He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, and ended up blinking the other half of it painfully out of his eyes. It was damned hot away from the ocean in Hawaii in July. Ben said this was the dry side, and he wasn't kidding. The sunny sky lit up the dark brown rocks, but the blazing heat made yesterday's fine mist kind of appealing. He could see water from here, bright blue off into the distance, but it was more like a desert this far up the mountainside -- hell, the whole island was a mountainside. Except for the part that was a mountaintop. Volcanotop.
Rocky rubble and some yellow dried-up grass was all there was to this landscape. There was no jungle out here. It was so big and plain and brown that they had their own graffiti, way less annoying than paint tags. Greetings, sayings, and 'Joe Loves Anuhea' were spelled out in white pebbles in the lava fields along the highway. Seeing the white rocks reminded Ray, as if he could forget, that he was salted like slab bacon and his clothes were full of day-old sludge, never a good combination.
He'd just about kill for a shower right now. Even Ben was starting to wilt.
"You look like you could use a shower and something to drink, and I know I could," he told Ben, as soon as he could catch his eye. "Let's go."
"My hotel is right up the highway. I'm paying for it; let's go use it."
A frown lined its way between the dark brows. A bead of sweat followed it. "I don't want to impose -- "
"I bet the mutt could use a dip in the ocean." Dief was panting heavily in the shade of the Jeep, tongue dripping, and he yapped agreement. Ray hoped Ben didn't need more convincing than that. He didn't know, short of kidnapping the guy, what he could use as a lure. Too bad offering up his virgin ass wouldn't work. He wasn't even sure he wanted to offer up his virgin ass.
This time, he was in luck. Go Pele. For the promise of a shower, Ben turned out to be as easy as he was pretty.
When smile lines came out around Ben's eyes, he knew the guy was close. He could see the whites of Ben's teeth. "Diefenbaker's always wanted to be a salty dog, Ray." It was as good as please and thank you. Hallelujah; give the man a chorus.
"Come on, then. I'm at the Kona Village."
Dief had a ball in the rushing foam. Fraser'd poured him as much fresh water as he could drink from a plastic jug in the back of the truck, then let him loose to romp. He splashed through the shallows and snapped joyously at the waves as they curled toward him, backing up hard and fast when they threatened to dunk him. It was so nice, so bright and blue and cool at the water's edge. He didn't even care about a shower, not now.
Watching Dief made Ray itch to romp too, and why not? So he took off, chasing the white dog in the white spray. His filthy clothes arced into the breeze after he pulled the gritty t-shirt and then the jeans off, hopping and laughing. Good thing for the swimsuit.
"Where'd you get that maniac, anyway?" Ray gasped, delighted to see that Ben had kicked off his shoes and joined them, t-shirt and nylon shorts molded to his body by the wind. Ray could only breathe a sigh of relief that it wasn't the same shirt as yesterday.
"I'll tell you later. Right now, I have the ultimate weapon. It's something -- besides food, that is -- that Diefenbaker can't resist."
"Hey! A frisbee! I haven't thrown a frisbee in years."
"Just like riding a bicycle, I assure you."
They pounded up and down the empty beach, sand and spray flying along with the frisbee, and that damn dog could leap high enough to grab it right out of the air half the time. Getting the thing back was the problem; they had to gang up on him and tackle him sometimes to pry it out of his jaws. Which led to a lot of dog slobber, but it was easy enough to rinse everything off in the bubbly water lapping the shore.
Dog wrassling with Ben gave him some body-contact freebies, but he was genuinely trying not to take advantage. Manfully, he ignored the press of Ben's hip, and the way the hair on Ben's leg scrubbed against his own. He was beginning to feel like a dog chasing a car, anyway. If he caught Ben, what would he do with him?
He'd never been with a guy, even though the idea of bumping dicks was starting to sound pretty damn good. His hands, being the the way they'd been lately, had their own ideas; it was tough to keep them to himself. But he was working on it as best he could.
Ben was willing to hang around him for a while and have some fun. Ray would take anything he could get for as long as he could get it, beg for it if he had to, and that ought to be enough. Had to be enough, Speedo be damned.
Finally, winded by the last sprint, Ray couldn't do it anymore. He flopped down and, with a dying hand on his chest, called out in a horrible falsetto, "Help! I've fallen and I can't get up!" His ridiculous acting was met with outright laughter, laughter he hadn't heard before. Something quiet inside him made his mouth turn up and his toes curl a little all by themselves.
Ben skidded down beside him, raining sand across his belly. He couldn't let that one go.
"Watch it! Do I look like a 97-pound weakling?"
"No. You look like the wiry-but-dangerous type." Ben looked thoughtful, not like he was joking, as he stretched out face-down. "You're a fighter, you're strong and fast. I believe you could take me any time."
Ray's head snapped back Ben's way as he looked again, wide-eyed. Did he really just hear that? Ben's dark head was already pillowed on his arms.
He'd better keep his gutter thoughts to himself before he got in trouble.
The sand was almost too hot, but softer to lay on than he thought it would be. With a satisfied sigh, he wiggled to let the grains scuff his back. It was like a massage. Basking was good; very, very good. The late afternoon sun warmed him all the way to his bones, and the sea breeze kept him cool on the outside. He loved the soothing crash and hiss of the surf as it washed up on the sand. He even liked the rusty shrieks of the sea birds.
When he had his sand hollow fixed to complete comfort, shoulder to shoulder with Ben and just damned happy to be there, he thought he'd found perfect peace. Knots were loosening in his back that were so deep he hadn't even known they were there anymore, they'd just seemed normal. He hoped he could soak up enough relaxation to bring some back to the city with him, keep himself centered for a while. It was the zen of beach, it was what he'd been hoping to find when he came here; maybe what he'd been trying to find for a while now.
Until three seconds later, when a cold wet frisbee slapped down on his bare stomach. "Ow! Shit! Sure, now you bring over the freakin' frisbee." He pushed at Dief, who promptly shook himself all over, covering Ray with a shower of sand and salt water.
From next to him, there was a noise suspiciously like a giggle, quickly swallowed.
"You? Shut up. It's your menace to society."
"He's been known to be quite contrary, Ray."
"He got a garden, too?"
"I've never noticed any cockle shells in his vicinity, no."
"Hey, you were going to tell me where you got him."
"I didn't exactly 'get' him. We found each other."
"On a lava field, in the Ka'u desert south and west of the Kilauea Caldera. I was backpacking there last summer, just to re-familiarize myself with the area. While hiking, I broke through a section of thin crust and fell into a lava tube. Fortunately, there was no lava flowing in it at the time." Fraser propped himself up on his elbows, forearms covered in sand. He was looking off like he could see that lava field from here.
"When I came to, there was a white puppy standing on my chest. Needless to say, it was licking my face." Fraser glanced over toward Dief, all soft-eyed. Ray caught himself wishing Ben would look at him like that. "For a moment I thought I was hallucinating."
He rolled back a little, facing Ray. The yellow light of the late afternoon did good things for the guy, as if he needed it. "It took us three days to walk out of the maze of tubes and back to a road. We shared my food, and there was enough water seeping into the lava tube to keep us going. I don't consider myself a superstitious man, but I have to tell you that after a couple of days I was getting a bit nervous."
"How come? I mean, besides the obvious." He knew already that with Ben, it was bound to be not-the-obvious.
"Aside from her better-known guises of a beautiful young woman and an old crone, Pele is also sometimes said to appear as a small white dog. However, she assumes that form as a warning of a major eruption."
Ray tried to imagine wandering lost in dark, clammy underground tunnels for days, all the time wondering if any minute he was going to be quick-fried to a crackly crunch by an enraged volcano goddess. God, Ben down there all alone . . . he shivered, in spite of the hot sun. Studying volcanoes made cop work sound safe. He could only hope it came with hazard pay.
A growl from his stomach derailed that train of thought. He reached over to rub the ears of the dog laying by their heads and the thump of Dief's tail flipped more sand in his hair. "Time to eat, it sounds like." Regretfully, he sat up from his perfect spot. "Let's get cleaned up. And him, too. He's probably carrying twenty pounds of sand on him. There's a pound in my hair alone."
There was a hose neatly coiled up outside Ray's thatched-roof hut. Between the two of them, they got a now-unhappy Diefenbaker mostly rinsed out. The water was nice and warm, and he was just about to put the hose over his own head to splash off the worst of it all when he saw Ben stand up and start to brush at himself ineffectively. Between laying on the beach and washing the dog, the man had a layer of that incredibly sticky, microscopically fine sand head to toe. That was more temptation than Ray could bear.
Adjusting the nozzle to a fine spray, he turned it on Ben.
Ben yelped as he staggered backward, unaware that he was now the winning only entrant in Ray's personal wet t-shirt contest. He hadn't meant to do that, honest, it was just a nice side effect of getting the sand off. And God, Ben looked so good, second-skin white cotton now almost see-through along with the wet clingy red nylon shorts, and water running down off that long-muscled body all over. So good it was wrecking all Ray's internal promises and tie-me-downs.
If he'd thought his hands were the problem before, he was summarily relieved of that delusion by how bad he wanted to lick, to follow those streams of water with his tongue, to suck those cold hard nipples back to warm.
Then Ben grabbed the sprayer out of Ray's hand and started to hose him down, face first.
Spitting and sputtering and howling with laughter, they grappled for the nozzle. He could feel where the wet was and where it wasn't. The water had been warm on his hands, but it got cold fast on his bare skin. The wind off the ocean felt like somebody licking him. He could sure as hell feel where Ben was and wasn't -- every square inch of skin where Ben's body moved against him was happy.
A couple fast moves later, after Ben had practically shoved the damned sprayer up Ray's nose by accident, he realized the awful truth. He had a boner that couldn't be missed by a blind man, goddamn the fucking Speedo -- "Shower time!" he croaked. He eeled away out of Fraser's wet hold and raced into the hut like there was a fire under his ass, leaving Ben holding the stupid hose like the Statue Of Liberty.
