“…right, Captain Slow,” Jeremy mocked and grinned; he knew he had the audience in his hands. The audience snickered predictably and James rolled his eyes, resisted the urge to stick his tongue out. After years of working together they’d all finally found their places in their weird dynamic. James hesitated to call it a relationship.
James knew that Jeremy and Richard would push his limits but wouldn’t cross them. Their gentle ribbing gave him a warm, secure feeling somewhere right behind his breastbone and made him feel, for the first time in his life, like one of the team.
He usually got a stupid little smile on his face, like he still didn’t quite believe his luck, whenever they teased him, but on Andy’s advice he was trying not to show it to the cameras. “They’ll think you’re an idiot or something; or else a masochist,” Andy had said around his cigarette. James didn’t think either of those possibilities was out of the question, but he didn’t want to mess this up, so he’d just laughed and agreed to try to do better.
It was one of the PAs’ birthday so there was cake in the portakabin at lunch. James stayed long enough to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ and distract Andy with some inane question while Jeremy and Richard spiked the punch. Once he’d put in his obligatory appearance he loaded up a slice of cake –one of the corner pieces with lots of icing—and headed back across the lot to the hangar where Ben’s room was.
James knocked twice on the door with his elbow and heard Ben unlocking it from the inside. “Hey,” he said when the door swung open. “Brought you some cake and punch.” Ben relocked the door behind him. “Non-alcoholic punch; I poured some up before Clarkson and Hammond got to it.” He laughed and Ben smiled at him weakly.
“Thanks,” he said, taking the cake and dropping onto the small sofa that took up almost half the room. It was the same sofa that used to be in the portakabin lounge where they’d passed many hours reading and doing the crossword, before Jeremy had bought new furniture and Ben had been relegated to a locked closet.
Ben’s dressing room was a former storage closet with fluorescent lighting, shelves on one side, plain white walls, and no windows. When they’d outfitted it for him most of the money went into the keypad and locks on the door, leaving little left for luxuries. He had a mini fridge, the hand-me-down sofa and a TV tray for a table in the otherwise bare room.
Ben moved the remains of the box lunch an aide had brought him to the floor so James could sit on the sofa with him. “How’s the party?” he asked breaking off a piece of the cake with his fingers. James realized he’d forgotten to get a fork.
“Oh, you know,” he said, struggling for the words. “It’s not that great, really. You’re not missing much.”
Ben nodded, accepting the lie in the spirit it was offered. He broke off another piece and studied it. There was part of an “E” in the icing. “Whose birthday was it?”
“Elle’s.” James watched the top of Ben’s head and his back. The way the muscles in his neck moved when he nodded, never quite letting himself make eye contact with James. Ben had been getting more quiet and distant for a while, spending more and more time listening to music and keeping to himself. The change had come on so gradually James couldn’t pinpoint when it began and Ben brushed off all his attempts to talk about it.
Someone rattled the door handle and James jumped; Ben didn’t look up. The electronic keypad outside beeped as someone punched random numbers and muted voices came through the door, “Yup, I reckon ‘ee’s in there. The Stig. Saw ‘im go in there earlier.” The knob rattled again, another voice chimed in. “We oughta smoke ‘im out or something. Say, what’s the gap under the door like…” James started up but Ben grabbed his arm.
“Leave it. Please. They can’t get through. Eventually they’ll get bored and go away. They always do,” he glanced up at his helmet, resting on the shelf opposite, and then back to his half-eaten cake. James sat tensely and waited for some indication of what the men were up to.
“Bastard’s locked himself up tighter’n the queen’s arse…” the voice faded as the men walked away. Ben dropped his head into his hands and his shoulders shook but his eyes were dry. James scooted closer and wrapped both arms around Ben’s shoulders, wishing he could shelter him from the world.
New Txt Msg 10:45P
mate, saw Ben sitting outside after every1 had gone 2day w/ his earbuds in. spoke 2 him but he ignored me. everything ok?
In the beginning they’d all thought it was a bit funny the way Ben had rules for keeping his identity a secret. After all, they were just some dinky little motoring show no one really paid attention to. The whole ‘TV Presenter, show on the BBC, famous’ -thing just hadn’t seemed very real yet. Not even Hammond was getting recognized much back then, so really what was the point of wearing a balaclava whenever he was within eight miles of the track or never parking in the same place twice?
Andy’s simple instruction had been, Just don’t be an idiot and get caught, yeah? Ben had made up his own rules, though, and insisted on keeping them. He never went out with any member of the Top Gear team in public; that included James, which had made dating and ultimately living together more than a bit difficult. He never wore the white suit without the helmet outside his dressing room. He never brought any of his personal identifiers into the studio, leaving his wallet and phone locked in his glovebox in the car park. He only talked to a small inner circle of crew.
It had seemed eccentric and unnecessary, even if James did admire him for being thorough, but then slowly things had changed. None of them really noticed until one day it seemed to sneak up and hit them all at once. Suddenly fans were stalking them and newspapers were writing articles and things became very, very real.
One day while everyone was busy filming in the studio a news crew had broken in to Ben’s dressing room in the portakabin and tossed it, looking for evidence of his identity. Fortunately, all they discovered was that he wore size ten shoes. But the damage had been done.
The powers that be at the BBC called an emergency meeting to yell at Andy for being careless and Ben was ordered to continue all his current secrecy tactics and, additionally, to spend all his down times at the track in his dressing room. They banned him from the portakabin, suited up or not, and by the next week Ben’s new dressing room in the hangar had been outfitted with a steel door and the latest electronic deadbolt lock. It was supposed to be a safe haven but it quickly became a cell.
James missed the lazy mornings with Ben in the sun-washed lounge reading the paper. Missed making two cups of tea instead of one. Missed Ben’s company at lunch. He knew it had to be worse for Ben, sitting alone in his dressing room or silently signing autographs. As time passed more and more things were being taken away from him until James didn’t see how he could breathe.
