Disclaimer: Ben is Ekat's creation (borrowed with grateful thanks). Taylor, Eric and Wes are BVE's creations (borrowed without permission but no money made so no harm, no foul). The only things that belong to me are my mistakes.

Timing: This slots into the ID'verse between Soaring Eagle and Mother's Boy (ie February 2003), though it's a completely stand-alone story.

With very grateful thanks to Cmar for the suggestion that brought this about and very grateful thanks to Gamine for being a wonderful sounding board

Please offer feedback -- it tells me how I've done.

~*~

Love Is...

"Taylor -- it's Valentine's Day I... No. She knows it's Valentine's Day. Um...Taylor -- are you doing anything... No -- too lame..."

Eric, who had just entered the SGHQ locker room, intending to get changed before going to Alice's school play, blinked at the muttering. It was coming from the general direction of the showers, which struck Eric as being one of the worst places to 'practice', given anyone could walk in on you and especially given the mutterer had his own office upstairs. For a moment, Eric debated what to do. He didn't want to embarrass the speaker -- but the longer this went on, and the bad pick-up lines continued to come even as he debated the matter, the less he was going to avoid that.

Eric shrugged to himself. The speaker was going to be embarrassed whatever, best to just get it over with. He walked through to the showers. "What's biting you, Ben?"

The speaker, Ben Johnson, about leapt a foot in the air, then blushed -- a reaction so unusual in the large black man that Eric wondered for a second if maybe he shouldn't just hustle Ben straight to the newly established medi-centre for a check up.

"Geez!" Ben finally managed. "Scare a guy to death, why don't you!"

Eric folded his arms and leaned against the wall, frowning -- mostly to cover the fact that he was now desperate to laugh. This was not the unflappable Ben Johnson he'd known two years. "Ben, I all but stomped in here and the locker room door did slam behind me when I came in here -- it's not my fault if you're so far away in la-la land you didn't hear me." Ben's blush deepened. So did Eric's desire to laugh. "So what's biting you?"

"It's Valentine's Day."

When that looked as if that was all Ben was going to say, Eric rolled his eyes. "Ben, I know what the date is."

"Well..." And Ben looked down at his toes, acting as self-conscious as Eric had ever seen him. The laughter, which had begun to subside, returned full force. Eric bit the inside of his cheek and hoped Ben wouldn't notice. "I'm sorta...sorta in a...kinda..."

"You're dating Taylor," said Eric, hoping to take Ben out of some of his difficulties.

It didn't. "Kinda. I mean...I...we...she..."

"Ben, I don't want the gory details," Eric put in hastily. Unfortunately, that just made Ben blush even harder. If he didn't get out of this soon, he really was going to laugh. "What is the problem?"

"Well...people do...stuff. On Valentine's Day."

With a sudden bolt of insight, Eric knew where this conversation was liable to head. The desire to laugh paired itself with a wish that he'd just turned around and walked out again. "Ben, people do 'stuff' on most days."

Ben heaved a massive sigh. The next words came out in a rush: "Couples are supposed to do special stuff on Valentine's Day."

"Ye-es?"

"So...I kinda...kinda...want to...um..."

"Ask Taylor out?" Eric suggested, beginning to wonder which ring of hell involved him giving dating advice to someone who normally had three or four times the self-confidence with people that Eric had.

"Yeah."

Eric groaned, quietly. "Still not seeing a problem."

"I don't know what to say to her."

Eric opened his mouth to say something, then closed it again. Yep, definitely one of Dante's rings had to be devoted to this kind of stuff. And the worst of it was Ben's whole body language was still doing its best to make him laugh hysterically. Not a good combination.

"I...I mean -- it's not like we're...she's...we're..." Ben sighed. "We're not exactly dating."

"Straying dangerously near too much information," Eric warned.

"Sorry."

"De nada."

"Boss, what would you do?"

The five words Eric had hoped wouldn't make an appearance in this conversation. "Ben, I'm really not the best person to ask advice from about this," he pointed out.

"You're here," said Ben as if that justified everything. Eric groaned again. He really should just have turned around and walked straight out again. "And you and Kim have a great relationship..."

"Which I nearly screwed up before it got started. Twice."

"...and you've seen a bit of the world..."

"Mostly down the barrel of an M-16."

"...and I've known you longer than I've known anyone else here..."

"Which still doesn't qualify me to help you with pick-up lines."

"...and I wouldn't feel right asking Wes..."

"Who would be able to give you far better advice -- for one thing I know for a fact he's never gotten a black eye from trying to ask a girl out."

"...and..." Ben stopped. "A black eye?"

As embarrassing as that particular episode in Eric's life had been, at least it stopped Ben from finding reasons why Eric should give him advice -- and at this point, Eric was more than happy about that! "It was in a bar in San Diego. She took serious exception to my line."

"What did you say?"

Eric shrugged a little sheepishly. "Asked her if she was looking for business."

"Ouch."

"Turned out she was waiting for her husband -- who was a six-foot-six gorilla and who took an even bigger exception to it."

Ben winced. "Ouch."

"That was nothing to what my CO had to say about it." Cawdron had been a hideous mix of amused and pissed off. The anger had stemmed from having one of his subordinates fighting in a civilian bar. The amusement came from the reason why. "Anyway..."

