II: Chicago

He was home. Didn't feel like home any more, though. Chicago was dirty and it stunk. The heat and humidity almost brought him to his knees when he walked out the doors of O'Hare to catch a cab. It sucked the air right out of him, and left grit in his lungs instead. Chicago was nothing like Hawaii. No flowers, no ocean breeze.

No Ben.

Well, fuck.

He'd known as soon as he walked onto that plane bound for Chicago that it was a bad idea. Now it was a bad reality. He should have called in crazy. Something -- anything -- to get back to Hawaii for even one more day with Ben. A few more minutes. Just to make sure he was okay. But when the ever-narrowing sensible side of him had said, hell, you just met the guy -- he didn't really have an answer. Because it was true.

So now he was shit out of luck. The time to go back was over; it was easy enough to see what you should have done once the votes were in.

Thing was, how hard could it be to get normal after a week's fling? Not even that, really. Less than five days. They'd known each other for a lousy five days. No, not lousy. The best. The best five days of his entire fucking life, bar none. But . . . the bottom line was, five days. He could count their days on one hand.

Still . . . despite what Ben had said, he'd really thought the guy might call.


Send a postcard from the U.

But a couple days turned into a week, and the week turned into two. He realized, finally, that he'd have to get over it. Even though it had seemed as if Ben liked him, liked him a lot, there was nothing to prove that. In fact, there was ongoing evidence screaming about how Ben wanted nothing to do with him. That hurt.

It occurred to him that maybe, like Stella, Ben didn't know him. Worse than with Stella, really, since Ben didn't know anything about him. Stella didn't know Ray anymore, but Ben didn't know Ray at all. For a long time, longer than Ray deserved, Stella'd seen everything he did through the eyes of love, a love that started back when Ray was her knight in shining armor. Ben had never loved him in the first place.

There wasn't even any reason to get himself in trouble like he had with Stella -- following her around, stopping by her work, calling her all the time. He didn't have Ben's number and it was safer that way. A grown man would know what he wanted, and Ben already told him all about it.

There was no reason for Ben to call Ray. So they screwed each other blind on his vacation, so what? Ben wasn't, had never been, a man's man. Maybe he didn't want to be one of those guys holding hands in the park. He was a pretty straight-up guy, after all. Somebody that attractive, that smart, just wanted to be normal. He didn't want to be a faggot. For some reason, that idea hurt just as much.

Chicago skyline

At first, Ray told himself that the on-edge feeling was jet lag. Jet lag, combined with the strange eye problems. Ray must've been spoiled by bright sunshiny tropical vacation. Chicago looked like an old movie, nothing in color any more. Even on blazing hot, humid August days, everything looked grayed out around the edges. Maybe he should go to the eye doctor. Wearing his glasses didn't seem to help.

Time did not fly. He was not having fun yet.

Stella had left him squashed and miserable; leaving Ben made him flaky and irritable. He wasn't attracted to every passing tit and ass anymore, but instead of being a relief, it just made him feel old. He was snarled up inside like a mess of fish line, and the tangled-up monofilament stretched all the way back to the middle of the ocean. He had no idea how he was going to get it straightened out.

He spent half his time,wherever he was, wondering whether Ben was okay. Whether he had somebody to talk to, whether the memories of Victoria and a Central American prison combined with goons and being trapped in a drug lab had fucked him up royally.

The other half he spent wondering why Ben had changed his mind. God knew the guy had enough reason to. Ray's stupid attempt to be Superman had landed them both in boiling oil, and left Ben in the hospital. Doing it with a guy might not have done him any good either. For all Ray knew, that was the part that freaked Ben out.

Every morning, no matter when he went to bed, he woke up early, sometimes before it was light out. That was pretty goddamn early in Chicago in August. It was like his dreams nagged him to the surface, and he couldn't get back to sleep. He hadn't been awake at five in the morning in years, and back then it was because he hadn't gone to bed yet.

There was nothing to do at that hour but watch infomercials, so he'd just lie there, staring at the plaster swirls on the ceiling, or at the broken blinds on the west window. He'd tried to straighten them out, but only managed to fuck it up it worse. Story, meet life. Some morning he was going to get up and go to the hardware store and fix the damn things, but for now he just waited for the alarm to go off so he could drag his ass to work.

On Sunday, he said to hell with it and got up, wandering to the window. He pushed up the blinds by hand. Might as well look out on the world. He opened the window for good measure. It was kind of nice, the early morning air, almost like in Hawaii. The street didn't look so ugly now, softened up in the gentle light. The unfamiliar quiet was calling his name, so -- moving like the Zombie Bride Of Frankenstein -- he got dressed and went outside.

There was a pretty big park not too far from his place, and he took to going there every morning. There were squirrels and birds making a racket and sometimes joggers, and he didn't feel so alone. The problem with walking was that it gave him more time to think, and he'd end up as tense as ever. Too bad there was nothing less than a hundred proof that would turn off his brain, let him get away from it all. He needed a vacation. From his vacation. So he walked. And walked.

Thursday, he just took off running.

The impact of each step in the motorcycle boots banged through his bones. It wasn't fun, exactly -- more like his own personal earthquake. It got right down inside him where the worry and loss and confusion was and drove it out. There wasn't room for all of it. It was kind of like boxing, only without getting punched in the face. He'd never run away from his problems before, but at this point he wasn't going to bitch about what worked.

The world around him blurred, the trees and ground and sky blending into something that flowed by and didn't touch him. That was the best part of all.

He ran until his legs gave out, spasming uncontrollably. He slumped over and waited while they did their thing, hands on his knees, until the fire in his lungs subsided. It felt like miles, but he'd only made it across the park's diagonal. His body was trashed and his knees might not ever forgive him, but his head felt . . . better.

Dripping with sweat, he was still cleaner than he'd been since he got on that plane to Chicago. Heaven only knew what Ben was doing to keep himself together after what they'd been through.

On the way home from work, he picked up a pair of running shoes.

Two mornings later, he was gasping, head against the brown brick of his building because he wasn't sure if his neck worked any longer. His head might just fall off, left to itself. This running thing was tough. He'd never taken so much ibuprofen in his life. Every damn muscle in his entire body was primed for mutiny. He had cramps in places he'd never known there were muscles before.

Still, it was working. His body hurt more -- and, baby, he wasn't looking forward to climbing those two flights of stairs -- but his insides hurt less.

He watched, slit-eyed, as some guy jogged toward him with a very happy German shepherd heeling neatly alongside, tongue flapping from a doggy smile. He sighed as deep as he could, given how much his chest ached. It sounded more like a wheeze.

Everybody had a goddamn dog but him. If he was going to be doing this crazy-ass exercising, he at least deserved some company.

The door creaked open beside him. "Nice dog." It was Mrs. Kreviazuk, the little old lady from across the hall. She looked like she was going out for a walk of her own, tennis shoes and all. "I miss having a dog." He'd hardly ever talked to her; nothing more than a nod in the hallway sometimes, but he could sympathize with the way her gaze followed the pair down the sidewalk. "My late husband and I used to raise water spaniels."

"I always wanted a dog, too," he admitted. "But I can't see leaving the poor bas -- uh, poor pooch alone all day while I'm gone."

"Well, I don't so much have that problem," she said wryly, her already-wrinkly face wrinkling up more. "For me, a dog is too expensive. Feeding it, vet bills, tags -- and I just don't have the energy for the constant care. A dog in the city needs more exercise than I can give it. But I'd like the companionship." She shook her head, the gray curls lifting in the breeze. "Too bad I've never been a cat person."

"We had a dog when I was a kid. But since then, well, when I was married, my wife worked too, so there was nobody home then either." He looked her up and down. She looked pretty spry for an old lady. She looked like somebody who wouldn't mind puppy-wrangling. "You've been living here a long time, haven't you?"

"Eight years now, ever since Fred died, and I think they'll be carrying me out feet first."

It was Saturday morning. He had plenty of time to kill. "You know, I'm wondering if we can make a deal here. How about we have a cup of coffee? I'm buying."

"Well, I was just going for a walk through the park . . . "

"The park it is," he offered grandly, sweeping his arm toward it in what was somehow a Ben-like gesture. For some reason, his body didn't hurt so much anymore. "Coffee's right on the way."

That was how he got the dog.


