed so hard it bounced a little, then he lifted it again. Needing to know if he'd heard that right. "I do?"
The apology disappeared from Ben's face, and his smile became a grin. "Yes.
Ray felt himself blushing. "Um, uh. . . thanks. I guess."
"Thank you," Ben said, his voice a little rough, a lot warm. He slid upward, and pulled Ray into his embrace, hugging him tightly. "Thank you."
* * *
Ben drifted, not quite awake, not quite asleep. From the angle of the light, he judged they had slept several hours. It was probably close to two in the afternoon. He could hear birds outside, the rustle of leaves in a light breeze, Diefenbaker snoring in the other room. He smiled at that. It was warm, but not so warm as to make him miserable, though he was sweating a little where his skin touched Ray's, which was pretty much all along his left side, since Ray had gone to sleep half on-top of him, head heavy against his shoulder. That could have been uncomfortable, but it wasn't. It was . . . cherished. Sweet. Right. For the first time in weeks he felt . . . comfortable. More than that, for the first time in years, he felt whole.
Sex shouldn't do that. He knew that, logically. Sex was simply a biological drive, as easily satisfied by masturbation as by intimacy, yet, right now, with this man, he knew it meant much more. Ray had trusted him, when he had nothing to gain by this and much to lose. Ben knew how Americans were about homosexuality, especially in the 'blue collar' stratum of social classes. While he was used to the freer environments and attitudes of academe, Ray didn't have that luxury. The people Ray knew would care whom he slept with. At least some of them would, in all likelihood.
Of course, that concern was predicated on what might be an incorrect assumption: that Ray would want to continue with such activities. He had said he'd wanted . . . this, even before almost drowning, but Ben knew that might have been said in the heat of the moment, and near-death experiences often brought about a need to procreate. He shouldn't have taken advantage of that, no matter how lonely he was, or how attractive he found Ray. It had been a mistake. He only hoped it wouldn't ruin their friendship. Lord, he was thinking in tattered old clichés, but then, there was a reason why clichés became what they were. He sighed, and Ray stirred against him, stretching, rubbing his body along Ben's, flinging an arm across his chest.
Ben held his breath, hoping Ray would go back to sleep, but then the hand on his arm started a slow stroking of his shoulder, and he knew he wasn't going to escape so easily. At least Ray hadn't woken and scrambled out of bed in a panic. That was a good sign, wasn't it? Ray rubbed his cheek against Ben's shoulder, abrading it a little with his stubble, which didn't really feel unpleasant at all. Without looking up, Ray spoke.
"Kind of a deep sigh, there, Benton-buddy. Problems?"
Ben frowned a little, trying to figure out how to respond to that. "Ah . . . no, not as such."
"Mmm," Ray acknowledged noncommitally, then pushed back a little and lifted his head, meeting Ben's gaze evenly. He didn't look regretful, just curious. "So, Doc . . . um . . . you ever done this before?"
"This?" Ben asked, confused. "You mean, with a man?"
"Uh, no. Well, not exactly. I mean with . . . anybody."
With anybody? What did that mean? Had he been so inept that Ray thought he was a virgin? Well, he might as well be, under the circumstances, but really! "You mean, have I ever had sex before?" he asked defensively, face heating with embarrassment
Ray took one look at his face and broke into a grin. "Whoa, whoa there, Doc. Chill. I know you were with what's-her-face, so I figured you had, and you definitely know what you're doing and all that, but it's just you got that whole. . . innocent thing going on, and it's hard to tell if it's real, or just something you do to keep people off you."
Ben stared at him in surprise, feeling his momentary surge of humiliation begin to fade. This was unexpected. Extremely. This was not one of the reactions he'd thought Ray might have. He studied Ray, those all-too-knowing eyes, and shook his head. "You're very perceptive, Ray."
"How'd you mean?"
"I mean no one else has ever made that connection before, and you're quite right. There was a time when it was real, but that was a long time ago. And yes, I do use that. . . mask, as a way to keep others at a distance. I find life much less painful that way."
"And the person who hurt you, that would have been the chick you were . . . um . . . down about, last night?"
Very perceptive was an understatement. "Yes. Victoria."
Ray smiled wryly. "Victoria? She got her own line of underwear?"
Ben laughed at that, surprised that he could, but apparently he'd recovered to the point where he could find the irony amusing. "No, although she wasn't above using such things as bait in her trap."
"Trap? Sounds ugly."
Ben sighed, his gaze fixed on the window so he didn't have to look into Ray's eyes, didn't risk letting him see inside. "Oh, yes. There really is no other word for it. And not only did I walk right into it, I didn't even have the sense to struggle until it was far too late."
"What the hell did she do to you?"
Ben laughed humorlessly. "She . . . used me. Body, and mind, though I believe that my mind was the only thing she truly wanted."
Ray drew back, looked at him, and shook his head. "No way. Nobody in their right mind wouldn't want both, Benton Fraser, so if she really didn't then she needs to be locked away for the good of society."
"Well, I wouldn't disagree on that score, though for different reasons."
"You're gonna make me pry, hunh? Okay, I'm easy." He winked. "What reasons? You haven't told me what she did. Tell me a story. How'd she use you?"
Ben was quiet for a moment, trying to organize his thoughts, trying to see this as a story to tell, impersonal. Finally he started. "We were both same field, and it was, I thought, natural that we would gravitate toward each other, having so much in common. She was always very interested in my work, very helpful. Eventually we became . . . closer."
"Lovers," Ray said, reading his shorthand.
"Yes," Ben admitted. "Lovers. Though I later realized she probably did that in order to have better access to my private files and research. She stole everything, my concept, my research, my words, and made it look as if they had been hers all along. I never suspected a thing until I got the journal with her paper in it. . . my paper, with her name on it. And when I confronted her with it, she just laughed, and dared me to prove it was my work. That's when I discovered that all along when I thought she was helping me, she'd been altering my data files and re-copying my research notes so that it looked as if they were her work, not mine.
"It was years, Ray. I'd known her for two years, we'd been lovers, and the entire time she'd been lying to me, stealing from me, planning it . . . " his throat clamped shut on the sob that threatened, and he wound his fingers into the bedspread, struggling for control over his emotions. In the eighteen months since it had happened, he hadn't told a soul any of this. He'd just sucked it up and started over again from scratch. He didn't expect Ray to understand. No one outside of his field would understand.
Ray's hand kept stroking over his shoulder, his arm, finally it slid down to find his hand where it was tangled in the covers, sliding his fingers under and around Ben's, squeezing gently. "She stole your ideas, that's gotta be like having your soul stolen. That's one evil bitch, Doc. Evil."
Ben stared at him, stunned. He did understand. He did. "Yes. Yes, it was very much like having part of my soul stolen."
Ray slid his hand free and linked his fingers together over Ben's chest, resting his chin on them, studying his face intently. "But you got a lot of soul left, Doc, or you grew more or something. And you know she'll never be able to match what you did, or what you'll do, so she's stuck, she clipped her wings, but you can still fly."
Ah, God, what response was there to that? He tossed his head back, trying desperately not to let the tears come, and Ray was pushing himself up, hands on his shoulders, face grave and concerned as he peered down at Ben.
"Ben? You okay?"
He managed a nod, managed to unclench his teeth a little. "Yes."
"Don't look fine."
"I will be," he whispered, ". . . now."
Ray got it. His concern faded, and he smiled. "Yeah. Now. Geez, at least Stella only screwed me over emotionally, she didn't try to get me canned or anything."
Ben looked at Ray hopefully, wondering if he were finally going to find out just what had happened between Ray and his ex-wife. Ray met his gaze, sighed, and nodded.
"Okay, yeah, I get it. I did say we'd compare war stories, but yours has mine beat six ways to Sunday."
"It's not a contest, Ray," Ben chided gently. "But you don't have to tell me anything. You know that."
"I know, but it's . . . I do want to, it's just . . . it hurts."
"I do understand that pain," Ben said quietly.
"Yeah, I get that. That helps." Ray reached out and tangled their fingers together, casually, obviously without even thinking about it. Ben envied that instinctive knowledge of 'the right thing to do.' He had always had to work at that. He remembered little of his family life before his mother died, but after-- well, his grandparents had not been demonstrative.
"I want to tell you, but it sounds so cheap, so stupid."
"I would agree, Ray, that anyone who would willingly leave you must indeed be stupid. As for cheap, her price was, if I gather correctly, monetary, not emotional, so yes, she was cheap, as well."
Ray laughed at that, wryly. "You're good for a guy's ego, Doc."
"I merely stated the truth, Ray."
Ray blushed. "Yeah, well, maybe I do better with guys or something. Stell. . . poor Stella, she never really belonged in my world, I just wanted her to. She was never comfortable in it. See, until she was about twelve, she was a real Gold Coast girl. Her parents were rolling in money, and she was their only kid, so she was like a princess. Then her dad got hooked on gambling and all that money went down the tubes, fast. They were nearly on the street, would have been except her mom had a bit of dough of her own, enough to buy a little place in my neighborhood. Not that it was a bad place, but for them it was a real comedown. But for me. . . she was like the damsel in distress from all those stories about knights, and so I was gonna do that, be her knight."
Ray sighed, shifted uncomfortably, and looked away. "What I didn't know then was that mechanics can't be knights. You gotta go to college, and get a degree to be a knight. They don't take high school dropouts."
Ben suddenly remembered something Ray had said that first night they'd going out together. 'No secret crime-fighting for me. Couldn't get into the academy.' He looked at Ray, suddenly understanding. "You wanted to become a police officer?"
Ray looked startled. "Um. . . yeah. I did. How'd you know?"
"Simple deduction. You once made a comment about not being able to get into the academy, and the term 'knight' is often used colloquially to designate a police officer, and those things, coupled with your strong sense of justice, would seem to lead one in that direction."
Ray shook his head. "God, I love how you think. You got the coolest brain!"
The compliment, inelegantly expressed but heartfelt, warmed Ben in a place that hadn't been warm in years, heat-wave notwithstanding. "Your brain is quite 'cool' as well, Ray."
Ray's gaze slid from his and one corner of his mouth pulled downward. "You been smoking something, Doc? I just told you I flunked outta high school."
"Education has nothing to do with intelligence, Ray. You are, without doubt, one of the brightest people I know. Your intelligence simply takes a less common form, a more practical one. You know so much about things, about people . . . you have a native, bone-deep intelligence that people like myself are entirely lacking."
Ray made a rude sound. "Yeah, right."
"You are smart. You just have, I suspect, an organic dysfunction which prevents you from learning the way most of us do."
"I think you may have a learning disability, possibly coupled with mild hyperactivity. It's a common combination. Were you ever tested for either?"
Ray stared at him, frowning. "No. You. . . are you saying something's wrong with me? Like, I'm not right in the head?"
Ben tightened his fingers around Ray's. "No, no of course not! You're perfectly sane, saner than most people, I think. It's just that your brain works a little differently. There is nothing wrong with that difference, nothing inherently wrong with being different, but our society simply isn't equipped to deal well with differences."
Ray considered that, then smiled a little. "Yeah, okay. That's true. Kind of like if I was black, or Hispanic, or . . . ." he grinned, and winked, ". . . bisexual."
Ben grinned back. "Yes. Precisely. Different, but not less. I l. . . like that difference." He caught himself, panic-stricken that Ray would understand his slip. It was far too soon for that word, might never be time for it. To his relief, though, Ray sighed, and seemed to relax.
"That's what I like about you, Ben. You never expect me to be something I'm not, someone I'm not. Everyone else does. My folks . . . Stella, they wanted me to be something. They didn't seem to get that I am something, just like I am. Maybe not rich, or important, but . . . people need me. Some people anyway."
"I need you."
Ray's gaze flicked up to his, surprised, pleased. He smiled. "You do?"
"Yes. And not because you can repair my car."
The pleasure in Ray's eyes seemed to warm and deepened, and he moistened his lips. "Yeah, need you, too."
Ben was suddenly, intensely aware of how close Ray's mouth was to his own. As if hearing his unspoken thought, Ray's gaze moved downward, and a hint of a smile played around the corners of his mouth. He looked up again, meeting Ben's eyes.
"So. . . wanna see if we can go for more than three minutes this time?"
Well, that answered the question of whether or not Ray would want to do anything more. He didn't seem a bit reluctant. That surprised Ben, quite a bit. Enough that instead of responding the way his body thought would be appropriate, he opened his mouth instead, and words emerged.
"Have you done this before? I mean, with a man?"
Ray didn't move, suspended there, so close that Ben could feel his breath against his cheek. "Nope. Thought about it some. Okay, more than some. Off and on. Never did anything about it. I was married, I didn't fool around. And then after, well, it's not like I get a lot of offers."
He looked sweetly embarrassed, shy, a little wistful. Strangely, Ben knew exactly how he felt, even though he'd had more than his share of offers, none of them had been deep enough, meaningful enough, to take. It had to feel similarly . . . lonely. Suddenly it didn't matter any more, whether either of them had or hadn't, or whether anyone else cared. All that mattered was the two of them, Ray and himself. He reached down, trailed his fingertips against the stubble on Ray's jaw, and smiled.
"I believe I might be able to try for a more satisfactory endurance record."
Ray grinned, that bright, blinding smile that had drawn Ben in from the first. "I am all over that," he said, one eyebrow lifting suggestively as he bent down, and their lips met.
It was strange to discover that the faint burn of stubble against his skin could be erotic, that masculine hardness against him instead of feminine softness could send shivers of sensation through him more profound than any he'd known. Was it simply knowing that Ray cared? No, Ben had thought Victoria cared, too, and she had never made him feel as if he'd been plugged directly into some socket which fired the electricity of touch and sound and scent and taste into his blood like a drug.
Ben slid his fingers into the soft, wild tousle of Ray's hair, angling his face a little so they could kiss more deeply, and the stroke and slide of tongue against his own was delightful. He let his other hand slide down Ray's back to his hip, then slid it forward, only to tangle awkwardly with Ray's hand and arm as he made a similar gesture. Ray laughed against his mouth, breaking the kiss.
"Hell, you got any idea how this is supposed to work?"
Ben chewed his lip, frowning. "Well, I suppose it depends on exactly what you mean by 'this.'"
"This. . . two guys."
"I thought you said you'd thought about it."
"Well, yeah, I did, in a general kind of way."
"Ah. Well, I've read. . . some things. Texts mostly, human sexuality, tribal customs."
Ray grinned smugly. "Yeah, I knew it. Knew you'd know something."
"I'm not exactly sure how useful it will be, as I don't think either of us were planning to insert small bells into slits in the foreskin and. . . ."
Ray's eyes went wide and he interrupted quickly. "Whoa, too much information there, Doc. Can't you just kind of do an overview?"
Ben chuckled. "I believe that there's an applicable saying . . . "
"Anything goes. If it feels good, then it's all right."
"Oh yeah. I can get behind that," Ray said, his voice husky, and rough. He reached out and ran a fingertip across Ben's lower lip. "I can soooo get behind that," he whispered. His finger slipped from Ben's mouth to his chin, traced his jaw back to his ear, circled that, then slid down the long tendon in his throat to his collarbone, and finally stuttered over his chest to come to rest atop one suddenly-taut nipple. He stroked his fingertip back and forth across it curiously, then bent, and took it in his mouth. Warm, silky, wet heat, gentle nip, harder suction. Ben arched into that caress voluptuously, making a soft sound deep in his throat. After a moment or two Ray lifted his head, and Ben frowned at the abandonment.
"Why did you stop?"
"That feel good?"
"Yes, it does."
"Cool. I mean, I know chicks are supposed to like it but I always wondered if guys were the same."
Ben looked at Ray's chest, then his face, saw the question there, and smiled. Ray had taken the lead before, and now here again, perhaps it was time to change that. Ben reached out, put a hand on Ray's shoulder, and pushed him over onto his back, coming up over him in a surprisingly smooth movement. "Would you like to find out?" he asked softly, mouth poised.
"Yeah," Ray rasped back, breathlessly.
Ben was surprised that after several years of marriage Ray didn't already know the answer to this, but he supposed Stella had not been particularly adventurous and for whatever reason, Ray hadn't asked it of her. Still, it pleased him that there was at least this one small thing that was his alone. He brushed his closed lips across the cinnamon-colored nub of flesh once, twice, felt Ray shiver under him, then he let his tongue steal out to lick softly at it, and finally he drew Ray's nipple between his lips and sucked. Ray practically came off the bed with a moan, one long-fingered hand coming to rest lightly over the back of Ben's head as he worked, fingers stroking his hair, urging him to continue. Ben put a hand in the middle of Ray's chest, holding him down, and sucked harder, felt his victim shudder beneath him, hips lifting since his chest couldn't.
"God!" Ray gasped. "That's. . . that's. . . no wonder they like it!" He writhed a little, moaned. "I think I could come, just from that. . . wow!"
Ben lifted his head, looked down that long, lean body at the straining length of Ray's cock, and smiled, once more feeling the intense compulsion to taste. It was, he knew, an idiosyncracy of his, to want to taste everything, he'd done it as a child, learned to control it ruthlessly as an adult, but it had never gone away. "Don't. Not yet," he said softly.
Ray laughed. "You should see your face! You got like . . . I dunno, like this 'kid in a candy-shop' expression."
Ben couldn't help but grin, though he knew he was also turning red. "Well, that's entirely appropriate." He kissed the silly grin off Ray's mouth, then swivelled around, an arm across Ray's thighs as the fingers of his free hand closed carefully around the resilient flesh of Ray's cock. Leaning in, Ben drew in a deep breath, inhaling the scent of sweat, and excitement, then lowered his head, engulfing that hot, smooth shaft in his mouth. He had to loosen his jaw a little, tilt his head at a different angle, then it was all right. He loved it, the taste, the feel, even the ache in his jaw. He heard Ray gasp sharply, and moan.
Using his tongue, Ben studied the subtle contours of the thick shaft, feeling the pulse of Ray's heartbeat racing against his lips, echoed under his restraining arm by the rapid lift and fall of Ray's belly as he almost panted. He tasted the first hint of that fascinating flavor he'd found there before they'd slept, and desperately wanted more than that faint offering. He stroked with hand and tongue as he sucked. Ray moaned, and Ben could feel the taut clench of his quadriceps as he fought the urge to thrust. He lifted his head, slowly, letting Ray's cock slip free, continuing to use his hand to stroke, running his thumb across the slick, sensitive head of it.
"It's all right," he said, his voice a bare whisper. "Go ahead. I want you to." He let his tongue flicker across the gleaming shaft, and Ray gasped, shuddering as Ben's hand stroked faster.
"Oh, God . . . Ben!
Ray bucked and strained beneath him, rhythmic pulsations beginning to sweep the long, sleek shaft in his hand. Quickly Ben leaned to take him into his mouth just as the first spurt hit his tongue. He moaned his satisfaction aloud around his prize, heard Ray echo him, fingers threading into his hair with gentle fierceness as each consecutive pulsebeat brought them both more pleasure. Finally Ray shuddered one last time, and relaxed with a groan, his hands falling limply to the bed.
"Oh my lord . . . ." he sighed deeply. "That was. . . am I dead yet?"
Savoring the rich and complex flavors on his tongue, salt-sweet and bitter, Ben gave a last swallow, a last lick, and slowly released Ray. He put his head on his thigh and looked up the length of his rangy body. Seeing that Ray was watching him, he smiled
"They call it the little death, you know."
"Many cultures, though I believe the French are most famous for it. 'Le petit mort.'"
"That wasn't so little, Ben."
Ben grinned, running a finger along the softened, but not insubstantial length a few inches from his nose. "Indeed, not."
Ray groaned, putting his arm across his face as if that would hide the blush that started much lower. "Ben! Jesus!"
Ben smiled. "Robert, actually."
Ray lifted his arm, looking confused. "Who's Robert?"
"I am. Benton Robert. Not Jesus."
Ray groaned again, flopping back onto the bed. "You always turn into a comedian when you get horny?"
"No, only with you."
"I'm special, hunh?"
Ben sobered, nodded. "Yes. Very."
Ray opened his mouth, closed it, clearly at a loss for words, after a moment he cleared his throat, his expression oddly earnest. "You too, Doc. You too. Ben. Benton. Benton Robert Fraser. I never thought it would be good, to be with a guy. So it's gotta be you, I think. This is new for both of us, a . . . a brave new world, I think somebody once said." He offered it apologetically, obviously waiting to be corrected.
Ben closed his eyes for a moment, and smiled. The Tempest. And Ray was Ariel, oh yes. Strangely . . . right. Strangely easy. Strangely wonderful. Wonderfully strange. All that, and more. "'O brave new world, that has such people in 't,'" he quoted. "Yes. It is."
* * *
Whoa. Nobody ever said he was special before, not even Stella. And no one ever quoted anything for him before. He felt weird about that, like he shouldn't like it, but he did. Maybe he was sick, but he liked this, all of it. He liked being with Ben, both in a sense of plain old liking, and in the sexual sense, too. He liked being touched, and touching, a man. It was just kind of amazing. And maybe he . . . liked Ben in another sense too, a way he thought had been cut out of him when Stella left. But that was too scary to think about right now.
He looked at Ben, wondering what someone so damned smart and perfect saw in him, hoping that whatever it was, he could keep it up. He couldn't quite believe this was happening. Or that he'd gotten that quote right, either, but he had. He remembered Ben's comment that he might have a learning disability, and for the first time in his life felt like he might not be just plain stupid.
"That's Shakespeare, right? The one about the shipwreck?" Ray ventured, suddenly remembering where he'd heard the 'brave new world' thing before.
"Yes. The Tempest," Ben confirmed, seeming unsurprised by the question, though it surprised Ray that he had gotten it right.
"Stella made us . . . um, took us, one time. Actually, I kind of liked it. The words had . . . patterns. And it was kind of like a fantasy movie. I couldn't understand everything, but I got more than I thought I would."
"As I said, Ray, you're by no means unintelligent."
For some reason that made Ray blush again, and he looked away from Ben's face, only to realize he was staring at the smooth pale curve of his flank, and his gaze kind of automatically tracked across to the flushed, semi-erect cock in its thatch of dark silk. It hit him then, that he'd just let Ben blow his cock and his mind, and hadn't even touched him in return! What kind of selfish jerk was he? And he hadn't lasted a lot longer than the first time, either. Kind of embarrassing. So, time to put up, and make it good. Really good.
He turned onto his side and reached out to lay his hand on Ben's hip. His fingers looked almost sallow against the creamy glow of Ben's skin. He couldn't get over how much that fair skin turned him on, considering that tan had been 'in' for his entire life. Maybe that was it, actually. The fact that Ben was nothing like anyone else he knew or ever had known. He stroked the firm curve of Ben's thigh, heard his breathing catch, and looked at his face, saw him moisten his lips with a slow, sensual slide of tongue, and wanted to feel that again, against his own mouth. He turned, and then stretched out slowly along Ben's body, running his nose up the center of that strong, pale stomach, up the line of sternum, to clavicle, up his throat over his chin, finally reaching his mouth, already open, waiting for him.
