Ghosts Of Lovers Past

Story I in the "Alchemy" Series

by Caroline Alert

Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end.

-- SemiSonic

End of another day. Not a second too soon for me. After the 'blue flu' epidemic and that damn bounty hunter chick and her psycho kids, I'm ready to shake the dust of the 27th District off my boots for awhile. Besides, I'm hungry. Got visions of pizza dancing in my head. I put my files away and head for the door, thinking about dinner.

On my way out, I see Fraser standing in the hallway. The two thoughts come together in my head: dinner and the Mountie. Yeah. I'll take him with me. Eatin's a lot more fun with him. Hell, everything is. Dunno why. Just know it's true. He drives me crazy sometimes, but there's no denying, my life's been a helluva lot more interesting since I partnered up with him. Lot better in most ways, come to think of it. He's a good friend. Could do without him lickin' everything in sight, though.

"Come on, Fraser," I tell him as I go by. "Let's go get somethin' to eat."

But Fraser doesn't say anything. Fraser the perfect, Fraser the polite, who wouldn't be caught dead being less than a perfect gentleman, doesn't even answer me. Don't have to be a detective to know something's wrong. So I stop a few feet away from him, take a closer look. He's got a weird expression on his face. Is he embarrassed about somethin'? Then I remember that I took all his money working the bounty hunter chick's case. He probably doesn't wanna admit that he's broke.

"Listen, I know you're a little short o' cash right now, but I'm flush, so I'll buy." Glad to do it. Fraser's helped me a lot, and he never asks for anything back. Beer and pizza's a small price to pay for a friend like that.

But he still doesn't say anything. Just stands there in the middle of the hall staring off blindly into space. Like he's been hit by a truck or something. Or like he's watching the best thing he ever had walk away...

Then it hits me. It twigs in my head: The Torrance case is closed. So the bounty hunter chick must be gone. She must've just left. And Fraser had a thing for her, I could see that. Hell, a blind man could see that. That's why he's upset.

I stare at him, a little embarrassed that I've been so slow on the uptake. That I didn't get it at first. It crosses my mind that maybe I didn't want to get it, didn't want to admit that he felt that way about her. But I push that thought away because it feels weird. Almost like I'm jealous or something.

I'm not! I just didn't like her.

I have my reasons. Lots of 'em. I mean, I told her about the 'blue flu' and all, but she just didn't get it. Kept wantin' me to cross the line and help her. Like she was Mother Theresa or somethin'! Not to mention the bitchy way she thanked me for my 'professional courtesy', right in front of Fraser. Then there was that cute little bit where she shone that flashlight in my face... She was a real beaut. I wanted to pop her. No wonder her husband left her! I couldn't stand her either -- and the feeling was mutual.

But Fraser liked her. He liked her a lot. I could tell. And now she's gone. Guess life sucks sometimes, even for perfect Mounties. I stare at him, not knowing what to say to make things better.

Finally, he realizes I'm there. He blinks. Swallows hard. Presses his hand to his eye real fast, trying to make the gesture look casual, instead of what I think it is. Then he turns and comes towards me. He doesn't say a word, just walks past me down the hall. But he doesn't have to. He's keeping his face blank, but I can see my guess was right about that little move. He was wiping his eyes because he's been crying.

Not sobbing or anything -- he's a Mountie after all. Fraser's not the type to ever lose it like that. Not in public, anyway. But his eyes are wet, so I know if he was somewhere where no one could see him, he might. I fall into step beside him, stunned. Never seen him cry before. Never thought I would. Fraser's the strong one, he's always cool, calm and in control. Like Superman or somethin'. Seein' him cry is weird, like feeling the earth suddenly shifting under my feet. Somethin' that just shouldn't happen.

But I know why it did.

Goddamn bounty hunter! I hate her. Good thing she didn't stick around. If she had, I probly woulda popped her. Cuz the Mountie wouldn't hurt a fly -- and I hate people who mess with him.

But it occurs to me while we walk that I couldn't stand Torrance from the get go. Way before she left Fraser, or hurt him. Almost from the second we first met. Wonder why... I think what really got me was the way she made Fraser look at me. When I wouldn't I.D. that plate for her, he glared at me like I was pond scum. The lowest of the low. Only time he ever looked at me like that before was when I hit him. But gettin' that look cuz o' some woman he liked -- that really sucked.

So maybe it wasn't her I couldn't stand. Maybe it was the way she started to come between us. Maybe I was jealous--

Nawww, that's nuts! I tell myself. I roll my shoulders, because just thinking about that bounty hunter's tying me into knots. So stop it! This is about Fraser anyway, not about you.Still, I feel a big rush of secret relief that Torrance is gone. Makes me feel a bit guilty, because I know Frase is really hurting.

"It'll be okay," I tell him, trying to make up for it. Knowing I probably can't.

Fraser doesn't say anything, but he tries to smile. The fact that he can't manage much of one makes my heart sink. He isn't gonna shake this one off real easy. I can see that already. So I decide to take a risk. The Mountie isn't a huggy type guy, he's way too reserved. But right now I don't give a damn about that. He's hurting bad, and I just want to take it away. So as we walk, I put my hand on his shoulder. Squeeze it, because the words just weren't enough.

His head comes up, and he lets down his guard for once. Gives me this look... It's got tears shining in it, and it's dark, so dark and lonely it hits me in the gut. Rocks me. Because I know it isn't just about the bounty hunter. This is Fraser, who he really is behind the perfect Mountie mask he always wears: he's lonely. And he's been that way for a long time, because that look is miles deep. There's years of pain in it. Pain I know he's never told anybody about. Janet Torrance is just the last, and probably not the worst of it.

But now I really do hate her, for bein' a part of it.

Thing is, I hate all those other people too. Everyone involved in that look. The ones he's not talkin' about, the ones he never talks about. The ones I suddenly feel a bit ashamed for never askin' him about. It's just that he never pays much attention to women, and he always looks so perfect, so -- untouched, that I never thought about his past. I mean, I looked at his file and Vecchio's, so I know a bit about that crazy Metcalf chick. But other than her, I never even thought he had much of a history.

Until tonight. Until that look. Dunno why he finally let me see inside him, why he picked tonight to finally trust me that much -- but I know I can't forget what I saw. Gotta toss out my dumbass assumption that Fraser's never been around much. Good lookin' guy like him, he's gotta have a past! Maybe more of one than I do. And tonight, it's got him by the throat. I know what that's like. Spent enough nights alone in my apartment dancing with memories of Stella to know exactly what it's like. But who the hell did this to him? Whose ghosts is he waltzin' with tonight?

"You wanna talk about it, Frase?" I ask. But I already know the answer.

"No, Ray," he says.

Big surprise. He always does this, shuts up tight as a Canadian clam when he's upset. Still, I keep my hand on his shoulder as we walk. Don't let him go like I usually would. Because I don't want him to feel any more alone than he already does. "Come on then," I tell him. "I'll take you out. We'll get a pizza, some beers, play some pool. Have a few laughs."

And I'll try to make you forget about Torrance. And whoever else is behind that look. For awhile, anyway.

He blinks a little, trying to hold back the tears that still shine in his eyes. "Thanks," is all he says.

But he lets me hold onto his shoulder all the way to the car.

Fraser is keenly aware, even in his utter misery, of Ray's presence. Of the unusual concern in his partner's blue eyes, the protectiveness in the lean body that hovers close to him as they walk, and the unspoken message in the slender hand that lingers on his shoulder. Despite its apparent delicacy, Fraser knows it's a lethal hand. A hand that's calloused from years of holding a gun, a hand that balls all too easily into a fist when Ray's temper is aroused -- yet now, just now, that hand sits gentle on his shoulder.

Ray has sensed his distress, is trying to make him feel better. But somehow, his kindness makes him feel worse. He can't bear kindness now, he wants -- he doesn't even know what he wants. To be free of pain, perhaps, if only for a moment. Yes. For an insane moment, he wishes Ray would hit him. Hard, as he did that day by the lake. No, even harder -- hard enough to knock him out. He'd give anything to be dead to the world right now. Dead to all the pain inside him. Pain that's so much worse tonight, in the wake of his latest misguided attempt at romance.

You can trust me. He'd said that to Janet, and he'd meant it. Sensing something of himself in her, he'd put aside his usual caution where women were concerned, and tried to reach out to her. It hadn't been easy -- for him, it never was. But it had seemed important to try, because what he really wanted was so impossible; and he was growing tired of impossible dreams. Weary of his own loneliness. So he'd reached for Janet, who was properly female and seemingly available. Just the sort of person he was supposed to want. He'd taken care of her children, helped her with her case, told her of his cabin up north... He'd even kissed her, and told her she could trust him.

But now the words echo in his head. Hollow, mocking him. You can trust me...

What did that matter? It wasn't enough. Nothing he did was ever enough. She still went away.

That's the problem, he thought, with a bitterness unusual for him. People can trust me, but I can't trust them. Can't trust them not to leave me. Not to go away if I show them that I care.

Everyone has left him, all his life. Even Ray Vecchio in the end. Kowalski is the only one who ever stayed. The only one who had a chance to leave him, and didn't. Fraser wonders what that means, or if it means anything. To Ray, anyway. He knows all too well what it means to him. He wonders how his life became so twisted that even Ray's continued presence in it, his friendship, is now cause for pain.

He even wonders if that friendship had something to do with Janet's departure. Despite his declaration that she could trust him, did she sense that his heart was elsewhere?

"Hit me, Ray," he mumbles, so miserable he doesn't even realize he's voiced his thoughts aloud.

I let go of the Mountie when we get to my GTO, and head for the driver's side. But just as I turn away, start around the front of the car, I think I hear him say something crazy. I stop, and look at him sideways. "What? Did you just ask me to hit you, Frase?"

I stare at him in disbelief. He closes his eyes for a second. I'm not sure if he's exasperated, or about to pass out. "I may have, Ray," he says at last. "I'm not sure."

I blink. I don't even know how to take that. If he wasn't so straight, I'd think he was on something. "That is too weird. Why would I pop you? You haven't even done anything! Lately, anyway."

Fraser opens his eyes, but he doesn't even crack a smile at my little joke. "Yes I have," he says in a low voice.

I get the weird feeling he's talking about the Torrance chick. But what could he possibly have done with her that'd make him guilty enough to ask me to pop him?

Did he fuck her? The idea hits me like a hammer. Oh no! No way. He wouldn't. Not Frase! Not in a million years. It'd take him that long to work up to it, for one thing, and she only stayed at the Consulate for one night! Besides, she had her kids with her. No way!

Still -- he cried when she left. That's gotta mean somethin'.

I shoot a suspicious glance at him, but he's staring at the ground, and I can't tell what he's thinking.

I feel weird. A bit angry. Dunno why. Why should I care if he had her? Why should I care if he hauled her upstairs to the fucking Royal Suite, or whatever the hell he calls it, and nailed her on the Queen's sacred bed, for Crissakes? It's not like I wanted her! And Hell, he's so uptight he could use a good fuck--

All of a sudden, I get this image in my head. Fraser naked. Well, half naked anyway. Jacket off, bare chested, and he's holding Torrance. Kissing her. Eyes closed, hands in her hair...

Shit! My stomach twists, and I go past almost angry to a full burn in a second.

Wait a second! Whoa! Down, boy! I stare down at my boots, freaked out by the pictures in my head. Have to shake myself to make them go away. Try to get a grip, 'cuz I just imagined myself into what felt like a fit of jealousy. Jeez! What the hell's up with that? Haven't felt that way since the day I saw Stella kissing Mr. Dirty Politician. Am I jealous of Frase? How can I be, when I didn't even like Janet Torrance? When I don't even know if he did anything with her, either? Knowin' Frayzh, he probly never touched her. That kiss was probly just somethin' my own dirty mind dreamed up. I must be goin' nuts!

"Tell you what, Frayzh. I'll pop you if you'll pop me." And I'm only half joking. Maybe he's not the only one who could use a good smack upside the head right now.

He doesn't get my little joke. He frowns at me, looking totally bewildered.

S'okay. He doesn't know what crazy stuff goes on in my head. Thank God. So I cut him some slack. He looks so bad already, I don't want to hassle him. "Look, let's just forget about hittin' each other, okay?" I smile. "I mean, if we do that again, we'll have to file assault charges this time. And who needs the paperwork?"

Fraser just nods, like he's too miserable to insist.

Aww, come on! That was a joke too, ya know? Least you coulda' done was smile, I think. Man oh man, yer in bad shape. "Just get in the car, Frayzh," I sigh. "We'll get some food. You'll feel better."

I sit beside Ray as he drives us to--to-- I suddenly realize that I actually have no idea where we're going. Ray's chattering away beside me, but for once, I'm not really listening. I don't care where he takes me, though I gather it will be to an establishment that serves beer and pizza. Kowalski has a rather touching faith in their combined ability to cure everything but the common cold. I don't think they will help me, but I don't have the heart to tell him.

Actually, I'm not at all sure, as I stare blindly out the window into the darkness, that I even have a heart anymore.

I've hidden it for so long, denied it for so long... I may be Bob Fraser's son, but in the end, I'm a man like other men, with the same needs other men have. The need for more than mere companionship. The need for love. Surely a man's heart will wither and die, like a flower in snow, if deprived of love for too many years. Of any hope of love...

Don't you think so, Ray? I want to ask him. It is, I think, an interesting philosophic question: how long can a man survive without love? But I know Ray has had his problems in this area too. He has an ex-wife whom he loved very much, and lost. I don't want to reopen old wounds for him, don't want to torment him. Surely I'm miserable enough for the both of us tonight.

So I don't ask him. But I can't get the question out of my head. How long can a man live without love? Some people would say a lifetime. Some would probably say love isn't a necessary part of life at all. When I was younger, I might've agreed. I didn't think much about it myself when I was growing up, or even when I first joined the RCMP. Perhaps because I had never experienced much of it. I think I assumed somehow that it would come to me in time, that I would be blessed with the treasure of someone else's heart one day, like other men were...

Instead, there was Victoria.

Victoria, who could never make love without biting or scratching me -- Victoria, whose love was tainted by hate, but whom I was too lonely to resist. Victoria, who brought me shame, pain, suffering and almost death. A death that, by the time it hovered close, I actually longed for. A death I would've gladly embraced, except for Ray Vecchio. In the end, he was all that held me back from the brink. When I regained consciousness after being shot, and learned that Victoria had not returned for me, I wanted to take enough of the painkillers they'd given me to end my miserable life. I longed to die. But one look into the guilty green eyes of the man who sat by my bed every day, and I knew I couldn't do that. Shooting me accidentally had wounded Ray so deeply that I couldn't let myself die, for he would've blamed himself for that too...

Ray loved me. As a friend, maybe even as a brother. More in his own way, I think, than Victoria ever did. Perhaps more than anyone has in my life so far, except my own parents. And so I came back from the dead for him. Crawled up out of the hole Victoria had carved into my heart and tried to live again. To leave the shame and pain of my only experience of a woman's love behind me, and carry on as if it had never happened.

But it did. And it changed me. Even now, as I stare out the window of Ray Kowalski's car almost two years later, I still bear the scars of what she did to me. The scar of Ray Vecchio's bullet, meant for her, on my back; the scar of the awful fear she left me with on my soul. Fear that had little to do with that bullet, and everything to do with love.

Though I seldom spoke of her after she fled, even to Vecchio, my ill-fated attempt at loving her sent ripples spreading slowly through my life that are still in motion today. Now, every time I meet a woman for whom I feel something, distrust rears its ugly head. A little voice in the back of my mind whispers, "No. Don't. She could betray you." I've tried to tell myself that other men harbor similar fears when meeting women, that fear of rejection is common -- but I know my fear goes deeper than that. I don't fear being turned away, I fear being accepted. I fear the appearance of love that masks a desire to manipulate. To wound. To devour.

I fear nothing less than the total destruction of my soul if I ever allow myself to love again.


I managed to deny them for a time. To disregard them, while Ray Vecchio was here. His loyalty, his compassion helped me through the darkest time of my life. Made me understand the true meaning of friendship, of partnership. If I cannot have love, I told myself, at least I have that. If not a lover, at least I had a brother. If not happy, I was at least content.

But then Ray left me.

I believe that he didn't want to. Though the secrecy vital to his new identity kept him from saying so, I think he was trying very hard to convey that, to tell me goodbye that day on the phone. Because I knew him so well, I could hear undercurrents of unexpected emotion in his voice: affection tinged with regret; a kind of fatalism I had never heard before. And the words he used...our friendship was something he never usually spoke of, but during that short phone call, he used that word again and again. He kept saying we were friends, that it was "good to hear my voice".

It was good to hear his too. But those unusual undercurrents in it made me listen very closely to him; and the sadness in his voice sent a chill down my spine. Despite his reassurance that "everything is all right", I knew that it wasn't, that something was badly wrong. So I wasn't entirely surprised when, as he'd hinted, he didn't meet Dief and I at the train station on my return.

But when I got to the 27th and learned that he'd left without even saying goodbye, I was shocked. My best friend, my brother, had gone away. Left me behind, of his own free will. It devastated me. I learned later that he'd gone undercover on a very important assignment, that he was merely doing his duty. I'm sure he thought that I, of all people, would understand that.

I should've been able to. God knows, I tried. But when I returned to the U.S. after my ill-timed vacation, my apartment was gone, Ray was gone -- everything that had made Chicago a tolerable place for a homesick Canadian was gone. I managed to find another apartment not long after, not far from the location of my old one, but Ray's friendship wasn't so easily replaced.

