Title: Growing Pains
Author: Elizabeth Mc.
Category: AU, Romance.
Genre: Slash, M/M.
Rating: PG - 13.
Teaser: Ben and Ray learn that sometimes letting go of the past is the only way to pave your future.
Disclaimer: All Due South characters are the property of Alliance, Paul Haggis and Paul Gross. There is no money exchanged or expected from this story.
Feedback: Feedback is craved.
Notes: This is an AU dealing with a few "what if's" for Ben and Ray. They have different careers and different paths but they can't help but collide. Thank you to Beth for her encouragement in writing this. The story would not exist without her. Thank you to M-A who did a wonderful job as beta.
"That will be enough," Ben Fraser said as he roughly shoved his neighbor away from the child crouched in the hall. Rafael Gamez pushed back.
"It's none of your business. Mario, get inside."
Ben pinned Gamez to the wall, with one arm across his neck. "No, I don't think so."
"My son, my family," Gamez growled, struggling ineffectually.
"My community," Ben retorted. "Mario, go on up to my apartment and wait."
The ten year old looked up at him with round, brown eyes glistening with tears. "But, dad said..."
"Your father can't look after you tonight. He's not well." Ben hated to obfuscate but what point would be served by telling the child that his father was intoxicated?
"Dad?" The boy turned his gaze to his father. Ben released the other man with a warning glare. He had the decency to look ashamed.
"He's right. Spend the night at his place. You do it enough as it is anyway."
Mario took one last look and Ben dreaded what image he would retain. Then he darted passed them to the elevator. With one quick glance from inside, Mario pressed the floor button where Ben's apartment was located.
Ben glanced up and down the plush hallway. None of their neighbors had come out to see about the commotion.
"Your wife was a good woman," Ben said. "You dishonor her and your son with this behavior." Gamez shook his head, clenching his hands into fists. Ben touched his shoulder. "I know you miss her, but you can't allow your sorrow to turn into anger this way."
"It's too hard. I can't raise him alone."
"Mario chose to stay with you. The rest of the children went with your in-laws but he didn't want to leave you alone. Doesn't he deserve some consideration for his choice?"
"I know, I know, it's just so hard. I come home, I'm tired, he wants to eat, he wants to talk about his day, he wants all the time. It gets too much."
"Perhaps it wouldn't be too much if you came home after work without stopping at Mulligan's so often. It's nearly eight o'clock, it's no wonder that he's hungry, is it?"
"There's food. There's always food. And he has my credit card, he can order dinner for himself."
"He probably waits for you so that you can share that time. Didn't you and your wife have dinner with your children?"
"Yes, but..." Gamez's focus wandered to the floor.
"I'll feed him tonight," Ben said, "But please think about what I'm saying. He's a child, Rafa, and he needs his father."
"He's my child."
"Yes, yes he is."
Gamez shook his head again before he walked slowly into his apartment, closing the door without a backward glance. Ben leaned against the wall for a moment. He had rescued Mario Gamez from his father's yelling more than once and he wondered if he should be doing more. Rafael did love the boy but his anger often overtook his sense and while he'd never struck out with fists, the words he screamed were just as bruising.
Ben knew this all too well and it made him nauseous.
He glanced upwards where his apartment and one ten year old boy was waiting. But, he needed to make a stop first.
He went down instead of up. He stepped off the elevator into a hall matching the one on his floor with its soft brown carpeting and tasteful paintings. The rental company refurbished recently leaving a faint odor of paint and carpet glue behind.
Ben rang the doorbell to the apartment at the far end of the hall. Ray Kowalski opened the door, scratching his close-cut hair and yawning.
"Fraser?" Kowalski's eyes resembled slits in paper as he struggled to wake up.
"I'm sorry to bother you. I realize you haven't been home long but I had another run-in with Mr. Gamez this evening and I wanted to speak with you about it."
Kowalski frowned before he shrugged and let him in. He pointed towards the couch before flopping into a nearby chair.
"I told you before, you should call the cops," Kowalski said.
"I'd rather not." Ben sat on the couch. He had been in Kowalski's apartment exactly four times and each visit had been much the same. Kowalski operated a youth center downtown so Ben always hoped for a different answer. "I had hoped you could suggest another alternative."
Kowalski gave him a patient stare. "Look, Fraser, the father is a drunk and he's irresponsible. A little counseling might go a long way but unless the court orders it, you think it's going to happen?"
"Rafael Gamez is a proud man. I've suggested it but he flatly refuses. He thinks it's a violation of his privacy and a weakness to seek help in raising his son."
"But, he doesn't have any trouble letting you do it, does he? He starts yelling, you come running, the kid gets out of the way and he gets another night off? How many times have we had this conversation?"
"Four times including this evening."
"Rhetorical question, Fraser."
"Yes, of course." Ben tried to hide his embarrassment.
"In the trade, we call that co-dependency. All you're doing is helping Gamez do the wrong thing. If he was smart he'd hire a nanny or someone to take care of the kid so he wouldn't have to worry about feeding and clothing him."
"He wants to raise him. He doesn't want a stranger to do it."
Kowalski rubbed his eyes. "How do you know when they're fighting?"
"Well, tonight, I stopped by to tell Mario that I would walk with him to school tomorrow. It's a habit we've adopted when I have an appointment. There's a bus stop in front of his school. They were in the hall arguing when I came by."
"What about other times? These aren't thin walls, Fraser, I don't hear them fighting."
"I almost always have a reason to stop by," Ben admitted.
"No wonder he doesn't want to hire somebody, he's got you."
"Once I realized there was a problem, I could hardly ignore it. And I knew Margarita, I liked her, I wanted to help her family after she died."
"Then you have to call the cops and keep calling until they get social services involved."
"They might take Mario out of the home."
"That's not going to happen unless they can prove physical abuse or a dangerous environment. But, they will recommend counseling and a judge will go for it because they love that kind of thing. Mario gets some grief counseling over his mother's death and some anger counseling to help with all those unresolved issues about her leaving him and his father being a jackass. Gamez gets the grief counseling and tips on how to be a good parent and ta-da, you got yourself a happy ending."
"Surely it can't be that simple."
"Of course not. That was the Reader's Digest version. But, bottom line, Fraser, it's the right thing to do. It's a lot better than throwing fish at them."
Ben had to think about that before he understood the reference. "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day but..."
"Teach a man to fish and you feed him for life," Kowalski finished.
"You may be right."
"I am right, that's my job. If you think I'm hot now, you should see me when I've had some sleep."
Ben blushed and hoped it wasn't visible in the dim light. He did think Ray Kowalski was hot but it had little to do with Kowalski's job.
"I should let you get back to bed."
"Call the cops or call Child Protective Services, Fraser."
Kowalski stood up when Ben did and walked him to the door.
"Thank you kindly for your assistance."
"Oh, you know, Doctor Kowalski's door is always open. Just drop a nickel in the can on your way out."
Ben smiled at the joke. In fact, he found himself smiling all the way upstairs to his apartment.
Inside, he found Mario sitting at the kitchen table watching the small black and white television that he kept there. Canned laughter filled the room as the characters on the screen played out some silly scenario. Mario laughed with them.
"What should we have for dinner this evening?" Ben asked. Mario turned half around in his chair but barely took his eyes from the screen.
"How about pizza?" The boy asked.
"How about spaghetti and salad?" Ben countered.
"How about Chinese take-out?"
"How about peanut butter sandwiches and pickle flavored potato chips?"
"How about pemmican and tree bark?"
"Ah, pizza, it is," Ben said and they both laughed at their common banter.
Ben picked up the phone and ordered their dinner.
After walking Mario to school, Ben took the bus to his agent's office. He had thought about Ray Kowalski's suggestion all evening. It wasn't the first time that Kowalski suggested the police but he hadn't explained the likely consequences before and Ben had a better understanding of what to expect.
Still, he remained uncertain.
His own upbringing had been filled with noise and fury but he couldn't imagine what would have happened if outsiders had interfered. After his mother's death, Ben's father had been short-tempered, demanding and unforgiving. But, what happened inside their home was their concern and Ben never considered that things could have been or should have been different.
If Mario were being physically abused, he knew he wouldn't hesitate to call the authorities but this was different. Gamez had never struck the boy. The words he spoke to the child were reprehensible but they were just words. Did Ben have the right to intervene over the usage of hurtful words?
Of course, Ben reasoned, he was intervening an average of twice a week just by stepping in when the yelling grew too loud. But by taking the boy away for the occasional evening, feeding him, entertaining him, was he really helping or just providing a small respite?
By his own admission, Ray Kowalski did not have a college degree in any mental health field. He was not a police officer or a medical professional. However, Kowalski worked with troubled and displaced youths on a daily basis. His experience exceeded Ben's ten-fold. Perhaps it was time to heed the advice that Ben continued to seek out.
He pulled open the heavy glass door, entering the high rise that contained his office. Louis Gardino, the lobby security guard, called out a greeting.
"Good morning, Mr. Fraser."
"Good morning, Louis," Ben called back just before stepping into the elevator.
At the eleventh floor, Ben stepped onto the floor housing the Thatcher Literary Agency where a secretary named Ovitz greeted him. Ben often wondered if Ovitz was a first name or a last name but he'd never found an opportune moment to ask. Ovitz greeted him with a cup of tea and a plain, toasted bagel.
"Ms. Thatcher is expecting you, Mr. Fraser," Ovitz said as he led the way to Meg Thatcher's office.
When they entered, Meg was talking on the phone but she waved Ben in. Ovitz closed the door behind him.
"Renfield Turnbull is sending the final draft of his book over," she was saying. "I'll ship it to Parson's for editing unless you want to take a look first. All right then, it'll be overnight to Parson's...yes, thank you. All right then, Benton Fraser just walked in so I have to...yes, that's right...no, I won't keep him waiting." She smiled at Ben conspiratorially. "Good-bye, Louise." Meg hung up.
"Louise St. Laurent," she explained. "She's very anxious to get your next book in print."
"That's kind of her. I expect to have the last re-write completed in a day or so."
"You're always punctual. I wish the same could be said for all my clients."
Ben sat down in the soft, leather chair opposite of Meg's desk. She sat down as well and started shifting through files as she spoke.
"I appreciate you coming all the way down here for this. There's just some leftover paperwork we need for the book signing next week. I could've had Ovitz send a courier, you know."
"I have little reason to leave my apartment these days. This gives me a valid excuse to escape the computer screen."
She produced a folder then reached into her shirt pocket to retrieve a pair of glasses. She put them on, looked at Ben, then took them back off.
"Well, those aren't necessary, I should think." She came around to stand beside Ben and placed the folder in front of him. He recognized the document as she flipped through the pages. "Here we are, if you'll just sign this page. We missed it the last time you were here."
Ben took the pen she offered and signed his name with just a cursory glance. He had already looked it over in detail before he agreed to the book signing engagement.
Meg folded everything back up but didn't return to her side of the desk. She stayed uncomfortably close to Ben and smiled. She was an attractive woman and Ben found her proximity somewhat daunting.
"That's it," she said, keeping eye contact with him.
"Then I suppose I should go." Ben pushed his chair back so that he wouldn't bump into her upon standing. "Thank you kindly for your time."
"Uh, Ben..." She hesitated, nibbling on the end of her pen for a moment before shaking her head. "No, never mind."
"Was there something else?" He suspected he knew what she wanted and cursed himself inwardly for giving her an opening.
"I just thought...it's probably unprofessional to even...but, well, you're a man and I'm a..."
"Woman," Ben completed, then cursed himself again.
"Right, a woman, so I was thinking perhaps we could..."
"Could?" Blast, why did he keep feeding her lines?
"Look, do you want to get lunch with me or not?" Her tone had changed to irritation as she demanded an answer.
"Lunch...lunch would be very...nice." He answered, carefully. "But, well, I, uh, have..."
"Plans?" She asked, finishing the sentence for him.
"Yes, yes, plans. I have plans today."
"Oh, well, that's that, then." She straightened her jacket and tugged at her blouse.
"That's it then. Thank you for your time, Margaret."
"Meg," she corrected as she moved to stand behind her desk. "Call me Meg."
"Meg...right. Have a good day."
He left with his heart hammering in his chest. He was hopeless in social situations with women. He could never quite balance saying no with courtesy and the lack of ability foiled him at every turn.
Ovitz spotted him and walked him to the elevator. Ben sighed in relief when the doors closed to separate them.
Ben walked back to his apartment. Once he shook off the tension that Meg's flirtation brought on, he enjoyed the soft breeze against his face. Clouds were moving in which would probably bring rain soon, but for his walk, it was just slightly cool and pleasant. He really needed to spend more time outside and less trapped in his apartment. At times he felt that his writing imprisoned him even as it allowed his thoughts and ideas freedom.
He entered the apartment building, already missing the outside. Still he had a deadline to meet and people depending on him so he could hardly spend the day frolicking.
When he stepped off on his floor, he was surprised to see Ray Kowalski ringing his doorbell.
"Mr. Kowalski?" Ben called out formally.
"Oh, there you are. You know, you're always home and the one time I come knocking, you're out."
"Unfortunate luck," Ben said.
"Yeah." Ray looked around awkwardly as if he didn't know what to do.
"Would you like to come in for coffee?" Ben pressed his key into the lock.
"More than I like to breathe."
Ben let them both in. "Have a seat in the living room and I'll put a pot on."
Ray followed him instead. "This is a nice place." Ray looked around and Ben joined him in a surface appraisal. The light colored wood, the bright green plants, the sand-colored carpeting all combined to be as generic and understated as possible.
"I think I'd like to update a bit. Add some color," Ben commented.
"Yeah, I can see that."
Ray leaned against the kitchen doorway. Ben took the coffee can out of the cupboard.
"Are you working today?" Ben asked as he scooped the coffee into the machine. He was wondering about the reason for Ray's visit but he didn't want to be rude.
"Yeah, I am. In fact, I just came from the center. Listen, uh, you're off the hook on calling the cops about Gamez."
"What do you mean?" Ben filled the coffee pot with water.
"Mario showed up at my apartment this morning sporting a black eye. He said his father walloped him."
"What?" Ben pressed the start button automatically as he turned to look at Ray. "Rafael has never...and I took Mario to school this morning...when could..."
"The kid said he went to school but he forgot a book at home. When he went back to the apartment, his father was still there. Gamez was sick or something. Anyway, they started arguing and Gamez punched him. Mario got scared and came to my place cuz he knew you weren't home."
"Good lord." Ben closed his eyes, seeing Mario's smiling face as the boy waved at him before going up the school steps. Nausea rolled through him as Ben realized he had been wrong to wait. He should have phoned the police weeks ago. He should never have allowed the boy to be hurt.
"Gamez was crazy," Ray continued. "Stomping around the halls, yelling for the kid. I tried to settle him down but it didn't work out. At least the two of them will have matching bruises." The attempt at humor fell flat.
"You fought with him?"
"Wasn't much of a fight. I decked him and then Mario and I beat feet back into my apartment. The kid was terrified so I locked the door and called the cops from there."
"Is he still with you?"
"Yeah. I called his grandmother and she told the police he could stay with me until she could come and get him. She's going to take him to New Jersey to live with her and the rest of the kids. He's down at the Caulfield Center right now, hanging out with one of my counselors down there."
"How is he?"
"He's disappointed, confused. Part of him still wants to stay and try again with his dad, part of him is pissed that it got this bad. You know, he's scared of his old man and he doesn't want to be."
"Under arrest. He won't do any time but he gets to spend the night."
"Could he get Mario back?"
"He probably could if he tried but I don't think he will, do you?"
Ben shook his head. "No, he won't. It's too difficult for him."
"Mrs. Armenta will be picking Mario up later tonight. She and the oldest girl are driving up to get him. I thought you'd want to see him before he goes."
"Yes, I do." Ben stared at the stream of coffee, trembling slightly with thoughts of what might have been.
"Hey, Fraser," Ray interrupted, drawing his attention. "Don't beat yourself up. You did nothing but try to help that kid."
"I was completely wrong about Rafael Gamez."
"No, you weren't. The guy's not evil, he's in pain, and he doesn't have an outlet for it. Maybe this will make him get some help."
"He hit a child, his own child. He berated and verbally abused him for months."
"Well, we could take him into a nearby alley and beat the hell out of him."
Ben shook his head, annoyed. "Flippancy is ill-timed at this point."
"Who's being flippant?"
"I'm serious. His children lost their mother and all he can do is feel sorry for himself. The guy is crap, Fraser. He needs to get thumped."
"I thought you said he wasn't evil but in pain."
"Doesn't excuse him. For Mario's sake, not to mention the other kids, I hope he gets forced into therapy. Maybe it'll do some good. But, Gamez is still crap. However..." Ray held up one finger. "You are not. You helped that kid and you tried to help his father. So, you can dump the guilt feelings."
"Is all of this your professional opinion?" Ben cocked his head, raising his eyebrows so that Ray would know he was teasing.
Ray grinned and Ben felt his body tighten. The man had a brilliant smile. "No. That's my personal opinion. My professional opinion is that Gamez needs anger management and grief counseling and maybe, someday, he'll be a good father. And you...you're just a good guy."
Ben felt ridiculously flushed under Ray's kind words. He took a breath before speaking again. "I'm glad Mario went to you. It could have been much worse."
"It can always be worse. I've learned to be glad when it isn't. Anyway," Ray took the cup of coffee that Ben handed him. "I just wanted to let you know what was going on. I'll keep Mario at the center until four and then we'll come back to the apartment to wait for his family."
"Should I come downstairs to your apartment then?"
"Good idea. We'll order something for dinner and keep the kid occupied."
"He likes pizza. Although we did have that last night."
"I'll ask him."
Ben sipped at the coffee he had poured for himself. Ray was glancing around the counter tops.
"Uh, you got sugar around here?"
"Of course, I'm sorry."
"You know what, that's okay, I gotta get down to the center anyway. I'll see you later, okay?"
Ben selfishly wished that Ray would stay longer but Mario and the other children at the center probably needed him more. They walked to the door.
"Mario will be fine," Ray said. "His grandmother sounds like a good person."
"I think she is. I met her at Margarita's funeral."
They hesitated at the open door. Ben felt awkward for a reason he couldn't quite define.
Finally he said, "I appreciate you telling me about Mario."
"I thought you'd want to know," Ray answered.
"I did. I do."
"See you tonight, Fraser."
Ray shook Ben's hand before he stepped outside. With the closing of the door, Ben felt his knees go a little weak and cursed himself for acting like a teenage girl. Then he went back to his kitchen wishing he'd invited Ray to lunch, wishing he'd sounded more grateful that Ray had taken care of Mario, wishing he'd somehow made some sort of impression.
By the time he reached the kitchen to retrieve his coffee, those thoughts gave way to thoughts of Mario and Rafael Gamez. Ben had badly misjudged the situation between them. He couldn't help wondering if Gamez had struck the boy before and Mario had never admitted it.
One thing Ben knew was that no matter how difficult, how hard his own father had been, their fights had never degenerated to violence. Perhaps, he empathized too strongly with a widowed father and a motherless boy to see the true facts of their relationship.
In any event, his short sightedness allowed the boy to be hurt and there was no excuse for that.
Carmen Armenta and Teresa Gamez wrapped themselves around Mario. All three were crying as they hugged. Ben and Ray stood back, watching the family reunion. Ben swallowed against the emotions that churned inside him.
"I'm sorry, Nana," Mario sobbed.
"No, no, you have nothing to be sorry for, mijo. You'll come home with us now. We've all missed you."
Mrs. Armenta kept one arm protectively around the boy while she thanked Ray and Ben for taking care of him. She promised to have him call once he was settled.
Kneeling down she wiped the tears from Mario's face. "Would you like to say good-bye to your friends?" He nodded, suddenly shy in the midst of so much attention.
Mario stuck out his hand to Ray who shook it firmly.
"You're doing the right thing," Ray said.
"He'll be all alone now," Mario said, referring to his father.
"He'll be fine." The boy nodded before turning to Ben. A fresh set of tears started to fall.
Ben knelt down in front of him with a smile. "You're doing just fine."
Mario flung himself into Ben's arms. Ben hugged him close, while his throat tightened with sadness. He had become extremely fond of Mario and would miss him badly. Slowly, he pressed the boy back into his grandmother's embrace.
"Thank you again," she mouthed silently.
"Come on, Mario, Grandma bought a new van to fit us all in. I'll take you downstairs and show you." Teresa took her brother's hand. Mario nodded, still tearful and shaking. He glanced back at Ben one last time before Teresa tugged him into the hall.