Slide of tongue on tongue, the twitch of hardening cock against his thigh. Remembering his own reactions, he slid his thumb into Ben's mouth for a moment alongside his tongue, then slipped it out again and reached down to stroke it slickly across one of Ben's small nipples. For that he got a sound that was almost a purr, vibrating lips and tongue against his own. It tickled and made him laugh, breaking the kiss. Torn, he finally lowered his head, moved his thumb away from Ben's nipple and put his mouth there instead.
Ben purred again, a little shiver going through him as he reached down and caught Ray's hand, bringing it to his mouth, catching his thumb again, nipping it, sucking it. Tingles ran through him, electric sparks of excitement. It was almost enough to get him hard again. Ray did his best to ignore his own responses and concentrate on Ben's instead. He shifted to one side and slid his free hand down Ben's chest, then lower, cupping his fingers over the thrust of his cock. Ben bit hard on his thumb and pushed into his hand. Ray grinned. Okay, so maybe Ben wouldn't last all that long either.
Fascinated by Ben's uncircumcised cock, he let his fingers curl gently around the shaft. It felt so different from his own, somehow less. . . naked. It was cool. Well, not literally, literally it was warm, or rather, hot, and soft-hard, velvet smooth, and flushed with arousal. He stroked slowly, let his fingers trail down over the soft weight of his testicles, playing the way he liked to be played with, gently massaging beneath the base of his cock where it felt so good. Ben moaned, and drew up a knee, letting it fall to the side so he was completely vulnerable. Ray glanced up at Ben's face to see his reaction, and found himself just staring.
His eyes were closed, dark lashes feathered on flushed cheeks, head thrown back against the bed, his throat taut and his teeth sunk in his lower lip as he arched into Ray's touch. The barest hint of stubble shadowed his cheeks, giving them a hint of hollow that they didn't normally hold, and his dark hair was a mass of sweaty ringlets. He looked . . . edible. Fuckable. Splayed out like that, Ben gave Ray ideas he wasn't sure either of them were ready for. He swallowed hard, trying to control the urge to satisfy a curiosity he hadn't known he had until that moment.
"Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?" Ray breathed, stunned.
Those eyes opened, their slate-blue depths hazy and unfocused. "I find you equally beautiful, Ray."
Okay, so the guy needed glasses, it was still a nice thing to say. Ray kissed him again, soothing his tongue over the teeth-prints in his lower lip. Ben humped up against his hand which still encircled and stroked him, sucking on his tongue like it was something else, something that was. . .unbelievably, half-hard again. Geez, he felt like a teenager, where a change in wind-speed could give him a hard-on.
Ben's hand found his, and quite deliberately moved his fingers lower, down to the base of his cock, pressing them hard against himself there, arching up with that damned little grunt again. Not stupid, Ray took the hint and massaged there, firmly, and got a muffled groan and a buck. This was kind of fun. After a moment he realized there was something else he wanted to try, and he slipped his tongue out of Ben's mouth. Feeling a little awkward, he bent to find out for himself what Ben felt like, what he tasted like. He put his lips against the side of Ben's cock, found the skin against his tongue hot, silky, clean. Not at all unpleasant.
Cautiously he slid his tongue up to the tip, tasting there, too. Ben shivered, gasping. Slick, and smooth, and even hotter, salty-sweet, surprisingly good, considering the amount of protest Stella had always put up over this very act. Braver, he lowered his head, taking the head of Ben's cock in his mouth, sucking gently.
"Oh," Ben moaned. "Ray . . . ."
"Hmmm?" Ray asked around the thick shaft in his mouth. Tactical error. Ben bucked hard, going so deep Ray nearly gagged. He backed off, letting go, taking over with his hand instead. Not as fun, but safer until he got the hang of this.
"Sorry . . . ." Ben gasped, relaxing a little, panting. "You have no idea. . . ."
"Good?" Ray asked, smiling a little.
That made him want to do it again. Boldly he took Ben back into his mouth, and very deliberately made a soft vocalization. This time he was prepared for the thrust, and rode it out, then he did it again, and again, sucking, humming, and breathing through his nose. Ben turned into a wild thing, bucking and moaning, hands fisting in the sheets. Remembering where Ben had urged him to put his hand earlier, Ray slipped a hand beneath the tightening folds of flesh below Ben's cock, between his thighs searching for that spot that had earned that delicious grunt before. It was harder now, because Ben was moving, and he was sweating, and things were slick and . . . whoops!
Ben shuddered, his whole body going taut. "God. . . yes!" Ben panted.
Whoa. That was not what he'd meant to do but judging from the reaction it wasn't a bad thing. He tried it again, stroking a finger across the sensitive opening. Ben shivered and sighed. Ray lifted his head to look up at Ben's face.
"You like that?" he whispered, just to make sure.
A rosy flush of color swept upward from Ben's midriff, and Ben put one arm over his face before he could bring himself to reply, a single syllable. "Yes."
Okay, maybe those things he'd been thinking earlier weren't so out of line after all. But not yet, too soon. Still, he could. . . play. Before he lowered his head again, he deliberately licked his fingers, and when he bent to engulf the taut shaft in his mouth, he slid his fingers between Ben's cheeks at the same time, circling, pressing gently. Ben pushed back, made that sought-after grunt again. Oh yeah, he liked that. Audaciously he let his finger slip deeper as he sucked, and was answered by an instant shudder, a moan, and a flood of alkaline-sweet slickness in his mouth. Startled, he swallowed, and swallowed again, and once more, as the taut body under his suddenly sagged into a boneless sprawl. He gently disengaged and slid up to pull Ben into his arms.
"Ben, you okay?"
Ben stretched, and sighed, then smiled, eyes still closed. "Far more than okay. My God, Ray, I had no idea!"
"Yeah, me either." Ray grinned sheepishly. "But I . . . liked it. I like being with you. A lot."
"I liked being with you a great deal even before this, Ray, but this is, well, quite astonishing."
"I know. I keep thinking I'm dreaming. I mean, like I said, I sometimes thought, 'yeah, that guy's good-looking,' but I never let myself think much more than that. Never thought it would be this . . . good. Or this easy. I always thought it would be kind of, um, kind of . . .
"Awkward?" Ben asked, and at Ray's nod, he went on. " Yes, I thought it would be, too. But it wasn't." He frowned a little.
Ray grinned. "Go figure. Guess some things come naturally."
Ben studied him intently. "Ray, is this . . . all right? I mean, we didn't talk about it, didn't plan, and I know this isn't something you normally do."
"You either," Ray said, eyeing him cautiously, not sure what kind of response Ben was looking for.
"No, me either. But I'm asking you. Is this all right? I don't want to do anything that would in any way jeopardize our friendship."
"Christ, Ben. Me either. I mean. . . but. . . damn." Frustrated, he rolled onto his back, staring at the ceiling, thinking hard, trying to find a way to say what he was feeling. Ben was quiet, letting him sort it out. Or at least that's what Ray hoped he was doing. Finally he managed to put something semi-coherent together. "Yeah, I'm all right with it. I guess, it's like that old joke, 'but will you still respect me in the morning?' And the answer is yeah, I do. Plus, I don't feel wrong about it, inside me. In fact, I feel pretty good about it." He turned his head, looked at Ben, concerned. "Is that. . . is that what you wanted to know?"
"Mostly, although there is another aspect, one I almost hesitate to bring up, and would not, were it not so important."
Ray turned his head, looked at Ben's solemn face and lifted his eyebrows. "What?"
"I, ah, I would imagine this is not something your friends will be 'all right' with, am I right?"
Ray smiled ruefully. "What friends, Ben? Since when have I got any? And even if I did, what business is it of theirs how I get my jollies, as long as it's not kids or animals or something like that."
"Some people might consider this to be the moral equivalent."
Ray scowled. "Well it's not and you know it."
"Yes, I do, but I also know that not everyone feels that way. Can you deal with that, should it become an issue?"
Ray sighed. "It's not gonna be an issue because there's nobody who cares, Ben, other than you and me."
"Your co-workers? Your parents?"
"My co-workers could care less, so could my parents. No, that's not true. My mom might care, but if it makes me happy it'll make her happy. She's that way."
Ben looked at him steadily. "And your father?"
Ray looked away, staring toward the window, unseeing. "My dad hasn't talked to me since the day I dropped outta high school, I don't see how this'll make much difference one way or another, Ben."
Ben was quiet for a moment, then he put his hand on Ray's shoulder, gently, just resting it there. "I'm sorry, Ray, I didn't realize."
"No reason you should," Ray said. "I never told you. It's okay."
"It's not okay. I don't understand why he would do such a thing."
"Because he wanted me to be important, be a doctor or something."
Ben smiled. "You are a doctor, Ray. You just work on engines made of metal instead of flesh and bone."
Ray laughed. "Where were you eighteen years ago, Benton Fraser? I really coulda used that explanation back then."
"Well, it's true. You're every bit as skilled, and with as broad a knowledge base, your medium is simply different. And you know, if a car dies on you, it's much less traumatic."
"Well, that depends on the car, Ben. If the Goat died, I'd have a funeral."
Ben smiled. "I believe you would, at that."
Ray's stomach chose that moment to make a very loud noise, and Ray looked down at himself, grinning sheepishly. "Another country heard from," he said. "I think it wants dinner."
From the other room they both hear Diefenbaker whine forlornly. Ray laughed. "I have no sympathy for you!" he called to Dief. "I know you had squirrel for lunch. Ben and I didn't get anything. . . well, not food, anyhow. Time to fire up the grill. Come on, Ben. Up and at 'em."
Ben groaned. "Up? Do I have to?"
Ray laughed. "You trying to prove you're a guy? I already know that. Come on. We slept half the day. Just 'cause we had sex doesn't mean we need to sleep more."
"I thought it was in the handbook, Ray."
"The one issued to every male at birth, of course. At least according to . . . someone I knew."
Ray caught the hesitation, and guessed who had told him that. "Ah. Her. Well, I guess I didn't get my copy. You can snooze if you want, I'm gonna go scare up some chow." He got up and scrabbled on the floor for his briefs, remembered they were a mess and dropped them again. He'd just have to settle for his shorts, which, he remembered, he'd left by the front door. Oh well, it wasn't like Ben hadn't seen him naked, for God's sake.
He walked out to get his shorts, pulled them on, then opened the cooler and pulled out the package of hot-dogs and the condiments. Then he pawed in the grocery bags until he located the buns, graham crackers, chocolate bars, and marshmallows. He'd been thinking about s'mores since four a.m. and he'd be damned if he was going to wait until dark to have one. Especially since it didn't get dark until after nine. A soft brush against his leg drew Ray's attention down, and he saw Diefenbaker there, gazing hopefully at the package of hot-dogs. He grinned. "Maybe. Gotta ask the boss. See if you can roust him, I didn't have much luck."
Dief trotted off toward the bedroom, and a moment later Ray heard a muffled 'oof' from the other room, then a muttered curse he hadn't thought Ben even knew. Chuckling, he headed out to fire up the grill. Realizing he'd forgotten the matches, he put down his armload of supplies on the picnic table next to the grill and headed back inside, stopping dead in his tracks as he glanced into the bedroom. Ben was standing there looking out the window, buck naked, stretching lazily, running a hand through his hair.
The sheer physical beauty of him was almost staggering. Art was one of the few subjects that Ray had enjoyed and been good at in school, he remembered artists, paintings, and sculptures easily. And Benton Fraser was like. . . like a DaVinci, or a Michelangelo, or whoever it was who did that Dying Gaul sculpture. Ray's gaze roamed from broad shoulders to those perfect buttocks, to the muscular thighs and calves, and his mouth went dry. He was still completely amazed that someone like Ben, who could have pretty much anyone, actually wanted. . . him.
But he did. Clearly. Wow. He shook himself, and went to get the matches. As he searched the kitchen drawers for the box he knew would be there somewhere, he suddenly felt arms go around him, felt himself pulled back against a strong, warm body. He relaxed into the embrace after a momentary startle, putting his own hands over the ones at his waist, squeezing lightly.
"Thank you, Ray."
"What for?" Ray asked, puzzled.
"For being you."
Ray grinned. "I'm stubborn that way. Can't really be anybody else, even when I try."
"Thank God," Ben said softly. "And thank you, also, for accepting me. For not trying to change me, for not expecting me to be someone or something I'm not."
Oh, man. That sounded so familiar. Ray sighed, and stroked the strong forearms that surrounded him. "Same here, Ben. Same here."
From over by the door, Diefenbaker let out a whine, and Ray laughed. "Okay, okay, I'm coming. I get it. Can he have a hot dog? Can he, hunh? Can he?"
Ben laughed. "I suppose. It's probably better for him than pizza, at any rate." He let go of Ray and stepped back.
"Oh, tons," Ray said, winking. "You know, I never knew anybody more addicted to junk food than me before. Come on, what do you like on your dogs?"
"Well, as I said, I don't generally eat them."
"Okay, just brown mustard then, that's how I like 'em. When I don't have onions, and kraut, too, that is. There they are!" Ray spotted the matches he'd been searching for on the counter behind a roll of paper towels, and grabbed them. "Now it's time to eat."
"Won't it take time for the coals to ember properly?"
"Nope. Lucky for us, it's propane, so we don't have to wait forever. And then it's time for s'mores."
"Some more what?"
Ray grinned. "Not 'some more', Doc, s'mores. Food of the gods. You'll see. In fact, life is short, so we're gonna eat dessert first. I'll start the grill, you go find a couple of sticks for roasting the marshmallows."
Ben looked at him dubiously and Ray shooed him with both hands. "Go. I mean it."
Still looking doubtful, Ben nodded and moved toward the door. Ray headed for the grill again, and in moments had it fired up. He had placed half the hot-dogs on to cook and assembled the necessary ingredients for the s'mores when Ben returned with a pair of sticks. Ray nodded approvingly. "Good work, Doc. Now pay attention, I'm gonna teach you one of the most sacred rituals of American boyhood."
He took one of the sticks and skewered a marshmallow on it, then stuck it over the fire, between the bars of the grill so he could get as close to the flame as possible. When the puffy white candy started to brown and sag, he picked up the pre-assembled graham-cracker and chocolate bar sandwich, slid the half-melted marshmallow between the layers, and mashed them together. Ben watched, frowning, and as Ray extended the concoction toward him he pulled back a little, nose wrinkled. Ray eyed him narrowly.
"Where's your sense of adventure, Doc? Bet you'd eat roast bugs if somebody offered 'em to you. You gonna refuse this?"
As Ray had fully expected him to Ben bristled a little. "My sense of adventure is perfectly fine, Ray," he said a little snappishly, and he took the s'more from Ray, and bit into it.
Ray watched smugly as an astonished expression spread over Ben's face. He swallowed, licked his lips, then looked at Ray, frowning.
"This was a very bad idea, Ray."
"Howcome?" Ray challenged.
"Because, I will undoubtedly refuse to eat any real food from now on, and I'll end up a diabetic with coronary disease."
Ray laughed out loud. "I knew it! I knew you'd like it. You're a closet humanist."
Ben looked momentarily puzzled, then his expression cleared. "You mean hedonist?"
"I'm not, not really."
"No? So that was somebody else in bed in there letting me suck him, and wanting to lounge around all day, and getting hooked on s'mores?"
Ben turned red. "Ah, no. It was definitely not someone else. But there's no reason to be insulting."
"Enjoying yourself isn't a sin, Benton Fraser. I don't care who toldja it was. Admit it. You like it, all of it."
Ben was quiet for a moment, then he smiled, slowly. "I do, Ray. I like it, all of it, all of you. I like it very much." He deliberately took another bite of the s'more, then extended it toward Ray's mouth, holding it while he took a bite. Chewed. Swallowed. Then Ben was reaching out with his other hand and pulling Ray close, lips closing over his in a kiss that tasted of childhood memories.
* * *
Standing in the kitchen stirring canned spaghetti sauce with a few additions, Ray heard the key in the door and smiled. He'd had to get on Ben's case about knocking recently, and apparently it had finally, after nearly three weeks, sunk in that Ray wouldn't have given him a key if he wanted him to knock. Diefenbaker jumped up from his favorite spot under the air-conditioner and went to greet Ben, who spent a moment greeting him back.
"Hey, Ben," Ray said, acknowledging his arrival. "How'd it go handing back exams today?"
Ben straightened. "About as I expected. Some glee, some tears, a few threatened lawsuits. All fairly standard."
"Lawsuits?" Ray craned around to look at him in surprise.
Ben smiled, nodding. "Some students seem to expect an automatic 'A' just for having enrolled. They also seem to think they can intimidate the faculty, particularly non-tenured faculty, into complying."
"Quite." Ben put down his book-bag on the table and came to stand in the door to the kitchen as Ray went back to stirring his spaghetti sauce. He was quiet for a moment, which was unusual enough that Ray looked up at him, eyebrows lifted in question as he saw the somewhat solemn expression on his friend's . . . his lover's face.
"Ray, I went to the GLBT resource center on campus today."
Ray looked up from the stove. "The what?"
"The gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered resource center."
Ray slapped his forehead in mock shock. "Oh my God! You're a lesbian? I'm shocked, shocked I say!"
Ben shot him a amused but quelling glance. "I borrowed some literature from their lending library."
"Yes, and picked up some. . . other things, at a shop they recommended."
"You seem to be repeating everything I say."
"I'm prompting you, you keep dropping tidbits, I'm hoping for more. You know me, I'm a show-don't-tell kind of guy."
Ben bit his lip, then slid a hand into his jacket pocket and came out with the 'other things' he'd mentioned, extending them on his open palm. Ray glanced down, then his mouth dropped open slightly in shock as his gaze snapped back up to Ben's face. "Ben!"
Ben's expression was a mind-bending combination of wickedness and innocence "Yes?" he asked artlessly
Ray's gaze darted from the assortment of condoms and the small bottle of lubricant in Ben's hand, to his face. "You, um. . . you really. . . um. . . wanna do . . . that?" he asked, still stunned by the implications of what Ben had in his hand. He'd thought about it a lot. In fact, almost every time they made love, in any of the delicious combinations they'd so far discovered. They'd done just about everything else. He wasn't sure why it surprised him that Ben would be interested in taking that step as well, but it did.
"Oh, yes," Ben said warmly, without hesitation. "I want this, very much. I want you to make love to me."
Whoa . . . that was backward from what he'd thought Ben meant. He thought that Ben wanted to do him, not to be done by him. Now that he thought about it, he wasn't sure why he'd thought that, because it made more sense this way considering how much Ben liked him to kind of take the lead in bed. Completely flustered, Ray dropped the spoon he was holding, bent to pick it up, tossed it into the sink, then studied Ben carefully, trying to figure out what had prompted this. "You sure? I mean, that's . . . um, that's a big step. You think we, uh, you . . . ." he trailed off, feeling lost. "Well, you know."
Ben's gaze fell, he looked disappointed, and resigned. "I'm sorry, Ray, I've been presumptuous. If you don't want to, we certainly don't have to."
Ray closed his eyes, one hand clenching on the edge of the counter. "Don't. . . want. . . to? Jesus, Ben, you have to know I've been thinking about it since that day at the quarry!"
"Thinking about what, Ray?" Ben asked with a naïveté so perfect it had to be faked.
Ray's eyed Ben suspiciously, and decided that he was being had. A mischievous grin curved his mouth. ""Come on, Ben. Nobody is that dense. About fucking that perfect ass of yours, what else?"
It was Ben's turn to gape. Apparently he hadn't quite been expecting such a forthright answer. He swallowed hard, his gaze darkening. "Ray . . . ." he said hoarsely.
Ray knew that voice. Knew it, loved it. He reached over and turned off the burner under the spaghetti sauce, and grabbed Ben's hand. "Come on."
Ben let himself be drawn along without hesitation, stripping off his shirt as they reached the bedroom, awkwardly one-handed because he was still carrying his 'items.' Ray grinned and put his hands to Ben's waist, unbuttoning and unzipping, then easing the loosened jeans down. There was a damp spot on his boxers where the tip of his cock touched the fabric. Ray went to his knees and caught Ben's hips in his hands, putting his mouth over that prominence, licking and sucking it through the thin fabric. God, he loved the way Ben tasted. It still surprised him, even after weeks of tasting him like this at every possible opportunity.
"Ray, Ray, please. . . ." Ben said, half laughing, all-aroused.
"Mmm, please what, Ben?" Ray said without taking his attention from the hidden prize. He licked the length of Ben's shaft through the cotton. He was getting to be quite the connoisseur of fabric softener.
Ray looked down at the jeans tangled around Ben's ankles, and laughed. "Improvisational bondage," he said. "Just a second." He pushed Ben's boxers down to join the denim manacles, untied Ben's shoes, then patted Ben's calf. "Pick up your foot." Ben complied, and Ray pushed his boxers, jeans, sock, and shoe off. "Other one now." Ben complied again, and Ray finished stripping him. That done, he yanked his own shirt off over his head, dropped his shorts, and was naked in mere seconds. They looked at each other, breathing hard, and spoke simultaneously.
Ben hit its rumpled surface first, Ray covering him a few seconds later, bringing their cocks together in a long, slow thrust. Ben spread his thighs, bringing them up on either side of Ray's hips. "Ray, please."
"I know, I know. So what's your literature say? What should we do, what shouldn't we do?"
Ben took a breath, opened his mouth, and Ray suddenly put a hand over it.
"Not word-for-word. Just gimme the basics, okay?"
Ben nodded and Ray lifted his hand.
"Basics?" Ben questioned.
Ray nodded. "Basics."
"Well, basically go slowly at first, use lots of lubricant, and do some preparatory stretching, especially if one's partner happens to be, ah . . . well-endowed."
Ray felt himself coloring as he always did when Ben got into the size thing. "Ben!" he complained. "Enough with that." He frowned thoughtfully. "Um, stretching? How's that supposed to happen?"
Ben smiled, and took Ray's hand in his, sucking a finger into his mouth for a moment before letting it go. "Have I ever told you how much I like your hands, Ray? You have very . . . long fingers And you're very good with them."
Ohhhh. Okay. He got it. "So, like we been doin', but more?"
Ben nodded. "More," he said huskily. "You have no idea how much I've wanted this."
Ben nodded, coloring faintly. "Yes."
Ray smiled a little. "Well, whatever you want, but. . . howcome?" He was a little worried that somehow Ben had sensed that he wanted to try this, and was doing it just to humor him.
"I can't really explain why, it's just. . . whenever you touch me, I want to feel that, feel you, inside me . . . ."
Ben shivered, and reached up to drag Ray's mouth down to his for a hot, wet kiss. The kiss, and the way he moved against Ray said far more than words. He was really turned on. No faking, Ben couldn't fake if his life depended on it. Reassured, Ray started to get excited about it himself. He liked pleasing Ben, and if that's what he wanted, that's what he'd get, so long as it didn't hurt. Ray wasn't into that, not at all. But if it felt good . . . well, he could definitely go there.
