On My Feet Again
By Starfish, © 2002
Notes: Sequel to "The Way That We Used to Be," which is necessary reading if you want to understand this. Many thanks go to my betas Rowan and Katie, who both caught logical inconsistencies; and a HUGE thank-you and big wet kiss to Kellie, without whom this might be rated R. The HORROR!
All of the ways I've been lying to you
It's not that I don't think we can open up in time
It's just that I'm afraid of what we'll find
Cinema Song, Blue Rodeo
I sign the last of the invoices, place it in its proper pile, and sigh wearily. For many people, Monday means the work-week has just begun, but I have found that when one is employed at a bar, the week may be more properly said to be over at this point. I often find myself praying for Monday to come, usually at about midnight on Saturday. Saint Patrick's Day in particular had been a new kind of hell.
I shut down the computer and look around to be sure everything is in order. Not that it matters, as the only person who would complain is . . . well, me. I smile wryly as I recall my first horrified sight of the chaos that had been Ray's office, as my feet automatically take me up the stairs to my apartment.
I can hardly believe it's been six months now. It seems to be both less and more; somehow at the same time.
Six months since I walked into a strange bar and met a strange man who saved my life. Or, to be more accurate, gave me back my life.
He took me to his home, fed me dinner, and somehow made me trust him. Enough so that I told him things about myself I'd never have spoken of otherwise. I wish I could blame the alcohol I'd drunk, but realistically, I can't. Something about his openness made me think I could open up too. Could trust my own instincts once more.
And then I kissed him . . .
. . . delicious, wonderful kisses, leading only to more kisses. No pressure, no insane fears, just a strange and unaccustomed tenderness. We lay on the sofa for two hours or more, kissing, talking idly of nothing, growing used to the feel of each other. I was surprised and somewhat disappointed when he called a halt.
"We need rest, Ben," he said, after a yawn. "You can have my brother's bed if you want, or you can share with me - but we just sleep."
"Oh. Of course. I just . . . I thought you were . . . you seemed to be . . . "
He was going to make me say it. Considering what we had already spoken of, it was foolish to feel embarrassed, yet I did. I swallowed once, and tried to keep my voice steady. "Aroused."
He smiled, rather sweetly. "Well, yeah, I am. Real good detective work, there."
"I . . . if you wanted to, I . . . we could . . . " The words wouldn't come out the way I wanted them to. Ray stopped my blithering with a kiss.
"Hey. It's okay. I won't lie and say I don't want to, but I know you're not ready for it. And I quit letting my dick tell me what to do a long time ago, Benton-buddy. Come on, sleep with me. I promise I won't steal all the blankets."
Confused, I followed him up the stairs. I had been fully prepared to follow through to what I thought would be the natural outcome of what we had been doing, and Ray's refusal puzzled me. Most men would have . . . I stopped the thought cold. It was slowly becoming obvious to me that Ray was not "most men."
I woke the next morning tangled together with Ray in his small twin bed, in his boyhood bedroom. To say that I felt awkward would be a colossal understatement. The last time I'd woken in such intimate circumstances it had been with Victoria, and while I knew, intellectually at least, that I had to exorcise her ghost, my body's reaction to Ray's presence disturbed me. I was at once ready for flight, and so aroused I couldn't think straight. Somehow he sensed I was awake, because his eyes opened and we were face to face.
"Hey," he said softly, his voice rasping. "G'mornin'. How you doin'?"
"Fine, thank you," I replied automatically. He smiled and shook his head.
"See, there you go again. I can feel how fast your heart's beating, and your eyes are really wild. So, you want to try that answer again? 'Cause it's not nice to lie to your host."
Suddenly I felt cold reality set in. I knew, at that moment, that I had to get out of there. It wasn't safe anymore. "I'm terribly sorry, Ray. Perhaps - I think - I should leave." I started to get up out of the bed, but was hampered by Ray's legs between my own. A feeling of panic started to build, and my breathing became harsh. I began to struggle, and fell to the floor, sheets and blankets wrapped around me. The room began to fade. Then I felt hands stroking my hair and shoulders, calming me. Heard Ray's voice, distantly, soothing me.
"Ben. Ben. Ben. It's okay, buddy, I promise. Come on back, now. It's just me. You wanna leave, that's cool, you can go anytime you want. I'm so sorry, man, shit, I didn't mean to do this. Just wanted to help. Please, Ben, don't freak out here. I'm sorry. I should've known better."
As his words began to register on my brain, I found it easier to breathe. Between the two of us we unwrapped the bedclothes, and I stood up with Ray beside me, holding on to my arm to steady me.
I nodded, and he released my arm.
"Okay. Good. Jesus, you scared me. What was that, like a panic attack?"
I nodded again, and sat down on the bed. He sat down next to me, shaking his head.
"I really think you should talk to somebody, Ben. If you don't feel right going to my therapist, she can probably refer you to another one."
"I don't -- Your therapist?"
"Yeah. The shrink the department sent me to after the shooting."
"Ah. Of course. It is quite a traumatic experience when one is injured in that manner."
He stared at me as though I had spoken in Inuktitut. "Not because I got shot. Because I killed the guy that did it. It's department regs. Jesus, they didn't make you see anybody?"
"Well, I left rather abruptly," I started, defensively. He interrupted me, impatient with this flimsy excuse.
"No, you said there was an Inquiry Board. Those things don't just happen overnight, Ben. Ask me how I know."
I dropped my gaze to my hands under his challenging stare. "I was fine."
"You were not fine. You are not fine. I don't know where that comes from, but it's not helping."
I was both surprised and touched by his vehemence, and I fell silent while I thought about what he had been saying. He broke into my thoughts with a touch on my cheek, and I focused on his face, seeing the sincerity there. I didn't, and don't, understand what made him so determined to help me, but at the time, I could only try to remember how to be grateful for the kindness. It had been so very long since I had been shown any at all.
He insisted on cooking breakfast, and then gave me the choice I had been dreading. I could leave if I wanted, with no strings, as he had promised. Or I could stay, and try to work through my problems. Live in his vacant apartment over the bar, while he was living at his parents' house for the winter. I confess I was a bit taken aback by this. I had assumed -- well, obviously I had assumed too much.
