Caught on Fire


Love is like friendship caught on fire.
—Bruce Lee

- 5 -

The phone was ringing. Jason lunged for it, missed it, swore as his head connected with something hard, and then remembered that (a) he wasn't employed by the AGPD any more, and (b) he was at Billy's. But he was definitely awake, so he answered the phone, wondering as he did where Billy had gotten to. "Hello?"

"William Cranston?"

"Umm, no." He looked at the clock. Who the hell called at seven a.m.? "May I tell him who's calling?"

"Jeffrey Daniels." Clearly that was supposed to mean something.

"Well, I'll see if he's around, Mr. Dan—"

"Doctor Daniels."

Jason refrained from saying anything, just got out of bed and pulled on the discarded sweatpants, and then went to look for Billy.

He found him almost by accident, catching a glimpse through the living room window of him standing outside on the porch steps, reading something in the middle of the second section of the morning paper. He'd obviously been running; he was wearing shorts and a sweat-soaked teeshirt, and he looked as though he'd drifted to a stop halfway to the house after collecting the paper from the sidewalk. Jason shook his head; how could anybody be that eager to find out what was going wrong in the world today? "Hey, you," he opened the door.

"Hmm? Oh. Good morning." That sweet, abstracted smile made Jason's breath catch for a minute.

"Somebody named Daniels is on the phone for you."

"Oh. Thanks. I didn't hear it ring," Billy said, still somewhat distracted by the paper. "Daniel? I don't think I know a Daniel."

"Danielsss," said Jason. "Doctor Jeffrey Daniels."

"Oh. Him." Billy suddenly came back to the world. "What does he want—? Here." He handed Jason the paper and headed for the phone in the kitchen.

Jason extracted the sports section and went inside. There was one Coke in the refrigerator, two eggs, no bacon... he realized they'd have to go shopping today. Opening the Coke, he leaned against the counter, listening to Billy on the phone with half an ear and thinking about names. Specifically, Billy's name. Hearing this Daniels guy on the phone asking for "William" had triggered something he'd been apparently mulling over in the back of his brain for a while.

'Billy' was a kid's name. And Billy was no kid any more. He hadn't been for a while, but... somehow that nickname had stuck. He'd always been the only one of them with that kind of nickname. Zachary had been Zack, and Kimberly Kim, not Kimmy and whatever you'd do to Zachary... Zackie? Jason winced at the thought and didn't even want to picture Zack's reaction. Then later, when they'd got to high school, there'd been Rocky and Tommy, but Rocky was a tough name, a fighter's name, and Tommy was a jock's name. Like Bobby Gordon, or Ricky Rudd, Randy LaJoie, or Bobby Hamilton... all those racing guys. And anyway, Tommy had always been big and mean, at least to look at. 'Billy' belonged to that young kid from junior high, the kid who'd been clumsy, shy, a bit of a geek—Jason had to admit it—, and painfully vulnerable, things this man Jason was looking at wasn't. This man was confident, quiet, intellectual, and very competent. This man was a 'Bill' at least, if not a full-fledged 'William'. And, Jason remembered, his dad's been calling him 'Bill' for a couple of years now...

"Dr. Daniels," Billy's voice was raised enough to really catch Jason's attention. "No, I don't. That position is indefensible." Jason listened unabashedly. "No. I can't put my name to a paper that pretends otherwise. ... Well, of course you can quote anything I've published, but if you attempt to cast my position as one that in any way supports yours, I shall have to challenge you. ... Yes, in print. ... No, I'll be at MIT next week. I'll get it from you then. ... Yes. Permanently. At least for the foreseeable future. ... Yes. Thank you, and the same to you."

Oh, yeah, Jason thought. That was a William. "Bill?" he said experimentally.


"Phone's off the hook in the bedroom."

"Oh. Okay." Bill went off in that direction, and then came into the kitchen.

Of course, Jason realized, wandering around the kitchen looking for coffee, in a crumpled, wet teeshirt stuck to his body with his hair in his eyes, he did look more like a Billy...

"Did that idiot wake you up?" Bill sat down catty-cornered from him, a mug of coffee clutched in grateful hands. "There is voice mail."

"I'm hard-wired not to let the phone ring," Jason said, shaking his head. "You'll have to let me know when you don't want to be in. Or for who, maybe. Or, I guess we could get two lines."

"Three," said Bill. "The computer gets one. But if I'm on the phone with Germany or Cambridge or Christchurch or somewhere, I'm not likely to pick up on the call waiting, so a line for you might be a very good idea."

