Chapter 1: Suit
'Mac' McGregor makes the clients call him Mister.
Just that. He tells them that if they call him anything else, anything else, they'll get half the fucking they want and pay double for it.
His parents would be so proud of their little business man.
They want him to prove himself worthy of his inheritance, don't they? The one they're holding hostage for another six years, when he's fucking forty? Fine, he'll prove himself, on his back or his belly and just for spite.
Because he's got no desire to go to mam's Ivy League college, get a set of initials after his name like she has, call himself doctor or professor, like she does. And hell no, he's not going into the family agri-business thank you.
That's what they wanted, when they gave him The Talk last year. Asked him to prove he could take care of himself beyond the London flat and the 'maintenance' they give him. Grow up. Earn some money.
Okay. Fine. Just fine. He knew how to do that.
He learned about it way back when he was still a virgin and going to all those lovely, messy parties where he and his friends would get drunk on someone else's brandy. There was always that one really pretty boy there too, he'd smile himself up to immaculate men and women in their expensive clothes, and he'd let them touch him and finger-feed him, and later, after so many drinks, they'd go away, away, away together.
Mac's the opposite of that wispy boy who'd flutter his lashes and duck his chin and look so ripe and bitable. Mac wears bespoke suits fitted to his lanky frame. He doesn't do coy or sweet. And he doesn't let them pick him, Mac picks them. He's attended enough lovely, messy parties since The Talk that by now the clients know how lucky they are.
And he always, always makes them call him Mister.
"Hey there, sweetheart."
Mac picks up a brandy from the passing waiter's tray. He'll school the deep-voiced man behind him, definitely turn him down if he's looking for a leg over, because that's part of the fun, not picking until the night's nearly over.
With a lift of the chin and a purr he turns, saying, "That's Mister. Always and only." Then Mac says, "Oh fucking hell."
Ben Organa is smiling at him with those bright brown eyes and that god damn mouth and right then Mac's nineteen again and coming in that mouth and then he's twenty-three and he's crying, "But why are you leaving?" and then he's twenty-seven and he's watching the love of his life on that stupid TV show that was such a hit for awhile and now they're both thirty-four years old and it's been years and—
"Jesus you look good, baby."
—and Mac McGregor is screwed.
Domhnall Gleeson LOOKS LIKE THIS IN A SUIT so the only proper response to that was, apparently, this. And this, whatever this is, is not over. Oh hell no.
Chapter 2: Three Thoughts
Filth. That's what came second. What came first was something Mac never expected…
Filth. Absolute. That's what came second.
What first came to Mac McGregor's mind, standing there at that fancy party and setting eyes on six feet three inches of Ben Organa in a tuxedo was…crying.
"I love you."
He'd say that, in their messy bed, his body still slick with come and sweat. He'd say it and say it, cry it and cry it, all those times, all those years ago, because oh god it hurt how much he felt so he just had to feel it. He'd clutch Ben's hair and mash their mouths together, moaning, "I love you so much," and he'd cry.
Ben's fingers would dig into Mac's long hair and he'd kiss-kiss-kiss the tears, soft and warm and slow and it just made Mac cry more of them.
He wasn't angry back then. Back then Peter 'Mac' McGregor was what he was: A young man desperately in love, wanting more than anything to be everything to this man. He couldn't think when Ben was around, he didn't even try.
Later he realized that that was the problem.
Because the world didn't stop simply because he had. Ben didn't stop. He still wanted, dreamed, planned. Acting. He wanted to act.
And though he'd spent half his life in Dublin, Ben had never belonged there. He didn't belong back in Indiana either, where his family'd come from. No, Benjamin Organa belonged just one place and he knew it.
At twenty-three he'd got up and gone. He'd gone away, from Ireland, from Mac, from them. He'd gone to London.
Mac hadn't followed then and he hadn't followed now. No, the only reason he was in London now was because his parents weren't. So now Mac was holed up in the Southbank flat his family never even used, now Mac has sex with people for money, and now Ben does too, only his is broadcast on cable TV.
Both kinds of sex were wrong.
Mac's because it was a pointless rebellion that the people against whom he was rebelling didn't even know about, and Ben's? Ben's was wrong because the people he had it with got it wrong.
Those people who touched him on camera? Those fake lovers on that so-popular-until-it-wasn't TV show who touched Ben's body demanding, rough, wild?
No, no, no. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
Mac's love had always craved careful strokes, soft touches. He opened heart and body to praise.
It had made Mac giddy their first time. Nineteen both and finally in bed together, tested and clean, wanting and willing, and Ben had made such tiny sounds, sweet, addictive little noises to every sweet word Mac babbled.
And Ben always did, every time, and oh there were so many times in those first giddy months, god they were at it like rabbits.
They rutted against each other at parties, pretended to be drunk if someone caught one with his hand down the other's pants. They fucked each other over sofas when flatmates were out, pushing hastily-lubed dicks into barely-bared arses. They made love for hours, their beds became worlds, homes, musky nests of come-smeared sheets and sloppy kisses, and always, always Mac whispered endearments against Ben's cock or into the wet of his mouth or his arse, and it was all of it so good and so sweet and so anything else, anything less was—
To the sound of glasses clinking and his own quick breath, Mac shook himself back to the now. "What?"
But Ben was backing up and it was only Mac grabbing his wrist that prevented the collision with a passing waiter.
"I said I'm sorry," Ben pulled his arm to his chest and Mac's hand slipped free, "that was wrong."
For a moment Mac was sure Ben had read his filthy mind, then Ben continued.
"'Baby,' 'sweetheart,' they kind of slipped out. I didn't…"
Oh. Right. That.
Mac stepped back. The man he was now, he doesn't stand for that. He's an actor too, after all, and will not break character. Whether he's got a dick in his mouth or his own balls deep, he doesn't croon and cuddle, pet or whisper or fucking cry and that's where this started, isn't it, this memory lane because that, right now, is what Mac felt like doing.
And there was one way not to do that.
Stay in character.
"Apology accepted," said the man called Mister.
The silence grew then, it reached out. It muted everything around them for what felt like so long that Mac almost, very nearly, just about broke, quite nearly whispered, "Hello love," in that soft voice he'd long ago used to gentle this big man, but suddenly Ben gestured, muttered, "Ah, there she. I have to go. It's…right." Then he walked away, head inclined toward the woman giving this party. She placed her hand at the small of Ben's back and guided him toward shadows.
Be gentle, Mac thought. Touch him slow.
Mister left the party then, alone.
It was as he went out the door that Mac had his third thought about Ben Organa, and that thought was this: He thought this would be the last time he'd see him.
Yet, like sex with strangers to spite parents who didn't notice, like actors who thought that because a man was so very big he must be pushed and pulled and handled, well, about that Peter McGregor was really very wrong.
No idea where this is going but south—right on south into trousers and onto beds and sofas and floors. So help me if there are more set photos soon I may not survive. But what a way to go, murdered by a sartorially elegant Domhnall Gleeson.
Chapter 3: Enter Phay
"Apology fucking accepted Peter?"
