Word Count: 3489
Summary: Ben buys a house in Castaic. It's only later he starts to think about why.
Notes: I may be the only person who ships this, but I do it with great joy and gusto. The title is from the chorus of "Keep Your Head Up" by Ben Howard.
"I don't believe in fate or destiny. I believe in various degrees of hatred, paranoia, and abandonment. However much of that gets heaped upon you doesn't matter - it's only a matter of how much you can take and what it does to you."
Keep Your Heart Strong
How does it start? It starts when Sammy comes over to help him pack the last of his boxes in his Silver Lake apartment. He’s fifteen minutes late and Ben realizes, starkly surprised at himself, that Sammy’s never been over to his place. They’ve gotten drinks in the area, but nobody from the job has ever seen the inside of the apartment. Ben’s not entirely confident of his kneejerk reaction to protect it from anybody who might see it, but an anxious trapped feeling always used to rise up in him at the mere thought. Perhaps, because it will never be the salacious bachelor pad they all think he’s outfitted for himself. Not that he could oblige them to come to the land of fair trade espressos and deliberately dusty thrift shops. But Sammy’s different. In the salad bowl of the station, he wasn’t some unknown quantity Ben was always trying to figure out.
Sammy brings a case of beer and a bunch of boxes picked up at a Budget rent-a-car on his drive over. He takes a look at the bookcases Ben built custom and the framed film posters and says ‘huh.’ There’s a wealth of unparsed meaning in that ‘huh’ and it hits Ben like a thunderclap, staring at Sammy’s open face, that his flight to Castaic might be for all the wrong reasons.
He turns away and says gruffly, “I’m working on the dishes in the kitchen.”
The previous owner had completely remodeled the kitchen—dark-veined marble counters and chrome steel Energy Star appliances. It was one of the draws on the place when he first looked at it and the kitchen in the house barely compares. He can’t help skimming his fingers over the finish on the brushed steel range and holding back a sigh.
“You cook?” Sammy asks, watching as he gingerly wraps a series of expensive copper pans in newsprint. “Of course you do, mama’s boy.”
“Save money that way,” Ben replies with a shrug and an involuntarily sheepish smile.
Sammy snorts and cracks open a beer with the bottle opener he’s got on his key ring. The look he casts around the room is rich with incredulity, but Ben would rather be strung up by his thumbs or gut shot than admit that he finds the chemistry of cooking soothing.
“Gimme a beer,” he says—a feeble bid at sidestepping the subject.
He comes over again, a week after Ben’s moved into the new place, because he’s repainting that weekend. Ben spares a brief moment to wonder if he ever could’ve asked John for the help that Sammy offers so readily.
“Mocha walls?” Sammy asks him, inspecting the can of paint Ben had mixed special for his bedroom at the Glidden in Burbank after being unimpressed with the selections at his local hardware store. He’s well aware of his own neuroticism—his father’s offended awe on the subject had made his obsessiveness patently clear somewhere around the fourth grade.
He’s been up since seven am going over the old paint with primer, and he’s sweaty and lightheaded from the fumes that even the open windows can’t dispel. It takes everything not to reply with a sharp crack, because Sammy is here to help, even if that does come with a heaping side dish of mockery. Ben hands him a roller and says, “Bite me.”
Sammy raises his brows meaningfully and smiles before knocking off a salute.
He manages to get paint smeared down his front, across the bridge of his nose, and in his hair in five minutes.
“You failed arts and crafts as a kid, didn’t you?” Ben says, laughter slurring his syllables. Sammy tosses a spare roller at him. Ben ducks and continues, “I can just see it, an F in elementary finger painting.”
“Careful,” Sammy tells him, “I have the paint. You wouldn’t want me to go on a finger painting rampage through your lovely new home.”
It’s easy for the other officers on their shift to disregard the fact that Sammy is older than him and so much further along in his life. A marriage, a kid, a divorce, a career, a tragic life-altering death. But Ben never really forgets except for rare fleeting moments like these where Sammy’s got paint speckled eyebrows and a lunatic expression on his face.
“Just try it,” Ben replies, deadpan, hoping his expression is suitably threatening.
When they’re finished with the room, Sammy strips off his shirt and squawks when he sees that the paint soaked through the fabric onto his skin. Ben laughs uproariously even though it’s not that funny because of the absurd expression on Sammy’s face and because he’s punch drunk and exhausted. Sammy gives him the finger.
