May 12, 1981
“Justin, I’m so sorry. Is there anything I can do for you?”
A tall, slender man in a light grey sweater and jeans stood just inside the doorway of a somewhat small but nice house that showed signs of disuse. His hair was just long enough be rather tousled, as if it had been blown about by the wind, and a few of the black locks were brushed away from his clear green eyes in an automatic gesture that belied the intense concern and sympathy he felt for the other man. His friend sighed, his voice rather hoarse from misuse.
“Oh, Hunter, it’s good to see you again.” He shut the door behind the taller raven-haired man and leaned against it tiredly. “I won’t lie; it’s been hard. We were together for so long…. But I’ve been coping. It’s nice to be back in Oak Harbor—a new start, you know? I just want to move on and treasure the good memories I had.”
Hunter nodded, knowing that things must have been bad if his normally-optimistic friend was so affected with sadness. He hadn’t seen Justin in nearly three years, but he could see that his best friend hadn’t changed much. He was shorter than Hunter but had a similar build, with fine brown hair and unique amber-colored eyes that were perpetually warm, calm and intelligent. Hunter was startled by the sharp stab of emotion he felt as he took in the worn expression on his long-time friend’s face. He had felt Justin’s absence acutely.
“I understand,” Hunter replied sympathetically, and Justin knew that he did. He gave his friend a grateful look and received a small smile in return.
“Come on, then. While I’m here, I might as well be of use. Let’s make this place livable again, shall we?” Without waiting for a response, he pulled off his sweater and immediately got to work pulling off the dusty sheets that covered the furniture. Justin watched from the doorway for a while, a familiar warm feeling swelling in his chest, before he finally smiled and joined his faithful friend.
May 15, 1981
It was dark already. The young boy had expected the days to lengthen with the coming summer, but obviously it was too early for that. With a slight frown, he resigned himself to spending another night beneath a tree by the side of the road. It would be cold, despite his provisions. He wore a long-sleeved off-white shirt with a wide v-neck made of sturdy, warm fabric underneath a slightly large coat along with jeans and long johns and well-worn boots. A long, thick brown scarf was wrapped snugly around his neck. On his back he carried a canvas valise, complete with bedroll, cooking utensils, an extra weapon, food, several books, and a thick heavy cloak with a cowl. It was barely enough not to freeze.
“Oi, Ned! Let’s find a place to stop for the night. It’s getting too dark to keep walking.” He heard an affirmative bark to the thought he sent out and a patch of shadow approached him from the darkness shrouding the road. The black lab, still young and strong although in need of several good meals, tilted his head curiously at his companion, his warm brown eyes holding far more intelligence than normal animals.
“Are you sure, Ben? There might be a town further down the road….”
“No,” the boy replied tiredly, “we’ve been walking for hours. According to the map, we still have nearly two more until we get to the nearest town.”
“Ben, I don’t know if we should stay outside another night. We’ve been sleeping in the cold and wet for the past week. I’m worried about you. Humans get sick too easily.”
“I’m fine, you old worrywart.” Ben said, nudging the dog playfully with his knee. “It’s too late to go wandering into a town. Let’s just sleep here tonight and I promise that we’ll find a hotel in the morning.”
Ned shook his head stubbornly. “No, I really think we should keep walking. Call it instinct; canine intuition, whatever. Let’s keep walking, Ben.” The boy just shook his head, giving up. His old companion could be incredibly stubborn when he wanted to be and Ben had a piercing headache that would probably keep him awake anyway.
“Fine, O Divine Hound, we’ll keep walking.”
An hour later, Ben was regretting the decision. Sometime during the past hour, the exhaustion of consistent walking for the past week had finally caught up with him. Pain shot up from the soles of his feet through his knees and to his hips like it did whenever he was on the verge of exhaustion and he was wracked with chills even though his head felt hot and heavy. He stifled a groan when he recognized the signs of a fever, wishing he could just lie down and sleep for three days, but knowing that he should reach civilization before he could do so. There was only so much that a Labrador could do for a sick human, after all. Despite his silence, however, Ned quickly noticed when Ben started stumbling more than walking and let out a worried whine.
“Don’t worry ‘bout me, Ned, ‘m fine….” Ben mumbled out loud, trying to wake himself up. It didn’t work very well. Ned whined again, casting his keen eyes around to find some sort of civilization, and trotted quickly ahead. He let out an excited yelp when he saw a faint light in the distance and located a dirt road that led through the sparse woods towards the light. Dashing back to his human friend’s side, he communicated his findings telepathically.
“Come on, Ben, just a little further. You’ll see, there’s a nice house down this road with a warm fire and food and a bed. Come on, just keep going for a little while. You can do it, I know it!” Eventually, with the dog’s constant encouragement, Ben managed to stumble onto the porch of a rather nice house, thankfully noting the light burning in the front hall. Half-heartedly brushing at his clothes in a vague attempt to be more presentable, Ben rearranged the straps of his valise and motioned for Ned to come sit by his side. Then he knocked on the door.
Several moments ticked by before they heard the sound of bare footsteps on hardwood floor and the door swung open to reveal a slender man in his early thirties wearing sweats and a rolled up sweater against the chill of the night. His expression was hidden in the shadows of the light behind him, but his pleasant tenor voice was surprised.
“Oh—hello. Is there something I can help you with?”
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry to disturb you so late at night.” Ben managed to say politely, his exhaustion abating slightly at the welcome face of a stranger. “I was traveling to the nearest town, Oak Harbor, with my dog here and night fell before we could reach it. We—that is, I—was wondering if you would be kind enough to lend us shelter for the night. We will leave early in the morning, if it suits you.”
The man tilted his head in what seemed to be an unconscious gesture of curiosity as he watched the uncommonly polite boy with the strange clouded blue eyes and fever-blushed cheeks. He seemed to be contemplating the validity of Ben’s story. Finally, after a long moment of searching scrutiny, the man nodded fractionally.
“I suppose I could afford to let you bed down on the couch for the night. The dog too, if he’s housetrained.” Ben’s shoulders slumped in relief and tears nearly sprang to his eyes at the man’s acceptance. The constant guidance of the angel that watched over them sometimes softened the hearts of those they asked for help, but—more often than not these days—it seemed to be increasingly rare to be blessed with an act of kindness such as this.
“Yes, sir, he is! Thank you so very much for your kindness. I will repay you in any way that I can.” The man waved the earnest offer away with a hand as he led them inside and closed the door behind them. The house seemed light and airy despite the weather outside and the cozy quarters; the walls were white and the floors a light hardwood with area rugs beneath the comfortable-looking couches in the living room to the left. The short hallway they were in had a bathroom on the right as well as a closet and led directly to what looked like a clean, modern kitchen. In the light of the hallway, they could now see each other properly and Ben was comforted by the calm warmth in the stranger’s amber eyes.
“There’s no need to thank me with anything. I’ve only recently moved back into this house and it still seems bare to me. Maybe some human company will liven the place up a little. I’m Justin Gardner, by the way. What are your names?” He extended a hand and Ben shook it as firmly as he could while he introduced himself and his canine companion.
“My name is Ben, sir, and this is Ned. Shake his hand, Ned.” He prompted as he did each time they met someone for the first time. The black dog raised his paw solemnly for Justin to stoop and shake, though his tail wagged lazily.
“What an intelligent dog, your Ned is. Hello there, handsome fellow.” Justin said with an amused smile. Ned’s tail wagged more firmly.
“I like him, Ben.” The dog pronounced mentally, baring his teeth in a disarming doggy grin. “He has a calm way about him and he’s obviously intelligent. Spotted my best qualities right off, he did! It feels safe here.”
“Well, let’s get you warmed up. Hot cocoa?” Justin asked, motioning for the two to follow him into the kitchen. Both Ben and Ned nodded their heads enthusiastically. Justin paused and raised an uncertain eyebrow at the pair. “Er… did he just… nod?”
“Nah, his collar just itches him sometimes,” Ben replied, scratching roughly under the Labrador’s collar. He straightened again, swaying almost imperceptibly as he was attacked by a sense of dizziness. Justin’s expression clouded with worry and he strode quickly to Ben’s side, placing a steadying hand on the thin boy’s arm.
“Ben! Are you alright? Ben….” Ned transmitted worriedly, echoed by Justin.
“Ben, are you alright?”
“I—I’m fine.” Ben said faintly, shaking his head to clear it. “Sorry, I must be more tired than I thought.”
Justin frowned. “Are you sure? You look a little fevered.” Ben was startled by the man’s cool hand against his forehead, but he unconsciously leaned into the soft touch, closing his strange blue eyes. Justin hummed in contemplation and removed his hand, moving to the counter to stir the cocoa into the hot water. Ben silently took a seat on a tall chair next to the counter and received the cocoa when the older man passed it to him. He noted that Ned didn’t even complain that he hadn’t gotten any cocoa. Justin rummaged in a small box on the counter and withdrew a bottle of pills which he opened.
“Here, take these when the cocoa is cool enough,” he said, tapping out two small white pills and pushing them across the counter. Ben took them gratefully.
“Thank you, sir.”
“No need to be so polite, Ben; just call me Justin. I’m only twenty-nine, after all.” He waited for Ben’s nod before he continued. “Now, do mind me asking why you were out walking to Oak Harbor at 11 o’clock at night?”
“I’d prefer not to say, actually,” Ben answered cautiously. “But I promise that I’m not in any sort of trouble.”
“Don’t your parents know where you are? Maybe we should give them a call—”
“No, that’s alright. I’m an orphan,” Ben interrupted. “My parents died a long time ago and I don’t think I have any relatives, either.” His eyes drifted off to the side as he thought about that. He could barely remember what his mother looked like at this point and no real name, either, except for the derogatory “Mute” he was called as a child and, later, Nebuchadnezzar; given to him by a crew member of the cursed Flying Dutchman.
“I understand….” Justin responded, his warm eyes compassionate, and strangely Ben felt that he truly did understand. “How old are you?”
“I’m sixteen.” Ben replied, stretching the truth a little. Technically, he was nearly four hundred years old and he wasn’t exactly sure at what age he had been turned immortal, but he felt that he could pass as an older teenager. His body was rather wiry and muscular due to the hard years of constant movement and labor to survive, and his eyes, he knew, were far too wise and experienced no matter what his apparent age was. Despite this, Justin seemed to accept his answer at face-value.
“What were you planning to find in Oak Harbor?” At this, Ben shrugged. Both he and Ned had felt the call to come to Washington nearly three weeks ago and were directed by the ever-present angel to Oak Harbor. No doubt there was someone there they needed to help.
“Work, probably. I have some boating experience and I hoped that I could work on the coast.” He left it at that and Justin seemed to sense that the topic was closed. They finished their drinks quickly and Justin led Ben back to the living room, taking a spare blanket and pillow from the hall closet as he did so. Ben inspected the room with interest. There were large boxes piled on one side of the room, in front of the large bay windows, and a couple of large bookshelves waiting to be filled on the adjacent wall. A sofa and loveseat sat perpendicular to each other in the opposite corner of the room with a couple of matching armchairs across from them. A small, modern coffee table sat on top of the thick area rug in the center of the small area with a stack of magazines. Ned, who had been strangely lacking in his usual sarcastic commentary, immediately curled up beside the sofa and waited expectantly for his friend to sit and rest.
“This place is nothing fancy, but it’ll do. I must admit that I’m not used to entertaining strangers overnight, but there’s something about you two…. Well, anyway, sleep well. The bathroom is in the hall and there’s a hall off of the kitchen that leads to my bedroom in case you need anything.”
“I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me, Justin. You have a rare kindness.” Ben said as he sank onto the soft cushions and wrapped the slightly musty-smelling blanket around himself.
“It’s nothing, trust me. Sleep well, Ben.”
Justin flipped the light switch off as he left the room and within minutes the house had become dark and silent. Ben lay in the silence, reveling in the heavenly warmth that surrounded him. His body, as if recognizing that it could finally relax, melted into the cushions and he let out a sigh at the muscles that unwound painfully. He had spent far too many nights on cold, hard ground lately. He hoped that the angel would allow them to stay here for quite some time before the inevitable call came to move on.
As was his habit, Justin woke early and lay in bed for a several minutes to plan out his day. With Hunter’s help, the house had been cleaned, aired, and put into order in record time. His black-haired friend had thrown himself into the work enthusiastically, seemingly ecstatic that Justin was back in Oak Harbor, and his garish humor had kept Justin laughing for hours. Despite the constant ache of pain and betrayal in his heart, he felt peaceful here in his home town, like he was slipping into a pair of well-worn, comfortable shoes after a month of wearing stiff boots. And Hunter’s warm reception only increased that feeling.
“But Hunter won’t be coming until lunch today. I can probably get started without him, but I’ll leave the computer setup to him.” He reflected, stretching absently with a yawn and wincing at the smattering of pops from his back that accompanied the movement. He lay for a minute more, listening to the faint sounds of wind blustering against the house as it constantly did. “It’s way too quiet here. I wonder if I could dig out a radio from one of the boxes in the living room. If only I can remember which one it’s in…” The thought struck a chord within him and he sat up suddenly. He remembered the rail-thin towheaded boy and the black lab that had arrived on his doorstep late last night, looking as if they had just stepped off of a seventeenth century merchant’s ship at port, asking for a place to stay for the night. The mysterious feeling of wisdom and trust that surrounded the boy like a shroud and that had prompted him to offer them a place on his couch to sleep.
“Ben! I can’t believe I forgot about him!” Justin scrambled out of bed and hurried through his morning routine before emerging from his room and immediately going to through the empty kitchen and to the living room. He instinctively knew that the teen—who had looked nearly dead on his feet with exhaustion—was no danger and his innate curiosity wanted to know a bit more about the unique child before he left. Justin let out the breath he had been holding when he saw that his two guests were still asleep, but a faint frown creased his brow when he saw their sleep was not restful.
The lab, Ned, was whimpering softly, his legs twitching in distress and Ben was also shivering heavily beneath the blanket Justin had provided him with. The boy was frowning, eyelids twitching, and a faint sheen of sweat covered his brow. Obviously, the boy’s fever from the night before hadn’t been helped by the aspirin. Justin crossed the room immediately, bending over the couch to place the back of his hand against Ben’s forehead. The poor boy was burning up!
“Ben? Ben? Can you wake up for me?” Justin said softly, shaking the boy’s thin shoulder lightly to wake him. Slowly, Ben’s breathing changed and his eyelids clenched before slowly opening, revealing eyes that were glassy with illness.
“Ned? Ned, is that you?” Ben croaked, withdrawing an arm from beneath the blanket to rub across his eyes lethargically.
“No, Ben, it’s me, Justin. Do you remember me?” The boy’s brow creased in confusion as he attempted to process the sentence and Justin shook his head. “Never mind, Ben. Can you just stay awake for me for a few minutes? You have a bad fever and I need to give you some medicine to help you. Wait here for me, will you?” Without waiting for a response, Justin straightened and left the room. He filled a bowl with cool water and dunked a rag in it before getting out more aspirin and a glass of water. “Bet you didn’t think that you would end up taking care of a sick orphan within a week of moving back, did you?” He thought to himself with an ironic smile.
As he entered the living room again, he saw that Ned had woken and was whining with worry at his master’s side, his wet nose nudging the teen’s cheek as if to keep him awake. Ben was protesting weakly, turning his head away and mumbling something under his breath.
“Good boy, Ned, now let me take care of your master, okay?” Surprisingly, dog backed away as Justin approached, those too-intelligent brown eyes nearly pleading with him. “Don’t worry, Ned, I’ve got it under control. I’ll take care of him.” Justin found himself murmuring in response as he knelt by the couch. Ben turned his head in his direction and the man was startled by the infinite sadness in the young man’s cloudy eyes.
“Yes, he is a nice man, Ned. But don’t forget the bell! We have to leave at the sound of the bell, and we’ll never see him again. This time will pass just like all the other times…. He will die just like the rest. They all die, don’t forget that, Ned.” A lone tear suddenly fell from Ben’s eye and his body shivered forcefully as if holding back a sob. Goosebumps raced over Justin’s arms at the depth of emotion in the teenager’s voice. The words were confusing, but were spoken with such resignation that he felt a thrill of fear before he remembered what he was supposed to be doing.
“Ben, I’m going to help you sit up now, okay? I need you to drink some of this water and take some medicine.” Justin helped the listless boy sit up and take the aspirin, silently worried at how thin and light the teen was. After obediently drinking the rest of the water, Ben immediately fell asleep, and Justin took the time to quickly sponge off the boy’s face and neck with the damp cloth before laying it across his forehead. Ned remained faithfully by Ben’s side the entire time.
After he had done everything he could, Justin went to the kitchen to make himself some breakfast before he started the day. He was reluctant to leave Ben completely alone in case the boy needed him and so he decided to sort through the boxes in the living room and organize his books before putting them on the shelf. He spent the rest of the morning doing just that, once letting Ned out when the dog stood by the door and whined for a bit, and waking up Ben once more for some water. He was completely stunned when the teen spoke entirely in fluent Spanish that time, though it seemed that Ben wasn’t completely aware of his surroundings yet.
It was nearly noon and all of the books were put away on the bookshelves by the time Justin heard the familiar sound of Hunter’s 1979 Toyota Celica pulling up to his driveway. He quickly got up to meet his friend in the doorway, smiling faintly when he saw the bags of Chinese take-out slung on Hunter’s arm. It was something of a tradition the two of them had.
“Hey, Justin, you ready for some lunch?” The green-eyed man grinned as he bounded onto the porch.
“I’m always ready for Chinese take-out,” Justin responded, holding the door open for him. “But keep it down. I have a guest that’s sleeping.” Some of the exuberance faded from Hunter’s eyes and his smile dimmed noticeably.
“A guest? Moving a bit fast, aren’t you? Who did you invite over after I left last night?” Justin blinked in confusion before he realized what Hunter meant and he flushed, punching his friend on the arm.
“Lord, not that kind of guest! What kind of person do you think I am?”
“Sorry,” Hunter mumbled, rubbing his arm, but a small smile quirked his lips. “Well, who is it, then?” Justin led him to the kitchen to drop off the food before he motioned the other man to follow him into the living room. Hunter’s eyes widened in surprise when he saw the flushed towheaded boy laying on the couch with a damp cloth on his forehead.
“His name’s Ben,” Justin explained quietly. “He came to the door last night asking for a place to stay for the night. He and his dog had been walking to Oak Harbor before night fell. He was sick last night, too, but it was worse this morning.” Hunter turned to him, incredulous.
“And you just let him stay? A complete stranger? He could be a delinquent, Justin! A druggie or a thief! He could be on the run from the cops or something; he could have killed you in your sleep!” Justin grabbed his friend’s arm and dragged him into the kitchen before he woke Ben up.
“Don’t you think I’ve already thought of that? I’m not stupid, Hunter.” He said calmly. “You haven’t met him yet. You’ll understand when you do.”
“I understand that you have a weak spot for injured children, Justin, I was just making sure that you weren’t being taken advantage of.”
“And I appreciate it, I really do, but don’t you think that I should be a pretty good judge of a kid’s character by now? Ben’s a good kid; a little mysterious, sure, but I’d be more worried if he just blurts his whole life story out to a complete stranger. He’s polite to a fault and he loves his dog with his whole heart. Don’t worry about it, Hunter.”
“Well, alright,” Hunter said reluctantly. “I trust you. I want to meet him, though.” Justin chuckled, nudging his friend playfully with his shoulder.
“Sure, you can meet him whenever he wakes up.” After lunch, they worked together in a companionable silence, unpacking boxes and putting everything in their correct places. Occasionally, Justin would leave the room to check on Ben and Ned—who sat, as unmovable as a statue, by his master’s side—and woke the boy once more to give him water and more aspirin. Ben was lucid this time, but incredibly tired and he went back to sleep almost immediately.
It was past seven o’clock by the time Ben woke again. The day’s light was a warm orange glow that filtered through the curtains in the bay window and lit the vaguely familiar room. He felt much better; still a little tired but not nearly as hot or stuffy as he remembered feeling. His head felt strangely heavy but clear and his muscles felt weak and watery. Slowly, he managed to sit up and lean against the pillow that was propped up against the arm of the couch. A glass of water sat invitingly on the coffee table and he took a deep gulp, sighing at the cool relief it brought.
“Ben? Ben, are you awake now?” Ned’s worried voice broke into his thoughts frantically as the dog bounded into the room and thrust his nose under Ben’s hand. Ben laughed softly, scratching his faithful companion behind the ears.
“Yes, I am, Ned. How long was I out?”
“You’ve been feverish all day; it’s nearly sunset now and you’ve only woken up three times. Justin has been caring for you.”
“I thought as much,” Ben sighed. “He’s a good man. What do we do now?”
“I’ve been thinking—not much else to do when you’re sleeping the day away—and I think that we should probably stay here at least another day if he’ll let us. You’re still not healthy yet.” Before Ben could respond, he noticed Justin and another man watching him from the doorway.
“You’d think that you’re nearly talking to Ned, the way that you were staring at him,” Justin laughed as he moved into the room.
“You’re not the first person to say so, sir,” Ben chuckled.
“What did I tell you, Ben? My name is Justin, not ‘sir’.”
“Er… yes, s—Justin. Thank you again for everything you’ve done for me. I wasn’t expecting to get so sick…”
“There’s nothing to apologize for. It wasn’t like you could help it,” Justin scolded gently. Ben shrugged before his gaze was caught by the other man still standing in the doorway of the living room. His clear green eyes were fixed on Ben’s with a strange expression, as if he had seen Ben somewhere before. Noticing the distraction, Justin gestured to the man. “Ben, I want to you meet my best friend, Hunter Nowland. He’s been helping me move back into my house. Hunter, this is Ben and his dog Ned.”
“Nice to meet you, sir,” Ben said politely, mentally nudging Ned to go offer his paw to the man.
“Yeah, yeah, I know the drill. Nice to meet’cha, mate.”
“It’s just Hunter. Pleasure to meet you, I’m sure,” Hunter said absently as he dropped down on a knee to shake Ned’s paw. “You’re a lovely hound, aren’t you, Ned?” He straightened, his puzzled gaze drawn to Ben’s face again. “You seem very familiar, Ben. Have we met before? Maybe you have an older brother that goes to college nearby?”
Ben shook his head. “I’m an only child and an orphan, s—Hunter. I’m quite sure we’ve never met before.”
“Hunter is a professor of Fine Arts at the Western Washington University nearby,” Justin explained. “You probably look like one of his students.” Hunter looked like he disagreed, but he didn’t say anything more. “Well, how are you feeling, Ben?”
“I’m really weak, but I’m not tired anymore and my headache’s gone.” He was actually really hungry, too, but it would be rude to suggest it to his host. Almost as if he had read his mind, however, Justin chuckled.
“I’ll bet you’re hungry, too. I’ll make some chicken soup for you, if you think you’re up to moving to the kitchen?” Ben nodded eagerly, pushing the blanket away and setting his bare feet on the ground. He shivered at the cool floor but resolutely pushed himself up and managed to stand on his feet without swaying too much. Almost immediately, Justin was at his side, helping him despite his protests to reach the kitchen and sit in a chair at the table. As soon as he was settled, with a grinning Ned at his feet, the two men began to make a simple dinner for themselves and Ben. It seemed that the other man, Hunter, had gotten over his strange recognition of Ben and returned to his normal humor. Ben and Ned laughed silently together at the easy, teasing relationship between the two friends that reminded them somewhat of themselves.
“Now if that isn’t the thought of an old man, I don’t know what is!” Ned chortled as he caught the end of Ben’s thoughts. “We could show these young whippersnappers a thing or three, couldn’t we, Ben?”
“Aye, mate, we sure could. In case you haven’t noticed, they’ve still got some issues to work out between them.”
The dog nodded slightly. “Aye, there’s a fair bit of tension there, even if it’s not very obvious. D’you think it’s the Hunter fellow that’s in love with Justin or the other way around?”
“It’s definitely Hunter in love with Justin. Justin is just too oblivious to notice, and besides that, he’s in pain. Have you noticed?”
“Have I noticed? I may be a dog, boyo, but by now I would have to be blind not to see it. We’ve seen the same cycle so many times that could write a book about it! And anyway, I was listening to them talk earlier. They’re both homosexual, but Justin has just gotten out of a painful relationship. Hunter has been single for quite some time, I’d wager.”
