"Benny, do you mind if I come up for a minute?"
They're parked in front of Fraser's building. It's hot, one of those draining days of suffocating heat that make Chicago summers so much better than the colder-than-a-witch's-tit Chicago winters. It'll be even hotter and more uncomfortable in that rat-trap apartment, but somehow that's fitting. No doubt Ray will burn in Hell for his sins anyway; might as well start early.
"Of course, Ray, come right up."
They trudge together up the narrow, dirty stairway, Ray a few stairsteps behind, trying to look at anything besides the half-hidden contours of his friend's well-muscled backside. A roach scuttles along the edge of a step, and Ray kicks at it without thinking, then curses himself for ruining the toe of his handsewn Italian loafer. It's not like he's going to make a dent in the insect population in this pit. Roach motels don't even work here; they're not big enough. What Benny needs is a roach townhome development. Then Ray realizes he's already standing in it.
Fraser strides into the apartment after ushering Ray in. Easy enough to stride in, or out, through a door that can't be locked. Ray wishes his life could be like that apartment, instead of the one where the walls keep moving closer in.
"I can offer you a bottle of water, Ray. Are you hungry? Diefenbaker has been harassing me relentlessly for pizza."
By some kind of luck or skill -- maybe it's mind over temperature; if anybody could do that, Fraser could -- the guy seems immune to the heat. He's standing as straight and tall and crisp as he always looks in front of the consulate. Or maybe it's some kind of Mountie aura, where people can only see what he wants them to see. If Ray hadn't watched the man sweat once with his own eyes, he wouldn't believe it could happen.
"No. I mean, I won't stay long, but I think I will need that water." Already his throat is as dusty as that disgusting hallway. He needs to do this, though; he's been thinking about it for a long time. Normally he doesn't let the truth get in the way of living his life, but he's up against it now. He just can't take another day of this low-grade torture.
It was like a scientific experiment at first. Executive boredom relief. In his off moments, Ray played Let's Watch Benny. He wanted to know if the guy ever really sweated or if perspiration was just a theory to him. As the early spring weather rocketed into unseasonably hot, he checked that dark hairline every chance. Sometimes he tried to catch a peek under the stiff collar. OK, so that sounds kinky now, but then, it was just something to do. He never thought twice about it until he found himself thudded painfully in a sidewalk sandwich, in between cement and serge. Goddamn, Fraser was heavy, and the Sam Browne dug into Ray's ribs through the silk of his shirt.
He could hear Dief barking half a block away; must have cornered the perp. At least the half-mile sprint they'd just done was good for something.
"Ray, are you all right?" Panting and wide-eyed, Benny could've just got the hell off him, but practicality wasn't always Benny's strong point. "Ray?"
He didn't respond, because his attention was riveted by the miraculous: a bead of sweat was rolling silently down Fraser's temple. The voice talking at him drifted farther away.
Entranced, Ray watched as the drop of moisture trailed along the strong cheekbone. His eyes followed it as it fell, in slow motion, landing with the world's tiniest splash just above Ray's upper lip. He licked it away.
Later, he tried to blame that on hitting his head on the sidewalk.
That might have worked, except his body operated on its own agenda.
Giving a pat or a hug was something that came naturally to Ray, but you didn't do that kind of stuff to other guys, especially not other cops. Fraser was an outsider, a foreigner, and something about that made it okay. If he'd ever thought about it, he'd have said it was a public service. Nobody else touched Fraser, ever, and weren't you supposed to need seven hugs a day just to stay sane? Benny leaned toward crazy on a good day; Ray was just holding the forces of nature in check.
After the sidewalk incident, things changed. Putting a friendly arm across Benny's shoulders made him think about getting closer than was strictly friendly. A casual pat on the back tried to make itself into a caress. More than once he'd caught his hand sliding down Benny's smooth back toward that rounded ass. Hanging over the guy when he was sitting at the computer was even more dangerous. He tended to list Bennyward, drawn closer and closer to the back of that pale neck. Tiny disordered hairs curled at the nape, the only thing on Fraser that escaped Royal Canadian Mounted Precision.
He couldn't seem to make it stop, and it all made him nervous. It was hard to act normal when the terrain was littered with land mines, and the next step he took could blow everything to Hell.
"Thanks," he says, as Fraser hands him a bottle of comfortingly cold water. Even Minimal Man doesn't try to make him drink tap water, which Ray appreciates, and thank God he at least believes in refrigeration if not electric lights. He closes his eyes and just holds on to the coolness.
"Would you perhaps like to have a seat?" There's no mistaking Fraser's curiosity. His head is tilted like a bird's, and he looks like he's checking Ray for identifying marks or scars.
"No, I'll just be here a minute." He can't do this. He can not spill his guts and then have Fraser look at him like he's just another cockroach. But he has to. Otherwise, Fraser will be hurt when Ray goes to find something and someone else to do. Ray is Fraser's best friend. Hell, his only friend, not counting Dief. There's also that little problem of the truth, which is gnawing at him with miserable tiny teeth that he can feel in his skin. He doesn't even know why telling the truth is so friggin' important all of a sudden.
Clutching tightly at his bottle of water, he fights his own self-preservation instinct. It's telling him to run. It's winning. He sways a little, still torn, before finally croaking out, "I've gotta go, Benny."
"Yes, you'll be in San Francisco next week. You mentioned Lieutenant Welsh was sending you to the conference. Was that what you wanted to talk to me about?"
"No. I can't . . . I have to . . . I need to sit down." By the way Benny hustles a chair under him, he has a funny feeling that he looks sick. He wants to stay friends, but he can't do it by running. Sooner or later, being the sharp-eyed guy he is, Benny's going to figure out what's going down with Ray. Then everything will be in the toilet. He fills his lungs with the sticky heat. "I can't be around for a little while."
Dark brows draw together. "Why?" Fraser folds himself onto the one other butt-killer chair, and for the hundredth time lately Ray's staring at those hands. For as much hard work as they've put in, they're so clean and unscarred, nails neatly trimmed. They look like the hands of a younger man.
"I just need some time to myself. It's no big deal."
"Have I offended you in some way?" The honest confusion on Fraser's face stings like sweat in a paper cut.
"No, it's not like that."
"Please, Ray, tell me what you mean."
He's a cop; he should have known better. He came in without backup, without a story, what was he thinking? He gives up his last thread of hope that this will be easy. "Look, Benny. This is. . . It's hard for me to say this. I want to be around you too much, do you get it?"
"No, I don't 'get it.' I like to be around you, too." Defiant, worried, and there's that damned line between his eyebrows again. The one that Ray wants to nudge away with his lips, and how fucked up is that?
"Not like this, you don't." He tries to smile, but he doesn't think it's working from the look he gets in return. He wants to crawl under the piece-of-shit kitchen table. It would help if Benny wasn't so damn dense. "You gotta know I tried. I did." He's pleading for understanding here, and the guy doesn't even know what he's talking about. It's worthless. It might help if he could look Benny in the face, too, but he can't. He doesn't have to look up at the patient gaze; he can feel it all over him. He feels naked. He picks at the weave of his slacks, and babbles on.
"I want us to be friends. You're my best friend. But for now, I kinda hit a snag. I want -- " bile is rising in his throat and he has to cough, "more."
"What do you want, Ray?" The concern in his friend's soft voice tempts him to spit it all out. Now he knows what it's like to be interrogated by Fraser. You just want to tell him.
Acid roils in his stomach. He jumps up and paces off a few steps, then turns, determined to get this over with.
"Everything, Benny. I want everything." For some stupid reason he thinks this is self-explanatory, but it's not.
"You know that anything I have is yours. You only have to tell me."
That goddamn soothing tone again! Ray is in lust, not insane, can't Benny see the difference? "This isn't like letting your pals build a sweat lodge in your living room!" He has the grace to be a little ashamed of yelling, but not nearly enough to apologize.
Benny nods encouragingly; he's as relaxed as he gets, doesn't look the least bit worried over what Ray's going to come out with. And sure, why not? Isn't Ray the guy that does whatever Benny wants? Why should Benny be worried about what he might say? He rubs the heel of his hand along his slippery forehead, trying to ease the pounding behind his eyes. So much pressure, and he's tired of hurting. The walls are closer, pushing harder in than they ever have, and Ray's got to open the damn door and get out of here.
Recklessly, he leans into Benny's face, one hand on the peeling back of Benny's chair and one hand on the table.
"Give me what you gave Victoria."
There's a hiss. Benny's face pales from the top down, like pulling a cheap window shade. He looks like he's going to puke. "You want to strip me of everything I hold dear, Ray?" His voice is tight, disbelieving.
"No." Perspiration trickles uncomfortably down the valley of his spine. His shirt is sticking to him, and his jacket is probably shot. He didn't even have to dumpster-dive to ruin this one. How come he feels so cold when it's so damned hot? Hands shaking, he grabs white-knuckled at the crisscross of leather straps on the red tunic. "I want to strip you."
