Notes: Just one thing, here: I mention MileHiCon in the story, which is a real con in Denver, but the name is the only thing I use appropriately. Not the timing, not the exact theme, I just couldn’t come up with a good con name on my own. My brain is fried, I’m writing so much. Anyway! Enjoy more of our boys. Big things are coming soonJ
Title: Love Letters
Part Nine: It's Not As Hard As You Make It
Ben had probably never used his phone so much in his life. Not for its primary function, at least. He regularly used it for texting and email, and formerly used it to feed a vicious Angry Birds addiction that had taken dropping his last phone in the sink and losing all of his high scores to quit. He had never quite forgiven himself, but he had gotten a lot better about meeting his chapter deadlines after that. But now, he was actually using the phone for talking. For a lot of talking.
Ben, being kind of meticulous, had counted, and he’d actually spent almost eight hours of the past five days talking on the phone. Thirty minutes of that was with Linda, fifteen minutes was with Michael, and all the rest of it was spent on Ryan. The efforts that had formerly gone to writing letters and texting Brody were now focused solely on Ryan, and Ryan was a talker. He could talk about anything at almost any time of day, and usually called without any specific reason in mind. It was a good thing that they both had nontraditional jobs, because otherwise Ben would be in real trouble.
The morning after the fundraiser, Ryan called Ben a few minutes after he got home. He spent about a minute teasing Ben for his hangover, then said happily, “I got the letters!”
“What letters?” Ben asked muzzily, trying and failing to put a fresh filter into his coffee machine. Two cups at the hotel had not cut it.
“Your letters. Mom finally packed them up and sent them to me. I wanted to take them with me when I left, but Cheryl wouldn’t let anyone into Brody’s office. I guess she thought there might be stuff in there that would embarrass her. I know she wanted to just trash the letters, but Brody left them to me in his will, so she couldn’t.”
“He was that specific?” Ben asked, more than a little surprised. He knew Brody had kept his letters, but… “I didn’t think they meant that much to him.”
“It looks like they did,” Ryan said calmly. “And he knew how much they meant to me, so I’m happy he took the time to make sure I would get them. I was wondering, though…do you mind if I reread them?”
“They’re your letters, and you’ve already read them once,” Ben pointed out. “Why would I mind?”
“Well, because they’re your life,” Ryan replied, a little awkward but emphatic. “They’re you as a child and as a teenager and all the way up to who you are now, and that’s an awful lot to offer someone who you barely know. And when I last read them, I was just a kid myself. I just don’t want to make things weird for us.”
That was surprisingly thoughtful, or maybe not so surprising considering that this was Ryan. Ben took a moment to think about it. It really didn’t bother him, Ben had nothing to hide, but on the other hand… “I don’t mind,” he said carefully, “but I think it might be better if you didn’t talk to me about them. Or if you do, just bring up the lighter stuff. They’re yours to read, but I don’t want who I was then to affect who we are right now.” He recalled several letters which had been little more than angry rants, and winced at the thought of those coloring Ryan’s vision. “Unless there’s something specific that you just have to get off your chest,” he amended.
“And I think you actually know me pretty well,” Ben said after a moment’s silence.
“Nope, wrong,” Ryan disagreed immediately. “I know who you used to be, and I have an idea of who you were to my brother, but present-day you, no, you’re still a mystery to me.”
“Well, let’s fix that. What do you want to know?” Was he flirting? Ben wasn’t sure. He wanted to be, but he was so damn bad at it.
“Oh, so much!” Ryan laughed. “I have to narrow it down? I want to know…something that I couldn’t learn in those letters. Something you haven’t told anyone else yet.”
“That’s a tall order.” Ben didn’t even remember most of what he’d written at this point. “Here, let’s do it like this: you can ask me a question about myself every time we talk, in person, and as long as I feel that I can, I’ll answer it. I think you have a better idea of what you could ever want to know about me. The only catch is, you have to let me ask you a question too.”
“I suppooose I could do that,” Ryan teased. “Fine. You ask first.”
There was so much he wanted to know, it was hard to pare his curiosity down to a single question. “What’s your middle name?” he finally settled on. It wasn’t very flirtatious, but names had always been an important part of Ben’s life, and he wanted a full one for Ryan.
“Jonnet. It’s my mother’s maiden name,” Ryan said. “Technically it should have been Brody who got it, that’s more in line with southern tradition, but instead Brody was named after our great-grandfather.” Ryan snorted lightly into the phone. “He’s lucky he didn’t end up Joseph Alan Kuzniar the Third, since our dad was Joseph Junior. I know he and mom fought about it. Anything to add to that man’s legacy.”
“Ryan Jonnet Kuzniar.” Ben repeated it to get the feel of it on his tongue. “I like it.”
“I never did, it always sounded kind of fussy to me,” Ryan said deprecatingly. “For a while after I moved away I thought about legally changing it, but I decided not to in the end. Mom would have killed me if she’d found out, anyway.”
“What would you have changed it to?” Ben asked, but Ryan immediately made a negative sound.
“Nope, no more searching questions for you today. My turn!” He hummed thoughtfully into the phone. “How about…who you most admire? Wait, stop, that’s a gimme, isn’t it? Of course it’s going to be Benjamin Franklin.”
“It’s not, actually,” Ben confessed. “People always expect that, though. When I was a kid I had to write an essay on who my hero was, and my third grade teacher told me that she expected me to write something great on Benjamin Franklin, because who else would I write about?”
“Oh.” Ryan sounded a little subdued. “No pigeon-holing, got it. So who did you pick?”
“Honestly, in the third grade I would probably have picked Batman if I was really writing for myself, but I ended up going with Benjamin Franklin anyway. I could recite his date of birth, how long he lived and who his children were at the age of five; writing an essay on him was a piece of cake.” Ben had been so anxious to please as a child, and meeting clearly laid out expectations was the surest path to making the adults in his life happy that he’d been able to follow.
