They canceled Southland on the eighth of October. That night, Benjamin Mckenzie looked around his Santa Monica apartment, pulled the curtains closed, packed two suitcases, and moved back to Texas.
He'd seen the house only in pixels, photos that the realtor emailed him. On his Blackberry, it looked an outpost in the distance, tiny speck of building on a big, bare horizon, one lane dirt driveway stretching out and out to it like a lifeline or a tether. There was a porch because he'd specified that particularly -- "I want a porch. And rocking chairs, I want rocking chairs too." -- and a shed out back. Not a barn, because he didn't know anything about horses, but a shed so he could keep the Infiniti out of the weather, and maybe buy a four-wheeler and a toolbox. She'd sent pictures of the bedroom -- charming, rustic -- and the living room, with its open bank of windows that looked out at grass and hills all the way to the corner of the sky.
The realtor met him when he drove up with a handshake and the keys. "I put lots of food and beer in the fridge," she said.
"Thanks," Ben said, "I don't plan to leave for a week."
He'd grown up in Texas, but nothing like this. The suburbs of Houston lacked a certain sense of scale. Walking down the street lined with his parents' house and eighteen others like it didn't lodge a fist-size hole of awe in his stomach. Walking out his new front door into the fire of sunset tended to do that. This was Texas the way Ben had seen it in the movies. Ironic, really, that while trying to escape from the false promises of Hollywood, he'd moved to a place that looked like a studio-set backdrop for every film John Wayne ever made.
The house was purposefully the opposite of every jam-packed turnstile and gang-ruled ghetto that LA had to offer. No smog, no neighbors, no planes overhead, no tourists elbowing for a better view. Ben felt like he could breathe again; he told himself it was like whatever weight had settled on his shoulders when the cancellation notice came down was slowly dissolving away.
Southland seeped into the edges of his existence nonetheless. He'd find himself mouthing through lines of script lodged in his head, the way other people hummed songs stuck in their minds -- at odd times, while carrying a gas can for the four-wheeler or pulling out floss for his teeth. He got a phone call from Ann, one of the producers, at 10:00 one night, while he was dozing propped up in bed with a book draped open over one thigh.
"Wait a minute, you moved to Texas?"
"Yeah. I like it here. Got a porch."
"Well, are you coming back? We could use you here, Ben. Put in some face time with the guys over at FX or USAnet, see if we can get them to pick us up."
Ben scratched at his stomach and tilted his head. "I like it here, Annie. Besides, why the hell do they need me for a deal like that? You guys do the business end, I just say what they tell me when the camera's on."
A heavy sigh came from the other end of the line. Dramatic. "You're the face of the show. It would help if it looked like you supported it."
"If they want my take on things, they can call me."
"Annie, look. We both know how this business runs." Shows like Southland don't get miracles.
At the long pause on the other end, Ben swung his legs over the edge of the bed and plodded to the bathroom for a cup of water, the phone held squashed between his ear and his shoulder. "It's different with us from most other shows," Ann said at last. "We can offer them the stuff we already shot."
"You know as well as I do that the suits are gonna take one look at it and all they're gonna see is that cancellation. And then whatever was so risky about us that NBC would throw away half a season already filmed, they'll think they don't want it either." Ben flopped backward onto the mattress, stared at the ceiling. "I mean, I hope for all our sakes you work something out, I really do. I really do. But I don't think me being in California is gonna change that one way or the other."
Another sigh from Ann. Ben sat up and shifted around until he could lay his head on the pillows. She let the silence stretch. "USA and TNT are giving us good signs." Her voice sounded weak, like she was grasping at a good thing slipping further and further from view.
"Well, if they need me, call." He meant it, in earnest. "I'll talk to them, I just. I couldn't stay in California, Annie. I couldn't."
The four-wheeler tended to leave him with dust in his teeth. "Dry around these parts," the folks in town said when he drove in to buy a hammer and nails, "No rain yet in quite a spell." Ben nodded and thanked them, then paid for the nails. "No clouds and no rain yet," he heard over his shoulder while leaving. The spring door of the hardware store creaked behind him, rusted.