The fans, meanwhile, were getting more and more aggressive. Something about not having a human face or a name seemed to give them license to push him, try to invade his space, do things they would never have tried with the other presenters. To be honest, it had James worried.
James sighed and rolled toward Ben, both of them still awake, silent, well into the morning hours. He wrapped one arm around Ben’s solid, comforting warmth and tried to reconcile how at the same time everything was finally falling into place for him everything was falling apart for his lover.
As he had gotten more comfortable at Top Gear and found his place, a lot of James’ anxiety-driven behaviors had faded away. Not to anything like a normal person (whatever that means) but enough for him to feel settled and really get to live his life. There had been an all-too-brief overlap when he was starting to come into his own and Ben still had some freedom before it had started going downhill. He thought back to those earlier days, resolving to think on happy things until he fell asleep.
“What’re you thinking about?” Ben mumbled into his pillow. James smiled and pressed a kiss into his hair.
“I was remembering that time you did the parachutist stunt and then you got to be in the studio when we filmed the show,” he stroked his hand over Ben’s chest. “You waved at the camera and said ‘hi mum’ and I almost died. Never stood a chance after that.” He was quiet for a moment, remembering. “BBC would shit themselves if we tried anything like that now.”
“They might have a point,” Ben said, punching the pillow up and shoving it under his head. “I got caught out that day.”
“What do you mean?” James propped himself up with one arm so he could stoke Ben’s hair and watch his face in the dim light.
“One of the audience members figured out who I was,” he laughed dryly. “It was the first time that ever happened.”
“Oh, I’d been out mingling with the audience earlier in the day, you know, as Stig. Signing autographs and stuff. And I didn’t notice, but I guess when I came back out as myself I stood next to the same clump of audience members. So we’re standing there, waiting for whatever to wrap up so it would be our turn, and this little girl, about nine maybe, tugs on my sleeve and says ‘I know who you are’.” He paused for effect and James made an understanding noise.
“I was on the top of the world, you know, so I didn’t get it at first. I thought she recognized me from seeing me race. I said, ‘Oh, are you a racing fan?’ and she said, ‘No, I mean I know who you are. You’re the man in the white suit.’ And it was like someone had poured a bucket of ice water over my head. I thought my career was over.” James slid his hand down to find Ben’s and squeeze it. “She sees me go all white, obviously, and says, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. You’re the best.’ All I could say was ‘How…?’” Ben swallowed hard and James could feel his pulse pound in their joined hands as he relived the story.
“She says, ‘You stood by me earlier, you signed an autograph for me, and you smell the same.’” He grimaced and shut his eyes. “She recognized me by my smell, James, my fucking smell. How am I supposed to keep them from catching on when everything gives me away? I already live in a box; I can’t change how I smell when I’m The Stig.”
“We’ll figure something out,” he promised.
We need to talk about The Stig. We’ve got to come up with a better solution for Ben.
James looked out the portakabin window at the light rain that was slowing down filming. Ben, in his Stig kit, was leaning against the warehouse wall to get some air. James thought he looked lonely, but really it was impossible to tell with the suit. He had one leg folded up resting his foot on the wall behind him and his visor cracked just enough for the wires of his earbuds to pass through, the iPod tucked somewhere inside his romper.
It was becoming an increasingly common pose for him.
James used to go and talk to him, or at least stand by him and keep company when he was outside, trying to escape the oppressive white walls of his dressing room. They’d stand together and James would listen to the muted, tinny rattle seeping out of Ben’s helmet from his iPod. Sometime it was James’ favorite part of the day.
But, there’d been a new edict from BBC headquarters. Ben wasn’t to be seen talking to or even associating with any of the presenters. It damaged The Stig’s persona as an other-being and what not. James rested his head against the cool glass.
Outside, a queue of fans wandered by and Ben signed autographs for them mechanically, bobbing his head to music.
James was out of the country filming when he got a text from Jeremy and call from Ben at the same time. He took the call.
“Hammond’s been in an accident,” Ben said breathlessly, not waiting for him to speak.
“He… what?” James’ brain refused to process that sentence.
“He flipped in that fucking dragster and no one will tell me anything. I called Andy but he didn’t pick up and I can’t get into the hospital to see him—“
“Ben. Ben, slow down. Take a breath, I can’t understand you.” James interrupted but Ben continued without hearing him.
“You have to come home. You have to come home now so you can go to the hospital and see him and make sure he’s okay. Because I can’t go there; they won’t let me in. And no one is answering their phones. Christ, James.” He broke off with a choked sob and James’ mind whirled. He couldn’t even begin to worry about Richard, to wrap his mind around all the ‘what-if’s, and Ben sounded like he was falling apart.
“Okay. I’ll be on the first flight. I’ll be home soon, I promise,” he started recklessly throwing clothes into his bag, leaving the hotel bed unused. “I’m going to call Jeremy and see if he knows anything and then I’ll call you right back. Okay?” Ben mumbled something unintelligible on the other end of the line. “You just stay put. I’m on my way.” He waited. “Ben?”
“Hurry,” he said softly and hung up.
James flipped over to Jeremy’s text:
Rich flipped dragstr. badly. goin to hosp to see him now. Drs say he may not make it. some1 told me he was awake when air ambulnce got there. Will keep u updated.
He hit “send” twice and the phone dialed Jeremy. It rang once and Jeremy’s big, confident voice came over the line sounding slightly shaken.
“May. He’s alive, mate.”
“I should have told them not to do it.” Ben rubbed his palms on his jeans and looked desperately at the outline of Leeds General out the windshield of James’ Panda. His voice was raw and cracked, all the stress of the past couple days showing through.
James started to reach for Ben’s hand but stopped himself, letting his hand fall on his own thigh. An old Citroen cruised through the parking lot, its headlamps briefly washing over the interior of James’ car and illuminating Ben’s face. James noted the dark bags under his eyes and the strained lines on his forehead, the hunted look in his eyes. “And what did you tell them?” James asked, already knowing the answer. They’d had this conversation at least once every couple hours since Hammond’s accident.