“If you think that’s bad,” Ben says remorselessly, “You’d better look in a mirror.”
Sammy turns for the bathroom down the hall, muttering about shirts and paint and ungrateful partners. His jeans are slung low enough that Ben can see the two perfect indentations in the small of his back.
Ben’s seen his headlight pale partner in various states of undress hundreds of times and he’s never felt the sweet shock of low-burning arousal like he’s witnessing coeds getting hosed down at a wet t-shirt contest. He supposes there’s nothing sexy about the grimy mildew-slicked locker rooms at the station, surrounded by their fellows and the sour smell of old sweat. He shakes his head and leans back against the wall, sliding down it in a wearied crouch.
“Man, you are out of it,” Sammy says when he comes back, face scrubbed of paint. A few flecks remain near his ear and his eyebrow, but he doesn’t look like a kid who had an accident with butterscotch pudding anymore. He’s pilfered one of Ben’s shirts, a black one and it stretches tight across his chest. “C’mon, I’ll buy you dinner at La Cabańita.”
“That’s in Glendale,” Ben protests.
“And worth it, now shut it and get off your ass,” Sammy says, giving Ben’s knee a fierce nudge with his toe.
Sammy brings his son to the LAPD’s Centurion Football team picnic. It’s the first time Ben’s met Nate. He’s sweet and open-faced like his father with a shock of unruly blond curls that the wives and badge bunnies coo over. Sammy holds him on one hip with a sippy cup in his other hand where usually there would be a beer. He feeds him out of a carefully packed Tupperware of animal crackers and celery sticks. From everything he’s heard, Tammy’s the last person who would put one of those boxes together. At least Sammy’s reverential care of his son, so evident to everybody watching, makes Ben think it likely wasn’t her.
There are always a lot of women at these things—an incentive to show up, Ben can readily admit. If Sammy plays his cards right he could be knee-deep in pussy. Although as far as Ben knows, Sammy isn’t even slightly interested. It always leaves Ben perplexed, because the palliative powers of sex are truly something to behold.
He thinks Sammy might, for once, take advantage of his new found popularity when he hands Nate off to Ben for a moment, but it turns out he’s just going to grab Nate’s sweater from the car. It occurs to him, as he’s adjusting Nate in his arms, that Sammy’s actually trying to pawn the regard of the biological clocks off on Ben. It’s disconcerting in a way that doesn’t quite make sense, forcing him to pretend he can’t see the way they’re looking at him and the kid in his arms.
“Hey there,” he says, with a laugh when Nate tries to put his fingers in Ben’s mouth. “Obviously we’ve got to keep you entertained.”
There’s a play structure a couple of yards away and after some deliberation he walks over and carefully lifts Nate into one of the baby swings. Nate gurgles with laughter, shouting an exuberant “wee” every time he swings back into Ben’s propelling push. Ben smiles and shakes his head, cheering along with Nate when he swings higher.
He’s good with children. He’s good with anybody who isn’t named John Cooper actually. Although, he thought they were better than they were, because he never expected John to come out of rehab and conclusively fail to acknowledge him. He looks away from Nate to find Sammy leaning against the slide, sweater in hand and an inscrutable look on his face. Ben hurriedly looks away and gentles his pushes until Nate swings to a stop.
“What are you so down about?” Sammy finally asks as he threads Nate’s arms through his Gymboree sweater, eyes on Ben like he could dress his kid completely blind.
Ben tickles Nate’s stomach and grins at the giggling toddler rather than answer. It’s too raw and Ben has hidden unnerving worries that Sammy will eventually come to feel the same way that Cooper did.
“You ever think about Fatherhood?” Sammy asks, accepting the diversion tactic and unintentionally stumbling upon another difficult subject.
Ben snorts inadvertently before he’s even wholly processed the idea. He thought everybody had come to a foregone conclusion on the subject, what with his unfortunately incredibly public feelings about his parents. He’s here isn’t he, rather than off getting his MBA or living fast and loose, only two drinks away from being an official alcoholic, like his sister?
Ben gives Sammy the most neutral noncommittal shrug he’s capable of.
Sammy mercifully doesn’t go with that whole ‘we don’t have to be our parents’ speech that so many other assholes have attempted before him. He changes the subject to the Lakers and resumes pushing Nate, much to the child’s unfettered glee.