Ray set me straight on this, rather bluntly. "I can't sleep with you and not want to fuck you, Benton. But that's no good. You've been fucked enough for one lifetime. Get yourself straightened out first, then see where you're at. Decide what you want."
I tried to argue, of course. But he was quite firm in his resolve, and since then I have received only the occasional friendly peck on the cheek as he leaves for home; the occasional hug of greeting if we haven't seen each other for a few days. Far more casual affection than I have had since before my mother died, and yet I am unsatisfied. And unable to initiate more, for fear it would not be welcome. It seems to me that Ray has lost interest in pursuing any kind of deeper relationship. And I could never have imagined how much that would hurt.
It makes it both easier and harder to contemplate leaving.
I don't want to. But upon his parents return from Arizona in two days he will be moving back into his apartment. And he has made no mention of my remaining here.
I had my last scheduled session with Greta today. She told me I had to talk to Ray about why I feel I should leave. That frightens me, more than a little. When he agrees, as I think he will, that we can't live together, what then? I used to be so proud to think I was prepared for any eventuality, yet I have not even made a token attempt to find other lodgings. Perhaps I could obtain a cot of some kind and set it up in the office. Or perhaps . . . I should leave town altogether. Leave Ray behind and try to start a new life for myself without him. Run away again.
Greta said, back at the beginning of my therapy, that I have 'control issues.' That I need to be in charge of any given situation in order to feel comfortable. And when one is a peace officer, this is not a drawback. It is, in fact, expected. But when one is suddenly removed from everything familiar and thrust into a situation where one has no control . . . well, one controls what one can. In my case, all I had was . . . myself. My literal, physical self. In choosing to submit my body to other men for sexual gratification (theirs and my own), I was asserting a form of dominance over them. Or so I am told. All I know is that I have completely lost my desire for that type of encounter, now that I know it for what it is. I find that now, I want more than simple physical release.
I understand now that Victoria's betrayal caused in me a deep distrust of my own feelings, which was exacerbated when Gerrard provoked me to the blinding anger I felt. The anger that ultimately caused his death, which in turn led to my flight from Chicago. And so I 'turned off' my feelings, and relied on my physical senses. I knew those, at least, would not fail me. With Greta's help, however, I have finally attained equilibrium between my emotions and my brain. My heart, which Victoria nearly destroyed, has finally been restored to a semblance of its former self.
The question now is, what am I to do with it?
I hear Ray's voice from down the hall, talking to one of the tenants. I have been standing here wool-gathering instead of preparing for this conversation, and will now be forced to 'wing it', as Ray would say.
In three steps I am at the door, opening it and leaving it ajar. I have tried to make him see how ridiculous it is for him to knock at his own door, but he is a stubborn man. So now I make it unnecessary for him to have occasion to do so by opening the door first. I suppose it is a game we play, one of the little things we do that show me what it means to have a friend.
A friend. Not a roommate, nor yet (ever?) a lover. But when I can get past my newly-reawakened libido, I know how important he is to me, just as a friend.
His conversation with Deirdre finished, he appears in the open doorway bearing a bag of Chinese takeout. It has been our custom to eat together at least three nights a week, and he insists that he take his turn providing the food, although we almost always eat here, and I would be happy to cook for him.
He walks in, still dressed for court, and immediately notices the two cartons I saved from the recycling bin after the liquor delivery today. His eyes narrow as he says, "What's up, Fraser? What's with the boxes?"
He seldom calls me that, and it shows he's annoyed. I should have known better than to leave the boxes out, and I wonder at my lack of foresight. "Can we talk about it after dinner, Ray?"
He shakes his head. "No, I don't think so. I want to know what's going on in that head of yours. I thought -" He breaks off, and turns to close the door behind him, giving it a harder-than-needed push with his foot. He sighs then, and says, "Yeah, you're right. We should eat. I skipped lunch and it makes me cranky. Come on, we can sit and watch the tube."
He begins loosening his tie as he puts the food down, and I know that in no time at all he will have it off, along with the suit jacket he usually disdains, and the dress shoes and socks as well. Tonight I cannot bear to watch this innocent strip-tease, and I turn abruptly and leave the room, mumbling something about plates as I go.
Once in the haven of the kitchen, I rummage in drawers for forks and serving spoons, and open three cabinets at random before finding the plates. This distraction is not good. I should be able to think more clearly than this.
Opening the refrigerator, I pull out the milk to pour myself a glass, and check to see that Ray still has beer available. He almost always drinks one with his dinner, and while I have never enjoyed it myself, I have come to like the smell of it quite a bit, now that it is associated with Ray in my mind. The taste of it in his mouth as we kissed that first night . . .
As I look toward the doorway to inquire of Ray whether he would like a beer, I am startled almost into dropping the milk by the appearance of my father. It is disconcerting, to say the least, as I have not seen him since the night Gerrard died. I had assumed that if he indeed had been a ghost, his purpose in staying behind had been fulfilled by the death of his killer. And of course, if he was a delusion, it was just as well for me that I'd stopped seeing him.
Delusion or ghost, he looks the same as he did - of course, he would probably tell me he can't age 'on the other side.'
"What are you doing here?" I whisper, afraid that Ray's sharp ears will hear me from the living room. Fortunately, he turns on the television, and the resulting background noise means I can speak almost in a normal tone.
"Can't a man visit his only son?" my father asks huffily, as usual taking the offensive.
I barely manage to avoid rolling my eyes as I close the refrigerator and get out a glass. "This is not a good time, Dad."
"Huh. Haven't seen me in three years, and now you're trying to get rid of me. That's a fine thing. Don't even ask what I've been doing, how I've been . . . ."
Good Lord, another guilt trip from beyond the grave. Oh, how I've missed this. "I thought you'd . . . crossed over, or whatever it is you were waiting to do. And as to how you'd been, I assumed you'd been dead, as usual."
He ignores my logic and starts an entirely new conversation. "What's all this with the Yank, son? What do you expect to get out of this?"
I pour my milk and try to formulate a reply to his question, one I have been asking myself lately. "I don't expect anything beyond what I have. Since you've evidently been keeping tabs on me, you should know Ray and I are . . . good friends."
"Hmmph. Good friends don't kiss each other goodnight, Benton. I was 'good friends' with Buck Frobisher for years, and we never exchanged more than a warm handshake."
"Dad, we've had this conversation before. I'm not going to go into it again with you now. I'm sorry if you don't approve, but my feelings and my preferences are not a subject for debate."