“I wonder why….” Ben said dryly and Ned huffed in amusement. Before he had become immortal, Ben had grown up in a thriving harbor that often housed pirates and seamen of all natures and he had known what the loneliness of months at sea could drive men to do to relieve their baser natures. He had also been aware that there were some who rather preferred the company of other men to the dock whores that were to be found at every corner. Homosexuality was not a foreign concept to him and he had met several men or women over the years whose love had been just as strong and enduring than the traditional couples he had met. If Hunter and Justin ever got up the courage to confess their love, they would be very happy indeed.
“Hunter, Justin mentioned earlier that you are a professor at a university. But aren’t you a bit young?” Ben interrupted their banter and Hunter grinned over at the towheaded boy.
“I’m not a professor through lack of hard work, I assure you. Even though I didn’t graduate from high school early like Justin here did, I made up for it through sheer determination. I didn’t take any breaks in college and I graduated with my masters within four years at the top of my class. I’ve been a part of the faculty at Western Washington for over five years now.”
“Wow! That’s really impressive,” Ben exclaimed, appreciating the work that must have gone into such study. He himself had barely managed to scrape by with a formal high school education over the years and he had even attempted to enter college once. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t probable for the lifestyle he lived. Not only would he be prompted to leave the town within several months, but any college would be extremely reluctant to teach a sixteen-year-old. He had had to resort to teaching himself as much as he could through books and it was not easy. Despite his true age, he knew that there was still a wealth of information he did not have and he was, as always, eager to learn.
“And what exactly do you teach?” Ben asked, his interest piqued.
“Technically, my degree is in Humanities, but it can be described as the history of the fine arts.” Hunter explained, amused by the young teen’s questions. “I teach my students a history of art, music, literature, philosophy, and humanity chronologically throughout the world. It’s definitely the best job ever.” He added with a superior smirk. Justin rolled his eyes but Ben laughed in silent agreement. If there was one thing he knew, it was history; after all, he had lived it.
“He always says that,” Justin said with amusement. “Personally, psychology has always been my passion and I became a child psychologist as soon as I got my doctorate three years ago.”
“A child psychologist?” Ben repeated, startled. He wouldn’t have guessed that, but now that he thought about it, he could see how it suited the warm, patient man. Even Ben himself had felt that he could trust Justin within only a day of knowing him. “You aren’t analyzing me right now, are you?” He joked.
“Even if I was, I doubt that I could come to any conclusions. You’re a real mystery, Ben.” Justin said thoughtfully. The younger boy just shook his head.
“And just as well, or else our job would be much harder,” Ned chipped in.
“Aye, that’s true enough, mate.”
The rest of the meal passed with easy conversation and later, after a tired Ben had been ushered back to the couch to sleep for the night, Justin and Hunter found themselves in the kitchen lingering over a cup of tea as they discussed their impromptu houseguest.
“How old is he, Justin? He doesn’t look a day over fourteen.”
“Last night he said that he was sixteen, but I’m not sure if I believe it. Like you said, he just doesn’t look it, but he certainly does act like it.”
Hunter snorted. “You’ve got that right. I’ve seen adults twice his age that are more immature than he is.”
“Does that mean that you no longer fear for my life if he stays the night?” Justin teased and his friend mock scowled at him.
“Fine, fine, I get what you said about trusting him. He’s a real puzzle, but now that I’ve met him, I feel like I could trust him with anything. Do you know what he was planning on doing in Oak Harbor?”
“He said that he had some boating experience and wanted to work on the docks. I’m worried about him, Hunter; a kid that young and alone shouldn’t have to fend for himself in such a dangerous place.”
“I know what you mean, but what can we do? He is a stranger, Justin, and we really don’t know anything about him. You know how foster homes are for kids that old and you certainly can’t adopt him.” Justin shook his head with frustration.
“I know, I know…. But I can get him to stay around here for a while; make him do odd jobs for some money while I find out more about him and decide what to do. But I can’t just leave him alone now, Hunter, you know? It’d feel like I’m abandoning him or something.”
Hunter sighed. He had lectured Justin on his almost chronic compassion for hurt youth dozens of times and had warned him that he might get hurt one day, but the other man had always brushed him off. Hunter wasn’t used to being the voice of reason or caution in their friendship, and he didn’t really know what to do when his friend got like this. There really was nothing to do except support him and help him through it. And, despite himself, Hunter was actually coming to care a bit about the engaging, enigmatic teen himself. So, he decided to go along with the situation for now.
“Well, do you at least know where he’s from? Maybe you could find out something there.”
“Er… no, I don’t know.” Justin admitted with a faint blush. Obviously he had forgotten to ask Ben last night, Hunter realized with a roll of his eyes. Then the shorter man frowned. “But his accent is strange. Did you notice?”
“Yeah, I did. It sounded like a mixture of a lot of things, actually; so much so that it’s almost indistinguishable. The heaviest is something that sounds almost like Dutch, but I can hear other languages, too. How d’you suppose that happened?”
“I really have no idea. I haven’t heard anything like it; not even in adults.” Justin said, tapping his slender fingers against the sides of his warm cup. He seemed to have forgotten the liquid itself in his contemplation and Hunter saw the bright gleam in his friend’s eyes that he recognized as the thrill of a puzzling challenge. He felt a rather relieved flutter in his chest as he saw it. It was something intimately familiar from the past that he was afraid had been lost with the intervening years and subsequent heartache of a failed relationship. It seemed that he needed to thank the mysterious Ben and Ned for awakening it again.
“He speaks Spanish.” Justin said suddenly, breaking Hunter’s train of thought.
“He speaks Spanish. Fluently. He woke up once during the fever and he didn’t really recognize where he was. He started talking in Spanish.”
“Well, that’s interesting. He certainly doesn’t look like he’s from Mexico.”
“Well. We won’t know anything for sure unless he tells us, so we can stop speculating about it. Are you going to go home tonight?”
“Nah, the university’s out for the summer, so I don’t have much to do besides work on my article for ‘Humanity’s Humanities’. My article in the magazine last month was a real hit.”
“I’ve gotta say, Hunter, I never would’ve pegged you for the kind of guy to work in a small room all day and type up scholarly articles for national magazines.”
“My colleagues must have been rubbing off on me these last few years.” the green-eyed man said with a painful little smile. “What can I say? I love the attention.”
Stay a while with these two friends
And help nurture a love that never ends.
Pain and heartache you have known
But love and care you have forever shown.
What you have always given others must now be given to you
Until you are again ready to hear the bell ring true.
So linger here until these lovers know thee well
And no longer think of this world as a hell.
Ben woke with a gasp, sitting up amongst the wrinkled blankets on the couch as the angel’s words echoed through his mind. Ned was already on his feet alertly, his solemn brown eyes seeking out Ben’s in the darkness. Their heartbeats began to slow as they registered the meaning of the angel’s message.
“I guess that answers why were supposed to come to Oak Harbor.” Ned said dryly. Ben barely cracked a smile.
“Ned, what does this mean?” He asked out loud. The lab flicked an ear curiously.
“We never really understand what the nice angel means until we have to leave, you know that. There’s no point to wondering about it. Why should this be any different?”
“I don’t know. This time seems different, though. It’s the last part that worries me.” Ned became still, his eyes suddenly sharp and knowing. He put his paw on the young lad’s leg.
“You mean the part about thinking of this world as a hell.” It was not a question. The towheaded boy looked away. Ned huffed out through his nose, the dog version of a sigh, and laid his head on the couch next to Ben’s knee. His mental voice, which was always light and teasing, was heavy and pensive. “We’ve been alive for a long time, Ben. Three-hundred and seventy-five years. Constantly moving around at the beck and call of a heavenly being; making and losing friends in what seems like a breath; the years blurring together with the only constants being each other. It’s a hard life, Ben. It’s normal to get tired once in a while, but we have to remember everything we have to be thankful to the angel for.”
“I understand that, Ned, I really do.” Ben insisted, switching to a mental voice. “I’ve just been feeling a little discouraged lately.”
“I know, mate, we all just need a reminder once in a while.” Ned replied calmly. Ben had the feeling that his old friend didn’t really believe him. It was nearly morning already, and they both knew that they wouldn’t get anymore sleep. By the time Justin and Hunter woke, the house was filled with the delicious aroma of omelets, hash browns, bacon, and hot cocoa. The two men stumbled groggily into the kitchen, still clothed in their pajamas as they took in the sight of Ben calmly flipping an omelet in a pan. He turned and smiled brightly.
“Er…. M-morning,” Justin responded, dazed.
“I could get used to this,” Hunter moaned appreciatively as he stretched, inhaling deeply. His light undershirt rode up on his stomach and Justin’s gaze caught on the soft skin stretched over Hunter’s taut abdomen. He stared for a few seconds before he realized what he was doing and he jerked his gaze away as if burned, blushing. Hunter didn’t seem to notice.
“I hope you don’t mind, Justin, but I made us breakfast. I wanted to thank you for everything....”
“Trust me, Ben, it was no problem, especially if this is how you thank me.” Justin said fervently as he sat at his place at the small table.
“It’s delicious. Where did you learn to cook like this?” Hunter asked through a mouthful of bacon. He was already well into his omelet. Ben shrugged with a mysterious little smile.
“Oh, I just picked it up a while ago. I like to cook.”
“Ben, I was thinking….” Justin said later as they cleaned up the dishes.
“Ooh, watch out!” Hunter warned lightly. His friend slapped him on the arm, grinning.
“Watch it, jerk, I wasn’t talking to you. Ben, what would you say about staying here with me for a while? I could really use some help getting this place ready to be lived in again. I’ll even pay you for your work.” Despite the fact that Ben had known that he was meant to stay here for a while, he couldn’t help being surprised. He had thought that he would have to convince Justin to let him stay, not that Justin would offer first. Nonetheless….
“I—I don’t know what to say,” Ben stammered in apparent shock. “T-that’s so generous…. Are you sure?”
“Of course,” Justin insisted. “I need the help and you need the work. Besides, I like having you around.”
“But you barely know me!” Ben blurted, surprised for real this time. Sure, the situation had been much the same when he stayed with Mrs. Winn in Chapelvale, but that was nearly a century ago. Times were different then. The older man shrugged.
“I’ve met a lot of kids over the years and I know a good one when I see him. Call it instinct, but I trust you. So, what do you say?” A warm feeling slowly spread through Ben’s chest and he couldn’t help the grin that spread across his face.
“Justin, what’s that?” Ben pointed down off the road to the left of the house, where a small grey roof could be seen amongst the thick foliage of the forest. It had been three days since Ben had agreed to stay here and Justin had just taken him to Oak Harbor to spend his wages so far on some clothes.
“Hm? Oh, that’s the boathouse. I used to sail quite a bit, but my boat was damaged in a storm a few years ago. I guess I never got around to fixing it since it’s mostly an old rowboat; made out of wood and everything. I was thinking of getting a new one.”
“The ocean is that close?” Ben asked incredulously. Surely he would have heard the unmistakable sounds of the ocean before now. But Justin shook his head.
“No, it’s actually more of a lake or cove that leads out to a larger cove that leads to the ocean.” He grinned, scratching his head. “Does that make sense?” Ben just nodded, his thoughts caught on the idea of a broken skiff in need of repairs. It seemed like ages since he’d last set foot on a deck. He’d had both the best and worst times of his life on the sea and, because of Vanderdecken and the Flying Dutchman, he had an undeniable connection with it. Even now, he could feel the pull of the rolling waves, the crisp sea spray, the boundless horizons….
Justin’s ever-observant eye caught Ben’s interest. Ben hadn’t shown much of an interest in anything besides learning—certainly the television or radio hadn’t captured his attention. However, Justin was surprised to see that Ben’s expression was less interested than simply longing. It was as if he was looking at something precious that he hadn’t seen in a long time. Much like many of the things related to the teen, his thoughts were a mystery. And to Justin—who made a living of deciphering youth—it was particularly curious.
Over the past few days, he had been astounded by Ben’s broad range of knowledge and his insatiable desire to learn more—Hunter, of course, had been thrilled. At first, Justin had thought that this thirst for knowledge stemmed from a desire to prove himself as more than a homeless orphan, but as the days passed he couldn’t find any evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, Ben seemed to be far more adjusted and stable than most of his peers and he had no self-esteem issues that Justin could see. The only vaguely odd thing was the way that the teen treated Ned as more human than animal. Granted, Ned was much more intelligent than the average dog, but Justin had never seen such a close relationship between a boy and his dog before. Though, according to Ben, they had been together for the greater portion of each other’s lives and Ben had no family to speak of, so it seemed natural that he would be attached to the friendly canine.
Justin didn’t comment on Ben’s interest but tucked the information away for later contemplation. Perhaps he would finally get around to fixing that old boat this summer….
Ben grinned when he entered the small house behind Justin and heard the amused grumbles and playful growling coming from the kitchen. Ned had opted to stay behind with Hunter to help make lunch while Justin drove Ben the scant ten minutes into the main town of Oak Harbor, but Ben knew that Ned’s “help” usually consisted of stealing bits of food from the preparation and generally getting in the cook’s way. Obviously, the equally-mischievous Hunter didn’t mind Ned’s intrusion.
“Argh! Gerroff, you impudent fur ball!” Hunter growled as he held a plate of lunch meat high out of the reach of Ned’s salivating mouth. His eyes lit up as he spied them lingering in the doorway grinning at him. “Hey, you! It’s about time you two got back! I’ve been suffering here for nearly two hours with this bottomless stomach you call a pet; call him off, will ya, Ben?”
“Hah! Don’t let the blaggard fool you, Ben. He promised to give me a slice of meat before you came back!”
Ben let out a bright laugh that was quite different from the soft chuckles the two adults had known him for. He hadn’t laughed this way in years, it seemed, and Ned felt a flicker of concerned affection for his human companion. Why hadn’t he noticed immediately when Ben started to become more quiet and withdrawn from the people they met over the years? Ned wondered as he obediently trotted to Ben side after the boy snapped his fingers. He sat and grinned wolfishly up at a still-scowling Hunter, leaning firmly into Ben’s thin form. The boy’s hand dropped down to his head and expertly scratched the spot just around the base of Ned’s right ear, causing the lab to lean his head into the touch and half-close his eyes. Justin was teasing the green-eyed man as they set the table and Ben’s emotions felt calm and affectionate, if tinged with a hint of longing, through their connection.
“Do they remind you of anyone, Ned?”
“Hmm… I suppose they remind me of quite a few people we’ve met over the years. I can’t think of anyone in particular though; they’re pretty unique in their own right. Who do they remind you of, Ben?”
“Family. Not mine, obviously, but other’s….”
“Ben….” Ned didn’t complete the thought, but a second later he tried to lighten the atmosphere. “Aren’t I your family, you whippersnapper? I’m old enough to be your grandfather in dog years, y’know.”
“Ah, yes, the infamous dog years.” Ben teased, smiling down at his faithful companion. “You know, I don’t think you’ve ever properly explained just how long ‘dog years’ are. Convenient, don’t you think?”
“Impudent pup.” The lab sniffed. “Obviously, you wouldn’t understand the complexities of the matter. I didn’t want you to strain your brain.”
“Well, considering I’m the one who can read and you can’t—“ Ben’s thought was cut off when Justin motioned him to the table, encouraging him to eat. Ignoring Ned’s huff of laughter, he smiled and sat next to Hunter, who reached over to muss the teen’s hair.
“Hey!” Ben protested half-heartedly. He was over three centuries old, after all, even if he didn’t act like it most of the time. Although, over the years, he had come to accept that he would always appear to be young in everyone’s eyes and thus he would need to deal with these small indignities. Truthfully, he dealt with it better than Ned did.
“Are you going to miss me, Ben?” Hunter asked with a grin. Ben tilted his head, confused.
“Where are you going?”
“You weren’t listening? I was saying that I’ve got to go back to my apartment for tomorrow. I’ll probably drop by for dinner, though.”
“Oh. Of course I’ll miss you, Hunter. Justin over there is about as entertaining as a rock with you gone.” He grinned to show he was kidding as Justin gasped painfully and clutched his heart.
“Oh, that hurts! Watch what you say, Ben, or you’ll wake up to a face full of cold water one day!” They broke up into laughter and Ben’s melodic laugh brightened the room once more. Cleaning duties were distributed between the three after dinner, as had become normal over the past few days and Ben let his mind drift as he immersed his hands in warm soapy water to wash the dishes. It felt good to be a part of something again. It was temporary of course, as he well knew, but he had learned to take what he could get in terms of affection and normalcy during his brief stays. Besides, he enjoyed the delicate challenge of getting the two stubborn men to admit their feelings to each other.
Hunter was at Justin’s house rather a lot; Ben reflected as he rinsed a plate clean and set it on the drying rack next to the sink. In fact, he had gathered that Justin had only moved into his house a week ago and Ben would bet his boots that Hunter had been there every day since. He had even stayed over that night he had met Ben for the first time and Ben found that promising, even if the affection between them hadn’t progressed farther than platonic. Ben sensed that it could take them years to get together if they continued at this rate.
And that wouldn’t do at all.
Ben set the last dish into the drying rack and wiped his hands on a towel, his thoughts distracted by Hunter calling his name. He made his way into the entrance hall, where Hunter was preparing to leave for the night.
“Hey, kiddo, can you come get the set of tools from my car before I leave? I forgot to get them out earlier.”
“Sure.” Ben replied, slipping on his shoes as Hunter said goodbye to Justin and followed the tall man out to his car. He had a feeling that the tools weren’t the only thing Hunter wanted to talk to him about. They walked silently until they were out of earshot from the house and Hunter started speaking, proving Ben’s suspicions.
“Ben, you know that Justin has just moved back here after living in Seattle for two years, right?” Ben nodded silently. “Well, he probably didn’t mention that he was in a fairly serious relationship while he was there. I won’t tell you the details, but his…. well, the other person ended up doing something that hurt Justin very much and Justin moved back here to… sort of get away, I suppose.”
“They hurt him? Why? Justin’s such a kind and caring person!” Ben couldn’t help but interrupt, angry at the thought of someone purposefully hurting the man who had taken him in. In the faint light from the porch light, Ben could see Hunter’s jaw clench and he imagined that the other man was feeling the same anger.
“I don’t know, Ben, I really don’t. Some people just don’t understand the concept of commitment or hurting other’s feelings. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that Justin is still trying to get over what this other person did. I would appreciate it if you keep an eye on him tomorrow; if he starts getting a bit sad or distant, maybe you can help him get out of it.”
“Of course.” Ben said at once, his voice firm and sincere. “I’ll watch out for him.” Hunter paused next to his car and looked back at Ben, his green eyes softening a bit. He reached out to muss Ben’s hair and this time Ben didn’t protest, instead leaning into the touch briefly.
“I know you will, Ben. Thanks; you’re a good kid. I’ll see you for dinner tomorrow, okay?” Ben nodded and Hunter ducked into the car to retrieve the tool box and hand it over. Ben waved goodbye as the car pulled away and he slowly returned to the house, his thoughts pensive.
“What’s wrong, Ben?” Ned asked, picking up on Ben’s emotions.
“Nothing really, Ned.” Ben replied, explaining the situation to his friend.
“Huh, Justin hides his pain pretty well. If I wasn’t a dog, I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“You’re modest, too, I see.” Ben teased lightly. “We’ll just keep an eye on him. If he needs cheering up, we know what to do.”
“Aye, that we do, mate.”
“Justin, I have a question.” Ben said later that night as he sat on the living room couch and set aside the shirt he had just mended. (Both Justin and Hunter had gaped in astonishment when they saw him pull out his small sewing kit and start sewing the tears in his clothing.) The amber-eyed man set down the book he had been reading and fixed Ben with a curious gaze.
“Tomorrow is Sunday and I’d like to go to a church service. Would you mind taking me into town?” Justin’s expression registered surprise before it settled into thoughtfulness.
“Of course, I would love to take you. But Ben,” he hesitated briefly, “I hope you don’t mind if I don’t join you. I believe in God and I respect those that attend formal services, but I prefer to worship in my own way.”
“I understand completely.” Ben hastened to reassure him. “Thank you, Justin. It means a lot to me.”
“You’re a strange one, Ben. Not many teens your age would voluntarily go to church.”
“It wasn’t always like this.” The towheaded boy replied truthfully.
“What changed?” Ben’s strange clouded blue eyes unfocused, as if they were watching a scene unfold from afar and Justin felt his skin tingle with anticipation.
“A miracle.” He said simply. “I was blessed with a miracle that changed my life. I’ve tried to show my appreciation any way I can ever since.”
“Can you tell me about it?” Ben’s eyes refocused abruptly at that and he shook his head sadly.
“I would like to, but I…. I can’t. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright, Ben, I understand. I didn’t mean to pry.” And again, Ben felt that strange feeling that the man truly did understand and he felt warmth fill his chest.
Early the next morning, Justin drove Ben—in his nicest outfit—to the small church not ten minutes away from the house. After Justin drove away, Ben stared up at the church spire and let out a sigh, running a hand through his hair. It was getting quite long, he noticed absently.
Truthfully, there were times when Ben did not want to attend the church services, despite what he had said to Justin last night. There were times—more frequent in recent decades—when he felt somewhat resentful of this blessing/curse that the angel had given him. He was getting tired. The endless years that stretched before him filled with increasingly cruel and depraved acts of humanity were beginning to grate on his soul, making him feel as though he were a tiny insect trying to survive under the crushing weight of a boulder. He never shared these feelings with Ned, though he suspected that his companion was aware of them.
His dark thoughts were interrupted by a wail of pain erupting nearby. Startled, he jumped and looked to his right. There was a little girl, about five or six, kneeling on the concrete sidewalk where she had obviously tripped and fallen, tears streaming from her brown eyes. A boy of the same age stood close, uncertainly patting her back. Ben immediately ran to her side, dropping down to his knee and gently stroking her soft brown hair.
“Hey there, are you alright?” Ben asked softly, trying not to scare her. Her cries quieted slightly as she sat up and cradled her elbow to her chest, sniffling. “Did you trip and hurt your elbow?” The girl nodded and looked up at him tearfully.
“I told her not to run fast ‘cause she’s not fast like me.” The boy piped up. “But she did anyway.”
“Can I see?” Ben asked, gently taking her small arm and turning it to look at the elbow. There was a red scrape there, but it wasn’t bleeding. “Well look, it’s not even bleeding. You’re alright, aren’t you? Look, I’ll even make it feel better.” He leaned over and blew some cool air onto the scrape, simultaneously tickling her with his other hand. Her whimpers instantly transformed into giggles and she squirmed to get away from his nimble fingers.
“See? It’s all better now!” Ben sat back and smiled at the little girl, who merely giggled. He reached into his pocket and took out his handkerchief, brushing it across her cheeks to dry the tears. “Look at the pretty girl beneath all those tears! You shouldn’t cry so often or else no one could see how pretty you are. Here, let’s fix your hair a bit.” He brushed the long hair away from her face where it had stuck to her tears and then he helped her stand up.
“There. Do you feel better now?” She nodded shyly and Ben grinned. “Great! Now, what are your names?”
“I’m Jayson and she’s Sarah. We’re twins!” The boy proclaimed proudly and Ben smiled at them. Now that he looked at them together, he could see the resemblance. They were both dressed in matching colors; a black suit or dress with a red tie or sash, and Sarah had a red bow in her hair. They both had fine brown hair and sparkling brown eyes, but it was clear that Jayson was the more exuberant of the two.
“It’s nice to meet you. My name’s Ben. Where are your parents?”
“Mom told us to wait by the door while she got the bags from the car and Dad is the minister!” Jayson said.
“Really? That’s very nice.” Ben replied, distracted by the boy he suddenly noticed standing a few yards away from them, staring at them. He looked to be about fifteen with dark brown, nearly black hair and pale skin and the most startling shade of sapphire blue eyes that Ben had ever seen. Those eyes were focused on Ben’s, and Ben drew in a breath at the silent pain and wariness he saw there. “Er… Hello there!” Ben said, gathering his wits.
The boy didn’t respond, but shifted his gaze to the two children by Ben’s side. “Hi Eli!” Jayson grinned, running over to the silent boy and grabbing his hand, swinging it exuberantly as he tugged him over to Ben. “Ben, this is Eli. He’s our sort-of brother. Eli, Ben helped Sarah’s booboo go away!” The boy nodded his head as if he had already known.
“Nice to meet you, Eli.” Ben said warmly, standing from his crouched position and extending his hand to shake. Eli took it cautiously, his slender fingers soft but callused at the tips. A music player of some sort, Ben concluded silently, probably guitar. Now that he was closer, Ben could see that Eli was taller than himself, but not as skinny as Ben had become after several weeks of hard travel. The other teen was remaining silent, however, and just as the silence was becoming awkward, a willowy woman with short brown hair hurried up to them, looking harried.
