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Bendición by Meisaal [ - ]
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Category: CSI: Miami - Slashed > Calleigh/other, CSI: Miami - Threesomes, Moresomes or Bitextual > CSI: Miami All Varieties, CSI: Miami - Slashed > Eric/Ryan
Characters: Calleigh Duquesne, Eric Delko, Horatio Caine, Original Character, Ryan Wolfe
Rating: PG-13
Genres: Action/Adventure, First Time, Humour, Hurt Comfort, Pre-relationship, Series, Supernatural
Warnings: None

Summary: Barely science-fiction. The science is dealt with respectfully. Ryan finds that while it seems as though everybody he knows has *some* sort of beef with him, he is--to some people--perfect.



Story Notes:
My undying thanks to Aligator138 for her proofreading and careful indications of what needs doing where. She told me what was really good *and* what stank, stank, stank (though she was polite), and it's hard to find a beta who'll do that latter. She seemed to enjoy the reading in itself even more than the proofing. Considering the general demands on her time, and her own writing, this is a monumental favor. Thank you, Ali. This is a committed foursome with almost no sex. Yes, it can be done. I have done it.

Author's Chapter Notes:
This is the first story in what I intend to be a series; there will be at least one more story, but no cliffhanging.



~~~
Bendición
~~~

Ryan had fallen half-asleep while reading; he didn't have his bedside table light on, and was reading by a booklight affixed to the hardback he was holding. He'd never read "The Gathering Storm" or any of the other books in the Churchill series about the second world war, and since he felt his education had been lacking in the history area in general, and the books came recommended, he'd dropped a small chunk to buy the series in hardback. However, he was finding that in bed after a long day wasn't a good place to read them if he were actually trying to absorb any information.

He was dozing; dreams flitted through his head. There was a warmth at once side of his face, and then a gentle touch; what could only be fingertips tracing gently along his temple, cheekbone, jaw line...then a large, warm palm cradling that side of his face. He opened his eyes a little, in the dream, gazing just under his lashes, and slowly recognized Eric, who was smiling softly, his eyes open and deep, clear and readable, as the real-world Eric seldom let Ryan see them.

Fingers moved caressingly in Ryan's hair. He smiled a little--such dreams were always welcome--and closed his eyes again, turning his face to the left, into Eric's hand. It was warm and smooth, and Eric stroked lightly along Ryan's eyebrow with his thumb, then along his forehead.

Warm breath moved across the now-exposed right side of his neck, followed by the soft brush of full lips, light, slow butterfly-kissing, and breathy caresses, upward to his ear, then his cheek; the kissing became a little firmer, soft and barely moist, and Ryan sighed; *very* nice dream.

Eric kissed along Ryan's jaw, and brushed Ryan's lips with his own; Ryan felt gentle pressure, moaned very softly as Eric's soft, soft lips lightly stroked his, Eric's other hand coming up to carefully frame Ryan's face. Light touches, light kisses, and then Eric pressed gently, a firmer, still gentle kiss; Ryan returned it, and they kissed slowly, once, twice...a few more times...and--

--and Ryan's eyes flew open and the book slid sideways to slither past the bedtable and hit the floor with a thud, and in a heartbeat he'd lunged upright, with the gun in his bedtable drawer magically now in both hands--his abrupt change of position had unseated Eric, who hit the floor on his ass, falling back onto his elbows, as a shaking Ryan, halfway up on his knees, held the gun on him with both hands, arms outstretched.

Eric looked distressed, but not overly agitated. "Did I do...anything wrong?" he asked, in a soft voice, without the 'tude Eric generally evinced. He seemed nervous, and a bit confused, but that was all.

"*Delko*?" Ryan demanded in an embarrassingly high vocal register.

The man in the floor looked away, and then back. "No," he said, and smiled a little, as if in sympathy, shaking his head. His expression was open, unguarded; everything that Eric's could be if he were less testosterone-poisoned, and with someone he trusted. Someone unlike Ryan.

Ryan's brows drew together. "What do you mean 'no'?" he said. He'd been about to lower the gun, but kept it up now.

"I'm not Eric Delko," Eric said softly. "I'm sorry. It...it did not occur to me, that you'd have no way to tell that at once. Perdóneme; it is a mistake."

Okay. Ryan knew he was awake. He could not be certain about whether he'd been slipped something, but if so, he couldn't think of anyone at work who'd do it, and he'd come straight home; also, he couldn't think of any drug that produced this kind of hallucination--and schizophrenic hallucinations were universally nasty, or at least unpleasantly disquieting. That left Eric, if anyone had been dosed.

"All right, not-Eric Delko, I'm going to make a phone call, and then you...can explain to me who you are." He reached for his cell phone, on the bedtable--

--and it was gone. He looked over in confusion, and Eric was holding it. "If you call for people to come here, I'll only disappear. It would be bad for you, and that is also why I wish you would put the gun down," he said; his voice was still low and gentle. "The bullets will pass through me without hurting me. But they might go through a...a weak place, in the building, and cause damage. The sort of attention you would get, firing your gun in your bedroom for no reason, that would be bad. And querido, I swear I will never hurt you."

Staring at Eric, Ryan lowered the gun so that it wasn't pointing at a kill area on Eric's body, but he didn't let go of it, his arms still straight, gun in both hands. "Keep that distance. How did you take my phone?"

"I can explain that. I can explain everything. ¿Usted pondrá el arma abajo? Mi querido, por favor, prometo que usted no estará lastimado." Will you put the gun down? Beloved, I promise you won't be hurt.

'Mi querido?' "Look, you can promise your head off, but *I* have no way of knowing what you intend, if you're on...I don't know what you're on, but--"

"Do I seem to be drugged? I am not. And I am not Eric Delko," the man stressed softly, in Eric's voice--subtly different, Eric's full lips shaping the words with a softness that wasn't part of his accent--perhaps it was the resonance of Eric's voice itself that was used more softly.

"If you were Eric, I'd have put the gun down and asked you what the hell was up, but you're saying you're not, which is inexplicable. The only thing that makes sense is you're Eric and you...aren't yourself, for whatever reason, and you need help, all right?"

"If Iwere to give you the phone--and that one, with the cord in the wall, will not work until you tell me to reactivate it--I would tell you to call Eric. But even if you did, since you never call him for no reason, Eric would at least come here himself if you didn't explain, and you could hardly do that. I would have to disappear. It may take all that, I don't know. I thought...this would be the best way to introduce myself without upsetting you, since I couldn't do it over a phone, or in public, or anywhere you might think to see Eric, even by accident--but I'm not human. I have been with you all so long, but I still...one thing to another, the cause and effect, from your point of view--linear arrangement of concepts...I'm better at predicting what my actions will make you think, or even do; but here, obviously I've miscalculated. I'm sorry."

Eric was acting--no, he was *radiating*--a completely different presence; as strong as Eric's usual presence, but certainly not Eric. Ryan was wondering if this could be a multiple personality thing, doubtful as that seemed.

He lowered the gun to the bed, but kept hold of it. He had no idea what the druggy-sounding rambling "Eric" had just treated him to had been about, and he didn't want to go there just yet. He decided to stick with the practical. "How did you get in here?" he sighed, rubbing his sore forehead a little. He thought it might've hit Eric's during the waking-up part of the evening's festivities.

"I didn't have to," Eric--or not-Eric--said. "I'm...with you, most of the time. I was here already. I just...I've never introduced myself to you."

"All right. Why do you look exactly like Eric Delko?"

The man was moving, lifting his person, but holding his hands up in a "peace" gesture and moving away from Ryan; he went around the foot of the bed and sat on the opposite corner of it from Ryan's position. As he did so, Ryan reached over and turned the bedside table lamp on; the booklight shining at the ceiling from its spot on the floor and the moonlight through the windows couldn't hack something like this. He needed to be able to see more precisely, but he still winced at the light. Damned eye.

"I'm sorry to upset you. It's the last thing I ever want to do," not-Eric said quietly, with a catch in his voice, as though crying--or at least misting up--wasn't a big deal, and Ryan knew it was, to Eric. Or at least, it was if Ryan caught it. Not-Eric went on "Please, believe I can't hurt you."

"Tell me," Ryan persisted, "if you aren't Eric Delko, who are you? What's your name?"

Not-Eric looked uncomfortable. "I don't have one. My...sort of people don't use language. My identity *is* my name. We communicate in concepts, not words. We...don't need them."

"Your people."

Not-Eric sighed. "I knew this was going to be difficult, but it turns out to be difficult in ways I never thought of." He looked up and smiled at Ryan, as if in fellow-feeling, and the smile was so warm, despite a slight teariness that not-Eric was unselfconsciously wiping from his eyes, Ryan felt a thaw happening inside himself, and he almost panicked. He swallowed hard and held it together.

Not-Eric said "Could you put the gun on the table? Where you can reach it. Like I said, it won't hurt me, but I'm worried about your firing it at all. If you discharge your weapon in your own bedroom, and there are no signs of a reason, it might...lead to problems you don't need."

It was weird; Ryan felt his brow furrowing for a whole new reason. Not-Eric seemed to know that he couldn't afford any more anomalous happenings, questionable behavior, or outright screw-ups. Though he'd been polite about his phrasing, at least.

Eric's voice, softly caressing the Spanish syllables, sounded worried, tender, as he whispered " ¿Usted pondrá el arma abajo? Por favor--te amo, Ryan. I could never hurt you."

He ignored the words of love and said only "Before I go that far, answer my question. If you are not Eric Delko, why the hell do you look exactly like him?"

He had to be Delko, sitting on the edge of the bed in washed-thin, pale jeans and a white, loosely knit cotton shirt with the collar unbuttoned, olive-gold skin showing at his throat, his forearms where the sleeves were pushed up--even through the shirt, a little, the color was that rich--and his face, smooth-shaven, that perfect skin...

Eric, or not-Eric, Ryan realized, did not have the habitual scruff that Delko did lately, since his shooting. Of course, Delko had to shave twice a day if he wanted to stay completely smooth, and since they'd shaved his head in the hospital, he'd become less meticulous about keeping hair off his head generally. Lately, he usually used an electric, at least at work; but this man's skin shone in the lamplight, gleaming gold and perfect, lacking even a beard shadow, much less more. The fair olive tones that made his cheekbones look so sculpted stood out in the light, as did the redness of the full lips--both were things the scruff usually played down. So, either Eric had shaved with a blade just before he came here, or...

"Ryan," not-Eric murmured, "I can take the gun from your hands the same way I took the phone. But I really don't want to do that. I didn't want to take the phone, either; I don't want to upset you. I just want to talk."

"Is that why you showed up in the middle of the night and kissed me awake, though you claim I don't know you?" Ryan asked, though he felt something die, at least temporarily, inside him, at having to use that--that memory, the sweet warmth of those kisses that his drowsing mind thought had been Eric's. It was something he'd rather remember only the pleasantness of, without tarnishing it with the fact that it had been anomalous past the point of tolerance.

"It's not the middle of the night, querido. It's ten-thirty. You fell asleep reading Winston Churchill. And I'm sorry about that, the way I woke you. It was...pushy of me." Not-Eric sighed. "Usted es hermoso, querido..." the words trailed off, and a few tears dripped down his face. He looked back up at Ryan. "I am sorry, if that upset you, but you seemed...you seemed glad of the touch."

Ryan took a couple of deep breaths, and then he set the gun down on the bedside table. "I was," he said, very quietly. "I was asleep. I...was dreaming; I thought it was Eric."

"I know that, now. But that is why I look like Eric. Because you think he is the most beautiful man you've ever seen."

Ryan froze. No one knew that. No one, no friend, no family member, no one he was out to as bi knew that--even the one person who knew he had a thing for Eric didn't know *that*--no one at all knew that. *Especially* not Eric Delko.

The man went on, "I thought...well. Judging by your reaction, I think I might have made a mistake in choosing his form, but I wanted you to have that."

Ryan blinked. Then he asked, in a state of brain-fry, "Well, can you please look like something else?"

"Not...not quickly at all, I'm afraid. Though if you'll tell me what you'd rather I looked like, I'll start working on it."

"Great. Let me get back to you on that." Ryan sighed and ran his hands over his hair. Somehow, he no longer had the slightest fear that this guy, fruitloop or not, was going to hurt him. Ryan'd probably have to have him taken away, but there was no harm getting his story first. "How did you arrange to look like him?"

"Ryan..." not-Eric bowed his head for a minute, then raised it, took a deep breath and said carefully "If you'll let me touch you--not very much, just...at your breastbone, under the collarbone--let me touch, very briefly--you'll understand everything."

Ryan gazed steadily back. "Understand everything via a microinjection? Or a tase?"

"No! No..." not-Eric seemed genuinely distressed. "Never. I would not hurt you, I couldn't. I only want what you want, I..." his voice grew choked again, definitely upset. "Usted es seguro conmigo, querido, te amo--solamente cosa que quiero de usted--tu amor." You are safe with me, beloved, I love you--the only thing I want is your love.

Jesus. If this was Eric, he was *really* gone. Ryan ignored the trembling sensation that tried to make its way from his solar plexus out into the rest of his body, hearing Eric's voice say those things to him. "Let me...let me see your hands," Ryan said. If he let this happen, it might be enough to end the delusion this person was having. And if the lack of result set Eric-on-some-slipped-substance, or whoever this was, totally off--Ryan's gun was right next to him.

Not-Eric eagerly turned toward him and held his hands out, palms up. Ryan reached up, and hesitated a moment--he wasn't sure why. This man had already touched him, and, most tellingly, could've done anything he wanted to him while he was asleep. But he'd let Ryan wake and shove him over and hold a gun on him, any event of which Eric might have stopped, since he knew where the gun was. Then he'd retreated to a conversational distance, pleading just to talk. Ryan gave a mental sigh. All right. Fine.

He took not-Eric's hands, running his thumbs over the palms and each finger, including the nails. The skin was soft as a baby's, just as he'd imagined Eric's to be--usually touching Eric involved at least one of them being stuck in a hole or something, or possibly in danger of their lives, so Ryan'd never had a chance to notice. Ryan pressed his lips together and let go of the smooth softness, the strength he could feel in the wrists and fingers. He stared at the covers a moment, knowing he had to bring this to a close as rapidly as possible--if that *was* Eric, there was no telling what was wrong with him--he wasn't behaving in any sort of unfocused or disjointed way; Ryan knew of no drug or illness that could cause this--and if it wasn't, it could be some kook who'd go off batshit at any moment.

"All right. Touch me, so I'll understand."

And the not-Eric took a breath, closing his deep brown eyes, long lashes fanning on his cheeks for a moment, glinting with dampness; then he looked up, and leaned forward again, reaching for Ryan, resting his weight on one hand and setting the other against Ryan's chest just beneath his collarbone, against skin, and the black cotton tank shirt Ryan was wearing.

***

"Ryan--querido, por favor, lo siento--"

"I forgive you already," Ryan managed to gurgle. He could feel his eyes still dripping tears, though they were closed. His throat felt swollen shut, too. "Milagro," Ryan whispered in the sincerest thanks to the universe he'd ever uttered; he managed to sob a bit louder "Nunca déjeme. Te amo," he choked, and hung on, around broad shoulders and a long, strong neck, and cried himself into exhaustion, wrapped close in long, warm arms.

***

"And I know for a fact he isn't human," Ryan was murmuring to Calleigh, as they walked along the boardwalk of a beach that was almost deserted, by reason of the descending sun; this beach and its bordering cliffs, which bore great tall palms and deciduous trees in full leaf, was too shaded and cool for most people to consider it a good place to swim. Only a few wandered the sand, fully dressed, mostly doing the same sort of thing Ryan and Calleigh were.

"How is that?" Calleigh said. She had been amiable enough about this. It hadn't been a particularly stressful day at work, and she had made herself available when Ryan said he needed to talk about something which, while not about work per se, had the potential to affect his performance for at least a time.

Calleigh hadn't expected such a long, pretty story about a week discovering what it was like to have your own personal angel, or extraterrestrial, or maybe some other kind of spirit--one who'd come to Ryan's bed with a message of devotion.

Calleigh knew all about Ryan's love-hate relationship with Eric; she also knew that Ryan, at least, would dump it in a second if Eric ever indicated the slightest of interest in plain, simple friendship, much less love, with Ryan. But she understood the need to protect oneself, keep that defense up, when the alternatives all seemed, at least for now, to be unworkable--transferring to another shift, another lab if Ryan and Horatio could find one that needed and could support another CSI, or quitting his job completely as an absolute last resort. Ryan couldn't afford to become unable to work with Eric, couldn't afford to let seeing Eric so often tear him up. So the cat-fighting continued, on and off, worse or not so bad, disappearing entirely in desperate concern for each other if one of them were truly in danger...but always reinstigating itself.

"Because he's beautiful inside," Ryan murmured, staring out over the water. "Honestly beautiful. No human could be...could be so...I can't explain." He dropped his head. "I'm sorry; I'm doing my best, here."

"It's all right," Calleigh said lightly as they strolled. She'd changed, in the locker, into some jeans and a pale blue sweatshirt, and let her hair loose to fall down her back; the wind lifted it every now and then, and sometimes Ryan would reach up and smooth it back from her face. That had startled her a little; Ryan didn't usually touch her like that, though they were closer lately. Eric...Eric touched her that way, of course, at times. But Ryan was more physically standoffish, and less certain of the welcome of such intimacies with anyone, much less anyone in the lab.

She said "Tell me more about what happened after. You...you and he had some sort of telepathic experience, right?"

"I wouldn't call it that, but I guess the way I tried to explain it at first makes it sound that way. I communicated with him...something like the way he communicates with his own people all the time. Concepts, ideas, directly absorbed--they don't need language. They *like* human languages; it's like a beautiful, intricate puzzle to them, like...an elaborate origami, a perfect sand painting, I don't know how to describe it--and they're always so pleased with themselves when they get it right, well enough that they can communicate easily with us--that means they've really mastered the art. My friend...before I have to say that five hundred more times--I, um, named him."

"You did?" Calleigh raised her eyebrows, smiling. "Well, every spirit friend needs a name."

Ryan's mouth quirked, but he didn't correct her. "I asked what he'd like, and he asked me to give him something I liked. Certain words had been going through my head, in English and Spanish, and...I named him Bendición."

Calleigh smiled again. "That's sweet."

"He nearly ended up with Milagro, but there was the prayer trinket reference thing there."

Calleigh chuckled. "True. So, after you felt better--or maybe not quite so good, in this case--"

Ryan lowered his head to hide a smirk.

"--then what?"

"Then I continued to cry like a baby for I don't know how long, and I was a snotty, congested mess, and, well...he gave me a bath. And made me tea."

Calleigh was forced to smile again--she'd been doing a lot of that since they got here and Ryan started talking, she realized--at the boards under her feet. "That was nice of him."

"Yeah, it was; I was in pretty sad shape. Then--"

Calleigh suddenly stopped and frowned. The pretty story was starting to have signposts in real world events. "A week ago, when you called in sick..."

"That was the morning after he came, yeah. In my own defense, the congestion in my head was so bad I don't think I'd have been much use anyway, even if I could think straight, which I also couldn't do... after that, um, that mutual sharing thing with Ben."

Ryan *had* been all right the day following, when he showed for work, even though he'd obviously been distracted; he did his job properly, didn't miss even the smallest trick. His eyes had been deep and distant, and he hadn't talked much with anyone, but keeping up his normal level of social contact as he worked wasn't a job requirement, so Calleigh had figured on the remains of his minor bout of illness. It wasn't as though it were part of her job to either monitor or mention such things.

Not that she didn't notice them anyway. She was just different from the other nosy types in the lab in that she did not, ever, gossip about what she either knew or speculated. Wait a minute--speaking of
speculation--

"Your shoulder," she said suddenly. "You haven't said anything about it, but you've been favoring it all day. I thought...never mind what I thought. Is whatever's wrong with it connected to...'Bendición'?"

Ryan's head dropped again, this time in bashfulness; it was a mannerism he didn't show often. For all she knew, he only did it in embarrassment with her, because he kept his chin down so much of the time, in that penetrating stare from under his heavy brow. But when it was that, one got nailed with said penetrating stare. When he was abashed, ashamed, or lost in thought, his eyes remained on the ground, not on her.

He said "I...Ben and I, I was going to get to this, anyway, actually, but we...I knew him, I knew him as well as he knew me, after he...touched me, and--um--"

"What?" Calleigh blurted, her face screwing up in confusion.

"I'll explain that part in a bit, here--but what's wrong with my shoulder is that Bendición bit it last night. He's still getting used to...uh...how do I put this--"

She had an unstartling revelation, given that she had now gone from "listening to a pretty story" to "suspending disbelief long enough to get Ryan's side of this". "Sex?"

"Um. That'd be the short answer. Sex as a human, I suppose."

"Let me see."

"Calleigh--"

"I want to see. A human bite bad enough to make you favor that shoulder could be dangerous."

"He isn't human," Ryan said gently, smiled a little as Calleigh's expression didn't change, and started unbuttoning his shirt; its generous cut had been enough to hide a flat bandage under, if he wore an undershirt with short sleeves.

He first pulled the half-unbuttoned shirt down over his shoulder, then pulled up the sleeve of the T shirt to reveal the square bandage covering most of his rounded, firm deltoids. He explained "Even without the bacteria that live in human mouths, it was still puncture wounds, and some bruising, so I smeared antibiotic ointment on it and bandaged it, but--" Calleigh was quickly yanking up enough tape to peer under one end of the bandage.

She stared for a moment. "Well," she said finally, "that's a serious human bite, all right." There was bruising all around the marks, and there was a lot of scabbing.

"In a sense," Ryan agreed. "It's shaped like one. I yelled when he did it, and I thought I wouldn't be able to get him to stop apologizing." Calleigh removed her fingers from the bandage as Ryan smoothed it back into place and pulled the T shirt sleeve over it; he gave a toss of the shoulder, with a mild wince, to move the shirt back up onto it, but didn't bother rebuttoning it.

She gazed into his color-shifting eyes. "It was a pretty story," she said. "Until I saw that bite. Someone bit you, hard. I can't see why you'd set up some elaborate hoax about it, and I know you wouldn't let a human bite that deep go without proper treatment."

"He isn't human," Ryan repeated, still gently, still smiling a little. "And he can't hurt me. Not on purpose, at least, though accidents, as we've discovered, may happen."

"I don't suppose there's any chance I could meet your new friend?"

Ryan pressed his lips together, then nodded. "Actually, I'm telling you, and I want you to...know he's real, because...I have to tell someone. Someone at work, in case of emergency, and no, I don't know what kind of emergency. It's just that...you're my report, I know, but I trust you to keep an open mind, and to handle the inexplicable. You have sort of a track record for unshakability. Also..." he smiled and shrugged. "Another reason you get this knowledge wished upon you is that Bendición likes you, too. He almost chose your form instead of Delko's."

"You don't feel like Horatio would...?" she wondered in a small voice. "He's always been--protective of you..."

Ryan muttered, "I don't want to tell him I'm bi. I don't really want anyone at work to know but you. I've got everyone conviced I'm too uptight to have sex with anybody at all, and I find that it's a convenient way to handle situations like ours. And aside from our having...that, in common, I've just always had a feeling from you...anything you hear stays with you as long as you're under no obligations to report anything, and you're not, with this; it's not job-related. And H...it'd just be one more thing he has to get between me and potential shit about. I've given him more than enough of that in the last few years."

"But something like this--"

"That it's something like this is why I don't want to tell him. And Calleigh--" he laid his hands lightly, carefully, on her shoulders. "I won't make it official about Ben with you, either, if you don't want that dumped in your lap, because that's a hell of a burden to put on anyone. I know Alexx would do this for me, but she's not in a position to cover for us if, God forbid, that should become necessary; also, Alexx is apparently convinced I didn't have a mother. Meaning nothing but good, someone with a mothering instinct that powerful could get Ben and me in trouble instead of helping us. But you just mind your business, and any business anyone actually asks you to mind." He paused. "Listen; right now, all you know is a pretty story, that I called in sick on the day that would have fit with that story, and that somebody with a human set of teeth--probably a male someone, judging from the size of the bite--bit me in the shoulder. That's a long way from proof of what I've been telling you. You don't have to see the proof, if you don't want to."

"Why have you told me this much, if you don't want to 'burden' me?" Calleigh wondered, folding her arms.

"I think I made that pretty plain. You guessed I was bi, and wanted me to know I wasn't the only one in the lab; you found out I was in love with Eric--for which I could smack myself to a pulp--by accident. But you have a chance to leave this one alone, if that's what you want. If...if you do say yes...Christ. Things could happen, his...being joined with me. Which he isn't yet. And even now..." He shook himself. "Short version. Something might happen to me. Something short of death or dismemberment, I mean. If it does, I want you to know...all the things I'll tell you, if you say you want to meet Ben. But I'm warning you..." he sighed. "You can't tell *anyone*. You're the only one besides H I know is that trustworthy. Anyone finds out the truth about Ben, and not only will I have to leave the lab, I'll have to change my name and go into hiding. I know you *can* keep totally silent on the subject. I just don't know if you want to."

"Is he...illegal?" Calleigh wondered if she'd been in police work too long, that she'd ask such an idiotic question.

"No, he's not human, and there are no immigration--or importation--laws applying to any members of his...species."

"So you think he--or you--or both--might end up pursued by the FBI? Ryan, that's--"

"--crazy, if you don't want to meet him. Call it crazy, and we'll drop it. Never mention it again."

He said nothing else, and Calleigh gazed into his face for a long minute.

"You can say no," Ryan murmured, and the fact that he kept repeating that would have made anyone else, probably, take his advice, but Calleigh felt her damned sense of responsibility rearing its head.

"I'm saying yes. I want to meet him."

He gazed at her a moment, but didn't ask her if she were sure. Finally he said "All right. Come on over this way...we're going to head for the edge of the beach, go around the rocks. We need privacy."

They left the boardwalk and strode down the beach; the tide was coming in, but it wouldn't reach the rock-piled cliffs that bordered the beach for some time. They scrambled a little; Callie had sneakers on, but Ryan was still in his work clothes, though he'd slung his lightweight burgundy suit jacket over one arm. For the sake of keeping his outfit wearable, she helped him over the rough spots, until they reached a tiny cove, with a slight overhang, that had no visibility into it except from the water.

Calleigh had gone first, to scout for the sharper rocks that might do a number on Ryan's suit; she was descending a fall of smaller rocks on hands and feet so she wouldn't slide down the side of the scree, and nearly yelped aloud when she felt large, warm hands close around her waist; she was lifted easily down to the sand, and she turned around in her benefactor's arms.

"Hello, Calleigh," said Eric.

She stared, saying nothing; Eric almost looked stoned or something. He was smiling, gazing at her, apparently lost in contemplation of her; his eyes were melting and soft. It was an expression she'd seen on Eric more than once--but, to put it mildly, not under these circumstances. If this were Eric, he definitely looked a little beery. Then he said "It's good to meet you," and let go of her waist, taking her hand instead, squeezing it in both of his, continuing "Ryan loves you so much, I--"

"Ben!"

Calleigh didn't know whether to blush or smirk. She cared a great deal for Ryan and knew it was returned; but this was the first she'd heard that Ryan just loved her so much.

"Oh. Oh, no, I've--I'm sorry, querido," he said, moving to help Ryan over the little scree slide that he'd lifted Calleigh down.

"You may find that Bendición blurts things you'd rather he didn't," Ryan said, not letting go of the gentle, affectionate Eric-doppelganger once he'd been steadied on the sand; Eric--Bendición, whatever--didn't let go of Ryan, either. "He's used to...how shall I put this...utter honesty."

"Yes, you said he communicates in concepts, and there's no way to lie among...among his 'people', right?" Calleigh said, looking back and forth between them sharply. She and Ryan had been talking a long time. Plenty of time for Eric to change and scoot his very fine behind to the little beach cove here. There was still no actual proof the man in the white knit shirt and the washed-to-death jeans was not Eric Delko.

"I think we'd better show her, querido," Ryan said, and "Eric" nodded, with a small, anticipatory smile that threatened to break into a grin, but never quite had time. His eyes seemed to glow--she would have sworn she saw literal flashes of gold in them--in the low, even light. He lowered his mouth to Ryan's; they kissed, and continued to kiss gently for just a bit.

"Okay," Calleigh finally said. "You guys have laid down your arms long enough to play a joke on Calleigh. Well, I'm freaked, okay? Seeing the kings of bitchiness kissing is about to make me freak. I'll get around to it in just a minute here. You can let up any...time..." her voice trailed off as "Eric", in a quick, odd shifting of the air, became translucent, then only a mist of gold light, which dimmed and vanished as it surrounded Ryan and sank in, fast; the operation from "shift" to "gone" took maybe half a second.

While Ryan let his head tilt forward and sighed, throwing his jacket over one shoulder and wrapping his arms around himself, Calleigh stared, and went through the usual list. Illusionism, she was drugged, she was dreaming...it went on, but she was forced to give up and whisper "Ryan?" when all of that usual list rang hollow.

"He...he's *with* me, is how he puts it," Ryan said, with a slightly dopey smile on his face. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes lightly with the fingertips of one hand, and stared into the middle distance. "Sometimes that just means near me; we can't see his own form, because our eyes see in a very tiny spectrum of radiation. He says it's more complicated than he can explain in one sitting. Anyway, he also...like he just did, like you saw, comes inside me. That's what he means by being with me, at least now. He can...he tried to explain it to me, but..."

Calleigh sank onto a rock, her butt not caring about the sharp edge on it, as she struggled with what she'd just seen. "Ryan, my *God*."

"I'm sorry," Ryan said, sinking to his haunches next to her. "I did warn you, but there's no way to really warn for something like that; it's beyond what anybody could expect--Calleigh, it's all right. He's from here, his people, and other beings like him--they evolved here. They're nothing like us, but they're as Terran as we are. And they've *always* been here, maybe longer than we have, if we're talking about current taxonomical forms. There's a school of thought among his people; they and people of a certain level of intelligence, who are made of matter-energy, are symbiotes--since when we join, it's good for both species, in terms of survival. They don't mature completely until they join. There aren't as many of them, and they don't reproduce very fast, because they don't die very much."

"That's...enviable," Calleigh blinked.

Ryan was continuing "He told me he almost appeared to me--he called it introducing himself--looking like you, because I had a strong reaction on meeting you, too, and I...well, he told you. But...like it or not--and I don't like it, at all--I'm in love with Delko, and he thought he'd be doing me a favor. He's sorry now, but...it doesn't matter. He doesn't look anything like Delko to me--or maybe it's that I don't care *what* he looks like--since we touched." Ryan sighed, shaking his head. "I'm sorry. It's weak of me to burden you...but I had to tell *someone* at work, just in case--I guess you get to pay for the fact that I trust you to handle this. You have more integrity than anyone I've ever met, you never gossip, and you never tolerate it around you."

Calleigh decided she wasn't being buttered up--a woman who looked like she did had to figure that sort of thing out early in life--and said only "Why...why would...one want to reveal himself to you this way? Why does he...why does he seem to be...passionately attracted to you?"

"Because he is," Ryan said. "Am I going to have to go over all of it again, now that you know it's not some kind of coping mechanism?" He smiled again, almost regretfully, but continued "He's well over two thousand years old, but his people...they don't mature fully until they find someone--like us, I mean, a person made of this stuff--" he reached out and squeezed her arm gently, "--someone they love in a certain way--see in a certain way. He uses the word 'love' in both English and Spanish, but I'm not sure just what he means by it, except that it's good. There's no parallel with humans. They may find plenty of people they care about, very much, among humans--the ones who like humans, and everything that goes with us; some aren't that interested in us--but they know when they've found one they can join with. It's very rare. They live a long time, but in an immature state, until they join with a human, or a whale or a dolphin--"

"What?" demanded Calleigh, now two steps from freaking out totally, she knew. Hang on, keep cool, ride this out, dammit. "You didn't mention anything but humans."

"It has to be someone with enough cortex to understand what they're being asked, about the actual joining, and who has enough cortex to spare to give the...one of Ben's people somewhere to live. That's mostly humans and certain cetaceans. Actually, whales and dolphins are aware of them all the time--who and where they are, that is, and they can talk to them. A lot of nonhuman species are aware of them; they just don't consider them a threat. We aren't aware of them in their natural forms, and we can't talk with them, unless they build a projected energy body that will act like ours, with respect to the energy that we call matter, like the one you saw. Except for communicating with the person they join with, if they do; then they can...you can talk privately with the one joined with you. In your head. If you want to, that is. Um, most of Ben's people join with cetaceans, and very occasionally some other species, like elephants, higher primates, or certain breeds of wild pig--but that's pretty rare. It's always a very smart species with a big wrinkly cortex on top of the rest of their brain."

"Well I *guess*," Calleigh nearly exploded. "What does that 'joining' thing mean? How is it different from just...'being' with you?" This was *real*. Calleigh's scientific background was kicking and screaming very loudly.

"Ahm..." Ryan chewed a red lip. "From our point of view, if they join with us, we can talk with them without their using a projected body. Like I said, they...can create an energy body that will behave like the matter we're used to, with translation analogs that will turn human physical sensory perception into something with immediate meaning for them, though the better they can directly understand through our sort of perceptions--even though ours are seriously limited, compared to Ben's people's--the more they feel they've accomplished, and the more they enjoy it. But they don't lose their own perceptions. Right now, Ben can perceive what I do, but he also has his own sensory ability. He doesn't lose that."

"Is there anything in it for you besides what sounds like unlimited love and devotion?"

Ryan glanced away, then down, again; this time she was pretty sure she saw a little blush. He said "Well--" he cleared his throat. "I guess it's pretty nice, at that. He doesn't have to join with me for that, though. But if he joins with me...one thing that's in it for me is that he can heal me, keep me completely healthy for a long life span, short of trauma so serious it's impossible to fix, like, uh, beheading. Or something."

Calleigh forced herself to think. "Well, that's nice, isn't it?" she said vaguely, knowing she was way out of her depth and that there was nothing to be done for it. "Okay. What's an energy body? And how could it lift me down that slope?"

"They don't understand why we--except for physicists in certain specialties--separate matter and energy; matter *is* energy; to Ben and his people, it's all just different kinds of energy. Our bodies aren't solid to them, until they create bodies like ours--to them, energy bodies of a particular kind, but from our point of view, matter bodies. It takes a while to create a matter body, though, usually years. They need help from a human, or whoever, to do it. Bendición had me. Since I was eleven. Now that I think of it, it's no wonder I was such a geek all through junior high."

"You were really only eleven?"

"He knew I wasn't grown, but he could still see in me...everything he...he knew it would still be there, just matured, and how it would mature, when I was grown. They can see things we can't, because in their usual states, they don't experience time the way we do. So you could say he fell in love with me then. He stayed near me--that's another definition of being 'with me'."

"That he'd...chosen you."

"Uh, yeah, if you put it that way, that he'd chosen me. He...in all his life, he'd never found...damn, I don't know how to explain it, I'm not one of them, and even Bendición had a hard time with making me understand in words. I didn't get it until he touched me. Um...maybe I should capitalize that word, in this case. I mean...*touched* me, and I touched him."

"I know what you mean." Hardly; even Ryan barely knew what he meant, apparently.

"It's different for them. They know when they're ready, and they know...who they should..." he shook his head. "There's nothing to describe it in human terms. It's not 'one true love' crap; it's nothing humans experience, or can even conceive of."

"But you can."

"He touched me." Ryan smiled a little.

"Okay. So...he's...joined with you?"

Ryan looked down at the sand and picked up a piece of shell, turning it over in his hands. "Not yet."

"He knows he wants you. Do you want him?"

"Yes. Jesus, let me count the ways. The reason...it's him who's hesitating about it, because he's afraid I might...change my mind."

Calleigh just stared, obviously waiting for him to go on.

Ryan rose from his crouch and folded his arms, planting his feet wide in the sand, in the posture that could be saying that he was on guard, on duty, or just thinking hard. Judging by his expression, it was the last, this time. "When he does join with someone...he can't unjoin. He can only die."

"Die?" Calleigh said, feeling like she was on some reality carnival ride, and she was appropriately unsettled in the stomach and head areas. "I thought he was...old, and that he..."

"If he doesn't join with anyone, no one knows what his life span would be; he doesn't know of any of his people who've never joined, and have died. But if he does...let me, um, put it this way--in the past--way too often in the past--a human has consented to join with one of Ben's people, and that human ended up freaking out; they couldn't take the...closeness, the constant presence--even if the one joined with them retreated, stayed quiet, kept their main consciousness away most of the time--it was the *idea* that got to the human, more than any actual feeling or interference with their thought processes, or anything else directly sensed. But they couldn't take the notion, and even if they didn't want to kill the...the one of Ben's people who'd joined with them, their feelings at the situation eventually killed whoever it was. You can see how they'd be cautious, even with people who said they wanted to join."

"They can't...just separate?" Calleigh asked weakly. Just to make sure.

Ryan shook his head, shifting in his stance a little. "No. They can move around, like always, and they don't lose any of their own senses, or ability to communicate with their own people--but they're...damn it. *Anchored*, and *changed*, they can't survive without this person any more. They're literally part of the person they've joined with, and never totally out of contact with them. Well--put it like this; there are definitely still two distinct beings, but they and the human they've joined with share a part of each other in common, a part that Ben's people can't do without once they have it; they...change, themselves, and the shared area becomes...integral to them. We don't change. We'd remain intact if 'separation' or whatever, were to happen; they wouldn't."

"He--or whatever the appropriate pronoun would be--"

"He is fine. Ben refers to himself as male--at least when he's wearing his human body, since he chose a male to model the body's appearance on."

"He would be...'anchored' to you. How? What part of you? How would that affect you--besides what you've told me about his increasing your ability to heal, I mean?"

"You're a lot more curious now."

"This is real now. Talk."

He nodded, with an apologetic grimace, and went on "That's why they need the large amount of cortex--among other things, we aren't using most of it at any given time. They can use what we aren't, and never interrupt or interfere with our own thought processes. Calleigh, I'm sorry, but he's not human, and he has senses--and priorities--we don't. I didn't get it, at all, until he..."

"'Touched' you."

"And I touched him, in the process, yes."

"Ryan..." Calleigh sighed. "This is just really weird."

"I know. I'm sorry."

"It's too late to be sorry; there's no way to explain the way he...disappeared into you. But how do I know you haven't been affected? How do I know you haven't been--"

"How do you know I'm not a pod person?" Ryan smirked.

"It's not funny."

"I know it's not, from your end, Calleigh, sorry. How do you know I haven't been brainwashed, is what you're asking, and it's not an unreasonable fear. The only problem is...there's only one way to convince you that I really, really haven't been. And that one way would put you under suspicion, to anyone else, of brainwashing, too."

She locked eyes with him a moment, then said "He can 'touch' me, too."

"He can. He won't, unless you want him to. Unless you ask him."

"But...I thought that you..."

"Um, what we've been calling touching is only communication. I probably shouldn't say 'only'; it's communication past anything a human could understand unless they'd experienced it. It's also not, past a certain point, safe--although I have to say if Ben weren't so conscientious about not hurting me I'd get addicted to it very fast--to undergo past a certain depth, or more than a few times. It varies with the human, and with the member of Ben's species."

"That...being another reason they have to learn to communicate our way, instead of just..."

"...swamping us with information like they do each other, right. Our brains, our worldview, aren't set up to tolerate it. Like I told you, it knocked me cold for a few minutes, and that was the lightest touch Bendición knows how to share with a human."

"And it was like..."

Ryan shrugged helplessly, shaking his head, his eyes imploring, which Calleigh could never withstand, though she wasn't about to let him find that out. He whispered "Like I've known him forever. Like I've known him since I was born."

"And you love him."