Phay McGregor looked around the kitchen for another missile to throw. Mac undid his tie faster.
"What kind of moron—" Phay chucked an empty butter wrapper. "—says that to his ex-one true love?"
"What the fuck is wrong with you?"
With precision and shouting, Phasma "Phay" McGregor peeled Peter McGregor out of his three-piece suit.
She achieved this far more quickly than any of Mac's randy clients ever had, and she did this by throwing things at her brother's body until he had to remove his expensive clothes or risk butter stains.
"You said 'apology accepted'?"
A chunk of burnt scone narrowly missed the waistcoat Mac had only just managed to take off. "Apology fucking accepted Peter?" Phay looked around the kitchen for another missile. Mac undid his tie faster. "What kind of moron—" Phay chucked an empty butter wrapper at her brother's moronic head. "—says that to his ex-one true love?"
Frantically untucking his perfectly-pressed shirt Peter reflected that he never should have called Ben all those sweet names in his sister's presence.
Phay snatched up another hunk of scone.
"I know you swan about those parties all dour and uppity, I know you sleep with all those clueless rich people—and that's weird shit Peter, you know that that's some truly weird shit—but I never would have thought you'd be an utter arse end to Ben after all these years of you fucking moaning about how much you missed him."
During 'arse' and 'end,' Phay pelted her brother with two greasy measuring spoons, both of which left oily smears down his now-bare chest.
"And another thing, you knob—"
Mac saw Phay reach for the tray on which rested another of her failed baking attempts and he responded by tripping out of his trousers. By the time he'd made it down to his briefs Phay let fly with a handful of sultanas. These did little more than pelt his arse end.
"—I'm tired of your shit. I'm done with your moping around, acting like you're put upon when in reality all that shit is done. All that stuff from back then is back then. No one even knows who you are any more, no one's expecting you to smile and smile and smile and yes, mam and dad are bigger arse ends than even you but guess what? They're not here and you're not there any more. You came to London to start again so start for god's sake. Just get. over. yourself. already."
Phay took a deep breath and Mac waited for more baked goods and shouting but instead Phasma sighed and did the thing that drove him mad. She went ahead and seemed small and fragile when she was very much neither and as he'd always done, Mac wanted to wrap her up and whisper, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry, sorry, sorry." All their lives it was rarely he who hurt her but he always told her he was sorry sorry sorry and somehow it helped. It always helped, both of them.
Her small moment passed as quickly as it had come and Phay looked at him, stepped close. She took a deep breath, which always made her four inches taller instead of the usual three, and Phay McGregor looked down at her big brother and said, "If you don't fix this, little Peter Rabbit, if you don't go find your fluffy bunny beast"—so many endearments, he'd called Ben so, so many—"if you don't go find that boy and fix this, I'm going to do it, I really am. I'm putting then-and-now photos of your face on the internet and you just see if I don't."
Mac held his breath. Phay let hers out long and slow. Then she smiled, kissed the top of his head, and murmuring "good talk," Phay left the kitchen.
And Peter "Mac" McGregor, once long ago and quite famously known as Peter Rabbit, well he stood in that kitchen in nothing but his socks and his skivvies, a wide circle of burnt baked goods at his feet, and he waited, only shifting once he heard the clank of weights.
Good. Phay was working out. Probably burning off her pique with him by pretending to hoist him ceiling-ward. She did that a few times when they were teenagers. He'd tried lifting her once and tore a rotator cuff.
Finally Mac swept the kitchen floor, collected the bits of his suit from the kitchen table, and went to his bedroom.
There Peter McGregor reflected that overcompensation had always seemed such a big word, when a much smaller one would do.
Masquerading as some stiff-lipped posh boy called Mister, Peter has spent the last year fucking strangers so as to wildly overcompensate for his past. To assure the man he is that he's as important, as needed, as the boy he once was, Peter has sex for money, but in the end he doesn't feel needed, not even desired. He just feels the same old fear. He's not important, not any more.
Because he grew up, as little boys do.
When he was a happy boy of six, with bright red hair and a grinning mouthful of snaggle teeth, he'd accidentally become the face of McGregor's Meadows. His image growing ever more associated with the company as it grew from boutique organic farm to multi-national agri-business. They'd daub on the freckles he didn't even have, and he'd grin his wide grin for adverts, for little plush toys, for commercials. He held armfuls of fancy lettuces, tomatoes, chard, but most of all the thing he became known for, a rainbow of carrots in red and purple and yellow.
With his bright red hair grown-ups recognised him on the street, they took photos with him; he was important.
With his red bright hair kids recognised him at school and they mocked him; he was a joke. They'd hop-hop-hop past his desk. They'd stand behind him doing 'bunny ears' until Peter would turn and catch them, and they'd laugh right in his face.
By the time Peter McGregor met Ben Organa he was fifteen, five years done with the exploitation of his childhood, and he was ready for a friend.
They became that until they figured out that they could become more. So at nineteen they did.
The distant clanking of a weight and Peter shook his head, stopped standing in the middle of his bedroom—expensively decorated by some interior designer his parents loved who loved nautical themes—dropped his fancy suit to the floor and fell on his knees in front of a horrible wardrobe with portholes and brass fittings, pulling a box out from underneath it.
Sitting cross-legged like a boy, thirty-four-year-old Peter McGregor, who called himself Mister, who called himself Mac, who used to answer to Peter Rabbit and who was kind of afraid and kind of angry and who was, according to his very smart sister, an arse end, a knob, and a moron, well he opened the box that was only just a little bit bigger than a bunch of carrots and he looked inside.
In there were cards and letters. Mementos and charms. Little things that held big memories of five years with Ben, of a few years of longing right after.
There was another thing and Peter smiled as he plucked up the little black box inside the box.
His pulse helpfully kicked up as he opened it.
Inside, a pair of tiny black panties, cut for a man, with just enough cloth up front and at the back a heart-shaped cutout trimmed thick with silver thread.
Lying across his hands those knickers were kind of ridiculous, but on his body he was—
"So beautiful baby." Ben said reverently the night Peter first wore those panties. "How," Ben whispered, sitting on the edge of their bed, "can you look like this?"
Drifting close, Peter hadn't said like what but Ben heard the words anyway.
He ran his thumb along the pale trail of red hair below Peter's bellybutton. His other hand brushed the white skin of Peter's waist, then his hand drifted up to 'the world's tiniest nipples,' little nubs that plumped quickly under the stroking of Ben's big fingers.
"Perfect," he'd finally answered as Peter straddled him, kissed him, sucked his neck full of pretty bruises and filled his ears with their special words. When even these custom-made knickers couldn't contain the erection spilling out the top of them, Ben encouraged his love onto his belly and made fine use of the strategically-placed cutout heart, pushing his tongue right on into his love's fine arse hole, eating him out until Peter at last humped the innocence right out of Ben's pillow.
"You know I wouldn't really."
"JEEZUS FUCK PHAY."
After Mac's heart rate returned to normal and his brain and cock got back from memory lane, Phay—who'd seen those knickers before, no biggie—sat down next to her brother and she said again, "I wouldn't really, with the before-after photo thing."