“Oh, there you all are. Why aren’t you inside yet? Sarah, have you been crying?”
Sarah instantly ran to her mother’s side and wrapped her arms around her leg, uttering a joyful cry of “Mommy!”
“Sarah was running and tripped and fell,” Jayson explained eagerly. “But Ben made it all better.”
“Well, that’s very nice of him,” she replied, looking confused. “And who is Ben?” The towheaded boy smiled, flicking his bangs out of his face.
“My name is Ben, marm. You have some very fine children.” He said, his eyes drifting back to the silent teen seemingly of their own accord. Eli’s intense gaze was fixed on Ben’s eyes once more as if entranced by what he saw there. It sent a shiver of awareness up Ben’s back.
“Thank you, Ben. My name is Heather Johansen and my husband, Michael, is the minister here. Which means that he’s already inside and waiting for us.” She said pointedly, looking at her children. “Come along, everyone, let’s get inside before the service starts. Ben, you’re welcome to sit with us if you’d like.” Glad to have made friends with someone already, Ben thanked her gratefully and followed them into the chapel. He ended up sitting next to Eli, who held Sarah in his lap, but the boy still made no motion to speak to Ben. It both confused and intrigued the immortal teen.
The service was given by a tall, broad-shouldered man with dark brown hair and thin glasses, who Ben assumed to be Michael Johansen. It was confirmed when the man approached Heather after the service and gave her a chaste peck on the lips before crouching down to embrace his children. As he was introduced to Ben, the towheaded boy was struck by the warmth and mild curiosity in the man’s hazel eyes, so very similar to the look in a minister’s eyes two centuries ago. Ben hastily shook off the memories of Mattieu Thuron, his clouded eyes noting the differences in facial structure; Father Johansen’s chin was thin but strong, his nose slightly crooked. It was a good complement to his wife’s soft heart-shaped face. But while Ben could see these qualities in Jayson and Sarah, he noticed that Eli did not resemble either adult at all. The raven-haired boy seemed delicate, his facial structure somewhat aristocratic, and Ben recalled the strange phrasing Jayson had used to introduce him as his “sort-of brother”.
“Ben, I don’t recall seeing you here before. Has your family moved here?” Father Johansen asked. “Are your parents here today?” Though he wasn’t looking at the moment, Ben knew that Eli was listening intently.
“No, sir, my parents died when I was young.” Ben replied honestly. “I’m staying with Justin Gardner right now.”
“Oh! That’s right, I had heard that he was back.” Heather said, seeming surprised.
Ben nodded. “He’s been paying me to help him get his house back in order.” Her husband recovered from his surprise faster than she did.
“Well, that’s very kind of him; Justin is a good man. Ben, have you met my family properly? This is my wife Heather and our six-year-old twins, Jayson and Sarah. And next to you is Elias Sharp, our foster son of nearly two years. He’s probably a bit older than you—he’s nearly sixteen.”
“Actually, I’m sixteen already.” Ben said, grinning. “I get that a lot.” Michael and Heather shot each other a quick glance, looking almost relieved.
“Well, that’s good to hear. In case you haven’t noticed, there aren’t many kids your age around here. I’m sure that Eli would appreciate the opportunity to make a new friend, right, son?” He gave Eli an almost stern glance and Heather’s expression was taut with sudden worry. Eli’s eyes snapped toward his foster father before focusing back on Ben. He nodded slowly. Both adults relaxed almost imperceptibly. Ben filed the odd reactions away for later contemplation and he grinned.
“That would be great! Justin and Hunter are nice, but it’s just not the same as having a pal my age.”
“Hunter? I haven’t seen him in ages! Oh, I would love to invite them over for dinner. Isn’t that a good idea, Michael?” Heather said enthusiastically. The minister smiled and nodded. “Ben, let Justin and Hunter know that they are invited to dinner next Sunday at six o’clock, if they don’t have other plans. You are invited also, of course.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Johansen, that’s very kind of you. I’m sure they would love to come.”
“Well, we’d better head home,” the minister said after a few moments. “It was very nice to meet you, Ben, and we look forward to seeing you next Sunday.” Heather nodded in agreement.
“It was nice to meet you, too. I’ll see you later, Jayson and Sarah,” he said, kneeling down to shake their hands solemnly before breaking into a warm smile. Ben straightened and met Eli’s emotionless gaze, reaching out to shake his hand again. “Eli. It was great to meet you.” The other teen nodded and, for the first time, his blank mask relaxed into a small, shy smile. Ben felt his heart lurch in response and his own smile widened. He suddenly found himself much more interested in getting to know Eli and unraveling the mystery surrounding him. Once the small family left, Ben wandered thoughtfully out into the warm noon sun. Now that he knew where he was, he was contemplating simply walking back to Justin’s house rather than calling for a ride. He wouldn’t mind the opportunity to be alone and think.
A soft scraping sound drew Ben’s attention to a figure sitting on the steps of the church, hunched over something in their hands. When he caught sight of the figure, Ben’s breath caught in his throat and it felt as though his blood had frozen in his veins. The broad, powerful shoulders, the thick trunk, and the wiry bristle of hair were glaringly familiar.
“Jon—!” Ben hadn’t realized he had said the name out loud until the man turned, his achingly familiar ice-blue eyes piercing from beneath thick, wiry eyebrows.
“Yes?” Merciful heaven, even his voice was the same! It couldn’t be… could it? Hope surged wildly through Ben’s chest and he took several steps forward. The man, probably in his late fifties or early sixties, set aside his pocket knife and the small piece of wood he was carving. The conviction grew in Ben’s chest. It had to be him. Jon had always loved to carve.
“Jonathan Preston?” He repeated, heedless of his voice cracking as it still did occasionally.
“Aye, the Fourth. And you are?” That made Ben stop cold. “The Fourth?”
“Ben? Ben, are you alright? What’s happening?” Ned’s voice echoed through Ben’s mind, tinged with concern and anxiety.
“Ned, did old Jon from Chapelvale ever mention his father?”
“Jon?” Ned repeated, confused. “No, but he mentioned he was Jon Preston Junior. What’s going on, Ben?”
“Later.” Ben answered tersely, closing the link. His heart felt crushed, his hopes and happiness falling faster than a brick. His heart wailed at the unfairness of it all and tears abruptly sprang to his eyes even as a deep fear spread through his body.
“Oi, lad, are you alright?” Jon—but not Jon!—looked concerned, his gruff voice gentling as he took a cautious step towards Ben, as if he were a wild animal. Ben couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand the lack of recognition in Jon’s blue eyes or his own stupidity in thinking that he could find happiness in an old friend who had died a century ago. Of course the angel would never…. Feelings of despair and hopelessness swelled and crashed over him like the tempestuous waters of Cape Horn and when Jon took another step toward him, Ben couldn’t help but turn and bolt.
He ran. Barely aware that his feet were taking him in the direction of Justin’s house, his strangled gasps lost in the sound of his own pounding heart, Ben attempted to run from the grief that slowly began to overwhelm him. But just as it was impossible to outrun the sound of the bell that took him away from Chapelvale, so was it impossible to run from the pain in his heart. He stumbled into the woods not far from Justin’s house, tears blurring his vision, and when a protruding root sent him tumbling to the ground, he didn’t bother getting up again. His fingers grasped the hard dirt and his fingernails tore against a rock, but he was barely aware of the physical pain. His shoulders hunched and shook and silent tears leaked from his tightly-shut lids.
It had been years since Ben had cried. Ben was a naturally friendly person who made close friends easily and inspired confidence or trust in others. He loved getting to know people and learning of their lives. Unfortunately, this made it all the more painful for him when he was forced to leave his new friends. At least they had friends and family to turn to when he left, but Ben only had himself and Ned and endless years to heal that pain. It was simply impossible for him to close his heart to all the wonderful people he had met; people like Karay and Dominic, or Jayson and Sarah, or Jon and Mrs. Winn, or… Serafina. Ben’s sobs increased at the thought of the beautiful, young, innocent girl. The girl that had brought out his own innocence and made him act as a child his age should have; the way he had never had the opportunity to act before he was bound to wander the earth for eternity.
Time passed without Ben’s knowledge and the afternoon faded as his lay in the dirt and misery. When he came to his senses, warm hands were gently turning him over and pulling him into a sitting position against a warm, solid chest. A gentle hand brushed the hair away from his face and pressed against his forehead. Fresh tears traveled silently down previous tracks on his cheeks at the comforting gesture; he dazedly imagined that this is what it would feel like to have a father. A smooth, warm voice was speaking in his ear, but he didn’t bother trying to understand it just yet. A cold, wet nose was nudging his hand frantically and he sluggishly moved it to pat the furry muzzle reassuringly. His world tilted oddly as he was picked up and cradled against that same warm chest that vibrated as the man spoke. Slowly, Ben’s awareness expanded enough to process what he was saying.
“Lord, he’s freezing! I don’t want to know what would have happened if Ned didn’t lead us here. Thank you for coming, Hunter.”
“You were frantic with worry; I couldn’t let you come out here alone. Do you know what happened?”
“No. A couple hours after the service should have ended, I was getting worried. A few hours after that, I was ready to go out and search myself—that’s when I called you—but then Ned started barking up a frenzy. He pulled me to the door and would barely let me wait for you before he took off. I’m sorry, I know I wasn’t very coherent on the phone; you probably had no idea what was going on.”
“I had thought that someone had lost a limb, to tell you the truth. When I heard Ben was missing…. I like him, too, Justin, I don’t mind leaving work for this.”
“If only we knew what ‘this’ was. Ben doesn’t strike me as the kind of person who follows flights of fancy, or cries often for that matter. Something must have happened to him.”
“Is he hurt at all?”
“Not that I can see. He’s just really out of it. We’re nearly to the house now; I’ll check him over then.”
Ben stirred slightly, his brain becoming more awake as he processed what was being said. The arms around him tightened slightly.
“Ben? Ben, are you awake?” The towheaded boy let out an involuntary whimper and burrowed further into the warmth around him. If he pretended, he could almost believe that this was real; that he wasn’t meant to leave this kindness and warmth behind. But alas, now that Ben was awake, he was all too aware of just how real this was, and the revelation caused a couple more tears to fall from his eyes before he stopped them. He couldn’t become weak. He couldn’t give in to the despair. He had to be strong and persevere and endure to the end.
“J’stin?” He mumbled, raising his arm to wipe across his eyes. He heard a sigh of relief.
“Ben, are you alright?”
“’m fine. Sorry.”
“You don’t have anything to be sorry for, kiddo. You can tell us what happened when we get you inside.” Ben just remained silent, and it was only a few minutes later when they reached Justin’s house and they entered into the bright warmth. Ben was set on the couch, Hunter setting next to him with his arm around him and Justin kneeling in front of him. Ned was a little further back, staring at Ben intensely. Ben shifted his gaze away from his friend and to his lap. He was startled at how dirty his clothes were—they looked like he had been rolling in a mud pit—and he saw that his hands were also crusted with dirt and some blood.
“Ben, how do you feel? Are you sick? Do you hurt anywhere?”
“’m fine.” Ben repeated, not looking into Justin’s eyes. “I don’t feel sick. I’m just sort of… numb.”
“What happened?” Hunter finally asked. Ben’s brain moved sluggishly and he couldn’t think of a reason to lie. Justin and Hunter cared about him; they wouldn’t laugh or think he was weak.
“I—I think I had a little bit of a breakdown.” Ben said plainly. “At church… after the service, I thought I saw someone who died a long time ago. It wasn’t him, but… It all just sort of hit me, I guess. Sorry for worrying you.” He was startled by warm arms enveloping him from both sides and he stiffened before he relaxed slightly and leaned into their embrace.
“You don’t have anything to apologize for.” Justin said firmly. “We’re just glad that you’re alright. Physically, at least. We’ll work on the rest later. Do you want to sleep now?” Ben shook his head.
“I’d like to shower, if that’s alright. I feel disgusting.” The two adults nodded and helped him stand. As soon as they let go, however, Ben legs collapsed beneath him and he nearly fell to the ground before they caught him again. He groaned. Pains he didn’t know he had suddenly rushed into his limbs and they shook like wet noodles. Exhaustion settled into his muscles and they barely responded to him.
“Woah! Obviously, you’re more tired than you thought.” Hunter said dryly.
“Ben, I don’t think you can shower on your own.” Justin said firmly. “Would you mind if one of us was in the bathroom while you took a bath?” Ben flushed at the idea of the two men he had come to see as his friends bathing him, but he slowly shook his head. It had been decades since he had been so ill that he needed help while bathing, but it had happened before. Ben wasn’t so uncomfortable or ashamed of his body that he couldn’t do what needed to be done. Justin nodded and helped Ben into the bathroom, sitting him on the toilet before turning on the water to fill the tub.
Slowly, Ben removed his filthy clothes as they waited in silence for the tub to fill. Justin turned away politely as he took off his pants and boxers first and wrapped a towel around his hips. Then he sighed and removed his jacket and shirt, hearing Justin’s gasp of surprise as his chest was revealed. With regular meals, his body was filling out nicely, but the edge of his ribcage could still be seen beneath the scars that littered his body liberally. Most were thin and white, but there were a few notable seams that traced his limbs to attest to his hard life. Over the centuries, Ben found that he had the frustrating tendency to encounter trouble as he and Ned followed the angel’s promptings. He had come close to death countless times and had been injured in some way during every assignment. Over the years, he had collected an impressive amount of scars all over his body; a fact that used to sadden him before he had come to accept it. It wasn’t that he felt any particular vanity over the marring of his skin, but that he viewed it as another, more visible testament to his experiences.
“Ben….” Justin said, stunned, but by that time the tub had filled and he hurried to help the thin boy into the warm water when Ben made no sign of acknowledging the unspoken question. Ben let out a sigh of relief as the water enveloped him and he leaned back, closing his eyes. Maybe Justin would leave it alone.
“Here, Ben, I brought your… clothes.” Ben opened his eyes again and looked over at Hunter, who seemed frozen in the doorway as he stared at Ben. The towheaded boy couldn’t help but blush self-consciously and he sat up, lowering his hands to cover his immodesty. He knew Hunter wouldn’t let the issue go as easily as Justin might have.
“Look, it’s not what you think.” He said, forcing himself to meet both of their gazes. It was important that they believed him. “I never went to an orphanage when my mother died; I lived with my step-father for a while. After a while I just left the town I lived in and traveled around. I worked odd jobs and I learned to take care of myself. I was never beaten or hurt purposefully. I just lived a hard life. Look,” he pointed at a thin line encompassing his forearm, “I got this when I was trying to hop a barbed wire fence and missed. And this,” he pointed to a thick ream of scar tissue beneath the edge of his ribs; “I got when I landed in a haystack and got grazed by a pitchfork.” Alright, he admitted to himself, that wasn’t really true, but he couldn’t tell them that he was attacked by a band of thieves in the African jungle nearly two hundred years ago. He shrugged his shoulders. “I just have a really unlucky streak in me.”
“I’m not sure I believe that. This one looks like a bite mark,” Justin said, reaching out to trace the jagged scars on Ben’s left shoulder. “And that one on your thigh is a bullet scar. And there, another one on your right arm!” Ben simply shrugged, rubbing the dark star-shaped pucker on his left thigh (that was actually an arrow wound) absently. He actually had been shot in the arm in London about a year before he had gone to Chapelvale when he had gotten caught rescuing a child in a skirmish between the police and a few bandits. The hospital had nearly sent him to an orphanage when they saw the rest of his scars and he had had to sneak out to find Ned and escape the city.
“It’s not what you think.” He said simply. “Just trust me. I’ve never gotten into any sort of trouble that was on the wrong side of the law.”
“I do trust you, Ben.” Justin said in a strange tone. “I believe you. That’s what makes this all the more confusing.” Ben simply smiled and bent over to wash his fine hair from the dirt and bramble that had been caught in it. He straightened, but before he could get the shampoo, long, slender fingers brushed the wet, dark gold strands from his face and began rubbing shampoo into his scalp. Ben tensed, frozen, until the gentle motions calmed him and he relaxed enough to enjoy the nearly hypnotizing massage. Letting Justin wash his hair freed his hands to grab the soap and scrub the dirt from his body. The warm water and soap stung his abused fingers.
By the time he was done, Ben’s head felt like it was filled with cotton and he was wrapped in a cocoon of warmth. Justin ended up having to call Hunter for help in getting the teen to stand and get dried off. Ben clutched Hunter’s shirt and rested his head against his broad chest as Justin quickly dried him off and helped him into a clean pair of boxers and sweats. He didn’t protest this time when Hunter scooped him into his arms and carried him to the guest bedroom to lay him on the bed there and in fact he was asleep before they could pull the blanket over his body. He didn’t dream that night.
Ben woke early. The house was silent and mostly dark, and Ben simply lay in the quiet and thought. He felt empty, his mind drifting in a comfortable haze that he knew wouldn’t last. He couldn’t let it. The pain was still there, festering and only slightly healed by the tears. The silence in his mind was disconcerting. Ben shifted his eyes to the left, where the black lab’s eyes pierced him from the dark, never once leaving his face. They stared at each other for countless seconds.
Finally, Ben opened the link between them. There were no words, only a wealth of emotion that nearly caused tears to spring to Ben’s eyes again. There was worry, concern, fear, disappointment and anger, yes, but above all, an overwhelming feeling of love and understanding.
“Ned.” Ben spoke, his voice small.
“You know I love you.”
“I know you love me. You know I love you.”
“The eternities are long, Ben. I knew it was only a matter of time before it became too much. You’re only human, after all.”
“Did the angel tell you that?” Ben couldn’t help the grain of bitterness in his mental voice. There were some things you couldn’t hide in a mental connection.
“No, I just sensed it. Dogs are simple creatures, Ben, and in some ways you carry a far heavier burden than I. You were given the gift of speech, after all. I’m just a dog to everyone we meet.”
“Never just a dog, Ned. Never.”
Ben felt the urge to explain just how important his friend was to him. “You complete me, Ned. Without you I would have gone mad centuries ago. After—after Serafina….You kept me grounded. When things became so complicated, you kept everything in perspective.”
“You are my eternal friend and companion, Ben. Nothing makes a dog happier than to know that their friend will always be there to share their fire and food.”
“Always, Ned, always!” Ben promised fervently. And that was enough. There was nothing more to be said; it had all been said before. Ben slipped back into a peaceful slumber, to be watched over by his canine guardian.
A week passed in which Ben gradually recovered from his breakdown and became less subdued. Justin had attempted to instigate a more in-depth discussion, but Ben had shied away and politely refused to talk about it yet. The child psychologist had patiently yielded.
They went to the Johansen’s home for dinner, which consisted of lively conversation on the part of Justin and the minister and outrageous flirting between Heather and Hunter. It was clear that the flirting wasn’t serious, but Ben was tickled to watch how often Justin’s eyes flitted to the tall green-eyed man next to him. Eli, Ben, and the children were on the other end of the table. Eli remained as silent as ever, but Ben was interested to see that the twins had seemed to develop their own style of communication with the silent boy that allowed them to carry on a conversation. Subsequently, Ben tended to be left out of the loop, but he took it with grace.
Eventually, after they had retired to the sitting room to talk more easily, Heather and Eli took the children upstairs to bed and a lull fell in the conversation. Father Johansen tapped his fingers against his upper lip, his eyes distant, before he nodded decisively and fixed his gaze on Justin.
“Eli is a mute.” He began without preamble and Ben felt his heart lurch. “We had taken him into our home nearly two years ago this October and he was a polite and friendly boy, if a little distant. This was only to be expected, since he had been removed from his mother’s dubious care only a month previous. From what I understand, she was not the type of woman who wanted a child; she worked nearly every day, all day and sometimes into the night. She would rarely come home to care for Eli, preferring instead to visit the local clubs and stay with the men she found there. Eli was not abused physically, but he was neglected and unloved. It was the new housekeeper who eventually alerted child services.”
The Father fell silent, his eyes unfocused again. His face looked older and more lined. “You must understand that Eli was not always a mute. There is nothing physically wrong with him. Even mentally, he is very sharp and he did very well in public school and he does well being home taught. He simply doesn’t speak anymore.” He took in a steadying breath. “We met with him a few times before he joined our family and he was always a polite child who loved playing with Jayson and Sarah. But the last week before we brought him home, he was given the opportunity to meet with his mother one final time. They spent several hours together, and when Eli came out, he never spoke again.”
A kind of horrified fascination filled the silent room at that and Ben felt his heart ache at the thought. His own childhood had been made a living nightmare because of his muteness and he couldn’t imagine choosing that life voluntarily. The minister sighed and passed a hand over his eyes before he continued. “As you can see, Eli is still a kind and polite boy, but he has closed himself off. It’s obvious that he loves the twins and he cares for us, but something is stopping him from speaking again and interacting properly with others. That’s what I wanted to speak to you about, Justin. Heather and I were wondering if you would take Eli on as one of your patients.”
“Of course I will.” Justin replied, not looking too surprised. “You know that I wasn’t planning on having patients for a few more months at least, but you’re an old friend and Eli seems like a very nice boy. I’ll do everything I can, of course, but you realize that it may take quite some time for any progress to be made? You say it’s been a year and a half since he’s last spoken; it could take months just to get him to open up to me.”
“We understand, but we love Eli too much to let him continue his life this way. We’ll do anything we can to help him.”
“That’s the biggest part of helping him heal.” Justin said. A few moments later, Heather and Eli came back down the stairs and the night continued smoothly. Eli sat next to Ben this time and the towheaded boy struck up a one-sided conversation quietly while the adults continued talking. Soon, his natural warmth and engaging personality coaxed small smiles from the other boy. The room even fell silent when—once—Eli let out a hoarse, quiet laugh when Ben told a story about Ned. The abused sound, despite its obvious disuse, warmed Ben’s heart and he vowed that he would help this wounded boy regain his voice before the bell tolled again.
A month passed.
Eli began coming to Justin’s house three times a week and spent two hours in his study. While Ben was not privy to what went on in these sessions, he had a feeling that there wasn’t much progress. Eli always emerged just as emotionless as he had entered. Sometimes he would sit and watch Ben working while he waited for his foster mother to pick him up. Sometimes Ben would remain silent during these moments, or he would talk about inane things of interest to himself or things he thought Eli would find interesting. These never failed to illicit a small smile from the pale teen. The repairs being done on the house were nearly complete, but Justin hadn’t made any mention of Ben’s continued stay there and Ben was willing to remain silent.
Despite the disastrous first Sunday, Ben continued attending the church services each Sunday. And each Sunday, he saw the grandson of Jonathan Preston Jr. sitting on the steps of the church with a carving in his hand. Ben avoided the man like the plague at first, but once he had been caught in a conversation between him and Father Johansen and though Jon looked at him with that same sharp curiosity, he never brought up Ben’s strange behavior and Ben slowly relaxed. He eventually deduced that Jon had also been part of the navy like his grandfather, but he had only spent the better part of two decades as part of the draft. However, the white-capped eagle and the letters “U.S.N.” tattooed on his right arm indicated that he had been part of the American navy rather than the English navy of his grandfather.
There had been little progress on the relationship between Justin and Hunter. He tried to leave them alone as often as possible, but heated glances were the most he ever got out of it. Obviously, something else was holding them back. It was mid June by the time Ben stumbled upon it.
“Justin, some of the people at church act oddly whenever I mention you or Hunter.” Ben said as they sat at the dinner table. It was something that had been bothering him for a while. The two froze in surprise.
“Oh, really? What do they act like?” Justin asked with forced casualness.
“Well, they sort of look away and frown a lot or they look nervous and change the subject. Why do they do that?” Hunter snorted.
“Ignorant people. Sheep, the lot of them,” he grumbled under his breath. Justin shot him a warning look.
“Well, you see Ben, some people in town… don’t approve of the way we live our lives.” He said tensely. Ben cocked his head.
“I don’t understand. You’re a doctor and Hunter’s a professor. What wrong with that?”
“Well….”Justin took a deep breath, glancing at Hunter, who nodded. “We’re homosexual.” Ben’s expression cleared and he nearly laughed with relief. He had known about it for so long that he had forgotten that they hadn’t actually told him yet.
“Oh, is that all?” Ben laughed, shaking his head. “Small towns are so close-minded that way.”
“You… You don’t mind?” Justin asked cautiously, his expression incredulous. Ben shrugged.
“I’ve sort of known for a while now. The tension between you two is rather unmistakable.” Justin blushed brilliantly and looked away, clearing his throat. Hunter tipped a grin and a wink in Ben’s direction.
“I’m sorry we didn’t tell you earlier—” Justin began, but Ben waved it away.
