Notes: And on we go! Not much to say, really, we’re building the basis for a whole new relationship. Read on and enjoy.
Title: Love Letters
Part Six: Ties As Lifelines
One beer over lunch turned into two, then three. Their plates were taken away but the waiter never brought the check, never hinted that they should go. He just kept bringing them fresh, full glasses and, once Ben realized he was getting drunk, water as well.
Getting drunk hadn’t been the plan. There hadn’t been much of a plan to begin with: find whoever invited him, figure out why, leave after the memorial. This trip wasn’t supposed to be about having a good time, and answering a question was only a side note; the trip was supposed to be about Brody. But here they were, with the sky gone dark outside, drinking and laughing. Ryan looked so much better when he was laughing. He looked real, not like a stiff plastic doll, not like something he so clearly couldn’t be. His jacket and tie were on the seat beside him, and his shirt sleeves were pushed up to his elbow. His left arm was tattooed from the elbow to the wrist, a brilliant winding serpent with eyes like emeralds gleaming against dusky scales. His hair was a perfect mess, and his pale cheeks were flushed from giggling.
“He never told me that story,” Ryan said between little gasps, still cracking up. “Not that he would, I mean, it’s not the sort of thing you tell your little brother, but…really?”
“I swear to god,” Ben laughed, sitting back and crossing his long fingers over his heart. “I have no idea why he thought I was the right person to bring that particular concern to, because I know next to nothing about being in relationships with women. I had exactly one girlfriend for one semester my freshmen year of college before I figured out it wasn’t for me. We never even had sex. I certainly never had to deal with getting her any sort of present.”
“And so he settled on…”
“Yeah.” Ben stretched out his legs and sighed, enjoying the quivering tension in his stomach muscles. It felt like it had been forever since he’d really let loose. A foot slipped around his ankle, and he smiled. The Kuzniars, with one notable exception, were the touchy-feeliest family Ben had ever met. Ryan had been at it all night, brushing their fingers together or playing footsie. He didn’t even seem to realize he was doing it most of the time, and the first few times, when Ben jerked with surprise, Ryan had apologized, equally surprised. After a few hours, though, Ben had gotten used to it. He even kind of liked it. It was the sort of relaxed, casual touching that had never been a part of Ben’s life, and there was something comforting in the simple assumption of rightness, like there was never any question the contact would be okay. “Cheryl was not happy, from what I gathered.”
“Cheryl doesn’t really do happy,” Ryan said, then looked a little guilty. “Not that I’d know, again…”
“You’d probably know better than me,” Ben mused. “I have to ask—what’s her problem with me? It’s not the gay thing, is it?”
“Nah, she’s not that kind of bigot,” Ryan said earnestly. Ben took a moment to wonder what kind of bigot she was before Ryan continued. “She just likes to be number one in everything, you know? When she and Brody got together it was like some sort of modern-day fairytale: he was the star quarterback, she was the head cheerleader. As far as she was concerned, life was perfect. Then she got pregnant at the end of junior year.”
“Yeah, I remember Brody freaking out about that.” Maybe Ben was being too candid now, but Ryan looked intrigued and fuck it, he wasn’t hurting anyone. “He actually called me up to tell me what was going on. I’ve only ever talked on the phone with him twice, and that was the first time. Except for when he drunk dialed me from Rome, but that didn’t really count because I couldn’t understand a word he said.”
Ryan was grinning again, his eyes shining with happiness and not tears now. “He drunk dialed you from Rome?”
“Yeah, he was lost, I think. It really freaked me out at the time; I thought he was in trouble.” Ben had actually tried to contact the police there, but they hadn’t had time for a worried American who couldn’t even describe the man he was trying to tell them about.
“He drunk dialed me once, but that was just from the bathroom at his bachelor’s party. He snuck me into the bar, but I was the only one too young to drink, so I got the job of keeping him functional,” Ryan said.
“He snuck you into his bachelor’s party?”
“Yeah.” Ryan smiled nostalgically. “I was only fourteen; it was a pretty big deal for me. I don’t know what I’d been expecting, but it wasn’t as wild as I’d hoped for. While there was a stripper she was female, of course, and the rest of the time the guys just did shots and shouted at whatever game was going on the television. Brody was mostly sober for the wedding, at least.”
“That’s something,” Ben agreed.