They have a rough couple of days on the job. First responders to a B and E gone inescapably wrong when the family came home in the middle; a drive by that resulted in a fourteen year old getting plugged so full of bullets as to be unrecognizable; a bright student at USC who was found dead in her dorm after her heart gave out from her use of appetite suppressants. Maybe it’s not worse than any other cop has it, but Ben is starting to think he’s running out of the mental fortitude to handle it.
He kisses Sammy after downing nearly half a bottle of Maker’s Mark on Sammy’s back patio. Even as he does it, he expects Sammy to push him away and punch him. But Sammy doesn’t move a muscle, not even a twitch until Ben pulls away.
“I’m sorry,” he stutters, “I shouldn’t have done that.”
Sammy blinks at him with a mixture of incredulity and befuddlement. “I’m not taking a break from the ladies, because I…want that.”
Ben sighs into his tumbler and takes another deep swig. “I know.” He polishes off the last of the whiskey in his glass and stands up. “Just forget it. I should go.”
His fingers are clumsy as he tries to zip up his jacket, but he’s not drunk enough to claim he didn’t know what he was doing. He’ll just have to hope Sammy will add it to the long list of Ben’s infractions and they can table it for the impossible day they will actually discuss all of it. He can’t say he should’ve known better, because he did, he simply wasn’t weighing consequences or even envisioning the possibility of them.
Sammy’s hand clamps around his wrist, towing him about-face. His stomach drops out and the blood in his veins has frosted over. Heart racing half out of his chest, his brain catalogues details in distracted snapshots, from the light shining through Sammy’s pale lashes to the edge on the slight breeze and the dog barking three yards away. He raises his hands in enervated surrender, but Sammy pulls Ben to him with one fierce tug.
It’s a touch that expects harshness, but Sammy’s lips on his are soft. He touches Ben like he’s Cinderella’s fucking glass slipper. It’s—It’s—this is not how it’s supposed to go, but he’s trembling under Sammy’s hands, letting Sammy kiss him like a virgin girl dizzily asked to the prom two years early. Each touch registers fuzzily, a backwash of emotions and reactions laid over it. He feels wobbly and out-of-sorts, relief-soaked and shaky with it.
When Sammy walks him back into the house, up the stairs and to his bedroom, all Ben’s vaunted bedroom prowess seems a fingertip’s length away. In these situations, Ben is always, always in control. He doesn’t permit any encounter to go in a direction he hasn’t already anticipated. It’s in sharp contrast with this immediate moment, where Sammy tips him back onto the bed and the two-foot drop makes his stomach fall like he’s turning too-swift somersaults in the pool. Sammy smiles at him like he understands, but how could he possibly?
He settles over Ben, kissing him before he can freak out and run right out of Sammy’s house, a sweet deep one that he feels all down his spine. It’s too good to do anything but take it as it comes. He moans, shocked and embarrassed at himself, dick springing to full attention against the unforgiving barrier of his fly, when Sammy nips at his lower lip. He is turned on and crazy with it—even the sound of their ragged breaths mingling threatens to undo him. Sammy could probably talk him all the way to orgasm. It’s the spur in the side that he needs and he rolls them over and uses his forearms to pin Sammy’s wrists to the sheets.
He’s stronger, not by so much that would make a practical difference, but enough that Sammy would have to struggle against his grip. Sammy doesn’t test it—somehow blithe and deliberate even when Ben has the concrete upper hand.
“Shit, god, yeah,” Sammy says, rumbling encouragement when Ben traces over the strong muscle at the side of his throat with the tip of his tongue. A hot jet of precome dampens his boxers at the praise. He wants to be perfect, he wants to be the best that Sammy has ever had—foolish, because he’s not sure he can compete with a warm pussy and tits like perfect handfuls.
Sammy works his arms out of from under Ben’s hold, one long-fingered hand dipping just past Ben’s waistline, fingers sliding into the divots Ben knows bracket his spine.
“It’s funny,” Sammy says hoarsely, stroking gently over the skin, until the too light touch almost seems to sting, “I know so many guys who go nuts about these on a chick.”
“Why’s that funny?” Ben asks, strained and rolling his hips under Sammy’s hold and shivering with how much that stupid simple touch just below the small of his back undoes him.
“You’ve got perfect ones,” Sammy replies, like that explains anything. He doesn’t let Ben disagree by catching him up in another fierce kiss that seems to go on until Ben’s mouth is tender and swollen. It recalls being drunk in the backseat of mom’s Buick, unsure how to proceed, with the thick ridge of his cock riding the edge of his fly.