"And I love him."

"And...Eric...?"

Ryan did that head-duck again. "As you can imagine, a people who are sort of constantly in each other's beings all the time don't have a concept of exclusivity. I..." he paused. "I'm in love with Eric Delko," he murmured, in a low monotone. "And more often than I care to admit, I hate myself for it. And I *want* him..." he closed his eyes and inhaled, and exhaled, a shaky breath. "...and I wouldn't know what to do with him if I had him."

"He has good qualities, Ryan," Calleigh said softly. "Things about him that are worth loving. There's no need to hate yourself for it."

"I know he has good qualities. I didn't say I hated *him*. Usually, at least. But I have to suspect my motives, being so ungodly hooked on someone I don't get along any better with. Besides, he..."

"...plays the field," Calleigh murmured.

"With a vengeance," Ryan growled, and lifted his head to stare out toward the water a moment. "I know it's not as...blatant as it used to be, that he's at least more discreet about it, if nothing else. Still, I'm ordinarily so turned off by that particular little personality characteristic, in *anybody*, that he wouldn't even be worth consideration to me; so I have to wonder about my reasons. Besides...even if he would ever consider spending a night--or in his case, maybe an hour of one--with me, I'd rather lose a limb than live with that memory the rest of my life, or even live through it while it was happening--knowing just how he saw it, how he saw *me*, how he *didn't* see me--" he stopped and held his breath a moment, closing his eyes.

"I understand. Eric isn't an issue."

Ryan was still a moment, then let the breath out. "No, he isn't an issue, but what I was trying to say before I lost it for a minute there is that to Bendición, Delko wouldn't be an issue even if the two of us moved to Canada and got married. The whole idea of...an exclusive relationship is as alien to them as the idea of...oh, pulling off our skins and living in the ocean, something that bizarre, would be to us. A relationship takes effort to maintain, to us; relationships with our families, our friends, our lovers and whoever else. With Ben's people, there is no such thing as a 'relationship' the way we mean it because other consciousnesses can't be avoided. You're soaking in them."

"Living with your skin off."

"Yes."

Calleigh stood, noticed her dented butt and rubbed it surreptitiously. "So the only way I can understand all this, and know for a fact that you haven't been brainwashed, is to let Bendición 'touch' me."

"You don't have to. I don't expect--"

"Ryan, I'm not going to let this 'joining' thing happen without knowing exactly what this creature is."

"He might not. Join with me, I mean, though, Calleigh. I--he...I think he will. I think..."

"I think I will, too," said Ben's soft, melodious voice behind her, and she turned around so fast in the sand that Ryan had to catch her.

"I'm sorry," Bendición said, looking honestly contrite. "But it was one of the first things Ryan made sure I knew. Never to let anyone see me 'appear' anywhere. Anyone but him, at least. I made it part of my...the way I materialize."

"His programming," Ryan said. He smiled at Bendición. "That's not what it is, of course, but it's faster than trying to explain in words." Bendición smiled back at him.

"It's just...you have things you don't rush into with people, even if those things are something of a foregone conclusion," Bendición said. He stepped forward and took Calleigh's hands, allowing Ryan to release her elbows without dropping her into the sand. "So do we. Um, after what he told you, I'm sure you can understand why."

"Yes," Calleigh said, standing her ground--oddly, it was easier, she felt calmer, with the Eric-doppelganger holding her hands, though she knew perfectly well it wasn't Eric. "If it could result in your death if the person you join with finds out the sensation is...too alien? I'd think about it, too, especially if I could live for thousands of years if I just stayed with them, without risking my life by, ah, 'joining'--but then, if you did, and it was all right, you'd have that--and you could have it again, with your lifespan, even if finding humans that you--"

She broke off when Bendición started to look uncomfortable, then glanced away. "Um," he said.

"Um, what?" Ryan wondered. "I thought that pretty much encapsulated the issue."

"Um...well." Bendición released Calleigh and moved away a little, leaning on his elbows on a shelf of rock, his hands folded on the stone before him. "It's close."

"How close? Did I miss something?"

"Only one thing."

"You hid something? I didn't know you could hide something." Ryan seemed more nonplused than upset.

"I can't," Bendición said. "I didn't hide it. You just haven't thought of it. Think about what Calleigh just said."

"Um..." Ryan whispered rapidly to himself. "If she could live for thousands of years if she just stayed with someone without joining, there'd be no danger, but if she did, and it worked, there was a chance she could have it agai--" Ryan's eyes got huge. "Ben, you didn't--you didn't tell me!"

"I can't hide anything, when we touch like we did, querido. But after...I can't hear what you think, precisely, unless we join."

"You should have made a *point* of it! God *damn* it, Ben!"

"What!?" Calleigh yelled, looking rapidly back and forth between them.

"'What' is that if Ben joins with me, he dies. Whether because I freak out and he dies alone, or he's with me 'til I croak on a scooter at a hundred and two--if he joins with me, he dies, one way or another."

Calleigh was silent a moment, as she felt the heat of Ryan's stare over her shoulder, and the forlornness--that was the only word for it--of Bendición's gaze. "Ryan," Ben tried, "there are animals in your own world--your own perception of it--that live comparatively very long lives until they reach the adult stage, and then...their adult stage is only a few days long. Or even less."

"Which *would* be the comparative equivalent of the rest of your life span, if you joined with me," Ryan snapped. "And most of those creatures are insects. No Earth sentient spends most of its lifespan in an immature state."

"We do," Bendición tried, his voice soft, holding his hands out helplessly.

"I'm sorry, I mean--I mean the species I'm familiar with, all right? Not the sentients and otherwise that populate the Earth your senses detect," Ryan sighed, obviously aggravated at having to back off in the middle of an angry rant and apologize for matter-bias.

Calleigh now understood how there was no way Ryan could mistake his friend for Eric Delko. This person not only had a total absence of cockiness; he had, apparently, no temper--at least none he would show Ryan--and a very strong soothing vibration that made it impossible to become irritated with him, although Ryan was certainly trying.

Bendición was saying "Ryan, I may...I may have to try to explain to you again; we can, more than once, I just didn't want to use up the number of times its safe between us, so soon. You've got to understand--once I've joined with you, I'm not going to *want* to live without you. And I thought you understood that the joining you explained to Calleigh--how a human would be whole if you separated from us, but we wouldn't be--would be the same if you died, as if we tried to separate."

Ryan exhaled harshly a couple of times, then sat down on the rock with the edge and promptly got back up in defense of his sartorial integrity. "Shit. Okay, damn it, this is my fault. The information was there, all over the place. I guess I just...didn't want to see it. Didn't want to understand the implications. Ben, there's no way I can let you do this now. Calleigh, I'm sorry, you shouldn't have had to stand around in the middle of this, especially not right after finding out about Ben at all. And since he won't be joining with me, a lot of the reasons I felt I had to tell you about it aren't even--"

"*Ryan*." Calleigh and Ryan both looked at Ben. He looked so stricken that they were both brought up short. "Ryan, no, don't say that," Bendición whispered, barely audible above the surf that rolled softly a short distance down the beach. "Please don't. Please, think--what you know about me--everything I gave you is a lot to go through in a week. You--to your people, you'd be saving me. To me, there'd be almost no point in my ever having lived, if you refuse."

There was a short silence, as Ryan's eyes, impossibly, got bigger.

"Wait," Calleigh finally said. "I thought it was you, um, Bendición, who were hesitating. Afraid that he--"

"I was hesitating for his sake," Bendición said, the tears that had been standing in his eyes slowly trailing down his face. "There's only one chance for joining, once it's being tried. If he--if he were sorry--if he didn't want to hurt me, he just couldn't stand the joining--he'd have unintentionally killed me, and he'd have had to live with that. And I know him. He'd never want to hurt me. But even if that happened--even if we'd joined for only a few minutes--I would have..." he looked away, biting a full lip, then back up. "My life would have had...so much more reason, so much...it would have had an inarguable point. If you say no, I'll still never leave you, unless you send me away. But it would be different." He shook his head, smiling. "I am *not* *human*, my love. Stop trying to invest this with what is meaningful in human terms."

Ryan was quiet, and his eyes were shiny now, too. He swallowed, and said "I'm sorry. Your life--your kind of life--is too new to me, for that to be easy yet. Human life is all I really know."

"Eso cambiará, quizá un poco, mi chico dulce." That will change, maybe a little, my sweet boy. Ben smiled, a little sadly, a little hopefully, at Ryan.

Calleigh edged away, catching Ryan's eyes briefly; he nodded as she made her way back up the rockslide, and Ryan went to Bendición as fast as humanly possible while walking on sand in dress shoes.

Heading back toward the boardwalk, Calleigh reflected that she'd better avoid conversation for the rest of the day, and as much as possible the rest of the week. She had almost as much as Ryan to think about--all right, maybe not that much. The way Bendición described it, joining was what gave his people's existence meaning--to a lesser degree, just finding the person that you wanted to join with did the same, but not to complete fulfillment if Bendición had spoken true. And she could not conceive of that person lying.

It was more than religion; that was about faith. This was real, palpable. His people could *visit* heaven, or at least talk to others of their people who were living there. To Bendición, as well as being a lot of other things to him (witness the bite on Ryan's shoulder), Ryan was, in a real way, god. And she had a strong feeling Ryan hadn't realized that until now, and maybe still didn't, quite.

***

"Calleigh? Ryan."

"I know, Ryan, it said so on my phone." Calleigh sat back on the couch in her ratty bathrobe, the one nobody knew about, and continued "Is this about work or, ah, not?" Bendición, since she'd only just gotten in after meeting him.

"I'm at home; you should be able to see that on your phone," Ryan replied, a grin in his voice. "I'm calling because my new friend wants to visit you."

She blinked. "I see. Uh...what would this entail?"

"He'll just kind of show up, if that's okay."

"Oh. So you wouldn't need..."

"No, it wouldn't be me, just him," Ryan chuckled. "You don't have to change that bathrobe."

"How did you know about my--oh, yes."

"Oh, yes, I brought you supplies when you had the flu, and I still deserve a medal for walking into a house where a strain like that Radioactive Martian Death Flu was active. So, can he visit you?"

"If you don't mind my asking..."

"He thought our conversation was cut a bit short today. He's right. He'd like to answer any questions you may still have, and ask you a few. He and I have...agreed, for the moment, to disagree, and now he wants to talk to you, too. He's like a puppy, Calleigh, save me, here. He desperately wants you to like him."

"Well, you tell him I do like him, and he can visit me if he doesn't mind the casual dress code."

"I'm working on making him a little closer to our idea of civilized in general. Don't be afraid to tell him he's being nosy; as you can imagine, now that he can ask at least two hu--uh, people questions instead of just observing, he's curious about everything."

"I bet he is."

"A dirty mind is something I thought you were freer of than a Trappist Monk, Cal."

"You have no evidence that ties me to such a thing now, either, Ryan. I'll see our friend when he gets here."

"Hello," said Bendición, from behind her; her teacup, fortunately nearly empty, leapt in her hand, sloshing its few drops and miraculously not spilling, but the phone bounced off the silver-flowers-embroidered-on-dove-grey couch cushion and hit the floor, evidently transmitting the sound of Calleigh's muffled shriek, because Ryan's laughter could be heard through the earpiece even before Bendición hastily circled the couch and dropped to his knees, as concerned as if he'd made her lose her grip on an infant, and handed the phone back to her carefully with both hands, the "sorry" writ large on his face. She knew that what he was sorry for was making her jump, but the phone thing was so cute she had to grin at him.

"He got here safely," she said dryly into the phone.

"He's fast. And safe."

"Apparently."

"He may try to bathe you. He keeps trying it with me. Don't let him; I'm trying to convince him he's not a bodyservant or anything like it."

"Really enjoyed the bath the first time, did he? Wouldn't you let any other lover do that if they wanted to?"

"I have to wonder whether he really likes things, sometimes, or just likes that I like them. Later, Calleigh."

They clicked off. Bendición was sitting on the thick pale blue carpet, by her knee, leaning on the couch and looking mildly disgusted. "I don't know why he's so sensitive about that. I just love your skin."

Calleigh interpreted the "your" to mean "human" and said, "Your own skin is awfully nice, if it feels just like Eric's; his, startlingly enough, feels as good as it looks."

"But it's not the same. I don't know why," Bendición puzzled, running a hand along the inside of his own forearm.

"If that arm were numb, it would feel the same as touching someone else's skin," Calleigh said. "We find that out when we get local anesthesia at the dentist."

"Needles. Needles are bad."

"They're usually not any fun, but they're almost always better than the alternative if we're talking about a medication."

"If Ryan would join with me, he wouldn't need any medications," Bendición sighed.

"He doesn't want...he doesn't want anything to happen to you, Bendición," Calleigh said quietly.

"It's my risk! Why can't he understand that I'm willing to accept it--that almost all of us are, it's not some strange idea of my own? That it would be *better* than never joining with him at all?"

"For the same reason you were hesitating, *until* you heard Ryan say no way," Calleigh said, raising a sharp eyebrow at him. "He doesn't want to be responsible for killing you. It's more than that, though."

"I know how he'd suffer for that," Bendición said, "and I don't want that, but he wouldn't, not as much, if he could just understand that *I* wouldn't be suffering. I'd be...complete."

"And maybe dead as well. And it's not just the guilt of possibly killing you that he doesn't want to live with. He doesn't want to lose you--he named you 'blessing' for a reason; I don't think Ryan had any real hope of having anyone in his life to love and love him back."

Ben was quiet, then looked up at her, deep eyes searching. "He's had relationships, though. I've seen."

"Was he ever the one who ended it?"

Bendición squirmed. "It was usually mutual."

"Because Ryan was fatalistic about the whole thing, wasn't he? When whoever he was with started to drift, he just accepted it, didn't he?"

"Something like that," Bendición sighed.

"Do you think any of those people loved Ryan the way you do?"

He met her eyes. "Absolutely not," he said, quietly, solidly.

"Whether Ryan ever joins with you, will you ever leave him?"

"No."

"And he knows this beyond any doubt, because of the 'touch' you exchanged with him."

Bendición nodded again. "He says so. And I know he saw it in me. But now...I won't know anything more directly from his mind unless he joins with me. He didn't want to touch again so soon. He said he...that it would be too much, there were still things--important things, obviously, judging by what he only realized this afternoon--that hadn't had a chance to come to light. He wanted to wait for that."

She nodded. "But you know he believes you won't leave him...so long as nothing happens to you."

Bendición sighed, looking at the carpet. "Even our touching couldn't convince him that I *know* he's not someone who would...become upset, and kill me, nothing can. Also, he is trapped in the fact that I'll die when he does, at the end of his normal life span. To humans, eternal life is..."

"Good?" Calleigh tried.

"Yes, something you don't throw away, if you have it. To my people, it is...a given, and not even a very important given."

"I think I understand," Calleigh said. "The way we've evolved--life, survival, is the very first consideration. Everything about us is geared to that. Only if we manage to survive all the things that can kill us so easily, compared to your people, do we have a chance to think about finding meaning. To you, survival as a concept doesn't exist. You *do* exist, and you're going to exist. All there is to you, to give your existence meaning, is...meaning. Simply managing to survive is nothing to be proud of, or feel is an accomplishment--*unless* something that involves meaning and reason happens with you, you'll never die. I gather nothing in your usual environment really kills your people."

"Very, very rare and bizarre accident, but nothing like what you're used to, like what you've--evolved to, you're right." He thought, and continued "Finding someone to join with--something that will cause your life to eventually *end*--that is the dream we have, what we live in hope of. Not of eternal life, but of eventually dying, joined."

Calleigh felt her eyes get damp. "Have you explained it to him like that? That he's...anthropomorphosizing you again?"

"Not in those exact words. If you think they might help, I'll try. But he's still sure he'd be one of the ones to kill whoever joined with him through panic and hysteria. As you said, he has some....ideas, and he believes he wouldn't be able to stand any...any lack of control. What he doesn't seem to hear is that he would have *total* control, it wouldn't feel...invasive, no more than when I'm inside him. I'd never do anything he didn't want, even if it were possible. I have always known all about his idiosyncrasies; they are part of who he is. And when I'm inside him, he...melts. He loves it nearly as much as I do. It doesn't make him upset, or make him lose his focus. He definitely knows I'm there, he can feel me--if I didn't want him to, or he didn't want to, then he couldn't, but he loves...there are certain aspects that--it's hard to explain. But when it's like this, with the person you know you need, joining is--is almost *never* a problem."

"Well." Calleigh smiled. "It certainly sounds pleasant. Maybe you only need to give it some more time."

"I don't see how that will help. I've been with him for more than twenty years, and to him, that's a long time."

"But he's only been with you," she said, leaning forward and setting her teacup down on the coffee table to take his hand in both of hers, "for a week, 'touch' or no, and no matter how much he likes you riding around in there with him, humans...need time. I don't know how much time you've spent observing us over the centuries, but you must have noticed that we can lie, and you can't. We can omit important details; you can't. Most importantly, in this thing with Ryan--we can kid ourselves, and he knows it; you, I would venture to guess, can't, because nobody else would let you, and besides, it's just...foreign to your makeup, I'd bet."

He smiled, looking a little Ericlike, sort of a caught-me smirk. "You're quite right."

"If Ryan's mind were as bare to you as you're used to with your own people, and vice versa, of course he wouldn't have to wonder if he'd end up freaking out. It'd be obvious to you both whether or not that would happen. But Ryan's human, and we have to...really wrestle with things like that, sometimes."

He nodded, definitely listening, but also starting to pet her hand with his free one, then slide it softly down her arm up under her sleeve, as though stroking a sleeping cat.

She smiled. "If you ever do circulate generally among humans, Bendición, you probably shouldn't pet people's skin unless you know them well."

"Oh, my." He stopped at once, looking abashed at what he'd been doing; then he seemed to consider, and looked back up. "Would you like to know me well? I'd like to, um, touch you, just because I...I like you--but if we did..."

"...Ryan might be more reassured."

"I didn't want to sound mercenary about it, but yes, there is that." Bendición cleared his throat a little, looking so charmingly embarrassed Calleigh smiled. Then she had a thought.

"Is it...does it...Ryan said he...um. That it was quite an experience, in ways he couldn't even describe."

"I don't think it would be as intense with you," Bendición said. "You're not Ryan. I just...*really* like you. I almost chose your form instead of Eric's. Mostly because Ryan thinks you're the most beautiful woman he's ever met, but also because I...um, it's complicated."

She blinked, really thinking about it now. "My. That would have been...interesting." So was the way Ryan seemed, as she was discovering, to keep liking her better and in more ways.

Bendición reached up and slid his fingers into her hair, letting them pull slowly away, her loose blonde tresses falling through them. "Soft," he whispered, looking almost caricaturishly like a kid on Christmas morning. "Ryan's is so soft--mine is not, really--but yours is...is *soft*."

"You're finding that 'soft' is something you resonate with just a little bit, isn't it, Bendición?" Calleigh smiled, closing her eyes as he repeated the movement, which actually felt pretty nice (considering it was neither condescension nor a come-on), two or three more times. Ryan was right; he was like a puppy, or a child; he'd probably be that way for a little while, exploring the comparatively limited but refined world of human sensation.

"Yes," he nodded, petting her head lightly with his fingers, then letting just the ends of her hair trail through. "Water is *very* soft."

"Ryan mentioned you like water, too. Have you been swimming?"

"Um...something that Ryan feels terrible about, but which we expect, is that we can't appear much in public, at least not at first. Anyone can get distracted and end up with a bus passing right through them. Our other...what you'd call senses, or awareness--that's usually enough to prevent anything like that; we have a better understanding of our surroundings, for a much larger radius, than humans do. But there are other things about us that are...anomalous. Those of us who...how should I put this--who like humans? As Ryan mentioned, cetaceans know who we are--but those of us who expect to join with a human are prepared to keep out of sight until we are sure we're ready to interact with strangers."

"You should go for a night swim. Low light hides a multitude of sins. And sharks can't hurt you, if buses can't, can they? If they can, you could use a pool, but it'd probably be lit."

"Um, no. They can only frighten us. The humans, that is--human like me, by choice, I mean. My body doesn't have most of the vulnerabilities yours does, but it has the same danger-avoidance reflexes. It's part of...being as human as we can, when we are human. I would still like to try it. Also, if I do need to be seen in public, I'm less likely to fall down a hole or get passed through by the bus; if I have the reflexes, I'll jump out of the way."

Calleigh picked up her tea and took a nervous sip. "Does...does 'touching' involve anything in particular? Do I have to do anything special?"

"I need to touch skin, about here," Bendición said, circling a flat hand in the air just in front of her sternum. "That's really all. Except--you'd probably want to lie down. Also, if there's anything you...it's a bodily function..."

She blinked. "I'll wet my pants? Worse? Tell me, I'll get naked and lie in the bathtub."

"No. He, um. He came in his shorts, as he put it."

Calleigh couldn't help it; she snorted, instantly slapping a hand to her face. "I would bet you've left out some of how he put it."

"You would be correct. He said later it was because I was so beautiful inside...that he thought so *was* probably partly it, but I think it might also have had to do with the fact that he's...my chosen? The one I feel I need most, that I want to be with most. All that at once. You know."

"Yes, I think I do. I can live with that, if it happens. I was thinking more how...even though Ryan cried, it was because he was happy, he said? That you loved him so much, and that you were someone he could feel the same way about, and that it...happened so fast, discovering it. A sudden extreme shock, just a good one--like...like a data burst."

"If you mean a *lot* of information at once, yes. And I don't know...I can't promise it isn't just something humans do, when we touch them, communicate like that. I've never asked anyone who touched with a human before they joined. I guess it didn't occur to me."

"That's all right, Bendición. Well." She set her teacup down. "I was going to make a pineapple Jell-O mold to bring to Maxine's potluck in two days, but it can wait." The absurdity of what she'd just said hit her, and she giggled, but quickly got control of herself and began adjusting her robe. She was wearing cotton underpants beneath it and nothing else, so she only had to pull the front open a bit; then she lay down on the couch, arranging herself comfortably. "Is this all right?"

"That's fine, I think. It's better than Ryan, anyway--he fainted and fell over the bedtable and I had to pick him up off the floor. I had no idea he would lose consciousness. I was terrified."

"If you didn't hurt Ryan, it should be safe to do the same thing with me. As you said, it probably won't be as intense." I am insane, Calleigh was recording with precision in her mental daybook.

"I can't guarantee..." Bendición looked nervous, and she'd never been able to stand that tortured, indecisive look on Eric's face, either. She reached up and stroked his cheek. "We'll be fine, Bendición. Go ahead." She lowered her hand, folding it with her other over her stomach, and closing her eyes.

Bendición, she heard, took a deep breath--very human of him, and then--

***

"Oh, my," she whispered into Bendición's neck as he rocked her. "Oh, my goodness."

"You're sure you're not hurt?" Bendición asked, stroking her hair with what she was beginning to think might be as much simple absorption with the texture as concern.

"I'm not hurt," she sniffled a little, and smiled, drawing her lips across her teeth, the smile she used to stop crying when necessary. Bendición stuffed a Kleenex into her hand. It was about the twelfth. He was desperate to be helpful. He'd probably killed a whole box of them doing this with Ryan, once he discovered tissues were useful during crying. "Ryan was right. You're...very beautiful to us, Bendición."

"Then this is good crying? Like Ryan's?"

"Yes. But the hugging is still appropriate, no matter what kind of crying," Calleigh explained, and Bendición wrapped her up close again; he was sitting on the couch with her, her legs trailing off the edge and hanging to rest against his. He had one arm, the loosely knit sleeve pushed up to his elbow, around her under the robe, wrapped over the bare skin of her back.

She realized she hadn't even noticed immediately, and smiled to herself. Bendición, she now knew, was the most unthreatening creature she'd ever encountered; the utter lack of any sort of aggression in him--or any of his people, or their equivalent of other animals--would have been far too good to be true if she didn't have incontrovertible personal proof of it. He didn't have to kill even to eat. The only reason he would kill even microorganisms was if it were necessary to save Ryan from infection.

Bendición petted the skin of her back. "Soft," he barely whispered.

"Um...you can...you can come inside me, can't you? Like you do with Ryan."

"With your permission? Yes."

"You have it; put me on the couch--here--" She moved over from his lap, wiping at her face and sniffing, then held her arms out. "Come in."

"Really?" She saw the muted gold scintillance, glowing softly in his deep brown eyes.

She smiled tearily. "Yes. Really."

"Thank you," he whispered, and then he was a heat distortion in the air, and then soft gold light surrounded everything she saw for a moment.

She groaned and fell over on the couch on her side, wrapping her arms around herself in a reflex attempt to return the unbelievably intimate embrace, just like she'd seen Ryan do when Bendición went into him.

"I'm going to have a very hard time giving you back to Ryan," she managed to whisper, sniffed, and smiled when she felt the warmth of his affection moving through her; she could even feel a gentle, physical touch moving across her skin, though she suspected it had something to do with Ben activating her nervous system in ways that felt good, rather than a physical touch. He wasn't a creature of matter at the moment.

***

"She's so beautiful," Ben was rhapsodizing, on the topic again for maybe the half-dozenth time, following the smirking Ryan around as the latter collected laundry, folded and sorted it. Ryan was having to do this because a string of very messy trips to one rained-out park, and another two to the glades, had left a number of his garments requiring even more special care than usual. He needed to keep more jeans and T shirts in his locker at work. And possibly some galoshes.

"Yeah," Ryan chuckled, "I'd noticed that about Calleigh."

"What? Oh, you mean--no, I don't mean that. She has a beautiful, graceful, logical order to her thoughts--" Ben had been going on about Calleigh's synapses for about fifteen minutes, and knew perfectly well his lover understood him, but the game was proving too much fun to drop just yet. "--unshakeable, without becoming stagnant, elegant in the simplicity of connection, so that she can handle the most complex associations without any strain. I can't see her actual thoughts, of course, but the way my people perceive things, she's like..."

"An island of tranquillity? That's kind of what I get from her." Ryan looked wistful and bemused, "although I admit that overall impression could be partly that green-herbal cologne splash she puts on in the locker after she clocks out. Well, I also get other things from her. Like a very refined bootprint on my ass if I screw up."

"I haven't experienced that last personally," Bendición smiled. "But the first--it's much more than that. It's hard to explain. But if you mean it feels...something like that to be around her, then yes."

"She *is* refreshing, in many ways." Ryan smiled, eyed a sock dubiously, sniffed it, and made a face. "That's the gator crap one, I think. I could use some refreshing just at the moment."

Putrid laundry or no, he was in a very good mood today, Ben being here, and this being his weekday off--two days since Ben had visited Calleigh at home. Ben had come back briefly that night to tell Ryan he and Calleigh had had a "touch" experience, and he was going to stay with her until the morning. Ryan had missed him, but he could afford to be generous. Calleigh could have the night, considering she'd just been blown away by vibrations good enough to make the Beach Boys sing in their old musician's homes.

"Won't I do?" Ben knelt behind where Ryan was sitting on his heels in his bedroom floor by the hamper, and slid his arms around Ryan's waist.

"Oh, sure. You do just fine." Ryan grinned, and leaned back into Ben as he continued to sort. "You're perfect, in fact." He rubbed his forehead into Bendición's long neck, and got a kiss on the temple. "I've smiled more in the last week than ever before in my life."

There was a pause.

"I can *feel* you beaming," Ryan said softly, a little taken aback.

"I love you," Bendición said. "I like it when you're happy, corazón."

"I love you, too, Ben," Ryan murmured, settling for a moment in Bendición's embrace, and letting himself be soothed. "Maybe someday I won't believe I've lost it, and now I'm in a ward somewhere," he muttered. "Sucking down Haldol and Thorazine. And probably lithium."

His ear was kissed lightly. "Calleigh would argue. She was quite certain of the veracity of everything."

"I think I may love Calleigh. I mean, I love Calleigh, but...maybe she's...more to me than...hell, I know she is. I hope I don't say anything without thinking--it's easy to get into habits like that with you..."

"She wouldn't be offended by that," Bendición whispered. "Prometo, querido. She is not sure enough of it, such that she has truly considered it--but she loves you, too."

"She loves Delko," Ryan said quietly, in the flat voice that he often used to hide emotion. "And she's loved him years longer than she's even known me."

"Why does that mean she can't love you?"

"Um...since we're talking about Calleigh, maybe it doesn't. It's just that Eric and I are a powder keg that people keep having to stamp the fuse out on, and I don't want her sitting on top of the keg if the fuse isn't doused in time. And I don't want to put her into a position of having to get between us--not again, for God's sake, Delko and I are ridiculous, and it becomes her problem if he and I don't control it. It's easier for her if she's never close enough that she has to choose between being anyone's friend, or being their superior. I'm already worried I've blown that; you know why. In my defense, though, Delko blew it a long time before I did."

"I think I understand. Then let me ask about something else she said--and said I should ask you."

"Oh yeah?" Ryan smiled, got bug eyed examining a gumming of green around the cuffs of a pair of suit pants, and folded them to stack in the drycleaner's pile; he wasn't going to get anywhere with whatever that stuff was. Then he remembered he'd been smiling because of Ben and did so again. "What did she say?"

"She said since I like soft things so much, I should go for a swim. At night."

Ryan blinked. "She's right. You should be able to go outside in the dark without any problem. Let's see...there's a barrier-netted beach--not the kind of nets that work by trapping and killing larger animals; these are just impassable to anything bigger than a tuna. They're using them in Australia now. This one is experimental, a project Miami U has a grant to run for a year. It works fine; the experiment is to see how barrier nets withstand the currents around here, how much upkeep they require, and, how much that costs."

"Sharks can't hurt me. Neither can jellyfish."

"No, but they can hurt me. I'd like to come with you. You know in our culture--not counting arrogant idiots like Delko--we don't swim alone."

"I can protect you from sharks, too. Also jellyfish. Remember how I took your phone away?"

Ryan smiled. "Too well."

"There's not much more to a jellyfish, especially the little ones. Are there any little rays near here?"

"I've only seen skates--little rays with no sting? They lie on the bottom and change color to match. It is kind of freaky when you accidentally step on one and they go shooting out from under you. I've embarrassed myself freaking out at that. You're allowed to laugh, though, I always do."

"I'd like to go whenever it's convenient for you. By the way, I thought Eric was an expert swimmer and diver--free swimming, snorkeling, scuba--"

"He is. He wanted to swim competitively, when he was young, but apparently he's just too big, too heavy. Something about the drag, cost-benefit in terms of muscle-to-streamlining, and muscle weight that does no work, just has to be carried. I called him an arrogant idiot because one, he's arrogant; and two, even experts shouldn't swim alone, especially at night. Half of what makes dangerous activities safe for experts is that they know when not to do whatever it is the first place. It's not so bad when he's trying to work around waterweed and rusted-out washing machines in a canal, or sifting through dead beer bottles in a marina, but work sends him down into the glades, and ocean swimming on retrieval missions in scuba--long distances, miles of territory to cover--and they send him alone. I asked about it once; H doesn't like it, either. As you can imagine, it's a budget thing. Anything that involves extra-expensive, specialized training, and hasn't proven it needs more than one pair of hands or eyes to accomplish, only gets one pair--and Delko's assigned to us for that reason. Coastal cities have their share of underwater crime scenes, and even more ditched evidence that people figure the currents will take care of." He smirked to himself, eyes distant. "They don't figure on Delko. Half the dolphins that come through here know him and help him look for things."

"You sound angry about his having to swim alone. Except for the dolphins, who can help him look, and keep the sharks away--but can't help him if he needs human assistance."

"I am. It raises the risk of accidents, nonfatal and otherwise, exponentially when you dump a diver into the water alone--get this, without even anyone manning his boat? I mean, come *on*--they send Eric out as the boat pilot *and* the diver. Slightest thing goes wrong, he's fucked." He glanced back up at the intently listening Bendición. "Did you know that he doesn't even get hazard pay for it? It's because he was hired initially by the PD *as* a diver."

"You must be worried when he has to go out on a search-and-retrieval alone," Bendición murmured softly.

Ryan sighed; Bendición was petting his hair, and he could feel the gentling soothing into him. Soft gold light danced, like his own little aurora, at the edges of his vision. "Thanks, Ben. Yeah, it bugs me. The thing that *really* bugs me is that I know Delko is not an idiot. He respects the fucking ocean. It's huge, it's more powerful than any human can reasonably imagine, and while it may not be trying to kill you quite as fast as, say, vacuum would be trying to, it *is* always trying to kill you. He knows it." Then he sighed. "But he *is* arrogant, and he *has* been swimming and diving since he was a kid. He's had some shark encounters, was equipped for it and knew how to handle them, never come out of one with even a scratch. I know it's not supposed to be the way odds work, but it just seems like one of these days...he may push it too far. As witness those moonlight skinny-dipping trips to that barrier-netted beach he takes women to, to get them out of their clothes. That's why I know that beach is there; he's...mentioned it. More than once." He rammed the stack of folded clothes destined for the cleaners' instead of the laundry room or the bathroom sink into a laundry sack, and tied it roughly, using the time to get his irritation under control. Ben rested a hand on his back, sending him a very subtle calming. "But he goes alone, too, sometimes. Or at least he says he does."

"Then you've never gone with him?"

"Delko has somewhat less than no active interest in seeing me naked, though he has, often enough. As you must have noticed by now, CSI's can get pretty filthy. Especially in Florida. God, those fucking mangoes. Have you ever tripped and landed on a bunch of windfall mangoes?" He grinned and turned his head to look at Ben. "There are all kinds of reasons we end up in the showers at work, some more mango-related than work hazards." Ryan reached over to give Bendición a light tickle just under the floating ribs. "Y'all wanna go skinny-dippin' this weekend?" he asked, in a very pretty, if faked, Deep South lilt.

Bendición giggled and rolled a little away from the tickle. "Sí," he sighed. "Mi precioso." He traced a fingertip over Ryan's lips, and gold light fluttered in its wake; Ryan gasped, his eyes closing.

"Querido," Bendición smiled.

***

The beach wasn't lit, but it wasn't deserted; there were maybe half a dozen other people there, all doing pretty much what Ryan and Bendición were there for--skinny dipping and fooling around in the shallows. It was technically illegal, but it was trespassing, not anything else you'd be likely to be arrested for, and not on the city police's patrol beat. If you showed up between midnight (when the tidal stress meters began to record automatically) and five in the morning (or whenever it got light enough, when the divers who inspected and recorded the condition of the barrier net more precisely showed up), you were unlikely to be disturbed. Of course, most of the sneak-swimmers were those who knew, through the university department running the test, about the net's presence; that was how Delko knew about it.

Ryan had wondered about his badge and gun in a skinny-dipping situation; it wasn't something that came up a lot with him. But if you walk off and leave your badge unattended--or lose it to an anonymous fuck up against a building in the middle of downtown--you are either phenomenally stupid, or something is very, very wrong with you. You walk off and leave your *gun* unattended in *any* public place, even at night, and you deserve to get shot with it. Unfortunately, it'd probably be someone else who ate the bullet.

Bendición's reassurances that he could monitor their things--and snatch them from the hands of any opportunists from any distance Ryan or Ben could expect to be from them--was enough reassurance that Ryan fetched along his ID, but left his gun locked in the car. He trusted Bendición absolutely; but he didn't want to interfere with the reflex that made him dig in his heels at the very idea of setting a gun down and walking away from it without securing it in some way.

He happened to be sitting on his heels on a towel, now, enjoying the view of the gibbous moon and the dark sky, where a few bright stars shone, out to sea--away from the city lights that created a permanent twilight behind him. Bendición was easily visible; the combined moonlight and city-shine gleamed off his wet skin as he rolled in the water like a seal. Apparently he already possessed all Delko's natural talent and, perhaps, at least some of his learned ability. Right now, he seemed to be mostly feeling the water. Salt water gave a buoyancy one didn't find in freshwater.

Causing Ryan to watch very closely, another man approached Ben. He was there alone; most people were there in couples and groups, enjoying the water in a kind of hushed, you-don't-bug-us-we-won't-bug-you cooperative of privacy--like a naked, wet library. Since Ben didn't seem alarmed--though facial expressions were indistinguishable in this light--Ryan didn't mobilize, at least not yet.

Now Ryan was smirking. Ben and the other man had talked for a moment, and then Bendición had rolled onto his back in the water. The dog-paddling fellow had tried to imitate him, and had immediately sunk butt-first. Ben surface-dove and pulled him back up, then got the young man arranged lying on his back across Bendición's arms.

Ryan, watching with a hand clamped over his grin, realized Bendición had probably been hit on, and had taken the compliments on his technique (which was indeed lovely) at face value, and proceeded to initiate a little swimming lesson. From what Ryan could see, though, the guy was actually getting interested, trying to follow Ben's directions, and finally succeeding in floating on his back in the calm night-time surf without floundering himself into a case of bowling-ball-butt.

Ryan got up, leaving his folded clothes on the towel, and walked out into the water past his knees before falling forward and pushing off. He stroked slowly and quietly out to where Ben and his companion were now holding hands and kicking in unison, feet just beneath the surface of the water, making smooth progress, parallel to the beach.

"Hi," Ryan said, treading water next to Ben. "You made a new friend?"

The new friend spluttered and sank, and Ryan had to figure out how to hide a snicker while treading water as Bendición pulled the poor guy's landlubbing carcass up to the surface again. He held the other man up by the shoulders while the latter snorted the water out of his airway.

"Ryan, this is Quinn," Bendición said. "He's in town for a little while with some friends. Quinn, this is Ryan."

"Nice to meet you," Ryan said. "If you two are doing okay, I'll just take a quick paddle around the enclosure here."

"Of course," Bendición said, and cradled Ryan's face in one hand to kiss him, for which Ryan didn't chastise him; half the people here were folks of the same gender being, if not outright lewd and lascivious, at least affectionate. Ryan rolled to his side in the water and began stretching himself in a sidestroke. He hadn't been swimming in a while; he was feeling a little rusty himself.

***

Damp and smelling like beach, they were driving back home. "Did you even know that guy was hitting on you?"

"The one who asked me to show him how to swim like I did?"

"How many were there, querido? That's why I came out to alibi you. In case you didn't want to try anonymous water sex--at least not yet--but weren't sure how to say no."

"He thought I was attractive, but I think he actually wanted the help."

"I can buy that, all right. You had to save his life something like four times just while I was watching."

"When you called me in, I told him he should leave the water and not come back into the ocean without a flotation device and someone who could swim well, especially not at night. He asked me how I learned to swim so well; I told him I learned from a professional diver."

Ryan smiled. "It doesn't sound like you needed any rescuing from me, then. I was also worried you might need to lie and not know how."

"I appreciated it anyway, mi hermoso. It'll probably be a while before I learn how to do it consistently, since I'll be visible to people occasionally when it's not dark and...anonymous, as you said, if I need to talk to you."

The words "because you won't join with me" sat there leering at Ryan from the dashboard; he damn near reached up to knock them off, but controlled himself and said "You'll just have to wait until it's safe."

"No."

Ryan blinked. "'No' what?"

"No, I'm not necessarily going to wait until it's your definition of 'safe', which I assume means where no one else can see me materialize. I will never again watch while you suffer a potentially fatal wound because you didn't know what was waiting for you behind a door. Despite what you said to Eric, when he tried to apologize--which made no sense, by the way, either his apologizing *or* what you said to him--"

"I know it didn't. Someone standing behind me, or my gun being drawn, wouldn't have made the slightest difference in whether she shot that nail when I opened the door--I was just trying to shift the focus of what happened from him to me, in his mind. I know it was sort of bullshit, but it worked, or it seemed to."