He was safely under the shower, locked in the bathroom, before he even pulled the swimsuit down and finally, finally touched himself.
He was a total creep. He wouldn't be surprised if Ben was long gone when he got out of there, but this was the safest way. Just -- oh, God, his own hand had never felt so good.
He'd been up on the roof for months and dangling off the edge ever since yesterday's t-shirt and he couldn't take it anymore, he couldn't -- his knowing hand felt like somebody else's, and three tight soapy strokes later he was mewling, moaning, trying to keep the noise level down as he came all over the side of the fake marble shower stall.
The wall of the shower was cold and slippery on his back. His legs folded like used chewing gum and his mind was probably gone for good. As long as he was down there on the shower floor, he sat under the spray and tried to wash his hair -- the shampoo having conveniently made it down there too. It wasn't easy to get his fingers moving together, even though they worked fine just a minute ago. He wasn't sure he was ever going to breathe right again.
Moving a little slow, it took him a while to make his way out of the bathroom. No clothes in there, so he had a towel around his waist as he looked around the hut. No Ben. No big surprise, but he was still sorry. He dug in a not-yet-unpacked suitcase for some clean everything, and jumped when he heard a voice behind him.
Ben looked really big standing in the doorway, his shoulders almost filling the width. The sun coming through the side window glowed on his bare chest. He was wearing a pair of old jeans, been through the wringer and ripped at the weak spots. His feet were bare, too. He looked like a fucking centerfold. A not-fucking centerfold. Thank God Ray's happily limp cock was not making waves in the freaking towel.
The small smile on Ben's face faded. "It's still okay for me to take a shower, right?"
Ray closed his mouth. Then he relaxed into a whole-body grin. "Yeah, yeah, towels in there, everything you need is on the counter."
Ray spent almost the whole time Ben was in the shower staring blankly at the tourist magazine left on the bedside stand, his brain superimposing images of Ben's wet soapy naked body over the pretty pictures of golf courses and overpriced luaus.
Bad brain. Very bad. Concentrate. Look at the pretty hula girls. Don't think about those big hands scrubbing the short thatch of hair under the arms, luxurious foam from that expensive hotel soap inching down over that smooth chest, fingertips gliding slowly over a flat stomach toward a cock that lifted eagerly up . . .
He threw down the magazine and paced. Maybe if he went outside.
At least it was beautiful outside, the kind of great weather that Chicago never had. Warm, but not humid. How could it not be? He was standing right on the ocean. There it was, he could see it from here. The air -- there was something funny about the air. Well, besides the fact that it was clean, unlike Chicago. It was . . . soft. He didn't know why, or how he could feel it on his skin. It was just different, like walking around in his own big coccoon of soft.
The sun was heading toward whatever lump of land was on the horizon. Another island. Without the other islands, he'd be alone, they'd all be alone. This would be the only hunk of rock for a thousand miles, it practically was already, a pinpoint in the open sea, empty water stretched out to infinity . . .
When he went in, Ben had gotten out of the shower and was standing, untanned torso glaringly white, hair still dripping a little onto the towel around his neck, in the middle of the hut.
"Great, you're done." Ray's relief made him a little zingy. If he didn't calm down, he'd start bouncing off the walls. "Let's go eat. There's a really cool restaurant here, they got a waterfall and some fish in the pool and tiki torches . . ." His impending mental breakdown was interrupted by Ben, who for some reason decided to be practical.
"I'm sorry, I'm really not dressed for a nice restaurant." Ben spread his hands, maybe to show helplessness, but to Ray it was more like an advertisement. "I only had a few things in my swim bag, and my t-shirt is still wet."
Oh, yeah. Ray was fucking buying. "Don't go away."
He stepped to the closet and pulled out the Hawaiian shirt he bought yesterday morning for his dad. It was way too big for Dad, but -- as his mom always said -- cotton never stopped shrinking. Like everything in the hotel gift shop, it cost a fortune, but Ray couldn't resist the colors -- blues and golds and palm trees dancing around the middle. It really looked just like this place. His dad would have gotten a good laugh, put it in the closet, and never looked at it again. The laugh would have been enough, but . . . Ray snapped off the price tag. At least Fraser would wear it, if only this once.
"This should work."
Why was Ray not surprised when it looked really, really good on him?
They left Dief on what Fraser called the lanai with a bowl of dog food from Fraser's stash and some water. On their way across the grounds to the restaurant, Fraser said, "I hope that young man makes it."
"I do too, buddy." He didn't hold out much hope, though. There was always a disturbing finality about the 'stops breathing' part. Especially when you couldn't start it again. "We'll know tomorrow when we read it in the paper."
Searching for a happier subject, he tried something completely different. "So how did you get mixed up in the rock biz, anyway?"
"Oh, it seemed romantic, I suppose."
Ray was still trying to come up with some kind of answer when Ben continued.
" 'In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth, and the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.' "
" 'And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.' "
"Yes." Fraser's voice was still soft, but it seemed a lot bigger than it was before. "In the same way the earth was born then, appearing from the waters God called Seas, it's still being born now. The island trembles under our feet as massive plates of continental crust and oceanic crust grind against each other, forcing up secrets that have lain underneath for millions of years. Here, molten rock spews from undersea vents with unimaginable heat and force, creating dry land where there once was none."
Rocks were more poetic than he ever noticed. For that matter, so was Ben.
Ben gave him a half-smile. "Or, perhaps it's simply that I have a streak of frustrated midwifery. If the earth was being born, and born again, I wanted to be here to see it."
He stopped unexpectedly, and when Ray swung around, he was just sort of staring at his shoes. "There's a concept called 'deep time.' A famous geologist, James Hutton, said, "The mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time . . . we see no evidence for a beginning, nor prospect of an end." He shook himself out of his abyss and started walking deliberately, hands behind his back. "I fear I was seduced by the amplitude of time, and the vastness of earth changes."
The cooling evening air brushed its softness around him. Sand shifted under his feet as they walked. Sand was rocks too, once. Maybe it had a poetry of its own.
Ben coughed a little. "It's overwhelming to stand on a modern day desert and realize that the rocks you're standing on where formed on the floor of an ancient sea. Small sea creatures died, were captured in sediment, and preserved for us to find today. And even though that happened millenia ago, still you are there with them, and they here with you." He paused, getting his thoughts together. "We share their DNA. We share cell structure with most of them. In a way, we are them, and they were . . . us. We're all just eukaryotes together."
"What the hell is all that supposed to mean? Sounds like Bad Religion."
"I don't believe it's any religion, Ray."
"The hell it's not. I heard that song. 'No vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.' "
"Really?" Ben stared up at the sky. Ray wanted to tell him to look the fuck where he was walking. "It's been popularized, then, in a very interesting manner."
"No Control. That's the name of the song."
"Do you believe that? That we have no control?"
"No." It was his turn to do the stopping. "No, I don't." He thought about that for a minute. His boots needed cleaning.
"Life is like this: You gotta retrace your steps to figure out how you got here. I took this bus, I drove this car, I got on this plane, I walked down this street, I turned this corner, I fell into a volcano. I don't have control over what's out there, but that doesn't matter the way I used to think it did. 'Cause it's all up here." He tapped his head with an index finger. "That's where it's at."
They resumed their stroll toward food.
He could have done something different, he could have changed everything. He knew that. All he had to do was stop. He knew that the whole time. But he'd never realized before that he wouldn't, couldn't, stop. Not then, not until now.
"See, I did what I had to do, what I knew I should do." It surprised him that he'd do all those same things all over again, starting from scratch. He didn't want to do them now -- time to leave that shit for the younger cowboys -- so it looked like age and experience got a vote after all. But even if he could, he wouldn't change the past, not for Stella or anybody else. It was like something heavy slid off the top of his head.
"What did you do, Ray?"
Ben was looking at him again with that pleaseplease look, and Ray thought, what the hell. "I worked undercover."
"You're not an actor, then." Ben didn't look at all surprised.
"No, I'm a cop. A detective. I've been a lot of people that weren't very nice, and I guess I kind of brought them home with me, one by one. That was what broke us up, me and Stella. That's why she said she didn't know who I was anymore."
"I'm sorry, Ray."
"It couldn't be helped, I guess. At the time, it was something I had to do. To know I was doing right. I never meant for that to happen -- to take them home. I guess I was starting to Sybil."
Ben looked blank for a second, then it clicked. "You mean multiple personality?"
"Yeah." Ray shoved his hands in his pockets, kicking at the sand as he walked. "I had all these pieces, they weren't me the way I used to be, but they were there, and sometimes they came out when I least expected it. Or wanted it. Got 'em from being a bad guy or just a stupid guy, and I gotta tell you, you hardly ever get to go undercover as a smart good guy." He sighed. "Vecchio wasn't too bad, at least he was a decent guy and a cop, but by then it was just one too many."
"I -- Ray, I . . ."
"No, it's okay, really. Like I said, I'm sorry I didn't know what to do about that part. Maybe there was nothing to do. But undercover was what I was good at, it was my way of trying to, you know, fight the good fight. Uh, against the forces of evil."
He laughed at his own weak joke, but the look Fraser gave him was all too understanding. He wondered for a minute if the guy could see straight into his head. That was -- no way. Nobody'd ever done that to him before, and he didn't want it to start now. Thank God their goal was in sight.
"Hey, we're here! Let's go get a table." Ray practically shoved Ben through the door into the restaurant. Food was good, and a couple beers even better. Ben ordered a pupu platter, which sounded like a bad day at the diaper store but was perfectly normal appetizers. Teriyaki beef, sushi with ginger and wasabi, cold shrimp. Buffalo wings, even. Since those were a hit, he accepted an offer of some poi, and about choked trying to wash it down. Even he wasn't tacky enough to spit it into one of those cloth napkins. Double points for a damn good local beer on that one.
"It's an, ah, acquired taste," Ben admitted, trying to hide his smile behind his own glass of Longboard.