"Stay in the lobby," Mrs. Armenta called out. "You can see the van from there." She turned back. "I have to go. It's taxing having four children in the house but...well, my daughter raised beautiful children."
"Yes, she did," Ben agreed.
Awkwardly, the older woman finally just squeezed Ben's hand and then Ray's before she followed after her grandchildren.
Ray closed the door behind them while Ben busied himself with cleaning up the remnants of another pizza.
Ben kept flashing on the bruise darkening Mario's eye and the tears when he told Ben about his father's rampage. He shoved the paper plates into the trash, slamming the lid shut. When he looked up, Ray was leaning against the entryway. Ben looked away, embarrassed by his temper tantrum.
"The kid'll be all right. His grandmother seems like a nice woman."
"You said that Rafael will be released tomorrow?"
"Probably. That's how it usually works unless he's got a record."
"Will he be charged with child abuse?"
"I doubt the State's Attorney will press that unless he's got a history. A lawyer could argue him out of a one-time thing pretty easily."
"Do you see this often? Hurt children?"
"Well, the kids I deal with usually come from complicated homes. The parents are divorced or gone or sometimes they just work all the time so they can't be there to do any parenting. Sometimes they are there but they're drug addicts and alcoholics or they're just incompetent. Sometimes the kids are ignored. Sometimes they're torn down on an emotional level. Sometimes they're abused. Everybody down there has a story."
"How do you do it? Deal with them every day?"
"One person at a time." Ben wondered at that. He was vastly impressed with Ray's ability to keep perspective but his words sounded trite. "And besides, Fraser, I run a recreational center, not a shelter. All I do is provide a safe place to be when home gets too intense."
"It's not a small thing."
"Well, I had to do something with the inheritance." Ray laughed and patted Ben on the shoulder. "Come on, are you heading out or do you want to watch a movie or something?"
"I should go," Ben answered without really thinking about it.
"Oh, well, okay." Ray sounded slightly disappointed but Ben didn't know how to change his mind after committing to leaving. "I'm glad you came over. I know Mario appreciated it."
Ben felt the pang of losing the boy again. He looked away from his host, hiding his reaction. Clearing his throat, he thanked Ray again for having him over and for making the extra effort for Mario. In a swirl of gratitude and good-byes, Ben found himself on the other side of Ray's door and heading in the direction of his own apartment.
Other than occasionally passing Ray in the hall, Ben did not see him for several weeks. Ray tended to work an unusual schedule and Ben, after turning in the final draft of his new novel was dealing with the various "tweaking" as Meg called it.
The week of bookstore visits and signings had him feeling much more inclined to stay at home. Meg called it a huge success that resulted in a significant increase to purchases. She also said the publicity would push sales on his new novel once it was released. He was glad of that but equally glad that it was over for now.
Once freed from that commitment, he worked out the basic outline for his next story and began writing. He found the quiet work therapeutic after the chaos.
Mario called every few days to fill Ben in on his new school and new home. He was having trouble making new friends but he sounded generally happy. He seemed to enjoy living with his brothers and sister again though he missed his father. He confessed that his grandmother was sending him to see a psychiatrist twice a week. While Mario didn't think it would do any good, he was willing to humor her.
As predicted, no charges were filed against Rafael. Ben confronted him a couple of days after Mario left but the man was completely destroyed with regret and grief. There was no shouting or excuses, just murmurs of apology to Mario, to his other children and to his deceased wife.
One rainy night after a particularly long day of writing, Ben decided to brave the weather and go for a walk. Lightning cut across the dark and Ben lifted his face to the cool rain, enjoying the big drops as they splattered across his cheeks. While he knew he was getting soaked, it felt so good being outdoors, breathing real air instead of recycled that he couldn't force himself back indoors until he'd completed two circuits around the block.
His stomach rumbled, reminding him that he hadn't taken a break for breakfast or lunch. He knew he had jarred spaghetti sauce and pasta to heat and there might be a package of cube steaks in the freezer. He seemed to remember a box of macaroni and cheese hiding somewhere in the cupboard. Shuddering at the idea of cooking any of those things, he decided on fast food Mexican. Not the healthiest meal, full of salt and fat, but hot and filling and tasty so he tossed away the nutritional aspects.
He walked to Riva's, escaping the rain long to enough to order their largest combination plate of two shredded beef tacos, a tostada, a bean and cheese burrito, rice and beans. Just to be on the safe side, he ordered a dozen flour tortillas also. As always, the staff was efficient and friendly and within minutes he had his food. A few minutes later he walked into the garage of the apartment building since it was closer than the lobby. The rain had started pouring in earnest, which would not bode well for his dinner.
The aroma from the food filled his nostrils. He couldn't wait to change into dry clothes and tuck in. A voice called out through the echoing garage, startling him into almost dropping the bags of food. Ben turned around, mentally scolding himself for not checking his surroundings when he entered the garage. When he saw Ray Kowalski walking towards him, he sighed in relief
"Fraaaser," Ray called. Then Ben noticed that he wasn't so much walking as staggering.
"Hello, Ray," Ben greeted him, feeling somewhat wary.
"Really?" Ben watched him draw closer as Ray carefully felt for each step. His hair dripped with water and his faded jean jacket showed large dark patches where the rain had soaked in.
"And I'm not very good at it," Ray said. "Ya mind making sure I get off on the right floor?"
"I don't mind. Let me get the elevator."
Ben waited until Ray joined him. He smelled stale smoke and whiskey and rain coming from Ray's clothes and breath.
"That yer dinner?" Ray asked as they walked slowly, side by side to the lift.
"Yes. Mexican food." Ben pressed the button for the elevator.
"Have you eaten?" Ben asked.
"Nope." They stepped inside when the doors opened. Ray leaned against the inside wall and closed his eyes. "Suppose to eat but...nope...never got that far."
Ben stayed close enough to catch him if he stumbled but far enough away that he hoped Ray wouldn't feel crowded.
"I hate drinking," Ray said. "I hate the taste. I hate feeling like this."
"Then why are you drinking?"
Ray shook his head. "Don't know. Stupid, I guess."
Ray's floor number passed without notice. When they reached Ben's floor, the doors opened.
"We've missed your floor, I'm afraid," Ben said.
"Oh." Ray swore. "Well, I'll just go back down." He reached an unsteady hand towards the button and Ben noticed a thin leather bracelet for the first time. He had a sudden urge to see what the bracelet tasted like.
Shaking away that thought, he said, "Why don't you come home with me, Ray. You can share my dinner. You'll feel better if you eat."
Ray flashed a lopsided grin at him. "Really?"
"Of course. I bought more than enough."
"Ya know, yer all right, Fraser."
They made a slow, careful trek to Ben's apartment while Ben wondered what he thought he was doing. Entertaining a drunken neighbor, thinking about licking that same neighbor's bracelet, it was madness.
Ben set one of the dinner bags down and pressed his key into the lock. Ray was leaning towards him, stopping just short of being draped over Ben's back. Ben held his breath and pushed open the door so the two of them could get inside.
He motioned for Ray's jacket, then helped him slip out of it. He draped it over a hook on the coat rack before directing Ray to the living room though with the identical floor plans of each apartment, he guessed that Ray could find it. He then took off his own wet coat and hung it up.
He went into the kitchen to retrieve a dish towel then took it to Ray who was standing in the living room apparently lost.
"Here, take this to dry off with. And sit down, Ray, make yourself comfortable."
Ray shrugged. "My clothes are wet. I don't want to mess up your couch."
"You won't. It's just a couch and it will dry. Please, I'd feel better if you were sitting."
Ray shrugged again before sitting down. Then he started drying his hair with the rag.
Ben went back in the kitchen and pulled plates, napkins and forks out. He stacked them up then delivered them to the living room table where Ray was trying to sit up straight on the couch but was leaning instead. He gave Ben another grin that was just as lopsided as his posture. Ben just smiled back, took the wet towel from him and returned to the kitchen to retrieve the bags containing the soon to be shared dinner.
From the looks of Ray, Ben decided that multiple questions regarding likes and dislikes were out of the question. He just split everything up evenly except for the tostada. He left that for whoever might want it later. He folded two tortillas on to each plate then set Ray's down in front of him.
Manners aside, Ray fell on it like a ravenous wolf. Ben moved his plate out of the way, protecting it from the onslaught.
"Drinking makes me hungry," Ray managed to reveal around a mouthful of burrito.
Ben just nodded. He was hungry as well after not eating all day so he consumed his dinner as well. Ray broke back into the bag of tortillas, helping himself to two more. Ben waved off his offer for another one. They both eyed the remaining tostada sitting innocently in its styrofoam container.
"Be my guest," Ben said, somewhat reluctantly. Ray didn't hesitate.
Ben fleetingly wondered if Ray would be sick after drinking to excess and then eating so quickly. He hoped not as he imagined all sorts of worst case scenarios. Apparently, still not quite finished, Ray retrieved another tortilla. He rolled it up and sat back, munching on it.
"Do you feel any better?" Ben asked.
"You have no idea. You're a good neighbor, Fraser."
"Can I get you anything else?"
"How about water? I'm gonna be sick tomorrow if I don't get some water in my system."
Ben gathered up the remnants of their dinner, leaving the bag of tortillas. He didn't regret sharing, as he was more than full. Clearly, his own hunger overestimated the amount he could reasonably consume. He tossed everything in the trash, retrieved two bottles of water and returned to the living room.
Ray chugged down his bottle. With raised eyebrows, Ben surrendered his. Ray took it, looking somewhat embarrassed, but he chugged that one too. Ray leaned his head back on the couch still clutching one empty container. He closed his eyes.
"Miserable day," he said.
"Went to the big house today, Fraser. No matter how many times I swear I won't go there, I just can't say no."
"To a prison?"
Ray chuckled softly. "No, to my parent's house. That thing is disgustingly big."
"You don't enjoy visiting your parents?"
"Well, being the biggest disappointment to the Kowalski empire since my great grandparents left Poland tends to put a damper on the visiting."
Ben scratched at his memory. "You wouldn't mean Kowalski as in the meat processing business, would you?"
"You got it in one. Kowalski ground beef, Kowalski kielbasa, Kowalski breakfast sausage. You've seen it in the stores, you've served at your table. Kowalski, the first name in meats." Ray laughed again but he squeezed on the plastic water bottle, crushing in the edges.
"I had no idea."
"Well, being second prince to the meat packing king isn't necessarily worth bragging about."
"You have a brother?"
"Ah, yes, Marlon Brando Kowalski, the family just calls him Brandy which, really, what man should go through life being called Brandy and think it's okay? No wonder he got his ass kicked every five minutes in school."
Ray crushed the bottle.
"So, your relationship with your family is strained then."
"You always this quick?"
Not appreciating the sarcasm, Ben said, "If you don't wish to discuss it, you're under no obligation."
Ray opened his eyes. He scooted off to one side before lying down with his head perched on the arm of the couch. He set one foot on the floor and draped his other leg over the back.
"If I weren't still trashed, I might have reservations about getting so comfortable."
"No, please, make yourself at home."
"I like my place," Ray said abruptly. "Do you like living here?"
"It's sufficient. It's quiet enough that I can write undisturbed."
"See, I like it cuz it's small. Two bedrooms, two bathrooms, living room, small, little dining room and a cubicle kitchen. Carpet gets changed every three years. New coat of paint gets slapped on every five years. Got a built-in microwave, a side-by-side refrigerator and a dishwasher that I barely fill every week. Where I grew up, it's nothing like that."
Ben waited while Ray set the crushed bottle on the floor beside him.
"My house, my, uh, parent's house, is three stories chock full of bedrooms and bathrooms and extra living rooms and dining rooms and rooms you aren't ever supposed to go into. They lose people on a regular basis and have to send one of the housekeepers to find them and herd them back into the fold." Ray abandoned the humor in his tone and adopted bitterness instead. "There are closets so big, you could hide in them all day and no one would find you even if they bothered to look. I hate that house."
"I've actually been there once," Ben said remembering. "Though I saw only a small area."
"Really? What brought you to the king's castle?"
"Your mother hosted a literary luncheon populated with local writers and publishers. I was the guest of Renfield Turnbull."
"What'd you think of old mom?"
"She was very gracious."
"Yeah, she knows her manners and she's great at entertaining. No one throws a shindig like mom." Ben noted the real fondness in Ray's voice. He wasn't being sarcastic when he spoke of her.
"Are you and she close?"
"I don't know. I like her the best."
"Do you see her often?"
"She invites me to dinner every week. I go, oh, I guess I'm averaging about every three or four months now. We talk when she invites me but we don't see each other unless I go to dinner."
"And your father?"
"Not close. Damn, dinner's catching up with me." Ray sat up, pressing his hand to his stomach. "I don't want to be sick here, Fraser."
"If you're feeling ill, maybe you should stay rather than..."
"No, no, no. Thanks, but I'm steady enough to get downstairs now. Just, uh, just, you're still a nice guy, Fraser, thanks for feeding me." Ray stood up, still holding his stomach.
"Ray, you don't have to go."
"Yeah, I do. Thanks again though."
Ben followed him to the door. He hated to think of him sick and depressed and alone but short of kidnapping, he could hardly force him to stay. Ray grabbed his jacket off the coat rack in the corner before giving Ben a rueful smile. Ben watched him walk down the hall, waiting until he stepped into the elevator before closing his door.
Ben rose at his usual time the next day but he could feel the exhaustion weighing down his limbs and slowing his mind. He required more than four hours of sleep in a night, particularly after the grueling workday he put in the day before. The soft rain pouring outside only added to his lethargy.
Determined to not give into the temptation of going out again, he reminded himself that he had a deadline to meet.
As Ben sat down to read the morning paper and drink a cup of coffee, his mind strayed to thoughts of Ray Kowalski. The raw, brittle tones that Ray used as he spoke of his family illustrated a deep bitterness towards them. Clearly, he retained fondness for his mother but even that was tinged with melancholy.
He hoped that Ray arrived back at this apartment safely and that he didn't spend the night lamenting his lost evening. He also hoped that the dinner and the water helped alleviate some of the hangover that Ray was undoubtedly experiencing.
He wished he could have done more, said the right words or listened better so that Ray would have felt comfortable staying over. He wouldn't have attempted any sort of liaison, he just would have liked to help lessen some of Ray's anxiety and sadness.
Ben laughed at himself suddenly when he remembered that he hadn't found the opportunity to lick Ray's bracelet. Well, perhaps he did harbor some inappropriate regrets for the evening.
He folded his newspaper, dumped his remaining cold coffee in the kitchen sink and sat down in front of the computer. He managed to bring up the file and find where he left off before thoughts of Ray interfered again.
On a whim, he left his apartment and headed downstairs. He wouldn't be able to work until he assured himself that Ray was all right. He supposed he was presuming too much but he really just wanted to check in and he would try to be as unobtrusive as possible.
Ben rang the doorbell, feeling more than a little uncomfortable. He felt almost immediately that he was making an error in judgment. After all, just because he spent some time with Ray the night before hardly made it his business to be visiting first thing in the morning. A stranger opened the door.
He was several inches shorter than Ben and stockier. He wore an expensive black suit with a red silk tie.
"Hello," he said, his voice hard and rough, as he met Ben's eyes.
"Hello. I'm looking for Ray Kowalski."
"He's here. We're a bit busy though so perhaps..."
"Dad," Ray's voice interrupted calmly. He stepped into view and for the first time Ben noticed the resemblance between the two. Ray was taller and lankier but there were similarities in their facial features. The older Kowalski moved away from the door and out of view.
"Ray, I apologize. This is obviously a bad time."
"It is, kind of, but, uh, it's okay. Just, maybe we could catch up later, huh?"
"Yes...we can. I'm just glad to see that you're well."
"Yeah, I'm good. It was nice of you to check. Are you working today?"
"I'll be upstairs writing all day."
"All right, well, I'll give you a call later. And thanks again."
Ray shut the door slowly. Ben took a breath. The tension in Ray's apartment had soaked into him, making him want to shiver. Ray looked a mess with dark smudges under his eyes and milky, pale skin. Ben wished he had the right to stay, to walk in and stop whatever was going on behind that closed door.
Ben wrote steadily until noon. He was surprisingly close to completing the first hundred pages by the time he stopped to stretch and retrieve a bottle of water from the refrigerator. As he made his way back from the kitchen, the telephone caught his eye.
He considered for a moment then decided to be spontaneous. He phoned directory assistance and then wrote the number down. He listened to eight rings before a young voice answered.
"Holden Caulfield Center."
"Hello. Is Ray Kowalski available?"
"He's out on the basketball court getting his ass kicked. Can I take a message?"
"You do mean that he's losing at basketball, correct?"
A laugh. "Right."
"Then, no, no message. I'll speak with him later."
After Ben hung up, he smiled to himself. It had been far too long since he harbored a sincere interest in another person. He stood in front of the balcony window watching the rain. He was surprised and pleased to see that it was really pouring outside. He thought of Ray, splashing about on the basketball court, a thin t-shirt soaked and sticking to his skin, his face flushed with the exertion and cold. He gave himself an internal shake.
He could be interested without mooning like a child. He decided to heat some soup for lunch to occupy his mind. He didn't succeed. The rain remained constant and his thoughts returned to Ray Kowalski.
Ben worked steadily through the afternoon. The outline he'd drafted showed three distinct sections for the story and he managed to finish the first part before he took a break. As his stomach reminded him that soup is not a substitute for a filling meal, he decided to treat himself again and go out to find dinner.
He walked three blocks to the grocery store and bought a steak, a baking potato and an economy sized can of corn. He tried not to think that it seemed somehow pathetic to shop daily for one individual.
Ben arrived home with his single grocery bag, stopping short when he found Robert Fraser standing in front of his apartment. He was stunned at the sight. Ben hadn't seen his father in three years. They spoke on the phone on Christmas and on the occasional birthday but it was nothing more than obligation.
His father looked good if older. His hair had gone completely gray and the wrinkles around his eyes and nose were more pronounced. He still held his posture rigid. He wore his brown RCMP uniform, holding the Stetson in his hand. But, still, for his age, he looked healthy.
"Benton," he said formally, holding out his hand. Ben grasped it firmly for only a moment.
"Hello, Dad," he said, feeling wary.
"I was going to leave a note."
"I just went out for a few groceries."
"Ah, well, I suppose you make your own schedule when your occupation is a hobby."
Ben ignored the rebuff. "Yes, I do."
Ben put his key in the lock and let them in. Robert followed, taking in the surroundings, appraising each corner and baseboard. Or it seemed like it, at least.
"This is fancy. Not like the cabin."
Ben set his keys on the kitchen counter. He opened the refrigerator door, setting the bag inside without emptying it.
"Are you hungry, Dad? I can make you something."
Ben's mind traitorously flashed to seven year old Benton asking the same question when his father returned from patrolling. "All you make are sandwiches," his father had replied. "A man needs something hot when he comes home."
"No, I'm not hungry," Robert answered.
Robert continued pacing around the living room with his hands clasped behind his back. He examined the pictures on the walls, the lampshades and the end tables with equal interest. Ben just watched him, waiting to hear of some tragedy. Why else would his father visit unexpectedly?
"Nice place, very clean," his father said.
"Thank you. Uh, Dad, if you don't mind my asking..."
"What am I doing here? Who died?"
Ben laughed lightly though he didn't feel any mirth.
"I was in town, sent in to pick up a suspect and transport her back. I thought I should stop in. Congratulations on your book, by the way."
"Thank you." Ben answered tightly. He had phoned his father when the novel was purchased and had received the same cursory congratulations. And the fact that his father had stopped in simply because he happened to be stranded in the city wasn't exactly heart warming. On the other hand, he knew he should not have expected anything else.
He took a breath to clear the tightness from his chest before he spoke. "You're welcome to sleep here, of course. I have a spare room."
"That's kind of you, Ben, especially since I just dropped in like this. I should have called first but things were hectic and I wasn't certain I'd be able to see you."
"It's not a problem. Do you have any bags?"
"They're downstairs in the car. I'll retrieve them later."
"I'll go. Just give me the keys and tell me what you're driving."
"I said I'd get them later, Benton."
Ben hated the way his stomach clenched at his father's tone. It had been a long time since he heard it and an even longer time since it was a threat.
"Very well. The television remote control is there on the table and there are books on the bookshelves. I'm going to shower and change into dry clothes."
Ben left the room before his father could say anything else. He didn't want to fight. He wanted to be passed the need to argue and defend himself. He stripped off his sodden clothing, his skin itchy and cold to the touch. Ransacking his closet, he found a fresh pair of blue jeans and a tan Henley, both of which he tossed on the bed.