He shifted over to one side and started to play, sliding a hand slowly up and down Ben's sleek, pale body in a sensual massage. Over the round curve of shoulder, to the hollow of his collar-bone, over the arch of pectoral, down the slope of ribs . . . interesting, every curve out seemed to have a matching curve in. He'd never noticed that before. He kept exploring, waist, hip, then thigh. Ben shifted restlessly under his touch, and Ray leaned in to kiss him again, little nipping kisses that he knew made Ben a little crazy, wanting a deeper, longer contact. He let his fingers slide from the strong quadriceps muscle to the soft, fine skin of Ben's inner thigh, so soft, so silky, it seemed strange to find such fine skin on a man.
Curious, he touched his own thigh in the same place, found the skin equally soft, and smiled. Okay, so he just had never paid attention to himself with the same dedication that he paid to Ben. Before he could move his hand away, Ben's hand found his, covered it, stroked, then curled around his hand to move it up over his erection. Ray grinned, and stroked himself idly for a moment, just to indulge Ben's thing about watching him touch himself, then he put his hand back on Ben's thigh, up high, fingers stroking the soft, warm skin there, shifting upwards to stroke the back of a finger over the velvet, blood-flushed length of his cock, wanting to taste him, wanting that like he'd wanted to breathe when he'd been trapped underwater. He loved the taste, the feel, the whole experience of it, needed it. Well, nothing said he couldn't indulge himself, too. He slid down in the bed, shouldering Ben's thighs wider apart and took him deep in his mouth as his fingers slipped below the heavy, sweaty weight of his balls to find and stroke over the small pucker between his cheeks.
Ben gave an abortive buck into Ray's mouth which reversed itself to become a push against his questing fingers. Ray sucked gently, stroking his tongue up and down the sensitive underside of Ben's cock in fast, butterfly flickers, all the while massaging gently, feeling that tight furl loosen a little under his touch, as it always did. This he'd learned, this he was good at. He just needed to take it further to give Ben everything he wanted.
"Ray." Ben's voice was a whisper, dark, and needy. "Give me your hand."
He held out his free hand and something was pressed shakily into his palm. He looked, saw he held the bottle of lubricant. All right, Ray thought, feeling suddenly unsure of himself. No, not a good time to go all insecure. He could do this. He could. He eased off Ben's cock and slid his hand from beneath him so he could open the lube and rub some of its contents between his fingertips. It was incredibly slick, and gave him Ideas, which he supposed was the point. He summoned up everything he'd ever heard or seen about having sex this way, which wasn't a whole heck of a lot. Still, he had Ben's summary firmly in mind. Slow. Stretch. Lube.
Ray pushed Ben onto his side and slid up alongside him, pulling him close, nibbling along his throat, his jaw, finally coming to his mouth and settling in for a long, sweet kiss there, humping languidly against Ben's hip, feeling Ben's erection against his belly. The position was comfortable, familiar, and hot. Ben kissed him back wholeheartedly, holding him, one hand smoothing down his back to his hips to push him even closer. After a moment or two, Ray finally got his nerve up enough to let his slickened fingers ease between Ben's cheeks.
The lubricant changed things radically, made penetration almost effortless, eased the way to that spot he knew made Ben crazy. He found it, stroked, and was rewarded by a low groan. Ben's mouth left his as he pressed his forehead against Ray's shoulder, panting a little. Ray dared another finger, the first time he'd tried that. Ben moaned, gasped. Instantly Ray slid his hand free, his heart pounding like he was running a marathon, and he recognized the feeling of fear, not arousal.
"Ben, you okay? Did I hurt you?"
"God, Ray, no, you didn't hurt me, it was wonderful. Please, I need more, need. . . you."
Ray's fear subsided in the face of Ben's obvious need. He groped for the lube, uncapping it, drizzling more of its contents onto his fingers, then sliding them back into place, easy, so easy. He was starting to think this might actually work, though two fingers wasn't enough, he didn't think, not with skinny fingers like he had. Ben's broader ones maybe. And, oh, God, that was an image he shouldn't have thought of. Pushing it firmly out of his mind, he attempted another finger.
Ben groaned, a hot, dark sound, and arched back a little, licking at his lips, his face flushed and sweat-gleamed, open-mouthed, eyes hugely dilated. No trace of discomfort showed on his face, none at all. Ray stroked, again, again. Ben's hips followed each movement in a sinuous undulation, then suddenly he was pulling the bottle out of Ray's hand, pouring some onto his own hand and reaching down between them to close his big, slick palm around Ray's cock.
Ray almost came right there. He literally had to bite his tongue so the pain would distract him. He tried to think clearly, but his body had other ideas. So did Ben, who was way ahead of him, freeing himself from Ray's fingers with a twist of his hips, then rolling onto his belly, thighs spread in a provocative sprawl. There was no resisting that invitation. Moving into place between Ben's thighs, Ray leaned over him, kissing what he could reach; ear, temple, cheekbone, jaw, corner of mouth, as he took his cock in his own hand and guided himself . . . home.
First bare breaching of that unknown place, slick, and tight, and startlingly hot. He managed a scant half inch, but Ben was breathing in a way that sounded like sobs. When he pulled back, worried, Ben reached back to grab his hip in a grip that would probably leave bruises, and shook his head.
"Don't stop, please," he gasped.
"I'm hurting you," he guessed.
"Ray," Ben whispered. "Please, I want this, God, I want this." The hand on Ray's hip relaxed its hold a little, stroked. "Just keep. . . ." He shook his head. "Steady pressure, I think, and I can relax into it. . . ."
He made it sound so easy. Ray tried again, nudging inside, pressing steadily, not hard, fighting the urge to thrust, and then suddenly it was easy, and he was sliding in slow, and sweet, and deep, not pausing, not stopping until he was there, all the way there, the curves of that perfect ass against his hips, the familiar music of Ben's moans reassuring him that he was giving pleasure, not pain. He stayed there, not daring to move, surrounded by the incredible heat and tightness of Ben's body until he felt some of the tension leave the body beneath his, until Ben shifted his hips restlessly, and turned his head.
"Hunh?" Ray managed, almost coherent.
"Did you. . . " Ben hesitated, Ray saw him catch his bottom lip in his teeth, saw a flush wash across the skin he could see. "You didn't. . . ?"
It dawned on Ray what Ben was asking, and he laughed, his forehead against Ben's shoulder as he shook his head. "No, no. I'm just . . . scared to move."
Ben digested that for a moment. "Why?"
"'Fraid I'll hurt you," he confessed.
That was met with a moment of silence, then Ben pushed back against him, startling him. "Ray," he said, his voice husky and thick. "Fuck me."
His body obeyed even before his mind stopped being stunned by the rawness of that command, hips pushing forward.
Ben gave a throaty grunt and, followed by an exhaled "Yes!"
Ray moved, again, again, subsumed in the sweet clasp and slide, God, so good, so good. Nothing like he'd expected. Familiar, yet unknown. The ancient, ageless rhythm of skin-on-skin, heat, and need. The reality a confusing nova of sensation, of understanding, power and helplessness. He kissed what he could reach of Ben's face, temple, eyelid, cheek, the corner of that panting mouth, and then Ben was groaning and shuddering beneath him, a shudder that surrounded Ray and pulled him under and held him there until he drowned in pleasure.
* * *
Perfect. More than perfect. The delight of being taken so, the depth of the intimacy so sweet that it had negated the fleeting pain. He'd known he wanted it but not why. Now he knew that too. He'd needed to trust again, and that had been the deepest expression of it that he could imagine. To trust someone, no, not someone . . . Ray. To trust Ray so utterly and completely, and to have that trust affirmed and cherished, that was what he'd needed, and gotten. He reached up and took Ray's hand where it lay on the bed near his shoulder, lacing their fingers together. Ray stirred then, squeezed his fingers, and rubbed his nose against the back of Ben's neck in an oddly affectionate gesture.
"Wow," Ray breathed, and Ben could hear him smiling.
"Yes," Ben said simply.
Ray laughed. "That's the shortest sentence you've ever said. Is your brain fried now?"
"Yes," Ben repeated with a contented sigh.
"Mmm. Mine too." Ray said, and yawned, then he lifted a little, and slipped his softened cock free of Ben's body.
Because it was unexpected, Ben couldn't suppress a gasp at that. Funny that it should hurt a little now, after it was all over. Ray's hand settled tentatively on his back.
"Did I hurt you?"
"I'm fine, Ray."
"Oh. Okay. Good. I didn't want to . . . ." Ray's voice trailed off and he looked at Ben suspiciously. "Hang on, you didn't answer me."
Damn. Ray was catching on to the little verbal tricks he sometimes used to keep from having to lie. He sighed. He couldn't, didn't dare confess, quite how uncomfortable it had been at first, or Ray would never do it again. But he wouldn't lie, not even if it meant he had to forego knowing this pleasure again. He sighed. "There was a certain amount of . . . discomfort at first, but it was brief."
Ray was quiet, and Ben turned over to see him frowning.
"I hurt you," he said flatly. "Damn it, I was afraid I would. Ben. . . I'm sorry."
He squeezed Ray's hand again. "Ray, please. It's all right. I'm quite certain that it was merely due to our mutual unfamiliarity with the process, and future attempts should be both easier and more comfortable."
"Future. . . ." Ray gaped. "You can't mean to tell me you want to do it again! Not if it hurt!" His gaze slid away, he looked unhappy and guilty.
Ben reached up and turned Ray's face back to him. "Ray, the pleasure far surpassed any pain. I loved it, and I would do it again in a heartbeat."
Ray stared into his eyes, and gradually the suspicion there faded. "You're sure you're okay? I can't stand thinking that I hurt you."
"I know, Ray, and you didn't, not really." He smiled. "And if you need proof that I enjoyed it. . . ." His smile became a grin as he poked at the bed where he'd been lying.
Ray looked, and chuckled. "Yeah. Time to change the sheets. Again. I'm gonna have to buy a couple more sets. I'm tired of doing laundry all the time." He flopped back onto the bed with a sigh, and then got an odd look on his face and reached underneath himself, coming out with the mylar packets Ben had brought home. He looked at them, at himself, at Ben, and that guilty look came back over his face.
"Ben. . . I . . . ." he started.
Understanding was swift and sure. "It's all right, Ray. I trust you."
Ray put a hand over his face, hiding behind it. "You shouldn't. Not after this. God. I can't believe I forgot. Jesus!"
Ben leaned over him, wrapped his fingers around Ray's wrist and tugged his hand away from his face so he could look into Ray's guilt-shadowed eyes. "Ray, stop. Please don't do this. It's all right. I mean, we've not been very safe up until now, as it turns out, and now I didn't think of it either. In the heat of the moment, we both forgot. Please, I don't regret a moment of it, any of it. I hope you don't. I wanted you to enjoy it as much as I did."
Ray drew in a deep breath, let it sigh out again, and his expression lightened. "Enjoy it? That's the understatement of the year, Ben. But that doesn't make what I did right."
Ben sighed. "Ray, please. It happened, we can't change that." He settled a little, propped on his elbow, studying Ray's face. "Tell me something. Have you been intimate with anyone since Stella left you?"
Ray frowned. "Been intimate?"
"Had sex," Ben clarified.
Ray eyed him warily. "Why?"
"Humor me, Ray."
He looked embarrassed. "Um, well. . . no."
Ben carefully controlled a smile. That hadn't been easy to admit, he was sure, but he was equally sure it was true. "And you were married for how long?"
"And were you ever intimate with anyone else while you were married to her?"
"No, never! I'm not like that!" Ray said forcefully. "I don't cheat."
"I know that, Ray, just bear with me. So, then before you married, how many sexual partners did you have?"
Ray eyed him. "Including Stella?"
Ray fidgeted, his blush deepening. "Um. . . one. And maybe kind of a half, or maybe a third. You know, the petting kinda stuff."
Ben blinked in surprise. "I did say you could include Stella."
Ray looked away. "I did."
Ben was stunned. He couldn't have understood Ray correctly. "One?" he asked, in sheer disbelief.
"Yeah, one, okay? Happy now?"
Ben felt his mouth curving in a grin. "Yes, actually. Very happy. I thought . . . well, I had thought you had rather a lot more experience that I did. Of course, the sheer duration of your experience makes it far greater than mine, but so far as number of partners goes, we're even."
Ray's gaze snapped to his face, and he looked as stunned as Ben felt. "What?"
"I said we're even as far as the number of . . . ."
"I heard you." Ray turned over and stared at Ben with rather disconcerting directness. "I just couldn't believe it. But you said it, and you don't lie. I don't get that. I just don't."
Ben eyed him doubtfully. "You don't get it that I don't lie?"
"Not that, not the lying stuff. I mean, the other. You're. . . Jesus, Ben, you're smart, you're gorgeous, you're even kind. Women are always all over you, I've seen it, heck, even at the Senior Center we show up and it's like they're flies and you're maple syrup. You're not like me, women hardly notice me. But you're a babe magnet. And hell, even if you weren't into women you'd still be a babe magnet. . . or, well, a fox magnet. I mean it's not rocket science why I'm a one-timer but you? It don't make sense."
"I think you've summed it up quite nicely, Ray. Being, as you say, a 'magnet,' tends to get old, quickly. It's not very pleasant to be wanted solely for the way one looks. And apart from my appearance, I'm not what most women, or men for that matter, are looking for. I was raised in semi-isolation by my grandparents, I'm far more comfortable being alone than with others, present company excepted, of course. Because of my upbringing, my mores, manners and outlook on life are decidedly atypical. To put it bluntly, I'm . . . odd, and it never took long for anyone who was interested in me to discover it."
Ray scowled. "You're not weird. You're just. . . you. And that's cool."
Ben smiled again. He simply couldn't help it. "And that's why I'm here, with you, now. Because you're the only person I've ever known in my entire life who would say that, and mean it. You see the whole person, and accept the whole person. And that's why I trust you, Ray."
Ray sighed. "Ben, you can trust me, that way anyhow, but that doesn't mean I didn't screw up."
"We both screwed up, Ray. But I don't believe either of us has reason to be concerned about the consequences of that act."
Ray cocked his head. "What's that mean in American?"
"It means that as far as risk factors go, both of us are practically in negative numbers. Neither of us are hemophiliacs, medical or emergent care professionals, or IV drug users, and our sexual histories are about as far from promiscuous as it is possible to get."
Ray smiled a little. "Yeah, well, I guess you got a point."
"Will you stop beating yourself up about it now?"
"I'll think about it. But you shoulda told me I hurt you."
"Ray," Ben said, exasperated. "It was negligible. I told you that."
"I don't care. Even a little is too much."
Ben closed his eyes. "I'm sorry, Ray. I'll not ask it of you again." He tried not to let his disappointment and resignation show in his voice, thought he'd been successful until he felt the bed shift, sensed the warmth of Ray's body closer to his own. He left his eyes closed, not wanting to let Ray see what he was feeling, since it was, when viewed objectively, a good thing that he was so concerned about not causing pain.
"Ben?" Ray was close, so close he could feel his breath against his cheek.
"Mmm?" he answered, feigning lassitude.
"You really liked it?"
Apparently there was no avoiding this. Ben opened his eyes, and sighed. "Yes. I did."
"And it really didn't hurt that much?"
Ben gazed up into Ray's changeable blue-gray-gold eyes, and shook his head. "No, Ray, it didn't."
Ray looked thoughtful. "Oh." He idly traced a finger down the center of Ben's chest, watching it, then he looked back into Ben's eyes, a little hesitantly. "So, um, some time you could show me? See, that way I can tell for myself, and then maybe it will be okay, you know?"
"Show you wha. . . ." Ben suddenly understood what Ray was asking, and his eyes widened. "Show you?
Ray blushed a little. "Yeah. Like I said before, I'm a show-and-tell kinda guy."
Ben was stunned. "You would do that?"
Ray shrugged. "Hey, you liked it, why wouldn't I?"
Good question. Ben shook his head. "Well, I just thought . . . you're, well, you're American."
Ray grinned. "Well, geeze, Ben, I didn't know you Canadians had a lock on that position. Is this one of those cultural protectionism things you were talking about with Albert the other day? Do I gotta get a visa or something before we can try it?"
Ben found himself laughing, shaking his head. "No, no, of course not, Ray. It's just that, and I know I'm being terribly nationalistic here so forgive me, but Americans in general tend to be far less open-minded about such things, and from what I've read there seems to be a tacit assumption that while it might be all right to be the . . . er. . . ." he blushed, but plowed on, ". . . fuck-er, it's not considered at all acceptable to be the, ah, fuck-ee."
Ray had started chuckling when he'd said to the first expletive and by the second he was cackling gleefully. "Oh my God, Ben. You can do it, but you can't say it without blushing. That's pretty damned funny."
"Ray, it's not very nice of you to make fun of my disability."
"I'm not making fun of it, it's cute."
Ben moaned. "Oh, God. You've lost all respect for me."
Ray dropped a kiss on his mouth, then pulled back. "Never, Benton Fraser. Never. Fuck-er or fuck-ee, I don't care, you're still you, my best friend, with benefits, as some Canadian once said. So, next time, my turn, right?"
Ben nodded slowly, wondering just how he was going to manage to convince Ray it didn't hurt when he knew damned well it did. Perhaps he simply needed to be more patient, take more time, and there was the added advantage that his fingers were broader than Ray's, and he was not quite as impressively endowed. It might be possible to keep the discomfort minimal.
Ray smiled. "Okay. Great, greatness. Come on, let's go shower and then you can help me with dinner, since it's your fault it's not ready yet."
"I think I had a little assistance in that endeavor, Ray."
"Oh, a little, maybe." He rolled out of bed and turned to look at Ben. "Coming?"
* * *
Ben looked out at the sea of glassy-eyed faces and suppressed a sigh as he turned to shut off the overhead projector. He hated freshmen survey classes. At least seventy-five percent of the class were only here because they had to have a science class for their core curriculum and anthropology was the closest thing to non-science available. The fact that it was summer term only exacerbated that problem: it meant many of his students had already failed the class once. But the remaining twenty-five percent were really there to learn and it wasn't their fault the rest of the class was more interested in what movies were opening that week. He squared his shoulders then turned back to face the class.
"Well, you've all had a chance to look over your exams now, and since you all did so well," he said sarcastically, "who would like to define for us all the difference between archaeology and anthropology?"
He was answered by foot-shuffling and throat-clearing. In the first row, not six feet from him, Stephanie Wilcox was drawing what looked like a kitten in her notebook, which he found intensely irritating.
"Ms. Wilcox? How about you?"
"Um . . . ." she said eloquently, staring at him as if he'd just suggested she perform brain surgery with a plastic spork, then leaned forward, arms crossed, which had the effect of pushing her thinly-veiled and not inconsiderable mammalian endowments together and forward. That move probably had earned her an automatic 'A' in some classes. "Uh, archaeology is, like, studying rocks and old buildings and stuff? And, anthropology is, like, dead people?"
Ben counted to ten, slowly, barely hanging onto his temper. "Thank you, Ms. Wilcox, for that completely erroneous summation. Anyone else?"
Apparently no one else cared to make an attempt Ben sighed. "Archaeology can be defined as the systematic study of the material remains of past human life. Originally considered separate disciplines, today it's generally accepted that they are closely related. In fact many feel that archaeology is actually a branch of anthropology. Anthropology focuses on the study of human cultures while archaeology is generally perceived as the study of the material manifestations of those cultures. Thus, archaeologists may study an ancient pot as a time marker, to help date the culture being studied, or as an object in itself, possibly possessing significant aesthetic value, while anthropologists view the pot as one means of understanding the thinking, values, and culture of its maker."
He turned to the blackboard and drew a quick sketch of an object they should all recognize if they had read their textbooks. "Who can identify this for me?"
Several hands went up. A little surprised that Levon Jefferson knew the answer, he nodded toward him. "Mr. Jefferson?"
"That's the gold mask thing that Schliemann guy dug up in Troy, right?"
"Very good, Mr. Jefferson, you are essentially correct, although the site is more properly known as Hissarlik. The discovery of the mask is, and remains, a stunning example of some of the shoddiest archaeology ever practiced, as well as being illustrative of the differences between the disciplines. Due to the primitive and thus clumsy archaeological methods used in excavating Hissarlik, we can learn very little about the culture which originally produced the item. Anthropologically, however, we know at least one thing about the culture of the people who dug it up: they placed a far higher value on gold than on knowledge. Now, the anthropology versus archaeology question will be on the final, and this time I expect you all to be able to answer it. Is that clear?"
Many sheepish nods answered him, and he turned to sketch another figure on the board before turning to the class. "Identification, please?"
Anna Mei, an intense and serious young woman who was a feminist studies major waved her hand instantly, as he'd expected she would. "Ms. Mei?"
"It's the Venus of Willendorf," she stated firmly.
"Excellent, Ms. Mei. And can anyone tell me what she is? Goddess representation? A portrait of someone's mother? Stone-age pornography?"
That garnered a chuckle from the class, and someone at the back of the room raised a hand, but since he was sitting behind Levon Jefferson' massive frame, Ben couldn't see who it was. Still, he could see the hand. "You, in the back, behind Mr. Jefferson."
The hand went down, and the student cleared his throat. "Well, ah, could be any, could be all. Nobody really knows for sure, 'cause there's no written records back that far. Best you can do is study, and make a kind of. . . educated guess, based on the. . .uh. . . the evidence about it, but you can't really know for sure."
Ben stood frozen in utter shock as he recognized the voice, and when Levon shifted a little in his seat to look back at the speaker, that recognition was confirmed. How had he missed Ray coming into the room? Was he that unobservant, or had Ray deliberately hidden? He must have, he must have. Even more shocking was that beautifully simple answer to the question. He'd known Ray was far more intelligent than he liked to let on, and that just proved it.
He realized he was staring, and had been for some time. His students were starting to look at him oddly and a few turned to see what he was staring at, and Ray was starting to look worried. He cleared his throat.
"Thank you kindly, Mr. Kowalski, that was a beautiful explanation of the discipline." He glanced at the clock in the back of the room, and saw with relief that it was close enough to the end of class to dismiss it without seeming too lax. "And on that note, I believe we'll adjourn for the day. Check your syllabus for tomorrow's topic and readings, and remember that your final papers are due on the last day of class so you should have them in progress now."
There was a thunderous stampede for the doors, and within an amazingly short time he was alone with Ray and Levon Jefferson, who were sitting and talking now, as if they knew one another. Then he remembered that Levon was the one who'd suggested he take the Jeep to Ray to begin with, so they were obviously acquainted. He slid his lecture notes and overhead transparencies into his book-bag and walked to the back of the room.
"You still got the Goat, Ray?" Levon was asking.
"Oh yeah. She's my pride and joy, you know that. I wouldn't part with her for a million bucks," Ray said, grinning, then the frowned thoughtfully. "Well, on second thought, for a million, I probably would. I can be as greedy as that Schliemann guy."
They all laughed at that, and Levon looked at Ben. "Hey, Professor Fraser, good class today."
Ben looked at him in surprise. "You really think so?"
"Yeah. I totally loved it when you called on that chick in the front row. Too funny. But yeah, I think I'm starting to get this stuff. I thought at first that this was just gonna be one of those boring classes you just have to take to graduate but I really like it. It's interesting."
And that, Ben thought to himself, was why he'd gone into teaching. For rare moments like this. He smiled. "I'll try to keep it interesting for you, Levon. Ray, I was. . . surprised to see you here."