Ray sent me a post card once shortly after he left, but after that, though he had sworn he would "be in touch", there was nothing. No phone call, no letter -- no communication from him whatsoever, for almost a year. Intellectually, I understood that: it was too dangerous for him to try to contact me, or anyone from his former life, while posing as a Mafia hit man. But emotionally, I was devastated. Nothing since the loss of Victoria had hit me as hard as losing Ray did. I discovered that loneliness and isolation can bite just as deep as a bullet. I felt as if Ray had fallen off of the edge of the world; and it became a very cold and lonely place for me without him.

All that was left was the man who had replaced my brother: Stanley Raymond Kowalski. And he was a total stranger.

I hated him a little for it at first, I think. Hated him or having blonde hair instead of black, for not understanding me the way Ray Vecchio did -- for not being Ray, though he had taken his name. It was that resentment, I think, that initially made it difficult for me to call him Ray. His tendency to call me a "freak" and to cut me off every time I tried to relate an Inuit tale didn't help either. It made me feel very alone, like a fish out of water again, when I had finally just begun to feel somewhat at home in Chicago. And I feel alone enough normally, without my own partner adding to my sense of isolation.

Kowalski and I didn't start out on the right foot, as the Americans say.

So I am at a loss to explain how it happened. How I got from point A, the point of my return to Chicago, Ray Vecchio's departure from it and my resulting loneliness, to point B, where I am sitting beside Ray Kowalski in his GTO on this very dark night, feeling--

I push that feeling away. It is illogical. It is even dangerous. I remind myself of why.

We are very different people, Kowalski and I. Polar opposites, in some respects. He operates on instinct, shows his feelings openly, has a volatile temper and became a policeman almost by accident. I am logical to a fault, find it nearly impossible to express my emotions, am slow to anger and was born, I sometimes think, to wear red serge. We should've driven each other crazy long ago, or transferred away from each other when we had the chance.

But on this subject, logic does me no good. Because we didn't do that. Didn't separate when we could have, when logic and common sense told us that we should. We did the irrational thing, and stayed together. And I know why: because as different as Ray Kowalski and I are, the truth is that there is no one in the world who is closer to me now than he. That was my reason for staying, anyway -- I've never been sure what his reasons were.

I never meant for this to happen, swore to myself after Vecchio left that I wouldn't allow myself to care so much a second time, to get so close to his replacement... But somehow Kowalski, with his glasses, his rough edges and tentative smiles, danced his way past my defenses. My deep dependence on my new partner is a difficult truth to face sometimes, especially when I consider the painful way Ray Vecchio suddenly left me, and the fact that Kowalski might one day do the same. But I have accepted it. Because the fact is, when it came down to it, I simply couldn't let Ray go.

But once I faced that truth, it led to the discovery of another, even more illogical one, that is almost impossible to bear.

That truth is that now, roughly a year after Vecchio's sudden departure, I sit beside Ray Kowalski in despair, having once again pursued a woman to no avail -- when all I really want in this world is him.

The Mountie's awful quiet. I tell him about the place we're goin' to, The Home Run Inn on 31st St. "They've got some of the best pizza in Chitown. Dartboards too. Ya ever play darts, Frase? They've got pool tables too. Or billiards, you'd probly like that--"

But I'm not so sure he hears me. He's starin' out the window like he's a million miles away. "It's near Comiskey Park. Ya ever been there, Frase?" I try again. "To the Home Run, I mean."

"Mmm," he says.

It's not much of a reply, more like a grunt. But I can see that's all I'm gonna get outta him for awhile. I look back at the road, and sigh to myself. I know he doesn't drink, but I gotta get a few beers in this guy tonight, if it kills me. Gotta get him loosened up, make him have some fun. Even if it's only the innocent kind, the kind that doesn't involve violence or women.

'Cuz I think that's what he needs. And after watchin' him brood out the window for twenty minutes while we get there, I just might need some cheerin' up myself.

Ray takes me to a combination bar and restaurant called The Home Run Inn. It serves pizza and beer and has pool and billiard tables and dart games.

I have no appetite for any of it. But that's not Ray's fault. At least, not entirely. And to the extent that it is, he is completely unaware; and must remain so. So for his sake, I try the pizza. "This is very good," I say. But that's perilously close to a lie, for I don't really taste it. My mind is elsewhere. All I see are Victoria's eyes, and Janet's. Eyes that judged me, and found me wanting. What is it that Ray sees in me that they didn't? Why is he here with me, when they're not?

More questions for which I have no answer.

Ray shoves a cold mug into my hand, derailing my train of thought with his usual casual energy. I stare down into it, detect the scent of beer. And while American beer is weaker than Canadian, I don't drink. So I push it away. "No, Ray, I--"

"Come on, Frayzh!" he says. "This is America! I know it's different up in Canada, but down here we drink beer with pizza."

I stare down at it, remembering other meals with another friend. I remember with a sudden twinge that Ray Vecchio used to tell me the same thing. Ray liked beer with pizza too, but I never drank it with him. I hesitate. Not because I don't want the beer, but because I do. Ordinarily, I have no trouble declining spirits, but tonight I am strangely tempted. Tonight, I don't want to be reminded yet once more that I don't fit in here. That I don't belong. Tonight of all nights, I want desperately to belong--

"Look, I promise, I'll won't let you get hammered," Ray grins, coaxing me. "I'll cut you off at eighteen or nineteen brews, tops. And the second you put a lampshade on yer head and start dancin' on the table, I'll drag ya outta here. I swear."

The idea of that is so absurd, and his smile so infectious, that I find myself smiling back at him a little, in spite of myself. "I would've thought you'd want to sell tickets."

His grin widens. "I would, but I'll restrain myself." He holds up a hand. "Swear on my badge."

"Ahh," I say wryly. "The sacred oath."

"You got it."

I curl my hand around the mug of beer, considering it. It feels cold, as cold as Ray's smile is warm. And the idea of having a beer -- just one beer with my new Ray -- feels liberating. Even a trifle wicked. And tonight, wickedness has a strange appeal. I feel my usual self restraint weakening, and a kind of fatalism taking its place. If I am on a slippery slope, so be it. At least Ray is beside me while I slide. At least I will drink this beer with a friend, instead of sitting at home alone in my apartment, aching inside for what might have been.

Any place, even a slippery slope, is preferable to that.

"Well...maybe just this once," I say. I lift the mug of beer.

Ray raises his mug too, and clinks it against mine in a happy little toast. "That's it! Yer gettin' the hang of it! I'll make an American outta you yet, Frayzh."

"Indeed." He's still smiling, but I have to look away, because that sounds like something Ray Vecchio would've said, too. And that realization comes tinged with loneliness and something oddly like guilt. Once, my thoughts of Vecchio were simple. I just missed him, more than I could say. I still do, but now my longing to see him again is mixed with a curious kind of shame. Because I can seldom think of him now without those memories being interrupted by the image of Ray Kowalski's smile. As more and more time goes by with no word from him, Ray's green eyes are being slowly displaced by Kowalski's intense blue ones in my mind, as surely as they have been in reality.

I sip the beer. It tastes bitter.

Ray shoves his second beer away with a contented sigh. He's had six pieces of really good ham and pineapple pizza along with it, and the Mountie is actually working on his second beer too. Well, maybe nursin' it would be a better word, Ray thinks wryly. Still, since he's never seen Fraser down a brew before at all, he's not complaining. The fact that he actually ordered a second means he's done better than he'd expected at loosening him up.

Though all is obviously still not right with Fraser's world, he's not nearly as depressed as he looked when they first came in. His blue eyes have lost their sad preoccupation. He's sitting with Ray at the table now and he's really looking at him, listening to him. Living in the moment, not off in a dark corner of his head thinking dark thoughts anymore. It's a definite improvement; and the night's still young. Encouraged by his success so far, Ray says, "Okay, Frayzh. Face stuffing time is over. Now it's time for a game. You 'n' me, one on one. What'll it be, pool or darts? Take yer pick."

Fraser hesitates for a second. Stares down into his beer as if he's thinking about saying no. But Ray isn't about to let him get away with that. He gets up and jogs his elbow playfully. When Fraser looks up, he shadow boxes a little, dancing lightly on his feet, like the boxer he used to be. "Come on, Frayzh!" he grins, shooting light little mock jabs at his friend's head. "Chicago P.D. versus the RCMP. I'm in the mood to whip some Canadian butt. Yer not scared, are ya?"

For just a second, Fraser freezes. Only his eyes move. They raise to search Ray's intensely, as if that question somehow struck home. But before Kowalski can even blink, the look is gone. Shoved down into wherever it is the Mountie hides his emotions. Even as he's wondering what the hell it meant, Fraser takes one last sip of his beer, sets his jaw, then gets to his feet with his usual grace. His face is wiped clean of everything but a sudden look of determination. "Remember the war of 1812, Ray?" he asks ominously. "The one where we sent you packing?"

"No," Kowalski shrugs. But he's lying. He does remember it. Not because he's much interested in history, but because Fraser's mentioned it before. But he won't give him the satisfaction of admitting that. Dumb little war anyway. He's just fixated on it because it's the only one where Canada ever beat America.

Still, the fact that Fraser brought it up now means that Ray's gotten under his skin like he wanted to, because Ben only talks about that war when he's feeling competitive. Not that he'd ever admit that, o' course. Wouldn't be sportsmanlike. But Ray knows he's got him going, so he smiles, and bobs and weaves a little more. Takes another mock jab at Fraser's head, to whip him up further. Pow, pow!

That does the trick. Fraser catches his right hand in a smooth, easy move that's deceptively swift. Closes his big fingers over Ray's and forces his hand down, accepting his challenge. He lifts an eyebrow. "Start packing, Ray," he says, a warning gleam in his eyes. "We're playing darts. RCMP vs. Chicago P.D. The best out of five wins the match."

Yes! Ray grins broadly. "You got it!"

But some thirty minutes later, Ray is shaking his head in dismay. Wondering what the hell he was thinking, challenging Fraser at darts when he hasn't played much before himself. Fraser's beating the pants off of him. They've only played three games so far, and Fraser's won them all. Turns out the Mountie plays darts the same way he does everything: with frightening efficiency. As the Canadian throws another one right into the exact center of the bullseye, Ray rolls his eyes in frustration. "Jeez! How d'you do that, Fraser?" he blurts. "I mean, how do you hit the bullseye with every dart? Every damn time? That's not human, that's like -- like a robot or something!"

Fraser raises his right hand calmly. "It's all in the wrist, Ray."

Ray blinks, mystified. "Well, I got a wrist, and I thought I knew how to use it, but--"

"Here," Fraser says. He gestures towards Ray's right hand. "May I?"

Ray nods. "Sure."

Fraser takes Ray's wrist lightly in his, bends it up and back, into the correct position to exert maximum centered force in a throw. "You see?" he asks.

Ray looks up at him, trying the position out experimentally. Suddenly, a delighted smile breaks over his face. "Yeah! Yeah, I get it. The heft's different that way -- I got it!"

Fraser pauses. He's suddenly, achingly aware that he's touching Ray, that Ray's hand is warm and that he's smiling into his eyes. That Ray smells good, like pizza, beer and cologne -- And that he doesn't want to let him go.

Oh God.

Ray frowns. All of a sudden, as the Mountie's showing him how to get the right wrist action in his dart throw, Fraser gets a strange look in his eyes. Intense, like he wants something badly -- but sad, too. Like he knows he can't even ask for whatever it is, because he'll never get it. Ray feels the big hand on his wrist tense up. Jesus -- is he thinkin' about Torrance again? Shit! He doesn't want her coming between them again, interrupting them just when he thought he'd got her off Fraser's mind completely -- just when they're having fun. But he tries not to let his irritation show for Fraser's sake. "You okay?"

Fraser swings away from him abruptly. Drops his wrist like it's a hot potato. "Yes. I'm fine," he says. But he doesn't sound fine. And he rubs his right eyebrow, which proves it. Ray's known Ben long enough to have analyzed his body language by now, and that little gesture means he's upset. But he obviously doesn't want to talk about it, so Ray decides not to pry. He turns back to the dartboard with a little shrug. Hefts the dart carefully, the way Fraser showed him, and throws...

"Ha! Bullseye!" he yells, elated. It's one of the few he's gotten so far. "All right! Chicago P.D. scores! That's more like it."

He turns, pleased that Fraser's throwing technique helped, expecting that Fraser will be happy for him too. Instead, he discovers that for some reason, while his back was turned, Fraser was staring at him with that weird look of longing again. He frowns, because he's seen that look in his own eyes some mornings when he wakes up from dreaming of Stella. But why the hell's Fraser eyeballin' me like that?

Fraser turns away before he can ask him what the problem is. "You know, I find I'm rather tired, Ray. Would you mind if we stop now?"

"Aww, come on, Frayzh! You gotta give me a fair chance here. I just learned how to throw," he protests. But inside, he's thinking, No. That's not it. He's not tired, he's upset about somethin'. That's why the look. That's why he wants to go.

But I don't. Ray suddenly realizes that he didn't drag Fraser here tonight just to cheer him up; he brought him because he didn't want to be alone, either. Because he wanted to be with Fraser more than anyone else. And he's rarely felt closer to the big Canadian than he has in the last few hours. He doesn't want that to end.

After the sudden surge of emotion he felt when he touched his partner, and the effort of hiding it, Fraser suddenly feels tired. Worn out. Old before his time. He's had to suppress deep feelings so often in his life that it's long since become automatic -- but not tonight. Just now, when he touched Ray, it seemed to require an inordinate effort. Letting go of him was incredibly hard -- and he didn't do it nearly fast enough. He's afraid that the detective caught him watching him, and that he may have inadvertently let some of those hidden feelings show in his eyes. The very idea makes him uneasy. He doesn't know if the beer he's drunk is affecting him, but he decides it would be wiser not to find out. So when Ray protests his decision to leave, he insists.

"Actually, Ray, since we agreed to play till the best out of five games, and I've already won three, the match has already been decided in favor of the RCMP," he says firmly. "There's no possible way you could win." He regrets the words as soon as they're out of his mouth. They sound cold, and a bit smug. And unduly harsh as well, since he senses Kowalski asked to stay not so much out of a desire to beat him at darts, but because he's enjoying his company.

"Yeah, yeah. Yer right. It's just that I was just gettin' the hang of that throw, ya know?" Ray edges closer to him, smiling tentatively, like a young boy begging his best friend not to go home yet, not until they've hit just one more ball... It's an odd look, equal parts a plea for attention and also a kind of insecurity. As if Ray's not entirely sure that Fraser returns his affection.

I've seen that look before. Fraser feels a twinge of guilt. He wonders how much his natural reserve is responsible for that insecurity, for the fact that Ray still looks that way sometimes, even though they've been friends and partners for almost a year now. He has tried to tell Ray that he considers him a good friend, even his best friend, but sometimes he doubts that Ray believes him. No doubt that is his fault as well. He has never been good at conveying his emotions. And tonight, he doesn't dare even try. Tonight, in the wake of yet another abandonment, the hint of vulnerability in Ray's blue eyes cuts into Fraser like a knife. So deeply that he has to turn away from him to keep from reaching out and --

"I'm sorry, but I really am tired, Ray," he forces himself to say. "Maybe we can play again some other time." He doesn't want to say that, doesn't really want to leave. He would like nothing better than to spend the entire evening with Kowalski, lose himself in his ready grin and forget his pain for awhile longer. But he doesn't dare prolong their intimacy. His emotions are oddly chaotic tonight. He feels like a light plane being bounced about on thermal updrafts, soaring the moment Ray smiles at him, then plummeting the next, when Ray turns away and his memories take hold again. It frightens him more than a little. He dreads losing control as he dreads few things in life; and he's already come perilously close to it once tonight, when Janet left him at the station. It's bad enough that Ray may have already seen tears in his eyes. It would be best to go home and lick his wounds in private, so to speak, before things get any worse. Before he makes a complete fool of himself.

Ray nods, trying to hide his disappointment. Shrugs. "Okay. You win. But next time, huh?"

Fraser tries to smile at him. "Yes. Next time, Ray."

But as they pull on our jackets and walk out to the car, he can't help wondering if there will be a next time. If Ray will ever ask him there again, after the way he just treated him. And he doesn't feel like a winner. He feels like the world's worst loser. Because except for a wolf who sticks by him, and the man at his side, he has nothing in the world that matters.

The real hell of it is, I wouldn't need any more than that to be supremely happy. If only...

As he reaches for the car door, he feels tears start again in his eyes. He curses himself for a fool as they climb inside, and prays that the darkness will keep Ray from seeing them this time. Please, he prays, to a god of whose existence he's never been sure. Please, just let me make it home without cracking.

When we get into the car, I look at Fraser out of the corner of my eye. His eyes are shining like he's crying again. I feel a twinge of concern, mixed with frustration. "Look, umm... I don't wanna pry or anything, but are you gonna be okay, Frase?"

He looks away, out the window. "I'm fine, Ray."

I bite the inside of my cheek at that. Here we go again! Same old story. If I only had a nickel for every time I've heard that one! Fraser could be lyin' in a hospital bed dyin', and he'd still be sayin' that. But it's a lie, and we both know it. I hate that! Why won't he tell me the truth? I talk to him about stuff that bothers me. Why can't he? Would it kill him to admit, just once, that he's human? That he's got problems? It's not like talkin' about stuff like this is easy for me, either. Stella used to say I'd rather die than do it... But for her sake, I tried. Maybe not enough -- maybe that's part of the reason why she left. But I've gotten smarter since. Don't let stuff go unsaid when it's someone I care about anymore.

"You don't look fine," I say stubbornly, trying to pry it out of him.

Fraser doesn't answer. He just stares out his window like he didn't even hear me.

My frustration mounts. Jesus! That strong, silent act pisses me off sometimes. I want to yell at him, ask him, Did you do this with Vecchio too? Did you make him as crazy as you make me? But I don't. Fraser's already upset, and I want to help him, not make things worse. Don't want him to think I'm jealous, either.

