The heart can be filled anywhere on earth. -- Bill Holm
That was one big fucking hole in the ground.
And considering he was already standing in the biggest hole he'd ever seen, that was saying a lot. He looked up and around at the top of the black hole he was standing in. He had to turn all the way around to see all the edges. Yup, still there.
Ray took another hit off the pint of gin -- feel the burn, baby -- and peered down into the hole. It wasn't hard to see detail, even in his current state. That's how big it was. There was scummy gray smoke straggling up over the edge of one side. That had to be the fire pit, like it said on the picture at the overlook, way the hell up there on the rim of this hellhole. The fire pit did not mess around.
That's what it's gonna be like, he thought, some time way in the future, déjà vu all over again -- except then he'd be dead. Smell like dirty socks (okay, really dirty socks) burning the little hairs right out of his nose, and way way down there at the bottom, a glop of hot rocks. He knew it was there, that glop, even though he really couldn't see it, even when he squinted; man, it was smokin'. Bubbly and stinky and red all over. Who'da thunk he'd have to come to Hawaii to smell a smell worse than a precinct locker room?
Jeez, it sure took a lot of gin before it started to taste good.
For some reason, it kind of tasted like this place smelled. He blinked the smoke out of his eyes and checked the level in the bottle. There was still plenty left, almost half the pint. And even though what he drank wasn't much, it packed a wallop. Should've known enough to bring some water along; he'd hiked most of the afternoon. Once he got dehydrated, a few shots of gin had him loopy.
He was on a mission. That was the one good thing from trying to pick up that hot chick last night, before she blew him off for some steroid surf bum. From her, he found out about the hole in the ground.
"If you see an old woman, and you do her a favor, she'll grant you good fortune," Leilani with the big brown eyes informed him. "It's Pele. She's the volcano goddess. She lives in Halemaumau. Sometimes she appears as an old hag, sometimes as a beautiful young woman."
"Like you?" He tried out his most babe-killer smile. It didn't seem to win him any points. And, "Why did they name her after a soccer player, anyway?" Which got him a dirty look -- he should have known better, no dissin' the goddess in this crowd -- and within minutes she'd answered a hail from across the room. Well, there were lots of fish in the sea. Or so he heard.
After the year he had, he could really use somebody granting good fortune, so here he was with the trade goods. He swallowed another slug of juniper juice. Might as well get something good out of the trip he'd been stuck with. He'd never intended to go alone, and so far it wasn't that much fun. He'd better get going if he wanted any good luck, or all the gin would be gone. The huge tour buses that looked like specks from the top of the crater were gone now, leaving only him and somebody's empty Jeep as far as the eye could see. Around here, the eye could see pretty far.
Down the fence line, he could see blaze orange construction-site plastic flapping in the wind. It was the only color in the whole place. There was the fine gray mist falling on him and the darker gray clouds that only looked like they were falling on him, plus don't forget the charcoal gray of everything made out of rocks, which was, yeah, everything, but gray wasn't really a color. Even the old Jeep way over at the far end of the parking lot was painted primer gray. It was like being on the moon.
He tucked the gin bottle into the inside pocket of his jacket and wrapped a hand around one of the slats of the fence. What a rickety piece of junk. Jesus, the national parks had even less money than he ever thought. What the hell were they doing, putting a chicken-wire and wood slat fence around this death trap? Didn't they know any determined tourist could get over this thing in a minute?
It was the wimpiness of the fence that was the problem, that and the goddamned slivers. He didn't want to break the fence down; he wasn't here for wholesale destruction of property, he just wanted over. Finally he managed to scramble up -- swaying sickeningly in the breeze right along with the whole fence -- and drop over the other side without spiking himself in the gut. He landed, whap! flat on his face, the wind knocked out of him. Already there were bruises waking up on his ribs, one big one in the shape of a pint bottle.
Man, that fucking hurt. At least the bottle didn't break. No way he wanted to bleed out in this godforsaken place. Or maybe it was goddess-forsaken. He hoped not. He groaned as he sat up, gingerly poking at his chin. Shake it off, he told himself. With all the gray it looked like dark was coming sooner instead of later. Walking back up there in the dark was going to be a bitch.
Limping a little, he made it over to the edge. The smoke rolling out made his eyes water as his lungs got black. Pulling out the bottle and twisting off the cap, he felt like he ought to be talking some kind of mumbo-jumbo as he poured out what was left of the booze. There, that was all she wrote. Maybe that would change his luck. Maybe he'd turn around and find a beautiful brunette with flashing eyes to do a good deed for, like that chick said.
Turn around, yeah, he had to do that anyway, and in that split second he knew that his luck had changed, all right. Because he was going down, the solid rock under his feet crumbling to dust, and he was sliding right with it. Falling chunks rattled to the bottom. So did the bouncing bottle, loud clunks over the hissing of the steam and sulfur. Follow the bouncing bottle.
Shit, he'd never followed instructions before. Didn't even read 'em.
It was true what they said. When you looked death in the eye, time stopped. He had plenty of it now -- time to twist his body, time to grab at the dirt, time to kick the wall for a foothold. Plenty of time to think about what was waiting for him down there. Time to reach up for one last handful of dirt, one last wave goodbye.
When he felt the bones of his hand grind painfully against each other, he held on as hard as he could. Not his time, not today. Relief left him empty. Whoever was on the other end of his hand heaved him up with a grunt.
Boots. There was a pair of worn-looking field boots in his face. Whoever was still holding his hand had practical taste in footwear. And was really, really pissed. Ray couldn't see anything but the boots, but he could feel 'pissed off' coming off the guy in waves. Not to mention that what with the angle, his shoulder was starting to ache. He might as well get up and face the music; this was the most boneheaded stunt he'd pulled in a while.
Bracing himself against the hand, he managed to get mostly standing.
Sure as hell, the guy in front of him was furious. He was almost choking on it. He started sputtering as soon as Ray's face was in range, gasping out words.
"You . . . That was so . . . stupid . . . You -- don't you know . . ." Blue eyes glowed almost eerily with color in the gray face. He could tell how hard it was for the guy to hold back, and wondered why he was bothering. Wasn't like he didn't deserve it -- the other guy could have gone in right after him. Then something strange happened. The anger seemed to drain away off the fine lines around his eyes, leaving him puzzled-looking. Tired. But he kept talking anyway, like his mouth was moving by itself, no mouth-brain connection. Ray knew all about that. ". . . you could have . . . died."
Ray looked at the ground. "Yeah . . . thanks. Thanks for saving my life." When he looked up again, the man was still staring at him, kind of confused-like, still holding his hand.
"Wassamatter, never seen a drunk tourist before?" Ray could've kicked himself. Way to be a jerk. That was no way to treat somebody who just pulled him out of the smoking asshole of the universe.
The guy, on closer inspection -- now that there was a little more color in his face -- oughta be hawking PearlWhite toothpaste on tv, not standing here on the moon. He had a soft rumbly voice to go with the soft confused look in his eyes.
"While I'm sure Pele appreciates the gin, virgin sacrifice to the volcano is apocryphal." He seemed to finally realize he was still holding Ray's hand, and dropped it.
Ray winced at the twinge in his shoulder. "That's, uh, that's probably okay. 'Cause, y'know, I lost my virginity." He looked the dark-haired guy up and down. Some gin-infested impulse made him say, "You seen it anyplace?" He could feel his face smile, real slow. And damned if the man didn't turn just a little pink. He watched, fascinated, as color feathered itself over Pearly's cheekbones.
That was so cool! God, he'd been a cop so long he'd forgotten there really were innocent people in the world. Between the cops and the perps, everybody was so damned hard that you just . . . forgot. Even his wife -- ex-wife. Hell, Stella would go toe to toe with anybody. She did it for a living. Pound for pound, she was tougher than any perp. Wouldn't want to surprise her in a dark alley. He'd taught her how to box himself.
