Mac drove home cautiously, but as usual the salting and sanding crews had been out all day, and the main roads were fine. It wasn't until close to Tony's place, their place, that he had to do a quick swerve to avoid an asshole sliding through a side-street stop sign. The guy didn't even pause, just turned the slide into a slewed left turn and drove away. For a moment Mac toyed with the fantasy of chasing after the guy and ticketing him for blowing the stop sign.
Not worth it. Forget about him. Home was only two blocks away, and Mac wanted it so bad he could taste it.
He made it about six inches inside his front door before his daughter grabbed him around his knees, talking a mile a minute about her day in kindergarten. Mac bent to kiss her shiny black hair and then put her away from him gently. "What's the rule, Anna?"
She blinked at him, caught in mid-sentence, and then nodded. "You go in the kitchen and put your gun away and then I can jump you."
He tweaked her nose. "Right. Hold that thought."
Tony was in the kitchen, rinsing cups out at the sink. He glanced over his shoulder at Mac and gave him a sweet smile, but didn't take his hands out of the suds. Mac stepped up behind him and kissed his neck under his ear. "Hey, babe. Let me get at the safe."
Tony rinsed his hands and stepped aside, wet hands held up. Mac knelt and stowed his weapon away safely. As he snapped the safe shut, the tip of Tony's finger slid over his cheek. Mac sucked it into his mouth, briefly and without turning, as a promissory note. From the catch of Tony's breath, Mac knew he wasn't the only one eager for some alone time.
Behind them in the kitchen doorway Anna said, "Now can I tell you stuff, Daddy?"
Mac straightened. "I'm all yours. How about the couch?"
He lowered himself onto the brown and grey plaid cushions with a sigh. Anna snuggled in beside him, her feet tucked neatly underneath her. "So then Miss Campbell said..."
Mac just let himself bask in the normalcy as he listened to his daughter babble on about her art project. "...and then nobody got to go out to recess b'cause it was too cold so it didn't matter that I hate the black snow pants."
"The ones she wouldn't wear because they were ugly," Tony said, coming out of the kitchen drying his hands on a paper towel.
"But Tony's gonna wash the blue ones so that's okay."
Mac laughed and kissed his daughter's neck, enjoying the sweet little-girl scent. Or not so sweet. "Honey, why do you smell like onions?"
"She helped me cook," Tony said. "There's a plate in the microwave for you."
"I'll eat in a bit. You need a bath, princess."
"Mac?" Ben leaned against the doorway to his room, his dark eyes serious. "Can I talk to you?"
"I'll do Anna's bath," Tony volunteered.
"No!" Anna's voice was shrill. "No way. My Daddy's gonna do it and Ben can wait." She turned to Ben. "He's my real Daddy. He wants to talk to me. He's not your real anything."
"Anna!" Mac admonished her, but not fast enough. Ben stepped back into his room and slammed the door. Mac and Tony looked at each other, dismayed.
"I'll talk to Ben," Mac said. "You give the mouthy kid her bath." He put a finger on Anna's lips to silence her protest. "That was mean, honey, to say that to Ben. You know we agreed that when we started living together it means I'm Ben's dad too."
"Not for real," she said sulkily.
"For real enough that you'd better be good for Tony. I'll come tuck you in later."
"Too bad, hon," Tony said with forced cheer. "I bought some strawberry scented shampoo, and I'm wondering what strawberry and onions smell like mingled together."
Anna's lower lip uncurled as she thought about it. "That could be pretty strange."
"Let's go find out." Tony held out a hand to her. "Come on, sweetheart, choose a pair of pajamas and we'll put some shampoo in the tub, make a strawberry bubble bath."
Mac breathed a sigh of relief as Anna willingly followed Tony into her room. Tony was so good with Anna. Better than Mac himself sometimes. Mac had no experience with the day to day care of a child; well, Tony didn't either but he seemed to take to it easily, without all the second guessing Mac did. And Anna loved him already. Mac felt his lips curve in a hopeless smile. Everyone loved Tony. There was just something so...good, for lack of a better word, at the heart of that man. All the bad luck in Mac's life didn't weigh half as much as the good luck of having somehow ended up with Tony.
Mac hauled himself up off the couch and went to Ben's door. When there was no answer to his knock, he opened the door and went in. Ben sat in the corner of his blue racing car bed, cocooned in a pile of pillows, with a book open on his knees. The boy didn't look up as Mac closed the door and came over to sit on the edge of the bed.
"Ben... Ben, was there something you wanted to ask me?"
The boy finally vouchsafed him a tiny head-shake, without raising his eyes from the book.
