I suppose I should also mention that, unlike the last two parts, this part is kinda Angst o' Doom. I'm thinking there'll be two more parts to this series, and I'm half-way through writing part 4 already.
Title: Daredevil's Dilemma 3
Disclaimer: Lies, all lies!
For: vegetariansushi and moonythestrals. Thank you both for the lovely prezzies. I adore them.
Previous Chapters: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4
Ben edged open the sliding door with his elbow, trying not to spill either of the mugs of coffee he was carrying, a task made no easier by the violent pillow fight several half-naked party-goers were having throughout most of the livingroom's available space.
He stepped outside, narrowly avoiding a head-on collision with two bikini-clad girls by flattening himself against the glass of the door until they had wended drunkenly past, and then he headed towards a giant pot-plant at the far end of the deck.
As he approached, the plant flicked a still-glowing cigarette stub out into the night. The stub arced through the air and disappeared into the surf rolling up onto the beach just a few feet below.
Ben ducked behind the plant and held out one of the mugs.
"I had to do an Indiana Jones to get this, so don't fucking spill it," he said, handing the cup over to Matt.
"My hero," said Matt, looking utterly unimpressed.
Ben carefully set down the other coffee, and then dropped onto the deck, shuffling until his legs were dangling over the edge, before picking his mug back up.
"There's a nude pillow-fight going on in there," Ben said, blowing on his coffee. "Tell me why we're out here again?"
"I'm contemplating my advanced age and immanent puritanism," said Matt, resting his elbows on the lowest rung of the deck's safety rail and cupping the drink carefully in both hands. "You're here to ridicule and belittle me if things get too pretentious."
"Oh, no contest then," said Ben. "Who in their right mind would choose titillation over pretentious soul-searching?"
"Exactly my point," Matt said, taking a sip of coffee. He paused, looking down at his cup with surprise, and then cautiously took another sip.
"Something wrong?" asked Ben.
"No," said Matt. "Just. This is a really fucking fantastic coffee." And with a look of deep suspicion, "What did you do to it?"
"It's the extra spit I put in it," said Ben. "Just for you."
"Ah. That explains it." Matt took another sip, rolling the coffee around in his mouth with a look of bliss. He closed his eyes and swallowed. "You should bottle your spit and sell it. You'd make a fortune." He opened his eyes. "You can put that quote on the label, if you like."
Ben lifted an eyebrow. "Thanks. If I ever want a public endorsement of my spit, you'll be the first person I think of."
Matt nodded approvingly, and then, as though changing his mind, frowned down at the coffee. "It's just wrong that a cup of instant coffee should taste better to me than cheap beer." He smiled wryly at Ben as he took another sip, "With or without added spit."
Ben glanced at the pot-plant, which had an upturned bottle of cheap beer lying inside. The dirt was still wet, clearly having absorbed most of the bottle's contents.
"At least you can still drink cheap beer if you want to," Ben pointed out, sniffing nostalgically at the beery miasma arising from the pot-plant. "I don't have the luxury of that kind of youthful ignorance anymore."
"Believe me," said Matt, "you're not missing out."
They sat in silence for a moment, letting the wind bring them the slap and rush of the sea and the shrill laughter and bass throb of the party. Beneath them, a pair of scantily clad teenagers chased each other along the beach, heading up into the sand dunes. They crashed together for a moment, kissing in a spinning, violent whirlpool of lust, before splitting apart again, to run up the sandy slope, hands entwined.
"Bad idea," said Ben, watching them climb the dune. "Sand."
Matt nodded his agreement. "Mosquitoes."
"Ants," said Ben, with a dark look.
"Police," said Matt, with an equally rueful expression.
"God," said Ben, as the teenagers disappeared behind a clump of spiny beach grass. "We're so fucking old."
"You know," Matt said, as though about to impart the wisdom of ages, "I think I'm really over this whole scene." He put down the coffee cup and pulled out his cigarettes, offering one to Ben.
Ben waved his hand in refusal.
"I mean, I used to love it." Matt lit up and took a deep drag. "The whole tawdry thing. The booze, the fast sex, the machismo bullshit we used to talk.” He waved the cigarette eloquently. “But now I like parties with food that doesn't have salt listed as its primary ingredient, and good wine, and people who don't think it's the height of wit to quote lines from my movies at me," and with a self-deprecating laugh, "and I really like women who don't just want a one-night... no, less than that, a half-hour stand."
"I hear you." Ben contemplated the ocean for a long moment, then held out his hand for the cigarette. "But that's not the worst of it. You think your confession is embarrassing?"
Matt handed the cigarette over.
