by T.F. Grognon
Ben gets home really late. He stayed out after work with Alison and her friends for no good reason other than, after this week of downsizing and reassignments and quarter-ending reports, he needed not to be at work any more, or anywhere he might be tempted to think about work, like home. Most nights, he’s back in time for Jeopardy! and a good few hours to prune, water, and “commune” with the plants.
“Go commune now,” she says. “They’ll forgive you. Plants are better than people, you always say so.”
“I don’t commune with them,” he says as Alison pushes him out of the cab in front of his building. “That’s not what it’s like.”
“Don’t snap at me, sister,” she replies. “Just because you struck out, and hard, is no reason to take it out on me.”
He struck out so hard. He struck out swinging, just spun around and around, empty-handed and pathetically desperate.
“Allie, I—” Before he can finish, however, she’s swinging her legs back into the car and slamming the door.
“Go home, green boy, sleep tight and sweet dreams!” She pounds on the divider between front and back. “Onward!”
She cannot hold her liquor. Ben would pity her, but he’s almost as much of a mess as she is. He drags his feet up the path and fumbles for his keys. It takes approximately three hours, or so it feels, to make it inside and up the broad, creaking stairs to his second-floor apartment. He doesn’t turn on the lights when he gets there, just drops his keys and jacket inside the door, undoes his belt and kicks off his shoes, and heads for the bed across the room.
When he falls forward into the pillows, Harvey, his cat, chides him with a gruff mewl.
“Yeah, yeah, I suck and I’m the worst,” Ben mutters as he curls his arm around Harvey’s impressive bulk and buries his face against Harvey’s long, silky fur. “Get in line, no one wants me.”
This is why he shouldn’t drink. The usual self-pity is now officially off the charts.
He doesn’t see the envelope on the floor just inside the door until the next afternoon.
By then, he is hungover and horribly caffeinated, unshowered and gross, sitting cross-legged just inside the solarium and talking to a big pot of wild yam. Its vines are limp, the leaves wan and drooping.
Harvey is stretched out in a broad patch of sun, his hairy toes gently kneading the air as he dreams.
The yam isn’t responding to Ben. Not as he’d like it to, not as it used to. It’s just hunched there, giving off a low, almost throaty moan that he can feel creep along his brainstem.
“Maybe a snack?” he asks and strokes the nearest vine. “Little something-something? Calcium? Tasty hit of nitrogen?”
He takes that as a no.
“Everyone gets a little down sometimes,” he says. “Nothing to be embarrassed by.”
That must have been a good guess; the yam still doesn’t quite reply, but the hum in Ben’s skull lightens and trills. Within the damp, rich dirt, the tubers fill out a bit, swelling with sugar the way a human might smile.
“I hear you,” he says, “Believe me. I’ll be right back, okay? Just going to grab another coffee for me and some snacky treats for you.”
He can’t find the right mix of nitrogen and ground-up eggshells in the kitchen, so he checks the closet, tripping over last night’s discarded jacket as he turns.
That’s when he finds the envelope from the landlord. The letter inside is official-looking and snotty and by the end of the first paragraph, his face is hot and he’s having trouble seeing clearly.
They’ve received complaints. About his greenhouse. He must be more courteous and considerate, or Triple-Door Property Management LLC will be forced to take further action.
Of course it doesn’t say which neighbor has complained, nor what the complaints were. Ben doesn’t care either way. The worst outcome, his greatest fear, rapidly takes shape: he gets evicted, out on the street with a big fluffy cat under one arm and as many seedlings and vines as he can carry in the other.
He can’t lose this apartment.
Ben chose this place for the sun room. It’s the only thing he truly likes about his apartment, and it’s great enough that he tolerates erratic water pressure, strange radiator noises, and the utter lack of any flat surface or clean angle. Originally some eccentric rich person’s mansion, the building was added onto without much plan or foresight. When the neighborhood changed and the wealthy left, the resulting hodgepodge pile got carved up into curious, eclectically-shaped apartments.
Ben’s apartment is the butt end of what used to be a grand indoor hothouse, two stories tall, with curving iron staircases leading to a narrow promenade. That’s all gone now, of course; the only relic, aside from the glass-panelled sunroom, is a single curved stair that stops abruptly at the new ceiling.
The very weirdness of the building makes it possible to figure out which neighbor complained. Obviously, it’s not the Ferreiras down the hall, nor old Mr. Chang on the other side. Ben keeps Mrs. Ferreira well-stocked with herbs and aromatics, while Mr. Chang likes to come and meditate among the citrus trees when he can. The only other apartment that has a view of Ben’s place is one with the bay window, up on the top floor. It looks down onto one side of the solarium, and for all he knows, the tenant up there has decided he’s running the world’s smallest, least-successful grow op.
The building is so disorganized that there are three separate entrances, each with a different street address. Two are sequential along Birch Street, but the last is around the corner on Pope. To get to the third floor, Ben has to exit out his usual entrance and turn onto Pope, then re-enter the building and take the other stairwell up. He forgets his jacket and shoes and his socks are soaked with old snow when he makes it to the Pope Avenue door, then inside. He ends up in a hallway every bit as creaky as his own.
He’s angry enough, running on adrenaline and outrage, that his usual self-consciousness has no chance to take hold. He knocks on 3A and bounces on the balls of his feet. His toes are cold and wet.
He’s terrible at confrontation, so he starts talking as the door opens.
“You have no right to complain about my plants! They’re not bothering you, they’re just doing their thing, who do you even think you are—”
The door closes again. He raps on it, harder this time. The sound of the chain being released clicks and the door opens again, wider this time.
“What did the plants ever do to you, anyway?” Ben concludes, feeling like a bellows has been crushed close in his chest. He’d sag, cling to the doorjamb, if he could.
“Your what to who?” the guy in the doorway asks.
Oh, no, Ben thinks and immediately hates the cliche-ridden superficiality that is his mind, he’s so cute.
The guy tilts his head. He is just so very cute, dark-skinned with big sweet eyes, a perfect fade to his hair rising up to a mess of soft wooly twists on the top of his head. “Can I help you?”
“I live downstairs! Those are my plants and it’s incredibly assholic of someone to—”
“Assholish, you mean?”
“I said, assholic!”
Cute 3A nods patiently. “Okay.”
“Assholic of you to —”
“What did I do?”
Ben grinds his teeth. He’s now acutely aware of how grubby he is, ripe with hangover sweat and smeared with plant dirt and wrapped in slept-in clothes.
“I’m Casey.” He holds out his hand and now Ben’s even more uncomfortable thanks to his ragged fingernails and cuticles caked with dirt. When Ben doesn’t shake, Casey frowns briefly and drops his hand. “It’s nice to meet you? You’re the greenhouse guy.”
“Greenhouse guy, nice. If you have a problem with me,” Ben manages to get out, “Talk to me, okay? Not the landlord.”
“But I don’t—” Casey starts to say but Ben is already rushing down the stairs, head down, shoulders hunched up.
He regrets everything before he’s back outside heading for his place. All the fear and anger sluice away, and in their wake, he’s just hot-faced and embarrassed as hell. Not only is Casey probably the only other tenant in this madhouse under the age of fifty, he was polite. And handsome. And smiled like a bolt from heaven.