“Don’t worry about it. It’s not exactly my business after all. I’m just glad we got that cleared up.”
“Well, what about you? It seems to me that Elias is quite taken with you. He watches you like a hawk and follows you around like a puppy.” Hunter teased with an evil grin. Ben blushed, honestly taken aback. He hadn’t thought of it that way; in some ways his mind hadn’t grown out of its child-like mindset.
“M-me? And Eli? I’ve never really thought about him that way. I mean, there was a girl when I was younger… I think I really loved her. But I’ve never even thought twice about all of my male friends.” Ben wrinkled his brow, bewildered. He thought about all of the friendships he had developed over the years, wondering if there had been anything more to any of them. Justin punched Hunter on the arm hard, frowning.
“Ben, Hunter’s just teasing. If you’ve never thought about other boys that way, then you’re more than likely attracted to women. That’s completely fine, too. Don’t think about it too much.”
Ben tried not to, but he couldn’t help but blush the next time he saw Eli. He was hyper aware of the slender teen’s enigmatic gaze for quite some time before he managed to calm down and realize that nothing was different now than it had been before. Eli made no sign that he was sexually attracted to Ben and eventually the towheaded boy convinced himself that there really had been no basis in fact in Hunter’s teasing.
July arrived, and with it the completion of the house renovations. Without missing a beat, however, Justin suggested that they move on to the boathouse, which had been damaged in a storm. Ben was specifically relegated to work on fixing the broken down skiff, much to his delight. The afternoon of the third of July found Ben down by the lake edge in khaki shorts and a ragged light blue t-shirt with the sleeves cut off. His wiry limbs were already browned by the sun and strengthened with regular meals and manual labor. His hair, recently trimmed, shone like burnished gold. He was crouched on the ground, inspecting the hull of the small boat that he had turned on its side, and was corroborating with Ned, who had been sent to inspect the other side, when they were interrupted by footsteps on the rocky trail that led down to the lake. Sitting up and shielding his eyes from the glaring sun, Ben grinned and waved when he saw Justin and Eli approaching.
“Hey, you two! Come to see Project Bundi get underway?” Ned playfully nipped at Ben as he ran past, barking enthusiastically as he circled the two newcomers and licked Eli’s hand. Almost instantly, the boy’s blank expression changed to one of delight and his soft, hoarse laugh could barely be heard beneath Ned’s barks.
“I thought that Eli would probably enjoy spending more time outdoors now that summer’s here.” Justin said casually, giving Ben a pointed look. The towheaded boy nodded. He had been expecting this; Justin had told him that Eli was not responding to the psychologist, but he always seemed more open when he was with Ben, so Justin was going to allow Eli to spend half of their session with Ben outside and the other half in Justin’s study.
“That’s great! It’s boring with just the Great Blundering Bundi here for company,” Ben said enthusiastically.
“I heard that, you great lump! Oh, just you wait, I’ll find a way to tell Hunter about the time you sat on an ant hill in Africa! He’ll call you the Blubbering Bouncing Ben! Ho ho!”
“Where did he get the name Bundi, anyway?”
Ben smiled. “Some friends of mine found him when we got separated and they called him Bundi before I found him and set them straight. He hates that name!” Justin soon left, laughing, and Ben motioned Eli to come sit with him in the shade while he took a break. Ned circled around them and lay in the sun, panting happily.
“How are you, Eli?” Ben asked after he took a long drink from his water bottle. The other teen shrugged with a small smile, his eyes flicking from Ben’s eyes to his lips. Ben laughed. “That good, eh? Well, I can’t tell you how excited I am to work on this skiff. I have some maritime experience and I would love to get her out on some water again. Have you ever been on a boat?”
Eli shook his head. “Been swimming at all?” A nod. “Did you like it?” Another nod. “Well, I think you’ll like sailing, too. Until then, though, maybe we can go swimming in the lake once in a while. Come on, let’s take a look at what I’m doing.” Ben leapt to his feet smoothly and offered Eli a hand up, which he took. Ben grinned at him and started showing him around enthusiastically.
“I’ve turned her on her side to see if there are any holes or rot in her hull. Justin took good care of her when he was using her, so she’s in pretty good shape down here. Help me get her straight again.” With Eli’s help, they managed to right the skiff again and Ben jumped inside, pointing out the problems as he went. “The main problem is with the mast—as much as you can call it a mast, anyway—since it was broken nearly clean in two. The sail needs to be repaired or replaced and the lines untangled. Other than that, she’s practically sea-worthy!” Ben fingered the thick cloth of the sail, getting lost in his thoughts as he continued mumbling to himself.
“Easy enough to repair. Gonna need a skein of catgut, though… Do they use catgut anymore? What do they use now, Ned? What? Cor, it was much easier in the 19th century. And no, we’re not going to make our own; what would Justin say? What’s that? Oh!” Ben suddenly looked around, seeing Eli watching him with a narrow gaze. “Er… S-sorry about that, Eli, I got lost in my thoughts for a second there.” He chuckled awkwardly. Inwardly, he was mortified.
Eli crossed his arms and gave him a pointed look, cocking his eyebrow as if to say “Do I look stupid?” Ben winced.
“Right. Not very believable?” The raven-haired boy shook his head firmly. Ben shrugged and smiled mischievously. “Well, too bad; I can’t tell you. It’s a secret.” Ben pressed his finger to his lips and winked. Eli flushed slightly and pouted. Ben just laughed.
From then on, Eli would help Ben on the newly christened Bundi in the afternoons three days a week, extending his sessions three or four hours. Ben kept up a running commentary as they worked, explaining what they were doing and why and also throwing in bits of history he thought the intelligent teen would find interesting. He always made a point to include Eli in the discussions, asking him questions or simply deducing his answers to their conversations by reading his expressions, a skill that Ben had become quite adept at. Over time, Eli’s expressions became more fluid and relaxed, his smiles brightening and his laughs less hoarse, and despite the fact that he hadn’t yet spoken, Justin was encouraged by his increasing interactions with those around him.
By far their favorite activity when they were not working on Bundi was swimming, with the two adults and even Ned joining in occasionally. It had been slightly awkward at first, as Eli hadn’t been discreet when he frankly examined Ben’s numerous scars, but eventually he shrugged and pointed out what looked like a small burn scar on the back of his hand with a slightly sardonic smile. Appreciating the humor, Ben laughed uproariously and proceeded to push the other teen into the warm water. Another bond was formed between them that day, borne of understanding and compassion that drew them even closer together.
The first real breakthrough came on the day of Bundi’s maiden voyage. The late July day was idyllic; the lake shining a deep blue under a flawless sky, with a lively breeze sweeping across the beach. As there wasn’t much room on the boat, Ben and Eli were elected to take the first run while the others remained on the beach (though Ben promised Ned many opportunities to feel the deck beneath his paws in the future) and they shoved off to the sound of enthusiastic cheers. The breeze snapped the repaired sail open to a full billow and they were soon on their way across the lake. Ben took several minutes to just soak in the familiar sights and sounds and feelings, closing his eyes a moment to savor the experience.
Just as they were about to reach the opposite shore, Ben collected himself and expertly steered the small skiff around the shore and circled back around lazily. He took the opportunity to watch Eli for a moment. The younger boy seemed content as he gazed around with awe, but Ben saw a faint crease in his brow that indicated that he was thinking of something else entirely. Ben watched curiously out of the corner of his eye, wondering if Eli would attempt to communicate his thoughts. However, he was completely stunned by what Eli actually chose to do.
Two simple words, so quiet that Ben was nearly certain that he had imagined it. But Eli was sitting stiffly now, watching Ben out of the corner of his eye as if expecting to be punished. Ben couldn’t stop the dumbfounded expression from crossing his face, but he forced it away and instead turned his head to look out over the lake with a grin.
“Aye, that it is, Eli.” He said simply. The rest of the trip was done in comfortable silence, but almost immediately after they had reached the shore, Eli indicated that he would like to go home. He stubbornly refused to answer Justin’s queries as to why and the confused psychologist took Eli back to the minister’s house.
Ben sprawled out in the shade of the trees overhanging the beach and closed his eyes. It was obvious that Hunter needed a slight push in the right direction in order to get the ball rolling with Justin and there was no time like the present to address it.
“So, when are you going to talk to him? If you wait too long, he’s going to move on to someone else.”
“What? How—how did you know?”
Ben cracked open an eye at that. “I’m not blind, Hunter. I know you like him and I know that he likes you too, even if he’s not really thinking about it at the moment.”
“Well… that’s why I can’t make a move right now. Justin’s been hurt and he needs a while longer to heal before he can deal with me.” Hunter sounded surprisingly subdued.
“It’s been long enough, trust me. The kind of comfort you can give him—as more than a friend—is just what he needs to heal completely. You’ve been his friend for a long time; he knows that you won’t hurt him purposely. Besides, you’ll never know what he’ll think until you try. If he doesn’t feel ready, then your patience will tell more about your feelings than running away.” There was a silence at that and Ben knew that Hunter was contemplating the advice. Confident that the man’s own logic and feelings would do the rest of the work, Ben left it alone.
By the time Justin returned, Hunter and Ben had acquired the necessary ingredients for a barbecue and Ben had expertly built a fire to cook the hot dogs over.
“He wouldn’t tell me what happened.” Justin said, frowning as he sat on the blanket by the fire. “Why did he leave so suddenly? Do you know, Ben?” The towheaded boy contemplated not saying anything, but decided that it was too important not to share.
“He spoke me, out on the boat.”
Justin sat up and stared at Ben intensely while Hunter simply gaped in disbelief. “Already? What did he say?”
“We were looking over the lake and he just said ‘It’s beautiful’. That’s it, but I imagine it unnerved him enough that he had to leave. It was the first time he had spoken in nearly two years, after all.” The child psychologist seemed surprised at Ben’s intuitiveness.
“Yes, I was just about to suggest the same thing,” he said. “This is very good news. I hadn’t expected Eli to open up so quickly, but then again, the strangest things seem to happen around you, Ben. I imagine at this rate, Eli will be talking again in no time.”
“Where did you learn how to do all of this, anyway?” Hunter asked, waving his half-eaten hot dog around to indicate Bundi and the fire. Ben shrugged, issuing his usual response.
“I just picked it up. I grew up by the coast and hung around the docks a lot as a kid. I learned how to make a fire later; there aren’t any heaters in the forest.”
“I’m still confused as to why you decided to wander around instead of finding a town and settling down.” The green-eyed man said.
“It was just something I had to do. It’s how I live my life.”
“Are you planning on leaving here, then, Ben?” Justin asked with a hint of sadness in his tone. Ben winced inwardly, but managed to maintain a vaguely apologetic expression.
“Eventually.” He said simply.
“But where will you go? What will you do?”
“I don’t know; it doesn’t matter. I’ll know when I get there.” Ben couldn’t help but notice the faint bitterness and frustration that colored his tone, causing Justin to give him a sharp but concerned look. To avoid his gaze, Ben rolled over onto his back and stared up at the orange-streaked sky. He felt oddly vulnerable in that moment, a familiar longing washing over him in the presence of the two men that had become surrogate family members in their own way. Ned whined and pressed close against his side, knowing he wouldn’t be able to alleviate his companion’s desperate loneliness.
“I know you need to do this, mate, but be careful what you say. We can’t let them know too much about our past.” Ned warned, but the immortal teen didn’t acknowledge him.
“I was a mute once.” Ben said into the warm summer air, his eyes fixed on a faint star peeking through a wispy cloud. He felt more than saw their sudden intense attention, but he didn’t react to it except to draw in a shaky breath. He very rarely spoke of that time in his life and he didn’t understand the strange urge he felt to speak about it now. “Not like Eli, though. I was born without the power of speech and I was treated very badly because of it. Some people thought that because I couldn’t speak, I was deaf and stupid as well, and so I was mostly ignored when I was with others. I didn’t have any friends at all until I met Ned. I remember little of my parents, but I knew my mother was a frail woman who had died soon after she had remarried a local fisherman. I didn’t know either of my parent’s names or my own since I didn’t have the ability to ask after them.”
“Couldn’t you ask through writing or sign language?” Justin asked softly, as if trying not to break the spell that had settled over them. They both held their breath as he answered, astounded by what they were hearing. The cheerful teen had always been very close-mouthed about his past, and this conversation was a rare event that they didn’t want to end prematurely.
“I lived in a very small town that was primitive in more ways than one. I never attended school. My stepfather never saw the point in teaching a dumb mute to read or write when all he was good for was manual labor. No one knew how to use sign language and so I never learned it. I spent most of my life this way, being used as a servant and bullied by my stepbrothers and others my age. Eventually, I left and traveled along the coast until I reached a bigger city, where I stowed away on a ship as a galley boy with Ned. Then, before we reached port, we were hit by a terrible storm.”
Ben’s voice had taken on a dreamy tone, dark and low as he continued his story, and the two men beside him shivered involuntarily. In the flickering light, Ben looked both terribly young and eternally old, his strange blue eyes dark with remembrance and wisdom. The two men glanced at each other uneasily, instinctively acknowledging what they had always known subconsciously: there was something about the slender teen in front of them that was otherworldly; ethereal and yet solidly grounded. Ben was not a normal boy in any sense of the word.
“The green light of St. Elmo’s fire is unmistakable, even for someone like me. It was one of the last things I saw before I was hit with falling debris and swept overboard. When I woke up on the shore with my faithful Ned here beside me, I soon realized that I could talk; my speech had been returned to me through some miracle. I had been given a name by then and I was finally able to give Ned his, so once we were properly introduced, we never left each other’s side.”
“Who ‘gave’ you your name?” Hunter asked. Ben frowned slightly.
“An Arab man named Jamil called me ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ when the galley cook finally figured out I couldn’t speak, and it was shortened to ‘Neb’. It was better than ‘Boy’ or ‘Mute’, I suppose, but as soon as I was able to move on I flipped it backwards to ‘Ben’. I had named Ned ‘Denmark’ after our homeland, but I shortened and flipped it as well. It seemed fitting since we would be starting a new life full of possibilities that were completely unavailable to us before. Our life changed for the better and we haven’t looked back since.” The black lab pressed against his side huffed suddenly and looked back up at his friend with a wry look in his soft brown eyes.
“Oh? And what d’you call those infernal glimpses of the Dutchman we get every once in a while? A pleasant trip down memory lane?”
Ben chuckled, raising a hand to bury his fingers in Ned’s fire-warm fur. “Well, we try not to look back, anyway.” Justin looked between the two, a curious understanding blossoming in his eyes.
“He can understand us, can’t he? Ned knows what we’re saying.” Ben smiled softly, letting the Labrador answer for himself. He heard the two men suck in a breath as Ned nodded.
“Aye, Ned’s an odd one, alright. The best friend anyone could have, really, except for the fact that he snores at night.” Ben teased lightly. Ned huffed again and stood up, stalking stiffly away in what could only be an affronted manner. Justin chuckled weakly, still trying to take everything in, when suddenly Hunter sat bolt upright, stiff as a board.
“The Facemaker of Sabada.” Hunter breathed, his clear green eyes bright with dazed wonder as they fixed on Ben’s face. Both boy and dog froze.
“What?” Justin asked, shaking off his shock as he took in the tense scene.
“There’s a famous painting from the early seventeenth century that was made by a Spanish painter named Dominic de la Sebada Bregon when he was only sixteen. He was also known as the Facemaker of Sebada.” Hunter replied without taking his eyes from Ben’s strange blue eyes. “His gift for capturing a person’s personality perfectly was unmatched by any other during that time. He was adopted by the Comte Bregon after rescuing his son from bandits that had kidnapped him when he was a child. I was particularly fascinated by his story when I studied his most famous painting; it was called Los Náufragos: The Castaways.”
“What does this have to do with anything?” Justin asked confusedly. Ben had barely relaxed from his pose, but at least he didn’t look like he was about to bolt anymore. There was a veiled tension in his muscles as he slowly sat up, his eyes staring blankly into the fire as Ned pressed against his legs.
“Now I know where I recognized him from!” Hunter said triumphantly. “Both he and Ned look exactly like the subjects in the painting. It’s almost eerie, now that I think about it; how couldn’t I have noticed before?” Justin sighed and sat back on his hands.
“For Pete’s sake, Hunter, is that all?” He said, annoyed. “You nearly gave me and Ben a heart attack! Keep your revelations to yourself next time, won’t you?” Hunter shook his head adamantly.
“They look so alike that it’s almost scary. I’m sure if you saw it you’d agree with me.”
“Well, it’s not as if it was actually Ben and Ned in the painting,” The psychologist pointed out. “It was painted over three hundred years ago! It’s a coincidence.” Hunter looked doubtful, but he subsided in silence, glancing at the still-quiet pair across the fire. Without meeting anyone’s eyes, Ben flopped backward onto the warm sand and closed his eyes, his heart still beating at a rapid pace.
“That was far too close for comfort.” He said tensely.
“Aye, I hadn’t expected that at all. Who would’ve thought that Dominic had become so famous? I didn’t know that he had made a painting of us.”
“He was very talented; it shouldn’t be surprising that he was famous at such a young age. After he had refused to draw me that night in the forest, I hadn’t thought that he would paint us, either.”
“Maybe we should look it up, in case someone else notices the resemblance. Asking Hunter about it might give him ideas.”
“Aye, but would that be so terrible?” Ben asked wistfully. Knowing it was a rhetorical question, Ned remained silent.
“Thank you for telling us more about yourself, Ben. I know that it wasn’t easy for you.” Justin said softly as he sat next to Ben on the bed in the guest bedroom that Ben had been moved into after his breakdown that first Sunday. “I hope you know that you can talk to us about anything you need to, no matter what it’s about.”
“Thanks, Justin.” Ben answered. His solemn answer was somewhat ruined by a sleepy yawn and Justin chuckled, ruffling the teen’s fine hair before impulsively leaning down to press a kiss to Ben’s forehead. When he pulled away, there was a faint blush on the boy’s cheeks, but he smiled shyly.
“You know, I should be too old for things like that.” He said lightly. Justin chuckled.
“And some people would say I’m too young to do things like that to you. Won’t stop me from doing it, though.”
“To tell you the truth, I had always wondered what it would feel like to have a proper family.” Ben said wistfully, wrapping his arms around himself beneath the covers. “I imagine that my father would be something like you. He would have loved me no matter how I was born and he would have shown me how much he loved me, no matter how old I got. I sort of missed out on that… so don’t be surprised if I don’t protest too much.”
“Oh, Ben.” Justin murmured, reaching down to envelop the slender boy in a tight hug. “Any man with brains would be lucky to have you as a son, stepson, nephew, or friend. Or live-in orphan; whatever the case may be. I want you to know that my home is always open to you, Ben, for however long you want to stay.” Ben returned the hug firmly, taking a deep breath of Justin’s clean, warm scent and smiling. Warmth bloomed in his chest and spread throughout his body, healing wounds he hadn’t even been aware of.
“Thank you. For everything.” He said, leaning back into his pillows.
“You’re welcome. Now get some sleep; it was a draining day for everyone.”
“Good night, Justin. Good night, Hunter.”
Justin turned around in surprise. The raven-haired man stood leaning against the doorway, watching the scene with an unfamiliar warm look in his eyes that sent an inexplicable shiver up the amber-eyed man’s back. Hunter stepped into the room, brushing by Justin in order to bend down and press his own kiss to Ben’s head. Justin watched, having never seen Hunter act so tenderly before.
“Good night, kid. Sleep well.”
“Good night, Ben. You too, Ned.” Justin was quick to add as they reached the doorway. Ned wagged his tail briefly, his eyes seeming to laugh knowingly at the child psychologist. Justin paused before shaking his head and flipping off the light and closing the door. He turned around and nearly ran into Hunter’s chest, causing the other man to grasp his arms gently to steady him. A coil of warmth wrapped tightly in Justin’s abdomen at the position and he blushed as he stared up into his friend’s intense green eyes. There was a look in them that he had been seeing more and more frequently in recent weeks, one that caused a flutter of excitement or fear in his chest and a weakening of the knees. They locked eyes for an indeterminable moment before the Hunter finally stepped away, allowing Justin to release a breath he hadn’t known he had been holding.
“How long were you listening?” He whispered as he led the way into the kitchen and away from Ben’s door.
“Long enough to know that you would adopt him if you thought that he would accept it. Long enough to see how much he cares for you.”
“It tears my heart apart sometimes,” Hunter admitted, running a hand through his soft brown hair. “It’s obvious that he knows what he’s missed out on in his life; things like a family and love and acceptance. He’s been through so much pain and neglect; even more than Eli, I think. And yet he’s dealt with it so well…. It’s almost scary, how well adjusted he is.”
“He’s very adept at hiding his pain. It’s a trait he shares with you.” Hunter said softly, his eyes warm with understanding as Justin looked away.
“I want to be able to give all of that to him, but… He would never accept.”
“You know it’s not for lack of caring.”
“Of course, I know that he cares for both of us. But it’s obvious there’s something that’s stopping him from staying in one place too long, so I don’t take it personally. Still, even though he’s so strong and mature, I know that there’s still an abused child somewhere in him that longs for a family.”
“He’ll find one someday. In the meantime, he knows that you’ll welcome him with open arms.”
“And you as well. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen you so gentle with someone else.” He had meant it as a teasing remark, but it came out a little too warm, a little too low, and suddenly that heated warmth was back in Hunter’s eyes, lighting them with a green fire. He stepped closer, pressing the shorter man gently against the kitchen counter.
“Obviously, you don’t know me as well as you should.” Hunter’s voice was a husky murmur against Justin’s soft hair and he felt the man in his embrace shiver in response. Hesitantly, Justin wrapped his arms around Hunter’s back and grasped the fabric of his shirt in his hands.
“I’ve missed you, Hunter.” He breathed into his friend’s chest, something in his own chest trembling with emotion.
“You have no idea how much I’ve missed you, Justin. It hurt to be here alone, sometimes.” Justin drew a startled breath at the raw emotion in Hunter’s voice.
“You’ve never…. You haven’t had a boyfriend since I left?”
“I never felt the need to. Still, it was lonely without you.”
“Hunter…. I’m so sorry. The whole relationship with Andrew…. It was a mistake. It was good at first, but I think I was just too blind to see him for who he really was.” His voice was wavering now, the painful emotions rising up within him again and strangling him. Hunter rubbed his large hand in comforting circles on Justin’s slender back.
“Don’t say that. You are a good and kind man who believes the best in people. Andrew was just stupid and arrogant enough to take advantage of it. You’re not at fault at all.” The trembling in Justin’s body increased and Hunter knew that he was crying silently. He pulled his friend closer to him and stroked his back and hair for several long minutes, letting him work through his pain. Then he leaned back slightly and brushed the brown hair gently away from Justin’s red-rimmed amber eyes, cupping his cheek and stroking it softly with his thumb. Justin leaned into the touch, closing his eyes.
“You’re beautiful, Justin, in every way. Don’t let anyone tell you different.” Hunter murmured, leaning down to brush his lips gently across Justin’s. Justin froze, not reacting as Hunter pressed his lips against his for a short moment. Then, just as Hunter began pulling away, he leaned into the kiss and moved his lips slightly under Hunter’s. The raven-haired man kept the kiss light and gentle, meant more for comfort than lust, and when Justin began to respond, he pulled away reluctantly, leaning his forehead against his friend’s and closing his eyes. For a long moment, the only sound was their quiet, shallow breathing.
“Hunter….” Justin finally murmured, but he was cut off.
“You should go to bed, Justin. It’s been a long day for all of us.” He hesitated before stepping back and looking anywhere but at Justin’s eyes. “I didn’t…. I don’t—I know that you’re still healing from Andrew. I don’t expect anything to happen between us. I just wanted to let you know that I care about you a lot and I want you to find all the happiness you deserve. I’ve…. I better go. I’ll see you tomorrow, Justin. Good night.” Then, before Justin could utter a single word, Hunter stepped close and pressed a quick kiss to Justin’s mouth before he grabbed his coat from a chair and left.
Ben noticed the change in their relationship instantly. With how sensitive he had become to it over the weeks it was impossible not to notice the forced casualness between the two. Hunter was trying to keep his distance as much as possible and Justin was as well, watching his best friend with a mixture of confused curiosity and thoughtfulness. Ben and Ned grinned mentally at each other throughout the day, but the towheaded lad expertly played the part of a clueless teen.
In an attempt to give the two as much time alone as possible to work things out, Ben announced that he was going down to the lake for several hours and left the strangely reluctant pair behind. He chuckled as he walked down the trail that led to the boathouse, Ned trotting by his side.