“I told them I thought it was a bad idea. But that wasn’t enough! I let them go ahead. I could have told them no, you know. I should have told them, no way, it’s too dangerous. I wouldn’t drive that thing. Don’t let him do it.” He talked faster and faster as he went on, gesturing broadly in the tight cab of the Panda. “I should have done something, James,” he let his head thud back onto the car window and screwed his eyes shut. James felt like Ben was begging him to say the right thing, but he had no idea what that would be.
“This isn’t your fault.” He noted the way Ben had his body angled sideways in the passenger seat and his feet propped up on the center console so he was as far from James as possible. James reached across and caught the toe of his tennis shoe. “It was Hammond’s and Andy’s decision and no one could have talked them out of it. You taught Hammond how to drive that thing; you told him everything he needed to know. That’s all you could have done.”
“I should have said I’d do it.” The yellow light from the street lamp washed his face and James watched the bob of his adam’s apple as he swallowed, saw wetness at the seam of his eyes. He blinked his eyes open and focused on the glowing windows of the hospital three blocks away. “I should have refused to let him. Now it’s too late.”
James sighed. If only there was a way Ben could get in to see Hammond, to see for himself that he was alive and warm and hanging in there. He needed to put his hand on his chest and feel his heart beating strong, like James had done that afternoon. James counted the windows up to the fourth floor; picked out which one he thought was Hammond’s. In the distance a siren wailed. “This is ridiculous. We’re going to figure out a way to get you into that hospital. He’s your mate and you ought to be able to see him.”
Ben laughed harshly, “Oh yeah? How are you going to do that?” He looked into the footwell of the passenger’s side. “It’s not like I can sneak in. We both know, I set one foot near that hospital and it’ll be all over the papers tomorrow. Stig outs himself visiting presenter; BBC files lawsuit against racing driver.”
“So we don’t sneak,” James said, a plan worthy of Jeremy forming in his mind. “We just walk you right in the front doors, let the paps take all the pictures they want.”
“Are you saying you think it’s time for me to let Stiggy go?” Ben asked, still staring blankly out the window.
“No. I’m saying it’s time for Stiggy to visit Hammond.”
It was nearing three in the morning by the time they’d gone by the track and picked up Ben’s suit and the hospital was quiet and mostly empty. The stooped old man with his bundle of lilies who rode the lift up with them from the lobby eyed Ben suspiciously and left in a rush once the lift dinged at his floor.
“This isn’t going to work,” Ben whispered from behind his visor.
“Of course it will,” James said, not actually as confident as he sounded. “This is my plan, not one of Jeremy’s. My plans always work.” Anyway, they’d already walked past the paparazzi at the front entrance, setting off a lightning storm of camera flashes. Any minute now Jeremy or Andy was going to be ringing James to yell at him. So at this point they were kind of committed. The lift dinged and came to a stop at Hammond’s floor.
James saw the charge nurse at the station look up as they stepped off the lift; she cocked a very skeptical eyebrow, hand on her hip. “Let me handle this,” James said, motioning Ben toward the waiting area and stepping forward. “We’re here to see Hammond,” he said to the nurse.
“He’s not allowed,” she pointed at Ben.
“Why not? It’s friends and family visitation and he’s a friend.”
“I think you need to take him and go before I have to call security,” she said, reaching for her phone threateningly. James opened his mouth to reply and she cut him off, straightening her shoulders and standing nose to nose with him. “This is a hospital, not a studio. Your friend in there is very, very ill and I’m not about to let you take that walking spectacle—“ she pointed at Ben, standing with his back against the wall in the corner, “--into his room for some kind of TV publicity stunt.”
James opened and shut his mouth like a fish, for a moment too stunned to find the words. He had expected some resistance. Expected to maybe have to sign a few autographs, pose for some photos. But he was completely blindsided but this. He felt all the frustration and rage of the past few years welling up at once.
“You do realize,” he said slowly, icily, to the nurse, “that he is a real person. You understand that all that crap Jezza says on Top Gear about he’s an alien who eats raw pork or whatever is just shit. It’s just made up. Pretend. For the TV show,” he heard his voice rising but couldn’t seem to control it. “You realize that he’s a real, normal, breathing person who lives his entire life inside a helmet and behind locked doors because of a contract with a fucking television program that isn’t even important.”
James became aware of Ben at his left shoulder, tugging lightly on his elbow. He jerked his head toward the lifts, plainly wanting to give up and not make any more of a scene. But now that he’d let this emotion out James couldn’t stop it, “And right now he’s worried sick about his mate who just almost fucking died filming that same goddamn TV program and he can’t even go visit him in hospital because he’ll get sued.”
Ben tugged harder on his arm and James realized he’d backed the nurse up against the station and was towering over her. He backed away slightly and looked over at Ben, seeing only his reflection in the shiny visor. “No. This is ridiculous. Fucking Top Gear is not worth this.”
Ben’s helmet swiveled between James, the nurse, and the lifts but James stood firm. The nurse watched them both with wide-eyed fear. Ohh, I’ve really cocked this one up, James thought. I hope we don’t get arrested.
“James,” Ben hissed softly, trying not to let anyone else hear him. “Please, let’s go.”
The nurse jerked her head around, now staring at him with a different kind of wide-eyed wonder. Like she really hadn’t quite believed James that there was a real person under there until she heard him speak. Ben looked at her fleetingly and then back to the lifts. James sighed in disgust and gave into his insistent pulling, turning away.
“Wait,” the nurse said behind them. “I didn’t— I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. Please, go and see your friend.” James and Ben turned and stared at her, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “I’ll make sure no one else goes in while you’re in there.” She promised.
“Thank you,” James said and Ben reached out to clasp her hand. “It means a lot.” She nodded and waved them in.