He shakes his head. "It's a hell of a thing."
Here we go again. "What now?"
"You've let things slide, son. You used to be a Mountie - a proud symbol of Canada. Now look at you. Hair down to your shoulders, clothing not at all up to standard, and - bloody hell! Is that an earring?"
Unaccountably I feel myself blush. The earring was a Christmas gift from Ray. He had noticed the empty hole in my earlobe one night, and I'd told him how I'd had it pierced as a kind of defiance against what I had been running from - the strict, empty rigidity of code and duty. A late-in-life version of the teenage rebellion I'd never experienced. He'd seemed to understand, and only nodded when I'd explained that I'd lost the small hoop at some point and never bothered to replace it.
A month later, at the small, after-hours holiday party he'd held for his employees, he drew me aside and gave me a small box wrapped in silver paper.
"What's this?" I asked, as if it wasn't obvious.
Ray looked at me with his own peculiar mixture of scorn and amusement. "Ben, Ben, Ben. Thought you were used to all our wacky American customs by now. It's a present. Open it."
I smiled at him, secure in the knowledge that the simple affection I felt was returned. Glad that I had given in to impulse for once and purchased a gift for Ray. I had planned to retrieve it and give it to him after the bar was safely empty, since I wasn't sure what the others thought of our relationship. Ray had always been open about his bisexuality, and those who were narrow-minded enough to object soon found other employment for themselves. But I tried very hard not to be seen as 'the boss's boyfriend'; especially since in fact I was not.
Which is why the smile left my face when I opened the gift box and saw the golden circlet inside.
At first glance, I thought it was a ring. A ridiculous assumption, I know, but sometimes even I can jump to the wrong conclusion. And I pray that Ray never finds out how close I was to running out the door when I first saw it.
I stammered something, and he said, "What's wrong? You don't like it? I couldn't decide between that and the diamond stud, but I thought the hoop would look . . . I dunno, kind of . . . hot." His voice trailed off, and he looked down at the floor. "Shit. Look, you can return it and get something else if you want."
I looked at him then, and I saw how nervous he had been underneath the cool attitude he always projected. Once I realised it was an earring and not some sort of . . . declaration, I could appreciate the thought behind it. And I also could see that perhaps he was carrying a little 'baggage' from his marriage. I wondered how many of Ray's gifts Stella had returned.
"Ray," I said softly, "it's perfect. Thank you. I was just . . . surprised, that's all. I didn't expect -- it's very nice." I fumbled with the wire, trying to put it in, and my fingers felt three feet thick. He reached over and took it from my hands, deftly threading it through the hole in my earlobe and fastening it. He leaned back, to admire the effect I suppose, then came closer again and kissed me, once, gently.
It wasn't our first kiss, but after that first night we hadn't touched very much at all. Not like that. And right then, at that moment, I had to have more. When he would have pulled back, I reached out and pulled him closer. Opened my mouth and nipped at his upper lip, then the lower one; sucking each one briefly into my mouth, and worrying them with my teeth. I didn't care anymore who saw us, or what they thought. I only wanted Ray.
He groaned, sounding at once aroused and regretful. Then his mouth opened to mine, and he brought his hands up to frame my face, burying his fingers in my hair. His mouth tasted of eggnog and rum, and I thought I might get drunk just on that alone. Long moments later, he pulled away again. This time I let him go.
He looked directly into my eyes and said with a grin, "You're welcome. Merry Christmas."
I smiled a little sheepishly. "I have something for you, too. It's upstairs. I was going to wait until later, trying to be discreet I suppose, but I may as well get it now."
He laughed, the intimate moment over. "Yeah, it's a bit late for discreet, Benton-buddy, seeing's how the mistletoe's way on the other side of the room."
The two voices come simultaneously, jarring me out of my reverie back to the present. Ray is standing in the doorway of the kitchen, staring at me quizzically. My father, thank the Lord, just looks at Ray and walks away into the pantry, muttering about grandchildren.
Ray walks closer, looking oddly right in dress shirt and slacks and bare feet, and leans against the refrigerator door. "You okay?"
"No, I'm fine. I was just . . . . Did you want a beer? I wasn't sure."
"Might as well. Where were you just then? You had kind of a goofy smile on your face."
"Goofy, Ray? There's no need to get insulting."
"I wasn't. Goofy looks good on you. So - what? Where? When?"
I sigh. Relentless and perceptive are wonderful attributes for a detective, but rather a 'pain', as Ray would say, when said detective is focused on one's personal life. "I was remembering Christmas," I say, hoping this will be enough of an answer for him.
His smile is blinding, immediate, and his hand reaches to touch the earring, then strokes across my cheek to rest under my jaw for a moment. "Yeah," he breathes. "I think about that too."
Why is he doing this now? I had thought it would be hard to leave; now I think it will be well-nigh impossible. I close my eyes briefly at the pain of the thought, and he removes his hand. He looks confused as he says, "Okay, well, food's getting cold. C'mon."
He pushes off from the refrigerator and opens it to get his beer and put the milk away. Gives a jerk of his head toward the living room, and I collect the plates, utensils, and my glass and follow him out of the kitchen.
We sit side by side at the coffee table, and a few minutes are taken up by serving the food. He looks around after his first bite of Kung Pao and asks, "Where's Dief? I just noticed he wasn't underfoot. Jeez, don't tell him I didn't miss him - he'll be so hurt."
I smile, albeit grimly. "Diefenbaker is in the bedroom."
"Oooh, I can always tell he's in trouble when you use his full name. What'd he do now?"
I swallow a mouthful of eggroll. "There was an incident with Nostradamus this afternoon."
He smirks. "Oh, come on, Ben. You know the cat provokes him. Damn thing deserves to be chased."
"Mrs. Riley was quite upset."
"Yeah, she usually is. Don't know why she sticks around - everything about me pisses her off. You smooth it over, like always?"
"Yes. She'll be deducting the cost of replacing her lamp from next month's rent."
He winces. "Not the big ugly one her mother left her?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Okay, Big D stays put for now. We'll discuss my leftovers later."
"Honestly, Ray, you spoil him dreadfully."
"You think I'm bad? Wait 'til my mother sees him. She's even a bigger softy than I am."