Ben took a drag, and slowly blew the smoke out onto the breeze, watching it trail away into the darkness.
Then, in a low voice, still looking out into the night, "I get why a middle-aged man will up and buy a sports-car and a twenty-something girlfriend." He took another long drag, holding it in, and then exhaling sharply. "It's not because he doesn't understand how ridiculous he is. It's because he wants to see it all through new eyes again, one more time. Before it's just..." he flicked the remains of the cigarette at the rushing waves, "too late. And it's worth looking like a clown for one last go at that turning-inside-out first-time feeling, like it was back when everything was so hot and new and intense you thought a simple touch was going to kill you."
Matt stared at Ben's profile. "Jesus, Ben. That's really lame."
Ben turned, meeting his gaze. "Yeah. Pathetic."
After considering for a moment, Matt said, "But at least yours is about sex. That always has a certain cachet. What I really want..." He picked at the flaking paint on the railing. "I'm so fucking predictable it's a joke."
"You want to get married and have kids," said Ben, and then, with a shrug. "Me too. I don't seem to be very good at it though."
Matt snorted. "You’ve gotten closer than I have."
"For all the good it did me," said Ben.
"Sometimes I wonder," said Matt, resting his head against the wind-cooled metal of the railing, "if I'm still single on purpose. If I keep fucking it up on purpose."
Ben gave him a disbelieving look. "Not that you're paranoid or anything."
"Seriously," said Matt. "How fucking hard is it? Millions of people manage it. And yet here I am, still single, with nothing better to do with myself than come to this fucking party your asshole brother dragged us to. Drinking your spit-laced coffee, and feeling like a pervert every time I see a semi-naked teenaged girl walk by." He made an expansive gesture. "This is my life."
"They're not all teenagers," Ben replied, with a fake leer.
Matt rolled his eyes.
Ben's expression turned reassuring. "You're just waiting for the right woman. You don't want to be divorced a year and a half after doing the deed. You want it to last."
"I might believe that," said Matt, "if I believed there was such a thing as the right woman, rather than a whole lot of more-or-less compatible women."
Ben made a rude noise. "Says Mister Romance himself."
"I was there for the whole Jen debacle, you know," said Matt. "You were good with her, before it went down the crapper. I mean, if she wasn't the right woman for you, then who the fuck is?"
"Okay," said Ben, shoulders slumping. "Now I'm depressed."
"Hey," said Matt, "better to know before there are kids in the mix, right? You don't want to be a Dad who leaves any more than I do."
"Maybe that's why neither of us have got up the guts to go through with it yet."
"Maybe," said Matt. "I hate the idea of fucking it up."
Ben nodded. "History repeating."
"I want to be there for the whole thing," said Matt. "The sleepless nights. The poo-paintings on the walls. The baseball through the neighbour's window on Christmas morning. I want to be there to freak out when my son almost drops out of high-school to be in a garage band. And I still want to fucking be there when my daughter comes home from college with a tattoo of the word cunt on her ankle, and goes on to announce that she's a lesbian and it's all due to the dreadful scars my shocking parenting caused to her psyche." Matt grinned, giving up his slumped pose on the railing and sitting up straight. "I want the whole fucking nightmare."
"That's odd," said Ben, grinning back. "Because for some reason, I think I've suddenly gone off the idea."
Matt laughed. "Maybe we should--"
The sliding door wanged open, jumping off its rail with the force, and a stampede of people pushed each other out of the doorway.
"Hurry the fuck up, dickhead," someone at the back shouted as the group thundered across the far end of the deck and down onto the beach. Several of the boys bypassed the stairs and leapt the railing, falling down into the dark with Tarzan-like yodels.
The whole group began pulling off clothes as soon as they hit the sand, and then, in a lemming-like mass, they rushed, naked, into the rolling surf, squealing and shouting insults to each other as the water swelled up to meet them.
Casey and Joaquin were two of the last down onto the beach, Joaquin taking a final skull of his beer before dropping the empty bottle and beginning to undress.
Casey eyed the water for a moment, before unbuttoning his shirt. "If I get hypothermia, I'm blaming you."
"Sissy," Joaquin said, as he dropped his boxers onto the sand. "Come on."
Casey hopped in place, trying to pull off his left shoe.
"What's your fucking hurry?" he said, just as the shoe came off, the force of it nearly sending him onto his ass in the sand. He stumbled, regained his balance, threw the shoe down.
Joaquin started walking towards the water. "I'd drop dead of old age if I waited around for you," he said over his shoulder.
Casey hurriedly pushed his pants down and stepped out of them. Then jogged after Joaquin. "Wait a sec."
Joaquin turned around so that he was walking backwards. "Pock, pock, pock," he said, flapping his arms.