"Okay," Jason agreed. Something else to make a note of. "Do you prefer William?" he asked as Bill drained his coffee.

"What? Oh, Daniels," Bill realized. He went to refill his cup, shaking his head. "No. I don't think I've ever signed a paper anything but William M. Cranston in my life, but if anybody calls me that I know I'm in serious trouble." He sat down and smiled briefly. "Or that they don't know me. Like Daniels." He reached for the paper in front of Jason.

"You should change," Jason pointed out a trifle reluctantly. "You'll get pneumonia."

"I haven't yet." He unfolded it to the story he'd been reading earlier.

"There is nothing in this house for breakfast."

"Oh," Bill looked up. "I forgot. On the porch."

Jason grinned and went outside. A Dunkin' Donuts bag was on the railing next to a plastic newspaper wrapper. Jason brought them both in, putting the one on the table and throwing away the other. "I can't believe I'm eating donuts for breakfast," he said as he got plates out of the cabinet. Bill was too involved with the newspaper to answer. Jason shook his head, slid a plate under the donut in Bill's hand, and sat down to read the sports.

- 6 -

"Here." Bill pulled a soft blue plaid shirt off a hanger and tossed it to Jason. "This should fit you."

"I can't believe you forgot to wash my shirt," Jason said, catching the shirt and putting on the bed next to him.

"Yes, it was undoubtedly Freudian of me." Bill checked another shirt against the navy teeshirt he had already put on and pulled it off its hanger.

"You don't believe in Freud." Jason tied his shoe and looked at Bill. He had already discovered he liked watching him get dressed almost as much as he liked watching him get undressed. He was definitely going to be in trouble in the mornings.

"The man had some genuine insights," Bill conceded. "Much of the corpus of his work is seriously flawed, however, though some is unavoidable due to the faulty nature of his time's understanding of the physical structure of the brain... but I was using the term in its vernacular meaning."

"I'm not going anywhere," Jason acknowledged.

"And I may get used to that in time." Bill tucked the shirt into his jeans and zipped them up. "You're sure you want to talk to your parents this afternoon?"

Jason shrugged. "I don't think I should wait." He picked up the shirt and held it without moving to put it on.

Bill paused with his belt in one hand. "Jase, love—" the word brought a quick smile to Jason's face "—why the hurry?"

"I'm not ashamed of you," Jason said. "I don't see any reason to hide anything."

"Did you rush off and tell them the day after you first slept with ... what was her name again?"

Jason laughed. "No. No, I didn't. But I'm moving to Massachusetts next week. I kinda think they have a right to hear about that before it happens."

"Yes, that's a valid point." Bill began threading the belt through the loops.

Jason bit back the urge to ask if he could do that and said instead, "Besides, my sleeping with Emily wasn't a surprise to them. You know what I mean," he added to Bill's quirked eyebrow. "They didn't have to make any adjustments to their expectations."

Bill just nodded.

"What about your dad, as far as that goes?"

Bill shrugged slightly. "My father doesn't have any expectations."

"Come on."

"He says he doesn't understand me well enough to know what to expect from me. Which," he smiled, apparently at a memory, "isn't true. He also says that he doesn't have the right to expect anything of me. Which may be. He's certainly never given me to understand that he has expectations."

"Maybe you're meeting them all," suggested Jason, "without him saying anything."

Bill considered that, and then shook his head. "I've never felt there were any expectations, any pressures on me to do anything in particular. He has wants," he offered.

"Such as? A Nobel? Or will he be content with tenured professorship?"

"He wants me to be happy."

"Really?" As soon as he'd said it he wished he hadn't. It sounded like he thought Mr. Cranston might want his son not to be happy, and all he meant was—

"Pretty much that's all he wants," Bill said, understanding perfectly. He half-smiled, adding, "It hasn't been the easiest thing to give him until now. Of course, I doubt he'd object to a Nobel. So, are you going to be pressuring me, now?"

"I just think you should work up to your potential, young man," Jason said.

Bill sat down on the bed next to Jason. "I'll remind you of that when you come around looking for a vacation." He pulled on one of his shoes and tightened the laces. Double-knotted them. Wrapping himself up again.

So I can unwrap him again.... "That reminds me, I think we should go to Vermont before MIT starts its fall semester," Jason said.

"Vermont?" Bill looked at him puzzledly. "What's in Vermont in August?"