“They’ll be together by the end of the week, Ned, mark my words. It’s been nearly three months since Justin came back; it’s the perfect time.”
“Hmm… I’ll say two weeks. Neither of them seem to be willing to be aggressive with this.”
“Are you willing to bet on that?” Ben teased, raising his eyebrows.
“Banketletter.” Ned answered immediately and Ben grinned. Ever since he had tasted the Dutch dessert (literally translated “almond pastry letters”), Ned had forced Ben to learn how to make them so that he could have his favorite treat as often as possible.
“Fine. And if I win, I think Hunter and Justin would appreciate a show from Bundi.” That gave the lab pause, reconsidering the bet, but eventually he gave in, as Ben knew he would.
“You drive a hard bargain, boy. But if both of us are wrong, the whole deal’s off.”
“Right.” Ben rolled his eyes as the dog began boasting.
“Good thing I’m the matchmaker in this pair; you were always terrible at noticing these things. This is the easiest bet I’ve ever made.”
“Hey! I noticed Hunter and Justin before you did!” Ben protested indignantly. Sure, maybe he had been a bit clueless in the past, but he had been getting better!
“Aye, and how old are you, pup? What about Amy from Chapelvale? Or that flirty girl from Boston in 1921? You never noticed any of them.”
Ben huffed, unable to find a response to that. Ned’s barking laughter filled his mind as they stepped from the shadowed wood into the warm midday sun, the stiff field weeds giving way to soft sand. Bundi sat proudly on the shore, looking as cheerfully inviting as ever and— argument forgotten—the two friends raced to the small skiff, Ben enthusiastically grabbing the stern and pushing the boat into the water. Ned leaped on board, barking excitedly, and Ben laughed as he grabbed the oars and rowed them a bit further out before he unraveled the sail.
For several hours they sailed peacefully in the sun, eventually taking down the sail and stretching out on the bottom of the craft to doze in the sun. Peace settled over them as they drifted; Ben shirtless with Ned laying against his side to soak up the sun’s warm rays. How long had it been since he hadn’t been tense with fear and anticipation, waiting for a bell to ring and yank happiness away? How long had it been since he had truly been able to appreciate his eternal companion’s warm presence?
Far too long, he decided. He didn’t know how long they lay there, hovering on the edge of sleep, before a voice roused him.
“Ahoy there! Ben, is it?”
Ben sat up, blinking rapidly as his eyes adjusted. The sky had been filled with clouds over the past hours and the sun had been blotted out by the fluffy white mounds. Looking around for the source of the familiar voice, Ben noticed that the boat had drifted to the other side of the lake near the dock of another person’s property. On the dock, towering over him, was Jon Preston the Fourth. A thrill of pain and anxiety shot through Ben’s heart, evaporating some of the calm that had fallen over him.
“Jon—er, Mr. Preston?” Ben stammered, squinting up at the man. Ned woke with a snort of irritation.
“What? What’s going on here? I was having the nicest dream….”
“The missus saw your boat floating out here in the middle of the lake and made me come down to fetch it, thinking it had been washed off of Justin’s shore. I’m surprised that he let you out on her by yourself.”
“I have some maritime experience, sir; I’m the one who fixed her up.” Ben explained, feeling a touch defensive for some reason. Surprise flickered over the old man’s face as he sized Ben up again, replaced with something akin to respect.
“That’s the truth? Well, it certainly looks like you’ve been through the wringer a few times. You’d better come in for some lemonade; my wife will want to meet you once she finds out there was a living being on that boat. Tie her up on the dock and follow me.” The towheaded lad did as he was told somewhat reluctantly, pulling on his sleeveless shirt as he and Ned followed Jon silently up a rocky path to the back of a small ranch house. They climbed onto the wooden porch, where the white paint was peeling badly, and opened a glass door that led into a large but cozy living room. Ben looked around with no little surprise at the soft couches, curio cabinet, and other little homely touches that he would have never associated with the Jon of 1896.
“All he needed was a woman’s touch, eh?” Ned chortled and Ben grinned in agreement. Jon gestured vaguely to the couches.
“Have a seat while I inform the missus. Martha! We’ve got company!” He called as he stuck his head into the swinging door that Ben assumed led into the kitchen.
“Visitors? Lordy, Jon, I sent you out to pick up Justin’s boat; how in Heaven’s name did you pick up some poor souls within a hundred yards of the house?” A strong, robust voice answered back, somehow managing to sound both warm and scolding at the same time.
“There was someone in the boat, that’s how! Hurry on out and bring some lemonade while you’re at it!” Jon retorted peevishly but as he returned to the living room, Ben could see a twinkle in his blue eyes that belied the sharp words. “That woman’s about as sharp as a tack and softer than wool, if you know what I mean.” He chuckled as Ben nodded and sat down on an armchair across from where the teen sat on a loveseat with Ned at his heels.
The door to the kitchen suddenly swung open and Jon’s wife emerged with a tray laden with cookies and lemonade. She was much shorter than Ben had expected, given the strength of her voice, and she was quite petite except for the normal signs of childbirth that most women gained. Her light brown hair was short and her warm brown eyes twinkled strongly from a heart-shaped face that showed evidence of laugh lines. She seemed to be a person of eternal good cheer and motherly love and her smile only widened when she saw him.
“Oh my! It’s young Ben, isn’t it? I’ve heard so many good things from the Johansen’s and I’ve wanted to meet you for ages!” She cried, setting down the tray carefully on the coffee table and reaching out to take one of his hands in both of hers in a warm handshake. “I sing in the choir, y’see, and by the time I come down from the stand, you’re off like a shot and I miss my chance.”
Ben smiled sheepishly. “Sorry, marm, it’s a habit, I suppose.” Martha paused in the act of sitting on the couch adjacent to Ben’s, looking over at him in surprise before she sat down.
“’Marm’? What a strange boy you are, Ben! I didn’t know that there were young’uns who even knew the word, much less used it! But I’m no ‘marm’, so you’ll just have to call me Grandma Martha just like everyone else.”
“Sorry, er, Grandma. It’s another habit.” Ben replied, smiling uncertainly. This woman’s boisterous personality was certainly overwhelming after living in Justin’s mostly-quiet house. He reached forward to pick up a glass of lemonade, feeling sort of parched after the hours laying in the sun, when he was stopped by Martha’s startled gasp. He looked up, surprised by her expression of dismay.
“My goodness, Ben!” she breathed, “where on earth did you get such a terrible scar?” Ben blinked, retracting the scarred arm automatically and pressing it against his side. He had forgotten that most people didn’t know about his scars and out of habit he smiled disarmingly to reassure the motherly woman.
“Sorry about that, ma’am, I had forgotten about it. It was just an accident that happened a long time ago.”
“There are few accidents that involve guns, Ben,” she said shrewdly. “My husband was part of the war, you know; I can recognize a gunshot wound anywhere. The scoundrel who did it was properly punished, I hope?” She sniffed indignantly on his behalf.
Ben surprised her by smiling faintly. “Yes, I suppose he was.” The man had been executed not long after he had been caught by the police officers.
“Let him alone now, Martha.” Jon said gruffly. “The lad doesn’t need you to pry into bad memories. Tell me, Ben, where are you from? I can’t recognize your accent.”
“Oh, here and there. I’ve traveled for most of my life. I’m originally from Denmark, though.”
“Denmark! Gracious, how interesting. And how do you like Oak Harbor?” Martha asked kindly, encouraging him to take a glass of lemonade and a cookie.
“It’s very nice. I like small, quiet towns and Justin and Hunter have been very kind to me and Ned here. The Johansen’s, too.”
“And how is Mr. Gardner? We don’t put much stock in gossip at all, but we had heard that his return was rather… sudden.” Ben shrugged, feigning nonchalance.
“You would have to ask him about that; I wouldn’t know. He seems to be doing very well, though.”
“He’s a good man. We shouldn’t listen to anything those gossipy women say.” Jon said firmly, and that was that. Soon after, Ben noted that it was late and he should return to the house for dinner. Grandma Martha gave him a smothering hug and a kiss on the cheek, telling him that she expected him to visit them again soon. He promised that he would. Jon ended up walking him back down to the boat in silence. Ben felt the sudden urge to explain why he had run away the first time he had seen Jon, but at the last second he backed down. Instead, he clambered into the boat and gave the older man a typical sailor’s salute. Jon returned it, looking faintly surprised but pleased, and Ben rowed the boat back across the lake.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad.” He commented to Ned.
“Aye, I especially loved that old lady of Jon’s. She reminded me of Matilda, Comte Bregon’s cook. Ah, what a kind soul.”
“I wouldn’t want to get in the way of her vicious cooking spoon, though.” Ben chuckled.
“I’ve been in the way of one of those far too many times in my short life! But we must risk it to taste her cooking some day.” The lab said in a long-suffering tone.
“True enough.” Ben replied solemnly.
This routine continued for nearly a week, bypassing Ben’s bet, much to his consternation and Ned’s glee. They continued to spend time away from the house on the lake and at the Preston home. They finally got to sample some of Martha’s cooking (both heartily approved) and they enjoyed the company of the older couple. Jon was a retired naval officer and Martha had been a nurse when she was younger and their stories were fascinating to listen to. As the week passed, Ben felt that he could distinguish more and more between the past Jon and the present Jon, though the similarities still jumped out at him painfully at times.
It was on a Tuesday, six days after Ben and Ned had made their bet, when the two and Eli entered the house from swimming in the lake, their clothes still damp. Eli had continued to come to his sessions and though they had yet to hear him speak again, Justin was confident in his progress.
Eli had been laughing in his soft way at something Ben had said when a glance into the living room as they passed made Ben freeze in place. He reached out and caught Eli’s sleeve, causing the teen to look back at him curiously before he following Ben’s gaze.
“Ha! Bet’s off, buddy!”
Hunter had Justin pressed against the wall in the living room and was currently ravaging the shorter man’s neck. Justin was flushed, his lips clearly bruised and his clothes rumpled as his hands buried in Hunter’s thick hair. At that moment, he happened to open his eyes and catch sight of them standing in the doorway. His amber eyes widened comically and his mouth dropped open in mortification as he froze. Frantically, he tugged at Hunter’s hair to get him to raise his head.
“Justin…” Hunter murmured huskily before he too saw their frozen audience, though he merely blinked lazily.
“Uh… er… I’ve—we…” Justin stammered.
“Finally.” All eyes turned to Eli, who had a satisfied smirk on his lips. “I-it’s ab-bout time.”
Ben snapped out of his shock and an evil grin spread across his face. He threw his arm around Eli’s shoulder (a bit difficult since Eli was a bit taller than him). “Well said, Eli. In fact, we should probably give them some privacy since they obviously need it. Ciao!”
He dragged Eli after him as he bolted to the door, Ned barking out his laughter behind them. The last thing they heard was Justin’s exasperated shout of “Nebuchadnezzar! Get back here!” Of course, they ignored it as they burst into the surrounding forest and ran for several minutes before they found a small clearing and collapsed into the fragrant grasses. They lay for several minutes to recover their breath, laughing every once in a while.
“Hey, Eli.” Ben said finally, rolling onto his side and propping his head up on his hand as he gazed at the other boy solemnly. Eli’s straight, wispy black hair ruffled in the playful breeze as he tilted his head curiously in response.
“How did you know?”
Instantly, Eli’s expression was as smooth and unreadable as a river-worn stone. His startling sapphire blue eyes fixed on Ben as they had countless times before, assessing, weighing. As always, Ben met it with a calm patience that belied his apparent age. They seemed locked in the strange staring contest for ages before Eli made a decision.
“I… see things. Here.” He pointed to his temple, close to his eyes. “In… people’s eyes. I s-see their f-future. Little... small glimpses. N-nothing im-important. Justin and H-Hunter… were meant to be together.” His voice, still frail and broken after nearly two years of disuse, hung heavily in the still air of the clearing. Even Ned was completely still.
“And what do you see when you look in my eyes?” Ben asked, seemingly calm despite the sickly curl of certainty in his gut. Now he understood why Eli tended to stare into his eyes more than others’. The things he must see….
“I see…. The past.” Eli responded, his eyes far away. His voice sounded awed, marveling. “At least… I t-think it is past. You… are the same, b-but there are ships and p-pirates and carriages. I-it’s… amazing. Different. But I c-can’t see your f-future.”
Probably because it has no end, Ben thought to himself ruefully. It may have surprised others to see how calm he was at the moment, but truthfully he had met many people over the centuries that had been blessed with special “gifts” from a divine source. But he had never met anyone who had gone through what Eli had. In fact, it made him wonder….
“Eli, is your gift the reason why you won’t speak?”
The slender raven-haired boy began shaking his head before he paused, his brow furrowed, and he slowly nodded. “My…. My m-mother….” He began haltingly, looking pained. “W-when I l-left her the last time—she s-said that it was the r-reason that she didn’t love me… the reason th-that no one would ever love me. She—she said that people would only l-love me if I didn’t t-talk.”
“What? That’s--!” Ben could hardly express his disgust and shock that a woman could treat her own child in such a way. Obviously Eli had taken the cruel words to heart, despite the fact that they had been spoken in deranged anger and spite.
“I—I know. It’s… not right. But it’s easier, not to speak. This way, t-the Johansen’s won’t think I’m w-weird or cursed. But you… I knew I c-could talk to you. Y-you know what it’s like… to be different, l-like me. You are a-always s-so nice to me.”
“Eli,” Ben said gently. “You know that that’s not true. How can you think that the Johansen’s would think something like that? They are good, kind people who love you like their own. They always have and your gift won’t change that. Michael is a man of God and he will recognize your gift when he sees it; he won’t think that you’re weird or cursed. I’m sure they would be surprised at first, but they would get used to it. Just because it’s easier to remain silent doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing to do.”
Eli had looked away, his face closed off but soft in the shady light of the clearing. Ben sighed, glancing over at Ned. The lab got up and sidled to Eli’s side, leaning against him and laying his soft brown head on the boy’s knees. Eli rubbed his head, his face softening with a small smile.
“Did you know that I was born mute, Eli?” That got his attention; his head jerking up in surprise. “For the first fourteen or fifteen years of my life, I could barely make a noise. I couldn’t communicate at all since sign language hadn’t been invented yet, and my stepfamily treated me like a stupid animal that was barely good for manual labor. You don’t know how often I wanted to tell them that I wasn’t stupid; to prove to them that I was a real human being with feelings and thoughts.” Ben stared into the pale shafts of light that broke through the trees around them, his voice strained with emotion.
“You don’t know what a gift it is to be able to speak, to say even the simplest of things when I remember a time where I couldn’t say anything at all. To tell someone how much they mean to you, to share desires, thoughts, and feelings… It can bring people closer together and bind them with unbreakable bonds, or it can tear them apart. Your mother used words to hurt you, and that’s the power that comes with speech. It’s a responsibility to not hurt someone with words, but it’s one I would gladly take on to be able to tell… to tell someone... that I love them.”
Ben fell silent, unaware of the tears that had filled his eyes, as he thought of the family he had never had the opportunity to have. He thought of a kind, strong father and a loving, caring mother who loved him with all of their hearts. He thought of all of the men and women over the centuries who had managed to become part of his make-shift family in the short time he had known them. He had never told any of them how much they had meant to him; it would have been too painful considering that he would never see them again. Too dangerous because of the many secrets he held.
Suddenly, Ben was surprised by a warm body impacting his, toppling them back into the warm grass. Eli wrapped his arms around Ben’s neck and pressed his face into his chest, his body trembling with silent, suppressed sobs. Stunned, Ben cautiously wrapped his arms around Eli’s torso. Then he realized that Eli must have seen something in his eyes and Ben’s expression crumpled with sorrow. He rolled them over onto their sides, but didn’t release the younger teen from his embrace. Instead, they clung to each other tightly, offering as much comfort to the other that they could give.
They remained that way for a long time, each shedding tears as they thought of what they had lost in their lives.
That fateful afternoon turned out to be the greatest breakthrough yet for Eli. The minister and his wife had come to Justin’s house the next day with tears in their eyes, hugging both Justin and Ben and thanking them profusely. Eli would still nod or shake his head to yes-or-no questions, but now he would respond to some questions with short, stuttering sentences. The first time it had happened, Heather explained, she had thought that Jayson had been playing a nasty joke on her and she had scolded the boy for some time before Eli had corrected her.
Justin warned them not to push Eli too hard by asking too many questions to get him to talk. Instead, he advised that they continue to ask mostly yes-or-no questions; eventually, Eli would become more open.
“What I’m wondering is what happened to make Eli open up so much already.” Justin mused that night after the Johansen’s left.
“I still say that he was shocked into it.” Hunter laughed.
“Oh, shut up. Ben, are you sure that you’re okay about Hunter and I?”
The towheaded boy rolled his eyes. “You’ve only asked me about ten times, why should now be any different? Yes, I’m fine with it! I’m ecstatic! That’s why I’m making dessert tonight anyway—we’re celebrating… even though neither Ned nor I won the bet.” He muttered the last part, which caused Hunter to laugh uproariously and Justin to blush with a sheepish smile.
But I wonder… Ben reflected as he climbed into bed that night and said goodnight to Justin, I wonder if this means that we’re leaving soon. We’ve done as the angel asked and there’s no way of knowing when the bell will ring.
“Don’t think about it, Ben, Ned suggested, catching the gist of Ben’s thoughts. “We never know when the angel will call; it could be months from now, like Chapelvale. There’s still a lot of good we can do here.”
“You’re right, Ned, as always,” Ben replied with a wry smile. “I guess I’m just….”
“I know. Let’s sleep now, Ben; we have a nice, soft bed and a warm house to sleep in. We’ve made good friends and helped others find love and happiness. Life is good.”
“Yeah, life is good.” The immortal teen echoed, but his voice sounded faintly hollow.
September 3, 1981
He should’ve known never to trust the weatherman. Hadn’t his father—God rest his soul—always said that weathermen were right about as often as the sun rose in the west? “Mother Nature has a mind of her own, Justin, and you’d best respect that. Some number-crunching coffee stain in CNN’s basement can’t tell her what to do.”
Never were truer words spoken, Justin reflected as he jogged into the wind-driven rain in order to roll up the windows of his car. It had been sunny, if a little chilled, during the day and the weatherman had promised that the dark clouds looming on the horizon would blow past Oak Harbor without a drop of rain hitting the small town. Of course, not three hours later, rain had begun falling in steady sheets.
However, even as Justin rolled up his windows he noted that the rain was rapidly becoming heavier and colder, the wind picking up to a stiff and bitter gale. He ran back to the house, gratefully accepting the towel that Hunter thoughtfully provided him, and rubbed the dripping strands of his hair.
“It’s raining bullets out there,” he panted. “I can’t believe that I actually thought that the weatherman knew what he was talking about. This is Washington, for goodness’ sake! Of course it’s going to rain!”
“Well, I think it’s the perfect excuse to stay inside and keep warm,” Hunter said, wrapping his arms around his boyfriend from behind and setting his chin on the shorter man’s shoulder. Justin smiled and turned his head to peck the other man on the cheek, mindful of Ben’s approach.
“Woah, Ben, why the getup? Are you going on a quest we should know about?” Hunter joked when he saw the slender teen wrapped in the heavy cloak and cowl from the valise he rarely opened. He bent to swiftly tie his boots.
“No such luck,” Ben grunted in response as he straightened and pulled his cloak aside to check the dagger strapped to his waist. The two adult’s eyes widened. “I can recognize a squall when I see one; this is going to be one nasty storm. I need to get out to the Bundi and strap her down if we don’t want her mast snapped again.”
“I’ll come with you,” Justin said quickly, but Ben was already opening the door.
“No time!” He called back before plunging into the storm. His dark form, followed by a faithful Ned, quickly vanished into the shadows of the swaying forest.
“Is he insane?” Hunter said incredulously. Justin didn’t answer, instead grabbing his own coat and scarf and following Ben’s path.
“They’re both insane.” The green-eyed man muttered to himself before he pulled on his coat and shut the door behind him.
Justin squinted into the rain, trying to spot Ben’s swift form, but it was too dark to see. Instead, he focused on the path leading to the lake and tried not to twist an ankle as he ran. Gradually the trees thinned and ended, leaving him on the wind-torn beach where Ben was already pulling the small skiff higher up on shore out of reach of the waves. Justin and Hunter rushed to help him pull it far up on shore, nearly to the boathouse.
Ben motioned them to step away before he suddenly scurried up the short mast as nimbly as a monkey in its favorite strip of forest. The two adults gaped in astonishment as the slender teen expertly wrapped a length of rope tightly about the sail and tied it off so it wouldn’t be lost or damaged in the storm. He shimmied down and gestured to Ned, who—despite the lack of verbal commands—somehow understood that he was to retrieve the oars that had been blown further down the beach.
“Maybe we should put her into the shed!” Ben shouted over the howling wind and rain. “We won’t get much more use out of her for the rest of the year!” Justin nodded in agreement, but just as they began pushing again, Ned let out a piercing howl. They all froze and a shiver of fear traveled up their spines in response to the pure terror in that sound. Ben’s face had completely drained of color until he looked ghostly white and he stared out past Justin and Hunter’s shoulders.
Almost unconsciously, they turned towards the lake and faced a sight that would haunt them the rest of their lives. A huge ship, the likes of which Justin had only seen in pirate movies, was floating into their small cove from the larger cove. A ghostly green light emanated from the rotting timbers, blurring the lines until it was impossible to say whether the ship actually existed—a notion encouraged by the fact that the waters beneath the ghostly ship barely moved as it passed.
Ice seemed to freeze in Justin’s veins as a triumphant cackle, tinted with hysteria, filled the air. The temperature plummeted instantly, turning the rain into an icy sleet and causing their breaths to emerge in white plumes.
“I said I would find ye, boy! Didn’t I? Ye didn’t think you could escape me, did ye? No one can escape the grasp of Kaptain Philip Vanderdecken!” Justin’s eyes found the source of the voice; a wild-looking man in ragged and rotting pirate garb with a scraggly beard and cruel, insane eyes stood braced against the steering wheel at the helm. Behind him stood a crew of silent, gaunt figures that were obviously dead.
“Ned!” Ben suddenly screamed, breaking both the adults and Ned from their frozen state. The black Labrador yelped again and bolted to Ben’s side, the fur on his back stiff and bristling as he snarled in the direction of the ghostly ship. Ben turned to the two men, wild fear buried deep in his strange blue eyes. “We need to run, now! Leave the boat!”
Hunter and Justin obeyed without a second thought, eager to get as far away from the unholy sight in the lake as possible. A shriek of rage erupted from behind them.
“You will never escape me, boy! Me and my crew will hunt ye to the four corners of the Earth and back again until we hurl ye to the very depths of Davey Jones’ locker!” The tirade broke off into high-pitched, shrieking laughter that seemed to follow their terrified group as they fled into the forest.
Justin’s heart beat frantically in his chest, nearly bursting from fear and adrenaline as he ran full-tilt through the trees, dodging trunks and leaping over rocks with a speed and agility that would have stunned him had he been thinking properly. As it was, all he was aware of was the terror behind him, the wet sting of leaves and branches tearing at him, and his ragged breathing. Hunter was behind him, but he could see the flitting forms of Ben and his faithful dog ahead of him; Ben’s cloak whipping and snapping in the wind as he dashed through the woods at unthinkable speeds.
After several minutes that felt like an eternity, Justin’s small house came into view, the warm light from the entrance hall beckoning them forward with it welcoming glow. They burst through the door, dripping wet and panting. As soon as Hunter was through the door, Justin slammed it shut and locked it despite knowing that it would be a futile defense against whatever was back at the lake. He leaned his forehead against the smooth wood, his hand falling from the latch as his body informed him of its various aches and pains.
“What… the hell was that?” Hunter finally gasped out. Justin shook his head and turned, still slumped against the door. The two lovers shared a look and turned to Ben. The lad had collapsed to the hardwood floor once he was inside, sitting on his bent legs and bracing his body with his hands planted on the floor between his thighs. His slumped form spoke of exhaustion and his heavy cloak pooled around him wetly, his dark gold hair plastered to his bent head and dripping in strands that shielded his expression from view. Ned whined and nosed his companion’s wet cheek.
Finally, Ben lifted his head to stare into Ned’s eyes with an intensity that suggested that something more than visual contact passed between them. After a long moment, Ben shook his head and looked away, back towards Hunter and Justin. His expressive cloudy blue eyes were strangely unreadable.
“That was Vanderdecken, the captain of the Flying Dutchman.” He answered dully and Hunter took in a sharp breath of surprise. Justin had never heard either of the names and waited for an explanation.