"You want -- you want -- "
Carefully, he unbends his clenched fingers, lets go of Benny's uniform, and slumps back into the crappy excuse for a kitchen chair, elbows on the table, his face in his hands.
"I want sex, Benny. I want you." His muffled voice seems to bounce off the bare walls, a taunt he didn't need. As fucking humiliating as this is, at least he hasn't had to talk about everything. The worst is over.
"You want . . . to have sexual relations with me." Ray saw a guy catch a solid hit on the back of his head with a booze bottle in a barfight once. That guy had the same stunned look that's Benny's now, right before he dropped. Searchlight eyes catch his from under those long dark lashes.
Ray blinks first.
"You don't want to destroy my life, you don't want to hurt me; you are in fact trying explain that you want to avoid hurting me." Ray can see that mind ticking over as his friend talks; there's a hint of satisfaction there as Benny draws his conclusion. "You'll accomplish this by staying away from me. You want sex . . . so you're going to go elsewhere . . . and find someone else to fill your needs." Now Benny looks almost offended, eyes narrowed, his mouth stuck in that stubborn line Ray knows so well. It's the 'we're going to rethink this and do it my way' look. "Who?"
"Who?" Ray parrots the question, since there isn't an answer. How much better can this get? "Who the hell cares?" Jesus. What a thing to ask. "Anybody, so long as it's not you."
Benny closes his eyes, like he can't stand to look at Ray. The stubborn line slides slowly down off his face, leaving the corners of his mouth drooping. "Why not me?"
Ray's head whips back with a snap and a crackle. Pain blooms down his spine and through his shoulders, and he cringes as small arms fire pops off in his head. He rubs his aching neck, staring stupidly. It's what he gets for coming here instead of keeping his appointment at the chiropractor. Benny's mouth keeps moving, but the words coming out are too weird.
"Am I correct? Is that what you want?" Benny asks. Calm, measuring look again; now his friend's gently prompting for an explanation, like Ray said something perfectly normal, something understandable. He just fucking said what he wanted, how many times does he have to repeat himself? Aren't any of those Canadian synapses working? Hell, Ray doesn't understand it himself; he can hardly explain it to Benny. Maybe if one day Benny woke up with a yen for Ray-flavored antipasto instead of crap off the sidewalk, he'd get it. Until then, forget it.
His partner continues. "Let me do this for you."
Are they even talking about the same thing, here? Ray doesn't know how to make it any clearer; he feels like he's trying to beam a signal to Mars. Maybe he should send out a space probe. "Do what?"
"Let me be your sex partner." Benny leans forward earnestly, a heat-limp lock of hair falling across his forehead, and takes Ray's cold hands between his own warm ones. "It's a small price to pay for your friendship."
Ray feels his face go slack. "Price? What price? You don't pay for friends! Even if they want to fuck you, you don't have to bend over!" With an effort, he lowers his voice to somewhere in the normal range. "That's what being friends is, don't you know anything?"
"A good friendship is built on equality, Ray. There is give and take from both parties. You've helped me many times, and my life is much richer for your presence. I'm quite willing to provide physical comfort."
Physical comfort. Ray's losing his mind. It just fell out his left ear and oozed down his arm. Good thing this jacket needed to go to the cleaners anyway. "What are you saying? I can't believe you're saying that." Ray wants a drink. No. He needs a drink. He swallows hard. "That's crazy! You're fucking crazier than I am! My pop told me once--never fuck anybody crazier than you are."
It's so strange for Benny to reach out and touch him, and it feels so good, that Ray's shaken. He was scraping the bottom of the barrel for composure in the first place. He wants to just stay forever and let Benny hold his hands. Maybe he can still finesse his way out of this, say the heat got to him, leave with no harm done.
But if he does, everything will be worse tomorrow.
"Would you rather I protested like a schoolgirl, Ray?"
"No, I'd rather just take the last shreds of my sanity and get the fuck outta here." He tugs weakly; the hold on his hands is gentle but solid.
"Ray, don't go. Please. I have no intention of losing your friendship over something like this."
Benny's long fingers are wrapped around his pulse, and his blood carries jumbled messages back. Ray can't decode them. "Is this some kinda Canadian humor, here? I just told you I'm after your bod! And you're saying, 'Here, take it on a platter'?" His words become that piercing whine that even he can't stand.
"In a word, yes."
"Did you come from a long line of insane people, Benny? Or is it just you? 'Cause I'd like to know where the hell you got these ideas from."
"From my grandparents."
His voice is headed up on the scale again. "Your grandparents? What, your grandparents told you, 'Go out and meet some nice friends and screw them'?" Damned if Benny really didn't come from a pack of loons.
"Well, perhaps I should say it was the many Victorian novels I read from the traveling library during my formative years." Ray leans forward, wondering what the hell he's going to hear next, as Benny starts to expound.
"You see, Ray, the Victorians didn't romanticize sexuality in the same way modern Western society does. Marriages were contracted, and sexuality was strictly socially regulated, more like a medium of exchange. Barter, if you will. A form of giving, very broadly, to those to whom one owed allegiance -- at the time, of course, on the surface, restricted to husband and wife."
Benny's enthusiastically telling Ray about the new friendship exchange rate. He could be talking about the weather. The afternoon shadows are lying around the apartment, and the sun's fading toward the buildings across the street. The dull yellow heat coming through the window gives Benny's paleness a nice, healthy glow. His teeth show up extra white. Ray wonders what, in Benny's opinion, his friendship is worth in trade. A faint, almost hysterical giggle bubbles up through Ray's chest when he thinks about giving at the office.
Oh, Christ, it's time to bag this before Benny starts explaining Tiny Tim. God help us, every one.
Ray has to dig as deep as he can for enough guts to put the next one on the table. He doesn't like to think about it too much. He's losing the feeling in his fingers, but it's his own hold on Benny that's the problem. He tries to loosen up without letting go. He needs something to steady himself. The words don't come easy.
"I shot you. I'm the one who owes you." The words float between them on the late-day dust motes.
"You've risked your own life for mine," is the quiet answer, "and that bullet was its own blessing." Ray can't believe his ears, but his partner's topped out on the one to ten sincerity scale. He's doing it all--the wide eyes, the slightly parted lips, the set of his shoulders. Every fiber in his body leans toward Ray. The way Benny's holding their hands looks like prayer.
Ray sags back. Benny has to take a dive on this one, admit that he's talking out of his ass. "Look. Here's the deal. I want more than friends. And I want it more than once. You know what that means."
"It means you want me to be your partner. I can do that, I promise you." Benny is completely serious, but it's a different kind of serious from when he's snowing Ray up one side and down the other. It's even different from when Benny really believes the shit he's saying. It takes Ray a minute to figure out what the look on his face is. It's . . . imploring. Benny is still holding Ray's hands.
"You can't do that, Benny. You don't want me like that." Ray is doing a little imploring of his own, grabbing Benny's hands too tight again, trying to get to an explanation that will make the floor lay flat. Benny looks away.
"Well, strictly speaking . . ." He pulls a hand from their clasp, covers his eyes and passes it down slowly over his face. "I don't want anybody, not in the purely physical sense. I believe people like myself are properly referred to as asexual--lacking interest in, or desire for, physical relations. However, I most assuredly do love you. I," Benny falters, and clears his throat. "That is the most necessary trait in a . . . lover, is it not?"
The floor is still rocking, but this explains a shitload about Benny.
Jerking his hands away, Ray rides a bitter memory. "What about with her? I saw you. You looked like you went ten rounds with a rabid polar bear and loved every minute. You stunk like that bitch, I could smell you from the doorway--" Ray stops and closes his eyes. Those old scars are rippling from the inside like worms under his skin; in a minute they'll tear open again with the grief, the pain, the rage.
"She wanted to have sex with me," he starts, but flinches away from Ray's outraged snarl.
"Don't even! Don't even try to make me think you didn't want her!" The words are so hard and sharp they rip little pieces from Ray's chest on the way out.
Benny stands up slowly, like an old man, and walks carefully to the window, eyes glued to the empty street outside. Ray can barely hear his whisper. "I wanted to do anything she wanted." There's a muted crunch as the rotting window frame gives a little under Benny's crushing grip.
"But . . . if you didn't even want to fuck her, then why?" Ray is lost.
"Sex isn't important to me, Ray," he starts out firm and then wavers a little, "but she knew who I was. She knew, somehow, that we were alike--that there was a darkness inside me. And even though she knew me, she said she loved me." A choked noise turns into a cough. "I was . . . empty. I had nothing for so many years."
"Empty," Ray repeats. He's empty too, his insides scooped out and left on the table. Why did he think Benny could fill him with answers when all he's getting is babble he can't make sense of? "Everybody wants you."
He gets up and walks over to the window, standing next to the man who's carried his heart for two years. The women he's known couldn't even come close. Ange was a friend. Irene was everything he ever wanted--when he was seventeen. Suzanne was a fantasy. He could let her go and smile about it because he already had someone real standing next to him.