Ben chews over the shame and regret all weekend. The wild yam ceases perking up and pulls back in on itself, groaning. The small Gojé Sabz plum tree he has been coaxing through the winter drops several twigs and its dirt looks pebbly overnight.
At lunch on Monday, he promises to pay for a venti light mocha if Alison will help him out.
“He’s really cute,” Ben says. “And nice. And I was such an asshole. He probably thinks I’m nuts.”
“You are nuts, though.”
“Sure, but not in a bad way. Not in the way where I’m some kind of dangerous, disgusting neighbor —”
He breaks off. She’s smirking at him, but then something in her softens, just a tad, and she sits back in her chair. “You’re freaking out for nothing. You don’t even have to see this guy again if you don’t want to.”
“But I do want to.”
“Yeah, I’m getting that.” She taps her nails against the table. “So how, in the language of flowers, would you say, hey, hottie, really sorry about blowing my stack on your doorstep, won’t happen again, by the way can I blow you sometime?“
The language of flowers is Victorian nonsense, like fairies and white weddings (and white saviors). He doesn’t want to encode a coy message and then sit back to hope it is understood. He just wants to apologize.
“Shut up,” he tells her.
She shakes her head and holds out her hand. “Pay up, cash or gift card, your call.”
“But you didn’t help!”
“Not for lack of trying,” Alison says. “Maybe you’re just beyond help, honey. Ever thought of that?”
“All the goddamn time,” he replies. “That’s the problem.”
That evening, he stands in the middle of the solarium and turns in a slow circle. He concentrates on his memory of Casey’s face and voice as well as on his own need to apologize. When he comes to a stop and opens his eyes, he finds that he is staring at a fist-sized ballmoss. Scientifically known as Tillandsia recurvata, its loose structure makes it look like a kid rolled up several stalks of prairie grass before tossing it up, but it’s actually a flowering epiphyte, one of several in a colony spread out in the upper reaches of the solarium’s canopy.
He pulls it down, along with the branch on which it grows. He coaxes the branch to root, first in willow water, then in some peat, with a few very old songs and quick energy exchanges. When he’s finished, the branch rises about ten inches from the pot at a wide angle, and the ballmoss dangles from its end like a Christmas ornament.
If he had the time, he’d work on encouraging the ball to flower. Not much, not this far out of season, but maybe just once or twice.
Next, he crouches beside the small tiled pool at the back of the solarium. When this was a mansion, the pool held carp and, at parties, floating punch bowls and tea lights in lotus blossoms. The tiles are garish, though faded now and very chipped; what live here now are a small marimo colony at the far corner, some lotus rooted in the same dirt that houses the marimo, several floating water cabbages, and a dwarf willow whose roots and trunk take up a good third of the entire pool.
Ben whispers a plea to the marimo. He asks for just one, any that might be spared, and soon enough one, the size of a golf ball and brilliantly green, bobs to the surface. Ben sends down his thanks and the water cabbages revolve lazily in the answering currents.
Better than most, he knows that there are thousands of shades of green. Further, that many greens are in fact blue, or yellow, or nacreous or glaucous. All the same, the marimo in his cupped hands is nearly the perfect green, vibrant and velvety-textured.
He deposits the living ball into a small jar with enough water to cover, then adds the jar to the pot containing the epiphyte and its branch.
He’d planned a note that would convey apologies as deep as the sea and high as the clouds, but now that he’s holding the pen and looking at the sheet of paper before him, he can’t do it. Every phrase, each possible word, sounds worse than the previous one. A flush is speeding across his cheeks and down his chest and he knows he’s about a minute away from giving up entirely.
“All apologies,” he scrawls, and when he remembers that’s the title of some 90s song, he doesn’t let himself cross it out. He underlines the phrase and signs the note, “Ben in 2B, the greenhouse guy”.
Lest he run into anyone, especially cute Casey, he waits until the middle of the night to leave the plants and note outside of 3A’s door.
When he wakes up the next morning, the wild yam looks fuller, foliage-wise, and definitely taller. It has crawled a good six inches up the spiral staircase, racing the old camellia vine. The plum tree looks better, too, and it might even be thinking about budding, if he’s reading the swollen, taut sensation it is communicating correctly.
His mother and aunts are all talented technomancers. They all employ and manipulate the elements of modern life. Whether that means herding mp3’s into protective wards or borrowing strings of Christmas lights to watch for danger down the block, they are adept at finding ways to work with the most ordinary technology. His mother and Aunt Viv once managed to yoke the broadcast TV signals of a small coastal city long enough to drive back an incursion of chthonic hungers.
Compared to the women who raised him, Ben is a throwback, a regressive sport. He fumbles antivirus incantations; he gets dizzy when trying to project his thoughts to swim along telephone lines. The noise and clutter of things, all their electronic static and sharply-engineered angles, leaves him clumsy and helpless. Furthermore, he works alone, which would be sacrilege if they had anything like a prescriptive code.
Then again, none of them can grow a window box of kitchen herbs to season a pot of spaghetti, let alone save anyone’s life.
He’s old enough now that he seems to be finding peace with the fact that he’s never going to be as good as any of the aunts, nor be much like them at all.
They don’t seem to notice that he’s grown, however. He’s still Rachel’s little boy digging in the dirt and playing with his flowers.
It’s the end of the week and he still hasn’t heard anything from Cute Casey in 3A. Not that he’s thinking about it all the time, of course. After work, he drops off a bundle of dried black cohosh and powdered wild yam at Viv and Jane’s house. They expect him to stay for dinner, and he can’t turn them down, even though he ends up taking over the chicken roasting while they get cozy with big cups of rum punch.
They don’t want to hear about work (who cares about spreadsheets?), nor about his plants (they grow, they’re green, then they die), so he’s left fielding their questions about his love life.
“There’s nothing to report,” he admits. No, he hasn’t heard from that handsome Kyle, not for a couple years now. No, there haven’t been many one-night stands; yes, he is still gay. Hard to believe, he wishes he could say, but even gay dudes hit dry spells. He doesn’t, however. The last thing he needs is to get his mouth sewn shut with a power cord or optic cable as punishment for sass.
He’s convinced on the bus ride home that he must have missed Casey’s visit. That would be just his luck, really, that he was busy with the aunts the one time a cute neighbor decides to drop by.
He had the conversation fully imagined, too.
He’d be abashed but earnest, his very best self, and make sure that Casey knew just how sorry he was. And Casey! Casey would be charmed despite himself, intrigued by this sincere guy, acutely desperate to know more.
There would be makeouts, of course. And soft, dim lighting filtering through the leaves and vines of his solarium. No sudden stink from Harvey’s litter, no awkward fumbling for clothes, just warmth and graceful coordination.
He keeps waiting through the next week. The wild yam is growing by the hour, and the camellia’s catching up; Ben tries several lines of argument and wheedling to get them to slow down and turn around. Over one night, silvery catkins erupt along the slender branches of the dwarf willow. Reflected in the still pool water, the catkins hover like disembodied eyes, watchful and unfamiliar.
