|for nightsister - fic - Shiver [Ben/Michael]
||[Mar. 31st, 2005|05:41 pm]
Summary: Michael deals with bug-chasing, infidelity and fiction.
Aching dread and mortification twisted deep in Paul’s stomach, listening to the impassive words, watching the stoic expression and the busy hands tucking cards into books, rubbing bindings against the desk.
“I’ll always respect you highly, Professor,” Jacob stated with firm resolve, sincerity and ease. “The things I learned because of you, as well as the things I learned from you. Perhaps the former more so, although as a teacher, I don’t know if you’d consider that a compliment or not. I would hope as a man with HIV, however, you would appreciate the sentiment.”
Paul tensed, his mind frantically thumbing through the things to say, the things to do, what ought to be the right answer here and now, what could keep a mistake like his from being repeated in someone else's life. He remembered the feeling, the sick, dizzy lurch at the words “you’re positive,” how surreal and yet painfully real it all was, and after it, how he struggled to accept it and live through it. He knew what he would give just to be well again, to correct that one mistake, to not be positive. And this young man - no, this boy - healthy and clever and good-looking and talented, wanted it all thrown away to rid himself of responsibility. To not have to carry the thought that every time he has sex, he needs to be careful.
But Paul still carried that thought. Every time he slept with his partner, that nagging worry was there. The fear never ends, the responsibility, the burden, it never lessens. Sex, gay or straight... life itself, gay or straight, was a responsibility. There was no disease that could rid a person of that.
“Jacob, I need you to listen to me. There is nothing in this world - no lecture, no book, no website, no HIV-positive person - that could accurately describe to you what it is like being positive. The fear and burden and illness that comes with it... there aren’t words for that, Jacob, trust me on this. You’ll regret it when someday you want to live and the disease decides that it’s time for you to die.”
A book cover snapped shut and Jacob pushed it to him, eyes meeting his, emotionless and unreadable. Final. “It’s very kind of you to attempt to talk me out of it, but it’s too late. I went to what’s called a conversion party last night; I had sex with about a dozen positive men, all unprotected. I would have preferred it to be you,” he added, and Paul winced, “but you made it clear that was not an option the other night.”
“Jesus Christ, Jacob–“
“I should know whether I have it within a couple weeks. About the time these books are due.”
Michael read The Gift Chaser at least a dozen times, if not more, following its publication. There were sections he knew by heart, parts he could see so vividly in his mind it was as if he'd been there, and the binding of his own copy showed signs of wear and tear. He read it, continuously, constantly, almost religiously, between customers at the store and during commercials on TV and while waiting for Ben to finish making dinner. It was a mass of words, words that gave him a story, people, insight, words that formed patterns and straight lines. He read, over and over, waiting for the moment he'd find something to clear his thoughts, to release the pent up tension that curled into his chest ever since the first time he read it.
It never happened, though. Every time was the same as the last. Feelings, politics, beautiful prose, and nothing that could tell Michael how or why.
There was no guide to the inner-workings of Ben, but Michael had believed for a long time now that he had learned as best he could what Ben felt and thought. What Ben was. There was a comfort in him, a familiarity, that assured Michael he was in the right place. Michael would watch Ben go about making his herbal tea, the motions and sounds of it memorized from night upon night of observing the ritual - click of cupboard doors, running water, rustle of the little tea packets inside the box. It was that moment, and many others, when Michael felt like a husband and a life partner, proud to know his lover's habits inside out.
But the book had raised questions. Things Michael had never bothered to ask, or had never gotten the courage to. How did Ben feel about not just his illness, but someone wanting to share in that illness, whether physically like Anthony, or emotionally like Michael himself? There were hints in the novel, of course, tidbits that seemed to ring true, but the book was not Ben.
The book was based on Ben. A professor named Paul Pierce and a former student, Jacob. When Michael had first read it, he'd been moved by the story, and grateful that Ben had come home and hadn't given Anthony what he'd wanted. Time, however, had left room for thought as to why it'd been a possibility to begin with. They hadn't been married at the time, but they had certainly been committed: raising Hunter, living together.
Even so, Michael waited, hoping the answers would come to him. Another part of him was fearful that they would.
"So what? He almost fucked that guy, that's what," Michael snapped, shoving sixty-four cents and an X-Men comic book over the counter to his customer, an unconcerned teenager wearing headphones and eyeing Brian.
Brian made a face, turning to lean his elbows against the counter and watch the front door snap shut as the kid left. "'Almost' isn't 'did.' He decided not to, didn't he?"
"After the kid told him he wanted HIV," Michael retorted, flustered and raging and banging the shit out of a roll of quarters against the edge of the counter as he did so. Brian shrugged, pushing off the counter to pull out his cell-phone as it rang. "Point is, Mikey, he didn't fucking do it. So why have a hissy fit over something that didn't happen? Brian Kinney," he snapped into his phone. He stepped toward the nearest rack of Rage comics, spinning it idly and smiling at his illustrated likeness scowling back at him. Michael banged the roll again and spilled quarters all over the floor.