In the evenings, he'd sit out on the front porch after supper and drink a beer. The heat outside was still enough to feel oppressive, even at the tail end of the summer, and the air sucked the moisture from the sweat at his temples and the back of his neck, and from the damp on the beer bottle.
This was another way Texas wasn't like Santa Monica -- no freeway traffic or loud radios going by, none of the ambient noise to which he'd grown accustomed. He didn't think about it in LA; the murmur of people on sidewalks or sirens from police cars faded in his consciousness to white noise. He didn't notice it until it was gone. The first evening, Ben sat down and listened to absolute quiet.
He rocked back and forth three times in his rocking chair, glanced down at the bottle of beer between his fingers, then got up and went back inside to turn on the TV. The next day, he'd lasted for a whole bottle, and soon he found himself stretching out the time from evening into night, rocking to the wind and the buzz of grasshoppers or the occasional bird.
Do you have a cowboy hat yet? said a text from Mike two weeks after he moved in.
No clouds meant lots of sun, and Ben tanned to a pale gold from shirtless four-wheeler rides during the heat of the day. He'd learned after the second time he went out to just leave the shirt at home -- the dust the four-wheeler kicked up into the air caught on fabric and shaded it vaguely brown. Going shirtless meant doing far less laundry.
He'd return from his rides coated in dirt, head-to-toe the color of the driveway -- hair and hands and on his stomach where the dust caked in thicker lines across the creases of his skin. It gathered in the corners of his mouth and eyes, but somehow stayed mostly out of his ears. Ben would step gingerly to the shower, trying not to leave too many footprints, and then let the water run channels down his chest until all the grime washed away. Towels were an afterthought -- the drought made 'drip dry' a euphemism when drips disappeared before they could form. Ben took to spending quite a lot of time naked, out of sheer laziness.
Clint Eastwood called. He wants his schtick back, said a text from Mike
Ben bought groceries, then realized he didn't know how to cook. The local library was tiny: squat one room building made of cinder blocks. He checked out a book called Don't Burn The House Down: A Cookbook For People Who Don't Cook from a librarian named Ida Mae. It guided him successfully through chicken and rice, instructions with lots of pictures and very small words. Ben dropped a piece of chicken on the floor, picked it up, and glanced furtively over his shoulder before throwing it back in the pot, even though there was no other person for miles around to care. He remembered his mother saying "five second rule." His beer on the porch tasted especially good that night.
So are you sick of GWBushville yet? When are you coming back to California? said a text from Mike the day after Ben mastered the art of meatloaf.
When are you coming down here? Ben wrote back.
Mike arrived at the airport on a Wednesday afternoon. Ben picked him up in the Infiniti. "I'm having satellite radio installed in her," Ben said, wedging Mike's bag into the car's tiny back seat, then patting the car's side affectionately. "Around here there are only three stations, and the choices are country, country, and country."
"I am disappointed by your lack of hat," Mike said. "Jesus, it's hot out here. Why in the world did you leave Santa Monica, again?"
"Not enough hats," Ben deadpanned, and Mike threw his head back to bark laughter at the cloudless sky, then punched Ben hard in the arm. "Ow, goddamn it."
"'S what you get for being a smartass."
"You flew a thousand miles out here to see my smart ass, maybe you should try not to injure me in the first ten minutes."
"Yeah, yeah." Mike's voice dropped a note, his back straightened infinitesimally: John Cooper, LAPD Training Officer. "Get in the car, rookie. You're lucky I'm letting you drive."
Ben snorted and slid behind the wheel.
"So what do you do around here all day?" Mike's hair was wet still from the shower, towel slung over one shoulder.
Ben looked up from where he and Don't Burn the House Down were attempting to make huevos rancheros for breakfast. "I eat. Sleep. Sometimes I go to the bathroom."
Mike flicked him with the towel. "No really, what do you do? Watch TV all day?"
"Usually I go out on the ATV in the morning. Try to get to know the property, you know? The house came with fifty acres and I'm still trying to figure out what all's out there." Mike stared at his mouth as he talked. "What?" He brushed his lip self-consciously, testing to see if he'd gotten food stuck there.
"Listen to you. Already gone native."
Ben gave Ryan Atwood's trademark puzzled look out of reflex: quirk of eyebrows, wrinkled forehead, head tilt. "What?"