I can think of nothing to say in reply to that - the chances of his mother meeting Dief are rather slim, after all - and so I turn my attention to my food once again. I have never been good at outright lies, and even prevarication is difficult for me where Ray is concerned. I can feel his stare, but I eat and watch the news, and after a moment he follows suit.
He waits until I am done eating before turning off the television and leaning back into his corner of the sofa. He crosses his legs and I know he means it to look casual, but I can see the tension in his hands as he rubs them along his thighs. "I ran into to Greta today," he begins.
"Oh?" Oh dear.
"Yeah. Outside the Chinese place. She said you guys are done for now?"
"You feel better about stuff now? Gerrard, Victoria, all that?"
"Yes, I do. Thank you."
He snorts, displeased at this. "Why thank me? You did the work."
"Without your influence I would never have sought the help in the first place. You know that."
"Yeah, I do. That's one thing I know for sure about you. Not saying I understand it, but . . . ." He sighs. "She . . . well, she told me I should make sure and talk to you tonight. Said there was something important we needed to discuss."
"Ah. Yes. Well . . . ." This is my cue to begin, to explain; to tell him how much I will miss him, how much I appreciate all he has done for me, but that he should feel free to move on with his life . . . all those things, and nothing will come out of my mouth.
"My parents are coming back on Thursday, you know."
An apparent non-sequitur, but of course it really isn't. "Yes, you mentioned that."
He stares at me for several more seconds, then bursts out with, "You're getting ready to move out, aren't you? That's what the boxes are for."
I should have known he'd see through me. I nod, relieved that it's finally out in the open. "Yes. It seemed for the best."
"Best for who, Ben? Who does it benefit if you leave me?"
'If you leave me . . . .' When I hear those words, and the pained tone in which he speaks them, I have to close my eyes and breathe very carefully to keep from breaking down. My emotions are much too close to the surface, and I am only just now learning to accept, rather than deny them. "I thought it would make things easier for you."
"Easier for me? What about you? Where are you going?"
"I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know?" His voice sounds as though he would like to be shouting just now, but I don't fully understand his anger.
"I had . . . considered some options," I say, knowing it for a lie.
He is, as always, more perceptive than I imagine. "Options, my ass. You're just going to walk away and not come back, is that it? What is wrong with you?"
What is wrong with me? Why can't I be honest, at this time, with this man? I take a deep breath, and try. "I didn't want to be a burden. I didn't want you to feel like you had to offer me a place here."
"But I do," he almost whispers, anger gone for the moment. "I do have to. And you're not a burden; it's not because I'm obligated, or even because I'm just a nice guy who can't turn down anybody who needs my help. And if you can't see that, if you don't know why -" His voice trails off. He sounds defeated.
"I don't know why, Ray. I don't understand it at all."
"Tell me why you were leaving, then. You tell me why you thought you had to walk away from me. Walk out on six months of us."
It's as though his rough voice has hypnotised me; the words come from my lips without thought. "Because I love you."
He smiles ruefully, his lips thin. "And you were going to leave, rather than tell me?"
He shakes his head. "Thought you were a smart guy, Ben. Makes no sense, leaving somebody you love. Why would you want to do that?" His eyes search mine, looking for answers.
"I don't precisely want to. But I couldn't presume that you would want me to stay, either. I don't want to be in the way. You should be free to make your own choices."
He jumps up from his seat and starts to pace, stopping for a moment by the window and looking out into the approaching dusk. "Did you think I couldn't do the math? Two guys, one apartment? But I -" His head drops down, his chin resting on his chest. "I just figured you'd bring it up at some point." He moves again, striding to the easy chair opposite the sofa and flopping down into it.
He looks at me intently. "Don't we talk about everything? Why were you so afraid to ask about it?"
"How can I ask you for more than you've already given me?"
"Maybe I need you to ask me for it. Maybe that's what I was waiting for. 'Cause if you don't ask, Ben . . . it's like I'd just be taking all the time."
We seem to be at cross-purposes here. "What are you talking about? What have you ever taken from me?"
"Are you crazy? Your help, for one thing. You realize how much you've done for me these past few months? I got more clients than I can handle, since you figured out that those runaway kids weren't really runaways, and we put the cops onto that sicko porn-video guy. Or even just the bar paperwork stuff - it used to be two or three days before I got an inventory done, now it's done in one morning. The bills are always up-to-date, everybody gets their paychecks on time - you have no idea how I was struggling with that. And you won't even let me pay you half what you're worth-"
"No, you let me talk, dammit. You're acting like I'm doing you some huge favor here, and I'm not. You don't owe me anything."
"Of course I do. I owe you everything."
"No! It can't be that way, Ben, don't you see? We need to be equal in this. We need to be . . . ." He breaks off, his face showing his frustration at not being able to tell me what he feels clearly enough. "I can't be your boss, Benton. I can't be someone you feel like you owe a favor to, either. If we're not equal partners in everything, it's never gonna work."
He falls silent. I don't know what to say - I hardly understand what he has said. I try to unravel it, hope rising in me slowly, but not daring to surface yet. And so we sit, staring at our own hands, uncomfortably quiet, until he speaks again.
"What scares me the most is -- I would have let you go. Let you walk away, and not gone after you like I'd have wanted to, because I would have thought you really wanted it that way."
I look up, into his face. Look at his eyes. Finally let myself see what's there. Desire, and . . . love?
"Benton Fraser, you are the most pigheaded stubborn man I know, and that includes my father and my Uncle Steve. Will you please, for once, just tell me what you want?"
"I -- I don't know how."
"Try. Just -- please, Ben. You have to try."
My eyes are stinging, and I remember what he told me about the break-up of his marriage. " . . . it really hurt to think she didn't love me enough to trust me; didn't think enough of what we had to even try." Trusting him is easy for me; it is always myself that I doubt these days. But I summon what strength of will I have left, draw in yet another deep breath, and say, "I want to stay."
The tension that had been holding his body upright is suddenly gone, and his head thumps against the back of his chair as he exhales, a long sigh that seems to go on forever. Then he is in motion again, crossing the room and sitting beside me. "Don't stop now, you need to give me all of it. Spell it right out for me, no room for misunderstandings. Where do you want to stay?"
It is so difficult for me to say what he evidently needs me to, but if he's right, then this is the only way out of the situation. "With you. Here. In - in your bed. If you'll have me."