Richard was in a dim, glass walled room surrounded by softly beeping machines and the mechanical whirr and swish of the ventilator. Mindy had fallen asleep in her chair, her torso laying part way across his bed. James pulled the glass door of the room to and she jolted awake, eyes going automatically to Richard’s monitors, but the lines remained steady and unchanged.
“James,” she said, reaching out for him. “You came back.” James bent down to accept her hug. When she didn’t seem ready to let him go he slid to his knees, allowing her to hang on.
“Of course. I had to bring the fourth musketeer up so he could see him with his own eyes,” James rested his head on Mindy’s shoulder and breathed in the familiar scents of their laundry detergent and soap—all the smells of Richard on a Wednesday morning at the track, cocking about and chugging energy drinks.
“Who--?” Mindy pushed away from him to look around the room until her eyes landed on Ben, hovering near the door. “Oh, hey.”
“Well, since you guys are here I think I’ll go get some coffee and freshen up,” Mindy stood and looked around for her mobile before realizing it was in her hand.
“We saw some paps eating in the cafeteria when he came in,” James warned her.
“It’s okay, the nurses gave me the code to their break room; I’ll go in there.” She paused on her way out to hug Ben awkwardly. He held himself stiff, unwilling to give in to her firm embrace, but she just pulled him in tighter and leaned up to crack his visor open and whisper something James didn’t hear.
“Call me if… you know. Anything,” and then she was gone. For a moment the room was silent except for the humming of Richard’s equipment and they stood still and soaked it in.
“What did she say?” James asked; he glanced at Mindy’s empty chair but shoved his hands into his pockets and stood instead. Something about hospitals made it impossible for him to relax.
Ben shrugged. The room reeked of disinfectant and plastic packaging and their shoes squeaked on the floor as they shifted.
“I’m pretty sure you can talk in here,” James glanced around. They were both avoiding looking at Hammond. “The walls are clear but they’re solid.”
“You don’t think they have cameras?” Ben asked softly.
“Doubt it,” he reached up and pushed Ben’s visor open until he could get two fingers in. Dimly he could see the contours of his jaw. “That should be fine, anyway.”
“He doesn’t look right,” Ben said, finally acknowledging the reason they’d come. “He’s never this still.” James stepped closer to the bed, drawing Ben with him. The only movement from Hammond was the steady rise and fall of his chest in time with the bellows on the vent. “His face doesn’t look… lived in.”
“He’s in a medically induced coma. It will let his brain heal and give the swelling time to go down,” James rested his hand on Richard’s shoulder where it stuck out from under the crisp, white sheet. “He was conscious after the crash; he wanted to do a piece to camera while they were putting him in the helicopter.”
He’d told Ben all of this already, of course, but it was different now that Hammond was right there where they could see and touch him. “He’s alive, Ben. He’s a fighter. You know how he is. He’ll get better.”
Ben glanced up at the monitors above the bed then, shaking his head, tugged one glove off and slid it under the sheet to feel Richard’s heart beating. If he was crying, James couldn’t tell.
SUBJECT: [FIELD LEFT BLANK]
Hey hamster. I know you aren’t reading this right now, since you’re, you know, kinda indisposed, but I figure you will eventually. Ben and I came to visit you last night in hospital; he needed to see you for himself. He came dressed in his Stig kit and there were tons of photos in the papers today. Andy called me to gripe about it but then did that thing where he just talks about nothing instead of bringing up what he really wants to say. …I kind of yelled a nurse. Fortunately there wasn’t anything about that in the papers. You looked the same as you did the day before, mostly, but your eye has started to turn kind of purple-red. By the way, Mindy whispered something to Ben and he wouldn’t tell me what so you should remind me to ask her what it was when you read this. I guess that’s all. We all miss you. Ben couldn’t get over how still you were when he saw you. He kept saying that you are never that still in real life. We need you back in real life with us, Hamster. Come back soon. James.
PS: attaching some of the photos of The Stig visiting Leeds General. Enjoy.
They started filming the studio stuff for series nine, at Hammond’s insistence, in December. Everyone was relieved to get back into the routine of filming and days on the track- to get back to normal after so long spent in limbo –but the reality was anything but normal.
Hammond was recovered just enough to try and fake it but not enough to actually fool anyone who knew him well. Having to watch him struggle and then having to pretend not to notice was almost more than James could stand most days, and even though they weren’t talking about it he knew the rest of the crew felt the same way.
The tension at Dunsfold was palpable and it wasn’t all from Hammond. Everyone was living under the black cloud of the accident and trying to make sure it never happened again. They were more conservative with their stunts and more careful with their safety. Every time Ben took a car for a power lap James joined the group of mechanics and techies who hung on the chain link fence to watch and hold their breath.
Because Hammond had told his doctor that he was only going back to work “part time” (an outright lie) and because they already had most of the films made from over the summer, they were maintaining a lighter schedule than normal. This left a lot of time for people to get anxious and restless and inevitably get at each other’s throats. With all the tension in the air, James was frankly amazed no punches had actually been thrown. Yet.
SUBJECT: Re: [FIELD LEFT BLANK]
thanks for the email, mate, i just now read it. i have been slowly working my way through teh backlog in my inbox. i need to tell you something, because i know i can tell you and you wont tell me to get over it or fuck off. i feel like such a little shit these days, knowing how many people were visitng me and rooting for me, and now that i’m back i can’t even hold it together. i’m a disaster. inside. i know filming isnt going well and i keep walking in on Jez hiding out in the portakabin with his eyes all red and it’s obvious he’s been crying but he wont tell me why. this isn’t how this was supposed to work, mate.
anyway, Minds wouldn’t tell me what she told Ben so you’re on your own there. how is he holding up these days?
In an attempt to keep morale up and head off any storms brewing at the track, Andy instituted weekly lunch meetings (because nothing cheers people up like a meeting) with catering and an open forum to share feelings. James, having just escaped a particularly painful example of one such meeting, pulled his jacket tighter around him as he braved the icy wind of the car park between the portakabin and the hangar.