"Civil unions."

"Come again?"

"Didn't I tell you I wanted forever?"

"You mentioned something like that." Bill cocked his head to one side. "Is this a proposal?"

"If you need one, yes. If you want, I'll get on my knees."

"That won't be necessary... but, this week?"


"It's just... you seem to be in a blinding hurry, Jason. What's up?"

Jason hesitated.

Bill looked at him. "Come on, Jase. Talk to me. What's up?"

"Just making up for lost time," he said, and heard it sound like an offering rather than an answer.

"No." Bill rejected it. "I don't know what it is, but it's not that." Jason looked away and Bill caught his chin in his hand and turned his head back until their eyes met. "It's not that. And it's not like you to rush into something without a thorough reconnaissance. What is it, love? Tell me."

Jason stared into the green eyes, knowing he was close enough to be easily read, trying to think of the right words.

After a moment, Bill's grip softened into a caress. "Oh, Jase," he said. "Aren't you sure of me? Be sure of me. I'm sure."

"I don't want you going to MIT, meeting somebody smarter than me," Jason admitted.

Bill smiled at him, not laughing, just smiling so lovingly that Jason felt his heart actually turn over, at least that's how it felt. "Jason," he said, "I've loved you half my life and been in love with you almost that long. Meeting people smarter than you hasn't stopped me yet."

Jason thought about that and realized he felt safe enough right now to make a joke about it. "I halfway think maybe I should smack you for that."

"And the other half?"

"Kiss you."

"Tie-breaker?" Bill offered.

Jason accepted, but when he tried to deepen it Bill pulled away.

"Not now. You're the one who wants to go to your parents' house this afternoon."

"Oh. Right."

"We can wait." Bill suggested, a gleam in his eyes.

"No. I may be acting on my insecurities, but you know me. Action is my middle name."

"Inarguable," Bill conceded. "Jason, I want to say something."

"Okay." Jason said, agreeably.

Bill sighed. "Pay attention, Jason. I mean it."

"I'm paying attention."

"You are not." Bill suddenly shoved Jason down on the bed, putting his hands on his shoulders and sitting back on his stomach. "If your parents don't want to accept me—"

"Then we walk."

"No." Bill shook his head. "I walk."

"Are you insane?" he demanded

"No, listen to me." Bill leaned into his hold.

Jason impatiently tried to dislodge him and discovered the intoxicating sensation of a masculine strength that was too much for him to break free of. He shook it off. Now was not the time to explore that sort of thing. Now was definitely not the time... not before those words were dealt with. "I can't believe you said that. There's no way I'm leaving you just because my parents don't accept it. If. You know what I mean. I'm not."

"Jason!" Bill cut him off. He took a deep breath. "I don't mean, leave me. There is no way you get to do that, let alone have me suggest it to you. Clear?"

Jason nodded, calmer. "Okay. What did you mean?"

"I mean, you're making this binary: either they accept us as a couple with open arms and joyful hearts, or they forbid us to darken their door again. There is actually a whole range of potential reactions, and we should at least look at what we're going to do if one of them turns out to be the chosen one."

"Like what, exactly? I mean, that makes us breaking up acceptable?"

"I'm sorry. That was a bad choice of words on my part. I meant only that if, for argument's sake, your parents are still willing to have a relationship with you if they can pretend I don't exist, you should try to sustain that relationship."

Jason looked at him in wonder. "And you wouldn't mind?"

"Of course I'd mind," Bill snapped, which show of temper made Jason feel better. "But they're your parents, damnit, Jason. You don't want to lose them if you don't have to!"

Oh, damn. This was more about Bill than him, he realized. It was possible to assume—and many people did—that Bill didn't miss his mother, since he never mentioned her, but Jason had long ago realized that exactly the opposite was true. Bill missed her so deeply that he couldn't deal with the pain talking about her caused. Of course, if Jason's parents cut him off it wouldn't be the same, but he figured now was not the time to discuss the difference between watching your mom bleed to death while you and she were pinned in the twisted wreckage of a car when you were nine and having your parents tell you they didn't want you around any more when you were twenty. Instead, he nodded and said, his voice as serious as he could make it, "You're right. If there's any way at all to keep us talking, I'll take it. I won't leave you, but if they want to pretend things, okay. I'll try to live it."

Bill relaxed. "Good. I love your parents, you know that, but I don't think they ever thought of me as son-in-law material."


beginning second part third part conclusion


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