"The accent. 'What all's out there.' It's subtle, but it's definitely different. You didn't sound like that the last time I saw you."
"It's no big deal. Probably comes from listening to the stupid country radio stations."
"It's different," Mike muttered again, and settled down at the table to wait for food, watching Ben out of the corner of his eye as though expecting to see other changes, as though Ben was new and strange instead of long-time friend and TV cop partner.
Ben stirred his hash browns in the cast iron pan and tried to squash the uncomfortable sense that Mike was feeling him out all over again, as though Mike thought he really was a different person in Texas and in LA.
Ben leaned against the shed door and watched Mike finger the throttle on the ATV. "I ordered another so we can both have one, but the dealership said it won't be in until tomorrow."
Mike looked up. "So are we going to go riding today?"
The puzzled look again. There'd been a few years right after the show ended where he wanted nothing more than to leave The OC behind completely, but some parts of Ryan Atwood stuck with him still, always would. "How?"
"I can ride behind you."
Ben looked doubtfully at the seat of the four-wheeler. "I don't know if we'll both fit."
"It'll be fine. I'll hold on to you, you can drive."
Ben shrugged. "Well, we can try. It's your butt that'll hit the ground if there's not enough space or something." Mike grinned in triumph, but the grin dimmed when Ben matter-of-factly stripped off his shirt and laid it over the toolbox.
"Do you always ride shirtless?"
"Yes." He got on first to crank it, and when the engine came shuddering to life to grumble between his thighs, he turned over his shoulder and motioned for Mike to settle in behind.
Ben felt him first as a sudden dip in the shocks on the rear wheels, but seconds later two arms came around his middle and Ben realized the second reason why this was a bad idea: Mike was wearing a t-shirt. "You do realize that after about two minutes this is going to be really gross, right?" Ben shouted back over the roar of the engine beneath them, gesturing toward where Mike's arms rested against his stomach. "It does get hot out there."
"Come on," Mike shouted back, so Ben shrugged and threw the transmission into reverse, revved the engine, and backed them out of the shed. They set out toward a spot that Ben had seen several times and knew relatively well: a tiny, cottonwood-lined spring in the hollow of the hills, too small to turn into a stream because the water evaporated or seeped back into the ground before it got very far. Ben drove slowly as they left the house behind, trying to accustom himself to the new balance of having a passenger. "Is this the best you can do?" Mike yelled into his ear, so Ben geared up until the wind stung on their faces and whipped tears to their eyes.
Mike let out a whoop behind him and clung more tightly, plastered as a hot weight against Ben's back, thighs pressed against thighs. The t-shirt went damp between them and clung to the places where Ben's shoulder-bones pressed into Mike's chest. Ben's breathing went shallow and fast from trying to breathe through the fine silt of dust in the air. "Whoo!" Mike called again after a small hillock left them briefly airborne, and Ben could feel Mike's grin through his whole body.
They returned to the house four hours later, tired and too hot but happy. "Dibs on the shower," said Mike, racing toward the house as Ben idled the four-wheeler into the shed.
"Don't you dare get dirt all over that bathroom," Ben yelled after him. "I'll kick your ass, don't think I won't."
"Quit thinking about my ass, Benny." Mike hit the doorway at a run and was inside before Ben could yell a comeback.
"Benny," he grumbled to himself. He hated how it made him sound young.
Sprawled out on the couch, the remote in one hand and a can of Coke in the other, Ben groaned to himself and considered whether it was worth the effort of getting up and making popcorn. The first Terminator movie was on, and Mike was in the bedroom, talking on his cell phone to his agent. Darkness had well and truly fallen about an hour ago, and Ben was feeling supremely lazy. He twitched one toe and watched as it made his sock wiggle.
"Ugh, I hate it when he gets bright ideas," Mike said, coming out of the bedroom and pitching the cell phone behind him onto the bed. He stretched his neck to one side then the other. Ben understood; auditions and agents were stressful.
"Terminator." He craned his neck back, mouth open, to see an upside-down version of Mike walking towards him. "Linda Hamilton while she was still hot."
"Yeah, okay." Mike settled on the floor in front of the couch with his legs stretched in front of him and his head resting against the side of the cushions. He shook his shoulders, and yawned.
