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Oh Trouble Set Me Free

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He didn't want to think of his overnight bag in Shel's Cobra, or how Shel's sheets smelled just like him. The press of Shel's body against his. Ken just wanted to go home. He wanted to tuck Peter in and hold Mollie close, feeling her heart drum against his chest. 

"Ken," Shel said across the bright red table.

Shel was taking an eternity to finish his fries, while Ken had long put his tray away and just sat, ruminating. 

"You haven't said a word to me since we got here," Shel said. 

"'M just tired," Ken lied.

"You wanna go?" Shel asked.

Ken wished Shel wasn't considerate.

He shrugged.

Shel sighed and took his tray, French fries and all. When he returned, trayless, he tapped the undersides of Ken's splayed shoes with his toes. Ken scowled. Shel chuckled. 

"Shouldn't mess with a man's shoes," Ken groused as he rose.

"Oh, I'm sorry to offend your manly sensibilities," Shel said, holding the door.

Outside the diner, the night was cool, descending on them with cobalt skies and a silver moon. The silver streaked Shel's Cobra, a splash of milk-white in navy blue. Usually Ken welcomed the rumble of the engine, but tonight he just wanted to tell Shel to drive him home. The only reason he didn't was he knew Mollie would ask about what happened with "date night", and badger him.

They arrived haphazardly at the little white and brown bungaloo, Shel pulling into the garage and fetching Ken's bag from the trunk.

"It's good to have you here, Ken," Shel said in the slanting shadows of the garage. 

Ken didn't say anything. Simply took his bag. Shel frowned, but let them into the house. 

Ken ignored their past rituals: a drink in the living room or backyard while talking shit, before meandering to the bedroom with blurry lips and soft hands. 

He went straight to the bedroom. 

"You want a drink or somethin'?" Shel called after him.

"No. Too tired. Think I'll go to bed."

Shel leaned in the doorway of his bedroom, watching Ken organize his things for the bathroom. 

"Wot?" Ken ventured. 

In the lamplight, Shel was softened and paled. He too looked tired. It gave Ken hope that he would leave him alone. 

"C'mere," Shel said, leaning in for a kiss. 

"I already told you, I'm knackered," Ken shoved him away. 

Shel held his hands up. 

They avoided each other until they both climbed into bed. Ken didn't want to be touched, but that damn Shelby coaxed him into being held, saying, "No sex, Ken, no sex." Ken bunched up, Shel's arm loose around him. Like a noose, waiting to be tightened.

"What's goin' on Ken?" Shel asked after a while.

"Nothing, just tired."

"Bullshit," Shel said and Ken wanted to punch him. 

So he did, in a fashion.

"I think we should break it off," Ken said.

Because he'd been thinking about it for a couple weeks now: being free of Carroll Shelby, sinking back into his life with Mollie and Peter. No complications, no other relationships, much less queer ones. 

Ken turned a little to see Shel. He didn't clutch his heart, or down those pills. Instead Ken felt a warm suspiration against the side of his neck -- a snort.

Shel turned on a bedside lamp. 

"You are so full of shit," he said. 

"Oh am I?" Ken snapped. 

"Why do you want to break it off? Why?"

They both lay on their backs now, glaring at the ceiling, Shel's arms crossed. 

"It's complicated --"

"It's fuckin' not. You're married and you have me. How is that 'complicated'?"

"It's fucking complicated for me."

"Fine. It's fuckin' complicated for you."

Silence.

Ken thought he might get some sleep but then Shel said: "Hey, Bulldog."

"Wot? I'm trying to sleep."

"Why the hell do you like shootin' yourself in the foot?"

Ken didn't answer. 

"I mean you constantly shoot yourself in the foot with your racing career. Mouthin' off and causin' a ruckus. And you did it with the IRS thing. And now you're doin' it with me. It's like you want to destroy what you could have. Why?"

Ken lay quiet, feeling like he'd been punched in the chest.

"I -- the fuck you on about Shel?" he managed.

Shel shook his head and the mattress rippled as he left, taking his pillow. 

"To hell with this," he muttered. "Goin' to the living room."

Shel thankfully thudded away. Hearing his footsteps recede was a relief, but it also made Ken ache, a cold ache in the pit of his belly. Shel's words swam in the dim light and he kept asking himself the same question: why?

He lay there thinking. The crickets fell silent, and through the window the moon and stars fell from the sky, leaving a naked black night. Ken got up and went to the living room.

The pale, creamy light from the bedroom illuminated Shel, curled on the couch under some blankets, sleeping.

Ken sat and put a tentative hand on Shel's hip, feeling reassured just by the presence of him. He liked Shel. Loved Shel. His wry manner, his passion. He ignored those problems with his ticker and kept doing what he loved. He lived. Then there was the way he treated Mollie and Peter, the way he treated his own family even if he was divorced a few times. How honest he was with Ken, always. And how much he believed in him. 

Shel stirred, the muscle rippling beneath Ken's palm.

"If you've come to argue --"

"I didn't come to argue," Ken said. "Just to say: I dunno."

"Dunno what?"

"Dunno why I act the way I do. I just . . . am," Ken offered.

"So that's it," Shel sat up. "That's all you're gonna say?"

"What do you bloody want me to say, Shel? I'm sorry?"

"That would be a great start --"

"Well, I'm not."

Shel looked stricken.

"Not sorry for hurtin' me when you said we should be done?"

"Oh," Ken said quietly.

They looked at each other in the half light, really looking. Taking gulps as if they were parched. 

"You really want to call this all off?" Shel asked, voice buckling, coarse.

He was both defensive and shattered. 

Ken took Shel's hands in his. They mirrored each other, both blackened by engine oil and working on that GT40. Ken squeezed.

"You know how I get."

"Aside from generally being hot headed, stubborn, and high strung, you'll have to be more specific."

"I just get anxious," Ken said. "Like that feeling you have right before a race. I get anxious. I keep thinking you'll decide I'm not worth the trouble. So I might as well call it off before then."

"All the trouble I go through daily for you, dealing with those suits, should tell you enough."

"I know. I know."

Pause. He looked Shelby in his shadowed eyes. 

"I am sorry, you know."

"Ah hell," Shel said.

He cupped Ken's face in his warm hands. Strong, capable hands, drawing Ken close.

"That's kind of why I love you," Shel said. "You're 'difficult'."

He ran his thumb, ember bright, over Ken's lower lip, and then hovered there before leaning in for a kiss. It felt like gold. 

Their limbs and bodies slid together and they lay on the couch for a while, until dull blue sleep overcame them and they returned to the bedroom. There they notched together like two pieces of a well built engine, Ken's back to Shel, and Shel's arm around Ken. He inhaled Shel's smell -- that ivory soap and the remnants of cologne -- and relaxed.