This is what happens when men get to make decisions, he thought. Normally James would be a staunch defender of ‘anything she can do he can do better’ but he had to admit that a woman would probably have seen through Hammond’s bravado and the studio’s eager ‘take-all-the-time-you-need, but…’ and put her foot down. He knocked twice on Ben’s door and scrubbed his hands together for warmth. The building was unheated unless the audience was there and his breath was forming crystals in the air.
The door swung open and he saw Ben retreat across the room, kicking a pile of boxes across the floor. His shoulders were set in a stiff line and his hair was sticking up in every direction like he’d been pulling on it. James pushed the door shut and stepped forward tentatively. “Ben?”
“Finally remembered I was here, have you?” he snapped. He grabbed a knit hat off the sofa and jammed it over his ears, stomping his feet for warmth. “Lunch was delicious, by the way. I found some old crisps in the bottom of my bag and half a jar of mayonnaise in the fridge.”
“Shit,” James’ heart sunk. “They forgot to bring you anything?” Ben whirled on him. His face hard and blotched with an angry red flush.
“Yes, they fucking forgot. They forgot last week too. I am so inexpressibly tired of being the invisible man around here!” He spun and punched the wall, the cheap paneling giving way easily with a splintering sound. “Fuck,” he said, out of breath. James stood perfectly still, afraid and in shock and not sure what to do. “Fuck,” Ben said again, looking from the wall to his hand to James. “I didn’t mean that, James. I’m sorry, I’m just so—sod it. Look, I’m just mad and I’m going to go off on whoever gets closest. You should just go.”
James saw Ben’s hands quiver as he shoved them into his pockets, staring at the ground and taking deep breaths, trying to control himself. “I’m not going anywhere,” James stepped closer, forcing himself into Ben’s space.
Ben gritted his teeth. “James…” he said warningly.
“I’m not,” James squared up to Ben. They were almost the same height so it was hard for Ben to escape James’ eyes when they were almost nose to nose. “Talk to me. If you have something to say I want to hear it.”
“It’s nothing you haven’t heard before,” he said, retreating until his back hit the wall. “I’m tired of this,” he said flatly, rehashing the subject of so many late-night confessions. “Tired of being forgotten, tired of the press and the silence and the anonymity.” He braced his hands on James’ shoulders, trying to push him out of the way. “I’m tired of people seeing the suit and never seeing me.” He shoved at James and twisted to the side, trying to get away, but James crowded him into the wall, moving his hands to Ben’s hips and pinning him there.
“I always see you,” he said vehemently and moved in for a hard, deep kiss.
Ben pushed his tongue into James’ mouth immediately turning the kiss rough. He pulled back enough to bite at James’ lip, hard. James returned in kind, leaning his full weight into Ben and mashing their mouths together until their lips were smashed painfully against their teeth, knowing they’d both be swollen and sore.
James normally didn’t take the lead in the bedroom, preferring to let Ben direct them. It just worked; James didn’t need anything special in their sex life, all he wanted was Ben. Today, though, was different. He levered the advantage of his slightly heavier (if less muscled) body, leaning into Ben from shoulder to hip, keeping him against the wall. He moved one leg in between Ben’s, holding him in place with a thigh against his groin, and let his hands search out until he found Ben’s wrists. He grabbed both hands and brought them quickly above his head, pinning them against the wall with one hand.
Ben resisted, arching away from the wall every time James let up and keeping the muscles in his arms taut. James fought to take back the dominant position in the kiss, sucking Ben’s tongue hard whenever he thrust it into his mouth. Ben grunted and pulled away, spit-slick skin sliding against James’ chin. He panted a couple of breathes and then launched back in just as James moved his free hand down to grope him through his romper.
Ben choked on a short breath and his mouth fell open and slack when James ground down on his half-hard cock, rubbing him with hard stokes. James took advantage of his distraction to take control of the kiss again, nipping Ben’s lip sharply before running his tongue over his teeth. Ben went rock hard under James’ hand as James continued to roughly grope him through the thick, quilted romper.
Ben grunted and bit James’ tongue, seeming to adjust to the pressure on his groin and get his wits back. His hips betrayed him, thrusting minutely in time with James’ motions, but he didn’t let that cost him anything. He rubbed his hip against James’ erection where it was pressed against him and James felt him smile and nip at his mouth when he had to jump away from the tempting pressure. Quick to retake control James redoubled his efforts to undo Ben. He was fairly sure that under normal circumstances Ben would already be begging, but today he still had a lot of fight left.
James felt the pulses in Ben’s wrists as he flexed his captured hands. He could probably get his arms loose if he wanted, but that wouldn’t be enough to let him get James off him completely. He ground the heel of his palm down against Ben with enough pressure that he was sure he must be just on the right side of pain and felt Ben’s breaths stutter against his mouth, his resolve finally beginning to crumble.
Come on, come on, James mentally coached. He didn’t really want to bring Ben off in the suit, but he wasn’t going to give him what he wanted until he asked. He wrapped his hand around Ben’s cock as much as he was able through the suit and squeezed and a thin whine tore itself out of Ben’s throat, his lips going lax against James’.
“Please.” He whispered it so softly that James couldn’t understand him at first, might not have noticed at all if Ben hadn’t been speaking directly against James’ mouth. “Please,” he repeated. “James.”
James’ hands shook as he fumbled for the lower zip on the romper and Ben trembled underneath him, still straining away from the wall but now trying to get closer to James instead of away. He found the zip and raised it enough to get his hand in, shove it under the waistband of his trunks, and take his cock in hand. Ben let out another desperate whine and gasped, the kiss forgotten. James pressed tender, quick kisses around his bruised mouth and up to his cheek bones. His arm moved between them as he jerked Ben with the fast, smooth stokes that usually brought him off.
