Worth the Admission
by Lorelei Jones
I have really got to stop getting stories to the halfway point and then losing track of them. This has been in the works for about a year, maybe more. Like every other story I have written or will write which features Ben, this one is an AU wherein the corporations of the world are smart enough to make bids for the soon-to-be-former Supply and Morale Officer aboard the UEO's flagship. Fast food franchise manager, indeed. My tireless betas, Emerald, Gwyn, and Eliza once again outdid themselves. This story would be much worse without their sharp eyes and sharper wit. Eliza supplied the title, as well. Written, if I remember correctly, to a blend of Live's "Dance With You," Annie Lennox's version of "Waiting in Vain," and a few other very mellow songs which I can't remember except by mood.
Strange, how he ended the day seeking to escape what he'd wanted so badly when it started. Several hours at the center of his father's desperate attention left him feeling emotionally sunburned, the surfaces of his pain and loss oversensitive, likely to blister. The Captain's presence had provided its own kind of shade, but now he wanted someplace cool and dark. Solitary. Someplace untouched by the knowledge of what his father had wrought.
The price they had all paid.
No such place existed, of course, so he settled for a small meeting room at the end of a hallway in Pearl's guest quarters. He snagged one of the chairs so precisely arranged around the table and pushed it toward the wall with windows overlooking the sea. Sitting backward to catch the breeze through the windows, he crossed his arms along the chair's back and rested his cheek on them, contemplating the swaying palm tree just outside the lefthand window and the stars he could see peeking through the fronds. The full moon was half-hidden by the palm's trunk, its light softened.
He tried to let his mind go empty and dark as the room, but too much had happened in too short a time. His brain clamored to process it all. His father's pet project, completely scrapped with no chance of "getting it right the next time." His home of the past year and a half at the bottom of the ocean, in the bottom of the ocean, utterly destroyed to keep the ocean floor in this part of the world from completely crumbling away. The crew split up and reassigned until a new boat could be approved and funded and built, and no telling how many of them would want to come back then. The Captain was already making plans to go to San Diego and DC and anywhere else he had to go to resurrect his dream.
Lucas had to wonder if Dr. Westphalen would be going, too.
Behind him, there was the sound of the knob turning, then the soft snick as the door swung open. He waited, not turning around, hoping for a janitor or one of the night patrol. Somebody he could send away without too much discussion.
Ben's voice had that hesitant quality it got when he thought a friend was hurting. Ben always had been able to read him.
There was a long fall of silence. Lucas didn't break it; he waited, listening to the sound of Ben's breathing until he found himself matching it with his own. "Do you want me to leave?"
No. Stay. He wasn't sure he'd said it aloud until he heard Ben's feet shushing across the carpet, then the sound of a chair being dragged toward him. He kept still and caught flickers of movement at the edge of his vision that were Ben settling into the chair. He could feel Ben's eyes on him for a long moment before Ben spoke again.
"I thought everyone was in town for the night."
"So did I." He turned his head to meet Ben's gaze. "I'm surprised you're not with them."
"I had some...things to take care of." Ben had that look he got when he was trying not to say something he knew needed to be said and he wasn't happy about it. It flickered across his face for only an instant, but Lucas knew to look for it. "Why are you still here?"
He turned back toward the window. "I guess I'm just not feeling very social. What did you have to take care of?"
"Just some paperwork. How did things go with your father?"
"Paperwork for what? They have your new assignment already?" Unexpected pain, that, and all the sharper for it. Surely they were all due a little downtime before the world crashed in once again. Or maybe it was just him that felt the need to mourn. For what exactly, he couldn't say, but there was a knot of helplessness and grief in his gut, and he wasn't sure how much longer he could keep it down.
"I'm not getting a new assignment."
Relief was almost disastrous, bringing the dangerous prickle of tears. And then Ben's tone registered. He straightened, steeling himself, and caught Ben's eyes. "What do you mean, you're not getting one?"
Darkness and silence gathered around them, between them, until he began to wonder why he had ever sought either thing. He had to gather himself to break them even slightly, breathing a single word, a question.
"I'm resigning, Lucas."
He waited for the words to make sense; decided clarification was in order. "What?"
Ben leaned toward him, eyes gleaming in the darkness. "As soon as all the paperwork is processed, I'm out of the UEO."
"My contract's up. And after thinking about it, I decided it was time to move on."
"Move on to what?"
"I'm not sure yet. I've had a few offers."
They all had. Word got out that the UEO flagship's tour was coming to a close, and corporations from all over the world had jumped at the chance to court some of her famously competent crew. To Lucas, the flood of "let's get together for lunch and a sales pitch" invitations was just one more source of stress in a time of stress. He'd refused them all and wished he could lock his system against any corporate contact without blocking communication for funded projects. Somewhere in the back of his head, he'd known the offers had to appeal to somebody, maybe even somebody he worked with closely. Not part of the core crew, though.
