With many thanks to Dizzy for the beta!
A Handful II
“Joey? Hey Joey, are you home?” Ben called.
He hung up his coat, put his briefcase on the floor and listened intently. Nothing.
He had become accustomed to either Joey's fast approaching footsteps or his equally fast approaching paw-clicks when he came home. Hearing nothing from Joey was... disconcerting.
Ben shrugged, not wanting to allow his disappointment to take over. Joey wasn't one to sit around and wait for hours for Ben to get home. He was probably with one of his friends or riding his bike. If it was up to Ben, he'd prefer Joey not to be on his bike.
He ventured into the kitchen, expecting a note from Joey pinned to the fridge. That was one of their rules—if either of them wasn't home, they left a note so the other one didn't worry. Ben frowned when he couldn't discover a note. After Ben had imprinted this particular rule on Joey's butt for the second time, Joey never forgot.
Now, Ben wasn't only disappointed, he felt himself becoming increasingly disgruntled. Banging the fridge door open, he decided to prepare dinner and not condemn Joey before he actually knew what was going on.
An hour later, dinner was ready but Joey hadn't shown up. When Ben tried to call him on his cell, he heard it ring in their bedroom. With a sigh he walked into the bedroom, where he found Joey's phone hidden beneath a heap of clothes. Ben also found Joey's wallet and keys, which could only mean one thing—Joey was wandering around as a pup.
Ben closed his eyes, and willed himself not to erupt. He'd never forbid Joey to shift and he knew very well that sometimes Joey had to shift. Joey had once described it as an itch, which drove him crazy if he didn't shift, and Ben believed him. It didn't mean he had to like when Joey meandered around outside—alone.
Actually, they had a rule about that too. Shifting into a pup and going outside without Ben's supervision was forbidden, period. What if someone saw the small pup and took him home or to a shelter or... or did other things to him Ben didn't want to imagine right now.
He cursed loudly and in at least three different languages. He had never felt as protective about anyone as he did with Joey. He had never been so smitten as he was with Joey either. Ben slumped down on the unmade bed and dropped his head into his hands. God, he had it bad!
Ben couldn't sit around doing nothing, but he also didn't want to act like a panicked nutcase, so calling Joey's friends was out of the question. At least for another hour.
Since Ben didn't remember whether Joey's bike was in his usual parking space, he snatched his keys and walked downstairs to take a look. Joey's bike stood where it always stood. Ben pinched the bridge of his nose before he went back inside the apartment building.
As he passed Dora Elkins apartment, he heard a soft yip, then a louder bark. Ben knew this bark by heart—Joey. The tension that had built up in his body since he arrived home left Ben in a rush. He even had to put a hand out in front of him to keep himself steady. After taking a few deliberate deep breaths, he rang the bell.
He listened to the squeaky sounds of Dora's wheelchair, followed by the unmistakable sounds of paws scurrying after her. Ben heard Dora telling Joey, “No, young man. You stay there and be a good boy while I open the door.”
Joey whined and obviously didn't listen because the next second Ben heard Dora's voice clearly, even through the closed door. “No! You rascal, come here! No, Ben will be here to pick you up and I don't want to explain to him why you got loose.”
Joey whined even louder and Ben chuckled. He rapped at the door and said, “Dora! It's me, Ben. Don't worry about the pup; I'll catch him if he tries to run.”
The door opened and a small black missile shot out. Ben reacted instinctively and grabbed Joey. The pup whimpered heartrendingly and squirmed so vehemently it took Ben several tries to get a secure hold on him.
Eventually, Ben stood up with the writhing and whining puppy in his arms, smiling warmly at Dora. “Thank you for taking care of him.”
“It's always a pleasure.”
Dora was in her early seventies and she and Joey had bonded some years ago, when they had previously lived in the same apartment complex. Dora had supported Joey and now Joey did his best to take care of the old woman. Besides Ben, she was the only one who knew about Joey's shape-shifting abilities.
Dora reached out to stroke Joey's belly, and said to Ben, “You two need to talk.”
