Story VI in the "Alchemy" Series

by Caroline Alert

Dedication: This is for Marcy. Sleep sweet, without dreaming. I miss you still.

After Kowalski left, Fraser's apartment was very quiet. Too quiet. He stared out the window for a long time, waiting for the sunrise. It would've been all too easy to give up hope -- to give up, period. Accept what had happened stoically, as he had when he'd lost Victoria, and try to carry on somehow. But it was difficult to know how, in the wake of last night's disastrous events: Ray Vecchio's misguided, murderous assault on Ray Kowalski, his total repudiation of them both when he'd learned they were lovers, and Kowalski's furious departure afterwards. Fraser shook his head. In one fell swoop, one awful night, he'd lost both his best friend and his lover.

Under those circumstances, admitting defeat was more than tempting. It almost seemed necessary.

But somehow, he couldn't do it. As he watched morning light steal over the streets of Chicago, slowly, silently illuminating everything, he realized that in the last few days, something inside him had changed. His interior landscape had altered in a similar way. Brightened. Old shadows had retreated, old wounds finally closed. Despite last night's confusion and pain, his path suddenly seemed clear. He knew where he needed to go: and all his roads led to Ray Kowalski.

Ray was home.

It was that simple -- and that complicated. Because Kowalski might be home, but he was not a cabin or an apartment, not a possession that could be owned, or relied upon to stay in one place. He was volatile, passionate, even tempestuous at times; but most of all, right now, he was gone. Again. Despite his promise not to leave him a second time, he'd stormed out last night like a human tornado. Ben closed his eyes, reliving that instant. When Ray had slammed the door savagely behind him on his way out, the reverberations had shaken not just his apartment, but his heart as well.

Still, the knowledge of his own love and need for him, and the memory of how Ray had returned that love before Vecchio had burst in and torn it all apart, gave Fraser a tiny morsel of hope. A fragment of warmth, in the midst of the coldness of his pain and shock. Something to cling to in the wake of the disaster. He knew what he had to do: make things right with his Rays again somehow. And he made up his mind to do it, no matter what.

Starting with Ray Kowalski. This time, he promised himself, things will be different. Not like they were with Victoria. He had good reasons for that belief. This time, he wasn't running after a mere dream of love, because Ray had told him that he loved him; and unlike her, Ray didn't lie. This time, he wasn't pursuing a lover who scared him to death, who was a criminal with a dark side he couldn't fathom. Ray was a good, brave, and honest man. So this time, he wasn't blindly chasing his own ruin without any thought for the consequences.

This time, he was following his bliss -- with his eyes wide open.

He didn't deceive himself that it would be easy, though. He wasn't even sure how to do it. How to tell Ray Vecchio that he was sorry for having deceived him; how to beg Ray Kowalski's pardon for having endangered him. He didn't know if he deserved either man's forgiveness. But he knew he had to try to win it. Had to think of something.

For the first time in his life, he resolved, calmly, rationally and with a deep sense of purpose, not to stoically accept his latest losses. After all, he never gave up on pursuing criminals. Why should he give up on finding love and happiness? For too long, he'd let himself believe that he labored under a curse, that he was doomed to be alone. He'd forgotten that for a curse to work, a victim must first believe in its power.

Ray Kowalski had taught him to believe in other things.

Before last night's debacle, Kowalski had seemed to believe that he was worth loving. Perhaps there was still time to convince him of that; to prove that his faith, his feelings, had not been misplaced. He smiled a little, thinking of the old cliche that things are always darkest before dawn. He devoutly hoped that was true, and that they'd been through the worst now. He was going to do his best to make sure of it. This dawn would be more than just the start of another day for him. It would be the beginning of a new life: a new Benton Fraser. A better man, whom Ray Kowalski had created.

The new Benton would make amends for his mistakes, he vowed. Starting today.

Serena awakened hours before dawn, to a loud knocking on her apartment door. "Whaa-- wait a minute," she mumbled, groggy. Forcing her eyes open, she pushed herself upright in bed, and brushed her hair out of her eyes as she glanced at her little bedside clock. "2:35 a.m.," she sighed. No wonder it's so dark. No wonder I'm tired...

Whoever was at her door was impatient. The knock sounded again, louder than before. Faster, more urgent. "Okay, okay! I'm coming," she called. As she swung her legs off the bed and stood up, a bad feeling swept over her. This reminded her of nights in Las Vegas. Nights when Ray had showed up on her doorstep like this, very late, without warning. He'd never said where he'd been or what he'd been doing, just that he'd come into town on business, and wanted to see her. But she'd known it was more than that, because his eyes were always shadowed by a darkness she didn't understand. A darkness that he would never explain. He'd told her that he was a detective, so she knew it had to do with his work, but he never wanted to talk about it. And it was hard to press him for answers when she knew he kept silent out of concern for her, either because telling the truth might endanger her, or because he was afraid it would be too painful for her to hear. Maybe both.

So she'd stopped asking questions, but she'd still ached to comfort him. Sometimes, on those late night visits when she felt he was hiding pain he didn't dare let her see, she'd tried to make love to him. But he'd never let her. He'd take her in his arms, hold her and kiss her, but no more than that. "We have to wait," he'd always say. "I want to wait. Please. Because I love you. It's not the right time now."

When she'd asked him when "the right time" would be, he would only say, "Some day." Eventually, she'd stopped pushing. Stopped asking him. She sensed that his refusal had something to do with his work, and she'd learned not to ask about that. She'd learned not to question him about much of anything at all. Except once, towards the end of his undercover stint...

Ray showed up at her place at 2:00 a.m. one morning with a bandage on his cheek, terrible bruises all over his face, and deep cuts around his neck. He'd been attacked. It was brutally obvious, and it shocked her. "Ray!" she blurted. "What happened?"

A muscle jumped in his jaw. For a second, he didn't answer her. She thought he wasn't going to. Then at last, he said quietly, "Nothing. Just a little misunderstanding."

"A misunderstanding!" she echoed, incredulous. "Yeah, with someone's fist. Did you get into a fight or something? Were you mugged?"

He shook his head. "It was business," he said coolly. His tone was a bit frostier that time, though. A subtle warning to her to back off.

But she was too upset to heed it. She stared at him. "Business. Right," she repeated in disbelief. His facial bruises were bad enough, but the marks on his neck were worse. It looked like someone had wrapped some kind of really thin cord around his neck, so tightly that it had cut deep into his skin. He calls that business? she reflected, incredulous. It looks like someone tried to strangle him! She shivered. All at once, she knew. Somehow, she just knew. "Business with Mr. Maxwell?" she asked.

Ray didn't answer her. For a moment, he didn't react at all. Then he turned his head and shot her a sideways look. His face was expressionless, controlled, except for a slight flicker of surprise in his eyes. It was the only reaction he'd let her see, but it was enough. Enough to tell her that she was right. Maxwell had assaulted him. It struck terror into her heart. She'd seen enough of that creep in the club to sense that he was obsessive -- if not insane. She suddenly wondered what other injuries might be hidden under Ray's clothes; and if Maxwell had done worse than assault him. Did he try to kill you? She opened her mouth to ask him, but he'd already turned away. She knew what he was doing -- composing himself. Making sure no more of his real emotions showed in his eyes, so she wouldn't find out anything about the incident that could endanger her. She bit back her question, frustrated, knowing he wouldn't answer it.

"Don't worry, Serena," was all he said. "It's done with. It's over."

But was it? His voice lacked conviction somehow, as if even he didn't quite believe that. Love and fear filled her, made her shiver. She hated this, hated how frightened she was. She was scared to even embrace him, for fear it might hurt him -- scared of how much he'd already been hurt -- and even more scared that it might not end there. That he might get killed. Because if Maxwell had tried that and failed, he would no doubt try again. The idea spread through her like ice, made her whole body feel cold. But she realized that if she knew that, then Ray must know it, too.

That's why he didn't sound convinced. He's afraid Maxwell will try again. But he's not complaining, she thought admiringly. He's not frightened, or hysterical, or any of the things I'd love to let myself be right now. He was cool as always. In control. She wondered how the hell he did it. He lived with so much fear, in such terrible danger, but he did it so bravely. Never a whine, never a complaint. So how could she do any less?

She went to him and took his hand. It felt cold in hers; but her own fingers weren't much warmer. She raised his fingers to her mouth to kiss them, and saw more bruises on the back of his hand and on his knuckles. Whatever had happened between him and Maxwell, at least he'd gotten a few punches in, too. Though the sight of his injuries pained her, she was glad that their fight hadn't been entirely one-sided.

Her eyes filled with tears as she kissed his hand softly. The thought of losing him was almost more than she could bear, but she wouldn't let him see that. If he had to go away to ensure his safety, then so be it. She folded her fingers around his, trying to warm them. "Can't you leave?" she asked him. "Can't you just get out?"

He smiled then. A real, genuine, warm smile, just for her. It lit up his face, bruised as it was. "I will," he said unexpectedly, slipping his arms around her. "I'm gonna go. Soon."

Serena's heart contracted so painfully that for a moment, she could hardly breathe. He's leaving me! Perversely, now that he'd agreed to do what she'd asked, it was the last thing in the world she wanted. Still, part of her was glad, because it meant that he would be all right. Out of danger. So when she could speak again, all she said was, "Good. I want you to be safe, and you're not safe here."

It was as close as they ever came, even in the privacy of her apartment, to discussing what he did.

"Don't worry about me," Ray murmured, resting his chin lightly on top of her hair. He pressed a kiss into the top of her head, his lips feather light. "Anyway, you gotta tell me something first."

"What?" she whispered, resting her head on his shoulder.

"Tell me you love me," he said, his long, elegant fingers stroking her hair. "I never get tired of hearin' that."

She smiled, in spite of everything. "You know I do."

"Then I have to ask you something." He put a finger under her chin, tilted her face up to his. " Will you come with me when I go? Cuz I don't wanna leave you."

She was silent for a moment, stunned by the idea. By his unexpected request.

But her silence only seemed to make him more determined. Into the sudden hush, he said, "Will you marry me, Serena? I love you, and I want you to be part of my life forever."

She stared up at him in wonder, into his beloved face. This tall, slender, balding man with the most beautiful eyes she'd ever seen, who smiled at her and spoke of love when he was probably in a lot of pain, who'd put himself in harm's way to take down a group of terrible, evil men -- he was everything she'd ever dreamed about. He was brave, tender, funny, generous and charming, like a knight in shining armor in one of those old fairy tales. And she wanted him to be hers.

"Yes," she said, smiling back at him radiantly. "I'll marry you, Ray."

"Yeah?" he echoed. And for once, he let his feelings show. Delight dawned on his face, made it shine.

"Yes. And I'll go with you. Wherever you want."

He pulled her into his arms and kissed her, and held her tightly. She could feel a slight bulge around his chest, as if he had a band wrapped around his chest, under his tailored shirt. Or was it a bandage? She wondered with a pang if he had broken ribs. Although Vegas had been her home, she suddenly felt they couldn't get out of town fast enough. She couldn't stand the thought that Ray wasn't safe here, that he probably wasn't safe anywhere, as long as he was pretending to be Armando Langostini. She made sure to hold him lightly, so as not to hurt him. She could feel his heart beating fast against her, too fast, and she suddenly realized how unsure he'd been of her answer. That about this one thing, at least, he had truly been afraid. "Silly," she whispered into his shoulder. "Don't you know how much I love you?"

He rubbed his hands over her back, a kind of wordless caress in reply. Then he lifted her head off his shoulder, took her face in his hands gently and said, "Thank you." He showered kisses on her. "I swear, I'll do my best to make you happy. I love you, Serena. More than anything else in this world," he breathed. But then a shadow passed over his face, dimming the happy light in his eyes. "Serena... We may not be able to leave town together," he said at last.

"Do you mean you'd want me to go first?"

He smiled a small, rueful smile. "That's exactly what I want. But it'd look too suspicious. I'm gonna have to go first."

"That's okay," she answered. "I trust you, Ray."

"Good. Listen, I know this won't be easy, but you've got to promise me a couple more things. First, that no matter what you hear about me in the next month or so, don't believe it. I'll be all right, I promise. And I'll send for you as soon as I can. Okay?"

She didn't quite know what to think of that, but he took her face in his hands, and looked down at her so with such tenderness that she found herself agreeing, in spite of everything.

"Okay then. There's just one more thing. Promise me you won't tell anyone that we're getting married, or that we're leaving. No one," he insisted. "Not even your best friend. Okay?"

"All right. I promise." But while she didn't know what the specifics of his plan were, she knew the reason for those promises. So despite her happiness, for the second time that night, she was afraid...

Serena blinked, trying to banish the troubling memory. To put it back into the past, where it belonged. We're not in Vegas anymore, she reminded herself. They were far away from the Iguanas. They were safe. And she had to get dressed, had to answer the door. She turned on a light so she could find her robe, and the memory finally dissolved. Still, the thought lingered that it was strange, how the happiest moment of her life had been mingled with fear. But it was true. One dark night in Vegas, Ray had kissed her, asked her to marry him, then frightened her by swearing her to total secrecy about it.

Her mouth curved in a little smile. Still... It was a small price to pay, to have him. Besides, he told me that everything would be all right, someday. And I believed him. But this is our someday, she realized, her smile fading away. At least, it was supposed to be.

Half frightened, half irritated, she pulled on her robe with unsteady hands. She'd thought she was done with being roused out of bed after midnight, done with having to answer the door with her heart in her mouth, afraid it was someone coming to tell her that Ray had been killed. He was out of that terrible life now, and she'd thought things had settled down. That things were going to be all right, like Ray had promised, and like she'd believed. After they came to Chicago, and he took his old job back, that worrisome darkness had faded from his eyes. He seemed happy now, they'd bought a house and they were getting married in a week...

Still, deep down inside, something nagged at her. She couldn't shake the feeling that Ray was still hurting about something. About whatever it was that used to bring him to her door in Vegas at all hours of the night, with a black look in his eyes. She suspected it had something to do with Maxwell. But his beating, bad though it was, hadn't caused it. He'd had it long before that. She'd asked him about that look before, but he'd brushed her questions aside, as he always did. Still, she was anxious enough about it that she'd tried to ask Ben Fraser if he knew what it was all about. She thought Ray might've confided things to him that he wouldn't tell her. But Ray had interrupted them before Ben could say much; and after that, she'd decided not to pursue it with him. After all, if she wanted to know, she really ought to ask Ray.

She sighed to herself. I tried that again, too. Of course, when I did, he told me it was nothing. That he's fine. But she wasn't sure she could believe that. Though she knew Ray wouldn't ordinarily lie to her, she also knew that he was very protective of those he loved. Just as he'd kept silent about his beating, he would probably also hide his emotional pain for unselfish reasons, to protect her.

But she didn't want to be protected -- didn't need to be. She wanted Ray to trust her with his secrets. She was strong enough to handle them, whatever they were. She resolved to ask him about it once more, before the wedding. Make sure that whatever was wrong with him had nothing to do with her. She didn't think so, she felt instinctively that his big, dark secret had something to do with his undercover work, but it wouldn't hurt to make sure. If she was wrong, and he'd gotten cold feet about marrying her or something, she wanted to know that, too.

Meanwhile, she told herself that it might not be Ray at her door at all, so she might be worrying for no reason. As she stumbled to answer it, she blinked to wake herself up. But she was already reaching for the doorknob before full awareness hit, before she realized that at this late hour, if it wasn't Ray, she'd better not open it. She dropped her hand and listened for a moment, her heart beating a little faster than normal, just to see if her unknown caller had given up and gone away.

But as she hesitated, the knocking changed to pounding. She heard the unmistakable sound of a fist thudding against her door, and she heard Ray's voice. "Serena! Serena, please -- open up!"

She flicked on her hallway light and hurriedly unlocked her door, her heart in her mouth. She knew something was badly wrong before she opened it. She heard the Vegas shadows in his voice.

Ray was at Fraser's door at 6:30 that night, late enough to ensure that Ben would be home from work. Maybe because he wanted to surprise him, or maybe because he was afraid Ben wouldn't answer if he knew who it was, Ray didn't knock. He just grabbed the knob and pushed the door lightly, to let himself in.

But the door didn't open. He frowned. This building's old, so the door's probly stuck. Warped. He pushed a bit harder, turned the knob againand met resistance. He jiggled it a third time, frustrated, and pushed harder. But there was no mistake. Fraser's door wasn't warped shut, it was locked.

What gives? He NEVER locks his door.

Ray turned cold. He didn't have a key to Fraser's apartment. He'd never needed one -- until now. Dumbfounded by this sudden change in the Mountie's habits, he stared at the door knob, as the chilling realization that he'd been locked out settled into his bones.

And the shocks didn't stop there. He spotted something unfamiliar just above the doorknob: a bright new, protruding metallic cylinder. A dead bolt! What the hell? He was stunned. Fraser hadn't just locked his door, he'd double-locked it. Sometime after he'd left his apartment in the wee hours of the morning, Ben had had a dead-bolt lock added to it, then locked both it and the original lock.

It seemed Fraser was suddenly determined to keep someone out; and Ray thought he knew who, and why. He closed his eyes as a terrible feeling rushed through him. Remembering how he'd screamed at Ben like a lunatic, cursed at him, how he'd done everything but hit him before he left, he was filled with guilty panic. His whole body went weak, boneless, like his spine had turned to spaghetti. Feeling like his knees were about to give out, he leaned his forehead against the door. Oh no. Oh shit! Ben...

Seconds later, there was a faint noise on the other side of the door. Ray heard the distinctive sound of bolts being turned, and jumped back instinctively. As the door suddenly swung open, he did his best to look cool, calm and collected. Cuz Ben stood there. Dressed in jeans and a checked blue shirt that made his azure eyes look even bluer, he was so gorgeous that the breath caught in Ray's throat.

"Ray!" Ben said. "I thought I heard someone at the door."

But he didn't think it'd be me. He looks too surprised, Ray noted, suspicious. Who was he expectin'? Vecchio maybe? He swallowed hard, trying to hide his fear and jealousy, trying to look like he hadn't just about collapsed into a puddle outside Ben's shockingly locked door. Trying to think what to say next. "Yeah. That was me," he said finally. Then he winced, realizing how stupid that sounded. Duh! That's you all right: Mr. Obvious. What a moron!

But Ben didn't call him on it. With his usual politeness, he just said, "Hello."

"Hi." Ray tried to sound casual, but it was hard, because he saw something strange in Ben's eyes. Just for a second, there was a flash of something that looked like fear. Then Ben blinked, composing himself, and the emotion was hidden behind a familiar, stolid expression. Ray felt a flash of anger. Damn. What does that look mean? Did he talk to Vecchio already? Did he make him cut a deal? Am I already history?

He couldn't tell. But the fact that Ben was hanging back, that he hadn't reached out to hug him, or even smiled, wasn't exactly reassuring. Ray realized he'd been hoping that the distance Vecchio had put between them last night would've evaporated by now, that Ben would be glad to see him. He hadn't expected that he'd act stand-offish and polite, like he was some goddamn stranger. Hadn't known that he'd still be wearing the frozen, mask-like expression he'd put on after Vecchio's attack.

Great! He's still bein' the fuckin' Ice Prince. Friggin' freezin' Arctic Mountie. Terrific.

Now, on top of feeling stupid, he felt angry. Jealous. Terrified. It all bottled up in his throat, and short-circuited his brain. He'd rehearsed what he wanted to say to Ben on the way over, but suddenly, he couldn't remember a word of it. In the absence of his prepared speech, in the face of Ben's coldness, anger felt necessary. Like self defense. Like if he didn't get mad, his face might freeze off, from the chill Ben was generating. He was tempted to let go, to let him have it. Demand to know if he'd actually gone and apologized to Vecchio, even after he'd told him not to, and warm things up with some yelling if he had. But he had just enough self control to beat back that impulse. That'd be stupid. Won't like it if he did, but I don't wanna talk about that now. Did enough yellin' last night. Don't wanna start another fight. Came back to make up with him, not hassle him more about Vecchio.

Tongue-tied, he wracked his brain for conversation. Something, anything that wouldn't make him look like even more of an idiot. Finally, fear gave him the answer. "Yer door," he grated at last. Feeling hopelessly awkward, he tried again. "There's auhanother lock on it," he said, pointing to it. Way too late, he realized that Mr. Obvious had just taken control of his tongue again. Flustered, he added, "I meana new one."

Ben wasn't much help. He was silent for a minute, then he just said, "Yes. Yes, there is."

Ray felt a twinge of frustration. He wasn't the only one who kept stating the obvious. "Uh... when did that happen?" he prodded, hoping the answer would also tell him why.

But Ben just looked away, as if he didn't know what to say.

Ray's heart sank. It was looking more and more like he'd been right. Like Fraser had that lock put on because of him. To keep him out, after his fit of rage over Vecchio's assault. But he couldn't bring himself to come right out and ask him. Cuz if he did, isn't it already too late for talkin' anyway? Wouldn't that mean that it's over?

That thought squeezed his heart like a vise. Uncertainty tore at him. He hated not knowing what was really going on, not being able to read Ben's signals. You'd think after what he'd gone through with Stella, he'd be able to. That he'd have the language of goodbye down pat. That he'd know all the signs, see the handwriting on the wall this time. But he couldn't tell what Ben's silence meant. Is he embarrassed? Pissed? Sorry he ever met me? Tryin' to get rid o' me? Dunno.

The harder he tried to figure it out, the more difficult it got to think rationally. His mouth was dry, and his tongue felt like it was wrapped in cotton. Images of the attack intruded into his mind, distracting him. He saw Vecchio's face again, his cold, determined look as he shoved his gun into his mouth. He saw the reflection of his own death in those icy green eyes. Remembered Ben's face afterwards: cold, remote, unreachable.

Just like it is now.

He'd thought he'd gotten his head clear walking by the lake, but somehow, looking at Ben's face, seeing how distant he still looked, brought everything back with a vengeance. His heart was beating hard, and it took a heroic effort to shove those harrowing memories away, to focus on Ben again. It took everything he had. There was nothing left over, no extra energy available to conjure up magic words to say that would take them past all that. He wanted him desperately, but after last night, he didn't know how to tell him, or if the Ice Prince would even want to hear it. He didn't know if Ben's frozen expression meant that he'd been shut out by more than just his new lock. Didn't know if he'd talked to Vecchio while he was at the lake, and if they'd gotten back together, and shoved him out of the picture. He didn't know where he stood.

In despair, he gave up on trying to talk. Shut his mouth before something even worse came out, and waited, with his heart beating painfully fast, for Ben to answer him. To take up the question he'd dropped like a lead weight between them, and explain that lock that was scaring the hell out of him.

Ben jammed his hands in his pockets and looked down at his feet, as if he was equally at a loss for words. "I put it on this morning," he said at last, just when the silence between them threatened to become unbearable.

Ya put it on yerself? Shit! Ray's anxiety grew. He tried to search his eyes to find out why he'd done it, but Ben still avoided his gaze. Ray felt a cry gathering inside of him. Was Fraser looking away because it really was over between them, and he just didn't know how to tell him? His fear intensified. He wanted to protest loudly. No, no! Don't do this! Don't shut me out! Don't! I'm sorry!

But he bit his tongue before the anxious words could spill out, before he started apologizing all over the place for what he'd done after Vecchio left. I had a right to be angry. Vecchio tried to fuckin' kill me! So maybe I said a few things I shouldn't've, got madder at Ben than was fair, but I ain't gonna apologize for goin' off on Vecchio. No way! He wasn't going to beg to be taken back, either, like he'd begged Ben not to leave his apartment that time. Begging was uncool, and much as he loved Ben, he wasn't going to make a habit of that. Though he suspected Ben might melt if he hugged him like he had that day, the thought of doing that to him deliberately, to get something he wanted, made him feel slightly queasy. Trying to manipulate Ben through his love of touch -- that'd be worse than wrong. It'd put him on a level with all the people in Fraser's past who'd used, abused and then left him.

Even if things didn't work out between them, Ray never wanted to be lumped in with them. With the ones who'd abused Ben's innocence.

So he kept his hands to himself, and stiffened his back a little instead. Squared his shoulders, and tried hard to think positive. Maybe I don't need to beg, anyway. Maybe I'm jumpin' to conclusions here. He'd lost Ben once before because he'd done that, because he'd jumped to all the wrong ones. So this time, though patience wasn't his strong point, he forced himself to wait. Not gonna make that mistake again. Not gonna freak out before I got all the facts. Maybe this isn't what I think...

So he just said, "Oh. Put it on yerself, huh? Well. Yer pretty handy there, Frayzh." Stupid, ridiculous, meaningless words that weren't what he wanted to say. Better than beggin' or goin' nuclear again, though. They'll do. But he was hesitant to say more. He wanted Fraser to do some talking now. Needed him to. So he shut up again, scratched his neck and tried to look casual. Tried not to look as scared as he felt, at the news that Ben had installed his new lock with his own two hands. But all he had on the positive side, to balance out that cold, hard fact, were a lot of maybes. Like maybe Ben still loved him. And maybe he'd put that lock on his door for some weird Canadian reason he didn't know about, and not to keep him out.

Yeah, and maybe pigs can fly, he thought sourly.

So he didn't come inside Ben's apartment. Ben's lock made that impossible. Like some goddamn invisible elephant, it filled the doorway between them. He couldn't go past it. Couldn't go around it. All he could do was stand helplessly on his side of it, hating it.

Ben didn't ask him in, either. They just lingered there on opposite sides of the awkward, ominous silence that his shiny new deadbolt had created, unable to look each other in the eye. Ray stared over Ben's shoulder. Ben studied his boots. Ray's feet, like his heart, felt heavy. He tried not to think about what Ben's awkwardness, and his new lock, might mean.

He wished to God he knew what Ben was thinking. But he still didn't have a clue. Ben's Mountie mask was firmly in place again, and he couldn't see through it.

"Ray, you've got to tell me. What happened?" Serena asked.

Vecchio gritted his teeth. He'd hardly even opened his mouth yet, had barely said "Hi," yet Serena already knew that something was badly wrong. He hadn't counted on that. He'd been so freaked out after attacking Kowalski that he'd run to her like a scared rabbit, on sheer instinct. Run in the only direction that seemed to promise safety. But he suddenly realized that he'd been wrong -- again. By coming here, he hadn't found safety. Instead, by forgetting how perceptive she was, he'd risked what little he had left. He'd meant to tell her what had happened. But not that the moment was here, he couldn't. A cold chill cut through him. What was I thinking? I can't tell her. She'll think I'm nuts. He'd lose her, and if that happened, he'd lose everything.

"Nothing," he lied, hating himself for his own cowardice. "Nothing happened. I just wanted to see you--"

"At two thirty in the morning?" Serena interrupted. She should've looked soft and adorable, with her hair tousled and a soft pink robe wrapped around her, but she didn't. Her blue eyes blazed, and all at once, she looked angry. "Stop it, Ray!" she said, moving towards him. "I'm not stupid, you know. I can tell when you lie to me!"

He bit his lip. Worse and worse. Not only had he lied to her, but he'd done it so stupidly that she'd taken it as an insult to her intelligence. "I'm sorry," he muttered.

Serena took a deep breath, as if to calm herself. When she spoke again, she was still angry, but her voice was softer. "We're not in Vegas now. You're not doing undercover anymore, and you promised me that once we got here, you wouldn't keep secrets from me! And I can see it in your eyes, that something's wrong. Something's happened. Something that hurt you. So why won't you tell me what it is?"

She sounded frustrated. Sad. Like she was only angry because his lie kept her from helping him like she wanted to. Vecchio swallowed hard. It hit him with painful force: she didn't deserve this. Didn't deserve a nutty, screwed-up psycho like him. Now that she was close to him, he could see fear mixed with the anger in her beautiful blue eyes. His heart contracted painfully. He hadn't told her a thing yet, and he'd already upset her. He'd never wanted to hurt her, had never wanted this to happen--

But it did. It did, and you'd better deal with it, or you're gonna lose her, his conscience whispered. She's gonna find out anyway. Kowalski's gonna file charges, you know that. The shit's gonna hit the fan. Better if she hears it from you first.

"All right," he said, feeling sick inside. He took her hand. "Come 'mere. Sit down." He pulled her over to the sofa and sat down beside her. "You're right. I do have somethin' to tell you."

She softened at once. Reached over and touched his cheek gently. "Good. It'll be okay, sweetheart. I promise," she said.

Sweetheart. That word undid him. She was the one who was sweet, who was good -- she was like Benny. As gentle as he was, and goddamn near as innocent, too. At least -- as innocent as I used to think Benny was, he reflected bitterly. Now, he knew better. Still, it cut through him suddenly. The pain of losing him. How much Benny had meant to him. How empty his life had been, during that year in Arizona without him. He didn't know what he would've done if Serena hadn't come along to fill that emptiness--

All at once, a disturbing idea arrowed through his mind. He'd been missing Benny, missing him more than he'd thought possible, when he'd first met Serena. Is there a connection? He'd never thought of it before, but there were lots of similarities between the two of them. For starters, they both had dark hair and blue eyes; but it didn't end there. Their personalities were similar, too. Serena's sweet and gentle -- just like Benny. She's smart like him, she even loves classical music like he does. She's just like him, in a lot of ways. Is that what I did in Arizona? Look for some sort of substitute for him? Is that all Serena is to me, just a female version of him? Someone safe, who it's okay for me to love? Did I -- do I -- want Benny that way?

The idea blew through his mind like a freezing gust of wind, shaking him. Threatening the foundations of his self image. It frightened him so much that he instinctively rejected it.

Naw. That's crazy.

But was it? Kowalski had said something like that, implied that he was jealous of him for having sex with Ben. Implied that he'd attacked him because of it. At the time, he'd been so furious that he'd just put it down to an attempt at payback on Kowalski's part. A vengeful lie. But now, somewhere way down deep, he wondered if there was something to it. After all, this was the second time he'd pulled his gun on one of Benny's lovers. Granted, both times, he'd thought Fraser was in danger, but... Is that all it was? Was I just tryin' to save him? Or was I jealous of them?

Doubt tore at him. I know I love Benny -- I mean, loved him as a friend -- but is there more to it than that? Does some part of me want him too? Did Maxwell do that to me? Or was I like that already, and just didn't know it? Did I fall in love with Serena cuz she reminds me of him?

The very idea scared him. That can't be true. It can't. I've always liked women. Hell, I was married! And I'm getting married again. Doesn't matter what I did with Maxwell, I don't like guys! Not like that! He pushed it away. He couldn't deal with it. Not at all. He had too many serious problems as it was. Later, when things had settled down, he knew he'd come back to it. He'd have to, because it would gnaw at him, until he figured it out. But for now, he had to concentrate on more important things.

Like how the hell was he going to tell Serena what he'd done? That he'd almost murdered a cop tonight? Worse, that it wasn't just any cop, but that he'd almost murdered Benny's lover? That his best friend was bisexual? Fear filled him, mixed with frustration. He couldn't tell her about Maxwell, and unless he did, she'd never understand his own part in it. Why he'd made such a terrible mistake...

"Serena..." Feeling helpless, he took her hand in his and stroked it, marveling at her slender, delicate bones. But he also knew in his heart that he was stalling for time. He forced himself to speak, but what came out wasn't the confession he meant to make. "You know I love you?" he asked. But the question was more for his sake than hers; because for the first time since he'd met her, a small part of him wasn't sure of all his reasons for that.

"Of course I do. And I love you, too, Ray. That's why you can tell me anything," she said softly. "We're getting married, and that's what being married is all about. Sharing everything, the good and the bad. Right?"

Her innocent eyes shone into his, and he knew that however mixed up his motives for it might be, he did love her. She meant everything to him. But knowing that only made his fear even worse. She's saying that cuz she doesn't know how bad it is. Oh God, please... I wanna do the right thing here. Don't let me lose her, he prayed. He dredged up a lopsided smile, to cover his terror. "You sound like a Hallmark card," he teased gently, trying to look calm. In reality, every muscle in his body felt taut, strained, as if he wanted to run somewhere. But there was no place left to go.

Serena laughed softly. "Maybe so, but it's true. Isn't it?" She leaned over to kiss him.

When her mouth met his, he knew she was right. It was true; really loving someone meant sharing everything with them, good, bad and indifferent. He'd gotten used to protecting Serena from the dark side of things, but this time, he couldn't. He was going to have to tell her. He had to. Everything except the stuff about Maxwell, anyway. He'd just have to hope that she'd forgive him, that she'd understand without knowing that about him -- and pray that Fraser and Kowalski wouldn't tell her, either.

"Yeah. It's true," he said, when their kiss was done. He held onto her hands, held them tightly, and took a deep breath. "Okay then. Here it is. This isn't easy to say--"

"I know. But whatever it is, you can tell me," she repeated. Her voice was soft, but her gaze was steady.

She's so brave, he thought, admiring her. Brave and pretty and sweet... He wasn't sure he deserved to have someone like her. Or that she wouldn't hate him, and walk out of his life once she knew even part of what he'd done. He tried to think of the right words, the right way to explain what had happened, so she wouldn't think he was crazy. But several minutes passed, and his mind stayed frustratingly blank.


He looked away. He knew Serena was waiting for an answer, but he couldn't seem to find his voice. No matter how he tried, he couldn't think of a way to explain what he'd done that sounded even remotely sane.

Finally, just when Kowalski thought his frayed nerves were going to snap, Ben finally lifted his head. His mouth opened, then shut, then opened again. Finally, words came rushing out. "I'm so sorry, Ray! I always thought we were safe here with Dief. I never thought--"


A dip of Ben's dark head, a faint blush, and then a longer torrent of words. "It just never occurred to me that -- anyone would attack us. Granted, it should have. I live in a rather crime-ridden area, so it should have, I know that. Statistics alone would have indicated -- but I failed to anticipate... I just never expected an attack would come from that quarter. I never thought a friend would -- I told myself that it wasn't really a lie, you see. Something more like a little white lie. Except there isn't really such a thing, is there? Because when a person lies, especially to a friend, there's nothing little about it. It's really a big thing, a dark kind of thing, and--"

Kowalski stared at him. "What?" he repeated, his confusion increasing. What the hell is he sayin'? White an' dark, lies and friends... I don't get it.

Fraser was so upset he was babbling, and that scared Ray almost as much as the new lock on his door. He couldn't even seem to finish a sentence. He was talking in such a disjointed rush that Ray couldn't understand half of it. It sounded like Ben was saying he felt he should've foreseen the attack, that maybe he felt he should've been more security conscious. But after that, he got lost. Had no idea what the Mountie was talking about. It sounded a bit like he was apologizing, but what exactly was he saying he was sorry for?

He shut up again and listened hard, not daring to say anything, just trying to understand Ben's frantic speech. But it was hard to hear over the nervous pounding of his own heart, and it didn't help that Ben just kept talking faster and faster, like some hopped-up junkie.

"Well, you see he'd just gotten back when the subject came up, and he thought you were a she, and I -- wellIjustdidn'tcorrecthim--"

Alarmed at the frantic, increasing speed of Fraser's crazy monologue, Ray held up both his hands, palm outward. "FRASER!" he barked. "Heyheyhey! STOP!"

Ben blinked, his forehead crinkling in obvious distress at Ray's interruption. But for a few seconds, he finally, blessedly, shut up.

Ray breathed a sigh of relief, and lowered his hands. All those words had been making his head spin. "Yer just -- yer goin' too fast for me," he said gently, into Fraser's chastened silence.

Ben nodded, and took a deep breath. "Understood."

"Okay. So try it again. But slower. And in English this time. Okay?"

"All right. What I'm trying to say is, I meant to tell Ray Vecchio about you -- about us -- when he first came back. But before I could, he assumed I had a girlfriend, and I just--"

Suddenly, Ray got it. What all that babble about white lies and friendship was about, and why it had sounded like an apology. "Ya let him think that," he finished for him. "That ya had a girlfriend. Cuz it was easier than tellin' him about me."

Ben's gaze fell to the floor again, his face a study in shame. "Yes," he croaked miserably.

Ray had another flash of comprehension, this time about their fight last night. Maybe there had been more reasons for Ben's distance after Vecchio left than just loyalty to his old buddy. Reasons like guilt. I shoulda known. He always takes everything on his shoulders. Thinks he screwed up. "So now you think what happened to me is yer fault. Cuz o' that," he guessed.

"Yes!" Fraser breathed, with what sounded strangely like relief.

Ray knew where the relief came from. Ben was just glad that he'd finally understood, that what he no doubt considered to be his huge, ugly, earth-shaking lie was now out in the open. He shook his head wryly. He'd never met anyone as innocent as Ben, in all his life. That kinda thing was all I had on my conscience, I could die a happy man, he thought. He knew Fraser wouldn't look at it that way, though. Funny thing was, though, knowing him, he'd probably never really uttered the words "my girlfriend" at all. Because that would've been an outright lie, and Fraser would've figured the heavens would fall, or something, if he did that. "Didja ever actually SAY ya had a girlfriend?" he asked shrewdly.

Fraser shrugged, and swiped nervously at his eyebrow. "Well, no, but--"

Ray smiled a little, inwardly. "So Vecchio just assumed it."

"Yes. But I let him," Ben protested.

Ray shook his head firmly. Time to hit Ben with a one-two punch, knock a hole in the wall of his guilt. "Doesn't matter," he said. "If ya didn't tell him that, ya didn't lie! It's not the same thing. And what happened isn't yer fault. Toldja that."

One, Ray thought. He stopped there. Waited for a minute, to let the message sink in. Watched Ben think about it, watched him struggle with the idea that he might not be the one totally responsible for last night's attack, after all. Okay. Two. "Besides, I can see why ya did it," he went on in a gentler voice. "You two've been friends for a long time. Ya knew it'd be a big shock to him, and ya didn't wanna hit him over the head with it, when he just got back from a bad time undercover. Dat makes sense. I get that."

Ben's eyes widened in a look of mingled hope and disbelief. "You do?"

Ray felt relieved. He'd knocked a hole in Ben's guilt, all right. It was working! Better still, they were talking now. Really talking. Maybe starting to make their way back to where they'd been before Vecchio burst in and loused it all up. And it was what he wanted, what he needed, God, yeah. To give to Ben. To make up for how he'd hurt him last night. To get back together with him. To show him that, in return for all the amazing things Ben did for him, he could do something for the Mountie, too: take away his stupid guilt, that he shouldn't even be feeling but always did. It came to him, in a sharp sort of flash, that maybe that was one of the reasons Ben needed him. To make him feel more human. Less of an outsider.

If Ben still needed him... Please, let him need me. Somehow, anyhow.

Driven to strengthen the tenuous connection he now felt between them, he went on. "Sure. In yer place, I mighta done the same. An' hell, maybe you were right not to tell him then. Ya ever think o' that? I mean, look how he 'snapped' the other night, when he found out -- and he's had months to calm down, to settle back in. Imagine what a hair trigger he mighta had when he first got back to Chicago!"

Ray paused again and watched Ben carefully, to see if he could absorb yet another scenario that didn't involve him being guilty of anything.

Ben cocked his head, and blinked several times in obvious surprise. It was clear that the notion had never even occurred to him. He'd been too busy blaming himself, as usual, for what he saw as his Failure To Do The Right Thing, to even consider that worse things might've happened if he'd acted differently. Ray sighed to himself. He wondered, not for the first time, just who it was who'd taught Ben that everything -- everything -- was always his fault. He'd hoped he was starting to cure him of that habit, but it was obvious Ben still had a long way to go. Still, at least he was thinking about it now. At least he was considering the idea that he might not be at fault, this one time. That was something. So Ray pressed on.

"If ya'd told him we were lovers then, he might not've taken it any better. It might've even been worse. He mighta come lookin' for me when you weren't around. And I wouldn't've seen it comin', either. Cuz, you know, he's a cop. And not just any cop, he's who I was pretendin' to be. I'd been coverin' his back, in a way. So he's the last person I ever woulda thought would try to hurt me. So if he'd come after me, I wouldn't have even suspected anything was wrong. I'd've trusted him, until it was too late."

There. Let Ben try to argue with that one.

Ray watched as Ben's expression went from surprise to quiet speculation to outright alarm. For once, he knew just what he was thinking. He was visualizing the ugly "might've been" picture that he'd just painted for him. Good, he thought. Anything to get him off this guilt trip. But aloud, he just added, "See? So the way I figure it, ya probly did me a favor, not tellin' him at first. At least by the time he found out, his Wiseguy reflexes were a little rusty; and you were there, to talk him out of it."

That, most of all, he thought to himself. He smiled at Ben as he watched him try to absorb all these new ideas. A belated surge of gratitude went through him. This beautiful, nutty, maddeningly complex guy had laid his life on the line for him, had saved his ass last night -- at the cost of his own best friend. He just wished he'd guessed that Ben's silence afterwards hadn't signified indifference, or total withdrawal, or loyalty to Vecchio rather than him, like he'd thought. Knowing the Mountie as well as he did, it should've occurred to him that Ben was wrestling with guilt instead. But it hadn't. His own insecurity had made him leap to the conclusion that Ben was reconsidering their relationship, that he was thinking about getting rid of him, in order to get Vecchio's friendship back.

He was ashamed.

I was a dickhead, he thought. Like they say, actions speak louder 'n words. And when the chips were down, Ben acted. Gave me everything he had. He was naked as a jaybird, he didn't have a gun, but he still tried to jump Vecchio to save me! He risked his life for me. Even told the homophobe that he loves me, when he knew that'd drive Vecchio away for sure. He saved my ass, at the cost of his best friend. Can't ask more from a guy than that.

But he had. Even after Fraser had saved his life, like partners are supposed to, and alienated his best friend in the process, he'd never even said thanks. Instead, he'd punished him, screamed and shouted at him, even come within a hair of punching him, while poor Ben was still in shock. All cuz he'd misread his signals, and didn't realize Ben felt totally, miserably responsible for what had happened. Blowin' up on him like that was stupid. He's the best thing that ever happened to me. Gotta make it up to him. Please, lemme make it up to you, he pleaded in his head as he waited for Fraser to think it all through.

Ben didn't say anything for a minute. When he did, he just said slowly, "You could be right, Ray. It's possible that Ray Vecchio might've reacted even more harshly to the idea of our relationship if he'd learned of it on his return. I just never -- well, that possibility hadn't occurred to me."

Ray smiled with pure relief. For once, Ben had listened to him. Even agreed with him. He felt a thrill of pride, but shrugged it off. After the way he'd treated him last night, he was just lucky that Ben was even willing to listen to a word out of his mouth. He had nothing to get cocky about, and more than a little to make up for. "Hey. Nobody's perfect," he said, hoping he'd understand that he was talking about himself there, too. "Don't think I ever said thanks to you last night, either. Thanks, Ben," he said, holding his gaze. "Thanks for savin' my skinny ass."

Sounded like a joke, but it wasn't. And Fraser knew it. For the first time, Ray saw a little glint in his blue eyes. A hint of real warmth. A thawing of the Arctic chill. "Think nothing of it, Ray," he said softly. "It was my pleasure."

Ray's heart leapt. Was he just imagining it, or had Ben just said something a bit dirty? Something that sounded polite, but really meant that he was still hot for him?

He couldn't tell. Before he could think of anything even remotely hot to say back to him, the warmth vanished. Ben's eyes hooded over again.

Ray's stomach tightened. That chill meant bad news. He knew it. Felt it in his gut.

"But there's something else I want to tell you," Ben went on. "Something ... I need to say. I know you were... angry with me, because I didn't -- because I couldn't--" he faltered, and looked down again. He had to take a deep breath to steady himself. "Because I couldn't come near you last night, afterwards. After Ray left."

Ray could tell that had been really hard for him to say. So despite his fear about where Ben might be going with this, he was honest in return. "Yeah. I was," he admitted.

Ben just nodded. "I wanted to tell you why. It was because not telling Ray about you wasn't the only mistake I made."

I was right. More bad news. Ray held his breath. Was Ben gonna tell him that he was the other mistake? That he hadn't touched him since cuz he didn't want him anymore? Was that it? Had what happened last night put him off for good? Convinced him that having sex with a guy was just too hard? That their relationship was a mistake, after all? His heart kicked into a nervous, racing beat again. Please, no. Don't say that.

For once, his prayers were answered.

"Not locking my door was the other one," Ben said. "It was... stupid, so stupid."

Ray let out a silent breath of relief.

But Ben shook his head, looking pale. "It was gross negligence on my part. You could've been killed. So this new lock is for you, Ray," he said earnestly. "It's so... we can be alone. So you'll be safe. Because... So nothing like that can ever happen again, when you're here with me."

Ray's heart turned over. At last, he understood: Fraser's new lock didn't mean goodbye, it meant just the opposite. It meant Ben was looking out for him, taking care of him, like he always did. Understanding that brought not just relief, but an awareness of his own stupidity. He'd been as blind as Ben, in his own way. It had never even crossed his mind, not once, that he might've put that lock on for his benefit, and not to keep him out. Jeez. It was all he could do to keep from punching himself in the head for being so fucking dumb, about something so important. If Ben hadn't been standing there, he would have.

But he was, so he just mumbled, "It's okay. I get it."

However, it seemed Ben wasn't done apologizing. Not yet. "I still think it was my fault that Ray attacked you," he said, his voice hoarse with emotion. "Not just because I didn't tell him the truth, but because I didn't care enough about your safety, about our privacy, to think of locking my door when we were together. If I'd done both those things, he would never have hurt you. I've just -- I've lived alone for so long, I'm not used to -- well, to being with someone else." Ben blushed. "But I swear, I never meant for that to happen. I never wanted you to get hurt, Ray. I'm so sorry."

Ray could hardly believe it. Ben's eyes were wide, and filled with a fear that matched Ray's own. But he'd been hiding his, hiding his distress and confusion ever since he got to Ben's door. Suddenly, Ben wasn't. The frozen Mountie mask he'd been wearing after Vecchio left, the one that had driven Ray half crazy, was suddenly gone as if it had never been. For once, Ben was letting it all show: his love, his fear, how much he'd been hurt by what Vecchio had done. It was all there in his blue eyes suddenly; and all that raw, naked emotion made him look both desperate and starkly beautiful.

Ray just stared at him for a second, rapt by the sight of Ben with his heart on his sleeve. Looking like a fallen angel. Looking at him like he was the reason he'd fallen.

Ben bit his lip, and asked shakily, "Please, Ray. Can you please -- forgive me?"

Oh yeah.

Ray's relief was so overwhelming, it robbed him of speech. He couldn't say a word, but he was moving before he knew it. Stepping through the doorway, past the new and now wondrous lock. Taking Ben in his arms. Kissing him hard, pressing their bodies together tightly. Ben moaned, a soft, shaky sound of relief as their mouths met. An answering cry came from Ray's throat as Ben's arms wrapped around him in response, holding him just as hard. They stood there clutching each other and kissing frantically, and Ray felt Ben's heart beating fast, painfully fast in his chest. He was just as scared as I was, he realized, stunned. Scared o' losing this, o' losin' me.

That discovery was sweet, like music in his head. Something with a beat. Something he could dance to.

When Ray finally broke the kiss, he couldn't bear to let go of Ben. He held onto him, set his head on his shoulder, pressed his fingers into the muscles of his broad back. "Yeah. I forgive ya. 'S okay," he mumbled, so amazed and relieved he could hardly talk. "Sorry for that stuff I said last night. Sorry I yelled at ya."

"It's all right, Ray. And I'm sorry Ray Vecchio hurt you. That I hurt you. I didn't mean to. I'm so sorry!" Ben murmured. "If I ever lost you--" A shudder ran through his whole body, and his hands tightened on Kowalski with near painful force.