Outside, everything is still icy slush and frozen-hard mud. When it snows, there isn’t much accumulation, but the air stays damp and chilly.
Sunday night, after dinner, in that dim hour that he still, all these years later, associates with the sad realization that tomorrow’s a school day, someone knocks on Ben’s door.
As Ben’s unlocking the door, he hears, “It’s Casey, from upstairs?”
He has to pause and breathe a couple times before opening the door. “It’s Ben,” he says, “the greenhouse guy.”
It’s a line from his daydream. There, it sounded cute and charming, if awkward; here, it just seems to confuse Casey. He’s standing there in the hall, wearing heavy twill work pants and round-toed boots and a long-sleeved tee advertising the fact that everyone’s queer somewhere in the multiverse!
Upside: He’s gay! Or at least gay-friendly.
Downside: He’s looking at Ben like Ben grew three more heads.
“Sorry,” Ben says. “What can I do for you?”
“First of all, thank you for the weird balls of vegetation,” Casey says. He scowls briefly. “That came out wrong, they’re very cool, that was awesome of you.”
“Okay,” Ben says. “Is that—”
“I don’t actually know why I’m here,” Casey says. “Can I show you something?”
Ben steps aside so he can come in. “Sure.”
Casey, however, remains in the hall. “It’s at my place, if that’s cool.”
“Do you want to drop it off?”
Casey presses his lips together. “Can’t.” As Ben stares at him, uncomprehending, he lifts his shoulders and adds, “I know you think I’m an asshole or whatever, but I could really use your help on this —”
He digs in his back pocket and pulls out his phone, scrolls for something, then hands it to Ben.
He’s looking at a picture of, he assumes, Casey’s apartment. The light isn’t great, but there’s part of the bay window, along with something protruding up through the floor. Ben pinches the screen to enlarge it and stares.
There’s a knob of metal, wrought with curlicues that match the relics of the staircase in his own place, but it only rises about three inches from the floor. It is crowned with glossy green leaves, wrapped with vines that are heading for the wall.
“How…?” Ben starts to ask, then hands back Casey’s phone.
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
Ben closes his door, then pats his pocket to check that he has his keys. “I can take care of this.”
His wild yam is colonizing the cute neighbor’s apartment.
His goddamn plants have decided to play yenta?
Casey looks startled. “No, no, don’t —. You’re not going to hurt it, are you?”
Ben shakes his head. “I can trim it back, take it out, whatever you want.”
“Man, no way!” Casey folds his arms. “I like it.”
Ben can’t help but smile at that. “So what do you want me to do?”
Casey shrugs and shifts his weight from foot to foot. “Actually, I was wondering if you want to come over for a drink sometime?”
“Now?” Of course not now, he admonishes himself, why are you so lame?
“Better than later,” Casey says, which makes a rough sort of sense. “Only if you want.”
“I want,” Ben says quickly, “I mean, I’d love to. Lead the way.”
“You know the way,” Casey says, elbowing him lightly. “Maybe you should lead.”
He’s never going to live down his outburst, is he?
Casey’s place is probably a little bigger than Ben’s, but the amount of stuff, both packed on the shelves and hung on the walls, makes it feel smaller. Smaller, but also cozier.
A poster in bright comic-book colors declares that BLERDS DO IT BETTER; below it, there are three framed pictures of Casey with different individuals in front of a blue backdrop. The backdrop reminds Ben of school picture day, but these pictures are nothing like those dour poses; in each one, Casey and his companion look like they’re cracking up or about to shout a beloved catchphrase.
“He grabbed my ass,” Casey says, tapping the middle picture, where a handsome white guy in a brown leather coat has his arm around Casey. “Believe everything you’ve heard about Barrowman, and then some.”
“Okay,” Ben says carefully. He points to the picture on the right. There, Casey is beaming at a beautiful, statuesque woman with long black hair and intense, expressive eyebrows. “What about her?”
“Babe,” Casey says, letting his head fall back and a soft sigh escape his lips. “What I wouldn’t have given for her to cop a feel. Alas.”
“I get the feeling I’m supposed to know who these people are,” Ben says as he moves toward the nearest bookshelf. It’s stuffed with paperbacks, bright orange Penguin spines mixed up with black and silver mass-markets. Studying the titles, he adds, “Never knew there were so many books about dragons.”
“Tip of the iceberg,” Casey replies. “Those are just the ones I liked enough to keep.”
Ben takes a step back so he can see as much of the bookshelves as possible. “That’s…a lot.”
Casey grins and shrugs and glances away. “I read a lot.”
Things are going well enough, he’s had half a beer and Casey seems amenable to being looked frankly, so Ben eventually decides he has to ruin the evening.
“You should know that I’m a witch.” He makes himself keep looking in Casey’s direction. Even if he’s squinting hard enough that he can’t actually see anything, at least he’s got his head up and his shoulders back.
“Yeah, I’m a wizard, too!” Casey says. “What do you roll?”
Ben doesn’t understand. He opens his mouth, then closes it.
“In D&D,” Casey adds patiently. “Fifth edition?”
“No, in real life.” Ben pushes the hair out of his eyes. “What did you think I meant?”
“Right, you said, D&D.” He covers his face with his hands and takes a deep breath. “In real life. I’m a witch.”
Casey starts to laugh but quickly stops. He comes over and perches next to Ben on the arm of the couch. “You’re serious.”
“Yeah. That’s not…you’re not…” He can’t finish the sentence, whatever it was going to be. Fear strikes him that this is the last time he’s going to see Casey. He tries to calm down. That outcome would suck, sure, but it’s not as if they’re close (yet). They barely even know each other. So why does he even care?
“I’m not,” Casey says. His voice is warmed by a chuckle and he takes Ben’s hand in his own. “Or I am. Whatever’s the opposite of what you’re freaking out about.”
“I’m not freaking out!”
“Oh, okay,” he says and his thumb moves in shallow arcs across the back of Ben’s hand. “My mistake.”
“I was freaking out a little,” Ben has to admit.
“A-ha,” Casey says lightly. “Told you so, et cetera.”
Ben rocks side to side so he can knock into Casey’s shoulder. Casey matches the movement and for a while they just do that.
“What about you?” Ben asks after a bit. They’re still holding hands. He feels hot all the way up and down his body.
“What about me?”
Ben exhales in a long whistle. “God, I suck at this.”
“You don’t,” Casey says. “Just need a little more context, that’s all.”
“Why are you so cool?”
“What do you mean?”
“I dunno, I just…” With his free hand, he gestures vaguely at the apartment. “You seem to have your shit together, you’re incredibly cute, but here you are, being really cool to the random weirdo who showed up yelling on your doorstep and then left strange plants in the middle of the night.”
Casey shrugs his far shoulder. He’s smiling, soft and loose, as he listens. “Thanks.”
“You said I was cute.”
“Like that’s news!” God, why is he so aggro? Why can’t he just chill? These questions come to him in a variety of voices: Alison’s, his mom’s, his ex’s. And his own, definitely his own.
Casey rubs his chin. “It’s nice to hear.”
“You’re welcome, then,” Ben says. “Sorry I keep — blowing my top? Flipping my lid? What’s the expression?”
“Losing your shit?”