“Huh. Well now I feel dumb for asking,” Ryan said, but Ben cut him off.
“It’s a fine question. I just don’t have much experience answering it honestly; you’ve got to give me a second.”
“You’re still allowed to pick Batman, as far as I’m concerned,” Ryan told him. “Some of my favorite people are make-believe, and he’s always had a good story.”
“Let me take a rain check on this one,” Ben said. “I don’t want to come off as facetious.”
“You just have to be yourself with me, I can handle facetious if that’s the flavor of the day.”
But no, that wasn’t right. You had to put your best foot forward with others; Ben knew that for sure. You couldn’t really relax and be yourself until you’d already disappointed them. That was why Ben and Michael got along so much better now than when they’d dated; neither had any reason to try and impress the other at this point. Ben changed the subject instead of answering, and they finished the conversation on an easy, light-hearted note.
Over the next three days Ben and Ryan exchanged answers like little gifts, one for the other: his favorite color (the exact shade of blue of Ryan’s eyes, but he didn’t quite put it that way) for Ryan’s first word (“banana,” after the requisite “mama” of course); the longest he’s gone without sleep (fifty-seven hours in college while on speed) for Ryan’s earliest memory (lying on the bottom of the bathtub when he was three, waiting for the water to cover his face so he could practice holding his breath); and his first crush (Debbie Clark in second grade, because she shared her gummi bears with him) for Ryan’s strangest dream (which was long and detailed and sounded a little like being dragged through Hell, but without the explicitly overt torture). Ben had the feeling that Ryan was going easy on him with the questions, but he was okay with that. Personal revelation had never been a strength of his.
They were flirting, they were definitely flirting, but it was so easy compared to every other time Ben had ever flirted with someone he almost couldn’t believe they were doing it. It was better, it was safer, to think of this as friendship without the possibility of something more. So Ben kept it mild, and if he jerked off a few more times (a dozen more times) than he normally would, well, he could keep that to himself.
The fifth day into their game, Ryan’s graphic novel came in the mail. Ben opened the package and sat down in his chair, looking over the cover of the book. Janie and the Phantom showcased a young girl in a simple black dress, her long dark hair pulled over her face, hiding all but a sliver of her pale skin from the light. She was staring straight forward, one hand holding a compass, the other clutching a scroll to her chest. In the darkness surrounding her creatures reached out, trying to grab her and pull her in—claws and tentacles and sharp-toothed smiles all nipped at her edges, but she didn’t even seem to feel them. Even though Ben could see next to nothing of her face, she still seemed to look…resolute.
He took a sip of his coffee and started to read. After an hour his coffee was stone cold, but Ben couldn’t put the book down. Janie was a girl trapped in a life she didn’t belong to, a girl with powers that she didn’t understand. She was guided by a voice that no one else could hear, a voice that left her messages written in the steam on a mirror after she took a shower, or in the condensation left behind by a cold glass. The voice directed her to the scroll, hidden away in a secret room at the back of a library no one ever visited, which sent her on a quest. What the quest was for Janie hadn’t figured out yet, but she knew she had to go or her heart would shrivel and die, and she would become like the pale, cold people who surrounded her; living, but not truly alive. The novel ended with her leaving behind the Stygian sanctuary of the life she’d always known, and heading out into the dangerous world beyond its gates.
Ben called Ryan as soon as he was done with it. “I love your book,” he said without preamble. “The story is fascinating, and the artwork is perfect.” It was atmospheric, it was dark, it was intricate. It was beautiful. “This must have taken forever to put together.”
“About a year,” Ryan said, but he sounded pleased. “You really like it?”
“I think it’s brilliant.”
“Thank you. That means a lot, coming from you.”
Ben wanted to protest, he wanted to say that there was no way to compare them because what they wrote was so vastly, incredibly different. Ben could write insightfully, he could draw comparisons and make connections, but he’d hardly call himself brilliant, only inspired by brilliance. Instead he said, “I mean it.”
“Did you see where I signed it for you?”
“In sparkly purple pen, yes, I saw that,” Ben said with a smile.
“I use that pen for all my signings, it’s my lucky pen.” Ryan cleared his throat. “Speaking of lucky…something’s kind of come up.”
“What kind of something?”
“The kind where…well...here, okay, this is my question for you today.” He took a deep breath, then blurted out, “How would you feel about me coming to Denver?”
“Are you coming to Denver?” Ben asked slowly, trying to tamp down on the sudden excitement that rose up in his chest.
“Probably. I got invited to be a guest at MileHiCon, it’s a sci-fi and fantasy conference they have in Denver every year. It was kind of a last minute invite since the con is happening next month but I thought it would be fun, and good exposure, and I’d get to see you. If you wanted to come, I mean. I get to invite a guest for free, you wouldn’t have to pay anything, and I know it’s not really your scene but—”
“I’d love to see you,” Ben said, interrupting Ryan’s nervous monologue. Love it? He felt like jumping into the air and running up and down the stairs a few times, he was so energized by the thought of seeing Ryan again.
“Good, that’s great,” Ryan breathed. “Me too. I’d love to see you too, I mean, not see myself. I can see myself anytime. I mean…wait, this is coming out all wrong.” He laughed a little. “I get so tongue-tied talking to you sometimes. I’ll email you the information, okay? I have to get to work on the new panels or Jasmine is going to flay me when she gets home.”
“We can’t have that,” Ben agreed. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay. Talk to you later.” Ryan hung up and Ben just stared at his phone for a moment, torn between grinning like an idiot and having a small, intimate freak out. Ryan was coming to Denver. Ryan was coming here.