But this guy was different. Somehow he made Ray want to go soft right back. Christ, time to sober up before he started slobbering all over. When he got home, maybe he should get a puppy.
Tall, Dark And Embarrassed broke in on his thoughts. "Surely your home isn't that messy," he said, a little smile looking out from the corner of his mouth. Man, definitely commercials. Ray would buy anything he was selling. Dude must have lots of surreal conversations with banzai tourists to be so calm.
"No, but I think I lost it a long time ago, in a Corvair." The sentence trailed off as the adrenaline zoomed him. He wondered how humiliated he'd be if the advertisement for clean living there had to pick him up off the ground again, and then wondered if he'd have a choice.
"Speaking of cars, I suggest you give me your keys." That could be the guy's real voice, brisk and no-nonsense.
"No," he whispered. No car, no problem, he wanted to say, but he was shaking all over and could barely talk. His eyes were starting to go blurry. Obviously Pearly wasn't thinking too straight, either. Where would he hide his car around here, if he had one?
"You're hardly in any condition to drive." Exasperated. Worried.
He'd heard that tone too many times -- usually in his living room. His and Stella's. It brought out the devil in him, what was left after his latest adventure anyway. "Try me." Most likely he'd live to regret pushing so hard into Mr. Teeth's personal space, right up into his face, but jeez, he was alive, wasn't he? So he did it anyway. It felt surprisingly good.
The guy was behind him so fast he didn't see the dust.
That hand in his jeans pocket kind of freaked him out. So did the forearm around his throat, but all of a sudden it felt so good he just didn't care, kind of sturdy and friendly and the guy was nice to lean on . . . He was reaching for the hand as he rested against that broad chest, just going with the gin-soaked flow. It'd been a long time since anybody had touched him, even given him a hug, holy fuck, what was he doing?
He starched like a shirt. Pearly brittled behind him just the way Stella did when he gave her the last goodbye kiss. The arm fell down like it broke off, and he swore there was a noise, the hand came out of his pocket so fast. It probably left skin. It sure as hell left his keys.
"Sorry, I'm sorry." He sounded a little choked up, still close enough for Ray to feel his warmth. It was nice. The mist was falling heavier now and he was getting cold all over. "I shouldn't have done that. There was no excuse."
She'd never apologized, though, not out loud. For anything.
"No big deal." He only did it to see if he could wind the guy up anyway, and it was kind of fun to know he could still do shit like that. "Now that I've had your hand in my pants, can we get introduced?"
That didn't come out quite right. Ray was still cold and getting colder, but the shaking had subsided.
"Pardon me for not offering my name sooner." Stiff as a board and twice as knotted up. "I'm Ben Fraser, currently with the Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory." Already Ray wanted the kinder, gentler guy back. The leanable one.
It was going to be really, really tough to get 'Pearly' out of his head, but he had to admit that 'Ben' fit better. He stuck out his hand, glad to be able to suck up some more of that warmth. Ben was a human radiator. "Ray Kowalski, formerly Ray Vecchio, detective first grade, Chicago P.D., formerly Ormond Keys, high-roller and all-around card-shark, Houston, Texas. Formerly Harold Lukin, Joseph "Slow Joe" Macchiato, Barry Spears, oh, yeah, and way before that I was Henry Higgins."
Ben blinked at that one, but he held out his hand anyway. "Are you an actor, Ray?"
"Yeah, close enough."
The guy looked carefully at him, trying to figure that one out, and evidently he gave it up as a bad job. Must have noticed Ray shivering, too. "Why don't we continue this conversation in my Jeep? I can see now that wherever your car is, it's not here. I apologize again for attempting to confiscate your keys."
"You some kind of park ranger?"
"No, I'm a geologist. With my team, I'm currently under the auspices of the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology and the National Science Foundation. We're doing research to understand the structure and emplacement of basaltic lava flows and their igneous petrogenesis -- how, why and where they are emplaced."
Ray was forced to divide his attention between Pearly Ben and the ground under his feet, which given where he was could have been actually moving, or else it was the gin sloshing around. It seemed like the bumpy spots were getting bigger and pointier and the flat spots were getting slipperier.
"It's an area of research that's quite fieldwork-intensive. I measure temperatures on the new flows, map them, compare the modern to the older flows -- but all that really doesn't need exploring at this juncture."
"In short, yes."
Ray managed to reach the truck without falling on his ass. It was close, though. Ben Fraser didn't come around to unlock his door. He waited, leaning tiredly against the Jeep, for an open door.
"It's not locked."
He fought the creaky door open and fell in with a thump when his legs couldn't hold him anymore. His rescuer cranked on the heat, thank God. A working car heater was the last thing he thought would come in handy on this trip. He leaned against the window and held his hands in front of the passenger-side vent. His head was starting to ache. The Jeep was loud and growly and the tranny was slipping a little, plus one of the plugs was crapped out.
"P -- Ben, your engine is missing."
The man looked at him like his brain was missing. Maybe it was. Tomorrow, he'd check. For now, he just wanted to go home. Go someplace.
"I beg your pardon?" That raised eyebrow gave him the big clue. Obviously, the engine was there last time Ben looked under the hood. Rock people were not car people, or at least Ben Fraser wasn't a car people.
"You got a bad -- never mind. You need a tune-up." Ray rubbed his temples. A minute ago, it was light; now it was dark. Around here, when darkness fell, you heard it bang. The only thing visible in the lights of the Jeep was drizzly rain, still gray.
Ben ignored him, more or less. "You're cold and dehydrated, I suspect. We should get you wherever you're going. Oh . . . where are you going? To begin with, where is your car?"
"It's up in the parking lot."
"You hiked all the way down? It's under four miles, but it can take up to five hours to hike it! No wonder you didn't have time to get back up before nightfall."
"It looked easier than it was," Ray admitted.
"Where are you staying?"
"My hotel is in Waka . . . Waco . . . "
"Waikoloa. Oh, dear. That's quite a long way to drive . . . " He didn't say, "in your condition," but Ray heard it. "It could easily take over two hours. I'd hate to see you drive all that way in the dark on these unfamiliar roads. They can be treacherous in the rain."
As beat as Ray was, he still had to say something to that. "I can do it. No problem."
Then, to his own surprise, he caved. "Unless you got a better idea. Maybe a cheap motel around here someplace?" Getting inside four walls sounded really good right now. Somewhere he could peel his cold wet sticky clothes off like a dirty bandaid and pull up a blanket.
Ben's smile looked warm even in the sickly green glow of the instrument panel. "There aren't really any inexpensive lodgings up here on the mountain, and I believe Volcano House is full. Perhaps you would like to share my home. I rent a small cabin nearby."
It was tempting, but . . . "Hey, you already saved me once today. Maybe you shouldn't make it a habit. I already owe you more than I can pay back." As an afterthought, he added, "Believe me, that's probably a good thing."
"You could buy me breakfast tomorrow. I'm a poor cook."
Oh, Ben Fraser, what big eyes you have, thought Ray. Do you always pick up ratty drunk tourists, save their lives, and take them home? He was being way too suspicious. After all, one lone lost guy almost biting the black hole probably didn't happen much. Most people in this place came in pairs. It was the freakin' Noah's Ark of tourism. And, yeah, it was a cliché, but he couldn't help thinking that the man didn't look like a serial killer. Always the quiet ones . . .
"Really," Ben continued, "I'd enjoy your company. I've never had a guest in my lodgings." The guy really did look kind of . . . hopeful. "It's a Hawaiian prerogative. Hospitality, I mean. If you turn me down, no doubt you'll be risking the wrath of the local deities."
Ray did a double-take as it hit home. Ben was lonesome. Now, there was a twist. All those good looks and the man didn't have anybody to talk to. All this time, he'd thought it was just whack-jobs like him who ended up this way. What the hell, he needed a place to get dry, and he could sure give a little payback with some human contact, if that was what Ben needed.