Mac nodded. He knew. Pretty much. Though if she did out him he'd kind of deserve it.
"What should I do Phay?"
Phasma McGregor, who was a year younger than her brother, who was tall right on out of the womb, who never was particularly adorable-looking and so unsuitable for marketing purposes, she said the most sensible thing anyone had said to Peter all day.
"I think you should put your pretty panties on like a man, and you should go see Ben."
Yes, I have given Peter McGregor the back-story of Christopher Robin Milne, son of writer A.A. Milne who wrote the Winnie the Pooh books (and who Domhnall is also playing in a film (Milne, not Pooh)). P.S. Thank you Admiral Winklepicker for 'fluffy bunny beast,' and the knickers, thank you.
Chapter 4: Worship
His first time the couple brought him here, Peter had tried to give. He shifted so they could touch his neck, his nipples, his cock or his ass, but they never wanted his parts. They want the art of his all, she once said.
He doesn't know what they do after he leaves. Doesn't even know if this is sexual for them, though it's always sexual for him.
That's part of what they pay him for.
They're always gentle with Peter.
They murmur endearments to him. They kiss his bare shoulders and arms and hands. They share his fingertips between them as if they're rare sweets. Neither the wife nor husband ever speak loudly or without care.
Here in their quiet home he is always Peter. Like his mask of Mister, he's still for sale, yes, but the thing being bought by this couple isn't his body, it's his beauty.
They're not the same thing.
"We're glad you're here," the wife said, opening their front door. "It's been so long," said the husband, reaching.
They take Peter's hands and lead him up a wide staircase, into their bedroom.
"—just one moment Mr. McGregor."
Standing at his bedroom window that morning, Peter'd watched Phay get into her bright silver Merc, wondering again how she found a place to park near London Bridge. He was glad she'd told him to do this. Somehow it had given him courage.
"So sorry," said last night's host returning to the phone, "It looks like Ben Organa's number is on my work laptop. I can get it to you tomorrow though I suspect he's probably flown home by now."
A lot of time can pass in very little. It felt like a little bit of forever until Peter could say, "Flown?"
There was the distant sound of a dog barking. "Hush Hammie! Uh yes, he lives in America now, New York I think. Sorry Mr. McGregor, I must go."
Because Lady Natarajan was English, she waited politely for Peter's reply.
"Go," he said, and hung up without waiting for a reply.
Peter wasn't English.
Peter watched his sister's car pull away. He was alone. He did not want to be.
He dialed another number.
They're always gentle with Peter. This time was no different.
They guided him into their vast bedroom as if he were spun-sugar delicate, as they always did. They brought him before the beautiful three-way mirror, as they always did. He lifted his arms and stood pliant while they undressed him, as he always did.
Though they do so like his suits.
"Exquisite tailoring," the husband said as he unbuttoned Peter's black shirt. "You've the perfect build for fine clothes," the wife agreed.
Still and all, they dropped his fine white suit to the floor as they bared him, and Peter laughed. He always did.
He laughed again, ticklish, when her fingers lingered on the curves of his waist. She kissed her apology onto his bare shoulders and the inside of his wrist, then held that wrist toward her husband, a morsel to share.
Peter used to wrap one of Ben's big hands around both his own wrists. "They're like thin little flower stems," Ben would whisper, pressing his face into Peter's captive hands, the biggest of besotted bees.
His first time they'd brought him here, Peter had tried to give. He shifted so they could touch his neck, his nipples, his cock or his ass, but they never wanted his parts. They want the art of his all, she once said.
He doesn't know what they do after he leaves, he doesn't even know if this is sexual for them, though it's always sexual for him. That's part of what they pay him for.
They love him til he comes.
That takes awhile because, like many venerations, theirs are performed over hours.
After he's stripped, they bathe him.
Kneeling either side of the narrow tub they use their hands to stroke his skin clean, the soap without scent, the water perfect-warm. If he has a beard they shave him. After, they lift his arms and shave beneath. When he's hairless there, the wife rubs her face into his skin. "You still smell of man," she says and Peter knows what she means.
Long ago, when he would come out naked-wet from a shower, Ben would sometimes nuzzle under his arms, sucking at the moisture, moaning at the scent. Often he'd end up nuzzling other things.
Like Ben, the wife likes the humid parts of Peter's body, breathing deep of him in all those places. It's why he's pretty sure there's sex between the couple after he leaves. Yet…he's not really sure. He wants that uncertainty.
They help him from the bath and he stands still while they pat him dry. They rub an unscented lotion over him, comb his hair a long while, they tell him he is beautiful. It's then he'll start to go hard.
Afterward they place him in front of the pretty mirror again and this is when it truly begins.
They like soft colors. "Such pretty pale skin," they say, each time. And so the camisoles and the knickers, the stockings and the lace collars, they're subtle blues and greens, muted pinks and oranges, pretty colors to embellish pretty flesh.
He often wonders if somewhere in their vast home there's a fortune of lingerie tucked away for they never clothe him in the same things twice, and neither the husband nor the wife is built like him.
The thought always flits away as they start to dress him. This time they've chosen a pale sea green.
The bralette is longline, its lace reaching down to his ribs, the cups are as flat as he is for this was made for him. The panties always match and this time they're tiny. He fidgets a little because thongs make him feel awkward, which makes him want to laugh because Ben had liked them.
He forgets about that when they role the sheer, pale stockings up his legs. He wishes they'd shaved him there but they rarely do. Afterward they tie a lace collar around his throat, the husband gently pats it flat.
Then they look.
Peter watches them back and yes, though he doesn't know what they do after he leaves, he knows what they do now.
It's there in how they move around his body, bright eyes admiring the lace and silk against his skin.
It's there in how they touch, the back of the husband's hands across Peter's jaw, the wife's fingers stroking his neck. They both murmur praise as they touch his tiny nipples, his soft sides, his belly.
A giant hungry for gentility, Ben had blossomed under just such venerations. They could spend hours in bed talking and Peter would kiss his lover's palms and wrists, his chest and nose and ears until the man was touch-drunk.
Now Peter is like Ben, a little. Though their touches never change from something to something, eventually the man and the woman do want something.
To arouse him.
It takes awhile.
They take turns running hands up his arms to his shoulders and back again. They slide fingers into the hollow of his throat and down his spine. They tease ticklish at his sides, and then touch the skin where goosebumps bloom. After those fade they roam the small sweet curve of his lower back, then do it all again.
Eventually the touches linger at his hips and his belly, they dance over the tempting creases of his thighs. One wraps a hand around his waist, then reaches round and teases down the crack of his arse, the other pressing at his perineum. He closes his eyes when fingers slide up and between, wriggling until they touch his hole.
Usually he's a little bit wet by now, tiny pearls beading panties damp. He always wants them to lick him there, but neither ever does. Instead they tuck the knickers below his balls and stroke his erection.
Though he doesn't have one today.
He wants to feel ashamed. Coming is part of what they pay him for.
He thinks about saying something but the only words that want to come are childish and so he thinks about other times he's been with them, where he let his mind go to get him there.