They both watched the film through slitted eyes, dozing in and out, waking up for the action scenes when the explosions were loud enough to rattle the glass in the windows. Terminator 2 came on next, and Mike rolled his head back to look up at Ben, a question in his eyes.
"Sure, why not." Ben's voice already sounded thick with sleep.
"Well, if you want to stay here for this one --," and Mike rose from the floor, one hand at the small of his back to crack his spine, "I'm gonna have to find somewhere else to sit. My ass is too old for this floor thing." He stared thoughtfully at the couch. Ben tried to muster a threatening glare, and suspected that he'd failed. "Here, sit up."
"No way, man, I'm about to go to sleep here, don't want to sit up."
"You can lay back down in a second, just sit up for now."
Reassured that he wasn't losing his couch, Ben obeyed, and Mike plopped down at one end of the cushions, behind where Ben was sitting. "All right, now lean back again," Mike said.
When his look of doubt went ignored, Ben started to lower himself back to flat against the couch. At about forty-five degrees, Ben felt Mike's hand come up beneath his head, guiding him, and with a little shuffling around on both their parts he ended up laid out with his head pillowed on Mike's thigh. Mike himself was sprawled out with his feet propped on the coffee table and his head resting in the corner of the couch. A hand hovered doubtfully over Ben's head for a second before settling on his shoulder instead.
"Is this okay?" Mike said, and Ben wanted to say, No, this is weird, but instead he just nodded into Mike's thigh. "Okay," Mike echoed himself, and seemed to think that settled matters. Mike's jeans smelled like dust and laundry detergent, and the hand on his shoulder quickly grew damp enough to stick to his skin. Ben let his eyes settle closed.
When he woke up again, Arnold was dragging a kid through a mall in a hail of gunfire, and Mike's hand had migrated from his shoulder to his ribs. Ben rubbed the itch on the side of his nose against the rough denim beneath his face, yawned twice, and settled back asleep. Mike never moved a muscle, so maybe he was asleep too.
Ben woke again to a disturbance around his head. It took a minute to blink his eyes open wide enough to figure out what it was; Mike was playing with his hair -- sculpting little horn shapes or rubbing it against the grain so that it stood up, wild.
"Mrumph," Ben grunted, and waved a sluggish hand in shooing motions in the direction of the culprit. Mike paused for a moment, thigh tensing beneath Ben's head; but a few seconds after Ben had stopped shooing him and settled back in to rest, the hand in his hair returned, more gentle this time, just stroking or scratching lightly with his nails. It felt good enough that it wasn't worth the effort of waving him off again.
A few seconds without any protest, and the thigh that was serving as Ben's pillow relaxed. Onscreen, Arnold ran though darkened woods to the sounds of only brush rustling. Mike's fingers grazed the top of his ear, then traced the shell more deliberately, light enough to send quavers through Ben's breath. "Go to sleep, Benny," Mike said from above him, and Ben made a low noise of agreement in his throat and obeyed.
Ben woke with his mouth feeling too dry and immediately realized three disturbing facts: 1) He was not in his bed. This in itself was not as worrisome as it might be; he'd woken up in strange places before after parties with too many drinks and too many willing girls. 2) He was lacking at least a shirt. Maybe the girl from last night had taken it; he'd had girls try to steal stranger souvenirs than just a t-shirt. 3) His pillow was moving, and seemed to make noise.
Ben froze, then forced himself to relax and cracked his eyes open the tiniest amount, trying to see without letting whoever it was know that he was awake. Sunlight streamed through the enormous windows and baked the whole room lethargically warm. Texas. Terminator. Mike.
Mike who wasn't quite snoring, but whose wheezing breaths sounded still asleep. Mike whose hand had settled just below his ear, fingers curved along his jaw. Mike whose thigh moved ever-so-minutely with every breath, and against whose jeans Ben had probably been drooling all night.
Ben extricated himself in a series of slow wiggles, and stood up. He needed a shower. He pursed his lips then threw the blanket from the back of the couch over Mike before shuffling off in search of hot water.
