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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

01 The One I Want - 12. Doors

Funny how we can never see the forest for the trees.
Chapter 12
Doors

When they arrived at the agency, Ben was slow to climb out of the car.

"You sure you don't want me to come in with you?" Rick asked, peering up at him through the open passenger-side door.

Ben grimaced and pulled at his shirt. He hadn't quite been able to convince himself to wear a tie -- like a bad, B-movie, anything around his neck gave him the creepy-crawlies, like the fabric was going to suddenly enlarge from x-ray radiation or something and strangle him while he wasn't paying attention -- but wearing the dress shirt just felt ... weird without the usual tie.

He tried to smile reassuringly. "Think I can manage, thanks," he said, speaking over the little voice that was curled up in a dark corner begging Rick to stay. Stay and never leave me again!

"Okay." Rick wasn't convinced, but he told himself that Doug and Riley were inside. They could be trusted. No harm would befall Ben here. "I'm going to run up to the book store. Call me when you're ready to go, then, and good luck."

"Yeah, whatever, mommy," Ben muttered, pulling on his shirt collar again. He stepped back, allowing the door to close. He watched Rick pull out, but didn't return his wave, looking instead over his shoulder at the building. Alone, even plain, geometric shapes took on a sinister appearance, windows and doors forming eyes and gaping mouths, the roaring of the neverending traffic making like the seconds of suspense before the main character does something completely stupid and ends up grabbed by the bad guys waiting just on the other side of the door. No matter which one the hero chose, the bad guys were always waiting, and this time there was no one to come to his rescue.

He grabbed the handkerchief out of his pocket and wiped his face. "Fuck." The temperature was definitely not warm enough to be sweating this bad. Inside, he reasoned with himself, was the air conditioned, climate-controlled safety of his office. If he could make it in there, he could do this.

It's just the agency, he told himself sternly, willing his hand not to shake as he reached for the door knob. I know this place, these people, better than the back of my own hand, better than myself.

The hand on the latch trembled and Ben snarled out a curse, letting go to step back, and almost not dodging fast enough as the doors swung open. Heart leaping up into his throat to choke him, Ben staggered, stumbling over the edge of the wide step. Words went unheard as a head of russet-gold hair and wide green eyes thrust forward into his face.

"Watch where the fuck you're going!" he snapped, twitching away from the only dimly-recognized offer of assistance. Spinning around the woman, he slammed into the building's main hall, darted through the open front doors of the agency on the first floor, and stopped, forcing a more casual air as he confronted his business, employees, and customers.

From behind her desk, Betty looked up and smiled, waving, but didn't speak, holding her phone to her shoulder as she nodded absently, making notes on a pad. Unfamiliar faces sat in the waiting area, some ostensibly looking at magazines, and all studiously pretending they weren't checking each other out.

Ben snorted, rolling his eyes. People. They never changed. 'Get over yourselves!' he wanted to shout. 'You're not so important that everyone else in the world cares about your really not-so-weird kinks.'

How many times had he told the same people, just with different faces, to go out, get a hobby, get involved? How many times did they listen? Not enough. No, technology had to solve all their problems. Online, faceless, nameless, they could be free to stop pretending. Only, when that 'special someone' actually showed up, back went the masks and pretending, as if the person they came to see would forget the special-ness of what they'd fallen in love with in annonymity. There was no way around it; people were stupid, and desperate people were frightened little bunny rabbits. The only ones Ben could actually assist were the ones brave enough to truly be themselves.

In one, appraising glance across the waiting room, all he saw were fakers. Pointless, worthless, and, ultimately, failures. Oh, they'd jump into relationships fast enough, and proclaim to the world about how much love they were in, but, a few months later it'd be over and they'd be complaining that he hadn't held up his end of the deal. Bullshit. Such utter, pointless, demeaning bullshit.

"Get out."

A roomful of people stared up at him and Ben suddenly realized he'd walked right over to the handful of folks waiting. Blood thumped in his ears at their incredulous stares, but his hands curled into fists, jaw clenching. He wasn't doing this ... but he could hear himself talking, feel himself gesturing.

"You heard me. Out!" A couple of women jumped at the harsh tone. "When you're actually serious about this, then let me know."

"Doc?" Phone forgotten, Betty stared at her boss. Blue eyes sparkled as he turned his head to glare at her. She took a physical step (and several mental) ones back. "I'm sorry, please hold," she stammered into the phone.

"Get OUT!" Ben roared.

Most scattered, though a few stayed stubbornly, and Ben turned to stalk through the maze of cubicles to his office. Betty hurried after, giving the remaining customers an embarrassed, uncertain look.

"Oh, hang on, Lance," said Doug, standing up from his desk as the hushed quiet infiltrated his conversation. "He just walked in now." He gestured to his friend, to call him over. "Ben --"

"Fuck off, Doug!" he spat, halting the man in his tracks. He whirled on the rest of the faces, peering out at him from over and around blue-gray, cloth walls. "And what the fuck are you all staring at?"