"I'll say! Tastes like you acquired library paste, buddy mine." Giving Ben's large portion a baleful glare, he added, "It's gone bad, too."
They were sitting at a table with a great view of the water, which he noticed when he quit shoving food in his mouth like it was going out of style. A spectacular sunset was filling the sky with golds and purples. What a great place to be. He ordered them both another beer. "So, tell me where you been, Ben."
"You mean you didn't notice I was with you all day?" Ben was kind of sprawled out in his bamboo chair, more relaxed even than he'd been on the beach. Or maybe it just looked different indoors, where people were expected to sit up straight.
"Wipe that smirk off." He threw a wadded-up napkin at Ben's chest. It was a satisfyingly big target. "You must have stories."
"I've been to Nicaragua. The Philippines. Peru." He paused, obviously trying to come up with something that would be interesting to Ray -- Volcanoes For Dummies. "It's true what they say about llamas, Ray." The man had a wicked gleam in his eyes, but Ray wasn't quite sure why.
Confused, he dredged through his brain for anything to do with llamas. "Uh, they spit?"
"Like a bad date."
Beer all over the fucking tablecloth, good thing they were done eating. He hadn't done that for years; he was coughing and hacking and Ben's warm hand rubbing his back made him want to cough all night. Finally, he got enough air to talk. "And you look like poi wouldn't melt in your mouth!"
Lips twitching, Ben raised an eyebrow. "Excuse me, Ray, I'm used to hanging around with uncivilized types."
Ray snickered. "Yeah, you and all those potty-mouth geologists." He missed Ben's hand. Wished it was right back where it belonged. "No problemo. You got nothin' down here like what I'm used to in Chicago."
He was surprised when Ben, looking a little wistful, said, "Really? That's too bad."
"No, no, I didn't mean it like that! I like what you got! Uh, here." And he was going to try to explain, but you couldn't explain doofusness, and he got sidetracked by those pretty eyes anyway. Ray was only dragged away from them when he realized that Ben was talking, but he wasn't listening. "Sorry, what did you say?"
Ben had a shy smile that was every bit as killer as any of the pearly ones. "I said, I've found a new job. I'll be teaching at the University of Chicago in the fall."
"You're kidding." His mouth was having a hard time getting the words around his teeth. His mind was having a hard time connecting to the best news he'd heard in years. "That's -- that's great! We're, we'll be, like, neighbors."
"Yes." There was that sweet look, right out of last night's dream. "I'll find someplace to live when I get there two weeks before classes start. It'll be nice to know someone in the city." Ben's hand was moving up, he watched every millimeter of its progress, he could almost feel the tips of Ben's fingers against his jaw. Tilting his head toward Ben, he closed his eyes in anticipation.
When he opened his eyes, Ben had drained his beer glass. "Well. It looks like we're about done here," Ben announced, and put down his glass firmly.
Ray felt like he was in a time warp back to this morning when he was hung over, with hearty-voiced Ben. But he didn't have any good reason to say no. The waitress brought the check at his wave and he signed for the meal.
Ben opened and closed his mouth like one of this morning's fish, then found his voice again. "I surely didn't expect you to buy me dinner."
"Nah, don't worry. Comes with the hut."
"Thank you, Ray."
It would have been full dark outside if not for the faint lights of the huts on their way and the quarter moon above them. On their quiet way back -- all Ray could hear was wind shushing in the palm trees and the low sound of the ocean in the background -- Ben said, "I do hate to eat and run, but it's nearly nine o'clock. Diefenbaker and I should probably be going. It's a long drive."
Neither of them was wearing a watch. "How did you do that? Can you tell time by the stars or something? That's so cool!"
"I have a certain facility with astronomy, although I'm more familiar with the night sky in the Northwest Territories, where I grew up. I also know that moonrise should have been about 4:15 this afternoon. It's not that hard to make a guess." He waved at the sky, where the moon was almost halfway across. "In point of fact, however, there was a clock behind the hostess' area."
Ray could almost hear the superior look.
"Cheater." He smacked Ben's arm lightly, feeling warm prickles all over when Ben laughed. Ben had a nice laugh. "You're not going anywhere. You've been drinking, remember?"
"Yes, but . . ."
"No buts. And nobody has to sleep on the floor. The hut has two bedrooms."
"You have two bedrooms in your anniversary bungalow?" Before Ray could even decide whether he wanted to answer that, much less how, Fraser flustered through for him, face turned away. "Sorry, it's none of my business."
"For the price, it oughta have a marble staircase." Ray was more than happy to let it go. He didn't want to talk about his marriage anymore. "I'm stuffed. I could go for a walk."
"That sounds very pleasant. The water's edge will be lovely at this time of the evening."
So that's what they did. It was even darker away from the ground-set lights of the huts, but Ben seemed to have bat eyes. Ray sauntered behind the attractive blacker spot until his eyes adjusted. This was . . . nice. It was almost romantic. He sure had some romance going on for Ben, or at least something like it. In Ray's experience, it was hard to tell the difference.
By unspoken agreement, they settled on the cooling beach side by side. The cowabunga waves of the afternoon had died, and the only noise was the whoosh-whoosh of the water mumbling into the sand. The only light was the quarter moon and its mirror path over the ocean. There was no more breeze, just the soft air winding between them. He let it.
"Do you really want to hear a story, Ray?"
But he didn't say anything, so Ray just sat there. He'd been on stakeout for a lot of hours for things less important. After a while, Fraser started to talk. His voice was distant, almost like he was talking about somebody else.
"We landed in Managua during a cholera epidemic. On July eighth, humidity was nearly one hundred percent, the temperature ninety-seven degrees Fahrenheit. The city itself was in shambles. Aside from the neglected state of the barrios, a recent earthquake had taken down many buildings and they were crumbling into the streets. More than twenty five volcanoes surround Managua; active fault lines run dead center through the city. The smell was acrid and the atmosphere was suffocating." He barked out something that might have been laughter. "We ate our evening meal at McDonald's."
Holy shit. Ray already had questions lining up and falling over on top of each other, but there was something about the way Ben sounded that made him not want to ask right now. So he just said, "Yeah?"
"It was almost as bad in the villages. During the eruption, the sky darkened at noon. Ash was everywhere, collapsing roofs, coating trees and houses. People walked with their shirts over their mouths to avoid breathing the tiny shards of glass. Our skin itched from the contact. We expected to see some sort of official presence, turning people away from the volcano, but there was none of that. Everyone sensible was trying to escape the eruption."
Ray snorted. "I bet." He looked carefully at Ben. When most people told stories, they opened up like a newspaper. Big gestures and big voices, standing tall and speechifying. Ben was hunched over his knees like he had a knife in his gut. Wherever this was coming from, it was way down under, and it looked like a good story with a bad end.
"We stayed at a ranch near the village of Rivas, on Lake Nicaragua. In the waters of that lake are the only freshwater sharks in the world." Ben made another strange almost-laugh. "There were sharks on the land, as well, but I didn't know it then. The head of our expedition, Dr. Hans Soderburg, had handpicked a cadre of graduate students from the University of Alaska: myself, a fellow Canadian named Renfield Turnbull, and three Americans. There had been debate about who should take the last slot. Two equally qualified candidates had applied, and Dr. Soderburg asked my opinion as to who should be chosen. I urged him to choose Victoria Metcalfe. She was my lover."
He didn't sound too happy about it. Ray wondered what was coming next in this grim fairy tale. Huh, a woman, someone he loved. Ray's dinner congealed a little, rolling over like a medicine ball. Bye-bye love, or at least what few hopes he'd had for that.
Ben was lost in space, so Ray called him back. "You went to the volcano?"
Ben jerked, grabbing a handful of sand and squeezing it until Ray wondered if the man could make it back into rocks all by himself. "Ah. Yes. We set up our laser equipment and seismographs to monitor earth shift. All signs pointed to a strong possibility of eruption. Our hopes were fulfilled beyond our wildest dreams."
"What was it like?"
"The eruption itself was formidable. On August fifth, four new vents appeared outside of the main crater. Fountains of lava rose 300 meters -- ninety stories -- dwarfing the landscape. Lava temperatures were measured at 1,500 degrees Celsius. All of northwestern Nicaragua was shaken by earthquakes up to a magnitude of 4.8. Entire villages were evacuated."
"But not you guys."
Fraser turned to him, though he couldn't see what was on his face. "We were volcanologists. We were there expressly to film the eruption, should it happen, and monitor the status of the nearby villages. Part of our funding stipulated that we put together a program to warn villages of impending eruptions."
"I hope the locals appreciated it," Ray muttered. Ben ignored it.
"The panorama of the eruption at night was fantastic -- in the deepest sense. Burning lava spires lit the sky. Incandescent pyroclastic debris showered down relentlessly, coating everything within 1,500 meters, and ash rained for kilometers around. Emissions gases created lightning around the cone's mouth, and it lit the top of the volcano with a purple glow. Thunder rumbled in the distance. There are no words to describe how beautiful and terrifying it was."
For the first time since he started, Ray could see Ben's face. His features were barely visible in the dim light, but his eyes showed the moon. "Despite the extraordinarily dangerous circumstances we were working in, we amassed enormous amounts of valuable data. Our team did exceptional work, and everything went much more smoothly than expected. Not long thereafter, our fieldwork schedule was done, and we prepared to leave the area. We congratulated each other on our good work and packed up our equipment. None of us knew that the real challenges hadn't even begun."
Ben's whole body, what he could see, almost screamed with tension. He was sitting, just breathing. Deep breaths. In, out. Slowly he began to relax a little.
"Are you gonna tell me the rest?"
"It's not a good idea, Ray."
"You're gonna leave me hanging at the important part. That's not buddies."
"I . . . I don't think I can."
"You mean you won't."
"I mean . . . I haven't." The tilt of Ben's shoulders looked defeated, almost helpless. "I should go in. I need to go in." He shifted to get up.