Turned out Dog Lover Lady, Mrs. K, Lila, volunteered a couple times a week at a no-kill shelter. In that shelter was a litter of golden-lab-and-neighborhood. They were freakin' adorable. Any buyer's resistance he ever had went out the window as soon as he saw them.

"Purebred bitch; they were hoping to get a litter with show potential. But the fence wasn't quite high enough," Mrs. K explained with a shrug. "At least they dropped them off here once they were weaned."

And there she was: wise, furrowed little face peering out of underneath a pile of midget dogs. He knew her right away -- no mistaking those big brown eyes. She blinked sleepily at him, and it was all over but the housebreaking. He didn't know she was a she, of course, not until they gently moved all the other dwarves to one side. While she chewed on his thumb, leaving the world's tiniest teeth marks from her world's tiniest needle-sharp teeth, Lila checked her over.

"She looks good," said Lila, and proceeded to rattle off a bunch of dog stuff that he paid no attention to. He didn't care. He was a man in love.

He named her Waikiki. She was that color, the exact color of the sand. He would have named her after one of the beaches on the Big Island, but he couldn't remember -- or pronounce -- any of those names, anyway. She was the cutest, most aggravating, most lovable piddling machine he'd ever known. Kiki, he called her. He couldn't quite see himself running down the park footpath yelling, "Waikiki! Waikiki!" He'd sound like a demento.

He was pretty sure that right now, she thought her name was Ohshit.

He could only be glad, for the first time, that he still hadn't replaced his crappy Salvation Army furniture. It looked even worse now than when he'd hauled it all in here -- desperate for something to eat dinner off of, and too tired to care, at the end of the day, what he flopped down onto. Itsy bitsy teeth were more destructive than he remembered. That dog would turn his kitchen table and chairs into splinters before her milk teeth fell out.

And if her big-eyed "oh, please, I need pizza" look reminded him sometimes of somebody else, he just ruffled her fur and gave her a piece of pineapple. Every time, he was surprised that she ate it.

Tuesday. Day off, that was a good thing; he'd been pulling a lot of extra hours since he got back from vacation. What else did he have to do?

Now, though, he needed quality time to spend with his little girl. After his run, he took her for a walk - no way could she keep up with him running, even at his snail's pace. He tried to take her running once, but she'd just stopped after a block and flopped onto the ground. In two seconds she was fast asleep, and he finished out his run with an armload of dog.

"Struck by nap lightning," he told Elaine, waving a stack of photos like a proud papa. "Falls over and she's just out of it."

"Any woman would, after one look at you," Huey snorted. "Talking about your girlfriend again?"

"You're damn right."

"Yeah, Jack, and she's a real dog." Dewey did a ba-dum-bump of knuckles on the desk.

"You guys are a coupla comedians, all right. Just watch what you say about my girl," he warned. "I'm training her to attack."

But that was yesterday and this was today, day off, so he was out watching Kiki nose at bugs in the grass when his cell rang.


"Ray! Wonderful Ray. My partner, my buddy, my pal, the man I depend on."

"You can cut the crap now." He smiled wryly, already resigned to the evils of fate on his day off. "What do you want, Elaine?"

"Just one tiny little favor, puhleease?" she wheedled. "I'm desperate and in pain here!"

"Huh?" He sat up. Despite her joking, Elaine was pretty tough. "What happened?"

He could hear embarrassment dripping from her answer. "I tripped on a crack in the sidewalk."

Ray snorted.

"Hey, I know you're never gonna let me forget this, but there's no way I can push in the clutch right now."

"Where are you?"

"I'm at UC, in front of Harper Library."

Ray was already on his feet, with the squirming dog under his arm. "Faces onto 57th?"

"On 59th, the one that looks like a castle. I'm at the statue."

When he pulled up, dog and all, Elaine looked more miserable than he'd ever seen her. She perked up a little when she saw Kiki. "So there she is! Come on over here, honey!"

"I'm coming, I'm coming."

"I'm talking to the puppy." And needless to say, Kiki took full advantage of the attention like she always did. Ray never really understood the meaning of the word 'gambol' until her. She couldn't quite bark yet, but she jumped around and squeaked a lot.

"Hey, a guy can dream. Let's get you out of here."

Helping her over to the car was awkward. He had her by the shoulders as she leaned heavily on him, but it just didn't work very well. Between the two of them, they couldn't help but joggle her foot. "Jesus, you got a watermelon in that sock?"

"Oh, shut up."

The nurse was going to have to cut those jeans off, he was sure of it. Elaine would be really pissed, but maybe by that time she'd have some decent drugs. Even now, her good humor was fading fast, but they'd have her all set in a couple minutes. When she winced and moaned, he stopped to let her catch her breath. Naturally, Kiki took advantage of that moment to have a nap attack.

"I could carry her," Elaine suggested.

"Oh, yeah, right. This is going so slick as it is."

"My arms are just fine!"

"Okay, okay." Never argue with a cranky woman. He learned that many PMSs ago.

So they loaded up the dog into one arm. With the other one around Ray's waist, and his arm around her shoulder again, they turned toward the GTO. Ray looked up when he heard a car door slam a ways down, and stopped dead.


Ben Fraser. Tall, dark, and so freakin' handsome he didn't need sunlight to glow.

"Sorry, sorry." But he wasn't paying any real attention to Elaine. Ben was here.

Of course he was here, he worked here. But he was here now, not a hundred yards away, walking up the sidewalk toward the library. "Ben! Ben, wait!" Joy and relief surged through him just to see the guy walking around, still in one piece.

Ben whipped around, a big smile on his face, one that fell off as soon as he got a look at Ray.

"Hello," he called back, not coming an inch closer. Ray saw the guy actually take a step away before he restrained himself to just standing there.

Ray yelled out the first thing off the top of his head. "Ben, come on over and meet my girl!" Then his own goofy grin dissolved as he realized Ben was looking down at the ground, over at the library, anyplace but at him. He wouldn't even look at Ray, much less come talk to him.

"I think . . . I think not, Ray. I'm . . . late. I have to go."

Without another word, Ben took off. He all but broke into a run, he wanted to get away so bad. Ben was such a crappy liar. Ray sucked wind at the pain stabbing through his gut. He wanted to scream at the broad back that got smaller and smaller while he watched, like through the other end of a telescope. But he didn't say anything.

He just stood there like a dumbass, trying to breathe normally.

Shit, he'd figured Ben wasn't interested any more, but to not even talk to him? That was really low.

"Who was that?"

Elaine's ankle was catching. It felt like he'd sprained something, too.

"Nothing, it was nobody." Nobody now, anyway.

"Nice looking, for nobody." Elaine poked him in the ribs. "Now, can we get this show on the road?"

He stopped thinking about it and got his mind in gear, along with the GTO.

A week later, Ray was still not thinking about it. He couldn't think about it. He shouldn't. He had a job he loved, a great dog, and a dogsitter who kicked ass. His life was fine. Great. It was greatness.

"My life sucks."

Mrs. K -- he was having a heck of a time thinking of her as Lila; he just didn't know any gray-haired people by their first names, but he'd probably better get used to that pretty soon -- looked at him blankly. "What brought this on?"

He fondled Kiki's silky ears and shook his head. "Nothing."

He kept trying to tell himself that, and it wasn't working.

Every day, all day, he was nagged by the itch to drive past the U, like some teenage girl looking for her heartthrob. But they didn't give out t-shirts for chasing after people who walked away from you. They gave out restraining orders. He'd handed over a couple when he wore blue, and Stella'd threatened him with one herself. True love did not conquer all.

Yeah, he'd gone a little overboard there. Pleading with her in public was the lowest he'd ever been, and he wouldn't do it again. Not for anybody, not even for Ben.

In private, maybe.

Didn't look like he'd get that chance.

"Well, then, take this dog for a walk. It'll make you feel better."

No, it wouldn't. But he'd try anything at this point. Anything would be better than this.

So he took the dog to the lakefront.

He'd walked her into the ground. She was snuffling around as far as she could reach from flopped on her belly, and he was just rocked back on his heels, hanging out. It had helped, a little, the warm sunshine on his back.

All of a sudden, a sharp bark, almost a howl, turned his head. More barking, getting closer. Something big, fuck, something was coming this way. A big white blur came for them, too fast for Ray to figure out what was going on. He shot upright and moved in front of Kiki as fast as he could, and it was fast enough, because the white blur hit him at fifty miles an hour and knocked him on his ass and he was just grateful that Kiki wasn't underneath him somehow.

