“Why do you say that all the time?”
Ben pauses, his steaming mug of mint tea halfway to his lips. “Why do I say what?”
“‘Thank you kindly,’” Ray replies.
“It’s an expression of gratitude, Ray,” says Ben. “You made me a cup of tea. I’m grateful for it. So I said thank you.”
Ray rolls his eyes. “No, that part I get. I mean the ‘kindly.’ Why ‘kindly’?”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand the question.”
“Like, okay,” says Ray, “you’re thanking me for tea or whatever it is, and you say ‘thank you’ and you sound kind when you say it, so why bother saying ‘kindly’ too? It’s… it’s reduction.”
“Yeah, that one. Redundant.”
Setting down the tea that Ray made for him (it’s still slightly too hot to drink), Ben considers Ray’s question. “I suppose I never thought of it that way. Does it bother you?”
“Nah, nah,” says Ray with a wave of his hand. “Don’t bother me. I was just wondering, is all.”
“I see,” says Ben. “Well, if a suitable answer ever occurs to me, I’ll be sure to tell you.”
“Deal,” says Ray, and turns on the TV.
As they wait for their Chinese food to arrive, Ben turns the question over in his head. He doesn’t think it’s a bad thing, adding kindly to the end of thank you as he does. But nobody, until now, has ever drawn his attention to just how frequently he does it. Perhaps he’s become lazy in his use of language, which wouldn’t do at all.
Perhaps he ought to vary it a little bit.
- - -
“That was very thoughtful of you,” Ben says the next day, when Ray holds the door open for him on the way into a secondhand music shop.
(The back of Ray’s neck turns slightly pink at this, but Ben dismisses this as a trick of the light.)
And later, after they get the music shop’s cashier to admit to having recently seen a certain person under suspicion of cat thievery: “Your interrogation of Mr. Peeples was very effective, Ray. I’m proud to have such an excellent policeman as a partner.”
(To this, Ray shrugs and mutters something unintelligible. Ben thinks he detects a smile beneath Ray’s habitual scowl, but it’s gone before he can properly parse it.)
And a few hours after that, after the same certain person confesses to his crimes, returns all three cats to their rightful owners, and thereby avoids being arrested: “You didn’t have to pay for my dinner, Ray. That was very kind of you.”
Ray gives Ben a strange look. It occurs to Ben that the look might have been caused by his use of the word kind, which is to say, the very thing he’s been trying to avoid all day.
But before he can correct himself, Ray says, “Well, you paid on Tuesday.”
“Ah, true,” says Ben. “Still, it was ki—nice of you.”
“What can I say?” says Ray, throwing Ben a lopsided grin as he slides out of the diner booth. “I’m a nice guy.”
“That you are,” says Ben, putting his hat on and following Ray toward the door.
“Hardy-ha,” says Ray. “That was sarcasm, Fraser. I ain’t a nice guy, and you know it.”
As if to prove this, Ray leaves the diner first and, this time, doesn’t hold the door for Ben. Still, as soon as he’s out the door, Ben touches Ray’s elbow and says, “Yes, you are.”
“Tell that to my ex-wife,” says Ray. “Tell that to what’s-his-face, that cashier from before.”
“You’re nice when it matters,” says Ben. And when Ray still looks unconvinced, he adds, “You’re nice to me.”
“Psshh,” says Ray, waving a dismissive hand as he continues toward the car. That’s when Ben spots it: the same back-of-the-neck pinkness that he thought he saw before. Only this time, he’s absolutely certain it’s not the light playing tricks.
Interesting, thinks Ben, as a theory begins to percolate in the back of his mind.
- - -
Over the next few days, Ben makes a point not just of thanking Ray, in specific detail, for each small kindness (taking a message from an irate Inspector Thatcher, buying an extra doughnut for Dief, distracting Francesca on multiple occasions so Ben can be strategically elsewhere), but also of paying compliments to Ray whenever he can.
“The housekeeper, Ray? I hadn’t suspected her at all! You really are quite clever, you know.”
(This earns Ben a back-of-the-neck blush, just as he suspected it might.)
“I admire your shirt, Ray. It goes nicely with the color of your eyes.”
(This makes Ray stop dead in his tracks. He looks at Ben with his mouth agape for a split second, during which Ben swears he can see a smile fighting its way to the surface. But then Ray scowls and walks away.)
“Has anyone ever told you that your penmanship is unusually appealing?”
This is when Ray slams his pen down on his desk and whirls around in his chair. Ben, who’s been leaning over to watch Ray write his report, jumps back, startled.
“Okay, what’re you doing?” Ray demands.
Ben keeps his face carefully neutral. “Standing behind you. Well, I was behind you. Now that you’ve turned around, I seem to be in front of you instead.”
Ray narrows his eyes. “You’re buttering me up for something. Aren’t you.”
This time, Ben is genuinely confused. “I’m afraid I don’t under—”
“Yeah, you do understand,” says Ray. “You got some bad news to tell me, so you’re being all extra-nice, saying all this nice stuff about my clothes and my writing and whatever else, so I’ll be in a good mood when I hear it.”
Ben shakes his head. “I don’t have any bad news for you.”
Ray leans back in his chair, arms folded defensively across his chest as he looks up at Ben. “Bullshit you don’t. Come on. Out with it.”
“I’m telling you the truth, Ray,” says Ben. “It merely occurred to me that I enjoy observing your writing, and I thought I should tell you as much.”
“With no alter… you know, other motive,” says Ray.
“Ulterior,” says Ben. “And as I said, no, I have no bad news to give you.”