"Uh, Lance," said Doug, as Ben slammed his office door. "Can I call you back? Sure, sure, no problem."

He and Riley shared a mutual look of astonishment, moving together to Ben's door. Doug waved off Betty and knocked.

"Ben?"

"Fuck off, Doug!"

He tried the handle, but the door was locked. "Ben, I'm not discussing this through a door."

"Fine!"

"Whatever happened between you and Rick this morning," Riley interjected, but the door swooshing open halted that train of thought. Ben stood there, looking far more dishevelled than he'd ever usually let himself, glaring at the two of them. The greenish-yellowish bruising on his cheek stood out garishly against the flushed tones of his face and he stabbed a finger in the vicinity of Doug's nose, the shorter man being more convenient.

"You leave him out of this!" snarled Ben. "This has nothing to do with that asshole. Just. Leave. Me. Alone!"

The door slammed again.

"Well," said Riley. He couldn't think of anything else to say. He'd never seen Ben like this. He glanced at Doug, but the other man seemed even more surprised, actually standing there with his mouth hanging open. "Doug?"

"What the hell?" he whispered, touching his cheek. "I thought that healed weeks ago."

Riley sighed, rolling his eyes. Leave it to Doug to focus on the least important aspect. "Doug." He called his name a second time to get his attention, turn his mind to more constructive things. "Doug, what did Lance want?"

"We're being sued," he answered distantly, eyes going back to Ben's closed door.

Riley resisted the urge to throttle the younger man. Lance Matthews was their lawyer. Of course they were being sued. When weren't they? This was L.A.! Grabbing Doug by the shoulder, Riley dragged him back over to his desk, sitting him down, and perching on a corner.

"What about?" he asked.

"Oh. Well," Doug shook his head, trying to focus. "Not sure. Lance said he hadn't read through the documents yet. Headquarters got served this morning and they faxed him right away. Hasn't all gone through yet, but --"

"It was important enough they didn't want to wait for the mail."

"Yeah." Doug eased back in his chair, frowning thoughtfully. "Thing is, even though we're the ones as got served, the agency's not the main focus. Whoever it is, they're going after Ben. The agency's named secondary. But, they are asking for mediation before proceeding."

"Well, that's good," sighed Riley. Mediation meant they rarely had to go to court. Ben could usually turn these things around in a face-to-face confrontation. That was good news. "Doesn't seem like anything to be worried about. I'm going to call Rick."

"Huh? Why?"

He gestured towards Ben's office door, a door which was rarely closed and had just been slammed shut in their faces. "You can't tell me you think this behavior's normal?"

"For Ben? No, but, the man was stabbed," Doug argued. "I'm sure it's normal for what he's going through. Let him sulk about it if he wants. He'll snap out of it eventually. Ben always does."

"You may be right," Riley was willing to believe -- and hoping -- that he could be wrong, but this was Ben. He was the life of the agency. If he was falling, or had fallen, apart, then the sooner they knew for sure, the faster they could enact damage control. "... But Rick's the only one who's actually been around him lately."

"Ben's more than capable of working through this without interference." Doug dismissed the conversation, sitting down to call Lance back, mind already flipping through a list of potential suspects for a suit.

"I don't know," mused Riley, holding his cell, but not yet dialing.

"If you call him," Doug warned, "you'll only worry him and he'll come running back here."

"I know."

"I know Ben and he's fine. Besides, I'm sure Rick can use the break."

Riley glanced across the distance separating their cubicles, but only got the back of Doug's head. Ben was not pleasant to be around when sick. Could be that's all that was bothering him now. He sighed. "You have a point, there." He put the phone away and turned back to his computer.

Oblivious to the conversation occuring outside his office, Ben leaned up against his door until his heart rate normalized. Still feeling somewhat jittery, he told himself, sternly, to get a grip, and then double-checked that the door was locked. Then he sat down at his desk and logged on, giving his overflowing inbox a cursory glance. He saw nothing pressing, so turned instead to his vast filing cabinets to bring out the file on the clients he was there to see.

On first glance, Jack and Roger appeared very similiar in their interests and tastes, but the more they spoke of -- or, rather, complained about -- one another, the more dissimiliar they revealed themselves to be. They were a challenge in a number of different aspects, but chiefly because Ben had not matched them together. In fact, he had attempted, repeatedly, to split them up. In his opinion, the only characteristics shared by the two men was the fact they were both homosexuals and their absolute refusal to see just how wrong they were for each other.