From the living room, he heard voices and knew that his father had settled into his habit of television viewing. As a boy, Ben had participated in the same mindless activity but as his experiences grew so did his need for a different kind of stimuli. He discovered books through some kind librarians at his elementary school and he never found television as fascinating again. With practice he learned to shut out the sound of it and concentrate only on his reading.
Ben let the hot water warm his cold skin, relishing the sensation. He stood beneath the spray with his head back and his eyes closed thinking that he could stay there forever. A few minutes later he gave in to duty. He washed his hair and his body and then he stepped out on to the soft bathroom rug to dry off.
As he heard the television again, he hadn't realized how much he despised that sound. But, of course, he did watch television, alone and with Mario and he'd never hated it before. He hated the mental image of his father lying on the couch, taking up all the space, wearing old, unwashed clothes and not moving for hours while the television droned on.
Ben dressed slowly, putting off the inevitable as long as possible. When he couldn't procrastinate any longer, he returned to the living room.
His father was not lying on the couch but sitting, still ramrod straight, pressing the channel select compulsively. He glanced at Ben and set the remote down.
"What prisoner are you escorting?" Ben asked as he went into the kitchen to boil water for tea.
"No one special. A woman wanted in connection with a bank robbery up near Alaska."
"A woman bank robber, that's unusual, isn't it?"
"Not as much as it used to be."
"No, I suppose it wouldn't be. You're welcome to shower if you'd like."
"I'll shower before bed just as always."
"Of course. I'd forgotten."
An awkward silence fell between them. Ben never knew how to talk to his father. Every word spoken between them seemed like a battle of wills. He felt alternately sad and frustrated and angry by that fact but in the end, despair pushed to the forefront.
Arranged in the far corner of the apartment, facing towards the window, sat Ben's salvation from further meaningless conversations. He hadn't planned to work through the evening but his story beckoned like the escape that it was.
"I'm going to do some work, Dad. If you want anything, I'll be at my desk. Help yourself to anything in the kitchen."
"Thank you. I've no wish to put you to any trouble." Ben bristled inside knowing that his father meant that sarcastically as if he thought that Ben should remain available for his whims.
He refused to be goaded though. With a nod, he went to his desk, opened up the word processor and the story file. As he worked through the completed chapters, he re-wrote, making small changes to enhance a description or tighten the plot. Characterization was his weakness so he gave that aspect extra attention. As often was the case when he was working, all surrounding distractions disappeared with the time.
Ben worked through three chapters before he realized the late hour. The television still played and his father was dozing on the couch. The rain continued pelting the window with some fairly aggressive winds adding power to nature's entertainment. He sat back and rubbed his eyes, deciding that he would put the steak in the freezer and scramble up some eggs instead.
Ben stretched as he stood up. The clock on the computer screen read 9:30. Three hours had passed since he started working. He twisted his neck, listening to the pops as his tension released. He glanced over at his father remembering how he hated his father's naps when he was a boy. Ben spent so much time alone in their isolated cabin, particularly in winter, that he had longed for his father's company.
Robert made a grumbling noise in his throat and opened his eyes. He blinked a few times before rubbing them, then he sat up.
"Getting too old for couch sleeping," he said as he picked up the remote and turned off the television.
"Are you hungry?" Ben asked.
"I could eat. What did you have in mind?"
"I have eggs and bacon and bread for toast. Do you still enjoy having breakfast for dinner?"
"That I do. But you best let me cook the eggs if you don't mind."
Of course, Ben thought, I never could make them to your satisfaction.
"I'll make the eggs, Dad, and the rest."
"I don't mind." Robert stood up.
"I mind. You're a guest and I can cook just fine without your assistance."
"Benton, you know I'm particular. There's no need to argue."
"We aren't arguing. I am telling you that I'm perfectly capable of making this meal, all of it."
"Oh, here it comes," Robert said, rubbing his face with both hands.
"Here what comes?"
"The usual complaints. I thought you'd be over this nonsense by now."
"What on earth are you talking about?"
"This...this...nonsense. All this touchy-feely pop-psychology nonsense about how I raised you. We've had this argument a hundred times. All I want to do is make my own eggs."
"Well, that's not going to happen," Ben said before he stalked back into the kitchen. The man never changes, he thought. He grabbed the bacon out of the refrigerator and the frozen hash browns from the freezer. He felt his father's presence in the doorway before he looked up to see him.
"Ben, you have to understand what it was like for me when you were a boy. I never dreamed I'd have to raise you alone."
"Neither one of us did."
"I did the best I could but I had a job to do besides raising you, something you've never understood."
Ben couldn't keep the sarcasm inside. "No, you're right, I'm being selfish. I wanted to be your priority. How silly of me when there were hundreds of felons needing your attention too."
"I'm a Mountie, Benton, I couldn't stop being that just because you needed a hand to hold."
Ben stopped, shocked by the callousness of his father's words. After all these years, he had thought that his father understood him, at least somewhat. He never should have let himself think that.
"All right, Dad," he said, softly. "I don't want to fight either. I'll call you when it's time to cook your eggs."
"Benton, I don't want to..."
"No, you're right. As you say, there's no point to any of this."
His father looked at him for a long moment before he finally shrugged and went back to the living room. Ben leaned his back against the sink with both hands curled around the edge.
Ben managed to get through the remainder of the evening without another argument. He decided to give up trying to explain his feelings to his father. There was no point. Ben was an adult. Most people had difficult childhoods so he wasn't unique or special because of it. He needed to concentrate on the present rather than the past.
At seven the next morning, Robert called to him from his bedroom doorway. His father was already dressed in his brown uniform looking pressed and fit and prepared.
"I'm leaving, son. Thanks for putting me up. I'll talk to you soon."
"Wait," Ben said still fighting back sleep. "I'll make breakfast or..."
"No need. I'll have to feed my prisoner and I can eat then. Take care of yourself, son."
And that was that. His father left without so much as offering a handshake in good-bye. Ben listened as the front door opened and closed. He lay back down, staring at the ceiling and pressing the ache in his stomach back into the box where he kept it.
He stayed in bed for a long time, barely moving, not really thinking, just letting his mind drift. His father's visit had been so brief and so surreal that he could almost believe he imagined it.
Slowly, mostly because his bladder was insisting, Ben rose. He took care of his more pressing needs, then took a quick shower. He felt better for the routine of it. When he came out of the bathroom, he heard the insistent buzz of his doorbell. He slipped into the jeans and shirt he had worn the night before, the dry ones not the damp ones, and hurried into the living room wondering if his father had forgotten something.
In the hall, Ray Kowalski stood with a bag from the Sunshine and Daisies bakery.
"Morning, Fraser, you want some breakfast?"
Ben just nodded as he stepped aside. Ray walked straight towards the kitchen. Ben followed him.
"You want to make coffee?" Ray asked sounding disappointed.
"I can do that. I've just gotten up and haven't had the chance to make a pot yet."
"I thought you were the prepared type," Ray teased. "You never know when a neighbor from two floors down might show up with breakfast on a Saturday morning. You have to be ready, Fraser."
"Of course you're right, Ray. I'll do better in future."
"Good. You like bagels? I got all kinds in here. Plain, onion, blueberry, sesame seed, them everything ones with well, everything on them. There's plain cream cheese and vegetable too so we have a real feast in this bag."
"I'll get butter and you can toast them while the coffee's brewing."
They fell into an easy banter while they prepared the food, moving around each other like it was an old habit instead of a first time get together.
When both bagels were toasted and buttered, sesame seed for Ben and blueberry for Ray, they moved into the dining room where Ben filled their coffee cups. Ray tackled the plain cream cheese while Ben used the vegetable. They both attacked their bagels enthusiastically.
"Nobody makes bagels like the Daisy," Ray said around a mouthful.
Ben swallowed. "These are good. It was thoughtful of you to come by."
"Well, I owed you for the other night. Besides, I was thinking it was time we moved on this whole friendship thing. I mean we've been skirting around it but the truth is, I like your company, you seem to like mine so what the hell. I've got some room on my dance card, how about you?"
Ben halted the thought that Ray's offer sounded like flirting. "I...yes...I'd like that."
"Good. Greatness. You got any plans today?"
"Nothing specific though I should work on my new book."
"Another book, huh? You're gonna be the next Stephen King, aren't ya?"
"I hope not," Ben answered, sincerely and Ray grinned at him.
"Look, writing to you is like a job, right?" Ray asked.
"Yes, I suppose it is."
"Work on a Saturday? I don't think so. I'm going to a basketball game. It's high school but one of the kids from the center is playing and I told him I'd try to make it. You want to come?"
Ben surprised himself by not hesitating. "I'd like that."
"All right then, game's at eleven."
Ben glanced towards the clock. That gave them an hour to fill if Ray intended to leave at 10:30.
"Would you like another bagel?"
"Might as well. I'll give that everything one a go."
Ben went in the kitchen to toast two more bagels. He sliced through them, ignoring the excitement twittering around in his stomach.
"Hey, uh, Fraser..." Ray yelled from the other room.
"You are gay right? I mean, we're on the same page here?"
Ben dropped the knife in his hand, which unfortunately bounced off the cupboard and landed on the floor. He swore to himself as he bent down to get it, banging his knee against a cupboard doorknob as he did. Cursing again, he tried to pick up the knife only to have it slip due to the butter on it. It skittered across the floor. He went after it viciously, grabbing at it with clumsy fingers only to drop it again when Ray spoke.
"Or maybe we're not."
"Oh, no, we are," Ben stated stupidly. "I just can't seem to get hold of this...knife...ha, got it." He stood up, knife in hand, feeling somewhat triumphant which immediately gave way to embarrassment.
"I'm sorry about being so blunt but I, well, I just am," Ray said.
Ben took a breath to regain his composure. "Not at all. I'm glad you had the courage to...I might have...I'm somewhat awkward with...oh, look, your bagel has popped up." Ben plucked it out of the toaster and handed it to Ray.
"I'll just take it to the other room while you do yours." Ben couldn't help smiling at the teasing grin that Ray gave him. He rubbed his forehead trying to erase his own stupidity.
After he toasted his second bagel and returned to the table, Ray steered their conversation. Much to Ben's relief, Ray seemed to have an endless supply of subjects available for discussion.
The hour passed quickly while they finished their breakfast and cleaned up. Ray said he needed to go to his apartment before they left and Ben still needed to put on clean clothes, so they agreed to meet in the lobby.
Ben hummed softly to himself while he changed. He thanked his luck that the minor infatuation he held for Ray had the potential to become something more. What started out as a day likely to be filled with depressing memories of a childhood devoid of emotion was fast becoming a day filled with possibilities. He took a glance in the mirror, pleased with the dark green sweater he wore over his jeans.
He took the elevator to Ray's floor instead of to the lobby on the chance that he might meet him in transit. When the door opened, he glanced down the hall and not seeing Ray, he decided to knock on his door . After all, Ray had risked quite a lot just by coming to Ben's door with breakfast and a proposition. It couldn't hurt to return some of that enthusiasm.
As he drew close, he heard the first sounds of a commotion, an argument probably. He moved slowly down the hall, turning his body sideways and cocking his head. The voices grew louder as he approached. With just a few steps away, a loud thump against an inside wall made him jump. Heart pounding, certain he was interrupting a robbery, Ben flung open Ray's door.
A stranger had Ray pinned to the wall with his fists gathered into the collar of Ray's shirt. Both he and Ray noticed Ben with surprise, which apparently gave Ray the break he needed. He shoved the other man away viciously, causing him to stumble back a few steps. Ben started towards him stopped only by Ray's shout.
"Hey! Leave it alone." Ray stayed flat against the wall, his breath coming in gasps.
"What is going on?" Ben demanded.
"None of your business," the stranger said. He wasn't a tall man, probably a few inches shorter than Ben but what he lacked in height, he made up for in bulk. He was wide chested with muscular arms that pressed against the lines of his business suit. He had the features to be handsome but none of the warmth to be attractive and he looked to be in his late forties or early fifties.
"I heard the yelling," Ben explained.
The stranger just shook his head at Ben like he was deficient before he turned back to Ray.
"You know better," he said, pointing a finger. With one last glare for Ben, he stalked out, slamming the door behind him.
Ray sank to the floor, flinching at the sound of the door. Ben stood helplessly for a moment. He didn't know what to do. Would Ray be embarrassed and want to be left alone? Would he want to talk? Was he hurt? The indecision never passed but Ben's body made the choice. He went to Ray and crouched in front of him.
"Let me help you up."
"I hate that son of a bitch. Fuck...fuck, fuck, fuck, I hate him."
Ray continued his tirade, swearing and proclaiming hatred. Ben pulled him to his feet, taking note of his trembling while Ben helped him to the couch. Ray didn't stay down. He jumped up, stalking around his apartment, still cursing everything related to his father and his heritage, cursing himself for cowardice. Ben waited him out. He stayed out of the way, silent and invisible while Ray raged until he finally regained control of himself.
As the anger dimmed, his awareness seemed to grow and he stopped to notice that Ben was there.
"Jesus," Ray muttered as he sank on to the couch.
Ben took a breath, glad to see the tantrum abating. He sat down in the chair opposite, leaning forward.
"Are you hurt?" He asked softly.
"Does my pride count?" Ben gave him a small smile. "Then I'm fine."
"I'm sorry that I barged in. I thought you were being robbed."
"Better you walking in than me getting a busted windpipe." Ben nodded silently and Ray continued. "He was always strong, used to foreman one of my dad's plants. He did the butchering before he got his own office, ya know?"
"I'm sure," Ben said. "He's obviously very physical."
"Physical? Heh. I guess you could say that." Ray glanced down at his hands that were trembling. "Shit, I hate when he gets me crazy like this."
"Exactly what was going on here, Ray?"
Ray stood up again. He paced back and forth behind the couch a few times before he started speaking. He kept squeezing his hands into fists until his knuckles turned white, then he'd flex the fingers only to squeeze them again.
"He's my father's right hand guy. Dad sent him over to tell me to stay out of the business."
Ray started pacing again and flexing his hands, adding the occasional sharp turn of his neck eliciting a sharp crack. The more he walked, the more Ben recognized the steps from watching boxing. Ray wasn't throwing any air punches but the rest of his body had picked up the rhythm.
"I've never been clean enough, neat enough, smart enough, polite enough, strong enough, driven enough, enough enough. I've never been anything that my father wanted. I was whiny and weak and clumsy. Bad eyesight, not enough bulk, weird hair." Ray pointed to his shorn skull, the disgust shining through glazed eyes.
Ben wanted to reach out, to touch him, to find some way to comfort him but he didn't have the right, not yet. They barely knew each other. But, he couldn't turn away from the need.
"You saw my father yesterday. He came over to chew me out for disappointing my mother. I guess I'm supposed to sit by quietly while he and Brandy and, well you just met Clay Robertson, while the three of them take pot shots at me. I wasn't supposed to leave before dinner." Ray shook his head slowly as he ran his hands over his head. "It's always the same and I just couldn't do it." He took a breath. "But, mom was disappointed. She likes having the family together once in a while and I'm the only who won't play."
Ben didn't understand yet but he remained quiet, confident that Ray would complete the explanation.
Ray made a sound that should have been a laugh but bitterness traced through it. "Clay makes sure that everything in my father's world runs nice and smooth. I guess I threw a wrench in the works. That little visit was a reminder that I'm supposed to keep quiet and stay out of the family business."
"I was under the impression that you do stay out of the business."
"I do. I, Ben Fraser, am a victim of circumstance. I got pissed off, I let my mouth go and Clay wasn't too happy about it."
"You said something at your family dinner?" Ben guessed.
"Yeah, well, another reason to keep refusing those invitations. Clay just dropped by to let me know I'd better keep my comments to myself. He really hates it when I upset my father."
"Don't worry about it, Fraser. That's just how they are. They give you money when they're happy and a fist when they're not."
"Nothing gives him the right to treat you that way."
"It's always been like that. It was Dad when I was growing up and Clay when I got too old to take it from my father."
"You do realize that it's wrong."
Ray's eyes narrowed while his lips pressed into a thin line. "It's the way it is."
Ben spoke slowly, carefully. "No one should throw you against a wall for any reason."
Ray threw up his hands, obviously frustrated. "I don't know why I'm talking to you about this. We barely know each other so how are you supposed to get it?"
Ben contained his response, keeping his voice deliberately soft, having no wish to escalate the argument. "I'm sorry. I know that you view this as a family matter and there are likely issues at work here with which I'm unfamiliar."
"You got that right."
"But, Ray, being your father's...right hand, as you call it, doesn't give him the right to..."
"Maybe not but you can save the righteous indignation, all right? Until dinner the other day, I haven't even seen Clay in months. Today was just a show, a reminder, it's all over now."
Ben didn't want to let it go. He had a strong desire to seek out this "Clay" and explain to him, in the strongest terms, that his actions are unacceptable.
"Look, you just walked in on a bad moment, okay?" Ray said, obviously needing him to agree.
Ben nodded slowly. "Okay."
"I can handle my own family."
"I'm sure you can."
Ray held up his hands for a moment in a gesture of surrender. He took some deep breaths and closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the anger was gone. Ben thought he could still detect some sadness though.
"You still want to go see Tyrone play?" Ray asked. "We'll miss the tip-off but we should get to see most of the game."
"I'd like that," Ben said.
"Good. All right then, let me just grab a jacket. If I'd brought it with me in the first place we could've avoided this whole mess."
Ben kept his silence. His instincts screamed that there was more to Ray's story than this one incident. More than instincts, Ray had practically admitted that his father and Clay Robertson were abusive. But Ben understood families and the need to keep some things inside the four walls of one's home. Sergeant Robert Fraser had taught him that in no uncertain terms.
Ray came out of his bedroom wearing a waist-length leather jacket that accented his physique. Ben couldn't help admiring both the jacket and the wearer. Despite the ugliness of the last few minutes, his attraction remained true.
"Well, I've been spilling my guts all over the place, now it's your turn," Ray said as he steered his classic GTO into traffic.
"What would you like to know?"
"Oh, okay, you're like that, are you?" Ray laughed. "Where'd you go to school?"
"I graduated from the University of Chicago in 1983."
"But, you're Canadian right?"
"Yes, I grew up in the Northwest Territories, primarily around Inuvik."
"In-u-vik?" Ray asked, testing his pronunciation, which was correct.
"How'd you end up here?"
"My grandparents were both professors at university. When I decided to go to college rather than pursue my father's profession, it was decided that moving here was the most logical course."
"What'd they teach?"
"My grandmother taught Comparative Literature and my grandfather taught Anthropology."
"What'd you study?"
"I fancied myself a journalist. After graduation, I returned to Inuvik and worked for several small newspapers there and in some of the surrounding towns. When I decided to give that up and pursue writing books, it only seemed natural to come back here."
"Not too many book agents in Inu..Inuvik?"
"There are some. Writers are everywhere so, naturally there are agents. But, I enjoyed living here before and I had some contacts from school and through my grandparents."
"Have they been able to help you much?"
"They died three years ago in a car accident."
"It's all right," Ben assured him. "They lived a good life."
"So, uh, do you miss living in your own country?"
"Frequently. But, as my father likes to say, finding success requires that sacrifices must be made."
"This is the school," Ray said as he turned into a mostly deserted parking lot. While he searched for a parking space the subject of Ben's life was put aside.
"They don't get a lot of attendance at these Saturday games," Ray said as he pulled into a space. "Plus, you know, Tyrone's their star player and he isn't good enough to make a career of it so he's not much of a draw. Be sure and lock your door."
They stepped out and then as if the initial conversation had never been dropped he said, "So, your dad is big with the advice?"
"When it suits him," Ben answered.
Apparently this wasn't Ray's first visit as he knew the direction to take to the gymnasium. He also pulled six dollars out of his pocket and paid for tickets before Ben realized the school was charging. He had never seen a high school charge admission to a student sport but he supposed it was necessary.
Ray led them up the rubber-skidded steps of the bleachers and into an empty row. The game played out before them on the court below. The players bounded from one end of the court to the other, the fans cheered on their teams and shouted at individual players. Ben guessed they must be rooting for the home team since the bleachers on their side were more occupied than the ones they faced.
Along the sidelines, players in multi-colored uniforms encouraged and instructed their teammates but remained seated.
"Why aren't they leaping to their feet?" Ben asked when the home team scored.
"They're not allowed. They can shout and cheer all they want but they have to stay in their seats. They say it's a courtesy thing to the other team but I think they just want to stay in control." Ray pointed midway across the court. "That's Tyrone, number 57."