“I hate to use ‘blue balls’ as a defense,” Sammy starts off, sliding his palm past Ben’s waistband to palm the bare skin of his ass and dragging their hips together in a way that makes Ben choke. He finishes the sentence with an amused, “but I think you’re feeling it too.”
“You always talk so much?” Ben replies irascibly, uncomfortable with the intimacy of easy conversation engendered in this moment, on this bed, lying underneath this roof. Fucking is not like that for him.
Sammy ignores him, reaching between them to pull his fly apart and then struggling with Ben’s own. “I’ve never…” he says, as his hand closes around both their cocks, sliding them together. Ben has—there was a buddy on the swim team in high school, but that had only been a few times, and it only ever felt like a warm up for the real thing. Ben would be misleading himself if he expected this to be the same. Sammy’s warm callused palm makes his breath stutter and the way his large hand can’t really contain their swollen erections does something funny to the pit of his stomach.
There’s no easy elegant way to do this, no way that doesn’t leave them as two bodies struggling urgently against each other for some kind of release. Ben knocks Sammy’s hand aside and shoves his shirt up, frotting his cock against Sammy’s between their bare bellies. He doesn’t have to say it works better this way—Sammy gets it. The first stroke, dick sliding against Sammy’s own, is a bit like being sucker punched. He breathes, for what feels like the first time, at the feel of Sammy shivering underneath him. They’re both cut and it’s a little too much sensation, but neither of them cries halt.
Soon he has Sammy reaching up to anchor himself on the cheap plywood headboard, rolling his hips into Ben’s and breathing like he’s run for miles. Everything about him is so goddamned perfect that Ben can’t stand to watch and he has to drop his forehead to Sammy’s shoulder and squeeze his eyes shut. He’s so involved he nearly misses his own orgasm, but Sammy doesn’t, and the moan he makes at Ben’s jizz slicking up his stomach, sliding over his own stiff prick kicks almost as hard as coming. Sammy comes just as Ben’s considering what it would be like to suck him off, take his cock made sticky with Ben’s semen into his mouth and finish him. He’s almost pathetically grateful, because he doesn’t know if he would have been able to stop himself.
He wakes up with an urgent need to piss and a pounding headache courtesy of whiskey dehydration. The alarm clock on Sammy’s bedside table blinks 12:37, immobilized by a power outage he hadn’t even noticed they’d had. The clock on his phone tells him he’s got two hours until the start of their shift. The sane thing to do would be to belt on his jeans, find his shoes, and get the hell out. Instead he’s in Sammy’s shower, staring at the surprising amount of luxury bath product, trying to figure out if he’s destroyed his life or not.
He closes his eyes and tilts his face up into the water. It feels like his brain is hanging during boot up—there’s a next move, a process that has to run here, he’s certain of it. But somehow he’s stuck thinking about waking up with his nose against the prominent knob of Sammy’s spine in the base of his neck.
He only notices the shower curtain parting with the sudden rush of cold air.
“I’ll be out of your hair in a minute,” he says, directing it somewhere over his shoulder, unwilling to open his eyes or come out from under the spray pouring punishingly hard and hot down upon him. It seems like the right thing to say.
“Shut up, Sherman,” Sammy says, reaching past him for the shampoo in the shower caddy.
Ben keeps waiting for him to say the usual hackneyed bullshit—‘just a helping hand between friends,’ or ‘doesn’t mean we’re fags’—but it never comes. Sammy’s arm passes by his face again, reaching for something else, and Ben turns his mouth into it, lips coming into contact with water-slicked skin. There’s a beat, a frozen intermission, and then Sammy draws Ben back against him with that same arm, nose dropping to Ben’s shoulder. He’s got an inch on Ben, but this is maybe the first time he’s ever really noticed. The choreography of this whole thing has ceased to make sense, but even as he’s acutely aware of Sammy’s dick running along the groove of his ass cheeks and how every part of him should be rebelling against this illogical embrace, he doesn’t move.
If he’s waiting for something to be said, all he gets is Sammy’s hand skimming down his chest, reaching around, and stroking the beginnings of the erection he didn’t even know he had to full hardness.
When he leans back into Sammy, it’s an abandonment of all sorts of deeply ingrained behavior, the full terms of which have not been fully hammered out. It’s a relief to let it go.
“I guess we’re doing this…” he says, head lolling on Sammy’s shoulder, a hitch in his breath as Sammy thumbs the head of his cock.
“I guess we are,” Sammy replies.