He sags. “Yeah, that.”
Casey squeezes his hand. “I’m teasing you, sorry. But as to what you said — I really don’t. Have my shit together.”
“Everyone says that.”
“Maybe they’re all telling the truth,” Casey points out.
“Somehow I never thought of that,” Ben admits.
“You thought it was, what? One of those convenient social fictions that everyone signs onto but you never got the head’s up on?”
Ben’s eyes widen. “Holy shit, yeah. Basically that.”
“Hate those,” Casey says. His hands shifts in Ben’s, presses close, then laces their fingers together.
“The worst,” Ben says. The bones in his fingers are suddenly sensitive, if that’s possible, too close to the surface. Kind of spindly, even, and now he’s struck by the worry that Casey will notice and drop his hand in horror. He can’t do anything but laugh at himself and the stupid shit his brain dreams up.
“Let me in on the joke?” Casey shifts around so he’s more perpendicular to Ben. Their hands never part.
“I’m ridiculous,” Ben says. “Just started worrying you’d be grossed out by my finger bones.”
“They’re nice bones,” Casey says and squeezes. “Nice, strong bones. On a nice, hot guy.”
Ben opens his mouth to laugh at that. Guffaw, honestly. But before any sound comes out, Casey’s kissing him, he’s kissing Casey back, there’s a kiss happening that is as sudden and gravity-upending as it is somehow right on time.
“And on that note,” Casey says as he slowly pulls away, “I’ll say goodnight. Should I walk you home?”
“Huh?” Ben is breathless, his dick stiffening, his head swimming. You don’t just stop after a kiss like that! You keep going, you wrestle and fumble and yank things open and bear down and maybe even bite a little.
Casey squeezes his hand again. “I’ve got a really early call in the morning, buddy, I’m sorry.”
“Do you want to come over?” Ben asks and realizes, all too late, he sounds like a whiny little kid. “Tomorrow, I mean. I cook. For dinner?” He closes his eyes and shakes his head. “That didn’t make any sense.”
“I would love to,” Casey says. Everything he says sounds so warm and assured, like he’s thoroughly, sincerely delighted.
Casey knocks on Ben’s door precisely three minutes early. Looking freshly scrubbed, he’s wearing a crisp white button down shirt and neat dark chinos. The shirt makes his skin glow, dark and warm.
Ben just stands there like an idiot for a couple seconds, admiring him. Finally, Casey holds out a bottle of wine and says, “I hope this is good? I don’t exactly—”
“Come in, sorry, shit, come in.” Ben steps aside and hopes like hell that his frantic cleaning and cleaning-spell-casting has been enough.
“Wow,” Casey says as he passes into the apartment. “Greenhouse guy is right.”
“That’s Harvey,” Ben says when the cat rears back and jumps off the counter across Casey’s path. “Ignore him, he’s cranky.”
“Hey, kitty…” Casey’s crouching down, holding out his hand and making little whispery sssk-sssk sounds. “You’re so handsome!”
“He knows,” Ben calls from the depths of the fridge. “Trust me.”
When he turns back around, nudging shut the fridge door, he finds Casey sitting cross-legged in the middle of the floor with Harvey draped down his chest, purposefully scenting Casey’s neck and jaw.
“This is him cranky?” Casey asks.
“Um,” Ben says. Harvey is reliably standoffish, even with Ben. “I guess he likes you?”
“He’s awesome,” Casey says, closing his eyes and tilting his head so Harvey can have better access to his cheek. For a moment, he looks beatific, transported. His lips are slightly parted and his lashes long and soft.
Fantastic. Now Ben’s jealous of his own jerk of a cat.
“Man, he’s really going to town on you,” Ben says, pulling down the chopping board to get going on the onions.
“Probably just my soap,” Casey says, guiding Harvey to his other arm and giggling at the swipes of Harvey’s tongue. “How long have you two…like…I don’t know how to put this.”
“Put what?” Admittedly, he doesn’t really know Casey, but this hesitancy seems unlike him.
“How long have you two worked together?” Casey asks. “Collaborated?”
“Me and Harvey?”
“Yeah,” he says. Harvey pushes his face into the space between Casey’s neck and shirt-collar. “I don’t know, is that polite? How I said it?”
“I have no idea what you’re saying,” Ben says. He wants to play along, he really does. But the consequences of later being exposed for doing just that are worse than ripping off the band-aid now and confessing ignorance. “I’m sorry?”
“Obviously, he’s not your possession—”
“So how long has he been your familiar?”
“Harvey?” Ben laughs. “He’s not my familiar! He’s way too ornery for that.”
“Oh,” Casey says. He sounds disappointed. “Shit.”
“It’s okay. At one point, I thought he might be? But he turned me down.”
Excited, Casey leans forward, expertly cradling Harvey so he doesn’t slip off. “Yeah? He talks?”
“So how’d you know he turned you down?”
Ben’s laughing again. No, he realizes, he still is. He has been laughing a little this whole time. Not at anyone, just because. He points a carrot toward Casey. “Have you ever tried to make a cat do something? They tell you in no uncertain terms.”
Casey grins at that, nodding as he strokes down Harvey’s back. “Fair.”
“You’re really good with him.”
“Thanks,” Casey says. “Love cats.”
“But you don’t have one, do you?” He’d know if Casey did. Harvey tends to react pretty strongly to the presence of other cats in the building.
“Nope,” Casey says. Promptly, almost curtly.
Ben starts to say something, but stops. Casey has his cheek resting against Harvey’s side, Harvey’s silky hair caressing his skin. It’s a strangely private moment, one he’s unwilling to disturb.
Instead, he busies himself with the vegetable prep and gets the olive oil heated in the sauce pan. After a bit, Casey joins him, washing his hands at the sink and insisting on helping.
They work together well, moving easily and talking the whole time.
Casey’s a little taller than Ben, but not enough to be uncomfortable. He’s broader, too, both in frame and thanks to a slight chubbiness that rounds and softens all of his lines. His Facebook gallery shows him younger and fitter; he was still handsome as anything, of course, but blockier, somehow less welcoming than he looks now. (Alison was the one who found him on Facebook, days ago now, but Ben resisted clicking the link she kept sending until this morning.)
He’s a journeyman electrician, which “sounds cool but is just normal”, or so he says in response to Ben’s observation. Ben still thinks it sounds cool. Like he’s in a medieval guild!
Casey laughs a little, shaking his head. “Says the actual literal witch, okay.”
Ben waves his hand. “Eh, that’s just— What you do, though, you really worked for it.”
“Uh-huh, and you didn’t study and practice for years, I guess?” Casey wiggles the spatula under the casserole crust and pulls up a neat helping for Ben.
“I did, but—” Ben shrugs. “I guess things feel different when you do them compared to someone else.”
Casey piles another helping onto his own plate. “Maybe so, yeah.”
The only hiccup in their easy familiarity comes when Ben talks about work. Casey’s surprised that he’s an office drone, assistant to the database admin, and can’t let it drop.
“Wild, man. I was picturing you off in the woods, saving ferns or some shit. At the very least, gardening. Landscaping?”