Ray didn't mind. The message in that shudder, in those desperately clinging fingers was unmistakable. It was what he'd been waiting for; what he'd wanted to feel last night. Warmth. Love. Apology and acceptance. It was all there, in Ben's pounding heart, his frenzied kiss, his desperate embrace, even in his new lock. It felt wonderful, so good that he forgave him everything in an instant. "Ya won't lose me. And it wasn't yer fault," he said, meaning it. "For not lockin' yer door, I mean. Don't say that. I coulda thought to do that too, okay? But I didn't. And I know how ya feel. I felt stupid too, for forgettin' to turn off the damn light when we went to sleep. Been beatin' myself up for it all day. If I'd done that, he'd never've seen us, and the whole thing wouldn't have happened."

"You can't blame yourself for that, Ray. It was such a small thing--"

"So was forgettin' to lock yer door," Ray pointed out.

After a moment, Fraser nodded quietly. "I suppose so."

Ray was relieved. If Ben wasn't arguing about who'd made the worst mistake anymore, it must mean he'd finally started to give up his guilty conviction that he was the one responsible for Vecchio's attack. In that much, at least, Ray had gotten what he wanted. "Look, we were both careless," he said softly. "Let's just forget it, okay? I don't blame you, you don't blame me. It just happened. Period. Now we gotta get past it."

Ben let out a shaky breath. "Thank you," he whispered. His hands moved through Ray's hair, stroking and petting, and Ray reveled in it. "I was just so scared, so guilty... And I didn't know how to tell you. I just ... couldn't say it."

"Way I remember it, ya tried to explain. But I didn't wanna hear it," Ray said wryly. "Didn't exactly make it easy for ya."

"It's all right, Ray," Ben said softly. "You were frightened. So was I."

Ray nodded. "Ya got that right. But look... The only one responsible for what Vecchio did, is Vecchio. Okay?"

To his surprise, after a moment, Ben murmured, "Yes, Ray."

"And like I toldja, I didn't expect ya to tell him 'bout me, either. None o' his business. But now that he knows, well... We'll work it out, okay?"

Ben exhaled gustily, a deep sigh of relief against his shoulder. "All right. Thank you, Ray."

Ray grinned. Fraser, being obedient for once. Listening to him. Trusting his judgment. Wow. I could get used to that. But he knew better than to say it out loud. "So it's for me, huh?" he asked instead, gratitude softening his voice. "The lock? Ya did that for me?"

Ben nodded. "Yes. Which reminds me..." He let go of Kowalski, walked to his door, shut and locked it behind them again.

Ray smiled. "Wow! That's, uh... cool, Frayzh. Totally cool. Appreciate dat. But I wasn't done yet. I was likin' where we were." He smiled, and spread his arms wide. "Come 'mere," he invited, wondering if Ben was still in obedient mode. If he'd do it.

It seemed he was. Ben walked back to him eagerly, with a small, shy smile of his own. Ray put his arms around him again and squeezed, giving him a full-body hug. Since Benny loved touch (at least in private), it seemed like the best way to thank him for taking him back. Ben must've liked it, because his arms wrapped around Ray instantly, strong and warm, enfolding him again with what felt like gratitude. Ray was grateful too. Damn, this feels good. He let out a breath it seemed he'd been holding for days. Ran a hand over Ben's back, rubbing at the tensed muscles he felt there. Felt his own body relax at last too, in Ben's embrace. Closing his eyes, he breathed in his scents: flannel, Mountie soap and that elusive, fresh, clean smell that was Ben himself. Ray realized that for the rest of his life, he'd associate happiness with that scent. Just like first love would always be Stella's perfume...

"Love ya, Ben," he whispered. "God, I love you." The feeling filled him up until it felt like his body wasn't big enough to hold it. Like he must be radiating a warm, white light, like a million candles glowing. He would've moved mountains, changed the world, given his last breath, for the touch of Ben's hands.

"I love you too, Ray," Ben said fervently. "I missed you."

That was good to hear. "Missed you too." Wondering how he'd ever live without him, hoping he never had to find out, Ray held on tight. "Thanks, Benny Ben," he whispered against his broad shoulder. And he didn't just mean for the lock.

"You're welcome," Ben breathed in his ear.

Ray lifted his head and smiled at him. "That's a relief, ya know? Cuz for a minute there, when I saw that lock, I thought you were sendin' me a message," he confessed.

Ben blinked curiously at him, a delicious little frown between his brows. "What message?"

Ray shrugged. Ben's innocence, his utter cluelessness, told him that he'd never even considered locking him out. That idea had just been his old insecurity, popping up again. Even though Ben had told him he loved him, he still hadn't trusted that. Hadn't trusted him not to lock him out, the first time they had a fight. It embarrassed him, so he tried to make light of his own fear. "Oh, somethin' like, 'Stay out, Kowalski. This means you, ya jerk. Don't come back.' Somethin' like dat," he joked.

Ben cocked his head, the way he always did when absorbing something totally unexpected. "You thought I put the lock on to keep you out?" He shook his head seriously. "Oh, no. I would never do that."

That was good to hear, too. It gave Ray a warm, secure feeling he hadn't known for a long time. Since the early days of his marriage. It'd been that long, he realized suddenly, since he'd trusted someone not to leave him. But now, at last, he trusted Ben not to. It felt so wonderful that it gave him the urge to tease his lover, out of sheer good spirits. "Why not? I can be a jerk sometimes, ya know," he grinned.

Ben shook his head. "You are sometimes impulsive, but never a jerk, Ray," he corrected warmly. "Besides -- knowing your volatile nature and police training as I do, I don't know that locking you out would be a very effective tactic."

Ray frowned. "Whaddaya mean?"

"If I did that, you'd probably just kick the door down," Ben smiled.

Ray grinned. The Mountie was teasing him, and it felt good. "Ya really do know me," he teased back.

All at once, Ben got serious. He reached up and touched his cheek gently. "Yes, Ray," he said. "I do."

Ben wasn't kidding about that. He meant it, and those simple words washed over Ray like the purest sunlight. Like a blessing, a little bit of heaven, dropped right into his lap. Funny, he thought. Usually when people get to know me, they get disappointed. But Ben isn't. He knows me better 'n anyone, and he wants me anyway. Loves me anyway. Amazing.

He didn't deserve it, didn't even know how it had happened. One minute, he was trying to adjust to his freaky new, overly polite Canadian partner with a deaf wolf who thought he was a florist. Next minute, he was giving him his heart and soul. But somehow, it felt right. He'd found the real thing here. The come-hell-or-high-water kind of thing.


He knew it, because Ben was smiling radiantly at him again. And there was something in his eyes, and in his smile, that made his heart beat faster. He touched his cheek, the lovely curve of Ben's high cheekbone, and stared into his beautiful eyes as he marveled at what he'd done. Ben, who had never locked his door in all his years in Chicago, had put an extra one on it with his own two hands, just to keep him safe. He hadn't locked him out, he'd been trying to protect him. He knew what that meant: Ben still loved him. Ben still wanted him. Ben was still his. He was still Ben's. And nothing else mattered. Not the attack, or their fight, or even fucking crazy Vecchio. Just him. Just this.

Joy rose in him. "Yer right," he said, with a radiant smile. "I would kick it down. For you. I swear, I'd do anythin' for you."

Ben's eyes shone. "And I for you, Ray." He kissed him softly. "But I think I'd prefer it if you didn't kick my door down. At least, not just now," he smiled. Then, before Ray could even process that amazing statement, he ran his tongue over Ray's lips, tracing them sensually. "I just put the lock on it," he added. "But maybe later..." He sounded amazingly wicked. Like maybe the thought of Ray kicking his door down to get to him excited him.

Jesus -- he wants to play Cops 'n' Robbers! Ray thought. Cool! I could go with that. But it stunned him that Ben had thought of it first. Amazing, how Fraser could hide incredibly erotic thoughts behind his transparently innocent blue eyes. Gotta love 'im, he grinned to himself, even as Ben kissed him so enthusiastically that his head whirled.

"'Kay," he whispered back, when Ben let him come up for air. "Later, huh?"

"Mmm. Yes. Later... But there is something you could do for me right now," Ben murmured.

Ray smiled into his kisses. "Bet I can guess," he breathed. He was rewarded by Ben's laughter. He took that laugh into his own mouth, curled his hands around Ben's strong neck and pulled him even harder into the kiss. As their tongues entwined, he caressed his face, his neck, his shoulders, until Ben moaned.

"Now, Benny Ben?"

"Mm hmm." Ben pulled his jacket off, his hands clumsy with eagerness. Ray let him. He started working on the buttons on Ben's shirt at the same time. "Ray, Ray, Ray!" Ben whispered, kissing and sucking at his neck, ardent and beautiful. Ray shivered, half tempted to make him slow down, or he'd never even make it to the bed. But the other half liked it too much -- needed it. So he compromised, and pushed Ben gently backwards as they kissed.

"My Mountie man," he smiled against his lips. "Mine." On feet that were now as light as air, he danced Ben back towards his bed.

"Yes," Ben said as they sank down onto it together.

Ray Vecchio looked into Serena's eyes, despairing that the right words existed that would allow him to explain what he'd done without completely freaking her out. "See, it's like this," he began again awkwardly. Then he stopped, because that sounded so lame. And as he hesitated, another painful speculation crossed his mind. Would a sane guy have attacked someone like that, without a word of warning? Without checking to see what was going on first?


I should've asked Benny, he realized. Should've woke him up, should've asked him what the hell was happening, before I went off on Kowalski like that. I was armed, and they weren't. Even if Kowalski had been blackmailing Benny, I coulda just kept him covered while I got the truth out of Fraser. I didn't have to grab him like that, didn't have to choke him or put my gun in his mouth... It shook him, because that hadn't even occurred to him until now -- almost two hours after the attack. Keeping Kowalski covered while getting the truth from Fraser would've been the logical, rational thing to do. It should've been the first thing he thought of. But it wasn't. He hadn't even considered it, and he knew why.

The shock of seeing them together had totally blown him away. Made him do 'the trick', without even thinking. Without meaning to.

'The trick' was something he'd taught himself to do while undercover. He'd done it the first time he ever had to have sex with Maxwell. He'd just gone away, inside his head. Sent the real Ray Vecchio way deep down inside somewhere, and let the alter ego he'd created, the guy he was pretending to be, take over and do the talking -- and the touching -- for him. And that 'trick' proved so effective that it spread to other things, other situations. Most of the time, he was still Ray Vecchio inside, the cop who was merely playing a role. But when stuff went on that he couldn't handle doing, or even watching, he'd let amoral, ruthless Armando take control. That way, Ray could retain his sanity, and his conscience could stay clear. It was the only way he'd known to get through it. The only way to survive.

Every black, ruthless, contemptible thing he'd done on his assignment -- and there were quite a few -- Ray Vecchio really hadn't done at all. Armando had.

Ray had thought of it, that division of personality, his temporary 'going away', as a mere trick. A kind of mental sleight of hand that had served him well when he was with the Family. Once he left, though, he'd thought it would go away. Just dissolve, along with his nightmares about Maxwell. But it hadn't. Armando had surfaced once when he was talking to Benny, right after he got back. Though it had frightened him, and he'd shut him down as soon as he'd realized what was happening, the Bookman still hadn't entirely disappeared. He'd haunted his dreams -- just waiting for a chance to return, apparently. Because when he'd freaked out at the unexpected sight of Benny in bed with Kowalski, he'd done 'the trick' instinctively. Gone away, because he couldn't handle it. Let Armando take control again; and with his usual brutality, he'd almost killed Kowalski.

All of that -- the way he choked him, and put my gun in his teeth -- that was me letting Armando do to Kowalski what I really want to do to Maxwell. He let go of Serena's hand, and cradled his head in his hands instead. How did I get so messed up?

He dug his fingers into his skull until it hurt. But even the pain couldn't drive away his bleak awareness of what he'd done. He hadn't realized how deeply he'd come to depend on 'the trick' -- that it'd become a reflex. But it was a reflex he couldn't afford anymore. It hadn't saved him this time. It'd probably ruined his life. Maybe it was even sick. He wasn't sure anymore. He'd probably never be able to explain it to anyone, without sounding crazy. And he'd be the one who'd pay the price for what Armando had done to Kowalski. No question.

"Ray, please," Serena said, her eyes pleading with him. "Tell me what's going on!"

He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry. He couldn't think of a way to explain it to her painlessly, couldn't think of any way to soften the blow. For a second, the merest of instants, he felt Armando stir, deep inside of him. Let me tell her, he said coldly. I can make it sound all right. You know that. Ray knew it, all right. Armando was so slick, he could kill your grandma right in front of you, and make you believe he'd done you a favor. But this was Serena. He loved her, and he wasn't going to lie to her -- or let Armando do it, either. He set his jaw, and shoved the temptation away. Get it over with, he told himself fiercely. Just do it, god dammit! Tell her!

Finally, when he felt he could keep his voice steady, he took a deep breath and said, "You're right. Something bad did happen. A few hours ago, I almost killed Ray Kowalski, at Ben's apartment."

Ben Fraser and Ray Kowalski lay wrapped in each other's arms in Ben's little bed. Safe now in the yellow glow of his bedside lamp, behind his locked door, Ray raised himself up on an elbow and looked down at his lover. Ben's eyes were closed, and he looked serene. Happy. It was way more than your average, smug, "I just got laid", guy-type look, too. The stiffness that had tightened his face since Vecchio's attack the night before, the confusion and guilt, were finally completely gone, smoothed out while they were making love. Ben was smiling. A relaxed, happy, even blissful kind of smile that Ray had never seen on his face before they became lovers.

A feeling of awe stole over him. He remembered how he'd been struck by Ben's dark good looks, by their vividness, the first time he ever saw him. It was like someone had put the summer sky in his eyes, and the darkest of nights in his hair. One look, and he'd been captivated. But he realized now that what he'd seen was only his Fraser face. The image he chose to show to the world. His outer shell, shiny yet hardened by time and sorrow. What he was seeing now was his heart. His soul, shining out through his skin, through his naked body that he'd bared and given to him. This was Ben, the essence of him, hidden from the world but offered to him freely. This was radiance. Innocence. Generosity. Strength. Sweetness.

This was beauty to make angels weep.

Ray's eyes were wet, looking at him, and he didn't care.

If he was the only person on earth who made Ben smile like that, who made him feel happy and free, then he'd been blessed, in a mysterious and singular way. It still amazed Ray -- probably always would -- that he could do that for the Mountie. That his love meant so much to him. But the fact that it did meant that he was responsible for other things, too. Like putting things right between him and Vecchio, for instance. For Ben's sake. He reached down and smoothed a lock of dark hair off Ben's forehead, with fingers that were infinitely tender. Touched him until his tears went away, and he could speak past the lump in his throat. "Tell me the truth, Benny Ben," he said softly.

Clear blue eyes opened and met his. Ben smiled up at him. "Of course."

Ben looked so happy, so trusting that Ray found himself reluctant to speak. Even though a question had been burning a hole in the back of his head for hours now, he hated to ask it, hated to bring the whole mess up again. After all, Ben was warm, smiling, and best of all, naked in bed with him. All he wanted to do was keep things that way. Keep on making love with him, making him happy.

But he didn't have much choice. God only knew where Vecchio was, what he'd been up to, and what he was thinking: about him, about both of them. They had to talk about it. Decide what to do about him. It couldn't wait any longer. Still, he had to clear his dry throat before he could get the words out. "I've been thinkin' about what happened... and there's somethin' I gotta know. Maxwell didn't just try to whack Vecchio, did he?" he grated.

Ben's face changed. His smile disappeared, as Ray had feared it would. His eyes darkened and slid away from him, and Ray had his answer, before he even spoke. "No," Ben said finally, in a low voice.

Ray closed his eyes. Ben didn't have to spell out what else Maxwell had done. He'd already figured that out for himself. "Jeez," he muttered. He laid back down beside him and just stared at the ceiling for a minute, temporarily stunned into silence. It was what he'd suspected, but it still rocked him, having that dark truth confirmed. Now I get it. No wonder Vecchio flipped out when he walked in on us together! No wonder he thought it was rape.

He thought of Rylan, and remembered terror, fury, helplessness. The taste of rage mingled with his own blood. Humiliation at the thought of being taken by another man, against his will. It made him feel cold inside all over again, just thinking about it. But he'd been relatively lucky. He'd talked his way out of it. Evidently, Vecchio hadn't been so lucky. Vecchio, the macho homophobe, had been raped. Maybe more than once.

No wonder he's screwed up. And I look like his rapist. Jesus.

Now he understood the hatred in the Italian's green eyes, the cold, deep aversion that he'd seen there when they first met. He'd always thought Vecchio was just a jerk, an asshole who hated him just cuz he was friends with Fraser, or maybe for no reason at all. Now he knew better. For the first time, he actually felt a flicker of pity for him. He'd always thought they had nothing in common, but that wasn't true. Too bad it was something so ugly, but still--

I understand him, he thought, in a way that even Ben can't. Aloud, he said, "So he's probly not a danger to anyone else. Right? Am I right about that?" He had to get clear on that point, before he could decide what to do next.

Ben said, "Yes. I believe so. And he doesn't hate you, Ray. Not really. It isn't you he hates at all. It's Maxwell -- and I think maybe himself, at the moment," he added sadly.

"Yeah. I get that now." Still, he reached out and hunted under the covers until he found Ben's hand. He took it in his and squeezed it gently, a little "thank you" for that.

Ben slipped his arms around him and pulled him close, so that his head was pillowed on his chest. He caressed his shoulder lightly. Ray turned his head and pressed a little kiss into his chest. They lay together silently for a few minutes, both of them remembering what had happened, and grateful that it hadn't been worse; that they hadn't lost each other.

Then Ben surprised Ray by saying quietly, "I'm sorry if I made you feel ... second best. Like I care for Ray Vecchio more than you. I didn't mean to. That... it isn't true. I do care for him. Very much. He's my friend. He's risked his life for me, many times. He's--" Ben paused, searching for the right word. "Well, he's as close to me as a brother."

"Yeah. I know," Ray said, a bit surprised that it no longer hurt as much as it used to. But it didn't. Even after last night. Well, maybe because of last night. Because now he realized that when the chips were down, Ben had picked him, not Vecchio. He'd told Vecchio he loved him, when he knew that would drive his old friend away. Ben had chosen to be with him, had given up the closest thing to a brother he'd ever known, to save him. And since loyalty and friendship were extremely important to the Mountie, that said a lot. It said everything. He'd be a fool to go on being blackly jealous of Vecchio, after all that. "An' it's okay. Don't expect to just have ya all to myself all the time," he added. "I know ya got other friends."

Ben ran a gentle hand through his hair. "But they're just that: friends, Ray. No one else could ever... What I'm trying to say is, you--you're so much more than that. You're--"

"'S okay. I know." Ray smiled, raised his head and kissed his cheek, hearing what Ben was trying to say: I love you more than anyone. It didn't matter that Ben hadn't spoken the words aloud. He'd already told him he loved him, and he could figure the rest out. Hear the words anyway. Feel them, in the way Ben held him close. That was enough.

He laid his head back down on Ben's chest. "Didja talk to him yet?" he asked quietly, letting Ben know he didn't mind anymore. That he understood about that, too.

Ben shook his head. "No. He didn't come to work today, so I went back to the Consulate. I didn't see him."

Ray was surprised on both counts. Despite the Italian's nuclear meltdown the night before, and his own violent objections to the idea, somewhere in the back of his mind, he'd imagined that Ben had met Vecchio at the 27th that morning, as per usual. That he'd tried to make things up with him. It surprised him that Vecchio hadn't at least called to try to persuade Ben to dump him, so they could go on being friends. Then again -- maybe he was being paranoid. Vecchio had been furious last night. Ready to kill. He won't get over that in one day. No way. So it wasn't all that surprising that he was avoiding Ben.

Still, Ray wasn't sure if he was glad or sorry about that, because he didn't know what Vecchio's motives for it were. Was he still just royally pissed off and disgusted, or had he snapped to a degree even he and Ben didn't suspect? Flipped out so completely that he couldn't even go to work? It worried him.

After a brief pause, Fraser surprised him again. "I thought of calling him, but I knew you wouldn't want me to, so I didn't. I wanted to discuss it with you first."

Ray was shocked. It was one of the few times he could ever remember Fraser deferring to him, even temporarily, about something he wanted badly. When it came to helping someone Ray thought didn't need, or want, to be helped, Fraser usually never, ever listened -- to him, or to anyone else, for that matter. He just did whatever he thought was best. But not this time. Not even to get his best friend back.

Wow. Things have changed, he thought, pleased. He's changed. And the incredible thing was, he'd never asked him to. Fraser had done it on his own; because he wanted to. It was obvious that he meant something to Fraser now -- more than he ever had before.

He felt those candles shining inside him again. "Thanks, Ben," he said. "Appreciate dat."

"You're welcome, Ray. And about the attack... What Ray did -- I know he only meant to protect me, but it was wrong. I know that. I don't want you to think I would condone anyone committing violence against you. So if you still want me to sign a complaint with you, I will," he said quietly.

Ray blinked. Last night, it had nearly killed Ben to say those words. Now, he meant them. Ray was both surprised and deeply gratified. Perversely though, now that Ben had said he was willing to sign a complaint against Vecchio, he found he didn't want him to anymore. Didn't need him to. Just knowing he was willing to was enough. Maybe that was all he'd ever needed: just to know that Ben's loyalty was to him. That he wouldn't sit back and let anyone hurt him, not even his old buddy Vecchio.

Naw. You were jealous. Afraid of losing him, his conscience whispered. Ya wanted him to sign that complaint against Vecchio so much cuz ya thought that would split them up, permanent. Ya wanted him all to yourself.

Ray sighed inwardly. Okay. So I was a selfish, insecure jerk. But he didn't feel that way anymore. What was more, maybe now, he could make up for it. Because now that he knew what'd really made Vecchio lose it so completely, and that it wasn't personal, that it had to do with a psychopath in Vecchio's past, he didn't hate him for it any longer. He understood it better, because he also knew how angry being raped could make you. Hell, he'd come within a hair of beating Rylan to death with his bare hands, just for trying it. He could imagine the rage Vecchio must be carrying around, since he had been a victim. He also knew how that kind of rage could warp your perceptions. Cuz after what Rylan had done to him, if he'd walked in and seen someone doing something to Ben that had looked even remotely like rape, he'd have gone berserk himself.

Even though Vecchio hadn't actually seen him doing anything sexual with Ben, Ray figured that the shock of finding them in bed together, plus the fact that he looked like Vecchio's rapist, combined with the Italian's friendship for Ben, had combined to set him off anyway. Fraser had tried to tell him that right after it happened, but he hadn't known the whole story about Vecchio then, so he hadn't wanted to listen. Now, it made sense to him.

Vecchio had attacked him as much out of love for Ben as from rage. He got that now, too. Ben had tried to explain that to him before as well, but he'd been so furious that he hadn't wanted to admit it -- or to admit that it mattered. He'd known that Vecchio's feelings for Fraser had kept him from pulling the trigger, but he hadn't wanted to believe that they'd provoked the attack, too. All he'd wanted to see was his anger and homophobia. Now that he knew Vecchio's secret, and now that Ben had made love to him again and kissed away most of his rage and pain, he saw things differently. Saw Vecchio's good side, too. Saw that he'd done it to protect Benny the innocent -- just as he would've, if the situation had been reversed.

He'd gone from hating Vecchio's guts and wanting him to rot in prison, to putting himself in his shoes. Actually feeling a bit of compassion for him. Seeing that they both had a similar need to protect Ben. All in the space of one day.

He shook his head. Mountie magic, he thought wryly. Has to be. If anyone could make him see something good in Vecchio, it was Ben. He raised himself up on one elbow again, and softly traced the shape of Fraser's lips with a gentle finger. "Dat's okay," he said quietly. "Ya don't haveta do dat. But I wanna talk to him, okay?"

Ben frowned up at him. "You? Do you think that's wise, Ray?"

A polite way, Ray knew, of asking if he could possibly restrain himself long enough to actually have a conversation with Vecchio, instead of beating him to a pulp. He grinned. "'Fraid I'll open up a can of whup ass on him?"


He laughed. "Not dat I won't want to, butI won't."

Ben pursed his lips doubtfully. "Maybe I should go with you, Ray."

He raised an eyebrow. "Don't trust me as far as ya can throw me. Izzat it?"

"No. I mean--" Ben blinked. "Why would I want to throw you, Ray?"

Ray shook his head with a rueful smile. "Never mind."

But for a second, he considered letting Ben come along with him. Then he remembered how anguished he'd been after the attack, how conflicted and guilty, and decided against it. He'd only just managed to get him back on an even keel, and happy again. If he saw Vecchio, and the Italian spewed a lot of homophobic shit all over his innocent head, Ben might take it way too much to heart. Get really hurt, all over again. Ray figured he could handle it better. He and Vecchio had never been friends, and after trying to murder him, there wasn't a whole lot more he could do to hurt him.

"Just lemme go see Vecchio, okay? Promise, I won't lay a hand on him. But I wanna talk to him alone. I think we need to talk this out, ya know? I'm the one he's really got a problem with, not you. You just got caught in the crossfire there."

Ben opened his mouth to protest, but Ray waved a hand. "I know, he told ya not to come near him anymore, and not to come to his wedding, but I think that was just fear talkin'. Think he was scared we'd figure it out, ya know? What Maxwell did to him, I mean. He's embarrassed. Maybe he's even afraid o' who we might tell, cuz he's gettin' married next week. Ten will get ya twenty, he never told his fiancée that he was raped."

Ben nodded. "Knowing Ray, I'm sure he didn't. He wouldn't want her to be hurt by it."

Ray had to bite his tongue at that. That might be Ben's take on it -- he always thought the best of people. But he figured the macho Italian might have other, far less noble reasons for keeping quiet. Embarrassment, for one. He might not want his girlfriend to think he was a candy ass wimp who'd been overpowered by another guy. Or, homophobe that he was, he might even be afraid that she'd think he was gay if she knew, or that he might have AIDS. He was probably afraid he'd lose her if she found out. But he didn't tell Ben that. It was possible that Fraser was right, after all -- he knew Vecchio a helluva lot better than he did. Plus, Vecchio hadn't thrown him down onto the floor naked, and shoved a gun in his mouth, either. Bit easier for Fraser to be objective about the creep, he thought wryly.

He pushed his resentment carefully aside before he spoke again. He was trying like hell to be positive, for Ben's sake. "I think that's why he said don't come. Cuz he doesn't want her to know. Once I tell him he doesn't need to worry, that we won't say anything, he'll probly be okay with it." Ray wasn't really convinced of that, but he was determined to put the best possible spin on the situation, for Fraser. He knew how much he wanted to go to Vecchio's wedding, despite what he'd done.

But rather to his surprise, Ben didn't focus on the idea of getting reinvited to the wedding. Instead, he said, "You won't tell anyone, Ray?" He sounded vastly relieved and surprised.

Small wonder. Ben knew how enraged he'd been, and he still didn't know how close he'd come to sharing Vecchio's fate. So he couldn't know that he understood Vecchio now, at least in one way, and that he had good reasons not to humiliate him by revealing his secret. That he still had a big, dark, whopping secret of his own, named Rylan.

Ray looked away, troubled by his own continued silence about him. He'd gotten mad when he'd found out Fraser hadn't told him the truth about Victoria before. But wasn't he doing the same thing by not telling him about Rylan's rape attempt? By concealing his fear that guilt over it might've led Pat to commit suicide in that alleyway? How was that different? He shook his head, guilty about his inconsistency. "Naw. I figure what Maxwell did to him is his business," he said tersely. "Nobody else's." He hoped Ben would let it go at that.

But he didn't. He smiled, and lifted a hand to stroke his shoulder. "Thank you," he said. "You're a very good person, Ray."

There was such gratitude in his voice, such admiration in his eyes, that Ray had to look away again. It made him feel small. Ben thought he was being noble. He wasn't. Not at all. He was just showing some compassion towards a fellow victim, cuz he'd been there himself. As close as he ever wanted to come, anyway.

I should tell him, he thought, for the hundredth time. Tell him the truth. Now that he knew Ben wasn't going to leave him if they disagreed about something, it was safe, wasn't it? But just as he gathered his courage, Ben's face slowly darkened, until he looked positively gloomy. Kowalski shut his mouth, because he had a pretty good idea why. They'd been talking about Vecchio, so it was a good bet that Ben had probably started thinking about his former partner's ultimatum again. Why he'd cut him out of his life. Despite what he'd just said about Vecchio's fiancée, Ben had to know that fear of having his secret revealed wasn't Vecchio's only motive for doing that. It probably wasn't even his main reason. Them being bi was probably the big issue there. Good Catholic boy that he is, Vecchio doesn't want a couple of perverts in the church when he gets married. The thought brought a surge of anger. But he was trying to be hopeful for Ben's sake, so he didn't mention it. Wasn't like he needed to anyway. From the look on his face, Ben knew it as well as he did.

Still, it was one more reason not to bring up his near rape. He told himself that he didn't want to upset Ben any more than he already was. But he'd told himself that before on several occasions, that he was withholding the truth for Ben's sake. Was it true, or was that just a convenient excuse? Who am I tryin' to protect here? he asked himself. Him or me?

He wasn't sure. Wasn't even sure what he was really so scared of. After all, Fraser already knew some of the bad stuff. Knew that Rylan had done kinky things to him, that he'd let him do it. And though he hadn't liked it, he hadn't freaked. So why was he so afraid to tell him about the rest? He wondered if his reasons were the same ones he suspected Vecchio had, for keeping quiet. Was he scared that Ben would think less of him if he knew? That he'd think he was a wimp, cuz Rylan had overpowered him? Or worse, that he'd think he somehow caused the attack? That he was a slut, that he'd as much as asked for it, cuz he and Rylan had been having sex before that?

Or was he afraid Fraser the good, Fraser the upright and honorable, would blame him for having caused Rylan's death? That Fraser might feel, as he did, that Rylan had gone nuts in that alley because he loved him, and because he felt so guilty about what he'd done to him? Would Ben think Rylan might've died trying to make up for his rape attempt? And if so, would that change Ben's feelings for him? Maybe even drive him away?

That thought brought fear: cold, dark, wrenching. That's it, he realized. That's what scares the hell outta me. Fraser wouldn't leave me for some little thing, I know that -- but that ain't no little thing. It's big. Hell, it's huge. Would he leave me if he thought I caused my own partner's death? Given Fraser's sense of honor and duty, it seemed possible. Ray shifted uneasily, just thinking about it. He'd shoved the whole mess aside while trying to get Fraser back, but he hadn't forgotten it. He couldn't. His sadness and guilt over Rylan's death lay deep in him still. Even the happiness he'd found with Ben couldn't dispel it. Sometimes he woke up late at night, feeling like someone had piled bricks on his chest. Like it was strangling him, like he couldn't breathe. He wanted to tell Ben about it, he knew he should, but he still couldn't force the words out. They'd been through so much together, come so far -- he couldn't lose him now. It would kill me.

But wasn't keeping terrible secrets from someone you loved that much a kind of death?

Ben suddenly looked up at him earnestly. "Would you do me one more favor, Ray?"

Ray tensed. Had Ben somehow read his mind? Did he know that something was still bothering him? Did his guilt show on his face? Well -- if it did, he'd have to come clean. He made up his mind to that much. If Fraser asked him straight out about Rylan, he wouldn't lie. He would tell him. So he braced himself and said, "Sure. Anything." His voice was hoarse with fear, but Ben didn't seem to notice.

"When you talk to Ray Vecchio, would you tell him he needs to get counseling? Even insist on it."

Ray smiled wryly, so relieved that he almost laughed out loud. "Great minds think alike."


"I mean, I already thought o' that."


"Vecchio's got a few screws loose -- ya said so yerself. So maybe goin' to a shrink would help. Keep him from 'snapping' again."

"I think so," Ben nodded. "I hope so. But I'm not certain he will agree."

Ray shrugged. "Well, you've known him a lot longer than I have. Why d'ya think he didn't come to work today? Think he was scared I'd charge him with assault?"

Ben shook his head. "No. Ray isn't a coward. I think it was guilt he was feeling, rather than fear," he said softly. "He wouldn't admit it, but I suspect that he felt too guilty to face me."

Ray nodded. "Could be." And he ain't the only one, he thought with a pang. But he forced himself to forget about Rylan again for now, and think of Ben and Vecchio instead. "You guys have been best friends for years -- and he had to know he hurt ya. And despite what he said, I think that still matters to him. So him playin' hooky, that's a good sign, see? It could mean he knows he was wrong already, knows how screwed-up he is, and that he needs help. So maybe he'll go along with seein' a shrink."

Fraser nodded thoughtfully; and for the first time, a trace of genuine hope lightened his expression. "Perhaps. You could be right, Ray."

"Hope so. I'm gonna try, anyway. If I go and talk to him, tell him we're not gonna press charges, maybe it'll help smooth things over between you guys, too. I'll try to get him to talk to ya. And if he does, like I said, maybe he'll be okay about us goin' to the weddin' after all." Ray tried to make the words sound casual, even smooth. Like he even wanted to go to Vecchio's damn wedding, after what he'd done. Like it didn't chap his butt to ask him for anything, let alone his acceptance of them. Though he understood Vecchio's motives a lot better now, and he even agreed with Fraser that he'd meant to protect him, it didn't mean that he'd forgiven him for his lame-ass assumption that he was a freaking blackmailer/rapist -- or for shoving his goddamn gun in his mouth and choking him, either. No way. He didn't want to kill him anymore, he was even sorry he'd been raped, but he still didn't like him, or give a damn what the other Ray thought of them.

Ben did, though. He knew that. Being Vecchio's best man meant a great deal to him; being his friend meant even more. So even though he'd almost killed him, Ray would go find the crazy Italian, try to smooth things over, and make him get some help. It was that simple.

Ben looked at him, his big blue eyes filled with wonder. "You'd do that for me, Ray?" he asked. The near awe in his voice told Ray that he'd seen through his casual pretense. Ben knew exactly what it had cost him to say that; and that it would cost him far more to do it. And he was amazed that he was willing to.

Ben's amazement made Ray feel bad. He shook his head. Ben the Crusader, champion of the poor and downtrodden, who was so kind that he helped little old ladies cross the street on a daily basis, and anyone else who needed it as well, was almost stunned by someone offering to help him. Especially with something difficult. Though Ben didn't realize it, that said a lot about him. It always shocked Ray, being shown how lonely Ben must've been for most of his life. How little it seemed he'd gotten in the way of nurturing or affection. He knew his Mom had died when he was little, and that his Dad hadn't hung around much after, that he'd left him with his grandparents, who weren't exactly warm and cozy people. So he guessed Ben had learned young not to look for that. Learned to be totally self sufficient.

But it pained Ray to think the trend had continued even into his adult life. Because Ben's stoicism was both a strength and a weakness. Sure, Fraser was really capable, strong and smart and all that. The strongest person Ray had ever known. But he was still human, and sooner or later, every human being on the planet needed help. Needed someone to lend them a hand. But Ben had learned not to ask for that, no matter what. Been taught to handle everything himself, and not to ask for help -- or to look for affection, either. And he'd learned the lesson so well that Ray wondered if anyone else had ever seen past his perfect, confident front, and held out a hand to his Mountie when he was lonely, or in trouble. He hoped Vecchio had, but it was hard to tell. Though he knew Fraser practically worshipped him, Vecchio didn't strike Kowalski as a real giving type of guy; and knowing Ben, he probably hadn't asked much of him along those lines. He probably risked his life in dozens of nutty ways goin' after bad guys, but wouldn't dream of askin' him to take him to a doctor if he was sick. That'd be Fraser.

It made Ray feel, for the umpteenth time, how important it was for him to give to Ben, to shower him with affection, as no one else ever had. That might've seemed like a chore to some people, but it suited him just fine. He loved doing stuff for him, wanted Ben to get used to having him in his corner, too, to start relying on him in his personal life like he had when they used to chase bad guys together. He wanted to show him that where he was concerned, costs didn't matter, cuz he loved him. Talkin' to Vecchio will be a helluva lot easier than movin' a mountain, or sheddin' my last drop of blood, he thought. But I'd do that, too. For you.

He didn't want to make a big deal out of it, though, cuz then Ben might try to talk him out of it. So he just shrugged and said, "Sure. Can't have Vecchio wanderin' around Gotham City tryin' to kill everyone ya sleep with, can I?"

But Ben didn't let him shrug it off with a joke. He reached up and pulled his head down for a tender kiss. "Thank you," he said quietly for the second time, his eyes shining as he stroked his hair. "Thank you very much, Ray."

For a moment, Ray was so touched that he couldn't speak. When he found his voice again, he made another joke. "Well, now don't go thinkin' I'm doin' it for free," he teased. "Cuz I'm not. I might take it out in trade, ya know," he said, to cover how Ben's gratitude moved him. To cover just how much he really did love him. How he was crazy with it. Crazy for him.

"In trade?" Ben blinked at him, and cocked his head in the way he always did when someone said something that totally confused him. Ray just grinned at him. After a moment, Ben's brow cleared. "Ahh," he said. "You mean, like this." He pulled Ray's head down and kissed him again.

Ray grinned down at him wickedly. Slid over on top of him again, working his hips so that their cocks brushed. "No. I was thinkin' more like that!"

Ben laughed. Actually laughed out loud, the way he seldom did. The way he'd done that day when he was walking with Ray Vecchio. The laugh Ray had been so jealous of, that he'd wanted for himself. Now I got it. Got him. Ray felt a flush of triumph. Awesome.

When Ben's laughter quieted, he smiled up at Ray. "That would be good, too."

Ray smiled back at him, and rocked his hips a little more. "Just good?"

Ben's hands settled possessively on his hips. "No. It would be great, Ray. Wonderful. Stupendous. Amazing. Splendiferous--"

"Splendi what?" Ray interrupted, laughing. Ben knew more words than anyone he'd ever met, and he suspected that if he didn't cut in, he'd go on like that for the next half hour. "Never mind. Forget I asked. How 'bout just sayin' we can do it anytime I want? I'd settle for that."

Ben nodded happily. "Done."

"Cool," Ray grinned.

That made everything all right. Even having to go talk to Vecchio, to try to work things out with him. As long as Ben laughed like that for him, as long as he held him tight, he could do anything. Move a mountain? Child's play. Change the world? He could do it in his sleep. Ray bent to kiss him again, and he wasn't thinking about Vecchio anymore. He was just hungry, like always, for Ben's lush mouth.

As his anxiety rose, Ray Vecchio got to his feet and began pacing. Serena stared off into space, her face still wearing the numb look of shock it had taken on when he'd told her what he'd done. He didn't blame her. It was no more than he'd expected. If anything, he'd known the shock of it would be even worse for her, because she was gentle and sensitive. Still, seeing that look on her face was tearing him up inside.

"I just don't understand, Ray," she said softly as he strode up and down the floor in front of her couch. "I know you say you thought you were protecting Ben, but--"

"I was!" he yelled. "I told you! I came in and saw Kowalski in bed with Ben. Layin' there half on top o' him. And Benny's so straight, I thought--"

"I know what you thought," Serena said quietly. "You said you thought he'd blackmailed Ben into sleeping with him. That he was really raping him. Forcing Ben to have sex against his will. I understand that, so please don't shout."

Ray took a deep breath, tried to draw air into lungs that felt starved of oxygen. It didn't help much. "Sorry," he grated.

"I just -- I'm a little unclear as to why you thought Kowalski was raping him," she went on. "You said they were asleep when you came in."

Serena sounded as confused as he felt. Still, she'd somehow hit on the worst part of the whole mess. The thread that led to Armando, and then to Maxwell. To the one place that he didn't want to go. To the darkest things he'd ever had to do. He strode faster, jingled the change in his pocket with sweating hands, trying to think of a way to explain it to her that wouldn't involve mentioning his affair with Jimmy. On the drive over here, he'd been so upset that he'd even considered telling her the truth about that. But now that it came down to it, he couldn't. Couldn't confess the sick things Maxwell had done to him, and forced him to do. How the hell did you explain something like that to the woman you loved?

He couldn't, so he skirted the truth. "I dunno, it just happened so fast... Like I told you, I just went there to drop off the sheet music, like ya asked me. But he didn't answer the door, so I slipped in to leave it on the table, and that's when I saw them. There was a light on, a sorta dim one, a little lamp by his bed. At first I thought Benny was with a woman. So I was gonna leave, just get out so they wouldn't know I was there. But Benny's not exactly this big ladies man. Wouldn't know it to look at him, but he hardly goes out at all. Ever. So seein' him with someone, it really surprised me. I got curious. Had to look to see who she was. Then, when I saw that it was a guy, I just -- lost it. It seemed to me like he must've been forced into it, cuz Benny's as straight as they come. At least, I thought he was. Well, you've met him!" he said desperately. "You've seen how he is! He's a total chick magnet. Plus, he's like a choirboy! Who in the hell woulda ever thought that he'd turn out to be a fag?"

"Stop it, Ray!" Suddenly, Serena was angry. She stood up and came towards him, her face flushing with it. "Don't you realize what you're doing? You're trying to justify this -- this terrible thing--"

"I was tryin' to PROTECT him!" he insisted, his voice rising again in spite of himself.

"I know. But that doesn't make it right!" she countered. "You came into his apartment late at night, without knocking--"

"I didn't knock cuz I thought he'd be asleep! I didn't wanna wake him up--"

"I know that, but you still came in without his permission. Without him even knowing you were there. Then you assaulted his lover! And now you're trying to tell yourself that it's okay because Benny isn't what you thought he was. You can't really believe that!"

Ray didn't answer her. He bit his lip and looked away. He was so agitated he was breathing hard, and he still couldn't get enough air.

"Please, tell me you don't believe that, Ray," Serena pleaded.

The disbelief, the disappointment in her voice stung him. Put him even more on the defensive. So he tried to put the blame back on Fraser. "Don't you see?" he hissed. "He lied to me! All those years, all that time -- I thought he was my friend! I thought I knew him!"

"He IS your friend! You do know him!" she insisted. "Just because you didn't know that one thing about him, it doesn't negate all the rest. Ben's a good person, anyone can see that. I consider him a friend now, too--"

"Well, maybe you shouldn't! Cuz a good person wouldn't've lied to me! Not about that!" he shot back, his fury rising as his sense of betrayal revived.

"Why do you suppose he did that, Ray?" Serena replied, her hands on her hips, her eyes frosty. "Why?"

He set his jaw. "Cuz he's ashamed of it! Cuz he knows he's a pervert! That's why."

"Are you sure?"


"I'm not. I don't think Ben is a pervert, and I don't think he believes he is. I think he knew that YOU would think so. There's a difference."

He snorted derisively, rejecting the idea.

But Serena stuck to her guns. "Don't you think he might've kept it to himself because he knew how you'd react? After all, Ben knows you better than anyone, Ray. And wasn't he right? Because look what happened when you found out!"

Those words stung him, like the whip Maxwell had once used on his back. Part of him knew that she was right. But he couldn't give in, couldn't let her know. So he turned the tables again, placed the responsibility for what had happened back on Fraser. He paced past her, ran a shaky hand over his hair. "Are you sayin' it was right for him to lie to me? To his best friend? Not to tell me what he really is?"

Her mouth tightened with frustration. "No. I'm asking you to try to understand why he did it! He loves you, Ray! Loves you so much that he couldn't bear to lose you by telling you the truth!"

Hearing that was even worse. If Benny had lied to him out of shame, it would've been easier to cast him aside, to reject him. But thinking he'd done it just to keep his friendship made him deeply uncomfortable. Benny was a good person, probably the best man he'd ever known. He'd never known Fraser to shrink from blaming himself if he thought he'd done wrong -- far from it. Hell, the Mountie was so honest that he filed reports on himself, if he thought he'd screwed up! So if he didn't think there was anything wrong with the way he was, wasn't it just possible that he might be right? And didn't that make him a bigot? A bigot who'd forced his best friend to hide who he really was, just so he could feel comfortable around him?

It cut like a knife, thinking that Ben might've been doing that for years. He loved Benny too -- at least he had. No, I still do. That was the bitter truth of it. He still cared for him, even after he'd tried to kill his lover. He groaned to himself. Shit. This is such a mess. I don't know what to think. What I should do...

He swung away from Serena, confusion and pain roiling in him. I love Fraser so much I might've fallen for her because she reminds me of him, he thought, anguished. But now he's gone. I lost him. I can never look him in the eye again, after what I did. Knowin' what he is.

Finally, he said harshly, "That doesn't matter anymore. Knowin' he's gay, or bi, or whatever the hell he is -- I can't take it. He said he loves Kowalski. Loves him! Can you believe that?" Before she could answer, he shook his head bitterly. "I told them not to come to our wedding. Told Fraser I never want to see him again. We're not friends anymore. We never will be. We're not even partners anymore."

He heard Serena suck in a shocked breath. For a long moment, neither of them spoke. Then at last, she said quietly, "I see."

Her tone worried him. "See what?"

"You barred a friend of mine from our wedding, without even asking me. You're upset that Ben lied to you, but when he told you the truth about himself, told you that he was in love, you rejected him completely. You attacked his lover, insulted both of them, and cut them out of your life."

"That's not what happened!" he protested.

"Isn't it?" Serena asked.

He opened his mouth to deny it, then shut it again.

"It seems to me that you want me to say all of that is okay. But I can't. All of a sudden, Ray, I'm not even sure that I know you!"

Serena sounded stricken. Ray turned back to look at her, stunned. He'd never stopped to think how she would feel about him telling Benny not to come to their wedding. He'd never dreamed she'd still want him to, once she knew the truth. But it seemed that, although Serena was Catholic like him, she didn't think Ben and Kowalski were perverts. Not at all. She'd used the word 'friend' to describe Ben, used it deliberately. She was actually angry with him for barring them from the wedding! He was so taken aback that for a minute, he didn't know what to say. How to answer her.

She was white with anger and sorrow. She looked sadder than he'd ever seen her. But most of all, she looked far away. Like she'd left him already, though she was only a few feet away. Fear clawed at his gut. This was what he'd feared the most -- losing her. "What is this? Are you choosing sides?" he snapped, so frightened that he tried to cover it with anger.

Serena shook her head. "You should know me better than that, Ray," she said.

The quiet rebuke silenced him more effectively than a slap would have. He did know her better than that. Serena was always fair and good to people. He was the one who wasn't, who was so screwed up he'd tried to kill someone. Again, he shut his mouth.

"I imagine," she added unsteadily, "that either Ben or Ray Kowalski will file charges against you for this, won't they?"

God, it was hard to meet her eyes. Harder still to tell her the truth, but he did it. "Yeah. Kowalski will, I'm sure. He said he was going to." He didn't bother adding that he had the right to. They both knew it.

She shut her eyes for a minute, her face registering the pain of that knowledge. He held his breath. This was the moment that would make or break him. He felt it instinctively. If she was going to leave him, it would be over this. But when she opened her eyes again, her gaze was steady. "I'll stand by you, Ray, I promise. I love you, and I won't leave you," she said.

He felt such a huge, dizzying surge of relief at her words that he wanted to grab her and kiss her. Only his knowledge of her anger kept him from moving. His fear that if he tried to touch her, she'd push him away. So he just said, "Thank you," instead.

"But I don't think what you did was right. It was terrible," she said, her face pale and drawn.