Seen on the street, neither Jack nor Roger stood out in any particular way. Jack was a graphic artist for one of the big studios up in Beverly Hills, and Roger was a pilot, flying cargo and mail around the world. They were pretty close in age, fairly even in body size and structure, just your average male specimens. Jack carried more weight and wore glasses, but that was about it. They both worked hard, had been bachelors up into their late twenties, and were both accustomed to doing things a particular way: their way.

Ben flipped through the pages of his notes to refresh his memory, skimming through notations that grew less detailed with each passing month until, finally, the last entry simply read: 'They're back!'

He could almost smile at himself. There wasn't a topic they hadn't covered, from barebacking and threesomes to joint checking accounts, personal space issues, and intimacy versus sex. There was always something new. This time, however, instead of being a little frustrated or irritated, but mostly curious, Ben realized that he really wasn't looking forward to this at all. More than walking back out that door and facing everyone, he didn't know if he could face Jack and Roger's unstinting optimism.

No, Ben decided, shaking his head, it wasn't that he couldn't, he just didn't want to; but he was stuck. Jack and Roger were due any minute. There was only one way in or out, so there could be no sneaking away, and he was shackled to Rick, anyway. Not that he wanted the man there, by any stretch of the imagination, it was just that -- No. No, he was simply being ridiculous. He had a job to do, and people who counted on him. He couldn't afford to be weak.

As he stood, Ben gripped the folder tightly in both hands, shaking with the desire to just fling the contents at the wall. He'd been cheated out of a screaming match this morning, and Rick's words still stung. He wasn't throwing temper-tantrums, he wasn't five, his body just seemed to be reacting to things faster than his mind could keep up. He'd been fine, just fine!

But something happened between slicing up bell peppers and tomatoes and ending up in the closet. One second chopping away, grease sizzling in the pan, the next ... and then ....

He jumped at a light tap on the door, one of his employees letting him know that his clients had arrived.

"Just a minute!" he called. Forcing his fingers to relax, he set the folder down and pulled out his handkerchief again to wipe face and hands. Come on, Ben, keep it together. You can do this. Smoothing the crinkled edges, Ben picked up his paperwork, and, with a deep breath, plastered on his professionalism, and opened the door.

Jack and Roger waited in one of the small meeting rooms on either side of Ben's office. They stood, apart, not cuddling, which Ben remembered as a bad sign. He forced a cheerful smile and closed the door, ignoring the way his hands shook and tension churned in his stomach. He'd eaten too much at breakfast, that's all it was.

"Hey, guys!" said Ben brightly in greeting.

They both turned.

"Holy cow, what happened to your face?" True to his nature, Roger stepped forward instantly, hand oustretched.

Ben froze, whole body angled back and away from the perceived threat.

"Rog." Jack's hand clamped over his partner's arm, dragging him back.

"What?"

Jack held Roger firmly and protectingly against his chest, kissing him lightly, but his eyes were on Ben, peeling himself out of the corner he'd flattened himself into, to pick up the scattered documents. Roger, of course, wanted to help, but Jack held him out of the way.

"Sorry," he apologized. "Thank you for agreeing to see us." He pulled the resistant Roger down onto the sofa, whispering, "Just be still!"

"S'okay, I'm just jumpy," said Ben, tossing the folder on the little table and sitting down across from them, wiping his palms on his pants. "So what is it you wanted to see me about?"

Jack watched Ben's hands shake as he shuffled papers, taking in the dishevelled appearance and dark circles under his eyes, and knew this was a bad idea. He should've just let Roger have his way this time. "Uh, well ...."

Ben sat back in his chair as the couple shared a long look. He drummed his fingers on the armrest and frowned. "Well?" Spit it out already so I can get out of here!

"Uh," said Jack, "we've seen you pretty regular, the last couple of years."

"Yes. So?"

Roger squeezed his partner's hand. "We want to get married."

"No kidding," drawled Ben, rolling his eyes. "When you get to the part where you need my help, do let me know."

Jack and Roger looked at each other again, both loathe to state the real reason for being there. It seemed so childish, now. Jack squeezed the more easily intimidated Roger's hand and decided to press on with their second reason.

"That's just it," he said. "We want you to do it."

Ben stopped mid-hair-swipe. "What?"

"To officiate," Jack clarified. "To marry us."

Ben let his hand fall limply. "That's what you brought me down here for? You couldn't pick up the fucking phone?"

"We wanted to ask you in person," said Roger in a small voice.

"That can't possibly be why you asked to come in. I'm on vacation!" Unconsciously, Ben's hands curled up into fists where they rested on his knees, wrinkling the material.

"Well, it's just that --" started Jack, but Roger blurted, "I don't like anal."

"Oh, for god's sake!" cried Ben, hopping to his feet. "What, you having a sudden identity crisis now? Afraid you aren't gay anymore? Fuck! You love him, right?" He pointed to Jack.

He nodded.

"And you love him, right?"

Jack nodded, unnerved by Ben's sudden flare of anger.