He finally - finally - touches me then, grabbing onto my hands and squeezing them almost too tightly. "How can you doubt it? God, Ben, how could you even question that?"
"But you haven't - since Christmas - and I thought -"
"You were in therapy, for God's sake. For some serious problems, some of which had to do with sex. I told you I was gonna wait for you to be ready." He grins wickedly. "Plus, as long as my name was on your paycheck, I had to keep my hands to myself. Didn't wanna get sued for harassment." And he winks.
"And . . . now?"
His answer is a kiss. Gentle, careful, but full of meaning. He releases my hands to slide his own slowly up my arms until they reach my shoulders, where he grips and pulls me closer. The kiss intensifies quickly as I open my mouth and our tongues meet, thrusting wildly. It has been far too long, and I try to make up for months of deprivation and longing with this fierceness.
Our knees are pressed together awkwardly, and he wriggles a bit and then straddles my lap, lips never losing contact with mine. I clasp my hands behind his back and pull him closer to me, our groins bumping hard together.
There is no question in my mind now, none at all. I can feel how much he wants me. And this time, he will know that I want him, too. His mouth leaves mine and fastens onto my neck at the base of my ear. He uses his teeth there, and I moan and pull him in more firmly so that he moans as well.
His only response is harder suction and a sharp nip.
I close my eyes and throw my head back, offering him better access. "Ray?"
I want absolutely no confusion about what I intend here, but putting together a coherent sentence is becoming more difficult with every passing moment. "Should we move to the bedroom?" I manage finally.
I take this for a negative, and I somehow gain control of my hands and begin to caress his back. He shivers whenever I near his waist, and I stop.
"Don' stop. Just. Ticklish," he mumbles between kisses, as he moves his wonderful mouth down to my shoulder and burrows under my shirt collar.
I tuck this information away for a later time and resume my exploration, under his shirt this time. His back is so very warm and smooth, and I try to memorise the feel of it; the muscles and bones under his skin like Braille to my fingers.
He's stopped using his teeth and switched to his tongue, tracing the outline of my collarbone and making soft humming sounds as he goes. It feels wonderful, but I want his mouth on mine once more.
"Ray," I breathe into his ear, feeling shy suddenly. "Kiss me again."
His head comes up and we are nose-to-nose, but after a single, too-brief kiss, he draws back.
"I may have to re-define the term."
"Yeah. Good. Just - do you wanna move to the bedroom? 'Cause I don't want this to be, um . . . like . . . "
I think I understand what he means. But this is so very different, on every level, from the anonymous encounters in my past. I kiss him once, then again. I will never get enough of this. "I know it's you, Ray. It doesn't matter where we are, I--" I stop, not knowing precisely how to put what I feel into words. And it is very important that I get this right.
"My heart knows the difference," I say finally. I'm afraid Ray will think me too sentimental, but I have misjudged him again. Something in his expression changes, softens, and he kisses me fiercely.
"God, Ben, that's - yeah. Yeah. Mine too." He envelops me in an hard embrace that's suddenly more about possession than sex; and I feel him, more than hear him, say something into my neck. I concentrate, and it sounds like he's saying "finally, finally, thank you."
He lifts his head, and I can see tears in his eyes. He dashes them away with one hand, and smiles. "M'okay, Ben. Just - I been dreaming about this, y'know? Waiting and hoping for this moment to happen, and it almost didn't. I was so scared I was gonna lose you. Watching people's jaws drop when they'd walk in and see you behind the bar or up on stage with your guitar. All those good looking guys, and women too; flirting with you, buying you drinks - I figured it was just a matter of time 'til you'd realize you could do way better'n me. And then you'd be gone, and I tried to tell myself it shouldn't matter as long as you were happy, but it hurt so bad . . . ."
I start shaking my head, and he trails off. I can't make what he felt disappear, but I can reassure him on one point at least. "I wouldn't have been happy, Ray. Not really. Because you're wrong; I could never do better than you."
"C'mon, don't give me that. I know what's what; I know I'm no prize. Aging half-queer ex-cop with bad eyes, a bad leg and a pile of debts."
I have to laugh at this absurdity. "Is this a contest? We're nearly the same age, I have few useful job skills and a contrary, deaf wolf as a dependent. And thank God you're 'half-queer', Ray Kowalski, because I'm in love with you."
His smile is blinding, and I answer with one of my own. Greta was right; saying the words has freed me from the last vestiges of the shadows that Victoria left behind.
"Now," I continue, "where were we?"
"I believe somebody mentioned the bedroom," he says slyly, drawing his shirt up over his head without unbuttoning it and tossing it to the floor behind him.
"I believe that I don't want to move just yet. Except to do this." I waste no time in unfastening his slacks, and he raises up to help as I push his pants and briefs down far enough so that I can touch him.
His penis leaps when my hand closes around it, tip leaking, hard and long and so very warm. My mouth waters and I want to taste, but that will have to wait. I stroke him slowly, from the base to the head, and he pushes forward into my hand. Then he grabs the back of my head and kisses me hard. It is thrilling to feel his strength, because I know I can match it. I snake one arm around his waist and hold him firmly in place as I begin to stroke him in earnest.
The angle is a bit awkward, but I adapt, and he writhes against me. I can feel intermittent friction on my own penis through my jeans, but I know it will not be enough.
He breaks off the kiss and says breathlessly, "Jesus, Ben, you keep doing that it's gonna be all over in no time. Slow down, we got nowhere to go."
I maintain my rhythm and speed. "We can go slow the next time. Right now I want to make you feel good."
He arches his back. "You got that covered all right." Then he groans, long and low, and begins to pump his hips along with my stroking. His lips are moving slightly, but no sound comes out. I think, however, that it might be my name.
Before I can tell for sure, he groans again, sharply, this time in pain. Then I see him wince, and I realise he's aggravated his injury again. Without a word I gently push him over and backwards until he is stretched out on the sofa; head on the cushioned armrest, legs across my lap. I set his trousers back to rights and begin to massage the muscles of his thigh, and he tenses, then starts to relax.
"You are way too good to me, Benton Fraser."
I smile. "It's my pleasure."