"Ben, you know Anna was wrong. Tony and I are both your dads, and if there's something you want to talk about, I want to hear it."
That got a minute shrug of one shoulder. Ben turned the page with an air of complete absorption.
The plastic edge of the bed was a freaking uncomfortable place for a man his size to perch. Mac shifted his weight. "I can wait until you're ready to tell me."
Ben closed the book with a snap. "I'm done with this. I'm gonna go to bed now." He looked impatiently at Mac. "I want to get changed for bed. You should go out now."
Mac stood up. Ben hadn't wanted even Tony to see him naked since the day he moved in. Even though a doctor's exam had found no physical signs of abuse, both men were afraid the reason was more than just a little boy's self-consciousness. Ben saw a therapist once a week, working through the trauma of his mother's death and the surrounding events, but she had yet to draw any kind of answers from him. Ben's steady stare told Mac he wasn't getting more from the boy tonight.
"Okay, son. Tony will be in soon to say goodnight."
"I'm not your son. I'm not anyone's son anymore."
"Ben..." Mac stretched out a hand, about to launch into reassurances.
The boy turned away deliberately and dug under his pillow for his pajamas. "You can go out now while I get changed."
"I'm going. But Tony and I both love you and you're our son, and that has nothing to do with who was born where to whom."
Ben's rigid back didn't soften and the boy didn't turn around. Mac let himself out the door. He closed it behind him and then leaned against it, listening, but if Ben made any sound it was too soft to carry.
Half an hour later both kids were in bed, stories read, lights out. Mac and Tony had swapped kids back for the bedtime rituals. Anna had lots more to tell Mac about her day, but eventually drifted off in mid-spiel. Mac shut her door behind him and almost ran into Tony coming out of Ben's.
"How is he?" Mac whispered.
Tony shrugged. "Seems okay. Quiet." He rubbed at his eyes.
"Come on." Mac wrapped an arm around Tony's shoulders. "We could turn in early ourselves."
Tony leaned against him for a moment and then stepped away. "Can't. Not yet. I have a load of laundry, including those damned snow pants. And I probably have a couple of hours of papers to correct. And I'm guessing you haven't had dinner yet."
Mac's stomach rumbled agreement.
Tony chuckled. "I put the leftover stew back in the fridge. I can microwave it for you."
"I can do it." Tony looked even more tired than Mac felt. "In fact, tell me what laundry needs doing and I'll get that too while you work."
"Bless you." Tony dropped a kiss on Mac's shoulder. "The laundry basket is by the door. Dark stuff, so do a cold wash, permanent press dry."
"Got it. Go dig out your papers."
Tony spread his students' homework out on the dining room table, while Mac ran the laundry downstairs to the machine and then heated up his meal. Mac ate slowly, one eye on the book he was reading, and one on Tony. After a while, Tony glanced up. "You're staring. Do I have food on my face?"
"Just thinking how lucky I am."
That got Mac the smile he loved. "Hold that thought about an hour, and you might get even luckier."
"Sounds like a plan."
But when Mac let himself back up into the apartment later with the clean, dry laundry, he found Tony face-down in tenth-grade homework, fast asleep. Mac left the laundry in the basket and guided his groggy boyfriend into the bedroom. Tony dropped limply on the bed.
Mac shook him gently. "Come on, get undressed. I'll help." He unzipped Tony's jeans and pulled them off.
Tony struggled out of his shirt. "Not as much fun as I was hoping for. I'm sorry, sweetie, I'm exhausted. You must be worse. You got half a night's sleep."
"I'm okay." Anna slept through the night now. It was Tony who was still up multiple times most nights with Ben. Tony had to be dealing with some major cumulative sleep-dep. "In fact, let me get Ben if he wakes up tonight. Maybe he'll tell me what was bothering him earlier."
"When he wakes up, not if." Tony dropped his briefs out of the bed and wriggled under the covers. "I'm not going to turn that offer down."
Mac got himself naked, cleared the discarded clothes off the floor, and slid in beside Tony. He wanted to make another offer Tony couldn't turn down, but the slim body against his already felt relaxed and soft with sleep. Mac rolled on his side and pulled Tony into a spoon.
About three a.m. Mac woke to the sound of Ben's rough breathing over the monitor. Tony stirred too. The sound of Ben building up to a major nightmare was becoming familiar. Mac sat up and pushed Tony back into the bed. "I've got it."
Mac grabbed his robe off the door and made for Ben's room. By the glow of the nightlight, he saw Ben tossing and turning on his pillow, sweaty dark hair plastered to his forehead. The boy muttered, "No. Noooo."
Mac sat on the bed and shook him lightly. "Ben, wake up. You're dreaming."