"Then what the fuck is the matter with you two? Do you not listen to a word I say?! Buy a book! Or two or three! Here, I'll give you one!" He threw open the door and stomped into his office, returning with the desired manual which he threw at the two men.

They ducked; the book hit the wall to the left of the sofa and sliding to a heap on the carpet.

"It's fucking called compromise, dimwits!" shouted Ben. "I'm not always going to be here to come crying to! If you want to be together, then fucking figure out a way to talk to," he stabbed an accusing finger at them again, "each other! Love is about caring that your partner is happy above all else, that their wants and needs are met, above what even you want! A partnership is both halves working together to achieve the same goals. One person can't do it alone. If you're so selfish as to only care about yourself, then you're not ready for a committed relationship and you should stop fucking wasting my time!"

Spinning around, Ben stalked out of the room, halting in his tracks as he faced the cubicles and curious faces of his employees. All he could think about was escape and he spun again, keeping his back to a wall as he made a beeline for the door.

"I'm going for a fucking walk if anyone fucking cares!"

Heads immediately ducked back down and out of sight. Seconds later the sounds of the front door opening and slamming shut again echoed across the room.

"O-kay," said Riley, loud in the stunned silence. "I'm calling Rick now."

"Good idea." Doug glanced into the meeting room at the two shell-shocked men. He knew that Jack and Roger made Ben crazy, but he'd sounded so eager on the phone when he'd explained the request for a session. What had they said to make Ben blow up like that?

"Well, don't just stand there, go after him!"

"Me?"

"Doug!"

"Fine, fine! Geez."

In a city that collectively thumbed its nose at public transportation to clog the streets with individual cars, a single man ought to stand out, but, no matter which way he turned, Doug didn't see Ben anywhere. Finally choosing a direction at random, Doug started walking. He pulled out his cell and dialed Ben's number, but he either wasn't answering or he didn't have it on him. Doug wasn't sure which one he was leaning towards, but he continued to re-dial every few minutes, in the hopes that Ben had his phone and would eventually get annoyed enough to actually answer.

He criss-crossed parking lots and sidewalks down Hawthorne Blvd. to PCH, heading towards the electronics store and little strip mall he knew was in that direction. The clusters of buildings made more sense to Doug as a destination than heading the opposite way, and he hoped Ben had come to the same conclusion, if he'd thought of anything at all when he'd stormed out.

Doug puzzled over that. Ben had a temper, but rarely lost it. Doug could count those incidents on one hand. Okay, maybe two, but ten times in fifteen years, that was rare, right?

The last time Ben had lost his composure was when he and Shelly had staged their intervention to keep Ben from going to Vegas. He'd ranted and raved and cursed at them, but they'd succeeded and gotten their brother back. Doug also recalled the time when Ben had broken his collarbone in a surfing accident, yelling at the attending doctor to stop flitting around like a butterfly on steroids and fetch someone who bloody well knew what he was doing.

Before that was the time Ben's first motorcycle got 'borrowed' and totaled, and before that was Charlie's surgery; though, there was that time in college he'd come home to find Ben huddled in a tiny ball, sobbing. Shelly was really so much better at handling stuff like this, but he couldn't call her, not this time. Both of the people Doug relied on for everything were acting crazy and he was lost in how to deal with the situation.

The only other possibility was Rick. Doug quickened his step, puffing a little now. So help him, if Rick was responsible for this, he'd fucking kill the man, built like a linebacker or not.

Ducking between two parked cars, Doug thought he glimpsed a blue shirt and khakis and broke into a jog for a few steps.

"Ben!"

The figure stopped and looked back. Doug waved, but Ben turned back and hurried on, darting away and out of sight.

"Shit!" He whipped out his cell phone. "Riley!" he panted, running to catch up with Ben. "I found him. We're on PCH, by the airport."

"Good, keep him there until Rick can catch up, he's stuck in the mall traffic."

"Why?" grunted Doug. How had he gone from simply tailing his best friend to actively stopping him?

"Just keep your eye on him," Riley replied. "Stop him if you can, and wait for Rick."

"Right." So now all he had to do was catch Ben and ... and then what? Sit on him? Ben was bigger, stronger, and a heckuva lot more fit. Or, actually, maybe not. He had spent a month flat on his back in the hospital. Having pulled or otherwise jacked up his abs not once, but twice, Doug reasoned that slicing those muscles would lengthen the recuperation period considerably. He might actually have a chance at doing this.

And then again ....

Rounding a corner, Doug skidded to a halt.

... That would be a whole heckuva lot easier without three giant, sumo wrestlers pinning Ben to a wall.

"Hey!"

Four heads swiveled in Doug's direction and he revised his original estimate. They weren't sumo wrestlers, more like WWE wrestlers. He'd bet they all had meaty names, too, like Bonecrusher and Smash and Sgt Slaughter. Unfortunately, they all wore the same distinct colors and similar attire. Great. Just what they needed, to irritate members of one of the local gangs.