In between sudsing a washcloth and scrubbing behind his ears for any dust lingering from yesterday, Ben realized that it wasn't that big of a deal. They were friends, they'd played partners on TV, and he'd dozed off watching a movie. No big deal. He brushed his teeth and savored the feeling of calm after the initial, irrational panic of waking.
When he stepped out of the bathroom, Mike was there with a towel waiting to get in, eyes still barely open and posture slouching half-asleep. For a slow, suspended moment Mike just watched him, not stepping past and not stepping back so that Ben could get by.
"Morning, Coop," said Ben very softly.
Mike's eyebrows twitched down into a frown -- there and gone, erased by a sleep-tinged grin so quickly that Ben could almost convince himself he'd imagined it. "Morning, rookie," Mike grumbled, his voice still grated low from sleep. "Man, I'm too old to sleep on couches. My back is killing me." Mike met his eyes again, and Ben couldn't read that set to his jaw. "Here." Mike finally stepped back, and moved his hand a few inches to rub casually against Ben's waist when Ben brushed past him.
Ben exhaled a breath that caught in his throat and heard the bathroom door swing shut behind him.
Flying over a low hill at top speed, Ben registered a stand of cottonwood flashing by, and he slowed just enough to realize he'd never been to this area before. They were off his property by quite a bit, but in the hills there were few fences to mark ownership. He revved the engine and sped back up, bending low to avoid the sting of the wind. Mike's motor growled ever-present and annoying on the other side of the hill, a trail of thrown-up dust like a motorboat's wake to mark his passage. Ben was ahead still, barely, with only another quarter-mile to go on the two miles they'd agreed on for distance.
Three hills later, Ben braked so suddenly the wheels ripped up grass and plowed into the soil. He fought to stay on the four-wheeler in spite of the momentum that wanted to drag him over the front and under the wheels. The rear fishtailed and stuttered, and for three white-hot heartbeats Ben thought that it would flip, that he'd end up crushed. But the balance held, and Ben breathed in gasps as he came to a stop, heart racing in chest-heaving throbs. For a moment he stayed motionless and savored the way the motor chugged idle beneath him, the heat against his calves, because it meant that he was still in his seat and hadn't taken a fall.
In front of him stood a fence, the reason for the desperate stop. About twenty feet long and four foot high, the fence was made of slender cast iron spikes connected by cross rails, with cast iron ivy spiraling up for decoration. It formed a square enclosing a thick stand of grass higher than the surrounding grass of the hills. Ben hopped off the four-wheeler and explored, turning the corner of the square to spot a gate.
Mike's engine noise loomed louder to his left as Mike crested the hill, searching for him. Ben wiped sweat off his forehead, smearing the dirt there, and waited until Mike pulled up alongside him.
"I heard your engine cut out, thought maybe you'd blown a tire or something."
"No. I stopped because I nearly ran into this."
Mike reached out to touch a fence pole. "What is it?"
"I think it's an old graveyard. A family plot." Ben knelt to examine the gate mechanism, then pulled out a pocketknife and scraped at the rust there.
"Can you get it?"
"I think so. Here, pull back on the gate, and I'll see if I can get the rust off enough to open it." Mike gripped his hands around two of the fence spikes, and braced himself backward. Ben nudged the tip of the knife into the crevices where the lock was stuck, and after a moment the gate gave a squawking creak and opened with a shudder.
"You're going in there?" Mike raised an eyebrow.
"Yeah, why not?"
"It's a graveyard."
Mike hovered at the gate as Ben waded into thigh-high grass. "There might be snakes."
"Any sort of snake around here probably left when it heard the ATVs." Even so, Ben rustled the grass ahead of himself with the toe of one foot before stepping. His progress was slow and left a visible path of bent stalks and out-of-place blades.
Searching toward the center of the square, his shoe nudged a stone. "1833," he reported the hand-carved date. "Susan Beale." To the other side of Susan he uncovered John Beale (1831), and a smaller stone marked Abraham, infant (1821). Ben crouched and let his hand linger over the letters, wondering how old Susan had been when she lost the child.
"Ben come on, get out of there." Mike shifted his weight from side to side and crossed his arms over his chest. It made his forearms look large. Ben rolled his eyes and touched the stone again.