Ray put a hand on Ben's shoulder and pulled him back down. "No, you don't. I want to know what happened." I want to know all about you, Ray wanted to say, but he couldn't. "Please. Tell me." The contact seemed to settle Ben down some.
Ben looked searchingly at him, but he wasn't sure what Ben was seeing. It was hard to see anything in the dark.
"It's okay. Really. Look, Ben. You gotta get out the dirt before you can sew it up. And this one's been dirty for a long time."
"Sometimes I'm afraid it will never come clean." The desolation in his voice made Ray's chest hurt.
Ray moved his hand to the back of Ben's neck and dug into the muscles there. They felt like they were about to snap. Ben pressed back into his hand and sighed. It made Ray want to promise him anything, but instead he said softly, "It'll be okay."
Ben swallowed and coughed and made a couple of false starts that faded back into nothing. Taking another deep breath, he started over.
"The group of us wanted a break, we wanted to celebrate. After we'd packed up all the gear, we decided to have a brief sidetrip. We were going to sightsee, and then spend a couple of days in town. We drove to Masaya Volcano National Park. It was a park, for God's sake." His voice cracked. "There was a visitor center, a parking lot. We went there for -- for -- f-fun."
The solid shoulders shuddered under his hand, and Ray held on tighter. It seemed like the only thing that was keeping Ben together right now.
"We were on the trail along the edge of the Santiago crater when we felt seismic waves roll through the ground beneath us. That was our only warning. By the time we turned to run, it was too late. The explosion crumbled the lip of the crater. The concussion deafened me. The earth dissolved beneath our feet. I was holding Victoria's hand when she went down. I could see her screaming, but I could not hear her. Ash and debris filled the air." Ray heard him swallow.
"There were bombs, superheated rocks, ejected by the exploding gases. As I was pulling Victoria up over the edge, one of them hit her. I almost lost my grip on her hand."
Shit. Oh, shit. Ben was shaking now, silent tremors running through his body.
"It knocked her unconscious. She was badly burned." Ben sucked in some more air. Ray could tell that it was an effort.
"By the time I carried her to the parking lot, she had stopped breathing." His face worked, either trying to get more words out or to hold them back. He made a sound like tearing cardboard. Tears leaked down his grief-blurred face. "Not one of us knew how to do CPR. I tried to revive her using my sketchy knowledge, but I could not."
He'd seen a lot of dead guys, even some dead women. But what filled his mind was Stella. Stella hurt, Stella . . . dying.
"Jesus, Ben -- oh, God, I'm so sorry!" Ray blurted, and then he was hugging Ben, holding him like the guy might go off any second, like he was one of those rock bombs. Ben held himself stiffly, or as stiff as anybody could be and still feel like he was ready to shatter.
The next words were so low he could hardly hear them. "That's not all."
Ray was way, way over his head. Ben's bleak words stunned him. "Holy fuck, there's more?" More, piled on top of what he'd already heard? "Oh, my God! That's not, I mean -- "
"When we got to Managua, the police were waiting at our hotel. They took us, even the injured, directly to jail. They wouldn't allow us medical treatment. They took Victoria's body and would not tell me where." He stared off across the ocean. "We didn't have enough money to bribe them to let us go. There wouldn't have been enough, regardless. What we didn't know was that they'd already been busy opening our crates of samples and equipment. They'd seized the cocaine that Victoria intended to ship back to Alaska."
"She betrayed . . . she betrayed . . . us." Ben gasped in harsh sobs that felt like they'd tear him apart. "I loved her. She was the only woman I ever loved. I screamed her name in a Nicaraguan parking lot as she died in my arms." Another wet, ripping breath. "I hated her. She betrayed . . . our trust and left us imprisoned, facing justice for her crime. And neither mattered to her, because she was -- was -- dead."
"It's . . . it's . . . Okay, Ben, don't worry, it's gonna be . . ." Ray held Ben tight and rocked him from side to side, and mumbled out meaningless words, hoping they'd help.
Ben sounded pulverized by his memories. "We were in jail in Managua for two months before the University, the Canadian Consulate, and the American Embassy could get us out. Even then, our release was a miracle." Ben scrubbed at his face with the heel of one hand. "The conditions in the jail were . . . bad. I'm sure you're aware that Nicaraguan authorities frown upon foreign drug smugglers."
"Fuck." There just wasn't anything else to say. Everything he'd ever heard about jails in third world countries flooded his head. Bad food, bad hygiene, bad . . . prison guards. He couldn't stand to think of his Pearly Ben anywhere near a filthy place like that.
"Victoria had gone into Managua several times during our stay, and we'd never thought anything of it. The only reason they let us go at all was because they had Victoria's drug dealings on tape, courtesy of their informant. During her conversations with him, she assured him that the rest of us were not involved, and . . . and . . . laughed at our blindness." From the way he said it, it sounded like that was what hurt most.
Enough for one night. Enough for one lifetime.
Ray helped Ben up and they made their not-too-steady way back to the hut. He wasn't sure which one of them was more shaky. Even the dog looked up from Ray's bed and whined, came over to lick at Ben's hands. Settling the guy on the bed in the 'guest room,' he turned and walked away to go brush his teeth, but when he glanced around from the doorway, Ben was still sitting there looking shell shocked, not doing anything, Dief nosing his knee.
"Okay, let's get at 'er." He damn well ought to give the guy a hand after dredging up all that shit. He wasn't going to get any thanks for it, that was for sure. He gently pushed Ben over and got his shoes off, with a little unhelpful help, then grabbed the light blanket off the end of the bed and flipped it over him. "Sleepytime. Sandman. All that good -- stuff." He reached over to turn off the bedside lamp.
"Leave it on?" The croak was a sad likeness of Ben's soft voice.
"Yeah -- sure, anything."
After brushing his teeth and kicking off his boots, he went to check on Ben. Looking at his pale-under-the-tan face on the white pillow was like standing in quicksand. Up to his knees and the mud was getting higher, why fight it? The more he struggled, the faster he'd sink, so he just gave in, brushing a hand over the rich dark hair. He smiled to see a couple of funny cowlicks in that perfect hair, but as he thumbed aside the hair along the weird spots, he was horrified to realize they were scars.
Ben's scratchy mumble made him snatch his hand away. "They took Victoria away. I tried to stop them . . . they struck me with nightsticks to make me let go of her."
"Shh, Ben. Get some rest," he whispered. Pulling the blanket up, Ray was almost overwhelmed by the urge to give the man a goodnight kiss -- on the cheek, as if he were a little kid -- but even he had some impulse control. Especially when Ben was awake, or some version of awake. He reached down and gave a squeeze to the nearest hand. That was okay until he tried to let go. He did, but Ben didn't.
He tugged gently, and Ben's other hand wrapped around Ray's wrist. Not tight, but he'd have had to peel the fingers away to get free. To be honest, he didn't really want to. Things could be worse than being Ben Fraser's security blanket. He was already in his socks, so he just slid under the blanket with Ben. He fell asleep with Ben still holding his hand.
Something was funny, something wrong.
He pried opened his eyes, despite the Elmer's. Light inside, still dark outside. Snuffling sounds. Dog, wasn't there a dog? When he broke through the fuzz enough to remember where he was and why he was sleeping fully dressed, he realized the sounds were coming from the other side of the bed. It was a big bed; Ben was curled up facing the far edge. His shallow panting was painful to hear. Did the poor bastard do this every night? No wonder he needed a security blanket. Or maybe it was just tonight, because of spilling his guts. Either way, Ray should do . . . something.
It looked like a twitch could roll Ben onto the floor, so best to get him back to the middle. Falling out of bed was pretty funny, except when you broke the fall with your nose. He reached his arm around Ben's chest and started to pull him over.
Ben shouted something Ray couldn't understand and flipped over, leading with his fists. His eyes were wide open, but he wasn't seeing anything -- not anything in this room. Ray ducked and held on, doing his best to make sure the crazy swings didn't connect, but Ben got in a lucky shot. Shit, that hurt!
"Ben! Ben!" He wasn't getting anywhere. Ben was still struggling, shouting in Spanish. Ray knew some of those words from on the street. He used his grip on Ben's arms to move himself up and over, stretching onto him full length. It wasn't exactly the way he'd been hoping to press the flesh, but it solved the bodily harm problem. "It's okay, buddy, it's me."
To his amazement, Ben took a deep breath, no mean trick with Ray flat out on top of him, and a couple of sniffs -- almost like he was smelling something -- and relaxed completely. His eyes closed, peace softening his face. There was even a hint of that innocent little smile. "Ray," he murmured, and wrapped his arms around Ray's back.
Now what was he going to do? You could explain holding hands. This was another story. He should be a good guy and not take advantage, snake his way out and go sleep in that other bed. The big empty one with Ray's name on it. He might wake Ben up, but . . . Either way, was it such a big deal? If, in the morning, the "hey, you grabbed me" excuse didn't fly . . . but was somebody who'd been through all that really going to flip out over a sleepy snuggle? And Ben wanted him there; at least some part of Ben did.
Ben was totally zonked, and Ray didn't think he'd ever woken up. He pressed a kiss against the pulse in Ben's neck, loving the feel of the smooth skin and the flow of life underneath it. Bad Ray. Very bad. Using Ben for a pillow wasn't what you'd call perfect comfort, what with hipbones and knees and whatnot, but Ray's face fit just right into that low dent at his shoulder.
He wanted to stay awake, savor how Ben's ups and downs felt against his own, suck up that body heat. His half-hard dick was loving the pressure from Ben's firm thigh. Good thing he wasn't really sixteen anymore. That was dessert there, not the main course, and dessert was off the menu. Sugar's bad for you anyway, he thought. Toothache Hotel. A friend, that was the full meal deal. He could use a friend, and it looked like Ben could, too. It wasn't so hard to pretend a stiffie wasn't really happening.
It was staying awake that was impossible.