The boy froze, blinking. "Tony?"
"It's Mac. You were having a nightmare."
"Yeah." Ben sat up in the corner of his bed, scrubbing at his cheeks with his hands. He pulled his feet in tightly, making himself small, and didn't look at Mac. Mac had to forcibly resist the urge to sweep the child up into his arms and hold him. It would be the right thing for Anna, but you couldn't push Ben.
"Do you want to tell me about it?" he asked as gently as he could.
"Not that...but, can I talk to you?"
"There was this thing at school. At lunchtime." Mac waited through a long pause. It was probably paranoia to jump to the conclusion his son was getting teased for the two-dads thing, but he couldn't help his queasy anticipation. Finally Ben continued, "In the hallway, the kids who go home for lunch were coming back. And the hall teacher had to take Manda to the bathroom ‘cause she puked her sandwich all over." He looked up at Mac with a glint in his eyes. "It was really gross, ‘cause she also ate all these pink marshmallows and stuff. But then...there was this little kid in my class, Trevor. He was taking off his jacket, and these three older boys kept bugging him. They would, like, grab his collar while he had his arms in the sleeves and swing him around and thump him into the locker, and they were laughing."
Mac's first reaction was relief; random bullying and not a gay thing. Still, Ben had lived in a tougher neighborhood than Monroe Elementary. Mac kept silent and let him find the words. Eventually Ben said, "They were hurting him. Not real bad but... Mac, I didn't do anything. I just stood there."
"Were they a lot bigger than you?"
"And three of them?"
"So, sometimes it's smart to know when you're outnumbered. Did you go get the teacher?"
Even in the yellow glow of the baseball nightlight, Mac could see a painful flush rise on the boy's cheeks. "No."
"They weren't hurting him real bad, and...no one else did anything, and I didn't want to be a snitch."
"Ah. That's a tough one." Mac briefly wondered what a real dad would tell his son. Thinking back to his own childhood was no help. Being told to "man up and fight your own fucking battles" was the best he'd ever gotten from his dad. In fact, the last thing he wanted was to be a father like his own had been. "You don't want to tattle on someone for little things, like..." His mind raced trying to come up with a small harmless sin. "Like if someone was riding their bike on the grass or eating cookies in class. But if someone's getting hurt, that's different. You need to tell an adult. That's not snitching."
Ben nodded doubtfully. "You told Tony when some guy was helping you with one of your cases where a man got killed, he was a snitch."
Damn. Mac loved talking over tough points in his cases with Tony. The guy had all kinds of esoteric knowledge and unexpected insights, and he always made Mac feel less stupid when things were moving slowly. And he could trust that Tony would never, ever talk about police cases except between the two of them. But the apartment was small, and apparently Ben had been listening more than they realized. "Ben, that's just a phrase, and maybe one I shouldn't have used. Anyway, it was probably someone who wanted me to pay him money for information and that's not right. If someone is getting hurt, you run and tell an adult right away, because it's the right thing to do."
"Okay." Ben thought it over. His face looked calmer, and Mac thought he'd made it through that parental minefield when Ben asked, "So, what counts as really getting hurt?"
"Um. Well, use your judgment. If it was you getting hurt... if you would want an adult to step in and help you then you should go get help for them."
It wasn't much of an answer but Ben gave Mac a sleepy smile. "Okay." He finally scooted over out of his corner, unfolding gangling legs that were a little thin in the wake of a recent growth spurt. Ben leaned his head against Mac's shoulder, and Mac cautiously put an arm around the boy. This time Ben relaxed and even snuggled in a bit. Mac rocked them gently together, feeling Ben's tight shoulders softening in his hold. Gradually, he eased the boy down and pulled up his covers.
Mac made his way back to the bedroom, hung his robe, and climbed in next to Tony. He expected Tony to be asleep but when Mac turned to brush a kiss on Tony's cheek, he was met with an open mouth and hot, driving kiss.
"Wow," Mac said eventually. "You woke up."
"Listening to you talk to Ben over the monitor. You're a great dad."
Mac realized he'd forgotten to switch the thing off, something that was automatic when he tended to Anna's rare awakenings. "I'm sorry we kept you up."
"No." Tony kissed him again, stroking his lips with an eager tongue. "I love you, you know that."
"Back at you." Mac lay back as Tony moved over him, gliding kisses down his neck. Oh, yeah. For this he could stay awake.
Tony slid down Mac's body, using tongue and mouth and just a little teeth. Mac grunted and twisted Tony's black hair in his fingers. Tony laughed, and blew in his belly button, and then swiped a full wet lick across his cock where it rose hard and eager. "In the mood now?"
"For you? Always."