"Que te den por culo," warned the one on the far side, the one Doug mentally named Smash.

"Fuck off, Doug!" added Ben, scowling through a freshly-bloodied lip.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" he retorted hotly, as the three gang members stared from one to the other of the crazy white men, unsure how to interpret the situation.

Ben smiled sweetly at his captor. "Just tryin' to get me a little action."

He kissed at the startled gangster as Doug groaned. Bonecrusher dropped Ben and wiped his hands on his pants while the other two laughed.

"Que te jodan, chapero!"

"You first," Ben replied, but his snide chuckles were cut off by a wicked backhand that slammed him back into the side of the building, then to the rough pavement.

"You should keep your little bitch on a better leash," said Sgt. Slaughter, as Smash grabbed Bonecrusher and pulled him away.

Doug shrugged. "He's more than half crazy, wouldn't work anyway. But, thank you for catching him for me." It didn't usually hurt to be polite to people who could tear you in half.

Sgt. Slaughter laughed. "You're okay, mariquita," he said, pausing to pat the top of Doug's head like a well-trained dog. The other two followed their leader obediently, leaving Doug and Ben alone in the alley.

"What the fuck is wrong with you?" snarled Doug, grabbing Ben's arm to yank him to his feet. "Those guys could've killed you!" He was angry and scared, not thinking, only reacting.

"What the fuck are you doing here?" Ben spit out a mouthful of blood, prodding his split lip.

"Following you. Duh! I know you saw me, or why else did you take off? And don't tell me you don't need watching, because, after what I just saw, you could be committed and nobody'd argue!"

"Oh, fuck you! You don't know anything!"

"Don't I? I know you're too smart to be goading people into beating you up! You just got out of the hospital, for Christ's sake!"

"Leave me the fuck alone, Doug."

He tried to push past and Doug grabbed the front of Ben's shirt, shoving him back up against the wall. "Now, you fucking listen to me!" he demanded. "You almost died on us, goddamn it! You are not putting me, or Shelly, through that again, understand? You scared the fucking shit out of us!" He shook Ben roughly. "Ben! Are you listening to me?"

Ben leaned limply against the wall, held up mostly by Doug's grip in his shirt. He turned his face away, biting his bottom lip as a distraction from the quivering in his muscles.

"Yes, I'm listening, Doug! Leave me alone!" Doug let go when Ben pulled away; Ben's knees buckled and he staggered into and then down the wall. Tears prickled at his eyes and he couldn't curse for breathing, kneeling in the trash, leaning against a dirty, concrete wall as the world spun in dizzying swoops and spirals around him. Doug fussed and fumed, but it was only so much noise. He shoved his hands under his armpits, leaning harder into the wall as he both tried to keep from hurling and to stop shaking.

"Like hell I will!" cried Doug, crouching beside him. "I'm of a mind --" Doug snatched his cell phone, grumbling. "What? Oh. Yeah, we're -- where the hell are we, anyway? Just a minute."

With a last, worried glance for Ben, Doug trotted out of the alley to flag down Rick's car. Once parked, Rick leaped out of the bug, his face a mask of worry, and ran over to the two friends.

"Ben!" he called, dropping beside him.

The whirling mess settled, the pounding in his head backing off. Ben let the large, capable hands pluck him from his only support and settle him against a strong, broad chest. He breathed in the cloying scent of aloe, fighting the sob that rose in his throat. Rick was the only stable, solid object in his topsy-turvy world and he hated the need which made him cling to the man. He could almost step aside from himself, sneering at his own weakness. Pathetic! Pa-thet-ic!

"Rick!"

"Shh, shh, it's okay. It's okay, Ben. It's okay."

Forgotten or dismissed, Doug wasn't sure, but he backed away, eyes wide as he watched his hitherto unflappable best friend collapse into another man's arms. Guilt consumed him. He'd let Ben down. Quite obviously, something was wrong and all Doug had done was yell at him. Where was Shelly when he needed her?

He pulled out his phone and called Riley, to appraise him of the situation.

"Everything okay?"

"Well," answered Doug, glancing over at Ben and Rick. "Guess that depends on your perspective. We're all alive and in one piece, so that's something at least."

"Are you alright, Doug?"

"Fine. We should be back soon."

"Roger that. See you in a few."

"Yeah."

Rick rose, supporting Ben at his side and Doug went immediately to help, only to startle back when Ben jerked out of his touch.

Doug's mouth dropped open as he yanked his hands back and Rick hugged Ben close, whispering something into an ear, and then he snapped his jaw closed, eyes narrowing. "What the fuck's wrong with him?" he demanded, hands itching to snatch Ben away. Who was this Rick? Ben was as good as his brother; Doug should be caring for him, just like he'd always done.