Early morning light stretched across the bed. Ray yawned and reached into the warm spot next to him, but there was nobody there. Last night whanged back into his head like a boomerang on the fly. Oh, shit! Was Ben gone already? Would he leave without saying goodbye? Could he be that upset about finding Ray in his bed?
Ray scrambled up and skidded halfway across the room in his socks before catching himself on the doorjamb and getting his footing. Ben was pouring Dief a bowl of food on the porch. He looked both startled and embarrassed when he caught sight of Ray, making a quick turn back to the dog. "Oh. I didn't mean to wake you." His words were muffled into fluffy white fur.
Shit, he was. Worse yet, he came back into the room looking serious and nervous, refusing to look Ray in the eye. Oh, Christ. Ben couldn't exactly say "Let's just be friends," because they'd never been anything else, they'd barely even been friends yet, it was over before it started.
"I'm sorry, Ray."
Ben's shoes were getting a lot of attention these days.
Apologizing, yet. I'm sorry, I have to go, it's been real and it's been nice, but it hasn't been real nice, and by the way, I'll let myself out. Ray wanted to apologize too, but he couldn't find the words. Maybe because he wasn't really sorry. "Listen, I didn't . . ." I didn't mean to sleep on you, I didn't mean to lust in my heart, Jimmy we hardly knew ye.
"I wish I could blame it on the beer," said Ben, rubbing his forehead with a knuckle.
I wish you could too, buddy. "Uh, can't you?"
Ben got over the jones for his shoes, looked up, and blinked owlishly. "What happened to your eye?"
"Nothing. What?" he asked suspiciously, as Ben continued to stare.
"You have a black eye."
Ben raised his hand and Ray watched it all the way this time, all the way to the bridge of his nose. He could feel his eyes cross. Ben's fingertips floated just above his skin, barely touching, following the curve of his cheekbone. The workman's fingers were warm and gentle. He tried to remember how to talk so he could say some kind of answer.
"Oh. Uh. It must have been from when I tried to wake you up."
"Good lord, I hit you?"
Brows scrunched up, Ben looked way more upset than the situation called for. If Ray thought big-eyed pleading was effective, confused distress was about to put him in a puddle on the floor. "Not really. You weren't awake."
"I apologize for allowing my emotions to get the better of me last night. That must have been very, ah, uncomfortable for you." It sure as hell was uncomfortable for Ben. Knees locked and hands behind his back, blood was coming up to Ben's face as if his body couldn't hold in all the humiliation. "I very deeply regret striking you."
The guy really didn't seem to give a rat's ass about what Ray had or hadn't done, which was . . . good, he guessed. "Never mind the shiner. It's no big deal." He waved it away. "You being upset, that was my fault. You didn't want to talk. I ragged on you until you told me." He pulled out the bad German accent. "I haf vays of mekking you tock," he announced dramatically. It fell flat.
So far from laughing, Ben continued to stare past him, eyes pinched up. There was more.
"I want you to know I've appreciated your company very much." How he got his voice to do that . . . The words were nice, bland and pleasant, but something was wrong with this picture. Ben looked sick.
"So, what? You're, what, leaving? I sleep with you and then you toss me away like a snotty Kleenex?" What the hell was he saying? Desperation obviously made him crazy.
Ben looked scandalized. "Ray!" Scandalized was a lot better than mortally embarrassed.
"Well, isn't that what's happening here?"
Ben pulled himself up straight. "I have a confession to make." He was still eyeballing the back wall, looking like a heart attack waiting to happen. "I wasn't really . . . asleep . . . when I held onto your hand last night."
Ben had needed somebody, and he was embarrassed about it.
The warm spot inside Ray, the one that shrank down to nothing when he saw Ben feeding the dog, expanded until he felt like a big glowing ball of happy. It shoved out the same kind of honesty. "There's no place I'd rather have been." He couldn't even be bothered about tossing out that piece of truth when he saw the worry lines vanish from Ben's face. Ignoring his friend's open mouth, he said, "Let's go eat."
Ray looked around. Behind him was a vast expanse of gray-black, rolling down all the way to the ocean. It was a lot like the Kilauea Crater itself, only tilted -- a spread of rock so big it seemed to suck light right out of the air. Up ahead, there was a wide gash in the surface, puffing out smoke. He was really beginning to get the idea that the island was alive. He couldn't decide whether that was creepy, or whether it was . . . magic.
No wonder the islanders had worshiped the volcano goddess. What else could they think when the ground under their feet steamed? Moved? Because someone, somewhere, was making waves.
The lava all around him wasn't as smooth as it looked from a distance. The jarring ride to get there proved there was a point to Ben's owning that piece of junk. Who'd put a decent truck through that kind of punishment? Although the guy could consider forking over for new shocks, that was for sure.
The truck it was now parked next to didn't look any better. This was definitely where trucks went to die.
Right now, Ben was unloading, with a wave at two other people who were marching around looking scientific. He was kind of impressed that Ben had invited him, a total stranger practically, to come watch his group work. Tourists weren't allowed out here; it was too dangerous. It was no surprise when the other rockers came over to see who he was and what he was doing there.
"Ray Kowalski, meet Dr. Renfield Turnbull and his graduate assistant, Brenda Larsen." The tall, broad-shouldered man -- they just grew 'em bigger here, it was all the sunshine -- walked with a limp. The dark-haired woman, who had to be normal size if on the skinny side, looked like a Barbie doll next to him.
A baseball-glove-sized hand engulfed his own and energetically shook it. "Are you a geologist, Mr. Kozlowski?"
"Um, no, cop."
"Then thank goodness you're here! Officer, arrest that fumarole! It's disturbing the peace!" The man almost pirouetted, no mean trick for somebody that size, and pointed at . . . nothing, that he could see.
"Come on, Rennie, it's just letting off a little steam," called Brenda, as he galloped off with one hand thrust out ahead of him, his index finger and thumb cocked like a pistol, a video camera clutched under the other arm.
Turning back to Ray, she said, "Good to meet you." She had a pretty smile. Nice brown eyes, too. She took his hand and, pulling him in closer and down a little, whispered, "I see Doc Fraser has good taste." With a wink, she tossed her hair over her shoulder and sauntered after the crazy guy, leaving Ray pink-faced and staring. Could everybody tell he had the hots for this guy? What the hell did she mean, Doc Fraser had good taste?
"Are -- are they all like that?"
"Like what, Ray?"
His confusion whooshed out in a puff. "Like him."
"Renfield is an exceptional scientist. He was with me in Nicaragua. In . . . prison. He attempted to defend me from the police the day we were taken. I fear he took the worst of the encounter." Ben's hollow tone matched the look in his eyes. "It hasn't interfered with his work. However, socially speaking, he's never been quite the same."
Oh, no. "Jesus. I'm. God. Sorry."
"He seems happy, and despite his eccentricities, he's admired and quite well liked in the scientific community. I can only be grateful for that."
"Ben! It wasn't your fault!"
"It's over, Ray." Ben ducked his head into the back of the truck, effectively stopping the conversation.
After digging around for while, Ben was loaded down with a vest full of gadgets. He had heavy gloves, a coil of multistrand wire over his shoulder, and, on the tailgate, a couple gallons of water and a beat-up gallon can. The least Ray could do was make himself useful. "Anything I can carry?" Ray asked.
"Take this." Ben handed him a gas mask. "You can't know when the wind will shift. Without a respirator," he pointed at the puffing hole, "the sulfur fumes will turn into acid on contact with the moisture in your lungs. That's why these jeans have seen better days -- clothing simply gets destroyed out here." Ben gestured at his ripped jeans, but they still looked pretty damn fine to Ray.
Of course, it was more the way they clung to that firm ass and strained against the muscular thighs than anything about the denim itself.
"Ah, here we are." He'd unearthed two baseball hats, giving one to Ray and putting the other one on. "In case you get too close to the molten lava, this will keep your hair from starting on fire. There's no worse smell." His look turned thoughtful. "Except, perhaps, that of a caribou carcass eleven days old. That's . . . nearly hallucinogenic."
Ray didn't even want to know how Ben knew that. He just took the gas mask.
"I'd appreciate it if you would carry this for me. I might want to break off some rock samples as well." Ben handed him a sledgehammer from the back of the truck like it was made of dryer lint, but the damn thing must've weighed twenty-five pounds. Ray tried to look like he hadn't noticed.
As they walked uphill, Ben gave him the rundown. "I'm going to throw a few hammers into that skylight," he gestured up the hill, again at nothing, what was with these rock jocks, anyway? "to gather some samples. Then I'll take the samples to Oahu tomorrow. The sooner they can be analyzed, the better. It shouldn't take very long."
Ben pointed out three red square things on tripods perched at the edge of the big hole. "Those are Huey, Dewey, and Louie, our heat sensors. We count on them to give accurate readings for lava temperature. See those cracks parallel to the lip of Pu'u O'o?"
That would be the stinkhole. Ray squinted. "Yeah, I see 'em."
"Whatever you do, don't get on the other side of one." Ben's smile was shaded with sadness, and Ray squeezed his shoulder.
"Don't worry, I won't."
Ray could tell that Ben was already doing the Rock Slide. He was focused, but only partly on what was in front of him -- more like on something inside. Whatever it was clicked him like a Bic. He'd never seen anybody light up like that over what they did for a living.
"There are lava tubes under the surface, but we've traced the course of flowing lava with infrared cameras. Just follow me." He checked some gadget as he walked, and shoved it back into a pocket of his vest. The vest seemed to be mostly made of pockets.
"Lava can change its course unexpectedly. You needn't worry too much, although it can be helpful to listen carefully. If there is lava flowing just beneath the surface, you'll hear a crackling and popping underfoot."
"Oh, terrific. Just before I turn into a crispy critter, I'll be a cereal commercial. What a way to go."
Ben paused at a mound of rock that looked like shiny black cake batter. "May I have that sledge? I'd like to take a look at this pahoehoe." When Ray handed it over, he took a thunk at the mound and watched as chunks broke away. To his surprise, Ben picked one up, examined it carefully, and . . . licked it.