His heart sank. This time, he was the one who closed his eyes. "I was trying," he said hopelessly, "to protect Benny. I really was."

"I know that," she said softly. "I believe you, Ray."

He bowed his head, feeling a tiny thread of relief under the dark, heavy weight of his anger and guilt. That was something, anyway. He'd known this was going to be awful, that it might break her heart -- and maybe his, too. But at least she'd given him that much: she didn't think he was a total, evil scumbag. At least she wasn't going to leave him.

"But it doesn't change the fact that you assaulted Ben's lover," she went on painfully. "I'm not going to ask you to turn yourself in, Ray. That wouldn't be fair, when you thought you were protecting Ben. But until you at least apologize to him and Ray Kowalski -- until you talk to them about this and at least try to set things right, I won't marry you. I can't."

The floor felt out from under him. The relief he'd felt vanished. He couldn't get his breath. "What?" he asked faintly. This was his worst nightmare, coming true. He'd told her the truth -- at least as much of it as he could -- and now he was losing her. She was asking for the one thing he couldn't do, and making that the key to having her. She'd said she wouldn't leave him, but he couldn't apologize; and if he didn't, and she wouldn't marry him, how could he live with himself?

She shook her head. "I won't marry someone who's full of hate," she said. Her voice was strained, but final. "I won't do it. I left Vegas to get away from people like that. So did you. I don't want to see you become like them. Like Maxwell."

At that, a black, howling fury roared through him. He thought of how Maxwell had beaten him half to death, then raped him while he lay there floating in and out of consciousness. He thought of all the people he'd crushed to death with his car, all the victims whose lives he'd taken so ruthlessly. Serena didn't know about that, at least not about what Maxwell had done to him, but even so... That she'd compared him to that monster stabbed him to the heart. His vision clouded over, and his fists clenched. "I'm -- not -- Maxwell!" he ground out, through clenched teeth. "I'm NOT -- A FREAKIN' -- MURDERER!"

Serena swallowed hard, but she didn't look away from him. "I know you aren't. I didn't mean to suggest that. But you're not the Ray Vecchio I fell in love with, either," she said sadly. "That man wouldn't do what you just did. Wouldn't hurt his best friend and someone he loves like you just did, then try to tell me it's okay because his friend turned out to be bi. I just--" Her voice broke, and for a minute, he didn't think she was going to be able to finish her sentence. Finally, in a small voice, she added, "I just don't believe that's right, Ray. I can't agree with it."

Those words drained the fury out of him. They took everything. Sucked all his righteous anger at Ben and Kowalski away, and left him feeling drained. Empty. Stupid. Although their religion said homosexuality and bisexuality were wrong, were perverted, though he'd been raised to believe that, it seemed that Serena disagreed.

"You know," he said heavily, "it's one thing to admit to yourself that you're wrong. I did that before I came here. Doesn't matter that I pulled my gun to protect Fraser... The law won't see it that way. But somehow -- somehow, I guess I hoped you would."

"I do see that, Ray!"

He shook his head bitterly. "You know what I see in your eyes when you look at me now? A bigot. A vicious bastard who you wouldn't even consider making a life with."

"No," she whispered, stricken. "That's not true!"

"Isn't it?" He felt dead inside. As dead as he had when he was working for the Iguanas, and that was saying something.

But he knew he wasn't the only one who was hurt. All at once, silently, Serena started to cry. Tears ran down her beautiful face, and even through the numbness, the shock of his pain and humiliation, he didn't like seeing that, or knowing that he was the cause of it. He went to her, got down on his knees, and put his arms around her waist. Laid his heavy, guilty head against her, and felt himself shaking. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "I'm so sorry!"

He didn't know what else to say, but he was afraid it wasn't enough. So he didn't know if she'd hold him, or push him away. She did neither. Instead, after a long silence, she finally reached down and put a hand on his head. Then she put her arms around him and hugged him back. "I believe you, Ray," she whispered at last. "And I love you. I do. But it isn't me you need to say that to. It's Ben, and Ray Kowalski."

He couldn't speak. I can't do that, he thought. I can't!

So they held each other in silent misery. There was nothing left to say. Everything that counted had been said, and there was no calling any of it back.

Ray's head lay on Ben's shoulder. He felt sated. Drowsy, but really happy. He was back with Ben, back where he belonged, they'd made love again, and things were going to work out. Because even if he couldn't talk Vecchio around, even if he didn't get them reinvited to his wedding, Ben would still be with him. That was the main thing. The only thing that really counted. He knew that, he believed in it now.

"Ray?" Ben asked softly.

"Hmm?" he murmured, loving the warmth that was coming off of Fraser. Not just his big body, although that had him warm and toasty as usual, but from his hands, too. The way they held him, touched his hair -- like he was something precious. Something worth keeping. Even worth fighting for. Remembering how Ben had fought for him at his apartment made him smile, even in his drowsy haze. It's easy to say you'd do anything for someone. But I know Ben will do anything for me. Know he really loves me that much.

So when Ben's hands faltered all of a sudden, Ray wondered what his sudden tension was about. They'd already talked about Vecchio, and as far as he knew, they didn't have any other problems at the moment. Except for Rylan, and Ben didn't know about that. So why had he gone all stiff? Stopped petting him?

"I wanted to ask you..." Ben faltered again, and Ray saw him swallow hard.

"What is it?"

"It's just that -- well, when you left this morning... I wasn't sure what it meant."

Ray shrugged, relieved that Ben's question wasn't about something more serious. "Didn't mean nothin'," he said carelessly. "I just got a temper, ya know. Felt like I was gonna blow, so I got out before I did somethin' stupid. Dat's all. Used to do that with Stella, too. Once our marriage went sour, I did that a lot. Took off, so I wouldn't go nuclear on her."

"Oh." Strangely enough, Fraser sounded relieved.

Ray turned his head to look at him. "Why? Whadja think it meant?"

Ben shrugged awkwardly. "I wasn't sure. You were so angry, I didn't -- well, I didn't know if you were ever coming back," he confessed at last.

"What?" Ray was startled. "Ya thought I left ya for good?" He blinked. He'd never thought Ben would jump to such a dire conclusion. Actually, he hadn't thought about how he'd react to his departure at all. He'd been so mad all he'd thought about was getting out before he exploded, and hit him. But he could see now that he'd done a different kind of damage by leaving. Then again, Ben wasn't the only one who'd had doubts about their relationship, who'd been scared by his partner's actions. "Well, after the way you defended Vecchio, then put that lock on yer door -- I wasn't sure you wanted me back," he admitted.

Ben looked down for a moment, wincing. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. I did want you back," he said quietly. "I do. That's why I put it there. For your protection."

"I know." Still, it was good to hear. Very, very good. He propped himself up on an elbow, so that he could look into Ben's eyes. "I just didn't get that at first." He shrugged awkwardly. "Nervous, I guess."

"It's all right." Ben hesitated for a second. Got real serious. Shot him an embarrassed glance. "And... I'll try to do better, Ray," he said humbly. "I'll try to stop--"

"No! Don't," Ray said. He was angry, almost frightened by the look on Ben's face. "Don't say dat. Don't start changin', cuz ya think that's what I want."

Ben frowned in confusion. "But--"

"Look," Ray said, "either we'll work or we won't, but I don't want ya to change yerself for me. Don't want ya to be anythin' but who ya are."

"But I thought..." Ben shrugged, visibly bewildered. "I thought that I drive you crazy sometimes, Ray."

He grinned. "Ya do. But that's okay. I drive you crazy sometimes, too. Don't hear ya askin' me to be different."

Ben just shook his head. Like he still thought he was the one with faults, and Ray was perfect.

"What I mean is, I fell in love with ya the way ya are," Ray went on. "Because o' the way ya are. Don't want ya to start chippin' away at yerself, tryin' to make yerself into somethin' ya think I'll like better." He reached out to touch him, gently traced the line of his jaw with the back of his hand. "Love ya how ya are. Want ya how ya are. Okay?"

Ben still looked confused. Like maybe he'd never understand that. But that was okay. He didn't have to understand it, as long as he accepted it. "Yes. Thank you," he said softly.

But Ray wasn't finished. He felt like he still hadn't laid all Ben's doubts to rest, and he wanted to. "Don't haveta thank me. Just believe me." He sought Ben's eyes. When their gazes caught and held, he saw the last hints of confusion in his lover's blue gaze ebb away. As if his eyes had caught Ben. Steadied him until he felt rock solid.

The Mountie nodded. "All right."

Ray felt a flush of relief, of warmth. But he wasn't done yet. "Want ya to believe this, too: I'm not goin' anywhere. Don't be thinkin' I'm gonna leave ya if we have a fight. I just get crazy sometimes, an' I have to get away. Take some time out, ya know? Go somewhere for awhile, and blow off some steam. That's just me. When I get mad, I gotta move. Do somethin'. So I go to the gym. Pound a bag. Boom, boom! Or get in my car an' drive. Whatever. The point is, it doesn't mean I'm not comin' back. I wouldn't do that."

Ben's eyes lightened even more, as if a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders. "I understand. You merely react to emotional stress differently than I do. So you chose to remove yourself from a volatile situation before it became intolerable to the point that you found yourself unable to--"


"You took a break, to clear your head," Ben explained.

"Yeah! Exactly. But I didn't leave ya. Not really. Toldja I wasn't gonna leave ya again, and I meant it. We're together, you 'n me. We're--" He broke off, searching for the right word. "We're an 'us' now."

"Us," Ben said softly, as if he were taking the word out for a ride. Seeing how it felt.

It must've felt good, because Ray saw him smile. He smiled too. "Yeah. Us. Signed, sealed and delivered. You 'n me, no matter what. Okay?"

Ben nodded, his lips spreading into an even wider, more satisfied smile. "Understood," he said happily.

Ray laid his head down again, satisfied that they were both clear on that now. Nobody was leaving anybody, for any reason. They were partners, in the best sense of the word. Ben's hands settled on his hair again, a wordless affirmation of love and trust. Ray closed his eyes, letting the warmth of it flow through him. "I'm yer cop," he said, smiling.

"And I'm your Mountie," Ben answered softly somewhere above him, his fingers moving gently through his hair.

Ray sneaked a glance up at Ben from under his eyelashes. "Dat mean I can wear yer hat?"

Taken off guard, Fraser didn't know what to say. Of course, everything that he had was Ray's. But somehow, he'd never imagined that Ray would want to wear his hat. Or any other part of his uniform. Actually, any other part of his uniform wouldn't have given him much pause. But his Stetson... It was like a part of him. He hardly ever let anyone else touch it. So Ray's request struck him on a deep, peculiar level. It created an odd sort of pulse way down inside of him, for reasons he didn't understand.

Ray's touched my hat often, he told himself, trying to comprehend his odd reaction. He's handed it to me, held it for me, even tossed it to me on occasion, and I never minded. Why is this different? Why should I care if he wears it? It was absurd, when you thought about it logically. But he did care. He cared a great deal. It seemed that his feelings for Ray, and for his hat, went far beyond logic, into realms of emotion he'd never previously explored. The concept of Ray in his hat was... disturbing. Or was it thrilling? "Right now, Ray?" he hedged, stalling as he tried to understand himself.

"No. Not right now. Just -- sometime."

"Well..." Fraser hesitated. Then he took a different mental tack. Tried to look at the situation through Ray's eyes. To him, a request to wear his Stetson probably seemed like a small thing, even trivial. He was noticeably careless about his own clothing, a trait that Fraser normally found oddly endearing. He couldn't help wondering what Ray's sudden, unexpected interest in his clothing signified. Was this some sort of test of his newly reaffirmed commitment to him? If it was, he didn't want to fail it.

So he opened his mouth to say Yes. Then he suddenly remembered how fetching Ray had once looked in Turnbull's borrowed uniform; and the strange vibration inside him intensified into a positive thrill. No doubt he'd look just as handsome in my hat. From there, his thoughts leapt to a sudden vision of how fetching Ray would look dressed in nothing but his hat. Oh, God. That's it! The idea of Ray wearing my hat is arousing. Intensely so. He wasn't sure why, but envisioning Ray like that turned him on. He was so surprised that he blushed, and forgot what he'd meant to say.

Impatient as always, when he didn't answer right away, Ray lifted his head and demanded, "Well, can I?"

"Yes," Fraser replied, promptly that time. "Certainly you can."

"Oh." That took Ray by surprise. He'd evidently expected him to say no, because he squinted up at him as if he doubted his sincerity. "Well, when then? When can I?" he asked, looking a bit suspicious.

"Any time, Ray. Any time you want."

Ray smiled triumphantly. "Cool!" Then he laid back down, laced his arms behind his head, closed his eyes and heaved a contented sigh, clearly happy in the knowledge that he could put Ben's hat on whenever he felt like it.

I wonder if I ought to tell him that I'll let him wear it as long as he agrees not to wear anything else with it? But Fraser decided not to. Looking down at Ray with a mischievous smile, he thought, Why spoil the surprise?

The next morning, two days after the incident at Ben's apartment, Ray Vecchio walked up a crowded street in downtown Chicago. Under a dark, leaden sky that threatened rain, he sauntered slowly along, head down, hands in his pockets. He wasn't walking to work, or to get any place at all. He was just drifting, like a wind-blown piece of paper. Trying to think. He wasn't due in at the 27th, because he'd already called in and requested another day's sick leave from Lt. Welsh. Welsh had granted it, but with a raised eyebrow that Ray could hear, even though he couldn't see him. Still, despite the concern in his voice, Welsh hadn't pushed it. He'd been generous. Given him the day off again, and hadn't asked any awkward questions. Yet.

But if I do this again, he will. He'll have to. He's got a Station to run. Can't let me keep duckin' the job forever. Ray knew the drill, but he'd pushed his luck as far as he could, because he still didn't want Welsh to know what was going on. What he'd done, or the fact that the wedding he'd invited the whole 27th to next week was, at the moment, off. He'd lucked out so far, in that Benny and Kowalski hadn't pressed charges against him. That was a minor miracle, and he knew it. But that didn't mean he was off the hook. It made his future far less dangerous, but no less complicated. Because now he owed them something. And Serena had made it clear that unless he paid off by apologizing to them, there would be no wedding.

But how the hell could he apologize for pulling his gun on Kowalski? Even if he could manage to choke the words out (and he still wasn't sure about that), Kowalski probably wouldn't accept them. After all, he'd threatened to kill him if he ever came near him again; and it wasn't an idle threat. He'd seen that in his eyes. Kowalski hated his guts now. If he tried to tell him that he was sorry, Kowalski would probably laugh in his face, then jump him. If Fraser hadn't held him back the other night, he would've tried that already.

He sighed. Wasn't like he couldn't handle him -- Kowalski weighed about as much as an undersize banty rooster. It was just that he needed to try to work things out with him for Serena's sake, not start another fight. But after what he'd done, he knew it was extremely unlikely the little bastard would listen to a word he tried to say.

But if he didn't try, Serena wouldn't marry him. She was as serious about that as Kowalski had been about wanting to kill him if they ever met again. Where things like this were concerned, she was just like Fraser. Stubborn. Ethical, even when it wasn't easy. It was one of the things he loved about her; about both of them, really. Oh, geez, there it is again! he thought, uneasy. Another way they're alike...

He shook his head. Don't go there right now, okay? Just don't.

He forced himself to think of Benny for a minute, though. Not how he was like Serena, but about their former friendship. He didn't know if he could actually go through with trying to regain that either, now that he knew what he was. What he and Kowalski both were. But after talking to Serena, and listening to the proddings of his guilty conscience, he wasn't sure why. Did he really think them sleeping together was perverted, or did he just want to avoid their relationship because it would bring back painful, intolerable memories of himself with James Maxwell? Or -- and this was what bothered him the most -- did he want to avoid them because, in some sick way, he really was jealous of Kowalski, like he'd said?

He kept coming back to that, even though he didn't want to.

But he was still too confused to answer that question, and he had so many other problems to deal with that he let it go for the time being. Switched gears mentally, and went back to considering an apology. Okay. Say I do manage to apologize to them, somehow. Say I do, and the wedding's back on again. Serena still wants to have them both come, but I'm not sure we should. Even if I manage to patch things up with Kowalski beforehand, so he doesn't try to start something, what if they kiss each other in public, and I see it? Jesus. Worse, what if Ma sees it? He didn't even want to imagine trying to explain all this to her. And if any of his macho male cousins saw anything like that, it'd be worse. His wedding might degenerate into a brawl.

If there's even going to be a wedding now. That was still up in the air, too, until he made up his mind what to do. He heaved a sigh and stared at the ground. The phrase 'caught between a rock and a hard place' didn't begin to describe this.

Then again, had his life ever been simple? Even when he was a kid, he'd had to struggle. First with his Dad, then with Frankie Zuko. And when he grew up, there had been the Family. The Mafia. The larger organization of which Frankie was only a small, almost insignificant part.

There had been the Iguanas, and Jimmy the Crusher. Jimmy the fucking Freak. More pain, more blood, so much cruelty and violence that it had pushed him to the limits of his sanity. But there had been no way to get out until the job was done. Giving up had never been an option. Ever since he'd let Frankie Zuko turn Marco Metrani's face to mush that day when he was a kid, he'd vowed to himself he'd never back down, never back off from people like that again. So he'd stayed in Arizona until the bitter end, though he'd hated it like nothing he'd ever done in his life. Even though he'd been raped, even though he'd almost died, he'd stuck it out; and he'd taken most of them down when he left. So at least he'd had something to feel proud of, out of that whole mess.

But it had cost him. Madonna, how it had cost him! He'd won the battle, but he'd almost lost the war. Nearly lost himself, in the process.

Coming back to Chicago had been a huge relief. He'd thought he was finally free. He'd thought he could start living his life for himself at last, doing what he wanted to do. But that had turned out to be an illusion too. Because here he was, trapped in another hell because he'd tried (mistakenly) to protect someone.

Was there ever a time when my choices were my own?

He wasn't sure. When he was a kid, he'd had to shield his mother and sisters from his drunken, abusive father. Now that he was an adult, that circle had widened. Now, there was not just his family to think of, but Serena as well. Plus, he'd sworn to protect the entire population of Chicago. He didn't feel freer, that was certain.

Okay, so life's not easy, a voice inside him said. Doesn't matter. You learned that a long time ago. You still have to decide what to do. Make your choice.

He'd given himself this much: one more day off, a few more hours in which to decide. He could either stick to his ultimatum, break up his partnership with Fraser (which would require a transfer, unless Welsh was willing to let Ben partner up with someone else), and his friendship too, and lose all hope of marrying Serena, or else somehow try to take back what he'd said. Try to get past his revulsion for what he and Kowalski were doing, and tell Fraser he was sorry for attacking his--

His mind skittered to a halt. Balked at thinking of that word.

His lover. Jesus. How can I say that, when I can barely even stand to think it? How am I ever gonna get past this? How am I gonna apologize to them? he wondered hopelessly, as he walked on. I can't! Anger still spiked in him at the thought of it. At Kowalski doing to Ben what Maxwell had done to him. Or worse, Ben doing things like that to Kowalski...

He couldn't even think about it without getting sick to his stomach.

But that little voice inside him wouldn't stand for that. Where do you get off condemning them for what you did yourself? it kept asking. When you probably did worse things yourself?

His conscience wouldn't shut up about it: how hypocritical it was for him to freak out over Benny and Kowalski being bi, when he'd fucked a guy himself. Not just once, either, but many times, during that awful year in Arizona. It didn't seem to matter to his conscience that it had been necessary -- a matter of survival, to protect his cover -- rather than recreational. It wouldn't let him forget that he'd still done it. It had even gone so far as to suggest that Ben's reasons for it were better than his had been: Benny was in love. However perverted the Church might say fucking another guy was, in the deepest part of his heart, he now felt that Fraser was doing it because he really loved Kowalski. Now that he'd had time to think about it, he knew that was what he'd seen in Benny's eyes that night. He'd risked his life to tell him that he loved Kowalski, and the emotion pouring from him had been so strong, so intense that it had kept him from pulling the trigger. He'd realized that if he did, he wouldn't just kill Kowalski, he'd kill Ben, too. That Benny loved him that much. And if Benton Fraser loved Kowalski, then it also followed that Kowalski had to be a good person, because Fraser would never love someone who wasn't. Not after Victoria. Ray knew that. Benny had learned his lesson about that in the hardest way possible.

But somehow, knowing that Fraser was sleeping with Kowalski out of love, and that Kowalski must be an okay guy to have won Benny's heart, only made him feel worse about himself. I probably did far worse things than they're doin'. Cuz knowing Benny, I doubt there's any rough stuff involved. He didn't know Kowalski well, hardly at all, but he'd gotten the distinct impression that under his tough veneer, he was the sensitive type as well: and Benny was the gentlest guy he'd ever known. He couldn't imagine him getting off by hurting his lover, by cuffing and humiliating him, by whipping or beating him until he bled... Couldn't imagine Ben doing any of the things Maxwell had done to him, or that Jimmy had made him do. Not in a million years. He kind of doubted Kowalski was like that, either.

But I was. I had to be. What would Benny think of me, if he knew?

Nothing good, that was certain. He closed his eyes for a second, trying to blot out the images that rose up in his head. Sick, bloody memories of his past. His secret. His shame. People ebbed and flowed all around him, jostling him along in currents and eddies of hurrying bodies, yet he felt miserably alone. He wondered bleakly how many of the men walking by were like him. How many had done the things he'd done? Any? Even one? Any other members of Sadists Anonymous here?

He doubted it, and the doubt sat heavy on his shoulders. Almost as heavy as his guilt. He'd spent hours yesterday talking to Serena about his attack on Kowalski. After her initial shock had worn off, after she'd stopped crying, to his immense relief, she'd let him stay with her. He'd spent what was left of the night on her couch, and in the morning, after they'd both gotten some rest, they'd talked about it at length. She still insisted that he had to try to make things right with Fraser and Kowalski, but she'd granted him some time, at least. Put off making any final decision about their wedding until he'd decided what to do.

She'd tried to help him decide. He'd known intellectually that what he'd done was wrong, that it was stupid and could've put him in prison, but he'd been thinking mostly about how it would affect him. Serena had made him feel that it was wrong, in his heart -- and to see Benny and Kowalski's side of it, too. She'd started to make him see that what he'd done was wrong in more ways than even he had thought possible. She'd made him doubt that his revulsion at discovering they were bi was entirely because of his religious beliefs. The more he'd tried to insist on that, the more it had felt phony, even to him. That was part of it, sure, but there was more to it than that. He hadn't told her this, but he was starting to feel, more and more, that his horrible rage had sprung mostly from the way finding them together had reminded him forcibly of his guilty past with Maxwell. He was starting to suspect that he didn't hate Benny and Kowalski so much for what they were, but for making him remember that he'd been the same thing once himself.

The really amazing thing was, though, that neither Kowalski nor Benny had turned him in. He knew it, because he hadn't tried to hide, and though a whole day and night had now gone by since it happened, no one had come looking for him. They'd had plenty of time to have him arrested, but they hadn't done it. It was incredible. After all he'd done to both of them, it seemed that they'd still let him off the hook. He didn't know what to think about that. He wasn't sure why they'd spared him, but he knew he owed them for it, big time. No question. He just wasn't sure if he had it in him to overlook what they were, and to repair his friendship/partnership with Fraser, in return.

But if I don't, I'll lose Serena -- and Benny. Is keeping my pride really worth that? Hell, in the end, if I lose my fiancée and my best friend, what kinda life am I gonna have anyway? He walked on, frowning, lost in thought.

"Tick tock, Armie." The words caught him by surprise. They came out of nowhere, floated to him in a breathy, teasing whisper.

Three little words. Harmless, even innocuous -- to most people. But not to him. They froze his blood. Made him forget all his dark thoughts about his assault on Kowalski in an instant. His head came up and he whirled. His heart racing, he searched the flood of pedestrians surrounding him for someone he'd never thought he'd see again.

His mind tried to deny what he'd heard. Didn't want to believe it. It can't be. He doesn't know. Doesn't know who I really am, doesn't know where I am. He's on the run. He has to be! He's probably not even in the U.S. anymore, he told himself desperately. Still, his heart pounded, his mouth was dry, and he found himself grabbing reflexively for his gun. But it wasn't there. He remembered belatedly that he'd left it at home with Serena. After what he'd done to Kowalski, he hadn't wanted to carry it unless he was on duty. Didn't trust himself with it. But as his eyes frantically scanned the crowd around him for a familiar face, he changed his mind. Wished desperately for the cold, reassuring weight of his weapon, for the bit of security it would've given him.

Tick tock. Armie. Words and a name he hadn't heard in months. That he'd never wanted to hear again. "Jimmy," he breathed, his whole body tense. Because that was what James Maxwell always used to say. His private little code, his signal to set up a fuck: "Tick tock, Armie. Time's a wastin'."

He'd grown to hate those words, and everything that came with them. The sight of Maxwell, the touch of his hands -- all of it. All of his kinky, sadistic sex games. His whips and handcuffs, his taste for blood. James Maxwell, the bastard who'd whipped, beaten and raped him, who'd defiled him with every touch. Memories of him filled his head against his will, and he tasted rage in the back of his throat as he swept passersby with his gaze. He whirled around and around, looking in every direction, but it was a hopeless task.

"Dammit!" he swore. He couldn't see him, which was frustrating, but not surprising. Maxwell hadn't survived in the Iguanas, then evaded capture unlike most of them, by being stupid. He was highly intelligent, as clever as he was ruthless. Jimmy would want him to know he was there, without actually risking being seen and/or captured, and he'd picked the perfect place to do it. There were hundreds of people on the street. At least half of them were male, and probably half of them were blond. Quite a few had short, spiky hair. Maxwell could've been any one of them, anywhere. Or he could've walked right past him, in disguise.

"Shit," Ray muttered, turning in helpless circles. The crowd parted around him. People eyed him askance, then gave him a wide, hasty berth. He didn't blame them. He knew he must look crazy, whirling on the crowded sidewalk, talking to himself. For a moment, he doubted his own sanity. Started to sweat. Maybe I am crazy. Maybe this is like that thing with Kowalski, he thought desperately. I was seein' things then. Thought Kowalski was Maxwell. Thought he was raping Benny. Maybe now I'm startin' to hear things, too!

But something inside him rejected that explanation. There were reasons why he'd lost it at Benny's the other night. The main one being that finding Benny in bed with a guy contradicted everything he knew about him -- so he'd had good reason to suspect some sort of foul play. He'd walked in on something so wild, so unexpected that he'd thought it must be rape, had thought Benny was in danger -- from Kowalski, who looked like Maxwell. But Benny wasn't here now. Neither was Kowalski. He was alone, and after what he'd done to Kowalski, he had enough trouble in his life. He wouldn't borrow more from his past by conjuring up the Freak's hated voice out of thin air.

Would I? He stared wildly around him, feeling like he was drifting deeper and deeper into a nightmare from which there was no escape.

Kowalski got up early that morning, so he could say goodbye before Ben left for work. Glancing out the window, he saw that the sky was gray and overcast, but he still felt happy. As long as he still had Ben, it could rain all it wanted. He didn't give a damn.

Once the Mountie was fully dressed, boots and all, Ray looked him up and down appreciatively. "Ya look soooo good in that uniform," he leered.

"Really?" Ben looked down, supposedly to brush a piece of lint off his tunic, but Ray knew he was really trying to hide a blush.

Ray grinned. He loved it when Ben did that, loved watching his perfect, snow-white skin turn that delicious shade of pink. "Oh yeah," he nodded, pulling on his own boots. "Good enough to eat," he grinned, devouring Ben with his eyes. "Come 'mere," he teased, "and I'll prove it."

"I think not," Fraser said reprovingly. "I don't have time to change my uniform." Then, as he realized what he'd said, his blush deepened from pink to rosy red.

Ray laughed out loud. Ben was absolutely right. If he came anywhere near him, they'd definitely get that uniform dirty, and the Mountie had to be on duty in less than thirty minutes. "Okay. Be that way," he shrugged.

Ben looked away, fiddling with a button on his collar. Still, he smiled. A tiny, almost invisible curve of his lips that no one else but Ray would've noticed. But he saw it, and he knew what it meant. Ben liked it that he wanted him bad. Liked to hear him say it. He might blush red as a beet, but he still liked it. Ray figured the blushes were just because he'd never gotten much feedback in that area before. Maybe because of his shyness, or maybe just cuz his other lovers had been too selfish to let him know how gorgeous he was. But his shyness didn't deter Ray; and the thought that maybe none of his other lovers had ever complimented him much just spurred him on. He figured Ben was just like anybody else: he needed to know that he was loved, admired and wanted. Maybe he even needed to hear that more than most people did, cuz way down deep, he didn't think much of himself. At least, he hadn't. Ray was working on changing that.

I'm gonna keep makin' him blush until he gets it, until he gets how beautiful he is, inside an' out, Ray promised himself. It was his mission in life now, making Fraser feel as good about himself as he felt about him.

He'd fallen quiet for a minute, and Ben shot a curious glance at him. "Are you leaving, Ray?"

"Izzat a hint, or are ya just tryin' to change the subject?" he shot back. But he wasn't really complaining. After getting his beautiful Mountie back, he was in such a good mood that even if Ben was trying to nudge him away from talking about sex, he didn't mind. He knew all of Ben's tricks, knew him like the back of his hand now, and it felt good. Really, really good. Cuz Ben knew him just as well, and that was enough to send anybody out onto the street feeling great...

"Yeah, I'm goin' back to my place to get some clothes, do some laundry," he explained, "and make a few calls."

He didn't say who to, but he didn't need to. Ben nodded, and Ray knew he'd figured out that one of those calls would be to Vecchio. But he didn't look very hopeful, so he teased him a bit. "Don't worry, I'm gonna call him first thing. If he's up for it, I'll meet him somewhere this morning. I should be done by noon, at the latest. So I'll be back in plenty o' time to ravish ya after work," he grinned.

To his surprise, Ben didn't even smile. He walked over to him and looked down at him with worried eyes. "Will you call me when you're done?" he asked.

"Sure." Ray nodded, though he felt Fraser was worrying too much.

"Promise me that you'll be careful?" Ben was very, very serious.

He didn't have to ask why. He stood up and pulled the worried Mountie into a hug. "Absolutely, Benny Ben," he smiled against his shoulder. "Ya really think I'd take any risks, now that I got you?"

It must've been just the right thing to say, because Fraser suddenly hugged him so tightly that he could hardly breathe. "Please don't, Ray," he answered. "For my sake."

"Okay, okay," he said, trying to sound like he was grumbling, when he was secretly thrilled by his lover's concern. "Enough mushy stuff. Gimme a kiss, Mountie man, and let's get goin'."

As he watched the flow of pedestrians all around him but failed to spot Maxwell, Vecchio felt a drop of sweat trickle down his back, underneath his shirt. A cold sweat. To still his growing panic that Maxwell might just be a product of his overheated imagination, he concentrated on facts, on what he knew to be true. Fact number one: The Freak was loose. At large. Despite their big mop-up of most of the Iguana family in the Southwest as a result of his undercover work, Maxwell had escaped the net somehow, like the slimy piece of shit he was. So it was possible that he could be here. Fact number two: While it was possible that someone else, some innocent passerby, might've uttered the phrase, "Tick tock" in casual conversation, the odds were astronomical against anyone putting it together with the nickname "Armie". Fact number three: Even when he'd been using another man's name, impersonating Armando Langostini, no one else had ever called him Armie. No one had ever dared. No one except Jimmy Maxwell. Fact number four: It was Maxwell's voice that had said those words on the street just now. He knew it. Not a chance in hell he'd ever forget that voice... Last but not least, it was also a fact that Maxwell had once tried to kill him. So if he'd somehow learned where he was, that he was still alive, he'd consider it a matter of pride to finish him off. And given Jimmy's twisted sense of humor, he'd likely try to scare the shit out of him first.

Tick tock, Armie. It all added up.

I'm not crazy. He's here, he thought, with a strange mixture of relief and terror. Relief that he wasn't crazy, terror because the proof of his sanity had to be Maxwell's presence in Chicago. There could be only one reason for that, one reason compelling enough that he'd risk his precious freedom by coming here. The knowledge seeped into his bones, deep and cold, chilling him. He'd been trying like hell to leave his past behind, but instead, it had come after him, like a shadowy hound that had his scent and wouldn't give up until it sank its teeth into his throat. Maxwell was going to finish what he'd started. To kill him, and then-- "Serena," Ray breathed.

In a second, his personal fears were forgotten. If Maxwell knows I'm here, then he's probably been watching me. Which means that he'll know she's here too -- and that she's with me. And he always hated her.

And Serena was alone in their new house. He'd told her that he needed to be by himself for awhile, to do some more thinking. Said he'd come back and let her know when he'd made up his mind what to do. She'd said she understood, then surprised him by asking if he'd take her to their new house so she could unpack some more of their things in the meantime. She'd wanted to keep busy, she said. He'd agreed, secretly heartened by the way she'd chosen to occupy her time. After all, if she still wanted to work on making their new house a home, it must mean that she still had some faith that things would work out between them. And if Serena had faith in him, then maybe he could begin to have some faith in himself again, too. So he'd driven her there and kissed her goodbye, with the first faint stirring of hope he'd felt since he'd left Ben's apartment two nights ago.

Now, he could've kicked himself for leaving her there, alone and unprotected. Granted, he'd left his gun there with her, but she had no idea that Maxwell was in the same state with her, let alone the same city. So she'd have no reason to so much as look at it. She wasn't expecting any trouble -- she was expecting him to come home soon. The possibilities chilled him. He had no way of knowing how long Maxwell had been in Chicago. Long enough, perhaps, to have learned everything about him: the details of his impending wedding, his new address, everything. Even though Maxwell had been on the street near him a few minutes ago, he could've turned a corner and hailed a cab or gotten in a car, and be heading for his new house right now. Jimmy could walk right up to their door and ring the bell, and Serena might answer it without checking to see who it was first. She might think it was him.

I could get her killed.

He panicked. Before he knew it, he was running. Running for the cell phone he'd left in his car. Running full tilt, shoving people out of his way with rough, impatient hands. Their faces were a blur to him. He didn't really see them. His whole concentration was focused on running, and on praying, as he sprinted for the car. Please, God, please, God, please! Don't let me be too late. Don't let Jimmy find her first!

Fraser gave Kowalski such a deep, passionate parting kiss that Ray's mouth was still tingling moments later, as he wove the GTO through morning traffic, heading for his apartment. He smiled to himself, remembering it. The sky was so dark now that it'd probably rain soon, but he didn't care. He turned on the radio and sang along with the music, all the way home. Cuz any day that Fraser loved him was a good day.

Once he got to his apartment, he checked his messages, then called the Vecchio house. Ray wasn't there, but he got Ma Vecchio. She'd visited him twice when he was in the hospital, but this was the first time he'd talked to her since his release, and she seemed so happy that he'd called that he smiled in spite of himself. "I swear, I'm doin' fine," he reassured her, touched by her concern. "Ya know how us cops are. Takes more than a few bruises to keep us down."

"A few bruises! You were shot, pobre bambino," she responded. "A terrible thing! You're sure you're all right now?"

"Yeah. I still got some time off comin', before I have to go back to the 29th, so I'm takin' it easy for a few more days. "

"You should call more often, you know, Ray! Or stop in for some lasagna. Don't be such a stranger," she chided fondly.

It was obvious she knew nothing about Vecchio's attack on him. He had no intention of telling her, either, since it would only hurt her. That was for Vecchio to do, if he ever decided there'd be a point to it. But Ray knew he couldn't let their conversation go on too much longer, either, or she'd be bound to ask him if he and Fraser were coming to the wedding. He didn't want to worry her by telling her that Ray had barred them from it. Besides, if everything went okay when he talked to Vecchio, he was still hoping they'd get reinvited, so she'd never need to know.

"Listen, I need to reach Ray about somethin', and it's kinda urgent," he told her. "You know where he is?"

"If he's not at work, you should try calling him at Serena's apartment, or at their new house. They've been fixing it up so that they can move in right after the wedding," she explained. "So their phone is already working there. Here, let me look up the numbers for you..."

She gave him both numbers, and made him promise to come by and see her sometime soon.

"I will. Thanks. 'Bye now," he said, and hung up swiftly, before she could mention the wedding again. Congratulating himself on wiggling out of that one pretty neatly, he then dialed Serena Tianni's apartment. There was no answer, so he tried the number for Vecchio's new house.

"Hello?" A woman's voice answered.

Surprised, Ray hesitated. He'd expected Vecchio would answer the phone, not his fiancée. But her voice was soft and kind of sweet. Ray decided he liked it. So after a slight pause, he answered, "Hi. Is this Serena Tianni?"


Ray hesitated again. He didn't know if Vecchio had told her what he'd done, either. Fraser was pretty sure he hadn't told her about his rape, so it was possible he might've kept the attack a secret from her too. Since he wanted Vecchio's good will for Ben's sake, he decided he'd better not give it away, either. "Uh... This is Ray Kowalski," he began.

"Detective Stanley Ray Kowalski?" Serena asked.

Her use of his full name and rank, and the hint of nervousness in her voice, hinted strongly that maybe she was expecting an official call. So maybe she did know what Vecchio had done. Still, he decided to be cautious. "Yeah. Dat's me. Is Ray there? Could I talk to him?"

"No. No, he went out a couple of hours ago," she said distractedly. There was a long pause, then just as he opened his mouth to ask her to have Vecchio call him back, she added, "I hope you don't mind me saying this, Detective, but Ray told me everything. What happened at Ben's apartment the other night, I mean. What he did to you. I'm so sorry! Are you all right?"

Ray was taken aback. He'd never met Vecchio's fiancée, or thought about what her reaction might be to all of this. If he had, he'd've expected she'd take Vecchio's side. Go along with his idea that they were both perverts. Her apology, and the obvious anguish and concern in her voice, stunned him into momentary silence. Out of consideration for her, he wondered if he should just cut the conversation off right there, without discussing it any further, and ask her to have Vecchio call him back. She seemed so nice that he didn't want to hurt her needlessly. After all, she was really just an innocent bystander in the whole thing.

But in the next instant, he decided not to hang up just yet. Since Vecchio had talked to her about it, it was possible that she might be able to give him some insights into the situation that would help when he had to talk to him. He already knew that Vecchio's temper was at least as volatile as his own, if not more so; and he was still deeply angry over what the Italian had done. So sounding his fiancée out about his mental state before they talked might be a good idea. Me and the Style Pig were gonna need all the help we can get, if we're gonna patch this thing up, instead o' goin' for each other's throats, he thought wryly.

After a minute, he answered, "Yeah. I'm fine. Thanks. But I'm sorry too. About the way things turned out, I mean." He chose his words carefully, because he realized that since she hadn't said anything specific about the incident, it was possible that she wasn't prejudiced against them because she just didn't know the truth. He had no way of knowing if Vecchio had really told her everything -- if he'd confessed that he'd attacked him because he was sleeping with Ben. For all he knew, Vecchio might've whitewashed that aspect of it, to hide what he viewed as his best friend's 'perversion' from her. He might've lied and said they'd had an argument that had resulted in a fight or something. So Ray used a cop trick he'd learned, to draw people out. He agreed with her without mentioning any specifics either. Then he shut up and waited to see how, or if, she would fill in the blanks, so he could find out how much she knew.

"Thank you for not pressing charges against him," Serena said.

So -- she knows Vecchio pulled his gun on me. That he threatened to kill me. He must've told her that much, at least.

He could hear the strain, the embarrassment in her voice, and his admiration for her grew. Not many women would be so fair or understanding about such a thing. In her place, he knew Stella wouldn't have. Serena seemed like a very good person. Not at all the stuck-up, trophy-blonde type he'd expected the Style Pig to pick. Vecchio doesn't deserve you, he thought, indulging in a bit of pettiness just because it felt good. But aloud, all he said was, "Ben and I talked it over, and he didn't really hurt us physically, so... we didn't wanna make things any worse than they already are."

"Thank you," she repeated. He could hear genuine gratitude in her voice. "That's very generous of you. I know you probably hear this a lot, but Ray's not -- well, he's not a bad guy. He's really -- very wonderful. What he did to you... it's just not like him. But he had -- a really hard time when he was undercover. Worse than he lets on. Worse than even I knew. I think he's still wound up inside about it. I think that's why he acted like he did at Ben's place."

He didn't share her opinion of Vecchio's sterling qualities, but he added perceptiveness to her list of good ones. She'd clearly figured out that Vecchio's problem was connected to his time in Arizona. But it seemed clear from what she'd just said that Fraser had been right: she was just guessing at the cause of the attack. She didn't really know, which meant that Vecchio hadn't told her about his rape. So he didn't dare say much on that score.

"Could be," he allowed.

"Ray also told me that he asked you not to come to our wedding," she added, strain apparent in her voice again. "Both you and Ben Fraser."

So -- maybe she does know about us, he thought. But he still couldn't be sure. "Yeah. Dat's true," he admitted cautiously. "Dat's what I wanted to talk to Ray about. Ben's pretty upset about it."

He heard her sigh, then she said, "So am I. I love Ray, Mr. Kowalski, but I'm sorry he did that. I didn't -- he didn't ask me. What I mean is, I don't agree with him about that," she finished.

Ray heard a sniffle, and suddenly realized, with a pang, that she was crying. Well, it can't be easy, with Vecchio dumpin' this load o' crap in her lap, the week before their wedding. "Dat's good," he said. "But call me Ray, willya?" he added gently, trying to set her at ease. "Mr. Kowalski's my dad."

"Thanks, Ray," she said softly. Then, to his surprise, she added, "I know we've never met, but I've met Ben, and I consider him a friend. So would you tell him for me, please, that both of you are welcome at my place anytime?"

Wow. Something in her voice told him that she did know most of it -- that he and Ben were lovers, and that Vecchio had attacked him because of it. But she was making it clear that she neither approved nor condoned what her fiancé had done to them. That she didn't disapprove of them for being bi. His opinion of her went up another notch. But he also noticed that she hadn't gone as far as to reinvite them to her wedding; and he couldn't help but wonder what that meant. Had she called it off? "Thanks, Serena," he said, meaning it. "I'll pass it on to Ben. I know he'll be glad to hear it." But all the while, he kept thinking, What the heck is a jewel like this doin' with an arrogant nutcase like Vecchio?

"You're welcome," she said. "I just want you both to know that I'm sorry."

"Thanks. But I'd like to talk to Ray about it," he said. "Today, if I can. Do you know when he's gonna be home?"

"I'm expecting him any minute," she answered. "He went out a couple of hours ago, and he said he'd be back soon. If you want to talk to him, why don't you just come over? He'll probably be home before you get here."

Ray hesitated. That might be okay, but what if Vecchio came home late, and he got there first? If Vecchio found him in his house unexpectedly, he might hit the ceiling; and he didn't want to provoke another confrontation. "I dunno. Ya think he'll be okay with that? I'm not exactly his favorite person right now, and I don't wanna get ya in any trouble--"

"Don't worry about that," she said firmly. "I can take care of myself, and Ray needs to take care of this. I think you should come over now, if you can."

He shrugged. If she was okay with it, then he guessed now would be as good a time as any. Might as well get it over with, for Ben's sake. "Okay."

"Good. Then here's our address," she began.

Ray grabbed a pencil as she gave him directions to a suburban neighborhood across town. "Yeah. I know where that is. Depending on traffic, I should be there in about a half hour. Forty five minutes tops," he told her.

"Good. But Ray, there's something else. Something I should tell you--"

"Before ya do," he cut in, "ya sure Ray won't mind if I come over?"

"Yes. I'm sure."

"Okay then."

"I'll see you soon, then, Ray. I--"

All at once, before she could finish her sentence, the phone went dead. "Hey, Serena!" he said. "You there?" But it was no use. The dull, flat sound of a dial tone filled his ear. He frowned to himself. "Dat's weird. She must've hung up." Funny, though. She'd seemed really polite, like Fraser. Not the type to hang up in the middle of a conversation, still less when she was just about to tell him something.

"Oh well." He shrugged. Must've been a mistake. She must've hit the wrong button or somethin'. Still, she'd already invited him over, and finished giving him directions too, so he supposed it didn't really matter.

So far, so good, he told himself. But he wasn't sure if that was mere wishful thinking. He wished Serena hadn't hung up right in the crucial part of the conversation (at least for him); the part where they were going to discuss Vecchio. Because talking to him was going to be the hard part. He could've used some help with that, any help he could get.

A sudden thread of uneasiness crawled up his spine.

"Pitter, patter," he muttered, trying to rid his mind of fear and doubt. He strode back to his bedroom, stuffed some fresh clothes in his athletic bag, then headed for the door. Moving fast. Going on his gut, like he always did. He told himself this didn't require any deep thought. He just had to get it over with, get it done, so he could get back to Ben. He had the door open when he suddenly heard the Mountie's voice in his head, saying, "Be careful, Ray. For my sake."

It brought him up short. Was he doing the right thing, running over to Vecchio's place like this, with no real plan in mind? Or was he being stupid?

Without warning, he thought of Rylan. How he'd died in that alleyway, maybe partly because Ray hadn't thought to watch his mouth when they'd interviewed Donen. That froze him where he stood. Fraser had always been the thinking half of their partnership. The one who considered all the angles, who thought things through. And even though he'd bitched about it, Fraser's logic had always balanced out his impulsiveness. Without the Mountie's cool head to steady him, in the past few months with Rylan, he'd gotten careless, even reckless. Gotten used to plunging into everything headlong, full speed ahead, no thought for the consequences. And that had suited Rylan to a tee. Hell, he'd gotten off on risk-taking like no other cop Ray had ever seen. Ray had told himself that kind of stuff suited him, too. That he was just being who he was. Going on his gut. Rediscovering Ray Kowalski, after losing Fraser. But the truth was, he'd reveled in violence, in taking risks, because he didn't give a damn what happened to him. He'd given up on living; and he knew, now, that Rylan had felt the same. Like Bob Dylan said, "When you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose."

Maybe it wasn't so amazing that Rylan died. Maybe the real miracle is that I survived.

It was bittersweet, though, knowing that the emptiness they'd both felt had been an illusion. He hadn't really been alone at all: he'd still had his parents, and friends at the 27th who cared about him. People like Frannie and Welsh, who'd gone out of their way to help him, even when he was acting stupid. His parents and friends had been there, but he hadn't kept in touch with them. Instead, he'd chosen to isolate himself, so he could wallow in his misery. Rylan hadn't really been alone, either. He'd had him, at least as a friend. More importantly, he'd had his life. He was young, he could've had a future. He might've become a much better guy, if he'd lived to see that psychiatrist. He might've straightened himself out. Really learned how to love, and found someone to love him back.

But Rylan had lost it all, at least partly because of Ray's carelessness. The pain of that twisted his insides.

He tried to force it out of his mind again. Told himself he shouldn't be thinking about that now. He needed to work up some kind of plan to deal with Vecchio. He had more important things to do than torture himself, for the thousandth time, for answers, for the real reason why Rylan had died...

But in an instant, it came to him. Not an answer to that question, but something of a solution to the pain and guilt he was still carrying. He still needed to talk to Ben about it; he knew that. But that wasn't all he needed to do. He couldn't change the past, couldn't bring Rylan back -- but he could learn from his mistakes. Stop acting stupid. Take stock of his life, the life he was making with Fraser, and make some changes in himself, to make their life more secure. For the first time since Rylan's death, he saw something he could do to make up for his part in it. If I can learn something from it, make something positive come out of it, then Rylan didn't die for nothing.