Tyrone stood two inches taller than the tallest player on either team. He was muscular and surprisingly graceful for a boy his size. Slipping from his guard easily, he darted in and smoothly took possession of the ball from the opposition. With his head up, watching for interference, he dribbled towards the basket, then jumped and threw. The ball sank through the net and the crowd cheered.
Ray stood up, clapping and yelling so Ben followed suit though he was more interested in watching Ray than the game.
For an hour, Ben indulged in his new favorite activity. Ray expressed everything in his body and face. His voice was just an added feature to all the other cues. Ben thought he could watch this man act and react forever.
When the game ended Tyrone had outscored his teammates and the opposition. As the buzzer sounded, the last basket swished through the net and Ray was still on his feet, shouting and cheering and vibrating with enthusiasm.
On the court, sweaty players congratulated each other on a game well played while three uniformed police officers stood close by and at attention. Ben wondered if they were there for a reason or for appearance. He didn't have time to consider it though as Ray started herding him back out of the seats saying that he wanted to congratulate Tyrone.
Ben moved into the aisle and then out of the way to allow Ray to lead them down to the court. Despite the small showing of observers, they had to work their way through groupings of people who were blocking various paths. But, Tyrone must have spotted Ray because he yelled out a greeting and met them halfway.
"Hey, Ray, thanks for coming." They shook hands and Ray patted Tyrone on the shoulder.
"Good game, Tyrone. You just sailed right through those other guys."
"Thanks. They're an okay team but I figured we'd beat them. Who's your friend?"
"Oh, sorry, I'm rude as hell. This is Ben Fraser."
Ben shook hands with the youth and felt like his limb disappeared into the depths of Tyrone's grip. The boy was even larger than Ben had realized.
"I'm going to be the next Shaq," Tyrone said with a grin.
"You're going to college where you'll study just in case that doesn't work out," Ray said.
Tyrone just laughed and slapped Ray on the back. Ray stumbled forward a step then glared at him.
"I gotta go. Thanks again, Ray."
Ben watched the boy walk away then turned back to his companion.
"You ready?" Ray asked.
Ben just nodded and followed him across the court and out one of the side doors. Most of the other spectators were doing the same while the school volunteers cleaned up their table and started folding their chairs. The police officers had split up and one was guarding the small cash box while the others stood outside the exit.
"We didn't have police at my school games," Ben commented.
"Well, your class mates probably don't come to school through a metal detector. And I'll bet you didn't spend a lot of time hiding out from rival street gangs."
"That's true enough, although my scout troop did attract the unfriendly attention of an otter wielding ruffian."
"This I gotta hear," Ray said, throwing a grin in Ben's direction.
"Oh, well, there were three of us in the troop. Innusiq, June and I and we would meet after school and try to earn badges that we had read about. Unfortunately, Jasper Crux felt that having a girl in our scout troop was particularly offensive so he stole an otter out of a hunter's trap and attacked us. I have quite a nice scar that bears the distinct shape of an otter's teeth on my shoulder."
"The otter was dead?"
Ray was clearly trying to refrain from laughing as Ben answered in a dour tone. "Yes. It's illegal to swing a live otter."
Ray rubbed both hands over his face, glancing upwards for a moment. "So it was assault. Did you have him arrested?"
"He was ten years old. As was I. I spent four hours getting sutured and was unable to attend school for two days."
"Did you go back to being a scout after that?" Ray sounded like he was searching for something good in the minor horror story.
"June and I wanted to but Innusiq seemed to be bored with the concept. In fact, I believe he befriended Jasper a short time later."
"Ouch," Ray said sympathetically.
"On several levels actually."
Ray ran a hand over Ben's arm, turning serious all at once. "I'll bet." Ben felt a shiver run along his spine as his attraction towards Ray flared up. Unbidden the image of Ray lying naked and draped across his bed flashed through Ben's mind. He forcibly suppressed it, knowing too well how his body would react if he continued with that line of fantasy.
"You know, we're guys," Ray said softly.
"Yes, I am aware of that."
Ray moved forward until he was a hair's breadth away from touching Ben. "It means the three date rule doesn't really apply."
"What's the three date rule?"
Ray exhaled and Ben could feel the warmth against his neck. "Women. No sex before the third date or they're too easy."
"Really?" Ben asked, his voice thick.
"Really." Ray looked at him, impossibly innocent and wanton at the same time. "But guys, well, you know, everybody knows that guys are easy. No third date rule for us."
Ben found himself agreeing as his body tingled with the energy Ray fed him just by sheer proximity. "That's a good thing."
"I think so. I guess we can figure out your place or mine when we get there."
"Yours. It's closer," Ben said, emboldened by need.
Ray reached down, brushing his hand along the front of Ben's jeans. Ben stiffened, his breath catching, wondering how much Ray intended to get away with in a school parking lot. The snick of the door opening startled him and Ray laughed as he brushed passed him to go to the driver's side.
"Ah. Very funny," Ben commented as he slid into the passenger's side.
Ben learned several things during the remainder of that afternoon. First, he learned that Ray talks when he's nervous. He talks about everything and anything and pretends he's doing it to put his companion at ease. Second, Ben learned that an elevator ride to any floor can seem interminable especially when even holding hands is not permissible due to societal norms. Third, Ben learned that expectations were pointless when one's companion has the imagination of an artist and the attention span of a puppy. Ben found himself assailed by so many sensations simultaneously that his body became a being without any mind to guide it.
"I'm hungry," Ray said as he rolled off Ben's chest and reached for the alarm clock. He squinted at the numbers. "It's almost nine."
Ben tackled him lazily, nibbling a short path between Ray's earlobe and neck and then back again. Ray laughed as he caressed Ben's skin with firm hands.
"You're not hungry?" Ray asked in between sighing at the soft bites. "Those were some bagels."
"Starving, actually," Ben said as he rested with his head against Ray's chest and his hands curled around his hips. The soft beating of Ray's heart sent a warm flicker through him.
Ray settled one hand against Ben's head and one against the back of his neck. He kneaded his fingers softly against both.
"You're kind of a cuddle bug, aren't you?"
Oh, God, Ben thought, not pet names. "Cuddle bug?" He repeated, horrified at the prospect.
"Yeah, it's what my mother calls infants. You know the kind that are always rubbing against your shoulder and stuff. You like to cuddle is all I mean."
Thank God, Ben thought. "I suppose I do. Does it bother you?"
A chuckle vibrated against Ben's ear.
"No, it's nice. My ex didn't like to. She was more the 'hurry up and get it over' type."
"You have an ex-wife?" Ben felt stupid as soon as he asked.
"We got divorced a couple years ago. She's a lawyer down in the sunshine state now."
Ben pushed himself back and stretched out with his hands behind his head. "You are full of surprises, Ray Kowalski."
"Does it bother you? That I have an ex-wife? That I like girls too?"
Ben felt around until he found Ray's wrist. He brought it to his lips, mouthing the leather band lightly. It tasted raw and musty. He felt Ray laugh beneath him. He released the bracelet with a lick. "No, we both have pasts. As it happens, I've occasionally dated women as well though I've never married one."
Both men fell into an easy silence. Ray didn't question Ben's interest in his bracelet. Ben closed his eyes, savoring the quiet companionship. Ray shifted quietly and leaned down to press his lips against Ben's ear. He kissed first, then gave a soft lick before he spoke.
"As warm and cuddly as you are, Ben, I gotta rinse off and I want food, how about you?"
"Mmm, yes, to both."
Ben's cell phone rang and startled them both.
Ray rolled out of bed immodestly, dug through the clothes scattered on the floor until he found the offending item. Tossing the phone playfully to Ben, he said,
"I'm hitting the shower."
Ben waited until the third ring just so he could watch Ray walk away and then he pressed the answer button.
"It's your father, Ben. There's been a delay in the processing of my prisoner. I've been at the police station all day trying to work it out but there's nothing to be done now until Monday. Can you put me up for another couple of days?"
Ben ignored his first instinct to refuse the request.
"Of course, Dad. Are you coming over now?"
"About half an hour. I've already eaten so I just need the bed for tonight."
"I, uh, haven't so if you'd call before you leave, I'm going to have dinner first."
"It's after nine, Benton, you should be taking better care of yourself."
"I take care of myself just fine, Dad. Call me when you're on your way."
Ben disconnected before his father could impart some bit of sarcasm. He set the phone down and stared towards the closed bathroom door, regret nearly overwhelming him. His weekend of continuing his exploration into Ray Kowalski was ruined. His father's timing was appalling, he hadn't seen the man in three years before yesterday and now, when he actually had something besides work to interest him, he came charging back into his life.
Ben thought he'd have time for a quick dinner and then he'd have to wait until Monday to see Ray. Disappointment washed through him again until the first shadow of a new thought crept in. At first he couldn't acknowledge it and then...he could.
Why would he have to cancel his weekend? His father hardly needed a sitter and they barely spoke when they were together. He could give his father the spare key, tell him to make himself at home and Ben could continue with his weekend. It's not as if his father was unaware of his sexual orientation. Far from it, they'd had several rows about it back when Ben was a teenager right through into his twenties.
Ray came out of the bathroom with a towel around his hips and his hair pressed in tufts around his head.
"I left the water running for you," he said.
"Thank you," Ben felt the smile spread across his face. "Let me shower, then I'll tell you about an errand I have to run and after that we can find something to eat."
Ray looked taken aback for a moment but he just shrugged and started digging around in a dresser drawer. Ben passed him deliberately as he went towards the bathroom. He kissed him on the shoulder savoring the faint taste of soap mixed with the shower water.
Ben didn't linger in the shower so they were both clean and dressed and holding each other on the couch before Ben's father phoned again.
"So, your dad is a cop?"
"Royal Canadian Mounted Police," Ben answered.
"That's the job you didn't follow him into?"
"That's right. He was...disappointed in my choice."
"Why didn't you go that route? Most little boys can't wait to play with guns and be the hero."
Ben entwined his fingers with Ray's thoughtfully. "My father's life revolved around his job. Everything else was just a distraction that had to be dealt with. I didn't want that for myself."
"Were you a distraction?"
"Yes, but not much of one."
Ray had been slouching against Ben's side. He sat up and kissed Ben gently on the lips letting Ben know that he'd heard the pain in his voice. He settled back down silently.
Ben cleared his throat, pushing back the sudden emotions. "In any event," he said. "We've agreed on very little since I chose college and literature over police work. Well, if the truth be told, we agreed on almost nothing before that as well. We speak on the phone about twice a year and we see each other less than that. We're barely able to be civil so there's really no point."
"You don't want more? I mean, it's none of my business, but don't you want some kind of...I don't know, improvement there?"
"I think I would but it's simply not possible. Just as an example, when I graduated from college, he flew in for the ceremony..."
"That's a good thing."
"I thought so too. Afterward we were in my grandmother's kitchen and I was feeling...well, a lot of things so I, I told him that I loved him and do you know what he said?"
"I'm guessing it wasn't a reciprocal thing."
"He said that I was too old for childish sentimentality."
"Christ," Ray said as he pressed himself closer to Ben and squeezed his hand.
"Understand, Ray, he's not a bad person. He's very well respected, almost legendary among Mounties, he's just incapable of expressing emotion. If he thought of it at all, he probably assumed my mother would take that role for me, but since she died when I was young, it was left to him."
"And he couldn't do it."
"It's not his way."
"Well, I do understand. My dad isn't exactly a Smurf either."
Ben burst out with a laugh. He shifted around so he could meet Ray's lips, pressing his tongue inside, putting some passion into their embrace. Ray responded, curling his body into Ben's and pushing back against his tongue. They both jumped when the cell phone rang again and then started laughing as they pulled away from each other.
Ben fumbled for the phone, checking the caller ID and nodding at Ray to confirm that it was his father.
"Are you on your way, Dad?"
"One of the detectives here is giving me a ride so I should be there in twenty minutes or so."
"All right, I'll see you then."
Ben turned to Ray as he switched off his phone. "Duty calls," he said.
"But you are coming back, right?"
"I'm going to give him a key, tell him that I'm not staying at home tonight and by the time I get back there will be pizza waiting."
"If I'm not too weak from hunger to answer the door."
"I really am sorry for the delay," Ben said, feeling guilty.
"Don't be an idiot." Ray kissed him. "Go settle the father and get yourself back down here. A little nourishment and there's a good chance that sleep will not be my first priority."
"I like promises." Ben kissed Ray quickly, feeling another surge of excitement. Briefly he wondered if he could tape a key to the front door of his apartment and leave a note. But he couldn't be quite that rude. It was shameful enough leaving his father alone for the weekend.
Thankfully, Ray retained the self-control not to impede Ben's exit. It would have taken very little for him to change his mind and stay.
He reached the elevator just as the doors opened. He stepped back in surprise when Ray Kowalski's father stepped out. The older man acknowledged him with a nod but didn't speak. Ben stood rooted in one spot as he watched him walk towards Ray's door. He suddenly had the uneasy feeling that he should abandon his own father so he could follow Ray's. But, of course, he couldn't do that. It wasn't his place and in any event, he had his own responsibility arriving momentarily.
Ben took the elevator up to his floor but he couldn't help wondering why Ray's father would be visiting so late in the evening.
He let himself into his apartment making his first stop the kitchen. He was glad to see that there was plenty of food so that his father could cook if he wanted including the steak that Ben abandoned the evening before. He also listed out the delivery numbers of three of his favorite restaurants. His next stop was the bathroom where he checked to make certain there were plenty of clean linens. His final stop was his own bedroom where he packed a few things to get himself through the weekend.
He deliberately kept the items to a minimum since he didn't want to presume too much. He had just zipped up his overnight carryall when the doorbell rang.
Ben's father looked tired. The deep lines under his eyes showed his age.
"Was it a difficult day?" Ben asked.
"Lawyers and bureaucrats. They could pound anyone into the dirt if you let them."
"Did you make any progress, do you think?"
"Oh, yeah. My prisoner will stay locked up for the weekend. I'm scheduled to take her at seven. Sorry for inconveniencing you again."
"It's no hardship, Dad. In fact I have plans this weekend so I'm just going to see that you get settled and give you a key so you have access to the apartment. I probably won't be around much but I'll leave you my cell number in case you need to get in touch."
"What sort of plans?"
"Well, I've, uh, met someone."
"I don't want to hear this, do I?"
"Probably not," Ben admitted. "Though it would be nice if you did."
Robert sighed as he sat down on the edge of the couch. He rubbed his face with both hands. "I had hoped that we might...oh, never mind, go off on your date or whatever you call it. I'll just sleep here and be gone first thing Monday morning."
"You'd hoped what?"
"It's not important."
"I'd really like to know what you were going to say."
"Look, Benton, I'm getting old. And if there's one thing I've learned in my old age it's that second chances are rare if you get them at all. For about half a second, I thought we might have one but since my son is going to meet another man, for God only knows what, then I think this second chance has passed."
Ben sat down in the chair across from his father. "A second chance for what?"
"For us, what do you think? I know you think I'm a failure as a father. And maybe you're right. I was never cut out for sentimentality; that was your mother's job. She accepted that about me, Ben, something you never could."
"I was six years old when she died. I needed more than an absentee father who expected me to act like an adult because it was more convenient if I did."
"Well, that's probably true. But you're not six anymore, Ben and those are old grudges. Do you ever think you could let them go a little?"
Ben stood up furiously. "Should I forget that you left me in the woods when I was seven? Or that you never showed up for my birthday when I was twelve? Or that you forbade me to hug you when you were in uniform? Should I just let all of it go?"
"Yes. Why not? What point is there is being so mad at me all the time?"
"You don't even like me, Dad. You never did. My sexual orientation, my choice of career, where I live, nothing, you like nothing about me."
"I'm your father."
"What's that supposed to mean, exactly?"
Robert held out his hands. "What do you think it means? I'm your father, you're part of me."
"I'm a stranger to you," Ben yelled, then immediately lowered his voice. "You've never been interested in anything about me except in the ways I've disappointed you."
"Oh, that's right, I've forgotten how unreasonable I've been." Robert's lapse into sarcasm was expected though Ben had hoped to avoid hearing that tone. "Wanting my son to follow in my footsteps, wanting him to get married and have children to carry on the family name. I've been terrible with my wants for you."
Ben sank back into the chair. Softly he said, "It's not that you wanted different things. It's not accepting me for who I am."
"You can't expect me to throw a party about your choices."
"No, I can't." Ben sighed.
"This is going nowhere," Robert said, staring at Ben as he fumbled on the table for the television remote. "Go on to your…whatever. Maybe you could stop by tomorrow and say good-bye."
Ben wanted to go. He was tired of the merry-go-round argument that they couldn't escape. This wasn't the first time that his father wanted to try and sort things out but it always ended the same. Perhaps neither one of them would ever be ready to forgive the other. It was a sad thought but more and more, it seemed likely.
He stood up slowly, turning towards the bedroom where his overnight bag waited. He heard the click of the television coming on and the noise of strangers jabbering about nonsense. Almost without thinking he turned back.
"I know what you want and I wish I could give it to you," Ben said. "I do appreciate that you tried."
Robert looked up at him with just the slightest change of expression, hope maybe, or surprise.
"One day, Ben, we'll see our way clear."
Ben nodded. He retrieved the bag out of the bedroom, told his father where things were kept and escaped into the hall. As he closed the door behind him he tried to ignore the voice in his head. The guilty voice that called him a coward.
Approaching Ray's door was essentially a repeat. Voices raised in anger and a definite commotion on the opposite side. Ben hesitated before barging in this time suspecting that he was hearing another family matter being played out. But when the voices took form, he pushed open the door.
Clay Robertson stood on one side of the room. Ray's father stood on the other side. A man that Ben didn't recognize was straddling one of Ray's dining room chairs.
"You're just being stubborn," the sitting man said calmly. All faces turned to Ben as he walked in. Ray came out of the kitchen area holding an ice pack against his face.
"Pardon me," Ben interrupted. "I couldn't help but overhear."
"He's not getting robbed," Robertson said.
"Shut up," Ray ordered. "Ben, can you give me a minute?"
"I don't think so. I realize this is none of my business but I heard someone in here threaten you. And unless you've become clumsy in the last hour, I would hazard to say that someone also struck you."
"Does he always talk like that?" The sitting man asked.
"Don't be an ass, Brandy," Ray said. "You're right, I already told you how Kowalski's like to express themselves but it's nothing that hasn't happened before so there's no reason why you should get involved."
"Jeez, do you have to pick up every pansy you meet?" Damian Kowalski asked. Brandy looked away, apparently embarrassed. "Raymond, I want those papers signed and on my desk Monday morning. Don't make me come back here."
"I'm not signing. You gave me those shares when I was born and I'm keeping them. You don't like the son you got, well that's tough."
Robertson stepped forward. "Show your father some respect."
"Like he's been respecting me all these years?"
"Clay, that's enough," Brandy said as he stood up. "It's time to let Ray think about what's right." Brandy Kowalski stood about the same height as Ray but he retained the bulk of his father.
Damian nodded. "All right. But you know what I'm telling you, Ray. There's no middle ground."
"There never has been," Ray said.
Robertson shook his head. "You just never learn."
Brandy intervened again as Ben stepped between Ray and Robertson. Brandy guided Robertson towards the door before there could be any further violence. Damian led the procession out and Brandy was the last to go. No one looked back or glanced in Ben's direction as they passed him. He politely shut the door after them.
When he turned to Ray, he found him sitting in the chair his brother had vacated. He was facing the table with the ice pack still pressed against his face.
Ben breathed to release some of the tension in his belly. He couldn't imagine being threatened by one's own family. Silently, he took the chair beside Ray and waited.
It didn't take long.
"He wants me out of the business. He wants my shares of the company, says he's giving me fair market value."
"But you want to keep your shares."
"They're mine." Ray looked up. "When me and Brandy were born he put 25% of the company shares in each of our names. He's got the other fifty. He did it before he knew us, before he knew what we'd be. I don't want to give into him and have him forget that he ever..."
"That he ever loved you," Ben finished for him.
Ray blinked several times, his eyes suspiciously glassy. "Yeah, I guess."
Ben put his hand on Ray's shoulder. "He's your father. He can't ever stop being your father."
Ray leaned his head against Ben's arm offering a pressure that Ben found soothing. Ben continued kneading his shoulder.
"He brought Clay to strong arm me. How's that for fatherhood?"
"Clay hit you?"
"I got too close to Dad while we were arguing. Clay shoved me back and I swung at him. I missed and he didn't. Brandy kept him from pulverizing me."
"I noticed that your brother acts as intermediary."