“My plants are important. They’re a vocation,” Ben says. He suspects that he’s about to sound unbearably pompous, if he isn’t already, but can’t stop himself. “I don’t want to pay the bills with what I really care about, not if I don’t have to.”
Casey’s listening, nodding a little, his eyes moving slowly over Ben’s face. His attention should be disconcerting; it should feel like too much, too close. But it doesn’t, even as Ben thinks it through.
“Tell me more about what it’s like,” he says. “Please?”
Nothing is solid, not even earth. The dirt is full of pockets and channels, studded with small rocks, hollowed by trickles of rain and passages of worms. Around the roots of every plant, there’s a city’s worth of activity. Strands of fungi caress and penetrate the roots, connecting one plant to another, and another. Magnesium and carbon pulse along the fungal paths, poisoning one competitor while boosting a seedling.
The hair on Ben’s skin tingles and flickers when he enters the greenworld. He sits up straighter, a hint of cellulose stiffening his posture, and lets his heart pump in time with the transformation of sunlight across the leaves. He’s no dryad; he’s just, as his mom used to say, theatrically, even melodramatically sympathetic.
But that’s all it takes. Some imagination and too much sympathy to be normal, and he can visit the plants, share a little of what they are, participate in their breathing and light-changing and sugar-swallowing.
He isn’t a gardener. He doesn’t force the growth to his own vision. He just wants to see where it’s going and what he can do together with it.
Casey’s got his elbow propped up, chin in his hand, a weird, sort-of absent look on his face. As Ben gradually tunes in to the sound of his own voice and the quiet around Casey, he stumbles, all too slowly, to a stop.
“Keep going,” Casey says.
“This has to be boring —”
Casey blinks slowly and maybe it’s the wine, their proximity, who knows, but Ben’s getting hypnotized by the softness of Casey’s lashes, their motion, how they brush against his cheek.
“It’s not,” Casey says. “Believe me.”
“You just seem…” Ben coughs into his napkin. “I can really get going, that’s all. You seem a little bored.”
“I’m not bored,” Casey says. He scrapes his chair around the corner of the table, so he’s crowded next to Ben now. “I was getting a little distracted, though.”
“Yeah?” Ben looks around. “Shit, do you want more? There’s plenty more!”
“Later, maybe.” Casey blinks again. His voice is quiet but firm. Ben is suspended here, hushed, waiting, uncertain. “Much later.”
“Okay,” Ben says. “Because I could —”
“Can’t stop thinking about kissing you,” Casey says, interrupting him, then scowling a little and dropping his gaze. “Shit. That sounded creepy.”
Ben hears his own voice again, like it’s coming from somewhere else. All at once, the hypnotic suspension loosens and speeds up, and he’s twisting at the waist to touch Casey’s leg and reach for his face.
Casey meets him, sighing, maybe saying something else, but then they’re bumping noses, catching chins, shuffling and apologizing and reaching all the more. Casey’s mouth is soft against Ben’s, lush and warm and open; he cups both hands against Ben’s face and holds him there, turning and tilting him every so often, kissing him like it’s an aria and he’s hitting the highest, most aching notes.
It’s not just that it’s been a while, Ben knows that. Any kiss feels pretty damn good, but this one is out of this world. He’s alight, shot through with thrills, pulling closer and wrapping his arm around Casey’s back so he can hold on and kiss back with everything he has.
When Casey’s phone goes off, they realize just how late it’s grown.
“When can we—”
“Do you want to—”
They’re talking at the same time. Ben takes a deep breath and mimes zipping shut his lips so Casey can go first.
“Do you want to hang out Wednesday?” Casey asks. “And by hang out, I mean. Well. Finish this.”
“Yeah,” Ben nods. “Let’s do that. Definitely.” That’s not until the day after tomorrow. He is, somehow, collected enough not to point that out.
“I’ve got my nerd buds tomorrow night,” Casey says apologetically. “I’d invite you, but we’re six weeks into this campaign and there are zombie elves spawning every time someone sneezes, so—”
“I’d just get in the way,” Ben says.
“Nah,” Casey replies. “I’d ignore them all and they’d end up zombified in three rolls without me. So you not being there is, like, a humanitarian thing on your part.”
“Oh, okay,” Ben says, grinning. “Let’s go with that.”
Casey drops several kisses on Ben’s forehead and cheek. “It’s the truth.”
The next afternoon, he gets a flurry of texts from Casey.
Finally, while the report is compiling, Ben texts back, “Huh?”
“Look around. What’s missing?”
“I’m still at work.”
“Oh, ok. Hang on.”
A minute later, Ben’s phone vibrates again; in the text window, there’s a picture of Harvey, curled up asleep. Right in the middle of Casey’s arm chair.
“Found him here like this.”
“That’s what I’m saying!”
“I’ll pick him up right away,” Ben types as fast as he can. Autocorrect wreaks havoc on that, so it takes much longer to unsnarl the meaning and hit send than it should have.
“It’s cool, he’s happy, I’m happy,” Casey texts back. “I’ll bring him home after the nerds leave, if that’s okay?”
“He’s going to get hungry…”
“Got it covered.”
Apparently, or so Ben learns shortly before midnight when Casey shows up with an entirely unashamed Harvey draped around his neck like a fancy stole, Casey “just happened” to pick up some of Harvey’s low-ash, restricted-ingredient wet food.
“It was on sale at this boutique in the strip mall I park in,” he says, “I figured I’d bring it over tomorrow night. Tonight. Whenever.”
They end up making out; Casey is still jazzed from a good DM session and Ben is — well, Ben is just jazzed from seeing Casey, so it all works out nicely. Casey pulls him over so Ben’s straddling him, their dicks lining up perfectly, and proceeds to finger him into gibbering hilarity while they thrust and grind together.
“Damn it,” Ben says after he comes, when he’s still twitching and shivering and Casey’s smirking at him, still rotating three fingers inside him like he could do this all night. “How the fuck are you so hot?”
“You’re inspirational,” Casey says; his eyes are heavy lidded, his voice slowed to a drawl. Ben shoves him playfully and Casey snorts. “It’s true. Just because you won’t take a compliment doesn’t make it not true.”
It’s past two at this point and Ben offers, more shyly than he actually feels, to have Casey stay over.
“Good,” Casey says, looking smug. “Because I’m pretty sure I couldn’t walk across the room, let alone back outside.”
Neither of them is much good at work the next day. That’s fine for Ben, who can be a half-risen zombie in his cubicle, but he worries about Casey working with live current.
“I’ll be fine,” Casey assures him. “Been way more of a mess before.”
“That doesn’t help!” Ben texts back, but all he gets is a winking emoji, followed by alternating peaches and eggplants.
Casey has, at a conservative estimate, approximately three zillion questions. Ben has never known someone to be this into magic and witches. Sure, he’s heard about crone-fetishists and the like, but this isn’t that. This is one sweet, intelligent guy who can’t seem to help interrogating him for millennia of lore and tradition.
Out of interest. In him, Ben Nieves.
“What? Why are you making that face?”
They’re in Casey’s apartment tonight. An early episode of Futurama is muted on the television so Casey can ask him about possible links between magical ability and puberty hormones.
Ben rolls his forehead against his forearm before replying. “I dunno, it’s like — what if you’re setting me up?”