He thinks of Ben. Thinks of his legs spread, but instead of how Ben's come tasted in his mouth, or how Ben sounded with Peter's tongue pushing inside, he thinks of Ben's arms around his neck and his legs over his shoulder.
He'd had a passion for that, for being folded up, for being made smaller while Peter loved him, fucked him. He'd tuck his face into Peter's neck and make the smallest, best sounds while they rocked together and though you'd think all of that would make a man come quick, it never did, it made Peter slow because he loved giving Ben what he needed, he needed that.
She whispers in his ear.
It's not really words, but noises of admiration, and Peter realizes he's finally growing hard.
So he thinks of Ben some more. Eyes closed he pretends it's Ben's hand on his belly—she loves his belly, sometimes she kneels to kiss him there and so the husband kneels behind, touches his ass and—
—Ben had always wished he had "a much better ass, look at it!" Peter would always do as he was told, he'd look, get up close, then bite those cheeks, pry them apart and taste between. He'd announce his findings. "Sorry darlin', this is the best ass in Dublin." Then he'd eat Ben out until he made the small sounds, the very best sounds.
Peter's not really aware whose hand is on him when he comes, but he knows it's the husband who swallows him down, it's his mouth Peter fills. Sometimes it's hers; not today.
"Thank you beautiful," she says afterward, "so sweet," she whispers. Peter feels his heart kick up, skin prickling with a no-good sweat. Suddenly he wants to take off everything now, be gone now, but instead he smiles and says something, his mind such a welter he doesn't remember the words moments after they leave his mouth.
They take their time undressing him, they always do, they're gentle as they put his suit back on. Its wrinkles from being abandoned on the floor are always the odd little note of the whole thing, but Peter's never felt like questioning their why, not about any of this, so he doesn't start now.
Two hours after he's arrived Peter leaves and though he drives away he doesn't go home. He parks near Primrose Hill, walks to the top and up there he cries.
When he gets home it's not even noon, the rest of the day ahead of him. He misses the regiment he knew as a working child. He has yet to replace that purpose with anything else but confused petulance.
Peter crawls onto his sister's bed, presses his face into her pillow. When they were little—when he was little, because Phay was born outsized, just like Ben—if he hurt Peter would crawl into Phay's bed and mash his face between her shoulder blades. She was his wall against the world, solid and strong. Nothing like he was, nothing like he is.
When Phay gets home hours later, she doesn't wake him, just eats her dinner, watches some television, then crawls into bed with her phone.
After a very little bit, Peter presses his face against her back, never waking.
Peter won't stay sad much longer. By the way, where does emo come from, can someone tell me? It's like once you dip a toe in, the tidal wave comes. Damn sticky stuff, too.
Chapter 5: When He Was Small
Ben Organa knows about acting. He knows about costumes and putting on a persona. He also knows when an actor has been miscast.
There was one other thing Ben Organa knew.
Peter McGregor wasn't who he was so desperately pretending to be.
Ben Organa sat in the cold sun and grinned toothily at his phone.
On it was a photograph of a photograph of a nine-year-old boy. The boy's red hair stuck out every which way, his narrow shoulders were bunched right up around his ears, and his eyes were squinched closed in bliss as he held a baby rabbit against his mouth.
Every time Ben looked at this photo he smiled back at the small boy Peter McGregor once was. Every. single. time.
He had dozens of photos like this. "Junk" Peter had called them, the disavowed ephemera of his childhood. There'd been postcards, too, children's books, even tiny Christmas ornaments with his ginger likeness. Ben collected all of it a couple years into their love affair, when Peter had upended a box of the stuff into the kitchen bin. "Phay gave this junk to me. I've no idea why she kept it."
Ben had sat right down by the bin and spent hours plucking things out, looking and squealing, "Holy shit this is so cute!" Peter had just rolled his eyes and smiled.
Ben's favourite thing had been a poster of six-year-old Peter in a little blue coat, a satchel filled with carrots slung over his shoulder. He stood small-boy tall, hands on hips, and written in bold cursive below his bare knees was the legend Be Brave.
Or maybe his favourite thing had been the series of children's books in which the illustrated ginger boy and his woodland friends visited gardens all over the world—Buckingham Palace, the Taj Mahal, the Kremlin.
Except really really the thing Ben loved most was this photo, a family snap of his love when he was little.
He's not your little love anymore. And besides, it was always you who wanted to be small.
Ben chuffed out a big breath, looked at the traffic going by on Second Avenue.
He'd been here nearly half a year and it still hit him again and again how big New York City was. His manager said a man big as himself fit a city like this but that's the thing. Ben never has been good at fitting into the skin on his big bones. Maybe that's why he turned to acting, maybe that's why he doesn't like it here, maybe that's why the moment Nat called about her party he'd gone back to London.
Where Peter was now.
He'd always thought Peter would follow him to England. Turned out Peter had thought he'd come back to Ireland. Instead they came to each other, over and over for years, until the years did what they so often do to long-distance romances. Fade them quietly away.
Then Saints&Sinners came along and for six giddy seasons Ben was part of a hit show, a huge cast, and he fell in love with being 'someone.'
It had been brilliant until it wasn't, until the show had gone to shit, the fame too, and now he was trying in New York City but it was so big and he was too small to fill it and he'd come to realise recently that he didn't miss the fame or the fans camped out front of his London flat or journalists asking his opinions on everything from the rugby to royalty.
He didn't miss being 'someone.' Ben smiled at the photo of the little boy in blue. He missed being someone to someone.
When he moved to New York he'd brought little with him. Some clothes, playbills, photos. But tucked in among that had been the box entire of Peter 'Rabbit,' all those things Peter had tried binning that long-ago day. Ben had rescued and brought with him every last memento.
"I miss you," he told the photo. "I should have said."
Instead at Nat's party he'd looked at the man in the blade-sharp suit and said sweetheart. He'd looked at the man with soft red hair done dark and severe with gel and he'd said baby.
That man, the one at the party, he didn't look like the one who used to hold Ben's hand under restaurant tables because it made him feel secret and giddy. The one who would buy Ben sweets on his way home from college. The one who'd send emails from different rooms in their house…I love you or the sofa cushions smell like you or come to bed already, this penis won't stay up forever.
No, that man didn't seem even an echo of this beautiful blue boy on Ben's phone.
Except here was a thing about that. A few things really.
Ben Organa knows about acting. He knows about costumes and putting on a persona. He also knows when an actor has been miscast.
There was one other thing Ben Organa knew.
Phay McGregor's phone number.
I recently visited Wray Castle, where Beatrix Potter went on holiday in her teens. There was tons of Peter Rabbit stuff at the castle, including this charming poster. You might notice that instead of a boy though, the poster is of a bunny.
Chapter 6: It's Tachy Not Tichy
“Ben called. You know him, your one true love?”
Peter groped for his own pulse. He’d read somewhere that the human heart could beat as much as four hundred times a minute. He was pretty sure he was halfway there. That had a name didn’t it? Tachy something? Tichy?
Hopefully he remembered before he passed out…
"Stop it Phay!"