"If that was what you were trying to accomplish, you forgot to mention that he wouldn't have taken the nail in his eye, if it had been him. She shot without aiming; at that height, the nail would have gone through his face--through the upper mandible. Neither the gun nor the nail would have been powerful enough for it to keep going after punching through his skull, so his brainstem would have been safe; a less potentially deadly or permanently disabling injury--but a much bigger mess. A great deal of reconstructive surgery would have been necessary. Also, he'd have been unable to call for help like you did, with his upper mandible cracked like that, assuming he remained conscious long enough. Although, if it had gone a little lower, *into* his mouth, it *would* have hit the brainstem..."

"...and if it had gone a little higher, through the nasal cavity and into the bottom of the brainpan--shit. He does have that oh-so-charming habit of wandering around with his mouth hanging open; I thought maybe he had allergies, but now I think it's reflex from breathing through his scuba gear...shit..." Ryan shook his head slowly, halting his horror-induced babbling, and glanced back over at Bendición. "I...I guess you've been thinking about it for a while, haven't you?"

"For a number of reasons, yes. Also, I had decided, when it happened, that I was going to...introduce myself *immediately*, whatever form I had to take, rather than let you die; but I could sense that your injuries weren't immediately deadly, you called for help almost at once--and I heard Eric, heading for your location, while he was still two miles away." He sighed softly.

"I can't even imagine what that must have been like," Ryan muttered, staring glaze-eyed at his driving. "I do not fucking deserve you. Wait, Eric...you...'heard' him?"

"Not literally; you don't have a word for the perception. I could sense his panic and his determination, as well, since it was relevant to you--I'm sorry I can't explain it better. Another occasion I almost threw caution to the wind and revealed myself to you was when your eye kept re-infecting."

"I was a fool," Ryan agreed in a flat-toned mutter. "I just wish I'd known about you. I'd have done whatever you wanted me to. If I'd known I was torturing you, I wouldn't have made such an ass of myself over it."

"I have trouble believing that."

"What? Why do you think I'd...neglect myself, if it upset you?"

"Quite a few other people who loved you were upset about it, and some were angry. You could have died *again*, from the infections, before you...If...if you hadn't dealt with it then, I would have come to you, told you who I was, and what I could do; and begged you to join with me, so that I could save your eyesight."

Ryan was silent for about seven minutes, most of the rest of the way home. Then he said "I am a prize asshole."

"You're very self-absorbed, Ryan, and sometimes it makes you thoughtless. But you aren't an asshole. I've been observing humans a long time, and despite my shortcomings in the small things, I know this much; the way to tell the difference between the two is that the self-absorbed, when they realize what they've done, are sorry about it--sometimes very sorry, sometimes almost suicidally. An asshole fails to ever understand that there's any problem, and if they do, they blame someone or something else for it."

"I think I can call an asshole when I see one, querido, thank you very much," Ryan smiled, but sobered again. He was quiet a moment, then went on "But we have to talk about this...what was your word? Materialize? Materializing where people can see you, in order to warn me of things."

"There is nothing to talk about there, amado. I won't let anything like that nail happen to you again. You always have the option of sending me away, if you feel you must; even after I join with you, if you feel that there is something about it you can't live with--"

"I can get rid of you by killing you. No way."

Bendición slid down in his seat and let his head fall to the rest, and sighed. "But as I was saying, my love, if we were joined, I wouldn't *have* to materialize to communicate detailed information to you. As it is, I can only...soothe you, heal some smaller things--manipulate your nervous system in certain ways to make you feel good, and only when I'm inside you or touching you."

"I object to the use of the word 'only' in that sentence."

Bendición smiled, but continued his thought. "And if you did become hurt or ill--or started to, rather--I could stop it, if we were joined."

"Yeah, I've been meaning to ask--when you say 'hurt or ill'--"

"Not only can I prevent bacterial infection, I can stop viruses from invading and reprogramming your cells with their messenger RNA. Nothing could infect you. I can counter any symptoms from a genetic illness. I can kill every cancer cell in your body, though your immune system is already handling that--"

"What? I have cancer?"

"Everyone has cancer. Your immune systems are constantly seeking out and destroying cancerous cells. If it weren't for that, you'd be dead very quickly."

"God. How do doctors deal with knowing all this?"

"In any case, if you are injured, querido, I can stop bleeding and infection, and speed healing. One thing I cannot do is..." he paused, choosing words, and finished "...take a foreign object *out* of you, without using my hands."

"Like a knife, or...a steering shaft," Ryan muttered.

"If a steering shaft went through your chest, that would be the end of our time; a shattered heart; bleeding that rapid--those things I can't repair, not in time. But if you were shot, the only problem would be the slug, if it were still in your body. I could keep it from leaking metal toxins into your system, stop infection, bleeding, sepsis--but that might not be necessary. It would depend."

"And then there's all the papers that'd get written on me in the hospital if I pull a Dorian Grey on them."

Bendición shrugged. "Miraculous recoveries occur in humans all the time. Incidentally, I can nullify poisons as well; even autotoxins, but your body will probably be able to handle those fairly easily, considering you'll never be infected, or suffer organ or system failure."

Ryan was quiet, considering, then sighed as he pulled into the driveway. "I just realized I was thinking about this like I intended to let you do it." Ryan put the car in park and shut off the engine.

Bendición paused, then said softly "And have you decided to refuse me?"

"No, Ben, I haven't, I just--I have to know I'm doing it for the right reasons. It could *kill* you, and that would kill me, if I had the slightest suspicion I let you do it because I wanted what you could do for me, instead of because I wanted to be...with you that way. Which I do, honestly, I *love* you, I even love *myself* when I feel you in me. It's just being sure that's so hard...examining one's own motivations is a bitch for all humans. I mean, look at how hung up I am on Delko. There are a lot of things about Delko I would not forgive in anyone else, such as the fact that as far as he's concerned--with the obvious exceptions, his sisters, his superiors, et cetera--a sufficiently sexually attractive woman is a comerag, and a woman who's not attractive enough for him to see a 'free porking' sign on doesn't exist as female at all to him. He's arrogant enough that his head keeps breaking the lintels off the doors in the lab, because he knows down to the angstrom how hot he is, and--as though he had a goddamn thing to do with the accident of genetics that gave him what he's got in that department--he's not afraid to shake it around. Right in front of his colleagues, if that's where he happens to encounter a target. Even in front of *H*, which is just...*sick*--"

Bendición had one hand over his own mouth, and his eyes were sparkling a little in the dark, but Ryan barely noticed, being on a road-grading roll by this time.

"--he's as deep as a cheap ashtray, as sensitive as a box of rocks, and the *only* thing that saves him for humanity is a generalized sense of civic responsibility!"

"And you're in love with him."

"And I'm in love with him!" Ryan banged his forehead on the steering wheel so hard the horn honked. "And I doubt I'm in love with his sense of civic responsibility! At least when it comes to him in particular--God, this grates--I'm no better than Delko. There are a lot of beautiful men in this world, Ben, but I have never seen one--other than you--that can even touch him as far as my personal taste goes. It's like his case of testosterone poisoning is contagious. Do you see why I'm afraid I can't trust my own motivations when it comes to why I'd really be joining with you?" he cried desperately in the general direction of the seat-adjusting lever, gripping the wheel with both hands. "My motivations can be really, really, *really* fucked, I just can't trust myself sometimes--and the situation with you is so out-there it makes loving Delko look like a minor annoyance. Okay, a major annoyance, but still an annoyance. This thing with you is...*critical*."

Bendición's mouth quirked, and he rolled his head on the seatback. "So I do my cause no good by reminding you of all that I could do for you if you would let me join with you, then." He sighed.

"I don't really know. If I thought you hadn't told me everything that might have a bearing on the decision, that'd bring me to a screeching halt, too. So go ahead, feel free to talk about it." He laughed mirthlessly. "I damn near let myself join with you when I *had* the knowledge that you would die when I do available to me, but somehow I managed to *overlook* it, not put the pieces of information in my head together and see it, and that's supposed to be my *job*--and I'm supposed to trust myself with this?"

"I don't think you should suspect your motives so much, my love."

"Have you been *listening* to me for the last five minutes?"

Bendición smiled. "I always listen to you. But you're overlooking something besides what you just mentioned. Míreme, querido."

Ryan did as he asked and looked over at him; he sat back in the driver's seat so he could meet Ben's eyes, face like a stormcloud.

"If all you wanted from Eric were this?" Bendición made an encompassing gesture at his damp person--face, body--with both hands. "Then you have this, now. I look--and feel, to you--as much like him as he does. But think about it. Eric is a different man from me, and you know this so deeply that we don't even look the same to you, any more, not since you...came to know me." He reached over and traced a little glowing gold circle just under Ryan's collarbone, the place where he had "touched" Ryan. The light sank into Ryan's chest, and he sighed and relaxed a little. Bendición finished "If it were not Eric you love, instead of only his body...you would not be giving Eric another thought now. His body is yours--more completely yours than any human lover's could ever be."

Ryan let his eyes drop again, staring at the center of the steering wheel. Then he punched the top of the wheel with the heel of his hand, once again making the horn honk. "God damn it!"

"Ryan--"

"I was hoping--I mean, I really, Jesus, I love you, like I never thought I--and maybe if I just waited it out, the whole goddamn Delko thing--ah, shit." He got out of the car and slammed the door, then immediately opened it again and got back in, lunging over to fling himself on Bendición, who hugged him back, hard.

"I'm sorry," Ryan whispered. "I have...a little bit of a temper sometimes."

"I know that, querido. And you have as much right as anyone to become upset." He smiled a little. "Besides, it's your car. Wear out the horn however you like."

"Just this whole fucking Delko thing. I'm *sick* of it--I mean, I am not usually an idiot. Not even in high school, for God's sake. Someone as beautiful as you--a complete miracle in my twisted-up life--" he stopped himself by pressing his mouth against the side of Bendición's neck. He just breathed for a moment, as Bendición stroked him with softly glowing hands. Then he finished "Horatio gave me this chance. And I've already screwed it up so badly...*everything* that could go wrong did, everything I could do wrong, I did wrong...but everything feels so perfect with you...I hoped that at least..." He fell silent.

Bendición said "I wish loving me could make you stop loving him, if that's what you want; but I wouldn't count on it, amado. That's not who you are. You hide it, but your heart is too large for loving one to make impossible loving others with an equal depth of feeling. It's one reason I love you, so very much."

Ryan was quiet, letting Bendición soothe him, and finally sighed. "You're probably right. If I'm still bent out of shape over him, after all this time, and all the crap that's gone down, and then Calleigh, and then *you*--and everything I feel for you--just falling into my lap; that didn't even help--I'm hopeless."

"Does loving Calleigh make you 'hopeless'?"

"I'm not fucked in the head over Calleigh; and Calleigh is worth loving."

"So is Eric, querido. I know you're angry--at yourself, and at him--"

"Eric may be a slut, among other unattractive things, but my hang-up isn't his fault. Hell, he's either treated me like he would any co-worker, actively dumped on me--for the crime of not being Tim Speedle, among other things--or I haven't seen more than a glimpse of him for weeks at a time. If he knew about my little problem, I'd have to say he'd done his best to make the whole thing a nonissue in my head."

"You're angry, my love. You don't treat Eric, when you're with him, with the sort of...disdain that I would expect to see, if you really thought some of the things that you say to yourself, and me, about him. And some of the things you say to me about him are not disdainful at all. They're the words of a friend."

Ryan was quiet. "I have a Jekyll and Hyde thing going on in my head over him? I can't blow it off as a genuine love-hate, is what you're saying?"

"Yes. You worry about him, both in his work itself and in the fact you think he's being treated callously by department policy. You admire his strengths, very much. There is a great deal about him to love, for you. But you can't reconcile that with the things about him that you find...as you put it, unattractive. It is a conflict for you, more than for other people, because of your need for control over even small aspects of your life--much less larger ones. That's also why you're paranoid about your own motives."

After a moment, Ryan muttered miserably into Bendición's neck, "Uh, try not to be so right so often, at least not all in one conversation. People hate that."

"I'll remember," Bendición whispered. "Come on. Let's go in. You need a shower, amado."

"We both need one," Ryan said with his lips against Bendición's ear.

He could feel Ben smile. "There's really only enough room in your shower for one of us, at least if what we have in mind is getting clean. You know I only still smell like this to keep you company; I don't need--"

"I'll wash you, and you can wash me. That way we don't have to try to make all the reaches on ourselves--which, you're right, would probably result in at least one black eye--and, well..." He shrugged, and smiled gaminely. "...you get to wash me." He ran his hands over Bendición's muscled chest. "And it's not like you're the only one who likes to touch."

Bendición brightened, his sweet smile blooming on his face. He was so exactly like Eric physically, but that beautiful smile was unmistakably his own, rather than the infamous Delko shit-eating smirk. "That sounds wonderful. If I'd thought--I'm sorry, relative and absolute position topology aren't my strongest suit."

"You've got most of us beat just knowing what they *are*."

Inside, they had what had become a ritual play-fight over who was organizing the laundry; but it was brief and quiet, and by the time they were in the shower, Ben's hands massaging Ryan's scalp with organic everything-free shampoo, Ryan was pensive again.

"How well can you read my thoughts?" he wondered quietly, as Ben turned him in the spray and tilted his head back to rinse the shampoo out. Ryan snorted and wiped his eyes, then lifted his head as Bendición stroked his hair back to keep the water from running into his face.

"It's a combination of things," Ben said, as he took a sponge from the shower caddy, poured clear gel into it, and gently began soaping Ryan from the neck down. "I can feel emotion, because of the particular kind of energy it creates in your brain. Partly involving the hypothalamus, and its function in the limbic system. Everything else, I have to...well, read, as opposed to...simply hearing it, like a sound. Interpretation, not direct understanding. Some of us are very good at it; those of us with cetacean friends are best, because the cetaceans do most of it."

"So...it's like deciphering code."

"And so, different with each human. And, of course, it differs with the particular talents of whoever's doing the reading. I'm considered good at it, but I can't actually hear your thoughts. Unless we were...well. You know."

"I know. I was just wondering." He leaned forward against Bendición, resting his head on a broad swimmer's shoulder and curving his arms up behind Ben's upper back, holding on at the nape of his neck. "When I said Calleigh loves Eric, I didn't just mean..." he sighed, unable to finish.

He was quiet so long, Bendición prompted him gently. "Dígame, mi chíquito."

Ryan took a breath and answered "I mean...I think they're in love with each other. I know Eric is in love with her. I think she's decided not to pursue it, at least so far, but I can never be sure."

Bendición was quiet a moment, then murmured "So, it isn't only that you know Eric doesn't want you as you do him. You know that even if he is...slowing down in his old age, shall we say, and his...wandering tendencies are less of an issue--there is someone in his life that he wants before all others, and that person is forbidden to him by nothing but her own preference."

"Exactly. Except for the regulations problem. But he'd change shifts--hell, change jobs if he had to--if he thought she'd say yes; and I know she feels...a lot for him. I think she's his best friend, though maybe only since he lost Speedle. They shared that loss. They've shared so much. I think the fact he knows that she, currently at least, isn't going to say yes, is the only thing keeping him from declaring himself to her, on his knees if he had to."

Bendición's hands moved lower, washing very gently, with no intention of arousing. "And you can't be angry at him for that, because you also love her, very deeply."

"She doesn't know. Oh, she knows I love her, but not..."

"I had gathered that."

"It's *the* most pathetic thing that could possibly happen to someone who's made it out of late adolescence."

"That's debatable, my heart."

Ryan went on as though he hadn't heard. "Eric's said some things to me that hurt--things I had to come back pissed about just so I wouldn't be standing there with this poor-thing crushed look on my face. But it's worse when she does it. For one thing, she almost never does it. And when she does, she's not blowing up angry, like Delko usually is. She's calmer, she's more controlled, and she's *right*." He took a shuddering breath.

Bendición made a murmured sound of encouragement.

"Sometimes...I think I need to leave here," Ryan continued, his voice soft, flat, curiously empty. "I made the mistake of leaving patrol. I thought my picayune obsessions were a virtue, my drive for efficiency, for excelling--on patrol, they were. Some people liked me for them, some didn't...the ones that *really* didn't were where the OCD crap came from."

"I know; I was there, remember? Like you told them, an obsessive-compulsive disorder is a psychosis. No matter the circumstances, or type of psychosis, a known psychotic is not eligible to work for the police or carry a weapon."

"Since you were there, you know how much good my pointing that out--very nearly in those words--did me."

"Mm."

"Finally I just went with it." He sighed.

"I know, querido." Bendición kissed his cheekbone. "Go on."

"In any case, as a CSI, those tendencies--though they screwed with my people skills, like they had on patrol--still looked good, and they worked, at least at first...but eventually I turned into someone that I didn't recognize, and that nobody was interested in giving a break. Crazy shit started happening. I started doing things with no idea why I did them. And I'd never so much as *thought* about whether I liked myself--no matter what anybody else had to say about me, and the people on patrol who originated the OCD label had a *lot* of unflattering things to say about me--until I realized that, what with one thing and another...I *didn't* like myself. Maybe I never really did, I don't know, but it became certain that I didn't anymore."

There was a pause, and then Bendición said "I know you're aware of the things about you that can make it hard for you to relate to other humans. I know you're afraid others will be impatient with them, since many have been."

"It's more than that." Ryan turned his head to hide his face in Ben's neck. "Until you came...you're like a dream to me. I want to go someplace where everything's simple, like it was, and I have you to love, and you to love me." His voice was toneless.

"Mi chico hermoso," Ben whispered into his ear, kissing it lightly, water droplets trickling and transferring gently from his lips. "Wherever you are, there will be that. Prometo. Te amo, Ryan."

"Thank you," Ryan whispered, his face still hidden in Ben's neck, as though in embarrassment at needing the reassurance. Ben rocked him gently under the warm water.

Then Ryan turned his head on Ben's shoulder, unburying his face, and sighed. "I'm not fit for this job. But on the surface, I'm perfect. So...I try to act like everything's cool, in the job and...with everything associated with it, try to act like I'm not feeling the pressure, and I come off a total asshole. I think everyone at the lab has made that clear at one time or another--Valera hasn't, but I got her suspended; you can imagine what she thinks of me--"

"That wasn't your fault, my love."

"It wasn't my fault when I--just being snide back at her sarcasm--mentioned the specific type of testing I was going to be conducting to Erica, either. It never occurred to me she'd be able to remember the chemical names long enough to find out all the things they might be pursuant to, and guess which one applied. And so all of Miami, thousands of people, went through a nuclear bomb scare. Because of my not *getting* it. Delko would never have done that. Calleigh wouldn't, not even the lab techs would have. You see? It's the fact that these things aren't always my fault that's the *point*."

"I understand what you're saying, love, but I hardly think that being unable to fathom the mysteries of selfish, lowest-common-denominator-based minds--"

"Please. Please let me finish. I need to."

Bendición was still just a moment, then nodded, his cheek against Ryan's temple.

Ryan went on, "When it's not plain insecurity-induced selfishness, or biting off more than I can chew and ending up in a quagmire that sucks the case in along with me, then it's a 'mistake'--no matter how fucking noble I may or may not be because I make that kind of mistake--and when 'mistakes' follow you around like a bad smell, it's called being a fuckup. I wasn't a fuckup in patrol. I was used to the lowest crap out there. I just kind of rose above it, didn't take it home with me. So even...with my way of seeing things, there was a limit to how much damage I could do as a uniform on the street. But CSI's--just like I wanted--stay with the case all the way through, and that gives my overdone, misaimed intensity the opportunity to fuck things up. I thought a chem degree and a few seminars were all I needed, until I could finish my master's. But even after I did...I don't fit this job, I'm too--I'm too narrowly focused, too *me*. I don't have the personal reqs, the balance in perspective. And I can't go back to being a uniform after--shit, there's too much to list--after everything that's happened, everything I've done." He shook his head. "Besides, it'd be seen as a demotion, it'd *be* a demotion, even if it were what I wanted. I don't think I'd have an easy time fitting in anywhere."

"That may be true, my love. But it isn't hopeless. If you can't bear to remain here, there are people who can help you find another place. Horatio cares for you. He'd--"

"I know you're trying to give me some perspective, querido, and you're right that Horatio would try. But he'd fail. I'll be lucky to keep my job *here*. One more complaint--once more being caught in any grey areas in the law--one more bad review--and I'm out. I've been *fired* once already, and Horatio had to wait for just the right time, then bargain his ass off and call in every favor he had left to get me reinstated, and don't tell me that wasn't at least partly because he felt guilty for hiring me so precipitously."

"Ryan--"

"--especially considering the screw-up I made with the local news thing. *While* I was fired, I still managed to fuck things up, for the lab and the PD." He sighed. "If I can hang on, keep my head down, do the job, for about five to ten more years--years of not kicking when promotion times come around and I'm not on anyone's list--it *might* be possible, then, to find a lab that needs someone with my qualifications which would actually hire me. Until then, everyone'll take one look at my record, and--no matter how much sunshine H blows up anybody's ass--it's gonna look like he's trying to make me some other lab's problem." He sighed, leaning back. "I'm so glad you're here, querido. I love you, and I never want you to leave. But I have to tell you I really don't feel worthy of you."

Ben's fingers came up and lightly covered Ryan's lips. "Shh. I hear you; I always do. And I always give weight to what you say. But for now, it's enough; you're upset--a lot of painful things have been stirred up, partly because of me--all your wondering, about whether joining with me would be selfish or selfless--" Ryan opened his mouth, but Ben once again laid his fingers over Ryan's lips. "It's all right. That's no one's fault. But you need rest; it's late. Let me help you sleep."

Ryan nodded tiredly, and for once just let Ben finish the washing and drying and cleaning up, then let himself be led to bed by Ben's softly glowing hands.

When they were ensconced there, spooned up naked with Ryan's head tucked under Bendición's chin, Ben murmured "You seem to have placed other CSI's at the lab on a bit of a pedestal, amado. Perhaps you should think about that--*after* you've had some rest."

"I'd rather not. Compared to me, that's where they are."

Ben sighed. "I would hardly say that. Remember how long I've been with you."

"How would you say anyone else has been as much of a fuckup as I have? And occasionally an asswipe. Not counting Eric."

"I would say that many have been unfair to you merely for not being their friend who died. I have to count Eric, particularly. I would say that Horatio was extradited for murder, though apparently the charges were dismissed, by what avenue I won't speculate."

"Yeah, I wouldn't advise that either," Ryan muttered.

"Also, while I know Horatio is a good man, I would say he is seldom in completely good odor with his superiors--"

"He's not good at compromising his principles."

"--and as you have said to uncomplimentary ends about yourself, even a good trait, carried to extremes, can be a problem. He is a stubborn man, querido, a standout as such even though he is surrounded by many stubborn people in his work. He is seen by some as a troublemaker."

"Only in a good cause."

"Perhaps. But Eric purchased illegal drugs more than once in a good cause. And if he had been caught--and he could have been, at any time, in the act--he would have been not only fired and barred from ever working in the field again, but prosecuted for misdemeanor crime. The extenuating circumstances would have probably kept him out of jail--a fine, or a short and suspended sentence, perhaps--if his sister testified, verified the circumstances."

"That could have put Marisol in prison," Ryan murmured. "Or maybe not, depending, but Eric would never have allowed even the possibility; he wouldn't want it on her record. She had to have nothing in between her and the ability to get prescription painkillers and sedatives, and buying or using illegal drugs, even as meds, can throw a wrench into that."

"So she wouldn't have testified. And even if she had, it would not have saved his job. Marijuana, bought off the street, is very illegal in Miami, no matter its intended purpose. It's only luck he was not caught--and only luck, essentially being cheated by a dealer, that his sister wasn't caught in a felony marijuana buy, which would have probably warranted another look into Eric's own case. If he had been caught, through a sting or some other way, all of *his* cases would have been reexamined, just as yours were; and there were extenuating circumstances in your case, too."

"I knew that, when you told me about what Eric had done for her, the chance he'd taken. But no one was interested in that, in my case. Eric is indeed their golden boy, who is forgiven things that...well, maybe not that no one else would be, but that I certainly wouldn't be. Like, the unexplained absences and lateness before anyone knew about Marisol--he was never reprimanded, officially or unofficially. Calleigh has to start that process, and she never did. You can bet I wouldn't have gotten away with that."

"That wasn't where I was going, my love. I was going to say that--you both broke the law, in about equivalent degree, considering the severity of the drug laws now. The only difference is that you were caught making your particular job-threatening peccadillo on videotape--and could not produce an alibi that IAB found adequate--and he was not caught. Though he came close when his dealer was arrested. Not getting caught does not mean he didn't behave as wrongly as you did in the eyes of the law."

"That's not the only difference," Ryan muttered. "I lied to H. I disappointed him about as thoroughly as its possible to."

There was a pause, but when Bendición began to speak again, he knew it was because Ben had no intention of leaving Ryan in that headspace and expecting him to sleep.

Bendición said "Perhaps he was disappointed. I challenge his right to be, however. Eric and Horatio went to South America to avenge Marisol. It was always their intention that the man who killed her would die, whether by Horatio's hand or Eric's. They could not have pleaded temporary insanity; it required very precise use of their faculties and particular skills to locate and murder the man in question. That Horatio apparently pulled the trigger is not relevant; it could as easily have been Eric, and his involvement makes him an accessory to murder. Whether the man deserved to die was not their decision to make, and it is their job to enforce that fact in their own jurisdiction. When a man murders the killer of his wife or his sister in Miami, Horatio and Eric call it 'motive', not 'mitigating circumstances'. And they send that man away, for life, if it is in their power. What they did--conspiracy to commit a cold-blooded murder--is far worse an affront to the law, anyone's law, than gambling, even for large amounts. And if things had gone only a bit differently, what Horatio did could have destroyed the lab, since he nominally supervises every case on the day shift; and that would have released guilty people from prison.

"But he did not consider that to be more important than his personal vengeance; neither did Eric. What Horatio did was the hypocritical act of a stubborn, angry man--not of a hero. It makes every day Eric and Horatio seek to imprison humans who break the law for much lesser offenses than murder, or for murder itself--into an act of hypocrisy. You have more right to be disappointed in them than they have to be disappointed in you.

"And Horatio and Eric are not the only people you work closely with who do not deserve the halos you give them. One of your liaison officers, Frank Tripp, has coerced false confessions from suspects. He has rushed evidence, and his mindset is that of the sort of police officer who believes there are two kinds of people--law enforcement and their friends and family, and criminals who haven't been caught yet."

"You're being a little hard on Frank, aren't you?"

"I'm only putting into words what you yourself have thought, querido."

Ryan sighed. "Okay, the false confessions are bad police work, and I like to use science to get the facts of the situation, not...bullying witnesses and suspects to see what I can shake loose--though I do it, if I think I know the answers via the CSI approach, and only need verification. But Tripp's everybody's-guilty mindset is just the way it's done in police work these days. More than his branch does it. It's done in CSI, too. And really, it's the way it's always been done."

"True. But it also has bearing on your situation. You have been criticized for your attitude--mostly by Eric, but occasionally by Tripp--when there was nothing about your behavior that was unusual for your job description. If--"

"Ben--" Ryan sighed. "If you're trying to say that I should maybe lighten up on myself because the people I work with aren't perfect either--"

"More than that. Many have taken chances with the lab's reputation and the standing of its casework, closed and otherwise, that would have been far more disastrous than anything you, with your mistakes, would have had the power to do even if you had chosen to."

"Except Calleigh."

"Mi chica dulce Calleigh is an exception to many things. But I must say that though I love her greatly, she is also guilty of holding you accountable for unprofessional and unwise actions of a caliber that she readily forgave in others, such as Horatio, and Eric..."

"Are you going to bring up Natalia next?"

"It doesn't appear that I need to, my love. And no doubt you have already thought that what I'll say is that she was forgiven, for a much greater betrayal of the lab--an intentional one, planned and executed over a long period of time--than ever you made. And yours were only missteps, some more serious than others."

"Don't forget to add that her being shifted to the CSI track was to save face for the lab and Miami-Dade in general."

"True. But still, she was forgiven. Eventually, even by you."

Ryan sighed. "Yeah. Though it took awhile after that for her to forgive me." He was quiet another moment, then came up with "So that's why nobody likes me?" His voice dripped sarcasm, though he was almost whispering. Then he added "And don't count Calleigh."

"I don't think no one likes you, querido; that isn't what I've been saying."

"Okay, there's Alexx, too. I guess it's going to take more than a couple more weeks of coming to work with me before it sinks in for you."

"Perhaps so. Now, this is really enough talk. I'm going to help you sleep. We can reopen the subject tomorrow, if you like."

"Okay..." Ryan's voice abruptly sounded small. "Will you wake me up inside me?"

His temple was kissed softly. "Of course, love. Shall I stay there while you sleep?"

"No, I always get too horny to sleep when we try that."

Bendición chuckled. "And you need sleep, I know." He kissed Ryan's temple again. "I will wake you gently, beloved," he whispered.

"Thank you," Ryan whispered back, as Bendición's glowing hand moved slowly over his forehead, tracing his ear, stroking his hair, moving back to his forehead again...

***

"H? Got a minute?"

"Certainly, Mr. Wolfe. Come in; have a seat. What can I do for you?"

"Um," Ryan said eloquently, felt a soothing stroke from Ben down his spine, and went on more surely. "Sir, I realize that I'm not in any position to be asking favors around here, especially not when it comes to the conditions of my work--well, more like my work situation. But there's a lot of potential for problems here, though there haven't been any serious ones yet--I thought I'd put this idea, or more like request, in front of you before everyone and their dog could see just why I'm bringing this to your attention."

"That sounds like a wise precaution," Horatio said to his sunglasses, which he was polishing, slowly and deliberately, with a handkerchief. "I hope you're not too unhappy in your situation, Mr. Wolfe."

"I have no complaints with my job itself, none at all. It's someone I work with."

Horatio raised his eyebrows. "You have a complaint about one of your colleagues?"

"No, not about the colleague. In fact, it's the opposite of a complaint. There's someone I work with on a...an at least fairly regular basis on this shift, for whom I've...developed inappropriate feelings."

H was still and quiet a moment, then said "Could you elaborate on that?"

"Only a little. It's my problem, and I don't want anyone but me taking the possible fallout. I'm going to assume you know what I mean by 'inappropriate feelings'."

Horatio was still a moment, then folded his sunglasses carefully and put them in his jacket pocket. He refolded the handkerchief as he said "Yes, I think so. You don't mean a situation of animosity between you and any of your co-workers; rather, the opposite. Are you the only one having these...feelings?"

"Yes, I am; I'm not trying to arrange it so that I can have a relationship within the rules; I don't expect my interest ever to be returned. But...we all interact with pretty much everyone else during the course of a week, including all the different types of support staff, so no matter who it might be, there's no way to simply avoid the problem. Even if I tried, it would be a complication to the smooth functioning of the lab if there were anyone I had to be kept away from as a regular thing."

"Then...your 'inappropriate' feelings are serious--serious enough that even though, there being no relationship, there is no code violation--you, personally, find the situation intolerable?"

"I'm afraid so; I wouldn't be in here bothering you with it if it were only a minor annoyance. Although it hasn't tripped me up badly yet, that's partly been luck. It's a distraction in more ways than you're even remotely interested in hearing--trust me--and I'm already having to fight that. It could become problematic to my functioning at any time."

"And what courses of action have you been considering?"

"Before I go into that, I want to say that I have a terrific respect for you, and an..." he glanced away. "An enormous amount of gratitude for everything you've done for me. I don't want to leave your team."

"I believe that. Most people who were in your position, especially shortly after you were fired by IAB, would have given up. There were many jobs in the private sector that you were qualified for, and my letters of recommendation would have counted for a great deal. But your loyalty and determination were remarkable."

"Thank you," Ryan said again, very quietly this time. "So were yours, H. But it's my loyalty to this team, and you, that's in play again, with this. I honestly believe it's in the team's best interests, even if not necessarily mine, that I leave--preferably before it becomes obvious why that's true."

"Mr. Wolfe...I don't know. Are you sure you've thought this all the way through? There could be...a certain amount of animosity toward you, on another shift. There were people here who were angry, who felt you'd let us down; but none of us have ever believed you were anything less than a top-notch cop and CSI--possibly that's the reason for the severity of the disappointment. Now, I honestly believe that your own team has forgiven you. However...I can't speak for any other individuals you may come into contact with on another team or in another job at this lab. You could be walking into a cesspool of resentment. Worse, some people might believe I had okayed your transfer in order to be rid of you."

"I'm aware of all that. But there *are* other labs, and other positions for which I'm qualified. I have the chemistry and now genetics degrees to work in DNA and biochem; I'd be willing to take a position as a technician, or maybe an ME investigator...whatever there's budget for. I think being willing to take a step backward if I have to, for a while, along with my stated reason of preventing a personal problem from becoming a team problem, will garner me at least a slightly more sympathetic viewpoint about the move."

Horatio frowned. "That does increase your options, and might significantly lower the wait time for a transfer--but I urge you to take more time to think about whether you'd accept any far more narrow-field position than the one you currently hold, full time. I say completely without intent to flatter that you are remarkably good at what you do, and, if I may presume, I have always believed it's what you were intended to do."

"Thank you, H. That means a lot. But at this point, I'm more worried about becoming a problem to the lab than I am about my own professional contentment. A tech position, or wherever I ended up, wouldn't have to be forever; a CSI position might open up at a time when there are suitable applicants for the job I find myself working, whether it's in this lab or somewhere else. Eventually, I could..." he sighed and bit his lip, but continued "...I could get back out in the field."

"Hopefully. Someone with the power to foil that plan may believe that you were placed in a non-field, or narrower range, job because your last supervisor decided you couldn't be trusted in a broad-spectrum or field position, and my word--even my written word--might only carry so much weight."

As Bendición stirred, warmingly but warningly, inside him, Ryan obeyed the silent injunction and managed to control his laughter. H had just made the understatement of the year. "I've considered that, sir. I know my record isn't going to help me, in *any* course of action I take right now. My best option is to work night shift--swing being my second choice--in this lab. You'd know better than I would what, or not, Lieutenant Armistead would think of that idea. I know her record, and I've picked up some loose talk, all of which seems to be reasonably positive. If she doesn't have a problem working with me, I doubt I'd have one working with her."

"Armistead would listen to me, and your reason for wanting the shift change--to avoid potential trouble for the lab--is a good one in view of your record; it shows that you take your situation seriously, and that you have more concern for the lab's best functioning than you do for your own convenience. But outside of this lab..."

Ryan grimaced. "I know. I made myself very visible, in a way that did my character rep no good at all in the issues of criminalistics and the PD, to several whole counties, while I was working for local news. All I can say is, I hope that you'll keep that in mind, and that with it in view, positions that you believe I *can* handle--even with that albatross around my neck--will open up sometime soon. I'd prefer to stay here, of course, but as I've mentioned, my preferences about the specific job I do, and with whom, now come in second to my preferences about not making any more trouble, and that's not entirely altruistic; remember that if there *is* any more trouble, I'm not going to be working in any capacity in either enforcement or criminalistics for very long."

Horatio sighed. "You may be at least partly correct about that, Ryan; but I still want you to be very sure about this. I do not want to recommend you, then find that you're working with only half your heart because you regret the decision."

"H, I wouldn't do that to you."

"I don't believe you would, Ryan, at least not intentionally; but it needed to be said. Can you tell me any more about the situation that's driving you to consider such drastic remedial action?"

"Well, it's simple. I've fallen very hard for someone who works on my shift, whom I have to deal with directly too often to make avoidance practical--if I didn't have to work with them so often, I most likely wouldn't have this problem; I'm not totally without professionalism in that area--it's not a situation I've ever encountered before; usually, my emotions can obey a hands-off directive. They have before--right here at the lab, if you're interested, but there's control coming from the other half of the equation, there, too. In any case, I'm a grown-up; I know the difference between a reasonable and an unreasonable hope in the direction we're discussing here. The first time it happened, the hope was reasonable, but there were chain-of-report problems. This time, it's not reasonable, and for reasons I can't go into, this situation is more complicated than any I've ever run into before. My distraction is becoming a cause for concern to *me*--whereas before, as you may recall, I've usually had to have my face rubbed in problems that affect my work before I'll stop trying to ignore them. Minor car accidents leap to mind. But as far as trouble for my career and my workplace go... " What he didn't add, but what was obvious to both of them, was "This is bad enough to beat that problem out." He only shook his head instead.

Horatio looked grim. "That bad?"

Equally grim, Ryan replied "Worse."

Horatio looked pensive, tapping a pencil on his desk.

Ryan added, "I'd also appreciate it if you kept my request between us, and possibly lieutenant Armistead, until and unless a situation presents itself and you've informed me of it. I know there's paperwork that has to be started and filed, but that process doesn't have to be completed immediately. I would do more legwork myself, but I don't want anyone here knowing I'm leaving days, or maybe this lab, until it's a done deal; and you have the access to accomplish more, with a much higher degree of discretion, than I do."

"I understand that, Ryan. In fact, it'd probably be a good idea, now that you've outlined your situation and preferences, to leave the matter to me."

"Of course, if you think that's best."

"I do, Mr. Wolfe. I will say that whether it occurs sooner or later, I'll be sorry to lose you."

"I know, and it's the only thing that kept me from coming to you before this--everything we both went through to get me back here. This feels disloyal, but I have to believe it'd be more disloyal to allow something that I know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, *will* become a serious problem, to develop any farther without saying something to you."

"I believe you, Ryan," Horatio said softly.

"There's one person I plan to tell--Calleigh. She can be some help to you in keeping an eye out for positions without being too obvious; plus, I trust her not to say a word about it to anyone."

"I trust Calleigh as well, Mr. Wolfe. If you are going to tell her, please do so as soon as possible, so I know I can safely speak to her about the current situation, and available positions that might be at least temporarily suitable for you."

"I'll tell her today sometime, and we'll probably discuss it in more depth after work. H, I know I'm pushing an envelope I've already busted a couple of times..."

"This envelope is all about motives, Mr. Wolfe; and, much as I may know I'll miss your presence on my team, your motives would seem to be the best. Needless to say, this will take some long-view doing. So, if anything changes in your...untenable situation..."

"Believe me, you'll be the first to know."

"We'll start the paperwork, but for the moment, we'll leave it ready to be completed until we know more. And, aside from Calleigh and Armistead, we'll keep this between us."

"Sounds good. Thanks, H."

***

"I don't know, Ryan," Calleigh was saying with concern; they were leaning close to each other in the break room, Calleigh over a Tupperware container of salad with a spicy oil dressing and twisty green noodles, and Ryan over a Reuben sandwich. They were keeping their voices low, murmuring softly with their heads down, despite being, except for Bendición (who was doing a warm-and-fuzzy thing inside Ryan that always made him smile a hell of a lot more than he was used to doing, no matter what else was going on), alone in the room. "This might only make things more complicated. Are you sure you can afford a move like this one right now?"

"I'm sure I can't afford to wait to speak to H until I've already put Delko through one of these stupid plexi walls, or vice versa; or, concerning Ben, until you or I make a slip in conversation where someone else can hear. I've already demonstrated to my own satisfaction that my instincts for such things could be better. When I get focused on something, I can be pretty oblivious to the ramifications of anything else that comes up. You know that you and I, even, clashed pretty hard on procedure sometimes when I first got here."

"Ryan..." Calleigh sighed. "You were, as you say, focused, and a rookie. You..."