Casey just pointed at Joaquin's head. "I think you forgot something, man," and cracked up laughing.
Frowning, Joaquin put a hand up to his hair, and broke into a smile. He pulled the thong off his head, bunching the silky fabric in his fingers for a moment before throwing it back up the beach towards the rest of his clothes.
"Last one in is a has-been," said Casey, breaking into a sprint and dashing past Joaquin.
"Fucker!" said Joaquin, giving chase.
He caught up just as they hit the water, their heads disappearing under a breaker as they wrestled.
From the deck, it was impossible to tell when they came back up for air; they were just two more unidentifiable black balloons floating on the waves, their voices merging with all of the others.
"That's one definite advantage to being an old fogey," said Matt, tilting his head at the ocean. "No one impugns your manhood if you don't go skinny-dipping in Arctic waters."
"That's because," said Ben, with a dramatic sigh, "no one wants to see us naked anymore."
"Speak for yourself," Matt said, smugly.
"I certainly don't want to see you naked," Ben retorted.
"Sure you do," said Matt. "You're just in denial."
Ben sniffed disdainfully. "Another advantage of advanced old age is that it's way too fucking late to be having new revelations about my sexual preferences."
"Deep, deep in denial," said Matt, nudging Ben with his elbow.
Ben nudged back. "Am not."
Matt nudged harder. "Are too."
Ben shoved at Matt with his whole upper body, until Matt was squashed in the corner of the deck's railing. "Not."
Matt turned, bracing his back against the railing and pushed at Ben with both hands, hard, until Ben was forced up against the pot-plant. "Are fucking too," he said, grinning. "And how old did you say you were? Five?"
The pot-plant creaked alarmingly and started to shift beneath Ben's weight.
"Okay, okay," said Ben, holding up his hands in surrender. "Just call me Cleopatra, already. No need to cause structural damage."
"And don't you forget it." Matt let him go and settled back into his former spot on the deck.
A loud bellow caught their attention as a dark, misshapen mass rose out of the water and staggered towards shore.
"Let go of me, you sirens," yelled Joaquin, "before you force me to wreak vengeance!"
This declaration was met by giggles, and the three girls hanging off him showed no signs of letting go.
Joaquin fell backwards into the surf, managing to break the grips of all three. As soon as he was free he stood up, struck an Incredible Hulk pose, and roared at them. The girls shrieked, darting back into the water, Joaquin giving chase.
The chill of the air stung a hint of tears to Matt and Ben’s eyes as they watched Joaquin melt back into the darkness. The wind was rising, whipping moon-frothed patterns onto the ink of the sea. A sudden gust pulled at their clothes, as though the night was full of disembodied souls trying to reconnect with living flesh.
Ben sighed, staring fixedly at the space where Joaquin had vanished. “Getting old might suck, but it's better than the alternative.”
Matt hunched in on himself, wrapping his arms around his chest. "Yeah," he said, softly. "I forget sometimes."
“Me too,” Ben said, a fathomless melancholy clear in every line of his face.
Matt shivered, leaning closer to Ben's warmth.
Joaquin’s laughter, entwined with Casey’s, echoed up to them on the twisting, river-like currents of the wind.
“God! I don't know how Joaquin does it,” said Ben. “I can’t imagine life without you and Casey. I just...” and then, after a long pause, he shrugged, unable to find the words he wanted, empty hands gesturing at the night.
Matt slid a hand onto Ben’s shoulder, curling it around his neck. “I love you too,” he said, voice low, the words whipped out of his mouth by another gust of wind.
Ben turned, smiling, but the melancholy was undimmed in his eyes. He wrapped an arm around Matt’s waist and pulled him close, hugging him hard.
Matt hugged back, and they stayed like that for a long time, the wind plucking at them with hungry fingers, the sounds of the beach a desolate symphony, the slivered moon making familiar shapes strange and new.
With an explosive smunch a bottle smashed inside the house, and they both flinched, breaking apart.
“Fuck!” said Matt, ruefully, turning to look at the house as he realised where the sound had come from. “What the hell are they doing in there?”
“Who the fuck cares?” said Ben, a smile tugging at his mouth, all but a last vestige of his melancholy wiped away. And with a quick tug, he pulled Matt back against him, kissing his temple, just below the hairline, with a noisy smack.
“Hey!” said Matt, in mock indignation, not attempting to pull away. He reached up and ran his nails over Ben’s chin. “You’re going to have to start shaving,” he pronounced, trying his best not to laugh, “if you’re going to keep on kissing me.”
“You love it!” said Ben, rubbing his chin into Matt’s hand, and then lunging forward, trying to rub his cheek against Matt’s face.