"Not yet, it's not. Sorry about the delay of game here, but -- Oooh, yeah, that's the spot. Ri-i-i-ght there. Mmmph." He leans his head back, eyes slowly closing. I am still painfully hard, and when Ray moves his uninjured leg sideways, it brushes against my erection. I cannot help the small sound that comes from my lips, and Ray opens one eye and instantly grasps the situation. Smiling a trifle smugly, he reaches out and puts his hand on the button of my jeans.
He effortlessly pops it free from the buttonhole, and works the zipper down. I fear my massage technique is suffering from the distraction he is providing, but he makes no complaint. His fingers work their way inside my boxers, and we both gasp at the meeting of his hand and my penis. His smile becomes less smug and more feral, and he slowly strokes and squeezes me, thumb occasionally brushing over the tip. It is torture and heaven.
After five minutes or so, he says, "Ben, you can stop now. I'm good."
"Are you sure?"
"No, I'm just saying that so you'll stop touching me. Idiot. C'mere." He reaches up and grabs my shirt collar, dragging me down on top of him to be kissed. I prop myself up on my elbows and enjoy the moment. His hands are free to roam my back, and he pulls my shirt out of my jeans and I feel his warm touch on my skin. His fingers skim over the bullet scar in the middle of my back, and stop.
"Is this where . . . "
"Jesus," he says, and it sounds like a prayer. "That's really close. Another inch or so and . . . ."
I nod again, unable to speak. After a minute, his hands begin to move again, neither avoiding the area nor lingering on it. Our mouths meet again, and we kiss and rock together. It is wonderful, but I am greedy tonight. For the first time in over three years, I feel the desire to take, rather than be taken.
"Ray, I want . . . "
"Anything, Ben. God, anything."
"Can we move to the bedroom?"
"Thought you liked it here." His hands grab my hips and force me into a slightly faster rhythm.
"I . . . yes, well . . . there are certain . . . supplies . . . that we will need . . . if you are amenable . . . ."
He groans once more, but it is an anticipatory sound. "God, please, please, Ben, tell me that means you want to fuck me."
I envy Ray his vocabulary at times. I can say the word, but it seems too crude for what I want to do. On the other hand, he did say please . . . .
I lean down and whisper it in his ear. "Ray, more than anything in the world right now, I want to fuck you."
He whimpers, and I continue. "So if you'd care to move your . . . ass . . . into the bedroom, perhaps we could begin."
He says, huskily, "You're on top - you have to move first."
I smile at him, and if it looks one tenth as desperate as I feel, Ray should be very, very worried right now. I get to my feet, and draw him up as well, holding his hand as I lead the way to the bedroom door on feet that want to run.
As I open the bedroom door, Diefenbaker's nose pokes out. I try for a stern tone as I say, "I hope you have learned your lesson. Excuse us please."
Ray laughs, either at my formality, or at Dief's expression when he realises he is being given free access to the leftovers on the coffee table. He stoops down and says, "You get food all over my carpet and I'll give you to Mrs. Riley for the day, got it? I don't want to see even the tiniest bit of broccoli."
Dief whines in agreement, and I pull Ray into the bedroom and shut the door.
It feels to me like all the air in the room is gone, as I look at Ray in the fading light from outside. I am hot, and cold; aggressive, yet suddenly shy. What I want - what I nearly demanded - looms large over me, and I cannot move. Fortunately, Ray does not feel the same.
I know all the mechanics involved in this act, I have done it many times. I can even name the muscles as I use them; as Ray strips off my shirt and I raise my arms, watching his eyes and mouth all the while. What I don't understand is how I can feel like I have never done anything like this before in my life.
His hands on my skin feel like an essential part of me now, although it is not even an hour since I felt them for the first time. And then, when his hands come up to cup my face and turn my head slightly for a kiss; when I feel his breath on me and in me, reality is restored. I love this man. I want this man, and he wants me. And there is no one else now, no other person who is important - no one save Ray.
He pulls me closer to him, so that our bodies meet from chest to knees. "Hey," he mumbles, "you still with me?"
"Oh, yes, very much so."
He smiles a little then. "Scared?" he whispers, not taunting me but understanding; as if he, too, feels it.
And I cannot help but be honest with him. "Yes, I was - for a moment. But I'm better now."
"Okay. 'Cause we don't have to do it right now. If you're not ready, I mean. We can - I can do other stuff. To, um, get . . . make you . . . " He stops, and I see a faint blush on his cheeks. "Dammit, I don't know how to talk to you all of a sudden."
The last bit of my fear fades away. "You're doing fine, Ray. I don't mind the way you talk. I rather like it, in fact. Can't you feel what you do to me?"
"Yeah," he breathes. "Yeah. So . . . I can suck you . . . or use my hand . . . if you don't want to fuck me."
"Did I say I didn't want to?" I growl. "Lose the trousers, Mr. Kowalski, if you'd like to keep them in one piece." I bite his shoulder for effect, playfully. His hands on my waist dig in almost painfully for a moment, and I feel his penis hard against mine. Then he breaks free of my grasp and stumbles to the bed, shucking his pants and briefs along the way. It is only a split-second before he is sprawled naked on the bed.
I start to follow him, and my practical nature reasserts itself for a moment. "Don't move," I say, and I dash to the bathroom for towels and a washcloth. When I return, Ray has turned on the bedside lamp and is propped up against the pillows at the headboard, lazily stroking his erect penis, and licking his lips absently. I stop, taking in the sight.
He smirks, and says, "Either go get a camera, or get naked and get over here, Benton. This ain't no free show."
My boots and socks go first, then my thumbs hook into the waistband of my jeans, and I push them down and off. I walk toward the bed, throwing the towels beside Ray, and open the nightstand drawer to get out the lubricant and the condoms I put there, in hopes of this night. Ray blinks, and a slightly hurt and confused expression flits across his face. His hand drops to his side. Oh, dear.
"These are . . . I never used them, Ray. I bought them a long time ago - after Christmas, in fact, when I thought we might - I haven't been with anyone else since we met."
His face clears again, and I take the last step to the bed. He puts out his hand and I take it, pulling it to my lips to press a kiss into the palm. Then I place it back on his penis, which has softened slightly in the confusion, and I bend to kiss that too, revelling in the scent of him, the feel of him under my lips.
I straighten and push off my boxers. His eyes widen, and his penis twitches noticeably as I climb onto the bed and crawl towards him. He scoots down to lie flat, and I fit myself over him, and at last we are together as I have dreamed it; skin-to-skin, erections and nipples rubbing together, his faint trace of chest-hair scratching me as we rock and glide.