Levon chuckled. "He loves to learn, Professor Fraser. He's pretty militant about it. He used to coach me, and when I was gonna drop out of high school he just about chained me to my desk, said I had to finish, and go to college, so I wouldn't end up working at Micky D's. Even got me a job at the garage part time so I could earn money for tuition, though I got a scholarship now and don't have to any more."
Ben looked at Ray in surprise.
"C'mon, Levon, anybody would have done it," Ray said, his face distinctly pink as he looked at the desktop in embarrassment.
"No, anybody wouldn't have done it," Levon said, with a mock glare. "But you did." He looked at his watch and gathered his books. "Sorry, gotta run or I'll be late to my next class. See ya around, Ray?"
"Yeah, we gotta go to a movie or something," Ray said, waving as Levon took off.
Ray was still a little flushed as Ben studied him intently. "Coaching? What sort of coaching?"
"Boxing. Levon's really good, but so many of these kids think they'll turn pro and get a zillion bucks, and it hardly ever works out that way. I just didn't want that to happen to Levon. I made him have a back-up plan."
"I didn't know you boxed."
"Don't anymore. Not in a long time. Stella hated it, said it wasn't classy, so I gave it up, but I was pretty good, and when I started doing Big Brothers, it came in handy."
Another surprise. "Big Brothers? I knew you did volunteer work at the Senior Center, but you never mentioned that you work with youth as well."
Ray shrugged. "Well, Levon's pretty much grown, so I don't do much these days. We used to hang a lot more when he was younger. I met him when he was twelve 'cause he didn't have a dad and he was getting into gang stuff-- there was this guy in his neighborhood that Levon idolized, Andreas somebody, a few years older, moving up in the gang ranks. So his mom put Levon in Big Brothers, and that's when we met. No reason to mention it. It's no biggie, Ben. Just . . . something to do, that's all."
Ben looked at him steadily. "No, Ray, it's not just something to do. It's an admirable thing. Very selfless, and giving."
"No, it wasn't. I did it for me, Ben. I just like kids, and when I figured out Stel didn't, and that we wouldn't be . . . well, it was kind of a way to get part of that feeling."
Wouldn't be what, Ben wondered, then he understood. Wouldn't be having children. He put his hand on Ray's shoulder and squeezed lightly. "I'm sorry, Ray. I didn't realize. . . ."
Ray shook his head. "It's okay, Ben. I worked through it."
"I'm glad, but I'm still sorry you had to go through it."
"Yeah, well, life's funny that way. Sometimes you get what you want and it's not what you wanted at all, and other times you get something you thought you didn't want, and it's exactly right."
He looked at Ben as he spoke, his gaze warm and steady, and Ben felt himself blushing, but he nodded, knowing he needed to acknowledge what he knew Ray was saying. "Yes, it is interesting how that works out. Unexpected, yet welcome. And speaking of unexpected, what are you doing here? Why aren't you at work?"
That broke the tension that had begun to build between them, and Ray waved a hand vaguely toward the east. "There was a gas line break about half a block from the garage, the City says it won't be fixed for three or four hours so they sent us home for the day. I thought I'd come see what you're like in your natural habitat."
"I was a little startled by your presence."
Ray grinned. "Yeah, I got that. Sorry, didn't mean to mess you up in front of class like that. Thought you were teasing me when you said 'you in the back,' but then Levon moved and I figured out you couldn't see me behind him."
Ben nodded, and then the question that had been bothering him for several minutes now just had to be asked. "How did you know the answer, Ray?"
"What answer? Oh, you mean that answer." He looked oddly shy and tentative. "Well, it just seemed. . . right. From what we've talked about, what you and Albert talk about. And I, uh. . . I've been reading your books, some. The ones you've been keeping at my place."
Ben was puzzled. The only books he had left at Ray's were some books he was using for reference, not the sort of thing he'd ever imagine Ray reading.
"You've been reading my books? Why would you do that? They're awfully dry." He almost said 'even for me' but closed his mouth on that before it slid free. He suspected that Ray would take that to mean he was less intelligent than Ben, and that was simply untrue.
Ray shrugged. "I just wanted to know more about you, about what you do. Don't think I get more than about one out of four sentences, but I get that there's a lot of certification, no. . . uh, special . . . ." He shook his head in frustration, and Ben doggedly held his tongue, having promised himself he wouldn't correct Ray again. Finally Ray's face lit as he remembered the right word. "There's a lot of speculation in what you do."
"Yes, there is. A great deal." Ben looked at him for a moment, feeling a surge of more-than-affection welling in him at the fact that Ray wanted to know more about him, so much so that he would actually read reference books in an attempt to reach that understanding. "Ray, I . . . ."
The classroom doors opened, and three students stepped in, then saw him and stopped uncertainly. He cleared his throat. "It's all right, we're finished here, come on in. Ray, I need to stop by my office, then why don't we go to the student union and get something to eat?"
Ray's eyes lit up. "I am all over that, Doc. Lead on."
Since he'd discovered that Ray was pretty much perpetually hungry, that didn't surprise Ben at all. He pushed through the double-doors, past another wave of incoming students, and led Ray up the stairs to the fourth floor, where his office was located. Unlocking the office door, he motioned Ray inside, following him a moment later. He pushed the wooden wedge of the door-stop beneath the door with one foot as he put down his book-bag, Ray turned in a tight circle, surveying the small room. Finally he turned back to Ben, eyebrows lifted.
"You work here?" he asked incredulously.
Ben smiled wryly. "I try."
His 'office' was the only office on that floor, which primarily housed the anthropology department's collections. He didn't mind being alone there, because those collections were the main reason he was in Chicago, and their proximity to his office was fortuitous. Before his advent, the room had been used to store audio-visual equipment. It was about the size of a large walk-in closet, but he was spared total claustrophobia by the grace of a small window. The presence of that window puzzled him because he was fairly sure the room had never been an office until his arrival. What kind of storage closet had a window, even one of security glass with embedded chicken-wire?
A bookshelf and desk had been shoe-horned into the room. There was a reasonably comfortable desk-chair behind the desk which must have been lifted over the desk because there was no other way it could have gotten there. A second chair, a spartan wooden affair that was probably at least forty years old, was wedged against the bookshelf to make a place for students to sit during his office hours. Because the place was so small, Ben had to keep even the normal clutter of research papers he would have accumulated in strict check, filing them away every time he finished with them. Fortunately his laptop was small enough to store in the deepest desk drawer.
Ray was still looking around, scowling. "This isn't right. Geez, Ben, I've seen phone-booths bigger than this!"
"Nonsense, Ray, it's much larger than any phone-booth. And it is right next door to the collection I'm working with, and also has the advantage of being air conditioned," Ben said, trying to placate Ray, who was clearly working himself up to a fit of righteous indignation on Ben's behalf. "It's not so bad. I actually thought about sleeping in here, before you rescued me from the heat wave."
"In here? Where?"
Ben motioned at the desk. "There. It's just barely long enough, if I were to curl up on my side."
Ray eyed the desk, looked at Ben, and shook his head. "No way."
That was one colloquialism Ben had discovered the proper response to, thanks to an evening spent with Ray watching a surprisingly amusing film about two not particularly bright young men and time travel. "Way, I assure you."
"Nuh-unh. Nope. Don't believe it."
Ben cleared the pens and papers on the desk, moving them and his book-bag to the chair, sat down on the edge of the desk, then scooted back until he was three-quarters on top of the desk. He then curled a little, not quite into a fetal position, tucked his feet up onto the surface of the desk and looked at Ray challengingly. "As I said, way."
Ray took a step back, as if to study the scene, then toed the doorstop out of place and as the door swung shut behind him, he leaned over the desk, smiling lecherously.
"I always did want to try sex on a desk," he whispered, then his mouth closing over Ben's startled gasp, his tongue silky and warm and devastatingly persuasive.
Ah, God, he should not be doing this, not in his office, on his desk. It was stupid, dangerous, but. . . he had very little sense when it came to Ray. He put his hands up, framing that thin face, feeling the hard curve of bone beneath the skin of Ray's jaw, and the prickle of stubble against his palms. He opened his mouth to that persuasive tongue, licking back, sucking gently. Ray braced an arm on the desk, and reached down with the other hand, stroking the firming bulge between Ben's thighs, urging his legs to part, to come up so Ray could move between them, body a warm sweet weight.
That warm rush of more-than-affection returned, even stronger, so strong he almost hurt inside. His analytic mind worried at the feeling, puzzled by the strange emotion, so foreign to him. Something that compelled, and distracted and involved, and broke down all the walls he'd built inside himself. What he'd felt for Victoria had been a pale shadow of what he felt for Ray. And with that understanding, finally the knowledge bloomed inside Ben like some exotic flower. Not just affection. Not just sexual attraction. Love. God, how had he lived most of his life without ever knowing this, feeling this?
Hard on the realization of exactly what he was feeling, it hit him suddenly, that he had less than a month left here in Chicago; then he would have to leave, go back to Canada, to the job he had lined up in Vancouver. Go back to a city he didn't know, to emptiness, aloneness. He'd deliberately put off thinking about this, knowing it would hurt, but he'd had no idea just how much it would hurt. How could he ever live without this again? Ben couldn't. He could not do it. He would simply wither up inside, die, emotionally, if not physically. No, don't think about it, don't count the days, the hours, the minutes. Just live now. Tomorrow didn't exist. Nor did August twenty-first. Only today.
He reached up and wrapped his arms hard around Ray's bony form, pulling him close, reveling in his nearness, his scent, the feel of him. He kissed Ray frantically, hands sliding down into the loose waistband of his jeans, pulling his shirt out, searching for skin. Ray broke the kiss, gasping.
"Jesus, Ben," he breathed, his voice low and rough. "You are so. . . so. . . perfect." His voice sounded wistful as his fingers caressed Ben's face stroking a long thumb across Ben's lower lip. Ben sucked it in, licking it, as Ray dropped kisses along his cheekbone, headed for his ear, and then suddenly it was too much, and he could no longer push away the knowledge that he would lose this. He reached up and pushed Ray's face into the crook of his shoulder, so he couldn't see the tears, couldn't hear the catch in his breathing. It worked, for a moment or two, and then Ray was pulling away.
"Ben? Ben, what's the matter? God, did I hurt you? What's wrong?"
Ray sounded worried, upset. Ben curled away, managed to find his voice, ragged and thick. "No, Ray. It's not you. I'm fine."
"You are not fucking fine, Benton Fraser. Tell me what's the matter."
There was anger in his words, but Ben knew it was anger fueled by concern. He sat up, scrubbing a hand across his face, hiding behind his palm. "I'm sorry, Ray. I'm sorry. I'm just. . . I don't want . . . don't want to leave this, leave. . . you."
"Well who said you had to, freak?" Ray asked in an oddly gentle voice. "The voices in your head?"
He knew Ray was trying to tease him out of his upset, and smiled wanly. "No, Ray. But my contract with the university is almost over. I'm going to have to go home."
Ray pulled back, looking as stricken as Ben felt. "Go. . . home?" he asked tentatively.
"Well, back to Canada. I have a job in Vancouver, starting mid-September."
Ray's pale face went even whiter. "You're leaving?"
"I'll have to. My job ends with the semester, and after that I'll have to go."
"The semester ends in a little over a week, though I don't have to be in Vancouver for two weeks after that."
Ray's eyes darkened, and he looked away, his beautiful, long hands clenching into fists at his sides. He started to speak, several times, and then stopped, each time. Finally he looked back at Ben, his normally expressive face unreadable. "Three weeks? And you didn't think I should know?"
Ben's gaze fell under Ray's intense blue-gold stare. "I. . . was trying not to think about it, myself. Foolish, I know, and cowardly. And unfair to you. I'm sorry."
Ray sighed, and leaned back against the door in a despondent slouch, raking a hand through his hair. "Damn it, Ben, you could at least be a jerk about it so I could stay mad at you."
"Ray, I'm sorry. I don't want to go. You know that, don't you?"
"No, I know. I know. God, I know." He shook his head, rubbed at his eyes, then straightened and looked at Ben hesitantly. "Ben, you could stay . . . with me."
"I. . . if I didn't have that job lined up, Ray . . . you have to know I wouldn't leave, otherwise. When I set it all up, I had no idea, there seemed no reason why I might want to stay, need to stay, longer, or I would have tried to find a job here. Thanks to NAFTA, if I can find university-level employment I could stay without much trouble, but. . . I didn't know, and I didn't look here, and now I'm committed. I have to go home."
Ray, whose color had just begun to return, paled again. Once more he started, several times, to speak, and finally shook his head. "Guess that says it. I. . . uh, look, I just remembered something I gotta do. I'll see you later."
Ray turned quickly, and was out the door before Ben even realized he was going. Ben was after him in a heartbeat, but as he stepped into the hallway, he nearly ran into the tall, gaunt, white-haired form of Dr. Morten Gustafsen, the department chair.
"Ah, Benton," he said in his Old World accent. "I wanted to ask you if you've filled out last month's grant report. We have to get it turned in, but Marla can't seem to locate it."
"Yes, sir," Ben said, trying not to be short. "I gave it to her last week. I can give her another copy."
"Good, thanks. You know how she is. I can't wait for Sharon to get back from maternity leave. Marla just isn't up to her standards. How goes the research?"
"It's going quite well, sir, thank you. I, ah . . . did you see a man going downstairs as you came up?"
"Would that be a tallish fellow in a yellow shirt with rather. . . experimental hair?"
Ben nodded. "Yes, that would describe him well."
"I saw such a gentleman making for the main hallway. A student of yours?"
"No, sir, an acquaintance. I was hoping to catch him before he left. He. . . forgot something in my office. If you'll excuse me?"
Dr. Gustafsen nodded. "Certainly, but stop by soon, we should chat."
Ben nodded distractedly. "Of course, sir." He turned and headed for the other staircase, the one that led down to the main stairs, guessing that Ray would be headed that way to exit the building. He barreled down the stairs, but there was no sign of the other man. He even checked outside, but didn't see him. He sighed, and sat down on the stairs, feeling despondent. What had he said? Why had Ray reacted like that? He didn't understand. Or not entirely, at any rate. It was completely understandable that Ray was upset, but that hadn't made him leave. Something else had triggered that, Ben was sure of it. He just didn't know what.
Realizing he had left his office unlocked, he started back up the stairs at a slow trudge, and as he passed the department office on the second floor, Dr. Gustafsen stuck his head out of the door and waved to him.
"Benton, there you are. Come in"
Resigned to his fate, Ben stepped into the office.
"You wanted to see me?"
"I did. Have a seat."
Ben followed him with some trepidation. Over the years he'd learned that 'we should chat' was usually followed by bad news. He sat, and Dr. Gustafsen smiled.
"You know, Benton, your evaluations from last term were outstanding, really quite impressive. And from what I hear, this term looks to be no different. You've impressed a lot of people here, even some of those who objected to your hiring in the first place."
Ben blinked in surprise. "I, ah, thank you sir," he said awkwardly, not sure how to respond to the unexpected compliments. If they were so pleased with him, why did they treat him like a pariah?
"I'd love to keep you on here, but as you know, I can't. I do, however, have a little news that might interest you."
"That being, sir?" Ben prompted.
"I just got a call from an old friend of mine at Rainier University in Cascade, Washington. He's looking for someone to fill a vacancy there. It's only a two-year non-tenure-track appointment, but it's right up your alley, and there simply aren't that many people in Northwestern Aboriginal Cultures out there. He heard through the grapevine that we had someone, and called to sound me out, see what we thought of you. When I told him how pleased we were with your work, he wanted to know if you might be interested in the position. You'd be doing undergraduate and possibly graduate classes, depending on the interview. Possibly some thesis supervision. There would, of course, be time for research and writing as well."
Ben stared at his superior, wondering if he had fallen asleep and was dreaming. It was tempting to pinch himself. It sounded like a wonderful job, far better than the one he had lined up in Vancouver, which was just cataloguing a musty old private collection for the heirs of an estate. It was even in the States. But. . . it was still a very long way from Chicago and Ray. Almost as far as Vancouver would be. He sighed. "I. . . don't know what to say, sir. I have committed to a position . . . ."
"You're better than that, Benton Fraser. Don't sell yourself short."
"I'll... consider it, sir."
Gustafsen nodded, looking pleased. "Good, good. Here," he held out a piece of paper, "I've written down a few details, and my friend's name and phone number, in case you should be interested. Off with you now, I have an Executive Committee meeting to referee. . . I wonder if I will need the Zulu spear this time to keep Dr. Cartwright away from Dr. Cortese's throat?"
* * *
Ray walked as quickly as he could without running, feeling a little nauseated and dizzy. Realizing he was hyperventilating, he stopped and leaned against a cement planter, forcing himself to breathe normally until the dizzy feeling passed and he felt better, at least physically. But, oh God, he hurt inside, down deep. He should have known better, damn it, he did know better, really. He and Ben were from different worlds. Hell, different universes. And as any good sci-fi fan knew, things from two different universes couldn't occupy the same space at the same time.
Still, it had hurt to hear the word 'commitment' come out of Ben's mouth in relation to a job, not. . . him. He knew Ben hadn't meant to hurt him. He knew that, in his head, in his heart, but that didn't make the pain go away. Men were supposed to be afraid of that word, the 'c' word. Real men, anyway. Maybe it just proved that he wasn't a real man, but he wasn't afraid of it. He craved it like a junkie craved a fix. And he was just as delusional about his drug of choice as any junkie, too.
He felt tears stinging his eyes and shoved his sunglasses into place with a muttered curse as he headed for where he'd parked the GTO. Get a grip, Kowalski. This is real life, not Barbie's Dream House. Or should that be Ken's Dream House? A rebellious welling of amusement hit him as he wondered if there was such a thing as a Castro Street Ken. He should look next time he was buying presents for his niece and nephew. The amusement faded too quickly, leaving him once more pondering the imponderable. Benton Fraser. Definitely imponderable. The man had a Ph.D. in confusion.
Taking the stairs in the parking garage, he puzzled over how had things ended up like this. It seemed like one minute they'd been making out on Ben's desk, the next he was listening to Ben calmly explain that he was leaving. And sorry, but Ray had to take a back seat to a job. In his head he understood. Ben wasn't like him, jobs were harder to get, a lot harder. Somebody always needed a good mechanic, not so many people needed a professor of anthropology. Still, he'd have liked a little more time to prepare, mentally, for Ben leaving.
Oh, hell, who was he kidding? At this point, a decade wouldn't have been enough time to prepare. He was in love again. Truly, madly, deeply, as the saying went. And just as futilely as always. Once a fool, always. . . no. He shook his head. No. Not a fool. An optimist. Similar, but different.
Finding the right floor, and the right car, he unlocked the door of the GTO and got in, then sat for a moment trying to decide where to go. He could head home and mope, but chances were good Ben would show up there pretty soon, and he wasn't quite ready to face that yet. Didn't have his "I'm okay" face quite firmly in place.
He could go to the Senior Center and see if Albert was up for a game, but he was a sharp old bird and would probably figure out something was up. And he'd pester Ray about it until he 'fessed up, and though he kind of thought Albert suspected about him and Ben, it was one thing to suspect and quite another to have your nose rubbed in it. He could find a bar and get drunk, which sounded pretty good until he remembered how bad his post-Stella-revelation hangover had been, and he might be a bit of a masochist but not that much.
Finally he decided to head back to the work and see if the city crew would let him back in if he promised not to do anything that used gas or made sparks. There was plenty of stuff he could do like that. All the mechanics had been complaining that the parts lockers needed to be inventoried and organized. He could do that, if nothing else. Hopefully it would keep his mind off . . . things. He started the car and headed out.
Twenty minutes later he had the contents of the belts locker spread out on the floor, the inventory print out on a clipboard, and was checking things off. When he finished the list, he started putting the belts back, in size order. It was a mindless job, and didn't keep his thoughts off Ben, or their conversation like he'd hoped it would. He started to think, to put things together. And as he was hanging the last set, the thing that had been bothering him since he'd practically run from Ben's office finally came to the surface. If Ben wasn't serious about them, if he hadn't made as much of a commitment as Ray had, then why had he cried?
It wasn't like Ben was an emotional guy. In fact, he was so reserved Ray sometimes thought of him as his own private Mr. Spock. But he'd cried, when he said he had to leave. And then there was the fact that his grandparents had instilled in him a work ethic so strong it bordered on obsessive. So. . . basically Ben was trapped. Damned if he did, damned if he didn't. Okay. Ray was starting to get a clue. It had only taken him an hour. So much for not being stupid. He swore, and slammed the locker. Home. Ben was probably there, wondering where he was, what he was doing, and feeling a lot like Ray did.
He hurried to the front office to put away the inventory sheets, and was about to hightail it home when the door swung open, even though the "Closed" sign was out. He quickly hooked the clipboard on its nail and was about to turn and tell the person to get lost, when a large, white form jumped up next to him, forepaws braced against the counter, and whuffed at him familiarly. Funny, on his hind legs, the wolf wasn't that much shorter than him.
"You wanna do inventory too, Dief?" Ray asked the wolf, ruffling his fur, then he turned and grinned. He couldn't help it. Leave it to Ben to figure out just where he'd be. "God, Ben. You know me inside and out, doncha? And I, uh, didn't mean that the way it sounded," he said, hoping to relieve the apprehension on Ben's face.
Ben smiled a little, obviously relieved by Ray's grin, and his humor, though he still looked concerned. "I suppose I know you fairly well. Enough to guess that you would be here if you were upset. Not enough, unfortunately, to understand the cause of the upset. I . . . I'm very sorry, Ray. I know it was wrong not to mention it sooner, but I just. . . I just couldn't believe it was real."
Ray frowned a little, puzzled. "Couldn't believe what was real?"
"You, Ray. Or us. Any of it. All of it. I just never expected to be . . . happy, or for what we have to come to mean so much."
Ray shook his head. "Shit, yeah, Ben. That's it. That's exactly it. I didn't either. And I don't want to lose that. I don't want to lose you."
"You won . . . ." Ben began, but then the door opened again, the bell on the pneumatic hinge jingling. A tall, thin man in an expensive Italian suit stepped into the office, flanked by two very large sweaty men in bad American suits . Ray took one look at the newcomer's balding pate and prominent nose, and tensed.
"Vecchio," he said flatly.
Vecchio stepped forward, wrinkling his nose distastefully at the mingled scents of gasoline, oil and metal in the air.
"Kowalski," he acknowledged with a faint, haughty lift of his head.
"We're closed," Ray said, lifting his chin, feeling his mouth tighten as he stared arrogantly at Vecchio.
Vecchio pointed at Ben. "No, you're not. You got a customer."
Not wanting Vecchio to know anything, even the slightest scrap about Ben, Ray held his tongue. "Fine. Whattaya want?"
"The car needs a tune up. I want it in perfect shape for the wedding."
Ray managed not to flinch. Yeah, he and Stella were long past, but it still hurt to feel the knife twist in the old wounds like that. He shrugged. "So take it to the Beemer place like you usually do."
"Nah, I thought I'd keep my business in the neighborhood. You can do it. I mean, it's not rocket science, even if it is a finely crafted piece of German engineering, not a crappy little piece of American shit like you drive."