"Why, hello Theodore," Brian said in a mock-cheerful voice into his cell. "I'm spending quality time with my best friend, what the fuck are you doing?"
Michael stretched to grab the last quarter, which had fallen between the register and the candy bar display. He could hear Ted shouting into Brian's ear on the other end.
"Brown can wait until I get there. You handled Dandy Lube just fine without me." More shouting and Brian's jaw clenched a bit. "Jesus fucking Christ, would you shut up? I'm on my way." He flipped the phone closed and tucked it back away. "Nagging twat. Well, duty calls, Mi--"
"He's my husband now, Brian," Michael interjected as if the phone call hadn't just taken place. "And we were committed even before that. And he still hasn't told me. Like I'm supposed to just pretend that he didn't almost fuck that guy--"
"Mikey, what did I tell you about the hurt-wife bullshit?" Brian said in a bored tone, plucking a packet of gum from the candy rack and opening it. "Deal with it. Let it go or get him back or jump off a fucking bridge. But keep this shit up and you're gonna end up like the munchers--"
"You said it yourself, Mikey. You're married now." Brian popped a piece of gum in his mouth and leaned over the counter to give Michael a kiss. "Married people do shit like talk about their problems and go to shrinks and lie when they fuck around. You're a big boy now. Figure it out. Goddammit," he muttered as his cell-phone went off again, quickly digging it back out of his pocket and answering it. "Theodore if you don't fucking give me enough time to--" but the scowl vanished in an instant; he smiled, turning away from the counter and for the door. "How's the sunshine in L.A., Sunshine? Fuck anymore hot movie stars for me?"
"Tell him he better fucking call me after you, I need to know what's going on at the set," Michael shouted after him. All he got in reply was the jiggle of bells as the door clicked shut behind Brian.
A week and a half later, Michael found Ben in the living room at two a.m, scribbling on a paper pad in the near darkness, his shoulders hunched over the table and his forehead resting in his hand.
Ben started a little and looked at his watch. "Yes, Michael?"
"Are you coming to bed? It's late."
"I know, I was just... I had some ideas, I had to write them down while they were fresh." Ben pulled his glasses off briefly to rub the bridge of his nose, and when he slipped them back on, Michael was at his side, fingertips rubbing gently into the hair at the nape of his neck.
Ben nodded slightly, head falling back into Michael's kneading fingers, feeling the knotted muscles loosen. "I certainly hope so."
Lips nudged a kiss to Ben's temple, just a light warm brush, and then Michael took the chair next to him, stifling a yawn while hitching up his pajama bottoms to sit down. He stared at the paper pad, the words scrawled on it blurry and unreadable in the dark and through the groggy fog in his eyes. "Ben?"
Fingers now petting Michael's hair, Ben smiled. "What, baby?"
Michael slid his arms out to lean on his elbows, fingers reaching to bend the corner of the front page of Ben's pad, back and forth idly as he spoke. "Is that how you felt? In The Gift Chaser? About what happened with Anthony?"
"... We haven't really talked about that, have we?" Ben admitted thoughtfully. He pulled the pad from Michael and closed it, pushing it aside. "It's how I felt, but it's not all of what I felt. Even now, as a writer, it's hard to put into words exactly what that situation made me feel. Frustrated, most of all, I think. To know someone had it so wrong, was so... lost. And I couldn't help him."
"Yeah," Michael sighed. "I've thought about it. What it would be like to have it. Then I could understand what you... Hunter... go through."
"Michael, it's not worth--"
"I know. I know that. We've talked about this. It's just that I do feel that way sometimes, even if I don't act on it."
Ben nodded. "Perfectly understandable."
Michael hesitated, and then plowed ahead with his train of thought. "I didn't just mean the bug chaser thing, though."
"No? What else did you mean?"
"I mean... I mean Anthony hitting on you. Before you even knew about him wanting... the 'gift.' You don't really talk about that in the book, and I... I don't know, it's just like Paul makes the choice because of the HIV thing and not because he's got a partner and a kid."
He waited, but there wasn't answer to that, none that Michael would want to hear, and he knew it. Nothing came but the aversion of Ben's eyes, the tight line of his jaw and neck, the silence.
"You were gonna sleep with him," Michael said, flat and distant and full of realization. "Until he said he wanted your 'gift,' you were gonna sleep with him. Weren't you?"
"That's not how you wrote the story."
"Michael, I didn't--"
But Michael was already gone, heading back toward their bedroom, arms crossed tightly over his chest as if physically holding in the things he wanted to say. "I need sleep. Justin's coming home in the morning."
The bedroom door slid closed. Ben scrubbed a palm over his face before reaching for his paper pad again and continuing to write.
Paul stood at the window, watching rainwater slip down the glass and thinking of Jacob. He'd been bright and enthused, flattering and adoring, all the things Paul had foolishly and selfishly craved, depended upon. They brought him to this: torn, panicked, praying for a life he already did his best to save. This wasn't a hero complex or martyrdom.
This was guilt.