"What about the seaQuest?"
Ben glanced out the window, smiling ruefully. "Well, provided the Captain can get someone to fund a second ship, you and I both know he's going to keep Commander Ford as his XO."
"So?" Ben laughed and looked at him again. "Lucas, you may not have noticed, but Commander Ford doesn't like me much."
"He's gotten better, Ben."
"Only because Katie was willing to run interference for me, but she won't be around to do that anymore."
"That's the real reason you're leaving, isn't it?" Lucas guessed, watching Ben's face in the shadows. "Commander Hitchcock's not coming back."
That made Ben laugh again, though the sound was more wistful this time. "I admit, when we were first assigned together, some part of me hoped maybe things would work out between us. But then I realized that I still loved her very much, and I still wasn't in love with her, and that just wasn't going to be enough. Not for either of us."
"What would be enough?"
He didn't mean to say that. Ben stared at him, and he felt the heat creeping into his face. He fought the urge to duck his head, to turn away and look anywhere but at Ben. He had said it, and now he'd see how Ben responded.
"I'm not quite sure," Ben said carefully, "what you're asking--"
"I want you to stay."
"Yeah, I'm getting that part." Long, long pause, and Ben's voice was very soft when he spoke again. "Talk to me, Lucas. What were you asking?"
He took a breath, closing his eyes for a moment. After everything he'd said to his father today, this shouldn't be so hard. "I don't understand why you're leaving, Ben. You know the Captain wants to keep you. You know you're good at this. You know Ford has learned to work with you. And I know you like what you do."
"How do you know that?"
"Oh, I don't know, maybe because you're one of my best friends and I've paid attention."
Ben sighed, and Lucas turned to see him leaning even closer, shadows masking whatever was in his eyes. "I can like what I do and still want to try something else, Lucas."
"But you're getting--" Lucas broke off, swallowed. If word of this ever got back to Bridger, he could be in serious trouble. But he had to try. "I know you're getting--"
"A promotion?" Ben's voice was wry and Ben shook his head. "I don't think you're supposed to know about that, Lucas."
"You saved us," Lucas said defensively. "You deserved a promotion, and I wanted to know you were getting one. Now you're throwing your career away, and I want to know why."
Ben turned away from him, staring out the windows. "Maybe it's just time for a change."
It felt like a dismissal, like another damn "you're too young to understand," and the hurt only lasted for a breath before the anger flared up.
"Fine, don't tell me." He pushed up from his chair, shoving it noisily across the floor as he whirled for the door. Ben's hand closed over his arm, though, halting him before he'd taken more than a step. If it had been anyone else, he would have pulled away and told them to go to hell. Even with Ben, he was tempted. Then Ben slid that hand down his bare arm lightly before releasing him, and Lucas clenched his fist to keep from reaching for Ben's fingers and holding onto contact.
"What will you give me if I tell you?"
Lucas blinked. From this angle, he had a slightly better view of Ben's face, and he still couldn't tell what he was looking at. "What?"
"If I tell you my reasons for leaving, will you tell me what you were asking?"
"So did I."
Lucas sucked in a breath. Oh, he recognized that face now. That was Ben's poker face. Ben was giving him a choice. Raise, call, or fold.
"I want to know what would be enough to get you to stay," Lucas whispered. Ben closed his eyes for a moment, and suddenly his face was open again, weary and sad.
"Nothing, Lucas." Ben laughed, one soft, self-mocking chuckle. "Nothing I can have."
It was there in Ben's voice, the loss that had sent Lucas to this room in the first place, the longing that things were different. But the look Ben gave him made Lucas think Ben wasn't looking for solitude.
Ben had come looking for him.
"How do you know you can't have it?"
He straddled Ben's lap and met Ben's eyes, emphatically not listening to the part of himself gibbering with terror and embarrassment. Ben stared at him, and he swallowed nervously as he placed his hands on Ben's face and leaned in.
Lucas had had fantasies about many of the seaQuest's crew, starting with Katie when he first came aboard. He'd imagined kissing Ben, Ben's mouth soft and warm and mobile against his, Ben's hands skilled and firm on his body. This situation was nowhere close to his fantasies, but Ben's mouth was soft and warm and, for just a moment, it moved under his. He had time to register that much before Ben's hands were on his upper arms and he was being pushed up and away. Ben stood with him, wide-eyed in the darkness.
"Lucas, you don't--"
"I don't know if this is what you want," Lucas said quickly, cutting Ben off before the words could really hurt. "I don't know...but you can have it. I mean--you can--"
Embarrassment was winning out, now that it was too late. Lucas stopped speaking, certain his blush was making him glow in the dark.