Rick continued their slow progression to the car. "Will you get the door?" he asked, ignoring the previous question.

It shouldn't bother him the way Rick so casually and effortlessly took charge of any situation, but it did. Doug scowled, but hustled around to open the car door, pushed back and out of the way as Rick got Ben settled. He stood there by the car, fidgeting, until Rick straightened up and closed the car door. They stared at each other in silence for a minute.

"Thank you," said Rick finally, never certain where he stood with Doug and even less sure now, what with the poor effort being made to hide his jealousy.

Doug shrugged and asked, however much it galled him to ask advice about a man closer to him than his own brother, "So, what now?"

"I'm going to take Ben home. Can I drop you by the agency on the way?"

"That's fine." Doug didn't want to be grumpy. He told himself it was just the shock of Ben taking off like that, of Rick swooping in at the last second and taking over, dismissing him as if Doug's presence meant nothing. He was tired from having to deal with Ollie and Shelly. Rick just made him uneasy, and he didn't know why.

The convertible top was down, so Doug scrambled over the side into the back seat. He was hot, hungry, frustrated, and downright confused, so he settled silently into a seat, stretching his legs awkwardly into the small amount of space left over by two long-legged men. Biting his nails didn't make him feel any better, but it did pass the time.

He climbed out on Rick's side when they got back, glancing from Ben to Rick and back again before finally deciding to keep his mouth shut.

"Come by some time," said Rick, putting the seat back and climbing back inside.

Doug visibly started. "Uh," he stammered, momentarily at a loss and trying to decide if he were upset that Rick had assumed the position of caretaker or that Ben hadn't objected to Rick making such an invitation.

He finally spit out, "I'll have to ask Shelly," and turned away before the moment turned any more awkward.

"See you later then," Rick called cheerfully. He put the bug in gear and headed back toward home.

Ben stayed silent the whole way, though he did uncurl once they got on the freeway. Rick wanted to push but he held his tongue, though he did swear to start carrying some of Ben's painkillers around with him. With the way he kept hunching over, arms around his stomach, Rick knew he had to be in a decent amount of pain.

The silence between them continued when they got back. Looking neither right nor left, Ben moved down the hallway and into the bedroom. He flopped onto the bed and half fell over, grabbing blankets to pull over himself. Rick had followed and he sighed before reaching for Ben's shoes. That done, he went into the kitchen for juice, an ice pack, and one of Ben's pain pills.

As much as he wanted to ignore the pills, just to be spiteful, Ben's sore spots were beginning to throb, and at least Rick had picked out the elephant pills. The tiny ones seemed to pack more of a whallop. They also had an annoying tendency to knock him unconscious.

He sat up with a scowl, including both Rick and the pills in that look and then, carefully, placed each pill on his tongue to slug back with a gulp of the bitterly sweet juice. He was really going to have to shop for himself more. Or at least pay more attention to what Rick bought. After all, who in their right mind actually wants to drink mango-banana delight? Or strawberry-kiwi bonanza? Or whatever-this-was that tasted kind of orangey?

"Bleg!" He shuddered, exchanging the glass for the ice pack, now wrapped in a small towel.

"Here, lie down and put your feet up. It'll help with the --"

"I know! I'm well aware of what to do to keep from swelling up like a balloon."

"Fine," Rick replied, not letting Ben bait him into another argument. Seeing the cat sitting on the floor watching them, he patted the bedspread. "Here, Tyler, c'mpn."

Ben unbuttoned his belt and pants but settled back against the pillows. "You talk to him like he actually understands you."

"Maybe he does."

Grunting as Tyler settled himself on his ankles, Ben rolled his eyes. "Whatever. I don't see why he's always got to lay on me, though."

"Uh-huh." Rick held back a smile. For someone who'd never had a pet, Ben had sure taken to the little cat. Maybe it was true about animals, that they always seemed to sense when someone just needed a little more.

"You want the light on or off?" he asked, grabbing up the juice glass and tossing Ben's shoes in the closet.

"Off," came the answer from under a coccoon of blankets.

"I'll be upstairs if you need me."

There was no reply, and although Rick turned the TV on, he didn't settle onto the sofa until after he'd completed the work he'd started earlier that day. As he worked, he wondered if Ben was normally that observant or if he'd been that shaken by whatever had happened with Doug. He certainly hoped he could figure out how to coax the story from him. If Ben was going to have trouble at the agency, then Rick would have to somehow keep him working from home for awhile longer. Or go with him, but he doubted that would go over well.

The peaceful afternoon ended abruptly soon after Ben woke up from his second nap of the day. He halted in the hallway, glancing at the open closets. Turning, he now noticed that the bathroom door -- both doors -- were also missing. So was the bedroom door.