"Don't put that in your mouth! You don't know where it's been!" It was even more of a surprise to hear himself channeling his own mother.
Shaking his head, maybe to get the taste of rocks out of his mouth, Ben looked at Ray. "Of course I know where it's been. Given how hot it was just lately, it's probably cleaner than anything else on the planet."
"Do you gotta lick it?"
"Once rock is wet, you can observe the grain more easily." That voice again. He could see why students would listen to this guy, if they could keep their eyes off his body. "Lava often has phenocrysts, large mineral grains that crystallize before the lava is extruded. If there are plagioclase grains aligned in a wavy pattern, it's trachytic in texture."
"Yeah." What else could he say? " 'Course it is."
Ben beamed at him. It was almost like a gentle touch. "In any case, licking is a common means of identification. In fact, I used to own a t-shirt bearing the slogan, 'Whack, Lick, Look'. It was the joke of my undergraduate class at the University of Alaska."
Ray could really appreciate at least some of that sentiment. Looking and licking were kind of tied together these days, at least in his imagination. He couldn't very well open that line of discussion, though, so he just nodded and they continued on.
The wind was changing, and it brought the faint scent of gunpowder down the unrelieved slope of charcoal-gray rock. Right behind the smell came heat, a rolling ball of heat that bowled over and draped around him and made him sweat on contact. Ray put out a hand, stopping them. He grabbed and peered at a small thermometer hanging from Ben's vest; the temperature was pushing 110. "Is this, uh, does this place get any hotter?"
"Very much like the bowels of Hell, Ray," Ben replied cheerfully, resuming his long stride.
"Great, just so I know." Definitely a maniac.
To their left, he could see the really crazy one crouching in front of some rocks, with a video camera in his hands. What kind of an idiot would film rocks? Why ask why, when he'd already seen Turnbull in action? Oh, wait, the rocks in front of him were . . . moving. Moving toward him. As Ray watched, the black surface cracked open like an egg and spawned an orange glob that glowed even in daylight. "Holy hot shit, Batman! That's lava!"
They'd come up here for no other reason but to look at lava, but somehow, actually seeing it was something else altogether.
"Why, yes, indeed." Ben shot him a full-face grin. "Isn't it marvelous? Renfield is filming the flow patterns."
"But he's . . . but it's . . . right there." The goofball and his camera weren't two feet from the toungues of lava that reached out for him. It moved a little faster than Ray expected, and every time the molten rock caught something in its path, flames flared up almost in Turnbull's face.
"The camera rarely gets hot enough to start melting."
"That wasn't really what I was thinking about."
"Ah. I see." Ben nodded thoughtfully. "Fortunately, Renfield has an almost uncanny understanding of the path the lava will take."
It had to be the rocks in his head. "Figures." At least if Turnbull started on fire, they each had a gallon of water to pour over him.
"Nothing." He wasn't about to insult Turnbull to Ben's face, even if he was loony.
Ray was starting to wonder if he'd ever get to put down the sledgehammer, not to mention the gallon of water, when Ben pointed up ahead. "See that heat rising? That's our destination."
Sure enough, there were heat lines doing the shimmy over a five-foot hole in the rock. As they got closer, he could see that inside the opening, about three feet down, was toasty-red lava. And it wasn't just sitting there bubbling. Oh, no, this lava was flowing. And it wasn't just a little lava, either, like on the surface where Turnbull was. This was a lot, a river's worth, it was the freakin' Amazon of lava, and it was roaring right under their feet.
He could hear the rush and rumble loud and clear as it rose from the hole, sound waves wrapped in searing heat. There was a roaring river of lava right underneath them, and all that was holding them up was however many inches of the stuff got cold enough, fast enough, to freeze in place.
For a few seconds, he froze in place himself, afraid to take another step. As hot as it was -- and the temperature was more like the inside of a smelter than the measly 110 degrees a quarter mile ago -- ice water dripped down his chest. Then he found himself fighting a sudden urge to run as fast as he could, as far as he could go -- anything to get away from this flaming death pit he was standing right on top of.
"Impressive, isn't it?" Ben clapped a hand on his shoulder. He looked perfectly at ease, like any minute he'd start whistling a happy tune.
"Freak." His undertone wasn't even a whisper compared to the roar of the lava river, and Ben didn't hear him. It was just as well. He cleared his throat, a meaningless noise that was swallowed up by the rest. "There's, uh, a lot of it," he said loudly, sounding almost conversational to his own ears.
"The total flow is roughly 500,000 liters per minute."
"Per minute? Say that in American!" Ray demanded, appalled.
"Moana Loa produces enough molten rock from its vents to inundate the entire city of Washington, D. C. within five days."
"Whoa." He thought about it. "Y'know, that's not a bad idea."
"Care to help me move this piece of wood over the skylight?" Ben gestured to what looked like the remains of a skinny tree laying on the lava field. The lava field that Ray knew now was only an illusion, gauze curtains over sizzling death, a false sense of security that could crumble at any second.
"Uh. Yeah. Sure." He moved forward, dreading every footfall as they picked up the tree and moved it over the hole. The heat was pushing, pushing, burning him inside and out with every breath.
"I have to do this quickly, before the wood burns," said Ben, casually herding Ray upwind. Not that that helped much. He shrugged the coil of wire off his shoulder and twisted the end through a hammerhead that somehow materialized from one of his pockets. With a practised toss, he winged the hunk of metal over the hanging tree. "Tell me when I'm close."
"It's about eight inches above the river right now." Ray had to close his dry eyes against the heat. His t-shirt was sopping with sweat under the long-sleeved shirt that protected his arms.
As soon as Ben felt the tug -- Ray could see the jerk as the lava grabbed the hammerhead -- he set the hook, played it, like he had a smallmouth bass on the line. Ben hauled on the wire until it was almost up to the tree, then carefully moved to the hot side, like there was a side that wasn't hot, loosening it from the tree. He pulled until he had a dangling hunk of metal coated with red-hot lava hanging just over the wood. As he made the final pull, the tree burst into flame.
Simultaneously, Ben took a step forward. The hunk of lava he put his left foot on disintegrated under his weight.
Ray grabbed for Ben as Ben grabbed for anything, and between the two of them, Ben got hard rock under his ass. From there he could stand, upright and not in the river of fire, only to ask, "Ray! Did the sample get contaminated? Did it touch anything?"
"No, no, it's okay, you're alive, I mean, it's alive, shit!"
Ben reeled in the red-hot hammer coated with lava and dunked it in the water-filled gallon can, then pulled the thing out of now-boiling water and began to chip at it with his real rock hammer. "Perfect." The red rage of the lava danced in Ben's eyes. He was smiling, the bastard, laughing, but not at Ray. Ben had cheated Pele, cheated her of her lava and cheated her of his life.
Ray was almost gibbering. "I gotta, I'm going, I . . ."
"Yes, yes, that's fine," replied Ben absently, now completely absorbed in whatever the fuck he was doing.
Ray had nothing to say, nothing that he could find words for. He put one foot in front of the other and walked. Walked away, trying not to think about what just happened, putting some distance between him and it. He didn't even noticing the weight of the sledgehammer he'd picked up until a human female voice, not the hissing, crackling voice of the Goddess, tweaked him around.
"Hey, you! Ray!" It was Brenda, doing something a ways away by another, more innocent looking, hole in the ground. Which he'd never think of as solid ground again. "Bring that sledge over here, okay?"
He peered at the overgrown hammer, wondering why he'd even picked it up. "Yeah. Yeah. Sure." He might as well do what he was told, because there was no action from his remaining brain cells right now. And he would have done it, too, except that there was this awful noise. The earth shrieked like a friggin' banshee -- whatever banshees were, this was one. Never. He never wanted to hear that sound again.
The not-so-solid ground opened up right in front of Brenda.
She shrieked then too, taking a long step back, yeah, not everybody was as fucking nuts as Ben, she was shit-scared just like Ray, and she caught her heel on a spike of rock. Down, down she went, not into the hole thank God, but down anyway, and when she hit, her head bounced once. The gas mask vaulted off its perch on her forehead and disappeared into the covering fog.
Ray was willing to bet that denim was tougher than Brenda's lungs.
"Ben! Ben!" He didn't even know if he was shrieking. He dropped the iron anchor and took off running, hoping like hell he'd miss the fissure, the evil down-to-the-hot-place, on his way. He took a big breath before he ducked into the smoke, pulling his own mask off its resting place looped on top of his shoulder, catching it in his fingers. He found Brenda with the business end of a borrowed field boot, almost sprawling right over her. Holding his breath and blinking away the sting, he fixed the mask over her head. Now, if only he could hold his breath long enough to get out without losing either of them.
Yeah, fireman's carry, he could remember that. He could do that. His feet took him where his useless eyes couldn't, moving as fast as possible out of the clinging acid mist. Stumbling away from the fog, he fell to his knees, an extra hundred-some pounds on his shoulder. Strobes of pain flared straight from his knees to his gut and made him sway with sudden nausea. Leaning forward, gasping, he dumped Brenda off right onto the rock in front of him.
Ouch. Shit, another bang to the back of her head, but at least she'd be alive and using her own real lungs when she came to. Ray leaned over her on all fours while his chest heaved for air and he gagged at the overwhelming rotten-egg smell; it was up his nose, in his throat, it was everywhere. He was still hacking, eyes streaming, when Ben thumped down, red-faced and panting, by his side.
"Are you all right?"
"Sure. Sure. No problemo," he managed, in between trying to spit the metallic taste out of his mouth, trying not to spit on the unconscious woman underneath him. Sharp spines of rock dug into his palms, but he wasn't sure he could stand up or even kneel up to take the pressure off. Ben was already taking Brenda's pulse and checking for injuries.
"I can tell you right now, she's got a hell of a lump on the back of her head." Gag. Spit.