"Don't worry, I'll be fine, there's no snakes." He swatted at a grasshopper that landed on his shoulder. The 'A' on the stone was carved deeper than the other letters, gouged out rougher. "There's a baby's grave here. Abraham."
"That's nice. Can you get out of there, now?"
"No. This is kind of cool. Texas wasn't even a state then, and these people were living way out here." He braced his hands on his knees and glanced around, trying to imagine a farm, cattle, how it would have felt marooned out in the hills with no ATVs and no way to find other people. No lights. No fire in weather like this, where every spark was a grassfire waiting to happen. Ben shuddered.
"Ben," Mike barked at him, whip-crack sharp. Deep enough to be Officer John Cooper's range, Coop's inflection, unmistakably a command from a senior officer. "Come on. Now."
Ben's eyebrows creased into a frown, and he glared at Mike through the tall grass. "No." Annoyance at Mike's worry edged into anger at being ordered around. He stared at Mike and waited. The grasshopper floated back in a whir of legs and brittle wings, but Ben just let it settle. Mike looked away first.
"I don't take orders when we're not on set," Ben said, quiet. "And your gig as my training officer got canceled."
Mike opened his mouth and shut it again, while Ben tried to ignore the unexpected pang below his ribs from saying the words, putting them out in the open air to make them solid and real.
The grass rustled around them, and Ben blinked away the dust that drifted into his eyes. Heavy silence blanketed the space between them, oppressive as the heat. Ben shifted his eyes back to the ground, no longer interested in the stone but needing to look somewhere that wasn't Mike. He held his breath until the pressure on his diaphragm distracted him from the tightness in his chest, then he blew out a heavy sigh and pushed his knuckles into the ground to gain his footing.
Mike watched but said nothing as Ben threw a leg over the four-wheeler and stomped the crank pedal. If Mike wanted to know where he was, he could follow the dust cloud. Ben set off for home.
He was in the shower by the time Mike pulled into the shed, and in the kitchen laying out the makings of barbeque brisket by the time Mike got in the shower. Don't Burn the House Down advised buying the barbeque sauce, but Ben had gotten curious and was making his own from a recipe on the internet.
One hand held brown sugar and the other held vinegar when Mike cleared his throat from the kitchen doorway, and Ben nearly spilled both when he startled at the noise. He deliberately took his time making sure his sauce was safe once more, then tilted his head a fraction to the side, acknowledgment that Mike was present without turning to face him. A few seconds later, a chin came to rest on Ben's shoulder.
"I was a jackass, okay?"
Silence. Mike shifted closer, not moving his head from Ben's shoulder. Ben concentrated at keeping his hands steady to measure out spices, even as he watched his knuckles turn steadily more pale.
"I'm not Sherman, Mike." Ben swallowed, and could hear it click in his throat, dry. Parched. The weather, of course.
"I mean, I moved all the way to goddamn Texas so I could not be Sherman for a while, okay?"
"I didn't just leave the smog. It was losing the show, and the stupid fucking networks, and losing Sherman, and fuck, not working with you guys anymore. I wanted out of it all, Mike, and I was doing okay coming to terms. So it would really help me if you'd leave off with the Coop."
"Ben." Mike straightened so the weight of his chin lifted away, but the loss of contact was brief as he stepped so close his chest pressed to Ben's back. Ben expected hands on his wrists or on his shoulders, but Mike touched him nowhere else, content to remain a line of heat and solid weight against his spine and shoulder blades. "Benny, I don't think of you as Sherman. And I'm sorry about -- out there, it was stupid, but believe me I don't think of you as Sherman."
Ben took a deep breath, let it out, took another. He could feel Mike's eyes on the back of his neck, and he let his head fall forward, heavy, arms braced against the counter and sauce forgotten. "Then what are you doing Mike?" Ben said, quiet enough that if Mike had been standing more than mere inches away he'd not have heard.
"What do you mean?"
Ben leaned into him by fractions, let Mike take his weight. He tilted his head until his mouth hovered barely an inch from Mike's jawline. The muscles braced at his back went iron tight, but Mike wasn't backing away.