“Maybe… maybe we should talk about this after we’ve gotten cleaned up and changed into dry clothes.” Hunter suggested cautiously, his brow furrowed in a way that Justin recognized as being troubled contemplation. He and Ben nodded in agreement. Ben struggled to his feet, removing his strange cloak as he did so, and ran a visibly shaking hand through his wet hair before they went their separate ways.
By silent agreement, they reconvened in the living room/library, Ben sitting in an armchair with Ned at his feet and the two adults sitting on the couch across from him. Ben wore soft white canvas shorts and a blue shirt with a towel draped over his shoulders and the adults had changed into dry clothes as well, each with a small band-aid on their cheek or arm from the branches that had snagged them as they ran. Once they had settled, they both turned to him with identical expressions of expectation. Ben sighed and ran a hand through his hair.
“Where do I start?” He asked Ned helplessly.
“The beginning is usually a good place,” the lab replied dryly. Ben tweaked one of his ears.
“Cheeky,” the boy muttered, but he obeyed. Starting from the very beginning with his stepfather’s sons and his fateful voyage on the Flying Dutchman, Ben told his story up to the death of the kind shepherd Luis; at which point he simply glossed over the intervening centuries. Justin and Hunter listening with growing awe and wonder to the otherworldly tale.
“So, after we left Luis’ hut burning behind us, we started traveling. Mostly, we wandered in whatever direction we wanted until the angel sent a message to stop and help someone in need. It’s been many years now…. Every once in a while, when there is trouble, we have a vision of the Flying Dutchman on the high seas, but rarely do we ever see him in person like we did today. He must have been more insane than usual to test the Lord’s patience by venturing so close to land.”
“Will we see him again?” Justin asked.
Ben shook his head. “I doubt it. It will be a while before a storm this powerful will allow him to come so close again. Ned and I may be gone by then, so he would have no reason to come here anyway. We hardly stay in one place more than a couple of months; in fact, this is one of the longer visits we’ve had in several years, eh Ned?” He rubbed the dog’s head and Ned nodded with a wag of his tail.
Ben chuckled. “He says that he’ll miss Grandma Preston’s cooking. No offense, but there’s just something special in a grandma’s cooking.”
“You’re making it sound like you’re leaving soon,” Justin said with some alarm.
“Well, we never know when we leave, so I’m not planning on it. The angel usually summons us with the sound of a bell.” Ben hesitated for a split second, looking uncertain and a tad bit concerned. “What do you think? You seem to be taking this… well.” The two lovers glanced at each other.
“Well, it’s sort of hard to ignore the truth when it floats right into your lake,” Hunter said bluntly.
“To tell you the truth, if I hadn’t seen the Dutchman myself, I might not have believed you,” Justin confessed. “But I could always tell that there was something different about you and Ned. Something not exactly… normal; human.”
“Aw, you’d think we’d get better in our old age, Ned. There was a time when people didn’t take a second glance at us.”
“Wait a minute!” Hunter suddenly blurted, an expression of dawning wonder and excitement lighting his eyes. “Just how old are you two? You never said.” Much to their surprise, Ben actually blushed and scratched the back of his neck nervously.
“I don’t really know when I was born—day or year—but I think that it was sometime in 1620 when I sailed on the Flying Dutchman and become immortal. I was about fifteen and Ned was about three. So, I guess I’m coming up on… er, three hundred and seventy-seven? Seventy-five? I’m not sure.” Justin looked completely gobsmacked while Hunter’s eyes shined with realization.
“Three—Three hundred—” Justin started but was cut off by his boyfriend.
“Do you realize what that means?” The professor breathed with awe. “1620… Nearly four hundred years. That means that you were alive for… for everything! The greatest, most influential events in history! Napoleon, Beethoven, Martin Luthor, Einstein, the settlement of the Americas! I can’t—I don’t—even know how to…. My God, you’re like a walking history book! You’ve lived it!” He stared at Ben, his breathing erratic.
“You’ll never be rid of him now,” Justin groaned. “This is like his dream come true.”
“Er…” was all Ben could say.
“What about Paganini? The greatest violinist ever!”
“Yes, I actually did have the opportunity to go to one of his concerts. Mozart, as well.”
“Mozart?! The Mozart?”
“How many other Mozart’s are there, Hunter?”
“Hunter, you’ve got to understand—”
“Where were you in 1799? Anywhere near France? Please tell me you’ve met Napoleon.”
“Well, Charles Darwin, then. Benjamin Franklin? Chairman Mao? Bach? Abraham Lincoln?”
“Well, actually… No! Wait, Justin, you have to understand,” Ben finally broke in sternly. “I am charged with the task of helping people—everyday, honest, hard-working people—who need my help. Sure, I may have met a few famous people along the way, but I concerned myself with the dirt farmer who struggled to harvest grain for the Queen, not the Queen herself.”
Hunter looked properly abashed for a second, before he perked up with that irrepressible look of excitement in his eyes. “Have you met the Queen of England?”
Ben merely groaned, echoed by Justin, who slapped the back of his oblivious boyfriend’s head. It had been four days since Ben’s revelation and Hunter frequently fell into these rapturous interrogations, naming off any famous person that he could think of (which was quite a few). Ben didn’t mind too much, merely grateful that they hadn’t reacted badly to the news, but by now it was becoming slightly annoying.
Ben knew that they were probably more affected by the events of four days ago than they seemed. They tried to be light-hearted and normal around him, but the truth was told in the fact that Justin often disappeared into his study to look through his psychology books and Hunter had slept over every night since then. Ben supposed that seeing the Flying Dutchman was traumatic enough—he had been haunted by relentless nightmares of the insane Vanderdecken as well—without the added burden of an immortal boy and dog to accept.
It was after Eli left one day (stuttering a soft goodbye) that Justin pulled him and Ned into his office and shut the door behind them with an ominous click. The sound promised a long talk.
Rather than moving to sit in the chair behind his desk as Ben had expected, Justin simply leaned against the front of the desk and gave them a solemn look. Ben’s heart started beating faster in spite of his calm outward expression. Was this it? Was Justin going to send them away? Was it too much for him and Hunter to accept?
“Ben, I’ve been thinking,” Justin began cautiously. “Ever since I’ve met you, there’s been something a bit… off about you. As far as I could tell after a few weeks, you were a well-adjusted teenager; mature, intelligent, and generous in ways that are different from others your age despite the pain and loneliness you had obviously been through in your life. To tell you the truth, I was worried about you. Of course, I know the truth now, but at the time I thought that you may have been hiding a pain that was deeper than you let on.”
Ben remained silent. The psychologist was more accurate than he knew.
“After a while, I gave up on trying to analyze you as we grew closer simply because I could not find any hint of the symptoms I had been looking for in you. But after hearing your story, something occurred to me. Do you remember what you said to me during your fever the day after I met you?”
“My fever? No, I don’t,” Ben replied quietly, his body tense and his eyes anxious.
“You said, ‘This time will pass just like all the other times. He will die just like the rest. They all die, don’t forget that.’ I didn’t understand what you meant that night, but I think I do now.” Ben avoided the kind man’s eyes and stared down at his hands clenched in his lap. His ears and cheeks were burning with embarrassment and shame. He was surprised when a gentle hand cupped his chin and lifted it so that he could meet Justin’s warm, compassionate eyes.
“Lord, Ben, I can’t even imagine the pain that you have gone through these past three-hundred and seventy years. To make such close friends with the people you love and help, only to leave them so that they won’t see you stay young while they grow old and die…. I can’t even fathom it.”
“Justin…” Ben began, looking off to the side, but a soft pressure on his trapped chin made him look back at the older man.
“I’d like to help. I think that there are very few people that you confide in, both about your past and your feelings, and I suspect that you’ve been feeling your years more than usual lately. I want to help you deal with this pain, Ben. I want you to be able to live life to the fullest, without fear or anger or frustration at your lot in life.”
“Why are you doing this?”
“I care a lot about you, Ben. You helped me stay focused on what was most important when all I wanted to do was wallow in self-pity and pain. You brought Hunter and I together. You brought happiness and love into this home. You’ve given me so much and I want to give you as much as I can.”
Tears filled Ben’s clouded blue eyes with startling speed and he let out a gasp as he tried to hold a sob inside. He wrapped his arms around himself and bowed his head. He flinched when Justin set his warm hand on his shoulder.
“It’s okay, Ben. You can let out any of the emotions you are feeling; all of the pain, frustration, hurt, and loneliness. It’s not wrong of you to have these feelings, but it is wrong to keep them bottled up inside, poisoning you from the inside out. You have to realize that you deserve all of the happiness and love that this world offers you, Ben. Let go of the rest.” Ben trembled at the kind, warm words spoken with love and tenderness. It had been so long…. So long.
A stray sob broke through his swollen throat, the soft cry sounding loud in the quiet office, and it seemed to release a floodgate of emotions. Ben suddenly threw himself at the man he had come to see as a surrogate father, wrapping his arms tightly around his waist and sobbing into his chest, his body shaking with the strain of keeping his cries to a minimum. The warm tears quickly soaked Justin’s shirt, but the man simply wrapped his own arms tightly around the slender immortal and offered his own silent comfort.
There was a whirlwind of thoughts and emotions within Ben’s mind, so chaotic and powerful that he imagined that his frail human form would simply fly apart with the force of it all. Memories of the past rose sharply in his mind’s eye and flitted away like startled birds, each bringing its own pained happiness.
He and Ned, together with Miss Winn, Amy, and Alex Somers enjoying ice cream and tea at Dai and Blodwen Evan’s Tea Shoppe. Dominic, Matilda, and the newly-engaged Karay and Adamo sitting around the Comte Bregon’s table just before the old man announced his intention to adopt Ben, thus forcing the boy and his dog to leave. Countless nights on the high seas in Captain Rafael Thuron’s warm cabin. Beautiful music played around a gypsy’s fire as he sat close by the girl he cared for most, who was even now waiting for him in Heaven’s grasp. Serafina.
At some point, the door opened and Ben found himself enveloped from behind in a strong embrace that he immediately identified as Hunter’s. There, sandwiched in the loving embrace of two men who clearly loved him as well as each other, Ben felt his resolve crumble even more. His trembling increased.
“It’s so hard,” he finally choked out. “Why does it have to b-be so hard? Day after day, year after year! They’re my friends—my family in every way that matters—and w-without fail I’m torn from them, forced to leave because of my own damn curse! I’m so stupid!”
The arms around him tightened and Hunter spoke fiercely. “Don’t say that, never say that! Don’t ever think that you’re stupid for finding happiness in others. You deserve their love and acceptance. It’s the experiences you had with them that made you who you are today. Would you rather to have never met them?”
“Yes!” Ben cried, unable to help himself. He wrenched himself away from their embrace and backed against the wall opposite the door. He pressed his hands against the wall, uncertain if his weak legs would hold him.
“I wish I had never met them! I shouldn’t have met them! I was supposed to die at Cape Horn, drowned in the depths of the sea like the rest of the Dutchman’s cursed crew! At least that way I would have peace; that way my heart wouldn’t be torn in tiny pieces every time I say goodbye.” His voice broke and he couldn’t prevent the sob that slipped from his throat. Slowly, he slid down the wall, wrapping his arms around himself once more and hunching over his bent knees as if hoping the ground would just swallow him up and end his misery.
Hunter’s jaw was tight with emotion, his clear green eyes soft with sorrow. Justin, more familiar in situations such as this, approached the crying teen and knelt next to him, carefully setting his hand on Ben’s back and rubbing slow circles. Ned watched solemnly from his protective stance near the door. The room was silent.
“I wish I had never met you, too.” Ben whispered.
“That’s funny; I was just thinking that I must be incredibly blessed to have met you.” Justin responded calmly. “I don’t think you realize just how much you affect others, Ben. You’re so good and kind and compassionate and generous that people are changed for the better after you leave them. You’ve helped generations of people become kinder, stronger, more confident, and happier. Doesn’t that make you happy?” Ben remained silent, his body trembling faintly. Ned suddenly loped forward, nudging his friend’s bowed head with his nose and licking his forehead.
After several moments, Ben raised his tear-streaked face slowly to meet Ned’s chocolate brown eyes. “Oh, Ned—!” He choked out, lunging forward to wrap his arms around his companion’s neck and bury his face in the warm fur. Exhausted as Ben was, it only took him a few minutes for his tears to slow and for him to slip into a fitful sleep. The chocolate lab’s eyes were solemn but his tail wagged lightly as Hunter approached to lift Ben and take him into his room. The tall man laid the boy on the bed and covered him with a blanket. Ned leapt onto the foot of the bed and curled up tightly against his companion’s side.
Justin met Hunter’s eyes as he closed the door softly. “Thank you,” he murmured and pressed a quick kiss to his mouth. Hunter responded by taking his hand gently and pulling him into the other room.
“Did you plan for that to happen?”
The psychologist shook his head. “No, I didn’t try to provoke it, but I’m not surprised it happened. He’s been on pins and needles ever since he told us; obviously he was worried about how we would react. I imagine that he hasn’t told many people about his past and he’s been bottling everything up for who knows how long.”
“Do you think that we can help him?”
“I know we can. He’s not a dumb kid; he knows that the life he has been given requires sacrifices for the greater good of others. He doesn’t complain, but he also doesn’t allow himself to acknowledge that he also has needs and has to take the time to fulfill them for himself before he runs himself into the ground. I think that he has been living with a kind of survivor’s guilt; it’s amazing that he’s managed this long with his innocence and personality intact.”
Hunter raised his eyebrows. “You think his innocence really is intact?”
The other man blushed. “I’m sure I don’t know about that. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is, though. Ben’s a really good kid and more insightful than most his age.”
“That’s what living for four hundred years does to you,” Hunter insisted with a faintly devilish grin, “but that doesn’t stop him from being stuck as a fifteen-year-old.”
“The things that your mind comes up with, honestly.” Justin tsked. Hunter’s grin grew and he moved closer to his boyfriend, pressing him back until his legs encountered the bed. Wordlessly, he pushed the smaller man onto the soft mattress and covered his body with his own in such a way that caused Justin to gasp in pleasure.
“Wouldn’t you like to know what my mind’s come up with right now?” Hunter murmured huskily into his lover’s ear, nibbling it and rocking his hips pointedly. “I think you would quite like it.” Justin groan of affirmation was the only audible response possible. The stress of Ben’s situation was pushed to the back of their minds for the moment as they gave themselves up to the pleasure that was dominating their bodies and souls, expressing their love for each other in the most poignant way possible.
It was the whining and scratching that woke them. Justin tensed in Hunter’s warm embrace and opened his eyes, barely distinguishing Hunter’s sleepy green eyes in the darkness of the room. Once they recognized the sound for what it was, however, they were both instantly more alert.
“Ned,” Hunter breathed.
“Something’s wrong with Ben,” Justin finished. They threw the covers off of themselves and Hunter yanked on a pair of boxers while the slender man beside him hastily tied the drawstring to the pajama bottoms he had found on the floor beside the bed. They opened the door and barely glimpsed the grateful expression in the lab’s brown eyes before he had turned and disappeared into the guest room where Ben was staying. Without a glance at each other, the two men moved simultaneously through the door.
The sounds that reached their ears were quiet and muffled but no less heartbreaking for their broken and lost quality. The form on the shadowed bed was turning restlessly and whimpering in distress, the dark gold hair plastered to his face with sweat and tears. Ned whined again and stood on his back legs, planting his forepaws on the mattress in order to lick his companion’s face, but Ben didn’t wake.
Wordlessly, Justin approached the bed and sat on the edge, brushing the tousled hair away from the youth’s face in a loving gesture of comfort. However, Ben shrunk away from the touch in the throes of his nightmare and let out a soft cry, his eyes flying open. His eyes didn’t focus on the man next to him but he seemed almost frightened enough to bolt.
It was apparent to the psychologist that Ben wasn’t entirely aware of his surroundings yet, still trapped in his nightmare. Justin’s expression crumpled but he didn’t stop stroking Ben’s hair comfortingly and eventually the boy seemed to calm. With a glance at Hunter, Justin lifted the covers of Ben’s bed and slid in but didn’t attempt to touch him, letting the boy sense the warmth and comfort in his silent presence.
Taking his cue, Hunter approached the bed and slid in on the other side, sandwiching the unresponsive teen between them. Ben continued to tremble and whimper quietly to himself, and Justin cautiously reached out and curled his arm around the slender form in a loose hug. For several tense minutes, it seemed as if Ben wouldn’t respond, but then he relaxed and his cries quieted. In response to the secure cocoon of warmth surrounding him, Ben curled tightly against Justin’s bare chest, burying his head in the crook of the man’s neck and falling back into a dreamless sleep. Hunter took the opportunity to slide closer, tightening the embrace around Ben and stroking his fine hair.
The two men’s eyes met over the slumbering teen, their eyes soft with understanding and compassion. Justin’s heart warmed with love for the green-eyed man opposite him and he leaned forward to press a sweet kiss to his lover’s lips before they both followed Ben into sleep.
He woke to dim light and a cool breeze where the covers had bunched on the other side of the bed, leaving his back uncovered. Justin opened his amber eyes and blinked in confusion at the sleeping teen he held tightly in his arms. The events of the previous night rushed back into his mind and his eyes softened. He looked up and met Hunter’s sleepy green eyes across the bed, exchanging small smiles and a quick kiss.
“Good morning,” Hunter murmured, his voice rough with sleep.
“’Morning.” Justin yawned. “How did you sleep?”
Before Hunter could respond, Ben stirred and stretched with a yawn before opening his cloudy blue eyes. He blinked when he saw he was lying between two half-naked men in his bed and a red blush crept over his cheeks despite his obvious confusion.
“Uh… Justin? Hunter? What’s going on?” He asked cautiously, wondering if he even wanted to know.
“You had a nightmare last night; a pretty bad one.” Justin answered before Hunter could voice the suggestive comment clearly brewing in his mind. “You weren’t fully aware of us, so we slept next to you to keep you calm.”
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Ben said, his expression a strange mixture of shame, uncertainty, and gratefulness. “But thanks. You didn’t have to….”
Hunter waved that aside. “Don’t worry; we wanted to. But if you really feel that bad, you can make it up to us by making breakfast.”
But Ben was already scrambling out of bed, pulling on a pair of sweats over the boxers he slept in and running a hand through his hair before he flashed them his customary crooked grin and disappeared from the room. Justin glared over at his lover, who shrugged sheepishly.
“What? I’m a sucker for his ham and cheese omelets.”
“Um… I wanted to thank you both for everything you’ve done for me,” Ben said later after the breakfast dishes had been cleared away. He kept his eyes focused on Ned as he rubbed the lab’s course fur. “I really do appreciate it. I think I’ve lost sight of everything I’ve been blessed with and I don’t want to take it for granted anymore. I have a feeling that the angel sent me here to help me realize that.”
“We’ll help you every step of the way, Ben.” Justin said with a grin and reached over to squeeze his shoulder. “You don’t have to thank us.”
“What he said, kiddo.” Hunter put in, and finally a small smile spread across Ben’s face. “Don’t worry about it; we’ll always be around if you need to talk to us. Now let’s go down to the lake and put Bundi away; there’s not a cloud in the sky and Vanderdecken isn’t anywhere near here. Life is good!”
“Yeah, life is good.” Ben repeated with a shy grin, and this time there was a kernel of hope in the words.
October 31, 1981
“Here, let me fix that, you little scoundrel,” Ben laughed. He tugged on the small hand he held in his grasp, finally managing to get the squirming child to pause on the sidewalk. He dropped gracefully to one knee and tightened the drooping sash around the boy’s waist. Jayson put on his fiercest scowl—only managing a pout at best—and poked Ben’s stomach with the dull point of his plastic sword.
“Arg matey, I am no scoundrel! I am the Great Pirate Blackbeard!”
“Really? I don’t see any black beard,” Ben said, his head cocked innocently, “In fact, I think I remember you taking it off hours ago because it was too scratchy.” Next to him, Eli laughed as he readjusted the small cap on Sarah’s head. Forever twins, they had both decided on a nautical theme for Halloween, though she wore a more traditional sailor outfit with a short pleated blue skirt and a knotted kerchief around her neck.
“M-maybe we should head back to the h-house,” Eli said quietly, pointing out that Sarah was blinking sleepily and both of the kid’s bags were full of candy. Eli’s stutter had slowly been disappearing over the past two months and now was barely noticeable, much to everyone’s pride and delight.
Ben nodded in agreement, straightening up and sweeping his long cloak behind him. He and Eli had volunteered to take the children trick-or-treating and give the adults a few hours to themselves. Eli had dressed up, ironically, as a fortune-teller and Ben had used his travel cloak and cowl to cut an impressive figure as a traveling swordsman. He didn’t have an actual sword, but the knife he strapped to his waist was comforting in that he knew he could use it if there was a need. To his relief, the night had passed safely and he had enjoyed the opportunity to celebrate the childish holiday. However, it was now nearly ten o’clock and clearly well-past the children’s bedtime.
While Eli used his cell phone to call his parents as well as Justin and Hunter, Ben managed to convince the hyper Jayson that it was time to go. They weren’t far from the church and it wouldn’t take long to reach Justin’s house from here (they had started at the Johansen’s house and slowly worked their way around toward Justin’s house, where they were all staying for the night). But by the time they reached the small dirt road that would take them to Justin’s house, even Jayson had succumbed to exhaustion and had fallen asleep in Ben’s arms, just as Sarah had done with Eli ten minutes ago. Ned trotted ahead of them, a bell (hammer removed) tied around his neck and white splotches sprayed onto his fur in a cow pattern.
As they approached the road Ben noted the dark blue SUV idling a bit farther down the road with its lights on. A dark feeling of foreboding crept into his gut and Ben shifted the boy in his arms onto his other hip in case he needed to get to his knife. The bright lights fairly blinded them, but as they passed the car and his eyes adjusted, Ben looked back and just caught the profile of a man with a strong chin and a slightly bent nose.
Abruptly, the image of a familiar unholy ship flashed into his mind’s eye and he stumbled as Vanderdecken’s cruel laughter echoed faintly in his mind. He felt strangely disconnected; he barely felt Eli’s concerned hand on his shoulder. The ground seemed to roll beneath his feet as if he was on the high seas and freezing sea spray on his face made him shiver with dread.
Then, suddenly, the sensation was gone.
He blinked and saw that he had frozen in place, Jayson still sleeping in his arms and Eli watching him with concern. He shook his head in response to his questions, feeling a breeze on the cold sweat on his forehead that he had mistaken for sea spray. He started walking again, hearing the car behind them shift into gear and drive away. Ned bolted out of the surrounding darkness and was instantly at his side.
“A warning.” The lab sent shortly. Ben gave a sharp mental nod.
“I know. I felt it as I looked at the man in the car over there. Something bad is going to happen, Ned.”
“At least we’re aware of it. We won’t be taken by surprise; we’ll be prepared, just like we’ve always been.”
Ben remained silent, his doubt clear to Ned’s mind. “Still, I would feel better if we told Justin and Hunter. I have a bad feeling about that man.” Ned nodded in agreement.
Ben looked down at the sleeping child in his arms and tightened his grip unconsciously. He had a family to protect now and he would give his very life to make sure that they were safe.
The next day was spent leisurely as everyone relaxed from the day before. Eli and Ben took the kids to the Oak Harbor grocery store to get their Halloween photos developed and Ben took a certain picture and slipped it into one of the worn books he carried in his travel-stained valise. He knew the picture would be a source of pain and fond memories in the decades to come, but he could not help himself.
He didn’t get a chance to be alone with Justin and Hunter until after the Johansen’s had come for dinner and took their children home. Once they had gone, however, he turned to the two with a solemn expression.
“I need to warn you two about something,” he said. They sobered instantly. “I have a bad feeling that something’s going to happen. There was a man—”
He was cut off as the doorbell rang and a flash of dread made him tense with an instinctive move towards his empty waist where his knife would normally rest. They all glanced at each other in silence, but as the doorbell rang again, Justin shook himself and strode forward to open the door.
It was the same man. He had the same strong jaw, crooked nose, and ruggedly handsome features. His short-cropped hair was nondescript brown and his eyes were a flat, hard brown that reminded Ben of a muddy river bank after a storm. It was as if the man had cast a spell over them; the room was instantly filled with thick, static tension that made the hair stand up on Ben’s arms.
“A-Andrew,” Justin said, obviously forcing his voice to be steady. “What a surprise. I wasn’t planning on ever seeing you again.”