But maybe I am. Because while I drum my fingers on the steering wheel, trying to think of something helpful to say to make him open up, all I can think of is his old partner -- the real Ray Vecchio. I wonder if Vecchio would've known what to say -- what he did in situations like this. Or if they even had moments like this. Did Fraser keep deep, dark secrets from him too, or is it just me?

I think about Vecchio a lot. Too much, maybe. But I can't help it, because Fraser talks about him all the time, and it bugs me. I mean, he makes him sound like some kind of cop god or something, with his Armani suits and his memory for noses! It's always "Ray used to say this," and "Ray used to do that." I've never even met the guy, and I already hate him!

It suddenly hits me that I don't like anyone Fraser has feelings for. Vecchio, Torrance, that Metcalf chick... And two of them, I never even met! Why is that? Am I really that insecure? So damn pathetic that I don't want him to have any other friends? I shift a little in my seat, uncomfortable with that thought.

Fraser picks that, of all moments, to speak up. But not to tell me what's bugging him, of course. Oh, no. He doesn't even look at me. He just says, "Can we go home now, Ray?"

My blood pressure goes up another notch. What am I, a chauffeur? I take him out, try to distract him, and what's the thanks I get? He hardly eats anything, whips me at darts, then asks to go home before we're even done with all our games! Plus, he won't tell me what's tearin' him up inside. That's the worst of it. "No! No, we can't just go home, Fraser. We're not goin' anywhere, until you tell me what's eatin' you!"

Fraser sighs. "Nothing, Ray. I'm just tired." But the strain of all that denial is starting to show in his face. A muscle jumps in his cheek where he's set his jaw really hard, trying to hold it all in.

That little twitch makes me feel a little guilty for barking at him. What must it be like, having to be so polite, so damn perfect all the time? Can't imagine. Not sure I want to. "Come on, Frayzh. I'm only tryin' to help," I say, quieter this time. "Can't you tell me what's wrong?"

He looks down at his hands for a long moment. "I would if I could, Ray," he says at last. "But you can't help me with this."

He sounds so sad that it gets me where I live. Right then, I know I'm not just gonna take him home and dump him off, no matter how much he wants me to. I've gotta pry this outta him, or die tryin'.

I don't know what to say. I feel Ray's eyes on me, searching my face in the semi-darkness, and I'm so close to losing control that it's actively painful, like he's shining a searchlight on my innermost heart. And I can't let him do that. There are things in there that would shock him -- things that would cause me to lose him.

"What? What is it, Frayzh? Is it that Torrance chick?"

I stare mutely down at my hands, not answering. Not knowing how. Yes, it's her. And no, it has nothing to do with her--

"Frayzh -- whatever it is, I won't tell anyone else, I promise. You can trust me." Ray is so serious, so earnest, and his voice is so gentle that it's suddenly all I can do not to weep. You can trust me -- those words hit me like a blow. That's what I said to Janet, but she left me anyway. And he would too, if he knew... What can I say to him? What can I possibly say? How can I tell him that I'd trust him with anything, with my life -- but not with this? Because he is my life now, and this would make him go away.

I close my eyes, so miserable that it's hard to hold back my tears. "It's not that simple, Ray--"

He frowns at me. I can see his volatile temper is rising in direct proportion to my resistance. "How bad can it be?" he demands. "I mean, I tell you everything, don't I? Hell, I told you how I almost got Beth Boutrelle killed. And I told you all about how it made me nuts when Stella was datin' Orsini and all... You even know I followed her. You've seen how nuts I get. What could you possibly have done that could be worse than all that? Worse than me?"

I shake my head, my misery increased by the mention of Stella. Ray speaks of her often, probably more often than he realizes. He has no idea how his love for her hurts me, but at this moment, I would give anything if she didn't exist. I hate myself for such petty jealousy, but I feel it nonetheless. And Ray's naivete about my character only makes this worse. I remember Victoria, and the awful things I did while under the spell of my love for her, and think that surely he would despise me if he knew even half of them. "I've made a few mistakes of my own, Ray," I say hoarsely. "Worse than you know."

"That's the point! We all make mistakes," he says quietly. "Everybody. Even Mounties are allowed. If you've done that...made some kinda' mistake, I can tell me. I won't -- you know -- judge ya or anything. I promise." Ray reaches out to me, puts his hand on my arm. Gently, hesitantly, as if afraid his touch will be unwelcome.

If he only knew... I shake my head helplessly again, unable to speak. I'm touched by his kindness, by his faith in me, unjustified though it may be. I feel tears begin to flow despite my best efforts to hold them back. My self control is going, slipping away like water from a broken dam. My thoughts are chaotic.

I shouldn't have had that beer. Should never have arrested Victoria. I shouldn't have beaten Ray so badly at darts. Shouldn't let him touch me. I can't bear his touch now, I can't--

And yet I don't push him away. Instead, I feel myself lean towards him a little, because part of me knows that if I go one more minute without his touch, I'll die--

Ray's brow furrows with concern. "Damn, are you cryin'? Jeez..."

The next thing I know, his hands are on my shoulders, and he's pulling me towards him. I resist the gentle pressure, wanting it yet panicked because I'm terrified of letting him get that close -- "No," I say, trying to protest. But it comes out more like a sob.

"It's okay, Frayzh. It's okay." His voice is gentle, and so are his hands. But he doesn't let go. Won't let me move away. Despite my stiffness, he pulls me into his arms and holds me, his hands warm on my back, my head cradled on his shoulder.

Somewhere in the dim recesses of my brain, an alarm bell sounds. I shouldn't be doing this. It isn't dignified. Worse than that, it's dangerous. I should push him away, compose myself...

But my hands curl to grip his coat instead. I can't find the strength to do push him away. I just can't. Maybe Janet took my courage with her when she left -- the little I managed to salvage after Victoria left me. Or maybe the beer washed it away. I don't know. All I know is that I love Ray Kowalski so much it hurts.

And in his own way, he must care for me, or he wouldn't be doing this.

I cling to that thought like an anchor in the sea of chaotic emotion swirling inside me. Ray cares for me. Tonight, I need to believe that. Need to know that someone else in the wide world cares that I exist. Need to feel that at least one pair of eyes looks on me with favor rather than scorn. I feel my hands slipping around Ray's back. Sliding over the supple coolness of his leather jacket. Embracing him, as tears sting my eyes.

But even as I do, I know the moment will be fleeting. I wait for him to make a joke, to grow uncomfortable with the unaccustomed intimacy. To say, "Okay, Frase, that's enough. Here in America, guys don't do things like this." I wait for him to push me away, as everyone always does in the end.

But Ray doesn't. He keeps holding me tightly, and even pats my back. "It'll be okay, Frayzh," he says. "I promise. It'll be okay."

He says that over and over, like a vow, in the quiet darkness of his car. And his compassion undoes me completely. It has been so long since anyone has touched me like this, held me -- really cared for me... I feel myself start to shake as my tears thicken, blinding me. I bury my mouth in his leather-clad shoulder in a desperate attempt to still my sobs. But the sadness in me is so deep that once tapped, it isn't easily stilled. My tears rain down on his jacket anyway. I can't stop them. My God, I think in total despair. Ray will despise me, he will lose all respect for me--

But there is no scorn in Ray's voice as he says, "Just tell me." He tightens his arms around me. "Tell me what's wrong, and I'll help ya. I promise."

Fraser is shaking. Shuddering in my arms, his breathing ragged, his whole body tense with a futile effort to hold back his tears. He's trying so hard he's almost choking, and his hands grip my back like he's desperate -- but he's still crying.

Jesus. What the hell did they do to him, all those people in his past? And how am I gonna fix it? "Who did this to you, Frayzh?" I say fiercely. "Who hurt you? Huh? Tell me, and I'll take 'em apart."

He shakes his head. "I c-can't, Ray--"

He tries to pull away, but I hold onto him. "Then tell me how to help you, dammit! Tell me what you need, what'd make you feel better. I don't care what it is, I'll get it. I swear. Even if it's illegal! Just tell me--"

I want to say "I'd do anything for you," because it's true. I would. But I can't say it -- the words just won't come. But I feel it. Sitting there holding him while he cries, I hate whoever did this to him so much that I realize he's the one person in the world other than Stella and my mom and dad that I'd kill for.

"Tell me," Ray says.

But I know that's impossible. Unthinkable. With the last shreds of my crumbling resolve, I try to refuse. I shake my head. No.

But he persists. Gently, firmly -- irresistibly. "Tell me what you need," he says, and the compassion in his voice reaches down inside of me and tugs powerfully at the truth. The deep, dark, shameful truth I've hidden for so long, for fear of losing him. For fear of losing myself, as I once did with Victoria...

"Tell me," he says again. Tell me... In the dark, quiet intimacy of Ray's car, the words become a spell, an incantation. Ray's rough magic pours over me, through me, conjuring elemental changes. My barriers melt away like so much smoke in the heat of his embrace. I dig my fingers into his back, surrendering at long last. Knowing I would've done so if it meant my death.

Knowing that it may...

"You," I whisper, turning my head so the word is breathed against his cheek. In his ear. "I need you, Ray." Half crazed, half in despair, half relieved that I've broken at long last and need dread it no longer, I lean forward ever so slightly. Embracing my doom as inexorably as I've embraced him, I press my lips to his cheek. I kiss him. So there will be no mistake. No chance that he can misunderstand, or forgive me. His skin is soft and warm...

So... This is how it feels to fall. It's been so long, I'd almost forgotten. It feels dark. Inevitable. And -- just for an instant -- unutterably sweet.

Fraser finally gives in. Finally tells me what he needs. Whispers just one word in my ear: "You."

I freeze. Don't believe it. Can't. Must've heard him wrong. I mean, I was thinking he might need a vacation, a change of scenery. Maybe even a transfer home. But me? What the fuck--?

I look at him sideways, my head spinning. Both of us tense up. His eyes are wide, and fixed on me. He's got tears on his cheeks, but he looks -- hungry. Scared. Intense. Almost desperate. Like he's goin' down for the third time, and I'm the only one with a life preserver. It's so weird. No one's ever looked at me that way before. Not even Stella. Like without me, they'd die.

It sets something off deep inside me, that look. A kind of excitement, like a little explosion down in my belly. I try to ignore the strangeness of that, too. Blink at him, trying to make sure I'm not seeing things. Cuz this can't be happening...

But I didn't have anywhere near enough beer to be drunk, and that look's still there in his eyes. And he's so close it makes me dizzy. Then things get really surreal. He says it again. "I need you, Ray." His fingers are pressing into my back. I feel his breath on my skin. And I know he means it.

Holy shit. I turn my head towards him, like I'm hypnotized or something. Maybe I am. Then he bends his head -- and I know what's going to happen. But I tell myself, No. This is Fraser. He wouldn't--

But he does. He leans forward a bit more and kisses me on the cheek. Softly. Gently. I can feel him shaking--

I can't move. Can hardly remember how to breathe. All I can feel is his warm mouth on my skin. All I can think is, He's lost it. He's totally lost it. He's nuts!

But I must be too. Nuts. Outta my head. 'Cuz it feels good. His warm mouth. The way he's shaking against me... I feel him all of a sudden. Feel his body in a way I didn't before, when I was just trying to comfort him. Feel the hardness of it, the muscles under his coat -- how big he is. How strong. He feels good, so good... That thrill shoots through me again. Electric. Intense. Like fireworks goin' off inside me.

I hold onto him. Tighten my grip on his arms. Turn my head so our lips brush. It looks accidental, but it isn't. He gasps, a little breath of surprise that sounds loud in the strained silence. I want more. God, I want--

Just before I start devouring that perfect mouth, I come out of it suddenly, with a jolt. Come back to earth. Remember who I am (Ray the Attitude) and who he is (Fraser the Perfect). I remember how Stella left me, even after we were married. What the hell is he doin' with me? To me? What the hell am I--

I pull back. Disconnect us. Sit up straighter, and let him sink back into his own seat again. Listen to us both breathing hard. An awkward silence settles in around us. "Frayzh," I say finally, in this shaky voice. "What was that? What the hell was that?"

He twines his fingers together, so tight it must hurt. Stares down at them while that muscle twitches in his cheek again. After a long pause, he finally whispers, "Oh God. I'm so sorry, Ray! But I think... That was a kiss. I just -- kissed you."

No shit, Fraser! I noticed that! The world's straightest Mountie just kissed me! Oh, man... And I didn't push him away like I should've. Hell, I enjoyed it. Almost threw myself on him. I haven't done that in years. Haven't touched a guy since junior high. Haven't wanted to. Not since Stella... Never thought I ever would again. But it never, ever felt like that before. Nowhere near that intense. Not with anyone but Stella. I can still feel his mouth on my skin. What the hell does that mean?

I push back over into the driver's seat hastily. Put a few more inches between us. Close my eyes. I'm exasperated. Confused. Maybe even a bit scared. Worst of all, turned on in a major way. "I know that, I know what it was!" I snap at him, freaked out. "I mean why? Why'd you do it?"

I don't look at him. Can't believe this is happening... One minute I'm tryin' to help him 'cuz he's hurting, and the next minute he's -- kissing me. Shit!

Fraser doesn't answer me. Maybe he can't. I don't say anything either. I know I should probably shout at him, maybe even smack him. That would be the guy thing to do, the sane thing to do, but I don't. I can't. Me, Mr. Impatient, born premature -- I can't even move. I just sit there, my head spinning, and wait for him to explain this impossible thing somehow. Fraser's good at that. Has a goddamn Inuit story for everything. And I'm so used to them now that I actually expect it. Can't wait to hear the one that'll save his butt this time. The one that'll prove that didn't mean what I think it did.

This is just a little custom we have up in the frozen north, Ray, he'll say. A guy buys you pizza and beer, loses to you at darts and lets you cry on his shoulder, then you have to kiss him to say thanks. This Inuit hunter named Frozenass started the custom centuries ago. Now everyone does it. So that's why I kissed you. It's nothing personal, Ray. I was just being polite.

I wait for him to tell me something crazy like that.

But Fraser doesn't say anything. He doesn't even look at me, but I can hear him breathing hard. Same as me. And I'll bet his heart's beating just as fast as mine. So I know he wasn't just being polite, know that kiss wasn't a way to say thank you. And the weird way he looked at me while we were playing darts, he wasn't being polite then either. Wasn't thinking about Torrance like I assumed.

He was thinkin' about me. Wantin' me.

Oh, man! It's just hard to wrap my head around all that...What it must mean. You get used to thinkin' about a guy a certain way, then find out he's not that way at all--

Then it hits me. Fraser must be straight! He had a thing for that Torrance chick, I know it! But if he is, what the hell's he doin' kissin' me? For a minute, I'd forgotten all about the bounty hunter chick. Now that I remember her, I'm even more confused. Not just about Fraser, but about me. Because the same dark, nasty feeling I felt about her before comes back, only ten times stronger. And this time, I know what it is: it's jealousy all right. It's intense, powerful. And it shocks me about as much as his kiss just did.

Because I'm not jealous of Fraser because he might've had her -- I'm jealous of her, for having him! Worse yet, I was feeling that way before he ever kissed me.

Jesus...Now I'm so confused, I don't know what to say. What to think. I want to hold my head, because things have suddenly gotten so weird. Am I crazy? Is he crazy? What the hell is this? I mean, just a few hours ago, he was cryin' because Torrance left! And I've been missin' Stella for months... So what the hell's goin' on here? I mean, when I woke up this mornin', I coulda' sworn we were both straight -- now we're both bi? Jesus!

And as if that wasn't confusing enough, insecurity raises its ugly head. Okay, say I'm right. Say he meant that kiss, say he does want me. What the hell for? What the hell would a guy that good lookin' want with me, anyway? It's not like I'm gonna make the pages of GQ. Is he playin' with me? Just lookin' for a quick fuck, 'cuz he feels shitty?

By the time Fraser finally speaks, I'm so frustrated, so mixed up and angry I'm ready to burst.

"I'm sorry, Ray," he says again in a low voice.

He doesn't look at me, and he sounds totally miserable. Oddly enough, that makes me feel better. Cools my rage. Whatever's going on with him, he's way too unhappy to be playing games. Should've known that anyway I guess... Fraser's not the type. So maybe I'm not the only one feelin' like I'm goin' nuts here. Maybe he's even more confused than I am. Fraser's not a touchy-feely kinda guy, so what he just did must be an even bigger deal to him than it was to me. Maybe he's ashamed, maybe he thinks I hate him--

"S'okay, Frayzh." The words slip out automatically. But we both know they're not entirely true. I mean, I don't hate him, but it's not okay. What he just did changes everything. Everything. We were partners, we were friends. Now--

Now, I don't know what the hell we are.

All I can think is, How long has he felt this way? How long? And how come I never picked up on it? Shit, I'm supposed to be a detective, and my own partner wants me and I don't even know it! And what the hell am I gonna do about it? He'd probly love to crawl back into his shell and ignore it, but I can't. Can't forget the way he sent sparks shootin' through me with that one little kiss. That fuckin' innocent, goddamn crazy dangerous kiss...

I feel angry. Confused. Excited. "But I mean... What the hell do we do now?"

Fraser doesn't answer me. Probably cuz he doesn't know, any more than I do. Jesus, I'd give anything for a road map through this little mine field.

"Please... Could you drive me home, Ray?" he says. "I just want to go home." Guess I'm not the only one who needs a map; he sounds like he's so lost he's forgotten his own name. He's not sobbing now, but I think I see something glittering on his cheeks again.

That gets me. "Don't do that, Fraser," I say. "Don't! It's not the end o' the world. It was just a little kiss. It's not like you killed somebody, dammit!" But I'm so emotional myself that it comes out gruff, like I'm mad at him. He winces, so I shut up. But maybe I am mad at him -- a little. For droppin' this bomb on me, makin' me feel what I never expected to feel again.