"You're jackin' me, Ben Fraser. I know all about pierogies." Ray pulled out that smug-bastard look that just grated on people; everybody told him so often enough. "They're Polish, not Hawaiian. Pineapples are Hawaiian." He tried not to, but couldn't help laughing at the dumbfounded expression he could see in the light from the dashboard. Laughing made his ribs hurt.
Ray felt like a wreck; hell, he knew he looked like a wreck. He was covered in what started out dirt that was now mud, his jeans were torn, hands scraped bloody, and he felt like he'd been pulled through a knothole. Ben Fraser's khakis and button-down were neat and clean; his hair wasn't even messed up. Jeez, how'd the guy do it? "But since I can't afford to ruin my karma, I'll take that pierogie and raise you one."
"That made absolutely no sense, Ray." That rich rumbly voice sounded curiously happy, anyhow.
"You'll get used to it." Not even bothering to wonder why he said that, Ray leaned back against the window and dozed for the rest of the drive, despite the disgusting way his clammy underwear was stuck up the crack of his ass.
It was a tiny little cabin, really dark -- hell, in this place dark was really dark just about everywhere. Inside was no different. And before he could see anything else, he was flat on his back. His head bashed against the floor so hard there were stars just like on a clear night when you could see forever.
Then there was something on top of him -- something big and heavy and -- and it had claws! Holy Christ! Claws digging deep into his chest, tear his heart out -- he couldn't breathe, crushing him, did this guy have one of the local demonities, keep it in the house? Worse than serial killing, it was gonna eat him, like Easter -- always start with the ears --
"Get it off, it's tasting me!" He already started promising to never do anything bad again when he heard scolding coming from right over his head, along with the closer-to-the-jugular slurping noises.
"Diefenbaker! Remove yourself from our guest!"
"Shit, Ben," he gasped weakly, propped up on his elbows trying to get a lungful, "What the hell was that?"
"I do apologize for Diefenbaker's behavior. He can be quite affectionate with strangers."
"That was affectionate?" Pets and owners acted like each other after a while, he read somewhere. Dazedly he wondered whether Ben was, too. With strangers.
When Ben lit the kerosene lamp, Deefoozis materialized into a dog. A big fluffy white dog, to be exact, who was still snuffling joyously around him. He tried to scootch away without looking like he was.
"No electricity?" With light, he could see the place was more like a shack then a cabin. Home sweet hole-in-the-wall. The walls weren't even finished on the inside, but there at least was a bathroom, so running water. The heat, whatever Ben needed in a place where bitter cold was fifty degrees, must come from the wood stove in the corner. Where the wood came from was a whole other question. There were trees all around the shack like at the start of the trail he'd taken this afternoon, but a lot of them were those ferny-looking ones. Big-ass feathery things, they looked like they climbed out of the primordial ooze.
"There is electricity, but I like the lamp. It reminds me of home." Ben, crouching, threw a few hunks of wood in the stove and torched it up.
"Oh, yeah? Where'd you grow up, Outer Slobovia?"
"In a manner of speaking." Done poking at the fire, he went to the refrigerator and pulled out a quart container of water, tossing it to Ray, and taking one for himself. "Here, cold water absorbs into the gastric system faster." He went over to a big box and rummaged thorough it, coming up with two pair of sweats and a sweatshirt. No closets in this place. "The shower is in there. I'm sure you'll want to get clean and dry as soon as possible." He handed off one pair of the sweats and the sweatshirt. Then he leaned his head back and chugged down half his quart of water while Ray stared stupidly.
The lantern light caught on droplets of water that ran down the line of Ben's neck.
He must've cracked his noggin harder than he thought.
Shaking it off, he stepped into the shower and cranked on the hot water. Man, that felt good. He let it sluice down his shivers and wash them away. About three months after Stella dumped him, when he came out of Stel-La-La Land, the place where he'd never looked at another woman and stripped her down in his head, he woke up. All of a sudden he was surrounded by bodies. Sexy bodies. Some were bodies he never in a million years would have thought of as sexy, that looked pretty good now.
Bodies were sometimes so close he could have just reached out and touched someone. Bodies at work, bodies on the street, on escalators and in restaurants and sometimes pressed right up against him. Too much, and not any really, because he never did learn how to get any back then, and he still didn't know how now. It was like being sucked into a time machine -- all the years between 16 and 34 never happened, and he was right back in the same place. Teenage lust mixed with grownup loneliness, and sucked was sure the right word.
This time around, it was all shapes and sizes, didn't matter. A white smile, a hair toss, a jiggle, a sniff of perfume -- anything like that said S-E-X in big neon letters. The weird part was, he saw guys too. Felt them. Noticed them near his space, could feel their body heat, see the way they moved. It was . . . different. He'd always been an ass man; he was just now realizing everybody had one.
That was strange. Of course, he couldn't quite imagine bumping dicks when he pulled somebody up for a cuddle, so that was right out, but he was having a pretty odd reaction to Ben. Must be all the excitement. He towelled off, glad to be dry and warm. Cold and wet was miserable even in tropical paradise. The water he'd drunk had that funky wine hangover effect -- made him feel a little loopy again, just when he was sobering up. He decided it wasn't so bad.
When he came out of the bathroom, Ben Fraser was sitting reading at the main piece of real furniture in the room, the kitchen table, but there was only one chair. Now that was Spartan. Okay, there was another piece of furniture, and luxurious, too, compared to the rest of the house. Hovel. There was a double bed in the corner, with a patchwork quilt, like his mom and her buddies used to make, only this one was mostly red. It had what looked like the Union Jack on it. That and the lamplight and the fluffy dog snoring in the warmth from the fire and the deep, deep quiet made the cabin feel peaceful, like . . . home. Nevermind that he'd never been any place like this before.
He nudged the quilt over so he wouldn't wreck it, and sat down on the bed, just leaning against the wall, soaking up the snores and silence in between. Ben looked up with a small smile, half of his face lit gold from the lantern, the other half shadowed.
Should he be nosy? Yeah, why the hell not. "What -- " turn the volume down, jeez, "um, what are you reading?"
"It's one of my father's journals. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police back when I was too young to really remember, so I try to get a feel for his life through what he wrote."
"He never told you about it?"
"No, he died when I was six."
Foot two, mouth zero. "I'm -- I'm really sorry."
"It's all right. I've been used to it for a long time." He got up from his chair and got something out of the refrigerator. "Here, I made you something to eat -- I thought you'd appreciate genuine local Hawaiian cuisine."
Fish? Pineapple? Coconut? Together? He looked sceptically at the plate Ben held out to him. It looked like white bread. It was white bread. Sandwiches. He bit into one.
"Spam?" He couldn't believe it. "You're feeding me Spam sandwiches on Wonder bread and this is supposed to be, what, the state food?"
"Don't forget the mayonnaise, Ray. That's very important." Ben Fraser looked like he'd borrowed some of Ray's smug.
"You. Are shitting me."
"I am absolutely serious. Hawaiians have the highest Spam consumption in the world. Four cans a year for every man, woman, and infant child. You'll find that every convenience store will sell you a hot snack of Spam musubi. That's a block of sticky rice with a slice of fried Spam, wrapped in nori -- seaweed. The things they can do with Spam would amaze you."
Those teeth really were blindingly white. Ray practically had to shade his eyes. He tried to look suitably impressed about the whole Spam deal. It probably wasn't working.
"Actually, for a real Hawaiian meal -- 'local kine,' as they say -- you'd need a side dish of macaroni with mayonnaise."
He boggled. "Is all the food white here?"
"A large portion of it, yes, anything that's not purple or green."
Ben was just kidding.
He hoped Ben was just kidding.