Ray nodded. "Sometimes. Sometimes he's just as manipulative as Dad and Clay. I think he feels bad about it though." Ray stood up, suddenly restless. "Something they never do."
Ben observed his new lover quietly. He bit back the questions in his mind, knowing instinctively that Ray would share when Ray was ready.
"I used to box when I was a teenager," Ray said, stopping for just a moment before resuming his rhythmic trek across the living room floor.
"You don't anymore?"
"Nah, my ex didn't like it so I gave it up. After we split, I tried to get back into it but it didn't seem fun anymore. Still, you'd kind of think I could take Clay, wouldn't you? He's not that much heavier than me and he's never done any kind of training or anything."
"It sounds like it was a lucky punch."
"It wasn't. I stood there like an idiot and let him plow me. Force of habit, I guess."
Stomach clenching over that declaration, Ben asked, "Has he struck you before?"
Ray stopped again, cocking his head slightly to one side. "Are you one of those guys that has to know about every past relationship when you hook up with somebody?"
"Not unless it's relevant," Ben said, confused by the change of subject.
"Good, cuz I hate talking about the ones that didn't work out. On the other hand, I would have to say this falls into your relevance rule."
It only took a moment for Ben to understand. When he did, he sat back, stunned.
"Kind of surprising, isn't it?" Ray asked in a teasing tone.
"But, your father called me a pansy in front of him, in front of his protector if I understand the politics of your family."
"Dad does not know about Clay and me and that's the way it's going to stay. It was a fling thing, a mistake, a lapse in judgment when I was strung out over my divorce. Hardly worth mentioning except it sort of leads into the other part."
Ben stood up, growing angrier by the moment. "The part where he hits you."
"Used to. And like I said it was a really short-term thing. Because of that and lots of other things."
Unable to form a question with all of the thoughts jumbling around in his mind, Ben just remained motionless, seething with an anger that was probably out of proportion. Still, the very idea that someone would deliberately harm Ray engulfed him a simmering fury.
"Okay, okay, I can see you're getting excited there, Ben, but, uh, let's just take a step back. Maybe if we go through a few important facts, then all this won't seem like such a huge deal."
He still couldn't speak but Ben agreed that maybe more information might help. He slid back into the dining room chair and Ray joined him.
"I'm used to getting knocked around, Ben, that's an important thing to know. My dad has a short fuse and I was not an easy kid. When I got older and he couldn't control me that way, then he had Clay do it except Clay didn't hit me, not then. He talked to me and it was so different then the usual 'shut up' and 'get out of my sight' and 'if you think that hurt just wait till we get home' crap that I thought Clay was great. I thought he was brilliant."
"Ray, your father..."
"Maybe we'll get back to that and maybe we won't. Let's just finish this part up, all right?"
"Anyway, Clay convinced me to marry Stella. I would've anyway but I probably would've waited until after college. Whatever, it was Clay who pushed me to marry her and move out of the house. It was the right thing, Ben, I had to get away from my old man."
"I can understand that."
"Good, I want you to because it'll help you get the rest of it. I didn't take to college but Stella did. I dropped out and she went to law school. Fast forward, she graduates, we fall apart and there's Clay waiting in the wings. I was a mess, he was strong and smart and...there, I guess. I don't know, looking back, it was stupid."
"It sounds to me as if he took advantage of you."
"Yeah, well, I wasn't a kid and I let him do it. But...and this is not an excuse...he filled an empty when Stella left. I needed the stability. Hell, I needed the company. It's just that before I knew it he started telling me to cut my hair and wear different clothes and come home on time. I was trying to keep the Caulfield Center open and he got in the middle of all that. He made it sound like he was trying to help but really, he was just trying to control everything."
"But, you didn't break off the relationship."
"I didn't see it." Ray shrugged as he sat back. "I knew I didn't like it but I figured it was me. And the couple of times I did tell him turned into huge fights and I ended up looking like I did a couple rounds with George Foreman."
"How long did this go on?"
"Six months, or there abouts. Hardly a blink of an eye."
"And your father didn't know?"
"My father thought Clay was trying to help me. Caulfield was getting all kinds of flak from the businesses down there and we were in real trouble of closing down. Dad thought I was being stubborn about it because I wasn't taking all Clay's advice."
"And your brother?"
"Thought maybe something was up. Doesn't know for sure."
"From what I know of you, it's difficult to imagine that you'd be involved with someone who was violent."
"Not to scare you off or anything but nuts is kind of what I do. After Stella left I dropped some of the bricks from the load, if you know what I mean."
"How did Clay handle you breaking up with him?"
"Not well and not worth getting into." Ray stood up and took the ice pack back into the kitchen. When he came back, he seemed uncomfortable.
"What about you, any deep dark you want to let out?" He asked.
Ben shrugged. "We all have stories. I've never been in a physically abusive relationship. In fact, my father didn't even believe in corporal punishment."
"But your deal with him isn't good."
Ben wasn't ready to switch the subject to himself but if he wanted Ray to talk to him, then he needed to be able to reciprocate.
"My father wanted a self-sufficient adult in the house but what he had was a six year old. No matter what I did, it wasn't good enough. I was expected to perform all the household chores flawlessly but I hadn't developed the coordination or skills yet. Much of what I did was self-taught and therefore wrong as often as not. The more I failed, the more he criticized and the more insecure I became."
"I can't see you as insecure."
"College and time spent with my grandparents made a great impact on me. I succeeded there and they were supportive of me. It was a unique experience up to then."
"Your dad didn't see what he was doing?"
"My father didn't see many things. He still doesn't though in fairness I think he'd like to try."
"That's something," Ray said.
"Have you tried speaking with your father? Maybe..."
"Ben, my father used to lock me in a guest room closet at the back of the house so nobody could hear me crying."
The admission struck Ben with the force of a baseball bat to the chest. Ray put his hand over Ben's arm as if to ease the blow.
"He was firmly in the 'spare the rod, spoil the child' camp with a healthy dose of 'children should be seen and not heard'. I don't think he and I are going to get passed all that anytime soon. He stood in my living room less than an hour ago and let his head henchman pop me. You know what I'm saying?"
"Ray, I...it makes me ill thinking of it."
"I'm not exactly getting choked up with sentimentality over your story either, Ben."
"Yes, but, leaving me in a forest so I could learn to set a fire without matches isn't the same as..."
"Wait, wait, wait, what did you just say?"
"Oh, it's an old story," Ben said, dismissively. "It's just one of those arguments that we have. About three months after my mother died, I turned seven which was some right of passage in his mind. In any event, he took me out into the woods with nothing but some directions on how to start a fire with dry sticks."
"He left me there alone all night. I was terrified, had nightmares for years." Ben scratched his neck absently. "He tells me now that he was only a few hundred feet away but he stayed hidden."
"Did you start the fire?"
"Did it make what he did, I don't know, less bad?"
"No, I wouldn't say that."
"No, I wouldn't either."
"He's apologized for it in his own way. He doesn't understand why I find it difficult to forgive and forget. In fact, we were just having that discussion before I came down here."
Ray nodded thoughtfully. "Some things aren't forgivable."
"Perhaps, although I'm starting to think that maybe he's right. He was ignorant and selfish but not malicious. If my mother had lived, he would never have been put in the position of making the decisions that he made. I imagine that he did the best he could."
"Most people do. Doesn't mean they don't cause damage."
Ray went into the kitchen. When he returned he carried two bottles of beer. He offered one to Ben.
"Thank you but I don't drink."
Ray sang while he twisted off the top of his bottle. "Don't drink, don't smoke, what do ya do?"
"I think I proved that I do all kinds of things last night."
Ray laughed and kissed him with dry lips. "Yeah, you did." He drank down half the beer making a satisfied noise as he finished swallowing.
"You want to go back upstairs and make nice with your father?" He asked.
"I don't think I'm ready. I want to forgive him, but we've tried this before and it always ends in disaster. I don't want to fail again, not right now."
"Then we should stick to the plan." Ray drained his beer and opened the second one. "I didn't get a chance to order dinner, how about I make the call and you get comfortable?"
"I'd rather see where you work," Ben said firmly. "Will you show me?"
"It's practically the middle of the night here, Ben."
"It's not empty or anything down ther, we're 24/7."
"Good. That will make it more interesting."
"Interesting, huh? I guess you could call it that."
Ray just shrugged before he retrieved a jacket out of the closet.
Ben was glad to see that Ray needed little convincing. Uncertain as to why he wanted to visit the Holden Caulfield Center, he only knew that he did want to see it. Perhaps he just wanted to see Ray in his natural habitat. Perhaps he just wanted to remind Ray of his abilities after the attack by Ray's family. In any event, he was glad to be going.
The rain had stopped though the skies remained starless and dark as Ray filled the drive with the basic history of why and how he became owner and operator of a youth center. He described his naïve desire to give something back to the community since his family had so much and how he'd met too many young men with intelligence and promise during his boxing days, only to have them fall into drugs and poverty and crime when life became too hard to manage. As expected, his family didn't approve of his choice. They wanted him to have a college degree and a career in the family business or a career in something that would promise money and security and prominence. But, Ray refused to listen to them, instead listening to Clay, ironically enough, as Clay encouraged him to pursue what he believed in.
Through government subsidy and public donations, the Holden Caulfield Center had operated successfully for nearly eight years with a small, dedicated staff and Ray at the center of it all. Ray sparkled when he talked about it. There was no better description. He loved the work and while he didn't enjoy the fund raising or the politics he hired a "smart lawyer" named Ray Vecchio to handle that side of the business.
"Vecchio has all the flash to make the money. He's not your typical ivy leaguer though. This guy gets his hands dirty," Ray said.
As they turned into the alleyway entrance of the center, Ray slowed down.
"Something's wrong," he said.
Ben, who had been shamelessly indulging himself in Ray-watching, turned his attention to the windshield. Flashing emergency lights lit the dark alley. The vehicles causing the light were parked on the main street but the reflection was driven through the wide, clear glass at the back of the building.
Ray parked, not waiting for Ben to follow as he hurried in through the back door. Ben did follow, of course, through a gate and across a makeshift basketball court, still wet from the days of rain. Inside the center were two pool tables, a ping-pong table, several card tables stacked with magazines and books and a large television turned on but with the volume turned down.
A tall, thin man with shorn black hair was talking to two uniformed police officers. He turned when Ray approached revealing a rather prominent nose and a disheveled suit.
"What's going on, Vecchio?" Ray asked.
"Ah, Mr. Kowalski, we had a minor tussle in here and one of our concerned neighbors called the police." Vecchio turned back to the officers. "Even though it was completely under control when they arrived," he said pointedly to them.
"It was a gang fight," one of the officers said.
"We don't allow gang colors or politics here. All we had was a couple of minors in a fistfight. Schoolyard stuff," Vecchio said.
"Wait, hold on," Ray interrupted. "What happened? Who was involved?"
"Lenny Milano and Del Porter," Vecchio answered.
"What the hell were they fighting about?"
"I don't know know yet. Frannie went down to the 27th where they're getting processed."
"Who was here? Sam's on duty tonight, isn't he?"
"Yes, he is. He's pulling the files on the boys. Why don't you go ask him what he knows while I see to the officers." Vecchio glared at Ray, clearly attempting some sort of signaled message.
"We have more questions," the officer said.
"And I'll answer them," Vecchio said, motioning for the officers to sit at the nearest table. "This is a community center. We provide a place to stay and some things to do that don't include getting shot or shooting other people. We're not here to solve life problems."
"Frannie was the counselor on duty?" Ray asked.
"Elaine relieves her at six," Vecchio answered, obviously irritated to have to divide his attention. "Frannie went to the station to see if she could help."
Vecchio turned back to the police. "But, that's only because we're concerned, not because we're responsible for an unpredictable flare-up."
"I'm gonna talk to Sam." Ray said.
"Before you go, Mr. Kowalski, just answer me this," one of the officers said. "Do Porter and Milano have any history that might have caused this unpredictable flare-up."
Vecchio huffed at hearing his words thrown back at him.
"They don't interact much. Lenny is a hard case wannabe who spent a couple years in a juvenile detention center. Del just likes to come here and read. He lives with his aunt and her kids are noisy. He usually sits right where you are because it's far enough away from the game tables that he can get some quiet." Ray said.
"Then you don't know what would've caused the unpredictable..."
"Give it a rest," Vecchio muttered.
"I don't know," Ray answered. "They're opposites but they've been here together before and I've never picked up on any problems between them."
"Here are the files." Another man approached from a side office. Tall and well-built, he had a world-weary look about him. Vecchio took the folders from him.
"This is a gift," Vecchio said. "Just to prove these are good kids and they've been coming here a long time. Come on over here and sit down."
While Vecchio handed the files over, Ray turned to the other man. "Let's go to the break room, Sam."
The man just nodded before he led the way out of the main room. Ben followed along, deciding that staying near Ray was the best course of action under the circumstances. They entered a small room with two vending machines, one for soda and one for snacks. Coffee brewed on a nearby counter.
"Ben Fraser, this is Sam Franklin, the Assistant Director for Caulfield."
Ben shook his hand politely, somewhat surprised by the intense eye contact that Franklin gave him. Ray's voice interrupted the moment and Franklin sat down in the chair closest to him.
"Lenny was talking about boosting cars, bragging like he'd actually done it. Del called him on it, basically said he was lying which he was and Lenny didn't like it. I was in the office filling out the visitor reports when Francesca told me there was trouble. By the time I got out here, the two of them were rolling around and the other kids were cheering on their favorite. Francesca and I pulled them apart but by the time we got them settled, the police were already here."
Unable to keep his curiosity in check, Ben asked, "That's a rather quick response, isn't it?"
"We've had problems before," Ray answered. "A lot of them lately. The cops were probably nearby." He looked at Sam Franklin. "This is what, the second or third time in the last six weeks that we've had an incident on your shift?"
"You're blaming this on me?"
"Part of the job is reading them, Sam."
"I was in the back."
"You should've been out there. The reports can wait and you know it."
"Oh, that's great, Ray. I got popped in the jaw two weeks ago but that was my fault too, huh?"
"You're here to stop this kind of thing from happening, Sam. Your shift, your responsibility."
Franklin sputtered but didn't reply. Ray left him standing there to return to the main room. Ben continued following along but he glanced behind a couple of times as he felt Franklin's glare against his back.
Ray stopped a few feet away from Vecchio's meeting with the police but they could still hear the officer's comment.
"...local businesses are not comfortable with your presence."
"They've never been comfortable but in eight years we've never had a problem that spilled over to affect them. This is kid stuff. The same thing happens in schoolyards every day. We want to help Lenny and Del. If we can keep them from joining the local gangs, then we want that. If we can keep them out of jail and in school, then we've done what we're here to do. But, we will not take responsibility for every action they take."
"All right, Mr. Vecchio," the officer said. "Thank you for your time." He nodded towards Ray, acknowledging him without words.
The officers left the building but remained outside conferring with their colleagues who had also responded.
"Are we all right?" Ray asked his lawyer.
"We'll be fine but I wish we'd contained this thing without their help. This is the third police report in the last six months, Ray. The Neighborhood Commerce League will be having fits. If they call on Monday, just give them my number and tell the staff not to talk to them."
"Yeah, I will. I better head down to the station and see how Francesca is making out."
"No, you shouldn't. Francesca is there on her own. She clocked out before she left. It's better if we don't make an official showing on their behalf."
"I know these kids."
"I understand that, Ray but if you go down there then it's like waving a red flag in front of the center and you don't want that."
A cell phone sounded and Ben, Ray and Vecchio reached inside their pockets.
"It's mine," Vecchio said before he depressed the answer button. He walked away as he spoke.
Ray exhaled for a long time before he turned to Ben. "I'm sorry about this."
"Don't be. I'm very impressed with the way you and your staff are handling everything."
Ray shrugged. "Emergencies are what we do."
"Ray," Sam Franklin interrupted, still looking like he'd just been swatted with a newspaper. "Do you want to stay open?"
"Have we ever closed before?" Ray snapped.
"Fine." Sam stalked away into one of the offices.
"Stupid question," Ray muttered. "We haven't closed our doors in eight years, what does he think?"
The front doors to the center opened admitting three youths, a girl and two boys. They were all dressed in the popular style of the day with their oversized, brightly colored clothing.
"Hey, Ray," the girl called out. "They took Del."
"And Lenny," one of the boys added.
"I know. Don't worry about it."
The second boy flopped into a chair near the TV and fished around the sides of the cushions until he produced the remote. He turned the volume up and then started turning channels. The girl joined him by taking the small couch and putting her feet on the battered coffee table.
The third teenager ignored both of them and sat down at one of the card tables. He plucked a handheld video game out of his pocket and started playing.
"This time of night we get maybe three or four kids who stay over," Ray explained. "We don't have the facilities for sleeping and we don't serve food but it gives them a place off the streets."
"Do you have any problems with the homeless in the neighborhood?"
"Nobody over the age of 17 is allowed in except the staff."
"How many kids do you see in an average day?"
"Too many." Ray stared passed him to where the kids on the couch were discussing what to watch.
"I thought that's why you were here."
"Every kid I get has a problem, Ben. Bad homes, absent parents, unsafe environments. Believe me, I don't want a full house."
Movement over Ray's shoulder caught Ben's attention. Ray noticed his line of sight and turned in time to see four boys enter. From the colors they wore and their adversarial stance, Ben knew they weren't typical visitors to the center.
Vecchio came out of the office area, putting his phone inside his pocket.
Ray approached the boys. Vecchio stood rigidly beside Ben.
"No colors in here, Deron." Ray said.
"Yeah, yeah, we know." One boy, obviously the leader, said. "But I got some information you might want. Let's take some office time."
The boy didn't wait for agreement. He walked passed all of them and into Ray's office. The two children watching television started to stand up.
"Sit," Vecchio said. They moaned dramatically but they didn't move off the couch.
Deron and his friends filled the small office. Between them, Ray, Ray Vecchio and Ben, there was hardly room to move.
"What kind of information, Deron?" Ray asked.
"Ya know, you been good to Tyrone. He's gonna be something and mostly that's cuz of you."
"Tyrone has a lot of potential. So do you," Ray said, seriously. Ben's respect for Ray grew measurably in that moment.
Deron laughed. The boys with him laughed too as they shook their heads in apparent disbelief.
"Yeah, well, I guess we'll wait for the jury on that. Tyrone's the reason I'm here."
"Is he okay?"
"It's cuz he's good that I'm here. See, I got a call last night, a call telling me that I could earn some hard, cold if I came down here and caused a little trouble."
"Who was it?" Ray asked.
"Why would anyone..." Vecchio started to ask.
"The why is the thing," Deron interrupted. "He said he's looking to get you shut down. He said he's got enough already to get the ball rolling but if I brought some trouble to your door then he'd be all set. Didn't say why he wanted Caulfield gone but he offered enough to get my attention."
"Did you get a name?" Ray asked.
One of Deron's friends stopped directly in front of Ben diverting his attention. The boy perused him from head to toe with a smirk that Ben didn't understand.
"He's Canadian," Vecchio said and the boy nodded and moved off.
"How did you..."
"I've read your book." Ben couldn't tell if that was good or bad. "How did the boy know there was something different about me?"
"Instincts. You don't look like Chicago, Mr. Fraser."
"Excuse me," Ray said, looking at the two of them. When he had their attention again, he turned back to Deron. "Look, if you just came here to yank my chain, I got a situation to deal with."
"All right, all right. You don't want to pay, you don't want to pay."
"I don't want to pay."
"Mr. Clay Robertson," Deron said, pulling a business card out of his pocket. "I met him this morning to get the blow."
"What?" For the first time, Ray's confidence seemed to waver.
"He wanted me to leave this in your office." Deron produced several sealed packets of white powder, cocaine, if Ben's understanding of street terms was correct. "Then I was supposed to call it in to the cops. You know, Joe Citizen, cleaning up the streets."
"Set the packets on the desk," Ray said. "I don't want to touch that shit."
Deron dropped them with flourish and chuckled. "That guy must have it bad for you."
"Will you give a statement to the police?" Vecchio asked.
"I've done my good deed, Perry Mason, we're out of here."
Ben watched dumbfounded as the four boys left the office and then the center. He went to Ray who was standing immobile.
"Son of a bitch," Vecchio said, startling both of them. He plucked a large manila envelope out of a desk drawer then used a stapler to brush the packets inside. He folded down the metal tabs to seal it.
"We should phone the police." Ben said.
"It's his word against ours," Ray said. "We got nothing."