"Please," he says again. He's almost begging, and it makes me feel like a creep. A jerk. Even though I didn't start this.

"Okay. I'll drive you home," I say hoarsely. Just don't cry anymore, I want to tell him. But I don't want to embarrass him, so I keep my mouth shut, lean over and start up the GTO. Not knowing what else to do, I pull away from the curb and out into traffic.

Fraser's tears shine silver in the dim glow of the dashboard lights as we go.

The ride back to my apartment that night is one of the longest trips of my life. Ray and I are silent most of the way, and it feels like I'm dying. Or maybe it's our friendship that died, killed in that insane moment when I pressed my lips to his cheek. That moment that had to happen sometime, that was perhaps my fate, has cost me the most important person in my life.

How long can a man live without love, Ray?

I have my answer now. Forever. I'll go my whole life without ever knowing love, because every time I feel it, it's for the wrong person. The pain of that pulses through me, until I become one massive ache.

All of me, that is, except a tiny part of my heart that cannot regret kissing Ray at last. No matter the cost. Because at least for that tiny instant, I was able to give love -- even if it could not be returned.

I didn't really think that it would be. My past has taught me not to expect that. Deep inside me, a tiny voice whispers, It could've been worse. At least Ray didn't hit me.

When I finally pull the car to a stop outside Fraser's apartment, the silence between us is thick. So thick that when I switch off the engine, you'd think we were the only two people left in the world.

Maybe we are. The only ones that count right now, anyway. I wait for the Mountie to start undoing his seatbelt, and suddenly see that he hasn't even been wearing one. More evidence of how upset he is. Like I needed more. Least he isn't crying now, though.

"Home again, home again," I say. Trying to lighten things up a bit, to reassure him.

It doesn't work. Fraser sets his jaw, looks down at his hands. "It won't happen again, Ray," he says in a low voice. It sounds mechanical, like a little speech he rehearsed while I drove. "I promise. I promise you--"

I believe him. And I know I should agree. Should say "Yeah, you're right, we'll just forget about this." That'd be the sensible thing to do. The smart thing. We can both tell ourselves Frase just had a bad day, then a little too much Budweiser, and leave it alone. But I've never been sensible. Too late to start now. Besides, what about those fireworks that went off when he kissed me?

"Why?" I hear myself ask him instead.

Fraser lifts his head. Stares at me in total confusion. "What?"

I can't believe I said it either. I must be nuts. But I go with it, remembering his kiss. Trying to remember the last time something -- anything -- made me feel that good. Stella. It was Stella. I push away a twinge of pain at that. "I mean, why aren't you gonna do it again? Was it that bad?" I try to sound cool, like I'm teasing him, but deep down, I know I'm not.

"No! No, it was... It was wonderful," Fraser says. His voice is husky, and his eyes are wide, and he swallows hard. "Ray--"

It's perverse, but now that he's admitted he liked it, I feel a sudden surge of fear. Do a 180, and take it all back. "Forget I said that, ya know? It's crazy! Nuts, that's what it was."

The spark of hope that filled Fraser's eyes for a second dies away. He hangs his head, nodding mutely.

That makes me mad. I hate that! Hate how he takes rejection without a word. I know it's not just his good manners, it's 'cuz he's used to bein' hurt. 'Cuz he's been hurt so much it's all he expects from anyone anymore. Even me. And that makes me feel shitty. I swallow hard, and change my mind again. Go with my gut. Tell him the truth. "What I mean is...we should probly just forget it. That'd be -- the smart thing to do. But I don't think I can."

Fraser lifts his head and searches my eyes, and I can feel his surprise. "What are you saying, Ray?" he asks, and his voice is hoarse with hope he can't quite hide. And I feel this surge of unbelievable excitement. Like he just opened a door I never imagined existed, and what's behind that door is everything I've always wanted. All I have to do is reach out and take it. Take him...

Then I get scared again. The last time somebody looked at me that way, we were teenagers, and I ended up disappointing her. We said it was forever, but she ended up leavin' me. Don't wanna go through that again with him. Don't wanna hurt him by jumpin' in dick first, the way I always do. He's been a good friend, I gotta be careful with him. Go slow.

I tell myself, Use yer brain for once, Kowalski. Think!

So for Fraser's sake, I hold back. Don't grab him like I want to. I force myself to sit still and think about it. My throat feels dry so I swallow, and take a minute to pick my words. "I just dunno how I feel about it. I mean, we're not drunk, so that wasn't some kinda fluke, some kinda' mistake, was it?" I'm not sure if I need reassurance, or if I'm trying to give him a chance to back out after all...I'm not even sure I want him to.

He doesn't say anything for a minute. I find myself hoping, like the crazy man I am, that he won't say, Yes. It was an error. I just lost my head, Ray.

But he doesn't. He just shakes his head, staring at his hands. "No," he whispers finally. "No mistake. I've been...thinking about it... for a long time."

Wow! I get a rush of feelings: relief, surprise, curiosity, excitement. How long? I want to ask, but Fraser's so private I know he'd either resent that or not even answer it, so I don't. "Okay. But it's late, and you're tired, and I--" No, that's wrong. Sounds like the worst kind of copout. Start over. "I don't know if we should--" I stop again, frustrated. How the hell do I put this: I dunno if we should fuck? I've never heard him use that word, ever. It'd probly freak him out completely, and things are bad enough already. "I don't know... if this is a good idea," I say carefully.

Fraser doesn't say anything, doesn't even look at me.

Can't tell what the hell he's thinking. But I don't want him to get the wrong idea, don't want him to think I'm saying no here. "I just need some time to think about it. Okay?"

Finally, Fraser lifts his head and blinks at me. "To...think about it?" he echoes, astounded. "You mean -- you mean you don't -- That is, you're not angry? You don't want to hit me?"

He sounds so stunned it makes me smile. I stare at him, thinking how amazing he is. How little boy innocent, even though he's so smart. I shake my head. "No."

He tilts his head a little, looks at me in disbelief. "I expected you'd at least threaten to pop me, or maybe even kill me--"

I laugh softly. Lean towards him a little, loving the way his eyes go even wider as I come close. "No. I don't wanna kill ya, Frayzh. Kiss ya maybe -- but not kill ya..."

He doesn't move, doesn't try to get away. So I do it. I know it's crazy, but how the hell could things get any weirder than they already are? So I put my mouth on his. Cover those beautiful lips with mine just for a second. Feel how warm they are, how soft -- how amazed. Then I feel him shiver.

"Ray," he breathes shakily. He reaches for me, puts his big hands on my shoulders.

His mouth is open and warm, and I want it. Want it so much... He feels so good that I could lose it completely with him. Two little kisses, and I already know that. Feel it in my gut. Wanna push him down on the seat and take him. Right here, right now.

But then a memory flickers through my head. I see him crying, see that bleak look in his eyes -- and it stops me cold. How do I know this is what he really wants? I mean, he says he's been thinkin' about it for a long time, but just a few hours ago, he was cryin' over a woman. I think he's confused. So I shouldn't take advantage. Don't wanna fuck him, then have him hate me for it in the morning. Don't wanna be part of that look in his eyes. Not now, not ever.

So I pull back. Fast. For once in my life, for his sake, I use a little restraint. I sit back before the fireworks go off inside me again, and I can't stop myself. Before I take that warm mouth hard, use my tongue, find out what he tastes like -- put my hands all over him --

But just thinkin' about how he'd taste gets me excited. Jesus, I'm as bad as he is! Or just as far gone...

"Go home, Frayzh," I say. Not without regret. "Go home and lemme think about it."

He nods, but he looks scared.

I hurry to reassure him. "I'll pick you up after work tomorrow, and we'll talk, okay? I just need a chance to figure this out. One day. Maybe you should think about it, too," I tell him. And I mean that. It's not like he'd be gettin' some kinda' prince or somethin' in me, that's for sure. More like a three time loser, with lotsa' bad habits. I figure Frase oughtta know that by now, he's known me long enough, but still... The last time I felt somethin' like this was with Stella -- and look how that turned out. And at least she was a woman. Doin' this with Fraser -- Shit! It's not bad enough he's a guy, he's a cop too. Could be major trouble. We could both end up in a world of hurt over this, and he's the last person I wanna hurt.

"All right, Ray." Fraser nods again, but I'm still not sure he got it. That he believed me. I'm not sure he understands that wasn't really a rejection. He's got a strained look on his face, like he's still scared he ruined everything.

"Listen...I don't want ya to sit up all night, worryin'. Okay? I mean, I don't know what anyone mighta' done to you before, like before I met you, but... I won't hold it against you. We'll still be partners. Yer still my friend, no matter what. No matter what you decide, no matter what I decide. Okay?"

He lets out a deep breath I didn't even know he was holding. He nods, looking so relieved it's almost funny. "Yes. Yes, certainly, Ray. I understand. A day would be good. A day would be fine. Actually, it would give us both a chance to think. To reflect. To--"

"Yer babbling, Frase. Go on in," I smile. That way, I won't have to listen to a half hour of pure gibberish. "Go home, before ya talk me out of it."

"Yes. I'll just... I'll go now," he mutters. "Yes. Thank you, Ray."

"Yeah. Sure." But I smile at him. Cuz he's so damn cute when he babbles.

Jeez! You sound like a goddamn teenage girl, I tell myself, shaking my head. But I don't really mind, because it's true -- he is cute. Very cute. I watch Fraser get out of the GTO. He's moving real slow, like a guy who's so shocked he's on autopilot. I stare at his back as he shuts the door and walks away from the car.

Nice back. Hell, it's beautiful. Broad shoulders, narrow waist, tight butt... I've noticed it before, that he's built I mean. But only in guy terms, like it's good that he's strong because it means he can take care of himself. Never looked at him like that before. But I'm looking now. Enjoying the view.

Fraser turns around to look at me once, blinking as if he thinks this has all been a dream and I'll just up and disappear.

I play with him a bit. Can't resist. I slide my tongue between my lips. Wet them in an erotic little signal he can't miss. I know that'll convince him I'm real, because he would never dream something like that. Tomorrow, I mouth silently at him through the window. Intimate as a kiss. Then I grin at him, wicked as I know how. Ray the Attitude strikes again.

His eyes go wide. He swallows hard, shakes himself -- and backs up into the outside wall of his apartment building.

Heh, heh. That got him!

I try not to laugh as I fire the GTO up again. I figure it's okay to leave him. He's zoned out now, but he'll find his way inside eventually. He's a Mountie after all. As I drive away, I look in the rear view mirror and see him watching me; and I feel a little vibration inside. Like a drum beating somewhere deep in my heart. Don't know if it's hope or insanity, but it's because of him; because he wants me. And it feels good. It feels amazing.

It feels like I've already made up my mind.

Fraser stands there for a long time. Stands with his back against the wall of his apartment building, staring after the lights of the GTO long after it's disappeared.

Ray knows. He knows.

The words fill his head. He knows he knows he knows he knows...

It was the one thing he'd always thought could never happen. The calamity that would destroy him. But it hasn't. Ray doesn't hate him. Didn't hit him. Didn't try to hurt him. Didn't even seem very angry. Had promised that their friendship would survive even this, even that feverish moment of madness when he finally revealed his innermost heart.

He knows I love him, and he didn't try to destroy me.

He's not Victoria.

He's not going to leave me.

He's not Ray Vecchio.

Standing there on a dark Chicago street, Fraser feels a light dawning inside him, like a midnight sun.

"Is something wrong, Constable?" Inspector Thatcher's voice has suddenly grown sharp. Startled out of a memory of Ray Kowalski's kiss, Fraser glances down at his watch. Great Scott! How did it get to be ten thirty? The last time he looked, it was 9:35 am precisely, which means that while taking Thatcher's dictation, he has been lost in a day dream of Ray for nearly an hour!

And that day dream has been decidedly erotic. He keeps remembering how warm Ray's skin was against his lips, the arch of his angular cheekbone beneath the skin. He's imagined kissing him deeply, has even imagined what it might be like to take his clothes off. To bare that slender body he has never seen... He has tried not to get his hopes up about what the evening may bring, about what Ray's decision may be, but it's difficult. He didn't sleep much last night, after Ray left him. He felt almost giddy with happiness, with relief. It's still hard for him to believe that Ray doesn't hate him for what he did. His promise to maintain their friendship no matter what is a minor miracle, something he'd never dared hope for.

But that he might even have liked his kiss, that he might want him too--

That seems a miracle of Biblical proportions to Fraser, something akin to Moses parting the Red Sea, or the Israelites' escape from Egypt. Ray is so tough, so macho, he'd just assumed he'd be horrified by his kiss. Revolted. But if he had been, he wouldn't have turned his head so that their mouths met, would he? Well... Maybe I shouldn't count that. It might've been accidental. But Ray had kissed him again after that, of his own volition. Ben blushes a little, remembering that hoarse voice saying: "Kiss ya maybe. But not kill ya..." The kiss that followed hadn't been accidental at all. It had been purposeful. Intentional. Unbelievably thrilling. And the way that Ray smiled at him after he got out of the car... Well, that smile wasn't just suggestive, it was downright sinful. And even a Mountie can dream.

But this isn't the time, he reminds himself belatedly. Sternly. You're at work. Behave yourself! He blushes and twitches under Thatcher's cold glare as if it were the proverbial ice bucket thrown over his dilatory head. "No, no," he says hastily. "Everything is fine, sir. You were saying?"

"Yes. What did I just say, Fraser?" Thatcher's hazel eyes are about as warm as chips of ice, and her voice is rapidly dropping towards sub-zero temperatures. It's obvious she has noticed his distraction, and thinks he's been daydreaming when he should've been writing.

And she's absolutely correct. He has been. He can't remember what she was discussing, not for the life of him. Fraser looks down at the pad he's been writing on, momentarily unsure how to answer. But there it is on the pad, in his usual neat, efficient shorthand. Apparently, while part of him was elsewhere, part of him had, in fact, kept working. Thank God.

He reads aloud with considerable relief, "If I may recap, sir... Your last paragraph began: 'As the acting head of the Chicago Consulate, I feel it is my duty to inform the Commissioner that all such reports issuing from this office for the past year were--"

Thatcher waves a hand finally, interrupting him. "Fine, fine, Fraser. Skip to the last line, please." He's not sure if she's pleased not to have caught him napping, or disappointed. But he suspects the latter. She looked ready to deliver one of her customary biting reprimands, and he's very glad to have escaped it.

"Very well." He goes back to his transcription task, but even as he looks back at his pad, the room fades out around him. All he sees are a pair of intense blue eyes that turned him inside out somehow last night, without even trying. As no one but Victoria ever has in his life. Tonight, those eyes will decide his fate, for good or ill.

Fraser prays those eyes will smile on him. That for once in his life, he will be allowed to love. To give love, and to be loved. He knows it would be a miracle -- but even Mounties dream...

Ray can hardly wait until Fraser's shift is over. He leaves the 27th right at five o'clock, and is outside the Consulate waiting at 5:30. He knows Fraser doesn't get off until 6:00, and that he never, but never, leaves a minute early. Not even on a Friday night like this. But he's been thinking about him all day... Thinking of all they've been through, and how Fraser was always there for him, no matter what. How he saved his life even when they weren't getting along very well that time. How he trusts him more than he trusts anyone. How he can't really imagine what his life would be like anymore, without the Mountie in it.

Thinking about the fireworks his kiss set off inside him, too.

Unable to stay away a minute longer, he parks outside on the street and watches the front door like a hawk, tapping his fingers restlessly on the wheel and waiting... Waiting for Fraser. Waiting in his best pair of blue jeans and a new blue t-shirt that he even ironed that morning. Can't believe I did that... Waiting wearing Polo he secretly splashed on in the can at the 27th, before he left. Waiting for Fraser, knowing he will notice all of that, because he always notices everything.

Lt. Welsh sticks his head out of his office door at 5:05 p.m. "Where's Kowalski?" he barks, to no one in particular. Detective Dewey puts down his cappucino, unaware that it's left a frothy moustache on his upper lip. Without looking up from his case file, he answers absently, "Don'tcha mean Vecchio?"

Welsh grimaces. "I mean Ray. Skinny guy. Blonde. Five feet ten. Always looks like he hasn't seen the business end of a razor in weeks. Hangs around with a Mountie. Ring any bells for you, Detective?"

"Yeah. He just left," Dewey shrugs, unmoved by the Lt.'s sarcasm, or his urgent wish to see Ray.

Welsh sighs heavily. He's been so swamped lately, what with the backlog of work from the recent blue flu epidemic and finishing up official reports regarding the issue of bounty hunters roaming around shooting up the streets of Chicago in search of wayward ex-husbands, he hasn't had a chance to tell Ray yet. And now he's gone. He feels a twinge of guilt. He wanted to give him the news in person... "I'll call him," he mutters wearily to himself as he steps back inside his office again.

At 5:45, a tall figure in a bright red uniform and a Stetson steps out the front door of the Canadian Consulate. Ray blinks in surprise. Must be Turnbull, he thinks for a second. No, the height's wrong. It's Frase! Jeez, he left work early. For me! He's never done that before. Must be a good sign. Please God, let that mean what I think it means... He sits up, heart beating fast. Because he's not the only one involved in this -- and he has a question Fraser needs to answer before he can give his own.

Then Fraser turns his head and spots the GTO. Suddenly, he's taking the Consulate steps two at a time, practically leaping down them towards Ray, in a totally unMountie-like burst of speed. Seconds later, he's at the driver's window, leaning over a little, peering in at him. He's trying to look dignified and composed, but can't quite manage it. He looks breathless, and incredibly handsome. When their eyes meet, he smiles. Shy, sweet, hopeful. "Hello, Ray!"