"Goddamn, Benton Fraser, you feel so good."
"As do you. Oh, dear God, Ray, I can't take much more. I need to -"
"Yeah, Ben, I told you, anything."
I grit my teeth and say, "Turn over, then." I move off him, going to my knees while he moves a pillow to the centre of the bed, spreading a towel over it with a grin. He holds my gaze as he lowers himself, legs spread, arms braced. I inhale sharply, struck again by his beauty, and I fumble for a condom. I briefly consider using two, as I have heard it cuts down on the sensation, and I want this to last. I also want to feel as much of him as I can, however, so a single one will have to suffice. I flip open the bottle of lubricant - this I have used, many times; alone at night, thinking of Ray - and warm some briefly on my fingers before moving into position behind him.
I reach out and touch him gently with the hand he can see; holding his hip as my other hand goes unerringly where it needs to. With the first intrusion he stiffens, and I hear a gasp that turns to a sigh as he relaxes and opens to me. I don't wish to assume anything, we had made no commitments to each other, but I think perhaps he has been as celibate as I these last six months. I resolve to go as slowly as I can, and somehow he hears my thoughts. He props himself up on his elbows and cranes his head around to look at me fully.
"I can take it, Ben. Don't worry 'bout me. I want it - I want you - as hard and fast as you wanna go." The heat in his stare is incredible, and I move my hand, twisting and withdrawing, only to add another finger and push in again. His back arches and he pushes back against me, making another small sound between a groan and a whimper.
His obvious enjoyment of this may well push me over the edge, and sooner than I think I should, I withdraw my fingers and replace them with my penis, condom slicked with more lubricant than is probably necessary. Slowly I push inside, and again I feel him open to me, welcoming the intrusion as before.
When I am fully inside him, feeling his heat envelop me, I stop for a moment and carefully wipe my fingers on the towel before grasping his other hip and starting to thrust. And again he is pushing back to meet me, matching my speed and rhythm instantly. It seems no time at all before I feel the familiar tingle start to build, starting as it always does in my feet and climbing quickly to suffuse my entire body. We buck and shout together, Ray's orgasm starting seconds before mine. I feel the contractions of it begin and it tips me over the edge, and I fall, a long, long way down it seems, before coming to rest atop my lover.
My lover. I smile, a bit goofily I'm sure, and kiss his back. He mmmm's at me, and his hand comes up to brush over my hair. We stay like this until my penis shrinks and threatens to slip out of him. I move then, carefully grasping the condom and discarding it before taking a washcloth and cleaning myself off. Ray stretches and rolls away from me, looking pleased and sated as he rests on his side and contemplates the mess on the towel.
"Okay," he says, and his voice is rusty-sounding. "That was just about the most incredible - Jesus, you didn't even touch me, Ben, and I went off like a rocket."
I fear my smile has turned from goofy to smug, and he looks at me and starts to laugh. I fold the towel over the washcloth I used and pitch them to the floor. The pillow is put back into place, and I pull him to me and kiss him, long and sweet, trying to say with this what I told him before. He rolls me to my back and lies half on top of my chest; one arm under me, his head on my shoulder, his finger circling my nipple. I am too sensitive this soon after, so I hiss a bit as his nail scrapes over the centre, and I can feel him smile again.
"You're incredible, you know that? So fucking gorgeous . . . and here, with me. In my bed. In . . . in my heart, Ben. That too."
I am grateful, more grateful than I can say, for whatever vagaries of fate or guardian angels have brought me to this point in my life. Saved me from bullets, knives, ice storms, crashing aeroplanes, exploding tenements, speeding cars . . . saved me for this man, with whom I am complete, as I have never been before.
I want so much from him, and I know, finally, somehow, that it is matched in every way by what he wants - needs - from me. Matched and complemented, two halves of one soul. Emboldened by this, I say the words once more.
"I love you, Ray Kowalski. Just you."
His arms tighten around me, and we fall into a light doze, awakened an hour later by Diefenbaker scratching at the door discreetly.
Ray mumbles something, and I kiss him as I ease out of his arms. "Shh. Don't get up. I'll be back shortly." He smiles sleepily and burrows into the pillow. I pull the blanket from the foot of the bed on top of him and quietly get dressed for Dief's walk.
Dief looks at me with wolfish impudence as I quietly shut the bedroom door behind me and I say, "I'll thank you to keep your comments to yourself."
He raises an eyebrow, but turns and walks to the door without any of his usual sarcasm. He's very fond of Ray, which pleases me greatly. I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't gotten along.
He leads the way down the back stairs and we go out into the alley. The short walk to the park gives me time to clear my head, and I finally have a chance to think about the implications of some of the things Ray said earlier. The memory of his brilliant smile when I told him I loved him warms me, but I realise now that he never said the same to me. Insecurity rears its ugly head momentarily, and I resolve not to let it matter. Whatever he says or doesn't say, I know this is not a transitory thing that we have. I lean back on my bench and star-gaze for a while, deliberately turning off my brain.
Dief tires of chasing shadows eventually, and we walk companionably back home. As we near the alley, I see a well-dressed blonde woman entering the bar. She looks somewhat out of place in this neighbourhood, but as I cannot see how she could present a danger to anyone, I give her no further thought. My focus is on returning to bed and perhaps seeing if Ray might be amenable to further lovemaking tonight. At the very least, I look forward to sleeping wrapped in his arms. An evil thought occurs to me, and I detour into the kitchen to investigate the cooler for a moment. I find what I was looking for, and hurry upstairs.
As I turn the corner from the stairwell, I see the same blonde at my door, knocking. Odd. I am certain I've never met her. "May I help you?" I call as I walk toward her.
She looks me up and down, turns dismissively and says, "No." She knocks again, louder, and Dief makes a low noise at this rude behaviour.
I reach her side and put my hand into my pocket for my keys. "I only ask because that happens to be my door you're knocking on," I say, in what I hope is a conciliatory manner. In truth, I would like to growl at her as Dief did.
"Who the hell are you? This is my husband's apartment, not yours."
I raise an eyebrow. "Your husband?" Perhaps she has confused the apartment with someone else's.
She frowns, impatient. "Ex-husband. Ray Kowalski."