"Yeah, you can't really deny it, can you? Hindsight's twenty-twenty, and I think I should have just taken my chances instead of involving you, about...my new friend. It's another mistake changing shift will correct." Ben wasn't a "new" friend any more, though no less welcome for that--but when Ryan or Calleigh were feeling especially touchy about potential discovery, it was still their code name for Ben. "I really thought it would be smart, and in some ways it is, to let you know about him--but in other ways..." he trailed off miserably. He knew how he'd felt about Calleigh, and he should have suspected his motives from the start. Sure, he gave anal a whole new, horrible meaning, but even he was capable of giddiness under certain circumstances, and those applied. "It was going to be more trouble than I was letting myself see, because I wanted to tell you. Not that I'm not grateful, not that I'm not glad to have a friend who knows, not that I don't love you for agreeing to accept the secret." And about a gazillion other reasons. "But no matter how much I trust you, I can only trust myself so far. And the more people who know *any* secret, no matter how trustworthy they are..."

"I know, Ryan." Calleigh forked in vegetables and noodles, and, Ryan was pretty sure, either chicken or some kind of packed canned fish; the smell was disguised by the dressing. It smelled good, kind of Italiany. She went on "Is he with you now?"

Ryan blinked at her, and knew that Bendición had made the marbled gem-green and grey of his eyes flash briefly with gold light; Ryan saw it as a soft gold highlighting of the room. He grinned.

"Ben, stop that!" Calleigh hissed, gleefully scandalized. "Someone might see!"

"Don't forget, his senses are more widebeam than ours. He wouldn't have done it if anyone could have seen. Why do you ask?"

"I wondered...if he'd be interesting in spending some time with me today."

Ryan smiled. "Well, sure." He pointed at her black button-down shirt. "Unbutton a little so I can touch your chest."

She smirked. "I bet that line works great in the clubs."

"Oh, shut up and give me some skin, here. Unless you'd rather do what Ben does and kiss me." He said it jokingly, but after it was out, they both pulled up short for a second. Ryan gulped, trying to think of something to say.

Calleigh fixed it by suddenly snapping out of their mutual conversational stupor, flouncing a bit and saying "Men!" while rolling her eyes. Ryan thanked her silently as she unbuttoned a couple of shirt buttons. "Will that do?"

"That's fine." He reached across the table and laid his hand against her sternum, his palm and middle two fingers touching skin all along their length.

"Mmm--" Calleigh seized the edge of the table and managed not to sway, though her eyes did roll back and go slitted for a few seconds while she made a low, attractive sound, a sigh of quiet pleasure.

Bendición moving through Ryan felt good, too, and Ryan answered her sound with one of his own, his eyes closing. He felt a ghostly brush of silken, pillow-soft lips against his own, and then Ben was elsewhere. Ryan opened his eyes just in time to see Calleigh's sparkle; in her glass-green irises, it looked like light glinting off falling gold glitter.

"Wow," Ryan whispered. "Did you see it?"

"Yeah," she whispered back. "Little gold sparkles...oh..." as she wrapped her arms around herself for a moment, Ryan hastily pulled his hand away from her and made button fastening motions.

"Oh...uh, yeah..." Calleigh seemed reluctant to move.

"C'mon, I know he feels like every great cuddle you've ever had in your life, but your bra's showing all over the place. The lace is pretty, by the way, but doesn't it itch?"

"Uh, no, it's stretch lace." Calleigh sighed and forced herself to concentrate on buttoning up. "Better?"

"Fine now."

"I'm still not excited by this leaving the team idea. I think we can handle Ben--us both knowing about him, I mean, because nobody would ever believe the truth, you have to admit, unless Ben made the effort to prove it to them."

Ryan thought. "Well...maybe you're right about that, and I'm just using it as another goad to make me do this. But I still...I know I'm not going to make it much longer with this Delko thing, Cal. I'm hoping for nights--nights and days don't interact much at all, unless we get an all-hands call. Days and swing...a little more, but I could still handle it. I just can't take this...this not knowing when Delko and I are going to be dropped together right into something big and sticky that'll take all kinds of overtime and...and things I'm too embarrassed to talk about that make me insane with him. For him. Around him. Whatever. Even the lighter-weight stuff...can do things to me sometimes. And I worry about you, Calleigh. I told Ben this, too. I don't want you in the middle of our problem, and you're so close to Eric already, and you and I were getting closer even before Ben, and now...you're just in an untenable position, and so am I. It honestly feels like Delko's got me at his mercy, even though I know he...doesn't even remotely care enough, one way or another, to see it that way."

Calleigh sighed. "I can't tell you what to do. I wouldn't want to be in your position, and for the sake of my professional reputation, I'd probably request a transfer too, if I were. I...stopped what was happening, starting to happen, between Eric and I...I was still capable, and...you're just a more passionate person than I am, Ryan. I can see how that would be harder for you. But I don't think he could have done what you're doing, when it came to me. He told me, actually, that he wouldn't have, when the whole thing with ..."

"You and your ATF guy, yeah." Whatever made Calleigh happy...but that guy Jake was proprietary. Calleigh belonged to no one but herself. Jake got on Ryan's nerves.

"Well, Eric said that if it had been him, he'd have changed shifts."

"Shit. It's worse than I thought, he's still got an ache going on for you, and you *know* it. Jesus. And I'm making it even more hellish with all this..." Skipping saying that his own iron levels of control over his emotions had never been so artillery-hammered in his life before Delko, he just said "I know how it is with you two," and swallowed a bite of sandwich; he spoke gently, adding "And like I said, we outright made you referee once already--if it hadn't been for a certain nail gun incident..."

Calleigh shuddered, Ryan supposed over the memory, and there was a golden light about her eyes for a bare moment as Bendición soothed her. But she only said "I know what you're saying, and I appreciate it. I just wish you'd let me worry about it. It's part of my job as your superior."

"You're a lot more to me than a superior, Calleigh. I really...I really care for you. And if that's unprofessional of me, or if my saying so is...well, maybe that's another reason I ought to transfer."

Her eyes closed briefly as she swallowed her current mouthful, and she was still for a couple of seconds. Then she said "You're a poly kind of person, aren't you, Ryan?"

Ryan nodded, unsurprised; she was the first person he hadn't told about his bisexuality who had known about that, too; and disquietingly quickly. He murmured "I always have been. It's just that I've so seldom been with even one person. It's kind of irrelevant in my life, that society hasn't managed to turn me into a jealous asshole. I...don't believe we're born with a jealousy circuit. I think it has to be installed by our need to fit in. But to me, it hasn't ever been relevant. I'm not likable enough for it to become an issue."

"Ryan..." But she let it go, and only said "But now, there are potentially...three, aren't there?" She gazed directly into his eyes, very still.

He looked back steadily. "There is one. Potentially two, if you tell me there's potential, considering my shift change--but not three. I love Delko. But he will never love me."

"Ryan..."

He reached over and covered her hand briefly with his. "We don't want to do this here," he muttered in his usual monotone.

"No, of course not--but you will? Not here, I mean. Because I'd like to...do this. I mean--*talk* about this."

His eyes got huge. "You would?"

She nodded, a small, shy smile belying her steady gaze. "I would. Though you're right, not here."

"Then...wow. I mean...um. Wow. Not that--not that it's not--not that I'm--"

She picked up his Coke and held it to his lips; he took the can and swallowed a couple of times, the fizzy stuff going into his gullet and sinuses and giving him a cold restart. When he could speak, he said "Thank you. Um. Wow." He had a stupid grin that he knew made him look like a total goober, and he couldn't meet her eyes.

She smiled. "I hope those are good wows."

"They're stunned wows. Calleigh...how...if not Eric, then why...?"

"Eric and I are in each other's faces nearly every hour of every workday; if you're changing shifts, that won't be the case with us. But more to the point, you're...like me. You love, completely, but without...owning, or wanting to. And you love not...types or genders--your lover is a sentient nonhuman, for crying out loud. You love people. And before you ask, I don't only...it's not just to get to Bendición, all right? You can ask him. He knows I'm not lying about that."

"It's okay. I know you're...but you do, I mean...want Bendición, right?"

"To be closer to him--since he touched me, however long ago that was, exactly, weeks now," she whispered, then determinedly shoved a forkful of Italian-smelling salad into her mouth. Her fair complexion was a bit pink, though she was one of those pale people with tiny capillaries who didn't turn red much. Ryan wondered if Bendición was being thankful and happy in some way inside her, making her flushed.

"Oh, my God. What a lunch break."

She snorted, holding a paper napkin to her face. Then she answered the question he'd just wondered about, since Calleigh did not commonly snort for no reason. "Bendición is happy. And generally excited. Mmm...he's sort of surging around...if he doesn't stop I'm just going to lie down here on the table and...I don't know, bliss out? Is that a good phrase?"

"He does that with me, too." Ryan grinned, wiping his mouth with his paper napkin and folding his arms, leaning back in his chair and grinning at her. "'Bliss out' is an excellent phrase for it."

"Oh, my." She sighed deeply. "He feels...so..."

Ryan eyed her, decided to take a bit of a risk--though he knew he'd be pushing, he didn't think he could stand not even hinting around any more, and if he was casual enough, she could just give him a look and that would be the end of *that* avenue of exploration.

"He feels just as good from the outside. I, ah, really think you'd be pleased." He cocked his head at her, giving her a grin. And praying.

"I know he..." She suddenly got what he meant and her eyes flicked up to his at once; the grin fading, he held her gaze a moment. She suddenly squinted her eyes shut and said "Okay, that's it, I'm just going to eat my food and get out of here. Oh, my God--I think Bendición is--laughing, or something analogous, at least--okay, we are talking about...about all this, talking very, very soon. Before it gets *any* more out of control."

Oh, thank god. 'Talking' was certainly not leaping across the table at him, but she hadn't shot the idea down, whether more amiably or by giving him third-degree burns from her most formidable stare. He managed "Sounds great. You want to go out? Neutral territory?"

"No, Bendición needs to be able to participate; we can't be seen with 'Eric', when he's, um, not. That'll lead to all kinds of headaches if anyone who knows *any* of us sees it. We'll pick a good day, meet up in reception, and go somewhere private; one of our places, I suppose."

Ryan nodded. "Good. I'm...um, that's...good." He knew he had one of his goonier smiles on, but he thought the reason was sufficient. "Uh, as for today, is Ben going to stay with you until at least one of us is heading out? If it's not at the same time, whoever's off first can page the other."

"If it's all right with him, and...I think it's all right with him." She smiled, eyes distant. "Yes, we'll ...make sure he gets home before you leave." The look on her face could almost be described as purry. It was a look she often got when she was disgustingly pleased with herself, but too well-mannered to say a word; Ryan could easily recognize it by this time, and he always loved seeing it. If Calleigh was pleased, usually the world was okay. Unless the figurative canary feathers being licked off her equally figurative whiskers were his, of course.

Ryan smiled. "You go, Ben," he muttered, and sat forward to have another bite of sandwich.

***

It was a shame Consuelo had been forced to cancel; she was personable and smart and funny, as well as Spanish-speaking--Tijuana, she'd said. She'd been entertaining enough that Eric had been going to lunch at the same place for the last week and a half. It went without saying that she was in her early twenties, with waist-length, curling black hair, and eyes and cheekbones to die for. And she'd been enthusiastic about seeing the safe nighttime swimming beach he'd told her about, where a little visit was only a minor infraction, and in any case a quantity both known and ignored by the university, so long as the experiments on the nets and the beach itself were left unmolested. She hadn't been completely sold about going in, but he'd been sure he could talk her into trying. He *was* an expert at both swimming and the necessary reassurances, after all.

Unfortunately, she'd been needed at home that evening--by her husband, since he was having his wisdom teeth out that day. Apparently Consuelo, though a child compared to Eric--well, not *that* much of a child, honestly, it wasn't like he was some kind of geezer--was, even so, married to the point that she'd thought Eric was only coming to her place of employment, requesting her as his server, and tipping so lavishly for his stated flattering, friendly reasons. As in, Eric was either losing, with a vengeance, his edge at getting the real message across, or he was old enough now that the intended message had gone right past her.

Madre de dios, he was glad he hadn't mentioned details of his latest little project to anyone at work; as it was, he'd come too close for comfort a couple of times. It was *humiliating*. God forbid Wolfe or Calleigh ever got wind of it. Everybody else would take their shot and drop it, but he could count on torture from those two for weeks.

In fact, he was so pissed off about the whole thing he'd decided to, by golly, come for a swim anyway. Besides, once or twice he'd been lucky enough to run into amiable--and already underdressed--human company here, when he'd shown up alone. He also met cetacean play groups here sometimes, though he had to get outside the net--and leave his libido behind--to hang with them.

He turned the corner and started down the path through the trees that led to the small beach; one had to find a parking spot on the street, the beach not being public. As he emerged onto the hard Florida sand, his acute night vision spotted nothing moving in the netted enclosure but water; there was a just-past-full moon out, shining off the surface of the low waves. The permanent twilight of the city behind him wasn't very useful as illumination until one's eyes were very used to the darkness, since most of it was blocked by vegetation.

He dropped his dark canvas beach bag in an easy place to spot it in the paler sand, and started disrobing. He'd prepared the bag, with towels and other such--no suits, but other useful items--to help press his case with Consuelo that the water deserved a chance; he might as well use it. His gun and badge were locked in his car. No way was he going through that don't-know-the-name-of-the-chick-I-fucked-who's-got-my-badge thing again. He was still hearing about that from everyone but the people closest enough to him to know that he'd actually started seeing a shrink, instead of screwing strangers in public places to cope with his various stressors.

He felt an odd twinge at that thought, but hey, *this* certainly didn't count. Technically, this wasn't public, he was trespassing. Consuelo wasn't a stranger--he'd put in nearly two *weeks* on that. And this was--would have been--a date. Sort of. In any case, she wasn't even here, and neither was his badge.

Hey, looked like he'd been wrong that he was completely alone out here. No problem; looked like another guy there alone to relax a little. He wondered, bemused for a moment, if he was a displaced synchronized swimmer, because horizontal locomotion didn't seem to be the point of whatever this guy was doing; it looked sort of like waterborne t'ai chi. It was hard to make sense of the movement in the glints and flashes of wet skin that were all his eyes could pick out, as yet. The skin in question also seemed to be about medium-dark, rather like his own. Not the easiest to spot on dark water flush with moon glimmers on the crests of the low, lake-like waves. At night, the water of the Florida coastline could get almost pondlike in some places along the shore, though it was rarer along the Atlantic coast. He remembered seas so still that if he sat still himself long enough, he could discern star trails. The water wasn't that still tonight, but there was nothing one could really call even low surf, either.

Too bad, Consuelo. Would've been a perfect night for it. He started getting out of his clothes.

He'd been watching the water, a little hypnotized by the light wave action, when he realized that it'd been a minute or two, and he hadn't seen the swimmer surface. The guy seemed to have known what he was doing, but he wasn't wearing any gear; if he was free-swimming, he'd been down for quite a while for anyone but a professional. Eric frowned, his eyes scanning the surface of the water in the net enclosure with a lifeguard's reflex. But nothing.

And still nothing.

He ran for the water, splashed in a few steps, and dove. If he found the edge of the net near the bottom, he could make a reasonable blind search of the enclosure, surfacing to breathe and diving again in the same spots. If he didn't find anything, his phone was also in the damn car; he'd have to break for it in just his jeans and keys. Why hadn't he stuck the damn thing in the--

Deep in the sound-filled, watery dark, two long, strong hands closed on his biceps, and hauled powerfully upward. He kicked that way too, cooperating, and breached, along with the guy he'd jumped in to save from drowning. "What were you doing, you idiot?" he complained, shaking his head, slinging water from his hair and getting it out of his eyes. The guy held him up by the arms while he did this, as though it had been Eric in need of rescuing.

"Are you all right?" the man asked.

"*I* am *fine*, I hold my breath for a living. Are *you* all right?"

"Fine. I...swim very well, too," the man said, letting go of Eric's biceps, but keeping loose hold of his shoulders. "Um...hello," he said softly. "I didn't know you'd be here tonight, Eric."

Eric, his easy treading water a little impeded by how close he was floating to the other man, blinked. "Sorry, you got the advantage. How do I know you? You on the squad when I was swimming for the PD?"

"No, you don't know me. I...I've seen you swim, though. We have friends...I have friends where you work. My name is Bendición."

Eric grinned and rested his hands on the other man's shoulders, too; it was easier to have a floating conversation if you hung on to the other person and used your legs to stay up and in one place. "Nobody's mentioned you. I'd've remembered that name. Your parents pretty religious?"

"In a sense; at any rate, the name was sincerely given, and it means a great deal to me." White teeth flashed against the darkness. "Estoy alegre yo vine," Bendición added. "Even though I didn't expect to see you. You're why I know this beach is here, though. I know so much about you, I feel I know you. Very well." And the flash of white again. "Very well."

"'Cause we're both swimmers?" Eric was puzzled.

"Yes, among other things."

"So, um...who do we both know?"

"Your co-worker Ryan, for one."

"Oh. You're a friend of Wolfe's?"

"Yes. We're very close." Bendición was stroking his hands lightly down Eric's shoulders and upper arms, literally petting, lightly. Holding onto someone while you were having a floating conversation was one thing, but...

"Oh, I'm sorry." There was the flash of a smile again, and Bendición withdrew his hands. "I suppose that must have seemed odd. I...have a bit of a fascination with textures. I haven't always been able to feel--with my...hands, I mean--like...like, um, normal people."

"You have some kind of...neurological problem? Tactile sensor problem?"

"Had. Yes, you...could say that. It took a few years to...get as far as I've gotten."

"Then what the hell are you doing holding your breath in deep water for two minutes at a time? You need to be able to feel the water to judge your attitude if you're swimming in the dark without gear. Wolfe knows some real nut cases."

Bendición laughed. "It's the condition, as you put it, that allows me to do this. Well, that, along with help from you."

"What?" Eric said, his brows knitting in his thorough confusion.

Bendición laughed again. "Come on," he said, holding a hand up from the water and toward Eric. "I can show you. It's safe for you as long as you're with me."

"What are you--"

"Get a breath, Eric."

Automatically--in the water, when someone told him to get a breath, he got a breath; it was a reflex learned growing up near a warm ocean with a lot of other boys around--Eric inhaled, deeply. Bendición arched up in the water and surface-dived, and Eric went with him, still holding his hand.

The reason cetaceans have sonar is that visibility sucks, sucks, sucks underwater at night, no matter how relatively shallow the depth you're at. At least, that was the thought that ran through Eric's head as he turned a slow somersault with Bendición that got them even deeper; Eric somehow sensed Bendición's body straightening, and flexing sharply once, twice, sort of like ocean mammals swam, drifting toward the bottom; Eric knew he couldn't be doing that, not that way, unless he was exhaling, and his hand tightened on the other man's. Bendición pressed Eric's hand into the sand at the bottom briefly, then lifted and held it again. They were going deeper, but they weren't doing it like Eric had planned to search for a potential drowning victim--Bendición was just...sinking, moving down the slope of the bottom, going deeper.

Eric knew he should need a breath by now, but he didn't--he did, however, powerfully want to exhale; he felt he was bobbing at the end of Bendición's grip like a balloon.

Then he felt a tug, and Bendición pulled him close in the water, took his free hand and indicated that he should hold his nose closed with it. How could Bendición plan on any kind of buddy breathing if he had nothing left in his lungs?

While he was thinking that, though, he was doing as Bendición indicated.

They were nearly vertical, now, head-up, near the bottom; he could tell by the way his toes occasionally brushed sand or a smooth rock or a small patch of weeds. The current was pulling at him, but Bendición was like a protrusion of rock or coral in his unaffectedness; just much softer. He pulled Eric even closer--and the fact that they were both naked had held no special relevance to Eric a minute ago. Now it was quite attention-grabbing, though only utilitarian, as Bendición interlaced their legs to hold them steady, and pressed one hand to Eric's sternum.

Eric felt himself exhaling. He wasn't doing it on purpose, and he wasn't especially panicked. A little freaked out, yeah, he felt justified there, but--

Bendición kissed him. Sort of. Eric felt like he was taking a relaxed breath, and a little gas did seem to be involved in the exchange--he wouldn't have had to hold his nose if it hadn't--but it was more like being on a ventilator, even if only in the sense that he wasn't doing his own breathing. Otherwise, it couldn't have been more different. He'd only been on a ventilator once, in college, and he'd woken up as soon as they got the thing set up, and he'd freaked out so bad the doctor decided that anybody demonstrating that much muscular strength and general energy could damn well breathe by themselves, and Eric'd managed to relax just long enough for them to remove the tube.

Now, though, Eric was wondering if it would be possible to fall asleep with your unprotected head underwater. The deep ocean sounds that made little sense to humans, but were calming to those who were used to them, lulled him; he thought maybe, if Bendición just didn't let go of him, just didn't stop what he was doing...

Was he kissing another guy? It didn't feel like it. It felt like breathing. He didn't have to hold his nose so long as he kept the nasal airway closed off, which he had a lot of practice at, breathing through his mouth over crime-related reek. It was an oxygen-supplying procedure, like buddy breathing, which wasn't kissing, so that was all right.

God, Bendición's mouth was *soft*. Cushiony soft, even pressing firmly and sliding just a very little, and the skin warm even in the water; warm, and slickly tender.

His eyes were closed, but he was seeing light. Gold light, just at the edges of the dark behind his eyes. He wondered if it meant he was passing out, but he felt awake. Relaxed, but awake. Bendición's hand was moving over Eric's back, waist, chest...okay, farther south, too. Pretty much everywhere. Was it part of the process? It felt good. It made him feel calm, comfortable, easy. Bendición's other hand cradled the back of Eric's head, keeping their mouths together, fingers moving lightly in drifting, curly hair.

They were down there for a while; if asked to guess, Eric would have said about twenty minutes, maybe a half hour. Little fish and other swimmers became easy not to see, but to feel--not tactilely, but as an awareness of what was around him in the water--partly through density and temperature, carried to him on minor currents. Bendición himself wasn't included in that; he seemed to be more part of Eric's body, or aura, or something. Linear thought was giving him a little trouble, but he didn't feel alarmed about that any more than he did anything else. If Bendición was there, it was all right. Any of it, all of it...

He inhaled air, felt it touching his face. He was floating on his back, supported by Bendición, whose arms were around Eric's chest. Eric's head rested on his shoulder as they drifted, Bendición kicking slowly and easily under the water to keep them steadied.

"Can you talk?" Bendición whispered to him.

"What the fuck happened?" Eric wondered in a whisper, eyes still closed, still relaxed all over, as his lungs drew comfortable breaths, in and out, in and out...yeah, like that, no problem...

"I can't tell you right now," Bendición said, and Eric could tell by the other man's voice that he was smiling. "I'll tell you later, don't worry, if you want to know. I just don't have any way to explain it in English or Spanish."

"Lindo," Eric accused him; it wasn't considered a serious masculinity-insult, used that way; besides, if you insulted Bendición, he only laughed in honest delight. The guy was probably crazy, but he was definitely not dangerous, Eric had decided. If he'd known Wolfe had come to that precise conclusion before Bendición had been able to explain to Ryan in the only way that would make things clear, Eric might have been worried.

"Gracias, querido," Bendición said, smiling, and kissed Eric's wet hair. "You're pretty, too."

"¿Por qué usted dice 'querido'?" Eric mumbled, his brow furrowing, splashing a bit to get floating on his own, now that his head was beginning to clear.

"Porque te amo, obviamente," Bendición laughed. "Oh, look!"

Eric managed to swivel his head in the direction the gleam that denoted Bendición's arm was indicating; as long as he'd been in darkness now, his eyes were beginning to adjust, and he had no trouble seeing the familiar dorsals and shiny rounded backs bobbing out of the water here and there, and occasional little blows of spume, meandering in their direction. Somebody made a big flop in the water with a horizontally-fluked tail, and Eric smiled and murmured "Chica!"

"Oh, let's go say hello," Bendición said, sounding like a child begging for a favor, and grabbed Eric's hand again, striking out for the shore in an easy frog-kick that drove him faster than Eric could have dreamed of moving via such a stroke. But since Eric was being dragged along anyway, he got to where he could put his feet on the bottom as quickly as Bendición did. Evidently, Bendición knew better than to slide over the top of the nets; the owners of the test project would only look the other way as long as their experiment didn't get screwed up.

"Hi," Bendición said to the dolphins, splashing back out on the free water side of the nets, where the play group was cavorting about, waiting to bump them in the back of the knees and squirt them with blowhole spray. Dolphins could be pretty basic about this stuff, though they were also affectionate. "Do you know them?" Bendición asked Eric. "Ryan says you know a lot of the dolphins that live here, or come through here."

"Well, he's right about that--hey!" Eric'd just gotten run over by a dolphin he called, not very imaginatively, Baby, who was the calf of a huge, easily recognizable female he called, again not very imaginatively, La Chica Grande, who was identifiable by a number of marks--including a notch in her left rear fluke--and in being so big she would otherwise have been hard to tell from the males. He explained some of this, in a disjointed fashion, to Bendición as he wrapped his arms around the five-foot-long Baby; the youngster loved a good rub. Baby towed him out to slightly deeper water so he could ferry his human friend around in circles.

Eric called "If I don't let go in a minute, the little bastard will dive with me. It's a contest. How long can I stay with him before I have to signal him to bring me--woops--" he just had time to get a breath before Baby swooped for deeper water.

Eric was about to let go at once, but he felt human arms slide under his shoulders and pluck him neatly from the young dolphin. The two of them skated easily to the surface on momentum.

"I knew better," Eric complained at the "rescue", but he smiled when he said it. "I wouldn't have hung on to him in the dark. He's too young to realize how easily we get turned around down there."

"It appears his mother--the one you call La Chica Grande?--is lessoning him," Bendición said, smiling too, and still holding on to Eric's shoulders from behind, peering over him to see where the big female was giving her teenager a poke with her beak and probably a sonar-delivered safety lecture on playing with the poor gimpy land people in the dark, since they used their eyes to get around, not their ears.

"Yeah, she has a baby about every other season--she's so big she drops them like pebbles. I was there for one of her birthings--I happened to be finishing up a dive, and her helper came and got me, since I was nearby--"

"She asked you to be a helper? That's very flattering."

"I would have thought so, but I think the helper in question wanted me to make her behave--she only had the one nurse, and that nurse was only there to take the baby up for her first breath. La Chica was getting up to the surface to breathe just fine on her own, even in labor. I stayed to make sure, see if she needed help with the afterbirth or whatever, but she never needed me. The rest of the pod were too nervous to get near her; Chica's kind of a terror. There are whole groups of--uh--" Eric extracted his shoulders from Bendición's hands and turned in the water to face him. "I never mentioned I called La Chica that."

Bendición blinked owlishly a moment, then tried "Um...you must have. While you were telling me about them earlier. Or...maybe Ryan did."

"I've never told Ryan that I name the ones who know me best. He'd laugh his ass off. I've never even told Calleigh, because I know she'd tell him--she'd think it was sweet."

"He'd think it was sweet, too," Bendición said quietly. "Though I suppose...you're right, to you, he would laugh. But you are wrong that Calleigh would tell him. Not without asking you. She knows...you have...sensitive areas."

"So, you know Calleigh, too? Well enough to say that? And by the way, you still haven't told me how you knew what I called La Chica."

Bendición was silent, his great doe-eyes turned to the water in front of him.

Eric slid his hand down Bendición's arm and took his hand, and lifted it from the water; he clasped it, interlacing their fingers, so their forearms rose dripping from the surface, pressed together. "Look, Bendición. Nuestras manos--mírelas. Our hands are almost the same, the same size, shape, our arms are the same length..." he lifted Bendición's down-turned chin with his other hand, lightly raising it with a fingertip. "You look something like me."

"Sé. Ryan noticed it."

"Is that why you're friends now? You met because he mistook you for me?"

"He did mistake me for you." Bendición smiled, his eyes unfocused, as if at a scene in memory. "But that is not why we're friends. It's really not...not important, Eric--"

"Es importante para mí," Eric corrected him softly. "Qué usted hizo, debajo del agua--how did you do that? How did you breathe for me like that, without even breathing at all? How did you breathe even for yourself?"

"I shouldn't have done this," Bendición whispered. "I should have left as soon as I knew who you were. I never know what I shouldn't..." he shook his head. "I still just don't completely understand some things. Perdóneme."

"That would have looked a bit odd," Eric opined, managing to smile a little. "You didn't know who I was until you'd quote saved my life, unquote, while I was busy trying to save yours."

"I knew who you were before I even saw you, coming to the beach," Bendición murmured. They both swayed as a friendly bump from a dolphin turned them floating on their sides; Eric let go of Bendición's hand. Bendición went on "I knew you. I know you better than I know anyone--at least..." he reached over and set his hand on Eric's breastbone. "Your body, and its abilities, habits, reflexes."

All right, this was just getting weird. What did that mean? This guy had some sort of psychic connection with his body because they resembled each other?--

Okay, no. What was weird was the fact that he was thinking things were just *now* getting weird, when the situation had plainly gotten extremely weird quite a while back. *Qué usted hizo, debajo del agua.* Why had he been so relaxed about that, while it was happening, and after it happened?

He'd been distracted by dolphins, for one thing. None of the dolphins he knew personally had ever come by here on a night he'd been here. Now, here half a dozen of them were. The same night his semi-wackjob doppelganger showed up. This just continued to smell weirder.

Although, as he'd previously noted, Eric had to admit to himself that he felt no threat at all from Bendición. In fact, he felt an attraction, much like the urge to swim up against La Chica or hug Baby, or pick up a child to tickle gently. Affectionate. Protective. And right now, Bendición was stroking his lack of hair back from his forehead, or maybe just keeping dripping water out of his eyes--and the way he'd treated him all this time, the gentle way he'd tended him under the water, his care that Eric's own recklessness didn't get him turned around under too much dark depth--he seemed to feel exactly the same way about Eric. And Bendición'd said...some things, which Eric had forgotten, until he started thinking a little harder, until now.

Realizing this and wondering if some kind of soothing narcotic might be involved, he reached out and tried to grab on to Bendición in a way that would keep him from swimming off, and immediately remembered
that it is damn difficult to forcefully and proprietarily grab a naked person who is floating in the water when you're also naked and floating in the water. About all you could do was cuddle with intent. Sort of water-wrestle, which was obviously a game Bendición would win in about two moves.

Especially if these--damn it! Somebody had just tried to flip him by hoisting his feet with their tail flukes--dolphins didn't stop screwing around while he was trying to be pissed off at the guy. An old shark-killer--one could tell by the abrasions on his beak and elsewhere--whom Eric called, once again showing his poetic imagination, Asesino de Tiburónes (Sassy for short, though he'd admit that to anybody at all on his deathbed and not before) was shoving them toward the beach, using the grip Eric had started to try to get on Bendición to propel them as a unit.

Wait a minute. The old shark-killer was shoving them toward the beach--

"Tiburón," Eric and Bendición said at the same time, and grabbed onto the big old male, who quickly got them as far into the shallows as he himself could safely swim; then, as the humans let go and continued--reaching water they could stand and walk in in only a few seconds--the dolphin immediately turned to head back out, whether to flee the threat with the rest of the play group if it were too many sharks, or to help dispatch said threat if it were handleable by the group.

The two land critters strode out of the water, one with the speed of prudence and one with the speed of annoyance. "Okay," Eric said. "Now, I don't want to come on all cop to a friend of Calleigh's or Ryan's, but I need some answers here. If--"

Jesús dios.

He might not have noticed so fast if it hadn't already been made apparent that there was a resemblance between them. At least, not until he'd gotten his questions formulated and asked. But Eric's eyes had been in very low light for a while, such that the moonlight on the beach now seemed ample. Though he'd never seen himself this way before, the man he was looking at was, *had* to be, himself. It wasn't the image he saw in a mirror; this would be the way the rest of the world saw him, which no one could really quite imagine without help. Nor did anyone's voice sound the same to themselves as it did to everyone else, for reasons of sound conduction through bodily tissue, making it possible to hear lower frequencies in one's own voice that no one else could.

"Bendición," Eric murmured, then had a thought that amused him, smiled a half-smile, and added "if that *is* your name..."

Bendición smiled a little, too.

"Maybe...you said you should have...left, or whatever, as soon as you became aware of me, or that it was me. However you meant that, I don't care; the fact is that you didn't, and so I think I deserve some answers."

"No," Bendición sighed. "I didn't. I'm sorry. I...mentioned why I didn't, but you probably don't remember. I do not offer it as a reason, only a mitigating circumstance."

Eric frowned and shook his head. "No, I don't remember. Why didn't you, if you knew you should?"

Bendición looked down again, blinking rapidly. Dios, look at those eyelashes, Eric thought. And the body, yeah, but that face, he's...

...and the thought trailed off in a miasm of discomfort in his head. Bendición was a guy. Who looked exactly like Eric. It was deeply weird, thinking things like that. Though why weird should surprise him at this point, he wasn't sure.

His voice roughened by discomfort at his thoughts, he demanded "Well?"

When Bendición looked back up, his eyes were shimmering; the moonlight was shining full on him now--somehow, Bendición had kept himself between Eric and the moon until now, if they were above water. How very surprising, Eric snorted internally. But the shimmering in the other man's eyes became deep and solid, then dripped in a big, rushing tear down one cheek. Eric blinked; he thought he saw gold light--and now he remembered the gold light in the dreamtime, under the water--flash briefly near Bendición's face.

"Perdóneme," Bendición said quietly. "I am not trying to sway you with tears; Ryan says I am sensitive." He smiled a little. "Era porque te amo," he said simply, shrugging. "I have for years. On your own account, and because...because others love you, too. I...suppose you could say I missed you. Knowing you, even the way I do, is not the same as your knowing me, too, as being able...able to speak to you..."

Another flash--yes, there was a definite flash of gold light, in the silvery shadows that outlined Bendición's face. Tears; the gold effulgence was refracted into flashes by his tears--it was his eyes that were the source of the gold lights.

"Years," Eric whispered. "How many years?"

Bendición swallowed. "About three, I suppose."

"You know exactly how long," Eric said, and took a sudden step forward; Bendición spooked, which Eric hadn't expected, and Eric reached up to touch the other man's face to calm him, which he also hadn't expected. "You know exactly how long," he repeated, softly, almost inaudibly this time.

"Yes," Bendición said. His voice was soft, so softly modulated, but deep and warm, remindng Eric of the dark water they'd swum in. He didn't meet Eric's gaze.

"If you laugh at me for asking you this, I..." he trailed off, uncertain how to threaten where he had no wish to. "And don't tell anyone that I did."

"I can't promise I won't tell Ryan or Calleigh."

"Why?"

Bendición blinked. "They may ask."

Eric had to smile a little bit. "You're not very good at lying, are you? Not even...good lies."

Bendición smiled a very teary smile, shaking his head. "It's...communication this way, it's not as easy as..." he sniffed largely, blinking against the tears sliding down his smooth skin to wet his cheeks and lips, and started to wipe his face; but Eric moved closer, and gently took over the job for him.

"I've told Ryan you can be very kind," Bendición whispered, not trying to hide, but not meeting Eric's gaze, either.

Whatever that might mean; Eric let it pass for now. "All right, I'll accept the risk that Calleigh or Ryan may ask. Bendición...míreme. Déjeme veru sus ojos."

As requested, Bendición hesitantly raised his eyes, his gaze seeking Eric's.

"¿Es usted un ángel?" Eric whispered. "Creo. Si usted es un ángel, creo."

Bendición stared a moment, looking unsteady; Eric placed his hands on Bendición's shoulders. He'd thought, ideas flitting through his mind, of the many reactions he might get to that question--but Eric believed, and he had reason to believe here and now, and he wouldn't be ashamed of that.

But Bendición only gazed a moment--and then his face seemed to crumple, tears flooding and flashing gold down his cheeks as his full lips pressed together hard. Eric whispered "Oh, querido--shh--" and pulled Bendición close in his arms, gently pressing the wet head to his shoulder.

"Su hermana, Marisol--lo siento. No sé nada, Eric--lo siento, no sé nada de ella."

"Shhh. No es por qué pido. I ask because you...you seem like you might be one; not because of...of Marisol. You knew her, too?"

"Yes. And you, and neither of you knew me. I loved her, too, Eric, for your sake."

"Yes," Eric whispered, rocking Bendición gently. "I can see that, querido. I can see that. Come, let's dry off. I think there's someone we need to talk to."

Sniffing, Bendición pulled away from Eric a little. "I've messed this up so much. Ryan will be angry."

"If he's angry with you, I'll--"

"No, at himself. And maybe you. He's never angry with me."

"That shows *some* sense, at least."

Bendición gave him an entreating look, but pressed those full, beautiful lips together, wiped his face with one hand perfunctorily as Eric let him go gently to fetch the bag of towels, and said nothing.

Bendición accepted the towel Eric handed him, and used it, but when Eric dropped his and started to get back into his clothes, they both paused, Bendición smiling as the towel hung loosely in his hands.

"You don't need to get dressed," Eric guessedm smiling. "And you don't need me to drive you anywhere."

"I'll be at Ryan's apartment before you are."

"I hope you'll be dressed. I'm not sure if I could be so casual about you and me...like this--" he waved his hand in a vague gesture he hoped indicated mutual nudity, because he sure wasn't going to say it out loud, "--in front of people."

"I'll have clothes on. But you should know that when I left the apartment, Calleigh was there."

Eric stopped short, in the act of bending over to pick up the canvas bag he'd stuffed the damp towels, his comb, and et cetera into. He looked at Bendición a moment, then said "When you left...when you left?"

"I live with Ryan."

"I see."

"I'll explain. But I have to ask Ryan and Calleigh first."

"I think I deserve some kind of explanation even if--"

"No, it's the *way* I want to explain. It would reveal things about them, as well, that you don't know. I have to ask them first, for that. Otherwise..." he sighed. "I'll just have to try to use verbal language. That may take a very long time."

"Like...all night?"

"More like years."

"Ah, mierda."

Bendición nodded in obvious fellow-feeling.

As Eric located his keys in his jeans pocket, Bendición said softly "Eric..."

"¿Sí, amigo?" Eric rattled his car key loose from the general jangle and tried to find the switch for the alarm on the keychain.

"¿Está usted enojado? ¿En mí?"

Eric looked up at him, and Bendición's eyes were glowing again, and full again, though not running.

Eric dropped the canvas bag and strode back to Bendición, wrapping him close in a shirtless embrace. "No. No, I am not angry at you, either. Not at all. But I have to confess that I still think you're an angel. I'm betting you're just a little confused."

Bendición smiled at him. "Thank you," he whispered. "For asking me that. For thinking that."

"Thank you for loving me," Eric said carefully, meeting Bendición's eyes levelly. "Because I don't doubt you for a second when you tell me that. Which is why, since I never met you before tonight, either I'm drugged, or, well...you know. And I know I'm not drugged. Even though this is just too weird, I know I'm not drugged. And that you don't want to hurt me."

"I hope you're not too disappointed when you find out I'm not an angel."

"I hope you're not too disappointed if you can't convince me of that very easily." He smiled, then sighed "I should let you get to Ryan's ahead of me, right? To let them know I'm coming." His mind envisioned all kinds of worst possible scenarios, including emergency showering and dressing procedures. But Calleigh would never...she would tell him the truth, she was his friend; hell, *Wolfe* was a better man than that.

Bendición said "I'll be there at once, when you don't see me here any longer. You can get there whenever you like. I think they were watching a movie, but the M&M popcorn balls were giving them trouble, so they may be scraping sticky popcorn off pans or something."

Eric blinked. Well, movies and malformed popcorn balls weren't candlelight and gourmet cuisine; he supposed they were just hanging out--then he firmly enjoined himself not to make any assumptions, no matter what he feared, or what Bendición said. *Anything*, or nothing, could be going on in that apartment--and he nodded. "Then I'll stop by my place and shower off the salt, and get changed. But they should know they can expect me."

"When I tell them what's happened here, they'll expect nothing less. They'd come to you, if they had to."