Kowalski's heart turns over. If I hadn't already made up my mind, that woulda done it. Guy would have to be a fool, to turn away a lover with a smile that incredible. And my Mom didn't raise no fools...

"Hi, Frayzh. Hop in." Ray has to suppress an urge to kiss that silly, wonderful grin off Fraser's face as he climbs in beside him. Has to, because they're sitting in front of the Consulate where anyone could see them.

But that's easy enough to fix.

He puts the GTO in gear, and the car slides away from the curb with one surge of its powerful engine. Ray devotes a second to admiring that ready, fine-tuned response -- but only a second. Because he's far more interested in other responses just now. Male ones. Sexual ones. "I've been thinkin' about you," he smiles at Fraser as he slips the car into traffic. "All day." It feels strange smiling at Fraser that way, flirting with him the way he used to with Stella. But good too. Because he never felt better in his life than when he loved Stella.

If I could have somethin' like that with Fraser, who's a good guy, and so beautiful...I could deal with that. I want that.

Fraser's fingers work the brim of his hat. "And I you, Ray." He swallows hard, looks down at the Stetson nervously. "Have you ... that is, have you had enough time to think? To come to a decision?"

"About us, ya mean?"

Ray is teasing. He knows exactly what Fraser means, and as he turns the GTO down a quiet side street he spied earlier, he feels his heart beating faster at the thought of it. Him and Fraser as an 'us'. We. Us. Him and me. Ray and Ben. It feels good. Feels right.

"Yes. About us," Fraser says, and Ray smiles at the hint of uncharacteristic impatience in the Mountie's voice. He pulls the car to a stop in a dark area between two office buildings and shuts off the lights, feeling Fraser's tension mounting as he waits for an answer.

But Ray's been waiting too. Waiting all day, waiting ever since he drove away last night in fact, to get the Mountie alone like this. He's planned this in advance, dreamed of it all day while he was sitting at his desk at the 27th supposedly working case files. He's even planned out how he might say it: "Ben, I want you." He's never called him that before, he's never called him anything but Fraser. But things are different now. They're different. They've already kissed, and Ray figures if he's lucky, tonight they'll do a lot more. And there's no way I'm gonna make intimate with a guy and call him by his last name. It's gonna be Ben from now on, at least when we're alone. Maybe even Benny. That's Frannie's pet name for Fraser, and he's always secretly liked it, but was afraid to show it. He's not afraid anymore. He repeats it in his head: Ben. Benny. He finds he wants to say it, can't wait to see if Fraser will understand what that means.

"Yeah, Ben. I've been thinkin' about it," he says.

Fraser's eyes widen, and he smiles. Just a little smile, but their eyes lock and Ben's are so warm that Ray knows he got his little signal. He knows what it means -- and he looks happy. It's a sign, he tells himself. So go ahead -- do it! He leans forward a little, still holding Ben's smiling eyes with his, and his heart is beating fast. Too fast for any fancy speeches now, too fast for many words at all. So he just tells the truth. "I haven't been able to think about anything else since last night," he breathes, "but this--"

He leans over, grabs Ben's shoulders and kisses him. Hard, with all the pent-up frustration of a whole day largely spent thinking about his mouth, and what it would be like to do this to it. To cover it. Force it open. Taste it...

Fraser moans at his hungry onslaught. Moans into his mouth, and clutches at him. That only increases Ray's excitement. He dives deeper into Fraser's mouth, finds his tongue and strokes it madly. Ohhh, yeaahhhh...

Fraser's arms slip around him, drawing him closer. Fraser's tongue sucks at his, a gentle tug that sends a thrill right down to his boots. It's all the encouragement Ray needs. He pushes him down, down onto his back on the seat like he fantasized about doing the night before, and kisses him even harder. And it feels wonderful. He feels Fraser's heart pounding against him, and his breathing getting deeper, more like gasps. Feels Fraser getting hard, and loves it. Feels himself getting harder still, at the realization that Fraser can feel his arousal too...

Fraser feels like he's about to pass out from pure pleasure. Ray hasn't answered his question, but he admitted he's been thinking about him ever since they parted last night; and he called him Ben. Ben, not Fraser, Frayzh or Frazoor, but his name. His real name. His first name. As if he wants to get closer to him. That precedent was exciting in itself, and now he's kissing him like there's no tomorrow. Ben decides that perhaps that is Ray's answer. If not, for now, the words can wait. Will have to wait... God himself would have to wait if He came knocking at the window now, for Fraser wouldn't give up a second of such bliss for anyone. He's waited so long for this, so terribly long, and he feels his body humming, opening like a flower in Ray's passionate embrace, to Ray's hot mouth.

So he doesn't resist when Ray pushes him down onto his back on the seat. In fact, it excites him. He pulls Ray even closer. Soon they're straining together, breathless and shivering. Ray's body is warm and wiry, slender and muscular and he's growing deliciously hard against his groin. Ray wants me, he thinks with a rush of joy. He wants me!

He hears himself moaning as Ray's tongue dances with his. Breathless, hungry moans of pure pleasure. Hears Ray moaning back. As their loud, erotic duet goes on and on, somewhere in a dim, still rational part of his brain, he thinks they shouldn't be doing this in a car parked out on a public street, but he can't bring himself to care. It's fairly dark here, and besides, after thinking about Ray all night and most of the day, he probably would've let him push him up against a wall and do this, if he'd wanted to. Shameless, he tells himself, but he's so far gone that seems a compliment rather than a reproach.

Fraser clutches Ray tightly. Growing bold, he slips his hand up underneath his jacket and strokes the smooth, bare, heated skin of his back beneath his shirt. Ray's new t-shirt, which is a wonderful shade of blue that matches his jeans and his eyes. He inhales deeply, detecting the spicy scent of Polo, secretly thrilled that Ray wore cologne for him, and maybe the shirt too...

It makes the extra thirty minutes he spent ironing his uniform that morning seem worthwhile.

He strokes the hard muscles in Ray's back, and Ray groans deep in his throat. It's a delicious sound, and Ben wants more of it. Taking the initiative, he pulls Ray up a little. Takes his head in his hands and kisses down his cheek to the rough blonde beard stubble that has always fascinated him. He licks it, savoring the texture, swirling his tongue down the firm line of his partner's jaw.

Ray sucks in a ragged breath. "Oh yeah. God, that feels good," he whispers.

Fraser smiles to himself. That's what he wanted to hear.

Some indefinite amount of time later, Ray finally sits up again. His hair is tousled. So is Fraser's. The Mountie's jacket is unbuttoned, and Ray's shirt is pulled halfway up his chest. Neither man cares. Both feel like they've barely gotten started, yet the steamed-up condition of the car's windows says otherwise. Bears mute testimony to the passion they've been indulging for some time.

"Wow," Ray says, grinning.

"Indeed," Fraser agrees.

They stare at each other, hardly able to believe what they've been doing. Both men are breathless, intensely aroused, and their lips are bruised. Both want more.

"What do you want, Ray?" Fraser asks me when we finally come up for air.

It's the same question I asked him last night. But last night he was sad. Tonight, he looks breathless. Tousled. Irresistibly appealing. Happier than I've ever seen him.

Don't need to think about it. All I wanna do is make him happier still. And keep him that way. "You. I wanna make love to you, Ben."

Still, Fraser hesitates. "Are you sure, Ray? I mean...are you sure that's what you really want?"

That really chaps my butt. If I wasn't, d'ya think I'd be sittin' here? D'ya think I'd've spent the last ten minutes rollin' around the front seat of my car with you if I wasn't sure it's you I want? I've never felt so sure of anything in my life, except with Stella.

But I don't tell him that. I just say, "Yeah, I'm sure. Are you?"

That's my question. I did some hard thinkin' today, and I kept comin' back to that. Couldn't get past it. I mean, he started this whole thing, but why'd he start it last night? We've known each other a long time... and he said he's been thinkin' about kissin' me for a long time. If that's true, why'd he wait until last night to do it, until after Torrance dumped him? I gotta know. Everything depends on his answer to that. Everything.

Fraser just blinks. Frowns at me like he doesn't understand the question.

I try to explain. "I mean, I know you want me, but -- are you sure about why? This isn't just because o' Janet, is it? Maybe because yer just... you know... lonely an' all right now? Because I'm here, and she isn't?" I keep my voice gentle. Don't want to scare him, but I have to be sure. Because my feelings for him are deep, intense, way beyond one-night-stand type casual stuff. Those fireworks I felt before are just a small taste of what'll happen if I let myself go with him. I know that. It's exciting, but scary too.

I mean, neckin' in the car like this is fun, but I want more. All of it. Wanna fuck him till he can't see straight. But I haven't made love to a guy for so long... And that's what it'll be with Ben. Making love, not just doing it. Hearts too, not just bodies. Not just sex. I know that. That's what he does to me. So I need to know if this is for keeps before I stick my skinny neck out. Maybe ruin our careers and all. Not that mine's been much so far, but it's all I've got. And then there's the homophobe shit we'll get from people, too. Includin' my own Dad. All o' that. It won't be easy.

But that's okay. If there's one thing I've learned in this life, it's that nothin' worth havin' is easy. And I'd risk all that for him -- I'd go to the wall for him, and past it. I just need to be sure he'll do the same. That he isn't just hurtin' cuz he got dumped. If he's just lookin' for a warm body for a night or two, like I probably would be in his shoes, it'd kill me. Once I have him, I'm gonna want him again and again. Wanna be with him. Won't want him to even look at anybody else, either. I knew that as soon as he kissed me. Gotta know if he wants that too.

'Cuz if he doesn't, I can't do this. I couldn't stand to be with him, then get dumped once he feels better. After Stella, that'd kill me. So it's all or nothin'.

Fraser takes a deep breath. After a long moment, he says, "Yes, Ray. Janet isn't... She wasn't -- What I mean is, I didn't... feel for her what I do for you. I mean, it's possible that in time... That in time I could have. That's possible. She's very much like me. We understood each other, and given more time--"

Jeez! Given more time, and half a chance, he'd talk me into an early grave. I don't wanna talk right now, I want action -- and I don't wanna hear any more about Janet and how alike they were, either. Gimme a break! Besides, I'm not even sure Frayzh really means what he's saying about her. Sounds like he's tryin' to convince himself there was something there when there wasn't. "Hey, hey, Fraser! Get to the point!" I interrupt, impatient. "What're you tryin' to say?"

Fraser swallows hard. "I'm sorry, Ray. It's hard for me to put things like this into words--"

I tear my eyes away from him. Stare out into space, trying to make this easier for him. "I know. I know it is, but tell me," I say in a softer voice. "'Cuz I gotta know, before we... I just need to know, okay?"

"All right. What I'm trying to say is, I didn't love Janet," Ben says quietly at last. "I only... tried to because I thought I couldn't have you." The words hang between us. Soft but intense. Aching with a desire Fraser must've been carrying around inside him for a long time. Silently. Hopelessly.

What was it he just said? "I didn't feel for her what I do for you. I didn't love Janet..." So that means he does love me. There it is -- the answer I wanted! He didn't say it, but he did. He didn't love her. He loves me. God knows why, but he does.

I lean over again, kiss him gently. Trying to tell him how much his words mean to me. That I feel the same way. "You can," I say hoarsely. "You can have me."

"Oh, Ray!"

Next thing I know, Fraser's arms are around me, and he's pushing me down on the seat this time. Kissing me before I can say another word. His mouth is hot, and he starts moaning. Pushing against me. He unbuttons my jeans, slips his hand inside and strokes me. His hand is warm, and it feels so good I almost whimper -- but I'm surprised too. I mean, I said he could have me and I meant it, but I didn't think he'd jump my bones right here!

But Frase is more than hungry, he's almost desperate. Hard too, so hard I think it must be hurting him. Then I remember his tears last night, know how lonely he must've been, and I know that's why he lost control. Still, he's trying to get me off, instead of himself. Typical. And for a second, I almost let him. Almost give in, because damn! His big, warm hand feels so good...

But then it stops.

I open my eyes and blink up at him. "What?"

He lifts his head. His breathing is rough, his face is strained, and he swallows hard. His whole body's gone stiff as a board on top of me. He pushes himself up a bit, on his forearms. "I'm...sorry, Ray," he croaks. "This... I didn't -- mean to. Not here..."

Now I get it. His overactive conscience just kicked in, and spoiled the party. I'm not exactly shocked -- Fraser's the last person I'd ever expect would make it with someone in a car. But it's flattering as hell that he got carried away enough to want to, with me. So carried away that he's still shaking, trying to hold it in. "It's okay," I tell him, but he pulls his hand away.

Part of me wants to grab it and put it back, to tell him it's all right, I don't care where we are, go for it... And for a second, I almost do. But the other half of me is saying No, this isn't it. Not what I want either. "All right, Frayzh. S'okay." I pat his shoulder, move my hands over his back in little circles. "We don't have to, all right?" I gotta have him, but if it's gonna make him uncomfortable, we don't have to do it here.

He breathes a little sigh of relief and settles down over me again, his body softening, relaxing. He lays his forehead on mine. "Okay. Okay, Ray." But then he lifts his head again, his blue eyes wide and worried. "But I want to! I do--"

He looks so scared it makes me smile. "Good. I do too, I just mean we don't have to do it here. That's all." I mean, I couldn't wait to kiss him, but I'm not about to jump his bones if he's nervous here. Besides, now that I can think again, it hits me that this is Fraser. Ben. Benny. My first time with him shouldn't be in the front seat of the GTO, like he's some cheap, twenty dollar hooker. No way. He should be in my bed. On my sheets. My Mountie man, all alone with me in my apartment. All mine. I've never had anyone there that I loved, and until now I didn't care -- but all of a sudden, now I do. I want that. Want him there with me. I want it so bad I ache.

He looks down at me and even in the semi-darkness, it's like he shines. I can't believe how beautiful he is. How perfect. Then he opens his mouth and says, "Well, it wouldn't be very good for the upholstery, and--"

I'm not sure whether to laugh or cry. "Fuck the damn upholstery!" I lean up and kiss him again. "That's not why." But I can't tell him the real reason. It'd sound too mushy, too corny. "I just want you to come home with me, okay?" I breathe against his mouth. "Please..." 'Cuz if I can make love to you in my place, it'll finally really seem like home.

"All right, Ray." He sits up and tugs at his uniform, an unconscious, familiar little straightening gesture that's so him it makes me smile. "Take me home," he says.

And something in the way he smiles back tells me that maybe he did get it after all.

Ray can't imagine, later on, how he ever made it home safely. Because Fraser keeps touching him. Feeling him. Like he can't get enough, like he can't believe this is really happening...

Kowalski can't either. Who woulda guessed Mr. Thank You Kindly, Ma'am could turn into Mr. Octopus Hands? First his hand is on Ray's shoulder, then it's running down his arm. Squeezing his bicep. "Hey! I'm tryin' to drive here, in case you haven't noticed!" he protests. Trying to sound mad, instead of turned on like he secretly is, by Fraser's unexpected explorations.

"Oh. Sorry, Ray."

But Ben can't be that sorry, because that big hand is soon on him again. On his knee, then moving gently up his thigh. Stroking as it goes. Making him squirm. "Hey! Come on! That isn't fair," Ray gulps, hanging onto the wheel for dear life as his breath comes faster.

"Sorry..." The word's breathed in his ear this time. Tantalizingly, as that big hand moves even further up his thigh, and glides gently along his cock. Just the whisper of a touch, but it feels so damn good that Ray gasps out loud. Turns his head towards Fraser. "Jesus! What're ya tryin' to do to me?"

Fraser doesn't get a chance to answer.

"Shit!" Ray suddenly has to slam on the brakes, so hard that both of them are flung forward, almost out of their seats. Turns out that while Fraser was busy feeling him up, they've come to a red light -- and Ray was looking at his partner instead of the road, he almost drove right through it. An angry driver behind them hits the horn, and Ray flips him the bird. Still, he's embarrassed that he was so turned on by a few touches that he almost killed them both. Horny bastard, he scolds himself. Then he looks down and sees that despite the way they were both just about tossed through the windshield, Fraser's hand is still on his leg.

Make that two horny bastards. He grins, secretly admiring his partner's erotic single-mindedness. But I can't let him keep doin' this, or we'll both get killed before we even have a chance to fuck. And Ray's not about to let anyone get in the way of a hot wrestle between the sheets with his Mountie -- not even Fraser himself. He shoots a glare at him, pretending to be angry. "See? See what you're doin'? I almost crashed the car! Keep that up, Frayzh, and I'll pop you one!" he growls.

"Oh dear!" There's real contrition in the gentle voice this time. Fraser lets go of his leg and moves back into his own seat, blushing visibly.

Ray draws a deep sigh of relief. He was lying, no way was he going to hit Fraser. But he had to think of something to keep the Mountie off him, for both their sakes. Not too far to go now, and we may just make it alive if Fraser stays put, and quits turnin' me on like that.

Fraser shakes his head. "I'm terribly sorry, Ray," he says, sounding a bit embarrassed. "I'm not usually so--"

"Spontaneous? Impulsive?" Ray grins.


"I've noticed. Must be the car," he says, catching Fraser's eye. Teasing him, as he's just been teased. "Classic cars'll get a Mountie every time. I've heard that about you guys."

But Fraser looks serious all at once. "No. It isn't the car. It's you, Ray." He reaches out and touches his cheek. Brushes the back of his hand down Ray's neck gently. "It's you."

Ray groans silently at the sweetness of that touch, those words, and hits the gas. He's hard already, and they haven't even taken their clothes off yet. Only three more lights between us and home, he thinks. Please, lemme make it home!

While they're on their way to Kowalski's apartment, Ray's phone rings repeatedly.