"No," Ben said, still holding onto him. "I can't, Lucas. You don't have to offer me this, it doesn't--"
"I'm not offering!" Ben released him, but Lucas reached up and mirrored the lost grip before Ben could move away. He forced his voice softer, steadier as he said, "I'm asking. Is this why you're leaving? Is this...what you want?"
"Lucas, it doesn't matter if it is," Ben said, holding his eyes. "I can't stay for this."
"Maybe not," Lucas whispered, "but you wouldn't have to leave because of it."
"You don't think so?" Ben reached up again, placed his hands more gently on Lucas' arms, and leaned in to press his forehead against Lucas'. "You don't think the Captain might have a little problem with it?"
"I don't think the Captain has any say in it," Lucas said flatly.
"I doubt he'll see it that way, Lucas."
"Who says he'll see it at all?" Lucas raised his head enough to meet Ben's eyes again. "You're the conman, remember? And I'm very, very good at...misdirection."
"Is that what you call it?" But Ben's hands moved on his arms in a slight caress, and Ben's tone was preoccupied even as Ben's eyes grew more focused on his face.
"What would you call it?"
"I don't know, misdirection seems to cover it." A hand slid down to the small of his back, drawing him closer, and Ben moved to press a kiss to his temple, whispering against the skin. "You're as much of a conman as I am, Lucas, though you're better at hiding it."
"Ben," Lucas murmured, his eyes sliding closed as Ben's fingers stroked small circles through the fabric of his shirt. Ben's lips wandered from his temple down to his ear.
"So here's my question, Lucas. What if I say I want you, and we do...something, and I leave anyway?"
All the heat seemed to vanish from the room and Lucas very nearly pulled away before Ben's tone registered. Taking a risk, he stayed where he was and said, "Then at least we both have a good memory."
"How can you be so sure it'll be good?"
"Because it's you."
Ben laughed against his ear, the brush of air on skin making him shudder. "Maybe you should talk to my ex-wife before sounding so certain about that."
"Do you really want me asking Commander Hitchcock how you are in bed?" Damn it, he was blushing again. At least his voice remained steady on the tease.
This sounded less like laughter than choking, but when Lucas tried to turn his head to see, Ben ducked down to suck on his throat. Lucas made a sound he didn't know he could make and clutched convulsively at Ben's arms. For just a moment, Ben's arms tightened around him. For just a moment, he felt Ben's erection pressed against his hip. And then Ben stepped back again, but this time he brought a hand up to caress Lucas' face.
"You sure you want this now, Lucas?"
Lucas couldn't stop the scowl. "Ben, damn it--"
"Because even if Bridger leaves for DC tomorrow, it'll take a while to get a new seaQuest approved." Ben's thumb moved on his face the way it had on the small of his back. "Then there's the time it'll take to build her. That's a lot of good memories, if you want to slow down."
There was no good answer for that but to grab Ben by the front of his shirt, haul him down, and kiss him hard. This time, Ben reciprocated, and Lucas stopped thinking until they broke for air.
Oh, yeah, very good memories.
"We need a bed," Lucas said when he could form words again.
"Ben." Lucas fought the urge to drag the other man to his room. Ben outweighed him; a little cooperation was needed. "I thought you said you remembered what it was like to be my age."
"I remember." Ben held him steady, watching him. "Which is why I want you to be sure. This is not the time for either of us to be stupid."
Lucas stilled at the reference, then found himself smiling for the first time in what felt like days. "Don't worry, Ben. I'm done being stupid about this."
"In that case," Ben drew him back to the chair, sitting and coaxing him down with warm hands, "I think the bed can wait, but I'm not sure I can. What do you say we pick up where I so rudely interrupted you?"
Lucas placed his hands on Ben's shoulders, but made no move beyond that. "You mean when I was sitting in the dark alone?"
"Lucas," Ben groaned, and Lucas only smiled, knowing exactly how Ben felt. "I should have known you'd be a tease."
"I'm not the one drawing this out," Lucas began to protest, then sucked in a breath as Ben moved beneath him, rocking upward and holding him down.
"Be very, very glad I'm resisting the obvious pun there." Ben's voice was muffled against his throat and Ben's hands were warm under his shirt. "Didn't anyone ever tell you that some things are worth the wait?"
"You're the one who just said you couldn't wait." Lucas turned his head to catch Ben's mouth with his own, moving his hands inward to work on the buttons to Ben's shirt. The kiss was even better this time, and the sound Ben made when they needed to breathe was encouraging. "You telling me you changed your mind?"
"Forget I said anything," Ben said in a rather strangled voice, and Lucas smiled again, moving in for another kiss.
Time to make some memories.