"Where the fuck are all the doors?" He hustled as fast as he could from room to room. Office door, bedroom, bathroom, and even the garage door was off its hinges, the collection of doors leaning against a wall in the garage. "God damn it! Haven't you ever heard of privacy?"

Nonchalantly turning a page in his book, Rick said, "Come up here and settle down."

"Fuck you, asshole! You put them back right now!" God knew he couldn't manage it.

"No," said Rick calmly. He looked over the edge of his book, not flinching a bit as Ben stomped right up to him, face red, hands clenching into shaking fists. He was so damn cute when he was angry!

"Why the hell not!"

"You're not hiding from me anymore."

"You even took the goddamn closet doors off!" There were no internal doors left in the house. Period. Except for the shower door, and those were semi-transparent.

"Yes, I did."

"What the fuck is wrong with you?"

Rick shrugged, turning his attention back to his book. "I'm not arguing about it."

"I don't want to argue!" I want to rip your fucking arms off!

"... I know, but I'm not going to fight you, either. If you want them back, put them back."

"You know I can't!"

Ben's voice cracked on the end in a wail and Rick flinched, but he kept his face expressionless as he looked attentively at the paragraph he'd just read.

"Fucker," Ben muttered darkly, dropping onto the far end of the sofa. He grabbed the remote and started flipping channels. After a few minutes, Tyler also jumped up onto the sofa, climbing on Rick's legs and purring. Without looking, Ben reached over and started scratching the cat under his jaw.

Rick grinned.

"What are you grinning about?" He'd learned to distrust that particular wicked, little smile.

Rick's smile broadened, but he shook his head. "Nothing."

"Liar."

He shrugged.

Ben changed the channel, tossing a frown at Rick. "You," he said, "are really fucking weird sometimes, you know that?"

"You know you love it."

"Whatever."

Shrugging, Rick settled back in to read.

A minute later, he felt the sofa cushions shift and Ben asked, "What are you reading?" In his eyes, the book looked like a psychology text, immediately provoking Ben's interest.

"It's about Post Traumatic Stress," Rick replied seriously, lowering the book. He offered it to Ben who accepted, looking over the cover and flipping through the bibliography.

"Why?"

Rick lifted an eyebrow, but Ben looked completely serious, so he said, "Just doing some research."

"For your thesis?" Ben frowned. "I didn't think that had anything to do with the Greeks. It looks new. Did you get it today? I thought you said you already submitted your paper?"

"Yes, I got it today, and, no, it's not for my thesis." Rick took a careful breath. "I've seen PTSD before, in the troops. Not anyone I knew, though."

"Oh." Ben flipped through some of the chapters. "That would suck. PTSD isn't something to dick around with."

"No, it's not," Rick agreed. "From what I can tell, even those in the know still argue about what it is."

Ben had turned to face him now, attention still mostly on the book as he said, "Yeah, but it's amazing how much research has been done in the last few years." He snorted. "Guess that's one positive outcome of this stupid war."

Closing his mouth firmly on his first reaction to that jab, Rick just nodded. He waited a moment, watching Ben carefully and noting when the page-turning slowed to indicate some actual reading taking place.

So intent was he that the book snapping shut caused both him and Tyler to startle. When the cat jumped up, he dug his claws into Rick's legs and he jerked, dislodging the cat and making Ben snicker.

The book hit the coffee table as Ben stood. "Let's play pool."

"Okay." It would've been too easy if just looking at a book solved everything. Still, they had the information now, which was a step in the right direction.

"You break."

Rick nodded, rising and joining Ben over by the pool table. He rolled his eyes as Ben gathered up the pool balls, sticking them in the triangle randomly, but he didn't say anything, just grabbed his usual cue stick. He'd learned awhile back that Ben rarely bothered to keep score, just aiming for and hitting any ball he took a liking to, sometimes chasing said ball around the table if he missed or couldn't drop it in a pocket.

Waiting until Rick was stretched out, angling for a good break, Ben moved to the opposite side and stripped out of his terribly wrinkled dress shirt and undershirt. "Damn. Hot, isn't it?"

Eyes caught that flicker and flash of skin and Rick's hands jumped, sending balls flying any old which way, but he still managed to knock one in the corner pocket.

"Uh! That's so not fair!" Ben complained, leaning over the table to peer down the hole. "Ha! It's the eight-ball, though. Eight-ball for the eight-man, hmm?"

"Cheater," he replied, but he still had to adjust himself before moving around the table to his next target.

"No, teasing, there's a difference," Ben replied, leaning over the edge to wiggle his ass playfully. "What's the point in cheating if it doesn't work?"

"No amount of cheating is going to let you win," Rick answered. He swatted Ben on the hip. "Move."

Ben rotated to put his back to the table. "And what'll you do if I don't?"

"I'll move you."

"Oh, I'm so scared." Ben stuck his tongue out.