"Did what I could," he muttered to himself. The assurance, hearing the words aloud, didn't help. He drew lines, words, nonsense in the condensation on the window.
The click of a door and rustle of clothes was followed by his partner's voice, filled with caution, anxiety and concern already. "Paul? I'm home." Paul didn't answer, couldn't. Fingers brushed the bare skin of his shoulder and he flinched.
"Talk to me. Please."
"Jacob, he--" It stuck in his throat and he tried again. "He asked for my gift, the other night."
"My gift, Daniel."
"Gi--" Daniel cut himself off, the fingers on Paul's shoulder squeezing. "HIV, you mean?"
"He told me he wanted to be free of the burden, the responsibility, of being negative. That all his friends told him how liberating and spiritual it is to become positive. He wanted me to be the one to infect him, to 'make him whole,' as he put it."
"Oh, God. You didn't--"
Paul turned away from the window and Daniel, toward the kitchen. "Jesus, Daniel. No."
"Oh," Daniel mumbled, and then followed after him. "Then he's not...?"
"He went to a conversion party. It'll be a miracle if he doesn't have it by now. And even if he doesn't, he'll keep trying," Paul said quietly.
The silence swallowed everything, like dead weight, like a choke-hold, like the tears stinging Paul's eyes, the shake of Daniel's fingers. All that they spent of their life together fighting, given up willingly by someone else. Daniel's jaw clenched and his tone was angry when he spoke, even as quivering fingers gently petted Paul's knotted neck, trying to ease the sorrow and guilt from his lover's face.
"He's an idiot."
"He's lost, Daniel. Ignorant, not stupid."
"Yeah, well, we're all lost, but we don't go out getting ourselves killed just to--"
"I'm sorry." A whisper and a hug, mumbling into a shoulder, clinging tight to the finality of love, even it it was as frightening as the finality of death. Paul felt raw and used, carved out inside, and only with Daniel's arms, slim and secure around his waist, did he feel like at least there was one choice in his life that he hadn't wasted.
"... You came back to me, though. To us."
"Of course I did."
Naturally Ben knew that words were insufficient to explain or apologize for what had nearly happened between himself and Anthony. There was no speech he could make to regain Michael's trust, to admit to his own guilt without making Michael feel guilty himself.
He had to try, of course, but he knew it would come down to actions, patience, and the strength only a love like theirs could lend him. The words would form promises, and that part was for Ben himself; it would be keeping those promises that would be for Michael.
So he waited outside the comic book shop, ignoring the chill as it seeped through his windbreaker, ignoring the cold pricks of drizzle on his skin and hair. He sat on his bike on the sidewalk, waiting for Michael to come out and lock up.
He did eventually, dragging his bike with him and looking miserable. Ben had never felt more like an asshole than he did at that moment, seeing that disappointment and knowing he was the cause. "Michael."
"What are you doing here?" Michael asked without greeting as he pulled the gate closed and locked it. "You could get sick out here."
"I know. I wanted to ride home with you, though."
Michael pursed his lips, once again biting back something he wanted to say, and started walking his bike down the street. "I can get home on my own just fine."
"I know you can."
"Michael, can you-- hey, just stop." Ben reached out, catching Michael's elbow and forcing him to stand still. "Okay?"
Quiet, glaring, a deep hesitant breath. A car rolled by, a blue blur of light and water puddles, and Michael's eyes followed it to avoid looking at Ben. Ben's stomach twisted like he'd been told "no" and suddenly his lungs didn't seem to be functioning correctly, or at all, but the moment was there and it had to be said, no matter how little either of them wanted to hear it.
"I don't... I don't know if I would have. Fucked him. At the time I was... depressed or... or angry that I wasn't getting what I wanted from my work, and that you were progressing while I wasn't. That you agreed with all those publishers about the quality... or lack thereof... my writing--"
"That's not my fault--"
"I didn't say it was, Michael, just listen. Please." Ben pressed, scooting his bike over to rest against the building. "It was my fault, not just to put myself in that situation, but to not tell you exactly how it made me feel."
Michael looked at him expectantly, hip leaning on the bike and eyes glued intently on his face. "So how did it make you feel?"
"I felt useless. If I couldn't write anything good, if I... I couldn't teach, teach that kid what it means to live my life, how horrible it can be to have this in me, to lose that control over my life. I won't always be here, and sometimes I still think it'd be easier on you and Hunter if I wasn't."
"Ben, we don't feel that way."
"I know, Michael. It's my own fault for letting my insecurities get to me so badly that I would consider ruining the two things that mean more to me than anything. Our partnership, my role in Hunter's life. I'm sorry I jeopardized that."
The drizzle faded away to humid air, slowly, and Michael absently toed one of the pedals as he listened to what Ben had to say, considered whether it was what he wanted to hear or what he needed to. He didn't feel lighter, but he felt better. Just knowing, not forgetting, was enough.
"This is one of those things I'm going to have to forgive you for, isn't it?"
Ben swallowed. "... When I've earned that forgiveness."
"Yeah, well. This was a start."
"Freezing my ass off or telling you how I felt?"
Michael smiled. "Both."