Mystery solved. "You must be Stella," I say as pleasantly as I can. "It's nice to meet you. I'm Benton Fraser. Ray's sleeping; if you'd like to come in, I'll get him for you."
Instead of moving aside so that I can open the door, she knocks again, this time calling "Ray!" in a loud voice guaranteed to displease the neighbours. Short of physically moving her out of the way, I can see no good way to get to the door, and so I wait. It is only a matter of a few seconds before Ray is standing before us, clad only in his dress slacks, blinking in the bright light of the hallway.
"Stell? What's going on?" He turns his head and sees me and smiles. "Hey, Ben. You forget your key?"
As I open my mouth to answer, Stella sweeps into the apartment, pushing Ray backwards and closing the door behind her. I use my key and open it again, to hear her yell, 'Have you lost your mind?'"
"Nice to see you, too, Stell. What's it been, almost a year now? You got another boyfriend you want me to investigate?"
For some reason this stops her cold. I take advantage of the cease-fire to slip into the kitchen and open the refrigerator, into which I put the can of whipped cream I brought from downstairs. Somehow I doubt we'll be needing it tonight after all. I take a few deeps breaths and remind myself to be civil, no matter the provocation.
When I return to the living room, the argument is back in full swing, although at a lower volume. I see Diefenbaker disappear into the bedroom, and wish I could follow him.
"It's none of your business, Stella. You made the decision to divorce me; you don't get a say in who I share the rest of my life with. That's the way it works."
"I'm simply trying to give you a dose of reality here."
"Well, gee, thanks. But I'm all set for reality right now. We're good, right, Ben?"
Stella turns, obviously unaware that I had re-entered the room. Her face turns red and her eyes are quite cold as she says, "I'm sure Mr. Fraser has no complaints at all. Considering."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Ray asks hotly.
Stella's eyes remain on mine as she says, "It means that Mister Fraser has lucked into quite a cozy situation here, and he'd be the last to make waves."
"That's it. Enough." Ray's voice is whip-crack sharp, and Stella turns back to look at him. "Before you say another word, Stella, I would suggest you get your facts straight. I don't know where you got the idea Ben's some kind of leech, but you're about as far from the truth as you can be. And I can't believe you would stand there and say it, especially with him right here in the room. Maybe I was raised on the wrong side of the tracks according to your parents, but even I know that's way over the line."
She has the grace to look vaguely ashamed, and studies her feet for a moment. When she looks at me again, her anger seems gone, but the coldness is still in her eyes and voice. "I beg your pardon, Mr. Fraser. That was inexcusably rude of me. Please accept my apology."
I can only respond with an equally insincere, "Of course, think nothing of it."
Ray strides to the door and opens it. "Goodnight, Stella."
She eyes us both one more time before walking out. "Goodnight, Ray. Mr. Fraser."
After the door shuts behind her, Ray collapses over the back of the sofa. Looking at me upside down, he grins. "That was Stella."
"Indeed." I try to match his grin, but I'm sure I fail miserably.
He swings his legs around, sits up and sighs. "My mum must have called her."
"Why would your mother call your ex-wife?"
"Oh, they talk all the time. Best pals."
I don't wish to pry, but I am still curious as to the reason for her fury. Obviously she knew who I was when I introduced myself in the hallway, and I can't imagine what she thinks I've done to deserve such treatment. Ray sees my indecision and smiles.
"I was going to wait until tomorrow for this, get the paperwork started first, but I guess I better come clean. I told my parents this afternoon that I wanted to give you half the bar."
I am dumbfounded. He said we should be partners, but this..."It's out of the question," I say. "Ray, you can't just --"
"Oh, don't you start too," he interrupts. "I can just, and I'm going to. Unless . . . ." He looks at me and frowns. "Listen, if you don't want it, say so. I know it's a lot of work, and there's probably other stuff you'd rather be doing --"
I take my turn to interrupt. "No, there isn't, Ray. That's not it. I simply don't want it to cause trouble for you. It's not necessary at all. I'm perfectly content to go on as we have been."
His face falls, and his shoulders slump. "Oh," he says, in a voice much too small. "As we have been, huh? What about, um . . . does that include . . . ?" He makes a gesture with his hand, swinging it back and forth in an arc between us.
I have forgotten that for all his swagger and attitude, Ray can be fragile. Stella hurt him badly when she left him. I must reassure him that I am not like her, not in the least. "No, Ray, it most certainly does not. I thought we'd sorted that out already."
"Yeah, well . . . " He shrugs, not at all reassured.
Words are not making a dent here, so I choose action. Crossing to the sofa, I hold out my hand and say, "Come to bed." When he takes it, I pull him to his feet and lead him to the bedroom. I pull back the comforter and sheets and start to undo his slacks. He allows it, and when he is down to underwear, I gently push him onto the bed and strip off my own clothing. He gets under the covers and moves over to make room for me. I leave my boxers on for now and stretch out beside him, and his arms fold around me as before. Then I try to articulate my feelings about our new relationship.
"It seems to me," I begin, "that we need to get something straight between us. What happens downstairs has nothing to do with what happens up here. Whether I am your business partner, your employee, or neither, I will continue to be here for you - I will continue to love you, and to make love with you, until you tell me you don't want me anymore. Is that acceptable?"
He laughs roughly. "Acceptable? It's pretty close to paradise is what it is. But what if -"
My mouth covers his; my tongue steals his words and, I hope, his doubts. Minutes, days, weeks later I pull back. "Three hours ago I was ready to leave because I thought you didn't want me here. Now that I know you do, I'm here for good. I won't leave you, Ray. I don't think I can."
His voice is still rough, almost challenging. "Never? You won't ever just . . . give up?"
I shake my head. "It's not in my nature."
His eyes see into my heart somehow, see the truth of that statement, and I feel him relax fully. His hand comes up to cup my face, and he says, "I love you, Benton Fraser. So much. You believe that?"
I nod, unable to speak for a moment. He repeats the words again. "Love you."
I pull him to me, bury my face in his neck and just hold on. This is everything I wanted, and so much more than I expected. I almost feel like crying as I whisper, "Likewise, Ray."
We fall asleep as before, arms around each other. Tomorrow, as Scarlett O'Hara once said, is another day. And for the first time in a very long time, I find myself looking forward to what that day will bring.