The shadows were still there in Ben's eyes, but they sparkled with mischief anyway, an eyebrow arched gracefully, mouth hitched up in a challenging smirk. Rick stared at him for perhaps a split-second too long, long enough for the twinkle to fade a little as the world-weariness re-gained the upper-hand, and then the cue stick fell from his hand. Before the soft rattle faded away into the carpet, Rick had his hands on Ben's waist, lifting as Ben hopped backwards onto the table.

Knees spread open wide and Rick stepped between them, barely feeling the legs curl about him as he reached for Ben, pulling his head down into a kiss. Rick pressed for dominance, hunger and want short-circuiting his usual play, but Ben put up only a token resistance before giving in. He held onto Rick's beltloops as they kissed, head tilted down at an angle as Rick leaned into him.

Teeth dragged against a pouting lower lip as Rick forced himself to pull back, body and conscience at odds. He cupped Ben's face in his hands, kissing him lightly.

"Are you in there?" he asked quietly. "Is this my Ben?"

Ben answered just as quietly, "Please, Rick. I -- I don't care if you fuck me, just ..." Throat closing up tight, he had to glance away, too many emotions swirling inside to make sense of, his head spinning just as fast. Just never let me go again!

Rick kissed him lightly on the forehead. "I love you," he murmured.

"You don't even know me!"

"Would you like me to?" Rick countered.

"... I ..." That was unexpected. Neither mouth nor throat wanted to work. He could only shake his head mutely, caught once more in Rick's big, brown eyes. He shook his head and nodded, feeling as if anything he said would crack the thin ice he stood upon.

Rick braced himself for flight, Ben's moods changed rapidly and with little warning, but he said nothing, falling forward and burying his face in Rick's neck. He held onto the slim, trembling body, ears pricking up again as he heard a tiny whisper.

"Fuck!" sighed Ben, arms around Rick's neck. This is my life, dammit! I decide what I want.

"I'll be here as long as you want me to be," Rick promised, kneading the back of Ben's neck. I want more, he added mentally, and you need more than that, but it will do for now.

Tears threatened again. Ben snuggled further against Rick's collar, breathing in the scent of his laundry soap and shower gel. The steady thump of his heart beat a regular tempo against his chest, where Ben's raced around in chaos. He held on, because the world made sense here, safely enfolded by Rick's arms, breath on his hair, body heat keeping him warm. Time ceased to matter and the future was all happy, bunny cartoons behind Ben's eyelids, saturday morning cartoons with a bowl of sugary cereal, tattered but comfy blanket, and the silence of a rainy day ringing him in with familiarity and security.

There was a timeless minute or two or four, and then it was over. Sitting back, Ben's eyes twinkled and he stuck out his tongue.

"I win!"

Rick blinked, cocking his head as he tried to catch up. His gaze went to the pool table, leaning sideways to see around Ben's butt. Had Ben done what Rick thought he'd done? Would he have -- oh, yes, he most certainly had.

"You are such a cheat."

All he got was a laugh, and there was such humor in it that only someone much more hard-hearted than Rick could've been angry. He just gave Ben a noogie to get even.

~ TBC ~

2010 Dark; All Rights Reserved<br /><br />Characters, places, names and events are a product of my own muse and entirely fictional. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is entirely coincidental. Any reproduction or reprinting without the express consent of the author is prohibited.
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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Doug claims that Ben is like a brother to him and yet he hasn´t seen him in weeks. I understand that a baby takes a lot of time and energy, but surely you check on your friend who almost died. When Ben finally goes back to work, first thing he does is gets rid of the clients and locks himself in his office. And Doug thinks it´s normal behaviour and Ben is just sulking. Really?? Very depressing chapter, but the way yo are telling this story is great.

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On 05/26/2014 04:28 AM, Suvitar said:
Doug claims that Ben is like a brother to him and yet he hasn´t seen him in weeks. I understand that a baby takes a lot of time and energy, but surely you check on your friend who almost died. When Ben finally goes back to work, first thing he does is gets rid of the clients and locks himself in his office. And Doug thinks it´s normal behaviour and Ben is just sulking. Really?? Very depressing chapter, but the way yo are telling this story is great.
Remember that Doug is now almost entirely responsible for the business, what with Ben and Shelly off work. He's a first-time parent, which brings it's own stresses. He's grateful to have Rick as Ben's caregiver and plans to catch up with Ben, but procrastinates because of everything else in his life. That and he's scared that if he calls he'll find out he has to move Ben back in with him and Shelly to take care of him again and he just can't bring himself to do it. Protecting his family comes first and Will is still out there. Ben wasn't Will's only victim.
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"Are you in there?" he asked quietly. "Is this my Ben?"

That part always gets to me, so heart braking!

Poor Ben, poor Rick...so much anguish.

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