His grief lightened a little. He realized belatedly that there might be a reason, after all, why he'd thought of Rylan just as he was going carelessly off into another potentially violent situation. That maybe his subconscious was trying to save him from making another disastrous mistake: this time with Ray Vecchio. Or maybe Rylan's ghost is.

He shook his head. Where the hell did that come from?

He brushed the eerie thought aside, and put his mind back on the business at hand. I gotta start bein' more careful, he told himself. That's the first thing. Because he had everything to lose now. He had Fraser, and Fraser had him. More than that, Fraser needed him. So he couldn't just go running around half-cocked, like he had been. He had to start looking out for himself. Using his head. Watching his skinny ass, for Ben's sake.

Starting now.

He set his bag down on his doorstep, and went back into his bedroom. Pulling open a dresser drawer, he took out his gun and checked it. It was loaded, but had the safety on, as usual. Satisfied, he shoved it under the waistband of his jeans, and headed for the door again.

"Wait!" the dark-haired kid called, frustrated. "Call for back-up. Ya need back-up!"

Bob Fraser gave him a look. Impetuous, he thought. Was I ever that young? "He can't hear you. You know that," he told the younger man mildly. "No use getting all riled up about it. You've done what you could."

The young man ran an agitated hand through his long, dark hair. "But it's not enough! He doesn't know what's going on. He's--"

"Rather resourceful, actually. For a Yank," Bob interrupted, patting his arm. "Remember that. He can take care of himself."

The kid subsided with a sideways look of his own, that wasn't too happy. Bob sighed to himself. He knew how he felt. It hadn't been easy for him at first, either, seeing Buck Frobisher getting into scrapes without him after he died. It was tough letting go of mortal life in general; but partners were even tougher.

"You planted the seed, son," he said, as kindly as he could. "It'll have to do."

The young man sighed heavily. "I guess. The only other way I can reach him is in his dreams, and there's no time for that. Besides, even that doesn't always work."

Bob nodded. The Borderland was a strange place, with rules and hazards all its own.

"But how will I know if it's enough?" the kid muttered.

Bob looked over his shoulder. They'd just walked over a little hill, and down into a glade. He'd thought he'd seen something a moment ago, a peculiar sort of glimmer coming from the hill behind them, and now he was sure. "Oh, it's enough," he said firmly.

The young man frowned at him skeptically. "How do you know? How can you be so sure?"

Bob hoisted a thumb over his shoulder. "See for yourself."

The kid turned, and his eyes narrowed. "What the--" At the crown of the hill, a bright light was suddenly shining. He squinted into it curiously. "What is that?"

"The answer to your question."

The kid's look of confusion grew, and so did the light.

It was growing so bright that Bob had to squint to look at it. "That's how I know that it's enough. That you did just the right thing," he elaborated. "The thing you needed to do. You solved your last case, so to speak."

The kid shook his head, still bewildered. "What? Hey -- d'ya hear that?" he asked, a note of wonder in his voice as he looked toward the now radiant light.

"No. What is it?" Bob asked, though he had a feeling he knew. He'd heard similar things before, from others who had completed their tasks here successfully, and been presented with this light as a reward.

The young man took a step forward. "Voices. There's people up there," he said curiously, pointing at it. "Can't you hear them? Oh my God -- it's my Mom!" he whispered, stunned. His eyes widened. "My Mom! She's calling me!" He started walking forward, incredulous and eager. Then he caught himself, and turned. "Bob? Aren't you coming? I'm tellin' ya, I can hear her!"

Bob felt a twinge of regret, and something like envy. He'd kind of liked the kid. It'd been nice, having a fellow cop to talk to here. He was sorry to see him go, but he wasn't in charge of such things. This was Meant to Be; so all he could do was wish the young man well.

He shook his head regretfully. "That's an invitation, but it isn't for me. It's for you. You earned it," he said, thinking of the young cop's passionate intervention into one Ray Kowalski's subconscious, at just the right moment. He'd planted a warning, so subtly that Kowalski thought it was his own idea. That warning had obviously saved Kowalski's life. Hence, the light. Bob was glad, for his son's sake. Benton would've been -- well, he didn't like to think what would've happened to Benton if Kowalski had died today. "You saved him. That's how I knew," he went on, pointing towards the light. "That's what happens, when it's time to leave here."

The young cop's eyes widened. He paled a little. "Leave? Does that mean--"

"It's nothing to be afraid of," Bob said. He didn't know much about that light, but he was sure of that. He smiled at him. "Think of it as an adventure."

The kid turned back towards the light again. It had grown so bright by then that it was hard for Bob to look at it. But the young cop seemed to have no problem. He stared into its heart, and a smile curved his lips. "Mom," he said again.

"Think of it as going home," Bob said softly.

"Yeah." The young cop smiled. The brightest, happiest smile Bob had ever seen on his face. Then, just like that, he was gone. Striding up the hill, into the pure, shimmering radiance at the top of it. Until, all at once, the light was gone -- and he was gone with it.

Bob stared after him. But all that remained was green grass, an ordinary looking hill, and the soft sighing of a breeze, that might've been the faint, faraway echo of a woman's laughter.

Another woman's laughter sounded in his memory, and his heart ached. How long will it be before I find whatever it was that I have to do, so we can be together again, Caroline?

There was no answer. The glade was empty now.

"Goodbye, Rylan," Bob said quietly, into the silence.

Midway to his door, Kowalski changed his mind a second time, and halted in mid-stride. He'd been concentrating so much on himself and Vecchio, he'd forgotten who'd invited him over. What'll Serena think, if she comes to the door and sees me wearin' a gun? She doesn't know me. It might freak her out. She might think I tricked her, that I came over to get even with Vecchio or somethin'. And if Vecchio gets there before I do, and he sees it, it might be even worse. I'm tryin' to patch things up here, not start World War III.

He pulled his gun out of his waistband. For a second, he considered ditching it. Leaving it behind after all. But since he hadn't had a chance to ask Serena what kind of mood Vecchio was in, going over to his house unarmed might not be such a bright idea. He stood still. Fought down his natural impatience, and forced himself to think it over for a few more seconds. To consider the angles.

What do I know about Vecchio? Well -- aside from the fact that he's crazy, he's more than just a cop, like me. He's been a Wiseguy, too. So he knows everything I do about cop tactics, guns and fighting. Plus, he's gotta know sneaky, nasty Mafia tricks that I don't even wanna know. He was swimmin' with the sharks for over a year. And he didn't just survive it, he came out on top. Took most of 'em down when he got out, too.

Ray hated to admit it, but that said something about Vecchio. He already knew just how fast he could move, and how ruthless he could be -- but he'd never wanted to acknowledge, even to himself, what else it had to mean. That Vecchio had brains. He had to be smart, or he couldn't have done what he did so successfully. There were reasons why he was the Department's Golden Boy now. Good reasons.

Okay, so he's smart. Maybe smarter 'n me, he thought reluctantly. He's crazy AND smart, and he knows more than me about how to kill people, which gives him an edge. He can be mean as a snake, and he's probably armed. Plus, he hates my guts...

Once he added it all up, the choice was simple. I'm takin' my gun, he decided grimly. But that didn't mean he had to wear it openly. He went back for his shoulder holster. Put it on over his T-shirt, holstered the gun, then grabbed a jacket to put on over it, so it wouldn't show.

He glanced at himself in the mirror. His hair was up, his jacket hid his gun, and he suddenly felt ready. Armed, alert and level-headed. Not like the wacked-out loser who'd gotten Rylan killed. More like the good cop he used to be, when he was partnered with Fraser. "You still got it," he told himself, pointing a finger at his reflection in the mirror as he passed it. He hadn't worn his gun in awhile, but its weight felt familiar, even comforting now.

Satisfied that he'd done all he could to protect himself, and encouraged by the thought that this mission would not only help Ben, but also be another step towards his own redemption, he picked up his bag again, and headed for the stairs with renewed energy. Determined to regain the good mood Ben's parting kiss had left him with, he sang to himself as he rattled downstairs. "Docta, docta, gave me the news. I got a bad case o' lovin' you..."

Even though it was raining when he stepped out of his building, he didn't feel cold. He just turned up his collar and dashed for the GTO, smiling as he remembered making love with Ben last night. Sure didn't get much sleep, he thought. But you'd never know it, from the way he felt. He was still smiling as he pulled the GTO out into traffic and headed for Vecchio's new house.

"Shit!" Ray Vecchio threw his cell phone onto the seat beside him in frustration. He couldn't get through to Serena. All he got was a busy signal at their house. He tried to tell himself that it didn't mean anything, that she was probably just talking to Ma or Frannie on the phone, but dark suspicions slipped through his mind. Cutting a victim's phone line before a hit, to ensure that no one could warn them, and they couldn't call out for help, was a standard tactic of the Iguanas.

Maxwell had used it, too. He'd cut Ray's phone lines, the night he'd almost killed him.

It didn't help that it had started to rain. The cold drops sliding down his windshield seemed ominous, like a warning. He had the Riv's petal to the floor, and he swept the car in and out of traffic at suicidal speed, driving like a madman despite the weather. "Please be okay, Serena," he whispered, ignoring the outraged honking and squealing tires that he left in his wake. "Please!"

He couldn't even call Welsh to send a unit out to their new house, because he wouldn't be able to give a good reason for it. None that anyone would believe, anyway. Saying "Tick Tock, Armie" wasn't against the law, and he hadn't been able to make a positive visual I.D. on Maxwell, either.

But that doesn't mean he's not here.

It just meant that he was going to have to deal with this himself. Somewhere inside, he felt Armando awaken eagerly, at the thought of finally being able to vent his rage on Maxwell. The real Maxwell this time, not some skinny blond cop with the same haircut. Gory, violent images of revenge filled his head. Thoughts of murder. Armando's thoughts. He wanted to come out again. Or were they his thoughts, that he wanted Armando to carry out? He wasn't sure, but either way, they scared him. He thrust them away desperately, clenching the wheel so tightly that his knuckles turned white. No, he thought. Not this time. I'm not doin' the trick.

He was done with that now. Done with Langostini, forever. He was never going to let him out again. Never going to be him again, not for one more second.

Despite his fear, he felt a tiny bit of relief at having finally made that decision. If Armando was just a habit, habits could be broken. Maybe it was still possible that he could make him go away for good. Still, for a moment, just for a moment, he fell back on an even older habit. He found himself wishing for someone else's presence. In spite of everything that had happened, he wished Fraser was with him.

But he was alone. So he'd have to let rage carry him through. He pictured James Maxwell's coldly handsome face, and what he would do to it if he touched one hair on Serena's head. Armando wasn't the only one who hated him. "If you hurt her, I'll kill you," he swore, as he swung the Riv around another corner, and one block closer to Serena.

As Kowalski drove slowly down Greenview Way, looking for the address Serena Tianni had given him, the brief rain shower finally stopped. That's one bit of good luck, he told himself. Least I won't have to confront Vecchio lookin' like a drowned rat. He soon spotted Ray Vecchio's car parked next to a modest, pale yellow house not far ahead. It seemed Serena was right: Vecchio had gotten there first. As he slowed down, he felt a faint twinge of nervousness at the coming confrontation. But he shoved it aside. He was doing this for Ben. No twinges allowed. Besides, this time I'm armed and awake, so the odds are a helluva lot more even, he thought wryly.

He glanced at the yellow house's address as he neared it. 6523 -- wait a sec. Thought Serena said their address was 6525. And didn't she say their house was white, not yellow? Hmm. As he pulled up behind Vecchio's car, he checked the address on the adjacent house again. It didn't match the one he'd written down, the one Serena had given him over the phone, which was 6525. Plus, 6523 was the wrong color.

This can't be Vecchio's house. He must've parked in front of his next door neighbor's house, instead of his own, when he came back. But why would he do that? Weird, he thought, perplexed.

Then he noticed something else that was strange: the driver's side door of Vecchio's Buick Riviera wasn't quite shut. It was slightly ajar.

He pulled in behind the Riviera, and cut the engine with a frown. If there was one thing everybody knew about Vecchio, it was his devotion to that car. It wouldn't be like him to get out without locking it, let alone to get out and leave the door hanging open. Looking around curiously, Ray noticed something else: a line of tall, thin trees ahead of him, at the edge of the boundary between the yellow house and the one next to it, a taller, two-story white house. That must be 6525. Vecchio's place. He could only see glimpses of it, through the trees. Which also meant that, conversely, no one in Vecchio's house would be able to see the Riviera from there, either.

Is that why he parked here? To keep Serena from seein' his car when he came home?

He scratched his head. That didn't make much sense. So far, nothing about this scene did. But concealment was the only reason he could come up with, to explain why Vecchio would park his precious Riviera here. And that didn't bode well at all. The careless way he'd left his car door open made him even more uneasy. When he remembered the way Serena had suddenly, inexplicably hung up in the middle of their conversation, Ray felt a little prickle on the back of his neck. Somethin's not right here. Better watch yer ass, he told himself. Remember, this is fuckin' crazy Vecchio yer dealin' with. If Ben was wrong about him, he could still be dangerous. Very dangerous. He tried hard not to think about how cool Vecchio had been when he'd had him down on Fraser's floor, with a hand wrapped around his throat and his gun in his mouth. He'd looked like he hadn't even raised a sweat. He tried not to imagine all the interesting ways the Italian must've learned to kill people, when he was with the Iguanas. But somehow, trying not to think of all that made him remember how tightly Fraser had hugged him that morning, before he left.

Maybe I shoulda brought him with me, after all. He'd gotten enough signs that something was hinky about this visit, that he'd've felt better about it if he'd had the Mountie to back him up. But he shoved the idea away. He hadn't wanted Ben along because he'd figured this would only upset him. I can do this. Fight my own fights, he told himself. Still, the fact remained that he was used to working with a partner. So he was doubly glad that he'd thought to bring his weapon. He shifted the holster under his coat, just to feel the reassuring tug of his gun's weight under his arm, before he opened his door.

He got out of his car quietly, and took a look into Vecchio's vehicle as he passed it. He saw a cell phone lying on the front passenger seat, but nothing else inside. Nothing to tell him what might be going on in the squirrelly Italian's head.

He took a few steps forward, past the line of trees toward Vecchio's place, and saw something else disquieting. Right at the edge of Vecchio's yard, cutting a trail across his wet grass, were a man's large footprints. The prints were from what looked like leather shoes. The kind of shoes Vecchio always wore, and about his size, too. Worse still, the toes of each print were dug heavily into the grass, which meant that whoever had left the tracks had been running. Not for the front door, either. The footprints led straight towards Vecchio's back fence; and he noticed that the back gate was open a little.

I was right. Looks like Vecchio didn't want anyone to know he was comin' home, he thought, increasingly uneasy. Looks like he went around the back.

But why? Ray tried to work out a possible scenario, to explain all the weirdness. What if Vecchio had called Serena on his cell phone on his way home? What if she'd told him that she'd invited him over and he'd flown into a rage about it? Serena had made it clear that they disagreed about his relationship with Ben, so what if he resented her asking him over without telling him about it first? What if he'd been so enraged that he'd decided to ambush him again, this time in his own house? That might explain why he'd parked his car out of sight, then jumped out without even bothering to shut the door, and gone streaking into his back yard at a dead run. Had he thought he was already there, and meant to come through the back of the house, unseen, and attack him again?

He felt a rush of anger. Naw. That's nuts, he told himself. Calm down. Even Vecchio wouldn't be that crazy.

Still... If his worst fears were right and the Italian was lying in wait for him, he'd be expecting him to come to the front door. So Ray figured it couldn't hurt to follow his tracks across the lawn instead, step quietly around back, and see what he could see. If Vecchio was watching the street, of course, he'd spot him anyway. But he didn't think he was. The curtains he saw hanging in the front window looked closed, and Vecchio had left the back gate open, almost like an invitation.

Ray looked at the wet tracks on the lawn again, and decided to follow them. Beats the hell outta goin' to the front door and gettin' shot, if he's 'snapped' again, he thought grimly.

A few seconds later, he edged silently and cautiously into Vecchio's back yard. Then, crouching down so he wouldn't be seen from the windows on the side of the house, he moved forward, up to the back corner. It was a nice place, he noted. Big backyard, a nice lawn bounded by little trees and hedges. There were several concrete stepping stones at the lawn's edge, that led around to the back of the house. He could see traces of mud and wet grass on those steps, as if Vecchio had just crossed them moments before. But everything seemed so quiet that he suddenly wondered if he'd got this all wrong. If he was just being paranoid. He prayed that no one would come out and find him skulking around. Then he'd really feel like an idiot. If I'm wrong, and Serena comes strollin' out to water the flowers or somethin', she'll think I'm nuts.

But he didn't change course. His instincts told him not to.

Sure as hell rather risk gettin' embarrassed if I'm wrong, than catch a bullet if I'm right. So he slipped down the length of the house. When he reached the far end, he plastered himself against it, then stuck his head quickly around the corner, to check out the back door. When he saw that it was a large, sliding glass door, he knew there was no point trying to peek inside. It didn't have any curtains, so there was no cover. If he walked out in front of that, or even stuck his head out in front of it, and anyone was in the room, he'd be spotted instantly.

He looked backwards, along the side of the house instead. He'd passed two windows on his way in. They might be worth a try. He moved quietly back towards the first one, along the concrete stepping stones that paralleled the house. The window was small and bare of curtains, but he crouched down below it and decided to risk a quick glance through it anyway. Raising his head just high enough so that his eyes were over the sill, he scanned the room beyond for an instant, then ducked down again. It was a large room, but nearly empty. The living room, he guessed. A rack of pool cues stood against its far wall, testifying to the room's future purpose, and there were several boxes on the floor near it. No surprises there. Fraser had told him that Vecchio liked to play pool, and Ma Vecchio had said that he and Serena were still moving their stuff into their new house. But there was no one inside, so he moved on.

When he made it to the edge of the next window, he paused. "Damn," he muttered under his breath. There were wooden blinds at its edges, which was both good and bad. They would give him some cover, keep anyone inside from seeing him as he peered in, but they might also limit his vision drastically. Still, on the whole, it was better to have some cover than risk being seen, so he went on up to it.

Feeling a bit like a peeping Tom, he edged up to the blinds and looked through them. Fortunately, they were angled slightly downward, and open just enough that he could see inside. He looked in for a moment, and froze.

"What the fuck?"

He was looking into a bedroom. The master bedroom, judging by its size. There was a dresser along the rear wall, right in front of him. Just past it, along the far wall, was a large, four-poster bed, with a fancy white spread and lacy cushions on it. Serena's touch, no doubt. But the thing that stopped his heart wasn't what lay on the bed, but the fact that two people were tied to it.

A pretty young dark-haired woman, and Ray Vecchio.

Kowalski blinked in stunned disbelief. It was like a scene out of a horror flick. They were both bound tightly to the bedposts with some kind of white cord. The woman, who had to be Serena, was tied to the left post of the bed, at its head. Vecchio, to the left post at its foot. They'd both been trussed up the same way: facing outwards, towards him. White cord bound their necks, wrists and ankles. Their hands were bound up above their heads, and there was duct tape over their mouths. Serena's blouse was ripped open down to her waist, and her wide, terrified eyes were fixed on Vecchio. Pleading with him to do something, to save her. But he was as helpless as she was. Plus, he'd been beaten. There was a smear of blood on his jaw, that looked like it had trickled from his mouth; and something about the stiff way he was standing told Ray that he might've been hit more than once. There was no one else in the room, but it was obvious from the fear on Serena's face that whoever had done this to them was still in the house.

"Shit!" Ray whispered.

Shocked, he ducked down below the window again, his heart beating rapidly. This was crazy. Unbelievable. Whatever he'd expected he might find here, it wasn't this. But now he knew that all the weird signs he'd noticed when he got there were just that: signs that something was wrong, not mere paranoia on his part. Something horrible was going on here. Something far worse than he'd ever imagined. Something out of a nightmare.

But this time, Vecchio wasn't behind it. This time, he and his fiancée were the victims.

In a second, all his anger at Vecchio was forgotten. All Ray knew was, he had to save them. His first instinct was to run around to the sliding glass door in back, open it if possible, or bust through it if necessary, to free them. But he restrained himself. He wasn't assaulting some crackhouse full of wacked-out junkies now, with his partner for backup. He was up against something far different here. He didn't even know the full scope of the situation yet: who, or how many, bad guys might be in the house. And he was all alone. He'd have to use different tactics. He took a deep breath, and forced himself to reassess the situation. Starting with Vecchio.

How'd he end up trussed up like a chicken, in his own place?

He put together a new scenario in his mind, that would explain what he knew of Vecchio's actions in light of what he'd just seen. Vecchio must've known this was gonna happen. At least, he knew something was wrong. That Serena was in danger. Maybe he tried to call her on his cell phone, and knew something was up when he couldn't get her. Or maybe someone called him threatening her, to lure him into the trap too. Whatever. Anyway, he rushed over here to save her. But he musta at least suspected that the perp might already be in the house. That's why he left his car outta sight, and why he left his door open, too. He was suspicious, and scared. In such a hurry to get to Serena that he just jumped out and ran. Probly didn't even realize he hadn't quite shut the door behind him. That must be why he went around back of the house, too. He was hopin' to sneak up on the perp, if he was already there. But it didn't work. Guy must've already been in the house, waiting for him. Must've seen him comin', or heard him, and got the drop on him somehow. Maybe Vecchio didn't have his gun, or maybe the perp used Serena to force him to give it up.

It all flashed through his mind in seconds; but it all fit. The only thing Ray couldn't figure out was why Vecchio hadn't asked for back up, if he'd known Serena's life was in danger. Why didn't he call the 27th? Welsh coulda had half the district here by now.

It bothered him, but there was no way to really know what Vecchio had been thinking, and he didn't have time to puzzle it out. Now that he'd figured out the setup, the next thing he had to think about was the perp, and his motives. One thing he was sure of, whoever had done this was a professional. He had to be. He'd left nothing to chance, no way for his victims to escape, call for help, or even make a sound. And he'd done it all pretty fast. He had to, because he'd been talking to Serena himself, a mere thirty minutes ago. So the killer had to have grabbed her and Vecchio, and tied them both up, sometime after that. In something less than a half hour. Now he knew why she'd hung up on him so suddenly -- either she'd been grabbed, or the perp had cut their phone line. It chilled him to think that he'd been talking to her at that very instant. Still more to think that the perp had gotten the drop on Vecchio, despite all his brains and experience, and his knowledge that he might be walking into a trap. It turned Ray cold.

Maybe the perp isn't alone. Maybe there's more than one.

It seemed chillingly likely. And if several guys had come after Vecchio, it raised another really disturbing question: who the hell were they? Since he/they had both Vecchio and Serena at their mercy, but hadn't killed them yet, it was obvious that whoever was in there meant to torture both of them first. And torture implied either a wacko, or someone with a grudge. Ray suspected the latter; and it wasn't hard to guess who Vecchio's enemies might be. After he took down almost all of the Iguanas, there are plenty of Wiseguys who'd love to get their hands on him. If one of them had somehow found out his true identity, and traced him here...

Ray shivered as fear tightened his stomach. Wiseguys are big on torture. And for this kinda stuff, they don't always work alone. But I only brought one clip. No extra ammo. Shit!

Now, he faced the same decision Vecchio must have. Whether to try to deal with this himself, or call it in. He wished vainly that he knew why Vecchio hadn't done it. He swallowed hard, weighing his options. He hadn't brought his cell phone, and even at a run, it'd take him a minute or two to get back to the police radio in his car. A few more to call the thing in, and run back to the house. So three, maybe four minutes. Not a long time under normal circumstances, but in this situation, it could mean the difference between life and death for Vecchio and Serena. After all, since he hadn't gotten so much as a glimpse of their attacker, he couldn't be absolutely positive that he was some Wiseguy intent on a long torture session before he killed them. There was a chance that he might be some unknown wacko who was completely unpredictable, and would shoot them both on a whim. Another thing that made him hesitate to run back to the car was the fact that to do it, he'd have to cross the front lawn twice. Course, I could try jumpin' his fence, into his neighbor's backyard. Then again, what if he's got a dog? Besides, that would take longer. No, goin' out Vecchio's gate to the street would be the best bet. But even that wasn't safe. If someone in the front of the house was watching the street, he'd wind up being spotted.

Or maybe I already was, he thought, with a sudden chill. Maybe that was why he hadn't seen anyone else in the room with Vecchio and Serena. Maybe the nut had seen him coming, and had left his victims to come after him. Or maybe someone else in the house had spied him. He glanced up, belatedly checking to make sure there weren't any windows high up above him that he hadn't noticed before. Windows from which he might've been seen. To his vast relief, there weren't.

But since the perp had been out of the bedroom when he looked in, he still couldn't be positive that he hadn't seen him coming. His chances of having been spotted were even higher if there was more than one guy involved. One creep could've been busy with Vecchio and Serena, while the other stood guard, watching the street outside. Maybe spying through a gap in the curtains in the ground floor front window, or from an upstairs window. If so, he could've seen him cut across the lawn. Either way, if either the perp or a fellow thug standing watch had seen him go into the backyard, then the horror scene inside the bedroom could get even uglier, real fast. He'd probably kill Vecchio and Serena a lot quicker than he'd originally planned, and try to make his escape.

The second he realized that, his decision was made. They may not have much time left. Can't make a run for the radio. I'm gonna haveta get 'em out, he told himself. He eased the safety off on his gun, and decided to risk one more quick look into the bedroom. See if he could spot the perp, and assess things again before he moved.

He raised his head slowly, cautiously, and peered through a slit in the blinds again. Gotcha! he said to himself, with a fierce surge of satisfaction.

He'd spotted his prey. A stranger had entered the room. The perp. Luckily, he stood facing Vecchio, with his back turned to Kowalski. Ray stared at him intently, drinking in all the details he could. He was blond. Slightly taller than him, about six feet, maybe six one. Probably at least thirty pounds heavier, too, but with a similar, spiky haircut. He was wearing a nice gray suit. Expensive. Dark shoes.

Wiseguy, Ray thought, his worst suspicions confirmed. But as he stared at him, something niggled at the back of his mind. Something he should remember. Something Fraser had said, after Vecchio had attacked him--

No time. Ray thrust the distracting thought from his mind. Focus, dammit! he told himself. Because the perp had pulled a gun, and was pointing it at Vecchio's head.

"This is so nice," Maxwell purred. "Don't you think so, Armie? Or should I say, Ray Vecchio?" Smiling, he reached out and trailed the barrel of the gun down Langostini/Vecchio's cheek. He pressed it deep into his skin. Hard enough to hurt, but not to draw blood. Not yet.

The bitch beside them cried out in protest, but the sound was muffled to a whimper by the tape that covered her mouth; and he ignored her. But despite the biting caress of his gun, Vecchio didn't move or flinch. His green eyes remained cool, and fixed on him with a cold, ruthless kind of hatred that he'd always admired. That had drawn him, from the first. Armando Langostini was a snake: a beautiful, glittering, ruthless viper, just like himself.

At least, the real Armando Langostini was, he reminded himself, with a flicker of pain. It was still hard to remember sometimes, when he looked at this cop, that he wasn't Armando. Vecchio was Armando's double. He had his wide, gorgeous eyes, his beak of a nose, his lovely, sneering mouth and slender body. Maxwell didn't know if the resemblance was accidental, or the result of plastic surgery, but it was so perfect, it was uncanny. Vecchio was a dead ringer for Langostini, right down to the little scar on his left hip, which Maxwell had believed no one else even knew about. Plus, he must've been carefully schooled about Armie's life and habits, right down to the kind of cigars he preferred. Because Vecchio's impersonation had been so flawless, that even he'd been fooled -- and he'd known Langostini for years. But he wasn't Armie, which meant that Langostino, his crazed, passionate lover and sometimes equally passionate business rival, had to be dead now. Maxwell knew that, and it was one more thing for which to make this fucking cop, Ray Vecchio, pay.

There were others. The most painful being the fact that he'd taken Vecchio to his bed, and fucked him many times, thinking him his lovely, vicious Armando. Never seeing the difference, until it was too late.

That still made him furious. No one in his life had ever duped him like that. Screwed him, both metaphorically and literally. No one. No one did that, and lived.

No one did that, and died easily.

I'll start with the girl, he decided. Vecchio had always been pathetically sensitive about her. Now that he had him and his bitch properly subdued, and at his mercy, he'd start cutting them to pieces. First, with words...

"She's the one who gave you away, you know," he said, pointing to Serena with the gun. "The reason I first suspected you."

He saw Serena's eyes widen with distress. Perfect. Vecchio didn't turn to look at her, but that didn't matter. He was trapped, and forced to listen; that was enough. "Didn't you wonder how I caught on, when no one else did?" he continued, smiling at the helplessly bound cop as he stroked his face with the gun again. It was Vecchio's own gun, which he'd spied on the table while subduing his fiancée. It was amusing, menacing him with his own weapon. A nice touch, that Jimmy couldn't resist.

"The truth is, the real Armie didn't like women much at all," he explained. "Oh, he dabbled occasionally, but only with blondes. Never black-haired bitches like her. The real Armie wouldn't have touched her with a ten foot pole." He smiled coldly. "Forgive the pun... So when I found out you were fucking her," he said with deliberate distaste, "I started to wonder."

Vecchio's eyes narrowed. Maxwell felt a surge of pure pleasure. Vecchio hated it when he talked about his little bitch. Good. That made this much more fun. "Didn't know that little detail about Armie's tastes, did you? Guess the Feds didn't do their homework well enough," he grinned. "Anyway, once I started to wonder about you, if you really were Armie, I decided you were a liability. If you weren't him, then you knew too much -- about me, about all of us. That's when I decided I'd have to get rid of you."

But he hadn't managed to do it. That galled him. He'd tried to kill him at his house late one night, after bribing one of his bodyguards to get him and a couple of his boys past Armie's security system. But Vecchio had gotten lucky. Due to the unfortunate and unexpected interference of his damn butler, he'd survived. Then he'd beefed up his personal security, and changed residences. Which had made another attempt at a hit nearly impossible.

He'd had to think about it for awhile. He'd decided to gather more information about Armie, or whoever this guy was, before trying to take him out again. Imposter he might be, but he was smart. So smart that he had everyone else fooled, and he commanded power and respect within the Family. He was still dangerous.

Maxwell's advantage was, he knew his habits. Knew, for instance, that rather than use stationary phones that could be bugged, Armie had a habit of making calls on a cell phone in his car, with the interior window rolled up, so that even his driver couldn't overhear. But cell phones could also be tapped, if you knew how. So he'd had one of his men shadow him with some expensive surveillance equipment, and eavesdrop on his calls. When he got the news that Armie had ordered a plane ticket under another name, he'd known that he meant to flee -- and that his suspicions were correct. The guy he'd been fucking wasn't Armie at all, but an imposter. Some guy named Ray Vecchio, whoever the hell he was.

At that point, Maxwell could've turned Vecchio over to Giancarlo Iguana, the local head of the Family, for disposal. But he hadn't, because Vecchio hadn't merely infiltrated their organization, the way cops usually did. He'd had the unmitigated gall to take the place of his own lover. To climb into bed with him. And for that, the usual family justice wouldn't suffice. For that, Maxwell wanted to kill him personally. So he'd kept his mouth shut about Vecchio's real identity. He'd told no one. Because once he knew that Vecchio was going to run, he had the perfect opportunity to set up another hit. Vecchio couldn't very well take his coterie of bodyguards along with him while making his escape, after all. And while he was alone and en route to what he imagined was safety, he'd really be vulnerable again. So he'd had one of his men buy him a ticket on the same plane, under an assumed name. He'd planned to follow the imposter in disguise, and kill him once he reached his destination. Once Vecchio thought he was safe.

The irony in that appealed to him.

In the end, though, that lovely little plan had fallen apart as well. The night before he left, Vecchio had faked his own death. His limo crashed in a fiery car accident on the freeway, in which Armando was supposedly killed. But when his driver escaped with only minor burns, Maxwell had smelled the setup a mile away. Still, he'd shrugged it off. The fact that Vecchio had tried to cover his tracks before slinking away hadn't really made much difference to him; he'd known he was leaving, anyway. But it had created a stir in the Family. The rest of the Iguanas had converged on Giancarlo's place in the aftermath of the crash, trying to figure out if "Armie's" death was accidental or a hit, how much his driver knew about it, and if the cops could possibly be involved. And if so, what that might mean for the rest of them. The usual internal scramble that occurred whenever a powerful Wiseguy died suddenly.

At the time, he'd assumed that Armie's faked death was just a smokescreen, just added security to cover the imposter's departure. Now, he knew better. It had actually been a diabolically clever device. Vecchio had used his phony death not just to disappear, but also to get the biggest, most powerful members of the family all in one place at the same time, so the Feds could pick them all up easily, when they made their surprise swoop the next day.

That had been his second mistake about Vecchio. His first had been not recognizing him as an imposter until it was almost too late; his second had been failing to realize that he'd move so quickly against the Family when he left. He'd been extremely lucky to escape the Feds himself. But in the confusion after Armie's supposed death, he'd slipped away, to carry out his own plan of vengeance against his imposter. He'd gotten on Vecchio's plane and watched him, waiting patiently for the flight to be over, so that he could kill him when they landed. So by sheer luck, he'd escaped the massive law enforcement net that had dropped down on his employers and associates that morning, back in Arizona.

He'd escaped, all right. But he still hadn't been able to kill Vecchio, like he'd planned. Before their plane even took off, he'd noticed two large guys in business suits and shades, sitting a couple of rows behind Vecchio. They didn't seem to be watching him, but their quiet air of toughness and competence just screamed "Feds" to him. So he'd stayed in his seat a fair distance behind them, and watched them surreptitiously for awhile. Sure enough, he soon saw them checking out all the other passengers, ostensibly on trips to the bathroom or for magazines. That, together with the telltale bulges beneath their coats, had confirmed his suspicions. They were either FBI, or Federal Marshals assigned to protect Vecchio while he made his escape.

He'd felt cheated. Glad he'd chosen to travel in disguise, but furious at being robbed of his prey. He could've tried to kill them all when they landed, of course. In his rage, he'd considered it. But he hadn't gotten to be a powerful member of the Iguana family by letting his emotions rule his head. So he'd kept himself under control and thought the problem through while the flight lasted, and his sense of self preservation won out in the end. He'd finally, regretfully decided that no matter how badly he wanted Vecchio dead, the odds against accomplishing that now were far too high. Trying to take out three armed, experienced men was far harder than trying to get just one. Plus, three hits would be impossible to keep quiet. If they'd all been civilians, he could've done it -- but they weren't. If he'd tried to kill them all, he'd probably have wound up dead, or worse, in Federal custody. He'd decided to let Vecchio live for awhile longer, instead. To return to Arizona, and come back for him later.

There was never any question of letting him go. That was how things were done in the Family. Never forget, never forgive.

So he'd watched Vecchio and his watchdogs melt away into the crowds at O'Hare Airport with regret. But with his connections, he knew he could always find him again, when the time was right for the hit. So he'd bought a plane ticket back to Arizona. Then, to kill some time before his flight, he'd gone to have a drink in the airport bar. It was there that he'd first heard the news on TV about the Feds' operation against the Iguanas. He'd almost crushed his drink in his hand as he'd watched the screen numbly, knowing he couldn't go home. He'd lost his house, his car, everything. There was a warrant out for him on numerous murder charges, so the Feds would watch all his possessions, as well as his bank accounts. Thanks to that fucking weasel, Vecchio, he was now a wanted man like all the rest.

Fortunately, he'd planned for such a possibility long ago. He had several bank accounts under phony names, that the Feds didn't know about. More than enough to keep him afloat for a couple of years, if he was careful. In the end, he'd decided to stay in Chicago. It amused him, to be right under Vecchio's nose while the cops and Feds turned over every rock in the Southwest, looking for him.

He hadn't enjoyed waiting, though, or living in an apartment under an assumed name, while the furor died down. Waiting until the Feds quit protecting Vecchio, and he really thought he was safe. He had a phony passport made, and on many nights, he'd dreamed of using it to leave the country. Switzerland was nice, and he had over a million stored in accounts there. He could've left, and been happily ensconced in some elegant hotel in fucking Gstaad by now, if it weren't for the errors he'd made concerning one Raymond Vecchio, of the Chicago P.D. But he'd stayed, because he'd never let a victim get away, and he wasn't about to start with him.

Never forget, never forgive. Besides, the Alps would still be there, after Vecchio was dead.

It had taken him some time, and some payoffs too, but he'd eventually found out all about the prick. That he was a cop, where he worked, where he lived. He'd even learned that Vecchio had planned on getting married in about a week, and traced him to his new house. That made everything perfect. Now that he'd captured both him and his little whore just before they got hitched, he could wipe his personal slate clean. Kill them both, then get on with enjoying the good life in Europe.

Not too quickly, though. He'd waited a long time for this. He was going to play with them both for awhile, first. Vecchio's fiancée was a nothing -- some tawdry lounge singer from a club in Vegas, for Crissakes. The man had no taste. Still, she was amusingly innocent, and he was betting she was also ignorant. At least, about him and her precious fiancé. Why else would she be marrying him? So that meant that he could have some fun telling her everything she'd never wanted to know about himself and Ray Vecchio, before he killed them.

But first... "Excuse me for a second," he said, with mock politeness. "I brought some tools with me, and I think it's about time to use them." He stroked the tape on Vecchio's mouth, and grinned. "While I'm gone, just talk amongst yourselves," he taunted.

When the blond man finally lowered his gun and walked out of the bedroom again without harming Ray or Serena any further, Kowalski lowered his own gun, and sank down below the window again with a sigh of relief. That was close, he said to himself, his heart racing. When the perp had drawn his gun and pointed it at Vecchio's head, he'd almost fired right through the window at him. He hadn't wanted to; for one thing, it was a dangerous shot. The creep was standing so close to Vecchio that if he'd missed by an inch one way or the other, he could've hit Vecchio instead. For another, if he took the shot and missed, or even hit the perp but failed to take him down, then he'd be trapped outside the house, and the perp could conceivably kill both Vecchio and Serena before he could break the window and get in. But something about him -- maybe the loose way he was holding the gun, or his casual posture -- made Ray hesitate, told him that the perp wasn't serious.

Not yet.

He's one sick puppy, though. Definitely playin' with a warped puck. He'd known that already, from the way they were tied up. But from the way he'd stroked Vecchio with his gun, and played with the tape on his mouth, he could also see that he was either gay or bi, and turned on by his victim's helplessness.

Or maybe not. Maybe it's Vecchio who turns him on. If he's a Wiseguy, maybe they know each other. Maybe it's personal.

That realization triggered another. In a second, he knew. It came to him: the shred of memory that had escaped him earlier. What Fraser had said about Vecchio's tormentor, on his undercover gig.

"Oh, fuck!" he breathed.

It's personal, all right. The perp -- that's James Maxwell! The Wiseguy who kinda looks like me, the one Fraser said they nicknamed "Jimmy the Crusher". He's the one who raped Vecchio. Shit! It was a weird feeling, knowing that he'd come face to face with the nut who'd driven Vecchio over the edge, who the Italian hated so much that he'd attacked him partly because he resembled him. The anger that he'd felt on Vecchio and Serena's behalf turned to rage, mingled with a healthy dose of fear. This wasn't just any Wiseguy. Maxwell wasn't just a murderer, he was a rapist, too. A total, fucking psycho.

Don't care if he's Hannibal Fuckin' Lecter. I'm gonna get him. He ignored his fear, and let the rage build in his gut. It would give him the strength he needed to do whatever he had to.

When Maxwell came back in, he was carrying a beautiful, gleaming wooden box. It resembled a jewelry box, except that it was longer. But Serena knew it couldn't be a jewelry box. Not if he was carrying it. It must hold the "tools" he'd mentioned he wanted to get. Before he even opened it, she felt like screaming. She bit her lips behind the sticky tape that covered them, and felt her knees weaken as he smiled at her before laying the box on her dresser.

"Now," he said calmly as he opened it. "To the next phase of our little drama. You should enjoy this, Vecchio," he grinned at Ray over his shoulder. "You enjoy blood sports, as I recall."

Before she could fathom what he meant by that, he opened the box. It was lined with red velvet, and full of knives. Maxwell pulled out a long, gleaming one with a polished black handle, and a blade that looked razor sharp. He smiled at it, turning it so that the metal caught the light.

Serena had to swallow down a scream. Oh God, oh God, oh God! she thought frantically. Please, help us!

Ray was at the front of the house in less than a minute. He'd watched as the nutcase left the room, and noticed that he'd turned left, towards the back of the house. So if he wanted to get in without being seen, it seemed like the front door might be his best bet. He went for it, hoping against hope that Maxwell was alone, and that the door would be unlocked.

It wasn't. But he didn't let that stop him. He dug out his wallet, and pulled out a credit card. Shoved the wallet back into his pocket and, some fifteen endless, nerve-wracking seconds later, he had the door unlocked. He put his ear to it and listened carefully. There was no sound from inside the house, but he knew that was deceptive. For all he knew, Maxwell could have three or four other Wiseguys with him as guards. They could be standing right on the other side of the door, ready to blow his head off when he stepped inside.

He took a deep breath. Felt his heart racing, the adrenaline pumping through him. One, two, three, he counted silently, picturing Fraser's face in his mind. Cuz if Maxwell or his thugs were standing there, and he caught a bullet, that was the last thing he wanted to see...


Crouching to make himself a smaller target, he opened the door, and slipped swiftly inside. No noise, not outcry, no bullets, he noted, his heart beating a mile a minute as his eyes swept the surrounding space. He shut the door behind him fast. All quiet so far. He was in a large room, only partly furnished with a grandfather clock, couch and coffee table against the far wall. Several boxes sat on the floor by the table. Off to his right, long white curtains were drawn across a large window that faced the street. In front of him was the hallway leading back towards the bedroom where Ray and Serena were being held captive. There didn't seem to be anyone else around. No Wiseguys in sight. His luck was holding.

Maybe I got real lucky, and Maxwell couldn't get any other freaks to come along and play with him. Maybe he's all alone. But Ray knew he had to stay on his toes, in any case. Even if Maxwell was alone, he was still formidable. He'd managed to capture Vecchio -- and Ray didn't intend to wind up as his next victim.

So when he heard a faint sound from the back of the house, he ducked cautiously to the right, so he'd be out of the line of sight of anyone in the hallway. He froze and waited a few more seconds, until he heard the low murmur of a voice: Maxwell's. If he was talking, that meant he must be back in the bedroom with Ray and Serena again. Good. Ray stole to the other side of the room, flattened himself against the wall, and stuck his head out for a quick peek down the hallway leading to the bedroom. It was still empty.

Now or never, he told himself. Then he moved silently out into the hallway, gun in hand, and headed for the bedroom.

Dief barked at Fraser. A loud, peremptory sound, impossible to ignore. A reminder that time was passing, and that it was past time for a certain blond detective to have contacted him.

Fraser lifted an eyebrow from the report he was reading. He was excruciatingly aware, without any reminders needed, that it was now after 1:00 p.m. "It's 1:14 p.m., to be exact. And I know that Ray hasn't called yet," he said. "But perhaps he and Ray Vecchio had a very fruitful discussion, that took longer than he expected." A slim hope, at best. Even he didn't really believe that. Still, he tried to look hopeful for Dief's sake. But his wolf knew him far too well to be taken in by an assumed calm on his part.

Dief rolled his eyes.

Fraser had never seen another canine who could do that, but Diefenbaker was a master of sarcastic expressions that were no doubt impossible for ordinary dogs or wolves. "In any case, there's nothing we can do but wait," he said, nettled. "I'm on duty. Besides, I promised Ray that I'd let him do this on his own."

Dief gave him another speaking glance.

"Well, you were there. You saw how insistent he was. He felt this task was his responsibility, so I had to respect his wishes. What else could I do?"

Dief's reply was succinct. A soft huff, clearly conveying the idea that Ray was slightly smaller than he, and that if he wasn't strong enough to subdue his own mate, then he should've used one of the devices humans had for restraining each other. Or two, if necessary. After all, you are Alpha Dog. Or so you keep telling me.

Fraser resented that. "Tying him up wouldn't have accomplished anything, except to make him angry," he pointed out. Trying to look as if he'd never even considered the idea himself, when in fact -- but Dief didn't need to know that. "Look -- I know you'd feel better if we'd gone along, but Ray is an adult, and a trained and very capable police officer, as well. He'll be just fine without us."

Dief lowered his head onto his paws and did his best impersonation of Poor, Misunderstood Wolf Who Is Only Trying to Help. Complete with an audible sigh, pitiful, upturned gaze, and finished off with a classic whimper.

Fraser frowned at his wolf's masterful performance. Shameless, he thought. But he couldn't get really angry with him, because he only went to lengths like that when he really cared about someone. Besides, he knew exactly how Dief felt. He'd been feeling the same way himself, ever since Ray had first brought up the idea of confronting Ray Vecchio himself, about the attack.

He finally relented, dropped his pretense of casualness, and confessed, "I know, Dief. I'm worried about him, too."

He was so worried that, if he'd known where Kowalski was, he'd have gone there already.

Ray Vecchio stared straight ahead, and tried to keep his face expressionless. Maxwell had pulled his shirt open, and bared his chest. His ribs were already sore from the kicks he'd received after he'd jumped him earlier, but he forgot that comparatively dull pain when Jimmy started working on him with his knife. He'd made several long cuts across his chest already. They weren't really deep -- at least, not so far. He thought maybe only one of them had actually sliced into muscle. But they hurt like hell, and they were bleeding quite a bit. Serena had been moaning in protest, until he sent her a look that was as gentle as he could make it. Her cries hurt him more than anything Maxwell could do to him. He'd tried to tell her that with his eyes. She'd understood him. She'd stopped crying out then, but she was still weeping silently. He knew that, so he'd faced forward again. He couldn't stand to look at her, to see her suffering when he couldn't do anything to help her.

"Lovely," Maxwell said, tracing a trickle of blood down his chest with an avid finger.

At his touch, Ray had to tense his whole body to keep from surging uselessly against his bonds with rage and revulsion. But the Freak had tied him up so tight that he'd lost all feeling in his fingers and feet already, so tightly that he knew struggling would be a waste of time. Besides, Ray knew from bleak experience that if he fought, it would only excite Maxwell even more. He knew what the sight of blood did to the Freak, too. Especially his blood. He could already sense his arousal, without even having to look. It made him sick, sicker than it ever had before. Because this time, they weren't alone. Serena was here, she was seeing this... The pain of that pounded in his head. Made him wish he were dead.

"I'll bet you never told her, did you?" Maxwell hissed suddenly, looking at Serena.

Ray's heart sank. This was what he'd been afraid of; what he'd been having nightmares about for months. Serena was going to find out about him. About them. Maxwell wasn't just going to torture him, or kill him. That wasn't enough. He was going to tell Serena, first. Tell her all their dirty secrets. Shut up, SHUT UP! he raged in his head. He glared helplessly at him, but it was no use.

Maxwell just pressed the knife to his throat even harder, with a sick little smile. "You never told the little bitch that we were lovers? Never told her how often I whipped you, before I fucked you? How it used to excite you?"

Ray heard Serena gasp.

Then the Freak bent his head and started licking the blood trickling down his chest.