There were no words, just a drawn out groan as Ben went taut underneath him and James felt warm, sticky come splash over his hand in spurts and run down his knuckles. He stroked Ben through the aftershocks and then withdrew his hand, grabbing a take-away napkin from on top of the microwave to clean them both. He let Ben’s wrists go and gently lowered them back to his sides, rubbing them carefully and working up to massage his shoulders, gentling the stiffness away.
Ben leaned against the wall boneless, all the fight and tension drained out of him. He rolled his head forward onto James’ shoulder when James came to stand in front of him, putting both arms around his back and holding him loosely. His warm breaths puffed against the junction of James’ neck and shoulder and his hair tickled his ear.
“Do you need—“ he asked suddenly, sounding wrung out but reaching for James’ crotch. James angled his lower body away so Ben couldn’t feel his softening erection.
“No, I’m good,” he said and Ben relaxed into him with a sigh.
“Thanks,” he said and stroked one hand down James’ back to catch in his belt.
SUBJECT: Re: Re: [FIELD LEFT BLANK]
None of this is your fault, Rich. Your brain is healing, it just needs time, Jezza’s problems are his own. But I suspect you already knew that.
Ben is okay… Most days it is enough. Today it wasn’t. We are all coping, Rich, you most of all. Just keep swimming, etc.
Why don’t you come round to mine this weekend to work on the bikes? Or at least sit around with Ben and watch me curse while I work on them? Chin up. James.
James opened the door to his hotel room to a very bedraggled Stig carrying Ben’s bags. He stood out of the way to let him in, noting from his rumpled suit that he must have made the last leg of the trip wearing it.
“If I ever see another plane again it will be too soon,” Ben said when the door clicked closed, dropping his bags on the floor and wrestling his helmet off. “I think I went all the way around the world twice to get here. If anyone managed to keep track of me and links me to Top Gear, they earned it.”
James rubbed his shoulders and snaked his arms around to hug him from behind; he still smelled right, under all the layers of travel residue and sweat. He turned his head for a soft kiss and James noticed the bags under his eyes that never seemed to go away any more. Ben had gotten thinner and paler in the last couple years. Lately he’d seemed to be getting worn thin, stretched to his breaking point by all the demands of the show’s growing success and maintaining the identity of The Stig. He leaned in to James heavily and sighed.
It was rare that they got to share a hotel room these days; it was hard enough sneaking Ben around in-country, when there were no tickets to be bought or borders to be crossed. Usually when they travelled out of country he was scheduled to film a few weeks before or after the rest of them to avoid suspicion but Top Gear Live necessitated that they all be in the same place at the same time.
“Maybe a shower? That’ll make you feel better,” he suggested. He ran his fingers into Ben’s hair, working the knots out. It was shaggy but still defiantly straight despite the humidity. He needed a haircut, but even that small luxury had gotten complicated. James had started cutting it with clippers in their kitchen when the men at the barber shop got too nosey, but lately they hadn’t managed to be home at the same time for long enough to get it done. Ben rolled his head back onto James’ shoulder and let his eyes fall shut.
“A shower sounds perfect. God, you can’t imagine the grime that is on me right now, James. This greasy looking old lady was breathing on me the whole last flight and before her there was the massive man--”
James drew away, “I’ll go get the shower going.”
“You’re bi-dialectal?” James shouted toward the ensuite, not looking up from the computer.
“I’m bi-what?” Ben asked, appearing with one towel around his waist and rubbing another over his hair.
James flipped off the foreign language show on the television.
“Bi-dialectal. You lived in the USA till you were ten,” James said, matter-of-factly.
“Oh, well, yeah. But what does that have to do with-- What are you doing, anyway?” Ben padded across the scrubby carpet to look over James’ shoulder.
“Reading your Wikipedia page.”
“It says that on my Wikipedia page?” Ben came craned closer to the laptop and a drop of water from his hair landed on James’ arm with a cold sting.
“Yeah. But, so you must be able to speak American? You lived there during your formative years, linguistically,” James looked over his shoulder at Ben’s drip-drying chest.
“Erm, I guess so. I mean, I used to be able to, but it’s not like it’s something I practice a lot. Can’t really think of a time when I’d want to be mistaken for an American tourist.” He swiped the towel over his upper body and across his hair roughly.
James nodding along, pulling his lower lip between his teeth. His eyes drifted over toward the window as he became lost in thought. “What’s the point?” Ben asked.
“Oh, just interesting is all. Opens up some… possibilities.” James turned back toward the laptop and after a few seconds Ben shrugged and walked back to the sink.
James didn’t mention anything until that night over dinner: room-service eaten sitting cross-legged, knee to knee on James’ bed.
As bad as things could be at the track, at least when they were back in England Ben got to go home at the end of the day to a semi-normal life. When they were filming on location, though, he was basically on house arrest, confined to his hotel room unless he was in the suit. Still, dinner together anywhere away from home was a slightly special experience since it wasn’t like they ever got to go out to a restaurant.
James nudged Ben with his knee, “What if we got you a mask?”
Ben raised one eyebrow, “Have you got some new kink you’ve never told me about?”
“No, I mean to hide your identity. A really good one, so that you could go out and about and no one would recognize you?” James gestured out the window, obscured by closed drapes.
Ben opened his mouth to reply and then seemed to reconsider, changing tack. “I’ve worn some pretty expensive masks, working as a driving double on films and such, and none of them were good enough to pass up close,” he said. James got the idea he was trying to let him down gently. “Besides, where would we get one? I appreciate the thought—“
“I know a guy,” James interrupted. “I met him doing that toy program. He makes specialty masks for movies; they’re good enough that your own mother wouldn’t recognize you.” Ben chewed his prime rib slowly, considering. “And you could use your American accent, so no one would recognize your voice, either. Think about it, you wouldn’t have to be cooped up in a hotel room all the time.”
“I guess. But… I mean, doesn’t it seem a bit extreme? And risky? The way things are now isn’t great, but it’s safe,” Ben reasoned. “Think of what would happen if I got caught? If the paparazzi found me out? Is the situation right now really bad enough to justify the risk?”