“Yeah…but Cheryl! We were talking about Cheryl.” Ryan drained the last of his beer. “She dropped out of college when she got pregnant. She had all these expectations, right? Brody was going to play for the NFL, they’d have a huge house, she could be a pretty sports wife and have perfect pretty children. But Brody joined the army instead. He was deployed a lot, and Cheryl pretty much raised Molly for the first two years by herself. Then when they had Joey, Brody switched over to the police force, but it was mostly for the kids’ sake. The two of them didn’t really get along all that well. They didn’t have a lot in common except for the kids.
“And she never liked you,” Ryan continued with an air of confession. “She couldn’t resent her own kids, and she didn’t resent me or Pam or Mom because we’re family, but she could resent you, because you made Brody happy. She wouldn’t let him text with you where she could see, and she returned the copy of your book that Brody bought for himself to the store.”
“Good thing I mailed him a signed copy,” Ben said, a little taken aback.
“You did?” Ryan looked kind of wistful. “That was nice of you.”
“But not very modest.”
“Brody liked to brag about you, when Cheryl wasn’t around. You were his…” Ryan lost his momentum, waiving one hand aimlessly. “His person. His friend that was just for him, even though he still shared you with me sometimes. He forwarded your ironic Zen Christmas card to me.”
Ben felt himself blush. “That was just a joke.” He had been up far too late, listening to Alan Watts while racking his brain over his next book, and something the man said had struck a chord. So Ben had taken it and made it his Christmas card. It wasn’t like he celebrated a traditional Christmas, anyway. His few friends, his agent and his publisher all got this:
“To remain stable is to refrain from trying to separate yourself from a pain because you know that you cannot. Running away from fear is fear, fighting pain is pain, trying to be brave is being scared. If the mind is in pain, the mind is pain. The thinker has no other form than his thought.
There is no escape.”
“I thought it was funny,” Ryan told him with a grin.
“Well, that makes one of you.”
“Brody thought it was funny too.”
“Oh.” Ben had thought he would, but they hadn’t had time to talk much before Brody’s death. “That’s good.” The awful weariness that had been threatening to overwhelm him started to raise its head, and Ben searched for something else to talk about, something that would steer his own mind away from the pain. “You know everything about me already, so tell me more about yourself.”
Ryan’s expression very clearly said that he didn’t know everything he wanted to know, but he rolled with the change. “I live in Boston, I have since I graduated. I love it there, and there’s actually a pretty substantial creative community, especially with regards to writing.”
Distantly, Ben could recall a few messages from Brody mentioning his baby brother’s talent for art and design. Something about comics… “You draw for a living, right?”
“Draw and write. I have my own graphic novel, Janie and the Phantom. It’s not DC or Marvel-worthy or anything, but I love it,” Ryan enthused. “I started putting it up online last year and it got some good press, enough that I get to focus on it now instead of splitting my time between that and my friend’s coffee shop.” He paused and lowered his eyes. “I mean, it’s not serious writing like you do, but I enjoy it.”
“At least you’re doing something creative,” Ben replied, and wondered how they’d suddenly slipped into the high school game of I-suck-more-than-you-do. “I’d like to read it.”
“I’ll send you a copy,” Ryan promised him, smiling again. “Signed, even.”
“Thank you.” Ben glanced down at his watch and started in surprise. It was seven o clock; god, how had the time passed so quickly? He had a flight back to Denver at ten, and he still had to get his stuff from his hotel room. “Ryan…”
“Oh no.” Ryan sounded dismayed. “You aren’t leaving tonight, are you?”
“I didn’t think I’d need to be here any longer,” Ben said apologetically. He hadn’t thought he’d want to be here any longer either, but then he’d never figured on Ryan Kuzniar either. He looked so young—Ben could barely remember being so young, even though they were only six years apart, and he was sure he’d never been so youthful. This didn’t feel like the right time to leave, there were still things to learn here. He wanted to see Ryan in clothes that suited him, or even better, with no clothes at all, so he could seek out and memorize every intricately tattooed plane of skin.
Just then Ben’s subconscious perked up and kicked him in the head. You’re picturing your best friend’s grieving younger brother naked. Stop it, perv. “I’m sorry,” he offered, trying to assuage the disappointment on Ryan’s face.
Ryan forced a smile. “It’s okay. I appreciate you spending as much time as you did with me. You’re…you were important to him, you know? And I wanted to make sure you knew that at least one of us knew that.”
Fuck, looking at Ryan made Ben’s heart ache. He looked sad and lost and somehow grateful, and that was just wrong. Ben hadn’t done anything worthy of that kind of gratitude, but he could try. “I’ve got time to drive you back, if you want.”