Either way, he chowed down the Spam sandwiches like they were, well, Spam sandwiches, and lolled against the wall stuffed and happy. He couldn't remember feeling this content in a long time. Which was pretty strange, considering it had been a long fucking day, one that could have ended -- for him, at least -- well before dark. The question was almost a surprise, although he should have expected it before now.
"What, exactly, were you doing on the edge of Halemaumau this afternoon, if I may ask?"
"Holy muumuu? That what the fire babe wears?" Lame, way lame, and he got a penetrating stare from under the dark brows. All right, if he could be nosy, so could Ben. Fair was fair.
"What I was doing there sort of goes along with, 'Why am I here?' It's really an existential question, Ben, my friend." He shifted off part of his ass that was still sore from the fall for some reason he couldn't figure out. "I, um, I came here to get away."
"What did you want to get away from?" The nice low voice was gentle, not like an interrogation, just asking.
"Stella." He swallowed hard. "I mean, I was already away from her. She left. But I had all these memories. And everything that wasn't Stella was too new, too intense, you know? There's so much out there, but it hurts because none of it's her."
"Stella was your . . . wife?" A pointed look at Ray's hand, where his ring finger still had the indent of his wedding band.
"Bingo. Thirteen years, sixteen together if you count before we were married. I didn't know what to do when she walked out. She was my whole life." He picked at the quilt where the star was sewn on. Took a deep breath. "Did you ever feel like you don't know who you are? Like if you weren't around somebody, or if that somebody wasn't around you, that maybe you wouldn't be you? Or maybe not the you that you think you are?"
He looked up into Ben's sad blue stare. Somewhere in there was another story, one that Ray might or might not ever hear. He wasn't quite nosy enough to poke for that one.
"Yes, I . . ." Ben stopped and looked at the floor. "Yes."
"Shit happens." He forcibly removed his hand from the quilt, put it on his leg. "We were so young, you know? When we got together. She was so pretty, such a little hardass. She was only fourteen, came up to about my shoulder. Hard as nails, but she was afraid, too. Foul mouth on her, all big talk and dirty words." He smiled at the memory. "She came to the place I hung out when I took boxing lessons." He wadded up the quilt in his hand, then tried to smooth it out when he realized what he was doing. No way he was going to be making a replacement quilt.
"What was she afraid of?" Fraser was politely not looking at him, not watching whatever was bleeding out of his eyes. He was looking through the glass door on the wood stove, watching the flames jump around. Ben Fraser was a good man.
"The other girls in her neighborhood, they either went with the white gang, the Heralds, or the Conquistadores. She didn't want either one. She thought maybe if she came to the gym, we'd teach her how to protect herself. We took gang members all the time."
"Tony Bonetti laughed in her face. It was the only time I ever saw her cry, except for . . ." His throat closed up a little, and he coughed. "He had to have his jaw wired shut. The next time she came in, he didn't laugh." He rubbed at the bump on his nose where she broke it a couple months later, and smiled at how she'd made it up to him the day after. "She learned quick, too. Wasn't too long before she didn't need somebody else to do the punching for her."
Ben was definitely looking at him now, mouth open while he licked the bottom lip, all 'tell me more,' but he'd been in enough snooze-o-matic meetings to know how little that could mean. He was already eating the guy's food, sitting on his bed, wearing his clothes. Just because Ben snatched him from a fiery death didn't mean he ought to suffer through Ray's life story.
"Hey, sorry, that's not important, okay?" He inhaled until his ribs hurt. "And that's the truth. What's important is that it's not important any more. Long story short. I put money down on the tickets a long time ago, for our anniversary, right? A week later Stella's gone. She said she didn't know who I was any more."
"Pele is sympathetic to the unlucky in love. Is that why she was willing to share her gin?"
"Yeah, me and the Volcano Goddess, we're like this." He held up crossed fingers. He only hoped it was true.
"Especially since she nearly got a better sacrifice." Ben didn't sound anywhere near as snotty as he might have. Ray could appreciate that. "Are you ready to turn in?"
"Yeah, I think I've about had it." He looked around for other bed options, but of course there was nothing. Ben was rummaging in the Bottomless Box. He came out with a bedroll, and Ray got up to get ready. "Thanks for, uh, giving me a place to sleep." He nodded at the bedroll.
"This is for me. In case you haven't noticed, I'm the host, you're the guest."
"No way. No way!"
"I've spent plenty of nights on surfaces harder than this, Ray," Fraser assured him as he flipped open the bedroll.
"Um, I hate to break it to you, but this floor is made out of cement." He kicked at the offending gray surface with a foot that really needed shoes on to be doing that shit.
"Cement isn't nearly as hard as what one can find out in the field. Ignimbrite, basalt, granite, obsidian, and of course the nearby a'a lava, which is not only hard," he paused, still deadpan, "as a rock, I daresay -- but it's also quite painfully lumpy. Jagged, with sharp protrusions that can slice your bedroll to shreds." He nodded decisively. "This is really quite an improvement, despite the lack of flowing lava within easy reach."
"It's only for one night. Surely you can allow me to be a generous host to a friend for one night."
He counted as a friend? Now he knew for sure the guy was lonely. If he didn't know better, he'd think Fraser really needed him to be here, wanted him to stay and be babied. Ray thought there might be a state law against that wide-eyed look back in Illinois. If not, there definitely should be.
"Okay, okay! Enough with the look, already!" He would have sworn that Fraser turned away just to hide a smirk.
Either way, the guy started to strip. Right in front of Ray's eyes. He didn't know why that surprised him so much, but it did. There wasn't really anywhere else for him to be getting ready for bed, except the bathroom, which was so tiny it was like one of those haunted house smallifying rooms. He'd almost skinned an elbow taking his own shirt off. And the room they were in was getting smaller too, by the nanosecond, so small that he had to back up, go sit back down on the bed.
He shouldn't watch, for God's sake.
The guy was not doing a skin show.
Tell that to his brain. The brain was not taking directions. Or maybe it was his eyes. He was a nut. It'd been so long that he was staring at strangers, strangers taking their clothes off, a decent guy who helped him out of a bad jam, stop that, it was -- yecch.
The fading firelight made a halo around Fraser's body as he unbuttoned his cuffs and started to pull off his shirt. The shoulders looked even broader with less clothes on than they did fully dressed. No wonder they could haul a full-grown man up out of a hole like he weighed hardly anything. Ray felt a pang as the shirt came sliding down Fraser's arms. He was wearing a t-shirt underneath. No skin at all, then, or only as much as the limp t-shirt allowed. It looked wrecked with age, soft -- touchable.
There was slippery, silky old cotton under his palm, warmed by the moving muscle underneath as Fraser turned to face him, lips parted for a question, the fire reflecting gold in his eyes . . .
Ray looked down at his hand, wondering what the hell that was all about. His hand didn't have an answer, lying curled up a little on his leg the way the dog was in front of the fire, all innocent and unconcerned. When had his body started feeling things without him? Maybe about the time he heard the shush of khakis sliding off of cotton boxers. He sure felt something at that. He felt unsettled, that was it. Strange place, strange bed, hell, Fraser was a strange guy. Slept on rocks, ate canned lunch meat in seaweed.
It was okay. He was freaking over nothing. Ben was brushing his teeth in the bathroom now, so he shucked the sweatshirt; better to be undressed than to get undressed, what if Ben was a perv like him and watched? It was the taking-off part that attracted attention. Nothing to do about the sweats, unless he wanted to ask for a clean pair of underwear on top of everything else, and he guessed Ben's hospitality must not extend that far. Ray didn't blame him.
When Ray brushed up against Ben's shoulder on Ben's way out of the bathroom and his own way in, he didn't even notice. Except for when he found out that even the ragged t-shirt wasn't as soft as Ben's skin.