Now, like then, it's Benny, the man who's been with him through everything. Even through that miserable bitch. He's stabbed by a vicious satisfaction. Because of that little piece of lead, Benny's still here and Victoria's all gone.
Benny turns to face him. His dry eyes are rimmed with red. It makes the blue bluer. Ray feels like he's watching a bad accident, only this is taking a lot longer.
"They don't know me."
He can see it in the drawn, nearly haggard face; Benny doesn't know. Somehow, the obvious has slid right by.
He's got to tell him. It's the rest of the truth, the final secret that he didn't know was really a secret. Benny deserves to know that Ray's feelings for him are different, special. Maybe it'll make up for being lusted after by yet another person Benny doesn't want. That's more important than saving the scraps of dignity he's got left. Somebody said that the truth would set him free, and he hopes to God they were right.
"I know you." It's there, and yet he almost can't get it out. It's like shoveling gravel. He's said it to Benny before, but now Benny will know what he really means. "I love you."
Benny leans toward him and puts a hand on Ray's shoulder, then pulls him into an awkward hug. Ray doesn't know what to do. "You don't have to. . ." he says. His fingers curl up one by one, but his arms hang at his sides.
"It's all right to touch me, Ray."
"I don't. . ." He doesn't know what the rest of the sentence was going to be, but his hands move all by themselves around Benny's back, around the bright wool and the leather straps and the warm body that he loves.
He's going to lean his face into that scratchy wool shoulder, but somehow his head tilts back instead. When Benny looks at him questioningly, Ray presses against those smooth soft lips and takes what he's wanted for so long. His eyes sting, so he closes them.
Benny doesn't kiss back, exactly, but the way he relaxes and opens his mouth seems like a good start. His hands tighten briefly on Ray's ribs and then let go; Ray pulls away, though he doesn't want to. "You okay?"
Benny blinks. His lips stay parted for a second like he forgot what he was going to say, and then he answers. "Of--of course." He has a funny look on his face, not like the concentrated mud-sniffing face, but not a lot better. Didn't like it too much.
"I don't. . ." The wrong start again. "You shouldn't do this. It's wrong. I'm sorry I said anything. I didn't mean it. I'll always be your friend, Benny." He will be. It'll be like it always was, and when that root-canal hurt comes back, there's all different kinds of Novocaine in Chicago.
"Wait." Pause. "It's hard to explain."
Welcome to my world, Ray thinks. No caribou story for this one. Ray lets him get it together. He wanders to the table and examines it carefully. The scratches on the surface haven't changed, even if everything else has.
Benny walks over to the cupboards and starts pulling stuff out at random, then looks at it like he doesn't know what the hell it is. He picks up a can of baked beans, turns it around in his hands. "I'm thirty-six years old. I want more than friendship. I've always wanted more, I've just never found it."
"With a guy?"
"With someone who loves me." There's such aching finality that Ray knows there's been no one.
Ray thinks about Angie, how she didn't want it that bad either. But that was never the problem. Some weeks a snuggle on the couch was enough. Anxiety wrestles with possibility, and he has to stop that, cool off, use his head. Just because Benny is talking crazy doesn't mean Ray shouldn't use the sense God gave him.
"Don't tell me you think we can do this." Like Benny has a useful answer for that one. Something has his common sense in a headlock. Yes. Just say yes.
"I know it. I can show you, if you'll let me."
Ray's being moved, gently adjusted against the table, and Benny's hands are de-belting him, undoing his slacks, skimming the boxers down over Ray's hips. His mind's still going around hairpin turns of longing and need, and it's hard to follow what's going on. Benny smells like hot wool and the sweat that Ray once saw. He smells real, and Ray breathes it in deep.
In full dress uniform, glowing red against the dim, grungy apartment, Ray's best friend is on his knees ready to suck him off.
Broad hands slide against Ray's bare skin, pulling him closer. Moaning, Ray clutches at the edge of the table; he can't help it. He knows where he is, but how in the hell did he get here? He's standing bare-assed and watching, but he still jerks in surprise when tender lips carefully touch the tip of his already hard cock. His body's with the program, even if his brain isn't. Benny slides his mouth over the head, pouring gasoline on the heat Ray's endured all summer. The lightest touch of teeth along his shaft strikes the match.
Hot. Hot. Benny's mouth is burning him up, and he can't stop himself from pushing into it, crying out as his friend takes it. It doesn't last long. When his release is wrung out and it's done, Ray crumples to the floor, the table edge scraping every knob of his backbone on the way down. Mindless, exhausted, he lets Benny help him up, fix his pants, and lead him to the door.
"I love you," he says. "I love you."
He knows he's lucky to get home in one piece. He can't think about Benny doing him and then shoving him out the door. He can't think about anything; he's absurdly grateful to escape his family long enough to get upstairs and fall on the bed. He sleeps in his clothes for hours until, groggy, he wakes up enough to pull them off and get under the sheets.
That night, the weather breaks.
The next day, when he gives Benny a ride to work, he keeps looking at Benny's face out of the corner of his eye to see whether there's any change. Some kind of recognition, some acknowledgement that things are different. It doesn't happen.
There's no nudge-nudge-wink-wink, no longing looks. He's not even pissed off in that pouty way of his. Ray can always recognize that; he's Italian, after all. The Italian women he knows have passive-aggressive down to an art even Benny can't match. There's only open friendliness and a few tired lines around his eyes. He acts just like Ray didn't fuck his face last night.
Ray does the same damn thing every day. Picks up the Mountie, chats aimlessly with him, drops him off at work. Drives to the station. Spends all his time trying not to think about what happened the night before. Trying not to think about shoving his dick into Benny's mouth. About how hot and wet that mouth is, just like he'd dreamed it would be. How good Benny's hands feel on his ass.
Then, after work, they go to Benny's and do it again.
The only visible difference is that whenever Ray looks at his partner, Fraser's looking somewhere else. Benny fucking feels guilty about something, and Ray knows it. He just doesn't know what it is, and damn it, he's not going to ask. Benny's a big boy. When was the last time he did something he didn't want to do? If there's something wrong, he can just say so.
The trouble is, everything's wrong with this picture.
Benny doesn't kiss him. Hell, there are lots of things Benny doesn't do, now. He doesn't talk. He doesn't do anything with Ray. No matter what Benny said about the sex lives of dead people, one blowjob pulled the plug. What's left of their friendship is making sucking sounds as it swirls down the drain. Ray doesn't know if they can ever have it back, or if it'll just be gone, like it never existed.
The trouble is, Ray's a coward.
He wasn't strong enough to say no the first time, and he's not now. He's getting what he asked for, isn't he? He should have been more careful.
When the weekend rolls around, Ray loses it. He doesn't know what to do. He's always spent time with Benny on the weekends. What if Benny wants to get him off and get him out like he does every night after work? He couldn't live with that. He's not going to put it to the test. He makes up some excuse, says he's going out of town. He saw a movie once where they killed a witch by putting a door on top of her and piling rocks on it. He can hardly breathe right now.
It's a long fucking weekend, and things don't get much better on Monday.
Three more work days and two more mind-altering blowjobs later, Ray's walking up the stairs behind Benny again. He doesn't want it to be like this, but he's hard already anyway. Inside the door, he reaches out to pull his friend close, but Benny ducks out of the embrace like he does every day. The guy's nothing if not efficient--has him up against the wall with his pants down in seconds, and it takes Ray a little longer to get some words together.
"Benny, wait." His friend's eyebrows quirk, killer blue look up Ray's body, beautiful wet mouth still rounded on his dick. How can the guy look so untouched while he's doing that, while he's tearing Ray apart? Turning down anything Benny wants to give him is so crazy that he doesn't even know he's doing it until the words come out. "Stop a minute, okay?"
He can't take it any more. This is what guys do, he knows, but he can't stand that his best friendship feels like a nameless play-for-pay behind the men's toilets in Grant Park. Any minute he expects to get caught in the headlights of a squad.
Benny leans back, face pink and flustered. He wipes the corner of his mouth a little with the edge of his hand. "Don't you like it?"
"No, I don't like it!" he blurts out, and is instantly sorry. It's true, but the truth always hurts, and Benny looks plenty hurt right now, hunched over, head down like he's ashamed of something. "I mean, that's not what I meant, I do like it, I like it a lot, I was just, I just wanted . . ." He has no fucking idea how to say it.
'Another day, another blowjob' isn't what he wants out of life. For a long time now, Benny's been looking like his life. He's got to do something, change something, and he's got to do it now. He just doesn't know how. "I was thinking, hoping for . . . more."
"What kind of more?"
"Just more!" He waves his hands, waving at everything in the world, maybe. "I was hoping we'd find something to do that you like, too." Something that didn't make Ray feel like he should be hauled to the station in cuffs. Like he should hand this stranger at his feet a twenty. "I could, uh, try to do that for you. Just to try it?"
"I thought I could let that happen, but I . . . I can't." There's an edge of despair in his voice. "I don't mind doing this for you."