Ray looks hard at him for a long few seconds, and then apparently decides to believe him. With a curt nod, he says, “Okay. Fine. Then stop it.”
“You’d like me to stop paying you compliments?” asks Ben.
“It’s distracting,” says Ray, and casts a quick glance around the squad room before lowering his voice. “I mean, saying stuff about my eyes? Around these guys? Come on. That’s just not… you know. It’s not buddies.”
“I see,” says Ben, which is true on many levels. He does see that it’s not buddies; however, buddies isn’t what Ben is aiming for. He hasn’t been aiming for buddies in a very long time—not since the moment Ray asked him, quite soon after they’d first met, whether or not Ben found him attractive.
The other thing he sees is Ray’s back-of-the-neck blush beginning to spread, pinkening his ears.
As Ray goes back to writing his report, Ben resolves to do exactly as Ray asked: to stop paying him compliments in places where his colleagues might overhear.
- - -
They are in Ray’s apartment. A pizza is on its way. A baseball game is playing silently on the television. And, most importantly, none of Ray’s fellow police officers are present.
All Ben has to do is wait for the right moment.
Fortunately, the right moment presents itself very quickly, in the form of Ray pausing before a small wall mirror, frowning at his reflection, and touching his hair.
“It looks good,” says Ben.
Ray freezes. “Yeah, well, who asked you?”
“Nobody,” replies Ben. “But I’m answering just the same. Your hair looks good. It always does.”
Ray’s lips twist, and for a moment Ben is afraid Ray will tell him to stop complimenting him in private as well as in public. But then Ray asks, his voice slightly more precarious than usual, “You think?”
“I do,” says Ben, rising from the couch. “It’s one of a great many things I admire about you.”
The blush. There it is. Spreading from Ray’s neck up to his ears, creeping slowly across his cheeks. It’s an unusual look—and, Ben thinks, an extraordinarily attractive one.
Ray turns slowly around, until the mirror reflects the back of his head. “A great many things, huh?”
Ben nods, moving a little bit closer. “Indeed. Your hair. Your hands. Your agility. Your kindness to me. Your commitment to justice.” He pauses. Ray is obviously fighting a smile, and the smile actually seems to be winning. “Would you like me to go on?”
Ray shrugs. “Only if you wanna,” he says to the floor.
Ben crosses the small space left between them and uses one single finger to lift Ray’s chin, forcing Ray to meet his eyes again. “I asked what you want,” he says firmly. “Do you want me to go on?”
Ray swallows; Ben can feel the motion vibrate through his finger. “Uh,” says Ray. “Uh, yeah. Um. Yeah, keep going.”
Ben smiles. “I admire the line of your shoulders, especially when you wear your holster. I admire the strength of your anger. I admire the shape of your eyes.” Ray squirms a little, but doesn’t tell him to stop. “And your neck. And your mouth.”
Ray purses his lips; otherwise he is utterly still. That is, until he swallows. “Uh, just making sure here, but… you’re hitting on me, right? Like, I’m not the only queer one in this room, and this is definitely you hitting on me?”
Ben laughs. “Yes, Ray. On all counts, yes.”
That’s when Ray surges forward and presses his mouth to Ben’s.
A few minutes later, after Ray’s kisses have turned desperate, after Ben’s skin has begun to heat, after Ray has become caught between Ben’s body and the wall of his apartment, and after Ben has pinned Ray’s wrists above his head… after all that, Ben comes up for air. He’s breathing hard. So is Ray.
“Kissing,” says Ben. “That’s another thing I find that I admire. Your considerable skill at kissing.”
The blush finally wins. Ray goes bright red, as though he’s finally letting all of it—all the compliments, all the closeness—wash over him, all at once.
“You too,” he says, his gaze sliding shyly away from Ben’s. Shy. Now there’s a word Ben never thought he’d associate with Ray.
“No, Ray, look at me,” he says softly. Ray does. “You’re good at kissing.”
Ray squirms, which is when Ben realizes that he’s still got Ray’s wrists pinned. He considers letting them go, but decides against it.
Ray says, “I’m… you think I’m…”
“Good,” says Ben.
He waits, then, to see if Ray will deflect the compliment, or deny it outright, or dilute it with a you too, as he did before. But this time, he seems to understand what Ben wants from him. Or rather, he seems to understand that Ben sees what he wants.
In a small voice, like a child admitting his first secret, Ray says, “Tell me again?”
“You’re good,” says Ben, and leans down to press a kiss to Ray’s mouth. Ray’s eyelids flutter closed. “You’re good at kissing, and you’re a good man.” Another kiss, this time to Ray’s neck, just below his jaw. “And beautiful.” This time, Ray’s forehead. Ben is pressed close enough that he can feel Ray hardening within his jeans. “Incredibly handsome, devilishly smart—”
“Yeah, you should talk.” Somehow, despite his apparent trouble breathing, Ray manages to sneak an edge of sarcasm into his words.
Ben pulls back. “Ray.”
“This is not about me. This is about you. So don’t do that.”
Ray’s eyes glint with mischief. “Do what?”
“Don’t deflect,” says Ben, tightening his grip on Ray’s wrists. “Accept the compliment.”
Ray grins, warm and sly.
“You’re beautiful,” says Ben. “I’ve always thought so.” And he raises an eyebrow, waiting for Ray’s reply.
Ray moves his hips, just a little, almost like he doesn’t know he’s doing it. And his pulse is thumping now; Ben can feel it in his wrists.
“Thank you,” Ray manages. Then, with a quick flash of that grin again, he adds, “Kindly.”
Ben laughs and kisses him again. Soon, he discovers that Ray is good—exceedingly good—at a great many things besides kissing.