It was so weird to be under a quilt in a shack with a wood fire, like there ought to be howling wind and howling wolves and snow piling up over the door. Call Of The Wild, like. But all he could hear was a faint snap-crackle-pop and Ben's settle-down sigh. Now that it was later, whatever bugs that didn't show their faces in the daytime were at it too, a hum that he wasn't used to. Every once in a while he could hear sort of a squeak as much as a chirp, one that sounded like it was coming from the roof.
"Cricket. Ben, you got a cricket." He smiled sleepily, thinking of Jiminy.
There was a soft answer from the man on the floor. "Mm? Oh, it's geckoes." He sounded like he'd been almost asleep, too.
"Uh." He blinked. "Geckoes? You mean those little lizard guys?"
"On . . . the ceiling?"
His mental picture of a lizard slapping down on his face in the middle of the night must have leaked out somehow, because Ben made reassuring noises. "They have tiny suction cups on their toes, Ray. They seldom fall off the ceiling."
He pulled the covers up over his face anyway. That was when he realized that Ben had already slept in those sheets. Well, of course he had, numbnuts, but it was more than just the faint smell of Ben, which was kind of nice all by itself. Sleeping in sheets that somebody else slept in was almost like . . . sleeping with somebody else. Having somebody there. It was comforting in a way nothing had been for a long time.
He breathed in Ben and drifted off into the nighttime hum.
It was the t-shirt that got his attention, that so-soft greyed-out cotton against his fingers, with warm solid man underneath. Ben was here, Ben was with him, and he didn't think to wonder why, just that it felt so good to touch him. He pushed his hand under the shirt looking for more soft skin over muscle. Oh, yeah, that was nice, sliding his palm across those wide shoulders. He followed the edge of a shoulderblade up to the back of Ben's neck. Ben sighed, smiled at him so very sweetly, and reached over to touch his face. Ray couldn't help smiling back. Ben trailed a fingertip along his jaw.
It was amazing that something so strange could be so easy.
"Ben," he whispered. "Ben."
A muffled sound came from -- somewhere else.
" 'm here. You okay?"
No Ben. No Ben under Ray's hand, anyway. What was it with Ray's hands? Ben was somewhere. Where the hell was the voice coming from? Oh, yeah, the floor.
Holy shit, dreamland wasn't what it used to be. None of that falling from high places or being chased by hairy monsters, not for him, not these days. Now he was getting up close and personal with strange men. Kind of too bad about not getting to the part where he got some, though. Been a long, long time. Or maybe it was better this way. He'd discarded the sweats from under the covers, and his dick was begging for more against the Ben-scented sheets. Another thing the guy could sell. Christ, bad enough getting horny over his host; if he'd come all over the guy's sheets -- or worse yet, in his sweatpants, jesus god -- he'd have died on the spot.
There was another worried whisper. "Ray. Ray?"
He rolled over without answering -- didn't know what to say. His head hummed with night sounds and his body hummed with the feel of Ben under his hands. He didn't fall back to sleep so much as wander away, following the vibrations.
Coffee was tickling his nose. Someone was trying to be vewwy quiet, which always made him feel like Bugs Bunny. A wabbit with a hangover. He had no freakin' idea where he was, somewhere facing an unfinished board wall, until he saw the red quilt over him. Why that had made such an impression, he had no idea, but he knew he was in a cabin. Ben's cabin. The next thing to come to mind was the dream about touching Ben. Fuck. Now he had a problem and a headache.
"I thought light-colored booze didn't give you a hangover," he muttered.
"Obviously you've never had retsina," replied the man himself. Ray winced at the light beams shooting off the way-too-cheerful smile, as Ben handed him a weirdly erratic ceramic cup that had the world's most delicious smell curling out of it. Their fingers brushed, sending another kind of something good through him. His head hurt like hell, but his sex drive was still healthy. Or something.
"Thanks." A grating word was all he could do. Ray was not at his best in the early morning anyhow, but this morning, for coffee at least, he was truly grateful.
"Yes, the islands have that going for them, among many other things."
"Saved again." Sucking down half the coffee, he raised his head to peer, slit-eyed, out the window. All he could see was greenery. It looked like the backdrop to Waterworld. "Christ." He cleared his scratchy throat. "It's a jungle out there."
"Indeed it is, Ray," Ben replied, his voice much too cheerful, not to mention much too loud, for Ray's perfect comfort. "It's subtropical rain forest."
"Shh . . . Be careful. You're smashing all the dishes in my head. Don't shake 'em. Talk softly and carry a big . . ." His mind staggered to a stop.
After that, he tried to keep his mouth shut, at least until his brain came back from wherever the hell it was living. When Ben suggested breakfast at the Volcano House, he just nodded.
They were cleaning up the crumbs, Ray happier now that his hair didn't hurt, when Ben said, "Do you like fish?"
Ray blinked. "Cooked? Hooked? What?"
"Ah, tropical fish, alive, in their native habitat."
Real fish, in the briny deep. Salt water, out there, in that big aquarium also known as the Pacific Ocean. He liked that idea more than he wanted to. He'd always wished he could meet a fish face to face, swim with it, swim like it, not be afraid like it wasn't afraid. Too bad it wasn't going to happen.
"Nah, they're too, um, fishy." He grabbed the bill and got up, hoping that would be the end of it. He had to ditch the mad rock scientist and get the hell out of here. No more white teeth and curious blue eyes to distract him from the neverending fun-fun-fun of his vacation. Say so long, it was time to get gone.
Fraser was more persistent than he'd given him credit for. "Snorkeling is entertaining and highly educational. I'm sure you'd enjoy it if you tried it." He spoke intently, but he wasn't looking Ray's way. He was playing with a quarter; no, it was some other coin Ray'd never seen before. He fingered it like a magician. "You really shouldn't go back to the mainland without sampling the area's points of interest." The light from the window winked off the coin at him.
Why was Ben pushing it? "No."
Or, why didn't he just hand over a little white lie and let it go, instead of saying no? He stared at Ben's fingers, transfixed by their gentle motion with the shiny coin. They were so agile; long and strong. Ben had hands like a workman, hands that would look right at home wrapped around an axehandle or a jackhammer. Or around . . . Ray shook his head, and tried to remember what they were talking about. Water. Swimming. Why he didn't want to.
"Why?" Fraser looked up from his own hand, honestly perplexed, like he couldn't imagine why anybody wouldn't want to walk away from every ounce of self preservation they had -- walk right out into the deep blue sea, and give themselves up to it.
He pulled Ben aside by the arm, ignoring the odd looks of other people in line for the cash register, ignoring the buzz in his fingers that came from having them on Ben, until they were huddled together in the hallway to the bathrooms. "You wanna know? Okay, I'll tell you." He looked around furtively. Stop that, he told himself. It wasn't a freakin' crime. "I, uh . . . " He could feel himself turning red. Now he was pissed. Spit it out, goddamn it. He was never going to see this man again, and that was fine. "I can't swim."
"I assure you, there's no real need to know how to swim in order to enjoy --"
Ray took a deep breath and interrupted before the ocean could close over his head. "I'm afraid of water, all right?" Belligerently, he leaned toward Ben and scowled into his face, expecting derision, but instead he saw only simple interest. Shifting back a little, he examined the floor. "I, uh, I fell into a pool when I was a kid. Hit my head, the lifeguard had to revive me. Haven't been in anything bigger than a bathtub since."
Ben wasn't smiling, but something about the way he looked at Ray made Ray heat up all over. "I know you can do this. And when you do, and you see all the wonders just under the surface, you'll forget about everything else. I promise."
Jeez, the way that voice slid into his ears about gave him goosebumps. Tightening his grip, Ray was surprised to realize he was squeezing Ben's arm, because that was where his hand still was. He was touching Ben, but it felt like Ben was touching him. Being around this guy was messing with his head something fierce, but he . . . liked it.
"Come snorkeling with me today."