Ryan’s fingers twitched toward Ben’s, but he didn’t reach out. “I can just call a cab…”
“I’d like to drive you.” Ben could do persuasive, and honestly Ryan didn’t need much of a push.
“Thank you.” They stood up out of the booth and Ryan pushed his sleeves back down, buttoned his shirt back up and put his jacket on. It was like watching an exotic bird molt, to go from brightly colored to dull and drab. The transformation was kind of depressing.
The drive was pretty quiet, Ryan providing directions and Ben following them. All of the tension that they had been able to forget about built back up as they drew closer and closer to Ryan’s childhood home. Apparently Cheryl was living there right now so that DeeDee could help with the kids, so there was no question of Ben taking a moment to go inside and say goodbye to the rest of the family.
Ben parked outside a large, two story Victorian style house flanked by enormous maple trees. It was a beautiful, stately place, the kind of place he imagined not even a blade of grass would dare to do anything other than stand up perfectly straight.
“So…” Ryan drawled. He tried to put on a smile, but his muscles seemed to be paralyzed. “I guess that’s it.”
Ben stared at him for a long moment, wanting to soothe but not sure what to say. After enough seconds passed for it to start to get awkward, he blurted, “Your tie is missing.”
“Oh.” Ryan’s hand flew to his neck. “Oh, shit, I must have left it at the restaurant. Damn it.” He looked unhappily at Ben. “Don’t worry, we don’t have to go back for it, I’ll just—”
“Here.” Before he could think about what he was doing, Ben loosened his own tie and pulled it off, then touched Ryan’s shoulder and drew him in closer. Ryan sat silently, wide-eyed, as Ben looped the tie around Ryan’s neck and snugged the knot up into the hollow of his throat. The bare skin there was tantalizing, pale and cool and just waiting to be warmed, but Ben forced his hands down the front of Ryan’s jacket instead, smoothing it uselessly. “Now you’re a proper southern gentleman again,” Ben said softly.
A second later Ryan’s upper body was flush to Ben’s, both of them twisted around in their seats as Ryan tried to hug all the air out of Ben. Ben returned the embrace, taking a moment to close his eyes and relish the contact, his second hug today and the most human contact he’d had in months. They sat like that until the twist in his back forced Ben to ease off, but he didn’t let go entirely, just swiped his thumbs over Ryan’s cheekbones, wiping away the tears that had appeared. Ryan shut his eyes and god, he looked so sad, so vulnerable. Ben didn’t want to send him back into that house, that place where he didn’t belong, but he had to go.
“You all right?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Ryan said around a sniff. “I will be.”
“Here.” Ben dropped one hand to his pocket and fished around until he found one of his cards. He thought it was stupidly pretentious, a writer carrying business cards, but Linda had insisted. “This has all my information on it. Just…keep in touch, okay?”
Ben hadn’t been sure that this was the right move, but the blinding grin that came over Ryan’s face reassured him. “I will,” he promised.
“Good.” The urge to lean in and…and something was growing stronger, so Ben had to leave before he fucked things up. He let go and sat back in the seat. “It was good to meet you, Ryan.”
“You too. Thank you so much for coming,” Ryan said. He looked like he might say more, then thought better of it and got out of the car. He straightened his sleeves, adjusted the tie slightly, then walked up the long walkway to the house. Ben watched until Ryan disappeared, then started up the car with a sigh and pulled away from the curb.
He should have gone straight back to the hotel, he was going to be pushing it as it was, but he made a quick stop at The Roasting Company and ran in, looking for the tie. The hostess handed it over before he could get two words out.
“I was hoping one of you would come back for that,” she said cheerfully. “It would be a shame to lose it.”
It would, actually. The silk tie was skinnier than Ben wore, dark but with faint blue accents in it that reminded Ben of Ryan’s eyes. Ben thanked her for holding onto it and ran back out to the car, now really needing to push it if he was going to make his plane.
In the end he made it with fifteen minutes to spare. As he settled into his seat, Ben checked his phone one last time before turning it off. There was a text waiting for him that he hadn’t heard come in, from an unfamiliar number. He opened it.
Im still wearing your tie. I like it-you may never get it back.
Ben smiled and typed out, Fair enough, I’m wearing yours. It’s a mutual hostage situation.
Negotiate tomorrow, tired now. Have a good flight.