Eric nodded, looking away, off toward the moon, which had risen too high to leave its bright trail so clearly on the low waves. "I suppose I'll just have to--" he'd glanced back toward where Bendición was standing.

His angel, blessing, or whatever he was, was gone, without a sound, without a glimmer.

He stood there a moment longer, staring at the hollows in the sand where Bendición's feet had been, before he could make himself turn and start walking toward the path through the trees that led to the sidewalk.

***

Ryan Wolfe lived in a beachfront condo. It was eleven stories up, and it was only one room; but he had only one neighbor on his floor, because the room took up half the floor. His neighbor, a very rich real estate executive, occupied the other half. Wolfe had inherited the condo, in a way; his uncle had inherited it from a brother from whom he'd been estranged all his adult life. He'd just kind of owned the thing, never giving it much thought, until Ryan, the son of their sister and the apple of his ex-cop uncle Ron's eye, had needed a place to live in Miami. Uncle Ron owned his own condo; he simply signed over the "unused one" (his own description) to Ryan.

Eric had only been there once, and it had actually been as much at his own insistence as Ryan's; the younger CSI's outfit--and it was already his spare outfit--had been thoroughly beslimed when he and a suspect he was pulling down in a flat-out footrace had slithered under a fence, and he and the suspect both fell into the rancid soup left in a deep drainage ditch by the last tropical low to swing by their neighborhood.

Eric smiled a little, remembering that day. He had known that Wolfe occasionally threatened to sell the condo; he'd heard him. But he'd never paid any attention; you didn't currently sell that kind of real estate in Miami. It would take a storm surge worse than had hit Miami in recorded history to reach the building in question, considering the high ground it was on; to ruin it would be nearly impossible. Since Ryan had been gifted the place outright, it was its own retirement plan. If he hadn't, it would have been a horrible white elephant in the current housing market. Of course, that condo had to be the reason he'd been accepted into the gambling rings at all--a county employee with student loans and no large liquid fallback? Your basic savings account and IRA did not qualify to the sort of men in question.

Eric would never say this to Ryan, but personally, he believed that if it had to have happened at all, Wolfe was lucky his new but potentially damning pastime had been dealt a fatal blow by Wolfe's having been caught and fired as quickly as he had--ten thousand was a lot of money, but it was a mere ante to the sums he would have been dealing with before very long. He would have been forced, by rising stakes and impatient cash-fronters for such operations, to put this place up as collateral for loans that were doomed never to be repaid, or sell it outright.

If things had gone that far, Eric didn't like to think what might have happened to Wolfe, a man who could probably hide three broken ribs, a hacked-out tooth and his own mother's death under that harsh voice and one raised eyebrow; no one would have known what was going on unless he chose to tell someone, which would happen when hell froze over. Horatio had felt terrible, not knowing any more than he'd known about Wolfe's now-thoroughly-stomped problem--Wolfe's iron control again--and so had Calleigh. Eric never had. The guy was a sphinx. Nobody could have known. Wolfe just wasn't an open book, and he seemed happy that way, or at least comfortable.

Now he could see a reason Wolfe might be like that. It appeared he might have something to hide...suppose the glowing-eyed Bendición, who radiated love and gentleness like a spray of sweet pea blossoms...what if he *wasn't* an angel? He was living with Wolfe in one room, no matter how huge and multileveled that room was...

Nah, Wolfe wasn't gay. Eric liked to think he could figure that much out about a guy, even one as tight up all the seams as Wolfe.

Besides...how else could Bendición have done what he did? Humans couldn't...well, *do* that. So it couldn't be that Bendición and Ryan were...um, that. Shit, he must be seriously freaked out.

No kidding. He'd been leaning against the wall outside Wolfe's front door for about five minutes now. One of these days, he was going to have to knock, and go in, and find out just what the hell exactly was going on with Calleigh and Wolfe and this guy who could make you feel a profound joy just by putting his hands on you and who looked *just like Eric*.

In just a minute. He'd knock.

Any time now.

His phone rang.

He flipped it open. "Yeah, Delko."

"I wondered if you'd like me to bring you anything. They never did quite figure out how to keep the chocolate from melting when they had to put the pan of sticky popcorn in the microwave to get it loose from the from the wax paper, but except for the M&M's being a little cracked and runny, it's really good. There's beer, too, and Calleigh brought coolers."

So, that was what his voice sounded like over the phone. Over his own phone, at least. "Uh, no, I was planning on coming in pretty soon. Thanks, though." He smiled, feeling foolish, scratching his ear.

The door next to him opened; Bendición was standing on the other side, in shadow from the low lights and the short entryway, holding Ryan's (probably) kitchen phone to his ear. He was dressed in an old but white knit shirt, glowing golden skin showing through the stretched stitching, and a pair of washed-to-death jeans. His eyes were *enormous*, lashed like a--well, all the comparisons Eric could think of were insulting compared to the way it looked on Bendición. His lips looked very, very red in the warmer light. And shining. And his face was...well, angelically smooth, the skin gleaming faintly.

Bendición spoke, and Eric winced at the weird double-reality as Bendición said "I like the ones they made with all green." He gestured a little with the lump of popcorn treat in his hand.

"How did you know my number?" Eric wondered, smiling and clicking off.

"You're on Ryan's speed dial, silly," Bendición said, reaching over to tap his forehead in admonition with the phone he was also clicking off; then he stuffed a bit of popcorn treat in Eric's mouth with his forefinger. He let the fingertip stay in Eric's mouth long enough for the other man to lick the sticky off it, then withdrew it and stood back to let him in.

Eric entered cautiously, chewing popcorn treat and looking around; the furnishings were still sparse, or, really, only sparse for the surroundings. He liked the feeling of space, actually, but then, he didn't have to live here. He wondered what it would be like living in a tiered, hardwood-floored, pastel-grey-and-pink painted cinderblock sort of situation. Oh, it was homier than a warehouse loft, completely finished, with hanging period lamps of colored glass and cut crystal, and as many rugs of approximately the same shades and complementary shades as people had been able to come up with to bring him. It had a butcher-block kitchen with an island on the highest level of the tiered floors, the one that let out onto the large balcony that faced the water. A set of ocean- and skyscape prints hung at regular intervals, track-lit with soft, low-intensity lights, along the longest wall. Since he'd been there last, drapes a light pastel shade of greyish-pink, with greyish-lavender outer drapes, had been added over each of them. It was simple, but he liked the effect.

Still. It seemed big, and airy, and...empty. There was no real way for Ryan to make a mark on this, apply his own personality to it. Eric had gained a new appreciation for the small house--a two-bedroom, solidly-built stucco place--he'd barely been able to afford himself. The real estate prices for the same floor space in his neighborhood and this one didn't bear even a nodding acquaintance.

The TV was on, with the sound down. The mostly-self-matching cream-colored living room set quartered around the entertainment center and the fireplace was empty, and--peering up high, standing on his toes, Eric saw the kitchen and the dining room seemed empty, too. The nominal bedroom was around the corner, where covered building ductwork created a larger island of non-visibility. Beyond that was the bathroom, the only completely walled-off room; everything else was open or railed in various ways, except where paper screens and such had been added to give a few corners here and there, at tier level changes and around the chairs and couches, a warmer feel.

"They left?" Eric wondered.

"They're sleeping," Bendición said, and popped another piece of goodie in his mouth. "Calleigh and Ryan have noticed I like soft things, like water, and human skin. I think they're right. Humans feel *wonderful* in salt water; you especially, but Calleigh told me you were especially soft for a grownup. Anyway, I apparently also like sweet things." He now popped an unmelted M&M.

"Those will rot your teeth, you know," Eric smiled.

Bendición smiled back. "Not mine," he reminded Eric, then gestured for Eric to follow him. He finished licking sticky off his fingers as he turned and climbed the tier levels to the bedroom area.

On the disarrayed white-pipe-frame bed, the bugscreen thrown over the footrail and the area illuminated only by the faint light from around the corner and the booklight lying in the floor staring at the ceiling--attached to a book in a Churchill series--Calleigh and Ryan were sleeping in a sort of snuggle, sort of thrash. She had on an oversized fleece and he had his face buried in her chest. She was mostly on top, with her arms around him and a leg thrown over him. Her underpants were blue, clashing with the mostly-red fleece. Ryan was wearing a striped pair of cotton pajama pants. Both of them were either dead or very, very tired.

Eric started to go cold, beginning at the bullet scar in his head, feeling it spreading outward. "This...is why you didn't wake them? So I could see this? Understand...this?" He thought his vision was getting wavery, then wondered distantly if the odd warping might be caused by tears or the heat waves from his mounting anger.

"No, I didn't wake them because they're sleepy," Bendición said softly, matter-of-factly. "I thought you might decide your talk could wait. Also, I'm afraid I was cowardly about telling them I met you, and...and about everything you and I did, at the beach. I hope you don't mind my waiting. I knew they'd be afraid for me, taking chances like that, and--do you think we should let them rest?" Bendición didn't sound too hopeful.

Then he apparently got a look--and a feel--of Eric. "¿Eric--querido, el hermoso, está usted bien?"

Eric glared at him. "¿Qué usted piensa? And isn't it a little egotistical to be calling me 'beautiful'?" He turned and took the steps as one, heading for the front door.

"Eric!" Bendición was pursuing him, still whispering hoarsely to keep the noise down--though *those* two had looked too fucked out to wake for anything short of an extinction-level meteor strike. Bendición's barefoot steps were inaudible, even if he was as big as Eric; Eric jumped when a hand the size of his own fell on his shoulder when he'd only just rounded the corner of the semi-privacy-providing ductwork wall.

"Eric, what is *wrong* with you? I'm sorry I didn't wake them and tell them, but they were so tired, and like I said, I was cowardly, since I could have met anyone, and I can't lie very well yet. Are you that mad--"

"Listen, I still wonder if you're an angel, but if you are, they threw you down here without an instruction book. Walking me in on Calleigh and Wolfe in bed was not the way to inform me that they're lovers--shit, I could have lived happily never knowing that--though I thought Calleigh, at *least* Calleigh--" And shit--goddamn it all, he *was* crying, or he was going to.

"Eric, they're *sleeping*, I said! They're *tired*! They didn't have sex, I'd know if they had!"

"How would you know that?" Eric snarled. "They keep you up on these things?"

"I would know," Bendición said, "I would have known at the beach."

Eric gave him a squint-eyed stare.

"I'm sorry I startled you, but I'm not well versed in...in knowing what not to do--I am terrible about blurting things, Ryan says. He's my lover, and once, when we were..." At whatever he was getting from Eric, Bendición trailed off.

As Eric's expression mutated, so did Bendición 's, watching it. Bendición murmured "I don't think I should have said that."

While these casual announcements rang thought-halting gongs in Eric's head, a voice so dry it sounded in danger of blowing away sounded--barely, the growl was so deep--from behind Bendición. "And that wasn't how we were planning on telling you *that*, Delko, before you ask. Ben, would you get him comfortable on the couch and bring him a beer? One of those gigantic cans of Sapporo?"

Eric took a step back. "Wolfe, don't even--"

Bendición grabbed his shoulders. "I would do as he says," he murmured. "He can be a bit touchy when he wakes up too soon."

"I can be, too," came a voice that made Eric stop, even under Bendición's considerable motive force. Calleigh was standing at the corner of the duct wall, makeupless, hair a champagne-blonde explosion, in the old, oversized fleece that was plainly Ryan's, since she'd never have owned anything that ugly or that impractical. "Go sit, Eric, we'll be with you in a minute. You too, Ben." She turned back toward the bedroom, presumably to get to the bathroom.

Bendición sighed.

Eric felt like crying again, but no fucking way. "Damn it, I just want to understand!"

"Get in line," Ryan growled from somewhere, but Bendición put an arm around Eric and whispered into his ear. "You will understand," he murmured. "I promise you will. Try to relax. Let me get you that beer."

"I hate Japanese beer."

"Then I'll get you three Mexican ones; it'll take that many to match one Sapporo that size."

Eric snorted a laugh despite himself. Bendición finished walking him over, and sat him down on the couch, and kissed his cheekbone, cupping the other side of his face in one hand. "It's all right, I promise," he whispered. He kissed Eric's mouth softly.

Eric had never been deliberately kissed by a man, not this way. The other man's mouth was still shockingly soft, the skin smooth and moist; he smelled warm and light in the same way that vanilla did; his kiss was dizzyingly sweet. Even so, in the same position, Eric would have slugged anyone whom he didn't suspect of minor divinity. But for whatever reason, Bendición's touch did make even...all this, closer to all right than it had been.

"¿Soy un ángel, adorado?" Am I an angel? Bendición whispered, his eyes pleading--maybe not for an affirmative answer to the specific question, but for some sort of reassurance.

Eric couldn't stand to hurt the feelings in those eyes, but he was afraid, too. "Espero que usted sea un ángel," he murmured, his own eyes searching. "Y espero que usted ame me. Crea, adorado, y espero. Pero no sé." I hope you're an angel, and I hope you love me. I believe, and I hope. But I don't know.

"I do love you," Bendición whispered barely brushing his lips again to Eric's ear. "Te amo como cielo, hermoso. I *do*." Then he slid away, his movements silent. His weight--and Eric knew exactly what it was--didn't make the smooth, pale, varnished floorboards creak, which wouldn't have been surprising for such a pricey floor; but Calleigh's steps, off near the bathroom, were making them talk just a tiny bit, here and there.

Bendición's words rolled around in Eric's head, mopping up his tears and his anger. I love you like heaven, Eric thought. I love you like the sky.

When Bendición returned with what was presumably the first of the beers he'd promised, pressing Eric's hands around the cold bottle, Eric looked up and asked, whispering below the slight noises Calleigh and Ryan were making off across the place somewhere, splashing their faces and getting into more skin-covering garments, "¿Y él? ¿De qué manera usted ama a Ryan?"

"Ryan es mi alma. Moriré con él."

Looking into the deep eyes, Eric knew Bendición meant it literally. "Does he know?"

"He knows." Then Bendición sighed. "He's having a little problem with that aspect of things. It is...more complex than I make it sound."

Feeling his brows knit, Eric reached up and stroked the backs of his fingers down Bendición's cheek as the latter sat on the couch next to him. "Why do I believe everything you say?" he wondered, genuinely curious, even through his confusion. "Because you're an angel?"

"Because I'm not very good at lying?"

"I should at least think you were nuts. Actually, and I hope this doesn't offend you--even though I can't come up with another explanation for you than that you *are* an angel? I still think you're a little wacked."

Bendición smiled at the floor and looked back up, a bashful expression Eric hadn't worn since he was about six unapologetically on his face. "You like that? Ryan likes it--he smiles at it. And Calleigh likes it."

"Well...I suppose I do." He did. Bendición's brand of not-quite-right could melt anyone's heart. Impulsively, he leaned close and pressed his mouth to Bendición's, wondering what would happen. Nothing, other than an enthusiastic response. The sky did not fall, nor the seas rise, nor were there great thunders and shakings of the earth--neither from his daring to kiss an angel, nor the far greater gall he showed in deliberately, even if impulsively, kissing a man. Angel. Male angel.

He was sunk in a feeling similar to the one he'd had when Bendición was feeding oxygen into his blood underwater--however the hell he'd done it, must've been an angel thing--and wasn't fighting it; dios, when he was really kissing, Bendición could *kiss*--when a growly, tired voice said, almost over his head, "You know, they didn't need to wake *our* dead asses up. They can make out on the couch perfectly well by themselves."

Eric, despite Bendición's best efforts to hold on to him, fell off the couch in startlement; the beer he was still holding in one hand sloshed over the top. "Shit," he muttered, ostensibly at the beer slosh, but also kind of in general.

"I'll get a rag," Calleigh said, dressed in a T shirt and basketball shorts that were huge on her--obviously Ryan's, again. She padded off toward the kitchen, yawning. "But you're right, you know."

Ryan extended a hand to Eric. "C'mon, you're in his way."

Eric automatically took the hand and let Ryan pull him up, but said "What? Whose way?"

"Ben's." Bendición had moved over to critically examine the spill on the wood, and then it wasn't on the wood any more. It was floating in the air a couple of feet over the wood, in little globules.

Eric stared.

Ryan muttered "It almost makes you miss lava lamps, doesn't it? Wait, even you aren't that old, are you?"

Calleigh, coming back, soaked the beer globules out of the air with the little kitchen towel she was holding, nearly leaned back up, spied a globule that had drifted out of the general group and chased it, the cushion of air between it and the globule scooting it ahead of the rag until she got the idea and moved slowly; then she caught it, soaked it up too, finished standing and headed back toward the kitchen.

Eric stared at the air where the globules had been floating, then at Bendición.

"I didn't want the wood to stain," Bendición shrugged.

"I've gotta get some more of this floor carpeted," Ryan sighed, looking generally weary. "I can't keep up with the maintenance. Eric, close your mouth for once in your life. I promise you'll still be able to breathe. My apartment is not full of water." He took Eric's shoulders and sat him back down on the couch next to Bendición.

"He *is* cranky," Eric muttered.

"Told you," Bendición murmured back, sharing Eric's little smile.

"I don't need two of you doing this," Ryan growl-whined as Calleigh came back and took his hand, guiding him to a seat in the one recliner in the room. She shoved the lever with her foot and Ryan sighed as the thing extended, allowing him to stretch out. "Thank you."

She said "What are friends for?" Then Ryan erfed as she started climbing into the recliner too, ending up with him on his back and her on her face on top, invisible under her hair. "Wake me if you need me."

"I could've figured an ulterior motive. Okay." Ryan sighed, and threw an arm over Calleigh's back, using the other hand to swipe her hair off his face. "Eric. Where do you want to start?"

Eric had a swig of his beer and let it burn its way down before he said "Do you know who this person is that's sitting to my right?"

"Yes. Should I tell you?"

"I'm still thinking about that. He says his name is Bendición."

"It is."

"Is there any more to it?"

"No. That was as far as I got."

"*You* gave it to him?"

"Yes. His people don't have them. Well, they don't need them--they're immediately recognizable by their identities; there's no need for a symbol to represent them--even someone who never met you would know you, all of you, at once, but that's...just an analogy."

Eric came up with "Interesting name. I didn't know you were that religious."

"I got religion real fast after he showed up."

"I bet. When it turned out he wasn't me."

"I was working on getting religion when I thought it *was* you, but you don't want to hear about that."

"Uh. If you say so." Eric thought. "Why does he look like me?"

"Because I like the way you look and he wanted me to think he was attractive, and I bet you could have done without hearing that, too."

Eric shot Bendición a look.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time," Bendición sighed. "I thought of looking like Calleigh for a long time; I even began work on a material body from her template--a great deal is finished, too--but...I decided I wanted to give him something he didn't seem to think he would ever have otherwise. He and Calleigh...I had seen them being gentle with each other, staying together for a while when their work was over, that sort of thing. I had not seen anything so friendly between you and Ryan. If one of you were hurt, you would panic, but that was very nearly all. And Ryan...one example is the way he lost control when he was present at the interrogation of the man who shot you. He called you his friend. He's hasn't done that, much, before or since. But he never showed you such feeling; nor did you show it to him."

Eric was quiet, but Ryan seemed to feel the eyes on him; he opened his own, and even sleepy and bloodshot, they were deep and bright and...feeling. He was covering again. He didn't scold Bendición for telling Eric what he had, or even give him a speaking look. Ryan only met Eric's gaze nervously, and said effortfully "Um, look...any time you want to stop this piecemeal information share, Ben can do something--we call it touching; it's a form of communication. It will knock you on your can for a few minutes. You may love Bendición very much when it's over, as seems likely from the way you're acting like he's Ericnip. You may run screaming in terror--which, for the aforestated reasons, I doubt, but I don't know how this works--not by a long shot--so I can't say for certain, and neither can he. He tells me and Calleigh that people have panicked, freaked out, and that his worst nightmare was averted when he touched me, and the first thing I did--after I woke up--was cry, a *lot*, and cling to him like a barnacle. He'd taken the chance that I would be terrified and repelled, that I wouldn't be able to take the knowledge he gave me. He can remove it again if that happens--sort of--but he has to catch the person in question first, and it leaves a noticeable hole in one's memory. And no, he has no practice at either procedure. Calleigh and I both cried and fell in love. For reasons of Calleigh's mind being a beautiful multidimensional construction of logic paths, while you and I are apparently knuckle-dragging mental cro-mags--"

Calleigh snickered.

Ryan gave her butt a token swat that turned into a pat before it actually touched her and finished "--Ben wasn't worried about whether Calleigh could take it."

"What about you?"

Bendición answered. "I knew Ryan would be all right, as he said--I can...take the knowledge away again, if...but I...I didn't know...if he would want me. He does, and I'm...I'm glad. I'm more than glad." But he wasn't looking at them. Eric felt some sort of issue, fairly clearly, and obviously from Bendición, but he had enough issues of his own going on right now.

"Want you?" Eric said, his voice getting progressively quiet and more disbelieving. "As a companion, want your presence, you mean? Or...okay, you look like me so he'd...want you...?" Eric's voice trailed off into a whisper as the possibilities of the semantics in question wandered uselessly in his head, unable to cohere into anything definite without more information.

Bendición looked helplessly at Ryan. "I..."

Ryan sighed. "Okay, Eric. Ben was talking about his and my thing; he meant want him as...as whatever the hell you'd call what he is to me, a companion, maybe, like you said...okay, there are things you don't know yet, so we'll skip that for now. But if you're still on his looking like you, and you're hanging up on phrases like my 'wanting' him or not, fine, we'll get that out of the way.

"First, I'll tell you that I've already put in for a different shift. H is working on it. If he can't get me to nights or swing--though I'm pretty sure there are people willing to be moved around, on nights; at least a couple of people on that shift have kids--we'll start looking at other positions. Things I'm qualified for, to keep me in the loop. One way or another, I won't be working on the same team with you, in any capacity, in another couple of months, tops, all right? So don't freak out."

Eric could only stare as this bizarre speech sank in. "You're leaving the team? What brought this on?"

"I'm in love with you." Ryan said it bald and flat, quiet, and emotionless. "I have been for years. For reasons that would probably make you punch me--assuming the first part didn't, if Bendición would allow you to--which, by the way, he won't--I'm losing my mind over it, and it's only getting worse. It doesn't matter that we're not in a relationship, and so the new rules still allow us to work together. *I* can't stand it. You were never supposed to know, but..." he sighed. "I'm not sure now that it would have been fair to ask Calleigh to keep it a secret from you; you're too close with her, and it'd be obvious that she knew why I was changing shifts, leaving, whatever. And you'd have wondered why I didn't tell you. So if you can just keep the knot out of your panties and act like a non-macho-shithead about the whole thing, it doesn't need to be a big deal for anyone at work but me, and Horatio, because he has to try to move me around. He doesn't know it's you that I need to get away from, by the way. I kept that part very vague, and it wasn't easy. Now, shall we get back to Ben?"

Eric swallowed automatically when Bendición brought the bottle of beer up for him.

After the fizz settled in his belly, Eric had decided that as bizarre as that speech had been--efficient, emotionless, and tightly organized, like most of what Wolfe did--he was going to need a minute, at least, to just let it sit in his head. He couldn't face the words right now, even emotionless as they'd been. He refocused on the warmth-radiating creature next to him and murmured "Bendición, you...aren't an angel, are you."

Ryan's eyes widened, that sardonic eyebrow going up, and Calleigh actually lifted her head. "Yes," she said, from under her hair, "he is." Her head sank again, and she seemed to fall back asleep at once. Ryan added "If you thought he was an angel, that's the first thing you've gotten right."

"I'm not an angel," Bendición murmured to Eric. "But I can explain. The touching--I think you'll be fine, because your body is my template. I'd never hurt you, Eric, not on purpose, at least."

"He's not lying about that," Ryan said quietly. "And if he said he loves you--which I'm betting he did; you would seem to be Ben-nip as well--he means that, too."

Eric was quiet a moment, then whispered "He said he loved me like heaven. And he said you were his soul, and he would die with you."

Bendición looked away from them all.

"Eric," Ryan said slowly, his voice low, monotonous, very carefully modulated, "tell Ben you want him to touch you, so you'll understand. Ben, touch him. Five minutes is long enough for this ridiculous conversation to go on." He was stroking Calleigh's hair as he spoke, his head back on the recliner's headrest, his eyes closed. His voice, even as tired as he'd been sounding, was strained, and he took a shuddering breath when he'd finished speaking.

Eric set the bottle down on the glass-topped table in front of him, and took Bendición's hand. "Querido," he said quietly, "toqúeme. Quiero entender. I don't know what's happening...but just from..." he took a deep breath of his own. "Ericnip comments aside, I can't...I can't explain the way I've been reacting--reacting to you, I mean--and...I want to know."

***

Eric's eyes were closed. Bendición was half-holding him, his head resting on Ben's shoulder.

Ryan's voice was making random noises; Eric was still pretty vague as far as anything outside the ideas and unfathomable images jumbling around in his head, and some intense emotions that he was reining in with gritted teeth. It was contradictory at the very best, and crazy-making at worst. He couldn't look at most of it right now. He couldn't.

He began to make out Ryan's words. "...and I mean anything, wake us. Remember, he's got that scarring and stuff in his head."

"Yes. I have it too."

"Yeah," Ryan murmured, his voice softening. "Just worried it might make some kind of difference. Also, if you do any fooling around, cover his mouth if he's noisy. It might be early for him, but climbing around in upturned peat bog in the glades since noon, screaming at the tops of our lungs over the noise all day--and both of us nearly getting killed by a backhoe--Calleigh and I need quiet."

Bendición's voice was light, amused. "Of course, querido. But I doubt there'll be much of anything to cover his mouth for. You'll recall that you and I did not make love for some time after we touched; you were in no shape for it."

"That was me. And Calleigh is Calleigh. This is Eric Delko. He'll die at ninety-seven of losing his balance and falling off a bedpan because he used the opportunity to try to jerk off. You can talk all you need to--if he gets pissed, and he might, God knows, you might have to tell him to keep his voice down--but I'm leaving the windows by the bed open anyway. And when he gets it together, however he does..." the voice sounded tired, but thoughtful. "There's going to be a lot he wants to talk about, eventually; although maybe not tonight. Tonight he might rather just hang onto you, like Calleigh and I did."

"I'll take care of him, beloved. And if he has questions, I'll answer. Is it all right if...?"

"...if he has questions about me and my twisted thing for him? Yeah, answer him," Ryan sighed. "I guess I'd rather he asked you than me. God knows I don't want to have to discuss it all any more. Him, I mean, and my hangup, not you. You I could rave about all night." There was a soft hmmm of contained laughter as mouths came together to kiss, and a very quiet smack of separating lips. "Calleigh's cool with anything you might have given him about her, if he wants to ask, too."

"Buenas noches, mi chico hermoso."

"Good night..." Another small kissing sound, and a whisper; "...mi bendición."

Soft bare footsteps moved away, becoming inaudible quickly.

"Mi chico hermoso?" Eric barely whispered.

He felt Bendición kiss his shoulder, soft and silent. "I know you have no problem with pet names."

Eric smiled a little. "You call him anything else?"

"Everything I can think of. But if I tell you I call him chiquito sometimes, he'll kill me."

Eric smiled again. There was only moonlight to see by now; he and Bendición were lying on a queen-sized hide-a-bed mattress, but out on the floor, on the big soft rug that was the centerpiece of the living room area; the glass-top coffee table had been moved. There were more quilts over the mattress under him, more in fact than were over him; he was grateful they'd moved the mattress to the pristinely clean rug on the Swiffered-with-an-inch-of-its-life wood floor. There wasn't a sleeper sofa in the world that didn't get you in the butt bone with that damn middle folding bar; big humans were better off trying to sleep on a plank.

"I'm thinking of your name as 'Ben' sometimes, now. Did you do that?"

"I did nothing on purpose but...communicate. In a very short...well, the way I would 'touching'--we don't do that the way you do--member of my own species, but less extensive. I know a great deal came through to you. I don't know if it will all...come together at once, make sense to you. It may take some time...Ryan...it took no time at all, almost, and he introduced me to Calleigh. You might be thinking of that version of the name because Ryan often calls me that."

Eric lay there as Ben's words made certain things stir in his new memories. "Ryan didn't realize at first...that you *wanted* to die with him, *needed* to--that it was...intrinsic."

"No. He didn't. He still doesn't."

"You didn't--you didn't tell him it's how you reproduce? That you have one parent of your species and one who was--in your case, I think...a whale, and when you both die..." He knew that Ryan didn't know that Bendición's material parent had been a whale. He didn't know how he knew that. He was skating on the surface of a very deep, dark, turbulent lake of knowledge--the environment was warm, he could even breathe if the ice broke and he fell through, but still--it was so *deep*--and the random currents, one thought to the next to an idea that triggered a memory--where would it take him? Where would he eventually end up?

*Who* would that turgid twisting of ideas and facts and realities turn him into? Would he still be himself, just a little shaken up? Or would he be Eric One-Point-Creepy? If he wasn't that already...

Ben was saying "Human men of this culture are very touchy on the subject of reproduction and offspring. I don't pretend to understand it, but it's a different feeling about it than women have. If Calleigh--or most any woman--were my chosen, I'd have told her at once. I didn't want to put even more pressure on him; I *will* tell him, though, after he's had more of a chance to think about it all. Even Calleigh--even Ryan--are still...what did she say...Calleigh said 'processing a data overload.' I just...don't want him thinking that that's all there is to it. That the only reason we mature at joining is that we become able to do that. It's *far* from all joining is, to us. It's..." Bendición made a faint, anguished sound of frustration. "I need...I can't explain..."

"Shh, I know. I happened to get part of that where I could feel it easily, I suppose. Could be because he's making you so crazy about it with this 'maybe' shit."

"No, I believe--he won't let me touch with him again so soon, he wants to save the number of times we might have to do that, but....he probably has it, too," Bendición sighed. "I think that since he has so much of himself closed off, at least some of what I tried to impart to him is, too. There, but...unreachable, for a while."

"You know him better than me. A lot better, it's looking like." He paused, swallowed, and licked his lips. "I was passed out, there for a while, huh?"

"A little while, yes." Ben was smiling. He kissed Eric's shoulder again. "Would you like some water?"

"No, I'm fine. Why are we naked?"

"You had a happy experience in your shorts. They're in the wash."

"A happy...oh, for--Wolfe. Goddamn compulsive *Wolfe* washed my spunky shorts? Kill me now. He didn't wipe me up, too, did he?"

Ben sounded like he was trying not to laugh. "No, hermoso, I did that, and undressed you. For what it's worth, I don't think he got much of a thrill out of washing your things."

"I believe it. Why the rest of my clothes?"

"He's thorough. After all, what good is a pair of jeans--and, by extension, any of the rest of it--to a human man without any underwear?"

"About as much good as a hair shirt. And you are naked to keep me company, I take it?"

"I only have the one outfit. It didn't seem suitable for bed."

"Well, you need to work on that. It's Miami. The colors are fine, and the pantyhose jeans, but that knit thing will never fly, no matter how white or stretched out it is." I am babbling, Eric realized. I am busy trying to ignore my head, so my mouth is just sort of running. Madre, that's embarrassing.

But this was Ben, who wouldn't use anything stupid he said against him, and who was now saying, "I wanted something unobtrusive."

"Mi chico hermoso," Eric said, and Ben chuckled softly, "you are not unobtrusive. I could stuff you into a mailbag and you'd manage to catch people's eyes, even if you didn't kick and scream or anything. Don't blame the clothes."

"It will take me considerable time to come up with more manifested clothing. I have to build it starting at the molecular level, you know. But I can also simply wear regular clothing, though if I have to materialize at another point, it won't come with me."

"You look good naked. Lotta people would kill to be able to walk around in public like that and get nothing but applause and whistles." Forget babbling, he was starting to see things.

"But it *is* a bit conspicuous. And illegal."

"Some people should get dispensations."

"Then you should have one too, el lindo." Ben prodded him, leaning on the last two words.

Eric smiled again at the jibe, but shook his head, closing his eyes against disorientation. "I'll never get used to that. To me...you don't look so much like me. Intellectually I know you must, I can see that much, but you just don't. Don't seem to. I don't know how to put it..."

"You can't see yourself the way other humans do; it's impossible. To Calleigh and Ryan...Calleigh said it was much as if we were twins. There is a markedly obvious resemblance, but once she watches us for a bit--of course, she is a trained observer--we are not difficult to tell apart. And in some ways, we actually don't look that much alike, according to Ryan--things that involve mannerisms, habit and style of movement, expressions and such. They both say our voices are a bit different, as well. I have more of the Cubano in my English words."

"Yeah, North American Spanish, specifically the sort common around Miami, is the kind Ryan hears all the time; not too surprising if it's strong in you. It's pretty, too, with the way you speak--softer than I do." He touched Ben's lips. "Soft, like your eyes." What the fuck? What the *fuck* was that? He wouldn't say *that* to a woman he was trying to charm, just in case she had an IQ higher than her hip measurement. He began to wonder if the thin ice would break under his clumsy attempts to stay over the thick patches or if he'd just end up in tights and wings, capering and waving a wand, at the next city gay pride parade. He barely controlled a wince-and-snort at the mental picture.

Ben was smiling. "May I kiss you for that?"

What? Oh, the thing about his eyes. Fine, then, screw it, bring on the sap. "I wish you would," Eric murmured. I wish you would make all these waves crashing against the inside of my head go away. But as he thought it, he realized he'd said it with some feeling that Bendición's kiss might be able to.

It was a slow kiss, very gently exploratory. Bendición's tongue liked to play and hide; but it liked to lick voluptuously, too.

Eventually, Eric whispered "I lost count a long time ago of how many people I've kissed--well, all right, girls, women. But I can't remember anyone else striking me so immediately as being this good at it."

"I'm only as good as Ryan," Ben shrugged, nuzzling Eric's scruffy cheek. "And...possibly a bit like you. It's hard to tell how many of your reflexes, learned and inborn, made it here with me. Your swimming did, obviously, but I also have an advantage there, so it's hard to say."

Eric nodded, lifting a hand to stroke thoughtfully down Bendición's chest. "I keep...forgetting...you and Ryan...or not so much forgetting, as every time I think of it fresh, it...makes me..." What? Sick? No, just... "...pause."

"Yes. You didn't know he had loved men, though only a few, just as there have been only a few women."

"Which has gotta be their idea, not his, considering. 'Polyamorous' they call it." Eric controlled what would have been an angry exclamation, and, surprising the hell out of him, it came out as welling tears, which he smudged away quickly with his thumbs. "The sonofabitch has never been any better than me in that department."

"You know the definition of 'polyamorous'; you know that what you mean to say with those words is not true."

"And Calleigh...I'm...I've been...fuck. *Pining* like a highschooler, with no idea at all that she...she never *told* me, something that important. I trust her like no one else, no one but...I don't know, I just can't believe...I made such an ass of myself for so long, and if she'd really been my friend, she'd have told me, not let me just...fuck. And now it's nothing but a fat fucking waste."

Ben was quiet a while, stroking Eric with glowing hands, calming him. Then he said "Why do you think Calleigh is any more out of your reach now than she was before you knew she was bisexual, or polyamorous?"

Eric covered his face. "You're shitting me, why is she any more out of--I can't...I can't believe it. Calleigh?"

"I've been observing humans and human behavior--some people very closely--for over two thousand years. I think about two and a half, though counting it's a bit problematic for us, as you can imagine, since time runs differently for us. Anyway, all those words refer to is potential. Being bisexual means, to those with no pronounced preference, only that gender is no more than a characteristic about a human, like their height, or the color of their hair. One does not look around in a crowd and see 'men and women'; one looks around and sees 'humans', all of them different from each other in many ways. Being polyamorous does not refer to sex at all, really. It means having the capacity--the potential--to feel the depth of caring, and the loyalty and respect, of genuine love, for more than one person at a time. It also means not having much in the way of a jealousy circuit, as Ryan puts it. Calleigh knows a good deal about it as well. She has books."

Eric dropped his hands from his face; tears were shining on his skin, but he was ignoring them. He sniffed and said "*You* seem to know a lot about it."

"I told you, I like humans. I know a lot about a lot of things. And as far as this subject goes, Calleigh and I have touched, and so have Ryan and I, and they know, too."

"Some of the stuff I got from you...it's kind of cute, your...combination of deep knowledge and total ignorance. No offense."

"None taken," Bendición said, smiling. "I find it amusing, too, unless I upset Ryan. Or you. I apologize again for taking you into the bedroom while they were sleeping. I didn't know you would assume what you did. It seems so obvious to me, I forget your senses...well, they're not like mine."

"I know. It's all right."

They were quiet a little as they got resettled; the balcony doors, off past the kitchen level, were open, and what breezes they got down there on a lower tier were the cool ones. Eric was, at least, physically comfortable.

He said, in a tiny voice, "Calleigh loves him."

"She also loves you, with great passion."

"But she..." Eric made his characteristic growling sound of frustration and Bendición had to shush him, taking Eric's shoulders as his back arched in a frenzy of verbally inexpressible tension.

He took his lower lip between his teeth hard for a moment, then released it as he exhaled. "I don't....I'm sorry, Ben, you'll never understand this. I shouldn't...expect...you are...compassion, universal compassion, you'll never know what a--a human love feels like, or what it feels like to--"

"I do understand it," Bendición whispered fiercely in his ear. "I understand you. I *touched* you, and those feelings are quite impossible to simply not notice, with you. Your culture, and all...but I know how it feels to you. I know how horribly lonely and heart-torn you feel, how you would be behaving right now, subject to this knowledge, if it weren't for me. I know you want her to love *only* you, only you, with that loyalty and depth of caring I spoke of, forever. And I know how badly it hurts you that Calleigh--whether she marries you someday, as you'd like, or not--will never feel that exact way, even if she had that same amount of personal loyalty and love for you." He took a deep breath and finished "And...it upsets me that no matter how much she feels about you, now or at any future time, it won't be enough unless she loves no one else. That doesn't say much for your loving her. It says a great deal for your own fear and selfishness, though. To people who think the proof of true love is in forsaking all others, the issue concerning them is not one of personal betrayal. It's about their own fear and greed, about themselves--not about the other person. And I'm not talking about people such as you, who compartmentalize sex."

Eric heaved upward again, but Bendición was ready for him and, lifting his own weight gracefully in one powerful elbow-and-shoulder motion, slammed down onto Eric with a hand over his mouth; Eric's eyes bugged, and his grf nearly shot from his ears instead; fortunately, Bendición removed his hand, and then some of his weight, straddling Eric, taking the weight on his knees. "I'm not saying it makes you any less wonderful. I *am* saying that it's programmed. It is a very deep part of recent human culture--recent, in this case, meaning the last several hundred years; the beginnings of record-keeping in human culture that deal with such things go back many thousands of years before. But, deep or not, the idea of romantic love is new. It was never looked for or expected in one's partners--love, yes, humans have been loving each other just...just to pieces, forever, I've seen it, I was there for a few thousand years of it. You couldn't go anywhere without encountering it. But--the only one for you, or me--or whoever--sort of thing, passionate and perfect forever with never a thought, of love *or* sex, for anyone else--as an *ideal*, of all things? That's new, and came about for two reasons; so religion could get between the people and sex and so gain power, and so that the paternity of children could be assured when patrilineal families and inheritences rose along with patriarchal religion. That much is easily documentable historical fact."

Eric made a face at him. "I went to college."

"I can't remember which social studies prerequisites you took."

"That's not shocking, since I can't either. But even so, I don't need a lecture."

"That is debatable, querido. But whether you do or not, I am not the one to give it to you--" he shifted, lowering and turning his head, his tightly curling hair just missing Eric's nose, "--since you do not seem to include me in any of your upset--that Calleigh loves me, for the reason that upsets you, or that Ryan loves me--which upsets you in a different way and for an entirely different reason. I know I'm not human. But I'm at least as worthy of your consideration in these matters as a dolphin, aren't I?"