He could barely remember the last time somebody wanted to spend time with him, something more important than inviting the gang to the nearest cop bar or a fast-food drive-by. Yup, a persistent bastard, all right. He was for sure looking at Ray now, all big-eyed, his tucked-in neatness almost visibly ruffling with how much he wanted it. And that, all by itself, was pretty damned appealing.
Maybe a golden retriever. When he was a kid, they had a black lab, but he'd always wanted a golden.
Shit, that water was cold. Well, maybe not all that cold, not like ice, but no bathtub either. Feeling the ocean creep slowly up each thigh and curl up under his balls inside the wetsuit was . . . chilling. Maybe the suit was a better idea than he'd originally thought. Right now, he was shaking in his shoes. Flaking in his fins.
He swayed a little with the water, trying to keep his footing. Waist-deep on a rock bed, watching Fraser pull on his mask, he was so far not liking it. A lot. This water had a life of its own, moving him back and forth. He was cold and wanted to back the fuck out, but there was no way in hell he was going to. He'd die trying before he'd wimp out in front of Ben. He gritted his teeth before they could chatter.
It had been a lot different view from up along the road where they parked, looking down at the all the water colors while he was warm and dry. Pretty, not freakin' frigid.
Ben said, "When you move through the water, try not to kick hard or move your arms if you don't have to. Splashing and sharp gestures scare the fish away. Pretend you're a strand of seaweed moving gently with the current. The tide, what of it there is, is going out right now. That will help pull you along."
Great, and when the Bancroft expedition found him at the South Pole tomorrow, they could wrap him around a can of Spam.
"I'm going to take your hand to help steady you for a while, so you don't drift too far away until you're used to breathing through the snorkle. Just push off the rock to give yourself some forward momentum."
Ray didn't give a rip what the excuse was; he was mighty happy to hold anybody's hand right now. The water looked bigger every minute, and he was hardly in it yet. He pulled at his mask to make sure it was sealed, stuck the mouthpiece in, and held out his hand. Even with more cold water squishing in and up, his skin cringing in its path, he felt warmer with a fistful of solid Fraser to hang on to as they slid off face-first across the top of the water.
That was when he realized that the rock was gone. It had only been a ledge -- there was no bottom underneath him. Well, there was, but surprise, it was way farther down than he thought. Too far down. Between him and the bottom was a lot of water. His lungs seized up and he started to cough, desperately trying not to spit the air tube out of his mouth.
He hadn't had a panic attack in fifteen years, but he sure as shit was having one now. DON'T PANIC, he told himself, and the answer came back in little kid singsong: "You're gonna diiiie, you're gonna diiiie." He could almost hear the giggle afterwards.
There was water all around him as far as he could see in every direction that he could see. He had to get back. Had to get out. The water was sucking at him, sucking him away. He was headed toward that coral over there pretty fast and he couldn't seem to stop, that coral Fraser said he shouldn't get too close to because it would hurt him and he'd kill it -- why the fuck he'd said no stupidass yellow life jacket, no way, so he wouldn't be a geek, better a geek than a dead guy --
Oh, God, he was really going to lose it; he wasn't just going to drown and die, he was going to faint first. The ultimate embarrassment. He was going to take the Loser Of The Year snorkel award down with him to Davy Jones' locker room. He was kicking hard but it was like his fins caught on the water and just bent over, wouldn't do anything. He was shaking all over and his breath whistled and huffed frantically through the plastic pipe.
The sound effects freaked him out as much as anything else. The underwater was full of noise and roiling with bubbles. It was washing against the coral and sloshing back at him and he couldn't see and it was loud. His harsh breathing overrode even that and he was being pulled, pulled away from the evil killer coral to the safety of open water.
He'd forgotten all about Fraser.
Thank Christ Fraser hadn't let go.
Although he probably couldn't, since Ray might have broken his fingers. Even now, Ben was prying Ray's fingers off of around his hand. He grasped Ray's wrist firmly, staving off another round of panic. Now that open water seemed safer than where he was a minute ago, his breathing slowed down and his heart quit trying to dig its way out.
When he could catch a full lung of air, Fraser gestured at him with the OK sign. He nodded, pulled a deeper breath through the tube, and looked around for the first time. It was lighter under there than he figured. The sun came down through the water in streaks some places, and looked like it was moving with the waves. There were other things down there too, and he realized now that they were fish. The place was full of fish; it was like being in the big tank at the Shedd.
One fish, two fish . . . red fish, blue fish. And black and white stripes, and irridescent green and purple, little fish the size of his hand and some pretty big ones. The water was calmer here, and when he got close enough to the coral with the green and purple fish, he could hear them. The fish were gnawing at the coral, loud crunching that carried pretty far in the Jacques Cousteau underwater world.
Now that he wasn't thrashing around, some of the fish were coming his way, which was pretty weird. Ben had told him they weren't afraid of people, but he hadn't expected them to follow him around like he was the Pied Piper. It was . . . cool.
Off in the distance there was a huge honking yellow fish that Ben probably knew the name of. Ben gestured downward, and Ray followed the line of his arm. There were flat round green things down in the coral beneath them that he didn't recognize at first, until one of them got up and swam past him. He could have reached out and run a finger along the curve of its shell. A turtle, a really big one, so much like his at home but ten times the size. He was amazed by the grace they had under the water. It was like watching birds fly, only in slow motion.
Ray felt like he was flying, too. Held up by the water, he was flying low over the coral with the fish and the turtles. It felt great, terrific. Like magic. He felt Ben let go of his wrist and gave back the OK gesture, then carefully moved off in the seaweed swim so he didn't scare his new fishy friends away.
He had no idea how long he seaweeded around, watching the fish do their thing, not paying much attention to Ben except when he'd point at something neat, like a fish with a horn on its head or a big snake thing sticking its face, complete with a big gnash of teeth, out of the coral. One minute he was floating happily in fifteen or twenty feet of water and the next minute he was surrounded. There were big silver fish everywhere, thousands of them. This was no kindergarten class. These guys must have been from one of the Big Ten schools.
They weren't doing anything but being fish, but it was freaky to be out there with them, like being out in space; all that blue and all the flashing silver was disorienting, insofar as he was oriented anyway. He must have drifted off the continental shelf or something.
Blindly he stuck out his hand, and Ben took it. Moments later all the fish turned as one and vanished the way they'd appeared.
By some mutual agreement, he and Ben turned too. Even though he kind of wanted to stay there forever with the neat fish, he was turning into a giant economy-size prune, and getting pretty cold. There was water seeping in under his mask and he let Ben go to adjust it, but it didn't work. All of a sudden he had a mouthful of salt water, and it was so bad he was coughing and choking and flailing worse than before. He wasn't panicking yet, but then his snorkle was full of salt water and he didn't have enough air left to blow it out -- until arms wound around his chest and Ben held his face above the water line.
Oh, yeah. Saved again. He ought to get the guy a keg for around his neck.
With a squeeze to Ben's hand, he signalled he was ready, and they took off back to shore. He reached the rock ledge with equal parts glee and regret. He'd miss the fish, but he was damned glad to draw a dry breath, with no need to worry about where his next oxygen was coming from. Dry. Dry was good. On top of being a lot drier than a minute ago, he'd done it. Gone into the water and come out still alive. That was worth a celebration, and he'd have to think of something worthwhile.
He pulled off his mask and snorkle, noticing as he did that even mask marks couldn't make Ben look stupid. He'd been too busy trying to stash his anxiety about the water when they first got there to pay any attention to Ben, except listening with half an ear to his lecture on what kind of coral there'd be, the extra bouyancy added by wetsuits, the salinity of seawater near the Tropic of Cancer, and the price of puffer fish in China. Then, even Ben's voice couldn't get all the way through his twitchiness.
Now, he couldn't drag his eyes away.