Ray bristled, then forced himself to settle down, shrugging nonchalantly. If Vecchio didn't know what a great machine the GTO was, that was his loss. "Gimme the key and I'll take care of it. Though, you know, I hear Beemers sometimes have these problems with their brakes," he said with a smile. "I'll check those out real good."
Vecchio's eyes narrowed. "You better. You wouldn't want Stella to have an accident on the way to the altar."
Ray lifted an eyebrow. "You're taking Stella to the wedding in your car? Surprised she'd let you, that's bad luck, you know. I guess that doesn't matter to a guy like you. Stella always liked limos, said they had class. But I guess that doesn't matter to you either. Course, they're pretty expensive . . . guess that does matter to you, hunh?" He scratched his ear with his little finger, nonchalantly, insolently.
Vecchio's face started to turn an alarming shade of red. "You got a smart mouth on you Kowalski," he said, stepping forward, fists clenched.
His bodyguards stepped forward too, and Ray braced for a blow, but then a white flash shot past him, growling, and jumped up onto Vecchio, sending him reeling back into one of his goons as he recoiled from the snarling canine visage.
"What the fuck is that?" Vecchio asked, tearing free of his goon and staring at Dief in obvious fear. One of the goons reached into his jacket, obviously going for his piece. Ray was about to hurl himself at the guy when
Ben stepped forward suddenly, snapping his fingers.
"Dief, come here!" He turned to Vecchio with a bland, pleasant smile that Ray could tell was completely faked. "I'm very sorry, sir. Diefenbaker is normally quite docile and friendly, but you see, as a pup he was attacked by a goose, and I'm afraid he's rather taken exception to anything that reminds him of the incident. I'm sure he meant no harm."
Vecchio brushed at his suit, looking distracted. "Damned dog messed up my suit," he snarled, rounding on Ben.
Ray tried desperately not to laugh as it sank in exactly how Vecchio reminded Diefenbaker of a goose. That neck, the beak, the honking voice. Oh yeah. Ben slipped a hand into his pocket and brought out his wallet.
"I'd be happy to pay to have your suit cleaned if Diefenbaker sullied it." He pulled out a handful of pink bills and Ray almost lost it again. Canadian money. Too good. Vecchio reached for it, saw what it was, and let his hand fall, staring at Ben suspiciously.
"A goose?" Vecchio said after a moment. "A goose attacked that dog?"
"Well, he wasn't full grown at the time, and geese are notoriously bad-tempered."
Vecchio was frowning, obviously trying to figure out the whole goose thing. He didn't have it yet, but he would soon, and he'd get ugly. In a fit of protectiveness, Ray stepped forward, catching Ben's eye and jerking his head toward the door.
"Better take that dog on home, mister. He's not supposed to be in here anyway."
Ben frowned a little, then he got it. "Ah, yes. Of course, sir. I'll just be on my way."
Ray nodded as Ben left, relieved that his friend had figured out that he didn't want Vecchio to know they knew each other. He turned to his nemesis. "Key?"
Distracted, Vecchio dug in his pocket and extracted a set of keys, removed one, and held it out. "Here you go, Stanley," he said, his voice dripping sarcasm. "Be sure to check those brakes."
Ray took the key, even the use of his first name not enough to send him flying at Vecchio. Use your head, think, like Ben would, don't just react. Keep cool. Suddenly Vecchio's expression changed, a dark scowl drawing down his eyebrows and mouth. Ray knew Vecchio had figured out the subtle insult in Ben's explanation of Dief's behavior when he turned swiftly and crossed to the door, looking out into the parking lot, but apparently Ben had had sense enough to get out of sight fast.
"Fuck. Who was that jerk, Kowalski?"
Ray put on his idiot face and shrugged. "Some guy looking for directions."
"Moretti's Hardware," Ray lied glibly.
Vecchio turned to one of his goons. "Jimmy, go to Moretti's, find him, and bring him to me at my office. I want to have a little talk with him about showing proper respect."
Ray couldn't believe Vecchio had fallen for the lie. Even though he knew Ray hated his guts, he'd take him at his word? The guy was an idiot. But the fact that he had was reassuring, since it meant that the chances of the goon actually finding Ben.were just about zero. Ben was as likely to be in a hardware store as he was likely to walk down the street naked. He casually wrote up a job ticket for Vecchio's BMW, and put a tag on the key. "You can pick it up tomorrow, we'll call when it's ready."
"I'll send Vito for it."
"You do that," Ray said, and walked out of the office and into the repair bays. He heard the front bell jingle a moment later, and knew Vecchio had gone. He sagged a little in relief, and started to reach for the phone, then realized Ben wouldn't have had time to get home yet. He checked his watch, and thought about the BMW. He really hated that car. Big. Expensive. Classy. Everything Stella craved.
It wasn't like he didn't make decent money, he did, and he'd never been cheap with her, either. In fact he'd been shocked at how much money he had managed to save since the divorce. Since they'd settled their assets up front and there was no child-support to pay, all of the income she used to spend was now his. He hadn't realized quite how much money she'd been going through, since he'd let her handle the finances. He had nearly ten thousand in savings now, and more in CDs and mutual funds. But that was peanuts compared to what Vecchio could give her.
The thing of it was, unlike Stella, Ray knew that money did not equal class. That was something he'd never have. Didn't even want to have. It was constraining, like a straight-jacket. All the do's and don't's, hanging with the 'right people,' wearing the right clothes, having the right haircut. It wasn't him. She'd been chasing after it her whole adult life, without understanding that she already had it. Inborn. Natural. Damn her parents anyway, making her think that she needed money, instead of just herself.
He glared at the BMW in the parking lot. It really was tempting to 'fix' the brakes, but he'd never do anything that might hurt Stella, even if she didn't exercise the same restraint. He might have fallen for Ben, but there were still feelings there for Stella, muted and dimmed, but there. He wasn't a person who could just turn love on and off like an engine. He walked over to the big doors and looked out the windows into the street. The city maintenance crew was gone, their barriers removed, not even a caution sign remaining. Clearly they were done with their work, which made up his mind for him. He hit the button to raise the door. He'd get the damned BMW done tonight and then he wouldn't have to face it in the morning.
He was on his way to the office to get the key when the phone started to ring. He almost let the machine take it, then instinct told him it was Ben and he picked it up. "First National Garage," he said, just in case he was wrong.
He wasn't wrong. He smiled. "Hey, Ben. You get home in one piece?"
"Of course, Ray, but I was concerned about you. You were being rather. . . provocative, and I recalled that you had mentioned that name in connection with a local organized crime figure, as well as in connection with your ex-wife."
Ray snorted. "Yeah. Smalltime mob guy, that's Vecchio. Also the guy who was boffing The Stella before she wasn't my wife any more. And who's gonna marry her this weekend. Good thing we weren't married in the Church or he'd be up a creek."
There was a short silence, then Ben spoke again. "I'm sorry, Ray. Dealing with him must be difficult for you."
"That's one way to put it."
"Do you think it wise to antagonize him that way?"
"He's used to it. I always do that, even before him and Stell . . . you know I always wondered if that was what made him go after her to start with, just trying to get at me. Not that it matters now. Anyway, glad you called. I wanted to tell you I was gonna do the tune-up on the Beemer before I come home. I don't want to have to come in here tomorrow and look at the damned thing. Be a couple of hours, or so."
There was a slight hesitation. "Ray, we do need to talk."
"I know, Ben. I got that. And you're right, we do. I'm not avoiding, I promise. We'll talk. I just can't have this hanging over me when we do. Okay?"
"All right, Ray. I'll get dinner started."
"Sounds like a plan, make something that will keep, since I'm not sure how long this'll take. Y'know, you're pretty good at being provocative and antagonistic yourself. Surprised the hell outta me. That goose thing just about killed me, thought I was gonna laugh out loud and we'd end up statistics in next week's crime reports. Speaking of which, you stay away from here for a while. Vecchio wants to talk to you about improper respect, and I don't want him finding you. I covered, said you were some guy off the street looking for the hardware store. He bought it, if you can believe that."
"Yeah. I'm sure. I can read him. I'm good at body language."
"You certainly are," Ben said, his voice low and husky.
Ray shivered, then smiled. "I'm onto you, you sneaky Canuck. You're just trying to get me to come home sooner. I'll be there when I get there. Relax. Like I said, the tune-up will take about an hour and a half, then I gotta close up. Two hours. I'm home. I promise. Be patient. You're usually good at that."
"Very well, Ray. I'll try."
"'No try, do,'" Ray said in his best Yoda voice. "See ya."
"Yes. See you."
Ray hung up, feeling like he'd just kicked a puppy. But he really couldn't go home yet, he needed to deal with this, work off some anger first. Not anger at Ben, but at Vecchio. He pulled the BMW into the repair bay and set to work, using the special metric tools that the European engine called for, and taking extra care all around. The car was a damned good one, despite who owned it, and he wasn't going to let it suffer because of that. And no one was going to question his workmanship, especially not Vecchio.
He was so into his work that he didn't even notice he was no longer alone until he turned around to grab a rag and wipe his hands, and found Vecchio standing there, flanked by his three thugs this time. Damn, he should have closed the door, then they couldn't have snuck up on him. He managed not to jump, or yell, though his heart was pounding from surprise.
"You hard of hearing or just need a new watch? I said it'd be done tomorrow. Not tonight. Got it?" he asked, crossing his arms and lifting an eyebrow.
Vecchio didn't look amused. "Think you're a funny guy, don't you Stanley?"
Ray shrugged. "Sometimes. Whatta ya want?"
"You lied to me, Stanley. I don't like being lied to."
"Get used to it. Everybody lies." Except Ben, Ray thought. Ben didn't lie. Thank God.
"Not to me."
"Even to you," Ray asserted. He figured Stella did. One thing he was sure of, Stella had been into sex with him. That was the one thing she'd said she would miss when she left. But he'd bet, with money even, that she'd never told Vecchio that. "What'd I lie about?"
"You said you didn't know that guy who was in here with the dog."
Fuck. Somehow Vecchio knew about Ben. Well, maybe not everything, but he at least knew that Ray and Ben were not strangers. "I never said that," Ray hedged. It was true, he hadn't. He'd implied it, but not said it outright.
"Don't bullshit me, Kowalski. Stella said Frannie's been telling her all about some gorgeous guy with dark hair and blue eyes, and a white dog. And turns out that you've been hanging with this guy lately. She's seen you guys at The Rose a bunch of times, said they even let the dog in there, which I'm going to have to see about, since that's a health-code violation."
Frannie. Damn that woman. Her mouth was going to get Ben killed if she didn't watch it. If Zuko found out she thought Ben was 'gorgeous' (and he had no doubt that description had come from Frannie) that was nearly as dangerous as insulting Vecchio to his face. "So what? Like there can't be lots of guys like that around?"
Vecchio pretended to think about that, and nodded. "Yeah, there probably are. But not who hang out with your skinny ass. Where is he, Stanley?"
"How the hell should I know? He didn't tell me where he was going."
"Okay, let's try this one. Who is he?"
"Where does he live?"
"You gonna make me do this the hard way, smart guy?"
Ray nodded. "You bet. But you won't do it. You'll let them do it for you." He nodded toward the muscle flanking Vecchio. "You don't have the guts to take me on without them."
"If I didn't have to look good for the wedding, you'd eat those words, Kowalski!"
"Riiiight," Ray said sarcastically.
Vecchio made a sound low in his throat, a growl of sorts, and looked at his thugs. "Take him to the warehouse, I'll meet you there. Then we'll see if we can't persuade him to talk."
Ray started to put up a fight as Thug #1 (was he Jimmy, or Vito? Ray couldn't remember) grabbed him and started to march him toward the big dark-blue sedan with tinted windows that sat outside the garage, but the hard snub of a gun in his ribs made him stop. He could handle getting smacked around some, it wouldn't be the first time, but he really didn't want to get shot, and he had no doubt that the threat was serious. Vecchio didn't hire guys with senses of humor. He let himself be pushed into the car.
* * *
Five hours. It had been five hours since Ben had talked to Ray, who had promised to be home in two. While Ray was not always the most punctual of people, it wasn't like him to be this late, not without calling, not after he'd promised. Ben had tried the phone at the garage several times now, only getting the answering machine which gave the hours and encouraged him to leave a message. He had left two, the first after Ray was an hour late, the second after an hour and a half. He'd not bothered with another, figuring that either Ray would call him back, or he wouldn't. He really hadn't expected it to be the latter.
The chili he'd prepared for dinner sat untouched, growing cold. Needing something to do, he found a large bowl and put the chili in it, storing it away in the refrigerator with plastic wrap over the top. Diefenbaker whined at him, again. He'd been whining for some time, and not just because he'd picked up on Ben's upset and worry. He needed to go out, but Ben was afraid to leave, for fear of missing a call from Ray. Or. . . worse, from someone else-- a hospital, or a police station.
Finally deciding that the answering machine would get any calls that came in and he could check them when he returned, he took Dief out, heading for the garage to see if they could find a clue there. As they neared the garage, Ben began to have awful imaginings about finding Ray pinned, injured, beneath a car he'd been working on. He shouldn't have let him stay there working alone. It was too dangerous. He was disconcerted to find the garage lights on, the repair-bay door wide open, and the radio tuned to Ray's favorite station. Feeling slightly reassured by that, he looked around the room, and frowned. Ray wasn't in sight.
There was no response to his hail. He walked over and checked the office. Not there, and the lavatory door stood ajar, dark inside, so he wasn't in there, either. He frowned. The car Ray had said he was going to work on sat on the lift, making it easy to see that Ray was not pinned beneath it, and it was the only vehicle in the garage. Puzzled, he made the rounds of the garage again, checking every alcove and shadow.
Ray was nowhere to be found. At nearly ten at night, the garage was wide open and unattended. Ray would never be so careless. Diefenbaker was cris-crossing the room in a grid pattern, searching for Ray as well. Suddenly he stopped, sniffing the floor, growling faintly. Ben crossed to where the wolf stood and knelt to see what had upset his companion, but even after careful examination, could see nothing, which meant that Dief must have picked up a scent. Someone he knew, and didn't like. There weren't many people Diefenbaker didn't like, but he'd shown a definite animosity toward that Vecchio person this afternoon.
Ben suddenly felt cold. Ray was missing, after antagonizing a mobster. He couldn't let this go. Even if Ray was safe somewhere, he had to report the open garage before someone walked in and robbed them blind. He was rather surprised no one had already. He supposed the lights and radio had probably warned off anyone who might have been tempted. He thought for a moment, then headed to the office and after a moment he managed to locate a rolodex full of phone numbers. Quickly locating the owner's number, he picked up the phone and dialed. It rang three times, and a youthful-sounding woman answered.
"Hello, may I speak to Harding Welsh please?"
"Sure, hang on," there was a muffled sound as a hand was placed partway over the receiver, then the woman called out. "Dad? It's for you!"
A moment later a man spoke. "This is Welsh, who's this?"
"My name is Benton Fraser, sir, I'm a friend of Ray Kowalski's. We've met once or twice, at the garage."
"Ray? You mean Stanley? Oh yeah, I know you. You're the Canadian guy, the college professor. What can I do for you, Professor Fraser?"
"I was wondering if you'd heard from Ray this afternoon or this evening."
"Nah, not since I sent everybody home around one. Why? What's up?"
"Well, I'm afraid your door is, at the garage, I mean. And the lights are on, as is the radio, but Ray isn't here. He came back here this afternoon to get a few things done after the maintenance crew finished on the gas-line, and . . . "
"Wait a second, hang on here. You're saying he went back to work today? When he could have had paid time off? He's a lunatic."
"Ray is very conscientious," Ben said defensively. "In any case, we were to meet for dinner several hours ago, and he didn't show up, nor did he call. After some time without hearing from him, I became concerned and came over to check on him, and that's when I found the place open, the lights on, but no one here."
"Kowalski's not there?"
"No sir, I've searched."
"That's not like him." Welsh declared.
"No, it's not," Ben agreed. "Nor is it like him to not inform me if he were unable to meet me at the agreed-upon time. So I take it you haven't heard from him?"
"Not a word. Look, can you stick around there for a few? I can be there in . . . ah. . . ten minutes, I'll close up and we can see if we can figure out where he went."
"Yes, I'll wait."
The man was as good as his word. In fact, it was only eight minutes later when he pulled up outside the garage, parked, and got out. He was a big man in his late forties or early fifties. Several inches taller than Ben, and proportionately broad, he looked like he ought to be playing football, the American kind. He had a square, bulldog face, and kind eyes. Ben noted he was limping slightly, leaning on a cane as he came into the garage and quickly moved forward to meet him.
"I'm sorry, sir I hadn't realized you were injured."
Welsh waved off his dismay. "It's my old war wound, Professor. Just acts up now and then. Makes it hard to do stairs and stuff."
Ben nodded. "Vietnam?"
"Chicago PD," Welsh said with a wry smile. "Wounded in the line of duty, had to take early retirement. Decided to take over this place from the guy who had it before."
He hadn't realized Ray's employer was an ex-police officer. That might be fortuitous. Welsh looked around, spotted the BMW on the lift, and scowled.
"That's Vecchio's car, isn't it?"
"Yes sir, it is."
"It wasn't here when I left."
"No, Mr. Vecchio came in while I was here earlier talking with Ray. Insisted that Ray take his car, even though the shop was officially closed."
Welsh looked at the car, looked at Ben, and sighed. "Kowalski shot his mouth off, didn't he? To Vecchio?"
"I, ah, I'm afraid so."
The older man shook his head. "Those two. . . oil and water. Or maybe fire and gasoline. This is not good. You know who Vecchio is?"
"Ray mentioned that he has organized crime connections."
"Yes he does. Out the wazoo. He pretty much runs this part of town."
"Should we call the police?"
Welsh sighed. "No, won't do a damned bit of good, not with the yahoo they got running the 27th these days, a creep I used to lock horns with back in my day, name of Brandauer. He lives in Vecchio's back pocket. And even if he didn't, Kowalski hasn't been gone long enough to make this an official Missing Person. No, we're better off handling this ourselves. How bad did he piss Vecchio off?"
Ben frowned, thinking back. "Well, I didn't think all that severely, but I left before they were finished discussing the car, I suppose he could have said something after I left that precipitated more of a response. I rather thought that I had been more provocative than Ray was."
Welsh looked at him oddly. "You always talk like this, Professor?"
Ben smiled ruefully. "I'm afraid so. Ray has been trying to teach me more vernacular, however I'm just not very good at it."
"My daughter used to read Sherlock Holmes stories to me when I was in the hospital. You sound like him. All proper and correct." He looked at Ben speculatively. "Kowalski said you were smart. You good at puzzles?"
"Relatively," Ben said, trying not to sound immodest.
"Good, think of this like a puzzle, one we have to solve to find Kowalski. If he's findable. That will depend on just how pissed off Vecchio is. If he's just a little pissed off we'll probably get our guy back pretty soon here. If it's a lot. . . well, let's just say I don't want to have to hire a new mechanic, it'd be hard to replace Kowalski."
That sliver of cold that had pierced him when he'd first thought of Vecchio in connection with Ray's disappearance speared him once more. "Irreplaceable," he said under his breath.
Welsh looked at him, frowning a little, then he shrugged. "Let's solve this puzzle, Professor. First we've got to figure out if Vecchio really has him, or if he's just flipped his lid and taken off or something. I guess he could have hurt himself and gone to the hospital, so we gotta check that too. I'll start calling around to the local emergency rooms, that's a good job for me since I can sit to do it. With my bum leg I'm not so good for canvassing the neighborhood. You go next door to the mini-mart and see if they saw anything. When you finish there, head down to The Rose on the off chance he's there, he likes to hang out there after work. Um, was he upset about anything? The only time he tends to get irresponsible is when he's hurting. Oh, hell. It's the wedding, isn't it? Vecchio and his ex?"
Ben shook his head, slowly. "No, I don't believe so. He's actually been handling that relatively well." He thought for a moment about what had happened in his office, wondering if Ray could still be upset about that, and decided against it. Ray had seemed fine when he'd visited earlier, when they'd spoken on the telephone. He didn't think Ray could dissemble that well if he had still been upset. Of course, they hadn't gotten to talk, but . . . no. It wasn't that. He was sure. Ray was many things, but a coward was not one of them.
"Okay, Professor, let's get at it. I'll start making phone calls. I'm going to close up back here, you come to the front door and I'll see you and let you in."
Ben nodded and headed over to the mini-mart. Unfortunately no one there had noticed anything unusual. He walked the two blocks to The Rose with Dief at his side, moaning softly as he picked up on Ben's increasing tension. He stopped outside the door to spend a moment calming his companion with soft words of reassurance that were as much for himself as the wolf, then he straightened. "Stay here, please, Dief. I'll be as quick as I can."
Dief moved over beneath a bush to the left of the door and settled down. Ben took a breath and headed into the restaurant and did a quick, fruitless scan of the booths and tables. That left the bar, a smaller room, somewhat segregated from the main room. He moved to that part of the room and started to check the tables, and the bar itself. It was harder there, darker, smokier, but he saw no spiky hair, no smugly kissable mouth. He was about to give up in resignation when he felt a touch on his arm and turned, startled, found himself looking down at a vaguely familiar petite brunette woman. He remembered having seen her here several times before.
"Hey there," she said, almost shyly. "You look like you lost something."
"Not something, someone. My friend, Ray Kowalski. Have you seen him here tonight?"
She frowned thoughtfully, and shook her head. "No, sorry. Not tonight. So you're all by yourself?" she asked hopefully.
"For the moment, but I do need to find him. I'm quite concerned."
"He was supposed to meet me for dinner, but never arrived."
"Well, I wouldn't worry too much, this is a pretty safe neighborhood," she said, smiling.
"Unless you get on the wrong side of those who run it," Ben said, staring around at the darkened tables in the far corner of the bar, trying to see if any of them held a familiar face. His companion was silent for a moment, then she spoke, her voice suddenly sounding a little tight.
"What do you mean?"
Ben sighed. "I'm afraid Ray antagonized someone he shouldn't have today."
The woman seemed to pale and droop a little, then she straightened, a determined look coming over her face. "Look, where are you going to be? I've got connections, I'll see what I can find out."
Connections? It came back to him suddenly. In his upset he'd forgotten they had met once before. She'd made a pass at him, and Ray had warned her off. He'd said she was married to a 'mob guy,' and another 'mob guy' was her brother. Vecchio. He frowned.
"I wasn't asking for your help, ma'am. It might not be wise. . . ." he began.
She shook her head. "Look, I'm not stupid. I know my family is into . . . stuff. And I know my brother's got testosterone poisoning even worse than my husband. Ray's a nice guy. He lost his wife 'cause my sorry excuse for a brother can't keep his dick in his pants and he's got more money than God and my future sister-in-law has shit for brains, but Ray's not gonna lose anything else to my family if I can help it," she said, amazingly all in one breath. She paused to replenish her air supply before continuing. "I know you weren't asking, and maybe it's not smart. But that doesn't matter. Sometimes you just have to do what's right."