"Bendición--Madre de Dios, lo siento--soy cruel," Eric whispered, "y yo quisiera nunca que usted fuera lastimado, por mí, o por cualquiera --" And finally, whether it was a last straw, the stimulus showed at just the correct time, or Eric's brittle surface of ice and denial finally broke, he did cry, bursting into tears that Bendición was quick to wipe gently with tissues which were, not surprisingly, within reach of them on the floor. He cried far past any upset over Bendición's words, but he did it fairly well--he was used to shouting, to crying, to laughing, to expressing. Bendición's shushing was only noises to let Eric know that he was still there, right there at whatever point Eric had reached in the cry. "Eric, shhh...sshhh...I didn't mean that, not like that, it's all right..." Bendición rocked him gently, soothing all thought entirely out of Eric's head.

Soon Eric felt much as he had earlier, Bendición the only thing bearing him on this easy, night-dark tide; at rest. Not thinking, simply aware of his surroundings, and their subtle changes...and he was fine, so long as Bendición was there, Bendición, speaking softly through gold light.

***

Eric was aware of being. He was happy about that.

Then he was aware of being *happy*, and then he was aware of being warm and comfortable, lying on his back, with pillows piled behind him. He never piled pillows behind him, unless he had a cold...hm, he was a bit stuffy, true.

Then he was aware of the long thigh draped across both his own, and the hand stroking down his chest. He'd better remember how to speak English, here. He cleared his throat, tried for a name, realized he was going for the wrong language, and switched to Spanish, which was easier first thing in the morning anyway. "Bendición?"

"Buenos días, mi niño pequeño."

Eric grinned and reached behind his head to haul out a cushion. "Besame el culo," he said affectionately, whopping Bendición's head casually.

Ben grinned. "You'll have to turn over."

Eric smirked. "Wouldn't you rather have break--oh, *shit*," Eric said, flipping upright like a jackknife as he held his high-pressure-resistant waterproof watch in front of his face in a myopic, just-woke-up stare; Bendición dodged successfully. "I am *totally* fucking late."

"No, you aren't. You're not going anywhere for a while."

Eric glanced up. Bendición, for such an undeniably sweet creature, was looking a bit smug. He continued "And do not remonstrate with me on this point, as it comes on the orders of mi hermosa, inteligente y de otra manera perfecta Calleigh, also known as your immediate superior, CSI Duquesne. Neither she nor Ryan went to work the day after they touched me, either. Ryan couldn't breathe or think; Calleigh was a bit better off, but she described the feeling as vaguely schizophrenic, with happy instead of scary parts."

"She's difficult to rock. And she has a way with a phrase." Eric sniffed to clear some stuffiness, then smiled, closing his eyes to savor aroma. "And a skillet. I smell pancakes. Blueberry, if I'm not mistaken."

"You do. They're keeping warm in the oven, along with some bacon, and there's fresh coffee. But Ryan made it all, not Calleigh."

Eric blinked. "Oh. Uh, didn't know he could cook. But I guess anyone can pick up a box of Bisquick."

"He made them from scratch. He says cooking is a very precise art and that it appeals to his minutiae-loving tendencies. I'd get in there and start eating; the oven isn't going to keep things fresh forever. I'd hate to think his efforts were wasted before you could partake."

"Of his efforts?"

Bendición just smiled, but somehow managed to make it look dirty. It was his usual sweet, guileless smile, so Eric's new ability to detect naughtiness in it...hm, must have had something to do with the already-palpable resonance they had together due to their physical similarity on certain basic spacial levels. Or maybe Eric was hot for him. Rim shot. Or maybe the "touching" thing.

"For an angel, you have a very dirty mind," Eric sighed, not wanting to get dragged back into thinking about all that first thing in the morning.

"Here," Bendición smiled, turning and taking something up off the couch; it unfolded in shades of cream and white. "Ryan left this for you. He thought you might want to eat and bathe before you dressed, since your things are clean."

"If that robe is Wolfe's, it would make me a good handkerchief."

"The robe is Calleigh's, and doesn't fit her either, before you ask. It was a gift to her father from her aunt. Her father seemed to feel it made him appear effeminate, so he gave it to Calleigh."

Well, it wasn't like it should be shocking, after last night, and everything he'd learned touching Bendición. "Calleigh keeps a bathrobe here." Whether it fit or not. He sighed and held his hand out; Bendición silently hung the collar over Eric's outstretched fingers.

"Calleigh keeps a complete set of toiletries and several changes of clothes here, as Ryan does at her apartment," Bendición said matter-of-factly, almost severely, for him. "They find it convenient for a number of reasons, many of which involve exhaustion, or the fact that Ryan lives closer to work than Calleigh does--or that Calleigh has a second bathroom, where Ryan can keep his things without putting her out, though he's so self-contained in that way, I'm not always sure he lives *here*."

Ben eyed Eric's stony visage a moment, then sighed. He continued "But...I am also aware that no matter how many good reasons they have to keep some things at each other's homes, you'll still be acutely conscious of the fact that one of them is their discovery of each other as bisexual and polyamorous, and that they're both relieved to have someone that they can relax about it with, such that they spend a great deal of their off time together. I'm also aware that you violently dislike absolutely everything to do with that state of affairs, with the possible exception of me. So I'll just..." he dumped his quilt off, revealing that he was dressed in his single outfit, and stood, offering Eric a hand. "...shut up and accompany you to breakfast."

Eric took his hand and let Ben lift him to his feet. Eric, still holding the bathrobe, started putting it on, and paused in the middle; he caught Ben's gold-gleaming eyes for a moment, and the robe hung from his elbows, all but forgotten.

Bendición caressed Eric's face with a similarly glowing hand, and Eric moaned. *Mierda*, this guy--or whatever--was good. And what made it so good was that, as good as it was, none of it was contrived. Bendición couldn't prevaricate to save his life.

Dios. Eric was stunned to realize he was starting to feel sympathetic toward Wolfe, at least in certain respects. He hurriedly closed the robe and tied it. Ben smiled and kissed him. Eric was sighing as he kissed back. It was a good thing he wasn't working today. Absolutely nothing he was thinking or feeling made any sense at all. Maybe Ben would help him figure it out later.

***

"No."

"It'll do you good. Come on, I'll rub your back."

"I'll get a cramp. You're not supposed to swim directly after eating."

Instead of pointing out that there was no way a man Eric's size would be swimming even in this thing, Ben only "Ah, mi pobrecito," Bendición cooed with a commiserating pout, which would have looked utterly ridiculous on Eric and only looked adorable on Ben. "Cuidaré para usted, mi querido hinchado."

Okay, "pobrecito" could pass, because the cramp thing had been sort of whiny, but "I'll take care of you, my bloated darling" merited some sort of return strike. But there wasn't anything to hand, and the tile was wet, making lunging impractical; Eric took off his robe as Bendición looked for openings to escape the room, but he was on the wrong side of Eric from the door and received the robe in a surprisingly solid cloth wad square in the face before he could work out the logistics.

"I'm taking a shower," Eric insisted. "Ryan will throw a fit if you run up his hot water bill enough to fill that thing." There were candles perched, already lit, on the rim of the tub; Bendición was obviously planning some sort of relaxation experience, and Eric didn't feel like relaxing right now.

"Ryan made me promise to give you a bath, just like I gave him. And Calleigh."

Eric blinked at him. "That's a good trick."

"Not at the same *time*," Bendición said, rolling his eyes. "The night I touched them. Each of them. Separately. Separate nights. I also made them lemon tea. With honey."

"Because they'd been crying," Eric sighed, finally understanding. "That's what the bath was all about, too."

"Well, no. Your skin--"

"--feels like a gigantic orgasm, I know, I know--"

As Bendición burst into giggles, Eric said "All right, the steam does sound good." He went to one knee to turn the taps. The tub, either grey marble or a convincing fake, wasn't a Jacuzzi; it had jets which could be activated or not, but it was round, half-sunken, and had a bottom that sloped very gently to a level instead of making a right angle. You could get probably about six average-size people in it if they didn't mind being cozy. Calleigh could easily backfloat in the middle. There were what Eric suspected were hospital bath and shower seats and stools, and flat rubber anti-slide or -skid mats of different sizes, stacked in a corner of the bathroom. That made sense--if you zoned out and slid, you'd wake up snorting and coughing and gasping and inventing new nasty words. And it could happen with distressing regularity if you were as short as Wolfe.

"I want my robe back," Eric announced, looking back up at Bendición.

"No," Bendición said; suddenly his clothes vanished--making Eric freeze; he supposed he hadn't yet seen all the oddities one might have to get used to hanging around with Bendición--and Ben put the robe on himself.

Eric sighed. "Come on, it'll take a year to fill this thing." Actually, it might not; he now realized there were four actual spouts--he'd been too busy trying to hassle Bendición to notice before--the blend of hot and cold water controllable at each or at any one of the sets of taps; Eric fooled around with the bold look of Kohler for a minute and finally got the hang of it, and all four spigots, inset so they wouldn't protrude into anyone's back if the party was in the tub, started gouting steaming water.

Being over one such spigot, Eric didn't realize he'd closed his eyes and was zoning to the soothing steam--he *had* had one holy hell of an evening yesterday; he hadn't cried that much since Marisol died--and he moaned quietly, feeling hands moving up his arms to his shoulders, knowing the hands had to be glowing to feel like that.

"Why don't you get in and sit in one of the streams, over the steam. I'll go make tea."

Eric didn't reply; he just let Bendición help him into the tub and under the cascading heat that frothed down his body in an aerated stream; he leaned against the tub's edge and breathed.

He felt a large warm person stepping into the tub with a small splosh, eventually; he wasn't sure how much time had passed. The water had reached his waist, and he was resting with one arm lying along the side, his head pillowed on it, eyes closed.

"¿Cuál es él que usted están pensando?" Bendición's slick, tender lips brushed his ear.

"I'm thinking about you. Mostly. What else? Except that Wolfe is a flaming queer, Calleigh will sleep with anybody, and between the two, the one who wants me is Wolfe, not Calleigh."

If he was trying to get a rise out of Bendición, which he wasn't really, he failed. "Here," the other man said, bits of him pressing lightly here and there against Eric from behind as he got settled; there was a clink on the marble close to Eric's face. "Lemon and mint. With honey."

Eric took the cup; it was the same colors as the drapes over the sea and cloud paintings on the long wall. Probably everything in this joint, with the exception of some inexplicable orangish bits of wardrobe, was color-coordinated. He sipped from the large stoneware cup; the tea had cinnamon in it, too, and it fumed quite nicely into his nasal passages while honey soothed his throat.

"Actually," Ben said softly, stroking Eric's back gently with a soft washcloth, "by that logic, Calleigh is as likely to sleep with you as anyone else; substantially more likely, considering how much she loves you. And you know that Ryan, while he wants you, doesn't actually *want* you, since you don't want him. Also, he's not a flamer--the odd pinkness of parts of his wardrobe notwithstanding--though I think the word 'queer' currently covers anything that isn't totally vanilla straight. Probably depends on who you ask. Um, I'm not human. Don't you have a miserable-bigot insult for me, too? I might begin to feel left out." Ben kissed his shoulder soundlessly.

Eric lifted his head from the cup, and laughed very softly. "When I said I might...that I wanted to know..."

"You still don't know," Bendición said softly, and kissed the nape of Eric's neck.

"I don't know anything," Eric sighed. "I thought I...but I don't know anything. So please, don't take it personally."

"I'm not," Bendición murmured. "I know how hard this is for you."

"I wish it wasn't," Eric said dully, as Bendición began spreading some sort of gel on his back, and true to his word, starting a sort of massage; but it didn't jostle--Bendición didn't need to use the considerable strength of his hands. The ache in Eric's muscles and behind his eyes was eased by something else, something that glowed goldenly, Eric suspected. He took another swallow of tea. "I'm disappointing them both. But I can't help how I feel."

"I know you can't, corazón," Bendición said. "And neither can they."

"Am I disappointing you?"

"No," Bendición murmured. "I confess I disappoint myself. I was like a child, so anxious to meet you, see you, talk to you...I was a fool. You had no preparation for any of this, not even as much as Calleigh got from Ryan--and certainly not the choice he insisted she be given, not to be burdened with the knowledge of my existence and presence, if that was her decision."

"I remember, I think..." he blinked slowly, images and voices moving and sounding in his mind. "I guess that was...that was pretty good of him..." he paused and murmured "Did Ryan get any from anyone? Any choice, I mean, to...reject the offer of the knowledge?"

"As you know, I could have taken the knowledge from him if he hadn't been able to deal with it--many humans can't, and it's impossible to predict who they'll be. But in the sense you mean...no. I'm afraid I burst upon him in a shower of disorganization, much as I did upon you, querido. Though I did try, that time--I did at least think that I had given the matter enough thought to make the beginning of our communication easier for him. I will give myself this; I thought things out well enough to make the beginning of our communication *possible*--there was no great disaster; a bit of worry on my part and a great deal of confusion on Ryan's, but nothing we did not, eventually, handle. And I very nearly *didn't* manage that with you. I am fortunate that you are devout to the degree you are."

"I'm still not convinced you're not a confused, wayward angel."

Bendición didn't reply, just thinking a moment, then finishing "If it hadn't been for that, and for our...unlooked-for attraction to each other...which is very interesting, I had not expected it to take this form in you at all..."

"Very interesting," Eric murmured. "'Ben-nip.' 'Ericnip'. If you were human, I'd have been swarming all over another man without even thinking twice about it."

There was a smile in Ben's voice. "Is that what you're telling yourself? That we can touch, kiss, whatever else we feel the urge to do...and it doesn't make you bisexual, because I'm not human?"

"You can see where it admits of the question."

"I suppose...but I still think it's a bit of a stretch."

"I honestly don't. I think it's relevant."

"Are you speaking in a more academic sense than I have been supposing?" The water was deepening; Bendición moved closer, where he could use the side, part of his body, and one arm to keep Eric steady in the chest-deep water and continue his washing and soothing.

"If you mean, am I trying to figure out if...this--" he moved his right arm, which was immersed, and ran it up the side of Bendición's leg to grip his thigh, "--or maybe *wanting* to do this, means I'm bi, yes, that's what I'm doing."

"So...you like kissing me?"

Eric smiled slowly, his eyes closing. "Tengo gusto...I like it very much. Mi chico lindo."

Ben kissed his ear, and Eric could feel him smiling at what had quickly become a private joke. Ben asked softly "Is there another man you know--personally or not--that you would like to kiss? The way that we do, I mean. The way you would kiss a brother if you had one is not relevant here."

"I know what you mean. No, there isn't. I...if Wolfe...I suppose, if he'd like me to...but I think he hates me now, however much he may still love me. He wouldn't ask."

"It is not new that he's unsure whether he loves or hates you more--I'm sure, of course; he does not hate you. He loves you--but you're right," Ben said softly, sliding an arm around Eric's waist under the hot water to move him a bit. "He wouldn't ask, not unless he knew there was...genuine enthusiasm on your part. If he ever even suspected you pitied him, or were taking any action at all based on that, he'd have to kill either you or himself, or leave the state of Florida permanently."

"Yeah," Eric sighed. "I can understand that. But beyond that, I don't know what the hell he expects. I'm straight."

"He expects nothing, amigo; I thought that was obvious. He had already seen Horatio about transferring before you ever knew--he did not intend for you to know at all. He knows you do not desire any man; and he is certain that if you did, you would never want him. Not with love, at any rate." Bendición's voice was curiously flat. "He is leaving the day shift, and Calleigh and Horatio, and everyone else whose trust he has worked to earn again, *because* he is so sure of that."

"He'd have had to leave anyway, if we did--do something--"

"If the regulations you speak of were not worth breaking to both of you. But I don't think that's what you meant, earlier, when you asked what he expected. What he cannot bear--the difference, now that you know his feelings--is the fact that you are appalled. It is verified, now, not simply a foregone conclusion, that you did not take the news either of his bisexuality or his feelings for you well; and things promise to become worse. He expected this, should you discover his feelings. You have not disappointed him with your reaction, never fear. And my terrible handling of things was no help."

"Maybe not, but can't he give me some *time*? I just found *out*, and it's been *years*, and he never told me, even *Calleigh* never told me--"

"You can be given time. At their discretion, I suppose, I cannot instruct them in that. But as for the rest, you know better; until and unless you became closer than you had, querido, their love lives were not your business unless they made them so. That includes Calleigh's, however close you are to her."

"No, as far as she's concerned, it's only Wolfe's business," he growled.

"You know why she chose to tell him."

"Yeah, they're both on the committee." He sighed. "Like I said, I...I need to think about this thing, about Wolfe, and about Calleigh, too. I mean--I'm *not* bi, I'm *not* poly, I...I'm traditional. I'm Catholic. Well, my mother's people." He'd lunged off the whole Catholic thing quick; he knew he was a player, didn't see anything wrong with it so long as the lies were kept small and white. But Catholicism certainly didn't condone his catting around--it was his culture that did that, at least for a man--so long as it was with attractive women whom his culture considered available to him.

Bendición was saying "I know. And I know you have always followed tradition. But if it doesn't follow you, must you go chasing it? For only one example, Calleigh isn't Catholic; you've always known she wasn't, and that she would not live as one if she married you. And if she would not raise your children in the church? Or would not raise them herself at all? You conveniently ignore those problems. Eric--" Bendición moved around Eric, and turned his chin up a little to gaze into his eyes. "Right now, there are two people who love you very deeply, who are desperate to know whether their lives are going to be drastically changed by what you think and feel about all this--by what I, in my overconfidence, thought I was ready to handle. All right, my overconfidence and my state of amorous longing."

"Amorous longing." Eric smiled. "If you weren't saying that in the process of putting yourself down, I'd be flattered. Never thought..." He sighed, losing the expression again. "I know. I'm not going to make trouble for them, Bendición. I'm hurt, I suppose...but as you say, I have no real right to be. Doesn't mean I'm not."

"I understand. I, at least, deserve the putting down, for setting this mess in motion. But the rest isn't flattery. It's how I feel about you." He shrugged slightly. "I'm close to three thousand years old; I've been observing human interaction, off and on, all that time, have cared for more humans than I could count, following them all their lives. I know humanity better than any human anthropologist, psychologist, anyone...and I still bungled both the introductions I made myself. Ryan's perspicacity saved me the first time, saved us both. He told Calleigh, and very well. Then I was lucky, because you thought I was a confused angel, which explained your belief in what I said *and* this need to be affectionate with me. Your creativity saved me...at least, until you knew everything." He shook his head. "I suppose knowing humanity, and interacting with individual humans, is...the difference between theory and practice?"

"You have all the school training there is, just no experience," Eric murmured.

"And as you may have noticed, we are...in a diffucult pass, because of what I set in motion. I am not blaming you for this, mi corazón. It should have been gradual, introducing you to these ideas. But I felt you near, I did not take the better part of valor as I should have, and it was all--my existence, Ryan's love for you, Calleigh's polyamorism--dropped on you in an evening. I am sorry. You are right--you deserved more time. This is mostly my fault, querido."

Eric didn't really know what to say to that--he couldn't refute it, or agree with it, really; he wasn't sure if Bendición were right or wrong. So they were quiet a while; Eric sighed in the dimness, the quiet heat of the bath--and maybe whatever was in that tea--calming him, clearing his head, stilling his thoughts.

"Every time you touch me, I wish I could purr," Eric muttered as Bendición stroked him; he felt languid as a sleeping cat, though the subject matter of their talk was not trivial, and he was still working on sorting out his head about it. "And every time you do, I wonder, would I feel like that if you were human? I really do wonder. It's not just...just some way to..."

"Yes, I do see...I don't think you're looking for a way out of being bisexual--even if the idea disturbs you--so much as for clarification of terms. I think you've gotten past the point of being terrified by the idea, that it might be...relevant, or connected, to a million things that it has nothing to do with. That happened quickly; I think that's because of my influence, especially since you're considering only me, not any other men, as a prospective reason to think of yourself as bi."

"You're probably right."

"And when I touch you, sometimes you do purr. Humans do it, too. It's that soft little continuous murmur humans make when they get their heads scratched or their necks rubbed, and the noise they make when they get tight clothing off probably counts, too. That kind of thing."

Eric smiled again, still without opening his eyes, as Bendición's hands moved down his smooth, wet chest, lightly gripping and releasing skin and muscle; and Eric remembered how he'd been thinking that the relief afforded was much greater than it should have been, with no more force than Ben was applying.

"I thought you had to be joined with your chosen to heal."

"Oh. No. I suppose that didn't come across--it's interesting, what does and doesn't, what does but doesn't...come together." He sighed, looking distant, then looked back up and said "I do have to be joined to do the kind of healing I discussed with Ryan. It's a matter of being aware enough, of having enough information. There are smaller things I can do for anyone, though. I can soothe soreness, and ease most other pain at least somewhat. I can bring quiet sleep; and I can stop minor bleeding. I can get oxygen into the system of a person not getting any, but you know about that. I can heal smaller surface injuries, at least to a degree; it depends on the injury. Shall I show you?"

"Um, yeah. Sure." Eric blinked, trying to get a little perkier and pay attention.

"Here." Ben leaned down and nipped Eric's arm with sharp teeth, making the water slosh as Eric jumped and barked "Hijo de puta!"

Bendición grinned. "My mother was a whale, as you know. Now, observe." The little bite slowly welled blood; he laid two fingers over it, and Eric's grimace faded as his eyes widened.

When Ben lifted his fingers, the blood came up into the air in little drops. "If your blood gets into the tub water--even with the jets off, it recirculates, there are elements to keep it warm--Ryan might clean the whole system." He sent the blood drops floating across the room to plop into the sink drain.

"Um, it *is* blood--"

"I know your concerns. It's all right, I'm not into blood sports."

Eric smirked. "That wasn't my concern."

Bendición rolled his eyes. "I know--you're very familiar with everything out there one can catch from human body fluids, particularly blood. I can't catch anything from you, and no one can catch anything from me. Which is why I kept it out of Ryan's tub."

"Because *I* could theoretically give him something I don't know I have."

"Only in the statistical universe--but, that was your concern."

Eric was examining the area of his bicep that up until recently had borne a canine-incised nip. "You can heal skin, certainly. Not even a little bruise. Wait--Calleigh saw it--and ow, I think I might remember Ryan getting it. He had a huge bite on his shoulder, from, um."

"My peak of ecstasy, yes."

"Why didn't you heal that? Was it too severe?"

"I didn't heal it because Ryan asked me not to. He thought it might come in handy as a visual aid, in speaking to Calleigh--he turned out to be right--and also he's a bit of a...well, a trophy collector."

"He *wanted* it to scar?"

"Yes. He did."

"Shit, I would *never* have thought that. He's so *uptight*. I can't even imagine him with a tan line."

"Not that you've ever tried."

"Oh, shut up." He splashed Ben, smiling. "If he's into that kind of trophy, I bet he gets the date tattooed next to that one."

Bendición only smiled back and wiped the water out of his face. "You haven't finished your tea."

"It has to be getting..." he noticed that there was a little steam wafting from the cup, and picked it up. It was still quite warm.

"How do you..."

"Heat is motion, my love, on the molecular level."

"I'm going to get overheated, though. I'm already falling asleep."

"That's not the worst thing for you to be doing. You had quite a night. Let me just finish your rub, then..." he paused while Eric set the teacup down and turned with his back to the tub rim to face Bendición.

"That can't be comfortable. Here, let me..." he readjusted them so that Eric was in mostly the same position he had been--lying against Ben, holding on to his thigh, partly for balance and partly because he wanted to--and Bendición reached around in front of him to work his way down Eric's chest and various sets of abdominals.

Eric drifted off to some hazy place where he could feel light--and you can't feel light, he could remember that much, you can't feel it unless it's hot, and this wasn't--penetrating all through his body, more and less, here and there, moving through him, moving him, now and then, into some other position; but that was easy, no exertion on his part at all--he seemed to be floating.

He *was* floating; the constant soft sound of the aerated water from the spigots was gone. The only sound in the room was soft splashes and a light hum from the circulation vents, since the high-powered jets weren't on. Bendición was holding him in an easy, relaxed half-float on his back, his head resting on Ben's arm. He just managed to open his eyes a bit, and the only light he could see was gold radiance, shimmering and skittering like a little pet aurora--filling the water's surface around them, rippling ghostily with each slightest wavelet, with every motion. He moved his fingers slightly, and a wave of light bounced to the wall of the tub and back to him, back and forth; he followed as other surface motion slowly reduced it to nothing, able to track it to its last bit of momentum.

"It's beautiful," he whispered.

"Usted es bello, también," Bendición whispered back, just into the shell of his ear. "So are you. Sueño. Es hora de dormir. Sleep, my love."

***

He woke to voices; they were muted, but he recognized them. Wolfe, Calleigh. Bendición.

He opened his eyes, realizing that his last memory had been of falling asleep in Wolfe's over-the-top bathtub. How had he gotten from there to...here...?

He seemed to be on Wolfe's bed, though it was dim in the room. The windows were open, but the sun was down; there was barely any light in the sky.

"I slept for a *year*," he thought. He started to push himself upright, and turned to his side to rub his eyes with one hand.

One of the loose netting curtains, which had been pulled down around the bed--if you like open windows you don't *not* have netting around your bed at Miami's latitude--stirred, and Eric looked up into Wolfe's slightly startled face.

"You're awake." Wolfe seemed taken aback.

"Yes, I am," Eric said, forgoing commenting on Wolfe's grasp of the obvious.

Then he remembered. The man standing there, with whose features he was quite familiar, his voice, attitude, mannerisms--he had known this man; but he didn't know him any more, because this man looked at him, and saw someone he could desire. Could love, in fact.

And so now, Wolfe looked completely different to Eric. He didn't feel threatened, he wasn't homophobic, but...but Wolfe was in love with a man, with *him*.

*Totally* different.

Wolfe swallowed. "How do you feel?"

"Um...good, I'm good. Maybe I needed to sleep."

"Ben said, um..." Wolfe let the curtain fall behind his back, ramming his hands into the pockets of his suit pants, bracing his feet in the stance he often assumed when he was tense. He'd taken his jacket off, but was otherwise still dressed from work. He and Calleigh, or at least Wolfe, must have just gotten here. "He told me that what we needed was to relax, and some low stimulation time. Let our brains process."

"That's why the...the bath, and the quiet...sort of lightweight sensory deprivation."

"...and why he put you to sleep, yeah. Your brain needs time to sort through all that stuff he gives you. He gets a lot from us too, you know, that's why you have some of Calleigh's and my recent memories. It's just...not as big a deal to him. He handles it better; even in a material form, it's not nearly as confusing."

Eric realized he was silent and staring at Wolfe, who was starting to stare back in confusion; Eric came out of it, and nodded suddenly, rubbing his face again, looking down at the light duvet. "Yeah. Uh, I see," he blathered, trying to conversationally paper over the rudeness.

"I'm not a sideshow freak, Delko," Wolfe muttered tightly. "I am the same person you spent four hours handing submerged, gunk-covered human bones to, day before yesterday."

"I know. I'm sorry I was..." was staring. Shit. "Um. I..." Eric sat all the way up--he was dressed again, he noticed, except for being barefoot, in his washed clothes; somebody here, probably Bendición, had no dearth of useful talents. "...it's just that...I've never had...something like this happen. With a guy." He knew he sounded like an idiot, but he also knew that if Wolfe feigned ignorance as to what "this" was, he'd probably lose it and snarl.

But Wolfe didn't pretend not to understand even for a second. His brow lowered and he snapped "That you know about. We don't carry signs. The way you look, I can't be the only man who's ever wanted more from you than a quick shag, and there've probably been a multitude of those; they're just fonder of their teeth than they are of asking for sex from straight men as big as you. I realize that you're one of those straights that thinks they would, of *course*, know if they knew anyone who wasn't. And this won't change that; despite the extreme evidence to the contrary--me and Calleigh both--you'll still believe you can just look at someone and tell if they're not vanilla straight. So try to remember that if Ben hadn't taken things a little too far, you'd never have known about me, either, and Calleigh? Only if you guys started something. Calleigh told me that it might've been tough on her, but she'd have found a way not to tell you why I was leaving. You never out people, for any reason, unless they say you can; she'd have gotten around having to do that."

"You're...still leaving, then?"

"Yeah. No need to panic."

"I wasn't--listen, you don't have to. You don't have to leave the team--I can get used to this. I just need time. You can see that, can't you?"

Wolfe laughed, quietly, mirthlessly. He readjusted his stance, resetting his feet, scrubbing the backs of his fingers over his jaw and and folding his arms. "Sure. I bet you probably could. You're a decent guy, by a lot of people's standards. You could get past revulsion and into uncomfortable condescension, no problem. But I'm not leaving for you, beautiful, and your delicate straight-man sensibilities. I'm leaving for me, in case you'd forgotten. The reasons I have to get you out of my face while I'm trying to work are about me, not you."

"I know. I understand. I just wanted...wanted you to know that I...I don't particularly want you to leave."

Ryan cocked his head, gazing at Eric from under a raised brow. "So noted. Calleigh and I are making dinner. I'd rather not immediately present Bendición with a choice between staying with Calleigh and me because we need him right now--for reasons you can probably guess; if you can't, I'm not going to spell them out for you--and going with you, because you arguably still need him more after last night."

Eric swallowed; he wasn't looking at Wolfe now, instead gazing through a thin place in the netting toward an open window. This conversation was surreal. Why was Wolfe being so hostile, when Eric was working so damn hard to be civil about the whole thing? Didn't Wolfe appreciate that at all? He managed "If there's an invitation to join you for food in there somewhere, I accept."

"There is. It took me the longest, I think, to get my shit together--I'm the one Ben wants to join with, and I was his first try at the touching thing--but it'd be a good idea to be sure you're going to make it there before you try to drive home. Come and join us. Calleigh wants to know you're all right." He shouldered the curtain aside and was gone.

Wolfe was not going to give an inch, that was clear. But then, when had he ever? It wasn't his style.

Eric realized that, now that Eric had found out Wolfe loved him, Wolfe would give him *nothing* else--not an unguarded look, not an unpointed joke, not a casual touch. For God's sake, Wolfe was willing to make a huge and potentially career-imperiling sacrifice rather than work with Eric any more, because Eric...what? Didn't love him? Didn't like him? He had liked Wolfe...most of the time. They cracked wise at each other, they flipped each other shit...but they were teammates. They watched each other's backs; they trusted each other--he veered away from that one, not wanting to examine the meaning of the word too closely. They trusted each other with their lives; that was enough.

And they'd been there for each other when it really counted--at least, that was the way Eric had always seen it. He would probably say, if asked, that Wolfe was a friend...though he supposed it might be possible that Wolfe didn't think of them that way. But why not? What was so bad about what they had?

And he thought of Calleigh, and how he seemed to melt inside at the thought of her, and then his chest tightened so horribly, with what he knew now...and he sighed.

"*That*'s what's so bad about it," he muttered. Wolfe could love men; Wolfe was in love with *him*. That changed everything for Eric, as far as who Wolfe was, but maybe if Eric had just had some time...in any case, Wolfe had known it would change everything. That was why he'd kept his tendencies a secret. But Eric supposed it was only fair; as far as friendship with Eric, or even a working relationship, it had apparently changed everything for Wolfe, too. He wondered how he would have taken it if he'd known all this time that Calleigh...say she wasn't bi. Say she only liked women. That there was no hope for Eric at all. Would it have been enough to prevent his falling for her in the first place? Would he have stayed? Or would he be faced with the same situation that Wolfe couldn't stand any more? How important was hope, when you were dealing every day with someone you could so easily fall in love with?

He managed to shut his surging thoughts down; he breathed for a while, and after he was sure he'd be all right standing, he got up and stepped down the levels to the main living area, then across and back up to the kitchen, where the doors of the broad balcony were a little open.

Calleigh, wearing the bathrobe he'd had on earlier--it did indeed drag the floor on her; she had the sleeves rolled up almost to the shoulders--turned from the counter. She'd been spreading the ground beef--which Bendición, wearing an apron, was frying up at the island--into meat sauce and onto flour tortillas. She hurried over to him. "How do you feel?"

"I'm good. Really. Ben took good care of me."

She rested her hand at the side of his face, and he gasped a little; she stared up into his eyes, and he couldn't keep from staring back. She seemed to be searching; whatever she saw must have satisfied her, because she smiled a little and said "Yeah, I think you are okay now." She scrubbed her fingers lightly against his cheek. "Except for needing a shave. Horatio will think you're a bum who wandered in, and throw you out, pretty soon."

"Yeah, I really ought to fix that," he nodded, chuckling.

"Did you find out?"

He blinked at her. "Find out?"

She gestured with her head toward Bendición.

Oh. What he'd said, the reason he'd agreed to the "touch" with Ben. "I...still have some thinking to do," he said softly, "now that everything has...started to settle, in my head."

She feathered her fingers through his hair. "Don't be afraid to ask any of us, for anything. Questions, help..."

"I'll ask. I promise." He *would* ask her, and he would ask Ben. He had the feeling asking Wolfe for anything might not be such a good idea, even though Calleigh clearly wanted it to be. He took the hand she was using and kissed her knuckles, folding her fingers into his. She looked charmed, but only smiled and turned back to what she'd been doing; he let her hand go.

"Uh...what happened to Wolfe, by the way?"

"Out of cheese," Bendición explained, winking at him when he looked over. "He will be back soon. You should sit. Check on the fire and then relax; close your eyes. I can keep an eye on you in the recliner."

"I'm not an invalid," Eric sighed; Bendición only pointed imperiously toward the main living area, and Eric smiled and winked back at him before he went.

Having checked the little fire--the sort built because somebody felt like one, certainly not for warmth--he shoved the lever on the recliner, stretched out, and, to his surprise, ended up nodding off in the chair. He was wakened by someone stroking his hair; Ben, when he opened his eyes. "¿Usted vendrá a la cena?"

"Por supuesto. Soy muerto de hambre."

"I'm not surprised; you haven't eaten since about nine this morning." Bendición handed him up from the chair after Eric sat up and pulled in the footrests; he leaned in and kissed Eric softly, still holding his hand.

Eric kissed him back, but then murmured "Maybe we shouldn't..." he glanced back toward the kitchen, where Calleigh and now Wolfe, in a pool of low light, were setting plates on the breakfast bar. They seemed to be quite involved in their low-voiced conversation, but Eric moved a little apart from Bendición anyway.

Bendición gazed at him, not hurt, but sad. "They do not resent our affection, my love. Even Ryan doesn't."

"I know. I know, I just...I don't know how I feel about it. About everything."

Bendición nodded slowly. "Time," he said.

"Yes. If...if you can, if it's all right..."

"Of course it is," Bendición murmured, "but please don't blame me for having the urge to comfort you." He lightly touched Eric's cheek, and gold light filled Eric's vision for a moment; he sighed, for that moment completely blissed out.

"I can hardly blame you when I have a major urge to let you," he whispered.

"We'll feed you; you'll feel more solid then. Vamos," Bendición said, putting an arm around his shoulder to guide him toward the kitchen.

Eric froze as he turned. In the kitchen, Wolfe and Calleigh had paused in setting things out; they were standing with their arms around each other, not tightly, but leaning together, close and comfortable. Wolfe's head bowed a little over hers; she lifted her head, murmuring something, and they kissed, long and slow.

It wasn't sex-type kissing, though even at this distance, their physical ease with the process made it obvious their tongues were likely not strangers. It was gentle and sweet, but in Eric's experience, it wasn't the kind of kissing that one did only out of friendship.

"Do not resent their affection, either, mi amigo," Bendición said; Eric knew that while Ben could never threaten, a friendly warning was easy enough to catch, here. And Calleigh was still his immediate superior. If he didn't want to end up having to transfer off day shift as well, he'd better not resent her for kissing Wolfe. After all, they apparently hadn't done anything else--yet--beyond being...well, far closer than he'd suspected.

Rather than follow *that* thought to what, to Eric, would be its logical conclusion, he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, exhaled, and opened them again. By that time, Wolfe and Calleigh had moved apart, and were finishing setting up the meal.

"Vamos, amigo querido," Eric said, quiet and firm, and Bendición nodded as they made their way to the kitchen area.

***

Eric was leaning against his car, sighing. "You don't have to. I'm perfectly fine. We shouldn't even be out here together."

"I need not be seen. I promised Calleigh and Ryan I would see you home safe; I didn't think you would object. It is only to rest their minds."

"I don't exactly object, I just...oh, fine, I guess. How are you going to manage not being seen? Hiding in the back?"

"No. Just drive home, and I'll follow you, and meet you there."

"All right." Eric knew Bendición could remain near people, and observe them in ways that made sense to him, at least, without their knowledge; that was probably what he was going to do now.

He got home in one piece; he'd certainly driven distracted before, and he felt no worse than that now. And sure enough, when he stepped out of the car in the garage, Bendición was leaning on the hood. "How do you feel, chico lindo?"

"I feel fine. Honestly. I'm not sure how I'm going to sleep tonight, which isn't great, since I'm working tomorrow..."

"I can help you."

"Isn't too much of that a problem?"

Bendición blinked. "I...don't recall any of my people relating that anyone human has complained."

He looked so confused, Eric could only smile quietly, touching his cheek; then he said "Why don't you follow me."

Bendición did so, willingly. "I just have to tell Ryan and Calleigh--"

"I'll do that." Eric went through the kitchen and living room, and down the hall past the bathroom and the spare room to his own bedroom, Bendición following him like a duckling all the way. Eric was unbuckling and undoing his stuff; when he got to his phone, he speed-dialed Ryan's number.

"It's me. I'm home. Bendición's still here; I think he may be here a while. Do you need him right away? Okay. Yeah...you...have a good night." He clicked off.

He stood at his dresser a moment, where he'd dumped all his other daily paraphernalia, and gazed at the phone in his hand. "Calleigh was still there," he said quietly. "Wolfe said something to her just before he said hello to me."

"Yes, I think she was planning on sleeping there tonight. That's one reason I offered to stay with you, if you need me. They can care for each other, and I can still be there at once."

Eric set the phone down on the dresser, carefully, and stood there a moment with his hand on the flat surface next to it; then he turned, slowly, and sat down on the half-made bed. Bendición sank to one knee next to him, resting an arm in his lap. "Do you want me to stay?" he murmured.

"I thought I wanted to be alone," Eric said, his voice quiet, sounding wooden even to him. "I thought I just needed a chance to sort things out. But now I'm afraid of how I'm going to see all this when none of you are with me. It's--all of it--it's so hard to believe. Maybe that disappoints you. I don't know. But I can't help it. It's the way I feel."

"Hard to believe--anyone could forgive that at first. You have known Ryan, for you, for a long time. He never let it be known that he could be attracted to men as easily to women, and it was not easy for him; that has never been easy for him, if it's ever easy for anyone, especially if they fall in love with a friend. Calleigh was similarly shocking; you have known her even longer, because you have to change the way you see her, and the possibilities in your head, your hopes--*without* changing the way you see her, much as with Ryan. You don't know yet, though, *how* to change them. It's too soon to know that, and so you are adrift. You probably will be for a while. It's unsettling for humans, when their expectations of anything turn out to be in error--when things are so very different from what they had assumed, or hoped."

"And that's it, when it comes to them, isn't it," Eric said, still quietly. "My expectations have all been blown away. My expectations of them--I didn't know them. I assumed I did, and I didn't. In other words, I'm the one with a problem. I made the complacent assumptions. Not them."

"*All* your expectations have not been destroyed, chico lindo. Almost all of what you know about them is true. They *are* the people you knew."