“Do not!” said Matt, pretending to pull away, but angling his face so that he was hit by the full brunt of Ben’s stubble attack.
“Now who's Cleopatra!” said Ben, sliding his fingers into Matt’s hair to hold him in place, and then stropping against him like a cat.
Matt was laughing so hard he was crying, the tears sliding down his cheeks until they ended up bitter and salty in Ben’s mouth.
Ben pulled back, eyes crinkled up in delight, licking his lips, ready to tease, and Matt looked back at him, joyful laughter making his face look young and different and so achingly familiar, and between one gasping breath, puffed warmly against Ben's chilled skin, and the next, the world paused, tilted, changed; the laughter faded from Matt’s eyes and the teasing words stayed unspoken on Ben’s tongue.
They stared at each other, the world gone distant, faint, belonging to forgotten, far-away people. A long way off, seagulls cried and the wind soughed, and it was nothing to do with them, nothing to do with this: Ben’s hands in Matt’s hair; Matt’s fingers on Ben’s cheek.
And then, like the slow movement of centuries-old stained-glass, sliding imperceptibly down, down under the relentless pressure of gravity, Ben moved towards Matt.
Matt swallowed, laughter gone as though it had never been, and his mouth slowly unseamed, warm and inviting, his lips as shiny as fresh blood.
Their breath was mingling, closer and closer, in little, gusting kisses, before the wind whipped it away.
Matt’s eyes slid half-shut, and Ben’s heart was thundering so hard he could feel it in his thumbs where they pressed against Matt’s skull.
And it was going to happen. It was really going to happen. Without a script or excuses or boundaries to make it safe.
Inevitable as slow glass.
"Oh," Matt breathed, as though finally understanding some long-forgotten puzzle.
And then the world shattered.
“Help!” screamed Joaquin, his voice breaking. “Help! Fuck!”
Down on the beach Casey and Joaquin were staggering out of the surf, a slumped figure held between them, and even as they made it to dry sand, Casey fell down, exhausted, trembling with fatigue.
Joaquin yelled again for help as he gently lowered the half-drowned girl to the sand and put his fingers down her throat. She convulsed, spewing up sea and strands of spit, mewling and shivering in the harsh rush of the wind.
And then Ben was up and running, heart still pounding so hard it hurt, eyes fixed on Casey, who was lying, unmoving, on the sand.
Matt, three paces behind, hesitated at the top of the steps, watching Ben sprint across the beach. He rubbed a hand through his hair, thinking hard, and then back-tracked to the sliding door, going inside to grab towels and blankets.
Ben fell down beside Casey, one hand closing over his cold, clammy shoulder and shaking him violently. "Casey?"
Casey slowly opened his eyes, and blinked at Ben, tired and scared. "Is Jess okay?"
The tension in Ben's chest eased, even though Casey was trembling beneath his touch. Ben glanced over at the girl, who had finished throwing up and was sobbing in Joaquin's arms.
"She's okay," said Ben. "Are you?"
"Sure," said Casey, but a few moments later, when Matt dropped a blanket around his shoulders, he hunched into it like its weight was all that was keeping him from flying apart.
"We need to get Jess to a hospital," said Joaquin, handing the girl over to her girlfriend, Peggy, who was rubbing her with a towel and making soft hush and there, there noises into Jess's salt-drenched hair.
"I'll drive," said Ben, helping Casey to his feet, helping him get his clothes on.
Casey was almost a dead weight in his arms, his knees rubbery with adrenalin and shock.
Joaquin and Peggy between them managed to get Jess dressed and walking and, sharing her weight, they guided her up the path beside the house, towards the driveway, the watching crowd of subdued party-goers parting before them.
Matt silently fell in on the other side of Casey, helping Ben support him up the steep incline.
It wasn't until they were at the car, Peggy, Jess and Joaquin in the back seat, Casey in the front, that Ben looked over to Matt, who was standing near the weather-beaten mailbox, staring back at Ben.
"Go on," Matt said, wearing his most no-nonsense expression. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket. "I can find my own way home."
And because there was nothing else to do, and no time to argue, Ben nodded and got into the car.
A few miles later, as the headlights were tunnelling the eucalypt-lined road, Casey cracked his eyes open and with an obvious effort swivelled his head towards Ben. "Jesus," he murmured, voice pitched for Ben's ears alone. "I didn't think we were going to make it back to shore. It scared the shit out of me."
Ben gripped the steering wheel tight, and kept his eyes focused on the endless rush of the road.
"Me too, Case," he replied at last, his voice sounding not at all like his own. "It scared the shit out of me too."