James sat with his hands on his knees and waited for him to finish the thought, knowing there was more to say. Outside the window cars honked and someone shouted something indistinct.
“I guess I’m a little afraid,” Ben said finally. “Of the idea of change. Of being out in the public, potentially getting rumbled. Things aren’t unlivable as they are, just stressing. I think I’m handling it pretty well most days.” James winced at the lie. Ben just shrugged, “Better the devil you know, right?”
“Thing aren’t okay now,” James said levelly. He didn’t have to say any more because Ben had known it was bullshit when he said it. Ben nodded, letting his head drop. “I know you always make the best with what you have, and I know that Jezza has done what he can to get you leeway and get restrictions taken off, but it’s only getting worse. The fans are getting pushier, the press is getting more rabid, and it doesn’t seem like it’s going to let up. The show just keeps getting bigger.”
“Shouldn’t that be a good thing?” Ben said softly. “I mean, job security, attention, fame, shouldn’t those be all the things I want?”
“We both know that it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” James took Ben’s hand across the empty room service tray. “No one who hasn’t lived it could understand all that you’ve had to give up. Working on Top Gear has changed you; you’ve become a different man in the past five years.”
Ben opened his mouth to reply but James cut him off. “And some of the ways it’s changed you are good, granted, but some of them… You never used to be anxious about anything. I remember when I met you I thought you were totally unflappable. Do you remember that? You used to laugh more. You used to talk about wanting to get a dog together. You never had this hunted look in your eyes like you do now.” He moved one hand up to Ben’s face and smoothed his thumb over the dark skin below his eye. “You look so tired. I think you know you can’t keep going on like this. If we don’t find some solution… you’re going to have to give Stiggy up and let someone else have a go.”
Ben pinched his forehead up and squeezed his eyes closed like he was trying to block the world out, or possibly trying not to cry. He never used to make that face, James thought, now it seems like I see it every week.
“You’re right,” he said, eyes still closed. “I never used to yell, either. I still haven’t forgiven myself for yelling at you.” James pulled him close enough to place a dry kiss on his forehead.
“It’s like it never happened.” He ran his thumb over Ben’s knuckles, the bumps and scars as familiar as his own, “This is your decision. Whatever you decide, I’ll support you the best I can.”
“Alright,” he looked up toward the window. “Call your friend, see what he can do. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to try, right?”
“Right,” James gathered their empty plates and took them to the door, leaving Ben to stare out the window and think of life outside.
The first step to getting the mask made had been for James to makes a life casting of Ben’s head from alginate and plaster. It was a sticky, smelly business that involved Ben sitting on a stool in a hotel bathtub wrapped in trash bags and with straws in his nose while James smeared the goop over his shoulders and head. Ben informed him, as he was picking alginate out of his ears a week later, that it wasn’t a process he was eager to repeat. Ever. James assured him that one mold would be good for many castings, as long as it wasn’t damaged, and that hopefully it would last longer than their need for it. Surely he won’t be The Stig forever… he thought, How long can they possibly expect him to live like this?
A month later an unassuming box covered in postage stickers sat on James’ doorstep.
“That’s it?” Ben said incredulously when James carefully pulled everything out of the box and spread it on his kitchen table. “It doesn’t look much like a mask.”
“Strictly speaking it’s a full face foam latex prosthetic with a wig,” James said examining the bottles of adhesive and paint that had come with the appliances. “See, these go on your cheeks, these go on your forehead,” he gestured to what looked like swatches on skin, complete with hair, laid over plastic forms. “Some bits of it are only good for one use, others we can use a few times. I’ll have to put it on you and then do the final paint job to get everything to blend.”
Ben just shook his head. “I suppose this means I should start practicing talking like an American. Did he at least make me better looking?” He squinted at the prosthetic pieces on the table, trying to arrange them into a face.
“I told him not to base it on anyone real and to make it good looking but unremarkable. We need you to be someone that people look right past, someone they don’t remember,” he pulled out a sandy blonde wig, lighter than Ben’s own hair, pinned to a styrofoam head.
Ben pouted. “Why couldn’t you have told him to make me look like Tom Cruise?”
James stuck his tongue out at him and shooed him out of the room.
They chose to give the mask its first live run while doing Top Gear Live in South Africa. Most of the crew was going out to a pub for the evening and Ben was less likely to be recognized this far from home.
Ben sat on a stool in their cheap hotel ensuite stripped to the waist while James applied the prosthetics. James nudged his chin up with his one finger, angling his head to get better light from the strip of fluorescents over the mirror. He groped behind him for one of the jars of makeup.
Ben kept his eyes shut as James carefully blended the prosthetics over his cheek bones into his skin. “Where did you learn to do this?” he asked. He was a little breathy from nervousness, already anticipating stepping into the hotel lobby without his suit.
James held his tongue between his teeth, almost ready for the detail work. “The same guy who made the mask taught me. I had a weekend of downtime in Australia during filming a while back and spent it hanging around his shop.” He fanned the blades of a paint brush, flicking freckles over Ben’s new skin. “I understand that it’s supposed to be pretty difficult but I never found it particularly hard to do.”
Ben laughed, a real laugh that soaked up some of the anxiety they were both fighting, and James had to stand back while his shoulders shook. “That’s because your brain idles at a higher speed than most people’s will rev to,” he said.
James hummed, pleased, as he rummaged through his brushes for a smaller one. “Do you think this is going to work?” Ben asked quietly.
“All my plans work,” James promised, and felt at least half as confident as he sounded.
When they walked into the pub, Jeremy choked on his beer and turned an interesting shade of red, which was probably the mildest reaction James could have hoped for. “Alright, Jezza,” he said walking over. Might as well get this out of the way quickly.
“What are you doing?” Jeremy squeaked under his breath, still hoarse from breathing some of his beer.
“Just showing Paul around,” he nodded toward Ben who smiled at Jeremy weakly, looking like he might be about to vomit. Jeremy stared at him, bug eyed.