Then he was sputtering around the dog tongue on his face, all over him, seventy-five pounds of big white dog on his chest and a fine sightline up a set of opening and closing black nostrils, just what he always wanted, and didn't he deja this view?

"The fuck! Dief, stop!" It didn't do much good, but from somewhere to the side, a choked voice ordered the dog off him.

Christ, it was Ben. Of course, who else? Who else would come here and bust his life into a million pieces? Just when he was getting over it. Liar, liar, pants on fire.

"I'm -- I apologize for Diefenbaker's behavior."

Ben looked like he'd seen a ghost, and he wanted to say, "Fuck you, I'm still alive." But he didn't. "We're fine. He's fine." Scum-sucking bastard. No, that was wrong. Don't say that. Ben had never belonged to him, was never his. Ben could do what he wanted, and if he didn't want like Ray wanted, Ray was the one who had to deal. Suck it up.

"No, really, I'm sorry."


Ben was pulling Dief off of him and he was trying to get away, jesus, did the guy hate him or something? What, Ray dragged him out of his hole or off his pedestal and what, dirtied him? Made him a fag?

And then Ben wasn't walking away, crouching instead, arms around Dief's neck like the dog was a life preserver.

Ray creaked up to his feet. "It's okay, ya know. I been knocked down by bad guys before." Funny, ha ha. Nobody laughed. He looked down at the dog, who was looking innocent and hanging his tongue out like he never tried to lick Ray to death.


God, he'd missed that dog.

He'd missed Dief, and he'd missed Ben. Missed Ben so bad it was like cutting his arm off. Seeing him again just opened the stitches. He felt like he was bleeding all over the grass. His hands were clenched so hard his wrists throbbed.

Fate sucked. Blow me, baby, he thought.

Ben was staring at him. Just staring.

"Take a picture, it lasts longer." Yeah, he could still do it. He could talk tough. Why didn't it make him feel better?

"I wish I could." The words were sighed out like it was Ben's last breath.

"Fine. Whatever." He tried to get his act together. He was a fucking undercover genius, it couldn't take everything he had to put up a good front. He looked Ben up and down. The need to reach out and touch was so strong he only just managed to jam his hands in his pockets. "So. You want to meet my girl this time?"

Ben drew in one long loud breath through his nose, eyes closed, brows pulled. When he looked up, his eyes were just . . . empty. Gave him the creeps -- one minute Ben was there, and the next minute, nobody. What did that mean? Ray didn't ask, though, because he realized Kiki wasn't there to be met anyhow. She couldn't have gotten far.

"Come on, don't just stand there like a doof, help me find her." There was no sign of her on the open grass, but he knew she'd run for cover. Not a stupid dog. "She was afraid of Dief. She's gotta be in the bushes. Kiki! Kiki!"

Ben followed awkwardly, like he wore lead shoes.

Sure as hell, there was the leash stuck in a hunk of bush, and on the end of it, Kiki. A stray branch caught at his hair as he leaned over. He freed the leash, grabbed her up, and rubbed her fuzzy face against his while she whined and made that funny little almost-bark. He hoped she wouldn't pee on him.

Dief pranced around them, still excited, but quieter now. It was still early in the fall, but the bushes around them were already turning color. Ben looked achingly good standing among the reds and yellows in his brown jacket, hair catching the sun. He must have been staring blankly, dog in his arms, because he almost didn't catch Ben's words.

"That . . . that's your girl?"

The sound of disbelief finally penetrated his empty head. He looked Ben square on, paying attention this time, daring the guy to diss his baby. "Yeah, what about it?" With exaggerated care, he set her down to let Dief nose her. The fluffy white dog whuffed and began to lick her vigorously. She did the rubber puppy wiggle at the attention, and it gave him some time to not be looking at Ben.

"I . . . ah . . . nothing."

Ray was pissed, now. Righteous wrath straightened him up and lifted his chin. "Okay, you fucking owe me. You tell me what's what."

Ben got pissed right back. "On the contrary, I don't owe you anything."

"You sure as hell do. First you dump me and then you walk away like I'm poison, now you show up with your dog slobbering all over me. I deserve an explanation!"

"I . . . you . . . " Now somebody was home. That somebody didn't look happy to be here. Pissed and flustered, but naturally Ben managed to pull himself back together. Not much could faze the man, if a volcano couldn't. "Who are you to demand an explanation from me?"

He was nobody, that's who he was. "I -- I -- "

Then Ben popped a fly ball. "Who was that woman with you at the University?"

"What difference does it make?" Why change the subject? Well, no surprise that Ben was still a nut. "For your information, that was my partner, Elaine."

"So you do have a partner."

Stone-faced prick. Where did he get off? Elaine had pulled his ass out of the fire a lot of times. "Of course I have a partner, how the hell do you think I get through the day in Chicago? It's a jungle in here."

"Frankly?" Ben looked him up and down. On anybody else's face, that would have been a sneer. On Ben, it looked like a sinus headache. "I was more specifically interested in how you get through the night."

It'd been a lot harder lately, but he didn't have to tell Ben that. He shrugged. "Like everybody else, I guess."

Now they were both silent, and judging by the look on Ben's face, both a little confused. Ray, for one, was fed up. "Look, if that's all you have to say to me, I'm gonna take my dog and go home."

"Wait! Don't go."

"What do you want?" He was a little leery by this time. A scary tendril of hope was winding up between his ribs, about to grab his heart and squeeze.

"I want . . . " Ben strangled a cough. Lines radiated from his closed eyes; others cut deep alongside his mouth. "I want you, Ray."

Oh, man, he was so friggin' sincere. The helpless look turned Ray to goo. He didn't want to be goo, goddamn it! He dug down hard into the realm of reality. "Yeah, right. That's why you dumped me." He cringed at how whiny that sounded.

"I did no such thing! You were the one who wanted a summer romance. You were the one who wouldn't give me your phone number!" Ben looked outraged and desperate at the same time, like he was about to grab Ray by the collar and start shaking him. No worries there, since Ray was already shaking. "I don't know if I can stand another brief liaison with you."

"I don't liaise! Look, Ben, I'm not a drug-running back-stabber, and I'm not going to leave you to rot in a Nicaraguan prison!"

"True, but you'll leave me." He spat the words out like they tasted as bitter as they sounded.

"Where the hell do you get that from?"

There was so much answering pain in Ben's eyes that Ray winced.

"Don't you think I can extrapolate from your previous actions? You left me at a Honolulu hospital without a word! You couldn't even bring yourself to stay long enough to see if I was all right."

"No!" Ray was horrified that Ben could even think that. "Just -- no!"

Ben ignored him and stared bleakly at someplace where Ray wasn't. "Oh, I can't blame you completely. I remember the appalling way I behaved in the restaurant. I was completely out of line. I shattered my every standard of behavior."

"You were a hero!"

"Then I compounded the indiscretion. I remember . . . reaching out for you. I remember you pushing me away." His lips compressed over his thin words; he managed a snort of derision. "In retrospect, it's no mystery that you lost interest. My actions must have been horrifying to a man who wanted only a casual affair." Ray didn't think he'd ever seen anything harder than Ben's eyes. "You left a note for Meli, a woman you barely knew, but you left me . . . nothing."

"I never! I don't, I didn't!" What the hell happened? "I mean, I did!" How did this get so fucked up?

That night, Ben was riding the whoopie bus. He'd walked and talked and laughed and kissed, but he must have been totally fucked up the whole time. Oh, shit. "I did tell you!" Ray was frantic now. "We talked in the hospital room! About my dad! About your dad! And I left you a note!" God, he needed Ben to believe.

"There was no note." The words clattered out of Ben's mouth like rocks down a well. He thought Ray was lying, he thought he knew it all.

"Ben, I swear. Why would I lie about it now?"

"I don't know. Perhaps to make me feel better, because you want something." Ben stared grimly over Ray's shoulder, jaw locked almost too tight to talk, leaving Ray to take a flying leap as to what that something might be. "The fact that you seem to be interested now, when you already have a partner, only makes me more inclined to think you're prevaricating."