“I don’t know!” He flops over onto his back dramatically, gesticulating at the ceiling so he doesn’t have to see the expression on Casey’s face. “To make fun of me? Get dirt on me?”
“Dirt,” Casey says softly. He taps Ben’s knuckles and when Ben finally looks at him, he’s smiling. “You bring the dirt with you, man. That’s like your whole thing.”
“I wash!” Ben says, acting much more offended than he feels. “Scrub, even.”
“I know.” Casey wiggles closer. “I wouldn’t make fun of you. You know that, right? That’s really not what I’m about.”
“I know, I do.” Ben wants to close his eyes but doesn’t let himself. “This isn’t even about you, you know?”
“Not to be an asshole,” Casey says, “But it feels a lot like it’s about me. Almost a hundred percent.”
“It really isn’t.” Ben rolls onto his side, facing Casey, trying like hell to find the right words. “It’s more like…I expect it, expect shittiness, without remembering who I’m thinking about.”
“Buddy.” That’s all Casey says, but somehow it’s warm and reassuring as well as teasing and chiding.
“I know.” Ben sighs and gives in to the urge to bury his face against Casey’s neck. Casey’s arm comes up around his back and he rubs lightly, gently, until Ben can breathe out and pull away far enough to get Casey in focus. “Sorry?”
“Don’t apologize,” Casey says.
“I want to.”
“You don’t have to, though.”
They turn up the volume on the cartoon, and watch the next episode, too, when it starts automatically. When that one is over, and New New York has once again escaped certain destruction, Casey turns off the TV.
“I ask you questions,” Casey starts to say, then pauses for a bit. “I ask because I like hearing your answers. Maybe that’s dumb?”
“No.” Ben groans, then waves it away. He wishes he’d never said anything. “It’s not dumb. It’s kind of mindblowing.”
Casey kisses him then and Ben forgets to be embarrassed.
They sleep a little; Ben only wakes up because he hears Harvey letting himself into the apartment. He takes this chance to head for the bathroom and wash up.
When Ben comes back, he has a glass of water in one hand and box of crackers tucked under his arm. Casey’s sitting up and petting Harvey, who’s flopped on his back, stretching front paws one way, back paws the other.
When Casey draws his fingers down through Harvey’s fur, little sparks fly up. Harvey trills and Casey says, “You like that, huh?”
He does it again, a little faster, then chases the sparks in the air with his fingertips. They zoom and dip like they’re playing hide and seek with him, like minute fireflies courting his touch.
Ben watches as long as he can, as quietly, but all too soon Casey notices him.
“Hey,” he says, looking sheepish.
“Don’t stop,” Ben says, sinking down on to the edge of the bed. “Thirsty?”
“Always,” Casey replies with an eyebrow waggle and attempt at a lecherous smirk. Ben shakes his head, snorting, and Casey says, “No, for real, too.”
Ben passes him the glass and scritches Harvey’s head while Casey guzzles the water.
“Got some more questions for you,” Casey announces later that week while they’re waiting for their pizza delivery.
“How many more?”
Casey hums the Jeopardy! countdown theme while he considers that. “Four thousand, six hundred and…seven?”
Ben hands him a bottle of beer and opens his own. “Hit me.”
“How many life-defining quests to defeat a wizard of pure evil have you taken?”
“That’s easy,” Ben says. “None whatsoever.”
Casey frowns. “You sure? None?”
“Not so far, nope.”
“Not even any duels to save someone’s soul from the dark side?”
“Dude, I’m not a Jedi.”
“I know! I’m just trying to suss out what you are about!”
“That’s what I’m doing, Ben.”
“Oh. Oh, yeah.”
“I can slow down the questions, if you want. Can’t stop, that’s not going to happen, but I could try to intersperse them better?”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind, I’m just adjusting.”
The Pizzaiolo guy arrives then, blaring “That’s Amore” on his horn, and they hustle downstairs to get the food.
Casey doesn’t bring it up again until the next morning. Ben’s shaving while Casey showers; the bathroom is too small for them both unless one is in the tub.
Casey sticks his head out the curtain. His hair’s beaded with water and there’s crescent of foam across his chin. “So that’s a no on anyone falling to the dark side.”
“I’m not in danger of it,” Ben says carefully, looking at Casey’s reflection in the mirror. “But, sure. I’ve known it to happen.”
Casey widens his eyes and fails to hide his delighted grin. “Now you have to spill!”
“Can we put a pin in it?”
“Come on, Ben! Was there foul-smelling smoke and the shrieks of the damned? Maybe skeletons of vultures sucking the marrow from the innocent?”
“Ugh, no. Gross.” He taps the shaving cream off the razor, then rinses it. He has to choose his words carefully; there’s a jagged grief in his chest, an instinct to run and hide, that he doesn’t know how to handle. “You read way too much.”
“Something more your line, then? Like re-animated, suddenly sentient compost heaps and trailing vines?”
“Man…” He turns away and tries to busy himself with drying off his hands and face. He knows that Casey’s just joking. So why is he so stupidly upset?
“Benjami-i-i-i-i-in,” Casey says behind him. The shower’s flow creaks off and Casey flings open the curtain. “What’s the price of your soul? What would you do for unlimited power?”
“Man, shut up!” He leaves the bathroom, his feet squeaking on the floor. At least he’s not stuck at Casey’s; he’s safe at home. He doesn’t have to run far.
The dwarf willow’s catkins are getting a bit mangey. He sinks down on the edge of the tiled pool and closes his eyes.
From the bathroom, Casey calls, “Fine, sorry.” He doesn’t sound sorry. He sounds annoyed, probably by Ben’s theatrics.
That’s fine, maybe he’ll just leave, then.
For some reason, however, Ben’s back on his feet, returning to the bathroom doorway. “Don’t apologize if you don’t mean it.”
Ben can feel the outlines of the argument clarify and sharpen. He’ll stay snarky and avoidant, Casey will keep pressing out of both frustration and stubbornness, and soon enough everything will explode.
“I mean it,” Casey says. He’s standing there, slope-shouldered, beaded with moisture, and he’s so handsome that Ben forgets everything for a second. “I just want to know—”
“I really need you to drop this.” Ben clutches the edge of the doorway, surprised that he managed to say anything, let alone something remotely clear. “It’s about my ex.”
“Oh,” Casey says in a long sigh. He puts his arm around Ben’s waist and squeezes. “Yeah, of course, pin away.”
The next Sunday, Ben finishes working with the plum tree and groundnut plants earlier than he’d expected. He comes back into the apartment, where he’d left Casey happily ensconced on the love seat with a fat new paperback about dragons and punk steam engines.
That book’s on the floor now, and Casey has Harvey lying next to him, one front paw and chin resting on Casey’s thigh.
“You know, I’m starting to think he might be your familiar,” Ben says.
Casey doesn’t react at first; maybe he didn’t hear. He’s absorbed in stroking Harvey’s cheeks.
Then, without looking up, he says very quietly, “That’s impossible.”
“Nothing’s impossible,” Ben says. “You’ve learned enough about magic to know that.”