"No. They're not."

"All right, they're almost entirely the people you knew. You made a few assumptions that turned out to be mistaken. It is...disturbing, because you think these particular things mean much more to who they are than they really do; and because you realize that you have no idea what else that you have taken for being constant in your life might be something other than what you believe it is."

"That," Eric said, his eyes closing as a sardonic smile creased his face, "is very true. All that study of humanity has paid off, mi ángel." He looked down at Bendición. "And then there's you, of course. You're impossible, you know."

Bendición smiled. "Clearly I am not. Shared delusions cannot kiss you." He took Eric's hand, kissed its palm, and folded it in both of his. "There is something I can do--I haven't offered, I didn't want to drop anything more on you, after what I've already done. But it will at least make you feel better."

"You can't keep me asleep forever. Eventually I've got to wake up and deal."

"I don't mean make you sleep, though I can do that too, if you want. I can come inside you--you've never seen me vanish, I don't think; you were never looking when I did it in your presence. Ryan has impressed upon me not to get into the habit of appearing or disappearing--at least to human eyes--where a human can see me."

"That's a good idea. He does have one occasionally."

"If you let me--you have to let me, or I can't do it--I can...exist inside you."

Eric blinked. "Like...how?"

"I'm afraid there's nothing to directly compare it to. Ryan and Calleigh both enjoy it a great deal. I would vanish to your eyes; they say that when I'm with them--as I mean, inside them--they sometimes see gold light in their field of vision. We would not be able to communicate in words. But you would...feel my love for you, very strongly. It's a bit like this..." He moved one hand to run it up Eric's arm, gold light surrounding it and sinking in. "Just...more so. My presence would feel very close to you, and very soothing."

Ah, fuck it. "If it's half as soothing as your presence in a big tub of hot water is, it sounds like something I could use about now." The hell with being alone. He had needed to get away from both Calleigh and Wolfe for a while, had needed to compose himself for dealing with them, decide how he was going to comport himself now. But he didn't want Bendición to go, even though Bendición was a man and Eric couldn't keep from touching him--but then, he wasn't a man, he was an angel, or something, something not human. Let him stay. Let him come inside. "What...do I do anything?"

"Welcome me." Bendición kissed his hand again and smiled--and then, for a split second, he was a gold haze with the shape and features of a man, and then a sort of heat haze, and then Eric collapsed, boneless, backward on the bed.

The opposite of pain was not the utter lack of pain. *This* was the opposite of pain. He hadn't known it was possible to feel this ecstatic all over his body.

"Madre de dios," he panted. His hands moved, over his shirt, trying to touch back; he aggravatedly pulled it open and off, struggled out of his T shirt, stamped his heels against each other to remove his shoes--damn it, he couldn't *touch*. He got the rest of his clothes off, but it didn't help; he couldn't touch Bendición the way Ben was touching him. He groaned, his back arching, whispering "Bendición, please--oh God--por favor--necesito--toqúeme," he managed. "Bendición--sus manos--"

He cried out and arched up as he felt hands moving over him, a soft, tender mouth sliding over his throat. One hand slid down and around his painfully hard erection--not a hand, not one like he'd ever felt, pressure, heat and pressure, stroking, moving on him, yes, God yes, but there was nothing there--

He closed his eyes so he wouldn't have to see that, and he was moving rapidly in time with the strokes of the not-hand, seeking the mouth he could feel, but unable to find it--and it took only a few seconds; he seized all over, and then shouted, moving slow, and so hard, again and again.

It didn't stop as he was used to--it took much longer for all the aftershocks to fade; and he thought he might have fainted. When his eyes finally fluttered open, he knew he was lying with his head on Bendición's chest.

"Te amo," he whispered. And--oh, crap, not *again*--then he started to cry.

Bendición cradled him. "I'm sorry, mi hermoso," he whispered, and Eric became sort of vaguely aware that Bendición was crying too. Not very hard, but still, did angels cry? "That was not supposed to happen. It never--it does not happen with Ryan and Calleigh. It was only supposed to comfort you, make you feel...loved. I don't understand what it is between you and me that does these strange things. I've only given you another shock. I'm so sorry, my poor love."

Eric noticed that in English "my poor love" sounded a lot better. Sincere, and all.

"Te amo," he repeated, hid his face in Bendición's neck, and cried some more. Jesus. What in God's name had he just done?

"I love you too, Eric," Bendición whispered, stroking his hair. "I love you like heaven."

***

"What the..." Ryan's head came up unwillingly; Calleigh got bumped over and muttered at him, probably without waking, but just in case he said softly, if gratingly, "It's my cell. I'll wake you if yours goes off."

He reached to the bedtable on his side for the culprit phone. There was a perimeter around the bed of netting-free area, as Ryan had gotten tired of killing himself on the damn thing, which was what inevitably occurred if he just let it hang against the bed. So there was a second ring, one he'd installed himself with wire twist-ties and a great deal of swearing, as he couldn't keep the wooden hoop level, holding the netting far enough out that the bedtables were inside it, and one could stand and walk easily around the bed. Four-thirty a.m. call-outs were bad enough without entombing yourself in bedroom furnishing just trying to answer the phone.

"Yeah, Wolfe."

"It's me, Ryan."

"Uh...Ben? Why are you using the phone, querido?"

"Because I don't want to leave Eric long enough to come speak to you. Ryan...I made another mistake."

"Oh shit. Is he all right?"

"I'm not sure. He's sleeping now. But he's...he's very shocked. I don't know how he'll feel when he wakes."

"What happened?" Ryan rolled back over to Calleigh and started gently rocking and petting her awake with the hand not holding the phone.

"I came into him, as I often do with you and Calleigh--only to comfort him. I did not do this deliberately, Ryan, I swear."

"What *happened*?"

"He...he became so aroused, so quickly--something about the way he perceives me, his nervous system, his awareness of me, I'm not sure, there was no time to find out--his blood pressure spiked; he burst into a sweat--I couldn't control it, not quickly enough. He was in danger, and I couldn't be sure that leaving him wouldn't only make it worse, cause a crash that might leave him just as damaged."

"God, you poor--okay, um, did you--you know, do whatever for him, get him off? Before his head blew up?"

"Yes, of course; he came very, very hard, but then his blood pressure began to drop."

"Thank-you-Jesus. How much danger do you think he's in from it?"

"I'm not sure. I do know he burst a number of capillaries, including a very obvious one in his eye. And after, he said--twice--that he loves me. He hadn't, before. And he cried again."

"Oh, my God." Ryan let his head drop to his hand a moment. "I'm gonna get coffee. Tell Calleigh what happened." He found Calleigh's arm, then her hand, in the darkness, and put the phone in it. "Talk to Ben," he said. "I'm gonna..." he pointed toward the kitchen.

"Get coffee, I heard that part," she muttered, putting the phone to her ear. "Bendición? What happened?"

Ryan bumped around in the moonlight in the kitchen, wishing the coffee grinder wasn't going to be so damn loud as he fished in the dark freezer for the beans. Then he heard Calleigh call to him. "Put a hold on the coffee--if we can make it to Eric's without it, we should. Eric's spare room has a double; we won't have to stay up all night."

"I don't know--I'm thinking emergency room." Ryan, having stilled to listen to her, called back.

"Ben says Eric's vitals are all fine now, and he'll keep him sleeping normally. If there's anything wrong when he wakes up...but he cried for about forty minutes, and there were no indications of a medical problem."

"With the kind of blood pressure spike Ben described? He's sure?"

"He's sure. Probably more sure with Eric than with anybody."

"All right." Ryan began putting things back, adding "I hope he's right. I don't want to have to explain this to Horatio if you and I end up carrying Eric into the nearest trauma center. I doubt Eric does either." Shit. 'Here lies Eric Delko, who died of a sex-induced brain aneurysm while apparently at home alone.' Nobody deserved that.

Well, okay. Maybe a slut like Eric.

Jamming his fists against his eyes until colors flared, and the right eye ached sharply, he whispered rapidly "I'm not ready to live in a world without you in it, Delko, you sonofabitch. Don't skip out on me. Don't make the last thing I said to you the last thing I say to you. Just...don't."

When he went back into the bedroom, Calleigh was next to the bed, just outside the curtain, with tears streaking her face, arranging things in an overnight bag. She was wearing a T shirt over the undershirt of Ryan's she'd had on; she'd pulled some jeans over her underpants and slid her feet into sandals. "Grab your shaving kit," she reminded him quietly.

"Yeah. I'll...get us some clothes for tomorrow, too."

***

Ben had to know he was awake; Eric still didn't speak or move, though.

"Eric?" Ben whispered. "How do you feel? Do you hurt anywhere?"

He didn't answer out loud; he shook his head a little.

"Are you dizzy? How well can you see?"

"Yo estaría como uno, con usted," Eric whispered.

There was silence for a moment, and then Bendición whispered "Eric--what did you say?"

"I would join with you," Eric repeated.

"Dios," Bendición whispered; then he said "Eric, you're in shock. Here--come here." He started sitting up; Eric didn't want to, but Bendición made him.

The bedside lamp was on; Bendición looked at Eric's eye closely, then closed his own eyes and ran his hand over Eric's head, starting at the bullet scar. Eric knew the hand was glowing, because it felt so good, but his eyes were closed now, too; he didn't like the light in them. They burned.

"Eric, my love, look at me. Open your eyes...there, now--tell me, do you feel all right sitting up? Sick to your stomach? Is there pain in your head, or your chest and arm--" he ran his hand down over Eric's left shoulder.

Eric shook his head and let his eyes close again, his head dropping to Bendición's shoulder. "Can you join with anyone you want to?"

"Eric, listen to me. You...you have had too much. You had already had too much, and then I did...this, to you. You shouldn't be--"

"Because I love you."

"I love you, too," Bendición said, almost a moan of pain. "You shouldn't--"

"And Wolfe is a fool."

"No, he isn't; he's worried. He worries...a great deal, about many things. He takes too much responsibility on himself."

Eric didn't answer.

"Do you want to lie down and sleep again now?"

"Can you?" Eric said, tonelessly.

Bendición didn't try to dodge the question again. "Ryan is who I need for that, mi querido. He is everything I need, or my child could need, he's--what I am, *and* what I want, to join with. I cannot change that; it is impossible for us. But--I cannot say, not in any words, how it makes me feel that you would ask. I don't know how to tell you how much--"

"Toqúeme," Eric said, and, without lifting his head from Bendición's shoulder, he took the gold-glowing hand and laid it flat against his own breastbone. "Por favor. Toqúeme, y dígame todo."

"Not so soon. Not now, while you're...so tired. We can again, soon, my love, I promise. We should lie down; you need to sleep."

"Te amo," Eric barely whispered. He let go of Bendición's hand and slid that arm weakly up around his neck, over his shoulder, and pressed his face in closer to Ben's neck. "Let me...let me show you--you don't believe me..."

"I do--I do believe you, Eric. It's just that you're too ill and tired now for anything but rest. Come here, lie down with me...I'll help you sleep." He kissed Eric's forehead.

Eric tried again to touch him, to kiss him, but everything faded into heavy, quiet darkness.

***

"You know, I was trying to think of some better circumstances under which I could be using this key, but when you get down to it, any reason you might have to use a key a friend gives you in case of emergencies is bad." Calleigh unlocked the deadbolt next, then opened the door; Ryan was holding their various bags of stuff.

"Unless it mutates into just being *your* key to the place," Ryan said, preoccupied. He bumped the door closed behind them. "Why don't you see how they are, and I'll...see if there are sheets for the spare bed, towels and that stuff. I brought some if there aren't."

"Yes, you're very handy to have around for things like that."

He leaned down as if to kiss her cheek and blew a soft raspberry on it instead; she managed to grin, and kissed his mouth lightly. "This way. Have you ever been here?"

"Twice. Briefly."

"Spare room's on the left. The closest door is the bathroom."

"Okay."

***

They were startlingly beautiful. Not that the two of them together like that wouldn't be beautiful just by default, but it was still startling, considering how completely thrashed they both looked. One shouldn't be able to properly appreciate their juxtaposition with Bendición so sad and afraid, still dripping quiet tears, and Eric looking like an especially clingy corpse. "Calleigh," Ben whispered.

"Oh, Ben," she murmured, and came quickly over to the bed, stroking his hair and leaning down to kiss his forehead and wipe tears from his face with her sleeve; she discovered Kleenex on the night table and grabbed a few, applying those instead.

"I--after we talked? Something happened," Bendición said. "I need to tell you both. Where's Ryan?"

"He's putting the spare bed together or something, but can't you tell?"

Ben blinked, and looked alarmed. "No. I didn't know you had come in, either."

"You're in shock just as much as Eric, I think," she said. "This is not your fault, Ben, honestly."

"How can it--"

"Listen; I think you need to talk to Ryan. I'll stay with Eric." She was pulling off the huge T shirt and dropping her jeans, half-folding each item and setting them on the dresser. She'd stepped out of her sandals already, and nudged them in next to the bed with one foot.

Ben said "But I need to talk to you both."

"You will; I just think you need Ryan for a few minutes, that's all."

"I'm not the one we should be--"

"I believe he has something to say to you." In underpants and Ryan's ribbed tank undershirt, she leaned over to pull the two of them apart just enough that she could wiggle in. "Let me get Eric, here..." Faced with such obvious determination, Ben had no real choice but to help transfer Eric from himself to her.

"I'll be back in a minute," Ben said, and she nodded, making shooing motions, and arranging Eric's sleeping head against her chest. Bendición added, on his way out, "If he wakes up, tell him. Tell him I'll be right back."

"I will," Calleigh reassured him.

***

Ryan looked up to see Ben, looking like the result of a three-day bender, in the spare room doorway. He immediately dropped the sheets on the bed and met him in the middle of the room.

"Ryan, I'm so--"

Ryan was tempted to kiss him quiet--he looked like he could use the kiss--but instead held him with a hand at the nape of his neck as he clamped the other over the softest lips this side of the other bedroom. "Do not apologize even once more, querido. I'm getting sick of it. This is no one's fault. Bad shit happens. At least, it does in the human world."

Bendición didn't look exactly calmed, but he was still; so Ryan removed the hand from Ben's mouth and kept talking as he used it to cradle his face, stroking his cheekbone. "You want to know something? If I'd been at that swimming hole alone one night, and I had some way to tell that Eric was heading down the path toward me, I wouldn't do the smart thing. It would be the smart thing for me to pretend I'd just been leaving, and not torture myself, not take the chance I might be influenced by the dark and the privacy and the general nakedness and throw caution to the wind, or whatever. But I certainly wouldn't have done the smart thing. I couldn't have passed that up. I would have waited for him, and when he swam up to me, I'd've said 'Fancy meeting you here'. I'm not surprised you couldn't resist. And I know you know I'm not lying."

Ben actually frowned a little at that, but didn't speak, as Ryan went on.

"I'm an ass," Ryan said quietly, "which, I'm aware, is not big news. I may be a well-meaning ass the larger part of the time, but I'm an ass."

Ben smiled.

Ryan smiled a little too, but went on. "I have been dragging you around by the hair for a ridiculous length of time about joining with you or not. Such behavior is that of an ass. I mean, all you want to do is give me the fucking world. And all I can think of is how I'd rather be certain of having you around than let you have what you need so much, when I'm pretty much it for you--you've been around since substantially before Christ, and you want to chuck apparent immortality for the dubious privilege of living my life with me, and I don't even have the decency to tell you yes or no. I love you, and I want you around until I die, but that doesn't give me the right to use you, never let you do what you need to do, have what you need to have. It's selfish to refuse you, querido; my needs would be satisfied, but yours never would. So there's no question, Ben, I will. I will join with you. Just--soon. Not right now; I've got to shake my head up a little first."

Ben chewed on his lower lip, looking blown away, agonized, touched, and a few more things Ryan couldn't name. He marveled briefly; Eric, the originator of that face (unless one argued that his parents, maybe more specifically his mother, was the originator of that face), would never have been able to express with it the way this confused and nonhuman creature could. What was also amazing was that Ben still kept quiet, since Ryan wasn't finished.

"About the Miami U swimming hole...you were lonely, sweetheart. I was being a selfish jerk, even if you didn't think of me that way. And you love him, in part because I do--you know him because of me. But if I vanished from the universe and you didn't, and it didn't kill you--say we weren't joined yet--I think you'd still love him."

Bendición nodded twice.

"What you did was very human, and I hope I didn't just insult you. I have been seriously abusing the privilege of being an imperfect human for quite some time now; I don't see any reason why you shouldn't get a little leeway. Although, from what I've seen so far, you make being human a very attractive thing. You're much better at it than I am."

Bendición looked distressed, and Ryan smirked and lowered his eyes a moment. "Yeah, that was whiny. Sorry." He raised his head and moved close, kissed Bendición softly, and said "Querido, mi bendición...seré junto, como uno, con usted. I will join with you. I love you, so much. And I'm sorry to hand you all this right now, I know it's not the greatest time, but I couldn't stand the thought of how you're obviously feeling, and you didn't even know that, didn't have that...it seemed crueler and less responsible *not* to tell you. And you can talk, for God's sake, I just needed to get the joining thing out."

"Thank you for telling me." Ben couldn't seem to come up with anything else that wasn't already well known. His face, which bore obvious evidence of recent tears, was wet again. He pulled Ryan close and squeezed.

They were silent a moment, absorbed in each other, and then Bendición said "I'm afraid for Eric."

Ryan kissed Ben's neck, which happened to be under his mouth. "Okay, yeah, what exactly is going on, as near as you can tell me?" he said, backing up a bit, just enough to look at Ben.

"After we talked...Eric woke up for a little while. And something happened." He related Eric's words and apparent state of mind, or lack thereof. "I didn't think I'd be able to get him to lie down and sleep again. He was determined, and very focused on me. I--" It was the first time Ryan had seen Ben appear frustrated, though it was only confusion and upset, without anger."--I don't know why these things are happening, between Eric and me; I've never heard of anything quite like it."

"I guess we should tell Calleigh--she's with him?"

"Yes. And yes, we should tell her everything, too."

***

Eric's arms tightened infinitesimally around Calleigh. Woops; she'd been hoping he wouldn't wake--having climbed in half naked with him was plan B to keep him down, comforted, relaxed, distracted. She didn't want him going apeshit over Ben not being in the room; it sounded like Eric had fixated on Ben, or whatever you'd call it. But Eric was very fond of having naked, or at least half-naked, women around, and if he *should* realize it was Calleigh and not a random lay, well...maybe he'd be more inclined to listen to her and remain calm. It was certainly one way to get someone's undivided attention.

"Mm..." Eric's hand smoothed around on her back in a circle. He wasn't awake, but he had some reflexes going; that was a good sign. If it turned out all his automatics were working, he was probably okay, in terms of potential brain trauma--though perhaps they could manage to work his insurance in some way he might be willing to in order to get him an MRI, to check for blood vessel distention or outright aneyurism. She also hoped that if the hydraulics in the south forty were still offline, it didn't freak him out. Eric would probably be alarmed if he expected to be getting interested and nothing significant happened, blood-flow-wise.

Eric's hand, in its perambulations across her back, encountered her hair; he stroked it, reached up higher, and slid his fingers carefully up from the nape of her neck, letting the strands slide loosely across his skin.

"Soft," he murmured.

Calleigh blinked. She wiggled a bit to get to where she could see Eric's face; his eyes were just barely open, though swollen. Jesus, he looked like hell.

He ran his fingers through her hair again, this time with his eyes closed; she frowned, wondering why the gesture seemed familiar.

"Calleigh?" he said, in a brokenly wheezy, confused voice. He pulled her close to him, awkwardly, making her oof slightly; and his left hand ran over her back, her skin and Ryan's translucent undershirt, while his right stroked through her hair again. "Calleigh," he repeated, as though satisfied with the fact.

"Eric?" she tried. Now she knew why the hair thing had seemed odd; that was just how Bendición petted it, reaching under, lifting it carefully away from her head. He liked the softest layers, underneath.

Eric didn't answer.

In a moment, though, his hand stopped moving in her hair. "Ben?" he whispered. Before she could get a reassurance out, he added, in the same stuffed-up, harsh-throated whisper, "Ryan."

Calleigh didn't have time to ask for some clarification on that last before the door was opened carefully, and Ryan peeked in. He blinked, seeing her where she was, but just came in as silently as possible, leading Bendición by the hand. Ben closed the door behind them as Ryan let go of him and came up to the side of the bed. Eric looked like a corpse again, pretty much.

"I don't think he was conscious of your being out of the room, at least not at first," Calleigh said to Bendición. "But he knew you were both here, maybe that you were on your way in. He's...semiconscious. I'm not a doctor, but he's fading in and out."

"Fantastic. Ben?" Ryan looked around; Bendición was near the foot of the bed now, gazing at Eric.

Bendición was frowning; not a scowl, just a thoughtful expression. "I don't know of anyone who chose their physical form from anyone that they were going to be in regular contact with. I've never been warned against it, but it's difficult to say why that is, sometimes. It may be..." He sighed and sank down on the foot of the bed. "It may be that this is what would happen if one spends a great deal of time around one's template, especially if one loves the person in question. I have something resembling a nervous system, but it isn't an electrochemical-synapse arrangement. But..." he paused, then shook his head uncertainly.

"So, people usually choose somebody from the other side of the planet or something, so there'll be no...well, none of this?" Ryan's one-armed gesture took in themselves and the room generally.

"Maybe that's what it is. I don't know. I think I'd better go speak with my family."

"Your family?" Ryan said slowly, his eyebrow rising as his eyes widened. "I didn't think you had one."

"I don't, by your standards, which is what you meant when you asked me. I mean the people who cared for me when I was young, and the people I knew then. Despite being the age I've told you that I am, and I *am* fully developed by my people's standards..."

"You still aren't very old, are you?" Calleigh said softly, moving a little as Eric snuffled down to the softer skin just over her breasts in his sleep, curling up a little. Ryan sympathized. Calleigh's upper chest had a built-in face-rest there for sleeping. He'd slept in it himself, which was why he'd started shaving at night.

"No," Bendición said, ducking his head. "Everyone thought I was lucky, to find someone so soon that I could join with...almost everybody. Some were concerned. They didn't question my judgement--we can't really do that; it's hard to explain--but they thought I was...young."

"Humans occasionally have the same problem, as you probably know," Ryan muttered. He didn't go on to say that with humans, the concern was usually well-founded.

Bendición was finishing, "In any case, I need to ask my family, and if they aren't well versed in this sort of thing, I need to ask some questions of people who are joined with humans, or who know about joining--we have people who study joining, ways and means, results, how to survive if your contact panics, that sort of thing. I'd call them...doctors, or therapists, or historians, but none of those words quite fit, though they're all reminiscent of the function."

"Can they help? Your...family, I mean," Ryan wondered. "Or your learned people on the topic."

"I don't know, but they might know more than I do about this. I don't like to leave Eric, but I shouldn't be gone too long. Actually, I won't be gone at all; you just won't be able to see me, and I won't be paying attention to you."

"And if we need you?"

"If you need me and I don't come, which is unlikely, then call for me. Concentrate your thoughts on me and the name Ryan gave me--my people naturally don't use it--and on your need. I will be aware of that. If it helps you concentrate, yell my name."

Ryan sighed. "Can you communicate with your people without being unable to directly communicate with us?"

"No, but I communicate with them a lot. When you sleep, or when I'm away from you for some other reason. Swimming, for example. Ryan, if you're wondering where I disappear to occasionally, that's where. One place, at least."

"You couldn't tell me this?" Ryan asked, dourly and tiredly.

"I did tell you; I think you must have forgotten," Ben said gently, possibly too gently. It might be one of the things Ryan had had all the information he needed to draw that conclusion with, but he hadn't put it together. After all, Ryan *had* known Ben lost none of his senses, though some became a bit cramped and/or warped when he was in material form. "And you were never worried. I have to keep remembering that you can't follow my movements--my location, and my state of being--the same way I can follow yours."

"It's okay, Ben, we understand," Calleigh put in abruptly. "If you think it might help, go talk to your people--or, as you say, stay here, change your state of being, and talk to your people. Whatever you precisely do--please, Eric needs help."

"Of course," Ben nodded. "I'll be back as soon as I can." He was light, then a sort of photo-negative of himself, and then gone

"He's young," Ryan pondered, lips pursed a little in thought. "He didn't tell me he was considered young, though with everything else he's told me, I might have figured he was."

"Um, he might be able to hear us, or detect what we're saying somehow, if he hasn't found anyone to speak to yet."

"I don't mind that; it's not as though I'm going to have any secrets from him when we join. Also, he's busy; if he thinks I say anything worth talking about, he'll talk about it to me when he gets back. Gets visible. Material. Whatever. Christ. Is Eric still breathing? How are his vitals?"

"He seems to have no fever--he's warm, but he always feels a little warm." She checked his face, and just behind his ears, for fever. "Nothing significant. I can feel his heartbeat; stopwatch me."

When Ryan said "Ten," Calleigh calculated and said "His heart rate is about eighty, a little high for a healthy grown-up lying down, but still nothing to panic about. His breathing is steady; there's no sound with it, no wheezing or gurgling or whistling; so bronchial constriction, gunk buildup in his lungs, or a partially blocked airway are off the potential list."

"That's something."

"Ryan, why don't you sit down? Knock that pile of laundry off the chair, there, or sit on the opposite corner of the bed from him, and our weight will balance out."

"It's not good to crowd sick people," Ryan said, carefully removing the laundry--which turned out to be clean, just unfolded and unhung--from the chair; once he sat down, he started folding anything that needed it, draping the hangables from the arm of the curved-back chair.

"I wonder who he thinks of as his family."

Ryan blinked. "Uh, besides his parents?"

"His parents..." Calleigh looked up at him with a guarded expression. "You didn't know they're dead? I didn't know at first, either, but I thought surely you would by now."

"Oh. He didn't...he...no, I didn't know. Maybe...like he said, I probably just need to put it together."

Calleigh gazed levelly at him, and said "Do you know how Bendición's people reproduce?"

"I don't have a clear picture of it, no. What do you know that I don't?"

"If I were Ben--hell, if I were *me*--I wouldn't want just anyone telling you the nuts and bolts; I'd want to be the one to do it. He'll tell you once we've averted the current crisis here. I *can* tell you that he wouldn't join with you without making sure you understood all of that. Let's relax and wait for Ben, okay?"

Ryan sighed. "It's a conspiracy. Listen; I need to tell you what happened after Ben called us. Eric woke up for a bit...and he said some...odd things."

He related--fairly well; Ben's memory was eidetic, and he'd been able to tell Ryan precisely what Eric had said and done--the brief semiconscious conversation Ben had had with Eric.

Calleigh just lay there quietly, wrapped up with the somnolent Eric, thinking. Then she said "He said those things, and obviously meant them, at least right then...and he knew you and Ben were here, just in another room; and you were being so quiet I couldn't hear you. Then he knew you were coming in here."

"He was able to follow our movements, like Ben?"

"It does seem like it, I admit, but theorizing in advance of the data---though we do it constantly at work on a statistical probability basis, in order to run down clues--is a mistake here. If we're wrong, we could really mess up Eric."

"True. Can you tell me anything else?"

"Well...he likes me here with him, it did keep him calm, but he seems to like me close the way Ben does--Ben and I haven't gotten to the stage of anything resembling sex yet. His fascination with my body is limited so far to the fact that it's soft."

"Then yeah, that would definitely be Ben's influence."

"Now remember, this could just be from his recent series of shocks, mental and physical. He can't really think right now; things just...go through his mind, it seems like." She sighed. "He's not...he's not Eric, and we need--sorry." She put her hand over her eyes and began muttering to herself. "I can't afford to get worked up. Bendición is seeing if there is anything like what's happening on...on whatever his people use for record; in memory, I suppose. Eric's fine right now..."

"We hope," Ryan muttered darkly. "He could definitely use an MRI, but you can't just walk into a hospital and ask for one. We'd have to explain why, to Horatio among others, and we'd need Eric's cooperation. He might or might not be able to have one, with the bullet fragments in his head; but there are people with fragments like that, and people with steel implants and such, who can safely have them; it depends on things I don't know, because I'm not a doctor."

"We might have to get a couple of opinions, to be safe, and Eric would be...the kindest term is 'completely impatient' with that."

"Nicely understated of you," Ryan said. She gave him a quiet raspberry. He smiled and continued "I don't think we can get it until we get him...get him back, as it were. Can you imagine trying to keep him out of the hospital psychiatric ward the way he is now? Especially with the trouble he had after the shooting." He snapped a white T-shirt out straight with a practiced flick of his wrists, then began folding it with very careful creases. He wasn't usually *this* meticulous with his own laundry; he obviously needed the release for the feelings boiling inside him. "I don't know if we could get him to say *coherently* that he thought he was having symptoms from the bullet that blew into his head; that'd be one way to do it that wouldn't do him any more harm than a mandatory medical few days off. But he was touchy as hell about it when he was...having trouble. Just like I was," Ryan sighed, forcing himself to be fair. "About the eye. I doubt he'd be in love with the idea of using what happened to him as an excuse to get his head scanned, especially if we were going to have to see umpteen doctors and maybe have to try cat scans or something first, but I'm pretty sure those can't detect anything as delicate as an aneurysm."

"Yeah," Calleigh said softly; they were both keeping their voices down, but Calleigh's was already so little, you could barely hear her if she whispered. In any case, the word had been more a tired acknowledgement of the situation Ryan had outlined than a polite response--made more to the general area than to Ryan.

Then she took more detailed notice of Ryan's activity. "I doubt Eric is going to appreciate those fingernail creases in his boxers."

"So he can go outside and roll in the dirt like my cat used to do whenever I gave her a bath," Ryan said, continuing to crease Eric's underwear so that they'd sit in such a perfect stack in their drawer Eric would look at them for a minute, then go buy new underwear so he wouldn't have to disturb such artistry. Ryan smirked. "In fact, I'd sort of like to see that."

"You bathed your cat?"

"Sometimes I had the vet do it. But yes."

"Well, no wonder she--he? Went out and trashed your work. Getting dunked in water is terrifying to most cats."

"Not mine. She was just contrary. I'd fill the bathtub no higher than her chest, and get in with her--it calms them down a lot if you do it in the tub and get in with them instead of dropping them into the sink or something. Anyway, she wasn't terrified, just annoyed. She didn't cry or try to climb out or anything, she just got this pissed expression. I'd get her all rinsed, and she'd let me rub her with a towel under the heat lamp in the bathroom, and then she'd go off and wash herself all over like they do when they're damp; it just keeps them wetter longer--and when she was finally dry, she'd go outside and get as filthy as felinely possible."

"Why did you keep bathing her?"

"Because she liked the stroking with the towels under the heat lamp, and so did I...and because my mother made me. It was a condition of my having her."

"Then I bet it didn't bug you too much when she went out and ran through the bushes in the rain. Your cat, I mean."

Ryan smiled at the image. "No, but, not wishing to be slapped through the wall, I only cheered internally. She'd bathe herself, of course, afterward. I don't think my mother ever realized what was happening there."

"What was her name?"

"I assume you mean my cat."

"At the moment."

"If you tell anyone, I'll snap your bra so hard it'll launch you into orbit."

Calleigh giggled, since a chuckle would have been too noisy and mobile for her current circumstances, and said "I promise. Though one always pays for casual threats sooner or later, you know."

"Her name was Princess Grace. She was just totally classy. She was mostly Himalayan, had the dark points at the feet and nose like a Siamese. She seemed to know she was special--something in the very deliberate way she walked, slowly, with her tail and her nose up, picking her front paws up in a little toe-curl. It was like she was in a parade. She never showed bad temper, never hissed or spat or clawed--if you pissed her off, she'd find some more subtle way to get you; she was scarily smart. And she loved me."

"I bet she did," Calleigh said, smiling at him as she rested her head on a pillow that was half tucked against the headboard. Eric snuffled a bit in his spot between her clavicle and the valley between her breasts. Ryan wondered how she was able to stand that scruff, and decided Calleigh must be an even more noble soul than he'd already thought.

"How is he now? How does he feel?" Ryan murmured, not looking at her. He was looking for anything else that needed folding. Finding nothing, he got up to search the closet for hangers.

"I can't tell you everything Ben can; God knows I wish I could. But he's still breathing just fine--beyond being stuffy; he's mouth-breathing, mostly--but his heartbeat is strong, and I think it's calming down."

"I wish I had a blood pressure cuff."

"Me too. Though that would wake him up, and I'm not sure if we want that at this point. It might just..."

"Send him right back into the place he's just left, considering Ben's not here--or maybe it'd be worse if he were here, Christ, I don't know--" Ryan turned from the closet, hangers in one hand and the other resting on the clothes rod. "I just don't know how to feel here. God knows what's going on with Eric, and yet...Ben is the best thing to ever happen to me. Not that you aren't running a very close second."

"It's all right, Ryan, he's the best thing that ever happened to me, too--for one thing, we might never have had the native cojones to try getting so much closer, without his influence."

"But, still..."

Calleigh turned her head a little; she couldn't see Eric's face the way she was lying, but they both knew what she meant. "Yes. But he's...always been..."

"I was only yanking your chain about bad boys, Calleigh."

She rolled her eyes. "I know that. I knew it at the time, too." She smiled. "You're the farthest thing from a bad boy I can think of."

"Ummm..."

"The occasional neurotic compulsion to take risk to relieve stress does not make you a bad boy. Just...a boy, kind of."

"Thank you kindly. I just hate--uh, I had a problem with some of the men you went out with, and being no closer friends than we were at the time, and you my superior...I had no right to really say anything about it. All I could do was razz you. But in a way..."

"You're absolutely right; even more than my freindship with Eric, or our working relationship, the...the reason that would've been hardest to fix that he and I shouldn't see each other is that he's always been...a player, and that's the polite word for some of the things he's done, whether they involved other actual human beings or not. Men like that don't usually change. Even when they've found a woman they want to marry--and they may really want to marry her, may really love her--when the honeymoon's over as far as sex is concerned, well, they're likely to truly believe 'it doesn't mean anything' when they go back to catting around--maybe more carefully--because it's their wife they love and go home to. They tell themselves it wasn't as though they had a mistress, as though they were really taking anything away from their wife. They would be, of course. They'd be lying about it, and that's the problem. Not the sex. The lying. In and of itself, and in the danger of disease transmission or pregnancy. With that last being the case, it's totally immoral not to tell a partner that you're having sex with other people."

Ryan would doubtless have agreed with all of that, but it became apparent he was still back in the middle of her speech. "Whether or not it involved other *humans*? Oh, God, did he--"

"I'm talking about various forms of electronic communication technology to aid in getting one's rocks off, Ryan; calm down."

"Uh, yeah, of course. Sorry." Ryan cleared his throat, flushing a little in the cheeks.

"Besides, Ben isn't human." She smiled enough that her eyes twinkled a little.

"But he's sentient, and can easily communicate with us. It's not the same. Besides, his material body is human, at least for...the purposes we're discussing." Ryan flailed a frustrated arm, and sighed.

"I know. In any case, what I'm talking about--at least, the creepiest example of it that I know about for sure--was before you came to work with us. That, um, did make me wonder why a man as attractive as he was would need to...to do that, if he didn't have the slimebag gene, or else serious emotional problems to hide from. I'm beginning to think that not being aware of how attractive he was, and is, was the primary factor in at least some of those things, because when his emotional problems got really bad--when Tim died--uh, Eric's behavior in that department went downhill fast, and I hadn't been sure there *was* a downhill from where Eric was already operating. It turned out...better, of course; the department psychologist and the changes in his behavior since verify that..." she trailed off, looking distant, then looked back at Ryan and said, just sort of casually, "I mean, it'd have to be something like hidden issues--how many men as attractive as he is do you see coming out of the raunchier strip clubs and porn shops? Usually the only men who go to those places can't get their jollies as often as they want without paying for it somehow, but he's attractive enough to get what he wants for free, if that's his thing. Though speaking of the Internet...I was a little put off by his apparent fascination with...with 'women' substantially younger than he is. They were legal, but barely."

Ryan was starting to feel sick. "I knew he was a player. It's one of my main problems with the way I feel about him. Try to remember I can't stop thinking about this guy unless I am being distracted by work, you, or Ben; that's why I've got to switch shifts. So don't tell me I've been dreaming for years about some *totally* sick fuck, I'm begging you."

"You haven't; you've been dreaming about a man with serious issues that he wouldn't deal with except by distracting himself with the widest variety of sexual experiences he could find. And there's plenty to discover in a city like Miami. The women who were so young? He liked them because they were so shallow--no need for any friendship or exchange of selves. But I'll shut up now; I *wouldn't* be where I am at the moment if I thought he was incorrigible in that area, and I'm not trying to turn you off of him, especially not now; he needs you."

"Me?" Ryan had laid the hangers quietly on the chair and started carefully, so as to make no snaps--shirts were louder than underwear--shaking the shirts out prior to hanging them; he paused. He had a hanger hook in his teeth and the "Me?" came out "Wree?" He stopped to get the hanger out of his mouth, put the shirt away, and then turn back, still thinking, apparently. Finally he only asked "What makes you say that? He needs you, and Ben; I'm just along for the ride."

"But Ben needs you, and so do I. And it remains to be seen how much Eric might. He's...he seems to have some of Bendición in him still."

"You have a point. Again." Ryan hung a hanger on the door pull instead of on his lower incisors so he could talk. "He didn't panic at Ben's absence when he woke, you said--probably because he could sense Ben still here, in the next room. Along with me, since he could tell when we were both coming."

"Eric...uh, he recognized me, but it wasn't by looking at me. He stroked my back, and petted my hair--it was the touching that convinced him it was me. And he didn't react like Eric might, if he found me in bed with him in my underpants and a wifebeater."

"He'd be a little startled at first, at least, for damn sure," Ryan nodded once with a raised eyebrow as he turned to grab and examine more of the gaudily colored Eric-style fabric. Okay, it was Miami; bright past the point of truly loud was common even on the natives, but Eric was abusing the privilege. "But he just went to sleep again, once he knew it was you?"

"Yes. Like...he'd found a good friend he trusted there with him. Not like he'd found a woman he believed he'd love like no other forever and always, et cetera, though that might not keep him from the occasional bump-and-run. Anyway, it was very creepy. Sweet, but creepy."

"Yeah--just hearing about it is creepy." Ryan noted concern in Calleigh's voice--only partly, at the moment, for Eric. Likely also for the fact that Eric, while slowing down, and probably ready to hand the slutdom crown over to some younger guy, would still have a lot of distance to cover between "utter slut" and "averagely-sexed person". Ryan didn't blame her. He was worried about her for the same reason, if she should let Eric talk her into the marriage-monogamy thing, and maybe even if she didn't. She loved Eric like Ryan did--though her control over it was better, because her control over pretty much everything was better--but she'd cared for Eric even longer.

And Ryan was deeply worried about that, though he could say nothing--she would respond with an aggrieved insistence that of *course* she'd never do anything that stupid, and he'd have to apologize...and he'd still be worried--that she would be talked into marrying the straight, monogamous Eric, that Eric could convince her that her bisexuality and polyness were "not a problem" for him--Eric himself all the while believing he could make her "forget" them; some straight people actually believed things like that, and told the lies about it not being a problem in order to get the marriage. Of course, it was just as likely that a woman might "forget" being straight and monogomous because she married a poly woman. When Calleigh simply continued to be who she always had been, who she was when he married her--Eric would get belligerent, angry that being bi and being poly simply didn't magically transmute in Calleigh to being monogomous and straight, and the marriage would end horrendously when Calleigh realized what a mistake she'd made and walked out. She wouldn't even have to cheat or flirt or anything. She'd just have to be the person Eric had lied to when he'd sworn to honor her, because plotting to change her very self wasn't honoring her. But he'd see nothing wrong with it. After all, he loved her, didn't he?