Until that moment, Ray hadn't given up. He'd figured that they were both probably going to die, because he couldn't see a way out, but he'd still been looking for one. He still hadn't conceded victory to his old enemy, his hated tormentor. But in that second, he gave in. When he heard Serena's gasp of horror at learning that he and Maxwell had been lovers, all his anger, his will to resist, seeped out of him. He closed his eyes, and sagged in his bonds. Cold, bitter humiliation washed over him, and his heart turned to stone. It didn't matter what else Maxwell did to him. It was all over now. All over.

Serena knew. Not the truth, of course. She would only hear Jimmy's version of it. She would never know, now, that he'd always hated him. That he hadn't had any choice but to let Maxwell take him, since he and the Bookman had been lovers before he'd started impersonating him. That he'd had to fuck him to survive, but that he'd loathed every minute of it, that he'd wanted to puke every time Maxwell touched him. That he'd had to imagine he was making love to women, in order to be with him. He'd never get a chance to tell her his side of it. She'd go to her death believing that he was perverted, that he was sick. As sick as Maxwell.

That was the worst of it. Serena was going to die, because of him.

If he could've spoken then, and if there'd been a hope in Hell of getting Maxwell to listen, he would've begged Jimmy to kill him. Kill him, and spare her. He was dead already, no matter how this turned out.

Kowalski edged silently down the hall. Before he got to the bedroom door, he heard Maxwell talking again. He couldn't make out all the words at first, but he caught some of it. "... told the little bitch that we were lovers? Never told her how often I whipped you, before I fucked you? How it used to excite you?"

Ray winced. That voice: gloating, aroused, sadistic. Evil. Pure evil. The sick bastard wasn't happy just tying Vecchio up and smacking him around. That wasn't enough. He had to torture Serena, too, by telling her the perverted things he'd done to him in the past.

I'll shut ya up, ya weasel, he promised himself, moving down the hallway even faster. Things had gotten awfully quiet in the bedroom all of a sudden. A kind of quiet that made the hair stand up on the back of his neck. Luckily, the bedroom door was open, and the doorway was angled so that once he was in it, he'd be behind Maxwell, but facing Vecchio and Serena. So they could see him, but Maxwell couldn't. Greatness.

He eased silently into the doorway, grateful that the room was carpeted, so his boots didn't make a sound. But once there, he stood paralyzed for a second at the dreadful scene. Serena stood crying, her face averted, as Maxwell bent over Vecchio, with a knife to his throat. He'd cut Vecchio up. Sliced up his chest. As Kowalski watched, he was licking up the blood that streamed from the cuts.

Jesus, Ray thought, revolted.

But what was even worse was the look on Vecchio's face. He had his eyes closed. Shut tight, as if that could shut out what Maxwell was doing to him. Ray had never seen such a bleak, black look of despair. It was like Maxwell had already defiled him so badly, he would never be clean again.

Emotions began pouring through Kowalski in dizzying waves.

Compassion came first. This was what Vecchio must've gone through in the Family. How much he'd sacrificed, to take them down. Even this small glimpse of it, this few seconds, made him sick. Now he understood why Vecchio had come home twisted. Where his homophobia came from -- or at least, what had made it worse. Why he hated blond guys his size, with experimental hair.

He thought of Fraser, of how much he loved Vecchio, and was glad he hadn't seen this.

He remembered Rylan taunting him, trying to rape him while he was cuffed, helpless and bleeding like that.

Last but not least, he remembered rage.

It poured through him. Hot, primitive, blinding fury. He wanted to shoot Maxwell where he stood. Blow him away without a word of warning, before he even knew he was there. He felt his arm lift. Saw his gun point unwaveringly at the back of his head.

But then Vecchio opened his eyes. He saw him, and his green eyes widened with amazement. He blinked twice, as if he couldn't believe he was real. Then his look of astonishment faded. The bleak look came back, and he nodded.

Ray knew what that signal meant. He wants me to kill the bastard. No problem. He wanted that, too. But even as his finger tightened fractionally on the trigger, it crossed his mind again that, with Maxwell's head pressed right up against Vecchio's chest like it was, if he shot him, chances were the bullet might go through Maxwell and kill both of them. And if he missed, he'd hit Vecchio for sure.

He hesitated; and Vecchio saw it. Saw it, and his eyes blazed with sudden anger. His eyes locked on Kowalski's, and he moved the only part of him he could: his fingers. He cocked a finger and jerked it twice, in an unmistakable pantomime of firing a gun.

Ray felt another shock. Vecchio had figured out the danger involved, too -- and he wanted him to do it anyway. He wants me to kill 'em both. He's got a death wish, he realized, stunned.

It repelled him. He couldn't do it. He wouldn't do it. No way, no how. No matter what that freak has done, and no matter what Vecchio did to me and Fraser, I'm not gonna end it like that. Not gonna kill Ben's best friend, to kill Maxwell.

He took a chance instead. It'd put him within reach of Maxwell, but it'd also save Vecchio. He kept his gun trained on Maxwell's head, but instead of shooting him, he moved. Silent as a cat, he eased forward, sliding his boots across the carpet until he was just inches away from the Wiseguy's back. Then he pressed his gun to the side of his head with a surge of satisfaction. He pointed it sideways, away from Vecchio, so if he had to pull the trigger, Maxwell was the only one he'd take out. "I'm a cop," he growled. "Drop the knife and get your paws off him, Vampire boy!"

Then he held his breath, to see if he'd do it.

Thirty minutes later, Ray Vecchio and Serena were taken to the 27th in a black and white, while the crime scene guys descended on their house, collecting forensic evidence. Ray had given her his jacket earlier, because she was shivering. She still had it on, but he was relieved to see that she wasn't shaking anymore. He didn't dare touch her, though. Though the paramedics had cleaned him up a little, his shirt was still soaked with blood, both his and Maxwell's. And he didn't want anything stained with the Freak's blood to touch her. Couldn't bear the thought. Stupid, after what they'd just been through, and he knew it. But he was way beyond worrying about his sanity any longer. It was how he felt, so he went with it. Settled in next to her, but made sure no part of him touched her. Then he turned his head and looked out of the window silently.

He was empty. So empty...

Except for a tiny feeling of surprise. Kowalski had saved them. Kowalski. He shook his head, still hardly able to believe it. When he first saw him, he'd thought he was hallucinating. That he'd finally and completely lost his mind. He couldn't imagine what the hell Kowalski was even doing at his house, let alone rescuing him, after their past history. Despite Serena's later explanation that she'd asked him over while he was out walking, it still made him feel strange. It was too weird, that his worst enemy had ended up rescuing him. Too many strange bits of pure luck had been involved: that Kowalski had been carrying his piece, even though he was off duty, that he'd somehow figured out what was going on inside the house without even ringing their doorbell, that he'd managed to break in without a sound, without Maxwell hearing him, and finally, last but not least, that he'd taken the prick out with one shot, before anyone got seriously hurt. To Ray, all the coincidences involved bordered on the supernatural. It was like God himself was trying to tell him something, like He'd arranged for it to happen. And the message seemed obvious: he had to stop hating Kowalski.

He had to, and he knew it. He knew he ought to be ashamed of how he'd treated the guy, from day one. He'd thought of him as a punk, an interloper. A pervert, even a rapist. He'd despised him, been jealous of him, he'd helped drive him away from Benny, then he'd almost killed him. Yet after all that, Stanley Raymond Kowalski had saved his life, and Serena's. The guy who he'd dismissed as a skinny little banty rooster had sized up the situation and acted alone, without wasting any time, and with remarkable courage; and saved them both. Which meant that he'd been right about why Ben loved him: Kowalski was a good person.

Serena sure seemed to like him; and Ben loved him. It seemed like the Almighty did, too, if He'd gone to this much trouble to change his mind about him. Hell, he's fucking amazing, he thought sourly. A candidate for sainthood or something. I tried to kill him, and not only does he not turn me in, he actually saves my life.

That was what really pissed him off. He did everything right. Everything except pulling the trigger at the right time, that is.

He knew he should've felt grateful, should've thanked Kowalski for what he'd done. But he couldn't. He resented him instead, for not killing him when he'd had the chance. And he couldn't hide it, so after it was over and they were free, he just avoided him. He didn't even try to talk to him. It would've been complicated and emotional, and he didn't have the strength. The will. Whatever. So he watched as Serena thanked him, and hoped that would be enough to satisfy him. Because the second Maxwell touched him, he'd shut down inside. He was moving on autopilot now. Just doing what had to be done. Taking care of Serena, but saying as little as possible. Because despite the fact that Kowalski had saved his ass, his life was over.

She knows, he thought, and there was nothing beyond that. No life, no hope, nothing.

Serena's hand found his. Settled on it tentatively, as if she were afraid he'd push her away. She didn't say anything, but he felt her looking at him.

Just that. One silent little glance, and his humiliation returned, burning through the numbness inside of him. Burning him. He had to force himself to turn his head, to meet her eyes. She looks worried, he thought. Incredible, that after what had just happened, she would still worry about him. After what Maxwell said, she's probably worried that I've got AIDS, he thought bleakly. He searched through the darkness inside of him for something to say. Anything. When he finally spoke, his voice sounded odd. Far away, even to him. "I had to," he croaked. It was all he could manage. He knew it wasn't enough. But nothing could be. So he fell silent again.

He wasn't sure if Serena would understand what he'd meant, but it seemed that she did. Tears shone in her beautiful blue eyes, and she squeezed his hand a little. "You could've told me, Ray," she whispered. Then she bit her lip, and looked away.

He bowed his head. "How?" he asked hoarsely at last.

She didn't answer. Instead, after a long moment, she asked, "That's why, isn't it? That's why you said you wanted to wait. Why you'd never--"

He set his jaw so tight that it hurt. "I'm clean," he said, knowing it made no difference. Still, he wanted her to know. "I don't have AIDS. I got tested, to make sure."

She shook her head, looking sad and angry. "That isn't what I meant."

He had no idea what she did mean, so he just said, "I loved you." Hoping that was enough, he turned and looked out the window again. Then he realized what he'd said: loved, not love. Like it was in the past tense. Was it because he was afraid that's where her love for him was now? In the past? Gone forever? I love you now, he thought. I always will...

She sighed once, very softly. Then she shrugged the jacket off, laid her head on his shoulder, and closed her eyes.

For a second, he froze with something like horror. She was touching him! Touching what the Freak had touched, touching his bloodied shirt--

He couldn't stand it. He didn't want to scare her, after what she'd just been through, or hurt her any more than she already had been, but he had to tense every muscle in his body, to keep from pushing her away. Oh God, oh God! A kind of pressure built inside him, until he his breath sawed through his tightened chest. He forced himself to look down, scanned the part of his shirt where she'd laid her head. Fortunately, it looked clean. He couldn't see any blood. He told himself desperately that it was all right. It's okay. She laid her head on a clean part of my shirt. It's okay--

He fought his panic down. Forced himself to stay still, concentrated on just breathing, until the wave of revulsion and anxiety passed. I need to take a shower, he thought. He'd been desperate to do that for some time now, almost from the moment the paramedics had got through with him. That was what he always used to do, as soon as Jimmy left him. What he'd always done, to keep himself sane. Watched his touch off the second he was free of him.

But he'd had no chance to do that this time. Welsh had ordered them both back to the 27th to give their statements, so he'd had to go like this. Unclean, covered with his blood and the Freak's... He forced himself not to shudder. Forced his thoughts away from that. He stared down at his shoes, looked at a piece of grass that had dried on the edge of his sole. Focused his mind on it, until his revulsion receded to a dull, manageable ache. Until he could breathe again. He didn't want Serena to realize how unhinged he was, how he kept swinging back and forth from the deadness of despair to near rage and panic.

But then it hit him. What she'd said. She hadn't said, "You should have told me." She'd said, "could have"; and she'd turned to him for comfort. Little things, to be sure, but in his despair, he wanted to believe they meant something. They could mean something. Those little things could make all the difference in the world, if she'd done them deliberately. That was the question. Did she know what she was doing, or was she, like him, still in shock? He tried to tell himself that she wasn't. That she was okay. She was strong, she might've already recovered from the worst of it. Surely the fact that she'd touched him, actually touched him after what she'd seen, what she now knew, must mean something too.

Doesn't it? A tiny bit of hope threaded through the bleakness inside him. He tried to make himself believe it. That she didn't hate him, now that she knew. But he couldn't buy it. She was sweet, kind and innocent. So beautiful that it hurt his heart. Far too beautiful for a guy with a soul as black as his.

She's the best. How in the hell could someone like her ever want someone like me? His hope dimmed like a flickering candle, and went out. Despair overwhelmed him. He should never have tried to win her at all. He didn't deserve her. She's scared right now. Probably still in shock. But once that wears off, once she has a chance to think things through...

He had no future, that was clear. His past had swallowed it up. All his hopes and dreams. All he had left was that, for the moment, she was here with him. Still. For the moment... He laid his jacket over her gently, because at least it was clean, and it would keep her warm. He would've preferred to keep her warm by holding her in his arms, but not like this: not filthy and bloody and ruined, like he was. She was cuddled against him, and that would have to be enough. He didn't hold her. He just sat there trying to imprint the rhythm of her heartbeat, the scent of her hair, the warm softness of her so deeply into his mind that he would never forget it.

That was what you did, when it was the last time.

Lt. Welsh had Huey and Dewey take Kowalski, Vecchio and Serena's statements. Kowalski went first. When he was done, he found Fraser waiting for him outside the door. He'd kind of hoped he would be. He'd called him on his cell phone from Vecchio's house as soon as it was over, like he'd promised, and Fraser had said he'd meet him at the 27th. But Welsh and the Duck Boys had nabbed them all as soon as they got there. So he hadn't had a chance to do anything more than nod at Fraser, and let him see that they were all more or less okay, before getting whisked off to give his statement.

It took the better part of an hour. He'd known it would. When there was an officer involved shooting, the department had to make damn sure it was a righteous one, and that they had every detail nailed down tight. But in this case, there were no doubts. Maxwell had been a wanted felon, and he had witnesses, one of whom was the Department's own Golden Boy, to back up his statement and his actions, so he wouldn't get hassled. When, after almost an hour, he was finally free, he stepped out into the hall and automatically looked for the color red. He saw it not far away, smiled, and headed straight for it. Didn't stop until he was close enough to look deep into his blue eyes. "Hey, Frayzh."

"Hello, Ray." Ben didn't say anything else, he just searched his face intently.

Ray got the funny feeling that if they hadn't been out in the hallway, he'd've swept him up into a bearhug. He'd already told him that he was all right, but it was like Ben couldn't relax until he saw it for himself.

He's all torqued up, he thought. Then he realized why. There's blood all over my shirt, and Welsh must've told him... He had the sudden impulse to raise his hand, to wipe it away. But it had dried now, so there was no use.

"I'm okay with it," he said quietly, to reassure Ben. But his large blue eyes lingered on him, and Ray felt a sudden, powerful tide of emotion: love. Gratitude. Relief that it was over. A fierce, unexpected hunger for Ben that almost made him shake. He'd felt like this before, after extreme situations, and knew it was partly just his body coming down off of the adrenaline rush he'd experienced at Vecchio's place. The after-effects of extreme danger.

But that wasn't all it was. He knew that, too. He took Ben's arm, pulled him into the interview room next door, and shut it behind them.

"Ray, I--"

What the Hell, Kowalski thought fiercely. I need it, and no one can see us in here. So before Fraser could say a word, he grabbed him, and held him tight. Pressed his face into the warm, solid redness of his broad shoulder. He was glad, so goddamn glad he'd come back safe, and that he had Ben. Him, and not what he'd seen at Vecchio's place. The awful look on Vecchio's face when Maxwell touched him was seared into his brain. Was that how I used to look, when Rylan touched me? He tightened his arms around Ben.

Even though he was practically crushing him, Ben didn't ask him what the hug was for. Didn't protest it, either. Despite its fervency, the dried blood on his shirt, and their inappropriate location, to Ray's relief, he didn't complain at all. Didn't say a word. He just hugged him back, with that perfect understanding that Ray had never found with anyone else. This is why I did it. For you. For this, Ray thought, warming himself against Ben's big body. Do it all again in a second, to have this.

Ben ruffled a big hand lightly through his hair, and stroked him. "Thank you, Ray," he said quietly.

Ray didn't have to ask what that was for, either. He squeezed Fraser silently. It was a long time before he could force himself to let go.

When they finally moved apart, Ben asked, "How are they?"

Ray shrugged. He had himself under better control now, but it still wasn't easy to talk about it. He'd seen a lot of nasty shit as a cop, but Maxwell's blood slurping, and Vecchio's resulting despair, had shaken him. "Not sure. They were both tied up, and Maxwell smacked Vecchio around a bit," he said reluctantly. "Worked on him with a knife, too." He wished he didn't have to tell Ben even that much, but he knew if he didn't, he'd hear it from someone else. Better if I tell him. Least I can spare him all the gory details.

But even that terse summary got to Fraser. Repulsed, he looked away. Anger and concern passed across his face in swift succession.

Ray knew that Fraser had seen Vecchio walk in under his own power, so he'd know that the Italian obviously wasn't seriously injured physically, but he wondered how much he should tell him about his mental state. "Paramedics patched him up already. He lost some blood, but not enough to put him in the hospital. He's okay now. Physically, anyway." He paused and scratched his ear, torn between the desire to spare Ben and his own nagging sense of wrongness about the guy. He said slowly, "But he's been awful quiet since. Hardly said a word. Even to Serena."

Ben frowned. "That's not like him."

Ray hesitated. This might be the perfect time to confide his suspicions about the reasons for his silence, but he wasn't sure how to do it without sounding jealous, like he was just venting more personal dislike for Vecchio. Or worse, upsetting Ben even more. So he hedged. Put it off a little. Decided to tell him some good news, first. "Serena's okay, though." Wanting to be more positive, he didn't voice his private suspicion that her relatively untouched state was probably only the result of his unexpected arrival. He had a nasty feeling that Maxwell had been saving her for last. But Fraser didn't need to hear that, either. He'd gotten there in time. That was all that mattered. "She was just bruised and scared, really," he said instead. "She's holdin' up real well."

"That's good." Fraser's expression lightened a bit.

"Yeah. She's really somethin', Frayzh," he said admiringly. "Know what she said? After the paramedics left, she asked if I could find out who they were. Said she was so shook up, she forgot to ask their names. But she wants to write and thank 'em for takin' care o' Vecchio."

Fraser smiled a little. "She's a remarkable young woman. I like her too, Ray."

But then he fell silent again, and Ray knew what he was thinking. Remarkable or not, through no fault of her own, by loving Ray Vecchio, she'd been dragged into an ugly situation. Two really, if you counted Vecchio's attack on him. Even a very forgiving woman might have trouble dealing with all of that, and with what she'd just found out about Ray's past. He wished he could reassure Fraser that things would work out okay between them, but he couldn't. He didn't know what to say. After what Maxwell had told her about Vecchio -- and he wasn't even sure he'd heard all of it -- he wouldn't be surprised if she left him.

What did surprise him was that he felt bad about it. Bad for Vecchio. The guy had felt so terrible when she'd found out the truth, that he'd wanted to die. It said something, about how much he loved Serena. Ray knew all about that kind of pain, and more about how rare that kind of love was. It was what he felt for Ben. So despite what Vecchio had done to him, he found himself hoping that the two of them would make it somehow. If anyone could haul Vecchio out of the pit he'd fallen into, Ray would've bet it was Serena Tianni.

He could've let it go at that. Should've. God knew, he'd already helped Vecchio far more than the guy deserved. He didn't have to tell Fraser anything more, could've kept it to himself and spared Ben a few more crumbs of agony, too. But something inside him refused to let it go. "Maxwell... He was a real sicko, Ben," he heard himself say. And once the words were out, he knew he'd have to go on. Tell him the whole thing, what was worrying him. He hesitated, trying to find the least hurtful way to explain it. Words that wouldn't make Ben heave. "He was into whips and chains. Made Vecchio do it, too, when they were in Arizona. And he told her all about it. Made it sound like Ray was hot for it. Did sick stuff to him, right in front o' her. Think maybe that's why he clammed up, after."

Fraser swallowed hard and looked away, unable to conceal his pain and revulsion.

Aww, this is crazy. Why'm I tellin' him all this? It's freakin' him out. Knew it would. But he still couldn't stop. Somehow, Ben's look of horror impelled Ray to do something he'd never imagined, in his wildest dreams: defend Vecchio. "He was lyin', though. That Vecchio liked it, I mean. Vecchio hated his guts. Whatever he did, it was cuz he had to, not cuz he wanted to. I could see that. But I'm not sure she did."

Fraser nodded. He still looked somber, but his look of horror had faded. "All this -- it can't have been easy for her," he said at last.

"For Vecchio, either. Ben, he--" Ray drew a deep breath. This was the really hard part, the thing he'd been afraid to say. "He tried to get me to shoot him. After Serena found out."

Fraser's eyes widened. "What? Are you sure?"

Ray wasn't sure if he looked more shocked or just plain disbelieving. Either way, he rushed to defend his statement. "Yeah, I'm sure. Maxwell was right in front o' him, and I was so close that if I'd shot at him, the bullet might've gone through him and hit Vecchio. And Ray was tied up so he couldn't talk, but he nodded at me. Cocked his finger, to give me the signal. I'm tellin' ya, he wanted me to pull the trigger. Saw it in his eyes. He was pissed when I wouldn't."

Ben opened his mouth as if to dispute it, and Ray shook his head. "No mistake, Ben. I saw it."

Fraser shut his mouth again, and stared blindly down at the floor. He didn't say anything, but he didn't have to. He was breathing harshly, audibly, deep breaths that spoke of shock and fear even he couldn't hide. Ray was afraid that he'd try to argue with him. Tell him that he'd misinterpreted the situation, cuz he wanted so badly for it not to be true. But to his amazement, he didn't. Instead, when he finally looked back at him, despite his pain, his eyes had warmed a little. "Thank you for finding another way, Ray," he said simply.

Jesus. He'd dreaded telling him this, cuz the best he'd expected was that he'd have to talk Ben into believing him. Argue, maybe even yell at him a little, to force him to see the truth. He'd never once imagined that Ben would accept it, just like that -- painful as it was -- because he'd said it. And what really got him was that, even in his distress, Ben had picked up on something else. A subtle point most people would've missed: that he'd had the chance to kill Vecchio, if he'd wanted to. He'd had him at his mercy, but he hadn't taken vengeance on him. He'd saved him, instead. Even though hearing about Vecchio's death wish had totally freaked him out, Ben had still understood that.

Smartest guy I've ever known, Ray thought. Love and desire flared through him. Strong, rough, filling him up with painful force. He couldn't speak. Was afraid to move, or he'd've had to take Ben in his arms again, and he didn't dare do that twice. Not here.

So he just stood there devouring him with his eyes, secretly wishing he could take him instead. Show him just how much he loved him, and how much being trusted like that, no argument, about the worst possible kind of bad news, meant to him. He wished he could throw him down on the table beside them and make love to him 'till he howled, until he drove that sad, shocked look off of his face. But trying to touch him now, after what he'd just told him, and in the middle of a cop shop to boot, would be worse than stupid, and he knew it. Wrong time, wrong place. Dead wrong. His head knew that, but his body and his heart just wanted Ben. It took every bit of strength he had to restrain them, to stand there waiting while Ben recovered from the bad news he'd been forced to deliver.

When Ben finally spoke, his voice was harsh with anger. "I'm not sorry that you had to kill Maxwell, though." Then the anger faded from his eyes a bit, as concern took its place. "Are you?"

Trust him to think of that, too. Ray had to clear his throat before he could answer. "I didn't have a choice. I had my gun to his head, told him to put down his knife, and he tried to cut Vecchio's throat instead. So I had to." He paused for a second and looked down at his boots, remembering it. Maxwell's death had been bloody, and instantaneous. But he couldn't find any trace of regret inside himself, for pulling the trigger. All he felt was a kind of relief. That Jimmy the would-be vampire Maxwell wasn't walking the streets anymore, that he couldn't hurt anyone anymore. Especially Vecchio. Why that should matter to him was a mystery, but somehow, it did. So when he looked up at Fraser again, there was no trace of remorse on his face. "But even if I hadn't known what he'd already done to Vecchio, after what I saw... No, Frayzh. I'm not sorry."

Fraser nodded again. Accepting that, too, without argument. Another major relief to Kowalski. "I don't suppose you had a chance to talk with Ray?" he asked.

He shook his head. "No. Sorry. Maxwell got there first, and--" The truth was, after that, it seemed like Vecchio had avoided him. But even though that was a relatively minor point compared to his attempted suicide, for some reason, he couldn't bring himself to tell Ben about it. "Afterwards, Vecchio had other things to deal with," he said instead.

Fraser said quietly, "Don't apologize, Ray. If it weren't for you, it's doubtful either Ray or Serena would've survived."

Ray shrugged, but secretly, he was pleased that Fraser thought he'd done well, rescuing them. Fraser's approval meant more to him than anyone else's. "I talked to Welsh, though. Told him what I saw at their house, what Ray wanted me to do." Actually, he'd told him more than that, but he wasn't sure how to break that news to Ben, either. He rubbed at his chin, and searched his eyes. He'd made a promise not to spill Vecchio's secret to anyone, and he knew Ben hadn't forgotten it. He hadn't, either. He didn't forget promises he made, and he sure as hell wouldn't forget one he made to his Mountie. He had to make Ben understand that he'd broken it only because he felt a life was at stake. "Told him what happened to him in Arizona, too. Know I said I'd keep my mouth shut about that, but after he tried to get me to shoot him, figured I had to tell Welsh. Only way Vecchio's gonna get help."

To his relief, Fraser didn't look shocked, or appalled that he'd gone back on his word. In fact, he nodded gravely. "I agree."

Ray shifted on his feet, both relieved and a bit spooked. He'd already told Fraser that Ray had tried to kill himself, and seen what a shock it was to him, but hearing him agree that his old buddy needed to see a psychiatrist really slammed it home, how fragile Vecchio still was. That he wasn't out of danger yet. If Ben, the eternal optimist about people, felt that Vecchio was teetering on the brink too, then he must be. "The Lt. didn't have a clue about it. You were right, I guess Ray didn't tell anybody. Welsh is a bit pissed off about it. Says he's gonna make him get some help, whether he wants it or not."

Fraser nodded. "The department psychiatrist?" he guessed. Even though they'd already decided that Vecchio needed to get some counseling, he didn't sound very happy about that idea. Like him, Fraser knew that visits to the police shrink were supposed to be confidential, but sometimes didn't end up that way. Curious cops had been known to get their hands on other cop's psyche profiles before, and taunt them about embarrassing details from their supposedly private sessions, until they gave up and quit. Even though they both wanted Vecchio to get some help, Ray figured Fraser didn't want it to happen at his expense. He understood that. He'd felt the same way, once upon a time, about Rylan.

Ray shrugged. "Doesn't have to be," he said, to reassure him. "He's gonna get some names from the Dept. shrink, and if Vecchio wants to see someone else, he'll let him. Welsh made it clear he's gonna have to talk to someone. But who is up to Vecchio."

Fraser's head came up. "You did that," he said, and it wasn't a question.

He's so damn shrewd. Reads me like a book. Ray had no idea how he'd guessed, but Ben was right. He had talked Welsh into that. Partly for Ben's sake, but not entirely. He thought it also had something to do with the look he'd seen on Vecchio's face in that house. What he'd seen that freak do to him. Maybe it had all been about that, he realized. Maybe that look was what had forced him to talk to Welsh, and to tell Ben about Vecchio's precarious mental state, too. Maybe those tortured green eyes had reminded him of his own pale, shocked reflection in his bathroom mirror one night not so long ago, when he was trying to wash blood off his own wrists.

Maybe -- or maybe not. He wasn't sure. Wasn't sure he even wanted to know what was driving him to help a guy he should've hated, a guy who hadn't even thanked him for saving his life today. He shrugged the insight away, uncomfortable with it, and with the thought that Ben knew about his efforts to help.

"I never get your limits, Ray," Ben said.

Ray raised an eyebrow, not sure what he meant. "An' that's a good thing?" he guessed.

Ben nodded. "It's an amazing thing."

Ray smiled. Somehow, the warmth in Ben's eyes soothed some of his inner turmoil. Made him feel like he'd done just the right thing on all counts, even if he didn't understand his own reasons for it. He was seized with a sudden desire to make him smile, too, for both their sakes. He needed to get the ugliness he'd seen out of his head, and he knew Ben was hurting, too. He figured the universe owed them a bit of a laugh now, to balance out the crap he'd just been through. He reached for a casual tone. "Hey -- while we're on the subject, I just wanna say thanks. Ya know, for not showin' up at Vecchio's place yerself."

Fraser blinked in surprise, as if the thought had never once crossed his mind. "Why would I do that, Ray?" he asked, playing along. "You told me you felt it would be better if--"

Ray smiled. "Come on, admit it! Ya were dyin' to."

"Nonsense," Fraser sniffed.

Ray suppressed a grin. "No it ain't. Betcha wanted to so bad ya could taste it. Probly spent the mornin' watchin' the clock and bitin' yer nails."

"I did not!"

"Right. If I'd been there half an hour longer, you'd've been out the door like a shot."

"That's just silly, Ray. You're an experienced police officer. I trust your judgment--"

"How long were ya gonna give me, before ya came after me?"

Finally, the corners of Ben's lips twitched. "Well... If you must know, Dief felt that you might need some assistance--"

"Sure. Right. Blame it on the wolf," he grinned.

"Well, he worries about you, Ray." Ben wasn't smiling yet-- not quite -- but there was a suspicious gleam in his eye.

"Afraid his supply o' chocolate-covered donuts might dry up if I got shot, huh?"

Ben cocked his head. "Possibly."

Ray looked at Ben. Ben looked back at him. Then neither of them could keep a straight face any longer. They both started to laugh.

Ray Vecchio paused outside of the interview room door. Welsh had made sure Huey and Dewey took their statements as fast as possible, so that he and Serena could leave. But he still felt exhausted from all their questions. Hollowed out inside. His ribs ached where Maxwell had punched and kicked him, and his knife wounds were starting to throb. Worse still, he thought he could hear Kowalski and Benny laughing inside the interview room. It made him angry. Hell, it made him furious.

What happened today wasn't funny! I oughtta kick their asses. Then he got hold of himself. He was thinking crazy again. Going off the deep end. What, was no one supposed to be able to laugh right now, because he felt lousy? Get a grip, he warned himself. It wasn't even really them he was mad at. It was Maxwell. And he's dead, he told himself. Dead. That's what counts.

It should've made him happy. Hell, he should've been fucking ecstatic. But when his rage drained away, the best he could manage was a dull, distant sense of relief. Not so much that he was out of danger, but because the Freak couldn't ever hurt Serena again. But even that was a cold kind of comfort. He'd already hurt her in some of the worst ways possible. The damage was already done.

He looked down at her, and saw lines of strain around her eyes. She was probably as tired as he was. After what they'd just been through, they both needed to rest, more than anything. I should take her home, he told himself.

But he wasn't sure where that was anymore. Their house? How could he take her there, with Maxwell's blood and his still staining their bedroom carpet? But if he took her back to her apartment instead, would she let him stay, or ask him to leave? And if she did that, where would he go? How could he live without her? He shrugged mentally. The only faint shred of hope he had left was that he could somehow redeem himself in her eyes. In her heart. If he couldn't do that, no sense worrying about the rest of it.

Which was why he'd stopped here, beside this interview room. Serena stood near him, looking up at him with a slight frown. He knew she was wondering what he was doing. Why he'd brought her here. She didn't know Welsh had told him that he'd seen Fraser and Kowalski go in there. She probably just wanted to get the hell out of there. But he couldn't let her leave. Not just yet. There was something he had to do first. Despite the bleakness inside him, he had to find the words, and say them.

"There's one more thing I gotta take care of, before I leave," he told her. He didn't explain what it was, because he wanted to find out if she had any faith left in him at all. "Will you come with me?"

She looked up, searched his eyes for a moment. Then she slipped her hand into his again, and held it. "Sure," she said. Bruises were already beginning to show on her mouth and right cheek, where Maxwell had hit her, but she managed to summon up a little smile.

He didn't know if it was for his sake, or if she was just being brave, but it melted his heart. For the first time since she'd learned the truth about him, he found the courage to let his love show. He bent his head and kissed her gently on the forehead, where he knew it wouldn't hurt her. "Thank you," he breathed against her hair.

Then, holding her hand tightly in his, he opened the door.

Fraser and Kowalski straightened abruptly, their smiles fading away as Ray Vecchio suddenly opened the door. Kowalski was surprised to see him. He'd thought he and Serena would take off the second they got done giving their statements. He was even more surprised to see that Ray was holding Serena by the hand. She looked pale and a bit bruised, but she wasn't crying or shaky. She hadn't cried or fallen apart since it happened. Some people would've gotten hysterical, after that. She's got guts, Kowalski thought admiringly. As Vecchio pulled her inside with him and shut the door, she gave him a tentative smile. He smiled back. The more he saw of her, the more he liked her.

Then he glanced back at Vecchio. His mouth was cut and swollen on one side, where he'd been punched. But his knife wounds weren't showing. Somebody -- Welsh, from the looks of it -- had lent him a clean white shirt, to replace the bloodstained one he'd been wearing. It hid his other bandages and bruises, but it was too big for him, and the way it bagged around him made him look vulnerable in a way Kowalski had never thought possible. He looks worse than Serena does. Pale and kinda dead around the eyes, he thought.

It reminded him of how he'd looked after Rylan had tried to rape him. He imagined Vecchio probably felt the same way he had, after that. Like he needed to take a long, hot shower, to scrub Maxwell's disgusting touch off of him. He remembered the hot beat of nearly scalding water pouring down on his own skin, not so long ago, and how good that overly heated water had felt. How much he'd needed it. He would've bet any amount of money that Vecchio was just aching to get away someplace private right now, and clean himself up, too. But he knew he'd never let it show. He was way too proud for that. Ray felt a surge of pity for him. A sense of identification so strong that it unnerved him, and he had to look away.

He shot a quick glance at Fraser instead, wondering if he knew what this was all about. Why they'd come in. He tried to tell himself that the way Serena was holding Vecchio's hand was a good sign, but he wasn't sure. Maybe Vecchio had popped in to tell them that despite what had happened, he still didn't want them in his life, and Serena was just going along with it because she couldn't handle any more conflict, right now.

It was clear that Fraser was as surprised by their sudden appearance as he was. He was looking wide-eyed and, if you knew him well enough to see it, a tiny bit stiff as well. So Kowalski knew he wasn't sure what the hell Vecchio was gonna say, either.

For an awkward moment, they all just stood and looked at each other. Then Fraser finally broke through the silence. "It's good to see you, Ray. Serena. How are you feeling?"

"I'm all right," Serena said softly.

Vecchio didn't answer. But Kowalski saw the Italian's green eyes lock onto Ben's, and suddenly, there was life in them. Emotion. It poured out of him in waves: pain, anger, betrayal. Ben set his jaw, as if to brace himself against the flood. Neither said a word, but it was like they were playing chicken with their eyes. Ray felt pushed aside. Irrelevant. Like he wasn't even in the room. Locked out by the sheer strength of the emotions he felt swirling between the two of them. He forced himself to look away from Vecchio. Oh, yeah. Yer done with Ben, all right, he thought sarcastically, seething. Never wanna see him again. Any moron could see that.

Fraser broke first. He swallowed hard, then said, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you, Ray. It was wrong, and I'm sorry."

Kowalski stiffened. He knew what Fraser was talking about, and why he hadn't spelled it out any better than that. Because Serena was standing there, and he didn't know how much she knew. Ray wished he'd had the chance to tell him that she knew everything, and that she didn't care that they were bi. But I guess it doesn't matter. She's not the problem here, anyway. Vecchio is. And from the hard look on his face, it seemed like Ben's apology wasn't enough.

Damn you, Ray thought, clenching his jaw unconsciously as he watched the silent battle Ben and Vecchio were waging with their eyes.

To Ray's surprise, after what seemed like forever, Vecchio finally gave in. He blinked, looked away for a second, and tamped down some of the anger in his eyes. Finally, he answered, "I'm sorry too. But it's okay, Benny."

He still didn't look happy, though, and Kowalski could tell it had been hard for him to say. Still, it was something. A step forward. He knew he should've been happy for Ben's sake that he'd done it, but he wasn't. At least, not entirely. He called him Benny. His old pet name. Shit! Looking down, he saw that he'd been so tense his fingers had started to curl into a fist. He uncurled them, and shoved them in his pocket. Get a grip, he told himself, disgusted. This is what ya wanted, ya moron! What ya went over there to do! To get 'em back together!

He just hadn't expected it would bother him this much. He'd thought he was over it, but here he was, getting all hot under the collar about the Italian again. Resenting his attempt to bury the hatchet. Wanting Fraser to look at him, and stop looking at Vecchio. It shamed him to discover how jealous he still was.

Ben must've sensed it somehow, because he turned and smiled at him for an instant, and took a step closer. It was so quick and smooth that most people wouldn't even have caught it. But Kowalski saw it. And when Fraser turned back towards Vecchio and Serena, he saw something else. Ben had moved so that he was standing next to him, subtly making the point that they were a couple now, just as he and Serena were.

Like magic, Kowalski felt his jealousy ebb away. How does he do that? he wondered. Without even looking at him, Fraser had sensed his distress; and without a word, with one look, he'd drawn him back into his charmed circle. Told him that he, not Vecchio, was now at the heart of it.

Ray felt warm. Loved. And very, very stupid. He banished the sneer that had started to tighten his lips, and stood up a little straighter.

"Ray tells me you had a rather bad time of it," Ben said quietly to Vecchio. "I'm sorry."

Ray felt another surge of admiration for him. He knew Ben had chosen those words so as not to remind Serena any more than necessary of what had happened; and he loved him for it. His beautiful, kind, diplomatic Mountie. He smiled a little.

But Fraser's politeness didn't exactly ring Vecchio's chimes. "We'll survive," was all he said in reply. The words sounded stiff. Harsh. With an angry edge to them that Kowalski didn't like. Before he knew it, he'd tensed up again. He shifted ever so slightly on his feet, his smile fading away.

Vecchio's eyes flickered to him instantly, as if he'd seen the tiny, involuntary movement, and knew what it meant, and was gearing up to respond. Kowalski froze, wondering if Vecchio had always been that observant, or if it was something he'd picked up in the Family. Either way, he didn't want to set him off, so he eased back a little. Forced himself to relax.

It worked. The Italian must've realized that he was overreacting all at once, because he looked away from him. Let go of Serena's hand, bowed his head, ran a hand through his closely-cropped hair and sighed. Then he looked up and, all at once, his gaze included both him and Ben. "Look, I came in here to tell you I'm sorry," he said abruptly. "For what I did to you. Both o' you. I had no business comin' into your apartment without knocking, Fraser, let alone pullin' my gun. I realize that it -- wasn't what I thought. I'm sorry for grabbin' ya, Kowalski, and for all those things I said."

The words seemed to ring in the silence. Wow. Said he was sorry for everything. That took balls, Ray thought. He was so surprised he didn't know how to respond. He shot a glance at Serena, assuming she must've put him up to it, but she was looking up at Vecchio with surprise just as genuine as his. She didn't know he was gonna do this, either.

Before Ray could answer him, Fraser did. "We survived, Ray," he said dryly, echoing Vecchio's terse reply a few minutes before.

Kowalski was surprised. It wasn't exactly the warm, "Apology accepted, think nothing of it" type response he'd expected from Ben. Not at all. It was almost rude. There was anger in it, too, which was so unlike him that it got him wondering. Ben stood there staring at Vecchio, an intent look in his eyes, as if he were still waiting for something. He looked edgy, like the apology hadn't been enough. Ray suddenly got the funny feeling that this was about him. That whatever else Ben wanted from Vecchio, he wanted for his sake. Ray wasn't sure what it was, but knowing Ben felt that way made him feel warm, so warm it almost embarrassed him.

Vecchio's eyes narrowed a little. He'd heard Fraser's unspoken message, too. Loud and clear. Kowalski felt another tiny, unwilling jolt of jealousy at that. Even now, it bugged him, seeing that the Italian could communicate with Ben on the same wordless level that he did. But when he saw the inner battle Vecchio was fighting, the way his jaw muscle worked as he set it tightly, he shrugged it off. Reminded himself that what the Italian was doing wasn't easy. The least they could do was hear him out.

To Ray's amazement, Vecchio suddenly stepped past Fraser, and held out a hand to him. "Sorry for what I did to you. And thanks for what ya did today, for Serena and me. I owe you one," he said simply.

Ray blinked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ben smile, and a certain tension melt out of his shoulders. This was what he'd wanted: not just an apology for Vecchio's attack on him, but some acknowledgement that he'd rescued him and Serena today, as well. It amazed him. He'd given up on expecting that himself, since Vecchio had pretty much ignored him after their rescue. But how had Fraser even known that Vecchio hadn't bothered to say thanks? He couldn't imagine. All he knew was, Ben had somehow witched him into it. Gotten what he wanted. And now, the guy who'd tried to kill him a few days ago wanted to shake his hand.

Ray stared at the long, slender fingers held out to him, at the bleak green eyes above them. Despite the sincerity of his apology, those eyes held no real hope that Vecchio's gesture would be accepted.

But he did it anyway.

In spite of himself, Ray admired that. Still, a small part of him didn't want to accept that hand, all the same. Part of him found it really hard to forget that it had recently choked him, and shoved a gun in his mouth. He stood still for a beat. Just long enough to let Vecchio know this wasn't easy for him, either. Then he saw Ben, out of the corner of his eye. He was waiting again. Waiting for him this time, waiting for his lover to do the right thing, like he'd just asked his best friend to do. Ray sighed. There were times when he wished Ben wasn't quite so upright and honorable. Times like right now.

But he knew what he had to do, what would be the best thing for everyone. What would end this stupid feud between them. He reminded himself that he'd never wanted it in the first place, so this was as much for his benefit as for Ben's. Then he reached out to take the other Ray's hand. He shook it firmly, and even managed to resist the childish urge to crush it painfully in his, by way of payback. Probably because he knew Fraser was watching. "It's okay," he said.

And in that moment, it suddenly was. Vecchio's eyes filled with surprise -- then he smiled. A small smile, but a real one, that warmed the darkness in his eyes. He even squeezed his hand a little. In a good way, not wanting to hurt, but saying thanks. It was the first time he'd ever looked at Kowalski with anything but scorn and hostility, and Ray felt something in him respond to it. He held onto the Italian's hand a few seconds longer, to show him that he'd gotten the message. When they finally let go, he breathed an inward sigh of relief. He and the Style Pig were never gonna be friends like he and Ben were, but they'd finally connected. Or at least agreed to put up their gloves. It was a start. He felt, rather than saw, Ben and Serena relax too, like they'd both been holding their breaths, waiting to see what would happen.

Done, he thought. We ain't enemies anymore. He found himself smiling back.

And the surprises didn't stop there. The next thing he knew, Serena was standing next to him. She'd already thanked him several times for their rescue, back at their house. But it seemed she thought it bore repeating, because she put her arms around him and hugged him again. "Thank you so much, Ray Kowalski," she said. "You saved our lives. Thank you!"

"No problem," Ray said. He just stood there for a second, feeling a bit shy about hugging her back while Vecchio was watching. But he was still smiling, so Ray relaxed, and slipped his arms around her too. Let himself enjoy her warmth and softness, and her gratitude. He found himself remembering what Fraser had once said, about why he'd become a cop. "So decent people can tuck their children in at night, and know they're safe."

That was what Fraser was all about: helping people. Protecting them. That was what being a good cop was all about. Before he met Fraser, he hadn't realized how much that mattered to him. After he lost him, he'd almost forgotten what it felt like. Now, he remembered. He let himself bask in the knowledge that he'd rescued this pretty woman, and Vecchio, from what probably would've been a horrible death. If things went well, and they got married, it'd be because of him. So in a small way, he'd changed the world for the better. Ya done good, he told himself, smiling at Ben over Serena's shoulder as he held her.

Ben smiled back warmly. He didn't have to say anything. The love and pride in his eyes spoke for itself.

This is greatness, Kowalski thought.

When Serena finally let him go, she turned back to Vecchio and took his hand. "Do you want to tell them, or should I?" she asked softly.

Kowalski didn't get it. What does she mean by that? He looked at Fraser, but he just shrugged slightly, as mystified as he was. Serena was looking up at Vecchio with a little smile, but for a minute, he just looked back at her, seemingly as baffled as he and Fraser were.

She smiled at him in amused exasperation. "You know," she prodded.

All of a sudden, Vecchio's face lit up, like a kid at Christmas.

Ray wondered what secret signal had just passed between the two of them, to make him so happy.

Vecchio swallowed hard. "You're sure," he said in a low voice.

Serena nodded, smiling up at him. "Yes. Are you?"

Ray had the sense that they'd just decided something important. He could see it in their eyes, but had no clue what it was. But he saw Vecchio look at him and Fraser for a minute, then back at Serena.


That must've been the answer she was hoping for, because Serena practically beamed at him. "Okay then. Do it!" she urged.

Vecchio looked back at them, a little smile curving his lips. "What Serena's trying to say is, you two are reinvited to our wedding."

Ray and Fraser exchanged a stunned glance.

"You are coming, right?" Vecchio prodded.

Ray looked at Fraser, and shrugged ever so slightly. As far as he was concerned, that was up to the Mountie. Fraser looked at Ray, and smiled. "Yes, Ray," he said happily. "We'd be delighted."

Vecchio leaned down and kissed Serena gently, then put his arm around her. "That's good, Benny. Cuz I woulda looked pretty stupid, standin' up there at the altar without my best man."

A look flashed between Vecchio and Fraser at that. Kowalski understood what it meant. Vecchio was apologizing again for what he'd done. Saying how much Fraser really meant to him. Ben's smile grew even wider.

But before he had a chance to reply, the door opened again. Lt. Welsh stuck his head in. "Vecchio. If you're through in here, I need a word with you in my office, before you go."

Welsh wasn't asking, he was ordering; and Vecchio stiffened. In a second, the happy look faded from his face, and he looked grim. Defensive. Like he was about to go up against something he couldn't handle. Ray knew what Welsh wanted to talk to him about; and it was obvious that Vecchio did, too. It was standard procedure after shootings, especially when there were special circumstances involved. But Vecchio looked like it was personal. Like it was the end of the world.

Ray felt that powerful tugging inside him again. Found that it had intensified past passive sympathy again, and into an active urge to help him. He groaned inwardly. Shit! Haven't I done enough already? He didn't want to feel this way. It didn't make sense. He didn't know Vecchio well, wasn't sure he liked him at all. They weren't enemies anymore, but they weren't friends yet, either. He wasn't sure what they were.

But he knew what they had in common. Blood. Pain. Shame and guilt. What he'd seen at Vecchio's place had driven that into him. He couldn't forget it. Couldn't let it lie.

Vecchio turned to Serena, and tried to smile. "Can you wait here for me? This won't take long," he said.

Ray almost winced. Vecchio was trying so hard to act casual, but he still looked like a guy going to his own funeral. If you had the eyes to see it; and he did. He felt like maybe he was the only one in the room with him who did.

"Sure," Serena answered.

"We'll wait with you, if you like," Fraser said to her.

"Thanks, Benny," Vecchio said quietly. Then he turned and walked out, without another word.