“What, James? What are you thinking? He—this—“ Jeremy stammered. It took a lot to make Jeremy speechless and James allowed himself a moment of pride for having finally achieved it.
James interrupted before Jeremy could get his verbal legs back under him. “Relax, Jez. He’s in disguise. You’re recognizing him by his body language but trust me, no one who doesn’t already know him will be any the wiser.”
“James, this is insanity,” Jeremy insisted, finally getting a grip on his coughing. “He walks like B-- …Himself. He stands the same.” James glanced back at Ben, who was self-consciously rearranging his posture.
“We can work on that,” James said.
“And what about his voice?” Jeremy struggled to stay at a whisper, glancing around the pub to make sure they hadn’t been noticed. “Is whatever-you-said-his-name-was a mute?”
“Ah, now that—“ James began only to be elbowed out of the way by Ben.
“Hey Jeremy,” he said in a perfect American drawl, thrusting one hand out. “I’m Paul and I just have to say it’s a thrill to finally meet you.” Jeremy’s mouth dropped open, speechless for the second time in as many minutes. James looked back and forth between the two of them, Ben’s eyes sparkled under the fringe of Paul’s shaggy blonde mop.
“He’s American,” Jeremy said stupidly.
“Yes, Jeremy, Paul is from California. He’s new to the crew,” he winked at Ben. “We’re just going to play some darts, drink some pints. You know, normal stuff.” Jeremy opened and closed his mouth a few times, silently working over the situation. James waited to hear what he would say; much as he would hate to admit it he wanted Jeremy’s permission. Wanted him to condone their gamble.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you, err, Paul,” Jeremy said after a long pause, patting Ben’s shoulder in a matey sort of way he might do on the track. “Let me get you both a pint.” He signaled the bartender for three pints, emptying his current one in one long gulp. James and Ben settled down side-by-side on the stools to his right, their shoes tapping against the bar as they swayed. James felt Ben at his elbow and looked over to see him taking in the room with a wide-eyed, slightly goofy expression.
“It’s not that it’s so different being in a pub, you know,” he said, maintaining his American accent. “It’s being here with you.”
James resisted the urge to grab his hand and bumped their knees under the bar instead. “I am going to kick your arse at darts,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” Ben (Paul) replied.
“Yep, and then Hammond is going to kick both of ours,” he said, and he was right about the darts but wrong about the winning. James was always (mostly) right.
“Mate! Well done. Ehrm, nice to meet you. What’s your name again?” was Hammond’s rather predictable but completely heartwarming response when he saw Ben. James wanted to hug him just then, but post-brain injury Hammond was, if anything, even more fighty than the previous version. Instead he smiled and held up the darts to see Richard’s eyes light up.
“What are you drinking?” Hammond asked, sniffing Ben’s drink while he got his arm in at the dart board. “Ohhh, that smells like a good night.” Hammond was still counting the days down until his medically-enforced sobriety was over. “Will you be able to… you know, keep the—with your voice? If you’re drunk?”
“I hadn’t thought about that,” James said, annoyed to find a flaw in his plan.
“I did,” Ben said, sighting another dart on the board. “I’m going to take it easy just in case, but I think it should be fine.” It was just then that James noticed Ben’s handful of practice darts tightly clustered around the bulls eye.
“Permission to say ‘oh cock,’” he muttered, grinning despite himself.
“Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, I used to be pretty good at this,” Ben said with a cheeky smile. Even with the strange accent James noticed that he sounded like himself –his old self, from five series ago, when James had first fallen in love with him. He remembered sun-dappled mornings in the break room telling bad jokes and reading the paper and Ben’s laugh bubbling up unexpectedly like a surprise gift.
In the end it was all much easier than they’d expected it to be. Hammond embraced him with open arms, Jeremy and Andy looked the other way, they told their usual crew that he was a local hire and the local crew that he was one of the usuals and no one was any the wiser. They laughed and drank and took turns winning at darts until past midnight when Ben whispered urgently to James that he was getting rather itchy and it might be time to go.
“In some ways it’s like getting to know you again for the first time,” James said later, helping Ben pick the glue out of his eyebrows and around his ears. The skin underneath was red and bumpy, a reaction to the adhesive. “I never got to spend time with you away from home or work and, you know, everybody is a little different when they’re at the pub or at a game. You keep little pieces of yourself saved for only certain places and now… I’m getting to see those for the first time.”
“I feel the same way,” Ben blinked his eyes open, and scratched carefully at an itchy spot on his temple. “I feel like I’m remembering parts of myself that I’d forgotten. It’s been ages since… well, since I did much of anything really. The show’s gotten so big that I hardly have time to see my non-Top Gear mates.”
“I’ll call my friend tomorrow and ask him for a different glue. I’m sure you can’t be the only one who has this problem.” James swiped a wet flannel over his face, clearing away the last traces of adhesive.
“It’s really not that big of a deal,” Ben insisted, pressing the cool rag to his face. “I mean, I have to wear a helmet all the time anyway, so it’s not like it matters how my face looks. It’s annoying, and itchy as hell, but compared to how things have been…” He looked past James to his suit hanging in the closet. “You know, I’ve felt for a while that I’ve been living on borrowed time as The Stig. Like we just keep coming up with little ways to eek out a couple more years, but it can’t go on forever. Lately, it really feels like the gig’s going to be up soon. I know that this, the mask and the new-found freedom, won’t be enough forever, but it’s enough for now.”
He folded the rag over his knee and bumped shoulders with James, distracting him from guiltily studying the growing rash creeping over Ben’s face. “If this buys me a few more years on the show, if it can help me to keep my secret and survive for one more day so that I can drive the best cars on the road and meet the biggest celebrities and work with my best mates, living the dream, then it’s worth it.”
James reached for the tube of ointment he’d bought at the corner store and brought his other hand to run over Ben’s cheek. “It’s enough for today.”