Benny doesn't mind. Now there's politeness for you. Ray's never heard anything that made him feel more like slime. His head hurts, his eyes hurt, hell, all of him hurts. Benny's face has gone to blank now and he's doing up Ray's slacks, staring at nothing somewhere around Ray's crotch.
"I enjoy giving you pleasure." Benny is looking up now, pleading with him, please don't make me. He can see it all over his friend's face, but he doesn't get it; please don't make me what? Benny's the one who pulls Ray's pants down. The closest Ray's gotten to reciprocating over a week of blowjobs is Benny taking off his tunic, and he's pretty sure that's mostly to prevent stains. Ray slides down the doorframe, splinters catching at his shirt.
"You, you like doing this?"
He doesn't believe that. "Why, then? Why won't you let me?" If Ray was looking at anybody in the world besides Benny, he'd swear there was a flash of fear on his face. But he's never seen Benny scared of anything. He can't be thinking that Ray would ever hurt him. That's impossible. There's something missing, here, and it's confusing the hell out of him, but he doesn't have enough brain cells to deal.
"I can't, Ray. I'm sorry. I am so sorry. I wanted to be your lover, very badly." His friend's voice thins out and it scratches against Ray's ears. "But there isn't anything more. I don't have anything else to give you." He sounds so sure. Ray pushes down panic. He's never been able to change Benny's mind about anything.
All the blood's being squashed out of his body. He feels like he's being crushed by the dead weight of what he wants. In two minutes he's going to be nothing but a smear on Benny's floor. "We can't do this." He gestures weakly downward toward his now-zipped fly. God. If he could have kept it in his pants in the first place, none of this would have happened. Oh, God. He wanted so much, so bad, had one chance, and it went to hell so fast.
He tries one more time. "Don't you want more out of . . . of sex than just giving me a quick blowjob?"
There's just got to be more, even for guys. Ray's inner voice is strident, demanding, but when it comes out of his mouth it's just a croak. "Why are you doing this?"
For a second it seems like all the vitality is sucked right out of Benny, leaving him looking like some kind of fake Fraser, one with less . . . everything. Less confidence, less competence, less of that clean shiny sparkle that buffs up everything in a two mile radius. It's an aura, all right, but it's not a Mountie aura, it's all Fraser. Without it, he looks like a sad man sitting on the floor. Ray hurts for him without even knowing what's wrong.
"I've had some . . . experience."
No shit. Sometimes when he comes in here he thinks he can still smell the two of them together. But--wait a minute. A whole new thought, an unpleasant one, unfolds in Ray's head. What if she wasn't the only one? "Was this--uh, experience--a good experience or a bad experience?" He already knows the answer.
"Our experiences are what we make of them."
Yeah, he knows.
"Benny," he says gently. Ray looks at the white slide of neck, the golden highlights on his friend's profile as he turns his head to stare out the window that's half a room away. He watches Benny's throat try to work the words out.
"It was at Depot--one of my instructors. I won't bore you with the details. I-I'm afraid I felt a bit of hero worship for him." His face is getting red.
Jesus. Sometimes it sucks to be right. Fraser at nineteen, fresh and duty-bound and more innocent than any other nineteen-year-old on the planet.
"I was honored by his notice. In return, he showed me what two men do together."
Fraser, part grown man but still part kid, lost and alone. Regina was a lot bigger than Moose Jaw. Ray remembers the vise-like pressure of his first semester in college, the first time he had to work for grades. The first kid in his family to go to college, he found out Loyola was a long way from the old neighborhood, and not in geography. Multiply that by a father who's a legend instead of a drunk, and compound the interest with two old people who read a lot of books but didn't know shit.
"What happened?" Does he really want to hear this?
"He tired of me very quickly. I endeavored to match his enthusiasm, but I never could meet his expectations." Benny closes his eyes; maybe he doesn't like what he's seeing. God knows Ray doesn't. "I couldn't respond with the . . . eagerness he wished for."
It's a poor workman who blames his tools. The passing thought horrifies him, and he's damned glad his mouth stays shut for once.
"I was found wanting."
Ray feels like he's going to be sick. He knew this was going to be bad, but trust Benny to have found the crappiest first time in history. "Don't you realize how wrong that is? He -- around here they call that sexual harassment. Don't tell me they call it something different up north."
"I was old enough to make my own decisions." Benny is looking at the floor, tracing the gouge from somebody's heavy furniture with his index finger. Stubborn. And always right.
What kind of a decision was it for a kid who never even knew what a family was to reach out for what he needed? "That wasn't a decision, Benny, that was survival. And what he did was wrong."
His friend's voice is just a whisper. "For the first time I could remember, I felt wanted."
No, no way. To hear his friend defend that asshole--to know for certain how desolate, how cold Benny's life was. . . Ray thinks of polar bears in a snowstorm. In Benny's life, that was real. Benny doesn't like sex, doesn't want it, and Ray can't blame him. Sex has not been a good thing for him.
"This was a terrible mistake. I didn't know." Totally fucked, from one end to the other. He's hurting Benny, and that's worse than anything. "I'm sorry, Benny. Look, we won't do this again, okay? I promise."
Ray doesn't know what else to do. He knows what he wants to do. He wants to kill that son of a bitch. He doesn't know whether he wants to go to Canada and break the bastard's neck because he hurt Benny, or whether he wants to plug the asswipe full of hollow-points because he fucking ruined Ray's life.
Benny doesn't look any happier, like Ray thought he would. His eyes are closed, his head is bent. "Are we still friends?" Benny asks softly. He looks like he's waiting for the blade to come down.
Ray's not the blade.
"We're friends, Benny. I said, always." Ray reaches out, touches Benny's cheek. He wants to hold Benny, to really touch him, to get through somehow, but he can't fight Benny's whole life. He just lost, there's no way around it. He has to go, but he's leaving his heart on the floor of a slum apartment in Chicago. It's lying there bleeding next to Benny, who can't even fucking see it. He's still looking back at people who used him and threw him away.
It's late. For him and Benny, about fifteen years late. Ray's got to get going; he wasn't happy about going to the conference, but now he's desperate to get out of here.
"I have to go to the airport."
But neither of them knows what to say, and Ray has to go. He shuts the unlockable door carefully on his way out.
Jesus. He's going to be crippled by the time he gets to San Francisco. His knees are practically digging him in the chest, it's so cramped. But the truth is, he's okay with being crammed into the crummy coach seat on the 727. For one thing, he doesn't have to pay for it--although couldn't Welsh spring for business class just once? For another, he's just so damned happy to be going someplace else at five hundred fifty miles an hour.
Ray's had to field a lot of truth in Chicago lately.
The first, and biggest, was that there was more behind his divorce than the way he spent money and the way Angie kept house. They cared about each other, but what they had just wasn't enough. She deserved more. He still wishes sometimes that it could have been different, but those are the kind of regrets that eat you alive.
He's not sure, but he thinks maybe Angie thought the real reason they split up was because she couldn't have kids. But she never said that outright, and he couldn't have told her the real reason back then. No way in hell could he have said it to her when he couldn't even say it to himself. Now that she's married to another cop, it's too late. The death of his marriage was a blessed release, not a guilt-draped burial.
He runs the tip of his index finger around the rim of the sweating plastic cup of ginger ale the stewardess handed him ten minutes ago, and looks at the picture of His Holiness John Paul II on the cover of last week's Time magazine. It's sticking out of the pocket in the seat ahead of him, and all he can see is the white hat. That doesn't matter, because the Pope is on the other side of the world. Anything that guy thinks is millions of miles away from Ray's life.
He was never as Catholic as he should have been. Ray was a bright kid, and he learned fast. His big clue came at his first confession, when the priest fell asleep. The Church was flawed, just like everybody who handed down the rules. Just like his father, his teachers, and later his bosses. Learning to make his own rules was part of growing up.
Still, he's never had enough reason to step up to the line, the one that says this far and no farther, the one that says fucking a man is a lot like killing a man.
Until Fraser. Until now.
He's known all along it was love--there's just no other way to explain the crazy shit he does when Benny's around. What kind of love was not something he thought about much. It was just so much fun to play urban sophisticate to Fraser's credulous innocent, and it made him feel so good--needed and important--even after he understood that his friend was about as helpless as a mama grizzly bear, and equally determined.
No question-- he'll do anything for Fraser, but looking down at that line was more unnerving than anything his pal's ever gotten him into. Loving a man that deep-down good was the only thing that gave him enough courage to face facts.
When he was finally willing to say, "Basta!" -- enough shoving his feelings away, enough lies--he took off his gold cross for the last time. He hung it on the corner of the mirror in his bedroom. He couldn't wear it anymore. It still means something to him, but not what it used to.
Maybe he'd have been able to avoid that line forever if not for Fraser, but that's not to blame the guy. Benny can't help it if he's a walking wet dream, as much to Ray as to the hordes of women strewn in his path. That was Ray's problem, it's still Ray's problem, and he's got no idea how he's going to deal. He had one little piece of what he wanted, and then he couldn't keep it. All that self-realization shit was worth a big fucking zero. Nada. Niente.