They make it to Ray's apartment safely, but not into Ray's bedroom. Not quite. Ray opens the door, flips on the lights, then suddenly grabs Fraser by the shoulder and pushes him back against the wall. Ray's face is set. Blazing. Determined. Like he can't wait a second longer for this. Fraser wonders if he's angry, if he's taking revenge for the way he teased him in the car. Then Ray kisses him. Hard. Demandingly. He thrusts his tongue into Fraser's mouth, making his head spin.

Apparently Ray isn't angry, he's aroused. Very aroused. Fraser is instantly excited too, by the passion flaring between them. His arms go around Ray's shoulders and in seconds, they're pressed together, breathing hard, their mouths parting only for the brief seconds it takes to vary the angle of their kiss. To deepen it... The wall is hard behind Fraser's back; Ray is hard against Fraser's hip. Deliciously hard, amazingly hard.

Kowalski lowers his hot mouth to his neck for an instant. Licking, sucking... Fraser shivers, holding his blonde head in his hands. He runs his fingers through his spiky blonde hair, which is already in a delicious state of disarray after their necking session earlier in the car. He loves touching Ray's hair, loves the unexpected softness of it, despite its rebellious appearance. It's so very Ray.

Then Ray's caressing hands brush the scar near his spine -- and Fraser's suddenly flung back into the past. He remembers Victoria's softness in his arms, so different from Ray's hard body. Recalls the spill of her long dark hair -- a flicker of muscle memory, and his hands recall reaching out to shut his own apartment door behind her as they embraced so that he could love her in private, so no one would disturb them...

Fraser suddenly notices that in Ray's haste to kiss him, he forgot to close the door behind them. So anyone passing by could look in and see them. It crosses Fraser's mind that they're both police officers, members of organizations that are notoriously homophobic. And though he would risk his career and more for Ray, he doesn't want his desire to adversely affect his friend's job. He remembers all too well the disastrous aftermath of his last surrender to passion. How love blinded him and because of that, because of him, Ray Vecchio almost lost his job, his house -- almost went to prison.

Not this time.

Fraser's not going to let anything happen to his new love -- his new Ray. No one can see. No one can know about this. He tries to tell himself he's being paranoid, but it's no use. His anxiety mounts. He feels exposed suddenly, frightened on Ray's behalf. He would reach out and close the door himself, but he can't. Ray's pinning him too tightly to the wall, and Fraser can't bear to push him away. "Ray," he croaks finally, in a voice he hardly recognizes as his own. "The door! Someone might see us."

Kowalski doesn't react at first. Fraser isn't even sure he heard him. Ray is busy sucking at the sensitive skin below Fraser's jaw, where his runaway pulse is beating. Sucking hard, working at it with tongue and teeth until Fraser moans and shudders. Ray is kissing him so hard that he's going to leave marks on his neck -- but he doesn't care. Kowalski's passion is so intense, so heady that it's affected Ben as well. He wants to be marked, wants to see the visible evidence of Ray's desire on his skin. The very thought of it makes his cock, already painfully swollen against his jeans, throb even harder. But despite all that, he can't let himself go as long as Ray might be injured by it. So he tries again. One last stab at caution, in the midst of rising passion. "Ray!"

Ray growls deep in his throat with wordless frustration and suddenly kicks out with his left leg. Kicks the door shut with one rough thump of his boot. Without missing a beat. Without ever lifting his mouth from Fraser's neck for one second.

As if nothing in the world is more important to him now than I am. Nothing.

The realization is so flattering, so erotic that it sends Fraser over the edge. Wipes away the last of his reservations, the last trace of his own self control.

He goes temporarily mad himself. Now that they're finally safe from prying eyes, and not in a moving vehicle, his long suppressed desires can finally be released. Fraser feels wild, almost feverish. "God, Ray," he whispers. "I need you!"

He starts pulling at Ray's clothes. Yanking hard. Pulling off Ray's coat, then grabbing his shirt. He feels Ray's hands on him too. Hears the loud, crackling sound of the velcro collar of his jacket being ripped open, and feels his jacket buttons rapidly being undone. But he's too busy pulling his partner's shirt up to pay much attention to Ray's flying fingers. Almost ruthless in his desire to remove the last barrier remaining between them, he tugs at Ray's shirt with both hands. In his haste to rid him of it, he almost strangles him pulling it off, but even Ray's muffled gasp of protest doesn't stop him. He needs to feel Ray's skin, feel his heart pounding against him --

"Yes!" Two identical sighs of happiness sound as Ray's shirt and Ben's jacket hit the floor within seconds of each other. Then Ray pulls Ben's suspenders down, and Ben strips off his own undershirt, and they're both naked to the waist.

They've separated a little temporarily, just enough to tug at each others' clothes, but it's too far for Fraser. Suddenly he pushes Ray back against the wall. Holds him there with both hands as he leans against him heavily, fusing their bodies together again. Keeping Ray right where he wants him.

Ohhh, yesss... This feels good. Skin to skin, naked chest to naked chest. Ray's is as smooth and hairless as his, and it pleases Fraser. The sensation is exquisite. Ray's slim body feels hard, warm and sweaty in his arms, and Ben can feel his heart beating very fast. Pounding, actually, in a highly gratifying way.

He stares down into Ray's light blue eyes, wanting to possess him. To be possessed by him, in more ways than even the physical. In every way possible. "Call me Ben," he says hoarsely. "Say my name again--"

"Ben," Ray says with a suggestive smile, running his hands up Fraser's arms, stroking his biceps. "Ben, Ben, Benny," he chants, his own voice husky with desire.

Fraser is rocked. He can't believe what hearing his name spoken like that does to him. Until that instant, he didn't even realize how much he'd wanted to. But hearing Ray whisper his nickname like that is so erotic, he wants to taste the sound on his lips.

Kowalski leans forward with a wicked smile until his mouth is hovering over the sensitized spot on his neck that he was kissing earlier. Then he breathes his name onto that heated patch of skin. "Ben... Ben... BEN."

Fraser's pulse leaps. He bends his head and takes Ray's mouth, his mouth that tastes like cinnamon and Ray's own special flavor, and drinks the sound of his own name from it for the first time. Holding his shoulders tightly so he can't get away, he drives his tongue deeply into that warm, delicious wetness, turning the whisper of his name into a moan.

He kisses Ray for a long time. Hard, stealing not just the sound of his name but Ray's very breath. When he finally tears his mouth away and kisses down his jaw line, down his neck, Ray manages a strangled moan. "Frayzh--!"

Fraser hears him, but assumes the sound was a gasp of pleasure. He doesn't see Ray's strained expression. His eyes are closed, and besides, he's too busy running his hands over the bared skin of Ray's chest as he sucks at his neck. He's so delighted at having been given the freedom of his partner's body at long last that he's like a kid running amuck in a candy store. He wants to touch everything, taste Ray everywhere. But as he kisses him, he unconsciously pins him even tighter to the wall with his hands, his hips.

Dimly, Fraser suddenly hears Ray gasp. "Fraser!"

Ray can't breathe. In his excitement, Fraser's jammed him into the wall so hard, and is pressing against him so tightly while he devours his mouth, that he's cut off his air. When the Mountie finally tears his mouth away to kiss down his neck, he wheezes in protest. "Fraser!"

Ben's head comes up with a startled jerk. His eyes go wide as he realizes what he's done. "Oh dear. Ray, I'm so sorry!" he blurts, stepping back hastily.

His chest freed, Ray bends forward, gulping air gratefully.

"Are you all right?"

For a second, Ray is too busy taking deep breaths to answer. Fraser starts to turn away, like he's horrified at his loss of control, at the way he forgot his own strength. Like he's afraid Ray may be angry with him, that he's ruined things. But Ray won't let him go. He grabs his shoulder, pulls him back again. Leans over so their foreheads touch as he recovers. He doesn't want Fraser to freak out now, when they're just getting started. "Yeah," he pants. "I'm fine."

Ray grins, but Fraser just looks shocked. Frowns like he can't understand what Kowalski could possibly think is funny about this. "Are you sure, Ray?"

"Yeah. That -- was amazing," Ray says.

"What are you talking about? I nearly crushed you! I'm so sorry--"

"I'm...not," Ray smiles. "Never saw you... lose control ...before, Frayzh," he teases, getting his breath back now. "Kinda like it." He runs his hands over Fraser's biceps as he speaks, caressing him.

Fraser stares at him, incredulous. "You do?"

Ray nods, giving him a hot little grin. "Yeah. Turns me on, knowin' you want me that much."

"Oh." Fraser blinks as if he hadn't thought about it that way before, that his uncharacteristic loss of control could be considered a kind of compliment. Then he blushes. "Ohhhh..."

Ray shakes his head. He's so unbelievable. Has no idea how sexy he is, how beautiful.

Fraser puts his arms around Ray again, careful to be gentle this time. "You're sure I didn't hurt you?"

"Nawww." Ray pulls Fraser close again, grinning, and kisses him deeply. And as he does, he takes his hand, pulls it down to his waist and presses it against the hardness straining against his zipper. "See?" he smiles, when they finally come up for air. "I'm just fine where it counts."

Fraser leans his forehead against Ray's, breathing hard, and moves his hand upward to cradle Ray's face. "You're fine everywhere, Ray," he whispers tenderly. "I think... you're very handsome."

His voice is so shy, his words so heartfelt that Ray's breath catches in his throat. "Yeah?"

Fraser nods. "Very. I always have."

Ray swallows, deeply touched. Fraser is the only person he knows who would say something like that to him. This is why he could never settle for just a one night stand with him. This is what he wants, as much as his body: to have Ben's sweetness, to let it pour over his soul and take away his loneliness as nothing and no one else could. And to take away Ben's at the same time. To drive away some of the shadows Torrance and all those other jerks in his past put into his clear blue eyes, if he can. To be good to him, to fix all the damage those other people did to his innocent heart. To love him -- because Ben's the beautiful one, not him.

But he can't put that into words. Doesn't know how. He's not good with words, that's the Mountie's department. He's going to have to show him, not tell him. So he takes Ben's hand in his instead, and pulls him forward. "Come on," he says simply. "I want you in my bed."

He's had sex there before, but he's never made love to anyone there. He wants Ben to be the first. Even though it's something he never imagined before yesterday, it feels right. Like it was meant to be.

Ben smiles and follows him. "Ray, there's a message on your answering machine," he murmurs as they head towards his bedroom.

Ray just smiles. He's noticed the little signal light winking on his answering machine too, but he wouldn't stop to pick up a message now if God was calling. Still, he can't resist teasing Fraser, because he knows he doesn't really want him to stop now either. "Think I oughtta get it?" he asks, pausing in the hall with the Mountie's hand in his, as if he's considering it.

Fraser smiles down into his eyes. "Later perhaps," he says.

Ray laughs, delighted at his friend's hunger for him. "Yeah. Much later!" And he pulls Fraser on down the hall.

Ben is sitting on the edge of his bed, half naked, his hair a bit tousled, his face still flushed, his fingers poised on his zipper. What a picture! Fraser on his bed, getting ready to make love with him. Ray wishes he had a camera.

"Here," Ray hears himself say. "Lemme do it." Wanting to unwrap him like a Christmas present, he kneels in front of Ben. Leans up to kiss him and gently pushes his big hands away from his zipper. Fraser lets him, settling them on his shoulders instead as they kiss.

Ray begins to work his zipper down, concentrating on the kiss, on Ben's warm, soft lips and the hot wetness of his mouth. God, I want him! I want him so bad... He realizes that some dark, hidden part of him has wanted this for a long time, to be this close to Fraser, to touch him like this, to call him Benny -- and he never even knew it.

No wonder I hated Torrance so much... I wanted him for myself.

He pulls the zipper down slowly, drawing out the moment. Fraser caresses him as they kiss, cups his face in his big warm hands, strokes his neck. When Ben's fly is undone, Ray reaches inside the opening and strokes his hips gently while he sucks at his tongue. Fraser moans softly into his mouth. Ray loves that sound, can't get enough of it. He stops kissing him just long enough to bend his head so he can pull off his boots. But they won't budge. "Shit!" he breathes in dismay after tugging hard with no result. He's forgotten that the damn things lace up so tightly they can't be taken off easily.

"Here," Fraser smiles. "Let me help."

Together, they make short work of the damn boots. Then Ray pulls Ben's pants and boxer shorts off too, and eases him back onto his bed. Down onto his pillows. Follows him down with a smile, kissing and sucking and licking him, unable to get enough of the beautiful Mountie. Can hardly believe he's got him naked in his bed. He hears himself saying things, muttering erotic words against his pale skin as he kisses him. "God, you're beautiful, Ben... Yer gorgeous. Wanna eat you, ya know? Lick you all over."

"You do?"

"Oh yeah." He runs his tongue over the delicious hollow where Fraser's collar bone meets his shoulder muscle, to prove it. "Yeah. You taste good. So good..." He sucks at it. Bites him gently.

Fraser moans. Runs his hands through Ray's hair as he kisses him. His hands are shaking, and he's breathing heavily. He suddenly rolls Ray over onto his back and stares down at him, his eyes dark with desire. "Do you think so?" he asks.

Ray nods, grinning. "You feel good, too," he says, happy that his words seem to be turning Ben on. He loves holding him, loves Ben's solid, muscular body, the weight of him in his arms, on top of him. "Benny," he whispers, trying his most intimate nickname out again. Liking the sound of it. Liking that he's finally got the freedom to say it, that he's finally gotten this close to the Mountie. "Beautiful Benny..."

Fraser closes his eyes at the sound of it, and bends his dark head to Ray's chest. By the way he kisses Ray's already hardened nipples one by one, so tenderly, Ray knows he likes it when he calls him that. That maybe it even turns him on. He stores the information away for future reference, then all rational thought flies away as Ben starts to suck at his left nipple. Ray groans, his back arching up towards his caressing mouth. But Ben's weight keeps him anchored to the bed. Ray loves that, revels in the warmth and weight of his big body, how it covers his skinny body so thoroughly. It makes him feel safe. Warm. Like Ben's protecting him from the whole world. He tangles one hand in his dark hair and the other in the blankets, groaning softly with pleasure.

Then Fraser does something unexpected. He lifts his head, reaches out and takes Ray's hand in his. Brings it to his mouth and engulfs three of his fingers. Eyes closed, he sucks them gently. He looks rapt, as if nothing exists for him at that instant but the taste of Ray. The gesture has the feel of a private ritual, as if it has some meaning to the Mountie beyond the merely erotic. Ray doesn't understand it, but he wishes desperately that he did. Because Ben's face has softened with a look of melting tenderness that makes it one of the most romantic gestures Ray has ever seen.

The only person who ever looked at him like that, or wanted him even half that much, was Stella -- and she's been gone for a long time now. All he's had since has been casual sex with women who were almost strangers. He's almost forgotten what it feels like to love...

Until now.

"Benny..." For a moment, he pushes lust aside. Ignores the urgent demands of his body, the frantic throbbing of his cock and pulls Ben's head gently down to his again. He kisses him softly, over and over. Eyes closed, lips tender, trying to give instead of take. To tell Ben with his mouth, with his hands, all those words he doesn't know how to say. To tell him how much he means to him. It seems Fraser understands, because he kisses him back the same way. They embrace like that for a long time, just kissing sweetly. Their breathing quieted from its earlier ragged urgency, they moan softly, wordlessly into each other's mouths, each kiss a small act of love in itself.

Finally, Ben shivers a little in Ray's arms. Just a little, but it's enough to shift the mood from tenderness back to lust. Ray suddenly realizes that though Ben is naked, he himself is still wearing his jeans; and although Ben hasn't even touched his cock, it's already straining so hard against the denim that it hurts. Fraser's cock is hard too. It's swollen and dripping and pushing against Ray's thigh.

Ray doesn't want to make him wait any longer. He rolls Ben over again, gets on top of him. Now, he thinks. I can't wait anymore either.

He takes Ben's head in his hands and kisses him hard, driving his tongue deep into his mouth, as passionate as he was gentle a moment before. He feels Ben's heart leap, feels his hands dig into his back. Feels his desire flare again, urgent as his own. Yeah, that's it...

Ray kisses down the muscular chest, takes Ben's cock in his hand as he lingers on his already hardened nipples again, licking and kissing. As Ray strokes him, Ben groans and shivers under him, moaning hoarsely. "Oh God, Ray--!" He bites his lip, as if trying to hold back his cries.

Ray won't let him. He wants Ben to feel free with him. He lifts his head. "Tell me, Frayzh," he pants, stroking him harder. "Tell me you like it." He wants to make Ben talk, wants to hear him say how much he wants him.

"Yes, Ray! Yes, I -- ooohhhh, yesss!" Ben's words dissolve into a moan as Ray strokes the head of his cock. Ben is shaking now. His eyes close and his head goes back. His upper body arches up off the bed as Ray kisses down his flat stomach to his groin, and he's panting wordlessly. Ray smiles. He knows Fraser is about to explode. He's thrilled that he did that, that he finally took Fraser's rigid self control away and put hot pleasure in its place.

"You want more?" he whispers, propping himself up on his elbows between Ben's spread legs, hovering over his cock but not touching it. Teasing him.

A gasp, then, "Yes! Please, Ray! Please -- Do it!"

Ray's grin widens. "Do what, Benny?"

For a minute, Fraser just shakes his head, his eyes shut tightly, his throat working. Then he groans, "Take it. Finish me! Please, please! Suck me, Ray!"

Jesus. That's so unexpected that Ray's eyes widen. He gets the sudden feeling that Fraser's done this before -- and not with Victoria, either. He'd guessed that there might've been another guy in his past, maybe more than one, and all of a sudden, he's convinced of it. Ben just seems... so comfortable with him, with this whole thing. More at ease than if it were his first time with a man. But his hoarse cry is so erotic that Ray doesn't waste time wondering who Ben's other male lovers might've been. He can't wait any longer, either. He lowers his head and kisses his cock. Ben cries out. His hands tangle in Ray's hair, pulling at him. Not wanting to be distracted, or lose handfuls of his hair either, Ray pulls them away gently and pins them to the bed as he starts sucking in earnest.