Phay did not stop pelting Peter with pillows. Phay was all about the fucking pelting. Somehow Peter was just cottoning on to this.
So despite his demands, Phay failed to stop. Instead she collected from his bedroom floor the pillows she'd already thrown and threw them again.
"Get up you lazy bastard my god how does a man stay in bed all day? Don't you cramp? Don't your muscles just wither?"
Phay did not stop, she threw harder. "Get up get up get u—"
Peter Alan Alexander McGregor jumped from his bed (much like a bunny would) and shouted (not at all like a bunny would), "I'm fucking up all right!"
Soft furnishings poised over her head, Phay huffed some hair from her eyes and said, "Put your panties on quick-smart boy, I'm having words with you in the kitchen."
Then Phay pelted her brother's chest with the last pillow and marched from his bedroom.
"Holy fuck!" he shouted after, because Peter McGregor knew he was going to do everything his sister said and so he needed some way of sassing back.
Forty-three seconds later he stood in the kitchen, pajamas on his long frame, sock-slippers on his big feet, a scowl on his unshaven face. He then did not say a sensible thing like, "What the fuck is this about?" or "Why can't you wake up a depressive the normal way," or even "What bloody time is it?"
No, Peter McGregor, bedhead hair sticking up this way and that (looking a bit like red bunny ears actually) said instead, "When the hell did we get so many tiny pillows?"
Ignoring the question in favour of aggressively creaming together sugar and butter, Phay hissed, "Ben Organa called tonight. You know him, your one true love?"
Peter stopped in mid-beard scratch, mid-yawn, and mid-blink. "What? When? Did—"
"You just shut right up, mister."
Here's the thing: Some people are inclined to boss, some are inclined to be bossed. Since she was little Phay has almost always told people what to do, and for as long as she could remember Peter had almost always done what he was told.
So Peter shut right up.
"About an hour ago."
Peter glanced at the clock, blinked himself some math. Nine in London, four in New York.
"I told him you weren't home."
Peter opened his mouth.
"Close your mouth boy."
A heartbeat and a half passed. Peter closed his mouth. Phay put her mixing bowl down. "He said he'd call again." She measured out some cashews. "We talked awhile."
Peter's feet, hands, and face were cold. Like they had no blood. He wondered if maybe his heart had stopped.
"About a half hour."
Peter's face was hot though. Maybe it was because he was thinking of all the things Phay could have talked about with Ben.
My brother's a knob end, did you know? He whores himself because he's a knob end. Also, he's kept all the love letters you wrote him, has every email you ever sent, and bought the box set of Saints&Sinners. I'm pretty sure he gets off to some of those naked scenes you did.
Peter shook his head. No, Phay didn't know about that last bit. They were close but he was reasonably sure he never told her that.
"You just shook your head when I asked—"
"No! I was just…it's. Is he calling back?"
"Do you want him to?"
Yes, yes, yes, yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes.
Phay clutched her cashews.
Peter ducked reflexively. "I do! I do want him to call back!"
Because I miss him, because I miss him, because— "I miss him."
Phay raised her eyes to heaven. "Thank you baby Jesus." She threw the nuts in the bowl, tugged her brother close until their foreheads clunked together. She looked into his absurd eyes. "Your eyes are absurd; you have the best lashes."
Peter smiled, remembering all the times he got what he wanted by fluttering them. So he did. "When? When will he call Phay?"
Instead of answering Phay held forth. "You get to choose happiness you know. It's your life, they don't own it any more. He misses you, Peter. Though I did kind of lie."
Right there in front of his sister and god Peter started crying, a tsunami of unexpected tears.
"Oh my god no, not about him missing you! Oh sweetie, I'm sorry!"
Peter groped for his own pulse. He'd read somewhere that the human heart could beat as much as four hundred times a minute. He was pretty sure he was halfway there. That had a name didn't it? Tachy something? Tichy?
"The bit I lied about was the call. The calling. Fuck, the calling back. I told Ben you would call him. I just thought it would, you know we could talk first. Christ Peter, you look like you're going to vomit, are you—"
He was. He did.
Phay's feet got the worst of it.
"Well, that's fair."
An hour, a shower, and a meal later Phasma Helen McGregor apologised to her brother (again) with still-warm cashew cookies, eaten as they watched the final four episodes of Saints&Sinners. The cookies were almost actually good.
Less good was Phay's shouting when Peter replied that no, he would not be calling Ben.
"Oh. My God. I'm going to kill you or die myself. You miss him Peter, he misses you. Does he have to show up on bended knee? Blow up a planet? Does he—"
"I sent a text."
Phay frowned. Paused the TV. She contemplated taking away the cookies. "Texted? Texted? What, like 'Hi bai, it's Peter lol'?"
Peter Alan Alexander McGregor took the cookies away from his sister. He did not say "I have never texted like that in my entire life," neither did he say anything that could be misinterpreted as the exact opposite of what he meant. What Peter did say, after pulling his sister close and pressing his forehead to hers was, "You have absurd eyes. They're so blue. Like the sky."
Phay's heart kicked up quick. She whispered hopeful, "You're going to New York?"
Peter's heart grew two sizes, giddy. He whispered back, "I'm going home."
Random facts: Phay's middle name is the same as Beatrix Potter's real first name while Peter's are those of Alan Alexander (A.A.) Milne; some day Phay'll get really good at the baking; the sex is so close you can almost see it if you squint. P.S. My aim is to finish writing this story in the next week and a half before I move to Dublin. P.S.S. That is my aim. P.S.S.S. I'm aiming for that. P.S.S.S.S. Ten days. Aim.
Chapter 7: Hahdf
When Peter texted him day before yesterday Ben had been in the middle of texting his agent. He'd been so startled by the message he nearly dropped his phone trying to get to his phone.
Before the pop-up text box faded away Ben saw Peter's name and the beginning of his message.
London's river Thames is broad and brown and rises eye-widening high some days. As broad as that waterway is now, it used to be broader still and in compliment the city itself grew around it…and grew. Six hundred square miles vast, London has nearly nine million souls, a storied past, and a culture inclined toward a certain reserve.
New York City feels bigger than its quieter counterpart but it's actually smaller. Maybe it's the placid East river and the more turbulent Hudson that give the impression of size, or maybe it's that the city has a population nearly as large as London. Whatever the cause, New York seems forever big, busy, and boisterous; her people doubly so.
Dublin though, well Dublin's a different beast entire. A capital city in its own right, Dublin's river is narrow and slow, the bridges spanning it tiny. Her people are expansive though, they enjoy talking to visitors and as a culture tend toward a pleasant kind of civic pride.
It has all the dining a visitor could want, does Dublin, all the shops, museums, and monuments, yet it's noticeably little for all that, less than a tenth the size of New York, with a population not much over half a million. Though it has sister cities in San Francisco and Paris, those places have hills, vistas, maybe tricks of sharp light that make them seem bigger than they are.
It was Dublin's sense of small that Ben Organa has always loved. How every time he stood on the tiny Ha'penny bridge he somehow felt as small, as right-sized as it, never too broad, never too tall. He wasn't Dublin-born but the place had always fit him better than London did, than New York does.