Ray's brain finally shuts down and he sleeps fitfully. He dreams of trying to claw his way out of a toy car with a dozen other clowns.
The purple and yellow paisley pattern of the plush wool pile under his feet is enough to make him gag. He can't believe anybody would spend that much money on something so awful. Who did Sheraton's conference rooms, Attila the Interior Designer? He's wondering why he thought coming here was a good idea. The plastic folding chair -- not to mention the lecture -- is making his ass tired.
He's drifting in a sea of cops, trying to stop thinking about this week, trying to keep his mind on how they use maggots to determine time of death. So far, everything he's heard reminds him of Benny. Ray can almost hear his clear voice waxing eloquent about the stages of decomposing flesh. Ray should have stayed home. Call in sick at the last minute and five cops would've been standing in line to go to San Francisco. At home, he'd at least be where he could hassle Frannie, and get Ma's chicken soup and sympathy when he pretended to be sick. Something about being surrounded by so many strangers makes his stomach curl up.
This was the only slot of the afternoon with any hope of taking Ray's mind off his problems, and it's not doing it. Too bad the ME who's doing the seminar can make even the gory details boring as hell. As the speaker calls for questions, Ray looks around for the quickest way out. Relief barrels in and a big smile spreads across his face when he meets a pair of familiar eyes. They're warm and they're blue and they suck him right out of his chair. He's halfway to the guy standing near the double doors when his feet falter. Ray has no idea who this guy is.
He doesn't even look like somebody Ray might hang around with.
He keeps moving anyway, pulled to the man with the tie-dye shirt, the ratty jeans, the wild hair, the friendly face. Ray could sure use friendly right now. The tag on the rainbow explosion reads Blair Sandburg, Civilian Consultant, Cascade PD. Ray's looking pretty stupid walking up to a total stranger, and the guy's laughing at him, or with him, or maybe he's just high on life. He's smiling, looks a little wired--crackling with energy, and Ray suns himself in that smile like a lizard. The man sticks out a broad, warm hand.
"I'm Blair Sandburg. Nice suit."
That's something he doesn't expect to hear from a guy who looks like he crawled out of a rag bag, but Ray's glad he wore the Nino Cerruti as he shakes that hand. The navy worsted makes his eyes greener, and a little shoulder padding doesn't hurt either.
"Thanks." They're getting shoved out the door by the escaping crowd. "Ray Vecchio. Had enough maggots for today?"
"For a lifetime, you know? That almost spoiled my appetite."
Ray'd slept through any hope of breakfast, and he hadn't given a damn about lunch. He grabs at any way to stay with Friendly. "You meeting somebody for dinner?"
"Naw. I'm here by myself. Got sent down to fill some gaps in my education. I could eat, though. How about some food?"
"Anything but horse meat," Ray replies with a shudder.
"Maybe you shouldn't explain that before we eat."
A second glass of decent California merlot -- when in Rome, what the hell--goes down pretty well, and the third appears magically at hand. The kitchen is slow as molasses tonight, but the waitress is psychic. That's all Ray needs; he's on a roll, winning their casual game of one-up. "And then, the fucking chickens ate my lottery ticket! Can you believe that shit? And my sister still hates me for it!"
Blair's laughing so hard he's about to fall off his chair. Ray's laughing too; he feels like a million bucks. When was the last time he made somebody laugh? A real laugh?
"Oh, man!" Blair wipes his streaming eyes and tries to recover. "My problems are so much simpler than that." He drinks his wine, nodding appreciatively. "No, me, I'm the only man in America whose mom comes down to the station and rips the Captain a new one. Why? Because her baby boy is getting shot at." Blair rolls his eyes and waves both hands in the air. He could be Italian.
"Well, guess what? Mom gets involved in the case, and then she wants to play, too! So all three of us almost end up like Swiss cheese. She wanted to stay and be Susie Crimebuster! Thank God, she has the attention span of a gnat. I like my mom, but jeez, I just wanted to say, 'Mom, let go with love. Don't let the door hit you in the ass.'"
"Danger is relative. Well, especially for you," says Ray with a wink. "Getting shot at is one thing, but in all my years as a cop, I never knew a criminal as dangerous to my health as Fraser. I hate to even think what it would be like if he was on the other side."
"When I traveled all over the world, I hobnobbed with headhunters, sweated out malaria, capsized an outrigger canoe in shark-infested waters in the middle of a monsoon--oh, yeah, and survived a mudslide off the back end of an erupting volcano! Well, working with Jim makes that look like a piece of cake."
Ray grumbles, "Yeah, sure. I bet your partner doesn't think he's invincible."
"Are you kidding? The first day I show up at the station with Jim, the crazy bastard ends up hanging off a helicopter. I had to threaten to blow the pilot's brains out with a flare gun to get us down."
Ray chortles. "That sounds about right. Well, Fraser got me locked up in an insane asylum, in a friggin' straitjacket. Maybe that's where I ought to be, for following him around all the time." He winces at the bitterness he hopes Sandburg doesn't hear, but it turns out Blair has his own story.
"I jumped out of an airplane over the Peruvian jungle with Jim -- did I tell you that I'm scared shitless of heights? Planes, helicopters, they're OK, but free-fall sucks, man. We ended up in the middle of a cocaine firefight. For this kind of craziness, I turned down the professional opportunity of a lifetime. Then I told him I did it for friendship. What a dumbshit I was." Blair swirls the wine in his glass, and his expressive mouth turns down.
"Fraser crash-landed us in the Canadian wilderness, and I hauled his ass over hill and dale for miles because he couldn't walk. All the time, he's going on and on about how we have to pursue the killer and bring him to justice. And Fraser couldn't even see. I was way more worried about getting us out of there alive than following that goon. I did nail the bastard, though, with a bolo and a rock." Ray ostentatiously buffs his fingernails on his lapel with a grin.
"Cool! Way to go," Blair says, with a congratulatory smile that has Ray basking again. Blair pushes some curly hair behind an ear and spears a bite of salad, then chews thoughtfully, looking off into space. "You know, I wish I had a dollar for all the times Jim's dropped his gun. I could pay off a good ten years of student loans."
"Fraser won't even carry, and he's a cop and a sharpshooter. You'd think the guy could get a permit, but noooooo." The two men nod sympathetically at each other and clink their glasses together.
Blair's lips twist wryly. "Does your partner only go for mob wives, criminals, and psychotic killers?"
Ray's throat closes and he has to take a sip of his wine. It's almost gone. Three glasses of wine collide with the memory of the worst day of his life. Everything turns dark, and against the back of his eyelids, snowflakes prickle. "I didn't know he knew what women were until an old girlfriend of his made me the fall guy for a bank job." He pokes a spoon into his consomme and whispers, "Benny was going with her."
"And leaving you."
Ray's burned, blinded by a lightning flash of pain. Fuck, Blair knows. Somehow, those oh-so-familiar eyes look at Ray and see too much, see everything. Before Benny, he was a cynical hardass; now he's pitied by strangers. He shoves up abruptly with a snarl, knocking his chair over backwards. His heart's pounding; his fists are full of tablecloth, threatening to spill everything onto another ugly carpet. "You son of a bitch."
"No, wait." Blair's low words and his stricken expression deflate Ray's anger almost instantly. Ray sucks in a chestful of air and calms down a little, his blood pressure sliding back down from 200. Mechanically, he reaches down to right his chair and then sits in it. His legs are rubbery. Blair's still talking. "I just -- I'm sorry, it's just that when you talk about your partner, you look like I feel."
Blair reaches out and wraps a hand around Ray's wrist.
Ray looks down at that hand, and then around to see if anybody's watching. Even after he knocked the chair over, nobody's paying them a damn bit of attention. When he looks back up at Blair, Blair is looking at him. Not just looking at him, but looking at him. Asking him; making an offer. It doesn't even matter that Ray's just a warm body; Blair wants what Ray's got. It makes him feel worthwhile, human -- not like when he's sex-crazed scum preying on his best friend.
Well, shit. It's the best offer he's had in years.
"Your partner's a fool," Blair says softly.
Automatically, Ray's going to defend Benny, but instead he lets it stand. Benny was a fool, for her. Those love-by-logic theories, whatever way he got them, didn't get used on Victoria. Just on Ray.
It's not fucking fair. He deserves something, too. He's a better person than that slimy cunt, but he gets the pity blowjobs while she gets the undying love. He's going to take what's offered. It won't be the first time Ray's made life better by rubbing up against a naked body, and though Blair's the first guy, he probably won't be the last. Anybody but you, he'd said to Benny, and that's the way it is.
Ray stands, smiling down at Blair. The guy's pretty good looking, really. Not too tall, but nice shoulders, nice hard body; looks like he's been getting plenty of exercise running around after his partner. Blair looks nothing like Benny, and that's good. "Ready to go?" He scrawls his name and room number on the drink coaster for the no-show meal, and leaves a serious tip for the psychic waitress.