He knew Ben looked good; you'd have to be blind not to. But that six feet of firmly packed -- naked, he was almost naked under his wetsuit -- body under the skin-tight black neoprene made him understand, on a right now basis, where the rubber clothes fetish came from. Ray's already-salty mouth went drier. His fingers straightened, trying to reach over all by themselves to pull down the diagonal zipper that held Ben's suit together, but he managed by sheer will to force them to curl up instead.
Ben's eyes glittered like the ocean they'd just come wading out of. Water-curled dark hair was dripping down skin pink from sun and exertion, and the gleaming smile wouldn't quit on a face that was getting . . . closer? Ben leaned in so close that Ray could feel his warm words on a cold, wet ear. One of those big workman's hands squeezed his arm as Ben said, "You did it, Ray."
He didn't think it was pride of achievement that left him tingly.
"It's a beautiful day, isn't it?" Ben's voice was as raspy as the velcro he casually ripped apart. Okay, so maybe Ray really did have a rubber fetish that he never knew about. He watched as every millimeter of pale skin appeared in the black vee of the zipper's teeth, and wished his own teeth were right there. Ben peeled off the upper part of his suit, leaving it to hang at his waist, dribbles of water running down his chest and arms.
"Hey, Doc Rock!"
Ray was genuinely disappointed when somebody called to Fraser as they were walking across the street to the truck. A small group of men was standing around a truck, unloading suits and tanks. In fact, Dief was already over there, giving up his spot in the shade so he could get some attention. The four guys were loving him up like they were all best buds.
Why had he thought he could have his new friend all to himself? Duh. The guy had friends of his own. Real friends, that he knew for more than . . . one lousy day. Eighteen hours. Eighteen hours and he was already totally fucked, what with the whole "being saved right and left by the most beautiful man he'd ever seen" thing.
Man, he hated that.
He was on vacation, right? His freakin' dream vacation. His romantic once-in-a-lifetime trip to paradise. He would never see the man again. He would go back to his dreary cop life where his only pleasure was busting assholes who should have known better. He deserved something, here. Maybe he should paste a big wet one on that incredible guy and see what happened.
Maybe he should shoot moonbeams out of his ass.
Ben waved at the group standing a few cars down along the street.
"Sorry, Delmar, can't talk now! I'll give you a call later, yeah?"
He pulled Ray around to the other side of the truck and pinned him up against it. "Is this what you want?" He leaned in and kissed Ray's lips gently, sucking on them a little before leaning back.
If Ben hadn't been pressing him against the truck, he'd have slid to the dirt. "Uh, yeah. Yeah, it is."
"Well, then. Let me help you out of that suit. It's covering up what I want to see." Ben's erection was long and hard in the confines of his wetsuit, and it was pushing into the hollow of Ray's hipbone.
Oh, so slowly, he drew the down the zipper of Ray's suit and peeled it back, grasping the offending neoprene by its zippered edges. Using it as leverage for another kiss, he nibbled at Ray's dry lips. "God, you look good in black." Then he latched on for real, a deep wet probing kiss that made Ray float again. Ben was setting him free of that tight, sticky rubber, and he felt the soft breeze slide down his skin, with soft lips right behind. Soft, and wet. Ben tongued lightly down his neck. Ben's hand went to the small of his back, possessively kneading. Down and down, all the way to Ray's ass, pulling Ray forward to meet the hardness at his groin.
Ray was hard, too; Christ, he thought he was going to shoot right there in the damn wetsuit. Then it'd live up to its name.
Ben whispered in his ear, "Gas chromatograph."
Ray jerked, and looked up to see Ben nearby, talking to his buddies.
Must be talking shop if they weren't speaking English.
He blinked once, hard. Holy shit, now Ben was the star in his x-rated fantasies. What the fuck was wrong with him? First his hands, now -- he looked down at the shadowed bulge in his suit -- his dick. Traitorous bastards. What body part was going to fuck him over next? Quickly, he pulled off the top of his wetsuit and let it hang from his waist as Ben had. There wasn't much else he could do for now.
"Ray. Ray. Ray!" Fraser gestured him over. He was talking to somebody who could have been a pro wrestler. The wrestler was talking in some kind of patois, like Spanglish only different. "When you go one night dive wit' us, Ben?" Ben's reply sounded like, "Bum bye." The big guy laughed and cuffed Ben's shoulder. "Talkin' da kine! You be one local after all, cuz."
"Ray, I want you to meet Delmar Wainui, who befriended me when I first came to Hawaii four years ago. Keola Gomes, Ernie Manu, Kimo Aiwohi, this is Ray Kowalski. He's visiting." There was a round of friendly howzits punctuated with the wagging of hands with thumbs and little fingers hanging out, then the other guys went back to messing with their dive gear.
"Pleased to meet you." Ray's hand was genially grabbed by a paw the size of Vermont, and he was afraid he'd have only a stump left afterward, but the Hawaiian Rock must be a gentle giant. "Any friend of Ben's is a friend of mine. If you got time, you're welcome to come night diving, too."
"I, uh --"
But the big guy had already interrupted him. "Ben! Las' week we wen' night dive, an' you know da LFAS." His aggravation seemed to wind up the accent. "It stay on, yeah? Fuckin' bastards, dey usin' da sonar! If we no drop mike, jus' to see wha's happenin' down dere, we be one plate lunch fo' sha'ks!"
"You say the navy is operating the Low Frequency Active Sonar? I thought they stopped testing. And you know they have to issue warnings. It's too dangerous to have people swimming in the vicinity!"
Delmar rolled his eyes. "I call 'em ness day an' some babooze say, 'You lolo, brah. No sonar no mo'.' Navy messin' wit us, major kine. Das junk. No whales now, but still honus an' nai'a." Pausing to take a breath, he turned to Ray. "Sorry, I get pretty . . . uh, mad about this stuff."
"That's okay, it doesn't sound too good."
Ben chimed in. "You're right, it can't be good for the turtles or dolphins, either. If the Navy's illegally activating the sonar, it has to be stopped."
"Aunty Meli, she go fix 'em." Delmar laughed, then sobered up. "Look, Ben, you go stay Oahu, stop in and talk to her, yeah? Somebody been sending her threats. She didn't go to the cops, she say it jus' somebody don' know his okole from his elbow." He turned to Ray. "You'll like Oahu, brah. Once you get out of the city, it's beautiful. Nice meeting you, and I hope you have a great time here."
"It's been pretty exciting, so far." Ray stepped back and let them have their goodbyes in peace, then walked back to their cars with Ben and a reluctant Dief.
"So. You care to translate that? I didn't quite catch all the Hawai'ibonics. I mean, it's none of my business, whatever." Ray waved a hand to show he really didn't care.
"No, not at all. It seems that Delmar and his friends went out for a night dive on his family's whale-watch boat, which he has outfitted for research. When they lowered the microphone into the water, they discovered that the Navy had activated their submarine detection system, in contravention of a court order."
Twice. Twice now in the last twenty four hours, Ben was stripping down in front of him, this time down to a still-dripping black Speedo. He was beginning to know that of the asses he'd seen lately -- even with him pumping iron for anything that moved -- Ben's was by far the best. He turned away, the better to both keep track of the conversation and keep his dick from waving hello. His borrowed swimsuit was no match for his hormones. Looked like there were just some levels of suckable that crossed boundaries.
"And this is really bad, because . . ."
"Because at its operational level of 240 decibels, the Navy itself reports that the sonar is likely to create significant concussion effects -- liver and lung hemmorhaging, and soft tissue damage."
Ray winced. "Ho, yeah. That's bad. What's the rest of the story?" Hemorrhage was plenty enough to take his mind off the view.
"The Navy is denying it, but Delmar threatens to sic Aunty Meli on them." Ben smiled, a sweet, thoughtful smile that made his face brighten, even in the shade. "She's quite a woman. She works with Hawaiian Sovereignty, and also has set up several protests against the Low Frequency Active Sonar testing."