"But this is different," said Ben before Eric could finish his sentence. "You know Taylor..."

"Not socially," Eric pointed out. "She still hasn't forgiven me for knowing about Germany."

"But..."

Eric groaned. "OK. You want advice: Go talk to Wes." Ben opened his mouth. "I mean it. Someone with my track record is only qualified to tell you to speak to someone else."

"If it's that bad, how come you're married?" Ben countered.

"There are days," said Eric dryly, "when I wonder that -- and wonder why Kim puts up with me."

"Now you're bullshitting me," Ben muttered. "Guy like you..."

"With an ego the size of Texas, who's cranky, sarcastic, occasionally mean, capable of being a complete sadist and who's temper has a permanently short fuse...yeah, I'm a real poster boy for desirable life partner."

"You really do have issues."

"Those are added extras," Eric retorted, shaking his head. "Ben, really, Wes is way more qualified to give you advice about your love life."

And just as Ben opened his mouth to protest, the locker room door banged again. "Eric?"

Saved by the bell. Or holler, as the case might be. "'Sup, Wes?"

Wes appeared in the entry to the showers. There was a brief pause as he took in Ben's presence -- and, presumably, the fact that Ben was still blushing hard -- and did a double take. "OK, I knew you were close friends, but maybe you ought to take this somewhere private. "

Ben looked as if he was in danger of having an aneurysm.

Eric rolled his eyes in Wes' direction. "If there was a 'this' to be taken somewhere private, I think there'd be a few more clothes missing." Ben choked. "You wanted me for something?"

Wes' turn to choke. "This time last year you were telling me you were glad that Valentine's card wasn't from me; now you're propositioning me?"

"You're not that lucky, Collins," Eric growled, again covering the fact that he was dying to laugh. "You had a message for me?"

Wes grinned. "Kim's looking for you."

Eric glanced at his watch, then did a double take. "Shit!"

Ben blinked. "You're wife's looking for you and you say 'shit'?"

Wes chuckled. "When she's pissed at him, yes."

"When she's looking for you to skin you alive, for running late and pissing her daughter off, yes," Eric corrected, starting for the door. "If Kim hasn't strangled me I'll see you tomorrow."

As he left the locker room, he heard Ben say, "And somewhere, probably in a parallel universe where time runs backwards, that all made sense," then the door slammed shut as Eric hurried towards the reception area of SGHQ. It would have to be the night Alice's school play started that he got detained like this.

Maybe, if he grovelled really hard...

~*~

As the door slammed, Wes turned to Ben. "So what were you guys up to?"

"We weren't up to anything!" Ben protested, blush returning full force.

"And to think I used to believe Eric was the easiest guy in the world to tease," Wes commented. Ben blushed even harder -- if that was possible -- and looked sheepish. "What's up?"

Ben sighed. "I was looking for some advice. Today's Valentine's Day..."

"...and you were asking advice from the only guy I know to ever get a black eye for one of his pick-up lines?" Wes finished. "Either Taylor's a lot kinkier than I figured, or you're incredibly brave."

"That black eye story's true?!" Ben exclaimed.

"As I've heard it from four different sources," said Wes, "I'd guess so."

"I thought it was just the boss trying to fob me off."

"Check with Fos -- I think he was actually in the bar when it happened."

"Well...was he drunk?"

"Nope -- stone cold sober, from all accounts." Wes grinned. "I say again, you're a braver man than I for asking him advice." Ben now had the air of a man who considered he'd just had a narrow escape. "So, what were you looking for advice about?" Wes continued.

"Want to ask Taylor out," Ben admitted.

"I thought you and she were dating," said Wes, slightly puzzled.

"Not exactly."

"I see." Wes didn't entirely. "So where's the problem?"

Ben sighed. "I don't know what to say."

Wes chewed his lip thoughtfully for a second. "Well, the best advice anyone ever gave me was to just be myself. Doing it any other way is just not going to work."

Ben groaned. "But..."

Wes shook his head. "You know Taylor best. And she probably knows you pretty well by this point. You don't think she's gonna spot it if I give you a line?" Ben's face fell. "Just go with what feels right."

Ben sighed. "That has to be the least helpful piece of advice anyone's ever given me."

Wes turned for the door to head out. "Sorry, Ben -- it's one of those things ya gotta work out on your own."

~*~

Ben heard the locker room door bang. He sighed. Well, no point in putting it off any longer. Might as well... The locker room door banged again.

"Ben?"

Ben froze. What the hell was Taylor doing in here?

Then she appeared in the entry to the showers. "Wes and Eric both said you were looking for me."

Ben blinked. He was going to kill them both. Slowly.

"What's up?"

"I..." He stopped. "I was wondering if you felt like doing something tonight?"

Taylor's mouth quirked upwards in a half smile. "Sure -- what did you have in mind?"

"Maybe a meal and a movie?"

Taylor's smile blossomed into a full grin. "Sounds like fun." She tucked an arm in his. "C'mon. It's Friday, it's the weekend -- and I've got a Valentine's gift for you."

Ben blinked, stunned. "For me?"

"No, for the other Ben Johnson I'm dating," Taylor retorted, poking her tongue out at him. "C'mon -- you promised me dinner and a movie."

"Yes ma'am."

Ben allowed himself to be led out of the locker room, wondering just what it was he'd been nervous about...