"Come on up and see me some time," says Blair, with a slow, shy smile that must break hearts. He looks like he's feeling his wine too.
"You busy right now?"
"Plan on it." Blair gives him a waggle of eyebrows and a mild leer. "Look, can we take the stairs?"
Ray's jaw drops. "I'm on the fucking twenty-fourth floor!"
Blair laughs. "Don't worry, I got myself a room on third. I just have this aversion to elevators, man. I was taken hostage in one. You ever do the macarena?" He mimes the arm movements and takes a couple sideways dance steps, and they're both laughing again. The tale takes all three flights of stairs. The man can tell stories like Benny, but he stops talking midsentence and his tongue is in Ray's mouth the minute they get through the door.
Christ Almighty, Ray thinks, lounging against the headboard as Blair sleeps next to him. For the first time in his life, he wishes he had a cigarette. Just because it would be so . . . perfect.
Twelve inches inside the door, they hadn't even closed the damn thing, and Blair was all over him like Ray was his last best hope of body heat. The weight of both of them slammed the door with an airlock thud as he shoved back against Blair's full-court press. He was hot for this guy; he was ready. It was his first time -- the first time with a man who was interested, the first time he'd ever held someone who wanted the same thing. It was so good to hold on. He wanted to go down on his knees for Blair just for that; for giving him something to hold on to.
Blair was kissing him with all the force of his laser-beam attention behind it, doing things with his tongue that got Ray hard. Blair's erection was rubbing his through layers of wool and denim, and that cock hard against him made him moan into Blair's mobile, demanding mouth.
When Blair broke away, Ray leaned against the door, uncertain, torn between anticipation and determination. He wanted this to be good; he had a lot to prove. But it turned out not to work that way, after all.
"Wow, you blew my mind for a minute there!" A seductive smile convinced him; there was nothing to worry about. "I want that, oh, yeah, I want you. Let's slow down." Blair put a warm hand behind Ray's neck, massaging the tight muscles. "We've got all night, there's no rush." Leaning back in, he pressed soft kisses along Ray's jaw, breath tickling Ray's ear.
Ray gasped and twitched, glad that one of them had some kind of control. His was shot to hell.
It startled him to realize that without his noticing, Blair had maneuvered them over to the bed. What the hell was holding him upright, then? He figured it out when he felt a foot hook behind his knees and he was bounced unceremoniously onto the bed, Blair alongside.
He scowled as a deep, rich laugh teased him. "You didn't fall into bed with me. You were tripped," said Blair, as his fingers pulled at the knot of Ray's tie.
"That's 'cause I'm not easy, ya know. Hey, careful with the silk!"
"Oh, I can tell. You're a real hard guy." The quirk of Blair's eyebrow said he liked that just fine. "I noticed that right away."
"That's all your fault," Ray assured him, nipping Blair's jawline. "Ever think about shaving before you go out on the prowl?"
"You got the wrong idea." The other man frowned, looking surprisingly serious. It was an expression Ray hadn't expected to see on that almost-pretty face. "I swear, I don't do this every night. I haven't even been with a man for more than two years."
It didn't take any skill for Ray to figure out why that was, and why Blair looked down, lips thin. "I guess it's about time, then."
On impulse, he tugged at the garish t-shirt, revealing a flat belly. A soft line of dark brown hair enticed his hand lower, and he finger-walked it down to the waistband of Blair's jeans. He drew a fingertip under the line of the waistband, tickling, just to make Blair laugh. He was well rewarded.
Blair snickered, wriggled, and then he grabbed Ray's hand and stuck it squarely on the bulge in his jeans. "One more move like that and I'll find a good use for that silk tie."
Ray gave that bulge an encouraging squeeze. The warm length of Blair's cock all but vibrated against his fingers. Yeah, it was still his hand, but it felt new and different. This was the hand that was on . . . somebody else's cock. He barely overcame an urge to lift his hand and look at it to make sure it looked the same.
Leaning back on the bed, he propped himself up on the other elbow, his wide grin soaked with satisfaction. "Oh, yeah? Take your clothes off and say that."
"Maybe I will." Blair rolled up off the bed with a surprising amount of grace, and proceeded to strip off his t-shirt by crossing his arms, grabbing the hem, and pulling it over his head. It was a move that displayed his well-developed arms and chest to good advantage in the low hotel room light. His head, when it emerged, was even more hair-crazed than before. Bare-chested, he was electric, shockingly masculine.
The upcurve of his mouth told Ray he knew it.
"Oh, you're good, baby," purred Ray, hugely enjoying the view. "Really good."
"You ain't seen nothin' yet." Blair had his thumbs hooked into his waistband. He popped the button and slowly pulled down the zipper, rubbing his still-hidden erection in a way that made Ray's pulse pound in his ears. "If you show me yours, I'll show you mine."
Yeah. Oh, yeah. It had been quite a night.
Ray smiles serenely as he lounges, enjoying his triumph. He deserves to gloat a little. The guy's clueless partner lost big, but Ray cashed in like crazy. It was better than winning the lottery. Between him and Blair, they'd had enough frustrated sex drive to light up the city. Yeah, a cigarette would be good right now. He'd go for anything that would mark the occasion. With a woman, jeez, the way he felt now, he'd write it on the wall with her lipstick.
Of course, if it was a woman, he wouldn't feel this way -- like he could leap tall buildings. He wouldn't feel like something inside him had just aligned, gears moving smoothly for the first time. He wouldn't feel like who he is on the outside suddenly came into sync with who he is on the inside.
The adrenaline high is wearing off and that great post-sex glow is pooling in him. He doesn't know what one-nighter etiquette is, but decides to stay anyway. He's pretty sure Blair won't mind. It feels so good to have somebody beside him as he slides down under the covers.
When Ray wakes up, Blair's in the shower. He's surprised that he slept so long and so deeply--but then again, he shouldn't be. He can feel the corners of his mouth go up when Blair comes out of the bathroom. The guy's naked, totally unabashed, and has a towel wrapped around his head. Well, he's got to do something with all that wet hair, and he looks damn good for a man with a towel on his head. Just about as good as when he made Ray's eyeballs sweat last night. There's a big toothy morning-after grin on his face, and Ray's glad he's the one who put it there.
"What are you doing for dinner tonight?" he asks, not even caring about the hopeful note in his voice.
Blair grimaces. "I have to go back. I'm a TA at Rainier, and I have classes I couldn't get coverage for this afternoon. I only wish I could stay." Then the eyebrows go up, and Blair smiles -- one of those fuck-me specials. "You know, we've got time for a quickie."
Sure enough, they had.
Hours later, Ray can still feel Blair's kisses tickling his neck, Blair's hands on his ass, Blair's accommodating mouth around--oh, man, he's getting hard right in the damned lecture, and this was the one Welsh insisted that he report on. He shakes his head and smiles, earning a curious look from the man beside him. There's no way he can concentrate on the speaker; he doesn't have a clue what she said so far.
The whole day's been a wash, although a nice one, possibly the best day Ray's spent since he realized that he wanted to use his partner for a body pillow. He fingers the piece of paper Blair slipped into the pocket of his suit jacket. It's good to know that there's somebody who genuinely likes him. If there's one here, there must be one somewhere in the greater Chicago area.
Blair was so flatteringly . . . interested. That sort of open appreciation is what Ray craves more than anything else; it makes him feel like a real stud. Benny doesn't do that. He wouldn't know flattery from flatulence. It's the best and worst thing about him.
Thinking about Benny makes him a little sad. He really fucked that up. The way he left things in Chicago . . . He wishes there was a way he could turn back time, make it all go away. The only thing he can do now is to see if there's anything left. He needs to know that his friend is still there, the sky's still blue, the world's still turning . . . Well, dammit, he misses him. He needs to talk to Benny, not tomorrow or next week, but today. If he gets out of here in the next hour, he'll be in Chicago before midnight.
He gets up with the rest of the crowd, grabbing a copy of the woman's book and throwing some cash on the sale table on the way out.
Long goddamn drive to SFO in Friday rush hour traffic. Then he couldn't get a flight out until eight; what with waiting fucking forever for his bag, it's pushing two am. He's beat and he doesn't know what the fuck he's doing here. Benny will probably be pissed when Ray wakes him up in the middle of the night. Tough. In the scheme of things, Benny should owe him at least one dead-of-night conversation for every suit.
He knocks lightly, but there's no answer. He's too tired and too wired to leave now. Everything feels so much more unstable than it was when he left. On impulse, he pushes the door open. As Ray walks into the apartment, it takes a minute for his eyes to adjust. There's a big difference from the bare hallway bulb to the darkness inside.
The only light is coming in the window. Good thing nobody shot out the streetlight lately. Looking around, he's surprised that Benny isn't awake and saying hi already. With no lock on the door, he can't afford to be a heavy sleeper. Dief's tail whacks once on the wall. Unseen claws skitter his direction as the wolf comes after his treat -- and, hey, he's always ready to donate a little extra hair. Opportunist.