"Ray's right," Vecchio agreed. "Without Deron's corroboration, we don’t have anything but a controlled substance on the premises. Hell, even with it, who's going to believe that a vice president at Kowalski is going to try to frame a Kowalski heir."
"But, we all heard it," Ben insisted.
"It's no good, Ben," Ray said. "My father has lawyers that eat people like us for lunch. We're gonna have to go at this from a different angle."
The ring of a cell phone interrupted again and all three men reached for their phones.
"It's mine," Ray said. "We have got to change our rings." He answered the phone, walking out of the office as he spoke. Ben was surprised when he went outside to the basketball court.
"You want a cup of coffee?" Vecchio asked.
"Please," Ben said and followed him into the break room. Vecchio poured some coffee into a styrofoam cup and handed it to him.
"I liked your book," Vecchio said. "I hear there's going to be a sequel."
"Yes, that's right...and thank you."
"He's mentioned you." Vecchio nodded in Ray's direction. "I guess you two are hitting it off, huh?"
Ben blew into the cup, wondering at the change in conversation. "I hope so."
"Tonight isn't typical. We have our share of crises but fights and police and visits by the local gang..."
"Hey, uh, we have to go," Ray interrupted as he came in. "I think we're under control now, if you want to take off, Ray."
"We have to do something with this." Vecchio shook the envelope.
Ray opened a top cupboard and snatched a pair of thin rubber gloves out of a box. He pulled them on without speaking then took the envelope.
"This is evidence," Vecchio argued but he didn't stop him.
"It's nothing," Ray said bitterly. He opened the envelope, turned on the water in the sink and then emptied each of the five packets down the drain. "Now, it's really nothing. You ready to go, Ben?"
Ben didn't feel ready. The tension emanating from Ray was intense and almost frightening.
"Kowalski, you can't just..."
"Night, Ray. Thanks for coming out."
Ray walked out so Ben stuck with pattern and followed him with an apologetic glance towards Vecchio. This time they went out the back and to Ray's car with just a cursory farewell to those they passed. Ray slid into the driver's side, sighing loudly as the seat moulded around him. He closed his eyes as he put his head back.
Ben slid into the passenger's side gingerly, unsure of his welcome. He couldn't tell if Ray was forced to be responsible for him because they arrived together or because he really wanted the company. His answer came when Ray's hand snaked out and folded around his. Ben met the pressure with his own.
"What's going on, Ray?" He asked softly.
"That was Clay on the phone. He made it pretty clear that if he couldn't get Deron to plant drugs, he could sure as hell find somebody."
"Because he wants me to sign over my shares. If I sign the paperwork and deliver it to my father's office before Monday, then he'll forget all about Caulfield. If I don't, then he'll make sure we get closed down."
Ray opened his eyes to look at him. "This is all I've got, Ben, the kids, this place, it's the only thing that really matters to me."
"Would he go to these lengths just to please your father?" Ben asked.
"I think if Dad wants to be rid of me once and for all then Clay will make it happen."
"Would your father have arranged any of this?"
Ray shook his head. "I don't know. I guess he figured out that I'm never going to be the son that he wanted me to be. He's not used to not getting what he wants, Ben. If he ruins my life in the process, what difference would it make to him anyway? He's got Brandy and Clay to carry on the family business. I've always been extran...extran...extra."
"You're not extraneous, you're his son. Now, think about it, why would he be pressing for your shares? What's changed that would make him want them?"
Ray leaned his head against the cool steering wheel, clenching it with one hand while he hung on to Ben with the other.
"I really don't know."
"All right, then answer me this. Your father gave you the ultimatum just a few hours ago, this seems rather quick planning on his part, doesn't it?"
Ray sat up again. "No, it doesn't." His thoughtful tone suggested he was thinking of more than the answer to Ben's question. He shifted the car into gear. "We've been having problems for weeks. Delays in donations that make the bills get paid late, mischief type damage that no one's owning up to, that fight Sam got into with a new kid nobody remembered seeing before." Hesitating to check traffic, he pulled out of the alley and on to the street. "You heard Vecchio, this is our third police report in six months. There's nothing sudden about any of this."
"So someone has been sabotaging you?"
"I should've seen it sooner but the family's never attacked Caulfield before. I figured we were going through a bad spell is all. Now, I think it's time to talk to the one person who can maybe explain things."
Ben tightened his seatbelt instinctively when Ray sped through the next yellow light.
Ben remembered the mansion but knowing that Ray grew up there increased his appreciation for the sheer size and majesty of it. The house itself covered acres, the accompanying grounds complete with pool, tennis court and every other conceivable amenity covered much more. Just driving around the gated grounds took minutes as Ray reached the delivery access.
"We won't stay a secret for long but all I need is a few minutes alone with my mother," he explained as he rang the bell at the service entrance.
A heavyset woman with white streaked black hair answered the door. She took one look at Ray and scowled.
"Can I help you, Raymond?"
"No, I just need to use the phone. Is my mother in her room?"
"She's retired for the evening." Ray pushed his way passed the clearly disapproving maid and picked up a white phone hanging near the stove. He pressed in two numbers before he noticed that Ben was still standing in the doorway.
"Come on in, Ben. The mistress of the dark over there won't bite." Ben nodded to the maid and took a few steps inside but he remained close to the door. While Ray may have grown up in this house, there was hardly a warm, homey feeling to it and Ben felt like an intruder.
"Hi Mom, it's the prodigal," Ray laughed as he listened. "Sorry if I woke ya but can you come on down to the guest house? I need to talk to you without dad for a few minutes...okay, I'll see you in five."
Ray hung up. He pointed at the maid. "You can damn well keep this to yourself. My father might sign your check but my mother gives out the assignments in this house."
"You're wrong to pit your parents against each other," the woman said.
"I'm wrong a lot, Hazel, but not about this."
"You've always been selfish and willful."
"And you've always been mean and short-tempered. Lucky for both of us that we don't have to spit insults at each other anymore." Hazel glowered. "Come on, Ben, we have to meet the real power behind the throne."
Ray led them down a literal garden path to a small house. He opened the door to let them in and Ben found a neat, pastel decorated living room with a dark fireplace. Before either of them had the opportunity to get comfortable, Barbara Kowalski came in.
She was older than Ben remembered but she carried the innate sense of grace that impressed him at their last meeting. Dressed in silk pajamas the color of deep purple with a long lighter colored robe, she practically floated into the room, immediately enfolding Ray in a warm embrace. She kissed Ray gently on the forehead before she took him by the hand and turned her attention to Ben.
She patted at her hair, which looked surprisingly well-kept considering she had just left her bed in the middle of the night. She smiled warmly at him as she held out her hand. "Ben Fraser, isn't it?"
Ben clasped her hand. "You have an excellent memory, Mrs. Kowalski."
"She's something, isn't she?" Ray said leading her to the couch. They both sat down while Ben stayed out of the way, observing.
"It's all part of the façade," she joked lightly, closing the folds of the robe delicately around her as she sat. "But, how could I forget such a promising author? We're all anticipating the sequel to your novel."
"Thank you, ma'am," Ben said, feeling a blush across his cheeks.
"I'm sorry, Mom," Ray interrupted. "I know how much you like being the grande dame but I don't think we have a lot of time before dad sics the dogs on Ben and me."
"I have it on good authority that the dogs have retired for the evening." She flashed a smile at Ben.
Ray laughed. "Oh, you're in rare form, aren't ya? Stop flirting for a minute and listen. Serious, um, I got a problem and I think maybe you can help."
Her attention fell solely on to her son. "You know I'd do anything for you."
"Dad wants my shares of the business. He gave me a contract to sign that'll pay me for them."
"He what?" She humphed. "Honestly, your father..."
"I need to know why he wants them. Can you tell me?"
She sat back fluffing at her lightly graying hair. Ben could see where Ray got his blond color and his fine bone structure.
"Yes, of course I can," she answered, sounding disgusted. "Your father is making his new five year plan, which, as you know, will take effect in exactly two years come June."
Ray glanced towards Ben. "He always has a five year plan for his life and he's always two years ahead. He can tell you where he and Mom will spend the summer five years from now."
"Ah," Ben said, appreciating the explanation and mentally judging the pros and cons of such obsessive and intricate planning.
"He's planning to retire," Mrs. Kowalski said. "He doesn't want you to have the same hold in the company as Brandy because he's worried that you might suddenly develop an active interest in it. He wants your shares so he can be certain that when he turns control over to Brandy that his personal vision for Kowalski will remain intact."
Ben felt the ache in his stomach worsen. He didn't know what he expected but certainly not such utter betrayal. Not only was his father trying to press Ray out of the family business, he was blatantly favoring Ray's brother in the process. Ben could barely watch as the color left Ray's face.
"He thinks I'd try to take over?" Ray asked quietly.
"Well, that's probably a bit on the extreme side, dear. He's just being cautious. You know how much Kowalski means to him."
"Yeah, I do. I just can't believe he thinks he has to buy me out to keep me away. I've never had any interest in working for the company."
Barbara Kowalski pressed both of her hands to Ray's cheeks turning his head gently to face her.
"I don't want you to take his decision personally. I know he's being silly but that's just how your father is."
"He's protecting Brandy and himself by eliminating me. That does sound like him."
"You are taking it personally." She sounded disappointed in him.
"Do you honestly think that if I were the corporate stick figure that Brandy is, I'd be getting forced out like this? It's kind of impossible not to take that personally."
"He doesn't trust me, Mom."
"That's only because you're so unpredictable."
Ray pulled away from her, apparently stunned by his mother's words. "Since when?"
"There was college and your divorce from Stella..."
"Stella was two years ago, Mom. And college, that doesn't even register on the radar anymore."
"All right, what about abandoning dinner the other night?"
"You were there, could you really blame me?"
"They were teasing, Ray, they don't mean any harm."
As Ray's astonishment grew so did his mother's irritation. Ben watched them interacting thinking that if this was Ray's strongest family attachment then Ray was practically an orphan.
"They hold my life up as some failure meter against the great Kowalski enterprise."
"You take them too seriously," she insisted.
Ray leaned forward, wrapping his arms around his neck. Ben wished he could comfort him somehow. Mrs. Kowalski pressed her hand to his back, rubbing softly until he sat up. He shrugged off her touch as he stood.
"I gotta get out of here."
His mother stood as well. "Ray, please don't go like this."
He looked towards the ceiling and then towards Ben. Turning back to his mother, he leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. "It's all right. I figured out my place around here a long time ago."
She slipped her hand into his. "He wouldn't deliberately hurt you."
Ray stopped for a moment as if frozen by his mother's gaze. He stared at her. Ben could almost see some sort of realization pass over his features. Taking her hand, Ray brought it to his lips and grazed the skin lightly.
"Good night, Mom."
Ben lingered long enough to shake her hand. Her eyes held a stunned sadness that her natural grace couldn't hide.
"It was a pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Kowalski." She held his hand longer than necessary, searching his face for something that she didn't find. As she released him, she forced a smile.
"And you, Mr. Fraser."
The fine, modeled clay that showed nothing but perfection, faded in Ben's eyes as he left her. He was left with the impression that she was not sculpture but plastic and he felt overwhelming sorrow for Ray.
They escaped the estate without meeting anyone that might cause them trouble. A silent drive through a lightly sprinkling sky brought them back to the apartment building. Ray remained focused first on his driving, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckled hands. When he parked his concentration turned to making himself move, out of the car, across the parking lot pavement, into the elevator.
Without any direction, Ben stayed the course. He walked beside Ray to Ray's apartment, not waiting for an invitation but fearing a rejection. Neither were forthcoming.
Ray's apartment gave warmth after the cold evening rain that had followed them home. Even the scattered knick-knacks and furnishings that seemed more an assortment of garage sale acquisitions than decorating technique exuded more hominess than the mausoleum they had just left.
Nearly one in the morning and Ben was feeling it. They never found the time to eat so hunger stretched out of the depths of his exhaustion as well. From the looks of Ray, a good meal and some quiet time would not go amiss with him either.
"If you don't mind, Ray, I'll see if there's something to prepare in your kitchen. Perhaps you could change into dry clothes and..."
Ray just stared at him. If there was any comprehension, Ben couldn't see it. He decided to take a different approach.
"Come along, Ray." Ben took his arm in a light grasp and led him to the bedroom. He fished around in some drawers until he found some gray sweats and a t-shirt. "Change into those." He said as he found some socks too.
Ray didn't comment. He set about stripping out of his damp jeans, not losing the dazed expression in his eyes. Ben waited until he was sure that Ray could change on his own, then he went into the kitchen where he found several frozen dinners in the freezer. They all carried the similar theme of meat, potatoes, vegetable and dessert. Ben chose a salisbury steak for Ray and a fried chicken for himself. Both were microwavable so he put Ray's in first and set the timer. He checked the date on the milk and found it questionable so he chose two cans of coke instead.
By the time Ray's dinner dinged, Ray had reappeared still looking shell-shocked and exhausted but at least he was dry. Ray turned automatically to find the living room where he slumped into the couch. He leaned his head back against the cushion and closed his eyes. Ben brought his dinner to him receiving the slightest smile of thanks in return. Ben kissed him gently, curling his fingers around Ray's neck in soft embrace.
"I'm going to change while my dinner is heating. Don't wait for me," he said.
"Okay," Ray agreed.
Ben took his overnight bag into the bedroom where he changed into a pair of soft cotton pajama bottoms and long-sleeved t-shirt. He felt better immediately as he folded his wet clothes and set them on the bathroom floor. He could worry about drying them in the morning. He heard the microwave signal that his dinner was ready.
When he reached the living room, Ray was starting to stand up.
"I've got it, Ray," Ben told him as he went to retrieve his food.
Ray had already finished eating, giving testament to his hunger, by the time Ben sat down. Ben attacked his meal with a similar vengeance. Both men remained silent but Ben didn't feel a need to talk. He was content sitting beside Ray with their knees touching.
When Ben had emptied his plastic tray of the rather salty nourishment, Ray picked up around him, stacking the items and carrying them into the kitchen. Ben almost protested, knowing that Ray was still processing the events of the night. But he also knew that Ray wouldn't want to feel helpless so he remained quiet.
When Ray returned he curled into Ben's side resting his head on Ben's shoulder.
"It shouldn't bother me this much," he said after a few minutes. "It's not like I expect him to act any different."
"It's still a shock."
"Not really. Before we even talked to Mom, I kind of expected something like that. I knew it was going to be a business reason. Screw the family ties when you can have more money, that's the Kowalski motto, I just didn't realize he doesn't trust me at all."
Ben pulled Ray closer to him, holding him tight with one arm around his shoulder.
"I guess it's just having it all out there like that. Makes how he feels about me more real. I mean he never liked me. He actively doesn't. But he's still my father so it matters even if it shouldn't."
"Your mother seems to think..."
"My mother doesn't know anything. Except she really does, she just chooses not to see it. When my dad got a little over excited about beating me, she never did anything. She never once came looking for me when I'd hide from him. She never stopped Hazel either because my dad didn't see anything wrong with it." Ray shifted closer, moving his head to lie on Ben's chest. "I don't think I ever really saw that until tonight."
"Your mother loves you, Ray."
"I know that but I just never realized how far into denial she really is."
"I'm sorry," Ben didn't know what else to say. He rubbed Ray's back, wishing he could do more.
"How did Clay know about Lenny and Del?" Ray popped up, the exhaustion from a moment before seeming to fade with the question.
"What do you think?" Ben straightened up as he asked the question. He deliberately kept his opinion to himself, wanting Ray to reach his own conclusion.
"Somebody clued him," Ray said. "He could've been watching but that'd be risky. Someone had to call and tell him so he could call the cops."
"Or someone called the police on his instructions."
"Right, like if something goes weird, call the cops first, get the report on record, help build up the ammunition. Maybe one of the kids. He could've paid one of them to make a call."
Ray stared off thoughtfully for a moment. "So, Clay bribes a kid to be first on the 911 and the minor stuff makes official record."
"He likely paid someone to do the vandalism as well."
Ray nodded. "Sure, it's easy. All of a sudden Caulfield looks like we're housing Capone and Gotti and the local businesses start getting antsy. It wouldn't take much of a push from there..."
The doorbell rang interrupting Ray's theory. They looked at each other in surprise. It was nearly two in the morning, far too late or too early for visitors. Feeling tense after the evening they'd shared they both stood in pseudo-readiness for whatever waited in the hall.
Ray looked through the peephole and turned around with a sigh.
"It's Francesca," he said as he opened the door.
She didn't wait for an invitation or a greeting. Head down, concentrating on her words, she said, "I'm not sure what to make of this, Ray but we have a problem. Well, maybe not a problem exactly but we need to look into this." She was already in the middle of the room before Ray spoke.
"Hi, Francesca," Ray said. "This is my friend, Ben Fraser."
"Francesca Vecchio," she introduced herself without breaking stride. She carded fingers through her brown hair as she returned her attention to the problem at hand.
"Vecchio?" Ben asked.
"She's Ray's sister," Ray answered.
Despite her petite size, she carried the strength of a person to be dealt with. She held up her index finger as she paced the floor, clearly lost in her thoughts. "Lenny and I had a long talk after he got to the station. And I don't want to start tossing around accusations, Ray, but this could be bad."
"Francesca, if you don't slow down and break it into bite sized pieces I'm never going to keep up."
"Oh, sorry, I'm just...well, frankly I'm a little upset. We've worked so hard at Caulfield and to just be so careless that it turns into a free-for-all, well, something has to be done."
"Francesca, take a breath and spill."
She stopped pacing and rested both hands on her narrow hips. "Do you know who Lenny is close to at Caulfield?"
"He keeps to himself. He likes having a roof over his head and a basketball court."
"That's what I thought too. But, down at the station, it was Sam Franklin this and Sam Franklin that and Sam would understand why he stretched the truth about johnning cars."
"Jacking," Ray said.
She stopped pacing for a moment. "What?"
"It's jacking cars, not johnning them. You john them, it sounds like you're..."
"Hey, hey, hey," she stopped him, holding her hand up. "I get it, okay. Could you focus here?"
Ray held up his hands, palms out. "Sorry, go ahead, Francesca."
"From what Del said, I think Sam, I'm probably wrong, but it sounded like he sort of started the trouble between them."
"How? Why?" Ray asked, clearly not believing a word of it.
"When Lenny started bragging about stealing the cars, Sam was sitting at one of the card tables doing paperwork."
"Wait, wait, wait, he said he was back in our office."
"No, Ray, I was back in the office with Louise and Vinnie. They're so worried with the baby coming and all, well, you know, but, Sam, he was in the main room. Now, I didn't hear anything but according to Del, Sam was joking with Lenny about the car stealing. There were four other kids there and the whole group was getting into it except for Del who, as we all know, has the sense of humor of, well, I don't know, but, none basically."
"So the kids were getting rowdy, joking around with Sam and Lenny, I’m still not seeing a problem here. Kids are kids, they exaggerate, they lie, they think doing bad stuff is fun. As long as their just talking and not doing, we don't..."
"Listen to me, Ray, I'm not done yet."
He held his hands up again.
"As I was saying, the kids were getting pretty worked up except for Del who was reading and trying to ignore the stuff around him. But, then Sam, not Lenny, but Sam tapped him on the head. Del told him to knock it off which made the other kids laugh. Then Lenny did it. From there it was a short jump to testosterone land and fist fighting."
Ray dismissed her story with a wave of his hand. "Sam's been working there since we opened. He knows better than to bring something like that on."
"Yes, he does, which is kind of my point, Ray."
"Sam would not be that unprofessional."
"Ray," Ben interrupted. "We know that someone"
"Not Sam. He's my friend, practically a partner at Caulfield. I'm not going to believe he set me up."
"Set you up?" Francesca asked. "Since when is this about you?"
"It doesn't matter because it's not true."
"Okay, well, whatever you're talking about, you better have a sit down with Sam. Both the kids told the same story so he needs a refresher course in communication and maybe a kick in the ass. Whatever he needs, you better see to it."
Ray just scowled. "I'll take care of Sam."
"Then I'm going back to Caulfield. I still have a couple of hours left before Elaine checks in."
"How were the kids doing when you left the station?" Ray asked as he walked her to the door.
"Just a day in the life. You know those two."
Ray laughed lightly. "Yeah, well, thanks for going down there, Frannie."
"They're my kids too, Ray. I'll see you tomorrow night."
"Okay." She reached for the doorknob before she turned around. "And you," she said to Ben. "If you're ever looking to fill up a quiet evening, Ray knows how to find me."
"Good night, Francesca," Ray said as he shooed her out the door.