"I know Coop," Ben murmured, not quite touching but close. Just out of the shower, Mike smelled like Ben's soap and Ben's shampoo. "He's my superior and he worries about me, and he's still trying to figure out if he has a crush before he tells me that he's in the closet. I understand Coop, and if this is Coop I get it. But if it's not --," he tilted his head back further and closed the last bit of distance, let his mouth brush the stubble where Mike's throat met his jaw and kept his eyes open to watch Mike's face, "-- if it's not, then what are you doing, Mike?"
Up so close, he could see the muscles move when Mike clenched his jaw. His adam's apple dipped, quavered. "Benny --." A warning.
Mike swallowed again, stone still and rigid behind him. The silence stretched in the kitchen until the refrigerator buzz sounded loud and ominous.
"I guess," Mike said finally, and turned his head to meet where Ben was watching him, until his mouth hovered just over Ben's, "I guess I'm trying to figure out if I've got a crush before I tell you that I'm in the closet."
Their lips were both chapped, so it was more a scrape than a kiss when Mike dipped to brush Ben's mouth, pull away. "Offer's out there, okay? You don't have to tell me yes, you don't have to bring it up again and I won't either. But the offer's there, just me and you. Show's cancelled, leave the characters behind, just us. Think about it, okay?"
He brushed his mouth against Ben's again, nuzzled a little this time, and Ben raised his head to kiss lightly back, minute touches of lips between light breaths in a moment so fragile Ben could almost hear it, quivering like a string plucked between them. Mike drew back first and touched for the first time with his hands: a solid palm in the small of Ben's back to support him so he didn't fall over when Mike stepped away. His raised brows seemed to be a question and Ben nodded back, not sure what he was answering but certain that he was right all the same.
Mike retreated to the guest bedroom and closed the door. Ben looked down at the counter and tried to get his breathing under control. After a moment he blinked and shoved the bowl into the sink, filled it with water and dumped it out; the sauce was ruined anyway.
Instead he warmed up leftovers from the night before and left the containers on the counter in case Mike wanted any later. He took the food out onto the porch and ate from his rocking chair, watching the horizon for clouds. When he finished, he took the plate inside and brought out a six-pack of beer, cracking the top off one and putting the others beside the chair for later.
He rocked as the sun went down, watching the whole wide sky turn gold, then flame and rust red, then deepen to purples and black with only faint streaks of blue on the horizon. He opened another beer, listened to the insect buzz die down to occasional cricket chirps and the isolated swoosh of owls hunting field mice through the grass. The summer had turned, it seemed; for the first time he felt the temperatures drop below sweltering at night to a pleasant mild warmth. Ben let the quiet clear his mind, felt his heart slow to the gentle creak of the chair, lay his head back to rest against the tall back, and closed his eyes.
A hand closed over his shoulder. "Ben. Benny, come on. You fell asleep out here."
"Don't wanna move." He was comfortable.
"Come inside. You'll thank me in the morning."
"'S nice out here."
"It's starting to rain," Mike said, and it was true.
Ben allowed himself to be led inside and obediently stripped off his shirt when instructed. Mike didn't tell him to do it, but he skinned his pants off anyway, part of the automatic routine of getting ready for bed, then crawled between the sheets in black boxer-briefs to settle for the night.
"Goodnight, Ben," Mike said from the door, and flipped off the light.
"Come here," mumbled Ben, and when Mike neared the bed Ben wrapped a hand around his wrist. "Stay."
A pause. "I don't think that's a good idea."
"You think too much. Just spent five hours and two beers out there thinking, Mike. 'M just tired, I'm not that much of a lightweight. I'm not asking you for anything else, just. Just stay."
Mike hesitated for a long, long moment, and Ben's eyes had fallen closed when Mike drew the wrist away from his grasp. Ben sighed, let his shoulders slump against the mattress, and wondered how he was going to patch this one up in the morning. A moment later, the mattress dipped and Mike crawled into bed beside him.
"You sure about this, Benny?"
"Yeah." He fitted Mike closer up behind him, radiating heat and heavy where Mike's shoulders leaned against him.
Ben closed his eyes and slept.
Morning came late, and not as awkwardly as he'd feared.
He woke first to the hushing whisper of steady rain against the roof, and then to the feeling of Mike stroking fingertips along his bare arm. It felt good enough that for a while Ben tried not to indicate he was awake, in hopes that Mike would keep doing that. It worked for a few moments, then Mike pressed his nose against the back of Ben's neck, snuffling, and murmured, "Morning."