“It’s good to see you too, Justin.” The man—Andrew was the name of Justin’s ex-boyfriend, Ben remembered—said dryly, seeming faintly amused at something. “And believe me; I wasn’t planning on seeing you so soon either. We didn’t end on good terms, if I remember correctly. How are you?”
“I’m fine; better than ever, really,” Justin retorted, two spots of color rising on his otherwise pale cheeks. Hunter, who had come to stand next to his friend in silent support, took the opportunity to wrap his arm around Justin’s waist and draw him protectively to his side. Ben could see the realization dawn on Andrew’s face.
“Yes, I can see that.” Andrew sneered faintly, eyeing the pair with something like disdain in his eyes. “I have business in Oak Harbor for the next two weeks and I just came by to return a few boxes of your things that you left at my apartment when you moved out in such a hurry. I never got around to actually mailing them—it would be ridiculously expensive—so I thought it best to wait until now.”
“And I don’t suppose you could have called to warn me?” Justin said between gritted teeth.
Andrew gave a shark-like grin that made shivers run down Ben’s spine. “Oh, but you know how I love surprises, Justin. In fact, I seem to remember that you liked some of my surprises very much.” His eyes traveled pointedly down Justin’s body and the psychologist stiffened in offense. Hunter took a step forward, towering over the other man despite the fact that Andrew was two inches taller than him.
“You’d better watch that slimy mouth of yours, Walker,” Hunter growled dangerously, his green eyes like chips of emerald. Andrew seemed unaffected.
“Oh please. Call off your guard dog, Justin, I’m not here to break up your precious relationship.” Suddenly, his eyes looked past his ex-boyfriend and focused on Ben, who had moved to Justin’s other side in support. Ben’s cloudy blue eyes met Andrew’s forcefully, his gaze impassive and dismissive. Andrew stared at him a while before a smirk suddenly curled his lip and he looked Ben up and down slowly, assessing, judging.
“And who is this? Expanding your horizons, Justin? I knew you would see things my way eventually. He is a pretty little thing, isn’t he?” Those mud-colored eyes lingered on Ben’s lips, the slender column of his neck, his lithe body, and came to rest on the area between his slim, taut thighs.
Ben paled slightly and his lips tightened, his eyes hard as flint. An unnoticeable shudder traveled through Ben’s body, felt only by Justin next to him and Ned, who was pressed against his leg. The lab growled lowly and was echoed by Hunter who grabbed Andrew roughly by the front of his shirt.
“That’s enough, you sick bastard! Leave Justin’s things next to the door and get out of our sight. If you ever come near us again, I’ll break your face with my fist and shove my boot so far up your ass you could taste it!”
“Get out of here, Andrew. I hope you get what you deserve some day.” Justin snapped and Hunter shoved the man roughly out of the doorway, slamming the door shut in his face and locking it. He stood still, his body nearly vibrating with rage as he gripped the doorknob, before he abruptly turned and drew Justin into a fierce hug. The amber-eyed man hugged back and turned to draw Ben into their protective embrace.
“He won’t come back. We won’t see him again; I won’t let him hurt you, I promise.” Hunter murmured soothingly, pressing reassuring kisses to both of their heads. Ben trembled lightly, breathing deeply in an attempt to calm himself. He had seen and experienced many things in his long life; had even rescued people who were in situations of sexual abuse. He had received some leers in the more dangerous parts of town before, too, but they had never been so blatant or forward to his face. Andrew hadn’t even treated him like a human being.
Hunter led them to the living room and they sat on the couch. Justin reached out to touch Ben’s hand briefly.
“I’m so sorry, Ben. If I had known he was coming I would have told you to stay in your room.” He hesitated. “One of the main reasons that I broke it off with Andrew was that he told me that he was… attracted to younger men. Boys, in particular, anywhere between thirteen and seventeen. It was probably why he dated me to begin with, considering my job.”
“Disgusting scum,” Hunter snorted. Justin looked ashamed.
“I know. He seemed like a completely different person before, but I guess I was just too stupid to see the signs until it was nearly too late.”
“You weren’t stupid. I’m sure he’s had plenty of practice with deceiving people.” Hunter said fiercely.
“It’s alright, I understand.” Ben said, finally managing to get himself back under control. “I guess I was just surprised, but I can take care of myself pretty well. Just in case, I won’t take the kids out without an adult anymore.”
“Were you trying to warn us earlier, Ben?” Justin asked, remembering what they had been doing before Andrew rang the doorbell. The immortal teen nodded.
“Yes, sometimes Ned and I get visions of the Flying Dutchman as warnings of something dangerous approaching. We had one last night on the way home from trick-or-treating when we passed Andrew in his car on the side of the road. I would have warned you earlier, but I didn’t want to spoil the day. If I had known he would come so soon….”
“What ifs won’t help us; at least now we know and we can warn other people to keep a close eye on their children while Andrew’s here. We won’t let him get away with anything,” Justin said firmly. Ben nodded, but the foreboding feeling in his stomach refused to fade. He had the feeling that they hadn’t seen the last of Andrew Walker.
The first week passed in a haze of heightened tension. Everyone in Justin’s house was on pins and needles and taking care to stay inside the house as often as possible. In fact, Hunter was considering selling his small apartment in the town and moving in with Justin and Ben; especially since he hadn’t slept in his apartment for weeks.
They had had to go to the store once to buy groceries and Ben had separated from the others to get some milk when he had run into Andrew in the same section. Ben had merely given him a blank stare and got his milk.
“You’re the kid living with Justin, right?” Andrew had said casually, but Ben didn’t respond. “I’m sorry you had to see that; we had had a bad argument before.” Andrew’s nose had obviously been broken at some point, Ben reflected, and he felt the sudden urge to help him relive the experience with a well-placed punch. He managed to hold back, his eyes hard and distrustful.
Andrew shrugged. “Fine, you don’t have to say anything. I’m sure we can find the time to get to know each other better later. I’ll bet you’ll have all sorts of things to say then.” There was a subtle undertone to the man’s words that Ben didn’t miss and he quickly left the area and warned Justin and Hunter that he had seen Andrew. He didn’t tell them what he had said.
It happened when Ben least expected it. It was Saturday night and Justin and Hunter had locked themselves in Justin’s room for the night—and it didn’t take a genius to realize what they were doing in there. Well, it had been a stressful week after all, the teen reasoned despite his blush.
Ben sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, Ned at his feet, when the poor Labrador put his head down on the ground and covered his sensitive ears with his paws.
“My goodness, Ben, I don’t know how much longer I can take it!” He moaned. “You may not be able to hear them, but they’re clear as a whistle to me! My poor ears are burning right off my head!”
“Oh dear,” Ben blushed as part of what Ned was hearing filtered through their connection. “Come on, let’s go outside and leave them to it for a while.” Over the years, they had become adept at occupying each other’s minds in a way that would let them experience fully what the other was feeling as if they were in their body with them. It had been immeasurably helpful, but now he sort of wished they hadn’t stumbled upon that ability.
They opened the sliding glass door and slid it shut behind them, leaving it unlocked. Ben sat on the stoop with the tea he had brought out and smiled as Ned bounded away with a yelp of relief. The night was cool and nearly chilly with the thin blue t-shirt and plaid shorts he was wearing, but he had endured much worse before and it didn’t bother him now. Instead, he admired the surrounding forest steeped in shadows, listening to Ned’s running commentary.
“Hmm, that smells strange… probably a raccoon. And what’s this? Grrr, what d’you think you’re doing here, eh? Oh ho, don’t you walk away from me! Don’t you know who I am? I am the Great Hunter Ned! Woof woof! Grrr… Get back here, you fat turtle!”
Ben chuckled to himself, his eyes crinkling with mirth at his expressive companion’s thoughts. No matter how many years passed, Ben knew that he would never be able to live without Ned by his side to cheer him up and to help him see the big picture. The dog was simple and down-to-earth, and yet understanding of the complicated emotions that sometimes overwhelmed his human companion. There was no doubt that Ned was the one that kept Ben sane through the centuries.
Suddenly, a blinding pain bloomed through the back of his head and neck. Ben cried out in pain and dropped his cup, not hearing the porcelain shatter and spill the remainder of his tea on the concrete. He heard Ned yelp in surprise and pain before the connection was abruptly cut off and a disconcerting emptiness spread through his mind. Ben gasped and looked up in a panic, recognizing the feeling that meant that his companion was unconscious.
“Ned!” he breathed, jumping to his feet and dashing into the surrounding forest. He raced through the trees, frantic with worry and forgetting the possible dangers the forest held. Had Ned fallen off a precipice and was now lying helplessly at the bottom of a ravine? Or had he run into something more dangerous than an old turtle?
Finally, Ben slowed, panting, and tried to find out where he was. He still wasn’t far from the house, but where was Ned? It was impossible to find one another when one of them was completely unconscious, Ben knew, and he was so used to using his mental connection with Ned that he hadn’t even been listening for Ned’s movements in the brush. Nearly gasping with fear, Ben took in a deep breath to shout Ned’s name.
Before he could speak, something large and heavy tackled him to the ground and pain spread through his body, centered at his left wrist, which he felt snap when he landed beneath his attacker. His head bounced off the hard dirt with a thump that left him dizzy. Blinded by pain, he struggled to get away, but a heavy blow to his head quickly laid him flat. Blackness filled his vision and he knew no more.
Slowly, his awareness emerged from the black sea of unconsciousness he had been trapped in. Pain throbbed dully in his head, spreading from the left temple to the back of his skull, and he winced reflexively as he became aware of it. There was something small, round and plastic in his mouth, just big enough that he couldn’t close his mouth around it, and held in place behind his teeth by straps that tied around his head. A ball gag. It made it difficult to breathe through his mouth and so he was forced to take shallow, even breaths from his nose despite the fear that was beginning to stifle him.
The next thing he was aware of was the sharp, stabbing pain in his left wrist and he tried to move his arm to cradle it to his chest. That’s when he realized that his arms were tied in front of him with rough rope and duct tape.
His eyes snapped open only to be blinded by the bright lamp lights on the ceiling of the room he was in. His headache increased and he squinted his eyes until they adjusted. The room he was in looked like a small warehouse or perhaps an old auto shop. It was mostly bare with concrete floors and walls and metal tables against the walls. Thick chains hung from the metal rafters, many of the huge links clogged with oil. Tools and hoses hung from nails on the walls. It smelled of motor oil, old sawdust, and stale air.
Suddenly he was grabbed roughly by the shoulders from behind and turned onto his back. He jerked his head up, eyes wide and his frantic breaths sounding loud in the room.
“So you’re finally awake. You’ve been out for hours and hours, you know; I was starting to get impatient.” Ben wasn’t too surprised to see Andrew looming over him, but seeing the smug smile on his face somehow stabilized him. The teen’s strange eyes narrowed with a glare and forced his breaths to remain even.
“Oh don’t be so dramatic. Now that you’re awake the real fun can start.”
[The following scene is graphic and may be disturbing. You may skip to the next scene break if you do not want to read.]
The man hauled the slight boy up by his bound wrists, making Ben’s head swim with dizziness at the sudden move. While Ben became limp, Andrew easily raised his arms and hooked Ben’s bound wrists on a huge hook hanging from the ceiling that Ben hadn’t noticed before. When he let go, Ben couldn’t suppress the whimper of pain that slipped out as his full weight was hung on his shoulders and wrists. His bare feet, scratched and dirty from his run through the forest, could barely touch the ground with his toes and his ankles were bound tightly together with duct tape.
Satisfied with his work, Andrew walked slowly around his captive, examining him from every angle. He stopped in front of the immortal teen and withdrew something from the waistband of his jeans. Ben took in a sharp breath despite himself when he saw the wicked-looking knife with its long, thin blade. It looked incredibly sharp. Andrew licked his lips, watching Ben’s reaction silently.
“Hmm, what to do….” He mused to himself. “The possibilities are endless, but first off, you’re way too overdressed for the occasion.” As he stalked forward purposefully, Ben shrunk away and lifted his legs with a wordless cry of defiance as he tried to kick out. He quickly found that the action was useless, however, as he couldn’t get the power behind the movement to do much of anything except swing in place—which in turn made his broken wrist scream with pain.
Andrew chuckled as Ben continued to struggle. He placed the tip of the knife at the teen’s throat, which made him freeze, and Andrew grabbed hold of Ben’s shirt to stop him from swinging into the blade. Andrew caressed the side of Ben’s face softly, moving his thumb to press firmly on the plastic ball in his mouth.
“You’re so beautiful this way,” he murmured, his breath hot against Ben’s cheek. “If I wasn’t so sure that you would bite it off, I would love to see how your mouth looks around my prick.” He licked the teen’s soft skin, trailing his tongue up his neck to his ear, where he nibbled on Ben’s earlobe. A shudder of disgust traveled through Ben’s body.
He couldn’t believe this was happening to him. In sexual matters he was completely pure and innocent, untouched by anyone other than himself—and even then, he rarely felt the need to touch himself more than once or twice a month. This was degrading and horrific, a complete invasion of his virtue. Terror filled his mind and he frantically searched for the familiar connection to Ned, but the bond seemed distant and closed even though he could tell that his companion wasn’t unconscious anymore. Tears of pain and frustration gathered at the corner of his eyes.
Trapped in his thoughts, Ben didn’t notice when Andrew sliced cleanly through his thin t-shirt until the man ran his hand underneath the ruined material and stroked his stomach lightly. He sucked in his stomach with a breath, only to let it out with a gasp of surprise as Andrew ripped the cloth away unceremoniously. His shoulders burned where the t-shirt was torn away and his right calf suddenly spasmed with a cramp.
“Oh, what’s this?” Andrew breathed, his eyes wide as he traced the numerous scars decorating Ben’s torso. His hands were hot and heavy on Ben’s skin, stroking and rubbing and pressing without hesitation and Ben’s breathing became shallow and frantic again. “Have you been hurt before? Did someone else tie you up and cut you and abuse you? Did they touch you and pound into you the way I’m going to?”
Ben was horrified and disgusted to see that Andrew’s eyes were dilated with desire, his breathing becoming heavy and labored at the thought. The man lowered a hand to press the heel of his palm against the growing bulge in the front of his jeans. Then he was cutting away the plaid shorts Ben wore, stripping him of all barriers until he was left in his boxers and soon even those were disposed of in the same manner. Ben was completely exposed to his gaze, naked and helpless, strung up like a hog on a spit. The teen whimpered and struggled, his face pale and tears trailing from the corners of his eyes, but he was weak and he feared that he was doing irreparable damage to his wrist by moving too much.
Andrew groaned, one hand kneading the bulge in his pants. “You’re so f-ing gorgeous. I bet you’re tighter than a ten-year old.” It was cold in the building and goosebumps covered Ben’s skin, the cool breeze making his pale pink nipples peak slightly. Despite this, Andrew’s hungry eyes burned on Ben’s skin, his rough hands following the path his eyes took; down his chest to pinch and roll Ben’s nipples in his fingers, causing the teen to let out a muffled yelp of pain.
Leaving the abused peaks red and throbbing, Andrew moved down past the quivering muscles of Ben’s flat stomach and caressed his slim, taut thighs. Then the man pressed close, running his hands down Ben’s back and squeezing his buttocks, kneading the soft, firm flesh painfully. Ben squeezed his eyes shut and tried to retreat into his mind to a place far away from the injustice occurring in the cold, empty building, away from the hard heat pressed against his stomach.
His attempt failed when the unmistakable sound of a metal zipper came from behind him. Somehow he had missed Andrew moving. His eyes snapped open when something hot and hard, like steel covered in velvet, pressed against the cleft of his buttocks.
Oh God! Ben thought, horrified. The man’s penis felt impossibly huge as it burrowed determinedly between his cheeks and at the first touch of something slick weeping from the tip Ben’s frantic struggles resumed. He twisted and bucked, mindless of the pain in his shoulders and wrists, animal-like whines and whimpers escaping from behind the ball gag. A heavy cuff to the back of his bruised head stunned him momentarily and he hung limp and drained.
Large hands gripped his hips tightly, the fingers bruising and scratching his lightly tanned skin. Behind him, Andrew thrust his hips shallowly against Ben, his dripping member sliding wetly between Ben’s smooth thighs. The only sound in the room was heavy gasps, low whimpers, panted curses, and the slap of skin against skin.
Andrew rutted against him, not yet penetrating him, but using his body for his pleasure. It seemed to go on forever. Andrew cursed and sweated against him, biting his neck or shoulder hard enough to leave marks at times and moving his hands to grope and pinch and scratch his captive’s body.
Ben simply closed his eyes and remembered the days only months before when he would lay out on the Bundi with Ned and soak out the sun. He could feel it now; the hot sun, the rough wood beneath his head, and the comforting rocking of the skiff. Water lapped softly against the bow and the limp sail flapped in the breeze. Birds chirped cheerfully in the sky above and Ned snored next to him.
Suddenly, fingers dug painfully into his hips and Andrew stiffened, pulling his member away from Ben’s body. He grunted and then thick, hot liquid was decorating the teen’s buttocks and lower back in pulsing streams. Andrew pressed the blunt head of his member to the top of Ben’s cleft and milked the last of his semen from it. Incredibly, the man kept stroking and Ben could feel that he was still hard. Andrew circled around until he stood in front of Ben. The teen turned his head away into his arm, but Andrew buried a sticky hand into his fine hair and yanked his head around. Only a few more strokes and the man was shuddering again, his seed splattering Ben’s slender chest in ropy strands, some of it landing on his cheek and in his hair.
Finally, Andrew released him with a groan of satisfaction and tucked himself back into his pants. He stepped back and admired his work with a lazy grin. Ben shuddered, his body quivering. He could feel the release sliding down his cleft, between his legs and to his scrotum before it trailed down his thighs. Warm strands of the stuff slipped down the side of his nose and over the straps of the gag.
Andrew moaned out a curse and reached out, wiping two of his fingers through his semen and pressing them against Ben’s stretched lips. “Taste it,” he commanded, holding onto the teen’s hair when Ben tried to turn his head away with a whimper. “I want to you taste me; taste the come that’s all over your sweet body and ass.”
He forced his fingers between the gap Ben’s teeth made over the plastic ball in his mouth. Ben nearly gagged on the bitter taste and all it represented, forcing himself not to vomit since he would end up choking on it. Andrew removed his fingers with strands of saliva and semen clinging to them before licking them clean, his eyes never moving from Ben.
“Aw, it doesn’t look like you enjoyed that as much as I did,” he said, his eyes straying to Ben’s groin. “Maybe I can help you fix that. I’m nothing but a generous lover after all.” He reached for Ben and took him in his hand, squeezing and stroking him almost painfully. Ben’s eyes were wide with disbelief at this violation and he shook his head wildly, his muffled protests making no impact on his captor. To his horror and shame, he could feel himself becoming slightly hard at the attention and a deep flush traveled up his neck and cheeks.
“Yes, that feels good, doesn’t it?” Andrew hissed, his lust-filled eyes fixed on Ben’s face. “You like that, don’t you, you slut?” He continued to curse and stroke the trapped boy, who could feel his body slowly betraying him to Andrew’s relentless titillations. Ben felt as if his mind was being stretched to the breaking point. If he gave into this last indignity, he knew, he would go insane.
[You may now continue to read if you skipped over the previous scene]
It happened so suddenly that Ben didn’t even realize what was happening until it was nearly over. The first thing he was aware of was a great booming bark that reverberated through the room. Then the punishing hands on his body vanished and shouts rang in his ears. The clicks of hammers being cocked on guns.
Then large, warm hands were on his waist, lifting him gently as other hands removed his bonds from the hook above him. Unfamiliar male voices spoke soothingly, telling him that he was safe and Andrew was gone and could he open his eyes for them? Ben refused.
“Oh my God! Ben!” Justin’s voice rose above them all and ushered the strangers away until Ben was left slumped on his knees, the blood returning to his numb arms in a painful rush. At last, he opened his eyes and saw Justin and Hunter crouched next to him, fear and horror and stress in the lines of their faces. He felt vaguely thankful that his arousal had rapidly dissipated without the hateful attention.
“Are you alright?” Ben nodded. What a nice dream. Justin is always so caring, Ben thought.
“What is this stuff? You’re covered in it—oh, Jesus. Justin, it’s come; the bastard came all over him!”
“Not now, Hunter! Get the gag off of him. Careful, he might be sick.” But Ben wasn’t sick. His stomach rolled unpleasantly, but he repressed it. Instead, he took great gulps of fresh air. Their words sounded tinny and distant at times, like a warped record.
They were carefully cutting away the bonds now. Hunter held his hands gently, chaffing them to get the feeling back, while Justin unwrapped the rope and duct tape from his bruised and swollen wrists. When they were at last free, Ben stared down at them with something like surprise and wonder. It was then that he finally realized that what he was seeing was real; that he was really safe.
Abruptly, he broke into tears. He hunched over his wounded hands on the cold concrete floor and his body shook with sobs. At the edge of his vision was the hateful ball gag, its purple plastic still wet with saliva and the black band splattered with semen, and the reality of what had happened hit him.
“Oh God, oh my God!” He cried brokenly to the heavens, rocking back and forth. “My Angel, my Angel! Where were you?”
“Oh, Ben!” Justin choked out, tears flowing down his face as well. He drew the teen into his arms despite his initial panicked struggle and whispered soothing words into his soiled hair. Hunter had found a thin blanket that he wrapped around the shivering teen to hide his modesty and keep him warm.
“Ned! Ned!” Ben whimpered, crying out both verbally and mentally for his eternal companion. And suddenly Ned was there, gloriously warm and solid beneath his frantic hands. Ben lunged away from Justin and threw his arms around the dog’s neck, burying his face in the warm fur and shaking as Ned reassuringly licked the tainted skin of his neck. Still, he said nothing.
Once reunited with his eternal companion, the events became a blur in his mind. He remembered the duct tape being removed from his ankles and being carried to a car that smelled like burnt sandalwood. There were bright lights, white walls, and cold metal tables where a hasty but thorough examination took place. Words like “no penetration” and “psychological evaluation” were spoken. Samples of the sticky semen covering him were taken and promises to fill out numerous forms were made. Again he was wrapped in the thin blanket and placed in a car that smelled faintly of aftershave this time.
Overpowering every smell during that dreadful night was the smell of sex.
Finally, they entered a familiar house and Ben was carried to the bathroom, Ned close to his side as always. Justin helped him to bathe, never ending his constant stream of soothing words. Ben’s wrists were in very poor condition and Justin ended up having to do much of the work. The steam from the warm water filled the small room with the smell of semen and Ben nearly gagged. He flinched and shuddered when the soft cloth brushed over his bruised, sensitive nipples. The psychologist let him wash his private parts himself but stopped him when he started rubbing hard enough to turn the delicate skin of his inner thighs red.
It felt like he would never get the sticky semen off of his skin.
Ben breathed a sigh of relief when the sweet smell of the shampoo filled the room and washed the stickiness out of his hair. The crisp scent of the soap was even better as it traveled over his skin. Finally, the tainted water emptied out of the tub and he was given one last rinse. Hunter entered the bathroom, his face still tight with rage and worry. He helped Justin wrap his broken wrist in a cast and put bandages on the bleeding scratches and places that had been rubbed raw by the rope and duct tape.
Then, clean and warm, he was taken to his bed and tucked in. Ned followed, of course, and he was asleep even before the Labrador could speak to him.
Ben woke suddenly with a choked cry, cold sweat making his pajamas cling to him uncomfortably. He stared at the ceiling and panted heavily into the bright room, feeling his wounds throb in unison with his racing heart. It seemed that everything down to the soles of his feet ached.
A cold nose nudged his arm. Ben pet Ned with his good hand, still staring at the ceiling.
“Thanks, old pal. I have a feeling that I’ll be having nightmares for a while. I guess I had just been hoping that it was all a bad dream.” Ned watched him sympathetically but didn’t respond. With a sigh, Ben gathered his clothes and took a quick shower. He washed his body over and over again until it was faintly red before he stepped out; a new habit that would continue for nearly half a decade before it would be broken.
Naked in front of the mirror, he forced himself to examine the damage to his body. His nipples were still red and tender. Scabbed over scratches raked up and down his chest. Deep purple bruises in the shape of fingertips marked his hips and buttocks liberally. Red bite marks dotted his left shoulder and neck. He turned away from the mirror, feeling sickened, and determined not to look again until he was completely healed.
He felt more stable today; less like he was going to break down any minute. He knew he needed to find out what had happened. How had they found him? How long had he been gone?
He left his room, seeing that it was nearly two o’clock in the afternoon, and found Justin and Hunter sitting at the table with the remnants of a light lunch. Their eyes widened when they saw him approach and sit at the table.