"Ray -- Ray!" Ben gasps, writhing under him. Ray sucks harder, taking more of him into his mouth, twining their fingers together as he drives him higher. He sucks and sucks, loving how Ben's cock is pulsing in his mouth, how it's flushing a gorgeous, angry pink under the tender assault of his lips, his tongue. Fraser's beyond words then, he's groaning deep in his throat, gasping for breath, his chest heaving. His cock is hot, hard and throbbing, and when Ray pulls upward towards the head, gently grazing the length of him with his teeth, then swirls his tongue over the head of it, Fraser explodes. Wordless, gasping, tears coming from the corners of his eyes, he comes into his mouth with a loud cry.

Ray watches him, loving the sight of Ben losing it while he takes him. Because of him. Beautiful, he thinks. So beautiful... He waits until the Mountie's convulsions have subsided, then crawls back up his body and kisses his flushed face. "You okay?" he asks.

Fraser puts his arms around him, pulls him close. "Ohhh... Yes, Ray," he whispers. "I feel fine. Wonderful!"

Ray grins down at him. "Good. 'Cuz it's my turn now."

Some time later, Ray wakes briefly. He feels cold, and reaches sleepily for Stella--

No, not Stella, he corrects himself as his outstretched hand touches firm, hard flesh. A big, muscular arm far too large to be Stella's. It's Frayzh. Ben. Benny. Stella's gone, and Ben is in bed with him now. The thought comes with a faint sense of shock as memories of their lovemaking flood his mind. He can hardly believe, even now, what Fraser just did to him. What he let him do in return...

They'd made love four times. Four times in just a few hours -- and he'd come hard every time. It was incredible. He hadn't been that aroused, that hungry for anyone in ages. It was so intense each time that his climaxes were mind-blowing. He smiled a little. Who the hell would've thought the gentle, polite Mountie could be so amazingly sensual? So insatiable?

But he was tender too, more tender than even Stella had ever been to him, and Ray had reveled in that as much as in his hunger. More than once, Ben had asked him to lie back, to lie still while he touched him, stroked him all over silently. And he'd done it, had even closed his eyes, wanting nothing more than the exquisite sensation of those large, incredibly gentle hands on his skin. Ben hadn't spoken, hadn't penetrated him or done anything overtly sexual at all -- he'd just stroked him, caressed him, his fingers gliding quietly over every inch of his skin. When he was done with the front of him, he'd turned him over and explored his back and legs too, as if he thought every part of him was beautiful. And he'd done it all slowly, taking his time, with an absorption so complete it had amazed him.

No one had ever done that to him before -- not even his own wife. He'd never even imagined it. It was luxurious beyond belief. Yet it was so simple, so natural, yet so profound, that he didn't know how he would live now if Fraser didn't do it to him again. Being with him was like-- he struggles for the right words to describe what Ben did to him. Like being with an angel, or being worshipped. Yeah. Like that. Ben had bent all of his considerable powers of concentration on him, on pleasing him, on touching him. As if he were the whole of his world. It was beyond any experience of sex he'd ever had with anyone.

In fact, with anyone else, just experiencing pleasure more intense than sex itself, more like the mingling of souls, would've frightened him. Knowing that anyone else had such power over him, the ability to draw his soul right out of his body with their hands and caress it, would've petrified him. In his entire life, only Stella had ever been able to touch him on levels that deep. But he'd trusted Ben with his life for a long time. Trusting his soul to his gentle hands tonight had seemed natural. Inevitable. Perfectly right.

Ray turns over and watches Ben sleeping for a second. He's lying on his back, his right arm flung out towards him, his long lashes fanned out over his cheeks. And he's smiling. Smiling slightly in his sleep, as if he's dreaming happy dreams. Ray hopes they're about him. He reaches out and takes Fraser's hand in his, strokes his fingers gently, pleased by the small evidence of his lover's happiness, and amazed once again by the depth of his own feelings for him. Ben, he thinks, rolling the sound of his first name around in his head again. Ben. Benny. Benton buddy. Benny Ben. He smiles, doing variations on the theme. He wonders if Ben realizes what he did to him, how completely he captured his soul with his generous giving.

The sweetness of it lingers, like the ghost of Fraser's touch on his skin. Ray doesn't want to be apart from him, not even while Ben is asleep. He edges over quietly, gets next to him, then slips his arms around him, under the broad back and over his chest, and lays his head on his shoulder. Sweet dreams, Benny Ben, he whispers in his head, holding him tight. Sweet dreams...

Hours later, Fraser comes half awake. It's early, so early the dawn light is still weak. In his semi-conscious state, he gets confused. Something is wrong. He's in someone's arms, and not in his own bed. The smells aren't right...

Victoria! he thinks, almost panicking. But I thought she was gone. No, maybe that was just a dream. Dear God--

Frightened, he opens his eyes and looks down at the warm body lying half on top of him -- and sees Ray. It isn't Victoria in his arms after all, it's Ray Kowalski. Ray whose tousled blonde head is pillowed on his chest. Ray whose arm is draped across his waist. Ray whose scent is all over him... He lets out a deep, shuddering sigh of relief and gratitude. Relaxes again as his momentary confusion vanishes, and memories of the last few days fill his mind.

Ray made love to me.

He can hardly believe it. Happiness rises in him. He feels bubble light, almost like he's floating. He strokes Ray's hair very gently, not wanting to wake him, just watching him while he sleeps. Ray is still completed naked other than the bracelet around his wrist, his hair is in disarray and sticking straight up in several places, and his lips are parted slightly; and Fraser thinks he has never, ever seen anyone so beautiful. Victoria was lovely too, but her beauty was dark, as dark as the deceitful soul that festered beneath her sultry exterior. Her beauty was, as they say, only skin deep. But Ray is honest and kind. He is blonde, delicate, golden, trustworthy... Beautiful to the bone.

In Fraser's eyes, he shines.

He feels Ray's heart beating quietly against his chest, and it's the most amazing feeling: to be so close to him that he can feel the very pulse of his life. It's magical, miraculous, beyond words. He tightens his arms around him a little, savoring it. A wave of pure, primitive possessiveness sweeps over him. My Ray, he thinks. Mine. Wonderful, amazing Ray, who saw him cry and didn't laugh at him. Ray, who held him in his arms and comforted him instead. Ray, who made mad, passionate love to him -- not once, not twice, but four times before they slept.

At least, Fraser tells himself it was love. It was certainly that for him: love, not just sex. Ray has been watching his back for nearly a year now, but last night he placed his heart into his keeping as well. He wonders if Ray knows that -- and if he feels the same. And for the first time, a hint of shadow intrudes on his quiet joy. A dark little doubt. If Ray loves him, he never said so... And not because he's a quiet lover, either. Far from it. He talked a lot while they were making love. He moaned erotic commands to him, whispered them in his ear, even shouted them -- said things to Fraser, in fact, that no one has ever said before. Things that make him blush to remember them.

But never those three little words. He never said he loves me.

Even while holding Ray's slender body in his arms, that realization pains Ben. He tells himself that it shouldn't, that he's had more of Ray than he ever thought he would, perhaps more than he had a right to expect. It would be foolish to let such romantic longings blight his present happiness. Even if all Ray wants from him is sex, he is such an unbelievable lover, why should that matter?

But it does.

Perhaps because Fraser has no memory of anyone ever saying those words to him: "Ben, I love you." Surely someone must have -- he presumes his mother did -- but she died when he was too young to remember hearing them. His father lived far longer, but was incapable of saying them; and Victoria never did either. He's since come to the conclusion that she probably never felt them. Ray Vecchio has, perhaps, come the closest to expressing that sentiment, that night in the car when he told him he would go to prison rather than accept a deal that would betray him: "Not in this lifetime, Benny."

The love behind those simple words had been deep and real, and Ben had appreciated the warmth in Ray's heart, had returned his loyalty. But though their feelings were mutual, they were not physical. Not romantic. Ray was his brother, not his lover. Fraser would like, just once, to hear those words from a lover. Lying there with his new Ray in his arms, Fraser wishes, with a hunger that surprises him, that Kowalski had said that to him last night. Even once. So that if he died today, he would still know that his time on Earth had not been wasted. He would still know that he'd grown into a person someone had found worthy of loving with not just their heart or their body, but their whole soul. Then, perhaps, he would really feel like the man he outwardly appears to be. Strong; whole; at peace.

But he doesn't want to hear those words from just anyone. He wants to hear them from Ray.

But then of course, that wouldn't be like him. Ray is a creature of instinct, of action, not of words.

Still, surely his actions meant something... Fraser remembers the way Ray pushed him against the wall as soon as they got inside his apartment, his urgent, almost frantic kisses and caresses. Remembers the moment later on when he paused in the midst of that frenzy, whispered his name and then just kissed him for a long time, kissed him so tenderly that it almost made him want to weep again. The way he gave himself with such sweet abandon, with such generosity, devoting himself to Fraser's pleasure and not trying to conceal his own. The moments when Ray lay still, merely because he'd asked him to, and allowed him to touch him all over, to explore his whole body with his hands, a wondrous terrain of warm muscle, sinew and bone that he'd mapped with joy, with awe. He remembers how Ray smiled while he did it, a smile so sweet and serene that it amazed him. And he wonders if that was all just lust.

Or was it something more? Maybe Ray had conveyed some deeper meaning with his words after all. He remembers what Ray said to him in the car, when he was crying: "Tell me who hurt you, and I'll take them apart. Or else tell me what you need, and I'll get it for you! Even if it's illegal! Just tell me."

Ray spoke those words so fiercely, with such passion, that Fraser cannot doubt their truth. Ray meant them, and they seem to imply a devotion above and beyond even what a cop would feel for his partner. And tonight, for the first time, he'd called him Ben. Even Benny. And he'd done it with a warmth in his eyes that was unmistakable.

So perhaps Ray does, in fact, love him.

He'd felt he did when their bodies were entwined, and even more strongly in those quiet moments in between when Ray had allowed him total freedom with his body. Not in a sexual way, but just to touch him. To give, not to take. In those moments when his hands were all that connected them with a feather-light touch, he'd felt they were closer than they'd ever been. He'd loved Ray, loved him with all his heart. Still, he's not sure if that extraordinary feeling, that deep, powerful sense of communion, filled Ray's heart too, or if it was his alone. Having never really known love, having never even heard the words, how can he be certain he recognizes it in another? How can he be sure Ray felt it too? He once thought Victoria loved him, and found he was completely, tragically mistaken. It's possible that he could be just as mistaken about Ray Kowalski's feelings. He can't afford to presume they echo his just because he wants them to. He's been down that road before with Victoria, and it only led to disappointment, disillusionment and despair.

He sighs softly to himself. There is only one way he will ever know if Ray loves him; and that is if he says so. Because whatever else has happened between them, Ray has never lied to him. He is honest to the bone. So if he ever says he loves him, Fraser will know that it's true.

An impatient part of him whispers, But what if he never does? Why not just ask him?

But looking down at Ray's tousled blonde head, Fraser knows that he won't. Because what if Ray said no? What if those honest blue eyes looked deep into his and he said something like, "Jeez, Fraser, I thought you knew... I'm still in love with Stella. I just wanna fuck you. That's all it is."

Fraser's not at all sure something inside him that's been stretched extremely thin already wouldn't shatter beyond repair if he heard those words. Better not to ask, he tells himself sadly. Far better not to know...

But suddenly, he doesn't want to hold Ray anymore. He's almost afraid to. He wants to get up, to get away from him. Away from the sadness that has gripped him unexpectedly, in the wake of one of the most memorable nights of his life. He feels a sudden, inexplicable need to clothe himself before Ray wakes and touches him again. He slips out from underneath his lover slowly, cautiously, trying not to wake him as he lifts his clinging arm off of his waist, and lays his head gently back down on the pillow.

He almost makes it. He sits up at the edge of the bed and stretches his back a little, feeling delicious little aches in his thighs and other muscles, from their strenuous -- what? For him it was lovemaking, but what would Ray call it? Fucking? A rose by any other name, he thinks, wincing a little. He starts to get up, but a slender hand catches his from behind. Holds it fast.

"Where you... goin', Ben? It's not even... light yet..."

He smiles in spite of himself, at the unmistakable early morning hoarseness in Ray's voice. From its muffled sound, he knows without looking that his face is still pressed into the pillow where he laid it gently, and that his eyes are probably barely even open. Still, he called him Ben...

Part of him is touched -- but part of him is even more fearful at this new evidence of Ray's affection. He feels overwhelmed by the emotional intensity of their night together. He feels exposed, vulnerable, as if he would shatter with a touch. But he doesn't want Ray to see that for fear he'll take it personally. And he knows he can't explain to his practical friend his need for time and space to absorb the astounding things that went on in Ray's bed last night, on levels other than the merely physical. It is his nature, but there is still much of him that Ray doesn't understand. That he can't understand, because he hasn't told him.

Victoria heads that list, but Fraser shrinks from mentioning her name on this first morning of his new relationship, either. He's almost superstitiously afraid it would cast a pall over what the night before brought into being, so he stays silent.

It crosses his mind suddenly that he never went home last night to feed Diefenbaker, and he seizes on that fact with a queer sense of relief. That's a safe, mundane yet useful subject he can speak of. That he can use as an excuse for some private time in which to regroup. "I have to go home, Ray," he hears himself say.


Is there a trace of alarm in that voice, or is he just imagining it? "Just for a little while," he explains. "I have to feed Diefenbaker. Then I'll come back, and..."

He falters. What should I say: "We can make love again"? Or will that sound too sentimental to Ray's more experienced, and perhaps less emotionally involved, ears? Well, there's always, "We can have sex again." No, too clinical. But "we can fuck again" is even worse. Though more sex with Ray is what Fraser wants more than anything, he can't even think of what they just did together as fucking. He's always hated the sound of that word, never mind its crudity. It's hard, cold, cynical -- suited perhaps to the emotionless collision of bodies, but worlds away from the love and tenderness he felt, and tried to express, when in Ray's arms. So, for lack of a proper word, he avoids mentioning sex at all. "We can go out and have breakfast, Ray," he temporizes, not daring to look at him as he reaches for his socks and boots with his free hand. "Is that all right?"

"Mmm..." Ray's only reply is a wordless moan he can't interpret. But Fraser suddenly feels his right hand, the one Ray has captured, pulled back behind him. Ray plants a kiss in the middle of it, and his mouth is deliciously warm. Feeling that little kiss through his whole body, Fraser turns in spite of himself. Finds Ray propped up on an elbow watching him with sleepy, heavy-lidded blue eyes.

Ray whispers, "What does this mean, huh, Ben?" Then, as Fraser watches, he sucks three of his fingers deep into his mouth and suckles them warmly, his blue eyes holding Ben's all the while.

Oh my God. Fraser shivers, his heart turning over. How did he guess? How does he know?

He did that to Ray because of Victoria, because of their time in the snow that touched his soul, that branded that gesture into his heart forever. It means romance to him, it means intense sexual attraction, a deep sense of protectiveness -- it means love to him, it was his way of expressing his deepest emotions. But he's afraid to admit that. Doesn't even know how, out of the many ways he caressed Ray last night, Kowalski could possibly have guessed that particular gesture had special emotional significance to him.

Kowalski's ability to see so deeply into him frightens Fraser a little -- especially since Ray may not really love him. He has learned, to his sorrow, that love is not a necessary ingredient for sex, or even for accurate insight into another's innermost feelings. Despite years of practice at concealing his behind a stoic facade, some people have been able to see inside him very well indeed.

Victoria could always read me like a book, too. But she didn't love me, and she eventually used that knowledge to try to destroy me.

He'd suffered untold agonies, both mental and physical, because of his failure to recognize her perceptiveness. He'd thought himself safe with her because he'd thought she loved him -- but that wasn't true. Victoria had seen so deeply into him that she'd managed to manipulate and almost ruin him. But he'd come to believe that that had nothing to do with love, and more to do with the careful study of character in the pursuit of revenge.

It left him with a dread of intimacy, of being transparent to another. He tells himself that Ray would never do that, would never use what he knows about him to hurt him... But he told himself that once regarding Victoria too, and learned just how wrong he could be.

So even as Ray's warm tongue sucks at his fingers, and his blue eyes smolder at him across his sex-rumpled sheets, Fraser can't quite bring himself to give his lover an honest answer to his question. To tell him how much he cares. To trust him completely, as his heart urges him to; as he once would have. Rationalizing his wariness, he tells himself that Ray's question might've just been a lucky guess, or perhaps an erotic invitation of some sort that he just misread -- anything but the loving insight it seemed. He turns away, filled with a nameless pain he's felt ever since Victoria's betrayal. "It doesn't mean anything, Ray," he says quietly. "I just thought you might like it."

Ray stares at Ben in surprise. Feeling like the Mountie just punched him, he lets his fingers slip out of his mouth. Fraser takes his hand back without comment and turns away again. Ray flushes, feeling incredibly stupid. Feeling rejected by the Mountie's sudden coldness. He was trying to be romantic, trying to tell Fraser how much last night meant to him, but he didn't get it.

Or maybe he didn't want to, he thinks with a cold flicker of fear. Maybe he doesn't feel the same way. Maybe all that kissing and moaning and fucking we just did was just that to him: just sex, nothing else. Maybe the way he touched me didn't mean what I thought it did, either. After all, he just said that finger sucking thing didn't mean anything to him, though Ray could've sworn it did.