Joey growled and tried to crawl up Ben's chest. Ben grabbed him by the scruff of his neck to prevent Joey from climbing on his shoulder. Joey loved sitting on Ben's shoulder but Ben was always short of a nervous breakdown when he did that.
“We do?” Ben asked, while he wrestled the squirming puppy back into his arms. He glared at Joey. “Stop it!”
Joey snarled at him.
Ben was completely taken aback by Joey's demeanor and merely stared at the pup. Dora, however, turned the wheelchair around, picked up something from the floor and turned back. Joey squeaked but couldn't do anything to protect his backside from the impact of the rolled up newspaper.
“I told you to stop snarling about two hours ago, young man.”
Ben looked from Dora to the suddenly limp puppy in his arms. Joey yipped lowly, his large dark eyes staring at Dora in complete disbelief. Ben winced when Joey suddenly wailed telepathically, She hiiiiiiiiiiiiit me! With a newspaper! I can't believe she did that! I wanna go hoooooooooooooome! Now!
Ben sighed. Sometimes Joey didn't sound like a twenty-four year old guy—not at all. To Dora he said, “I take it he wasn't such a pleasure to be around?”
“Oh, he was, as long as I didn't try to talk to him about work.” That remark elicited another growl from Joey. He wisely stopped it when Dora lifted the newspaper. She went on, “He also didn't shift back even though I asked him to do so several times.”
Ben glanced at Joey in his arms. Joey stayed silent, peered up at Ben with those large eyes, then wiggled and shoved his head under Ben's sweater.
“Oh dear,” Ben groaned.
“Be brave,” Dora said and gave Ben's arm an encouraging pat.
Ben stifled another groan before he waved goodbye. As soon as they were back in their own apartment he tried to put Joey on the floor. The puppy whined and wailed while he snatched at Ben's sweater with his sharp little teeth.
“Hey!” Ben protested. “That's one of my favorite sweaters.”
Joey wriggled under the sweater completely, sniffling lightly. Ben slid down to the floor, cradled Joey's behind in one hand and used the other one to scratch Joey's belly. When the sniffling stopped and the tremors subsided, Ben said, “Sweetheart, I want you to come out, so we can talk properly.”
Joey barked and moved around until his full length was plastered to Ben's chest. Ben peered down the neckline of his sweater so he could look at Joey.
“I made lasagna,” Ben tempted. Joey sniffed the air and Ben could see him wavering. “I promise we won't talk about whatever happened during dinner, how about that?”
Joey slid out from under the sweater, stepped away from Ben and shifted. Ben saw the red stripe from the rolled up newspaper, wondering briefly how hard Dora had smacked Joey. He reached out, brushed his fingers over the stripe and turned Joey around by grasping his hips.
Dark eyes brimming with tears locked on Ben's face.
“Awww, sweetheart, come here,” Ben said softly. He curled a hand around Joey's neck and drew him close.
Joey straddled Ben's legs, and allowed Ben to hug him tightly. Joey clung to Ben, his breath coming in hitched gasps. Ben waited for the tears to fall but Joey held them back.
Eventually Joey whispered, “I didn't leave you a note.”
“I shifted into a pup and went out of the apartment.”
“Yes, I noticed.”
“I didn't pick up my clothes nor did I make dinner like I was supposed to.”
“You know Billy Lorsen, the guy I work with? I broke his nose.”
“What?” Ben peeled Joey off his shoulders and grasped his chin, forcing Joey to look at him. “Come again?”
Joey looked at him, red spots of shame covering his cheeks. “I broke Billy Lorsen's nose.”
“He riled me up all day.”
“Not good enough. Try again.”
Joey's eyes dropped to the floor and goose bumps arose on his skin. Acidly he said, “I'd ask to get dressed first but I won't need clothes for long anyway, huh?”
Ben tipped Joey's face up again. “That's my decision, isn't it?”
“I broke Billy's nose,” Joey repeated again.