Because a city doesn't fit a man. It doesn't know him, his size. Roads do not rise to meet him no matter what the poets say, and the light in Dublin didn't really fall more gently on his upturned face.
Ben closed his eyes to the summer sun and yes, that light did feel soft, which made him laugh and that, like the light, was soft too.
When Peter texted him day before yesterday Ben had been in the middle of texting his agent. He'd been so startled by the message he nearly dropped his phone trying to get to his phone.
His brain and fingers short-fucking-circuited then, had a fancy little melt-down, because before the pop-up box faded away Ben saw Peter's name and the beginning of his message.
Ben's text to his agent ended up being "GOddt to go, by for now ytnks" and despite the woman calling him right after, he never did hear her Imperial March ring tone, his focus entirely narrowed to one thing.
Hello beautiful. It's Peter. I'm sorry about my idiocy at the party.
Humans are weird. Sometimes they only realise a thing all at once, unexpected like. Sat awkward in a slick metal cafe chair in noisy New York, Ben learned in one adrenaline-spiked second that, though he'd in these recent years loved well and been loved in return, he had not found a soul that fit his the way Peter McGregor's always had.
Fuckity fuck. That was his giant fucking fingers trying to type hello over the pounding of his heart and for the five minutes of their text conversation most of Ben's replies were nervous thumb vomit requiring lots of backspacing but, but, but…in the end they'd both said the vital things needing saying.
Day after tomorrow.
I'll be there.
And here Ben was, toeing leaves off the Ha'penny bridge and into the Liffey, watching the river flow gentle while he waited, early and nervous, giddy and eager, trying not to check his phone every forty seconds and failing. It was during the fifth (eleventh) time, when he was just sliding it back into the pocket of slim-fit black trousers that his phone trilled with audio fairy dust, the Tinkerbell tone Ben had assigned to Peter.
And yes he was again so startled he nearly dropped his phone trying to get to his phone, and yes he was already shaking by the time he got the fucking tiny thing in his fucking giant hands and yes, very much yes, emphatically yes his heart rate spiked and his limbs went adrenaline-cold and something like grief filled his throat when he saw Peter's name and the beginning of his message…
…but Ben Organa is a big man in a world that does not trust his size, moving away, looking away, and so he had long ago had to learn to keep trying, to strive, so he saw the message from Peter that started sorry and, though he was very quickly and very definitely one hundred and one percent kind of sick at heart and his thumbs got vomit-stupid again trying to get through his mobile's lock screen, Ben pushed on anyway, tap-tap-tapping until he got to Peter's message, praying that it was more than…
Sorry beautiful, I changed my mind.
When Ben opened the text amidst the jitter of his limbs and the hummingbird violence of his heart—that super-swift thrumming was called tachycardia, he knew that after a two ep guest role on Holby City—Ben saw something quite like what he'd feared except not at all.
Sorry sorry sorry, I'm going out of my mind!
While he read this text another came through.
The airport bus is stopped north of 3Arena for some reason and I swear I could walk faster than this.
The weirdest feeling of sadness hit Ben thud right in the chest. Peter was not even two miles from where he right now stood but some part of him perceived that as a chasm full of zombies and crocodiles and fire and for a moment he was weak in the knee with strange grief at how far, and then Ben became what he actually is: A really tall man with really long legs.
I'm walking toward you right now…
…he typed and then did exactly that, sending the message even as the little ellipsis showed Peter typing too…
Got off the bus, I'll be there as soon as possible
…and it was not wrong to say that Ben both snort-laughed and a-little-bit-cried at the words, fast-typing his own fucked-up reply…
Im wakjjing on the north side of the ruver
…and cradling his phone as he waited for more, looking down and managing to not run in to anyone because essentially he was a wall walking, obvious to anyone from five paces distant and…
I am too
…there it was and there again was the snort-laugh-kind-of-cry thing and a sudden need for Ben to stop and put his hands on his knees because he was so giddy he was dizzy and though now was nothing like any other time with Peter now did feel like so many times then, when laughing-crying was pretty much the most sensible response to the size that loving Peter made his heart and…
Breathe Ben, breathe he chanted to himself and so he breathed but he looked up along the road too but there was no one there yet, just a mirage made of his hope, so Ben Organa cleared his throat and shoved off his knees and he walked, a long-legged stride that Peter always matched because his legs were just as long and shit, Ben felt sweat trickling down his spine and apparently every fucking thing was suddenly funny because the tickling trickle of it made him giggly and walked him fast-fast-faster still.
He would have seen Peter sooner but there was a gaggle of tourists standing there in the middle of things, photographing the Sam Beckett bridge and so Ben didn't see him and didn't see him and then he did.
Peter was running.
His expression was so serious and he was running to get to Ben and the whole laughing thing went to fucking hell in a handbasket and instead Ben just went and damn well cried and started running, too.
Here was the thing Peter McGregor promised himself he'd do when he went to meet Benjamin Organa in the city of Dublin: He swore he'd let his conscience be his guide.
It so happened that Peter's conscience was six foot three, yellow-haired, and really ready to mother-fucking kick his sorry ass if he did the wrong thing and by the wrong thing Phay had meant holding back.
And while his conscience didn't have to be so damned aggressive about it, from the time he got on the plane to Ireland Peter vowed that he would be ready. Ready to hope all the hope that needed hoping, ready to say all that needed saying. So when the airport bus got snarled in traffic and he thought I should get off and just run Peter McGregor was already standing.
When he saw Ben, Peter will tell you he stopped feeling his limbs because he did stop feeling his limbs, all right? Ben used to call him pixie and fairy and Tinkerbell and sprite and so help him Peter would give even damn odds that he grew glassine wings in those seconds just before their bodies collided.
Here's a thing to know about momentum:
Momentum crashes two bodies together and, when done just right, those bodies do a beautiful thing. They wrap round one another, they hold so very tight arms shake and chests hiccup. If you're Peter McGregor momentum buries your face in a mane of shaggy-dark hair that smells of vanilla cologne, if you're Ben Organa momentum makes sun-orange hair tickle your nose and mouth.
Here's another thing to know: That momentous meeting? It happened right smack-dab in front of one of Ireland's most beautiful bridge, the one shaped like a harp, the one tourists always photograph. So tourists photographing the bridge just then, well in some of their photos they would later notice two men holding each other, cupping one another's faces, kissing. Some of the tourists, when they look at the photos later, will recognise the big guy from that British TV show though many won't. What everyone who notices those men in their photos will see are the smiles on their faces, the joy, maybe even, if the light was just right, the brightness of tears.
None of those tourists could hear the men of course, so none heard what they said for those long minutes by that pretty bridge, but some of those things included:
"I missed you…"
There was a lot more to say, so Ben and Peter just stood there and said it, fearful the words would get lost in the walk to the B&B or in sudden shyness or in stupid fear.
So Peter said something tender that started with "I still…" and Ben replied, "…me too," while Ben said "I'm worried-afraid-hopeful-scared…" and Peter whispered, "…let's not be."