Dief gnaws the airline sandwich, whuffling happily. Once a ham and cheese melt, it's now solidified into a chew toy. That's not much different than it was to start with, and if it was supposed to be good enough for Ray, then it's sure good enough for the fur-face.
Ray's surprised by a low cry from the bed, and looks over to see Benny curl up as if he's in pain. Must be a hell of a bad dream. When he sits on the edge of the bed and touches a soft cheek, the tips of his fingers come away damp. "Benny," he whispers. An iron hand grabs his wrist, so hard he wonders if there's going to be a ring of bruises. Unfocused, night-dark eyes are wide open, staring toward him but not at him. If this weren't his best friend, it'd be creepy.
"Stop!" That one little word is cracked and pitted, a mile of bad road.
"I'm here, Benny, I'm here." Awkwardly he shifts, wanting to give comfort but not sure how.
"You walked away." He's breathing shallow and ragged, and it's freaking Ray out.
"I know, Benny, but I'm back now, okay?"
"No, no, you were going away, and I ran after you, I ran as fast as I could, but I couldn't--couldn't stop -- " He makes an animal sound of pain that hurts just to hear it.
"Take it easy, it was just -- " Ray's wrist is freed for the second it takes Benny to pull him down bodily, and he lands heavily against a solid chest. A big hand scuffs his short hair, holds his head down like he might try to get away. Benny's mouth is on his, wet and wild, and his tongue's saying everything Ray's always wanted to hear.
Now he knows what it means to be deranged. In his head, all the furniture is on the ceiling, the sink is overflowing. He can't stop to figure it out. Instead, he leans in and lets the hunger take over.
This is it, this is fucking it. This is what Ray's been waiting for all his life, for Benny to say the word, for Benny to want him, and still he's surprised when they both flip over and Benny's on top, hard heavy body pressing Ray into the mattress, his hips grinding frantically.
"Benny, wait -- "
"No!" He looks terrified, like if he doesn't grab now, Ray's going to walk out, leave him all alone with his nightmare. His hands are in between them, clumsily trying to get the sheet away, to get Ray's shirt off, pulling at his belt. Ray helps as best as he can, but there's a lot of Benny in the way, and it's not working. When his silk shirt rips, he doesn't care. This is the only thing he's glad to sacrifice his clothes for. With his pants down, he realizes there's nothing in between them, because Benny's naked.
It's a shock. He's never seen Benny's naked body. He had some sort of crazy idea that the guy slept in the uniform. The strange watery light coming through the window makes the scene look like an art-house porno flick, and Ray's hyperaware of everything. Benny's muscular arms, his tousled hair, and the bones of his face are lit with blue. He might as well have been born out of the darkness. Those broad shoulders taper down to where the shadows take over. Looming over him, Benny looks like some kind of a god in human form.
His face is pure intensity. Those blue eyes are so shadowed that Ray can hardly see the whites; all he can see is a gleam that doesn't look like a reflection. It looks feral, predatory. Something else is shadowing Benny, too, and it moves with him, but Ray doesn't know what it is. He only knows he wants to be chased down, caught, taken by this man who's part animal.
The window is open, and Benny's nipples are hard in the night air. Benny's skin is hot everywhere they're touching. There's a faint breeze cooling the places where Benny isn't, raising gooseflesh on the back of his arms. He hears the rasp of breath, his and Benny's, and sees the glistening of wet parted lips as they come toward his. Blue light glances off a shoulder sheened with sweat.
They're more devouring each other than kissing. Benny's weight holds him down and for a few minutes he can't move, paralyzed by unreality and lust. Nothing he's ever seen Benny do prepared him for this -- it's like being hit by a truck. He just wraps his arms around Benny and hopes one of them can pick up the scattered pieces afterward.
His lips are bruising against his own teeth. The sensual roughness of Benny's tongue in his mouth drives him crazy, makes him moan and squirm. He's so hard it hurts, and he can't help pushing his dick home on Benny's flat, smooth belly. He wants to ask Benny if he's sure he wants to do this, but it seems like a stupid question with his friend's hard-on slick with need and riding against his own.
It's going to end right now, with their lips together and their cocks together and everything else fading away. They'll both come this time in the blue glow, and he'll clean himself up and go home, and it'll end maybe forever. Who knows what the hell brought this on, but it won't last, can't last. Ray just wants to wring every drop of sweetness he can out of this minute. Oh, yeah, he's reaching for that sweetness, moving hard, groaning into Benny's mouth, almost, almost --
He can't hold back a wail when Benny pulls away.
The wild light is still in his eyes, the shadows everywhere else.
"Ray. Ray!" The hoarse voice snaps him back from where he's been. Benny's panting, gasping. "I want -- "
Ray doesn't know or care what he's asking for. "Anything," he says simply, reaching up to palm Benny's jaw. It's not an empty promise. He searches those unfathomable eyes for the Benny he's always known. What he wants to say is, Help me. Tell me. Love me. But he doesn't say those things.
Kneeling up, Benny shifts him onto his side. He's strong enough to move Ray easily, pushing his right knee forward, leaving him exposed and vulnerable. Ray looks at the wall. The shadows are all he can see. There's a click; it must be a bottle top, because now Benny's fingers are sliding in the crease of his ass, wet and cold, making him shiver.
Benny's fingers are slow but unstoppable, firmly pressing him open. Reflexively, he tightens his muscles against the entry, and it's Benny who moans. The sound gives him chills, and he's rolling with the waves of hot and cold coming from behind his balls. He can't help trying to work his way farther onto those fingers. When they touch just the right spot deep inside, he starts babbling, "yeah, oh! oh!" hips jerking, desperate for more.
With his next breath, both the fingers and his pleasure vanish.
"Benny, Jesus," he groans, and something bigger nudges him, opening him wider.
"Let me in, Ray." That voice is thick with craving, heavy with promise. "Let me in now."
Those are the magic words. Ray responds instinctively to the man he loves so much, the man he wants to give everything to. They must be magic words, because Benny's pushing into him and it doesn't hurt. Weird. He thought it would hurt, hell, it's got to, but there's only the weight of Benny half on top of him and the hard slow press of Benny moving inside him. It's a strange feeling, to be filled with someone else. He feels heavier, like there's more gravity.
It's way more intense than with the fingers. Hotter, harder, and more personal with Benny all over him like this. Bigger, and not just because a dick is bigger than fingers. Bigger because he's always known that Benny would never need him for anything but a prop. Ray's somebody to lean on once in a while. He's always known he could be replaced by anybody willing to stick around. Benny only sees the best in people. As a friend, Ray could have been . . . anybody.
He always tried to be more, God knows. From the very beginning he wanted to be somebody special. He did everything he could think of, and it didn't work. No matter what he did, it didn't seem to make much impression. He still doesn't know why.
But, Jesus, this -- this is different. Tonight, Benny wants him. Benny needs him. Must need him pretty damn bad to pull him down in bed in the middle of the night and take what he wants. That makes Ray feel . . . bigger. Needed. Wanted. Important. Any minute now he's going to cry, or he's going to come, or maybe both.
Benny is inside his body. He's rocking them both in that age-old rhythm, and Ray rolls back to meet every thrust. Joy hums in his blood. They're together, the two of them, joined in body like they've always been joined in Ray's heart. He's got everything, this minute. Now, no matter what happens, somewhere in the back of his mind they'll always be together like this. Reaching back, he pulls Benny up tight against him as the shudders start.
Ray's floating peacefully, but Benny's voice pierces the fog. Whatever "Oh, God," means, it doesn't sound good.
"Ray. Ray, I'm sorry." Benny rolls over, facing the wall.
"What?" Here it comes. "Why?"
Benny's voice is muffled. "I didn't mean to do that."
"Why not?" Ray'd still been drifting in the orgasmic backwash, but that brings the drift to a dead stop. He pokes around in his brain for a question that will get him a real answer, but he can't find it, and he finally gives up and goes with what he's got. "Talk to me."
"Ray, when I . . . On that first day we talked, when I . . . was on the floor, I felt -- no, I wanted . . ."
Now, there's something he'd like to know. "What did you want?"
His friend's voice is stiff and harsh, his shoulders like rock. "I wanted to turn you around and bend you over that table."
Ray freezes with his hand in the air. It feels like that long-ago bar fight is still going on around him--he swears he can hear people yelling a long way away--and he's the one who's been nailed with the bottle.
More words come tumbling out. "Once that was in my head, I couldn't get it out. I had no control. All I could think about was what I wanted from you. My thoughts ran riot. I couldn't sleep at night. When I did, I dreamt about taking you." Benny runs a hand through his hair. The back of his arm is highlighted in that unearthly blue. "I swore that I wouldn't do that to you. Take you. Use you."
"But I loved it! Benny, I love you."
The disembodied voice comes out of the dark. "I thought I loved my instructor. I thought I loved . . . her. In the end, it was no consolation--far from it." Benny turns back from the wall and grabs his shoulder. Ray can feel each finger burn down to the bone. "Don't you see it, Ray? I'm no better than they were."