He had a friggin' partner; what he needed was a partner. Ray found himself wanting to laugh, as unfunny as it was. "That's your version, huh?" He couldn't let Ben get away, not this time. "Then let me fill you in on my version. Right now."

Ray dug his fingers into Ben's shoulders, the smoothness of the leather jacket echoing the memory of Ben's skin against his hands. He laid on a liplock that couldn't be pried off with a crowbar. Ben shuddered and resisted, but when he couldn't get Ray off of him, he gave in with a moan. His mouth opened, letting Ray into the warm and wet that he'd fantasized about every waking minute since he'd gotten on that plane in Honolulu.

It was like coming ashore at last, when he'd been adrift for weeks. He couldn't let go; he was afraid to, afraid it would all vanish again in a puff of polluted Chicago air.

"Ray." Ben was mumbling against his lips, and he wasn't letting go either. "Ray. I remember . . . I remember you kissing me . . . goodbye."

Relief was enough to leave Ray strung out, and he tilted his head back to search Ben's face. "Yeah, Ben, I kissed you goodbye." He pulled Ben against his chest, whispering into his ear, "But I'd like to recant."

Another dose of warm and wet had Ray's head spinning. Ben's hard thigh between his legs made him wonder how much real screen the bushes provided. They were frantic; they pawed each other like teenagers at Hormone High. It was insane. It was perfect. It was the middle of the fucking afternoon in a public park. His knuckles were white against the brown of Ben's jacket.

"Come home with me," Ray urged. He didn't even know if he could stay standing if he let go. He sure as hell had no idea those four little words would freak the guy. But as hungry as he was, it wouldn't have mattered. He'd have said it anyway.

Ben stiffened up and stepped back warily, evading the needy hands. It left Ray at arm's length, with no arms reaching out for him. Ray went cold, even on this pleasant, sunny September afternoon. Yeah, he could stand alone, but he didn't want to. As sucky as his time back in Chicago had been the last couple weeks, he hadn't known how bad he really missed Ben until now.

"I'm not so sure -- I don't know -- "

"Look." He hoped he could do this, do it right. "I'm sure. I know. If you give me a chance, I can explain everything."

Ben took a deep breath. Ray could see the rebar up his ass bending just a little. "I . . . yes, I believe there are some things I need to hear. Ah -- from you."

Ray could talk. He talked. He talked and drove at the same time, since his mouth was on autopilot anyway. Not knowing for sure what Ben wanted to hear, he could only hope that Ben was at least listening. He talked about his dad, his mom, his dog. He talked about Elaine and the times she'd been there for him. He talked as if words would wind around Ben and keep them together. He talked as if words could keep his heart from breaking.

When they finally pulled up in front of his building -- yes, on-street front and center parking space! -- he was talking, talking, talking. The dogs in the back seat lifted their heads expectantly. Still more words died on his lips as Ben laid a hand over his. It was warm and strong, and Ben squeezed a little before he said, "It's all right, Ray."

Ray whistled out a long breath as the last six weeks came crashing in on him. Aces and eights scattered, whistled away by Ben's words. Ray let them go. He might not have to build his life in a house of cards anymore. His voice, almost used up, cracked when he spoke again. "You. Uh. You mean it?"

"I mean it."

He hated like hell to let go of that hand.

It was a long fucking way up the stairs, even though he made like a herd of hippos pounding to the top. Which gave Lila the clue about him being back, and naturally she stuck her head out the door. Whatever she was going to ask or say was derailed by the sight of his guests. Her eyes went dreamy like a teenage girl's, and she sighed. He was pretty sure he saw her eyelashes flutter.

"Oh, my goodness! Who have we here?" Mrs. K was all but twittering.

Ray sighed, too. He leaned back against the wall, one knee up. Elaine called it his hooker pose. Carefully, he examined his keys one by one. It was too embarrassing to watch an otherwise nice little old lady go ga-ga over a young pup. He'd seen it happen before, but it made him want to scrub his brain. Then again, who was Ray to be judgmental? He'd had just about the same first reaction.

"Ray, introduce me!"

Yecch. Gushing, that was the word for it. Who was this woman, anyway, and where did she hide Mrs. K's body? He couldn't stop his eyeballs from rolling up. He pretended he was just looking up at her from under his brows. Turned out she wasn't looking his way anyhow. "Lila, Ben."

"What fine eyes you have, Ben!" she cooed, as she moved relentlessly his way. "Aquamarine -- so unusual! You're just gorgeous, aren't you?"

Okay, Ray hadn't been as open about his admiration.

Just before she made it to Ben, who was surreptitiously looking for a secret escape hatch along the bare walls of the hallway, Lila dropped down and flung her arms around the big white dog. "Oh, yes, I like you a lot. You're a sweetheart, you are."

Well, maybe his first reaction hadn't been quite the same.

That was probably good, since Dief appreciated the attention a lot more than Ben would have. The furball gladly washed her face as she skritched his ears. Dief almost moaned in pleasure, and he flopped down on Ben's feet to let her rub his belly. Finally, Mrs. K realized she was crouched nose-to-knees with another human being. When she looked up, there was no special interest on her face. Ray was willing to bet that he appreciated that view a lot more than she did.

"Give an old lady a hand up, will you?" she asked, sticking up her hand for a lift and sort of a handshake. "I'm Lila Kreviazuk, Ray's neighbor and dogsitter."

"It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Benton Fraser."

Her face wrinkled up some more. "You . . . named your dog after yourself?"

"Ah, no, I believe we've had a bit of confusion there. The animal currently occupying my feet, waiting for you to continue rubbing his belly, is Diefenbaker." Ben smiled, teeth gleaming at her. God, Ray would never get tired of watching that.

"Oh! That's certainly unusual. Where did you get him?"

Ray listened to the story. Which was strange in itself, that the urge to get in -- into the apartment, into Ben's pants -- wasn't grinding his ass. He didn't have to stand there and listen. If he wanted to, he could made his own statement; he could unlock his door and walk in. The dogs would follow him in, hoping for food if nothing else. He could even go in, put on coffee and invite Lila in too. Instead, he stood in the hall eyeballing his keys, because hearing about Puppy Dief again was like hearing Our Song.

He listened while the sand soaked its warmth into his shoulders, releasing knots that had been tied tight for weeks. Sea birds dove and cried as Ben and Dief shared a ham sandwich in the maze of lava tubes. Tiny waves washed his toes clean while man and dog wound their way through to survival. He was beached back at the door to his apartment when Ben finished up the story.

So why did his door suddenly look like Door Number One? Like he wasn't sure if he'd like what he got when he opened it? He was looking at what he'd wanted for weeks: him and Ben together, no million miles or misunderstandings in between them. Why was something scratching around in his gut now?

It was the same feeling he got when he pulled his gun and took a step into a blind alley.

The only way to find out what was there was to take that step.

He lurched away from the wall as Mrs. K said, "I don't suppose you gentlemen would lend me these sweet dogs for an evening." Kiki was curled up against Dief's tummy, one of his paws over top of her.

Ben laughed. "I do believe Diefenbaker would follow you anywhere."

Words were said, thanks a lot, see you later, whatever. He wasn't sure any of them were his. Keys were fumbled, doors were walked through. His apartment looked totally unfamiliar. He threw his jacket on the chair, looked around his place, and felt like a space alien. The hand on his shoulder made him jump.

"It's good to see you again, Ray."

That smile didn't mellow his stomach lining like it should have. He moved toward the kitchen. "You want a cup of coffee?"

"Not particularly."

Ben was close up and personal behind him, and he could feel heat coming off Ben's body in the cool dimness of the kitchen. Ray took a deep breath and jumped in. "Okay, what do you want?" He grabbed a look over his shoulder.

The eagerness dimmed. Ben stopped, pulling at an earlobe like it hurt. "What do you mean? I, ah, I thought I made myself perfectly clear."

"I mean, where are we going?"

Ben chuckled, but it was forced. "I." He cleared his throat. "I was thinking that the bedroom might be a pleasant destination." He sounded uncertain, now, about that.

"Might be. Might not be." Ray knew he had to turn around and face the guy, so he did, but he talked to the dog dish. "See, if we do that, if we go there, I got . . . issues. It's important. This ain't vacationland anymore."

"Ray, I understand that as a police officer, your reputation must be of prime importance."