"I radioed for the helicopter; it's on its way. Help should arrive within a few minutes." Ben stared at Ray unwaveringly, expression serious, long enough for Ray to wonder what was wrong. "You're a brave man, Ray, and you think fast. I'm truly glad for that. Brenda could have been seriously injured."
Embarrassed, Ray looked away. "Not brave," he rasped. "Too stupid to know better." Definitely too stupid, when Ben calling him brave had him all squishy inside. Then he firmed up. "Where the hell was all this concern when you were about to take a swim?"
"Brenda is a student, Ray," replied Ben, sounding patient. Jeez, he really hated when people were patient with him. "We're responsible for her welfare."
"As opposed to your own."
"Well, really, Ray, we -- "
"Brendaaaaa!" He could tell by the bellow getting deeper that it was getting closer, and wasn't that physics or something? A second later, all his eye-view was taken up by legs. Turnbull was looming above him, a red-faced, snarling Turnbull. He hadn't looked too scary when he was doing the Bolshoi, but he looked pretty damned intimidating now.
"What did you do to her? Stand up and face me, you scurrilous cur!" He wasn't just pissed, he was downright enraged. Ray was itching to stand up and paste him, but it was just as well he couldn't. It was just karmically bad to beat up on the brainless -- plus given the guy's size, it could be unhealthy to try. Too bad he found himself standing by surprise, a huge paw dangling him by the scruff of the shirt.
"Renfield. Renfield. Renfield!" Ben broke them apart, Ray staggering aside while Ben grabbed Turnbull's arms. "Stop this instant! He's helped her, not hurt her."
"Is that why she's lying there unconscious?"
Okay, Turnbull was crazy, not blind. Why Ray should find that reassuring was anybody's guess.
"It's like this, Renfield . . . " Ben drew the raging Turnbull aside to give him the lowdown.
He heard, over the faraway hiss of Pele and the closer tumble of voices, the thup-thup-thup of rotor blades.
"I hope you don't mind if we take a little detour on the way to your hotel. There's something I'd like you to see."
"I ain't seen nothin' that sucks so far, Ben." Ray was lounged comfortably in the old Jeep's beat-up passenger seat, still buzzing. Molten lava, the earth opening up -- never a dull moment around the rockhound. It just felt so damned good to know that he'd done something that really mattered. He couldn't even think about what would have happened
in Ben's head if Brenda hadn't made it. As he flipped on the radio and started to sing along under his breath, he could feel Ben's smile even though he didn't turn his head.
They pulled off the highway onto a road lined with red-flowered trees. It was pretty, but nothing special, and as they wound along the lane, he rapped his fingers on the dashboard in time to the music.
"Patience, Ray." There was indulgent amusement in the rich voice.
He should have known there would be something good. There was always something good, with Ben. They pulled into a parking lot next to a beach, and it took a minute for his brain to register what he was seeing. It looked like a freaky negative -- everything else was like a real beach, except the sand was black. Not brownish or dull dark gray like the lava fields, it was a rich blanket of black. He couldn't resist grabbing a handful and watching the tiny black bits shine in the sun.
Ben was ragging on the dog. "Don't even think about bothering the other people on the beach. Or you'll have to go back into the truck." Just as if the damn dog would understand. He sure did seem to, as he wandered off to do his own thing in the underbrush north of the beach. Instructions taken care of, Ben turned back to Ray.
"Unlike other black sand beaches, many of which are created by erosion of already-hardened lava, this one was created when a red-hot lava flow met the ocean and exploded into glassine granules."
"Cool." Rock stuff held a lot more interest for him these days. "I wish I'd been here to see that."
"It happened before our time. About 1745."
"Thursday, April 12, 1745?"
"I believe you're right, Ray." Straight face; damn, he was good at that. Ray decided he liked it, but there was no way he could compete with Ben's control, so he just smiled at the beach.
They were walking along the rocky shore on the west side of the bay, far away from the little gaggle of sunbathers near the parking lot, enjoying the warm rays of the afternoon sun and the rolling of the waves. Ben was explaining that the green stuff growing on the rocks down by the water was limu, tasty dinner to sea critters, so Ray moved down to the edge of the rocks to get a closer look at it. It looked like green Saran Wrap. When Ben stopped abruptly, Ray almost walked straight into him.
"Look, Ray! Turtles!" Ben reached out one hand to point, bumping Ray's shoulder with his on the way. Ray had all his weight on one foot to turn around at the exact same time. He slid on the slimy green stuff on the rock and belly-flopped into the surf with a howl, scaring any and all turtles into Tuesday.
He sat up spitting, his mouth full of salt water, jesus, that sucked. The wave action jerked the sand and his legs out from under him so he couldn't stand. Ben waded in, shoes off, to give him a hand up. Ray knew without even looking -- his eyes were full of dissolving hair gel anyway -- that the guy was right in between acting all sorry and busting out laughing. Huh. For a really smart guy, he sure looked surprised when Ray clasped his hand firmly and pulled him down into the drink.
When he did it, he hadn't been thinking about what it would be like to have a wet heavy lug of Ben on top of him, but he sure as hell found out. It was good. Even if the first thing Ben did was to grab him by the shoulders and duck him, all the while cackling like a nutcase.
Spitting and sputtering when he came up, his face was right by Ben's. They were eye to eye. Ben was still grinning, and it only took a gentle hand cupped along his cheek to tilt them mouth to mouth. When Ray closed the inches and lighted on Ben's mouth, the soft lips were already parted.
There was no way on earth he could resist mining the flavor that was Ben. Sweet, pretty Ben, salty with ocean and hard against his chest as they knelt in the water. Ray nibbled and sucked, licking away the salt and diving in to find the rest of what he needed. He held Ben's face between his hands and went to town. Warm, as wet as all outside, sweet and tangy just like he knew it would be, and a wave came crashing right down on their heads. Foam swirled around them.
He hadn't been breathing anyhow; maybe this was a good time for a break. Since he realized now that Ben wasn't kissing him back. Oh, shit.
When he broke away, Ben's face was slack with surprise. There was no telling if that was good or bad. It made him look younger, more vulnerable. Color flared up his pale cheeks. Then, Ray saw determination in the narrowed eyes.
When Ben raised a fist out of the water, Ray flinched. Christ, even fish had more backbone than he did. Take it like a man. But instead of popping him one, Ben wiped Ray's wet hair away with his knuckles. He put that big hand on the side of Ray's face and stroked his cheekbone with a thumb. When he spoke, Ray more read his lips than heard the words.
"I want to."
"Come on," said Ray, and opened his arms.
Kissing was even better with Ben wrapped around him. The water sloshed them as their lips touched, tentative at first, trying not to take too much. That didn't last long. He'd started getting cold when Ben backed off, not all of it from the outside, but he was heating up pretty damn quick now. The water all around them should have been steaming. Big hot body under his hands, hot wet mouth on his, sloppy dirty kisses with the clean taste of Ben.
Ben, who blushed like a girl but kissed like a man.
Ray could feel the wet constriction of his jeans, the roughness of soaked cotton underwear against his dick, the way his clothes pulled and rubbed with the roll of the water. His nipples were painfully hard from the drag of his shirt and Ben ranged up against him, so demanding and intense. He pulled Ben's shirt out of his pants, his hands full of the wide-muscled back.
They all but mauled each other, hands slipping and groping everywhere, Ben fucking moaning into his mouth. He couldn't believe what that sound did to him; he had salt water and Ben both pounding in his veins. Broad hands pulled at his ass to get more pressure, aiding and abetting as the waves rocked them from side to side. Push and pull.
The iodine smell of the ocean lingered on the cords of Ben's neck; salt stung his eyes as a whimper climbed out of his throat. Half-words growled out between them, along with some noises he was pretty sure he'd never made before. Rock and roll and he twisted his hips to get right up against Ben's hard cock with his. The waterlogged cotton only doubled the friction.
That got to Ben in a big way; he pulled his mouth away and cried out, eyes closed against the sun, tiny water drops in his eyelashes. The noise disappeared into the surf. Panting hard into Ray's ear, he thrust up again and again, his hands on Ray's hips, his weight holding Ray down so that his knees ground into the sand.
"Oh, yeah, Ben, come on, come on . . ."
And Ben did, with a stifled grunt, pressing his cheek against Ray's.
"Yeah, oh yeah." He rubbed both hands up and down Ben's back; the guy was still shaking, hey! -- Ben was pulling off, backing away as fast as he could on his knees, in water up to his chest. His face was the color of a cocktail cherry.
Who knew that color really happened in nature? This man was nothing if not nature. Ben licked his kissed-up lower lip and twitched. He looked like if he was standing up, he'd fall down. He could hardly choke the words out.
"I, ah, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to just . . ."
"You nut. Get your ass back over here."
Ray stuck out his hand. In the pit of his stomach, he had a feeling that even though it was just his hand held out there over the water, that wasn't all it really was. It felt like more. It felt like they'd been reaching for each other forever. It felt like being in one of those stupid foreign movies where everything they did had some sort of big significance instead of it being what it really was, which was nothing but his hand.
Still, when Ben met him in the middle and tightened his hand on Ray's, a mushroom cloud of happy lifted up through him that had nothing to do with his still-hard dick.
"Y'know, Ben, I never, uh . . . I never had a summer romance before." Funny how that happy feeling pushed weird shit out of his mouth. He ought to damn well be blushing himself. Was he this bad with Stella, back in the day? Thank God he couldn't remember. Right now, he could barely picture Stella.
He could feel the dippy smile all over his face.
"I never have either." Ben held onto his hand and stared at him almost solemnly.
"Want to be my first?" To Ray's surprise, an odd look passed over Ben's face. It almost looked like . . . disappointment. Dark spiky-wet lashes shut those tell-tale eyes before he could figure it out. Did Ben not want to mess with somebody who wasn't experienced? Did he not want to get . . . romantic?
Maybe that wasn't the way he liked guys -- if he liked guys, if this wasn't some kind of bizarro go-along because Ray wanted it. Maybe guys were just for getting off. Fuck, the water was cold here. Ray shivered. But then when Ben looked up, he was smiling, lips quirked to one side, so it must have been all Ray's imagination.