Ray struggled with himself. Fought to stay put, not to interfere any more. But something inside wouldn't back off. It was screaming that he had to do something. Now. He tried to ignore it. Play deaf cop. The battle lasted until Vecchio made it out into the hallway. Then Ray couldn't stand still any longer. He muttered, "Be right back," to Ben and Serena. Ben shot him a curious look, but didn't try to stop him. He scowled at him, wishing he would. Wishing Ben would save him from himself, because it was starting to seem like he needed rescuing. Like Vecchio wasn't the only one whose elevator didn't go all the way to the top. But despite his ferocious scowl, his feet kept moving towards the door, like they were in control, not him. He wasn't real happy about it, but he let them walk him out of the room. He just didn't feel like he had any choice. Right or wrong, he had to do this.

Feel like an idiot, he groused to himself. This is nuts! Vecchio likes me about as much as a foot rash. He's probably gonna tell me to piss off... But he strode after Vecchio anyway. Didn't have far to go, since he was walking towards Welsh's office really slowly. Since the Lt. was nowhere in sight, Ray assumed he was already in there, waiting for Vecchio. Once he was right behind him, he called, "Hey." He thought about calling him Ray, but it didn't feel right. They weren't that close. So when Vecchio didn't respond, he just called a little louder, "Hey, Vecchio!"

Vecchio turned with a cold look on his face. "What is it?"

Oh, yeah. He's pissed, Ray thought. Doesn't know what the hell I'm buggin' him for, when he's tryin' to get up the guts to face Welsh, and hear that he's gotta go see a shrink. This hostility was what he'd expected. But in a weird way, it made it a little easier. Since Vecchio wasn't being polite, he didn't need to dance around it, either. He couldn't think of a nice way to say it, anyway, so he just blurted out the first thing that came into his head. "It ain't the end o' the world, ya know."

Vecchio's eyes narrowed. Drilled into him like twin green lasers. "What do you know about it?" he asked. His voice was soft, but that didn't lull Ray into thinking he felt friendly. His eyes held the truth, and they were skewering him.

Ray didn't flinch or look away. "More than you think."

Vecchio frowned. He looked surprised. Caught off guard. Like maybe he'd thought he was making fun of him. Being nasty. But now he realized he didn't mean that at all, and it threw him off. He didn't know what to think, what to say.

Ray had it, the opening he'd been looking for. He jumped into it. "Welsh is only tryin' to help ya," he said.

It didn't have the effect he'd wanted. Vecchio's face tightened, like he'd suddenly put two and two together. Like he'd figured out how Ray knew what Welsh wanted, and hated the thought that he and Welsh had been talking about him, behind his back. He took a step towards him, his face darkening with sudden anger. "Yeah? Well, I don't need his help. Or yours!" he snarled. He was breathing hard, and his whole body had tensed up.

He wants to hit me, Ray realized. He could feel it, see the fury in his eyes, and it triggered the same response in him. But he tried not to react, not to tense up visibly. He'd already seen how hyper alert Vecchio was, and he didn't want to set him off. That wasn't what had brought him out here at all. So he held himself still, and just looked at Vecchio for a long moment. Not flinching, but not responding to his threat, either. Then he merely raised an eyebrow. "No? Could've fooled me," he said. He was treading a fine line between getting his point across and provoking Vecchio, and he knew it, but it was the best he could do. Stupid bastard. I'm tryin' to help ya.

It wasn't enough. Vecchio's mouth set in a thin, nasty line, and he turned away. "That wouldn't be hard," he sneered.

"Okay. Dat's IT!" Ray grated, his fury reaching flashpoint. He'd been trying, trying really hard, for Ben's sake and for the sake of the weird connection he felt with Vecchio, to help him. To go easy on him, despite all that the other Ray had done to him. But all he'd been getting was crap in return. That was all he'd ever gotten from Vecchio, no matter what he did; and all at once, he'd had enough.

Before he knew it, he'd grabbed him. Hauled him around, grabbed a fistful of his baggy white shirt, and shoved him up against the wall. Pinned him, not just with that hand but with his other hand on his shoulder, too, so he couldn't get away. So he'd have to listen.

Vecchio grabbed his hand in a crushing, painful grip, tried to twist away.

Stronger than he looks, Ray thought, holding on anyway.

"Let go, you--"

"Shut up!" he growled, feeling a fresh surge of strength. So much anger that he felt like he could hold Vecchio easily, hold him there forever if he decided to. "I coulda had you arrested, Vecchio! But I didn't."

Vecchio froze at that. His eyes lost some of their cold rage. He didn't let him go, but he loosened his tight grip on his hand. "So?"

"So I also saved yer ass today," Ray pointed out ruthlessly.

"I already said thanks," Vecchio shot back, something like hatred back in his eyes. "What more d'ya want? A kiss?"

Oh, fuck! That got him. Burned him, right between the eyes. He drew in a deep, hot breath of rage. Fought down the impulse to raise his fist and knock Vecchio's teeth out. Bash his sneering face in, for that. But he didn't. Because somewhere inside, some tiny part of him that remained rational warned him that's exactly what Vecchio wanted. He was trying to push his buttons, trying to get him to lose control so they'd get in another fight. So he could keep on hating him. Dismissing him. Don't do it.

He reminded himself fiercely that this asshole was Ben's friend, that he was in deep shit already, and that he was trying to help him. Still -- Vecchio had hit below the belt, so he quit pulling his punches, and slammed him right back. He shoved him harder against the wall, and snarled, "Want ya to drop that homophobic SHIT, and shut up and listen! CUZ YOU OWE ME! Ya owe me, Vecchio, and I'm collectin'. NOW!"

By the time he finished, he was yelling. He stopped to catch his breath.

He'd finally gotten to Vecchio, all right. But not in the way he'd expected. All the rage suddenly drained out of him. All the fight. He let go of him, and his eyes went dead. Blank, like they had when Maxwell had touched him. He sagged in his hold. Ray suddenly had the funny feeling that his rough grip was the only thing holding him up. That if he weren't pushing so hard against him, Vecchio would've slid down the wall to his knees. He was so taken aback that for a second, he didn't know what to do. What to think.

"What do you want?" Vecchio asked finally, in a voice as flat as his eyes.

Ray had a sudden, painful flash of comprehension. Vecchio's anger had been an act; and a thin one, at that. Inside, he felt humiliated, cuz he'd seen Maxwell slobbering all over him, and heard him say they'd been lovers. Because his shameful secret had come out in the worst way possible: in front of both his fiancée and his enemy. Vecchio felt that he'd been given a weapon against him. A huge, black, smoking gun. The only way he could cover that up, keep him at bay, was by getting him angry enough to lose his cool. That's why he's givin' me shit. It's self defense, he realized. Figures if he pisses me off enough, I'll light into him, instead of talkin' about that.

But it hadn't worked. Instead of losing control like Vecchio wanted, he'd reminded him that he owed him a debt. By doing so, he'd cut right through his paper-thin defenses, and into that place inside of him that was wounded and vulnerable. And Ray felt instinctively that it was the largest part of Vecchio right now: his pain and humiliation. He'd stabbed right into that, made him think he really had no defense against him at all.

He thinks I'm threatening him. Tryin' to blackmail him! That now that I found out about him, I want somethin' to keep quiet about it. And if he doesn't cough it up, I'll tell everyone what happened to him. Shit! Rage soared inside him again, hot and dangerous. So he let Vecchio go. Pushed him away. He had to, or he'd've punched him, for thinking that. When Vecchio had shaken his hand a few minutes ago, he'd thought things between them had changed a little. That at least the Italian didn't think he was a scumbag anymore.

But here we are again, right back to square one. First, he thought I was blackmailin' Ben, now him. DAMMIT!

He was shaking with rage and frustration. He fought to steady himself, to calm down. Not to shout at Vecchio. Remember -- he's screwed up. Maxwell did a number on him, not just in Arizona but today, too. That's where that ugly stuff's comin' from. He doesn't hate me, he doesn't even really know me. He'd just been abused too much to trust much of anything anymore. Or anyone. Least of all, the guy he thinks took his place with Ben.

Ray made himself remember how he'd felt, sitting on the floor of his shower after Rylan had tried to rape him. How the whole world had seemed black, how he'd felt like he had no one to trust, no one to turn to. He told himself that was how Vecchio was feeling right now. Sick inside, like that. It blunted his anger.

When he could talk again, he said, "Look. I don't want anything from you, okay? Nothin'. And I'm not gonna say anything to anyone else about what I saw back there, either."

"You already told Welsh," Vecchio said bitterly. "Who else matters?"

He narrowed his eyes at him. "Come on, Vecchio," he shot back. "Told him to help ya, not hurt ya."

The Italian opened his mouth to deny it, but Ray waved a hand, dismissing his objection before he could voice it. "Never mind. Don't give a shit if ya believe me or not. But you know who else counts: Ben does. And Serena."

The bitterness on Vecchio's face only deepened at that. "Yeah, well. Now they know, too."

"'Zat my fault?" he snapped. "Maybe ya shoulda told 'em in the first place," he went on, before he could stop himself. "Maybe ya shoulda trusted 'em! Ever think o' that?"

Vecchio paled, and looked away.

Ray caught himself. He was hitting below the belt again. Worse, he was being hypocritical. Wasn't like he'd found it easy to tell Ben about his rough sex with Rylan, either. Hell, he still hadn't worked up the guts to tell him the truth about his death. So it wasn't like Vecchio had a corner on keepin' dirty secrets quiet. He let that point drop. "Don'tcha get it, Vecchio? The only people who know -- who will ever know -- are Ben, Welsh and Serena. People who care about ya. And Ben figured it out on his own, by the way. I didn't tell him. And if I didn't tell him, I sure as Hell ain't gonna tell anyone else. Got that? It ain't gonna go any further."

That brought Vecchio's head up. He searched his eyes. Ray saw two emotions warring on his face: a weary attempt at anger, and a tiny bit of something like hope. He looked like he wanted to believe he would keep his mouth shut about his past, but was afraid to.

Let him deal, he thought again. He was tired of trying to convince him. But he wasn't done with what he had to say yet. "Ben still needs somethin' from you, though. He needs his friend back. And Serena, well, don'tcha think she should be marryin' someone she can trust? So if ya won't do it for yerself, do it for them. Get some help," he said bluntly. "Ya know ya need it. Ya know ya got a problem. So do somethin' about it. For their sake." Before ya kill someone, next time. He wanted to say it, but didn't.

He didn't need to. Vecchio finally reacted. Bit his lip, and looked away. Down at his feet.

Ray felt a surge of pity for him. The humiliation and pain in that bent head was obvious. And he'd been there. In his heart, he'd been living there ever since Rylan had died. In that instant, he knew he was going to tell Ben about it. Tell him everything, and soon. Enough chicken shit avoidance. I have to, or I'm gonna end up as messed up as Vecchio.

"That's it?" Vecchio finally asked, after a long moment. "That's all you want?"

His voice sounded raspy, like he had to force the words out, but Ray didn't care. At least he was talking

"Yeah. That's it. Do that, and ya don't owe me anything," he said.

Vecchio didn't answer.

Ray didn't know why, but he also didn't know what else to do, what else to say. He'd done his best, done what his gut told him he had to do, and managed not to punch Vecchio's lights out in the process. Surely no one -- not even Fraser -- could ask more from him than that. I did my bit. Now, it's up to him.

He turned to go.

"Why?" Vecchio asked suddenly.

Ray turned back to him. He didn't look angry now. He looked beaten. Far less arrogant. Maybe even a bit sorry. And Ray knew what he meant. Not why do you want me to do that, but why did you try to help me at all, after everything I did to you?

'Bout time he asked. 'Bout time he wondered.

But it was that, more than anything else, that made him answer -- and answer honestly. They were alone in the corridor, so he could say it. "For Ben," he said quietly. "Cuz he loves you, and I love him." He knew that wasn't what Vecchio would want to hear, but screw him. It was the truth, and he wanted him to know it. Besides, after that crack about a kiss earlier, he deserves to hear a lot worse. So deal, Vecchio.

To his surprise, Vecchio didn't get upset. Didn't look angry. Didn't even sneer at him again. He just gave him another penetrating look. When Ray returned it with a steady, unblinking gaze of his own, after a minute, Vecchio nodded.

Whatever it was he'd been trying to figure out, Ray guessed he must've settled the question in his favor, because his nod had a tinge of unwilling respect. It was more than he'd hoped for, from him. A lot more. So he ventured a little more himself. "And maybe cuz yer not the only one who ever got in over his head," he added softly.

But he stopped there. Either Vecchio would get it, or he wouldn't. But he wasn't about to go into any more detail than that. Not for him.

Vecchio stared at him. Stared long and hard, as if he were really seeing him for the first time. Not as the guy who'd taken his place, or the guy who'd stolen Fraser, or even the guy who looked like James Maxwell, but him. Stanley Ray Kowalski. After a long moment, he nodded again. "Thanks," he said. His voice was a little hoarse, but for once, there was no mockery in it.

That must've been hard. Probly like chokin' up a hairball, Ray thought. But Vecchio meant it, and that was what counted. So he nodded back to him. He noticed that the Italian hadn't said he'd do it yet, though. But he hadn't really been counting on that anyway. He'd just wanted to encourage him, and he'd done that. So whatever happened, he had nothing to feel guilty about. Not about Vecchio, anyway.

Suddenly, Welsh stuck his head out of his office, and yelled, "Vecchio! Before I get old here?"

In spite of everything, both Rays smiled. And Kowalski had another weird moment, when he felt like there might eventually be something between them other than hatred, jealousy and suspicion. He wasn't sure what, but he was sure that Vecchio's door, that'd been locked and barred against him, had just been unlocked. Not exactly flung open wide, but opened a few inches, anyway. He turned away, before things could get any weirder.

But Vecchio stopped him. "Okay," he said simply.

Ray was stunned. He hadn't expected that, either. Not really. That Vecchio would not only listen, but actually agree to it. Wow.

"But only because I don't like owin' you," he added. But he softened the words with a slight smile.

Ray was shocked. Vecchio, teasing? Teasing him, instead of being hateful? Teasing him, kinda like the way he always teased Ben? Jesus. It was almost too much to take in. He felt like he was in the Twilight Zone. Can't be real.

Before he could recover from that curveball, Vecchio threw him another one. As he turned to go into Welsh's office, he said over his shoulder, "Oh, by the way. About Benny... Ya hurt him, and I'll kill ya."

Bam. Just like that, Kowalski was back in the real world. Reeling from another punch. He bristled. "Ya already tried that. I ain't that easy to kill," he flung back at him.

But then he saw it. As he turned to go into Welsh's office, he saw the side of Vecchio's face, and realized that he was still smiling. The barest hint of a smile, but it was enough. Enough to tell him Vecchio had just been teasing him again.

Jeez. And I fell for it, big time. Ray subsided, feeling silly. He scratched at his ear and looked around, to make sure no one had heard him bark back at him. Thankfully, no one had. The hall behind him was still empty.

Then Vecchio was gone. He stepped into Welsh's office and shut the door behind him, and Ray was left standing alone in the corridor.

He felt strange. His heart was beating fast, like he'd run a mile. But he hadn't gone anywhere. Yet he had. How did that Zen thing go? "A journey of a thousand miles... starts when you get on a bus?"

No, that can't be it. He scratched his head. Doesn't matter. I got somewhere. I know it.

Ben stuck his head out of the interview room door, and gave him a questioning look.

Ray headed for him. One foot still in the Zone, one out. It felt weird, but kinda good, too. He realized that despite the circumstances, it felt good to be here. Back at the 27th , with Lt. Welsh, the Duck Boys and all the other familiar faces. It felt good, walking down these halls where he'd first met Fraser. The best thing that had ever happened to him had started here. He felt a surge of envy. Crazy as he was, Vecchio got to stay here. Got to be here, where he wanted to be, with Ben. Got to be his partner.

It made him feel blue. He forced the thought away. Didn't want to get in a mood about it. He was trying not to think about that, about having to go back to the 29th soon. About being assigned a new partner, most of all. He still hadn't gotten used to not having the old one around anymore. Time enough to deal with all that when he had to.

For now, he was here with Ben again. Even if it was only for a few minutes, it would have to do.

Once he got close enough, Ben asked, "Is everything okay?"

He looked so worried that Ray had to smile. For a guy who'd just been threatened with death by a former Wiseguy, he felt okay. Better than okay. So he said, "Yeah. Everythin's fine."

As he turned to go back into the interview room, Ben asked softly, "You didn't -- uh..."


"Well... you didn't hit him, did you, Ray?"

Silly ass Mountie, he thought, loving him. "Look like I've been fightin'?"


He grinned. Right, as usual. "Let's just say I won. And dat's all ya need to know."

Ben smiled. "Okay."

Then they both went back inside, to wait with Serena while Vecchio did what he'd agreed to do.

It was some fifteen minutes before Ray Vecchio returned to the interview room. When he did, he looked even paler than when he came in. But Fraser knew him well enough to know that it was the calm after the storm, rather than before. It was a relief. He also knew that though Vecchio didn't want to, he had agreed to seek psychiatric help for his trauma. He'd already known that he would. Known it when he saw Ray -- his Ray -- standing out in the hall a few moments ago, staring after him with that curious, bemused look on his face.

Ray had done that, somehow. Convinced Vecchio to go along with Welsh's demand that he see a psychiatrist. Amazing. He could only wonder what had gone on between the two of them in that hallway. However, Ray had been scowling so darkly when he'd gone after Vecchio that he hadn't dared to ask him. It had been all he could do to stay with Serena, as he'd promised, to keep out of it. Especially after his sensitive ears heard what sounded like something thudding against the wall, down the corridor towards Welsh's office. A body, perhaps. He couldn't help but wonder whose. It was like torture, not sticking his head out the door to see, and perhaps to intervene. But he didn't.

It wasn't easy, though. Afterwards, he had no idea what he'd said to Serena during those few moments, or she to him. He just thanked God for her presence. She'd made it possible for him to focus on something else, at least to some degree, than his overwhelming sense of protectiveness for Kowalski.

He did not want to 'mother' him anymore. Well -- that was not strictly true. He still did; no doubt he always would. Taking care of Ray, looking after him, was incredibly seductive. Being able to give to him in a way he never had before had given him tremendous satisfaction. But he was trying very hard to stop it, regardless. Because Ray was no longer ill, or physically weak, or in need of that. He'd proved that in the most stunning way imaginable, today.

Still -- inaction, noninterference, was a new concept for him. It went against the grain. Every muscle in his body protested sitting still, when Ray might be in need of assistance. It had been sheer hell doing that earlier that morning, allowing him to meet with Ray Vecchio alone, as he'd requested. It was hell for him again, when they were hashing things out in the hallway without him. But it was a hell he was committed to facing, and getting through as best he could, because it was what Ray Kowalski needed. It was a way to show his trust in him, his respect for his abilities. It was no less, in fact, than what he deserved.

What he deserved...

He intended to see that Ray got what he deserved. From the Chicago P.D., and from Ray Vecchio, as well.

Ben wondered if Kowalski had any idea how angry he'd been with Ray Vecchio when he'd realized, from his typically terse description of the aftermath of his courageous rescue of both Ray and Serena, that Vecchio hadn't even bothered to thank him for it. Kowalski hadn't said that, of course. Didn't seem to want him to know it, for whatever reason. But when he said that Ray hadn't spoken much to anyone afterwards, Fraser somehow knew. His Ray had done a wondrous thing: all alone, with no back up, he'd walked into an unexpected and hellish situation, sized it up correctly and not only saved his worst enemy, the man who had not long before tried to kill him, but his fiancée as well. He'd killed a vicious psychopath to save them, too. Killed him at such close range that his shirt was drenched in his blood.

That little detail told Ben that Ray had not shot Maxwell from a safe distance. Oh, no. Ray had risked his life, the most precious thing in Ben's world, to save his best friend. Had gotten "up close and personal", as Americans say, with a maniac, for his sake. He knew that Ray would've done as much for a total stranger -- he was made that way. It was part of the reason he'd become a policeman, though he didn't seem to realize that. But the extent of Ray's generosity and courage did not alter the fact that his actions today, the extraordinary risk he'd taken in killing a psychopath at close range, had been taken at least partly for his sake. Ray hadn't done all that strictly for Ray and Serena. He'd done it for him, as well. He would never say so, but he didn't have to. Ben knew it.

He also knew that he could have lost him, and so lost his world. It was due only to Kowalski's extraordinary foresight in bringing his weapon along to Ray and Serena's house, and his almost uncanny cop instincts on the scene, that he hadn't. It seemed to him that Ray was aware of the dangerous edge he had walked, as well. For when he'd pulled him into the interview room and hugged him tightly afterwards, it had felt like his way of saying how glad he was that nothing had happened to him. That he'd lived to come back to him. So despite Fraser's awareness of their rather inappropriate location, he'd returned his embrace just as fiercely. Though it was already too late, he'd wanted to pull Ray inside himself, to shield him from anyone who might try to harm him.

I love him so much, it frightens me.

He still felt stunned. Shaken by what had happened to Ray and Serena, how near a thing it had been, and by Ray's deep depression, now that his secret had been revealed. But he was also immensely proud of Kowalski for saving them. I want to see him get another commendation, for his actions today. I'll speak to Lt. Welsh about it. The Chicago P.D. should publicly laud his courage. I intend to laud him, in private, for his generous heart as well. For saving a man who intensely dislikes him, when that same man practically begged to be killed. It is a marvel. A miracle. And it was done for love.

Yet Ray Vecchio could not even bring himself to say thank you for all of that.

Oh, that had angered him. He'd been waiting for it. The Ray Vecchio he'd once known would've done it. That Ray had been a generous man. Despite his dislike for Kowalski, he would have forced himself to give thanks, to give credit, where they were due. Especially with Fraser standing there waiting for him to do so. It was a measure of how much he'd changed, perhaps, that even though Ben knew beyond doubt that Vecchio was aware of his anger, and of its cause, he still hadn't said the words.

He did apologize, though. A small concession to the fury he could no doubt feel building beneath Fraser's increasingly stern expression. He apologized to both of them for attacking them and for making malicious assumptions about Ray Kowalski's character. He even forced himself to shake hands with him.

But he'd had to force himself to. Fraser felt that, as keenly as his failure to thank Ray. His continued contempt, animosity, whatever it was, infuriated him. Made the hot, burning coal of ire in his chest burn even hotter. Ray could've died for you, he thought. Would have. Prove to me that you deserved his courage, that you are one tenth the man he is. One tenth the man I know you used to be. Thank him for it. Do at least that much.

Ray's green eyes had stayed on him. Perhaps they'd read all of that in his face, but perhaps not. To be fair, it was at least possible that Vecchio wasn't cognizant of the depth of his rage on Kowalski's behalf. Ben knew that Ray had been shaken too, that what happened today had worsened the damage done to him on his undercover stint. That he was still not himself.

But that was no excuse. When he still hadn't said the words, Fraser came as close to hating him as he ever had. Even his heartfelt apology for the attack on him and Ray couldn't wipe his anger away.

He'd stopped trying to look polite. Stopped being polite. Let Vecchio feel the sharp edge of his tongue, as he'd never done before. Nothing he had ever done to him, not even the bullet in his back, had burned as deeply as his continued ill will towards his lover did. Ben had finally lost patience with him, and let him see that. Made him feel it.

Finally, just when he'd been about to give up on him, Vecchio gave in. With one of his sudden, mercurial changes of mood that were oddly reminiscent of Kowalski, he surrendered unexpectedly. Not only thanked Ray, but held out his hand to him again. This time, without the undertone of reluctance and barely hidden dislike with which he'd offered it before.

Ray hesitated fractionally, then took it. Ben saw him smile. A tiny smile that no one but him would think signified very much. But his knowing eyes read surprise in it, and something like hope.

Then he saw Ray Vecchio finally, for the first time, smile back at him. The kind of smile that touched his eyes, not just his mouth.

It was balm to his wounded soul. The tightness in his chest eased. Finally, the matter had been settled. Not laid forever to rest yet, certainly, but at least the open wound had been closed..

Now, perhaps the healing could begin.

He suddenly realized that Ray, his Ray, was talking to him. "What?"

Kowalski smiled again. A different smile, his "Earth to Fraser" kind of smile. Clever Ray knew that he had, for an instant, been deep inside himself, and was teasing him about it. "Want me to drive ya back to work, Frayzh?" he repeated.

Fraser wanted much more than that. Far, far more. But he had to compromise. He had to return to the Consulate soon. Though Inspector Thatcher had been kind enough to give him a few hours off when Lt. Welsh explained the dire situation in which both Rays had been involved, they were done giving their statements now. He'd been able to reassure himself that they were both going to be all right, so he needed to get back. I still have several hours of active duty, before my shift is over.

But it was not duty he thought of when he considered Ray's offer of a ride. He wasn't proud of it, but what was first in his thoughts was his own building need, and the idea that Ray's offer might give him a chance to assuage it. So -- devious and selfish though it was, he accepted it gratefully. "Yes, Ray. Thank you kindly," he told him.

Then the irony of those words, under the present circumstances, hit him. I believe I used the phrase out of habit, not as a rather snide dig at Vecchio's failure to thank Ray until prodded into it. I think so, but I'm not sure. I was, after all, extremely angry with him. It's possible some of that anger was not entirely soothed by his capitulation. I have noticed a regrettable tendency in myself, on occasion, towards pettiness. So he belatedly said politely, "Would you two like a ride home, along our way? I'm sure Ray wouldn't mind--"

Kowalski nodded obligingly, as he'd expected.

But Ray Vecchio shook his head. "S'okay, Fraser," he said quietly. "Huey drove the Riv here for me. Think I'd gonna take Serena home."

He understood. They still had some talking to do. Some things to work out.

As did he and his Ray.

Kowalski drove Fraser back to work. It was obvious Ben had something on his mind, cuz he was looking at him kinda funny. Then, out of the blue, he asked, "Would you like to stop off at your apartment on the way, Ray?"

Ray shot him a look. "Why?" But before he could answer, he thought, Maybe it's the shirt. It was kinda funky, and it smelled even worse than it looked. It was probably offending the Mountie's sensitive nose. Then again, Ben hadn't minded cozying up to the bloodied shirt when he'd hugged him, earlier. Weird.

Ben shrugged, looking out of the window. "I just through perhaps you might like to... freshen up," he said vaguely.

Ray blinked. "So I can drive ya the rest o' the way to work without offendin' yer sensitive nose, ya mean?" he asked wryly.

"Not at all, Ray," Ben said smoothly. He shrugged. "Forget I mentioned it." But there was something in his voice...

Ray sighed a little. Whatever was going on in Ben's head, his apartment wasn't really that far out of their way. Besides, now that he thought about it, it'd be good to get Maxwell's blood off of him. Very, very good. "Nah, it's okay. My place first, then. Sure you got time, though? That the Ice Queen won't take it outta yer hide?"

Ben shook his head. "Oh, no. It will be fine, Ray."

Ray stared at him. He had this strange feeling that Ben felt this little side trip was more than fine. That he had his own reasons for wanting him to do it. That he was up to something. But as usual, he looked utterly innocent. As if he didn't have so much as one even vaguely suspicious thought in his gorgeous head. When he looked like that, Ray knew better than to ask. He wouldn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of getting a straight answer out of him.

Besides -- it might be fun, finding out just what the innocent looking, devious Mountie had up his sleeve. So he just kept driving.

They couldn't get to Ray's apartment fast enough for Fraser. He stared out his window and tried to contain his impatience by playing with the brim of his hat. Twirling it in his hands. But it wasn't what he wanted to be doing with them, and the smoothness of his hat, though pleasant, wasn't what he wanted to be feeling. The pressure inside him was building, rising to a level he'd seldom felt. That he could hardly contain. It amazed him. If he'd been one of those cartoon characters Ray was so fond of watching, surely billows of steam would've been pouring from his ears by now.

I never used to feel like this, before. Before him.

Ray had made him more human. More volatile. Cracked him open like a reluctant crustacean, to reveal the inner man. Ray had made him feel, more intensely than he had in years. All of which was, he knew, to his benefit. Still, it was not, he decided, always an entirely comfortable sensation. Because his newly intensified feelings were, on occasion, stronger than his self control. In the past, he would've been able to master the intense feelings that had grabbed hold of him, in the wake of today's events. He'd've been able to distract himself from his anger and lust by concentrating on other things: Gregor Mendel, perhaps, and his illuminating technique of cross breeding peas. Something suitably intellectual, that would've diverted, even sublimated, the torrent of emotion rising in him.

But not now. Right now, for the life of him, he couldn't care less if Mendel had dressed peas up in party hats. He just wanted, needed, to get Ray alone. In the worst way.

To help him get cleaned up, he told himself.

Liar, whispered his conscience.

Ray felt a bit tired as he trudged up the stairs to his place. A bit washed out. The aftermath of the adrenaline rush at Vecchio's place earlier. He didn't feel exhausted, just not quite as energetic as usual. But he'd been expecting it. You take an adrenaline bath in a tense situation, you feel wrung out, after. It was part of the job, had happened to him many times before, so it didn't surprise him.

What did was the way Ben was rushing him. Hovering right behind him, practically breathing down his neck. If he hadn't known better, he'd've thought his lover was trying to rush him up the stairs. Remembering his earlier suspicion that the Mountie was up to something, he turned his head to give him a sharp look. "Penny for yer thoughts, Frayzh," he said, hoping to surprise a straight answer out of him.

Fraser blinked, looking surprised. Or was he trying not to look guilty? "I was thinking of Gregor Mendel," he said after a moment, as they moved upward. "The Austrian botanist. He did a series of experiments on cross breeding peas, which led to--"

He laughed, oddly reassured by the weirdness of that. Only Ben. "Freak!" he breathed, loving him.

"They're really quite fascinating, Ray." Was that a hint of Mountie reproval?

"Yeah, right. Read the book, first chance I get."

Then they were at his door, and Fraser was still right on top of him. Feeling a bit annoyed at the unexplained hovering, he gave him an exasperated look. The Mountie backed off. About an inch. Ray sighed to himself. Shrugged it off. Must be some weird kinda reaction to me goin' off and getting in trouble on my own, for once. Without his help.

He put his key in the door, and as soon as he started to push it open, Fraser reached over his shoulder and swung it wide. Practically pushed him inside. Okay. Dat's it! "Hey! What is it with you?" he protested, annoyed. "Thought you said ya didn't haveta rush back. That the Ice Queen didn't need ya for a few more minutes."

Fraser shut his door and locked it, then ran a finger over his eyebrow, looking a bit embarrassed. "That's quite true. I'm sorry if I seem to be rushing you, Ray," he apologized. "We do, in fact, have time for you to change."

"Well, good. We better, since it was yer idea," he grumbled.

Ben didn't seem to notice. He just threw his hat on the sofa and turned to look at him again, with his big blue eyes. Then he ran his tongue over his bottom lip, in a familiar gesture.

Ray felt a surge of pure, unadulterated lust. That tongue thing -- Jesus, it drove him crazy. Got him hard in a second. Which annoyed him even more. He knows what that does to me. Did it on purpose. Not fair. Not s'posed to tease me when we don't have time... So he half turned away, pretending not to notice what Ben had done, hoping he wasn't drooling noticeably in response. Not gonna do the Pavlov thing. That's for dogs. Besides, I'm probly wrong. Probably hallucinating. "Wanna cup o' tea or somethin', while I change?" he asked.

Suddenly, Ben was right beside him. So close he could feel his breath on his cheek. "No."

"Hey!" He backed up reflexively. "Gimme some room, willya?" He shook his head, somewhere between exasperation and amusement. Crazy Mountie. Still -- it couldn't be what he thought. Ben was just hovering, cuz he'd come close to getting his head shot off. He was showing concern. Had to be. There was no way, no way that his sweet, polite Mountie had tricked him into stopping off here for a nooner.

Yeah. Right. Ben could make a nun stop for a nooner, if he wanted to. Do it without battin' an eyelash, too. Make her think it was her own idea.

There was only one way to play it. Pretend he was wrong. Like he was the one in control here. He shrugged. "Okay. Suit yerself." He turned towards the hallway, meaning to head for his bedroom to get a clean shirt.

He never made it.

Fraser couldn't stand it any more. Not for one more instant. Not even a nano-second. He had the annoying feeling that Ray had sensed how he felt, that he knew what he was up to, and that he was deliberately trying to foil his plan by keeping his distance.

Ray was teasing him.

A bad moment for that.

It had to stop. Had to, or he would blow, like a volcano. Or go mad. Perhaps he already had. Because before he knew it, he'd grabbed Ray by the arm. Swung him around, and taken hold of his jacket. Pulled it off and tossed it onto the couch near his hat, without even worrying how it landed, or if it wrinkled. And his hands hadn't stopped at that. They removed his holster and gun just as efficiently, and in short order. Ray's gun actually bounced, when it hit the sofa cushions.

"What the--"

Oh, the look on Ray's face! Wide-eyed astonishment, mixed with exasperation. It was priceless. Delicious. Maddening. He decided to deepen it. He took hold of his T-shirt.

"Hey, wait!" Ray protested, as he began to pull it up. "Fraser, have you lost yer Mountie mind?"

No. Yes. Absolutely.

Chances were good that he had, for in seconds, the bloodied T-shirt was off, and flying through the air towards the couch. He didn't turn to see if it landed safely, though. He was too busy drinking in the sight of Ray, wide-eyed and half naked, and staring at him in astonishment. He heard himself saying breathlessly, "You might want to try soaking that shirt in warm water overnight before washing it, Ray. Bloodstains are extremely difficult to remove--"

Ray's brow furrowed in confusion at that further bit of insanity. "What the -- what the hell is this?"

"This?" Was it possible that Ray really didn't know? That he wanted an explanation? Difficult, when he didn't understand it himself. Impossible, when he'd lost the power of rational speech.

"Yeah, this! What the hell are ya doin'? Tryin' to strip me, or givin' me laundry hints?"

Both. Neither. Well, the first thing, definitely. Yes. He did seem to be tearing Ray's clothes off. But it seemed Ray really didn't get it, after all. Why he was doing this. He hadn't seen the cartoon steam coming from his ears, ever since they'd gotten into his car, hadn't sensed what the morning's terrible events had somehow done to him. I'll have to show him--

It was his last coherent thought. Then he was kissing Ray.

Forcing his mouth open. Taking it hard, feeling Ray's heart jump against him in wonderful surprise. Ahh, yes.

Kowalski tore his mouth away. "Ben, what the FUCK--"

Yes. He was afraid that was it, precisely. Ray had hit the nail on the head, so to speak. But he was doing just what he claimed always annoyed him the most about him: talking too much. Fraser didn't want words. Not now. So he covered Ray's mouth with his, smothering any further protest. He just had to be with Ray. Had to taste him, touch him -- devour him.

More than he needed to breathe.

He forgot to do that, he was kissing him so hard. A long, breathless, insatiable, hungry kiss, that finally tore a whimper from Ray.

But it seemed Ray wasn't ready to give in yet. Stubborn, he managed to pull his mouth away again. More grumbling reached Ben's ears. "Not fair ... Ya said... go to work, now yer usin' my own mouth against me--"

Ben supposed it wasn't entirely fair. Duly noted. He'd have to do penance for that later. But it did seem to be working. Ray's breathing was decidedly unsteady, and he wasn't trying to push him away. Ben was the one who was pushing, actually. Pressing against Ray so hard that he was stumbling backwards. That didn't matter, either. Ben had his arms around the slender detective by then, so he just went with him. As they reeled backwards, he kept kissing him. Every part of him that he could reach. Cheek, chin, that little spot under his jaw that seemed to drive him crazy--

Ray was still talking. Protesting, actually. Or was that moaning? Fraser wasn't sure. He only heard it in snatches, over the crazed pounding of his heart. "--crazy Mountie!... planned this, I'm gonna -- Ohhh, fuck! That's good... -- get ya fer this--" They met some obstacle then. Fraser couldn't see what it was, he was too busy licking the pulse point underneath Ray's jaw, but he felt his arms come up against something hard. Ray thudded into it with a little moan, and stopped moving.

Oh, yes, Ben realized belatedly. The wall. We've hit the wall. It didn't seem to matter. One place was as good as another... He pressed against Ray instantly, trapping him with his crazed, aroused body. Pressing his hardness into the cradle of Kowalski's slender hips as he captured his mouth again, for another hungry kiss. Ray's threat trailed off into a little moan that sent Fraser's already racing pulse into overdrive.

Ray was still complaining, more breathlessly now. "--hell d'ya... think yer doin'--"

But he was getting hard. Very hard, very fast. Ben sucked at his neck wildly, using his tongue, his teeth. Breathing in his scent.

Ray's protest ended in a groan. "Unnhhhh--"

Ohhh, yes. Ray's heart was beating faster, too. Racing against him now. Better. Much better. Somewhere in the back of his mind, though, a tiny, rational part of him thought he should stop this. It was crazed. Insane. He'd practically attacked Ray, without warning. And Ray didn't seem entirely willing...

But he was working on that. He swirled his tongue against hot skin, just the way he knew Ray liked it, and was rewarded with another, even louder, moan. A desperate clutch of Ray's hands, at the back of his head. He could smell cordite on his long, slender fingers, and it reminded him of the look in his eyes at the 27th. There'd been something wounded there, something haunted. What he'd seen at Ray Vecchio's house had hurt him somehow, in a way he refused to talk about. It was that look, Fraser thought, that had first begun to unravel his control. It had a great deal to do with his subsequent fury at Ray Vecchio, too. Though Kowalski hadn't suffered any physical damage, he'd done more than just risk his life for Vecchio, he'd sustained some kind of painful internal blow while doing it; and Vecchio's lack of gratitude for all that had therefore been doubly offensive. Somehow, all those complex emotions -- worry about Kowalski's emotional wound, fury at Vecchio's ingratitude, and his powerful sense of relief that his Ray had come back safe -- had balled up inside of him, and resulted in this intense, overwhelming need to take him.

Was it his imagination, or -- no. It wasn't. Ray's hands were definitely pressing his mouth even harder into Ray's neck.

All right, then. It was clear he wasn't entirely unwilling, either.

Not by a long shot.

Ben couldn't wait any longer. Couldn't hold back the raw, primitive need for Ray that was raging inside him. He'd been wanting to do this, longing to, ever since Ray had looked down that hallway at the 27th. Looked for him with troubled eyes, then dragged him off and hugged him so impetuously, so fervently. It'd been clear to him that Kowalski had needed that.

And I need this... He couldn't seem to get close enough. He dropped to his knees in front of Ray, and ran his tongue down his stomach in a long, eager swipe. He tasted dried sweat, the faint aftermath of fear, and kissed it away passionately.


Ray drew in a deep breath. He was starting to shake. So was Ben. He unzipped Ray's jeans with his eager, unsteady hands, and freed him without removing his mouth from his skin. He took Ray's cock in his hands and stroked it eagerly, cupped his balls while he swirled his tongue in his navel. More loud groans from above him. Ray's hips began to move, rocking upwards.

Now. He answered the need implicit in those rocking hips, and swallowed Ray whole. Took him in all the way, in one hot, hungry swoop. Moaned out loud with the pure, greedy pleasure of it.

"Unnnhhh!" Ray shuddered convulsively. A long, wonderful, uncontrollable shudder, from head to foot. He gasped for breath, his hands splaying out against the wall as if they were all that was holding him up. Ben closed his eyes, enraptured. Finally, he was where he'd wanted to be. Close enough to Ray. He breathed in his scent, the hot, aroused tang of him. Gripping his hips to hold him still, he sucked hard, tasting him greedily.

Ray cried out sharply, almost sobbing. Like it was too much. Like he never wanted it to end. He was hard already, and throbbing. So close...

Holding his hips tight against the wall, Ben raised his head slowly. A long, sensual slide upwards, with loving suction. Until he reached the head. Then he swirled his tongue over it -- and took him in deep again.

Ray arched like a bow. So far that his head thunked into the wall. He shouted, and spurted into his mouth. Again and again, for an amazingly long time. Ben drank him in, lost in the pleasure of it. The feel of his Ray, the taste... Yes. Oh, yes... He held him up while Ray gasped and moaned and shivered, until he'd had every drop of him. Finally, his knees buckled and he would've fallen. But Ben held onto him. Steadied him and finally, reluctantly lifted his head.

Then, and only then, did he finally loosen his tight hold on his lover. Ray slumped to the floor in a heap. Eyes closed, his back against the wall, his long legs splayed out in front of him. Breathless, boneless, panting. He looked abandoned, sated and utterly beautiful.

Ben moved over next to him. Slipped his arms around him, and kissed his cheek. "Your eyelashes are so long," he whispered. "So beautiful..."

The words were trite, he supposed. Maybe even clichéd. Maybe that was why he had tears in his eyes. Yes, perhaps it was that.

Ray shook his head. "Fucking... loopy Mountie," he whispered, his head on Ben's shoulder, his mouth curving in the faintest of smiles.

Ben kissed that, too.

"What the... hell was that?" Ray whispered, his eyes still closed.

He smiled back, and smoothed Ray's blond spikes upward with hands that were no longer so steady. "I believe," he said, "that you seduced me, Ray."

A little grunt of disbelief. Another, slightly wider smile. "Mmm. My ... fault, huh?"


"Like I... didn't know."

"I think," he said in a low voice, "that you scared me, Ray."

Blue eyes opened at that. Turned tender and warm, as Ray tilted his head up to kiss him. "Sorry." Then, "Imagine that," he smiled against his mouth. "Iscared you. There's a switch!"

Then they were laughing. It went on for awhile. Got a bit shaky, maybe even hysterical, but it still felt good. They were together. Getting over it.

When the laughter died away, Ray stroked Ben's arm, smiling. "I'll try not to do it again. For a few days, at least."

Ben buried his face in his neck, kissed him and held him tight. "Thank you."

He wasn't talking about the joke, and Ray knew it. "You gonna do this, every time I gotta shoot somebody?"

So. Ray had surmised that much: that his unusual loss of control was tied to the morning's dire events. Ben shook his head, and smiled into his shoulder. "No. Not every time."

"Dat's good. Cuz I might be tempted to shoot every perp who looked sideways at me, otherwise."

"Then I shall have to practice better self control in future, for the sake of Chicago's criminal element," Ben said.

Ray laughed, kissed his ear, and rocked him a little in his arms. "Crazy Mountie."

"Yes, Ray."

Ray let out a happy little sigh. "Dis is nice. S'pose ya gotta go to work now though, huh?"

Ben heard the wistful note in his voice. "Not for a few more minutes, no," he temporized.

"Good," Ray smiled, snuggling closer and closing his eyes.

Ben stroked his hair, feeling a great tenderness. Despite the day's traumatic events, Ray now looked completely relaxed, and utterly happy. Just to be here with him, in his arms. He envied him that: his ability to exist completely in the moment, without worrying about the past, or the future. He'd often wished he could do that himself, but it was beyond him.

"Tell me somethin', Benny Ben."

Ben bent his head, and kissed his brow. "Anything."

"Who was the other guy? Yer first, I mean."

Ben frowned. "Who do--"

"The other one. I mean, the first guy ya ever made love to."

Ben froze. He'd never told anyone that. Ever. How had Ray known that he'd even had another male lover?

"Know there must've been someone," Ray said softly. "Cuz o' how ya were with me, our first time. Like ya'd been there before, knew what ya were doin'. So I just wondered..." Ray touched his hand gently, stroked his fingers as he waited for an answer.

He's so smart, Ben thought, for the hundredth time. So incredibly perceptive... He knew it from the start. And he's been wondering about it since the first time we made love. It amazed him. Not just that he'd figured it out, that he hadn't pushed it, either. He wasn't pushing even now. His tone was affectionate and wistful, rather than jealous. He seemed to be asking because he wanted to know more about him. Because his other lovers were a part of him, a part of his past, and Ray wanted to understand that, and him. But he wasn't demanding to know. He wasn't prying. He sensed somehow that if he refused to discuss it, Ray would let it go. It touched him, that Ray had waited this long to ask him about it, and that he'd done it so gently, too. That took away most of his reticence. Made him want to explain, even though it was a painful subject.

He supposed he owed Ray the truth, anyway. And maybe it would be a way to make up for what he'd just done, for his abysmal lack of self control just now. Yes. Perhaps this would be a suitable way to do penance for his earlier selfishness. He tried to think of the least painful way to put it into words. "Do you remember me telling you once of my friend, Innusiq?"

"Yeah," Ray said instantly. "June's brother. He was yer friend, yer best friend, when ya were kids."

It gave Ben a little glow. He wasn't sure Ray had even been listening when he'd told Bruce Spender about Innusiq. He'd thought he'd probably tuned the conversation out as just one more boring Inuit story. Evidently not. "Yes. Well, we were very close, Innusiq and I. We did everything together. And he was very beautiful," he said quietly, remembering. "He had long, dark hair and dark eyes..." He fell silent for a moment, lost in the past. "I wanted to be like him, in every way. I even wished that I was Inuit, like him."

"What happened?" Ray asked quietly, as if he already knew the story had a sad ending.

Ben swallowed hard, as old pain lanced through him. Even after all these years, it still hurt, remembering this. "We moved away," he said. "My grandparents were travelling librarians, and we moved when I was fifteen. It broke my heart," he confessed. "Leaving Innusiq was like -- losing a brother, like losing the other half of myself." He stopped for a moment, to swallow down the lump in his throat. "But before I left, I snuck out late one night, to see him one last time. He hugged me, and we cried. And he--he kissed me," he whispered.

Ray touched his cheek gently.

"It was the first time, the first time I--"

"First time ya fell in love?" Ray finished softly.

"Yes. That's all we did, just one kiss, but it was enough. Enough to know..."

Ray nodded, his own face sad now. "Ya ever see him again, after that?"

"No." Ben shook his head, regret still heavy in him, even though it was long ago. "But after he kissed me, I realized that my feelings of affection could -- well, could extend to men as well as women," he said. "It... confused me. I knew that it was wrong, that I wasn't supposed to feel that way, but I also knew that it was real. I was... very frightened by it, by the depth of my feelings for him. By how lost I felt without him, once we moved. By my awareness that most people were disgusted by same sex relationships. So I didn't allow myself to care deeply for anyone, for a long time afterwards. Then, when I was nineteen, in RCMP Depot, I met another cadet named Yves Sennier. He had black hair and dark eyes, and he seemed -- well, as lonely as I was," he confessed. "By the luck of the draw, we were assigned to the same cabin, and..."

"And he reminded you of Innusiq," Ray said softly.

Ben just nodded, immensely relieved that Ray was taking it so well. Listening hard, with interest, but with compassion, too. Not making judgments, or laughing at him. It gave him the courage to go on with his story. "Yes. He... was kind to me. We got to be friends. We -- one night I was reading, and he took the book out of my hands and kissed me." He stopped there, as the feelings rolled over him again. The mingled shame, relief and release he'd felt, when Yves had approached him. Touched him, kissed him... taken him at last, the way he'd longed to be taken, but been too ashamed and frightened to ask for. He'd been lucky in his first lover, immensely so. Yves had been gentle with him, had never once laughed at his awkwardness, his lack of experience. Yves had opened the book of his own body to him, on those cold nights in Depot. He'd taught him pleasure unlike anything he'd ever known. He owed him a debt for that, that he'd never been able to repay.

"So he was yer first," Ray said. "Eve, that's a kinda funny name for a guy."

Ben shook his head, suddenly realizing what Ray's American ears had been hearing. "In English it would be, but not in French. It's spelled 'Yves', not 'Eve'."

"Oh. Okay. So, what happened?"

Ben fell silent again for a moment. "My father found out. To this day, I don't know how. We were very careful, no one else at the post ever even suspected. But he came for a visit, and though I know Yves never said a word, he somehow found out."