Ray lifted his chin. Ben looked concerned and sincere, but he wasn't sure if that face had any other look. "Naw, that ain't it. I mean, that's important, yeah, but not as important as other stuff. Like, what happens if I fuck up again, or if you think I fucked up? You gonna talk to me or are you gonna hang up the phone?"

He watched the stick-in-ass experience as Ben winced and straightened to full height.

"I hardly think I will ever again have occasion to be involuntarily drugged and experience amnesia."

Ray shrugged. "Happened once already."

"Point taken." Ben took half a step back, shrugging his shoulders, shaking off the stiffness. "That was inexcusable. I was . . . " He had to fish for words, and gave up. "I'm sorry."

Ray'd been wrong; Kiki's puppy eyes really couldn't compare with Ben's. He had to believe the guy. "Was that hard to say?"


He didn't doubt it a bit.

"I'm here, Ray. I want to stay here."

"Good." This time, Ray didn't flinch when Ben's hand touched his shoulder. He leaned forward, but Ben held him back.

"I just want to look." To Ray's surprise, Ben's voice cracked. "Just for a moment. Please."

Like he could resist anything this guy wanted. Ben gave him a lot more credit than he was due. "Go right ahead." He took the opportunity to do the same to Ben, so glad that they really there and they were looking at each other. It was something he'd thought would never happen again. The soft dark hair was longer, curling around the edges, like Ben hadn't been to a barber in the last six weeks. There were dark circles under his eyes. He hadn't been sleeping any better than Ray.

"You look tired." Nice one. One of these days he should trade in his tongue. Maybe he could get a classier model.

"It's been a long several weeks. I'm afraid I've annoyed my new coworkers with my unwonted rudeness."

Ray reached out and caressed Ben's cheek with his knuckles, the way Ben had done to him too long ago. "I want you any way I can get you. Rude or not." They stood there in the quiet of the kitchen, no noise except the muted churn of traffic through the open kitchen window, and even that faded away.

"I'm here."

Ben moved closer, as if he wanted more touch. Ray curled his hand around Ben's neck, waiting for arms to wrap around him. Instead, Ben did the same thing, like a reverse image. Leaning forward, he brushed his lips against Ray's late-day stubble, then just sort of stood there -- close, but not touching, not even looking. His eyes were closed. It made Ray a little nervous to be so close without doing anything. He wanted to back up, but he didn't want to mess up whatever Ben was getting out of it.

He closed his eyes, too, and tried to relax. He kept his voice down, not for any good reason except it seemed like the thing to do. "Uh, what are you doing?"

"Mmmm," said Ben. "I'm absorbing."

Ray could feel the smile. It made him smile, too. "Guess I'm glad you're still crazy," he murmured. "Wouldn't feel right otherwise." After a little more absorbing, he realized they were breathing together. Ben breathed in, he breathed out. They were sharing the same air. He was breathing molecules that had been inside Ben's body, ones that kept Ben alive, minute by minute. It felt like he was breathing Ben.

It felt like making love.

Without thinking, he started to sway gently side to side in the same rhythm. Ben followed him like it was what he meant to do all the time. They were dancing in the kitchen with their eyes closed, moving to the music inside. It wasn't a very big kitchen. They didn't go very far or very fast, but he felt like they could go anywhere together.

Every once in a while he'd pull back a little and look at Ben's face. Ben would open his eyes, and they'd look at each other and smile. Gentle hands skimmed his back, lingering along the muscles like they were the only important thing in the world. He was starting to think that a bedroom waltz might be just the tune he wanted to dance to.

Shifting his shuffle, he led them in a roundabout route. There was no hurry. This wasn't vacationland. He didn't have to fuck this gorgeous man as many times as he could in five days and then walk away. This could be real, it could last. Ben was humming something he didn't recognize. His eyes were still closed. He looked peaceful, dreamy almost, but his arms clung tighter. Ben's jeans were tighter, too -- so were Ray's. He didn't have to look down to know they were both getting hard.

Ray stopped the two of them in the bedroom doorway, swaying in place. They were both still fully dressed -- Ben hadn't even taken off his jacket. The smell of warm man and warm leather tickled Ray's nose. "Wakey wakey, Benton, buddy," he said softly. "Last chance to jump ship."

"I think not." Ben nuzzled at Ray's neck. The on-skin contact sent little hello messages all over him. "I'm signing on for the cruise. I hear the service on board is exemplary."

"Just wait 'til you see the midnight buffet."

"I'm afraid I can't wait that long." Ray's pulse spiked at the look Ben gave him. "I'm hungry now." Ben began to massage his ass, pulling them together at the crotch.

"I can, uh, I think I can . . . " His brain petrified about the same time his dick did.

"You think you can satisfy my appetites?"

It was always cool to see a sinful smirk transform that innocent face. Ben's mouth was just as sweet and hot as it had been the first time they kissed. Ray was backed up against the doorframe, Ben's weight against him, big warm hands up under his t-shirt. Now he knew why people stood against walls with one knee up. It was so they had better balance when a kiss wanted to topple them over.

"Anything," he managed, around Ben's lips. "Anything. Just . . . can you take the jacket off?" It was hard to think when he had Ben's hands roaming his body like they belonged there. It was just plain fucking hard. Everything was hard. He was so tense all over with waiting, wanting, that he didn't know what to do next. He wanted to just beg, but he couldn't even concentrate on what to beg for. All that was going on in his head right now was touch me.

"Have you ever thought of . . . being penetrated?"

The sound of Ben's voice, all breathy and wanting, matched the heat in his eyes. Blue enough to swim in, their pupils were just black pinpoints. He was so caught up in looking that he wasn't hearing, and it took the words a few seconds to sink in.

Nuh-uh, not that anything . "No! No, forget it!" Ray squirmed away, confused. He almost fell over when he lost the doorframe. He really hadn't thought about it, except as what some guys did. Even though he and Ben did all sorts of sex things in Hawaii, somehow once he got back here he'd always thought of the two of them . . . holding hands. Like the guys in the park. How stupid was that?

"I mean." He stopped, trying to stand up straight, not knowing what he should say. Good thing Ben's hands were tight around his biceps.

"Oh, Ray, I have." The gleam in Ben's eyes was unmistakeable. The silly bastard was laughing at him. This was not funny. The toothpaste smile looked devil-bred, and his voice poured over Ray like syrup. Ben reached over and caught his hand, kissing the back of it and sucking gently. It sent shivers up Ray's arm and down his spine. "Wouldn't you like to be inside me? I think you'd enjoy that. I know I would."

He didn't answer, but his dick sure did. He was hard enough to pound nails.

Ben scratched a fingernail lightly down Ray's arm, compounding the shivers. He wasn't laughing any more. "It was all I thought about after you left. I didn't want to, but I couldn't help it. My head was filled with thoughts of all the ways we could have pleasured each other, all the things we could have done." His mouth twisted. "I wanted you, but I . . . I thought you'd treated me badly. It made me so angry that I couldn't let you go, couldn't stop thinking about you. I was angry at myself for wanting more than you had to give. I was terribly conflicted."

"Fucked up."


"Fucked up."

"Yes." Ben leaned over and began to press small kisses along his hairline. "And now that we're together, I just want to be . . . fucked." The last word was a whisper against Ray's temple. It stirred a lot more than Ray's hair.

"Benton Fraser!" What he was going to say about mouths and soap was stopped by Ben's lips against his, sucking his fake indignation and his leftover inhibitions away. It worked just as well now as it had in Hawaii; maybe better, because a lot of them were gone already. There was so much churning around them that it was like being in the eye of a tornado -- quiet now, but with heavy weather coming. He went cold, then hot. "You want to . . . you want me to . . . "

"Yes. Now."

Now. There was another problem involved, he was sure of it, and it finally rose to the top of the swamp that was his thinking. "But. But. I don't have any, any . . ."

"Condoms? Lubricant? I assure you, Ray, I came to Chicago prepared." Reaching behind him, Ben dug his wallet out of a back pocket and flipped it open. How he hid the thing in those tight jeans was beyond Ray's ability to think about right now. Inside, there was a condom and a few things that looked like those little deli mayonnaise packets.

"Holy hell!" He couldn't believe it. What was Ben up to? Was he just ready to fuck anybody who walked by, because he was horny after Ray left?

Ben looked away. "I did know that you live in Chicago, after all. Recall that I saw you, not long ago, with a woman I assumed to be your lover. I still had hope that we'd meet again, until that day." He shook his head. "May I take it that she was holding, not an infant, but your dog?"