"Yes, Ray. I'd like that."
"Catch of the day." Ray grinned out his relief and reeled Ben in for a kiss. Two kisses. No, one kiss that never quit. He had this feeling that he was wrinkling, shriveling up, lost in the water, but he couldn't stop. Ben's lips were so soft and kissable, and his shoulders were so broad and holdable, that there was no way he could let go. He was hard, so hard he had his own goddamn fishing pole, but it couldn't be nice to just climb all over your summer romance and get yours. Not too romantic.
Was that what Ben was embarrassed about before? Wow, he should tell him not to be. Being climbed on by Ben just about took the top of Ray's head off.
Good idea or bad idea? He couldn't decide. His mind wasn't even in his pants anymore. Not his own pants, anyway. It was, oh, God, it was in the palms of his hands with that fine beautiful perfect ass, the nicest ass he'd ever seen, and it was ten times better to touch it than look at it. Right now the muscles were tensed to keep them both upright, since Ray was all wound around him and no help at all. Ben's legs were spread, Ray's thighs wedged in between them while he groped that ass, rolling his palms against the curves and squeezing with his fingers.
He clamped down on Ben's salty neck, smooth and firm under his teeth, and it was everything he'd fantasized about for the last ten thousand minutes. All of a sudden he didn't care about romantic, he was climbing and riding whether he wanted to or not. He really was still sixteen where it counted, and right now it counted in his cock. He was banging at Ben's crotch in the slow-motion water, the feeling exploding hot and hard with every move. His control was out the fucking window -- until --
Oh, fuck, no, not . . . He was, he was so . . . so close -- he couldn't breathe. But Ben was pushing him away and gentling him somehow at the same time, no, he wouldn't do anything Ben didn't want; even getting petted by those long squared-off fingers was still better than nothing. They moved slowly along his face and paused at his jaw. For a second he thought he was about to humiliate himself totally; his eyes were burning like hell and he knew what would happen next, until Ben said, "Can I touch you?"
He just moaned; he couldn't think. His head was as empty as his cock was full.
Ben took pity on him at last and wrenched open the button and yanked at the zipper -- ow, that hurt. He was so sensitive from the grate of wet cotton that he could hardly bear Ben's touch, even as he pushed frantically into it. His knees were sunk in the sand and they were the only thing he could feel that was stable any more. God, the water was so cold and Ben's hands were so hot along his dick, smoothing out the kinks that started in his gut and burned all the way down to Ben's solid grip.
At first, his hips had Ben's rhythm. He was on total disconnect from anything left in his head. He was rocking on the water, rocking with the give and take of the hand on his cock. It couldn't have been much time, but it seemed endless, an endless flowing ribbon of pleasure. The garbled sounds in his throat blocked out even the crashing surf.
Then, just that quick, he lost everything, all contact with Ben and with reality. He was floating; the orgasm wrenched everything else away. He totally got it, now, that he was ninety-nine percent water, and what it really meant. It meant he was the water and the water was him, and nothing else mattered. He rolled and jerked and groaned with what felt like his last breath.
He didn't register anything else until he realized he was in Ben's arms, and Ben was holding him tight. He was still trying hard to get a grip as Ben smoothed his hair back and dropped kisses along his cheekbone. Yeah. Yeah, that was good. That was so . . . good.
The voice purred along his bones, over the sound of the waves. "You're all wet, Ray."
He rolled his eyes, even though he knew Ben couldn't see him. A smile wound its way lazily along his lips. His whole body was Silly Putty. "Fuck you."
"Later?" It was half question, half tease. He thought maybe Ben surprised himself. A chuckle sounded in Ray's ear. "I'm quite drenched myself, right now."
Even the thought of fucking Ben didn't put any starch in his shorts. "We can go, but you'll have to carry me."
The next thing he knew, there was a shoulder in his stomach and he was hanging over it.
"I'm a very literal man, Ray."
And he'd have complained, loudly, if he honestly thought he could walk. Ray let Ben haul him up over the rocks, onto the sparkling grit. He let Ben pull off his wet jeans and shirt, then watched him do the same, savoring the first look at Ben's naked body. The guy wasn't just a brick house; he was an architect's dream. He was hotter than the tropical sun. Ray didn't even know what kind of cosmic payback a vacation like this might call for later, but he was too exhausted and high to be a pessimist right now.
There was still plenty enough sun to drive away the chill, limp as they were on the warm black sand, arms around each other. The rumble of the waves and the swish of the breeze in the palm fronds lulled him to sleep against Ben's chest. If anyone wandered over that far, exploring along the water's edge, Ray never knew it.
From a ways away, a dog barked.
Ray stirred, coolish and uncomfortable. Hard mattress. Sheets were crap in this place, scratchy. Rough against his hip when he squirmed for a better spot. The sound effects were nice, though, and he let the round low rush of the water in one ear blend with the flat steady thump against the other, until he woke up enough to realize that the skin under his palm didn't belong to him. That there was no soft handful of breast under that nipple. That he wasn't in bed.
He sat straight up in one move, neverminding that his left arm was still asleep. Grabbing a still-damp shirt, he pulled it on as best he could, fighting his way into the sleeves. Pins and needles shot up to his shoulder. With the next move he threw the other shirt over Ben's dick. Holy shit, he'd never been in a position to get busted for indecent exposure or worse. Not to mention getting burned -- in places that hadn't seen the sun since he was three. A quick look around showed that the beach area was empty now.
His heart started again.
He hadn't freaked out thinking about men's asses; under the circumstances, it was a desperation case. Like the weather. Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.
Now, he wasn't quite sure what to think.
Now, when he was doing something about it.
He never did understand why people mouthed off about where other people got theirs. Still, he'd heard plenty of crap. Cops were not rainbow warriors. And ever since Stella was just a kid, he'd heard about it from her, too. Who knew where she'd picked it up? Could have been just growing up in a gang neighborhood. Stella had her ideas and nobody changed 'em. Walking in the park with her, holding hands, was the first time he'd ever seen two guys walking together, doing the same thing.
A high-pitched, "Look at those faggots over there!" was helped along by a pointy elbow in his ribs. Stella always made sure he was paying attention, and she didn't make any effort to keep her voice down. He'd hoped she wasn't gonna throw a hissy. He hoped they were too far away to be heard.
"Aw, come on, Stel, just ignore 'em." He couldn't help staring either, though. There was something about seeing two guys so close together.
"Cocksuckers." Her scathing tone made Ray's skin crawl. What else didn't she like?
He distracted Stella by pulling her behind the nearest bushes. Her lips were a lot sweeter when they weren't saying nasty shit about people just doing what they wanted to do.
Ray shook his head, letting the memories fall out his ears.
By the time he looked back down, Ben's eyes were open. He didn't say anything, just looked at Ray, eyelids lazy with sleep, mouth curved unmistakeably up. Holy shit, he could just feel himself being pulled into that look, like the way he got pulled into the quicksand last night. Being in Ben's look was so warm, so good. If this was what faggot was all about, he was along for the ride as of here and now.
"I see you found my shirt." Ben's snoozy voice woke up his nerve endings all over. The breeze against the cool, damp cotton lifted chills along his arms. Sure as hell, the button-up he was wearing was on Ben's back this morning. No wonder it had some extra room. He started to pull it off, but it was almost as much of a struggle as the wetsuit. For a second he had the weird idea that the shirt didn't want to come off.
Or maybe it was just that Ray didn't really want it to.
A warm hand around his wrist stopped him. "I like it on you." Ben looked him up and down, a long, slow slide of attention that had the blood prickling in Ray's face. It had to be decades since he'd been this self-conscious. He shifted a little so the tails of the shirt hid his lap. Ben noticed, and raised an eyebrow. "The proper shirt can cover a multitude of . . . sins." His tone left no doubt as to what kind of sins he was interested in.
He couldn't come up with a snappy answer. "Yeah, sure, see if you ever get your proper shirt back." It was the best he could do. His brain was obviously hiding down there under the shirttails.
"I think I can live with that."
That would leave Ben wearing Ray's t-shirt. But it was still kind of wet and it was really too tight for that deep chest; it would show every . . .
"Yeah. Me, too."
The ride back up to his hotel was kind of a blur. Ray's head was full of the man next to him and what it felt like to pant in his ear. What it felt like to grab him and be grabbed by him and come hard, screaming. He was dry on the outside, but inside, he was still swimming. They didn't talk much on the way.
Good thing Ben Fraser kept towels in his swim bag and took the thing wherever he went, since that was what they were both wearing from the waist down. Hawaii, he guessed, was a good place to be prepared. The girl behind the counter at the convenience store where they bought snacks paid no attention, like she saw grown men dressed in towels every day, and maybe she did.
Ray shared his Cheetos with Dief, ignoring Ben's raised eyebrow. They closed their jeans in the back windows, legs inside, and let them flap in the wind as they drove. From the crotch up, they were dry by the time they pulled into the parking spot behind his hut.
Ray picked up the newspaper that had been left at his door.
"Jesus, Ben, that poor kid died at the hospital. He was on something. They say it's some new kind of drug."
Ben paused in the act of putting down a bowl of food for the dog.
"The Hawaiian Islands are a major crossroads for drug traffic. Even this paradise, with no native snakes of its own, has had vipers introduced." Ben closed his eyes, and the lines radiating from the corners made him look a lot older. "Sometimes I just wish there was something I could do about it." Shaking his head, he continued. "Yes, I've seen reports that there's a new drug available on the streets -- so new they don't even know what it does to the human body, except as they find the fatal results of over-indulgence."
Painful subject, yeah. Shit.
"Hey! Why don't we get a shower before dinner?" He felt kind of like a cat in a litterbox, trying to cover it up. He was relieved when Ben ducked into the bathroom, took the first shower without getting all polite about it. What was so polite about all that, "Oh, no, you go first," stuff, anyway?