Who said I want you…need you…touch me doesn't matter.
What does matters is what they were very soon going to do about it.
More story on its way! P.S. Here's Ben's Tinkerbell ring tone for Peter you're welcome; here's the teeny Ha'penny bridge, the unequaled Samuel Beckett bridge, and Peter running to Ben (yes it is). Also, I actually fast-typed a text so I could get Ben's misspellings, um, correctly spelled. WOOHOO P.S.: I just learned that my thumb conceit essentially it is canon and I shall now do a tasteful victory lap thankyougoodnight.
Chapter 8: Sun Moon Sea
A lot happens in the shadows before dawn.
For Peter McGregor, maybe a little too much.
Ben loves the morning sky when the moon's still in it.
Though right now dawn was an hour off and the moon was a ghost ship, an almost-see-through crescent that would grow even fainter as the sun rose round the edge of the earth.
Though still dark Ben was wide awake, legacy of many years of early call times. His character in Saints&Sinners had been a sympathetic fan-favorite, sympathy in part bought through war wounds applied in the makeup chair at five a.m. most days.
Ben took a deep breath, sighed it into the darkness. Just as well, he needed a little time to feel the easy fit of his skin, the ease down deep in his bones.
Ease. That was it, wasn't it? Being with Peter again hadn't felt anything like Ben had feared because there had been no fear.
Theirs had been a quiet disintegration so long ago, the relationship fading away like this crescent moon. They'd…disappeared from one another, distance over time doing what it does, until a Christmas came and went, then a birthday, then the realisation that they'd each seen the other with someone else, and somehow…they'd never talked about any of that.
Then at Nat's party just days ago there'd been the austere man. Hair gelled to darkness, a suit cut sharp as a blade and a spine straight as one too, and the only thing they'd talked about was a past long gone. No wonder it went to hell within three words.
Ben had feared that would happen again. Except now they were here, in a bright yellow bed and breakfast right on Dublin Bay, and if Ben squinted he could see the sun just painting the edge where sky and water met, all fears unfounded.
On the short train trip from the city centre Peter had held Ben's hand against his own chest, Ben had curled his big body close, and together they'd whispered away the journey. Once in their room they'd pulled the heavy curtains closed, barely opened overnight bags, hardly even untucked the tight-made bed, and crawled under the covers.
They'd talked a long time, fingers twined together. Talked about their quiet disintegration and all the little ones that had come after. Talk had turned to smiling silence, to kisses, to reaching down, then to laughing, half-arsed efforts not to get come on the sheets as they got each other off.
Ben smiled at the horizon, which saw fit to blush the barest bit. Or maybe that was his imagination. Ben grinned besotted wide. Peter used to say he had a good one.
Except it wasn't Ben's imagination when he heard it, clear as a call in the morning dark—Peter's absolutely heart-stopping scream.
Peter McGregor is a whole damn festival of dichotomies.
Put the man in a suit and his spine goes plumb line straight. Put him in trainers and he plops cross-legged on the ground. Give him a deadline and he's check-box efficient, fail to give him one and you'll never get what you asked for.
Perhaps the place where Peter is at his contrasting worst is in his own self-worth, because here's a fact: early fame can do damned odd things to a brain. On the one hand a famous child will understand they are worth a great deal to those around them while, on the other, they have little control over that worth or indeed, their own life.
He might be thirty-four years old but Peter McGregor was even now torn between the certainty he was worth absolutely nothing now that he was grown and feeling he was one thousand percent just damn fine the way he was thankssomuch for asking.
Which is by way of explaining why, when Peter woke at four fifty-two in the morning and found the bed not only empty but cold, he assumed the worst. Ben had left.
His overnight bag said that that wasn't true. Memories of words whispered the night before hinted at the same. But both were given the irrational fuck-the-fuck-off I know the truth treatment.
That truth looked this: Ben could probably live without the contents of that small bag, but who the hell could live with a man so cut-crystal delicate that he was still damaged from a past two dozen years gone and worse, who soothed that damage with the salve of sex with strangers?
Why wouldn't you tip-toe away before dawn?
Fortunately Peter McGregor's not a complete arse end. He's got his sister and her tendency to throw baked goods at his head to thank for that in part, and he does pull his own weight, trying hard to see the shards of his own soul and mend what he can.
So, though Peter was semi-sure that Ben Organa had woke in the night, realised where he was and with who, though he was pretty certain Ben had then thought what the absolute fuck and slipped shoes on beneath some wrinkled trousers then snuck himself away, though Peter was preparing himself to be not at all surprised by this half-believed reality, still and all the man went and made the effort of getting out of bed like a grown-up so that he could verify.
And right off went fifteen-years-old again, flushing to the hairline. Because as he distractedly scratched his belly Peter realised the itch was from a smear of Ben's dried come and hadn't he daydreamed about that when he was fifteen?
Short answer: Oh god yes. Long answer: Long before he had the courage to tell Ben how he felt about him, Peter masturbated to thoughts of him and do you want to know a thing? Peter will tell you a thing for free: His dick about fell off the year Ben decided to make his body bigger.
Spring, summer, autumn, Ben was constantly in singlets or stripped to the waist and showing off beautiful biceps or eye-widening pecs and though Peter always thought he was kind of doing it on purpose, it was only later Peter learned that Ben was what he called 'a super slow developer sweetheart, because not only did I not notice you noticing me with the drooling lust I am seeing on your face right now, but I kinda didn't see you, either.'
Apparently Peter's tardy darling was too shy to look at real boys, instead jerking off to magazine adverts, where pretty men sold colognes or underpants. It wasn't until Peter grew a full beard at nineteen that Ben looked up, looked out, and saw that Peter too had become very much a man.
"God," Peter whispered, touching his beautifully filthy belly and remembering how giddy they'd been that first weekend of their love affair, how every part of both of them was spread, touched, kissed. How every opening was explored deep with tongue and finger and cock. How just thinking about then could make his heart trip now.
Doesn't matter, Peter's brain helpfully interrupted. "Shut up, arse end," he said out loud, tripping into his own wrinkled trousers then quick-smart giving up on finding his shoes.
Feeling like his heart was absolutely in his throat, pounding away fit to make him hypoxia-giddy, Peter tip-toed out to the inn's back garden where the host had twice told them sat 'a little lovely swing.' But, upon spying the tiny two-seater, Peter found no big man rocking slow.
Logic told him that Ben was near, he was, of course he was, he'd never been cruel, he never would be, but logic doesn't shout like panic does, so panic shouted he's gone little Peter Rabbit, he's gone hop-hopped away. Jaw grim-set Peter shuffled silent through the inn and out to the front garden, where the grass was dew-wet on his bare feet and the air chilled.
Drifting across the quiet grounds Peter looked toward Dublin Bay. He and Ben used to come down here to Dún Laoghaire on the DART all the time just to walk the two piers and watch little kids training to sail in the dinky boats. They'd eat chips and have ice cream and look out to the sea. Maybe Ben was on one of the piers. Maybe Ben—
For an entire very, very long second Peter McGregor stopped thinking.