"A baby!" Ray gaped at him. "You thought . . . "

"Rational thought had not a thing to do with it, I'm afraid."


"Your child, her child, it didn't matter. I thought you had a family. You looked so happy. I couldn't bear it."

"I was happy 'cause I saw you! Alive, well, breathing air, walking upright! God, Ben, you have no fucking idea."

"I didn't know. I thought you had . . . found someone."

"Never. Nobody but you." He went after Ben's mouth like it was redemption, determined to wipe out everything that had happened for the last six weeks. It was sure as hell working for him. When Ben responded in kind, he didn't give a shit what either of them had done or not done, he only wanted to be part of Ben, to be with him. "Glad you kept the goodies."

"All the goodies are right here, Ray."

"You ain't kiddin'."

Ben's body was hot sex and fast cars and all the things he'd ever looked at and couldn't have. It belonged to Ben, all the way, but the man was offering everything to him, and for what? What did he have to give in return? He leaned back, liking the way the wall held him up, wondering what to say.

"Wait, there's something else." He rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed. He shouldn't be asking this question, it was stupid, but he couldn't help it -- he had to know. Everything was different now that it was real life. He felt like a little kid who didn't know how to act, but he couldn't lose this just because he was clueless. "What do you really want?"

Ben let go of Ray's arm, shoving the wallet into his jacket pocket. He slumped back against the other side of the door frame, looking tired and -- hurt? "I told you already. If you don't want to, I understand." His face lost all expression when he said, "I have somewhere else I can spend the night."

Of course he did. Benton Fraser could spend the night in the bed of anybody he fucking wanted. Anybody he wanted to fuck. Ray felt sick. "I know. I know. It's . . . " He could do anything, he could be anybody. It was his job, for a lot of years, and he was good at it. This was just as important. "It's . . . I need to know. What you're looking for. I don't care what it is, I just need to know. I can . . . I can be -- "


The word exploded in his ear, rapping his head back for some skull-wall interface, leaving him more dazed than he was already.

"Being someone else destroyed your marriage. What do you think it would do to us -- to me?" Ben shook his head. He smiled, but there was no joy in it. "Oh, Ray." He grabbed Ray's arms again and marched him over to the bed, Ray walking backwards; then he plunked Ray's unresisting body down. "Ray, Ray, Ray." The guy sounded like somebody's pissed-off maiden aunt, but he didn't look like one when the clothes started to drop.

"You, of all people," the jacket came off and flumped in the corner, "should know better than that." Ben wrestled the buttons of his red henley and got it open enough to pull over his head. He talked right through it. "I want a friend." It muffled his words. "More than a friend." Getting the thing off, he stood bare-chested in front of Ray, who was still sitting on the bed with his mouth open. Looking.

Ben hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his jeans. His hair stood out in flips around his cheekbones. "I need someone real. The last thing I want is another illusion." He popped the button and unzipped. "You want to be trusted. I need someone I can trust." He toed off his brown boat shoes.

His jeans were tight enough that he had to work some to get them down, underwear and all. His hair tickled Ray's nose as he leaned forward, pushing them off. There was a tiny leaf thing in it from standing in the bushes that fluttered down and landed on Ray's lap. He didn't brush it away.

"If you're ready to be real, Ray, then I need you." He hopped on one foot back and forth to get the jeans off completely along with the socks, and they landed on top of the jacket. "So, what will it be?"

Ben stood there, naked as the day. He was all long, smooth muscle and farmer tan. He had his arms crossed over his chest, like he was going to start tapping one foot any second. He didn't look the least bit concerned about what the answer would be -- except for the handhold he had on his own arms, which might leave marks if Ray didn't do something soon.

What held Ray's attention, though, was Ben's cock. Not like he could miss it; it was there in his face, heavy and half-hard, curving from its patch of short 'n' curlies. The soft skin was flushed, almost a perfect match to Ben's cheeks.

He was so close he could smell Ben, smell the warmth rising right under his nose. "Yeah," he said as he reached out. "Yeah." The not-so-soft weight of it fit smoothly into his hand, getting fuller and harder, lifting for him with every stroke. The scent and feel of Ben settled around him, a cloud looking for lightning. A strangled sob from above him let him know that "real" was "real good."

The head was so firm and smooth between Ray's lips, and the sharp, unmistakeable flavor made his mouth water. He dove onto it, reaching up to cradle Ben's balls, smearing spit along the shaft with his other hand. With a cry, Ben almost doubled over him, fingers digging into Ray's shoulders. Ray was in the driver's seat again, and he wanted to drive Ben fucking nuts. Serve him right for staying away, making Ray miserable.

Pulling off, he cupped his palm over the head, circling, twisting, pushing choppy noises up out of Ben's throat. It gave him an almost mean thrill when he saw Ben's knees give before the guy caught himself.

"Get on the bed."

"I . . . ah . . . wanted . . ."

"You later. This is for me."

"But . . . "

"This ain't the debate club, Ben. You want real, this is it." It was as real as the up-north white of the skin under his tongue, as real as the coarse hair on the thigh under his fingers. Ben had hairy legs, for a guy with almost none anywhere else. It was kind of . . . cool. Manly. He tugged gently on the hairs, using the tips of his fingers, getting a moan for his trouble. "Think of it as payback." Burying his face in the curls, he got a snootful of the sweet smell of success.

Ben sounded way out of it. "You do this for me . . . because I was self-centered and thoughtless?"

"I do this for me, 'cause you fucking made me buy running shoes."

"Oh." Then, "Oh, oh."

He knew Ben didn't understand, but he couldn't care; Ben wasn't the only one turning into a whimpering pile of jelly. The hair on Ben's calf was softer than it looked, and it teased at his swollen cock. He couldn't stop himself from trying to fuck the guy's leg, so he moved away. He didn't need that kind of distraction; sucking Ben's piece got his primed and ready, and the safety was off.

He had his hand around the base and his lips hovering, about to take Ben in again, when he heard the peanut gallery. Something he couldn't understand, and then, "Please, Ray, please."

Ben wanted to come, who wouldn't? And that was what Ray was after. So he paid no attention until strong hands hooked under his arms and pulled him bodily up until they were face to face. He slid easier than he would have thought guys sweated more than women and the feeling of being pulled across all that flesh made him shiver. The friction of them together, his dick rubbing up between Ben's legs, then snuggling in right next to Ben's, just about had him fucked right there.

Ben didn't want to come. Well, sure he did, but what he wanted more was to be . . . kissed. It was strange and wonderful, the way he just relaxed under Ray and started feeding on his mouth. Ray couldn't stop humping that willing, giving body for all he was worth. The way Ben pushed up against him was out of this world. Every time their cocks met, sensation screamed all over him.

He was out of control, shit, he wanted to make Ben happy, satisfy him, hell, he wanted to fucking own him and he couldn't do it this way, not going to town on his body like he was some kind of big old sex toy, but he had to, had to --

"Wanted -- fuck!" He couldn't talk anyway, why even . . . "Sorry, tried -- can't!" He groaned from somewhere down toward his cock. "Love you -- "

And he came, creaming a slush of spunk all over Ben's belly and his own. He was only mostly aware of Ben doing the same thing, of Ben grabbing tissues from the box he hadn't used since he came back to Chicago. It was too good, too big, and he didn't know what the fuck to do then, except melt down onto Ben and breathe free for the first time since Stella left.

He was so out of it so fast that he only vaguely heard the soft, "And I you, Ray."


It was dark, and he brushed away the tickle along his jaw. The hand he caught startled him awake, or at least more awake. Now, he was awake enough to know it wasn't completely dark. The blinds, duh, he still couldn't close them, and light from the street let him see Ben's face. Ben was watching him, eyes shadowed and solemn.

After-dark in this room had always seemed . . . not too great. He liked the rest of the apartment, but the bedroom always felt kind of grim. It was the Room After Stella, the only bedroom he'd spent more than one or two nights alone in for thirteen years. That wasn't half his life. The months after she left felt like half his life, though. Being alone in a bed after lights-out just sucked, and it had kept him awake nights for a long time after he moved in.