"Shut up!" He's been whacked upside the head by Benny so often lately that he must have brain damage. "You blew me to kingdom come and shoved me out the door because you . . . wanted to fuck me? You were protecting me from you?"
"You said it yourself, Ray. It's wrong."
"It's not wrong to want love!"
"That wasn't love. It was . . . overwhelming. Frightening."
He's staring over Ray's shoulder. "It was want, surely. Desire. I'd never wanted to just take anything so badly before in my life as I wanted to take you. I didn't know what to do. I had hoped that I could control my urges."
Holy shit. Benny really wants him. It's not just some kind of deep-night insanity.
"You said you love me." That's one thing that's etched on his brain.
"I do. Yet . . ." He looks confused, his mouth open like he lost that thought, and Ray understands. Finally, he understands. He feels like the light just dawned between his ears.
Benny doesn't honestly know what the hell he's talking about. Not when he talks about love. To Benny, love between two people is a caribou story. It's just something somebody told him about once.
How could he not know there was a difference? Like, for instance, that little difference between loving and using? Well, he sure as hell didn't learn about the loving part by experience. He only knows what it's like to be used.
"This is different." It's so easy to smile at Benny, to hold him close, to feel his ribs rise and fall with every breath. Satisfied now that Benny's creating problems out of nothing, he relaxes back down against that surprisingly comfortable chest. "Go to sleep."
"But I. . ."
"It's one of those human things. Go to sleep."
The light in the room wakes Ray up, but in spite of the instinctive urge, he doesn't open his eyes. He really doesn't want to let the world in, the way he'd have to if he blinked even once. It's plenty early, so early Dief is still sacked out. He can hear the occasional snuffle from over in the corner. Just a few minutes, he thinks. Please, just a few minutes before all hell breaks loose in the form of Benny's explanations, logic, and bullshit.
His head's on an arm that's probably asleep--and, if he's lucky, so is the guy attached to it. Ray's trussed up in legs, a little sweaty. This must be how Fraser survived in the arctic. What did he need with a down sleeping bag? No geese died for Benny's comfort. His body temperature must be off the scale while he's asleep. Ray breathes in the warm smell of sex and runs his tongue over his teeth. His mouth still tastes like Benny's. His lips feel puffy. It's a good way to wake up, until he opens his eyes, so he doesn't.
Finally, he can't stand it any more. He has to look. When he finally gets up the guts to crack an eyelid, there's a very-much-awake Benny staring solemnly at him. Shit.
No words come out of that mouth, though. He's not sure whether that's good or bad. Until he finds out what's on Benny's mind, he doesn't want to even start. He tries a smile. It gets a little less nervous and a little more real when Benny squeezes Ray's arm with his free hand, answering with a small smile of his own. Both of them are saved when a low growl comes from Ray's midsection. "I didn't get any dinner," he explains sheepishly, his voice creaky.
"Perhaps some breakfast would be in order, then?" Relief is plain on his friend's face. Obviously, he's glad to put off any conversation too. For some reason, Ray doesn't find that reassuring, but he reminds himself that no news is good news. At least Benny hasn't tried to shoehorn him out the door yet. Maybe it's because they're still naked. Maybe that was the trick he'd been missing.
He thought he might feel funny about wandering around naked in front of Benny, but it doesn't matter. Benny's looking the other way as he pulls his own clothes on. Ray digs in his suitcase for a whole shirt. It takes them a couple minutes to walk down the block to the closest greasy spoon. At six on Saturday morning, the only patrons of this establishment are exhaling MD 20/20. The place is as quiet as a tomb, which makes sense. The winos are drying out. Ray leads them to a table in the back. They're barely within field goal range of the other diners, and that's the way he wants to keep it.
He watches the steam rise from their coffee cups. It fogs his vision, making Benny look like something out of last night's fantasy as they order their eggs. He thinks it was just a night-long fantasy, one that happened in real life, one that'll dissolve in the light of day. It happened, though. It did, and he'll be damned if he's ever going to let it fade away.
Benny's telling him something, and he owes it to the guy to at least try to listen, even if he's afraid to hear it.
"When I was eight years old, there was a total eclipse of the sun visible from Inuvik. I had never heard of such a thing before, and it was very exciting. Everyone in town was talking about it. The elders believed it held strong portents. I badly wanted to watch such an amazing celestial occurrence, convinced that if I did, I would be able to see into the future."
Benny's wistful. Weird to see him, of all people, longing for the innocence of childhood.
"I was instructed most firmly that I must not. If I did such a thing, I would surely lose my vision. My grandmother, aware of my wayward nature, assured me that should I disobey, the sun would sear my retinas, and I would go blind."
He pauses, gathering his thoughts. He's still looking somewhere else, but at least now Ray knows what he's looking at.
"I was to view the event with my back to the sun. My grandmother had me put a pinhole in a piece of paper, which would allow the image to appear on a card held beneath it. Of course, that image only appeared as light and shadow. This was so inadequate that I rebelled at the last moment, turning to watch the corona as the sun was completely eclipsed. The shadowed land and blackened sky made day into night. In this vast darkness there shone a ring of flames pushed by solar winds, around the bottomless pit that used to be the sun. It was glorious."
He shakes himself out of it. "It seemed that I'd barely watched for seconds, fascinated and elated, when I was able to tear my gaze away, but the damage was done. I saw the corona in my vision for days. Everything appeared to me inside a blazing circle, and I was terribly afraid that I might lose my eyesight permanently. Of course, I didn't want to tell anyone that I had been so disobedient."
He turned to Ray, looking him in the eyes for the first time in what seems like years. "Even though I know from experience how dangerous it is, I've never stopped wanting to stare into the sun."
It takes a while for Ray to digest this. He's not used to actually getting something from the stories.
He watches the fluorescent light reflect off Benny's face, silvering his cheekbones and sliding through the brilliant eyes.
"Bad news, Benny." Uneasily, he scratches at the marred formica table with a thumbnail. "No matter what they told you in grade school, I ain't the sun."
"Yes. You are."
There's a conversation stopper. They eat their food in uncertain silence. Unlike last week, Benny's eyes are on him the whole time. Their eyes are having a whole discussion that manages to completely bypass their mouths. Unfortunately, it's bypassing his brain, too. Normally he can read Benny, but this is not normal. The man's inscrutable; whatever's on his face might as well be kanji. Ray knows he can't live up to Benny's ideals; never has, never will. Is Benny willing to give them up for the real thing? When he's finished eating, Ray has to look down at his plate to figure out whether he just had scrambled or over easy.
The walk back is just as quiet, but he can tell his friend's getting twitchy. Ray's with him on that one. He still doesn't know what Benny's take on all this is. He only knows that Benny thinks it's dangerous, and that his eyes are the color of two a.m.
Letting Dief in, Ray feels like he's headed for the OK Corral. He doesn't know whether Benny's going to ask him to stay or to leave. It's so much harder for both of them when they have to use actual words. Even so, this is something that needs words. Benny looks like he'll explode if he doesn't say something soon. Ray gives his arm a squeeze. It just feels so good to touch him, doesn't matter how. "Say it," he says.
Benny stiffens under his touch and takes a deep breath. "I love you. I want you."
He's stringing those two sentences together, and that means Benny's come a long way in one night of hot sex, but it's not quite enough. He puts his hands on Benny's broad shoulders and stares into those wide blue eyes, with their thick dark lashes like a girl's. He wants to get a good, close look just in case.
"Yeah, but what are you gonna do about it? Are you going to be my lover and my friend or are you going to fuck me and then shove me out the door? 'Cause I'd rather be your friend than your fuck."
Even Ray's a little surprised to hear his own determination. That assurance, where did that come from? This might be the first time he's ever given Benny anything even close to an ultimatum. You can't get what you don't ask for, he knows that now.
"Both, Ray. I want both. I want everything."
He pulls Ray into a wraparound hug, and it feels so damned good to be held like Benny means it. Ray's got his hands full of heavy hair, and he's kissing Benny's neck, his jaw, his eyelids, making love to him the way he's wanted to for so long. Benny's nuzzling at him, acting like he likes it, wants it.
Benny leans away, and fear ices down Ray's back, but he melts again when Benny says, "It's not--I mean, when two people are . . . when they love each other, it's not always . . . like last night, is it?"
He cups Benny's cheek in one palm and runs the edge of a thumb along Benny's eyebrows, each in turn. "Sometimes I like it like this, too."
Ray holds Benny's face in his hands and kisses him, tenderly savoring the taste of his mouth. He can still feel the walls around him, but they're moving back instead of pressing in, making plenty of room for both of them. Benny kisses back, tentatively at first, then with more fervor. Ray's startled when Benny moans deep in his throat and digs his fingers painfully into Ray's shoulders. Ray brushes the thick dark hair away from his forehead and whispers, "Relax, okay? Just let it happen. Don't I make sure you get what you need?"
Benny shivers and sighs. "Yes."
For the first time, Ray thinks maybe they'll both
be getting what they want.
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