But all that, for about eighty reasons, was a bridge that would have to be burned in the future. Their primary concern right now was that Eric was very fucked up just from having Ben inside him--which, for Calleigh and Ryan, was a calming, blissfully pleasurable experience--and even Ben didn't know why Eric had practically exploded. It didn't look like Eric'd be making it to work tomorrow--he checked his watch; later this morning, about six hours--either. They'd used something wrong with his stomach, food poisoning or stomach flu, as the excuse yesterday; they'd just have to say that it was getting better--if they didn't say that, Horatio would insist on the hospital--but that he was still barfing at random intervals, the last of which was a good way to contaminate either lab work or a crime scene.

"I'll call it in tomorrow," he told her. "If he's not able to work the day after that, though--and Ben would have to work some serious magic for that to happen--I think we're going to have to come clean to Horatio."

"Yes," Calleigh sighed, obviously as thrilled with that prospect as Ryan. "I don't think we can come up with a lie that will cover what's wrong with Eric, whatever it is, without telling him about Ben--and I wouldn't want to tell a lie that elaborate to Horatio, certainly. Not telling him about Bendición is one thing--his isn't our secret to tell. But if it got...ah, extensive, that would be morally sticky--"

"I don't ever want to lie to him again," Ryan swore, hanging the last item of clothing, a pair of thin-washed jeans, eerily similar to Bendición's, in the closet. The socks, underwear, and various sorts of undershirts, he left sitting in stacks; he was not going to open Eric's underwear drawers and fool around in them, even for a totally utilitarian purpose. It just felt wrong. "The only reason I've done it to this degree is that I have to protect Ben. I know Horatio would understand that. I..." he trailed off, then rubbed his eyes in obvious exhaustion, his head hanging. "I'm...gonna finish making the other bed and lie down. Ben can wake me when he gets back, if I fall asleep. Maybe you could sleep too."

"Yeah, I think I could, even under the circumstances," Calleigh murmured, with a half-smile. "Go ahead. I'll let you know if anything changes with Eric."

"Right." He leaned down and kissed her gently; she reached up and feathered her fingers through his short, bed-headed hair. When their mouths separated, he whispered, with what was meant to be a reassuring smile, "I love you."

"I love you too, Ryan." She gave him the same sort of smile back, and he went back to finish putting the sheets on the spare bed.

***

Ryan woke to Calleigh kissing him, very carefully, all over his face; kiss after soft kiss, until he opened his eyes. He loved when she did that, and got the silly, uncontrollable smile it always gave him.

Then he remembered everything. Before panicking, he leapt for a calmative. "Good morning," he said, reaching up to pull her down for a more involved kiss.

She kissed back, soft and slow, and when they separated, she said "Good morning. You need to come and see Eric."

"Eric--yeah, I better--is Ben back?"

"Yes, he's back. Come on and see both of them. I called Horatio; we're going to be a little late because we're making sure Eric will be okay on his own. We'll be staying late at work to make up for it."

"Yeah, I figured on that. But Ben will be with him," he muttered. Then he pulled her down onto the bed for a quick full-body hug; they squeezed close with their arms and wrapped their legs together.

"Sorry we don't have time to do anything about that," Calleigh said with a playful grin, bumping her hip forward.

"It's all right--it's only about half there. Morning wood is just part of life..." then he heard what she'd said.
"Really?" his silly smile returned.

"When there's time," she said. Then she leaned down and gave him a tongue-involving kiss that went on for quite a while, and for once Ryan didn't give a shit about his morning breath.

"I love you," he murmured, with intense feeling--even in the deep monotone that was all he had for a voice first thing in the morning--when she'd let his mouth go.

She smiled. "I love you, too. C'mon; Ben's getting us some breakfast, and Eric's in bed."

"Asleep?"

"Dozing. He will be for some time, off and on. Ben's been working with him. Come *on*," she said, disengaging her limbs from his and sliding off the bed, then standing up and hauling at him.

Calleigh led him into the other bedroom. He didn't think to put on anything over his high-dollar comfort-supreme boxer-briefs, so pricey that he hand-washed them to prevent undue wear. Calleigh had woo-wooed at him in them a couple of times; under those circumstances, he'd just snarled something semiconscious at her, and gone about his six a.m. business, with yet another reason to be resentful of morning people. Now, realizing that her proximity had made him feel free of the need to be guarded in general, he felt terribly exposed as they went through the door to where Eric Delko slept, naked, in six-hundred-thread-count-sheets. He was glad for Calleigh, but he wanted Ben, too, and definitely a pair of jeans.

"It's all right," Calleigh said. "I'm here."

Gee, she knew him well. And she was right--Ben's presence might be incredibly comforting, but hers was, too, and she had the advantage of being someone who never lost control, never lost the upper hand of a situation--and if she didn't have it to begin with, she gained it--and never even had to raise her voice to accomplish all of it, though she chose to do so sometimes. He and Eric both knew about that, having been subjected to it several times--usually because they'd been catfighting again. Bitch, bitch, dig, dig, scratch, scratch, yowl, yowl. He had to call it catfighting, because the only other accurate behavioral comparison he could think of was that of small children, and that was an even more embarrassing thought, every time he realized, after it was all over, the way he'd been behaving. So what that Eric had been just as bad. That didn't give Ryan a get out of jail free card.

Suddenly Eric turned over to face them, smiling, and snickered a little, eyes still closed. He stopped snickering and sighed. He looked a lot better, probably in part thanks to the magic of cold medicine. And probably Visine, though there was no way to tell about that until he opened his eyes.

Calleigh smiled, looked at Ryan, and said "Did you think of something funny?"

Ryan just stared at her.

She rattled his arm with the hand she was holding. "Did you?"

"Kind of funny, yeah," he said guardedly.

"He's been doing that. Ben says it'll fade now, though, but it will take some time; we'll be doing without both him and Eric at work for a few days."

"Are we going to tell Horatio...?"

"We have an appointment to speak with him when we get in. I was going to talk with you and Ben about what we should say."

"Uh...should we include Eric in that talk? He's not...you know, but he does...*ahem*, know about Ben. A *lot* about him."

"Eric can't really participate. He's not quite himself. He's himself, but...a little stoned on..."

"On Ben?" Ryan smiled a little, the side of his mouth quirking up. In his personal opinion, his Bendición was a wonderful thing on which to get stoned like a Gorgon victim, but Bendición couldn't possibly do anyone anything but good. "Is that what you're trying to say?"

"His nervous system is...temporarily altered in ways we'll explain in more detail later; I don't have much of the story yet myself. Right now, say good morning to Eric." She let go of his hand and pushed him forward.

He stumbled a little, confused and dismayed, not knowing what she expected of him; she steadied him and whispered "Just kiss his cheek."

"I've got morning br--"

"He doesn't care."

"He'll kill me when he's himself."

"No he won't. If he even remembers, trust me--he just won't be angry."

Ryan paused. He couldn't think of how to do this gracefully. It was like standing on a diving board with everybody looking at you, and you had no idea how to jump into water in any way but bombing in. Was he so lousy at this kind of thing? No, he was terrified of Eric, that was the problem.

He waited too long; Eric's eyes opened a fraction, and he smiled again, reached up, and pulled the unsuspecting Ryan down on top of him with a bed-bouncing thud; thank God this one was a queen or he'd have brained himself on the opposite wall. Naturally the first thing he did was try to scramble up and around--there's some kind of inborn reflex in a situation like that where you don't scramble around toward the foot of the bed, because this puts your feet, and your ass and all attendant mechanisms, in the face of the individual beneath you--and naturally, when Ryan got around face-to-face with him, Eric wrapped his arms around him and held on.

"Um..." Ryan gulped. "Good morning, Eric."

"Hmmmm..." Eric was running his hands over all that exposed skin, and the parts that were covered (sort of) by the boxer briefs.

"Eric--Jesus, Eric, it's *Ryan*." Ryan said this as he was trying to fight his way up from the arm that had suddenly pinned him across his upper back. The other hand stayed busy, all over him.

"Mm-hm," Eric mm-hmed mildly--his eyes half-open but clearly focused on Ryan--slid his busy hand into the minor bedhead Ryan could get with such short hair, pulled Ryan down, and kissed him.

It was a bit of a struggle at first, but Ryan quickly began to relax. Eric clearly really didn't care about morning breath, for one thing. Also, he was a frighteningly good kisser. It must be the lips, he thought, then dourly corrected himself that in Ben's case, the lips might at least contribute, but in Eric's, it was probably decades of unstinting, devoted practice. It didn't matter. He was kissing Eric, and it would be the only time in his life, and shit, that thought had been supposed to make him pay attention, and appreciate, but instead he felt incredibly stinging tears oozing from the ducts of his closed eyes.

*I love you, Eric Delko*, he let himself think once, and then he got his arms under him to push himself up and get out of this, now, even if it called for a rude breakaway. He wrenched his head aside and heaved himself upward, and Calleigh made a concerned sort of gasp, and Eric's eyes came all the way open as he said, sounding half-awake, "Ryan, what is it?"

Ryan rolled off, landing easily on both feet. He couldn't look at Eric or Calleigh either one, and he slipped past Calleigh quickly, heading for the door.

"I love you, too," Eric said, his voice soft, and breaking once.

"Oh, Jesus--" Eric had heard it, or however one sensed such things, the way Ben did it--that carefully sequenced thought, all the energy that went into it because it would be the one and only time he let himself feel it to that degree. Ryan stood in the bedroom doorway, facing the hall, holding on to the doorframe as the tears stung like a bitch again, squirting out of his clenched eyes and down his face. Eric wasn't himself. He *wasn't himself*.

Ryan said evenly--he couldn't talk any way but evenly at that hour of the morning--"It's okay, Eric. I'm just nervous, all right? Ben will bring you some breakfast soon. I'll go help him finish." He went, not even stopping in the spare room for a pair of pants or a shirt. He determinedly didn't listen to Calleigh's gentle shushing or Eric's sleepy, plaintive queries falling away behind him. Eric felt this way right now because *Bendición* loved Ryan. Eric didn't even like him.

He couldn't for a second forget that, even if everyone who loved him thought he was an ass for it. He *was* an ass, and they were used to that, so they'd only get pissed, not dump him for it. He'd just think of Ben's lack of any temper, and Calleigh's effortless Taoist cool, and keep control.

***

Ryan rang the bell, and a glassine sound of chimes echoed from somewhere within the house. It was certainly electronic, but it was still pretty. Ben must love it.

"¡Adelante!" either Ben or Eric called; Ryan couldn't tell which one through the door. The only reason he could hear it at all through the house's heavy adobe-like masonry and hurricane-resistant construction was that the air conditioning was off. Probably briefly, and only because it was about one in the morning. Eric wasn't fond of all the dry-cleaning of furniture covers that went on when an active male person as big as he was braved the swamp that was Miami in July for more than about three days. But the heat and humidity didn't affect Bendición's comfort, though he did automatically turn the air's humidity into something that resembled sweat--similar to the way a cold glass "sweats", but Ben didn't have to drop his temperature into the iced-tea range in the kind of humidity that would have a human continually sweating to get the same effect. He hadn't yet gotten the hang of stinking, however, since he had none of the B.O.-causing bodily bacteria to breed like crazy in the moisture, and Ryan had told him he needn't go that far for the sake of verisimilitude. It often went unnoticed when a person, even a large man in the heat, didn't reek; but it surely didn't go unnoticed when he did.

Ryan opened the door and stepped out of the darkness that the dense palm trees and bushes all around Delko's yard created there at night, by allowing in only sky-light from right overhead--and into soft lamplight. He closed the door behind him to keep in the cool and looked around.

Ryan's eyes widened when he realized that, while he recognized the man who was walking toward him--from the kitchen entrance, around the end of the breakfast bar, wiping his hands on a towel--he only recognized him as being one or the other of two. It couldn't possibly have taken just a couple of days for him not to be able to tell Ben and Delko apart--

The man kept advancing, and pulled one hand from the towel to touch Ryan's face. "Mi chico hermoso. Usted está aquí." Ben sighed heavily, stroking Ryan's cheek, and added feelingly "Estoy alegre--he sido solo para usted." My beautiful boy. You're here. I'm glad--I've been lonely for you.

"Falté su compañía, también," Ryan whispered.

Bendición sounded very tired. As Ryan kissed him, he wondered if that might be his recognition problem; he'd never seen Ben look or sound tired, never seen him fail to smile on greeting Ryan. Ryan had been acutely concerned coming here to see how Ben and Eric, with Calleigh's occasional help--she was sleeping in the spare room, or she wouldn't have been available to help any time at all, since they were all covering Eric's absence at work--had managed. Now he knew how right he was to be worried. Of course, it could simply be that Ben had learned to mimic those traits more thoroughly; but Ryan doubted it.

"¿Usted quiere ahora hablar con Eric?" Bendición asked.

"I'm not sure. How is he? Tell me."

Bendición nodded, and gestured with the towel; they sat on Eric's large, overstuffed couch. Bendición pulled Ryan into the half-circle of his arm, and leaned back into the corner cushioning, resting there with Ryan's head comfortably on his chest.

Bendición said softly "It took a great deal of work, and most of the strain was the embarrassment--Eric's, for what he'd done while he was...mesmerized with me, and for how quickly he became so; and mine, for choosing a human I knew and loved to take my material matrix from, a man who was close--at least geographically and professionally, if not emotionally--to my chosen."

"I don't understand how you didn't know," Ryan wondered softly, rubbing a slow, soothing hand on Ben's chest and shoulder. "Don't you all know what one of you knows?"

"It's very far from being that simple, querido--though, knowing humans as I do," he added, smiling a little at his own arrogance, letting his eyes close a moment, "I can see where it would appear no different to a human. It would not have been an issue if I had not loved Eric. It would not have been an issue if I were not going to be near him, and it would not have been an issue if I had not chosen his DNA as the matrix sample of my material body. All of those things had to be so before the...problem we had could occur."

"So...the same thing would have happened if you'd chosen Calleigh's DNA for your pattern?"

"Probably worse. Calleigh would have been as inexplicably enraptured by me as Eric was, and she would have had less to hold her back from exploring that."

"Oh. You're right. That your body was female wouldn't have fazed her. But when you went into her, the night of the afternoon you met--"

"I would have been making the same call to you from her apartment as I made to yours from here, yes."

"Then...you won't be doing that again with Eric?"

Bendición sighed heavily. "I can, now. The question is whether he will ever want me to."

Ryan was quiet a moment. "Is he angry?"

Bendición licked his lips, and started to speak; then he shook his head, pensive. "Not...at me, not precisely."

Ryan turned a little, got up a little higher, so he could see Ben's face. "Dígame, amado."

"He is angry," Ben said, very softly. "Not at anyone specifically, but...he feels victimized, although I doubt he would say so."

"I can damn well see where he'd feel like that," Ryan muttered. "Calleigh and I, finding out about us--you, and being ready to haul me in bed with him--after you tried to come into him--God, he must be pissed."

"He is...embarrassed. It would be beyond his ability to bear if he did not know for certain that no one else save your Horatio will ever know about any of it, and that Horatio need not hear details. Eric is angry mostly about that embarrassment. And he is...adrift; confused, and made defensive by that. He already was unsure, when we arrived here, the night we came from your apartment; it's only worse now. He is in no danger from me; and I know how to keep a...a separateness between us, that would even allow me to come inside him safely...but it will prevent us from...from the unusual affinity we had for each other--although he still loves me, in a...a slightly removed way. But he has lost any interest in touching me, of course, and the...the fascination he had with me is gone."

"I'm sorry, baby. I know how you feel about him. But...you have to know by now that some humans just aren't worth feeling that way about."

"I think you mean to say, chiquito, that it is not worth it, to feel that way, about some humans."

Ryan was quiet a moment. "Yes," he finally said quietly, and nodded. "Of course. That was what I meant. So, is there any need for me to see him at all? If he wants me to apologize, I will. We'll have to be able to work together for a while yet. But if he'd rather I just stayed away from him until he feels up to--"

"No. He wants to speak to you. Probably to say most of the same things you wish to say. But there is something else--I don't think you will have anticipated it."

"Oh. Great," Ryan sighed.

"I was making everyone a snack. You are probably hungry, too, staying at work so late."

"Jesus--you're going to send me to see him alone?"

"He deserves that much. Calleigh is with him now, of course; she will come help me, and eat, and then go to bed. Take as much time as you like."

"I don't think it'll be much if it's up to Eric."

***

He expected to find them up, dressed; or else in bed, Calleigh sharing with Eric. Instead, Eric was in sweatpants and a T shirt, dozing on the bed; Calleigh was curled up, in a sleeping bag, on a pile of cushions on the floor. She didn't move as he closed the door softly.

Eric's bedroom wasn't cluttered; in the dim lamplight, it looked modular, more the kind of thing people would expect to see in Ryan's home, if he'd had more of a choice about the decorating. But in any case, Ryan liked his meticulous little chores, and Eric probably had no patience at all for them; the place was neat because everything *had* a place, and was in it. The colors were dark; only the carpet was azure blue, the brightest thing about the room.

He crouched down next to Calleigh. He wasn't going to wake Eric himself, and Calleigh had to be woken at some point here anyway. He kissed her mouth gently, stroking her hair, kissed her again when she didn't begin blinking in a few seconds.

Her eyes opened finally, and she saw that it was him. She said nothing, just sliding an arm up over his shoulders for a hug; they were still a moment, and then Ryan murmured "Ben says you're going to eat and then sleep again."

"Yes. He's making fajitas. Wouldn't you know it that he loves Ameri-Mex food?"

Ryan smiled. "Would you wake Eric for me? Ben seems to think it's a good idea that the two of us talk."

"I think it's necessary, don't you? Besides, he's going to have some things to say that may surprise you."

"Ben said the same thing. Is this supposed to be reassuring me? It's not."

He began helping as Calleigh clambered from her sleeping bag, steadying her, and rolling the folds of material around the pillows to make an easily carried package. Calleigh was leaning over Eric, stroking his hair once, then shaking his shoulder gently.

"Mm...Cal?"

"Ryan's here, Eric. I'm going to help Ben; he's making a snack."

Eric's hand came up and took her arm. "Are you staying here tonight?"

"Oh, of course, it's too late to drive home, and I'm groggy," she murmured back, and kissed his forehead, a light peck. "I'll see you in the morning, if I've gone to bed by the time you two are done."

"Okay...thanks, Calleigh."

Calleigh received her big ball o'bedding from Ryan and managed to get out the door with it, with his assistance; he watched to make sure she could bump her way through the spare room door without dropping any of it before he closed the door to Eric's room. Then he had to make himself let go of the doorknob, and turn around.

He could have saved himself the worry; Eric wasn't looking at him. He was lying on his back, one hand over his eyes, maybe against the lamplight, though he'd been sleeping with his face in it when Ryan came in.

They were both quiet a moment.

Finally Ryan took a breath, and said "So? Who's going to start this?"

"I say we make Ben do it. It's his idea."

"Sounded like it was Calleigh's, too."

"Yeah. They're just full of notions, aren't they?" Eric folded his hands across his ribs and stared up at the ceiling. He'd shaved with a blade, and recently; but Ryan had never seen an expression like that on Ben.

Ryan sank down against the wall, his back braced against it, arms folded across his knees. Hunkered over in the corner by the black modular chair was not exactly a commanding position, but he didn't feel commanding. He didn't feel like doing this at all, really. The day had been hell in a box three sizes too small; if Eric had been there, it would have been a breeze, and Ryan couldn't help feeling responsible for his absence while simultaneously resenting it, since it had been caused by the best thing to happen to Ryan in his entire life. He didn't even know what expression it was that he needed to keep off his face.

This way, Eric could only see him if he deigned to sit up and look.

Eric didn't. He said "Just so you know, there are some things I don't remember."

"Things I know about, you mean?"

"Things Bendición says he told you about, yes. Like my offering to join with him, or, um, kind of insisting, the way I heard it. I didn't realize he remembered everything like that. It's too bad he can't hire out as a professional witness."

"I'm not surprised you don't remember that. You'd just nearly had some kind of vascular disaster."

"I also don't remember dragging you into bed with me. Calleigh told me. Sorry about that."

"Um, it's all right. I was worried I'd upset *you*, actually."

"Okay, mutual apology and let's forget it happened."

"Sounds good." If you can hear it over the sound of my heart breaking, Ryan thought. On the one hand, he thanked God Eric didn't remember any of that. On the other...

"I was told that I'd been asking for you pretty emphatically; that was why Calleigh brought you in that morning. Did they tell you about that?"

"Um, no. I'd thought it was her idea."

"I..." Eric sighed. "I don't remember sleeping--literally--with Calleigh. By the time I started to come around, I was sleeping with Bendición. He'd learned to use the...the sort of physiological tie-in that he has with my body in particular to monitor me for anything dangerous. He says that beyond this ugly-ass broken capillary in my eye, which will be gone in a couple of days, I'm fine now. Tired, but fine."

"Sorry," Ryan muttered. "That should've been my first question."

"I figured you talked to Bendición."

"Even so."

Eric sighed. "It's all right. Um, I don't really know how to put this, because I don't want you to think anything that I don't..."

Ryan sighed, too. There was a lot of that going around, he noticed. "That you don't mean? Just put everything as literally as you can."

"I'm not in love with you."

Ryan winced. "Literal but obvious, Delko."

"Will you let me finish?"

"Sorry."

"I...when I said I'd never had this happen before, you know...a guy, feeling like..."

"Like I do about you, I get it, go on."

"I...well, it made you different. It made me see you differently. It..."

"I know. Instead of a human being, albeit a human being you didn't like much, I became nothing but a queer."

"I--" Eric began heatedly, but broke off. "I guess...that's one way to put it. I'm not proud of it, okay?
And if you'd shut up a second and let me finish, we could get this over with a lot faster."

Fuck, Delko was right. Ryan always hated that. "Okay. I'm shut."

"Like I said, I'm not in love with you. Christ, I could smack you sometimes, with the mouth on you. But I remember..." he paused, then went on "I remember loving you--I remember knowing you well enough to, and...I remember what it was like to love you, and to be...caught up in Ben, as well as loving him...even Calleigh...I can remember how you look to Calleigh, and to Ben, and how you looked, for a while, to me. I remember knowing you, and I guess...that means I know you. I don't...see you the same way now."

Ryan was silent. Then he tried, "I'm not sure I understand what you're saying."

"I don't...that thing about seeing you as only a queer? I did. But I don't, now. I see you...as--more, I think, more than I did even before I knew about any of this--more than I think I see anyone else alive, but Calleigh and Ben."

"I'm sorry, Eric. I'm not trying to be dense..."

Eric flopped around a little on the bed, but didn't sit up. "I think what happened...made their memories, their viewpoints, and the memory of mine, *into* mine, *part* of mine--blurred up the lines. Do you know how it feels when someone you're interested in, who you're pretty sure is interested in you, walks into the room?"

"Of course."

"How about if that person is a friend? Close to you, at least, on some level--you know each other well?"

Ryan paused a moment. "I think so."

"Well...I see you more like that, now. It's...it's a lot like I see Calleigh."

Ryan knew he shouldn't say this, he knew he was going to get his newly trimmed and gelled 'do messed up by the tornadic *NO* that would blast from the area of the bed, but..."You're saying you're interested in me?"

"No! I--shit, I don't know. Christ, Wolfe, I'm straight. Yes, I have learned that men do not have cooties and can be very pleasant to touch. I'm not counting Ben here--touching him's addictive, but he's not human."

"...okay."

"Okay." Eric paused to take a few breaths, running his fingers through his lack of any hair worth discussing. "I... Bendición made a big difference, one that didn't change--after the...communication you call touching. But it didn't make me bi. Accidentally being tapped into whatever he's got for a brain is what made...what I've been telling you happen. It made me love you--which I suppose I still do--because it made me know you in a way I'd never have had the chance to otherwise. I can't...I can't have the way they see you in my head, as part of the way I see you, and not have those perspectives added to my own. About you or anything else, though you figure very big to both of them, as I really hope you know."

Ryan held his breath and waited, but finally exhaled and said quietly, "But you have no interest in...in touching Ben, he said. And none--anymore--in touching me."

Eric's voice went up half an octave, and he sat up suddenly--maybe too suddenly; he wavered back and caught himself on the bedtable, knocking the clock to one side. "Ben said that? That I don't want to touch him?"

"Yes."

"Jesus. I've gotta talk to him. He's *really* pissed at himself."

"For him? Yes, he is. Is he wrong?"

"I admit I've been a little jumpy--anyone would be--but of course he's wrong. If his head's messed up to the point he's reading my signals that badly...damn. Anyway, about you--*my* head's so fried I'm afraid to rule anything out and look like a jerk later. But I can't honestly say I understand what's happening, at the moment. I woke up, and the dream I was having turned out to be real."

Ryan smiled. "I know what you mean. I don't think any of us have the native stones to say we're comfortable yet. Even Bendición's been feeling pretty brought down lately, like you said."

"He's been apologizing to the point of Calleigh and me throwing things at him."

"Ah, shit. What for now?"

"For being arrogant. For assuming he knew everything he needed to know. For not wondering if there might not be a reason that most of his people take many thousands of years longer before they join with someone, human or otherwise, even though he's considered a mature example of his species."

"I think he can be excused for that. He's said some offhand things to me that cause me to believe, even more than what I got through the touch, that he's regarded as a prodigy, especially when it comes to dealing with humans."

"Yeah, he is. It's just that for some things, nothing can substitute for experience. He said that to me, the day he gave me the bath. That guy can give a bath. If he's got your tub at his disposal, at least."

"Came with the condo. I'm going to need a larger utilities budget, I think. The only thing saving that place from being dumped is the lack of a monthly housing payment. I still never have money."

"You've got a truly gorgeous wardrobe, though. Mostly."

"Shut up."

"Maybe Calleigh and I could start a bathwater fund. Um, listen...do you think he'd mind if...hell, forget it."

"What? If it's Ben, I doubt he'd mind anything you could do."

"He's...well...he's a totally amazing kisser. I never thought I'd say that about--um, someone who at least has the body of a guy, let alone mine, but--"

Ryan burst out laughing. He wondered how many people had said the same thing to Eric, and what Eric would do if Ryan said it to him. "I don't think he'd mind at all, if you wanted to kiss him. But if you really want to make him happy, take it to the finish line with him. He can't get enough. You guy's'd compliment each other well that way."

"Do *not* rush me, Wolfe. Not even with Bendición."

Ryan held his hands up and away from his body. "Hey. No rush here. It was just a thought."

After a moment, Eric said "There's something I think I remember, but I'm not sure." He turned to rest his feet on the floor and his elbows on his knees, his eyes on his loosely clasped hands. "I've been thinking about it a lot..." He smirked a little. "To be honest, I don't seem to be able to stop, so I hope it happened."

"Um, do you want to know if I remember it? I haven't been here for everything."

"You'll remember it, if it happened. You told me something. It was...you'd told me before, but I didn't get a chance...the way you said it, the first time, didn't give me the chance to really hear it. To understand it. I don't know when you said it to me--if you did--the way that it...that it impressed itself on me."

Ryan was silent a moment, then decided playing stupid wasn't worth the energy. He said, "It was when you'd dragged me in bed with you. And I didn't say it. I thought it. You...I think you read it, the way Bendición can read thoughts--pick up and interpret, and automatically correlate, certain indicators we give him."

Eric nodded. "Yeah, I know; and he's not doing it very well at the moment. But if I was, then...maybe that's why it keeps resurfacing in my head--that moment that I heard you say it--think it--and mean it. I guess hearing it that way has more of an impact--there's more depth to it. I could...everything you meant by it, it was...it was deep."

Ryan was impressed with Eric's determination, but he didn't have an answer for that; he waited, gazing at the carpet fibers that happened to be in front of his eyes at the moment.

Eric went on "I don't mind--oh, fuck that." He lifted his head a little. "I want you to say it."

Ryan blinked. "Say it...?"

"Whenever. When you want to. It makes me think. When I think of you saying that you--saying that, to me, I think about...the person who's saying it, and why they might, and what it means to them--" he paused and continued "--to him, you--and what I mean to you...even what I mean to me, what *being* me means to me. What who I am means. Are you getting any of this? You look like you're listening to a deranged parrot. Which I probably sound like."

Ryan blinked. "Uh. You wonder...if it's a good thing--that I feel that way--as a statement about you, since you know me, apparently a lot better than you did. Or, maybe, you think about whether you deserve it--not because you think you don't, you just...never wondered. Never thought to wonder."

"Yeah. Like that. A lot like that. One of the things I have to think about is why you'd despise yourself the way you do for...having feelings about me. And what it means, or doesn't, that you can't stop having them even so."

Ryan's first impulse was to be embarrassed that Eric had had such direct exposure to Ryan's judgments about his behavior, but he clamped down on it. Eric. Was. A. Slut. His partners had not all been fully informed participants in his play; some of them had been manipulated to some degree.

Though, probably, not for a while. Since the shooting, Eric was a slut on the mend, certainly--or, Ryan forced himself to admit, it was possible the definition no longer fit him at all. Was he only concerned, like Calleigh, that men like that seldom genuinely changed? "I guess you really did feel everything I meant."

"And everything *you* felt about it."

"Eric, it's not that I think--"

"No--no." Eric waved a hand at him. "You're different from me in a lot of ways. That's just one of them. You aren't the first person not to trust me because...well, for want of a better way to put it, I had a habit. Unlike yours, it didn't hurt only me. Other people were involved too deeply. Finally it took a wake-up call like losing my badge and seeing it used to commit a murder, to make it suddenly bloom for me that a man in my position should not be having sex with total strangers in public. With or without his badge."

"Eric. I trust you."

"Well, yeah, and I trust you. Until now, it was because I had to. And you have to trust me. You don't like it, though."

Ryan didn't reply, but he thought about it. Several things *had* smacked Eric with some serious reality since Ryan had known him--starting with the experience he'd mentioned, and including losing his sister, the shooting, the lawsuit...and probably including a first-hand taste of the depth of the self-disgust of a man who'd fallen in love with him, and who wanted desperately to fall back out. "If you can be fair to me about it, I can be fair to you."

Eric only nodded; he seemed to be waiting. Yeah, even though he hadn't actually asked a question, he deserved some sort of response. Ryan thought about what Eric was asking. Saying it--even to himself--had made him cry despite his very best effort not to, last time; that ought to give him serious pause. The only way he could say it calmly was unemotionally, and unemotionally wasn't what Eric meant, apparently. Eric wanted him to say it when he meant it--when he was feeling it. When it was a touchably real thing. That was what had made Eric think.

Or maybe Ryan was assuming too much. "Do you want me to say it now?"

"No, I didn't mean--well, I want you to say it when you want to. Unless there are random people around. It's a private thing. More so for you, I know."

"Um...for such an emphatically straight guy to want to hear that from a...from me, this really must have had an impact."

"It has," Eric said quietly. "I don't know all of the ways yet."

"Will you let Ben say it to you?" Ryan risked a brief glance up at Eric.

Eric was smiling a little at the floor. "Let him? Right. I don't think I could stop him doing anything he wanted to, and I wouldn't try. He's different." Eric shook his head, still smiling, eyes closed.

Ryan smiled too. He said, with surprising ease, "I do love you, Eric Delko," and instead of like crying, he suddenly felt like...breathing.

Eric did too, apparently, taking a deep breath that shuddered a little, and pressing his palms to his eyes. He exhaled on a whoosh and muttered "Wow. That is...that is different. It's not you I see differently, now, when you say that. Except I kind of want to...I don't know, hug you or something. Make some kind of contact with you--I guess it's the only way I can, now that Ben's fixed me up--"

"Delko, don't burst another blood vessel. I thought it would be a real stab in the heart, but it doesn't feel like pity."

"It isn't. I admit it--before--it would have been. But this isn't. I think maybe I pity me. You I respect--even though you're a *seriously* complicated bastard."

"Mm. Since the lines got erased."

"Mm."

"Well, if hugging's not convenient...um, if you ever wanted to say it to me?" Eric already had--though he might not have realized it--or Ryan would never have had the guts to say that. "Since...Ben fixed you up, and we can't just pull those things out of the air, now...well, I won't make it into anything you don't mean."

"Thanks," Eric said, very quietly. He rose slowly from the bed and let his head loll to stretch his neck, craned his arms back to stretch his chest, and seemed, when he looked again, to really notice Ryan's position. "Wolfe, shit."

"Thanks."

"I mean..." He took the three or four steps over to Ryan and leaned down to take his hand, lifting him from the floor to his feet. He held him there a moment, close to him, gazing intently into Ryan's face. Ryan nearly yelled, "What?!" but before he could, Eric only said "*Real* bad day, huh?"

"Calleigh didn't leave until eleven, I didn't until almost one." Ryan shrugged. "I'm tired."

"Sorry I wasn't around."

"Not your fault, man."

"I guess. Um, listen--if I do anything, I mean--ever, that makes you...that makes you uncomfortable, or it's more than you want to handle--"

"I'm all right, Eric."

"Because--I mean, it can't be good, you're leaving day shift over this..."

"Eric. You want me to be comfortable?"

"Yeah, I thought I better say that, because I want to know--I mean, find out--about you, specifically, I don't mean I'm just curi--"

Ryan slid an arm up around Eric's neck, the other around his waist, and slumped against him, lowering his head to Eric's shoulder. He sighed and closed his eyes. "I'm tired. And now I'm comfortable."

Eric snorted a soft laugh, and lifted his arms around Ryan, helping support his weight. "Good." Eric rocked him a little, and Ryan emitted a soft fake snore; Eric chuckled again. They were quiet briefly, and then Eric asked "Do you still...you *are* still leaving?"

"Eric...it doesn't matter how okay you are. It doesn't matter if you're so cool you kiss me on the mouth for my birthday. It's my problem."

"I know. But if there's anything I can do--"

"You've already done it. You're being honest with me. You're also not staring at me like you've never seen me before, even though--now--you have some excuse for that. There's nothing else you can do for me. I only want what's real, same as you."

"Is this real?" Eric held on a little tighter. "It's only been a few days--everything changes in my life in a few hours, a few days--it always happens that way--and sometimes, the change has gone away before I had time to believe in it. Sometimes it doesn't--but those times are...usually not the good ones. Marisol, the bullet in my head..."

"The wisest ass in your department in love with you..."

"The wisest ass and his lover the nonhuman. And probably the first woman I've fallen in love with in my adult life. Suddenly heaven and hell both think I'm the shit."

"What about Ben?"

"Uh, he came in on the ticket with hell, but he's staying on his own merits."

"He really loves you. It's not just a reflection of me. And he's happy about it, not beating himself up."

"I know he does. The night I met him, and asked him if he was an angel...he cried like a baby because he thought I'd asked him because of Marisol, that he might be her, or know her, or know something about her, and he was going to have to disappoint me. He'd known Marisol, the same way he'd known me. He said he'd loved her, too, for my sake."

"God." Ryan felt the initial stages of teariness. "How is he going to survive our world? How is he going to survive us? How long did it take for you to get completely stupid over him? Right about then?"

"Before that, actually. You were right with the drug association. I think we'd been talking for all of thirty seconds before he did something crazy that I didn't even remotely question. He hasn't stopped since."

"When *I* met him, I held my gun on him."

"Because you thought he was me?" Eric chuckled.

"Because I was startled, and then I thought he *had* to be you, because otherwise I'd been drugged, and I knew I hadn't been, so you had to have been...unless you were sleepwalking and dreaming about kissing me awake."

"You said...something about that..."

"Yeah, I thought I was dreaming at first. I can usually count on my subconscious to throw me a few scraps when I flat can't stop thinking about you. It seemed likely to be a dream. I definitely find you more interesting than I find Winston Churchill."

"I'm flattered."

"You should be. You're lucky I don't hate you after all this time."

"Are you sure you don't?"

Ryan paused. Then he said softly "Maybe I did. Or maybe it was me I hated, or just the whole goddamn mess. I always maintained it wasn't your problem or your fault. Even when I let it make me act like a total ass."

"You can make up for it."

"Imagine the intensity of my excitement," Ryan mumbled.

"You could kiss me."

Ryan was still a moment, then leaned back enough to look up at Eric. "Is one of the things you want to find out about me whether I'm easy?"

"No, but I would like to know what it's like to kiss you. Easy is the last word to describe you under any circumstances. You're the most intense sonofabitch I've ever known."

Ryan smiled a little. "Fair enough. C'mere." He curved his hand around behind Eric's neck, and leaned up, closing his eyes and brushing his lips over Eric's. He sighed softly, and pressed again. Eric kissed back, opening a little for him.

In a few moments, he was holding Eric against the door and was halfway down his throat. He realized that either he was getting taller or Eric was getting shorter, and he lightened up; Eric's knees were going out from under him, and he was clinging to Ryan's shoulders for support. His eyes were wide and dilated, both.

"Sorry," Ryan panted. "I...um." Shit. "Sorry about that."

Eric blinked. "Wow."

"Here." Ryan helped him stand all the way up again; he'd skidded a bit. "You okay?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm..." Eric paused, licked his lips and prodded at the lower one, near the corner of his mouth. "I'm fine."

"I guess it wasn't much like Ben, was it?"

"No. H told me you put a Russian mob kneecapper through a glass door with a right cross that had all your weight behind it." Eric stopped fooling with his lip. "I think I know how he must've felt."

"I hope you had more fun. The mob guy killed himself right after. Though I tried to hold the stupid bastard's neck together."

"I'm not sure if fun is the right word, but *I* feel very alive. Listen...we do need to talk about Ben. We also need to talk about Calleigh. I'm not sure quite what's going to happen--like you said, no one is, yet--but I get the feeling you and I are gonna have to come to some kind of..."

"Truce? Agreement?"

"More like some kind of peace. If there are any problems, they're going to be coming from you, me, or both of us; not from Calleigh or Bendición."

"Yeah. You, me and us is where the problems have come from since I've been around."

Eric smiled too, but sobered abruptly. "Are you really going to leave over this? Are you really going to...to just *leave*?"

"Eric...I have to." Ryan actually felt bad as he murmured the words again. Eric still looked disbelieving, and not happy.

"You know, there's gonna be someone replacing you. On the day shift. And we'll all have to get used to whoever it is."

Ryan felt a dawning, and put his hands on Eric's shoulders and squeezed. "Listen. I am not...going anywhere. I'll be here. I'll be around." God, that was a lot of help. Tell him something he knows already, that'll make him feel better. "And you won't have to defend me, or my work, the way you did Speedle. I'll be able to defend myself if I think it needs doing."

"Yeah, I know you can do that." Eric sighed.

"Don't forget we have a new, as-yet-unnamable social standing with each other, here. You're going to be glad you won't have me in your face at work, too. At least not as much."

"Calleigh is in my face there."

"It is *pleasant* to have Calleigh in one's face. I know this from experience. Maybe not as many years experience as you have, but I still know it's the exact opposite of that experience with me."

Erik smirked a bit. "For who?"

"For anybody. Delko--sometimes I want to smack me, too."

In the living room, Ben was sitting in the corner of the overstuffed couch with Calleigh draped over him. They were in an odd position; Calleigh was straddling Ben's lap, facing him, and would have been lying over his face if he hadn't, apparently, shifted her to the side a bit. Her head was resting on the wall. She didn't stir as they came in.

"How did *that* happen?" Ryan asked him.

"He probably apologized to her again and she fell asleep in mid-chastise," Eric said.

Ben didn't reply, but he smiled, looking embarassed, and hid his face in Calleigh's nightie-clad ribcage.

"Oh, man, you called it," Ryan said, and started to laugh, but clamped shut on it before the noise could wake Calleigh.

***