Ben hesitated. He didn't want to endanger anyone, but he needed information about Ray from any source he could get it. He eyed her narrowly. "You're sure you want to risk it?"
"I'm smarter than I look," she said with a lift of her chin. "I can do it, easy. That's the advantage to having everybody think you're a moron, they'll tell you stuff they shouldn't."
"I certainly don't think you're a moron," Ben said, wondering why she would say such a thing.
She beamed. "See, I knew I liked you. Where can I reach you if I find anything out?"
"I'll be at the garage, with Mr. Welsh."
She nodded. "Okay, good. I'll call as soon as I can."
Ben took her hands in his. "Thank you. I can't properly express how much your assistance means to me."
She blushed and tugged her hands free. "Hey, don't mention it. Go on back to the garage and let me get to work. Vito's got a crush on me, I bet I can get something out of him. If they've got Ray stashed somewhere, I bet I can find out where."
Ben nodded. "Thank you again, ma'am."
She wrinkled her nose at him. "Gosh, make me feel like my great-aunt Antonia! Call me Francesca."
"Benton," he offered, since she had given him her first name. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Francesca."
She sighed, shaking her head. "The only man who calls me anything but 'Frannie' and he's already taken. What a crock. Oh well. Talk to you soon, Benton."
She headed off across the bar. Ben stood a moment longer, then turned and made his way through the crowd and out into the night once more. Dief greeted him with a questioning whine as he stepped outside and he sighed, shaking his head.
"No, I'm sorry. He wasn't there. But we may have a lead shortly. Come on, let's go see if Mr. Welsh has turned up anything."
They walked quickly back to the garage. The lights were on in the main office, and through the door Ben could see Welsh seated at the reception desk, talking on the telephone. He rapped lightly on the glass to alert the man to his presence, and Welsh looked up from the phone holding up a hand. Ben nodded and Welsh listened a moment, spoke, then hung up the phone and came slowly over to open the door for Ben.
"Any luck?" he asked as soon as Ben had stepped inside, which answered Ben's unspoken query as to whether or not the other man had discovered any useful information.
"Not as such, but I did run into someone who might be able to be of assistance. She's trying to find something out for us as we speak."
"She? Who was it?"
"A woman named Francesca. I'm afraid I don't recall her last name."
Welsh did a double-take. "Francesca? A skinny little brunette with nice legs and a big mouth?"
"She is a rather petite brunette, yes," Ben allowed.
"Jesus! That's Vecchio's sister!" Welsh exclaimed, horrified.
"Yes, I'm aware of that. She doesn't seem particularly pleased by the fact."
"No, no she's not. Especially not since he made her marry that jerk, Zuko."
"Perhaps that's why she felt compelled to help. She was going to try to find out if they have him, and where. She'll call here."
Welsh nodded. "Good idea. I checked around the shop, nothing's missing, nothing seems out of place, except that the car's on the lift and not done. I closed up to make things look more normal."
"Well, that's a small comfort then."
"I'd rather lose a shop full of tools than one annoying mechanic," Welsh said, sounding disheartened.
Ben nodded, turning away quickly to hide the sudden welling of tears in his eyes. It had been bad enough to think he'd have to return to Canada and leave Ray behind. This was a thousand times worse. As he stared out into the street trying to will his tears back, he felt a warm hand descend on his shoulder to squeeze briefly.
"We'll find him, Professor. If he's findable, we'll find him."
Ben nodded again, wordless, not trusting his voice. All they could do for the moment was wait.
* * *
Cold. He was so damned cold. How he could be cold at the back end of the hottest August on record, was what Ray wanted to know. He curled around himself, trying to huddle into what warmth he had, and moaned as pain shot through him. Oh yeah. That was right. He'd forgotten the pain for a moment, in thinking about the cold. The concrete floor beneath him was hard and frigid, leaching even more heat from him, giving back more pain.
"You awake yet, Stanley?"a hateful voice asked, its whining tone softened slightly by amusement.
Ray wondered what was funny. He decided not to answer, because he didn't want to be called Stanley. He'd never liked that name. Memory began to return, and he wished it hadn't. He knew where he was now, knew why he was there, why he hurt, who the voice belonged to. Still didn't understand the cold part, though.
"Boys, pick him up."
A moment later Ray was hauled to his feet, sort of. He mostly just hung there by his arms between the two larger men who held him, knees as floppy as overdone spaghetti. He let himself stay limp, kept his eyes closed, hoping they would think him unconscious.
"Who's 'Ben,' Stanley?" the voice asked reasonably.
Oh God. How did they know that? He forced himself not to tense, not to open his eyes. He felt something wet slip out beneath his lashes, and prayed they wouldn't notice. The tears ran down along his cheek, down to his mouth, down his chin.
"Geez, boss, he's really out of it. He's drooling on himself," a disgusted-sounding voice said, very close on his left.
"Gross!" The guy on his right said.
"Fuck. All right. I guess we have to give him a while longer. Funny, I didn't think he had it in him, to take it this far."
"He's a tough little bastard," the man who had spoken before said, grudgingly respectful. "I'd want my friends to be this loyal."
"Shut up, Hughie. Jimmy, you and Vito go bring the car around, I gotta get home, Stella's expecting me. Hughie, put him in one of the lockers. We'll take this up again tomorrow. "
The man on his right let go of his arm. Deprived of that support, he fell hard into the man who held his left, and it was all he could do not to gasp as pain exploded through his battered body when he was caught and held firmly in muscular arms. Just above him he heard a quiet, "Shhh, this is gonna hurt." and realized the man who was holding him up was aware that he was conscious. The guy shifted his grip, heaved him up and started walking. Ray was sure he'd screamed then, but the sound only echoed in his own head. A moment later the man carrying him bent to ease him down onto the floor again. The man crouched down beside him, a big, warm hand on his shoulder, his face close as he began to whisper urgently.
"Listen to me now, the door to this unit sticks when you try to close it, so I'm going to lock the door but I won't close it all the way. It'll be locked, but unlatched so you can get out, okay? Is there somebody I should call to come get you?"
Ray squinted up at the guy. It was hard to make out details in the light that entered the room through the open door, but he finally made out that his would-be rescuer was a black guy, built broad and strong, like Ben. Good-looking too, though not in Ben's league. Surprisingly well-dressed. He hadn't been one of the guys with Vecchio at the shop earlier, this was a new guy. Ray wanted badly to tell him to call Ben, but. . . it could be a trick, to get him to talk. He shook his head, which hurt like hell. "Nuh-nobody," he managed to grate out through swollen lips.
The guy sighed. "Look, it's all right, man, you can tell me. I'm a cop."
A cop? What the fuck? Why would a cop be hanging with Vecchio? Didn't make sense. Ray remained stubbornly silent, just as he had all along. He wasn't going to let them trick him into talking. Not now. After a moment the guy sighed and straightened.
"Fine. Have it your way. You got guts, Kowalski. Look, if I leave that door unlatched, will you be able to walk out of here?"
"Won' go. You'll follow," Ray said mulishly.
The other man sighed. "I'm not going to follow you. I just want you out of here."
"Nuh-uhn. Won'," Ray gritted out, and just that effort left him gasping and shivering.
A hand came down, touched his shoulder gently, felt the tremors in him, and the other man sighed again. The hand withdrew. Ray heard footsteps moving away from him, rustling, then the footsteps returned and a moment later something was placed over him, something heavy and stiffly-soft, that smelled faintly of motor oil and gasoline.
"You must be messed up worse than I thought. This will keep you a little warm. Just hang on, and I'll see if I can scare up some help for you."
Ray's fingers crept up to keep the covering from sliding off, explored, realized it was a furniture pad, like movers used. He pulled it closer around himself, still shivering, and the other man swore.
"Damn it. How the hell am I supposed to just leave you here like this? Christ, I never thought about stuff like this when I took this gig."
Ray couldn't make sense of the other man's words, so he just put his head under the covering, like a kid hiding from the closet monsters. He heard the footsteps grow faint, but he never heard the click of the door into place. It was just like the guy had said. For a moment he was tempted to try to escape, to go to Ben, but he couldn't do that. It wouldn't be safe. Besides, he was so tired, and cold, and everything hurt. He missed Ben, but if he stayed, then Ben was safe. He was safe, and that was all that mattered.
Ray should have guessed Vecchio wouldn't let it rest, since it concerned him. The bastard might have Stella now, but that wasn't enough for him. He had to make sure Ray had nothing, to break him down, to break him, period. Like an old-fashioned horse-trainer would break a wild horse. Vecchio wanted to break him, break his spirit. He wasn't going to let him.
The concrete flooring was killing him. He wondered if he was shocky, and that's why he felt so cold. It could be possible, he guessed. He was pretty messed up. He needed to try to insulate himself from the cold better. Painfully he got to his knees, and looked around. In the dim street-light glow coming through the high-up warehouse windows, he saw an amorphous shape that looked promising, over in the direction he'd heard Hughie walk before he'd given Ray the mover's pad. Easing down onto his hands and knees, he headed that way. crawling for what seemed like forever, before finally bumping into a yielding pile of something.
He reached, explored with both hands, yeah. A whole stack of the things. Perfect. He pulled a dozen of of pads down off the stack for a cushion for the floor, pulled two or three more down to add to the one he had for a cover already. Exhausted just by that little effort, he curled up between the layers of padding, pillowed his face carefully on one arm, and closed his eyes. Sleep. Sleep would be good. But it didn't want to come. He hurt too much, worried too much.
He tried to think of better things, good things, and smiled at a memory. Once when they were lying in bed, Ben had said something about sleep, something from Shakespeare, about knitting. That had been cool. He strained, trying to remember, and got it. 'Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleeve of care.' That was the easy part. Everybody knew that part, but it was the rest, the stuff Ben knew . . . he wished Ben could tell him. Then oh, yeah, it was there. Ray could almost hear Ben's grave, serious voice soothing over him. '" The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast.'" Yeah. That was it. Balm of hurt minds, and hurt bodies. Warming slowly, comforted by memories, he finally felt sleep rising to claim him.
* * *
"Would you get me another cup of coffee, Professor?" Welsh asked quietly.
Ben stopped pacing, crossed to the desk and took the chipped, stained mug from the other man. He certainly could put away the coffee. This was his fourth refill in an hour. As he lifted the pot to refill the cup he looked over at the older man.
"Won't that make it difficult for you to sleep tonight?"
Welsh looked at him and sighed. "Who says I'm going to sleep tonight?"
"You need sleep," Ben began.
"So do you," Welsh cut him off. "But you're not going to sleep either, right?"
Ben shook his head, slowly. "No. I couldn't. Not . . . without knowing."
"I feel the same way, Professor. I don't sleep when one of mine is in trouble. I mean, I know I'm not in the PD any more, but if I were, I'd be proud to have him. Did you know he wanted to be a detective? We talked about that once, right after I bought the place and he found out what I used to do. Unfortunately they only want smart-asses with degrees these days, and he wasn't so good in school. But he's quick, and he's smart, and he's tenacious. He would have been a real asset. Too bad the people upstairs can only see that piece of parchment that means you know how to keep your butt still in class and bullshit on a paper."
Ben smiled ruefully. "I can certainly attest to the percentage of people who seem to be obtaining degrees on that basis."
Welsh snorted. "Yeah, you would. My coffee please, Professor?"
Ben filled the cup and handed it to him, thinking of Ray, wondering if, wherever he was, he was sleeping now. He closed his eyes momentarily and thought of Ray's face, peaceful in sleep. Sleep. 'The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course, chief nourisher in life's feast.' A shudder chased itself down his back. He seemed to ache in a dozen places, and exhaustion tugged at him. He shook himself, frowning. Where had that quote sprung from? What had made him think of Macbeth? He shivered again, remembering the next line. 'Glamis hath murder'd sleep.' He prayed that Vecchio had not done the same to Ray. And somehow knew, with utter certainty, that he had not. Not yet, anyway.
"What time is it?" Welsh asked.
Ben looked at his watch. "One seventeen."
Welsh sighed. "I hate waiting. I hate it."
"I completely understand," Ben said quietly, then headlights in the parking lot drew his attention , and he watched a medium-colored sedan pull into a space and park. A moment later a tall black man got out of the driver's seat and went around to open the passenger door for a familiar petite brunette. Ben was at the door in seconds, unlocking and opening it for them. He eyed the man warily, but he didn't seem threatening as Francesca walked in ahead of him and stopped dead in her tracks, staring at the man behind the desk.
"Officer Welsh?" she squeaked.
He grinned. "In the flesh, Ms. Vecchio, or should I say Ms. Zuko? But it's just Harding Welsh now. It's been quite a few years since our last meeting. Do you still draw moustaches on the statues at St. Agnes'?"
She blushed, laughing as she shook her head. "No, no, I haven't done that since they made me talk to you about vandalism and defacing private property. Not that I haven't thought about it. . . ." she teased.
"Good to see I put the fear of the law into you." He looked past her to her companion, and frowned. "Don't I know you?"
The black man nodded and stepped forward, sending an uncomfortable glance at Francesca. "Yes, you do, sir. Jack Huey. I, ah, I worked for you for a little while, when you were. . . well, before Brandauer."
Francesca Vecchio stared at the man, looking puzzled. "But. . . I thought your name was Hugh Pettis!"
"That's the name I'm using at the moment," the man said, uncomfortably.
Apparently the use of a pseudonym was not unheard of in Ms. Zuko's world. She nodded, unfazed. "Oh. Gotcha."
Welsh stared at him, then a light seemed to go on in his face. "Right, Jack Huey, I heard you moved on to. . . ." he stopped abruptly, his gaze sliding toward Francesca, and Ben could almost see the wheels turning in head. "So, what's your interest here?"
"Well, at the moment I work for Ms. Zuko's brother, but I'm going to be leaving soon, resuming my old position in a different part of the city. I haven't been happy with my current employment and tonight was the real clincher, I don't like being a part of things like that. So when I realized Ms. Zuko here was trying to worm information about Kowalski out of Vito, I figured maybe I could help her out and do us both a big favor. I just have to do it kind of. . . quiet."
Ben's gaze kept going between Welsh and Huey, puzzled, hearing undertones and unspoken meanings in nearly every word. What on earth was going on? What was he missing?
"Good. We'll see if we can't do this without, ah, jeopardizing your employment."
"I'd appreciate that, sir, I'm not quite ready to go back to my old job yet."
"I got that. So, we were right? Vecchio does have him?"
Huey nodded, an expression of resignation on his face. "I'm afraid so."
"Where is he?"
"A&B Moving and Storage, over on Wacker. I managed to convince them that they weren't going to get anything out of him tonight so they had me put him in one of the lockers. I left the door unlocked so he could walk out, but he wouldn't trust that somebody wouldn't follow him. Not that I blame him for not trusting anyone right now. And he's in rough shape, probably wouldn't get far in any case. He needs a doctor."
"Why? What's wrong with him?" Ben demanded, automatically moving toward the door.
Welsh grabbed onto the back of Ben's belt and held him in place as if he were restraining a large dog by its collar. "Hang on Professor, we can't just go taking off. We gotta have a plan."
"What's wrong with him?" Ben demanded again, glaring at Huey.
Huey took a cautious step back, making sure he was out of range of Ben's clenched fists. "And you would be?"
"A friend of Ray's."
Huey studied him, eyebrows lifted. "You go by Ben?"
"Sometimes," Ben said, a little puzzled by the question.
"You got a white dog?" he asked, then he looked around, saw Diefenbaker curled up under the old steel tubing and orange vinyl sofa against the wall, and frowned. "Man, you should not be down here right now. You're the one Vecchio wanted, he just took Kowalski to make him tell who you were and where to find you. If Vecchio catches you, you're in worse shit than Kowalski."
Ben stared at him. "Me? Why would he want me?"
"He said you insulted him, and that you've been messing with his sister."
Francesca snorted rudely. "I wish!"
Huey grinned. "Hey, if you're looking. . . ."
Francesca eyed him up and down speculatively, and Ben felt a burst of anger.
"Do you think we could kindly remain on track?" he snapped. "Ray's life is in danger."
That sobered both of them quickly and Huey nodded. "Vecchio will get suspicious if it looks too easy. It's got to look like something unrelated happened, something he won't find unusual, so he thinks that Kowalski's getting away was just a consequence of that."
Fraser wasn't entirely sure why they had to bother with that. "Why don't we just walk in and get him out, if there's no one guarding him?"
Welsh sighed, and let go of Ben's belt. "Trust me on this, Professor, we can't. What are you thinking, Huey? A fire?"
The other man shook his head. "No, too dangerous. I haven't been able to come up with something that will work."
Francesca frowned thoughtfully. "You know, Ray's always complaining about the gangs down in that neighborhood. Says they run for a guy named Volpe who won't come into the fold, wants to be his own man."
Huey nodded. "Yeah, I know the guy. Andreas Volpe. This is gonna sound weird, but for a hood, he's not bad. He's even done. . . me . . . a few favors now and then." Huey rubbed his fingers together as if testing a piece of fabric between his fingertips and his gaze slid toward Welsh, who nodded minutely, scratching his nose with the ball of his thumb.
The gesture looked strangely familiar, and it suddenly hit Ben where he'd seen it before. In an ongoing effort to expose Ben to more popular culture, Ray was always showing him 'classic movies.' One of his choices had been "The Sting." And that thumb-to-nose was the gesture Paul Newman and Robert Redford's characters made when communicating regarding a plan.
Ben looked from Welsh to Huey and back, recalled that Huey had said he worked for Welsh before Brandauer had replaced him, not afterward, and he understood. Huey was a police officer, working undercover in Vecchio's organization. Favors done for him, then, might indicate that Volpe was a paid informant or friend of the police, in some fashion.
"Yeah, that'd work. See if Volpe would run some kind of action around the warehouse, nothing big, maybe some B&E, some vandalism. The place is so old nobody uses it for anything real any more, it's not even alarmed. But I don't have a way to contact him. He'd probably be real suspicious of me now, anyhow, since I work for Vecchio."
"It's not a common name," Ben said, something nagging at him, trying to surface in his memory. Suddenly it came to him. "You're sure his first name is Andreas?" he asked intently.
"Yeah, and no, it's not a common name, especially not around the 'hood. I hear his old man was Dutch. Why'd you want to know?"
"I might know a way to contact him." He turned to Welsh. "You used to have a young man named Levon Jefferson working here. Do you still have his number?"
"Yeah, I should." Welsh flipped through the rolodex, and after a moment extracted a card. "Here it is."
"Thank you," Ben took it, lifted the phone, and dialed.
Five rings later, a sleepy-sounding voice answered the phone. "'Lo?"
"Levon? It's Benton Fraser. Forgive me for calling so late, but it's a matter of some urgency."
"Hang on, who. . . Professor Fraser?" Levon sounded stunned. "What time is it? Oh man, did I oversleep? Did I miss class?"
"No, Levon, it's nothing to do with school. I need your assistance. Ray's in some difficulty."
"Difficulty? You mean like, he's in trouble?"
"Yes, Levon. Exactly. Very bad trouble."
"What do you need?" Levon asked, sounding much more awake, and determined. "Whatever it is, I'm there."
"Do you know a man named Andreas Volpe?"
There was a sudden silence, then, "Oh, fuck. Ray didn't get on 'Dre's bad side did he? I thought he was cool with 'Dre since I got out of that scene. What'd he do?"
"It's a man named Vecchio, not Mr. Volpe, who's the problem. However, Mr. Volpe may be able to be part of the solution."
"Vecchio? Ray ticked off Vecchio? Oh man, he's got a death wish. What do you need from 'Dre?"
"A distraction, so we can get Ray out without casting suspicion on someone in Vecchio's organization."
Another silence. "You want me to ask 'Dre to take on Vecchio?"
Ben tried to phrase a reply, but before he could, Levon was speaking again.
"Never mind. I'll call him. It'll be up to him, but I'll ask. Where are you?"
"At the garage, at the moment. Ray's being held at a moving and storage facility on Wacker."
"I'll get him for you. I'll be at the garage as soon as I can, okay?"
"Levon, it may not be safe for you to . . . ."
"Fuck safe, Professor Fraser. This is Ray. He's family. I'm coming."
Ben understood. "Very well, Levon. I'll see you."
Levon hung up, and Ben looked up to find three pair of curious eyes on him. "He's going to contact Mr. Volpe and will join us here."
Everyone nodded, and suddenly left with nothing to do for a moment, a dawning sense of horror spread through Ben. He'd done this to Ray. This was his fault. If he'd just kept his mouth shut, everything would have been fine. He dropped the phone as he tried to fumble it back into its cradle, and Huey spoke quietly.
"He's a tough customer, wouldn't even tell Vecchio your name, but he guessed it because somebody Vito talked to at the bar earlier remembered it. It was kind of. . . weird. Like watching a POW movie or something. Name, rank, serial number, that's it. He'll talk about himself, his ex, his job, anything but you. He hasn't said one word about you, not one. I couldn't have done it."
Ben supposed that was supposed to make him feel better. It didn't. He felt worse. /You should have told them, Ray/' he thought desolately, /you should have told them./
* * *
Voices dragged Ray up out of a dream in which he wore a gun, and a Chicago PD shield, and Ben was dressed in some weird hunter-safety-red coat that did Things for the line of his jaw, and the clean taper of shoulder to waist. The first thing to register as consciousness returned was the pain. It made him clench his jaw and swear as he shifted beneath the heavy furniture pads, trying to hear with the ear that wasn't all sore and swollen. At least he wasn't so cold now, not quite. That was good, right? After a few moments he figured out he wasn't just hearing things. There were voices. A lot of voices. Laughter? Breaking glass? A strange sort of hissing sound. More laughter.
No. Wait. He really was hearing things, he had to be. Because no way could he be hearing Ben's rough baritone, with its funny Canadian vowels. Or if he was, he didn't want to think about it, because that meant they had Ben, and he couldn't, wouldn't think about that. No. They couldn't have Ben. He wouldn't let it be true. He refused. He was just dreaming. That was all. Dreaming he was awake. Not so weird. Happened all the time. There was always the possibility of hallucinations. He'd rather be hearing things than have Ben at risk.
A click, and the groan of dirty, unoiled hinges made him go still, and he tried hard not to whimper as the sudden tension amplified every ache. No. Not Ben. They didn't have Ben. They didn't have Ben. They didn't have Ben. He thought it over and over, as if by thinking it he could make it true. From under the edge of his pile of pads, he thought he saw a glimmer of light, not a lot, but more than the pitch-blackness that had been there before. He heard a voice.
"Shit. He's gone. He must've taken off after all. I didn't think he would, even after I told him to. Frankly, I didn't think he could."
Familiar voice. The guy. . . Hugh? Hughie. Yeah. The one who'd told him he would get help.
Funny, that sounded like Welsh. Weird dream. Really weird.
"Yeah. He was right here, but he's not now."
"I realize you've been trying to spare me, but it's important, I need to know. When you left him here, alone, how badly was he injured? How far could he have gotten on his own?"
Ben again. He sounded really. . . worried. Scared. And something else too. Something he'd never heard in Ben's voice before. Angry. He wondered if he should say something, but it was just a dream, so it wouldn't do any good.