“Far from likely, then,” Casey says. Harvey gives a little sneeze-snort and stands up, turning around clockwise three times before settling right back down in the same position. Now Casey does look up. He’s smiling. “But fucking amazing.”
“That’s what I’m saying, yeah.”
He’s deep in the midst of writing some regular expressions to evaluate competing spreadsheet versions when Ben realizes, just like that, that he wants to tell Casey about his ex.
Whatever drama there was, his ex took it with him when he left. Ben’s been keeping it alive out of habit, because he didn’t know how else to be with all these stupid old feelings. He doesn’t have to keep doing that. He doesn’t want to, that’s for sure.
Casey had planned to make jambalaya, but failed to figure out how to do it in his new Instant Pot, so they are standing at the kitchen counter, eating cold leftover Chinese out of the damp cartons.
“When I met him,” Ben says, “His name was Kyle. Kyle Johnson.”
“Sounds like a JV lacrosse captain,” Casey says and Ben nods as he taps the tip of his nose.
“But he changed it.” Ben grins, ducking his head. “He needed something more evocative, he said. More powerful.”
“Oh, man. To what?”
Ben has to take a breath and remind himself not to sound too mocking. “Johannes. Johannes von der Sturm.”
Casey’s mouth moves. He’s forming the name without saying it aloud and he’s starting to smile. “Johnny Storm. Your ex named himself—”
“Bold move,” Casey manages to get out as he splutters laughter. “I mean, did he look like Chris Evans or Michael B. Jordan?”
“No,” Ben says, laughing now, too. “I wish.”
Casey sets down his carton and clasps both hands in prayer. Lifting his eyes heavenward, he says, “God, can you imagine the two of them together, though?”
“Cap and Killmonger, though,” Ben reminds him. “Do they really have anything in common?” Casey’s eyes fly open in surprise and he punches Ben’s arm repeatedly. Laughing, Ben drops his noodles. “I listen, too!”
It’s a strange thing, losing someone’s love. He certainly felt it as it happened, but he had no idea what was happening. A withdrawal, a lessening, a slackening: those were all descriptions he came up with later. As it was going on, all he knew was that he must have done something, many things, wrong. Mysterious things, however, that Kyle denied even existed.
Casey pokes him. “Hey, earth to Ben.”
“Sorry, here.” He shakes himself, wonders where the easy laughter got to. “Hey.”
“Yeah,” Ben says. He can’t look away. He’s not laughing, but he’s far from morose, either. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
Kyle was a scholastic wizard; his postgrad research focused on exploiting entropy in an expanding universe. Something about unbalancing the traditional exchange that makes up natural magic in order to unlock accelerating power.
“Sort of splitting the magic atom?” Casey asks. He’s way better equipped to understand the esoterica than Ben ever was. “Or encouraging it to split as things race away?”
“Sure,” Ben tells him. It’s later that night and, as usual after fooling around, they can’t shut up, no matter how late it is. “I think.”
Casey rubs Ben’s chest, tugs on the hair there. “Sounds stupid and dangerous and scary.”
“Got it in three,” Ben replies.
Alison and the two Kaylas stop at his cubicle at the end of the day on Friday.
“Come out with us,” Alison wheedles, “It’s been, like, decades!”
“It’s been maybe two weeks.”
“Years, Benjamin. It has been years and years and I’m not going to take it any more.”
“Where are you going?”
She tosses back her hair. “Where aren’t we going, is the question. The night is ours, the city our oyster, and—”
“I have yoga tomorrow morning,” brunette Kayla says.
“And I can’t eat,” redhead Kayla puts in.
Ben frowns at her. “Like, ever?”
She nods enthusiastically and launches into a description of a novelty diet that sounds, even more than usual, like a recipe for death.
“Anyway!” Alison cuts her off, verbally but also visually, as she steps in front of the Kays. “You’re coming.”
“Nope,” he says, powering down his workstation and sweeping pens into his top drawer. “I’m busy.”
She pokes him hard right between the shoulderblades. “Coming.”
“Busy.” All finished with the end-of-the-day routine, he spins in his chair and grabs for his jacket. Smirking at her, completely aware of just how obnoxious he’s being, he says, “Got plans with my boyfriend.”
“You’re the worst,” Alison says as they head for the exit. “Literally a horrible person.”
“Yet you’re desperate to hang out with me.”
He’s being a smug asshole and he’s going to pay for it. He deserves to pay for it. At the same time, however, he gets a thrill from the word boyfriend that is impossible to ignore.
“Text me Sunday,” he says to Alison outside the building. “We could do something.”
“Maybe,” she says haughtily. “Who knows, maybe I’ll be busy.”
They are, together, about fourteen years old in terms of maturity. He grabs her in a one-armed hug and blows a loud kiss on top of her head. “I’ll sit by the phone twisting a handkerchief in my hand, praying for contact.”
“Do that,” she says and nods. “That’s a good start.”
On Saturday morning, Ben has to visit his aunt Grace to check on her wifi router, while Casey has something that involves comic books and possibly costumes.
“She’s a technomage,” Casey says slowly, “But you’re her IT guy?”
“It’s beneath her,” Ben says.
“It would be like me mowing my own lawn or pruning my shrubs,” Ben says, hooking his fingers into air-quotes.
“Which you do,” Casey puts in.
“Yeah. I learned a long time ago not to ask them too many questions.”
“We’re still on for the hike?”
For some reason, Casey wants to accompany Ben down through one of the city parks; this one is right near Aunt Grace’s and he’s rarely close enough. It’s late March, there are no blossoms or buds yet. Ben can’t figure out what the attraction is. He’s unwilling, however, to turn down a chance to hang out with Casey.
They meet up at a gas station down the block from Grace’s. From here, it’s a short walk through a few vacant lots to the park.
Casey hugs him one-armed, kissing Ben’s cheek quickly. “You going to be warm enough?”
“I’m good,” Ben replies. “I run pretty hot.”
“Yes, you do,” Casey says in a low growl, complete with silly leer. “You sure do.”
Ben shoves him and pushes ahead several paces. “Perv.”
“I keep saying! Only because you’re so inspiring!” Casey calls after him. Leaves crunch, some mud squelches, and he catches up in no time, jostling Ben a little to make room on the narrow path. “That was a compliment.”
“Thank you,” Ben says primly. “You’re just so gallant.”
“I am, yeah, it’s pretty great.”
The park is, as Ben suspected, pretty deserted. Casey keeps up with him easily, pointing out weeds that look cool to him and picking up nuts and rocks that grab his attention.
“There’s not much to see,” Casey says at the top of a slight incline. His breath escapes in little clouds as he squints and scratches the back of his neck. “But it’s really pretty, right?”
Ben crouches near the roots of a young oak; he turns over some dirt, but there isn’t much to find.
“Maybe that’s dumb, I dunno,” Casey adds. “It’s all bleak and dead or something.”
“No!” Ben pushes back to his feet and brushes off his hands. “Sorry, I was distracted. No, man, it’s not dead, not at all.” He stumbles over a root and Casey catches his elbow. “Thanks.”
The sky is overcast but pale, bright from within, and the light falls softly everywhere. Last fall’s leaves are damp and clogged underfoot; the trunks of trees and radiating branches of shrubs, though bare, are graceful.