Ray stood still for about half a second before he stalked over to the phone. He lifted the receiver and dialed four numbers then he slammed it back down again.
"Ray?" Ben ventured.
"I can't believe Clay got to Sam." The anger rolled off him. "This isn't even simple like dropping a dime to the cops, he actually made a situation happen."
"Was there any sign that he might be unhappy with his employment?"
"Maybe. Little things, I guess. Stuff I should've been paying attention to. Wanting to paint when there's no money, calling it babysitting when he works his shift. A few months ago one of the kids pulled a knife on him. Sliced his hand open pretty good. He went on for days about deserving hazard pay. Then a couple weeks ago, he got punched on the basketball court."
"I notice he didn't make an appearance when Deron and company dropped by."
"Yeah, I noticed that too but I figured he's just skittish, ya know? Plus he knows that I can mostly handle the gangs. They don't trespass too often but it's not the first time."
Ray stomped into the kitchen, then returned with a beer in his hand. "I don't believe it. I've known Sam for ten years." He twisted off the top and swallowed half the bottle. "He knows my past. Knows what happened with Clay and me. Hell, Sam drove me to the hospital the night I broke up with the guy."
"You know, Ray," Ben said, keeping his voice deceptively calm to hide the roiling anger building inside him. "Clay Robertson is in serious need of a lesson in relationship etiquette."
Ray finished the beer, a trickle of fluid draining from his mouth to his neck. "That's true," he agreed wiping away the excess while Ben determinedly did not help him. "And I'll tell you something else, Clay's loyal to Dad, but he's loyal to himself first. I'll bet you anything that Dad promised some of my shares to him. See, Clay earns a hefty paycheck and he gets treated like one of the family but he doesn't own any part of the business. When it all comes down, Clay is just a salaried lackey and nothing more."
"Then it's possible that Clay is threatening you on his own initiative, without your father's backing."
Ray paused for a moment, a flicker of hope in his eyes. He blinked it away, apparently unready to embrace the possibility. All the sudden energy he'd displayed a moment before drained away.
"Let's get some sleep," he said. "In the morning, we'll have breakfast with my brother."
"Are you going to sell your shares?" Ben asked, taking Ray's hand and drawing him close.
"Yeah, I am. I don't want them, I don't want anything to do with any of them after this."
"I understand that you're angry but this is a great deal of money you're throwing away."
Ray pressed against him, cuddling into his shoulder. Ben felt a lick against his neck before Ray spoke again. "I don't care about the money. Besides, you don't know how much my dad is willing to pay. Cash is not going to be an issue no matter what."
Ben stroked Ray's hair as he rubbed his chin against the stubbled flesh of Ray's cheek.
"Still, they do mean something to you," he said quietly.
Ray leaned more fully against him, letting Ben take his weight. "Sentimental value, Ben, that's all and I'm starting to think the sentiment is misplaced.
Ben woke up with Ray draped across him, his breath warming the back of Ben's neck and his hand lying over Ben's penis. It felt warm and safe and somewhat arousing despite the fact that Ben also felt wholly lethargic. He remained still, ignoring the call of nature as well as the slight ache in his back from staying in one position too long. Feeling Ray's warmth, feeling his heartbeat against his skin was too delicious to give up for basic needs, at least for a few more minutes.
The choice soon left him as Ray stretched languidly pressing on sensitive areas that didn't need arousing after the exhausting night they had. Oblivious, Ray just kissed the space between his nipples before pushing himself lazily to meet Ben's mouth. Dry lips and questionable breath but still Ben relished the intimacy.
Ray barely opened his eyes enough to let in light before he collapsed back on Ben's body.
"Time," Ray said.
"5:33," he answered after a quick glance at the clock.
"Wow, three whole hours, it's just like being a kid again."
Ben leaned forward to kiss the top of Ray's head. "It was easier then."
"Yeah." Ray trailed a soft path to Ben's sternum as he curled his legs up and snuggled into Ben's body. He stayed there quietly for a few moments while Ben carded his fingers through Ray's hair.
"Ya know, Ben, a lot of people would be running for the hills by now."
The tremor of Ray's laugh beat softly against his skin. "You know, it's not every first date that involves deranged family, police, gang fights and let's not forget the blackmail and threats."
"Oh, that's true. And if all of that had happened on our first date, then you're right, running for the hills would definitely be a priority. Luckily for us, that was technically our second date."
Ray laughed again. "You're unhinged."
"You're not the first to suggest that possibility."
"Ben." Ray's voice had gone serious. "This isn't your problem."
"Do you want me to stay out of it?"
"I don't know. For your sake, maybe it'd be a good idea. You think my family's rough on me, well, they're hell on wheels with outsiders."
"I'm not afraid of your family, Ray. You'll find I have relatively few skeletons to rattle and I can defend myself adequately as necessary."
"I don't want you having to."
"The only point I'm making, is that if you don't want me around then I'll back off. But, I'm happy to stay with you, if you'll have me."
Ray seemed to consider for a few moments, his hands absently trailing across the warmth of Ben's skin. Ben arched fractionally into the touch, his body hungrily seeking contact.
"I'll have you," Ray said finally. "In fact, I can't wait to have you in a lot of ways."
"But we have work to do first." Ben couldn't hide his breathlessness. He wished they could stay curled around each other, seeking and exploring.
Ray kissed his collarbone, licking at his skin, teasing him just a little.
"Come on, Ben, bathroom and shower and Brandy, oh my." Ben laughed at his joke while Ray rolled out of bed completely immodest as he disappeared into the bathroom. Ben pushed the blankets off reluctantly, wondering what new adventure he'd find with Ray that day. He also wondered if it would be appropriate to enter the bathroom while it was occupied. He had ignored his own need for so long that it was becoming an insistent pressure.
Finally he settled on using the second bathroom. That made more sense than infringing on Ray's privacy. The fact that he had spent the last two nights with this man and was currently embroiled in the most intimate of Ray's personal life, yet Ben still wasn't comfortable simultaneously sharing a bathroom, was not lost on him.
However, there was no time to linger over boundaries. Half an hour later, after gingerly working around each other between showers, dressing and coffee, they were ready to go to Brandy Kowalski's house. Ray remained overtly affectionate, touching and kissing Ben without hesitation. It had been far too long since Ben received such uninhibited attention and he found the more Ray touched, the more he wanted to be touched. He suspected that Ray drew comfort from the intimacy as well.
They barely spoke as Ray drove through the lazy Sunday traffic to his brother's house. Ray put on the radio, some mix of eighties and nineties music that could not be called soothing. Ben resisted complaining, deciding that this was Ray's life they were affecting and his pressure to bear. If alternative music helped him, then Ben could listen to it.
Brandy's house surprised Ben with its simplicity. Two stories with a full front porch and a two-car garage that hid the monetary wealth that Ben knew lived inside. Ray pulled into the far side of the driveway and shut off the engine. He looked at Ben with an expression most closely related to grim determination.
"Better let me do the talking, Ben."
"Of course. But might I suggest some subtlety in your approach?"
"Sure, I can do subtle. Come on and I'll show you subtle like you won't believe."
They didn't reach the front door before Brandy appeared on the porch dressed in jeans and a knit sweater. His breath puffed lightly into the air with his words.
"Good morning, Ray. I thought I might see you today."
"You got coffee?"
"Made a big pot just for you."
Ben stayed close to Ray as they climbed the three steps and followed Brandy into his house. Ben glanced around the small foyer that led into a modest living room filled with rich brown furniture and sand colored carpet. Knickknacks and decorations were few but there were photos of Ray on the mantle above a stone fireplace. In addition to Ray, their parents also graced the narrow shelf.
"Have a seat," Brandy said. He held his hand out to Ben. "Brandy Kowalski."
"I remember. Would you like some coffee too?"
"Please. Black is fine."
"And Ray, you still want sugar right?"
"Can't go wrong with sugar," Ray responded.
Brandy left towards the back of the house and Ben assumed that was where the kitchen was placed.
"He's got a nice place. A little dull around the edges but so is he," Ray commented.
"Does he live alone?"
"Mostly. He dates a lot. He moves women in and out a lot."
"He never married?"
"Not yet. Probably the only real complaint my dad has with him."
"Oh, he's got more than that," Brandy said as he returned carrying two mugs of coffee. He passed them out before suggesting they all sit down. Ray sipped at his, carefully watching his brother while Ben watched both of them.
"So," Brandy said. "You want to know what's really going on with Dad and why he wants your shares, right?"
"Mom said it's because I'm not part of his five year plan." So much for subtlety, Ben thought.
Brandy frowned. "You know better than to involve Mom in our business."
"It's her business too. And she gives me an honest answer when I ask a question."
"I've never lied to you, Ray, I just don't go behind Dad's back to keep you informed."
"Look, Brandy, I got one question for you and then we'll leave you in peace."
"That's not likely. There hasn't been peace since the day you came squalling into the world."
Ben bristled immediately at the insult. He was surprised when Ray laughed. "Yeah, well, Mom likes me best," he said and Brandy laughed.
Brandy sat back, going serious in an instant. He sighed and rubbed his hand over his hair just as Ben had seen Ray do. "Dad is all about power and he's all about loyalty. He wants the power and he wants everybody around him to be loyal. We both know you've never been a team player, Ray."
"But, Clay is, isn't he?"
"Yes, he is."
"Dad wants my shares so he can give them to Clay."
"He just wants to reward him for all the loyalty he's shown. It's not about you, it's about Clay. Dad knows you don't have any interest in the business. And he's paying for the shares, he's not stealing them."
"It's not a straight business deal and you know it. He wants me out. Out of his business, out of his family, out of his sight, you name it. He trusts you and Clay so he's moving me out to move Clay into my spot and then he can forget all about..." Ray trailed off, busying himself with his coffee for a moment. Ben ached for him.
"You're wrong, Ray," Brandy's voice had gentled but Ben could hear the condescension. "Dad doesn't make business decisions for personal reasons. He's keeping control of Kowalski and he's rewarding Clay because Clay is a valuable resource."
"Oh, give me a break, Ray. You never wanted anything to do with Kowalski and you know it. You're looking for a conspiracy to make yourself feel better."
"What the hell does that mean?" Ray stood up, looking as if he were poised for a fight.
"You've been disappointing Dad for as long as I can remember. Now, when he makes a decision that's best for everybody, you get all the ammunition you need to prove that he never loved you, that he never treated you right, that you're the poor little rich boy with the cold, unfeeling father."
Brandy delivered his speech sitting down. His smug expression couldn't hide the anger in his eyes. For a moment, Ben wondered if Ray would just attack him where he sat but Ray set his mug down instead.
With a softer tone, Brandy continued. "He's not giving all of it to him, just a few shares. Dad doesn't want to replace you with another major stockholder, Ray, he wants the pot for himself."
"And for you," Ray said.
"He's giving you a good price, better than you'd get anyplace else."
"You really can't see that it's not the money, can you?"
Brandy sighed as he stood up. The annoyance wafted off him like an odor. "Oh, give me a break, Ray."
"I can do that." Ray walked passed Ben and out the door. Brandy stared after him, shaking his head.
"You know," Ben said. "He's not just looking for answers, he's looking for understanding."
Brandy lifted Ray's half-full mug from the table, cradling it between both hands. "I know that."
"Then why attack him?"
"Because somebody has to shut him down. The more you validate him, the more he pushes."
Ben recoiled inside at the coldness in Brandy's voice. Was this how the whole family viewed Ray? Someone that needed to be boxed up and controlled with disregard and nullification of his beliefs?
Ben turned to leave but was stopped by a hand on his arm. He pulled away, feeling soiled by the touch. Brandy didn't seem to notice his reaction as he said,
"What I told him is true. Dad is not shutting Ray out to get rid of him. He's just making a business deal."
Ben turned completely towards him. "Does that include blackmail?"
"I hardly think you can call it blackmail."
"Clay Robertson has been sabotaging The Holden Caulfield Center for months. He's threatening to have it shut down if Ray doesn't sign over his shares."
"Clay wouldn't do that," Brandy said but his eyes reflected doubt.
"Wouldn't he?" Ben walked out, judging that at least Ray's brother was not involved with Robertson's scheme.
Pacing back and forth in front of the car, Ray didn't acknowledge Ben's approach. He was apparently aware of his presence though because he unlocked the passenger side then went around to the driver's side and climbed in. Ben followed his lead but didn't speak, waiting to take his cue from Ray.
Ray didn't turn the key to the engine. He just closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the seat.
"That sucked," he said after a few moments of silence.
"Yes, it did."
"I gotta stop beating my head against a wall, Ben, I'm starting to feel the concussion."
"Well, you made your decision last night and you have the answers that you were seeking. There's little else to do now except sign the paperwork and deliver it."
"Then Clay wins."
"Take Clay Robertson and Caulfield out of the equation, Ray. Your father has offered to buy your shares from you, what do you want to do?"
"It's not that easy.
"Yes, it is. Ray, if you want Caulfield and your share of Kowalski, then keep them. Robertson can hire lawyers and we can hire lawyers and we can fight for as long as it takes to keep the center open. You don't have to be forced into a decision you don't want to make. So tell me, what do you really want?"
Ray squeezed the steering wheel with both hands, staring out the windshield at the broken clouds or the pretty joggers as they passed or maybe at the perfect neighborhood with its manicured lawns and muted colors. He stared for a long time until Ben was certain that he wasn't even seeing the sights around him.
"I want Caulfield." Ray's voice was so soft, Ben imagined he was hearing Ray's thoughts rather than his spoken voice.
Ray shifted in the seat to face him. "I want Caulfield. To hell with Kowalski."
"Then you know what to do." Ben leaned across the seat to capture that expressive mouth, getting jabbed by the stick shift in the process. Ray leaned into him, taking the kiss further by pressing his tongue inside while he curled fingers around the back of Ben's neck.
They stopped at Ray's apartment and picked up the contract. Then they drove to the Thatcher Agency on Ben's assurance that a notary would be on premise. He wasn't wrong.
"Has a lawyer looked at this?" Meg Thatcher asked once Ben and Ray had settled in her office. They looked at each other and then back at her.
"It's from my father."
"I don't care if it's from the parish priest, let me just review this. It shouldn't take long so just make yourselves comfortable."
Ray tried to stop her but she was insistent. On her way out the door she asked Ovitz to bring them muffins and coffee.
"Is she always like that?" Ray asked.
"She's very efficient...and dedicated."
"I guess so if she's got a lawyer here on Sunday."
"She's the lawyer, Ray. She's likely taking the contract into her other office so she can be near her law books in case she needs to look something up."
"Efficient," Ray echoed.
"You have no idea. She does everything in strict order so that nothing is left to chance. You wouldn't believe the amount of forms required just for my book signing a few weeks ago."
"You know, I keep forgetting I'm in the presence of a famous author."
"Hardly famous though I have been blessed with a bit of success for my first published work."
"You got interviewed by CNN," Ray pointed out.
Ray laughed at him. "You take modesty to new heights, buddy."
Ovitz arrived a few moments later with a tray of pastries that he set on the coffee table along with a carafe of coffee and some china cups. They waited until he left before they attacked the selection with gusto. Neither of them had eaten that morning and they were ravenous.
By the time Meg returned, Ben had eaten two fruit danish and shared a jelly filled donut with Ray. Ray made all sorts of lewd comments about the donut both verbally and with his tongue as he lapped up the jelly. Ben had to turn away to avoid embarrassing himself.
"All right," Meg said, raising her eyebrows enough that Ben suspected she sensed the charge between him and Ray. "The contract looks fine. There's nothing in there that I'd consider unexpected. I checked with a contact I have and he says the money is more than fair. So, if you're ready, I'll have Ovitz come in to notarize your signature."
Ray nodded but his earlier playfulness disappeared.
Meg opened the pages and pointed out where he should sign and where he should initial. Ray didn't hesitate as he followed her directions. When they reached the final page, he looked up to meet Ben's eyes. With the slightest of nods, he signed then jumped when Ovitz slammed his ink stamp against the page.
Once the document was signed and notarized, Ray shook Ovitz's hand and then Meg's. He thanked them both sincerely and Ben doubted that anyone else noticed the panic dancing just on the edge of his demeanor. Ben took a moment to thank them too before he suggested they leave.
"Can I see you alone for a moment?" Meg asked Ben. He hesitated, not wanting to leave Ray alone but Ray excused himself easily and Ovitz followed him out.
She cleared her throat, looking uncomfortable before she spoke. "Is he the reason that you don't want to have lunch with me?"
"I...well, not precisely."
"Ben, we've been working together for months...very closely together. When I finally asked you out, it was a both personal and a professional risk so at least do me the courtesy of being honest."
"I wasn't seeing Ray when you suggested lunch," Ben said. "However, my...inclination is..."
"He's more your type."
"I've always been partial to blonds." The words came so quickly that Ben was mortified as soon as they were out. When he dared glance at Meg, he was relieved to see a smile spread across her face.
"I see," she said, struggling with her expression. She finally gained some control and the professional face returned though Ben could still see amusement in her eyes. "Thank you for your honesty."
"Thank you for being a good friend," he returned sincerely.
Inside the elevator, Ben found Ray leaning against the back wall with his arms wrapped around himself and the contract hanging from his fingers. Ben stayed close to him, pressing shoulder to shoulder while the floor numbers flashed at them.
"Regrets?" Ben asked softly.
Ray shook his head. "Growing pains."
Ben counted floors absently as they descended. Reaching down he squeezed Ray's hand, receiving a squeeze in return as the doors opened.
Ben thought they would drive to the Kowalski mansion or perhaps to the main offices of Kowalski, Incorporated but Ray wanted to deliver the papers to Clay. Against his better judgment, Ben kept his objection to himself.
The cool morning had given way to more clouds threatening another day of showers. As Ben watched the scenery pass, he wondered about his father. He hadn't checked on him since the night before, which seemed much further in the past than it really was. Too many events over the last several hours had filled more than the time allotted.
"What're you thinking about?" Ray asked, nudging Ben out of his thoughts.
"Oh. My father. I haven't called him today to see if he needs anything. All-in-all I've been a poor host, I'm afraid."
"Do you want to go home? I can meet Clay and give him the paperwork."
"Given your past dealings with him, I think I'd rather accompany you."
"Oh God," Ray moaned. "Don't tell me you think you're going to defend my honor."
"I didn't mean it quite that way."
"I can take him, Ben, I swear I can. Up until now I've chosen not to, but trust me, I'm a good fighter."
"I'm certain you are, however, my presence should prevent the necessity for any violence. If either of you lose your temper then I can act as intermediary."
"You, uh, you like your dad, don't ya?"
Ben needed a moment to adjust to the change in subject. That also gave him a moment to phrase his answer.
"I respect him. He's a good man, an honest man."
"If you met him in a bar..."
"That's not likely since I don't drink."
"If you met him at a meeting of the local Moose Club, would you like him?"
Ben laughed at that before he answered. "Hmm, that's an interesting question. I've never really considered it."
"Consider it now, we got time."
"All right. I suppose I would recognize that he was strong and possibly that he was a good man to have on your side. I might find him too serious though and perhaps condescending. He enjoys telling stories so, for a while, he might be entertaining but eventually the stories would repeat and he would become less so. I think I would like him as a person but not so much as a friend. And I think I would still respect him but I'd know that the person I met was more façade than real, more legend than human. And I think I would feel sorry for him and his masked existence." Ben felt the blush creep across his cheeks as he finished speaking.
"I can see why you're a writer, Ben." Ray reached across the seat, took his hand and held it for a moment. "You can reach into people and pull out the parts."
Neither spoke for a while. Ben returned to watching the neighborhoods pass while he felt secure with the warmth of Ray's hand circling his own.
"I'm not a writer," Ray said too loudly. "I don't like my old man and I wouldn't like him anywhere. He's like that pan coating that everything slides off of. Shiny, but hard and slippery too."
"I'm sorry, Ray."
"I could forgive a lot if I thought he just...felt something. But he never has. No matter what I ever said or did, no matter how many ways I tried to get his attention, he just kept refusing to see me."
Ben didn't know what to say. Anger sparked at the desolation in Ray's tone. Anger at the events that brought on such sadness, anger at Damian Kowalski and Clay Robertson and anyone else who had caused such despair.
An image flashed in his mind of a small boy, sobbing and fearful as he crouched inside a closet while Damian Kowalski slammed the door shut, sealing him in darkness.
"Ow," Ray said giving him a frown and Ben realized he'd squeezed his hand too tightly.
"Sorry," he answered as he forcefully shut out the image.
"Where were you anyway?"
"No place important, uh, no, that's not true, there's just nothing good in sharing it."