Ray held on to the hand in his when Ben would have pulled it back, and rubbed his cheek against it. Being in bed with Ben made the whole room different. It couldn't possibly be any less dark in here tonight than it was on any other night, but it felt like it. There was a whole lot less space in the bed, but the room itself seemed bigger, like it expanded when Ben was here.

"I'm sorry." The only thing better than Ben's focused, intense lecture voice had to be this one -- close, gentle, just for him. The kind you'd only hear at midnight. "I didn't mean to wake you."

"That's okay." Ray found himself answering in the same quiet voice. Nobody was around, nobody could hear. Whatever they said here or did here was just for them. It left the rest of the world far away, like his bed was an island of their own. He grinned around a yawn. "I don't mind waking up with you. In fact, I kinda like it. Maybe like to do more of it some time."

Ben nodded at their clasped hands. "I'll admit to hopes that it might become . . . habit-forming."

"Guess you'll have to stay here for three weeks, then."

Amusement rippled under Ben's answer. "I suspect we might get bedsores if we stayed here for three weeks."

"Oh, I think we could move around a little." Ray grinned and kissed Ben's knuckle.

"Why three weeks?"

"Takes twenty-one days to make or break a habit, my friend. That's what they told me when I quit smoking. The first three, four times, anyhow."

"What did they tell you the last time?"

"They said, 'You got a spot on your left lung, we're not sure what it is.' "

"Ah. I can fully understand why that worked so well."

"Yeah." Ray cleared his throat. "It was nothin' in the end, but I decided not to take any more chances."

"I'm glad." Ben squeezed his hand. After a pause, he said, "And I'm glad that you, ah, decided to take a chance with -- now."

"Yeah, me too."

The kiss was innocent but curious, mouths closed, the goodnight kiss from the first date they never had. It made Ray feel warm all over, fresh and new, like a loaf of baking bread. They had their wild boinking on vacation, the honeymoon before the horse, but they never had . . . this. No careful learning touches, lips teaching lips. School was in session and Ray wanted an A. The vision that put in his head made him laugh, and even in his ears it surprised him, low and sultry.

Ben drew back, puzzled. "Is, ah, is something funny?"

"Yeah. Me. I'm a funny guy, Ben. Who knew I'd fall for a weirdo like you?" He could hear his own voice, sweet with smiles, and knew that Ben would reach over to touch his face, fingertips loving his cheekbone. Even with Stella, he'd never had this kind of happy. The fingertips moved lower, down his neck, and he knew that Ben could feel his blood pumping faster. They continued down, drawing designs on his clavicle, stroking his sternum.

Ray had no fucking idea how he remembered that crap from Human Phys; it just appeared in his head. Had to be a freak accident, because all he could think of was the loops and slants on his body where Ben's fingers had been. Bones were just ideas that floated under tingling lines. There was a story on his skin, and Ben was writing it. He wrote down and down and it was fucking War And Peace in words of one syllable love you I love you by the time he got to Ray's cock, and Ray was whimpering, out of his mind.

"You know what I want, Ray." Pure midnight.

"Uh. Uh, yeah, I know." But he didn't have a clue, all he knew was what he wanted, which was anything that Ben was willing to give him. It finally penetrated fuck, I can't believe I even thought that when Ben took his hand and squeezed some gooey crap on his fingers. It was cold, and Ray moaned. Ben actually had to help him rub his fingers together to warm it up.

"You want to make love to me, don't you, Ray?" Ben was somewhere in between seductive and worried.

He thought that was what they were doing already. "I want . . . " He could get this out, it was important, it was bigger than the both of them, no, that was a different stupid movie -- "I want you."

He could touch Ben's relief, it was that real. He could touch Ben's muscular arm, the strength of his shoulders, the hollow under his hipbone. He could touch this man anywhere he wanted to; Ben wouldn't say no. But Ben was already turning over, turning his back to Ray, offering something Ray didn't know what to do with.

"I." Go ahead, admit it. "I don't know how."

"Ray." Ben rolled back over and Ray knew damned well the guy was laughing at him again. Then, "Ray." Black as sin. The kiss that pressed against his lips promised more than anyone could possibly deliver. When he wound his arms around Ben, he smeared goo all over Ben's back. He had to join in when Ben laughed this time.

"Ray, I don't care if you want to coat me head to toe, but in this case, a bit lower might be better."

Ben slippery, Ben dunked, Ben wet. Salt water, bouyant and moving. Another kiss, and it was his own dick that was poking him in the belly. More cold goo was squeezed onto his fingers.

"I trust you'll use this where it will do the most good."

How much did he love to be teased by this guy? Enough to choke him up, it looked like. He managed to get out an "Mhmm," but Ben leaned in for another kiss, and he lost anything he might have said. Ben's tongue was in the way.

"Even here, you can trust your instincts, Ray. Especially here." Ben pulled back with a small smile, white teeth showing in the room's dim light.

Ray watched as he smoothly turned over. The play of hard-worked muscle and bone under that soft skin almost hypnotized him. Ben's body didn't so much reflect the dim light as he absorbed it, and it came back out from inside him. The slope and stretch of Ben's back pulled him down like a whirlpool; Ray's mouth, pressed desperately against a flat shoulderblade, was the only thing that saved him from going under completely.

Instinct, he had to go on instinct. He knew that, he understood it. Reflexes. In and out. Couldn't be easier. Body memory, like when he played hockey as a kid. Put the lube where it would do the most good. Okay. Ray slid his coated fingers into the crease. The goal was, if not in sight, at least in mind.

Except when he got there, he got lost. For good reason, since what was right under his nose was Ben's neck. Ben's back. Ben's ass. It was all so delicious that while he was trying to apply the goo, he had to spend time licking and petting, yeah, and biting, his way downward. He pushed at the tiny ripples in Ben's flesh with one hand, fingers roaming, and sank his teeth into the back of Ben's neck. Ben answered with a groan.

Asshole was an insult. He'd said it himself a million times, in good faith. All this while, he never knew. Assholes were good things, really good. They had to be good when a touch there could make Ben moan, make him rut into the sheets. It was . . . almost scary, what he could do.

Shaky-voiced and panting, Ben coaxed, "Put . . . your fingers inside me. Please."

Ray sucked a kiss onto Ben's spine, letting his tongue trail along the knobs, blowing softly on the lick-line. "Polite. That's nice." He lapped along Ben's waist, a ticklish spot that made his quarry squirm. "But, y'know, I'm. Uh. Busy here." It was fun to do a little teasing for a change. He continued to work his way around to the front, giving all sensitive body parts some attention, ending with a few tight strokes to Ben's cock.

"Ah! Oh, Ray, I . . . I don't want to . . ."

"Okay, okay." He gave one final bite -- not hard, but one he knew Ben would feel -- to that perfect ass, and put his fingers . . .

. . . where they'd do the most good.

He was surprised at how easy they went in, and he was startled by the low grunt. He stopped still, but Ben picked up where he left off, moving back on his fingers. Holy wow, he really wanted this. There was something sexy, too, about how this was just like Ben himself -- a little uptight on the outside, but easy on the inside. Easy for Ray. Easy and smooth and a big fan of what was happening right here. Ben was even going a little crazy, jerking and making faint high-pitched noises, and that covered everything important about him.

"Ray, Ray." A gasp for breath, and then, "Ray."

"Yeah." He was breathing pretty fast himself. "I gotcha."

Slimy fingers on the condom pack; he couldn't get it open. Dammit! Wasn't thinking about the slick, and he had to tear it open with his teeth. For a second he thought he was trying to put it on upside-down in the near dark, but then he sighed in relief as it slid neatly on. A little extra jelly and he was ready to roll, more than ready. He only hoped Ben was ready. He was leaning up for a kiss when Ben flipped over onto his back, and almost caught an elbow in the mouth.

Ray, on his hands and knees, stared. It was one more check-off in the long list of stuff he couldn't help doing since Ben had walked through his door; hell, into his life. Looking at him spread out over the bed, using up all the room with his long arms and legs, one knee propped up, Ray had to cough just to get his heart started again. Ben, in all his glory, white skin nearly glow-in-the-dark, was very happy to see him.

He talked when he could get his mouth to work. "You, you don't want to?"

Big smile, happy all over. "I do."

" . . . oh. Oh!"

With a move from Ben that would have done credit to a pro wrestler, Ray found himself flat on his back. Ben leaned down and gave him another one of those kisses, mucho-mojo, no prisoners, tongue not optional -- the kind that made Ray rev like a V-8.