"Huh." He didn't really want an explanation of all that. He just wanted to keep Fraser with him. How could he ask for any more, though? He was so into this strange place and this strange guy that it was hard to tell what was really there from what wasn't.
In his head, Ben should be with him -- save his life, feed him, keep him entertained. Strip just for him, touch him, love him up like those guys with Dief. Sure, why not? Then Ray could wave bye-bye and go home. He was obviously losing his fucking mind. Maybe it was time to give Ben a break, let him go do whatever he usually did with his free time. The guy had a life, had friends, he lived here.
"Well, uh . . . I s'pose I ought to get going. Lots of vacating to do, and all." Somewhere out of his repertoire, he dug the biggest smile he could, hoping it didn't look as fake as it felt. How stupid was that? How could he miss some guy he just met last night? By now, he should be too old to need a babysitter. "I just want to say . . . I appreciate your pulling my ass out of the fire."
Ben looked embarrassed, or something. "I . . . I was most happy to do so." He stared down at his hands, which were sort of fidgeting, which was funny because Ray would have said Ben wasn't a fidgety kind of guy. Then he stuck out a palm, which Ray took, shook, and probably held on to for way too long. His fingers didn't want to give it up. It almost hurt to let go.
"It's been great. Meeting you, I mean."
A strange noise, almost an under-its-breath whine, came from the dog. "Stop it," Ben commanded. "Ray is on vacation. We, on the other hand, have errands to run, and . . . ah, things to do." The dog had big blue eyes, too. "Yes, we do. For one thing, we have to get you a bag of dog food unless you wish to starve. I don't think the mongoose population will suffice." He looked back at Ray. "Goodbye, Ray. I hope you have a wonderful time."
The talking to the dog thing was different, and that was fine, but the errands sounded like what a chick would say if she had to wash her hair. Polite, but he'd have to clean the boot print off his butt later. No more hanging around together. Standing here was . . . it was an . . . anti-climax. Yeah, that was the right word for it. Ben was a total stranger, one who'd wanted his company this morning but now he had other stuff to do. A total stranger that made his dick stand up and beg, but so did most people these days.
If Ray wanted some nookie, he'd be better off in the hotel bar. If he wanted a friend, this one would be 4,000 miles away. Time to get his ass in gear. Take a hike.
He had five days left in Paradise. And if his vacation looked a little emptier without Ben, then he'd find something else to take up the space. He was good. No problem.
"So long, and thanks for all the fish." He almost reached out his hand again, just for the feel of Ben's folded around it, but pulled it back in time.
"Nothing." He looked over at the water, then scrunched his eyes shut. He didn't want to do this. He really didn't want to do this. Shit. This wasn't the way it went in the movies. Didn't they ever make movies where two guys met on an island and got their sand hauled, with the ocean licking their toes?
"Look, wait," he finally said, but it was to empty air. A couple passing cars had masked Ben's getaway while Ray was gazing at his navel. Ben was already hustling the dog into his Jeep, giving Ray a wave as he pulled onto the road. Well. Suck City, Arizona.
Ray was in the dive shop returning his rental equipment when he realized that, under his torn and dirty jeans, he was still wearing Ben's extra Speedo.
Ray's own underwear was dried out and stiff from the mud that filtered right through the denim yesterday, so he hadn't worn it. At least his dirty jeans didn't give him a crackly snuggie. The discarded underwear was . . . well, he hoped it wasn't on the floor of Ben's bathroom, but he couldn't remember. So instead, he had on The Speedo.
It was taking on that kind of importance.
Now that he was thinking about it, he could feel it, feel how his jeans slid over the slippery fabric, giving him all kinds of crazy sensations. Or maybe he was just imagining the way the Speedo clung to his jewels and cradled his dick, the way it stretched along his ass when he moved, the way it caught and pulled at some of the short hairs. Whoa. Not his imagination, the slickness of lycra smoothing down the head of his thickening cock as it pushed up, looking for more.
Fuck. This thing was more like a sex toy than a fucking swimsuit, and it belonged to Ben. Holy shit. Just the idea of Ben feeling the same creamy goodness from the same couple inches of lycra cuddled around his dick -- Ben laying on the beach, Ben with one knee up and his hand covering the bulge, rubbing, stroking . . . Ray wanted to stick his hand down his jeans and help himself out right there in the middle of the goddamned fucking store. A faint noise whistled up from the back of his throat.
He practically threw the cash at the surprised clerk and didn't look back as he fled the dive shop.
Christ, he thought as he got into his rental, why hadn't Ben said something? Those suits weren't cheap -- obviously for a good reason. Sell them prepackaged with a vibrator and you could make a fortune. Although, all things considered, maybe Ben didn't want it back. He sure as hell wouldn't if he knew what purposes it was going to get up to. Ray couldn't help but snicker. No hospitality would go that far. But he could have the hotel throw it in the laundry later and send it back, care of the Observatory -- he wouldn't even need the address in a place like this -- no harm done.
In the meantime, it felt damn good. Felt like . . . Ben. He couldn't resist the occasional squeeze-n-tease as he rolled down the highway, singing along to 'he done me wrong' songs on an oldies station he found. Maybe Ben hadn't stuck around, but he'd sure introduced Ray to a new twist. Not only was he into anybody with three dimensions, now he was getting kinky, too. Date night could be boys, girls, or sporting goods. It was kind of a trip; he'd pretty much toed the line all his life so far as behavior was concerned. A few youthful hijinks, sure. But he'd been a cop married to a lawyer for most of his adult life.
Find A New You On Vacation. He sure as hell hadn't expected to find this one, but he was willing to go with it.
The other thing he didn't expect to find was brake lights in the middle of the freakin' highway, now with hazards flashing. Good thing he'd been paying at least some attention to the road, whatever he could drag away from his hormones. He couldn't help the cheer that went up inside him when he got close enough to see that it was Ben's truck, Ben that got out and walked around the front. He'd be glad to give the guy a ride. Anywhere. Any time. "You got no class, Kowalski," he muttered out loud as he got out of the car.
What he saw around the front of the truck, though, made him back up a step. Ben was on the ground, his fingers on the neck of the guy laying there. Early 20s, about 6'1", military style short dark hair, skinny build -- maybe 165 pounds. Ben's dog was sniffing around, whining. "What the hell?"
"Ray! There's still a pulse." He leaned down to put his ear to the guy's nose. "Wait, he's stopped breathing."
"You start, I'll call 911." Why he just assumed the guy knew what he was doing was another question.
Ray went to jack his car crosswise along the road so that both vehicles could be seen from a distance; then they traded off CPR. It wasn't his favorite thing, trying to breathe for somebody who might not make it, and he was glad to hear the wail of the ambulance. When the paramedics took over, Ray got the explanation.
"I was just driving along when I saw what I assumed to be a big light-colored dog laying in the road. In my own defense, that's not an uncommon sight around the island, although they do tend to avoid busy highways."
"First off, you must drive like a slug. I caught up to you."
Fraser lifted his eyebrows, and that little smile licked at the corner of his mouth. "There's a bumper sticker you'll see on the islands that proclaims, 'You drive fast, you got no style.'. I find I prefer to have style."
Ray just shook his head, mystified.
Thank God there wasn't much traffic; the place would have been a mess. The patrolman took their statements. Hard to believe there was state highway patrol here, or even state highways. It was nice to be on the other end of a police intervention for a change. Here, he got to leave when it was over instead of taking it all with him. In what was a lot less time than it seemed like, they were free to go.
Except for Ben. No way was he free to go, no matter what kind of trash Ray had to talk to get him to stay. Nobody who could partner him like that, surfing the same wavelength with hardly a word, could be allowed to get away. Even if Ray could only keep him for a few days.