“Nothing’s dead,” Ben continues, slipping his gloves back on so he can take Casey’s hand. “It’s all waiting, maybe even sleeping, but not dead. They’re still breathing and living, just…”
“Quietly,” Casey says and Ben nods.
When they get to the sluggish river, still half-frozen, its surface is decorated with pockmarked, lace-eaten sheets of ice. The bank is a morass of mud and debris, plastic water bottles and shreds of shopping bags; Casey is incensed by how littered the bank is.
“I don’t know what to say,” Ben tells him. He cuts off a few willow branches and stows them in his backpack before joining Casey closer to the water. “It’s gross.”
“This is the natural world!” Casey exclaims. “What the hell?”
Ben squeezes his shoulder. “You’ve heard of, like, late capitalism? Pollution?”
“Fuck off,” Casey says without any heat. He turns his back to the river and leans briefly against Ben. “I was picturing finding some sea glass or something. Crab houses! Maybe a caddisfly larva. Shit.”
Ben’s arm goes around Casey’s waist. “I’m sorry.”
They tilt against each other, Casey’s head tucked into Ben’s neck. The traffic across the river and up the bank hoots like sea-birds; the clouds above go darker, rustle like flannel, and it starts to snow.
At first, it’s pretty. They retrace their steps, hand in hand, as the misshapen flakes sift downward. By the time they get to the bus stop, however, the fall is heavier and the wind has picked up, slanting into open collars and up loose cuffs.
The bus that finally arrives is unheated, and makes a short turn, dropping them eleven stops early.
They’re both freezing by the time they make it back to their building, blowing on their hands and slapping their cheeks to stay warm in the icy sleet.
Ben’s entrance is that much closer than Casey’s, so they rush upstairs to his apartment. They’re kissing before the door closes, and muttering about how cold it is, how hot the other is, as they shed jackets and hats and overshirts.
The shivers running through Ben are cold as they arrive, flushed-hot as they depart. He can’t let go of Casey, can’t stop kissing him for much longer than it takes to pull off his shirt.
“Easy, tiger,” Casey says, laughing despite the intense, sharp heat in his eyes when Ben pushes him back onto the bed. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“I am,” Ben says, sinking to his knees between Casey’s legs.
Still laughing, Casey pushes up on an elbow and reaches to stroke Ben’s cheek. “Yeah? Where’re you going?”
“I’m going to town.” Ben tugs on Casey’s pants, gets them down far enough to work with, and he doesn’t care (much) just how stupid that sounded, he feels awesome and he’s determined to keep feeling like this, not to mention keep Casey feeling like this, for as long as he can.
Inside his boxers, Casey is damp with sweat; the scent is humid, salted and faintly vinegary, as well as green in all its shades and meanings. His laughter trembles down into a moan as Ben noses around, strokes and licks and inhales as much as he can. His moan shakes apart into a groan when Ben wraps his lips around the head of Casey’s cock and pushes downward. He bobs up and down, twisting his mouth along the ramifying veins beating out Casey’s pulse into Ben’s own heart, and moans, higher still, when Casey’s hand closes around the back of his neck and guides him slower, then slower yet. Soon he’s swallowing, working open his throat and abandoning breathing, as Casey’s cock stretches him wide and full. Casey’s fingers knit into his sweat hair, tighten and yank.
Ben’s lips slide all the way up Casey’s shaft, nearly lose contact, then crush back down as Casey babbles something and his hips lift, grinding against Ben’s mouth. His cock shudders and Ben swallows fast, tastes his own thick spit and then Casey, sap and spunk and salt.
“Fuck,” Casey says eventually. Ben’s still on his knees, face against Casey’s thigh; air is painful and dry as he tries to recall how to breathe.
“Good?” Ben can’t help but ask. He tilts back his head and feels Casey pet his forehead and cheek.
“Christ, man. Get up here,” Casey replies. He kisses Ben before Ben can do anything about his come-sticky mouth, but when Ben tries to pull away, Casey holds tighter, grumbling into the kiss until Ben relaxes and kisses him back.
He ends up lying alongside Casey, kissing him while Casey jerks him agonizingly slowly and tells him everything he’s going to do to him when he can get it up again.
“…eat you out,” Casey murmurs happily, trailing kisses down Ben’s throat, “Get you all loosey-goosey and needy.”
“Way ahead of you.” He thrusts into Casey’s palm and the pleasure cascades in blinding waves across his nerves.
“Good. Still gonna do that, because, well.” Casey lets go of his dick to reach back and squeeze one ass cheek. “You wear an ass like this, I can’t be blamed for enjoying it.”
“Never,” Ben says, thrusting against Casey’s thigh now. He’s so close; he simultaneously wants to come right now and wants Casey to draw this out, make him beg for it, hold him back until he can’t stand it.
“Hey, hey,” Casey says and wraps his hand around Ben again. “Insistent, huh?”
Casey’s kiss is deep and lingering, his gaze kind as he tilts back his head. “Do it,” he says. “You want me to help?”
He’d love Casey’s mouth on him again. His fingers, his dick. He’s half-blind with need, and he wants every bit of the man.
“You already are,” he gets out, and rocks into Casey’s hand, biting into another kiss, shooting and crying out.
Casey pulls him closer, wrapping all his limbs around Ben, holding him there until their breathing evens out and they doze together.
When Ben wakes, the light is wholly different. He has to pee and he’s dying of thirst, so he slides out as smoothly as he can to go clean up.
When he pads back to bed, Ben steps on a few hard, pebble-like things scattered over the rug. Bending down, he realizes they’re some of the nuts and rocks and other treasures Casey picked up while they walked. The two of them got undressed pretty hastily; he has a feeling he’s going to be finding spilled things and tossed socks for a while. He sets the treasures down on the mantelpiece.
On his back, one arm flung out so his hand dangles off the bed, Casey snores softly. He doesn’t stir when Ben slides back under the covers, nor when Harvey jumps onto his chest and stretches out.
Ben sits cross-legged next to Casey and turns a big, shiny chestnut over in his hands. He inhales as he imagines Casey at one of his games, scattered sheets and maps all over the table, his friends listening to him for description of what happens next. With the pad of his thumb, Ben strokes the chestnut, this way and that, finding the angles it needs. It shifts under his touch, folds and turns, draws itself up in peaks and smoothing itself out into small planes.
He hears Casey moving beside him, the change in his breathing, Harvey’s heavy downward slide onto the mattress between them. But he only glances over when the nut is finished being formed.
Then he shows it, cupped in his palm, to a sleepily-blinking Casey.
“Is that…?” Casey starts. Harvey butts his big head against Ben’s knuckles and the nut rolls around.
“Twenty-sided die,” Ben answers. “Just have to put the numbers on the facets.” He squeezes his eyes shut and breathes out a quick little engraving charm. When he opens his eyes, Casey’s taking the die between thumb and forefinger and turning it around. Ben asks, struck by a small wave of worry, “You like?”
“You giant beautiful nerd,” Casey replies, throwing both arms around Ben and dragging him down. He kisses Ben, open and sticky-hot, then pulls back long enough to say, “I love.”