"If I want something done right, I'll do it myself," Ben announced, pecking kisses against Ray's swollen lips with a sly, goading look.

Ray wanted to make some snotty comment, but he couldn't think of one, so he had to make do. "I'll get you for that." His words didn't quite carry the threat he was trying for.

"Yes. Yes, you will." Ben was still smiling when he slid down onto Ray, but it vanished instantly. His eyes widened, and he took several deep breaths through his nose, blowing them out through his mouth. The breath hissed through his teeth. That, and the equal but opposite feel of Ben squeezing hot and tight around him, made Ray babble.

"You okay? 'Cause, because-- " He tried to squirm away.

"Don't." Ben grabbed his arms and held him in place. Ray thought he might leave bruises. "Give me a moment."

When Ben relaxed around him again, Ray let out a big breath, too. As long as the guy wasn't freaking, or hurting, they were good. There were waves of happy all over his body, all over his skin, moving out like rings on a puddle from where Ben was being King Of Ray's Cock. He could feel the strange heat of blood coming to his chest, his neck, his face.

He tried to lie back and think of England, but it didn't work. He didn't give a shit about England. Worse yet, all he knew about England was . . . Big Ben. He choked down an almost hysterical laugh. His dick wanted to fuck, and he was all over that; being inside Ben's body was the best thing he'd ever felt. If Ben didn't like it, Ray would be screwed. Or. Not screwed.

It was good; oh, holy fucking fuck was it good. With only this tiny little taste, he wanted to drive into Ben so bad he couldn't see straight. He wanted to pound into that warm welcome with everything he had; he wanted to take everything Ben had. Now that he knew it was this good, he'd have to give it up, too; fair was fair. But. Worry about that later. For the time being, he did his damnedest not to do . . . anything. He clenched down down on the urge to slam up up up until his butt muscles hurt.

When Ben slowly sank further, they both gasped, and looking up at Ben's face made his stomach twist. It was like watching a bottle rocket soar into the sky and go off. All that concentration was turned inward, with all the wonder lighting up the outside. Then he was moving -- not fast, but with almost more intensity than Ray could stand.

With every rise and fall he stripped another layer off Ray, the smartass and the uncertainty and the confusion of looking for something he wasn't sure existed. The last one was easy, because he knew that thing was here right now. He was looking at it, and it came in a package of sweat-stained muscle and raw hunger. He could feed that hunger, feed it until it was satisfied. All that was left of him, here in bed with Ben, was purpose.

Ben was leaning on his chest, fingers spread wide, eyes burning into Ray's. He took Ben's hands and began to move. Groaning, Ben lifted again, balanced against Ray's hands, and they met each other on his way down with a smack, both of them crying out.

Ben's quads were putting in some serious endurance work, but the bunch and flex of his thighs was just a shadow of what was going on around Ray's cock. Sex was sex; even bad sex was better than most everything else, but this? This was the big payoff for every time he'd ever pulled the lever. It made everything and everyone before Ben into chump change in the street in front of Fort Knox.

With his head thrown back, the too-long hair curling over his forehead, Ben looked free, joyful, reckless. He was dazzling.

Ray thrust up again and again, wanting more than anything to keep that look on Ben's face. That beautiful cock was hard against Ben's belly, shiny with need. He wanted to touch it, had to, had to put his hand around it and stroke that superfine skin while Ben's moans shook them both. It was hard to catch the beat; he wasn't any too with it, but it didn't seem to matter. Ben's cock was so alive in his hand, so hot that it almost begged for his touch.

He couldn't hold out much longer. Not with heaven around his dick and Ben, Angel Of Sex, moaning the place down. The ripples of sensation on his skin were going back the other way now, from the fingertips on in, all moving toward the same place, to where Ben was, to where they were together.

Everything went back to Ben. They needed to be together. Ray was real, Ray was ready, Ben had to see that. Ray only hoped he could convince him. He tried to say it, but what came out was a bunch of garbled mush, and then he couldn't think anymore. All he could do was float on the waves as Ben leaned in to take his mouth the way he was taking his cock, completely and utterly, no holding back. It was enough. More than.

Ray's body convulsed with pleasure, and he pulled too hard, or maybe it was just right. Their kiss muffled Ben's shout, but he felt it all the way to the backs of his knees. He felt everything: the surge of blood in his veins, the heat of Ben's load hitting his chest, the shock of joy as he shoved up hard one last time and came.

Later, when he had enough coordination to try shifting the guy off his chest so he could breathe, Ben seemed to wake up a little. He was so incredible with his eyes barely open, dark blue and bottomless, half asleep, trying to talk with that kiss-me mouth. Ray ran shaking fingers through Ben's sweat-clumped hair, pushing it off his forehead.

"I . . . Ray, I . . . " Ben tried to clear his throat, but it seemed like he hardly had enough energy to get the job done. Ray's inside smile crept out onto his face. Pretty damn cool how tough it was for the guy to talk. "This is . . . it's difficult to put into words."

Yeah, since you splattered your brains all over my chest, he wanted to say. Gloat, really. But he didn't, because it occurred to him that whatever Ben wanted to say might not be something to gloat over. Ray shut his mouth.

"I've never . . . I mean, I've been to Chicago, but that's not . . . " Eyes closed, he was working a lot harder for this than Ray could figure out. Finally Ben gave up, with as much of a shrug as he could get laying half on top of Ray. "I've never been here." Okay, that was for sure true. "In a solely physical sense."

Ben opened his eyes all the way and stared at him earnestly, making Ray want to put him and Kiki in the same room alone together and see which one came out alive.

"And yet -- I don't quite understand, but I feel as if I belong here."

Ray pulled Ben back onto his chest. He didn't care that much about breathing. And he'd never, ever, call anybody an asshole again.

Fan palm leaf

They'd both crashed hard, but when Ray's body decided air was the better part of valor, he came up from half-asleep and tried to scoot out from under without waking Ben. It didn't work. As he scrunched up his face and tried to stifle a yawn, Ben was so damn cute that Ray was glad it didn't work.


"Hi yourself."

His fingers just naturally tucked in between Ben's, and since he was awake now anyway, the six brain cells he had left were duking it out over the big question: shower, or post-sex coma? Both options were looking damned fine.

Like a good all-wheel suspension, his mouth managed to work independently. "I missed you a lot. Life pretty much sucked without you." He thought about that for a minute, and remembered there had been at least one compensation. "Although I did get a dog."

There was a pause. Ben must have gone with the coma, but he crawled back to consciousness long enough to mutter an answer. "Good to know where I stand."

"Freak." Ray squeezed the hand. "I was worried. About you, y'know? I was worried that you'd lose it from being attacked and locked up. Thought you might have flashbacks or something."

"Of Managua?" Ray could hear the surprise, even in Ben's half-asleep mumble.

"Well, yeah. Prison. I mean, having somebody beat you up, tie you up, try to kill you. Drugs. Little details like that."

"Ray, believe me, the two experiences were nothing alike."

"Nothing?" He edged a thumb along Ben's collarbone. There was a lump under the skin where the bone hadn't knitted right.

"Nothing whatsoever." Ben rolled over, pulling Ray's hand, arm, and self with him. Ray took the opportunity to spoon up against Ben's ass. "This time, I was with you."

On the wall, the shadow of the broken window blinds was fanned out like a palm frond in the orange glow from the streetlight. He was never going to fix them. Not now, when he knew they were his own personal palm tree in disguise. Ray pressed his nose into soft, dark hair. Even in dirty, stinky Chicago, even in the wallow of sex that was now his bed, Ben still had that wild wind and sea smell. He inhaled as much as he could and let it out slow, feathering the little hairs at the back of Ben's neck. The steady in and out of Ben's breathing, as Ray surrendered to sleep, sounded like the ocean, far away.

Ocean sunrise


Story Notes

This story is for AuKestrel, who said, "You should write the guys in Hawaii. It'd be cool. Really." She sunk a year of her patience and encouragement into it. It's also for Purna, who gave me Geologist Fraser, and supplied rock talk. To think you wanted to send him to Siberia!

Blessings upon the women who supplied good ideas, great lines, endless handholding, and smart beta: Ness, Beth H., JiM, Kit, and Bone.

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Contact Kalena (at) mninter.net