“You keep telling me that. Why did you break it?”
“He... he keeps saying I have a Daddy complex because of our age difference and that's just not true! I just wanted him to shut up and then... then he asked why I didn't fight him properly. He accused me of being a coward and... and he asked if I was afraid of you... whether you'd put me over your knee like a naughty boy if I didn't behave and... and I sorta lost it,” Joey blurted.
Ben allowed him to smile—inwardly, before he replied, “Billy actually likes you, you know? I think this was his way of asking if you are in a similar relationship to him.”
Joey gaped. “W-What?”
“Do you remember Nathan Brink? He's one of the linguists I work with regularly. He was here when we celebrated your birthday a few months ago. He hit it off with Billy.”
Joey's eyes widened. “He did? Wait—Billy's Nathan is your Nathan?”
“Yes, and Nathan is fifteen years older than Billy, which is exactly the same age difference we have. I think Billy was angling for information. Not in a good way, mind you. Want to call Billy and apologize?”
Ben's hand connected with Joey's butt, causing the younger man to yelp. “I want to call him, yes, there's nothing I'd like more.”
The corners of Ben's mouth twitched. After he cleared his throat, he kissed Joey soundly. “Throw on some clothes.”
Quickly, Joey got to his feet and hurried to the bedroom. When he emerged, he wore a pair of thick jeans and a sweater. Ben was already on the phone with Nathan, then asked Nathan to put Billy on and handed the phone to Joey. The younger man took the phone reluctantly while directing a pleading gaze to Ben.
The older man said, “I'll heat up the lasagna.”
A few minutes later, Joey entered the kitchen. Ben held out one arm in invitation and Joey wrapped himself tightly around his lover. Ben dug his nose into Joey's thick dark hair and asked, “Everything cleared now?”
“Yeah. I didn't even break his nose. He just bled badly. Billy... he said Nathan and you decided we all will have dinner together on Saturday.”
“Yes, we did.”
“Are you mad at me?”
Joey snuggled closer to Ben before he pressed a tentative kiss on Ben's throat. “Are you going to spank me after dinner?”
“Do you need a spanking?”
“No!” Joey blurted vehemently.
Ben kissed Joey's forehead before he pushed him away so he could pull the lasagna dish out of the oven. Joey observed Ben for a while. “You're not going to spank me? Although I broke some of our rules?”
“Joey, I was worried about you and yes, you broke some of our rules but I think Dora's swat dealt with the issue.”
“That hurt really bad,” Joey mumbled.
“You must have ticked her off really bad. Here, take that over to her,” Ben said and pushed a plate filled with delicious smelling lasagna into Joey's hands.
“Now?” Joey sputtered. “What... what if she's still mad at me?”
“Then you'll probably get even better acquainted with the newspaper than before.”
“Haha, that's so not funny.”
“If Dora resorted to swatting you, you must have been unbearable.”
“I thought you'd be mad, and that I might have lost my job and she wanted me to talk!”
“How dare she!” Ben said with a grin.
“Okay, okay, I'll go and apologize.”
Joey stalked to the front door of their apartment with Ben on his heels. Before Joey walked out, Ben drew him close for a hug. “You want to cuddle after dinner?”
“Can I shift?”
Ben sighed overly dramatic. “I take it you want to sleep curled up on my stomach, drooling all over me?”
Joey stuck out his tongue, then turned and trudged off to Dora's apartment. “Be right back!”
Ben leaned against the door frame, smiling as he watched Joey rocking back and forth nervously until the door opened. There was a short, awkward silence before Dora smiled up fondly at Joey and waved him inside. Joey glanced back at Ben with a shrug that said, maybe you should put the lasagna back into the oven?
Ben grinned, then shouted, “Dora! I need my boy back in five minutes, unharmed if you are so inclined.”
Ben heard Dora laughing as he walked back to the kitchen and set the table. He knew Joey would be back soon, and after dinner, they would cuddle and enjoy being with each other. Ben looked forward to cuddle with Joey, no matter which form he took.