Not for the first time, he feels totally confused by the Mountie. Just when he'd thought they were finally really together, bonded in a way he'd never been with anyone, Ben was pushing him away. He wasn't Benny Ben now. He wasn't even Ben. He was Fraser again. Fraser, Ice Prince of the Yukon, beautiful, perfect but untouchable. Unreachable. And if he was that far wrong about him, if he'd completely misread that rapt look on Fraser's face last night when he'd sucked his fingers, then maybe he was wrong about other things too. Maybe he doesn't know him nearly as well as he thought he did.

So maybe there's more to Fraser's sudden desire to leave than the need to go home and take care of his wolf. Maybe Ben doesn't really love him.

That idea sends coldness rippling through his gut. He stares at Ben as if he can unravel the mystery of the Mountie by tracing the contours of his body. His eyes fall on the scar midway down his lover's spine, the old bullet wound that mars the smooth perfection of his back, and he grimaces. One more reminder that there's a part of Fraser, a big part, that he doesn't know much about: his past. The part of his life that included Victoria Metcalf and Ray Vecchio. Friends and lovers he never knew, has never even met. All those people whose ghosts were swimming around in his eyes the other night. He realizes that Fraser never did answer his question about who had hurt him, never told him who he'd been romantically involved with, other than Victoria Metcalf. For all I know, he could have tons of ex lovers -- guys and chicks both! How the hell would I know?

Ray shivers. He's got a bad feeling all at once. A spooky little feeling that something bad's about to happen. He tries to shove it away. He's not a superstitious guy, doesn't believe in black cats or Friday the 13th being bad luck, or any of that stuff. But the hairs on his neck are lifting all the same, as he stares at that old bullet hole in Fraser's back -- and he doesn't know why.

So he does what he always does when something freaks him out. Turns his shivers into something he can understand: anger. Getting mad is safe. Familiar. Getting mad, he can deal with. Besides, he's got a reason: Fraser's acting weird. He wants him for his own, thought he loved him, and he wanted to be good to him. So he did his best to make love to him last night. Gave him his all, held nothing back, tried to make him happy. Stuck his skinny neck out, way out -- further than he has in years, for anyone. Trusted him with his heart. Hell, with his soul. And now the big jerk wants to shut him out? All he can say is, "It didn't mean anything, Ray?"

He lifts his eyes from Fraser's scar, and scowls at the back of his dark, handsome head. "Well, wham, bam, thank you kindly, ma'am!" he mutters under his breath.

"What, Ray?"

"Nothin'," he says sullenly. He swallows hard, trying to control himself as he watches Fraser pull on his pants. Feels a twinge of lust at the sight of his long, strong legs, so much larger and more muscular than his own. He's so fuckin' beautiful, it almost hurts to look at him. Hell, last night, he made me feel beautiful too. Me, Stanley Ray Kowalski. Rebel hair, stupid tattoo, skinny ass and all. Thought he said I was handsome. But I must've been dreamin', 'cuz now he's in a hurry to get away from me! Shit, our first night together and he's tryin' to run out before I even wake up. Goddamn him! He hasn't even been here long enough to start hating me yet!

"Fraser, do NOT do that."

"What, Ray?"

"Don't turn yer back on me like that!" he grates, his anger growing as the Mountie pulls on his boots. He wants Fraser next to him. Wants Benny, naked in bed with him. Loving him, not leaving him. That hurts. Reminds him too much of Stella.

Fraser shoots a quick glance at him over his shoulder. "I don't mean to be rude, Ray. I'm just trying to--"

"What did you mean by that, anyway?"

His voice has become so harsh that Fraser finally turns his head and blinks at him. "Mean by what, Ray?"

Ray sits up, his anger growing. "Don't gimme that innocent look, you know what I mean!"

"I'm afraid I don't," the Mountie says, frowning as he reaches down to pick up his shirt. "I don't understand--"

"Well, I do! I understand what's goin' on here. You don't have to spell it out for me, Fraser. I get it! You wanna leave, GO AHEAD!" He breaks off suddenly, realizing that he's yelling.

Fraser stops dead, shirt in hand. He searches Ray's eyes, a sudden frown forming between his dark brows. "What are you so angry about, Ray? Have I done something--"

Ray gets to his feet, runs an angry, exasperated hand through his hair, making it even messier than it already is. "Oh, no." He shakes his head, so mad that he's beyond explaining himself. "You haven't done anything! Nothin' at all!" And that is, of course, partly why he's so mad. He was hoping Fraser would want to have sex with him again, now that he's awake. But obviously not. Ray's insecurity intensifies. He'd rather go feed his damn wolf than make love with me. If that really is what he means to do. Maybe he's just runnin' away. Shit!


"This is great. This is perfect!" he growls. "You just run off and feed Dief, or whatever the hell it is you wanna do, and--"

Fraser cocks his head, his puzzled frown deepening.

That doesn't help matters. In fact, it makes Ray even madder. He's starin' at me like I'm some weird kind o' slime he didn't expect to find on the bottom of his boots, he thinks.

"That is exactly what I'm going to do, Ray," Fraser says, a bit defensive in the face of his glare. "Dief will be hungry, and--"

Eyeing the beautiful Mountie, Ray thinks, Yeah, well, he's not the only one. "Sure. Fine! Whatever!", he snarls. "You just go on home then. I'm gonna go take a shower. Guess I'll see you when I see you." Doubting that it will be any time soon, he turns on his heel and heads for the can, fuming, almost unbearably disappointed.

But he only gets a few steps away before Fraser catches him. Turns him around, forces him to look up into his impossibly blue eyes. "Ray... You didn't think I wanted to leave you, did you?" he asks softly, those eyes soft and warm.

Right then, Ray knows he didn't. That he had it all wrong, that last night did mean something to Fraser too. That look, and his tone of voice, takes the wind right out of Ray's angry sails. He feels an enormous sense of relief. Ben, his Benny, isn't really gone after all. He's still in there, in fact it's him who's looking out from the Ice Prince's eyes now. That melts him in a second, and he forgives him for wanting to leave. Realizes he overreacted, that he was being paranoid. But he can't admit it. That would be uncool. So he lies, still trying to sound angry. "'Course not! This is just how I am when ya wake me up too early. I'm always like this in the morning, before I get my coffee--"

"A spoonful of instant, six M & M's and hot water," Ben smiles. "I know. But that's not coffee, Ray, that's revolting."

Revolting or not, all Ray can think is how well Ben knows him. How his smile is so sweet, he could say almost anything and he'd let him get away with it... So he doesn't try to pull away when Fraser comes even closer to him. "Oh, yeah, like you'd know anything about revolting," he teases back, smiling a little in spite of himself. "Mr. 'I'll Lick Anything as Long As It's Disgusting.'"

Fraser's very close now, so close he can feel his breath on his cheek. "Oh, I don't know," he smiles. "I enjoyed licking you very much, and you're far from disgusting, Ray." And before Ray can even recover from the shock of hearing his innocent Mountie say something like that, that same Mountie has captured his mouth, and is kissing him with enthusiasm.

When they come up for air some time later, Ray is already hard again, and breathless. He leans his forehead against Ben's, rests his hands on his shoulders, stroking the muscles lightly, admiringly. "Yer sure ya... gotta go home, huh?"

Fraser smiles, and tilts his head to kiss his cheek. "I really should, Ray," he whispers, his lips ghosting gently along his skin. "Dief didn't get any dinner last night, or breakfast this morning either, and he'll need a walk too--"

Ray winces a little. In his greedy pleasure at having Ben all to himself, he'd forgotten that his partner had never gone home last night at all. So the wolf's actually missed two meals now. He's probably starving. "Yer right," he whispers, turning his head to return the kiss. "He's gonna be seriously pissed."

Their lips touch gently, and Ray takes advantage of their closeness to take Ben in his arms. But all too soon for his taste, Fraser pulls away a little. Nods regretfully. "Yes. He will. Not to mention hungry. I hope he's not too furious with me, though. The last time I did something like this, he ate my extra pair of boots. And he didn't forgive me for weeks. It was very upsetting."

Ray laughs. Fraser's the only guy he knows who would worry about hurting a wolf's feelings. But then, Dief's not just any canine, either. He's so smart it's spooky, almost like a guy in a fur coat. Then again, it's all part of the northern mystery that is Fraser. So he accepts it. "Yer nuts, ya know that?"

Fraser nods again. Smiles down at him indulgently. "Yes, Ray."

Ray tilts his head and kisses him again, hard and fast. "'Kay then. Go home. Feed the wolf. Then bring him back here, all right?"

Fraser's blue eyes get even warmer, as if this time, he understands Ray's unspoken message. That he wants to spend the whole weekend with him. Doesn't want to be separated from him for even as long as it takes Fraser to drive back and forth between their apartments to feed and walk his wolf. "Are you sure you won't mind, Ray? I mean, having wolf hair in your apartment?"

Ray shakes his head, kisses his wet mouth again. "Not if you come with it, Mountie man," he smiles. "Now get goin'!" Knowing Fraser's penchant for exercise, he adds, "Take the GTO, don't walk. Keys are in my jeans."

With a final, satisfied pat on Ben's butt, he heads for the shower, humming under his breath at the thought of what he's going to do to him when he gets back.

"Thanks, Ray!" Fraser calls after him. "I won't get a scratch on it, I promise! And I'll be back in about thirty minutes."

"Fine," he answers, going into the bathroom. That oughtta be just enough time for me to shower, shave, and stay naked, he grins to himself.

"Actually... Depending, of course, on the traffic, the prevailing weather, and how deeply Diefenbaker chooses to humiliate me for forgetting him like this, I could possibly return in as few as maybe twenty," Fraser says hopefully.

Ray shakes his head. "Just get goin', Frayzh!" he calls down the hall. "The sooner you're gone, the sooner you'll be back, right? And the sooner you get back, the sooner you can start lickin' things again, if you catch my drift."

"Right you are, Ray."

That does the trick, because though Fraser was shirtless when they kissed, he's got his uniform jacket on and is heading for the door in what seems like ten seconds flat after that. Ray grins to himself. Nothin' like a little lust, to light a fire under a Mountie. No, not just a Mountie -- my Mountie. My Mountie Man. My Benny Ben. The thought gives him a little glow.

"Ray!" Fraser calls over his shoulder one last time, on his way out. "Remember, you have a message on your answering machine!"

But Ray's in the bathroom already, and doesn't hear him. He steps into the shower smiling. Turns the water on real hot, then lets it pour over him, imagining it's Ben's warm tongue.

Ooohhh, that feels good...

Ben reaches his apartment in record time. He's kept to the legal speed limit over every instant of the drive from Ray's place, but only with an effort. Somehow, as soon as he left Ray, his fears faded away. Perversely, instead of enjoying the moments alone that he'd felt he needed, instead of using them to put the night before into some kind of perspective, he's found himself using them to remember every detail of their lovemaking. He's imagined it in such greedy detail, in fact, that it aroused him, and it became rather difficult to concentrate on his driving. He'd thought he needed to be alone for a few moments to decide exactly what their lovemaking had meant to Ray, to assess the effect it will have on both their lives -- and how it relates to his own past. But he can't decide on its meaning, because remembering it arouses such overwhelming hunger in him for more that it blots out his capacity to reason.

Now that he's left Ray, he wants nothing so much as to be back in his arms again.

He's been celibate for so long, he'd half forgotten how extraordinarily powerful sex could be. Can be, with the right person. And there's no question in his mind that Ray is the right person for him. The problem of whether he is the right person for Ray, the question of whether Ray is, in fact, even looking for a Mr. Right, or any kind of commitment, fades into the background when Ben thinks of him, so intense is his need for him. He feels almost as though he can will Ray to love him if he doesn't, because he needs his love so badly. The rational part of him knows that isn't so, it certainly didn't work with Victoria, but even so, as he drives towards his apartment, that part of him is repeatedly pushed aside, ignored by the larger part of him whose loneliness has finally been swept away by the touch of Ray's hands. That part of him has been so empty, so hungry, for so long, that once released, it is ravenous. Insatiable. Greedy for more.

In fact, in his haste to get back to his new lover, he finds himself repeatedly being tempted to exceed the legal speed limit. Only stern mental reprimands keep his foot from pressing the gas pedal to the floor when he remembers Ray's kisses, the touch of his long, slender, elegant hands... Only memories of his slide into law-breaking with Victoria prevent him from taking what seems like a minor liberty, on this most amazing of mornings.

Fraser manages not to exceed the speed limit, but when he reaches his building, he parks the car swiftly and bounds inside. Spurred on both by a remarkable sense of well-being after Ray's lovemaking, and a deep desire to get back and experience more of it, he takes the stairs at an unaccustomed run, two or three at a time. He feels strong, energized, almost invulnerable. He decides, for once in his life, not to think the situation to death. Decides to table the question of whether or not Ray loves him for the moment, to give into his need for him and simply enjoy their time together without worrying about what Ray's deepest feelings may be. Even if Ray doesn't love him, he cares about him as a friend, and desires him so much that he was upset about him leaving, even for a short time. That makes Fraser happy. It would be nice to be loved, but being desired has its merits, too. And he's decided that is enough, for now. Kowalski's hot hands and hotter kisses are like manna from heaven to a man who has been untouched for far too long. Though he loves him, he will not ask for more, for that love to be returned, for fear of being disappointed.

He has had enough, and more than enough, disappointment in his life. Just this once, he will take the happiness that's been offered to him without questioning it. And perhaps that way, it won't be taken away.

As he reaches the top of the stairs, he frowns slightly, unconsciously, as he detects a trace of a scent that's both familiar and unusual. An expensive cologne of some kind... But he's in too much of a hurry, his mind too full of thoughts of Ray, to waste time trying to identify it as he normally would. He pulls open the door of his apartment, expecting Dief to jump out at him as soon as it swings open, with huffy demands to know where he has been and when breakfast will be forthcoming.

But Dief doesn't.

He's lying on Ben's bed, snuggled contentedly up beside a long, slender figure that's also stretched out on his bed, wrapped in an expensive coat. Ben stops dead in his tracks with astonishment. And in that frozen instant, he notices several more strange things: a residue in Dief's bowl, the scent of that cologne he smelled out in the hallway. He makes rapid deductions from those small clues. The crumbs in Dief's bowl are fresh, which means it was filled after he left -- so whoever this stranger is, Dief not only let him in, but allowed him to feed him too. And since the expensive cologne he scented earlier is even stronger in here, the man lying on his bed must be wearing it; so he has expensive tastes. But since Dief is blocking his view of everything but the stranger's legs and stylish black leather shoes, he can't answer the most important question of all: Who the hell is he?

"Well, I see things haven't changed much since I've been gone," a familiar voice rings out, as the stranger's long legs stir. "You got a new place, but you're still not locking your door, huh, Benny?"

Fraser freezes, his head whirling. There's only one person on earth who calls him Benny with that precise intonation -- and that's his voice. But it can't be, that's impossible... His head whirls. He can't be here. This is a dream, he thinks. He used to have a lot of dreams like this, when he first went away. Then as the stranger sits up, he remembers. Oh dear God, that cologne--

"But then, since Dief's still with ya, guess you don't really need to lock it, do ya?"

The stranger is sitting up now, and he can see his face. He's not a stranger at all. It's Ray Vecchio.

How? How did you get here? How did you know my new address? What's happened? Are you all right? Fraser sways on his feet, feeling like all the air has been sucked out of his lungs, a million questions rushing through his brain but completely unable to utter even one of them. Unable to do anything more than stare in astonishment at the tall, elegantly dressed, dark-haired Italian sitting beside his wolf. Ray Vecchio, in the flesh. On his bed, in his new apartment, back in his life as suddenly and unexpectedly as he left it, almost a year ago now. He couldn't have been more shocked if Ray had come back from the dead.

In a way, he has.

Fraser stares at him, his heart pounding. Ray is smiling slightly, but it's a strange sort of smile that doesn't really reach his eyes. It's not the warm, open smile he remembers. He notes other subtle changes in him too: a thin moustache, lines of utter weariness around his wide green eyes, a scar on his right cheek, a new tightness to the set of his mouth. All products of his months spent working undercover. In a split-second, Fraser knows, before another word is spoken, that Ray is not the same man he once knew; and yet he is.

Feelings roar through Fraser with frightening rapidity and force: hope, excitement, love -- guilt, anguish, fear. Caught in the torrent, for once in his life, he's struck dumb. His mouth is open, but he's just sucking air, he can't say anything.

As the silence stretches out uncomfortably, Ray's flicker of a smile fades away. He gets up off his bed and walks slowly towards him. "Whatsa' matter, Fraser?" he asks softly. "I been gone so long ya forgot my name or somethin'?" And there's a flash of something deep in his eyes that looks like pain.

That flash somehow unlocks Ben's tongue, releases him from his paralysis -- even as his question intensifies his guilt. How could he forget that name, when he's been calling his replacement by it for the past year? His replacement, who's just become his lover. A Ray by any other name...

"Ray!" he breathes. He moves forward in a sudden rush and takes the Italian in his arms. Pulls him close and holds him, with a sigh that is part immense relief and part anguish. Ben holds him before he can sense his feeling of dread. But it turns his mouth dry, because Ray Kowalski is so important to him now, and he knows -- he knows in his bones -- that Ray Vecchio will never accept that, will never understand. He's seized with an almost superstitious fear that Ray's return, at this untimely moment, means that he will be forced to make a choice between the two men; a choice that will tear him apart. He hugs Ray Vecchio before Ray can see the tears that have filled his eyes -- before he can guess that they're not entirely tears of joy.

Ray's arms go around him slowly, as if it's been so long since he's held anyone, he's almost forgotten how. But after a moment, they grip him just as tightly. "Benny," he says quietly, letting out a sigh so deep it sounds like he's been holding his breath for the last year. "God, it's good to be home."

Ben closes his eyes in joy, in anguish. Oh, Ray!

The End

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Read the next story in the "Alchemy" Series:
Signs, Symbols And Dreams

© Caroline Alert 1998