"Not far. Parking lot maybe. A block or two, max."
"Did you find him, Professor Fraser?"
Okay, now why the hell was Levon in his dream?
"No, but I will. Diefenbaker? Find Ray."
An excited yip. Snuffling. Dief. The gang's all here, he thought. The scritch of claws on concrete. That slight glimmer of brightness lifting, expanding, a wet nose pressing against his arm. Excited voices, too many to sort out, loud, piercing his aching head like nails, then the padding over him was yanked back and he was looking up into Ben's face, seeing the sad-angry-worried-scared expression that went with the way his voice had sounded. Damn it. It wasn't a dream, or a hallucination. Ben was here. They had him.
"Didn' tell 'm. . . " he said thickly, wanting to make sure Ben knew that. It was important.
"Didn't tell them what, Ray?" Ben said, his big hand, surprisingly gentle, touching his cheek, his jaw, reaching down to tug open his torn shirt and bare his torso.
"You. Where you. . . "
"No, of course you didn't. I know that."
Ray wanted to ask how Vecchio had found him since Ray hadn't told, but just then Ben probed his ribs and Ray yelped in pain. Instantly the pressure eased, fingers soothed again.
"Sssh, it's all right, I'm sorry. We have to get you to a doctor, Ray. We're going to have to pick you up, and it's going to hurt. Can you bear up?"
Doctor? We? Ray squinted past Ben, saw Welsh there, and Levon, and that Hughie guy, and.. . and shit, was that Levon's old gang-friend 'Dre Volpe in the back of the room with. . . Frannie Zuko? What the hell was going on here? Suddenly he wasn't entirely sure he wasn't hallucinating. He thought about pinching himself but he hurt enough already. So instead he reached out and put a hand on Ben's thigh. Felt real. He felt a warm hand cover his, and squeeze. Yeah. Nice. Definitely felt real.
"You real? This real?" Deja vu. Hadn't this happened before, only different?
Ben didn't laugh, or act like he thought Ray was a nutcase. He just nodded, serious-like. "Yes, Ray. I'm real. This is all real. Don't worry. Everything's going to be fine. I'm going to carry you out to the car now."
He leaned down, and Ray grabbed his arm, remembering from when Hughie had carried him just how bad that was going to hurt.. "Nuh-uh. Not carry."
Ben sighed. "Ray, please, don't be difficult."
"Hurts. Ribs. Walk." He had a hard time talking around his swollen tongue. He'd lost count of the times he'd bitten it.
Ben seemed to get it finally. He looked at Ray, and nodded. "Can you stand?"
Ray managed to roll sort of onto his hands and knees, and moaned as he moved, hurting in places he hadn't even known he had. He'd been in fights before, but this was different. Worse. At least in a fight you knew you'd given as good as you'd gotten. Being held down and whaled on was not the same thing at all. He tried to push himself into a sitting position, and failed miserably, ending up with his face in the diesel-scented mat.
"Ray, can I help? I . . . where can I touch you?"
Ray turned his head enough to see Ben hovering over him, looking anxious. Feeling a little like Indiana Jones on that ship with Marian, Ray pointed at his upper arm. "There," he said, and grinned weakly. He stopped that instantly. That hurt, too. Not too surprising, considering how many times Vecchio had backhanded him across the mouth. He just hoped he'd left a toothmarks on the guy's hand.
Ben wrapped a hand cautiously around Ray's biceps, and with that help, when he tried again he made it to his knees. A moment later Ben's arm slid around his waist, and he forced himself up another stage, coming to his feet unsteadily, shaking, trying not to let on that Ben's arm there really, really hurt his ribs. Fortunately once he was on his feet the pressure eased, and the pain receded back to a dull, throbbing ache. He felt cold again, shivering even though sweat beaded on his face. He leaned into Ben's strong, solid bulk, needing his warmth, his . . . presence. He felt a slight tremor go through Ben and looked at him, saw his eyes were worried, and troubled. He forced a smile, not caring if it hurt.
"'M good, 'sokay," he managed.
The troubled look deepened. "No, Ray, you're not good, and it's not okay. I'm so, so sorry."
Ben had a screw loose. What did he have to be sorry about? "Whaffor?" he mumbled.
Before he could reply, Welsh's gruff voice interrupted, startling both of them, reminding them that there were other people around.
"We can't hang around here all night, Professor, let's get out of here."
Ben nodded. "Yes, we're coming. It will be slow going."
"We've got your back. Just make it as quick as you can."
It seemed to take forever to reach the car, each step bringing a fresh surge of pain through him as he had to lean into Ben's supporting arm. He just concentrated on walking, on putting one foot in front of the other. Finally they reached their transportation, a big blue Caddy. Welsh's car. Ray had tuned it up often enough to know it on sight. He loved those big old Detroit monsters. Classics. And way comfortable, he discovered after Ben slid him into the seat. He hardly hurt at all. He leaned his head back, closed his eyes. . . .
He startled awake, sitting bolt upright, then collapsing back with a groan. Fuck, that hurt. Ben's hand was warm on his shoulder.
"We're at the hospital."
Hospital? What happened to the warehouse? He blinked, looking around. No warehouse. Brightly lit drive-up marked "Emergency." Okay. Somebody must've invented the transporter.
"Let me help you get out. We've got a chair for you."
A chair? He looked past Ben, saw a big guy in blue pajamas there, holding a wheelchair by its handles. He shook his head. No. No way. He wasn't crippled, just beat up. Setting his jaw he tried to get out of the car, nearly fell on his snoot, only to be caught by Ben who proceeded to pick him up and put him in the chair like he was some kind of oversized baby.
Being picked up made him feel like his ribs were in a vise, and he was too busy choking back a scream to think of much of anything until he was through the foyer and in a little curtained alcove with a paper-sheeted gurney in it. A stuffed bear in a red-cross shirt sat on the tray off to one side, and it made him wonder if there'd been a little kid in here before him. He hoped not. Or if there had been, he hoped it was one of those things like falling off a swing-set and spraining a wrist. Nothing worse.
They made him take off his clothes. Okay, well, they were going to do it for him, but he put a stop to that. In the end, since he couldn't quite manage it himself, Ben had to do it and then help him get into one of those dumb nightie-things without a back. Then they made Ben leave, so he had to be alone when he was poked, prodded, and X-rayed. They wouldn't let Ben stay, even though Ray managed to tell them he wanted him to stay. The nurse just gave him a look like he was being a pain in the ass, and he got a sudden inkling of what it must be like for gay couples, that whole next-of-kin thing. It sucked. Then he almost laughed at himself for thinking about 'gay couples' like he wasn't part of one. God, there was a weird thought.
They put stitches in the cut over his right cheekbone and his left eyebrow, and another one behind his lip where his teeth had cut it badly. They taped his ribs tight, which helped a lot. The shot of something that they gave him helped even more. In fact, he was feeling almost human. A very tired, sore human.
Eventually they were done with all the poking and naked stuff, and they let Ben back in, along with the doctor who cheerfully informed him that he wasn't going to die, even though he might feel like he was once the painkiller wore off. He had a bunch of cracked ribs, more bruises and contusions than they could count, a few loosened teeth that would probably be okay but he should see a dentist to be sure. Somehow they hadn't managed to break his nose, though it was swollen enough that it was hard to breathe, and oh yeah, he was probably going to be peeing blood for a day or two until his bruised kidneys recovered. Great.
The guy gave him a prescription for some serious painkillers and told him he should go home and stay in bed for a week or so. He then proceeded to give Ben, the designated caregiver, a detailed list of instructions on the care and feeding of Stanley Raymond Kowalski. Finally they were alone. Or as alone as they could be with nothing but a thin curtain between them and the rest of the ER. Ben put his shoulders back, and picked up Ray's jeans, holding them out.
"Do you need help?"
Ray thought about it, hated to admit it, but he sighed. "Yeah. Please."
Ben helped him step into them, pulling them up his legs, fastening the first few buttons, leaving the rest so they weren't overly tight on his bruises. He helped Ray into his shirt, which was tattered, and missing buttons, but Ben somehow managed to lap it over itself so it provided at least a little coverage for his banged-up, bandaged body. That done, Ben knelt at his feet to put on his shoes, tying them for him like he was a child. Finally he stood, still not looking him in the face, and pulled the wheelchair around.
"If you'd be so good as to sit down," Ben said evenly.
"I can walk, Ben," Ray protested.
"I believe it's hospital policy, Ray."
Ray sighed. He just didn't have the energy to fight. He sat. Ben pushed him out to the waiting room, where Welsh was waiting for them. He seemed pleased to see them, and stood up immediately.
"How you doing there, Kowalski?"
"I'll live," Ray said, feeling embarrassed. "They're letting me go home. Said I have to stay in bed for a while, though."
Welsh frowned. "You can't go home."
Ray looked up, startled. "Howcome?"
"That's the first place they'll look for you when they figure out you're gone."
He looked at Welsh. "You really think they'll come back for me? I mean, what's the point?"
"The point is you got away. They won't like that. It shows they screwed up."
Ray thought about that. One thought led to another. None of them good. He suddenly realized just how much trouble he was in, and had to fight the urge to just break down and cry. He settled for swearing. "Oh, fuck."
Welsh sighed. "That sums it up nicely. I hate to lose my best mechanic, Kowalski, but I'll give you the glowingest letter of recommendation I can write."
Ray nodded. "Wonder how far ten thou will take me?"
"Pretty far. You might be able to start a shop of your own, once you settle somewhere. Look, I'll go bring the car around, give me five minutes."
Ben nodded and the older man left the two of them, mostly alone, save for a scattering of worried-looking souls all waiting word on their respective loved ones.
"Forgive me, I don't understand . . . ." Ben said, moving around to sit where Welsh had been, looking at Ray, clearly puzzled.
Ray sighed. "I can't go home, Ben."
"I understand that, you can stay with me until you're feeling better, I'll even get an air conditioner."
Ray shook his head, gingerly, not wanting to hurt himself. "No, you don't understand. I can't go home. Ever. I pissed off a mob guy, then made him look bad by getting away. I go home, I'm dead. I go back to work, I'm dead. And I don't want to be dead, so I better start looking for a new place to live, and a new place to work, preferably someplace real far away from Chicago."
Ben's face went dead white. He was always pale but this was. . . different. He looked about ready to pass out. And he still wouldn't look Ray in the eyes. Ray had had enough. He didn't know what was wrong but he knew damned well something was.
The single syllable seemed to hit Ben like a blow. He actually jerked a little, and finally his gaze lifted to Ray's, his gaze tortured and dark. "I'm sorry, Ray, so sorry."
Ray sighed. Back to this. "What for?"
"This is all my fault. . . if I hadn't taunted him, hadn't allowed myself to . . . ."
Ray had heard enough. "Benton Robert Fraser," he said, surprising himself that he managed to actually say every syllable clearly. Geez, he sounded so much like his dad it was scary. "Get this through your head. Vecchio hates me. Has since the day we met. It wasn't your fault."
Ben was silent, then he sighed. "But, Ray, Jack Huey even said you were taken because Vecchio couldn't find me."
Ray sighed. "It was just an excuse, Ben. I figured it out, see. He came over with that damned car hoping to pick a fight. He's doing this like some kind of . . . mating thing, like you see on Discover. Proving to Stella that he's better than me. He'd have found some excuse to do it, no matter what. He thinks I'm like. . . a threat."
Ben thought about that, and a trace of color started to return to his face. "He did seem to be quite . . . belligerent from the moment he walked into the garage."
"He was. See, I know this guy, Ben, and I know he was just trying to get to me. So like I said, not your fault. Vecchio's fault, from start to finish. You didn't do anything wrong. You saved my life. And that goose thing was pretty damned funny." He smiled, and tentatively, but clearly, Ben smiled back at him.
"It was rather amusing, wasn't it?"
"You bet. And I'm still not sure how you did it, how you got Welsh, and Levon, and Frannie, and Vecchio's guy, and even fuckin' 'Dre Volpe to help me out, but I know you're the only person who'd have figured out a way, so I owe you, Doc. I owe you bigtime."
"You owe me nothing, Ray. Nothing at all. If anything had happened to you. . . ." A shiver shook his solid frame hard enough for even Ray to see, and suddenly he was on his feet, moving behind the chair. "Mr. Welsh should be waiting by now. Let's go on out."
Ray nodded, suddenly feeling the strain catching up to him. He could barely keep his eyes open.
* * *
"Benton? Dr. Fraser?"
How odd. They seemed to be having an earthquake. Ben blinked owlishly up at the gaunt, yet oddly cheerful, visage of his department chair and wondered why he seemed so calm about it. Then he realized that there was no earthquake; he was being shaken gently by the shoulder. An embarrassed blush heated his face and he sat up, hoping his tweed jacket didn't show the spot where he'd been drooling on his arm in his sleep. He ran a hand through his hair and tried to act alert.
"Dr. Gustafsen, forgive me, I. . . ."
The man waved a hand dismissively as he sat down in the creaky wooden chair across the desk from Ben. "It's all right, Benton. I've just been concerned about you, as have some of your students. A couple of them have commented to me that you don't seem at all yourself, that you've seemed rather tense, and overtired. I thought I should come and check on you myself. Is everything all right?"
"I'm sorry, sir. I. . . I'm fine, really," Ben lied, wincing inside, knowing he was, as Ray would say, about as convincing as a prostitute at a prom.
Dr. Gustafsen frowned, the expression startling on his normally amiable face. "Please, I dislike lies, and you're quite a terrible liar. Really, Benton, if you can't do a thing well, what's the point in doing it? Now, would you like to tell me what's wrong? I realize this job hasn't been easy for you, but I hadn't thought it was that difficult."
"No, sir, it's not that at all! No, the job has been fine, though I will admit that the department politics have been a little wearing at times. Still, it's really quite fine. It's not that."
"What then? Is it about that job? My friend is quite sincere, you know. He would love to have you. I have a letter of recommendation on my computer just waiting for your word so I can print it."
"No, sir, it's not that either. It's entirely . . . personal."
"Ah," his superior breathed, studying him closely. "A matter of the heart, perhaps?"
Ben felt his face heating, and struggled to contain his reaction. "In . . . a manner of speaking. Emotions are involved."
The older man sighed. "Are you going to make me dig for this, Benton? You can trust me, Benton. There's nothing you can tell me that would shock me, I've heard it all in my day, from the worst to the best." He tugged the sleeve of his linen suit-jacket up a little bit, and turned his forearm upward.
Ben saw the faint blue-green letters and numbers inked into his skin, and for a moment he couldn't understand what he was being shown. Then he made the connection, and he stared, shocked.
"Good lord! Dr. Gustafsen . . . ."
"Why don't you call me Mort, Benton? Dr. Gustafsen is such a mouthful," the older man pushed his sleeve back down, covering the tattoo.
Ben lifted his eyes to the lively blue ones that gazed back at him, and nodded. "I would be proud to do so, sir," he said seriously. "I mean, Mort."
Mort beamed. "Good. Good. Now, would you like to talk to me about your. . . situation? I promise you that whatever it is, it shall go no further."
Ben sighed. I'm sorry, sir. You see, a friend of mine was. . . injured, and I've been caring for him during my off hours. It's taking more of a toll than I'd thought."
"There, that wasn't so difficult, was it?" Mort said, looking satisfied. "Now if you would tell me why you felt compelled to lie about such an admirable undertaking, I would be pleased to hear it."
"It's important that. . . certain persons. . . not find my friend. I suppose I've gotten into the habit of choosing my words carefully."
His gazed at him thoughtfully, his fingers steepled on the desk. "These certain people, would they happen to be law enforcement officers?"
"No sir!" Ben exclaimed, aghast. "In fact, just the opposite."
"Ah, good. I had thought I'd read you right. So your friend is in some sort of trouble?"
It occurred to Ben to wonder why on earth was he being so forthcoming. Perhaps it was simply that Dr. Gustafsen seemed so fatherly, and kind. He supposed axe murderers could appear to be fatherly and kind, but the man had always been kind to him, had always made an extra effort to offset his colleagues unpleasantness. He had a gut instinct that the man was just what he seemed, and the revelation about his past only served to reinforce that belief. He usually trusted his instincts, and with one notable exception they had served him well. And that one exception had been female, which was rather like being an entirely different species.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" the older man asked, still looking concerned.
Ben sighed. "Not unless you can provide armed security for him for the next week or two."
"Is it truly that bad?"
"It . . . could be," Ben said reluctantly. "Ray thinks I'm worrying unnecessarily, but I do believe his life is in danger, yes."
"And he's staying with you?"
"He is. Which is part of the problem. My neighborhood is rather . . . well, it's inexpensive. And the people who are looking for Ray tend to frequent such areas, and some of the people who live there wouldn't be averse to earning a little extra money by answering questions."
"I see." Mort tapped his fingertips together, then looked up. "You know, I live in a gated community with restricted access. I have a large house, and since my children grew up and moved away, and my wife passed on, I have far too much room and no one to fill it."
Ben looked at him, wondering if he was hearing correctly. "Sir?"
"Mort, not sir. I realize that it's not exactly armed security, but it's not far removed, and I should be quite pleased if you, and your friend, were to come for a visit."
Ben's jaw dropped. "But. . . you don't even know him!"
"I know you, Benton Fraser, and that is good enough for me."
* * *
Ben's boss, Mort, was a kind of a cool old guy, even if he did go around singing opera a lot. Ray could deal with that, since he was mooching off him bigtime. He put down his magazine, sat back in the armchair, looking out at the manicured lawn and brilliant flowers outside the window. He could get used to this life, way too easily. Better not, though. It wasn't going to last. As soon as he was healed up enough, he had to start figuring out how to get a new life. Where to go, what to do, how to get there. He sighed, pushing away the nagging certainty that whatever he did, he was going to have to do it alone. No Ben. That was the worst part of it all, and he couldn't even blame Vecchio for that one.
"Mr. Kowalski, can I get you anything?"
He startled a little, then relaxed. It was just Mort's housekeeper.
"No thanks, Mrs. Karlz, I'm good. And it's just Ray, okay?"
He couldn't get over it. The guy had a housekeeper. A real, honest-to-god housekeeper. Even though she was older and kind of thin and elegant instead of rounded and homey, she reminded Ray a little bit of his mom. At first Ray had been kind of uncomfortable around her because he was making more work for her, but she just smiled and said she'd missed having more people around, and she didn't mind. She fussed over him, making sure he had soft things to eat the first few days, until his teeth and tongue healed up, and bringing him treats because he was 'too skinny' which made him laugh because that was like his mom, too. Dief adored her, because she snuck him treats when Ben wasn't around.
She'd been with the family forever, since the kids were little, and Ray was pretty sure that sometime after Mrs. G. had passed on, she and Dr. G. had started fooling around on the sly. He wasn't sure why he thought that, because they were very proper around him and Ben, but he just had. . . a feeling. Of course, he might be reading things in, because he was getting kind of frustrated. He . . . missed Ben. And they didn't have much longer together. But here they were in separate bedrooms with a very proper older couple in residence, one of whom also happened to be Ben's boss for a few more days. And even if they couldn't do anything, he was still able to touch, to hold. He sighed.
"Yeah, Mrs. K?" he said, looking at her, finding her gazing at him with a speculative expression on her face.
"If I'm to call you Ray then you must call me Gladys. Tell me, how are you feeling?"
"Better every day," he said, mustering a smile for her.
"You look tired, are you sleeping all right? I thought I heard you up last night, quite late."
He shot her a speculative look right back. What had she been doing up at that hour? Still, he wasn't going to lie. "Yeah. I've been having a little trouble. Keep waking up, think I'm back in that warehouse."
She nodded sagely. "I thought as much. Do you think it would help if someone were to be in the room with you?"
He stared at her. "Someone?"
She smiled. "Yes. You know, I was thinking we could move you to the green room, where David and Jonathan used to sleep before they moved away. There are two double beds in there. I'm sure Professor Fraser wouldn't mind sharing the room with you, to help you sleep, of course."
He stared some more. She looked back with determinedly innocent eyes.
"I think Professor Fraser has been having trouble sleeping too, you know. I'm an old woman, and I don't sleep much these days, and I've heard him up, too. Maybe he's having nightmares as well."
Jesus. Was she saying what he thought she was saying? He and Ben hadn't so much as patted each other's shoulders since they'd been here, so how could she have figured it out? And if she had figured it out why was she being so . . . cool about it? Old ladies weren't supposed to be cool about things like that. He cleared his throat.
"I, uh, well. . . I dunno. I guess we'd have to ask Ben."
She smiled and patted his hand. "Why don't you do that, dear? It won't take a moment to get the room ready. And I do so hate to think of you two having trouble . . . sleeping. You're such lovely boys."
Boys? Before he could protest, she patted his hand. "I have cookies in the oven I need to check on. I think I heard Professor Fraser's jeep a few moments ago, I'm sure he'll be right in."
She left him there, wondering, still. He was still wondering when Ben came in a few moments later, with a box in his arms which he put down on the floor next to Ray's chair. Kneeling, he studied Ray's face.
"Hi Ray. You're looking better today."
"Feel better today," he said. "First time in days I'm not peeing pink."
Ben grinned. "Good. That has to be reassuring. Mrs. Karlz said you wanted to ask me something?"
"Uh, yeah. What's in the box?" Ray asked, procrastinating.
"Your compact discs. Levon brought them by today. He and the other mechanics have pretty much finished moving your things to storage above the garage but he thought you might want these."
"Cool. I have to admit I'm getting a little tired of opera."
"Levon suspected you might be.
"So, Vecchio been around looking for me?"
"No, apparently he's still . . . away."
Vecchio away. What Ben meant was he and Stella were on their honeymoon, but he was too careful of Ray's feelings to say it.
"Levon tells me that there is something called a 'turf war' heating up between Volpe and Vecchio," Ben said, changing the subject, marginally.
Ray frowned. "Not good. Folks could get hurt."
"That's their decision to make, Ray. It's their culture."
"Volpe helped me out. Don't want him to get hurt."
"He's chosen a lifestyle which makes that unlikely. Remember, he chose to help us for his own reasons."
"True. Any other fallout? Frannie okay? Huey?"
"From what I understand, Agent Huey is nearly finished with his undercover assignment, and with Francesca's assistance has gathered quite a bit of material which will be used in bringing racketeering charges against Vecchio and his organization. I believe that Francesca is planning to enter the witness protection program. She has already filed for divorce."
Ray stared at him, shocked. "Frannie? Divorced? Zuko's gonna kill her!"
"I don't believe Agent Huey plans to allow that," Ben said with a slight smile.
"Right. Like he's gonna have twenty-four hour guard duty over her or what?"
The smile broadened. "I do believe they've already established that."
Oh. He got it, finally. Ben was being subtle. "Frannie and Huey? Oooohkay. Now that's one I wouldn't have thought of. He is a big, good-looking guy, though, and she goes for that. And if it gets her away from Zuko, that's cool." He thought for a moment, analyzing how this affected him, and realized it didn't. "Gonna take time, though, for the racketeering thing to come through. And even if it does, there's no guarantee he'll go down."
"No, there's not," Ben agreed solemnly.
"So I still gotta scram," he said, and sighed.