"Okay, well, I'd argue with you about it, but this is Clay's house."
Ray pulled into the two car driveway of a multi-story monolith full of windows and brick and granite archways.
"Apparently there are no worries about the sins of excess," Ben said dryly.
"Excess is one of the things that Clay does best."
They stepped out of the car and Ray waited until Ben joined him on the driver's side. Ray had rolled the contract into a tube and was now clutching it in one hand. Ben moved in front of him, blocking his path for a moment.
"You don't have to do this. You can tear it up right now and throw it in the trash can."
"I made up my mind, Ben. This is the right thing for everybody. I'll have my freedom, they'll have their company, Caulfield stays open, it's a win-win...uh, win situation."
Ray's confidence overwhelmed him and Ben couldn't help kissing him. Ray didn't seem to object as he pressed close, deepening the embrace. Ben cradled the warm, moist tongue in his mouth, moaning softly with the intimacy. As music blared from a passing vehicle, reality interrupted them and they separated. Ray carried just a hint of red in his cheeks that Ben knew was mirrored in his own face.
"Probably not a good idea on the street," Ray said.
"You ready to go in?"
"If you are."
"I'll lead the way, McDuff."
Ben followed him up the narrow sidewalk to an impressive entryway. The split front door towered nearly ten feet from top to bottom and a good twelve feet in width. The chiseled wood featured an etched glass window on either side and crystal door handles the size of baseballs.
Ray pressed the doorbell and though Ben didn't hear a chime, a moment later an attractive woman wearing a classic French maid uniform answered. The cliché was almost too much to resist comment but Ben refrained.
"Mr. Kowalski," the woman greeted them with a smile and the hint of a southern accent. "It's a pleasure to see you again."
"Thanks, Doris, you too. Is Clay home?"
"He's in his study. If you'll wait here in the foyer, I'll announce you."
She let them inside then stopped just short of a curtsy before she went to find her employer. Ben looked at Ray with eyebrows raised.
"Clay has an image in his head of how everything is supposed to look. Doris fits the mold, just like the house and the silent doorbell. She's a nice girl though and efficient like you wouldn't believe."
"I see what you mean about excess." Ben was referring to the marble floor of the foyer and the rich wood beams crossing the ceiling.
"You haven't seen anything yet."
"And he won't," Clay said as he approached.
"No, I don't suppose he'll need to." Ben had noticed the rise in tension from Ray before but with Clay's presence his whole body seemed to stiffen. "I just came by to drop off the contract."
"You signed it?" Clay sounded surprised which irritated Ben even more.
"Not because of you and your amateur-hour blackmail so don't go getting all full of yourself about it."
"Of course not. You do a complete one-eighty but it has nothing to do with my influence, I'm sure." Sarcasm and disbelief filled every word. The man was infuriatingly smug.
"Oh, no, it had everything to do with you. Now that I cut the last tie, I don't have any reason not to tell him about you and me. Or about the way you think you got me to sign."
Clay's features grew taut negating the attempt he made at nonchalance. "He wouldn't believe you over me, Ray. He'll assume it's sour grapes."
"Yeah, maybe. Maybe not. I guess we'll find out. But you have to wonder how long you'll keep the corner office if he believes that you were fucking his son, that you're just as much a fairy as I am."
Ben tried not to let his mouth hang agape. He never anticipated that Ray would bait the other man. But, while good sense said he should intervene, the pleasure of watching Clay Robertson squirm was too intense.
"Or how about the rest, Clay? What do you think? Is blood thicker than the dollar signs? You think I don't have the hospital records? You think Sam Franklin will keep your secret for two minutes when old Damian Kowalski starts asking questions?"
"I lost my temper a couple of times. He lost it a lot more often and did a lot more damage, Ray. He'll understand my provocation. As for using the center as leverage, that was good business sense. It convinced you to sign over your shares, didn't it?"
Ben forced his hands to stay at his sides. Ray wouldn't thank him for punching Clay no matter how much the other man deserved it.
"No, it didn't. But now that you have what you wanted, we're done here."
They reached the car before Robertson made a final appearance.
"You tell him, Ray. Tell him how your big, bad lover abused you and see how much respect you get for it."
Ray darted back up the walk before Ben reacted.
"Come on, Ray, all of a sudden you want to be tough?" Robertson taunted.
Ben caught up just as Ray reached the steps. He used Ray's arm for leverage to pass him
"Don't do it. It'll only give him what he wants," he said.
"You're all tough now, aren't you, Ray?" Robertson said.
"Shut up," Ben warned him, sparing a glare in his direction before addressing Ray again.
Pure hatred shown out of Ray's eyes, startling him with the intensity.
"Listen to me. You'll go to jail and you'll lose Caulfield. You'll let down everyone who depends on you."
Ray seemed to listen but then shoved into him, trying to get passed. Ben pushed back.
"Get out of the way."
"No, not until you see reason. Look around you." Ray took a quick glance around to see a small audience scattered in the yards and sidewalks around Robertson's home. People who had been absent moments before were suddenly present and gawking.
Ray looked back at Ben. "He needs it," he hissed.
"Yes, he does. But at what cost?"
"You think you can do something?" Robertson asked. "Or are you just making a show in front of your new toy?"
"He's goading you on purpose." Ben said.
Ray's eyes went to Robertson and then back to Ben. "I'll pop you too if I have to."
Ben couldn't hide his surprise. "Really. You'd hit me to get to him?"
"That's what I said."
"Punching him is more important than whatever we might have in future, more important than your life's work, more important than your freedom?" Ray's expression only darkened. "Well...who am I to stand in the way then?"
Ben moved out of the way. Ray took the first step while Robertson waited, no doubt prepared to take a bloody nose or a split lip if it meant saving his job. Ben could see the trap so clearly and yet, he couldn't take Ray's choice from him.
Ray took the second step and then he stopped and he cursed.
Ray cursed as he stomped a few feet away into the grass. He kept cursing, rather colorfully, as he trailed a short path in Robertson's yard.
"You coward," Robertson said, disgustedly.
Ray didn't answer. He walked to his car, slipped inside and waited just long enough for Ben to join him before he drove away.
Back at his apartment, Ray pulled a beer out of the refrigerator and drained it before leaving the kitchen. He took another one out and drank half of that. He hadn't spoken a word since they left Robertson's, hadn't even looked in Ben's direction.
Ben's attention turned from him to the front door when it opened suddenly.
"Dad," Ben said, surprised to see his father standing there.
"Sorry to barge in but the door was open."
Ray came out of the kitchen, looking puzzled. "Don't worry about it, come on in."
Despite trying to sound friendly, the tone sounded more like an order than an invitation. "Do you want something to drink?"
"What you're having will be fine," Robert answered.
Ben thought Ray would comment on the difference between father and son but he just went back in the kitchen.
Robert looked at Ben. "Is he drunk?"
"No. He's tired and a bit on edge."
"Ah, well, I wouldn't have come in except..."
Irritated with his father and feeling a bit on edge as well, Ben interrupted. "Yes, Dad, why would you just walk in like that?"
"Well, you passed me by the elevator and didn't even see me, I thought you might be having a problem. Forgive me for being concerned about my only son."
"Oh, no, you should be concerned," Ray said, starting to sound drunk despite Ben's assurance to the contrary.
"You did the right thing," Ben said to Ray but Ray ignored him to address his father.
"You're a cop, right?"
"Yes," Robert answered. "Sergeant Robert Fraser, RCMP."
"Ray Kowalski, sorry for being rude." He handed him the beer and Robert took it with a nod of thanks. "Let me ask you something, Sergeant Fraser, if you get beat up by your boyfriend and then you don't take the chance to get him back when you can, what does that make you?"
Robert glared at Ben. "You didn't..."
"Of course not." Ben was appalled by his father's implication.
"It makes you an idiot," Ray said, apparently oblivious to them. "Makes you a complete idiot."
"It's been my experience that things are rarely that black and white," Robert said. "But, I will tell you that brawling accomplishes nothing but a headache for the responding police officers."
"You're not a coward, Ray."
"Who said I was? I just said I'm stupid."
"He wanted you to hit him," Ben insisted.
"Usually it's the other way around. You might've noticed I'm the one that keeps getting belted."
"Well, you can't win every battle, son," Robert said.
Ben turned on his father. "He did win this one. He got to keep what he cares about, he didn't end up in jail or being sued..."
"Got free of the vultures," Ray added.
Robert shot a questioning look to Ben. "His family," Ben responded.
Ray took another swallow. "They don't like me." He looked at the mostly empty bottle in his hand. "I don't want this. I'm switching to water, anybody need anything?" He didn't wait for an answer as he headed back to the kitchen.
"Why don't we have a seat?" Ben suggested nodding towards the living room.
Robert took a seat on the couch so Ben sat in the chair across from him. When Ray returned carrying two bottles of water, he handed one to Ben, then sat on the couch staying a cushion away from Robert.
"I keep thinking I should've had the fight. At least he wouldn't think I ran away from him," Ray said.
"Well, you have to ask yourself a question," Robert said. "Did you avoid the fight because you were afraid?"
Ray scoffed. "I'm not afraid of Clay. I've never been afraid of him. I was just used to getting knocked around so it didn't seem queer that he'd do it, ya know?"
"Not from experience but I take your meaning."
Robert took a sip from his beer then set it on the coffee table. "My son might spend far too much time holed up with his stories but that doesn't mean he's a fool."
Ben was genuinely surprised. Even a backhanded compliment was unusual from his father. "Thanks, Dad."
"It's true, son." Robert turned back to Ray. "But, my point is that if he believes you did the right thing in walking away, then you likely did. He's always been observant, probably more so than was good for him."
"Probably helps with the writing thing."
Robert shrugged. "Probably."
Ray leaned forward, set his water down and leaned his forward into his open hands. "God, it's been a long weekend."
Robert slapped him on the back, too hard to be comforting, and stood up. Ray threw a glare at him but Ben doubted that his father noticed.
"I'm going back upstairs. I hope you'll stop by before I leave in the morning, Benton."
Ben and Ray stood up with him "I will, Dad. I'll make certain."
"It was good to meet you," Ray said, sticking out his hand.
"And you." Robert shook it. "Good luck with whatever this is."
Ray laughed as he thanked him and Ben walked him to the door.
After Robert left, Ray said, "He's not what I expected."
"He wasn't what I expected this evening either."
"Well, that's probably unfair although this is the first time that he's interacted with a man that I've become involved with."
Ray slipped his arms around Ben's waist. "We're involved, huh?"
"It feels like involvement to me."
Ray kissed him, slowly pressing his tongue passed Ben's lips. Ben welcomed the intruder sucking lightly as he moved his hands to Ray's lower back then moved lower still. Ray pushed closer against him, deepening the embrace. As he grew more aggressive, Ben responded in kind.
A few hours later, Ben lay on his side, his hand against Ray's hip while he listened to the other man snuffle softly in sleep. Ben knew he should be sleeping too. He certainly felt tired enough to pass out for days but the events of the weekend continued playing through his mind.
Living in the relative seclusion of his apartment with just his computer and imagination for company, he rarely experienced such strong displays of action and emotion. Used to the quiet of his personal existence, he was having some difficulty adjusting to the adventure of Ray's life.
Still, he found the intensity somewhat intoxicating. For the first time in too long, he really felt the beat of his heart. Due partly to the fondness he was quickly developing for Ray and partly due to his father's impromptu visit and partly due to the chaos that was apparently Ray's life, Ben found himself anticipating the next days. He was surprised to find that he enjoyed not knowing what the new day promised.
Ray slowly turned to his back, then to his other side so that he was now facing Ben. Still breathing softly in sleep, his face relaxed and yet his hand sought and soon found contact with Ben's body. The rush of that simple act filled Ben with warmth. He lay his hand over Ray's and closed his eyes.
The first word out of Ray's mouth was a curse. Ben followed with one of his own as he looked over Ray's shoulder to see the clock. It was three in the morning and someone was ringing Ray's doorbell.
After burying his face in the closest pillow for a moment, Ray rolled out of bed, grabbed the jeans lying on the floor and slipped them on. He still hadn't opened his eyes more than a millimeter. Ben soon followed his example.
By the time he padded in bare feet to the living room, Ray was already opening the front door. Damian and Brandy Kowalski came in, looking tired and disheveled.
Both men focused on Ben. Brandy looked embarrassed but Damian just scowled.
"Should've known you wouldn't be alone," he grumbled.
"That's not your business, dad," Ray said. "This is my home and he's my guest so you be polite or go home."
"Unfortunately that's not an option or I wouldn't be here in the middle of the night."
"Is mom all right?"
"Your mother's fine but you should know better than to drag her into business between the two of us."
Ray shrugged. "I needed answers."
"Well, now I do," Damian said. "Are you sleeping with Clay Robertson?" Ben felt the jolt of the question from across the room.
"No," Ray answered.
"Are you saying that because he's here?" Damian crooked a thumb in Ben's direction. "Because I don't have time to screw around with hurting..."
"No, I'm not," Ray interrupted. "I am not sleeping with Clay."
"But, you were," Brandy offered.
Ray glared at him before answering. "A long time ago."
"Son of a bitch," Damian muttered, moving further into the room.
"I'll make coffee," Ben said, needing to escape their intensity for a moment. He could still hear them talking while he prepared the pot.
"Clay isn't a fa..."
"Hey," Ray interrupted again. "Clay is bi-sexual just like me. You remember when we had that talk, don't you, Dad?"
The sarcasm hung in the air for a moment before Damian spoke again.
"That's what you were hinting at the other night when your mother had you over for dinner?"
"Yeah, well, I was mad and drinking. It's a bad combination."
"I don't believe it. I've known Clay for..."
"Obviously you do or you wouldn't be here."
"Ask him about the rest, Dad," Brandy intervened softly.
Damian took a breath. "Did he threaten your youth center if you didn't sign over the shares?"
"He's got the paperwork so why do you care how he got it?"
Ben returned from the kitchen with the coffee in time to see Damian stomp a couple of spaces away from Ray only to turn back to him, his face red with fury.
"Because I can't trust him if he's pulling that crap behind my back. Now, did he blackmail you or not?"
"He's been setting up accidents and some legal problems to make it look like we're trouble. He said he'd get us closed if I didn't give up my part of Kowalski."
"I've been looking into it all day," Brandy said to Ray. "I found a paper trail that shows what he's been doing. He didn't even bother to hide it."
"Why would anybody look?" Ray asked, but the question was clearly rhetorical.
"Did he put you in the hospital?" Ben was amazed at the way Damian's voice barely fluctuated. It was as if every question was an order to be answered.
"Old news, Dad."
"You should have told me."
"Tell you that your pansy son let his boyfriend beat him up? Yeah, Dad, I should've rushed to the phone with that."
"Damn it, Raymond, you're my son."
"When's that mattered?"
"Family has always come first. If you'd come to me, I would've bounced Clay on the spot."
"For hitting me or for not being what you thought?"
"Both. And not because of what you think. He's a liar and he's dangerous and that makes him a liability I can't afford."
The words that Ray's father didn't say thundered through Ben. Damian's anger at Clay Robertson had nothing to do with the damage that he caused to Ray. It had to do with trust and finances and appearance. If Ray noticed, it didn't show.
"Is that all you wanted?" Ray asked.
"I've never understood you," Damian said, sounding regretful. "You let yourself be abused. You let him blackmail you into giving up something that you obviously wanted."
Ray shifted defensively. "I don't owe you an explanation."
"Perhaps one should be given anyway," Ben suggested, aware that his voice in the midst of theirs sounded foreign and unwelcome.
But when Ray looked at him, there was only fondness in his expression.
"I made a lot of mistakes after Stella left," Ray said, staring at Ben a moment longer before turning back to Damian. "Clay was just one of them. For the blackmail thing, I didn't know what was going on until yesterday and by then he already had me. Caulfield is more important than a few shares in a business."
"You could've come to me, told me what he was doing."
"You were signing my shares over to him..."
"Not all of them," Damian said.
"You already knew who you wanted around."
Damian started moving towards the door, everything about him advertising anger. He looked towards Brandy but Ben couldn't see his expression. Whatever passed between them, Damian turned around. The anger never left his face but his voice gentled for the first time.
"I'll be tearing up the contract," he said then walked out without another word or a look at the people behind him.
Both Ray and Brandy sighed almost identically and then Brandy said, "He is trying."
"Thanks for doing the work," Ray said.
Brandy patted his shoulder before leaving Ray to stand alone in the middle of his living room. Ben abandoned his place by the dining table to wrap his arms around him from behind. Ray leaned back, resting his head against Ben's shoulder.
A couple of hours later, Ben propped up on one elbow to study Ray's sleeping expression. Ray had talked for a while after his family's departure, but he was just exercising some tension. They hadn't behaved any differently than he expected and soon he was too tired to analyze them.
Ben knew his father would be leaving soon and he had made a promise that he wanted to keep so he kissed Ray lightly, glad that the other man didn't waken and then climbed out of bed to dress.
The hallways of the apartment complex seemed almost eerie with no movement or sound other than re-circulated air.
When he reached his own door, he could hear the faint sound of the television playing. He used his key to let himself in. His father looked up at him from the dining table where he was reading the newspaper and drinking coffee.
"Good morning, Dad."
"Is there more coffee?"
"I made a full pot in case you showed up in time."
"I'm sorry, I meant to be here earlier but Ray and I had a late night." And an early morning, Ben added mentally.
"My prisoner is ready for transport so I only have a few minutes."
Ben nodded as he went in the kitchen to retrieve coffee. He found a cup and poured and then stopped for a moment, leaning against the kitchen counter. He had little time and a decision to make. Could he let go of the past and concentrate on now? Could he accept his father back in his life on a regular basis? Would his father even want that?
The decision had actually been made the night before and he knew it. Now, he just had to find the courage to follow through.
Cup in hand, he returned to the dining room.
"Uh, Dad, I want...I want to thank you for helping Ray last night. I think he was angry with me for standing between him and pummeling Robertson so it helped having someone unbiased to talk to."
"Are things all right between you now?"
"More than all right."
Ben sipped at his coffee but didn't sit down. "It was good to see that side of you."
"I'm not just your father, Benton."
"I know but...it's seldom that I get to see any other part of you. Living in that cabin when I was young and then moving off to college at seventeen, I rarely saw you interact with other people on any level deeper than purchasing supplies from Lew at the depot."
"I suppose that's true. I never really thought of it."
Ben took a breath. "I think you're right. I think we can find our way if we try a bit harder."
"Do you?" His father seemed torn between hopeful and afraid but maybe Ben was projecting his own feelings.
"I do. And I'd be willing."
"Well, I, uh, have some leave coming up next month. I thought I'd spend it at the cabin, maybe do some repairs. Would you like to come up?"
Ben stopped his first thought that his father just wanted help with the repairs. If he was going to make any strides in their relationship then he would have to stop automatically assuming the worst.
"I'd like that. I haven't been home in a long time."
Robert picked up his cup and carried it into the kitchen as he spoke. "All right then, we'll plan on it. I don't have the dates or details yet but I'll call you."
Ben waited while he came back out and gathered his overnight bag. Robert stopped in front of him and held out his hand. Ben shook it, holding on just a moment longer than necessary.
"I'll talk to you soon, son."
There was little left to say and his father left, going back to his own life but at least there was hope between them.
Ben took a moment to wash out their coffee cups and the pot. When he left the kitchen, he noticed his computer sitting idly, untouched for days. He knew he had a deadline to meet but other things beckoned him.
Just as he started for the front door, the phone rang. Ben picked it up grudgingly.
"Ben?" A young voice asked.
"Mario, it's good of you to call."
"School's out today for teacher conferences but Nana said it wasn't too early to call."
"It's not. I'm glad to hear from you."
Mario chatted for several minutes about school and a new friend he'd made and his plans to go to a basketball camp during the summer. Ben could hear real contentment in the boy's voice and it made him smile. When Mario had finished reviewing all of his news he lowered his voice significantly and Ben had to listen harder to hear him.
"My dad called. He wants to come up and visit," he said.
"How do you feel about that?"
"I miss him but I feel kind of funny about it."
"The idea makes you uncomfortable?" Ben asked.
"Then, maybe it isn't the right time."
"What if he's mad that I don't want to see him?"
Then he'll be mad but you'll have been honest. That's all anyone can ask of you."
Ben spent the next few minutes reassuring him until Mrs. Armenta called to him to eat breakfast. Mario sounded happy as he hung up and Ben hoped that he'd been able to help him.
Shutting off the lights as he left his apartment, he went back upstairs to where a warm and sleepy Ray waited for him.