“Ben! How do you feel?” Justin asked carefully. Ben summoned a weak smile.
“Much better than yesterday. I’m still sore, but… I feel better.”
“Wait,” Ben interrupted, holding a up a pleading hand. “Later. Can you tell me what happened after I was… taken? How did you find me?” Reluctantly, Justin nodded and began speaking.
Apparently, it was Ned that woke the two sleeping men nearly two hours after Ben was taken. He led them out to the porch where they saw the broken teacup and the bloody lump on the dog’s head. It seemed that Ned had realized that the only hope of finding Ben was through Eli’s gift and before the men could panic, he had taken them back to the kitchen where Justin had taped the Johansen’s number to the refrigerator. He then trotted back to the doorway and indicated that they should leave.
When they had arrived at the minister’s house, they watched in confusion as Eli had gazed into Ned’s eyes and theirs in turn, gasping and turning pale at what he saw. As he rushed to the telephone to call the police, he explained his gift as quickly as he could before he shoved the phone into Justin’s hands and telling him what to report. He gave Andrew’s description, his attraction to youth, and Ben’s disappearance. Then he gave the description of his car and the building that he was in, according to what Eli had seen.
It was lucky that Oak Harbor was not such a big town. They had been able to find Ben’s location within two hours and the police had arrested Andrew before they let Justin and Hunter in.
“You know what happened after that.” Justin shrugged. “But Ben, what happened—”
“It’s good that Eli finally told his parents about his gift. I thought that I would have to force him to do it,” Ben interrupted hastily, not prepared to answer that question just yet. He looked down as Ned pawed at his leg, confused when the dog whined and trotted to his bowl. “What, are you hungry, Ned? Why didn’t you say something, you silly lout?”
Ned didn’t respond, instead giving him a look that could almost be indignant. Ben’s smile faded as he turned from retrieving a few chicken bones from the fridge. Come to think of it, he hadn’t heard Ned speak for ages; not since before he was hit on the head. He had been as intelligent and comforting as ever in his doggy way, but why hadn’t he spoken any words of comfort or understanding?
“Ned? Ned, what’s wrong? Why haven’t you said anything?” Ben asked, looking into his friend’s eyes. Ned just cocked his head curiously, his brown eyes puzzled. Fear turned Ben’s blood to ice and a cold sweat broke out on his brow as he dropped to his knees in front of his companion. He ignored the pain that flared in his body at the movement. “Ned! Ned, answer me!”
He resorted to speaking verbally, his hands shaking as he ran his good hand over Ned’s head gently. “Ned! Why won’t you speak? I can’t hear you, Ned! Come on, speak to me! Are you hurt?” His voice broke as realization dawned on them both. “Oh my God! We are mute again! Deaf to no one but each other!” He threw his arms around Ned’s neck and sobbed into the warm fur, heedless of the adult’s frantic questions.
“Why, Lord? Why did you see fit to take away that which you have given us now that we cannot live without it?” he whispered. But he did not receive an answer.
February 17, 1982 (Four Months Later)
Later, Ben would look back on that time as some of the most terrible he had ever endured. Never had time dragged on for so long in his many years, with such excruciating disappointments and traitorous hopes. Life without Ned’s constant, comforting mental presence was so lonely and frightening that he wondered how he had survived it as a child. He wondered how anyone else could.
He tried to act like everything was normal. He continued to do everything that he had done before Andrew had kidnapped him; playing with the twins after they got home from school, talking with Eli and exploring the woods with him, making meals with Justin and Hunter, reading and sitting in silence with Ned in his spare time.
But the silence was terrible instead of understanding; deafening instead of soothing. It was everywhere.
Justin set aside time three days a week to speak to Ben. It had taken weeks for the teen to open up about what had happened in the warehouse but once he had haltingly begun talking, every horrible detail was revealed. It quickly became clear that the most traumatic result of Andrew’s attack wasn’t the assault on Ben’s innocent body; although it had taken several weeks for Ben to stop flinching when someone touched him. The wisdom he had gained over the years helped him to cope and understand that he was in no way at fault for the way his body had responded to Andrew’s hands.
No, there was no question that by far the worst thing to come of the experience was the loss of speech between Ben and Ned. Unlike Ned’s loss of memory in 1703, the dog clearly understood and remembered everything that was happening and he retained his personality. But their bond was distant and mangled, allowing only the faintest of impressions through.
Every explanation was considered; from God’s Will to brain damage from the blows Andrew had knocked them unconscious with. Ben had even suggested once that it was because he was no longer completely pure, but Justin’s vehement rejection of the idea eliminated it from the list.
As the weeks passed, Ben’s hope became dimmer and dimmer. The likelihood of ever hearing his companion speak again seemed increasingly slim. He couldn’t count the number of times he reached out to Ned’s mind in vain. He didn’t eat as well as he had and his emotions were fragile despite his attempts to remain strong for his friends. He had never cried so often in his life.
“Ned, how long do you think we’re meant to stay here? How will we hear the Angel’s call? Once we told Justin about us, he took all of the bells in the house and packed them away in the attic. I think he was trying to be subtle about it, but it wasn’t too hard to notice.” Ned snorted in response, shaking his head. Ben had taken to speaking to Ned out loud, desperate for some form of communication with his life-long companion.
“Do you think that we will ever speak to each other again?” Ben asked. These were questions he asked weekly, if not daily, and Ned had stopped trying to respond. He simply pressed his head silently against Ben’s thigh. That was alright, though. This silence was natural, the kind of comfortable silence that could only happen between friends who had known each other all their lives. Words were no longer necessary.
Now, on a cool blustery day in February, Ben and Ned wandered away from the house and along the edge of the lake. “Eli says he’s going to go back to public school this year. He thinks he’ll be ready by the time September comes. I think he’s ready now,” Ben said idly. “It will be good for him to spend that time with his family, though. Mrs. Johansen is still trying to get used to the idea that her son can see the future in her eyes.”
The conversation served no purpose. It was simply sound to fill the contemplative quiet of the still, foggy lake shore. Ben was slowly coming to accept the possibility that he would never hear Ned speak again and thus he appreciated the close relationship they had developed over the years that allowed for such easy communication now. It was not so much different, he realized, than the relationship they had had before; even though their mental bond was a choked and mangled mockery of what it had once been.
The snow was still thick on the ground. It had arrived shortly after Halloween and hadn’t yet shown any sign of leaving. Though it was probably Ben’s least favorite season (it was always very difficult to avoid getting sick while traveling during the winter), he had to admit that it had made the Christmas season especially beautiful. Justin, Hunter, and Ben had spent the holiday at the Johansen’s, sharing gifts, warm drinks (brandy for the adults), and good company in the warmth of the loving home.
However, the persistent silence in his own mind threatened to cast a pall over everything and the next day he had felt his solitude so sharply that he had wandered the woods outside of Justin’s house for hours to give the loving couple some time to themselves as well as sort out his own disconcerted feelings. The psychologist seemed to understand and the adults had been very sympathetic. The entire season had been bittersweet.
Absently, he reached up a hand to clasp the key dangling at his neck from a silver chain. It had been one of his gifts; a symbol that said that he would always be welcome in Justin’s—now Hunter’s as well—home whenever he wanted to. He still found it hard to believe, considering that he had drawn away from them a bit these past few months, but at the same time he knew that the men truly loved and cared about him. The gifts from the others, although not quite as poignant, still brought him a warm flush of affection and wonder when he thought about them.
Suddenly, he wanted to see Justin and Hunter again. Without thought, he changed direction.
“Come on, Ned, let’s go back home.”
Home. How easily the word rolled off his tongue after a mere ten months of living in the small house. He had thought that he had stopped allowing himself to put that word to any one place, no matter how long he lived there. He had thought that he had stopped allowing himself to become so attached.
But that hurt, he realized. It hurt to keep himself so distant and cold; he just hadn’t let himself recognize that fact in an attempt to protect himself from the hurt that he knew would come when he was forced to leave.
Perhaps it was because Justin and Hunter and Eli knew his secret. They understood. They knew that eventually he would be called away with no warning. And they are trying to spend every moment with me that they can before I leave, he realized suddenly with a pang of dismayed guilt. Here he was, wallowing in self-pity over something he couldn’t control and his friends—practically his family by this point—were trying to give him space while they watched anxiously from afar.
I’m so selfish.
And there was more. Why had he reserved his affection and love only for those who knew his secret? Why had he withdrawn from those countless people he had helped over the past century? Were they somehow less deserving of his full attention? Of course not.
“What have I done?” he whispered to himself, the soft words carried into the damp air on a cloud that quickly dissipated, leaving his question unanswered. Suddenly, the true meaning of the angel’s message all of those months ago on Justin’s couch dawned in Ben’s mind like a flower opening its petals to the sun and he felt stricken by the revelation.
Without hesitation, he broke into a run, his long brown scarf trailing after him and snapping in the breeze. Ned barked as he ran beside him, easily keeping pace through the snow. However, by the time they reached the house, Ben was struggling for breath and had fallen twice already into deceptively deep snowdrifts. He yanked the sliding glass door open and burst into the kitchen in a whirl of powdered snow and cold air, startling Justin and Hunter at the counter—and causing the latter to spill his glass of water. They ignored the quickly expanding pool of water as it reached the edge of the counter and began spilling onto the floor around their feet in a steady stream.
“Lord, what happened?”
Ben ignored them, going straight to Justin without bothering to remove his wet clothing and wrapping his arms around the startled man’s waist in a tight hug.
“I’m fine.” The immortal teen panted into Justin’s warm chest, barely managing to be heard by Hunter, who had immediately gone to check the back yard and close the sliding door. “I just—I j-just—needed to….”
Justin held him close, pressing his cheek to Ben’s damp hair and murmuring calming words to the towheaded boy. Blindly, Ben reached out for Hunter, pleading silently for comfort and reassurance, desperate to make sure he hadn’t lost their love to his stupidity. He wasn’t disappointed. The three held each other tightly, losing track of time as Ben wept silent tears into Justin’s forest green sweater that smelled of the familiar fabric softener he used and warm leather from his office chair.
Of course, as all things, it came to an end.
“I think I’ve just remembered why I don’t go out romping in the snow anymore.” Hunter muttered into Justin’s hair, surprising a rather wet laugh from the teen sandwiched between them. Ben loosened his hold carefully and stepped back, wiping his damp forearm across his eyes.
“Way to kill the mood, Hunter,” Justin glared at his unrepentant lover.
“N-no, it’s alright,” Ben said hastily, “I’m sorry, I’m not sure what came over me. I was just... out thinking, about you and the angel and N-Ned and everything, and I guess I just realized….” He trailed off. What an ungrateful, selfish child I am.
“You realized...” Justin prompted, looking concerned. Ben came back to himself and shook his head, taking another step back.
“Never mind—ah!” He yelped in surprise as his boot slipped on the puddle of water at their feet. Before anyone could react, he fell to the ground hard, his head smacking onto the hardwood floor with an audible thump. As his head whirled and pounded and darkness filled his vision, Ben heard three voices calling his name in surprise and worry before roaring filled his ears and he was dragged down into unconsciousness.
You have done well with your task, dear boy,
Teaching yourself and others the meaning of joy.
In darkness can be found light and in silence, a voice,
One that would not have been heard, if given a choice.
Love and understanding abound in this home,
A place with a family you can truly call your own.
Remember them fondly for your time is near,
But hark! young messenger, never fear!
Remember my words when the bell rings true:
This is not their last adventure with you.
“Grrr... Ned’s right here for ya, Ben. Grr, won’t ever leave you!”
Ben groaned as his mind swam back to the land of the living. He opened his eyes to the familiar, brightly lit ceiling of his bedroom. Remembering what had happened, he groaned again, this time in embarrassment. He sat up and winced when his head swam dizzyingly, putting a hand to his head and taking in a quick breath when he encountered the large goose egg on the back of his head.
“Ugh, guess I landed pretty hard….” He muttered to himself.
“Grrr, you’re awake! Ned’s happy to see Ben awake again!” A solid mass of warm brown fur leapt onto the bed without warning and Ben found himself with a lapful of squirming Labrador. He laughed, batting Ned’s tail away from his face.
“Ned! Why the heck are you talking like—” Ben froze, the words lodging in his throat as his cloudy blue eyes widened in astonishment. He grabbed onto the dog’s worn red collar, forcing his head around so that he could look into those intelligent brown eyes. His voice, when he finally managed to speak, barely squeaked past his frozen vocal chords. “Ned?! Did you—did I hear—you talking?”
Warm feelings of love and sudden hope, tempered by caution and fear, enveloped his mind like a soft tidal wave. He nearly wept at the familiar sensation that had been lost to him these past four months. “Grr, Ben can… hear Ned?”
“Oh, Ned!” Ben cried out, laughing and crying simultaneously as he tackled the lab to the mattress, mindless of the pain in his head or the door opening. He returned the emotion tenfold, their intermingled relief crashing over them and sweeping through their minds like a wave on the high seas. Their minds were close, their mental connection gloriously clear and uninhibited. It was just like how it had always been between them and Ben marveled that he could have ever taken it for granted.
“Can you hear me, Ned? Are you there?”
“Grr, Ned… I can hear you, Ben!”
“Oh, my old friend, how did we ever survive? I can never live without you, Ned, never! I love you too much!”
“Love you, too! Never leave you… never again!”
They clung together for a long moment, their minds meshing and sharing and feeling in a way they had nearly forgotten. Ben sensed that Ned’s mind and speech had deteriorated slightly during their separation, his thought processes regressing to a more animal-like state without Ben’s constant mental communication. Oh, but he was still Ned; he was still warm and understanding and compassionate and dry and sarcastic and everything that made Ned, Ned, and Ben wept from the relief and longing and pain of it all.
“Justin! Hunter!” Ben cried, seeing them in the doorway when he opened his eyes. “I can hear him! I can hear Ned again! We’ve been fixed!”
“Oh, thank God,” Justin breathed, looking shaken as he leaned against the doorjamb. Hunter wrapped his arms automatically around his lover’s waist as he gaped at the pair on the bed. They had never seen Ben look so happy and suddenly, everything seemed to fall back into their proper place. Everything would be alright now.
March 1, 1982
Two weeks passed, full of rediscovery and contentment. Every spare moment that Ben didn’t spend with Justin, Hunter, Eli, the Johansen’s, or the Preston’s was spent conversing lengthily with Ned. Granted, Ben had filled their schedule full with social visits of every kind, conscious of the fact that their time in Oak Harbor was drawing to a close.
No one questioned Ben’s sudden levity, assuming that it had something to do with the fact that he was able to speak with Ned. Only Eli made any indication that he was aware that something was wrong.
“You’re leaving soon, aren’t you?” The slender boy said, making more of a statement than a question. It was the last week in February and the snow was just beginning to melt, showing patches of yellow, muddy ground in the yard. Ben looked out over the sun-dappled yard, absently running his fingers through Ned’s ruff.
“Maybe.” He finally replied in an even tone. Eli flinched and looked away.
“I saw it. In my mom’s eyes,” he admitted softly, “She will be so sad and disappointed when she hears you’re gone. The kids, too.”
“I’m sorry for that, but it’s for the best,” Ben said regretfully. “You know why. Look, I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just enjoy the time that we have left, alright?” Reluctantly, Eli agreed, and the matter was put aside. As the days passed, however, Ben became increasingly agitated, barely able to keep from fidgeting when he sat still. Hunter finally called him on it one startlingly warm afternoon, with the birds chirping outside and the snow having finally melted.
“Ben, what’s wrong? You’ve been acting like you’ve got ants in your pants for days,” the green-eyed man said dryly but with a hint of concern. The towheaded boy flushed.
“It’s nothing,” he muttered, forcing his hands to stop fiddling with the hem of his shirt.
“Even I don’t believe that,” Justin chimed in as he walked into the living room with a cardboard box in his arms.
“Sorry, it’s really not a big deal. Don’t worry about it,” Ben answered, trying to perk himself up a bit with a smile. “What’s in the box, Justin?” The adults shot him a look but let it go. The psychologist dusted off the box with a reminiscent grin.
“Oh, this is a box of my old things from my parent’s house in the Seattle area. I was up in the attic and when I saw this box I just got the strangest feeling that I should go through it again. Look, there’s a bit of everything in here,” he opened the box and began pulling out several worn items. “My high school diploma, yearbook, my swim cap from the school swim team… Oh my God, I can’t believe this is still here! A Pet Rock, old Beatles tapes, the old stuffed bunny I grew up with—don’t laugh, Hunter, you played with Mr. Bumbles more often than I did—oh!”
As he lifted the stitched and patched bunny out of the box, a tiny bell strung on a length of yarn—such as the kind you would see on a horse’s reins during Christmas time—fell from where it had been snagged on the bunny’s foot. It bounced off of an open flap of cardboard to the floor, rattling merrily along the hardwood until it came to rest next to Ben’s knee. The tinny tinkling sound it made was unnaturally clear and ringing in the sudden silence of the room. It seemed to echo and grow louder even after the bell had stopped. All three of them watched with wide eyes and bated breath until the innocent sound finally faded away.
The message was unmistakable.
“Ben, I think… it’s time to go.” Ned’s voice crept into his mind, full of regret and sorrow.
Slowly, Ben rose to his feet, his expression calm and his cloudy blue eyes strangely unreadable. The adult’s eyes jumped up to follow him, dread painted across their features.
“Oh no—Ben!” Justin choked, leaping to his feet. “No, it doesn’t mean… does it? But I—I didn’t mean to—!” He extended a hand toward the teen as if to grasp his arm, but he stopped himself, his face a mask of disbelief and anguish. However, it seemed to break through to Ben, whose expression twisted into one of pain.
“It’s alright, it’s not your fault.” He said softly. “It was just confirming something I already knew. It’s time for me to go.”
The towheaded boy emerged completely from his shocked daze when he saw the guilt hidden behind the pain in his friend’s eyes. His expression hardened, his blue eyes blazing with earnestness. “Don’t blame yourself,” he said, his voice soft but firm. “It was meant to be. I’ve known for a while now that I was going to leave soon. Considering how well you hid the other bells away, I’m surprised the angel managed to get his message across at all.”
No one smiled at his weak attempt at levity.
“Will we ever see you again?” Hunter asked hoarsely.
The towheaded boy quirked a smile. “In fact, I think you will. It’s very strange—it hasn’t happened before—but I think the angel hinted that we might meet again in the future.”
“I’m glad,” Hunter breathed and Justin nodded in agreement, still looking stricken but hopeful. Ben sighed and stood.
“I need to go; I don’t want to tempt fate.” Without waiting for their response, he pivoted on his heel and left the room. In his bedroom (“Not my bedroom anymore,” he reminded himself sternly), he picked up the valise that had been waiting in the closet and slung it onto his shoulders. He had packed it days ago, preparing for the inevitable.
He looked around the bedroom that had become his home in the past ten months one last time. He had left most of his clothing in the closet, only taking one extra set of clothing besides the one he wore now. All of the money that he had earned in Justin’s service was tucked away in a drawer to be found later, when he was far away. Books and various memorabilia littered the shelves and dresser tops.
He choked back the burning tears he felt in his eyes and throat. He had forgotten just how hard it really was to leave; especially considering he was leaving the one place he had truly called home with people he called family for the first time in nearly a century.
Swiftly, he turned and left the room without a backwards glance. He shouldn’t linger—he couldn’t. He hurriedly moved through the house and back to the living room, barely allowing himself a last look at his home. Hunter had moved onto the couch with Justin and was holding him closely in a loving embrace, murmuring words of comfort into his ear. Ben stopped and swallowed hard at the sight.
He was causing them so much pain, but he knew it was necessary.
Hunter looked up, his eyes focusing on the valise over Ben’s shoulder. “You really were planning on leaving, weren’t you?” he murmured. Ben simply nodded silently, looking away. He lingered for a moment before, deciding it was too painful, he moved toward the door.
“Wait!” Justin cried, lurching from Hunter’s embrace. “You can’t—it’s can’t just end like this! I won’t let you just leave without another word, Ben, you mean too much to me to do that!”
“Oh, Justin!” Ben sobbed, launching himself toward his father-figure and ignoring the valise that thumped to the floor. He wrapped his arms tightly around Justin’s waist, feeling the adult’s arms winding around him with just as much desperation and emotion. They held each other tightly for a long moment, Hunter joining in, before Justin gently pulled away. He stooped to scoop up the forgotten bell from the floor.
“Here, take this,” he said, pressing it into Ben’s hand.
Horrified, Ben resisted, but the psychologist was firm.
“From what I understand, you will be able to distinguish between a normal bell and the sound of your angel summoning you. Please, take this as a reminder of us.”
“I would never be able to forget you,” Ben protested but reluctantly accepted the bell and held it tightly. “A few pictures and a bell won’t change that.”
“I know. Still, I want you to have it. It’s important to me.”
“Can you tell me why?” The other man smiled sadly and shook his head.
“I’ll leave that story for later. That way your burning curiosity will force you to find us again someday.”
“You don’t trust me when I say we’ll see each other again?” Ben said with mock hurt.
“You’ve told us how this usually works. You never see any of the people you help ever again; I don’t want to risk it. You mean too much to us, Ben, if you have to leave we want assurance that you’ll come back again.”
“I can’t promise anything,” Ben sighed, “But I have a feeling that we’ll see each other again. I trust my feelings; you should, too.”
“Ben, we need to leave now,” Ned broke in urgently, punctuating his words with a short bark. The adults jumped, as if they had forgotten he was there.
“You have to leave, I know,” Justin said when Ben opened his mouth. “I understand. Ned, we’ll miss you, too. You’ve both changed our lives in ways that I could never have imagined when I found you on my doorstep. I wouldn’t trade the months we had together for anything. You mean… I mean, you are—that is to say, we—” Hunter dryly interrupted his lover’s uncharacteristic loss of words.
“What he’s trying to say is, we love you, kid. Both of you are like family to us.”
Ben nearly broke down again when he heard that, but he refused to let the tears clouding his eyes fall. Instead, he straightened his back and nodded firmly, clutching the strap of his valise so tightly that his knuckles whitened.
“I—I love you, too. We have to go; we’ll see each other again.” He promised as he backed away slowly. Finally, with Ned at his heels, he turned and shot out of the house, refusing to look back as he plunged into the surrounding forest.
March 1, 1983 (One Year Later)
“Thanks.” The amber-eyed man responded softly as he took the steaming mug from the tall man with black hair and green eyes, who then sat in the chair next to him. They looked out over the yard and into the shadows of the surrounding forest. Winter had faded early this year; the snow had quickly vanished as the yellowed earth eagerly greeted spring.
“I have the strange feeling that this is going to become a tradition,” Hunter said, breaking the comfortable silence between them. Justin smiled.
“You’re probably right.” He reached over and took his lover’s hand, the fading light of the late afternoon glinting off of the modest silver band on his finger. Absently, Hunter rubbed his thumb across it. “It’s been a year, Hunter.”
They sat in silence for a long time, reflecting on past memories. Inside the house, pictures of a thin, towheaded boy with clouded blue eyes and a chocolate dog with far too intelligent eyes lined the walls; heavily interspersed with pictures of Hunter, Justin, the Johansen’s, and the Preston’s. In the guest bedroom, boxes of clothing and random items were stacked within the closet, waiting for their owner’s return.
“Eli hasn’t seen anything in the near future that tells us what he’s doing.”
“I know. I just worry about him sometimes—even though he’s been taking care of himself since before this country was founded.”
“I’ve always said that your most defining characteristic is your irrationality.”
“Jerk.” Justin said fondly, leaning over for a warm, lingering kiss. They were interrupted by the phone ringing shrilly inside and Hunter got up to answer it.
A breeze rustled through the yard, bringing with it the sound of rustling trees and waves lapping at the shore. The faint sound of a bark and laughter made Justin straighten in his chair, his heart beating faster and his breath catching in his throat. Something flashed in the shadows of the forest.
Squinting his eyes, Justin could just make out the form of a slender boy chasing after a young Labrador, the faint laughter echoing strangely. They raced between the trees, the dappled sunlight flitting over burnished gold hair and pale limbs. Finally, the boy managed to catch the dog, bringing them to the ground with another echoing bark. They wrestled for a moment before the soft tinkling of a tiny bell made them both fall still.
Justin saw the boy raise his head as if to listen and he leaned forward in his seat unconsciously.
As if the breathed word had been shouted, the figure turned its head toward the house and raised one hand in greeting. Then, between one breath and the next, in the blink of an eye, the figures were gone, leaving behind only the sound of echoing bells.