"Yer Dad knows ya," Ray supplied, with a rueful smile.

"Yes. He was... very upset," he said quietly. "He told me I had to stop it. That any hint of homosexuality would ruin my career, get me thrown out of the RCMP. And I knew, of course, that he was right."

Ray looked up at him curiously. "What'd ya do?"

He shrugged uncomfortably. "I didn't do anything," he confessed, after a moment. "After my father left, our relationship went on as before. At the time, I thought I was in love with Yves. I did feel a certain -- affection for him. Respect. He was a good man. But looking back on it, it wasn't anything deep or lasting. At least, not at the time. It might've grown into that, if we'd stayed together, but--"

Ray grinned up at him. "So it was the sex."

Ben blushed furiously. "Yes." He rubbed at his eyebrow. "I suppose it must've been. Well, that and my -- our -- loneliness, and his resemblance to Innusiq, I think. We were both very young, and far from home, and living in such close quarters, well... I couldn't stay away from him," he admitted. "But when we graduated, Yves was assigned to a post in Saskatoon, while I was sent--"

"To a remote post, somewhere on an iceberg," Ray cut in with a smile. Proving once again, to Fraser's surprise, that he had been listening, all along, to his supposedly boring stories.


"Ya ever see him again?"

Fraser's smile faded abruptly, and he was silent for a moment, as old pain flowed through him. "No. I wanted to, but two years after we were separated, he was killed, attempting to stop a robbery. Shot twice. It was a jewelry store, I believe, and the thieves were heavily armed."

"They get 'em? The perps who shot him, I mean," Ray said, with a cop's automatic gut reaction.

"Yes," Ben said. But it hadn't made him feel much better about it. About losing Yves forever, as he'd once lost Innusiq. Up until he'd heard the news of his death, he'd cherished a tiny hope in the back of his mind that some day, when he got enough leave time accumulated, he'd go and see Yves again. Perhaps even try to resume their relationship. But his death had killed all those hopes. Perhaps it had even had something to do with his extreme reaction to Victoria Metcalf, whom he'd met soon afterward. Victoria, who had dark hair and eyes, like Yves and Innusiq, but been female as well, someone he'd thought would be more suitable in others' eyes...

But who had only, in the end, made everything much worse.

Ray seemed to sense his distress, because he leaned up and kissed him softly. "Thanks for tellin' me, Benny Ben," he murmured. Then he laid his head back down, and studied him.

Ben flushed, a little uncomfortable with his lover's scrutiny, wondering what thoughts his confession had prompted. Was he perhaps a little jealous, now? Or even angry, to learn that he'd loved others before him? "What are you thinking, Ray?"

"That I'm sorry ya got hurt like dat," he said quietly. "Sorry ya lost both of 'em."

Ben felt a surge of shame. He should've known that compassion, rather than anger, would be Ray's reaction. "Thank you."

"An' I know this is probably selfish, I'm probly a jerk for sayin' it, but -- how'd ya end up with me? With a blond, I mean. Seems like ya always went for the dark type, before."

Ben looked down at him, this quirky, gentle, wondrous flame of a man who burned brighter than anyone he had ever known, and smiled. "You hugged me, Ray."

Ray's face twisted in a curious half smile, half frown. "What?"

"The first time we met," Ben explained. "You hugged me. And you smiled--" He caught his breath, remembering it. Kowalski's welcome had been so warm, so radiant, so physical, it had felt like sunlight pouring over him. No one in his life had ever dazzled him so, at first sight. He wished that he could put into words, what that had done to him. How his openness, his warmth, had captivated him against his will. "No one had ever done that to me before."

Ray looked up at him intently. "Not even Innusiq?"


Ray smiled. Suddenly, brightly, just as he had when they first met. "Cool!" he said, evidently delighted by the fact that his first greeting, and his impact on Ben, had been original. Then he got serious again, looked down at his hands as he frowned a little. "Ya ever -- wish I was more like them?" he asked tentatively. "I mean, that I was dark instead of blond, or--"

Ben tightened his arms around him. "No, Ray," he said, meaning it. Kowalski had always been connected with sunlight, in his mind. With warmth and radiance and light, with all things good and generous and bright. His blondness seemed the perfect expression of that. So integral a part of who and what he was that he couldn't imagine him any other way. "I have never wanted you to be different. And as far as your looks are concerned -- I think you know how I feel about them. I think you're beautiful. Being blond suits you."

"Thanks," Ray said, almost shyly.

They kissed once more, a long, sweet kiss, then Ray let him go and sat up with a sigh. "Guess ya gotta go, huh?"

Ben nodded. "Yes. I really should."

They both stood up, and Ray went into his bedroom to put on a clean shirt. When he came out, he picked up his car keys and smiled. "Let's do it," he said.

But as they headed for the door, he put his hand on Ben's arm, stopping him. When Ben looked at him in surprise, he said, "Just wanted to tell ya--" It sounded a bit awkward, so he started over. "Just wanted to say, I know things weren't easy for ya, but I'm glad ya ended up here. With me."

Ben smiled. Despite all the painful roads he'd walked, and all his years of loneliness, he was also very happy he'd somehow wound up here, with Stanley Ray Kowalski. "So am I, Ray," he said. "So am I."

Ray drove Serena back to her apartment. She looked out the window as he drove. Her face looked thoughtful, serious, and she didn't say much.

He tried to decide what the quality of her silence was like, if it was a bad omen or if she was just tired, but he couldn't tell.

She was thinking it over, of course. Everything that had happened. What it all meant. What she was going to do about it. He knew that. Since that was enough to keep anyone busy for awhile, he didn't try to cut in. He let her be.

I need to take a shower, he thought, for the hundredth time. He felt tired. Old. Past his limits, in every way. He'd been cracked into a thousand pieces, and wasn't sure what was holding them together. Keeping him from breaking up. He'd had a helluva morning, and it wasn't over yet. First, everyone in Chicago, it seemed, had found out his secret. Then he'd had to apologize, not just to Benny, but to Kowalski, too. Twice. And to top it all off, Welsh had made him promise to see a psychiatrist. Jesus Christ. Humiliation after humiliation. It'd taken everything out of him, what little he'd had left after Jimmy got through with him. His pride had been stripped away, along with just about every last bit of his self confidence. His ribs and chest ached and burned, and Serena's quietness seemed ominous. His initial elation over the discovery that she still wanted to marry him had faded, buried under the weight of all the other, darker feelings.

Is she havin' second thoughts?

Idiot. She'd be crazy not to. Like anyone would blame her.

He didn't know if he felt grateful or scared when he pulled up outside her apartment building. He didn't know if she'd ask him in, or if he should come if she did. If he should ask to come in, if she didn't invite him to.

Right now, he didn't know anything, except the knotted up aching inside, that was his love for her.

She turned her lovely blue eyes on him. "Do you want to come in, Ray?"

"Yes." The word slipped out before he could stop it. It surprised him. He hadn't known how much he wanted to, until she asked him. Silly, but he was still afraid to leave her alone. Stupid, when he was the one who was falling apart, not her. But there it was. "Lemme just park the car, then I'll come," he said.

"All right." She gave him a little smile, then slid out of the car and walked to her door. Halfway there, she turned to look at him over her shoulder. She looked slender, graceful and fragile somehow, in the sunlight.

That air of fragility, he now knew, was deceptive. She was strong, maybe stronger than he was.

He wasn't sure what she was looking for. What she saw in him, right now. He wasn't sure he wanted to know. He eased the Riv away from the curb, and drove off to find a parking space. That much, he could do.

Serena was worried. Worn out. Almost numb, from all the shocks she'd absorbed that morning. During their processing at the 27th, she'd tried to hold herself together for Ray's sake. She didn't want to embarrass him, or herself, by collapsing in front of all his cop friends. But she'd been grateful, tremendously grateful for his unaccustomed quietness in the car, on their way back. She didn't think she'd have been able to manage normal conversation, for the life of her.

The life of me. I almost lost my life. As she put the key in her door, it swept over her in a wave. If it hadn't been for Ray Kowalski, she would never have come back here again. She would be dead. So would Ray.

She remembered Maxwell. How he'd grabbed her, dragged her into her bedroom and tied her up. The things he'd said he was going to do to her, to Ray... The things she'd learned he'd already done to Ray. Now that she knew the source of the darkness he'd had in his eyes for so long, she almost felt sick to her stomach. Her heart pounded, and her hand trembled so badly that she could hardly get the door open.

Once she was inside, she shut the door behind her, went to her couch and sat down, trying to steady herself. She was ashamed of the way she'd broken down and cried, while Maxwell was assaulting them. She wished she'd been stronger, for Ray's sake. She didn't want him to see her break down now, either, when he came in. Now that they were finally alone again, they needed to talk. She needed to keep her head clear for that. The fact that he was struggling with pain and shame of his own wouldn't make it any easier. Nor would her anger, that he hadn't trusted her enough to tell her what was ripping him apart.

She felt dark. Angry. Frightened. On the verge of breaking down again.

To turn her thoughts away from the terror she'd felt when that maniac had them in his power, and away from her sorrow and pain at learning of Ray's past, she focused her mind on Ray Kowalski instead. Found herself smiling a little, her shakes easing. She didn't know what she'd thought he'd be like, but he was so different from Ben that he'd surprised her. He was very attractive, though he didn't seem to know it. He had intense blue eyes, an engaging grin, and a kind of cockiness that was strangely appealing. But his spiky, unruly blond hair, slenderness and air of restless energy was a polar opposite to the dark, calm, solidly built Mountie. Somehow, she'd envisioned Ben with someone older. Quieter. Far more conservative and reserved. Ray Kowalski was young and feisty. Outgoing. Seemingly combustible. Not at all the sort of person she'd thought Ben would be attracted to.

Just goes to show you how wrong I can be, she thought, amused.

But she was glad, down to the marrow of her bones, that he was the lover Ben had chosen. Although she'd never met him before that morning, she already knew that Stanley Ray Kowalski was an amazing person. Smart. Good hearted. Incredibly brave. If he hadn't come over during Maxwell's attack, she knew she and Ray wouldn't have survived. But despite what Ray had done to him, and to Ben, he'd saved them both. He'd risked his life to do it, too. Walked right up to Maxwell, when Maxwell had that horrible knife in his hand, and killed him to save them.

He was a hero, in the best sense of the word.

She'd told him that several times, afterwards. She'd been so grateful, she hadn't been able to stop thanking him. She'd done it so much that he'd actually started to blush. Which had told her something else about him: he was sweet, underneath his surface gruffness. Sensitive. She'd sensed that immediately, from his gentleness, his kindness while he was untying her. He'd smiled at her, joked, and tried to make her feel better. He'd even seemed to be touched by the way she'd hugged him. She'd realized then that in one way, he was very like Ben: he was a good man, down to his bones. It only took her a few minutes in his presence to see that. She felt a moment of gratefulness that Ben, who had seemed so terribly lonely when she'd first met him, had found someone as wonderful as Ray Kowalski to love.

His rescue of them had been incredible, like something you'd see on TV, or in the movies. He'd come over all alone, figured out what was going on somehow, broken into their locked house as quietly as a shadow, slipped into their bedroom without Maxwell hearing him, and killed him to save Ray. When she'd asked him how he'd known what was happening, he'd just shrugged, and said, "I got lucky." But it was more than that, and she knew it.

He was our guardian angel, she thought.

Tears filled her eyes. Stupid, silly tears. She was all jumbled up inside. Happy to be alive, of course. Happy that her wedding to Ray was back on, and that he'd done the right thing, and apologized to Ben and Ray Kowalski. But frightened, too. Sad. Shocked, at what she'd found out had happened to Ray.

What that pig had done to him. She hated him. Hated him so much that sitting there, she shook, remembering how he had touched her. Though his death had been violent and bloody, she couldn't find any pity in her heart for him. He had had none for them. He'd come all the way across country to hunt Ray down, to kill them both. As if what he'd done to Ray already wasn't enough...

"I had to," he'd said.

As if she didn't know. She'd seen the look on his face, the same revulsion she felt, when Maxwell touched him.

But the awful thing was, until that instant -- she hadn't been sure. Not entirely, one hundred percent sure, that what that dreadful man had said wasn't true. Despite the fact that she loved Ray, though she knew what kind of man he was, she'd doubted him. Doubted him in the worst way possible. For a few terrible seconds, during their ordeal, she'd wondered if Ray had been Maxwell's lover, rather than his victim, in Arizona.

And she was afraid he knew it. That maybe that was why he'd gotten so quiet. But at the same time, she blamed him for being responsible for her doubts. If he'd told her -- if he'd trusted her enough, loved her enough to tell her what had happened before that...

But she kept remembering what he'd said in the car, when she'd asked him that. Why he hadn't told her. "How?"

That one word had been so bleak, so full of despair, that it had made her wonder about something else. What Ray's desperate signals to Ray Kowalski had meant, in their house that morning. Had he asked Kowalski to shoot Maxwell, or him?

She rubbed her hands together, and squeezed her eyes tight shut as she heard him coming up the stairs. Please, please, she prayed. Give me the strength to ask him the right questions. To listen better than I ever have; and to make him understand.

She'd been crying. She hadn't cried through all the crap at the scene afterwards, not while the paramedics checked them out, and not while they gave their statements. But she had tears in her eyes now. When he came through the door and saw that, he almost turned to go. He didn't think he could stand seeing her cry now, when he was at the end of his endurance, barely holding on.

What'd ya think, that it was gonna be easy?

He needed a shower. Needed it so bad, he was almost crawling out of his skin. It was a compulsion, an obsession. It was all he could think about. But he didn't come first. She did. He'd done this to her, it was his fault she'd been hurt like this, and he had to make up for it. Somehow. Tired or not, shattered or not. H had to. It was all that kept him going. So he shoved his need to get clean aside, ignored it and went to her. "Want me to make you some tea?" he asked, feeling awkward.

She shook her head. "No. It's all right."

"You wanna get changed?" Maxwell had torn her blouse open. She'd pinned it back up at their house, but he wasn't sure how she felt about it. If that still bothered her.

"No. At least, not right now." She sat up a little straighter, and tried to smile.

The gesture hurt him somehow. How was it, that she was the one who was still trying to protect him? After everything he'd done? He sank down on the couch beside her, and touched her hair. All he could think was, if he hadn't fallen in love with her, this would never have happened. She would never have come here, never have been exposed to Maxwell's twisted desire for revenge. "I'm sorry I got you into this mess," he said, tears lurking at the backs of his own eyes. "I'm so sorry, sweetheart."

She leaned over and kissed him. Her lips felt cold, but they were gentle as always. "Don't. I wanted to be in your life, Ray. I still do."

That was good. Good to hear, and a good start. Better than he'd hoped. He leaned into it, into her a little. She reached for him at the same time. Came into his arms. He could hold her now, now that he was wearing Welsh's clean shirt, and he did. She felt a little stiff, though. Like she was as shattered as he. As uncertain about what was holding her together.

So he put his arms around her, and held her against him. Smoothed her shiny dark hair with his sullied hands. Tried to give her strength, though he couldn't find any inside for himself.

After a time, she asked quietly, "Why didn't you say thanks to Ray Kowalski until Ben wanted you to?"

He tensed. It was like she'd stuck a finger into one of the sore spots on his chest, that question. She was so damn smart! Didn't miss much, if anything. "It's just -- hard for me to like him," he said slowly, trying hard to be honest, at last.

"He looks a little like Maxwell," she said.

He stroked her shoulder. So she'd seen that, too. Well, nothing could surprise him anymore. He wouldn't have been surprised to learn that she was telepathic, and could hear every thought in his head. "Yeah. Yeah, he does," he muttered.

"But he's not the same sort of person, Ray," she said earnestly. "Not at all. He's a good man, a very good man--"

"Oh, you know this," he snapped, before he could stop himself. There was something in her voice, some warmth that raised his hackles. Something almost like hero worship, for Stanley Raymond Kowalski. It put him on edge. Bad enough Ben was already sleeping with him, now Serena wanted him too? "You've known him for so many years, you can testify to his sterling character."

To his surprise, when Serena lifted her head, her eyes were twinkling. "You're jealous," she smiled. "Of the man who rescued us! Shame on you, Ray Vecchio."

Her gentle teasing calmed him down. If she could laugh about it, obviously she had no real interest in Kowalski. Good thing, too. "Jealous? Of that little scarecrow? That'll be the day," he snorted. Though truth to be told, he was, a little. Kowalski had been a hero today, succeeded in rescuing Serena when he couldn't. That rankled, more than a little. "He dresses like a homeless guy," he added spitefully. "Did you see that jacket?"

But he was smiling, all the same.

Serena poked him lightly in the ribs. "Be nice! He saved your life. Saved us both."

He grimaced, remembering the scene in the hallway at the 27th. "I thanked him for that. Believe me," he said wryly.

Serena got quiet for a time then. He let her be, wondering what she would come up with next.

A long time later, she said softly, "I know he was lying. Maxwell, I mean."

No need to say what about. He closed his eyes, as pain washed through him.

"But you could have told me," she said, softly but clearly. "I shouldn't have had to hear that from him."

He opened his eyes again, and looked right at her. "Yeah. I know." The pain got worse. What did she want him to say? That he was a fool, an idiot? It was true, and he knew it, but it wouldn't make things right. How could he tell her that the very way she was -- her sweetness, her innocence -- the very things that had made him fall in love with her, had made it impossible to tell her about the darkness inside of him?

While he struggled for answers, she lifted her head. "You won't do that again, will you," she said, her eyes wide and serious. Her voice was soft, but it wasn't a question. "You won't hide your hurts from me. Try to shield me from terrible things in your work. If I'm going to be your wife, you can't do that, Ray."

He swallowed hard. She had guts. Oh God, this woman was strong. And he wanted her. He wanted her more than he'd ever wanted anything in his whole, mixed up life. He didn't deserve her, but he couldn't stop wanting her. "No," he heard himself saying. His voice wasn't as steady as hers, but he got the words out. "I won't do that again."

And he knew it was true.

It seemed she did, too. She drew a deep breath, and something softened in her face. "Then tell me what you're feeling. Right now."

He hesitated. Only fractionally, but she pounced. "Tell me!"

Jesus, this was hard. But it was the only way to make up for what he'd done. What he hadn't done. And he knew it. So he pushed past the humiliation, and made himself say it. "Welsh told me I have to see a psychiatrist. Because of what happened with Maxwell," he grated at last. Choking the words out. He left out the part about Kowalski, though. How he'd made him promise to do it. He wasn't used to telling the truth like this, not anymore. He was going to have to work up to it. Take it by degrees.

She didn't look away from him. Not for a second. She stroked his arm gently, and met his gaze without flinching. "Do you think that will help?"

A subtle question. She wasn't asking if he thought shrinks really could help people, but if he was going to let his shrink help him. She realized, like Kowalski had, that he could agree to it, but not really commit to it. Just go through the motions, if he was unwilling. Smart, smart woman.

He shrugged, trying to be honest. "I had to talk to one before," he said. "When I shot Benny." That pain seemed far away now. Distant. Not searing, like it once was. Maybe because he'd been through things just as bad, since. But maybe also because the Department shrink had made him face it. Face up to what he'd done, and his feelings about it. "It might've helped." He looked at Serena intently. "I don't know," he said honestly. "But I'm gonna try. I swear."

What was it Kowalski had said? Ben needs his friend back. And Serena, don't ya think she deserves to marry someone she can trust?

The scarecrow was right. He hated to admit it, but he was.

Serena kissed him again. "Thank you," she whispered. She hovered over him, pressing little kisses onto his lips.

"I want things to get better," he told her. Then he closed his eyes again, and just let himself feel her kisses. God, he'd needed this. Needed to believe she could want him again, despite what she knew. Despite the fact that he'd lost almost every ounce of his pride, today.

"So do I," she said.

They kissed softly for a time, with tenderness rather than passion. Then he shifted restlessly. That voice inside that was screaming at him to get cleaned up was getting really, really loud. He almost felt like his skin was itching.

"What is it?"

"I need to take a shower," he said.

To his surprise, Serena got very somber at that. Turned her face away, as if the statement bothered her. "I'm sorry," he said, not really understanding her reaction. "I just--"

"Ray," she said softly. "Are you -- did you..."

He frowned. "What?"

She swallowed. "Back at our house, when Kowalski first came into our bedroom... Did you ask him to--"

It was his turn to turn away. His heart sank. He couldn't believe she'd seen that, hadn't wanted her to see it, couldn't bear to tell her the truth about it. "Can't we let it go?" he asked.

She closed her eyes. "So you did," she said, sounding stricken. "You wanted him to kill you! Oh, Ray..."

There was an undercurrent of terror in her voice that cut through his resistance. He couldn't hear that and do nothing. It wasn't in him. So he got off the couch, knelt at her feet, and took her hands in his. "Serena, listen," he said quietly. "Whatever I did, it's over now. It was just -- I felt desperate, okay?" he choked out. "Just for a second. I wasn't thinking straight." He was breathing hard, his heart racing, as he remembered it against his will. "I don't feel that way now. So just -- don't worry, okay?"

To his surprise, she laughed bitterly. "Easy for you to say," she whispered, looking at him with her heart in her eyes.

"Hey," he whispered. "Come 'mere." He pulled her into his arms and held her tightly. "I'm not goin' anywhere," he whispered fiercely. "Okay?"

She held onto him tightly, moved her hands over his head. "Promise me!" she whispered.

The words cut him. Like glass, like razors. He found, to his shock, that a part of him didn't want to give her that. Didn't want to promise that he'd keep on going. He was aware of regret, a sense of an escape, a last resort, slipping away from him. But he owed her that much. Hell, he owed her everything. And as long as she held him like this, as long as he could believe she still loved him, he wouldn't need that escape, anyway. So he gave in. "I promise," he said. "I swear on the Cross, Serena. I love you. I won't leave you."

She started to cry. Softly, almost silently. He got up, sat back down beside her on the couch again, and rocked her in his arms. "Hey, hey..."

"How -- could you -- be so -- selfish?" she whispered, sobbing.

He bent his head to kiss her tears away, tilted her chin up to his. Smiled a little. "Never said I was perfect, did I?" he teased, loving her so much that it hurt.

A tremulous smile.

Oh, God, she's so beautiful.

She wiped at her wet eyes. "Good thing, too," she joked back weakly. Then she swallowed, and drew a deep breath, getting herself back under control. "Okay. That's settled, then. You're not going to scare me like that again."

He shook his head. "No."

She let out a breath of obvious relief. "All right then. Go take your shower, Detective Vecchio."

"All right." He got up, feeling relieved himself. Like maybe the worst of it was over.

"Then we'll talk some more," she added.

So maybe not. He tried not to groan aloud. She had, after all, just given him permission to scratch his terrible, overwhelming itch. To wash the last of Jimmy the Freak off of him, forever. Wasn't like he could complain. "Yes, dear," he said instead, daring to tease her a little.

She threw a pillow at his head. He ducked, just in time.

"Go on," she told him. "But don't take too long."

He grinned. "Yes, dear."

Then he fled into the shower.

Serena sat still for a long time, thinking while Ray showered.

Trying to figure out what really mattered, and what to do about it. How to help him. He was trying hard to make things right, for her sake. She knew that. Despite his own pain, shock and humiliation. She could do no less.

But how to get past what had happened to him? She'd taken the first step by making him promise not to kill himself, but that was just the first step. He still wasn't really letting her in, she could feel it. She had to get past that, to connect with him, to get past the barriers he'd put up around his heart, in the wake of his humiliation at Maxwell's hands.

After some thought, she got to her feet and went to her bathroom. Ray had left the door unlocked behind him, and since her shower door was heavily frosted and the water was running, if she was really quiet, he wouldn't even know she'd come in...

She slipped inside, her heart beating fast. He'd put his shoes and socks on the floor by the door, and hung his shirt, pants and underwear neatly over the towel rack, near her. She gathered them all up silently, sneaked a quick peak at the tall, slender figure in her shower, and slipped out again.

Then she set the bundle of clothing down next to her on the couch, and waited, with her heart beating fast, for him to reappear.

Ray ran the water really hot, and scrubbed every inch of his skin with soap, not caring when it stung his knife wounds. The paramedics had told him he should wait a day before taking the bandages on his chest off, but he ignored that, and took them off anyway. He had surgical tape at home, he could always reapply them later. But he had to get clean first. Every bit of him. Especially his chest, where the Freak had touched his bare skin.

Especially there. He scrubbed it until it turned red. Then he washed the soap off it, and did it again.

"Serena?" Ray had wound a towel around his hips before he came out. "It's weird, I could've sworn I left my clothes in there, but--"

He stopped dead when he saw his clothes sitting neatly beside her on the sofa. She watched as it clicked in his head that she'd taken them while he was in the shower. He frowned a little.

She drank in the sight of him. She'd never seen him with even his shirt off before. God, but he was beautiful! Tall and lean, with long, slender feet and hands. His close-cropped hair was raven black, wet and gleaming against his beautifully shaped head. The tiny gold cross he'd been wearing ever since his return to Chicago shone softly against his olive skin, and the dark hair on his chest. Even the red knife wounds that ran down his chest couldn't detract from his elegant masculinity. Her mouth went dry, just looking at him.

She wanted him, she wanted him so much... But she had to be careful. She knew that. He'd been hurt so badly, it had almost destroyed him. She couldn't just throw herself on him. At him. Even now.

So when she got up, she went to him slowly. Looped a seemingly casual arm around his neck, and kissed him gently. "Did you lose your clothes?" she teased, keeping things light.

"Seems more like you found 'em," he murmured. He didn't sound annoyed, just puzzled. He returned her kiss lightly, but didn't put his arms around her. Either he didn't get it, or he was holding himself back. Still.

She swayed a bit closer. "What if I don't want to give them to you right now?"

He caught his breath. He got it now. Hadn't misunderstood that. "Serena--" He looked troubled. Obviously, this was the last thing he'd expected.

Okay, so maybe her timing was lousy.

And maybe it wasn't. She thought he needed this. Maybe even more than she did.

She put her other arm around his neck. "I don't want to wait any more," she murmured, kissing him again. She rubbed her cheek lightly against his, pressed herself against him.

He swallowed hard. Slowly, his hands settled on her hips. But they were tense. So was he.

She kissed him again. A long, slow, tender kiss. Tasting him.

"Serena..." His voice was warmer now. A bit husky. He was responding, he couldn't help himself. But then he whispered something against her hair that sounded like, "How can you?"


He drew in a shaky breath. "Want... me."

He sounded so sad. So lost... "You're more than just what he did to you, Ray," she breathed against his mouth. "Don't you see that?"

He shook his head blindly.

"You're gentle--"

"No. I'm not!"

"And brave, and good--"

He pulled away from her suddenly, his breathing harsh. Turned around and pointed at his lower back. "Look!" he grated.

She did, her heart beating hard. For a minute, she didn't know what he was talking about. Then she saw them. Faint scars on his lower back. Long and thin, on either side of his backbone. At first, she thought he must've gotten them that morning, but then she realized they were old. White. They'd been there for some time. But what--

Oh, God. A whip. A whip would -- and he said, Maxwell said he--

For a second, she was so horrified that she froze. But then it hit her. How Ray was standing there nearly naked, baring the worst of it to her. That he'd been standing like that ever since this morning, even when he was fully dressed. Because she'd found out, and Ray Kowalski had, and now Lt. Welsh knew, too. She'd never known, till that second, just how terrible it must've made him feel. How naked, how exposed, how ugly.

I had to.

She moved before she realized she was doing it. Knelt behind him, put her arms around him, and opened her lips over one of the scars. Breathed a warm breath onto it. "Brave," she whispered unsteadily. "And good..." Then she kissed it, and held on when he shivered. His breath came harshly, and his whole body went taut with strain, but she kept on until she'd kissed every one of his scars.

He didn't speak. Didn't move. Maybe he couldn't.

So she got up again. Moved around in front of him, and took his face in her hands. He had tears in his green eyes, and she kissed his mouth as tenderly as she had his back. "I know I can't make you forget it," she whispered, "but I want to love you. Just let me love you..."

He caught her to him in a sudden, hard embrace. She could feel his heart beating fast, pounding painfully against her. "Serena," he whispered, his voice shaking. He bent his head and kissed her. Kissed her until she was breathless, and carried her to her bed.

Two days before the wedding, Fraser sat in a chair at Ray's apartment, with Dief at his feet. They were deeply engrossed in some documentary on the animal channel. Dief barked excitedly at the screen, then sent him an inquiring glance. Ben said calmly, "Yes, but you have to remember, these are timber wolves. So their customs are bound to be different..."

Ray smiled. Once, the scene would've looked weird to him: a seemingly sane Mountie, carrying on a conversation about a nature documentary with a deaf wolf. Now, it just felt warm and cozy. Like home. He wasn't sure if that meant Fraser really wasn't as nuts as he'd thought at first, or if his craziness was catching. But he didn't care anymore. He also knew it went both ways: he was rubbing off on the Mountie, too. Watching his lover and his wolf watch TV, he grinned to himself. I've corrupted him for sure, he thought, wickedly pleased at the idea. Next thing ya know, he'll be askin' for a boob tube o' his very own, for Christmas.

As he stared at Fraser, Ray's amused affection turned to lust. Ben was the only guy he knew who looked sexy without even trying. Who could turn him on while sitting in a chair, watching a wolf documentary on TV. Ray licked his lips, a lascivious thought running through his mind. Yeah. We've never done it there yet. Might be fun. With Ben's crazed attack the other day fresh in the back of his mind, he couldn't resist. Humming, he went down the hall to his bathroom, took out a few things and slipped them in his pocket, then went back to his living room.

As Fraser sat staring avidly at the screen, Ray climbed into his lap. Put his arms around him and planted a kiss on his cheek. "Hey, Mountie man," he said, smiling. He even gave a suggestive little wriggle.

Oblivious to the overture, Ben peered over his shoulder at the TV. "Ray, did you know that wolf packs in the wild are distinct social entities?"

"Mmm. Ya don't say," Ray murmured. He was far more interested in the fascinatingly smooth texture of his lover's skin. He took a long, lazy lick of the nearest tendon in Ben's neck, tasting him. Ben shifted under him instinctively, and Ray grinned to himself. This'll be fun. Ben wasn't the only one who could pull off a sneak attack. It was fast becoming his favorite game, distracting Ben with sex when he was trying to concentrate on something else. So far, he'd managed to catch him while he was brushing his teeth, putting on his uniform before work, and even reading the latest issue of "The RCMP Quarterly." Gave myself extra points for that one, cuz to him, that magazine's kinda sacred. Like the Bible or somethin'. Turnin' him on in the middle of a nature documentary will be a first, though. Haveta figure out how many points that'll be worth.

"But you see, what that means is -- oh!" Ben gasped suddenly, as Ray licked down his neck to the hollow of his throat. He set to work on it with tongue and teeth, and reached down to rub Ben's cock through his jeans at the same time.

Ben shifted again, as something perilously close to a whimper escaped him. "You're not really interested in -- this documentary," he said breathlessly. "Are you, Ray?"

"Nope. But don't lemme stop ya," he grinned, totally unrepentant. He came up for air just long enough to note Ben's flushed cheeks and rapid breathing. He was still trying to stick with the TV show, but it was pretty obvious that was bound to fail. Because he'd made no effort to dislodge him, and he could feel his cock hardening as he rubbed it through the heavy denim. So he rubbed a little harder.

"Mmm. Ray!"

It was half protest, half a sigh of delight. Ray ignored the protest part, because he already knew Ben didn't object to being distracted like this. Not really. His mouth's sayin' no, but his dick's sayin' yes! He smiled as he unsnapped the button on Ben's jeans and pulled the zipper down. One of the things he loved about Ben was that, for such a seemingly straight-laced guy, in private, the Mountie was amazingly sensual. He never, but never, said no to sex -- or to touching of any kind. If he was too tired to do more than just hold him, Ben would do that; but if he wanted to fuck him senseless, Ben would let him do that, too. Over and over. Whenever, wherever, or however Ray wanted him, seemed to be okay with Ben. He never pushed him away, or said that he was too tired.

I am soooo lucky... A sense of awe stole over Ray as he thought about it. But then it hit him -- he wanted Ben all the time. Never got enough. So they had sex a lot. But was that really what Ben wanted too, or was he taking advantage? Was Ben just being polite, just being kind, and giving in because he loved him? He knew he was capable of that, and the idea dismayed him.

Me an' my stupid sex game. How come I never thought o' that before? That he might not wanna play? I just assumed he wants me as much as I want him. Then he remembered how, a few days ago, he'd jokingly told Ben that if he went to smooth things out with Vecchio, he wanted something in return. He'd asked Ben to let him have sex whenever he wanted. Well, he'd patched things up with Vecchio, all right. Thanks to him, he was going to see a shrink, and they were both going to his wedding. So did Ben feel like he had to pay him back for it now, by putting out on demand?

Shoulda thought o' that before, ya moron! he chastised himself. I was only jokin', but knowin' Ben, he probly took it as a solemn vow. A matter of honor or somethin'. He jerked his hands away from the Mountie as abruptly if he'd been burned. "We don't haveta do this, ya know," he blurted, ashamed of his own selfishness.

Ben blinked at him in mild surprise. "I know. But I thought you wanted to."

Ray stiffened, thinking his suspicions had just been confirmed. "It ain't just what I want!" he protested. "Whadda you want? D'you wanna do this?"

Ben frowned in obvious confusion. "Of course. Shouldn't I?"

Ray rolled his eyes. "Yeah. I mean, no! I mean -- the thing of it is -- ya don't have to, just for me. If ya don't wanna have sex, you can tell me. Anytime. Ya know that, right?"

Ben's frown disappeared, smoothed into a tender smile. He reached out and stroked his face. "Yes, Ray," he said softly. "It's just that -- well, I always want to, with you."

It took Kowalski's breath away. He leaned forward and kissed Ben softly. "What'm I gonna do with you?" he whispered, laying his head on Ben's shoulder, his voice thick with emotion.

Ben stroked his hair. "Well, we could watch this documentary--"

Ray lifted his head again, to search his lover's crystal blue eyes. They were crinkled at the corners with barely suppressed laughter.

"Or, you could continue what you were doing," Ben suggested.

Ray grinned. "I'll take door number two."


"Old TV game show," he muttered. "Tell ya later."


Ray stood up for a second, so he could pull Ben's jeans and boxer shorts down and free his cock. He noted gratefully that it was already swelling, which banished the last of his doubts about Ben's desire for him. The Mountie wasn't just humoring him, he wanted it too. "Jeez. Never knew documentaries could be such a turn-on," he grinned.

"Well, not all documentaries are, Ray," Ben answered. "But this one's very interesting. For instance, did you know that wolves mate for life?"

"Unh uh." Ray shook his head as he sat back down in his lap. But he didn't miss the significance of the question, either. In the last year, he'd gotten good at Fraser-speak. Despite the fact that he talked more than anyone else Ray had ever known, Fraser wasn't always direct, like him. He didn't always come right out and say things. Especially emotional stuff. He used subtext. Hints and allusions. So sometimes you had to really pay attention, if you wanted to understand him. And something in his face told Ray this was one of those times. This was about more than just what Fraser had been watching on TV. Ben was hinting at something important.

Forgetting about sex for a second, Ray looked intently at him. Wolves mate for life. Hmm. Is he sayin' what I think he's sayin'?

Ben certainly wasn't teasing anymore. His gaze was steady, even searching. Like he was looking for an answer to some unspoken question that had nothing to do with wolves.

Oh, yeah. That's what he's sayin'. A deep thrill ran through Ray, cuz he knew what Ben was really asking; and what his answer was. "Wolves aren't the only ones who can do dat, ya know," he said softly, leaning forward. "Cops can, too." Just in case his words weren't enough, he took Ben's face in his hands and kissed him again. Harder this time, going deep with his tongue. Claiming him, once and for all.

Ben moaned, a deep, delighted moan, and kissed him back just as hard. Put his arms around him tightly and claimed him in return.

Ray could hardly believe it: that Ben would commit to him like this, when they hadn't even been back together very long. That Ben wanted to be his, permanently. Sure, they'd both promised that they wouldn't leave, but he hadn't thought that far ahead. Hadn't really dared to hope that Fraser would want to spend his whole life with him. After losing Stella, he'd learned to live for the moment, not to count on tomorrows. So he'd been taking this a day at a time. Hadn't even dreamed that the Mountie could love him that much. But now he knew. He knew, down to the marrow of his bones. Cuz that was what Fraser's hints, allusions and kisses had just said. Ben had just said "forever" to him.

And Mounties don't lie.

When the kiss ended, Ben smiled up at him tenderly, his eyes shining. It hit Ray, how perfect the moment was; how perfectly they'd understood each other. It was like when they used to work cases together, when they clicked and they could read each other's minds, no words needed. It was like that -- only better. Being Ben's lover was awesome.

Filled with enormous tenderness, Ray traced Ben's smile with his finger. This had started out as fun, a whim, just one more match in his "Get the Mountie" sex game. But Ben's question had turned it into something more. Suddenly, he wanted nothing but to make slow, sweet love to him. To focus body and soul on pleasing him, the way Ben often did for him. "Sit back," he murmured. "Lemme do everything. Lemme make ya feel good..."

"Okay." Ben settled back in the chair with a happy sigh.

Ray loved it when Ben did this, when he put himself completely in his hands when they had sex, and trusted that he'd take good care of him. It'd taken him a long time to win such deep, unquestioning trust from his Mountie, and he relished it. Never took it for granted. He pulled Ben's shirt off slowly, kissing every inch of skin that he bared as he went. Undressing Fraser was the best --like unwrapping a present, only better. He loved the sweet anticipation that always built in him as he revealed his warm, muscular expanse of chest, his arms and flat abdomen. His body was like his own bit of Canada, his favorite piece of geography. Mountie Land. He never got tired of going there.

So goddamn beautiful, he thought, smiling. He pulled Ben's hips forward a little, reclining him a bit in the chair, then bent his head to kiss his nipples. He already knew how sensitive they were, and how much Ben liked having them sucked. So he lingered over them, kissing and licking and sucking them softly, endlessly, long after they'd stiffened under his tongue. For a long, dreamy time, he kept at it, until they were reddened, wet and swollen from his lips, tongue and teeth -- and oh, so hard.

"Huh -- Ray!" All at once, Ben drew in a sharp, hissing breath and shivered in his arms, as if the pleasure had become nearly unbearable.

Looking down, Ray saw that Ben's cock was erect, and leaking little drops of pre-cum. Better slow down, he told himself. Not that it wasn't thrilling that he'd been able to do that, that he'd almost made Ben come just by sucking his nipples...

But he was just getting started.

Ben sat in Ray's chair, half naked, his shirt off and his jeans and underwear pulled down to his knees. But he wasn't cold. Ray was with him, radiating heat and desire, warming his body and his heart as well. "Lemme do everything," he'd whispered, in that low, husky voice he used only in private moments. That voice that never failed to send anticipatory shivers up Ben's spine. He was shivering now, as Ray started to do it. The everything he'd promised: running his hands through his hair, kissing his mouth, his neck, his chest.

"Mm, mmm," Ray murmured, working his way slowly downward. Ben closed his eyes to feel it: the wonderful, warm softness of his lover's skilled mouth as it worked its magic on his body. When Ray settled himself more comfortably on his thighs and started sucking his nipples, Ben drew a long, shaky breath of excitement. They were very sensitive, and he loved it when Ray focused on them. Ray moved his head back and forth, his beard stubble a rough, delightful friction across Fraser's chest as tongue, lips and teeth caressed first one, then the other with a slow, dreamy tenderness.

It felt wonderful. Fraser laid back in the chair with a sigh of delight, as his cock hardened rapidly. Dear God. Oh, yes. Yessssss... This was Pleasure, with a capital P. Sweet, heady, luxuriant. He felt dangerously close to a pampered pet, or even a slave in some exotic male harem. He always felt like that, petted, licentious and spoiled, when Ray approached him in the midst of some mundane, everyday activity with that hot, hungry look in his eyes. Kowalski fairly sparkled at such moments, a wicked sort of sparkle that both amused and amazed Ben. As if seducing him were a challenge -- sex something he had to be coaxed into. The truth was, sex with Ray was something he needed to be talked out of, not the reverse. He loved it, craved it so much that he was forced to remind himself, sternly and on a daily basis, that he could not indulge in it at every hour of the day and night. After all, energetic though Ray Kowalski was, at times, even he needed to sleep. Besides, what would Ray think of him if he knew how insatiable he truly was? Just how deep, how fathomless his appetite was for him?

He was surprised that Ray hadn't figured it out, after the way he'd almost gone crazy, the day he'd rescued Serena and Vecchio. Almost losing him had torn his usual self control to shreds. But though Ray had evidently enjoyed it, and deduced that it was related to the danger he'd been in at the Vecchio house, he hadn't seemed to draw that particular inference from it: that Ben's desire for him was immense, and constant, and that his brush with death had only intensified what was already there. What was always there.

Ben supposed he shouldn't really be surprised. Kowalski liked to think of himself as the original Wild One. The impulsive, spontaneous, uncontrolled half of their partnership. Perhaps it even soothed him to think so. To believe that he, Benton Fraser, could always be relied on to be stable. Predictable.

But he wasn't. That was only half of him. The controlled half, the conscious half. The other half of him was wilderness. Primal, raw, untamed. It was in his blood. He'd been born to the freezing and cracking of pack ice, to a land harsher than any Ray had ever known; and it was in him still. The wildness. It had come out that day that Ray had almost died, forced out by extreme pressure, like a vent from the side of the glacier that was his normal, controlled, public self.

It had felt good, that venting. That wildness. Oh, yes. Amazingly so. As natural as the delicious sound of ice crunching under his boots, on a fresh spring morning.

But if that unexpected, yet delightful venting hadn't given him away, then perhaps it was better to let Ray retain that bit of selective blindness about his character. Perhaps he should never tell him the truth, never set him straight about the feral side of his nature. Not just because doing so would reveal the embarrassing depths of his own carnality, or destroy the security that the idea of his stability gave Ray, but also because it would spoil Ray's little game. Ray took such pleasure in his own impulsiveness, such boyish, mischievous delight in seducing him at odd moments, that he wouldn't dream of ruining it by telling him how much he enjoyed his ambushes. So he sometimes pretended to protest a little, sensing that Ray loved seducing him.

But not half as much, Ben was convinced, as he loved being seduced. Being taken, in every way Ray could imagine. He never got enough of it, and he loved everything Ray did to him, whether it was quick and passionate, or slow and tender. Tonight, Ray was gentle. His mouth was soft, feather light, sweet and unhurried, his caresses so endless that Ben began to feel as if he were dreaming. Floating, in a warm sea of erotic pleasure. Since Ray had asked him to, he let Ray do as he would with him. If Ray wanted to kiss, suck and nibble at his nipples all night, he would let him. He would let Ray do anything...

Well, let wasn't exactly the right word for it. It implied passivity, and he didn't exactly feel passive. He was encouraging Ray in every way he knew how. Offering Ray his body, voicing his sighs and moans of delight, and caressing Ray as he took it. Trying to give him pleasure, as well as take it.

This, this giving and taking of pleasure, this openness, this touching and kissing and moaning... Dear God, how he loved it. How he needed it. At last, the solitary child and man he had been was left behind. Made a mere memory, every time Ray's lovely, slender hands reached for him, played over him.

It still amazed him, deep down inside, how much Ray wanted him; how much pleasure his body gave him. It made him feel better about himself than just about anything in his life ever had. Ray's honest, boundless delight in him made him feel more desirable than all the hungry female glances he'd ever received. Grateful, he moved his own hands over Ray gently, up under his shirt and over the arch of his back, his amazingly supple spine, as the warm, sensuous rasp and slide of Kowalski's loving tongue roused his nipples to hard, flushed points of sensation.

Ray was smiling. Smiling in the same tender, dreamy way he was caressing him. Lifting his head, he blew onto his left nipple, a delicious warm breath that made Fraser shiver.

"Mmm. Love this, Ben," Kowalski whispered. "I love you..."

At those words, Ben felt his heart turn over, and his cock throb. Those words had the power to turn him inside out. Those words always turned their bed, or the wall, or the kitchen, or wherever they were making love, into the center of existence. The one fixed point on Fraser's compass, the cardinal point from which all else radiated. Around which everything -- the city, the nation, the earth, the universe itself -- revolved.

Those words gave him life, like nothing else ever had. Ever could.

And before he could recover from hearing them spoken in that husky voice, Ray took his achingly sensitized nipple between his teeth and bit it lightly. Just hard enough to send another, even sharper thrill of pleasure shooting through him. Fraser arched his back and gasped, his arousal suddenly so intense that it was almost painful.

"Ray!" he breathed. It wasn't a protest, but a plea to go on. Not to stop. Because nothing -- nothing in the world felt as good as this...

Ray took a deep breath. He and Ben were learning better control now -- they didn't usually come as fast as they had when they'd first started having sex. Still, after all the kissing and nipple sucking he'd just done, Ben was powerfully aroused. So close to the brink that if he didn't stop, the party would be over way too soon. And he was getting there himself. He didn't dare touch Ben's cock, so he lifted his head and kissed him again instead. Gently, lightly, until he felt his racing heartbeat slow a little.

"Ray, please..." Ben murmured hoarsely. He tugged at Ray's shirt, tried to pull it up over his head, in a mild protest at the slowdown. Ray let him pull it off, but when his hands moved lower, reaching for his zipper, he batted them away gently. "Unh uh." This was for Ben, just for him, and he wanted it to go on and on. He didn't want any distractions from the deep, warm, glowing sensation of turning him on slowly. He knew this long, drawn out build-up would make his lover's eventual climax that much more intense, and he wanted that for him, too.

"Shh," Ray whispered softly against his mouth. "Easy. I'm gonna take care o' you, I promise. Just let it happen..." He kept kissing him, and caressing his shoulders lightly, avoiding his achingly sensitized nipples for the moment. After a few seconds, Fraser relaxed. Some of the tension ebbed from his taut body, and his breath came easier. Ray rewarded him with a deep, slow, searching kiss. Ben moaned softly and went pliant underneath him again, giving in. When he slid his hands up Ray's back again, they were gentle. Not urgent anymore, but accepting. Going with the flow.

"That's it, " Ray murmured, pleased.

He lingered awhile longer, kissing Ben's mouth, gently stroking his chest, and the muscles in his abdomen. He dipped a finger into his navel once or twice, too, just to feel him shiver. His own desire was growing, and he felt Ben's building too. Damn, but it was the sweetest kind of torture, holding back like this! Waiting and wanting, kissing and sucking and wanting even more. But when he heard Ben groan again, he looked down and saw that his cock had gotten even harder. Flushed, rock hard and beautiful, it strained against his belly. Suddenly, Ray's mouth watered for it. Pleasurable though it was, he knew he couldn't keep them hanging on the edge like this forever. He wanted to taste that hard, hot stiffness, wanted to suck it before one, or both of them, lost control. Time to take care o' that. He started to slip off his lap, but Ben clutched at him. Stopped him.

"No, please, Ray!" he said huskily. "I want--"

He hesitated, and Ray knew he was too shy to say it. Amazing. They'd already had each other in just about every way he could think of, and a few more that the Mountie had dreamed up. But when it came to saying it, you'd think he'd been raised by nuns. So okay, I'll make it easy for him. He leaned forward and kissed his ear. "Whaddaya want?" he whispered, teasing him with his tongue. "Anything. Just tell me, an' I'll do it, Benny Ben."