Ben hummed contented, feeling like a cat being stroked. "Morning." He rolled to his back so that he could see Mike better. "Hey."
Mike grinned at him, eyes heavy still with sleep. "Hey." There was an imprint from the sheets across one of his cheeks. Ben reached out and traced it without thinking.
Mike froze for an instant, then his own hand came up to touch Ben's face, as if Ben doing it first somehow constituted permission. It felt nice, though. He touched fingertips to eyebrows, across cheekbones, stroked the indentation of his upper lip. Ben made stifled grunts of appreciation and pressed into the touches for more.
It turned out that when Mike really set out to kiss him, it felt much better than the few chaste brushes of the day before. Ben softened, pliant, and allowed Mike to lead -- soft kisses that opened his mouth gently and left his lips tingling and damp. Mike never pushed for more than kisses, and there was something liberating, even mildly forbidden, in the idea that there were no goals here, no point that Mike was trying to get to. Ben touched the soft place behind his ears, the short hairs at the nape of his neck, and tried to get used to the idea of stubble that wasn't his own. Mike sighed and gave a soft, rumbling moan against his mouth.
It took what felt like hours for Ben's lips to become too sensitive, so that touches bordered on sore and pressure verged on too much sensation. Mike lay beside him and stroked his biceps, collarbones, eyebrows. Ben closed his eyes again and basked in the sensation and the pat-pat of the raindrops hitting the roof.
His phone rang.
"Mmph," Ben groaned complainingly, and flailed a hand around on the nightstand until he found it. "'Lo?"
"Ben, read the article I'm sending you. Now." Ann hung up without saying anything else, but a moment later the phone buzzed again that he'd received an email.
"What is it?" Mike yawned, and nuzzled his face into Ben's neck, then drew back to see his face when Ben didn't respond.
"TNT bought the show. They're gonna show the new episodes."
Mike stared at him, still pressed flush against his side, both of them only in underwear, their skin faintly damp from earlier kisses and touching.
"They bought the show," Mike repeated, uncomprehending.
Ben swallowed hard. "They'll let us film the rest of the season if the first part gets ratings. We aren't canceled anymore."
Mike exhaled hard on what might have been a smile, or might have been a grimace. He blinked twice, face caught between emotions, then lowered his head to rest his forehead against the hollow of Ben's collarbone. Ben pushed two hands into his hair and held him there, close. They might both have been trembling, Ben couldn't tell.
At long last, Mike drew away. "We still have jobs," he said. Ben nodded. Somehow employment never felt quite so much like a kick in the pants before.
Very slowly, almost reverently, Mike pressed a thumb against his lips, every line on Mike's face devastated and happy and complicated. Crumbling. Ben kissed it there where it rested on his mouth, his eyes never leaving Mike's. "Go," he whispered, and Mike got up and tugged on his shirt. Ben didn't get out of bed for another hour, thinking, and when he did he ate cold cereal for breakfast. Cooking wasn't worth the effort.
He went outside. The rain was still drifting down in sheets across the hills as far as he could see, to the very corners of the sky. Ben shoved his hands in his pockets and watched it pour.
A pair of arms wrapped around his middle from behind, and Mike stepped up along his back. Ben tensed, closed his eyes. Mike touched his cheek against the side of Ben's head, pressed a kiss into his hair. "It'll end, one day," he said, and Ben wondered whether he was talking about the rain, or them, or the show.
"We got renewed," Ben said, deliberately keeping his voice as light and happy as he could manage. "We're actually actors again, I guess. Back to LA to live the high life." He smiled, surprised when he really meant it.
"It'll end," Mike whispered again, a promise. Ben nodded and turned in his arms, kissed as hard and deep and sweet as he knew how. Then he walked out into the rain and turned his face up to the sky to see the drops falling in lines straight toward him. He opened his mouth to catch them, childlike, and when one hit the back of his throat he choked accidentally then laughed until his heart actually did feel lighter -- elated and resigned. Mike stepped out and stood beside him, a few feet away, not touching. They looked up at the rain together, and the air smelled clean again, finally, like floods and ozone and beginnings.