For another really long moment his brain had a merry frolic with the far, far past.
Then, with the suddenness of a punch Peter's brain seized up, he looked down, and without further thought good Mr. McGregor did the one and only thing of which he was at that moment capable.
Peter screamed his head off.
Of course Peter's screams are Domhnall's screams in the Peter Rabbit trailer. Next chapter the angst gives way to the good, the sweet, and above all the sex.
Chapter 9: Run, Ben, Run
Ben ran faster when Peter stopped screaming. Because in silence there is all manner of suffering and it takes but a fraction of a fraction of a second to imagine terrible, awful—
—there, there he was, still as stone, quiet as death.
He started stripping his jumper off as he did, hip-checking a bollard because he couldn't see but that didn't stop him running. He stumbled up the pier's ramp, almost fell, but turned the momentum of the fall into running faster.
Because Peter had stopped screaming.
It wasn't even fifty yard separating them but the road rose up, hid all but the roof of the B&B and Ben ran and ran because in silence there is all manner of suffering and it takes but a fraction of a fraction of a second to imagine terrible—
—there. Peter. In the inn's front garden and Ben didn't stop to ask questions he hooked his arm around Peter's middle and he tripped, stumbled, staggered them both across the inn's deep lawn.
A dozen feet from where he'd found his love they fell.
Now Ben could hear the aborted sounds of Peter's distress, the choked grunts of air that couldn't come out or go in deep enough and hearing what he was hearing? It took half of a half of a half second to be sure what was wrong but Ben didn't need even that much, he was yanking Peter's trousers off, and later they'd laugh about it—one man stripped to the waist, one bare from there down—but right now Ben was grateful there was nothing in the way of him seeing Peter's naked skin.
Except the dark.
Didn't matter, didn't matter, the response would be the same whether Ben saw the ants crawling over Peter's skin or not, and that response was the same as it had been during that first awful panic attack he'd been there for when Peter was seventeen: Clear the skin.
So with his stripped-off jumper Ben rubbed Peter's bare legs down, he rubbed hard and rubbed rough, because Peter's animal brain needed the grounding of the wool's rasp, needed to feel the scrape-scraping on his skin, needed to know Ben was wiping away the ants that would bite-bite-bite him, bite him a hundred times until he cried and swelled and cried and—
—they call it a trip-wire response, how the body learns to associate fear with a situation and then triggers itself years later when it thinks it's in a situation that's similar.
Ben wasn't there when eight-year-old Peter was on a photo shoot in the American South, standing little boy tall, hands on hips and smiling bright even when he first felt a tickle at his ankles.
Ben wasn't there for the photographer's admonishment to the child, hissing him to stillness and then shouting obscenities when the little boy suddenly could not be stilled.
Ben was not there to hear Peter's screams as the red ants started to bite and bite and bite.
But Ben is here right now and he will tell you that if someone gave him the ability to go back in time once, just once, only one time, he'd forego dinner with a fucking celebrity, he'd skip putting money down on a sure-thing sports event, and instead Ben would go right to the five minutes before Peter stepped back and back and back—because little kids obey when grown-ups tell them to do things like "back up more for the love of god"—he'd stop Peter stepping right into an ankle high ants' nest and Ben'd snatch that little boy up and plunk him onto the grass and he'd make sure he was safe and sound and there were no ants on him, then he'd fucking knee that cock right in her groin and he'd shout a couple obscenities at her for good measure, then he'd spit in the eye of Peter's stupid parents and then he'd do what he was doing right now.
"It's okay, baby, it's okay, they're gone, they're all gone, no ants, no ants, there's nothing there but lemme see between your toes baby, spread your toes can you do that so I can check?"
Peter couldn't because panic has no switch, the adrenaline, the shakes, the weakness has to jangle itself through your body in its own fits-and-starts time and so Ben did what he was always gonna do anyway.
"That's it sweetheart, that's good," he praised, prying each toe apart himself, squinting in the streetlight-dark and sure enough there were garden ants between Peter's toes, little black-bodied and harmless, but Ben swiped them out with his big fingers, swiped between every toe, twice, and then he ran the rough jumper over Peter's legs again, crooning, "So good, very good, thank you, thank you baby. Now can you turn over real quick so I can make sure we got them baby?"
Though Ben was about to turn Peter himself he didn't have to, his love rolled over start-stop jerky, joints stiff, and Ben wiped and wiped with that jumper, from bum to feet, once, twice, three times.
In the middle of Ben's fourth rub down with the jumper Peter turned around, reached, and in less than a blink his arms were full.
"It's okay, baby," Ben whispered into his hair, "they're gone they're gone, they were just weenie ones this time, just tiny little ones with no teeth, but they're gone, we got 'em. Can you breathe with me now please can you?"
Ben took a noisy-big breath until his chest was pushing hard against Peter's and he patted Peter's back—one two three one two three—until he felt him draw a breath down deep. For another count they held it and then exhaled, again and again and again.
When Peter's arms were probably shaking more from the morning chill than the adrenaline, Ben whispered, "Perfect, that's good, we're good now I think, okay? We should go inside and get warm. Let's take a shower. I really need a shower now, I ran all the way from the pier and you know how bad I stink after running, like some sort of farm animal."
Peter's sudden watery giggling was—solemn promise, Scout's honour swear—the first time Ben took a real breath in the last ten minutes. The relief of it flooded through him so intensely his muscles went to mush and he tipped right over on that pretty grass, taking Peter with him.
And thus two men were found bare-arsed and bare-chested in a public place, one on top of the other, when the paramedics arrived.
Through it all, not only had neither man seen the eight inn guests gathered at the garden's edge (three of whom had called 999 at various points after the screaming), but neither noticed the blue flash of the ambulance lights until some very nice paramedics were trying to figure out which half-nude man was in distress.
And though panic happens quicker than the mind can think, the aftermath can feel syrup slow.
So the thirty minutes between a stethoscope to his chest and being tucked snug-tight beneath their room's duvet felt three hours long to aching joints and thick head, but Peter knew it wasn't.
He also knew he'd panicked over something that had been nothing, not really. Garden ants don't bite, the couple dozen that had skittered over his feet and up his ankles couldn't have done him the harm those fire ants did when he was a boy. Peter also knew he felt bad for his response and wanted to apologise to Ben for it, but it turned out Peter couldn't.
Because Ben was passed clean out, face half buried in his pillow, both of Peter's hands clasped between his. Drool had just begun pooling at the corner of his mouth.
Watching in soft-smiling fascination as it dripped syrup slow onto the pillow Peter took deep breaths—one two three—and he decided a few thing.
He would try hard not be embarrassed for things he could not help. He would get off his arse and do more about the things he could. And he would love Ben Organa forever.
Peter got started on the third of his three vows the next morning. Well, in the afternoon really, because they slept like dead men until three p.m.
Just as well, a couple of ants needed most of that time to make it out of the wrinkles of Peter's trousers, under the door, and into the front garden.
I had no idea Peter was actually having a panic attack. So. Um, the sex I keep promising should theoretically be on its way next chapter. I don't know any more, do you?