"It would be wise."
Ray nodded. Looked out the window. He'd lived in Chicago all his life. It was going to be hard to just pick up stakes and move. Alone. He closed his eyes.
"Ray? I . . . ." Ben stopped.
Ray couldn't look at him. He knew what would show in his eyes. "Yeah, Ben?"
"Are you . . . would you . . . like to rest?"
Funny, he didn't think that had been what Ben was going to say. He faked a yawn. "Yeah. Kinda tired. Oh, um. Gladys wants to know if we want to change rooms."
"Yeah. She says we could take the boys' room, there's two beds there."
Ray could almost feel the intensity of Ben's gaze. "Why would she have suggested that?"
"Guess she heard me up, after I had a nightmare last night. Wondered if it would help for me to have somebody there."
"You're having nightmares? Why didn't you tell me?"
"It's not a big deal. I can handle it okay."
"Of course you can handle it by yourself, Ray, but you should have told me."
"I just did. So, uh, do you want to?"
Ben put his hand on Ray's arm, squeezing lightly. "Do you want me to?"
Ray finally looked at him. "What kind of stupid question is that? Of course I do! Damn it, Ben, I've missed you!"
Ben blushed. "I've missed you as well. But I thought. . . it would be best to be circumspect here."
"Yeah, well, Gladys thinks we're both having trouble sleeping and it would be good if we did something about that."
Ben's eyes widened. "She said that?"
Ray grinned, enjoying the shock on Ben's face. "Yeah."
The blush on Ben's face deepened. "She . . . knows?"
Ray shrugged. "Got me. Could be she means just what she says. After all, there are two beds."
The expression of relief on Ben's face was amusing. He cleared his throat. "So there are. Well, if you think it would be all right. . . ."
"Benton Fraser, 'all right' does not begin to cover it. I . . . need it. Need you. I don't mean. . . ." he felt his own face getting a little hot as he tried to find the right words. "I don't mean we have to . . . do stuff. I just want you to be there, be close."
"As do I. I'll move my things. And yours, as well."
"I can . . . ." Ray said, trying to sit forward, wincing.
"Ray," Ben said sternly shifting his hand to Ray's shoulder to gently press him back into the chair. "You are recuperating." He picked up the box of CDs and set it on Ray's lap. "Why don't you choose some music?"
Ray couldn't very well move with a box of CDs on his lap, and Ben knew it. "Sneaky Canadian," he muttered as Ben stood and walked toward the hallway.
"Stubborn American," Ben returned evenly.
Ray grinned, and started pawing through the jewel cases, looking for something he could listen to that wouldn't send the other inhabitants of the house running for cover. He settled for Sinatra, figuring he couldn't go wrong there. And Billie Holiday for the next slot in the changer, but had to wait for Ben to come back and take the box off his lap before he could put them in though. It was pretty sad how much better he was feeling all the sudden, just because he was going to get to sleep in the same room as Ben. He was such a pussy sometimes. He grinned at himself and shook his head.
"What are you smiling about, young man?" Gladys asked, coming into the room with a tray that held a plate with cookies, and two glasses of milk.
He couldn't exactly tell her, so he held up the CDs. "Ben brought my music."
She put the tray down on the coffee table and took the cases from him, smiling. "Oh, my, lovely. You have good taste. I haven't heard these in years. Morten is just so dedicated to his opera. I'll put them in for you."
"I can. . . ."
"You just sit. You need to conserve your strength."
For what, he wondered. "You and Ben are conspiring against me," he complained.
"Yes we are, dear," she said, her back to him as she put in his CDs and started them.
Ray laughed. "Okay, so conspire to get Ben in here to get this box off me. I can't reach the cookies."
"Did you decide about the rooms?"
He tried, he really tried not to blush. "Yeah. Ben's moving his stuff."
She beamed. "Wonderful. I'll just go make up the beds."
She shooed at him with her hands. "Go on with you now. Don't be silly. It's just practical. You both need your rest."
He chuckled as he watched her walk away, and sniffed, trying to tell what sort of cookies she'd left. Didn't smell like chocolate chip. Too spicy. He heard Ben talking to Gladys in the hall, voices, no words, then Ben was coming into the room, looking a little red. He sniffed. Looked around. Spotted the cookies, and smiled at them the way he usually smiled at Ray when he was getting ready to pounce.
"Gingersnaps," he said in a voice that nearly made Ray hard. He filed that fact. Ben liked gingersnaps. A lot.
Ray felt a little jealous. Of cookies, for God's sake. This was getting bad. It was a good thing they were going to get some alone-time tonight. "Hey, would you put this box over by the stereo for me?" he asked casually.
"Of course, Ray."
Ben took the box, and carried it over to the stereo, setting it down there. As he did, Ray managed to lean forward far enough to grab the plate of cookies, even though it made his ribs hurt like hell to do it. Putting the plate in his lap, he covered it with the magazine he'd been reading. He was still wincing when Ben turned back.
"Are you all right, Ray?"
"Yeah, fine. Just a little twinge."
"I'm sure," he said, and settled back to wait. He didn't have to wait long. Ben stretched, rolled his shoulders, and turned to look at the coffee table. He frowned. Looked puzzled. He glanced at Ray, who managed to gaze back at him innocently, the residual pain in his ribs helping a lot. Ben frowned some more. By which time Ray was having a hideous time not cracking up. He slipped his fingers under the magazine, snagged a cookie, teased it out from under the pages.
"Looking for something, Ben?" he queried casually, holding up the cookie as if he were contemplating taking a bite.
Ben turned back to him, saw the cookie. "Where did you. . . ."
"You want this?" Ray asked, the same way he'd ask Dief.
Ben crossed his arms, looking at him with narrowed eyes. "What are you up to?"
"Just asking. If you don't want it . . . ." he moved it toward his mouth.
"I didn't say that," Ben said.
Ray stopped. "No, you didn't. Didn't say you did, either."
"I assume I have to do something in exchange?"
Ray grinned. "Smart. That's how come you've got all the letters after your name, right?"
"As my grandmother once said, book-learning only takes one so far. Name your price."
"I want a kiss."
Ben's eyes widened. "Ray, we can't. Not here."
"Dr. G's not home, Gladys is making beds, why not?"
"I . . . ."
Ray took a nibble of the cookie. It was still warm, sweetly spicy with the hot bite of ginger. "Mmmm. How bad you want it, Ben?"
"Ray, it's not seemly."
"Fuck seemly, Benton Fraser. You want this cookie as bad as I want you?"
He saw the heat rise in those blue eyes, saw them darken, saw the tongue slide out to flicker across his lips. Unconsciously he echoed that, moistening his own lips.
"Fuck the cookie, Ray Kowalski," Ben said huskily, and before Ray could recover from the shock, Ben was there, bending down, his mouth hot and hard and wet against his own.
Oh. Yeah. That was what he needed. Wanted. Craved. Touch. Any touch. Especially this touch. Mouth like wet satin, moving on his, hands buried in his hair, stroking. He reached up, curving his fingers around the back of Ben's neck, holding him. He couldn't do much more, just lifting his arms made his ribs hurt, but, God, it was worth it. The kiss softened, the edge of desperation fading, gentled, sweetened. Finally Ben pulled back, breathing heavily. He looked down at Ray's lap and the corners of his mouth quirked upward.
"Is that a plate of cookies in your lap or are you just happy to see me?" he asked, his voice husky and amused.
Ray laughed out loud, then moaned, holding his ribs. "Damn, Ben. I didn't know you had it in you."
"Actually, Ray, I haven't had it in me recently, which is something I'd very much like to remedy as soon as possible."
Had it . . . Ray's mouth dropped open as he stared up at Ben in surprise. "Whoa, I've created a monster!"
Ben grinned. "No, Ray, that would be you."
Heat flashed into his face as he realized what Ben meant. "Jesus, you know I hate that."
Ben shrugged and grinned. A noise in the hallway brought him upright, and he took a step back, automatically smoothing his hair as Gladys came into the room.
"I forgot to tell you boys, Morten and I have tickets to the opera tonight, and I'm leaving in a little while to go into town and join him for dinner. There's leftover grilled chicken from last night in the refrigerator, one assumes you can do something with that without instruction?"
Ben nodded. "Of course, we'll fend for ourselves. I hope you two have an enjoyable evening."
"I fully intend to. And you two enjoy your evening as well. Play some loud music and dance in your undershorts or. . . something."
Ray grinned at the puzzled expression on Ben's face. He'd have to explain later. They hadn't gotten around to 'Risky Business' on movie night. "We will, Gladys. Mind if we run an escort service out of this place?"
She laughed. "Not at all. Just be sure to clean up before we get home."
* * *
Ben offered to drive Gladys to her rendezvous but she declined, saying that taxi rides always made her feel delightfully decadent. Almost as soon as the door closed behind her, Ray was in the kitchen, right behind him, arms wrapped around him, cheek against his shoulder, holding him, though not tightly. It would be some time before he could do that. He put down the lettuce he'd been shredding for salads and put his wet hands over Ray's where they rested on his belly, absorbing the feel of him, the smell of him. God, he'd missed this.
"God, I missed this," Ray said against his neck.
Ben shivered a little. "I was just thinking that very thing."
"No surprise there. It's the first time we've gotten to touch in days." His hands moved, fingers flexing, finding, pulling Ben's t-shirt out of his jeans. "Skin. Want skin."
Yes. He understood that. Though he should resist, he didn't, and a moment later those long fingers were on his belly, stroking a little. The water from Ben's hands made them feel cool and a little damp, and they were anything but soothing. He pulled them away from himself, and turned to take Ray's face between his hands, and kiss him. He was still rather battered, but healed enough for that, at least. After a moment Ray drew back, sighing.
"Missed that, too. Funny, you'd think I could go a few days without it, considering how long it's been since . . . well, you know."
"It's easy to get accustomed to something . . . to someone." Ben said. "Ray, we need to talk."
Ray looked at him, his eyes suddenly shadowed. He sighed, and stepped back, turning away, fidgeting with one of the kitchen chairs. "Yeah. Been waiting for that. We kind of got. . . interrupted."
"Yes, we did. Have you thought about where you're going to go, once you're better?"
Ray took a deep breath, winced, and shook his head. "No. Not really. Never been anyplace but here. My folks are in Arizona, but Stella knows that, so Vecchio would know that too, and we're not close so there's no point in that. Don't like the heat anyway. Guess I'll just get out an map, close my eyes, and point. Gotta find somewhere else to be."
Well, that was good, sort of. If Ray didn't have a definite destination in mind yet, he might be more amenable to what Ben was going to suggest. "Have you ever been to Washington?"
Ray looked at him as if he'd lost his mind. "Washington? Nope, well, not since I was a kid. It was boring. Museums, the White House, the Washington Monument. It's hot, dirty, and the crime rate's astronomical, and that's just counting the senators and congresspeople."
Ah. Wrong Washington. "I meant Washington state, not the District of Columbia."
"Oh. Well, no. Hadn't thought about it. Hadn't thought about anyplace, really. Why?"
"I'm told it's really quite nice. Rather like southern British Columbia. Mountains, ocean, temperate climate."
"Yeah, yeah, land of the free, home of the Starbucks. I get it. Yeah, it's probably nice. You thinking about a vacation?"
"Well, no, it's . . . I've. . . ah. . . ."
"You got a point?"
"There's a job Dr. Gustafsen told me about in Cascade, Washington. It's a two-year appointment."
Ray looked confused. "Hang on, I thought you were going back to Canada. Vancouver, right?"
"I was, but this opportunity is much better, and . . . it's in the United States."
"Okay," Ray said slowly. "And that makes a difference how?"
"Well, you see, even after NAFTA it's much more difficult for someone from the US to live and work in Canada than it is for someone from Canada to work here."
Ray was starting to look annoyed. He pulled out a chair, turned it around, and sat down in it backward, his arms crossed along its back. "Yeah, I got that last time we had this talk. Okay Ben, could you maybe back up and explain what the hell you're saying, in grade-school terms for the dummy?"
Ben frowned. "Ray, you're not a dummy."
"Well I sure as hell feel like one right now."
Ben bit his lip. This wasn't working. He was saying all the wrong things, or not saying enough things. Ray stared at him steadily, unblinking and Ben cracked his neck, once. "I . . . ."
"Spit it out, Ben."
"I applied for the job the day after the. . . incident. I just heard back today. I got it. And, I. . . well, I thought. . . his gaze went to the wooden floor, as if it held mysteries, or perhaps the answer he wanted to hear and dreaded. "I thought perhaps, since you have to move anyway, that you might be interested in. . . Washington."
The silence lengthened. He could feel Ray's eyes boring into him and he started to feel a little sick. He should have found a better way to ask; his hesitancy undoubtedly sounded less than flattering . . . and there was always the awful possibility that Ray wouldn't understand, wouldn't know how much courage it took to ask, how much his assent meant to Ben, that Ray would think he didn't really want . . . . Ray interrupted, finally, his spiraling panic. "Ben, did you just ask me to move to Washington with you?"
"Yes," he said, his voice coming out a whisper.
More silence. Then; "You applied for this job four days ago?"
Ben nodded, relieved that they were talking but unable to gauge Ray's reaction from his voice, which sounded curiously flat. "Yes. I faxed my application, and did an interview by phone, and another via satellite link. After what you and Mr. Welsh said, about you not being able to stay in Chicago. . . ."
"You didn't think I might want to know about that four days ago?" Ray interrupted, his voice no longer flat but definitely not happy.
Ben felt a clenching in his gut and scrambled to explain. "I wasn't sure it would come through. There were no guarantees. I didn't want to raise false hopes."
"Ben!" The chair scraped against the floor as Ray lurched to his feet, fists clenched.
The clenching in his gut twisted again, harder. "Ray, I . . . ."
Ray held up a hand, shaking his head. "No. No, it's my turn now. You usually do all the talking, but now I have to. How can you ask me to do this, to go with you? Why would I do that, when you don't trust me? No. No, been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, burned it and scattered the ashes. I can't do it again."
He turned, and was gone from the kitchen before Ben could translate the colloquialism into something he understood. He shook his head distractedly and followed Ray immediately. He found Ray back in the living room, kneeling beside his box of CDs, apparently intent on finding a particular one. Ben stood near him, uncertainly, waiting for him to finish, to look up. Eventually it became clear he wasn't going to. He cleared his throat. Still no reaction. He fought for words, which usually came so easily to him, but in the end all he could think to say was, "I do trust you, Ray." He said it quietly, barely audible over the clattering of the CD cases. "Implicitly."
Ray continued to sort through CD cases for a moment, but finally he looked up, his gaze level, his jaw clenched. They stared at each other for a moment and then Ray said, quietly too, "What kind of trust is it when you leave me in the dark about the important things, Ben?"
"I-- just wanted to spare you . . . ."
Ray shook his head. "No, Ben. Trust isn't sparing. Trust is telling. And if you can't see that, if you can't understand that, if you don't trust me enough to tell me everything, good or bad, then there's just no point in even trying. And if you can't figure out that I'd rather know than not know. . . " he shook his head. "I just don't know how to say it. I can't say it so you'll understand." He lifted his hands, then let them fall to his thighs in an eloquent expression of futility.
Comprehension exploded through Ben, making him ache with the clarity of the vision. First he had failed to tell Ray that he would have to leave until the event was nearly on them. Adding insult to injury, he'd finally confessed it the same week that Ray's ex-wife was to marry the man with whom she'd been unfaithful. Even if Ray no longer loved her as he once had, that had been painful nonetheless. On top of that mental pain Ray had endured the physical pain of a brutal beating out of loyalty and care. . . for Ben, then on its heels realized he must leave the security of his home, and job, and friends, simply in order to live.
And in the midst of that, Ben, who supposedly cared for him, had left him totally in the dark about the one thing that might have made it all a little easier to bear. Ray was right, absolutely right. He had not trusted him. Every time he'd had a problem, he'd tried to deal with it on his own, without involving Ray, because that was how he had always done it, what he knew. Or perhaps it wasn't Ray he didn't trust. Yes. He could feel the certainty of that deep in his bones. That was it.
"Ray, it's not you," he admitted in a whisper.
Ray looked up at him, puzzled. "What?"
"It's me. I don't trust myself. After. . . Victoria, I don't trust myself, my own judgment. I don't trust my ability to give what's needed, to make someone . . . want me."
Ray sighed, shaking his head. "Ben. Benton Fraser. No. You can't make someone want you. It either happens, or it doesn't, and no amount of trying will force it. But that isn't our problem, Ben, you know that. I trust you. You need to trust me, and trust yourself. You're not stupid. Yeah, you got burned, but you learned, too. Right?"
"I. . . .like to think I've learned."
"Then show me."
"How?" Ben asked, suddenly feeling lost, almost despairing. That was the problem, right there between them, a raw, open wound. Show him. He couldn't. He didn't know how. Never had. Probably never would. He shook his head, backing away. "I'm sorry, Ray. I don't. . . I don't . . . know how." He turned away, fighting tears, thinking he should probably go pack up his things and go back to his apartment. Ray wouldn't want him to stay here now. He took a step toward the hall that led to the bedrooms.
Ray's voice stopped him. He sounded irritated, but also strangely amused.
"Damn it, no. No." The word was said firmly, no quarter given. "There you go again. That's exactly what you've got to not do! You just gotta talk to me. Tell me things!" Ray's voice softened suddenly. "That's all it takes, Ben. That's all."
Ray made a soft sound then, clearly in pain, and Ben turned to find him struggling to get to his feet. Immediately he held out his hands and helped Ray up. Ray shook his head.
"Damn, I feel like I'm eighty," he complained, then looked into Ben's face, his expression an odd mixture of anger, exasperation, and affection. "Look Ben, you want me to come with you, I'll come, in a heartbeat, but you know it's going to be work," he said, startlingly solemn. "It's not all fun, not all roses. It's got to be sharing, everything. Everything. Hopes. Disappointments. All of it. Not just the good stuff. Tried that once, it doesn't work. Has to be everything. You got that? 'Cause if you don't, this won't work. It'll be hard enough as it is, you know we're gonna be freaks. But sharing is caring and caring is sharing and you can't cut me out because you don't want to upset me. Understand? For four days, I could have been worrying with you, hoping with you, and instead you do it all yourself. That's not buddies, Benton Fraser, and it's sure as hell not lo. . . um, more." Ray stopped suddenly and looked at the floor, his face flushed, his mouth set.
Ben blinked, his mouth open slightly in amazement as he realized what Ray had almost just said, before something had stopped him. Probably the same feeling of fear and social inappropriateness that had stopped Ben from saying it at least half a dozen times. "Ray? You . . . love. . .?" he couldn't finish the question.
Ray looked up again, through his lashes, obviously embarrassed, endearingly awkward, but, as always, honest. "Yeah."
Oh, God. That rocked him to the core. He had never thought to hear those words, had thought probably those words weren't meant for him . . . and then, another gift, another example of trust, from Ray, and the combination made them sweeter than he'd ever imagined. But he knew that look, that tentative, almost fearful look. Had felt it in himself, so often. And that look he could do something about. He knew how and what to say, even if he'd never said it before. "I . . . I love you, as well, Ray."
Ray's face lit with a smile that made Ben reach out and pull him close, holding him carefully, with his injured ribs in mind. Ray stood in his embrace for a moment, then pulled away, a serious, intent expression on his face.
"Love's a lot, Ben, but I know from experience it isn't always enough. I gotta know you heard me. From here on out, we share, right? Everything. Good and bad?"
Ben had to swallow around the lump in his throat before he could speak, but he nodded. "Yes. Good and bad."
Ray looked at him for a long moment, then he grinned, and shook his head. "Right. Like I believe that. But I know you'll try, and that's what I need. Need to know you'll try. I'm tough, Ben. I can take a lot. Don't treat me like a chick, okay?"
The image that sprang into Ben's head at that comment made him grin. "Trust me, Ray, I would never, ever, think of you in that context."
Ray grinned back, and winked. "Good. That's good. 'Cause, y'know, I just don't have the legs for mini-skirts."
After he managed to stop laughing, Ben found his voice again. "Ray, you know, it's sometimes quite unnerving how much alike we seem to think. It's almost as if you're . . . ." He paused, groped for a non-technical term.
"In your head?" Ray asked, softly. At Ben's surprised look, he nodded. "Yeah. I get that. Feel that way with you, sometimes. Like, we got a . . . connection. It's not like we're singing the same part, but kind of like we're two parts of the same song. A-- whattayacallit, a duet."
Ben smiled. "Yes, exactly."
Ray grinned back, sheepishly. "Yeah. I, um, sometime get a little mushy. . . "
"I would say, rather, romantic. And I like it."
"You do?" Ray's disbelief was patent.
Ben nodded. "I haven't had much. . . experience with that."
Ray studied him for a moment, then started to grin. "Oh, Ben, you so should not have told me that."
"I shouldn't? Why not?"
Ray just continued to grin. "No reason. None at all."
Ben eyed him narrowly. "Why do I have a bad feeling about this?"
"Because you're a suspicious sort. Can I ask you one more thing?"
"You can ask me anything."
"How come before you were all committed to going to Vancouver for that job, but now you'll take a different one?"
Ben looked at him steadily. "Because you mean more to me than a job. Before. . . well, I've learned not to assume that just because I feel a certain way that the feeling is mutual. My own desire to continue our relationship, to offer you a commitment, seemed presumptuous in light of the fact that you had expressed no sentiments that might have led me to believe you felt similarly."
Ray frowned for a moment. Then Ben saw understanding spread across his face and his gaze dropped, his expressive mouth turning down at the corners. "I'm sorry, Ben. I should've said. I knew you'd been burned. I should've said sooner how I felt. My fault."
Ben shook his head. "No, Ray, there is no fault here," he said vehemently "We both have understandable reasons why we would be reluctant to express our feelings openly. And I must confess that, at the time, I was simply . . . afraid. . . to speak up. I made an assumption that should you desire another long-term relationship, it, like your first, would most likely be with a woman, not a man."
Ray grinned. "Yeah, well, I have to admit that it wasn't exactly on my list of things I figured would happen to me, but . . ." he shrugged, "it did. And I'm glad it did. So I guess we were both coming from the same place. We wanted more but were afraid to ask."
Ben nodded, and Ray smiled. "Ben?"
"Next time, ask."
"You as well."
"You got it. Now, when do we eat?"
"As soon as I finish making the salads, why? Are you in a hurry?"
Ray grinned, and kissed him briefly, then stepped back. "Yeah. Sooner we eat, sooner we can go to bed."
Ben frowned. "Ray, are you sure you're up to . . . ."
"I know I'm a mess," Ray said ruefully. "We don't have to. . . do anything. I probably couldn't do much of anything even if I wanted to, the way my ribs are. I just want to, need to, be with you again. I . . . miss you."
"I've missed you as well, Ray," Ben said, reaching out to pull him close in a careful embrace. "Very much."
They stood, leaning into each other for a moment, and then Ray sighed.
"No, are you?"
They stood a moment longer and then Ray pulled away a little, looking at him. Ben nodded, a smile shaping his mouth. Ray grinned and they headed for the bedroom.
* * * finis * * *
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