As he slid his tongue deeper into Ben's ear, the Mountie quivered, his eyes half closing. "I want to be inside you," he said hoarsely, when he got his breath back.

Those words shot a thrill through Ray, right from his head to his cock. Cool! This was what he'd wanted, for Ben to tell him what he wanted. Ray knew it still wasn't easy for him; but it felt good. It felt great that Ben trusted him enough to say how he wanted to do it, and that he'd get him there. Get him off, any way he wanted. Having Ben put himself entirely in his hands was the headiest aphrodisiac Ray had ever known.

Ray stared at him, marveling for the thousandth time at his beauty. Ben's hair was tousled, his eyes were wide and bright, and his breathing was ragged. His dark head stood out vividly against the light fabric of the chair, like some exotic, sexy flower. His nipples were flushed and wet, and his cock stood up hard against his belly. And when his tongue slipped out over his lower lip, darting with erotic anticipation, Ray was lost. He'd never, ever seen anything so beautiful as Ben, aroused and wanting him.

"Okay," he said eagerly. "You got it." He tugged Fraser's boxer shorts, jeans and boots all the way off, and dropped them on the floor. Then, remembering belatedly that this was what he'd originally intended, he dug a condom out of his pocket. Ben watched him so avidly that Ray couldn't stay away from him. As he tore the little silver packet open, drawn like a magnet, he bent over briefly to draw a hardened nipple into his mouth and suck on it again, wringing another low moan from Ben. Then he started slipping the condom on him. Some lube from the tube in his pocket followed. Then he pulled off his own jeans, and climbed back onto the chair so that he was straddling Ben's legs. He started to ease himself down onto his hardened cock slowly, ever so slowly, kissing and sucking at his neck as he did.

"Ohhhh," Ben whispered, his eyes fluttering shut, his hands flexing and gripping Ray's arms in little spurts of pleasure.

Ray smiled, enchanted with the sight, with his ability to please him. It made his pain insignificant. Ben was so big, and his ass was so skinny, that taking him always hurt a bit at first, lube or no lube. But he didn't care. He ignored the slight burning as he sank down on the head of Ben's cock, felt it stretch him out wide. By now it was a warm, familiar pain. Besides, it never lasted long, and he would've willingly borne a lot more than that, for the privilege of making love to Ben.

"All... right?" Ben breathed, opening his eyes a little to check on him.

"Hell yeah," Ray smiled. This was right as sunlight in the morning. He was never more all right than this. Never happier, never more alive. Ben and him were meant to be. Maybe they'd been lone wolves before, but not anymore. They were mated now, for life. Forever... He sank down, taking Ben deeper inside of him. Glorying in the pleasure he could see on his face.

Ben's eyes closed, and his head lolled back on his shoulders. "Oh, God," he whispered, inhaling sharply as Ray settled down onto his thighs. Taking him fully. "Yes..." His fingers dug into Ray's back.

Ray looked down at him: his rapt face, the way he was lost in him, lost in the moment, and it moved him. Ben never looked that way for anybody else, never opened himself up like this for anyone but him. His vulnerability made Ray feel even more loving. More protective. Wanting to say I love you with his mouth, he lowered his head and whispered, "Kiss me," against Ben's lips. When he did, Ray lingered over the kiss for a minute, stoking his fire, feeling it smolder. He meant to make it burn hotter, but not yet. Not just yet...

Lacing his arms around Ben's neck, he started to move. Kissing him languorously, he swayed up and down, taking his time. Going slow. Ben had shown remarkable control so far, but he was so hard already that he knew he still better take it easy, or he'd come. So Ray took it very, very easy. This long, slow fuck was so sweet that he wanted to draw it out even further. Try to make it last forever. Luckily, the initial pain of his own penetration had softened him a bit, which helped.

Ben picked up on his mood, matched his tempo. Held him lightly, and thrust gently upward to meet him. Not hurrying. Not pushing. Good, Ray thought. He's likin' this too.

Ray felt tender, as well as lustful. Ben's scent, the warmth of his big body, the gentleness of his hands as they rocked together, the delicious sense of pulsing pleasure into him with every surge of his hips, was all he wanted. He felt warm, liquid, like he was melting around the growing hardness of Ben's cock... It was so perfect, he felt like purring. It's like dancin'. Slow dancin'. Yeah. As he moved up and down on Ben's thighs, he thought, God, this is good! This is so, so good...

They were so close -- that was the best of it. Not just their bodies, but inside, too. Sometimes, when they were together like this, sex was far more than just physical sensation to Ray. It was like being with Ben took him into another realm of existence, where everything felt stronger. Richer. Deeper. Touching Ben turned flesh to poetry, the slide of skin against skin into music that sang in his blood.

Ray could've stayed like that forever: lost in that warm, perfect rhythm, dancing up and down on Ben's cock, in his arms. But after a time, Ben's hands tightened on his hips. His cock started throbbing inside of him. His moans grew deeper, more urgent. He broke their kiss and opened his eyes. They were wild now, and dark with need.

"Please, Ray!" he groaned, biting his lip.

Ray flashed back to his stay in the hospital. He remembered how much he'd wanted to make Ben cry out like this back then. How badly, how hopelessly he'd wanted him. How helpless he'd felt, too weak to even kiss him. But now here he was, fucking him. Ben's cock was deep inside him, Ben's hands were on his hips, and Ben was begging him for more... Past deprivation made the present that much more amazing. Incredible. Ben's plea, the starkness of his need, swept his gentle lassitude away. Replaced it with a sudden, white-hot surge of lust."Now," he growled. Bending his head, he licked the sweat off of Ben's shoulder, sucked it, then bit it lightly. Ben groaned, loud and sharp, shuddering under him. That uncontrolled response almost sent Ray over the edge.

He froze for a second, held himself still as his cock pulsed powerfully. Not yet, not yet... He was so hard now that he ached. But he ignored it. All his strength, all his energy, all his lust was focused on Ben. On making him come. He raised his head again and moved faster, came down on him harder.In between harsh pants, Ben groaned his name, almost writhing in the chair. As their thighs slapped together, the chair creaked, and started to teeter dangerously.

"Yeah, oh yeah," Ray moaned. "Feel it? Unh, unh, unh." He sure as hell did: Ben's hot cock inside him, stabbing into him hard with each downward slide. "Feel me?" Bracing his arms on the back of the chair so they wouldn't tip over, he moved faster, squeezing Ben with his inner muscles. Making him moan. Kissing him, biting at his neck. Soon, Ben's head was tossing on the back of the chair, and he was crying out. Biting his full lips. Gasping for air. The sight of that was so erotic that Ray rode him even harder. Ben's cock was throbbing wildly inside him now. The pressure was building, soaring. His cock pulsed, his balls strained upward, and his head felt like it was going to explode, any second now. His whole body ached for release. But he wouldn't let himself have it. Couldn't go there, not without Ben. Hold on! he told himself desperately. Wait--

Gasping for breath, he slammed downward again, forced Ben's cock so deep inside him that he started to see stars. He couldn't hold back much longer--

Ben put both hands on his shoulders and pulled him down hard all at once. Held him there, sealed to the taut, straining muscles of his thighs. Impaled on his big, hard, beautiful cock. Oh, God. Ecstasy. Beyond words, beyond thought...

Lost somewhere in a bright, hot whiteness, Ray threw back his head and cried out. Everything else faded away. There was only his heart, beating so hard it threatened to burst his chest. There was only Ben's cock, throbbing violently inside him. He shuddered around it, and Ben exploded. When he felt that, Ray finally let himself go. They both came almost at the same instant, groaning, almost sobbing with the intensity of their release.Ray collapsed onto Ben's chest.

After that, for a time, the only sound was deep, gasping breaths. The only feeling was thundering hearts, and madly pulsing blood. They lay limp in the chair as the last shivering thrills and lingering throes of ecstasy moved through them.When he could breathe again, Ben gasped, "I... felt you, Ray." Sweaty, sated, and too wrung out to lift his head off Ben's shoulder, Ray smiled. "You too, lover," he panted. Because in that final moment, in that burning, shining place where only the best sex ever took him, Ben had been right there with him."Felt you too."

Ben cradled Ray on his lap. He'd slipped out of him, but neither one of them wanted to leave the other's embrace yet. Ray's breathless head lay on his shoulder, and he stroked his sweat-slicked hair as he tried to get his own breathing under control. Every time we do this, I think that it can't get any better. Yet it always does. He hadn't known it was possible to feel so close, so blissfully, completely connected to another person, body and soul, as he did when making love to Ray. This -- this had been so prolonged, so intense, that he'd wondered if the ecstasy would kill him. I wouldn't have cared if it had. I'd be happy to die like that. Inside of him, with him loving me...

Because that's what it had been. Ray had done that to him, for him, out of love. He knew it. Ray had dedicated himself to his pleasure and ignored his own. He'd maintained control and kept him from losing his for longer than he'd thought was possible, while simultaneously arousing him to a height he'd never experienced before. When he'd said that he'd felt Ray, the words had been inadequate. He hadn't just felt his lithe body, he'd felt his generous heart, his warm, electric soul; had, for a precious time, become one with him.

He felt overwhelmed. Blessed. As if he'd somehow been forgiven for the worst mistakes he'd ever made.

Ray had given him all that. As he held him, he was filled with a keen desire to give him something in return. Thinking of his past mistakes, he was reminded of something he wanted to tell him. About who he really was. About the heartaches that had marked him, as indelibly as the tattoo on Ray's tricep. Perhaps now, when Ray was still so close to him, both in body and spirit, would be the right time. He took a deep breath, and touched his blond head with tender hands. "I want -- I want to tell you something, Ray," he said softly.

With his usual perceptiveness, Ray shook his head. Snuggling his cheek deeper into Ben's shoulder, he murmured, "Mm. Sounds bad, Frayzh. Save it, okay?" His voice was lazy and contented, his eyes were closed, and a small, contented smile played about his lips. He stroked his shoulder gently. "Don't tell me now, when everythin's fine. Perfect. No bad news allowed now. Tell me later..."

Ben flushed with shame. He felt stupid. Selfish and insensitive. Though he was trying his best, he was still hopeless at this business of love. Ray was right -- he hadn't chosen his moment at all well. Ray had just done something wonderful for him, something incredible, and what had he offered him in return? The details of his sordid past. Had he really thought that was some kind of prize? It wasn't even an equal exchange! Something dark and dreadful, in return for Ray's amazing gift of sexual ecstasy. Now that he thought about it, it seemed not only inappropriate, but rather insulting. When will I ever learn?, he wondered, chagrined. "Understood," he said quietly.

Then he fell silent.

Ray opened his eyes and looked up at him swiftly. "Ya sure?"

"Yes. It -- was stupid of me," he said stiffly.

Ray looked taken aback. Like he was afraid he'd somehow hurt him. "What was?"

Fraser shifted uneasily in the chair. This wasn't Ray's fault at all, it was his. He didn't want him to feel guilty, so he supposed he'd have to tell him the truth. "Wanting to tell you about her at such a moment. About Victoria," he said at last. He looked away, unable to meet Ray's eyes.

"Oh, jeez." Ray took hold of his chin, turned his face back towards him so that he was forced to look at him. "No it wasn't," he said gently. "Didn't know ya meant her, or I wouldn'ta said that. I'm sorry."

"No, you were right. I--"

"Do it," Ray said, so simply and firmly that Ben stopped protesting. He laid his hand on Ben's chest. Splayed his long, elegant fingers out over his heart and rubbed gently, as if he were trying to ease the wounds she'd left in it. "Tell me all about her. Go on. I want ya to."

Fraser's heart turned over. Just like that, Ray had changed his mind. Given him permission to confess the worst of his sins, the blackest things he'd ever done, in the midst of a tender moment. "All right," he said finally. "But it--" It choked him up, as it always did. So much pain, so much loss, so much betrayal. It hadn't been nearly so hard telling Ray of Yves Sennier and Innusiq, because he hadn't made such dreadful mistakes with them, or done such heinous things. He hadn't violated all his principles until after he'd lost them, and more or less given up all hope. All hope of loving men, anyway. He sometimes thought the loss of his first two loves might've been what made him cling so insanely to her. Isanity was a word that often came to mind when he thought of her, of his actions while under her influence. It was dreadfully hard to speak of, even now. "It's very bad, Ray," he grated at last.

To his astonishment, Ray leaned over and kissed him. Laid his forehead against his. "Dat's what I'm here for, Benny Ben," he said softly. "So it won't hurt so bad." Then he laid his head back down on his shoulder, curled his arms around him comfortingly, and waited.

For a moment, Ben couldn't speak. He could feel Ray's heart beating against him, steady and true. Feel the warmth of his arms wrapped around him, and the understanding in his silence. He remembered how Ray had intuited just what he'd meant, earlier, when he'd told him that wolves mate for life. How his blue eyes had shone when he'd said, "Cops can too, ya know." For the first time, he allowed himself to think what that might mean: that Ray would still be here, even after he'd told him about Victoria -- and himself. That Ray really did love him, flaws and all. After all, he'd listened to his stories about Innusiq and Yves without flinching, without turning away or becoming jealous. So perhaps it was possible that even hearing about Victoria, about the worst episode of his life, wouldn't drive him away.

So if there were tears in Fraser's eyes, it wasn't from sadness. It was because he'd never thought anyone would, that anyone ever could, love him that much.

Ray had promised to stay with him forever. Given him not just his love, but his future, too. It was time, and more than time, to give Ray his past. Sins and all. So that there would be no more secrets, no more shadows between them, now and forever.

The new Benton Fraser -- Ray Kowalski's Ben -- could do that. He needed to.

Ben cleared his throat and began hoarsely, "Years ago, there was a bank robbery in Alaska..."

Before he said much about Victoria Metcalf, Ben went into Mr. Clean mode. Stopped talking, shifted Ray off his lap, disposed of the condom, got a towel, and wiped them both off. Then he'd pulled his underwear and jeans back on. His shirt, too. Ray doubted he even realized the significance of all that, but it gave him a bad feeling. Ordinarily, he would've thought it was just Ben being his usual neat freak self, but not this time. He hadn't acted like this when he'd told him about his past before, about that Sennier guy and his boyhood pal, Innusiq. Them, he'd just felt sweet and sad about.

This Metcalf chick, she's different. In a bad way.

Even if Ben hadn't told him, he'd've known that. Body language had always been his thing, and Ben's every move right now practically screamed shame and guilt to him. He wasn't embarrassed about sittin' here naked with me, until her name came up. Then, whammo! He has to get clean and cover himself up, before he can even start talkin' about her. He didn't think it was a coincidence. Ben had always worn his uniform like a suit of armor. At the moment, he was making do with jeans and a T-shirt, but Ray felt the need was the same: self defense. And Victoria isn't even here. He fought down a surge of anger. What the hell did that bitch do to him?

Having read Vecchio's file and asked Jack Huey a few follow-up questions, when he'd first joined the 27th he knew the bare bones of the mess already. He'd learned that this Metcalf chick, someone Ben had arrested years before, had come to Chicago after she got out of prison. That Ben, who'd been carrying a torch for her all those years, had begun an affair with her about ten seconds after she showed up. But she'd had other plans; and after she'd gotten Diefenbaker shot and him and Vecchio framed, she'd tried to skip town. Vecchio had ended up shooting Ben accidentally, while trying to catch her. She'd escaped, and was still at large. Ben had come within a hair of dying.

That much he already knew; and that was bad enough. But the details that Fraser filled in for him turned him cold.

"I loved her," he said quietly, "with all my heart. She was the first woman -- the only woman -- I ever loved." Ray didn't even need to hear the words, to know it was true. He could see it on Ben's face. "But I betrayed her, in the name of duty. I caught her, but no one knew, so I could've let her go. But out of a sense of duty, I turned her in. She was convicted, and went to prison for eight years. When she was realeased, she came to see me and -- we resumed our earlier relationship. Then she betrayed me, for revenge. I got shot, and almost died; and she left me behind, in order to escape."

It was a rather terse recitation, especially for Ben. But Ray didn't need to hear any more, to hate her guts. Ben had given his heart to her, his innocence, and in return, she'd framed him, gotten him shot, then left him to die. Fucking witch. It was all he could do not to say it out loud, and the only reason he didn't was because Ben had once loved her.

But that wasn't all of it, or even the worst of it.

"Ray shot me by mistake. He thought he saw a gun in her hand, pointed at me. So he shot at her, but hit me instead. It was an accident. But Victoria's leaving... that was deliberate, and I knew it. I knew that she'd fled without me, without even waiting to see if I'd live or die, because I saw her go. And I wanted to die, Ray," Ben said. All at once, his voice had gotten very quiet, with a note in it that Ray had never heard before. He wasn't sure what it was -- self loathing, maybe? Whatever it was, he didn't like it.

"I willed myself to. When I first woke up in the hospital, and realized that the bullet hadn't killed me, I wanted to take pills. Laid there trying to figure out how many it would take to kill me. But the next time I woke up, Ray was sitting there beside my bed. And he looked so guilty... I realized that taking my own life would be selfish. It would hurt him too much, and he'd already been hurt so badly..." Ben shook his head. "I couldn't do that to him."

But you could've done it to yerself. Would've, if he hadn't been there. Jesus, Ben! Ray felt like he'd been punched in the stomach. He couldn't speak, could hardly even breathe, for the shock of it. Fraser the Strong, Ben the Invincible, the strongest guy he'd ever known, had wanted to kill himself. Had almost done it, over a woman. And not just any woman, but a criminal who'd tried to frame him and his best friend, then left him for dead.

Ben had almost died, by his own hand, before he'd even met him. All because of her.

It shook Ray profoundly. Without Ben, he doubted he'd be alive himself. If he hadn't met him after he lost Stella, if Ben hadn't gifted him with his friendship and eased his loneliness, he might've eventually found some way to do himself in, too. He wasn't sure, but he'd been deeply unhappy. The only time he'd been that unhappy since was when he'd lost Ben, when he was with Rylan -- and he'd almost died then. Looking back on it now, he thought that unconsciously, death was what he'd been looking for. So if he hadn't met Ben so soon after losing Stella, or gotten him back after losing Rylan, who knew what he might've eventually done? He might not have survived, either.

But before he could get over that, or even think what to say about it, Ben went on, "To this day, I'm not sure if she cared for me at all, or if she was just using me the whole time. From the beginning. Using me to survive at Fortitude Pass, hoping that if she gave herself to me afterwards, I wouldn't turn her in." He paused for a second, his voice hoarse. "Then using me to exact revenge for her prison term, when she came to Chicago. I do know that by the time she got here, she hated me. That much, I'm sure of. What I don't know is if she ever loved me. I rather doubt it. I've had a lot of time to think about it since, and given what I know of her character, I'm not sure she was capable of it."

Ray knew he'd been right about Ben's reasons for getting cleaned up, and covered up, before he started talking. But at that moment, he wasn't sure what he'd done was enough. Putting clothes on seemed an inadequate defense against this: this painful, incredible confession that laid Ben's soul out pitilessly for him to examine, like a corpse on one of Mort's stainless steel gurneys. Ray felt both relief and deep anguish, at the same time. Because while Ben's trust moved him, and he sensed this was something Ben needed to do, the shame and pain in his voice were raw. Excruciating. Almost more than he could stand.

He hated knowing how deeply Ben had been wounded. But for the first time, he understood why Ben had kept silent about his feelings for him for so long. That bitch had to be the source of most of the darkness he used to see in Ben's eyes, once he got to know him. That darkness had kept him from reaching out, despite his desperate loneliness. After she got through with him, he must've been scared. Not just of women, but of himself, too. Of what love could make him do. It didn't work out for him with the guys he loved, but at least they didn't try to crucify him for it. But she really did a number on him. He must've been totally terrified to love anyone, after her. That's why he didn't call me or try to patch things up, either, after I left him. Wasn't cuz he didn't want me, like I thought. And it wasn't just cuz I hurt his pride, like he said. He was petrified of makin' the same mistake twice. Of obsessin' about someone again, chasin' after someone who didn't want him. He thought I'd thrown him away, just like she did. How could he have thought anything else?

He'd hardly had time to sort all that through when Ben spoke again. "I almost sold my soul to the devil, for a woman who probably never even loved me," he whispered.

Those words cut into Ray, scared him so that his mouth went dry, and he had to swallow before he could answer. He'd thought he'd heard it all now. But there was obviously something more; and whatever Ben meant by "selling his soul to the devil", it couldn't be good. Ray didn't want to hear it, didn't even want to know about anything else, anything worse, happening to his Mountie. But if this was hard for him, it had to be like crawling over broken glass for Ben. He couldn't bail out on him now. So he forced himself to ask about it. "Whaddaya mean?"

"I was going with her, Ray," Fraser said, his voice heavy with misery. "I knew what she was, and I--" He bit his lip, in an obvious effort at control. "Ray mortgaged his house for me. To get me out of jail, after she framed me. Both of us. But I was going with her anyway. There were stolen diamonds involved, and a great deal of money. We set a trap for her, tried to capture her at the train station, when she picked up the suitcase full of cash. But she got away. Got on a train, and called to me to go with her." Ben paused for a second, staring off into space, into the past. His eyes were bleak. Ray saw a muscle working in his jaw, as if he were grinding his teeth. He had to look away.

"And I went," Ben said at last, his voice unsteady. "I was running after her when Ray shot me."

Oh, fuck! he thought, reeling. That detail hadn't been included in Vecchio's file, or Huey's gossip, either. That Vecchio had gone to the wall for Fraser, and he'd almost turned his back on him, for Victoria Metcalf. For a woman who was a criminal, and who he knew hated him. Holy shit. Ray figured Huey must not know that. He couldn't, or he'd've told him. Vecchio might know, but he and Ben must be the only ones who did.

Ray guessed that Ben had never told anyone else, except maybe his own best friend who'd been there, what he'd just told him. He could only guess at what it had cost him, to do it.

Finally, mercifully, Ben had fallen silent. That was it. He'd told it all now. Every sordid, ugly detail.

Now Ray had to decide how he felt about it. All of it. Everything Ben had told him. Shocked? Yeah. Jealous? Yeah. Hell, yeah. Knowing Ben had tried to kill himself over a hell bitch like that, it just got to him. He couldn't help it. For a second, he wondered what she'd been like in bed. If she'd been able to make Ben moan and cry out, and even scream, like he could. Then he forced the thought away. Doh! She must've been better than okay, or Ben wouldn't've been ready to throw everything away for her. Then again, who knew? Wasn't like Ben had had millions of other lovers to compare her to. He'd only been with one guy, before her. So she might've been selfish as hell in bed, and he probably wouldn't have known the difference.

It didn't matter, anyway. Cuz she'd left him, and he'd found him. And he wasn't stupid enough to make the same mistake she had.

He made himself quit thinking about her, and turned his thoughts back to Ben. It didn't surprise him that under his Mountie's calm exterior beat a very passionate heart. That, he knew better than anyone; and it was one of the reasons he loved him. But even he'd never guessed how far that could drive Ben. What love -- or the lack of it -- could make him do. That was something new. The fact that he'd almost betrayed his best friend for a woman was surprising enough, but Ray felt he could see his way past that one. That maybe he understood that part of it. What really got to him was that despair over losing someone he loved had driven Ben to contemplate suicide. Fuck. That scared him, big time. Made him think.

Ray went over to the couch and sat down. Patted the space beside him. "Come 'mere, Ben," he said quietly.

Ben looked at him with barely hidden fear in his eyes. A kind of wariness that hadn't been there before. Like he thought he was going to judged harshly for his mistakes with Victoria. That he'd be found wanting in some terrible, unforgivable way.

It squeezed Ray's heart, seeing that. "Come 'mere," he insisted.

Ben finally did. He walked over reluctantly, and sat down beside him on the couch. But he faced forward stiffly, not looking at him. Ray sighed to himself. "Hey," he said quietly. "Member what I toldja in the crypt that day?"

Ben frowned a little, still avoiding his eyes. "About Marcus Ellery? Or when you asked me if I thought you were attractive?" He sounded totally confused.

Ray snorted. "No. I mean, the part where I told you I thought my marriage was a fraud, cuz I let Stella think I was a hero during that bank robbery."

"Oh. That. Yes. I remember," Ben said.

But he didn't sound as if he got the connection. He looked like he didn't understand why he'd brought it up. Ray looked at him intently. "What' I'm tryin' to say is, yer not the first guy who ever made a mistake or did somethin' wrong cuz of a woman, Frayzh," he said.

"Ahh," Ben said. But it wasn't a good ahh. More like a 'But that still doesn't make it right, Ray,' kind of ahh.

So he wasn't convinced. Ray pressed on. "Why d'ya think guys do stuff like that?"

Fraser shrugged. "Perhaps men are mentally deficient," he hazarded.

Ray grinned, in spite of himself. That was the first flash of humor, however bleak, that Ben had shown since he'd started talking about Metcalf. Had to be a good sign. "Dat's good, Ben. Good one. But no. It's cuz we all wanna be loved. All of us."

For the first time, he reached out and touched Ben. Rubbed the stiff muscles in his back and shoulders lightly, until some of the tension went out of him. Tried to tell him, with his hands as well as his words, that he understood what had driven him to do what he did. That he'd done similar things, to win Stella. So he wasn't going to judge or condemn him for it.

Ben didn't say anything. He just lowered his head and sighed a little.

That sigh was way too sad, Ray decided. Evidently, what he'd said still wasn't enough. Okay. I can do better, he thought. He drew in a nervous breath, because he knew what he needed to do. He'd known for a long time. Felt it again when he was talking to Vecchio the other day. But suddenly he knew that this was the moment. High noon. He couldn't put it off any longer. He swung his legs up, and stretched them out full length on the couch behind Ben. Then he reached over and caught Ben's arm. "Come 'mere, Mountie boy," he said with a little smile.

Ben eyed him dubiously. "Ray, I don't--"

Ray pulled a little harder. "Come on," he insisted. "Uncle Ray's got somethin' to tell ya."

Ben rolled his eyes, but he gave in. Swung his legs up beside Ray's on the couch, and leaned back. But instead of laying down on Ray's chest when Ray pulled him close, he turned so that he was facing away from him. Up at the ceiling. Ray wasn't sure how he felt about that, but he guessed Ben was still freaked out over his confession, so he didn't question it. Once they were both stretched out full length, he just wrapped his arms around Ben anyway. Ya can run, but ya can't hide. "Comfy?" he asked, only half teasing.

"Yes, Ray. Are you?" Ben lay on his back on top of him, with his head on his shoulder, staring up at the ceiling, with Ray's arms crossed over his breast.

"Yeah. I'm good." He was better than good, he was loving it. Despite the fact that Ben's face was turned away from him, he still loved holding him like this. He'd wanted to have Ben in his arms because he had a confession of his own to make next, but it wasn't just that. He just got off on having Ben on top of him. He loved his warmth and the heavy, muscular feel of his big body. The solidity of his weight. It was totally different from embracing Stella. With her, he'd felt like the heavyweight, like he was protecting her. Holding Ben was the reverse of that. Though they were almost the same height, Ben's larger bulk made him feel smaller. Safe. Protected by his lover.

He'd never felt that way with anyone before, but he couldn't get enough of it now. So once Ben was settled comfortably on top of him, he cleared his throat and thought about what he wanted to say. "Okay. First, I think yer bein' a bit hard on yerself, about that Metcalf b-- I mean, about Victoria," he amended hastily. "Way I see it, it was yer job to catch her, and ya did. Then it was yer job to bring her in, and ya did. Ya had no way to know if she was tellin' the truth about not bein' involved in the robbery, so what else could ya do? Know it had to hurt, but ya were doin' what ya thought was right."

Ben shook his head. "But I loved her, Ray," he protested. "And she spent eight years in prison, because of me."

Ray touched his hair gently, trying to conceal his own impatience with Ben's continuing tendency towards self blame. "I hear ya. But was that really cuz o' you, or cuz she committed a crime?" He didn't give Ben a chance to answer that, he just kept driving his point home. "Knowin' you, ya probly got her a good lawyer, right?"

Ben nodded reluctantly. "Yes. But--"

"So. Was it yer fault she got convicted? No," Ray said firmly, before Ben could argue. "Ya did yer duty, and ya did what ya could for her, too. Cuz that's who ya are, Ben," he said. "Ya tried to do the right thing, even when it wasn't easy. To not do that, ya'd have to have been some other guy. Not Bob Fraser's son. Ya get what I'm sayin'?"

Ben was quiet for a moment, then he finally, reluctantly said, "Yes. I've thought of it that way sometimes myself. That given my character and upbringing, perhaps my actions were inevitable."

Ray nodded. "Yeah. I think so. So quit blamin' yerself."

Ben heaved a sigh. "Perhaps my actions were inevitable when I first met her." He covered Ray's hand with his. Stroked his fingers for a long, silent moment, thinking it over. "But after that, when she came back..." He shook his head. "I still don't understand that, Ray."

Ben was doing more than voicing his confusion. Ray knew it. He was asking him for an answer. Why he'd done it. Why he'd tried to go away with a woman who he knew was a criminal, betraying his own best friend in the process. Why, the second time he met Victoria Metcalf, he hadn't acted anything at all like Bob Fraser's son. Why that time, he'd done all the wrong things. He couldn't stop blaming himself for it, feeling bad about it, until he understood why the hell he'd done it. That made sense. Better still, Ray thought he knew the answer. But he didn't want to just blurt it out. He needed to be sure Ben really wanted to hear this, cuz his answer might hurt him. "Wanna know what I think?"

Ben nodded.

"Well, this is just my opinion, and I ain't no shrink, but... I think ya didn't get what ya needed, growin' up," he said slowly. Searching for the right words to explain it. "I mean -- I know ya had Innusiq, but he was just yer friend, he wasn't family, and ya ended up losin' him, too. What I'm tryin' to say is, I think there was somethin' missin' for ya, at home. I'm sure yer grandparents fed ya, and put clothes on yer back an' all. And I know they gave ya lots o' books to read. So they kept yer head busy, but... I've never heard ya say that they really loved ya."

He paused, to see what Ben would say. If he'd gotten it right so far.

"Looking back on it," Ben said softly, "I think they did... But at the time, I wasn't sure. Because they didn't know how to show it. They didn't... hug me, or touch me very much, and they always gave me books for my birthday, instead of the toys I wanted. They weren't physically affectionate, the way I've seen other grandparents behave with their grandchildren. The way Innusiq's parents and grandparents were, with him and June. I thought it was..." Ben paused for a second. "Well, I thought it was my fault," he said hoarsely. "My fault that my mother went away, and my Dad, too. That since no one wanted me, there must be something wrong with me. I thought it was why my grandparents didn't really want me, either."

Ray tightened his arms on Ben a little. Oh, yeah. He'd gotten it right. His instincts about Ben's upbringing had been right on the money. But for once, being right didn't feel very good. He hated to think about how rotten Ben's childhood must've been. How a lonely, beautiful, innocent little boy had lost his mother, then been virtually abandoned by his father, too. Turned over to two old people who didn't have much of a clue what to do with him. Judging by what Ben had said, they hadn't meant any harm, but they hadn't given him what he'd needed most: warmth. Hugs. Open affection. All the things that show kids that they're loved and wanted. All the things Ray's own parents had always given him lots of, while he was growing up. He'd taken those things for granted; but Ben had never even had them. He'd just watched from the sidelines when Innusiq's parents and grandparents hugged him, and wondered why his own faimly didn't do that to him. Figured somehow that it was his fault. That's where it all started, he thought. His insecurity, how he doesn't see how beautiful he is, how hard it is for him to say how he feels... All of it. Especially how he blames himself for everything. It's gotta come from that. Thank God that at least he had a friend.

But friendship didn't make up for not getting love elsewhere. Ray knew that. He wished passionately that he could take all that away. Change Ben's childhood for the better. Have him grow up knowing he was loved, being shown what an extraordinary person he was. But that was impossible, even for him. And he also knew that, in a weird way, those wounds were partly what had made Ben into the man he was. Try to undo that, and he wouldn't be Fraser anymore. Still, if he helped him understand what all that had done to him, maybe some of those wounds would close. Maybe he could go from being Walking Wounded Fraser to Happy Fraser. He already looked happier, and far more relaxed, after they made love. Maybe he could make that feeling grow, until it started to replace the sadness in his past.

Happy Ben. Now, that's somethin' to work for. So he chose his next words carefully. He knew Ben would feel uncomfortable if he expressed the pity he felt for him. That wasn't what he wanted, what he needed right now. He was trying to understand his behavior with Victoria. So he confined his reply to that subject. "I think ya screwed up with Victoria cuz yer heart got neglected. I think ya were lonely. I mean, by that time, ya'd lost her Mom, yer Dad in some ways, and Innusiq and Sennier, too. But ya had no one ya could tell, so ya probly hid it, even from yerself. So when ya met her, love hit ya hard. Harder than it does most people. And when ya lost her, then had eight years to miss her and feel guilty and get even lonelier -- I think that's what did ya in. The loneliness. Ya thought she'd make that go away. Maybe ya talked yerself into believin' she was the only one who could. So when she came back, ya grabbed for her with both hands. Cuz ya'd been lonely for so long by then, that it was killin' ya. It hurt so bad, ya just wanted to make it stop. It was more important than anything. Even yer job. Even Vecchio."

Ray stopped for a second. "That's what I think. Course, it's just a guess, ya know. I could be way off base," he added cautiously. Because he'd felt Ben stiffen in his embrace as he spoke, and he wondered what it meant. Maybe he didn't agree with him, or worse, maybe he was angry with his amateur attempt at analyzing him. Granted, that was more Ben's department than his, but he'd felt he had to try, for Ben's sake. He just hoped he hadn't really insulted him in the process.

Suddenly, he felt Ben shaking. Just little tremors, but he tightened his arms around him instinctively. "Ya okay there?" He regretted their position then, because even when he lifted his head, he couldn't see Ben's face. But when Ben felt him move, he went stiff. Rigid in his arms, like he'd tensed every muscle in his body, trying to hold something in. That scared Ray even more. Cursing himself for a fool, he kissed the top of his dark head. "Hey, hey... I'm sorry, Benny Ben. Sorry I said that! Didn't mean to hurt ya."

He tried even harder to get a look at him, craned his neck until it almost hurt, but Ben turned his face away. "No! Don't... please," he grated.

Ray's heart turned over. "Don't what?"

"Don't... I don't want you to--" See me cry. He didn't say it, but he did. That's what he was trying desperately to hold back: tears.

God dammit! Ray's heart sank. Ya hurt him, ya idiot. Hurt him bad! Worse, he'd made Ben turn away from him. Made him feel ashamed. Ben hadn't minded crying in front of him the night they'd first kissed, but he was just about killing himself now, trying to avoid it. Pain lanced through him. He'd thought he'd gotten past this, gotten under Ben's skin to the point where he wouldn't feel he had to hide from him anymore. He'd been trying to show him that he understood his past tragedy, that he didn't think less of him for it. How had it gone so wrong?

He pulled at Ben, trying to turn him over, but the Mountie shook his head again. No. He got even stiffer, and since he was bigger and stronger, Ray couldn't force him to turn over without hurting him. He knew better than to even try. He already wished he'd bitten his tongue off, rather than say the words that had cut his lover up like this. But he also knew they couldn't turn away from it. They had to face their pasts, together, before they could build their future.

"Come on, please! Look at me," he whispered in his ear, making his voice as gentle as he could. "Please!" He had to take those tears away, take away the pain he'd caused. Get past Ben's inner walls again, and reconnect with him. He had to, or he felt like he'd stop breathing. The need was that deep, that intense. "Just wanna kiss ya," he added softly.

It wasn't a lie. He always wanted that.

To his surprise, Ben finally gave in. At least, Ray thought he had. He turned over suddenly, but he wouldn't let it be any more than that. Wouldn't let Ray kiss him, or even look at him. He buried his face in his shoulder instead. He was still shaking, and Ray felt moisture on his T-shirt too, under his cheek. Ben was crying, all right. Since that was all he could get to, Ray kissed the top of his dark head again. "Sorry," he murmured, shaken by the depth of the pain he felt in Ben's still taut body. He'd thought he was helping, but all he'd done was hurt. It sucked. Maybe Ben wasn't ready to hear this yet. Maybe he never would be.

But if he never is, then we won't make it, he thought, terrified by the possibility. Because if Ben never realized that the lessons he'd learned in his screwed-up childhood were wrong, that he was worth something despite his mistakes with that Metcalf bitch, and that he didn't need to feel guilty about every goddamn thing that went wrong with the universe, he'd never be happy. And if he was never really happy, Ray couldn't be either.

He'd thought he'd gotten those ideas through Ben's head already. He'd been saying them until he was blue in the face. But he was starting to realize that Ben wasn't really listening. He wasn't taking it in. He'd say that he was, and maybe he even believed it, but it was becoming clear to Ray that he wasn't. And he couldn't stand to think about living like that -- with a Ben who felt he was worthless -- forever. But he couldn't stand to think of not doing it, either. About having to leave Ben, or Ben leaving him. Because after this, after the love they'd found together, how could either of them be happy alone?

He stroked Ben's dark hair, frustrated and a bit scared. "Shouldn't've tried to play shrink," he muttered. "What do I know? Forget I said it."

"No." Fraser shook his head, and lifted a shaky hand to wipe at his face. "I'm all right."

"Yeah, sure. So all right yer cryin'."

"No. What I mean is... You're right, Ray," Ben whispered. He lifted his head at last, and looked down at Ray with tears running down his cheeks. "I think you're right."

Ray stared at him, stunned. Suddenly, the walls were down with a vengeance.

"I was... so lonely..." He bit his lip, and shook his head. "And I couldn't -- tell -- anyone..." His eyes flooded again, and tears rained down so hard that he could barely talk. "Not... not even R-Ray. I tried to once, but he -- he fell asleep. And after that, I was -- afraid. I thought -- that he -- he would -- laugh," he choked out.

Hell, this was worse than his confession. This was Ben not just wide open, but cut up. Vulnerable. Lost. Ben wasn't just talking about his past now, he was showing him what it had done to him. How he felt about all those betrayals, about everyone he'd lost, and everyone who'd left him. Ray knew that these tears, this storm of emotion, weren't just about Victoria, even if Ben thought they were. His Mom and Dad were in there, grandma and grandpa too, and Innusiq and Yves Sennier. All of them.

He was torn between fear, compassion and elation. He knew talking about this was just about killing Ben, but it was what he'd wanted most, what he'd almost stopped believing was ever gonna happen between them. Ben was letting him into his heart, letting him in deeper than anybody had ever been. Ray swallowed hard, and prayed that he wouldn't screw it up. That he was right about Ben needing this, and that he wouldn't scare Ben back into hiding when he opened his mouth.

"I'm not laughin'," he said softly. "I'll never laugh. Never leave ya, either." He wasn't sure if Ben would permit it, but he couldn't help reaching for him then. Touching his beautiful, tear-stained face. It frightened him a little, how deep Ben's pain went. How much he wanted to ease it. How much he was afraid he'd fail. And what that failure would mean, for both of them. But when Ben didn't shy away from him, he raised his head and kissed his tears away. Smoothed his hair with unsteady hands. "Cuz I love you, ya know that? Love ya so much that none o' that matters. Don't care what ya did for her, I'm just sorry for what she did to you," he whispered against his mouth, with a lump in his own throat. "I'm so sorry! Wish none o' that had ever happened. Wish I'd known ya then, Benny Ben. Wish I could take it all away. Would if I could. I swear."

Ben bit back a sob, and pressed his head down onto his shoulder again. He tensed, then shuddered, as if he were still trying to hold it in.

"Don't," Ray said fiercely. "Let it out! Give it to me. Lemme take it."

Ben made a broken sound. Dug his hands into his shoulder as if he were scrabbling desperately for comfort, for security. For a release, finally, from the pain he'd been carrying for so long.

Ray could feel him wanting to believe he could give that to him. Trying to. "Lemme take it," he repeated hoarsely. "I promise ya, it won't hurt so bad then."

Ben drew in a hitching breath, then he finally let go. Started crying again. Deep, agonizing sobs choked out of him, that shook his whole body. That shook Ray, too. Ben wasn't even trying to hold the flood back anymore. Or maybe he couldn't.

Ray closed his eyes, relieved as the storm of pain washed over him. "That's it. Oh, yeah. It's okay," he whispered, holding on tight. "It's all right now..." He stroked his back and murmured softly as Ben shook and heaved against him. This pain was deep. Bone deep, and ancient. He'd held it inside for so long, letting go of it probably felt like tearing out a piece of himself. But it was a piece that needed to go, a weight that Ray had been longing to take off his shoulders. He hated that Ben had ever hurt so much, so he imagined that with every tear that fell on his shoulder, with every soothing stroke of his hands, he was drawing it out of him. Taking it into himself, dissolving it into the ocean of love inside of him, so that it couldn't hurt him anymore.

He thought of Victoria Metcalf, of how much of this she'd done to him, and the thought was pure, burning rage. Maybe Ben had made a mistake turning her in, maybe not. But at least he'd been trying to do the right thing. To do his duty. To be the kind of Mountie his father was: upright and honorable, even when that hurt like hell. Ray had no doubt that Ben had, as he'd said, loved her with all his heart. He'd been young when he met her, and no doubt hopelessly innocent. So when he gave his heart, Ray believed that he'd given it completely. No holding back. It was how Ben was. But in return, she'd tried to destroy him. She'd left him for dead, with a bullet in his back. Worse yet, like just about everyone else in his life, she'd left him doubting that she'd ever, for one minute, really loved or wanted him.

Love can be dangerous, he thought. So damn dangerous...

But it could be other things, too. Like a best friend who'd mortgaged his house, to get Ben out of jail. Thinking about that made Ray feel a little better. If there was one bright spot in the awful story Ben had told him about the Metcalf bitch, it was Vecchio. His loyalty. Guess that answers my question about who, in Ben's whole life, ever tried to help him when he needed it. Vecchio did. Stuck by him through the whole mess, even mortgaged his house for him. Wow. His opinion of the Italian went up several notches.

He remembered what Vecchio had said to him in the hallway at the 27th: "If you hurt him, I'll kill you." In light of what he now knew about Ben's past with Victoria, Vecchio's scary, nearly insane protectiveness of him made a lot more sense. He suddenly wondered if he'd said something like that to Metcalf, too. Wondered if Vecchio had known Ben was thinking about doing away with himself, and stayed by his bed to prevent it. He knew Vecchio was smart, and he'd seen firsthand how perceptive he could be, so it seemed likely. He wondered, too, if Vecchio had really thought he'd seen a gun in Victoria's hand when he'd shot at her at the train station, or if he'd just been trying to take her out, because of what she'd done to Ben.

Then he shrugged mentally. Doesn't really matter. Cuz if I'd been there instead, I probly would've done the same thing. I'd kill to protect Ben. No question. Kill to protect him, or hold him while he cries; it's all the same to me. Whatever he needs, I'll give.

That had always been true, but it was truer than ever now. Written in stone, now that Ben had finally told him his worst secrets. It gave Ray hope. Hope that they really could make it, that Ben could shed his sadness and learn to be happy.

Since what he needed right now was to be held, and loved, Ray did that. And after awhile, the magic he'd willed into his hands must've worked, because Ben's sobs died away, and his shaking quieted. But even when he stopped crying, Ray didn't let him go. He knew his Mountie, and suspected that after opening himself up this deep, he'd get embarrassed, cuz it was the hardest thing in the world for him to do. But it was the thing he'd needed -- that they'd both needed -- more than anything. For Ben to finally really trust him with his heart. With the worst of himself, not just the best. So Ray kept on petting him, caressing him so he wouldn't panic once he realized what he'd done, or get afraid that he'd reject him for it. So he'd know that everything -- the terrible, painful story he'd told, and the tears he'd cried after -- was okay. Accepted. But most of all, only in his past now.

When Ben finally lay quiet in his arms, he asked softly, "Feel better?"

Ben didn't lift his head, but he nodded against his chest. "Yes, Ray. Thank you." He wiped his nose with a shaky hand. "I've never... told anyone that before," he added tentatively. But something in his voice told Ray he was glad he'd done it. Despite the pain it had made him relive, and despite his tears.

That was way more than he'd expected. "Saved it up for me, huh?" he teased, deciding it wouldn't hurt to lighten the moment a little.

Ben actually smiled, and swiped at his reddened eyes again. "It would seem so."

And for once, he didn't add that he was sorry. Ray would've suspected that he'd just chosen not to say so because he knew he hated that, but the truth was, for once, Ben didn't even seem to feel sorry; and that little fact went streaking through Ray like a revelation. Ben had chosen to show his innermost heart to him, his dark side, and now that he'd done it, he wasn't freaked out. Wasn't trying to run or hide. Wasn't apologizing for unburdening himself, or even for crying.

He feels better about himself. Damn. He really does!

It gave him the courage he would need, shortly, when he started baring a few scars of his own. But first... "Well, I think it's good that ya told me," he said firmly. "But it doesn't change anything. How I feel about ya. Okay?"

Ben didn't answer. He just searched his eyes, as if he still found that hard to believe.

"So ya made some mistakes," Ray said softly. "It's okay. So have I. We're all allowed to be stupid sometimes, cuz we're human. What counts is not bein' dumb twice."

Ben frowned a little. "Hmm?"

"What I mean is, wouldja do that again? If Victoria came back tomorrow, and asked ya to go with her, wouldja do it? Leave me an' Dief?"

Ben's reply was instant, and vehement. He shook his head forcefully. "No! No, Ray, I swear! I love you! I didn't feel for her what I do for you. I would never--"

Ray shook his head, and stopped the rush of words with a gentle finger. "It's okay! I know," he said softly. "Didn't have to ask. Just wanted ya to hear yerself say it. So you'd know."

But it was more than that. He wanted Ben to see not just that he'd changed, but that he could change. Learn from his past and let it go, instead of just letting it tear him apart forever. Cuz if he could do that, then they'd make it.

Ben nodded slowly, thinking it over. Then he smiled. Dipped his head and kissed him tenderly. "How," he whispered against his mouth, "did you ever get to be so smart, Stanley Ray Kowalski?"

Ray smiled back. "Been hangin' around with you too much, I guess." Then he sobered a little, because he knew their talk wasn't over yet. Not by a long shot. One down, Ray thought. One to go... "Gotta ask ya somethin', though. If somethin' ever happened to me -- if I got shot or somethin', if I didn't make it, ya wouldn't do somethin' stupid like take pills, wouldja? Ya wouldn't do nothin' like that?"

Ben blinked at that. His smile disappeared, and his eyes darkened. Like the very idea scared him to death. After a long moment, he said quietly, "I don't think so, Ray."

Ray was a bit ashamed of himself for doing this, for scaring him by raising such an ugly possibility, but they were both cops. It could happen. It had happened to that Sennier guy, Fraser's first lover, so he had to know. He knew Ben had given him an honest answer, but it wasn't a firm No, either, so he couldn't let it go. He didn't like it that Ben could even think that way. "What if I asked ya not to?"

"Are you asking me?"

Ray rolled his eyes. "Are ya deaf? Yeah, I'm askin'!"

"All right, then," Ben said quietly, ignoring his exasperation. "For you, Ray. If anything ever -- happens to you, I promise, I will try to go on living."

But Ray knew his Mountie, knew him too well to be satisfied with that either. "And to be happy," he added firmly, knowing that Fraser was capable of forcing himself to linger on in utter misery for sixty years, if he didn't specify otherwise.

"I don't see how that would be possi--"


"All right! All right! I promise," Ben said, and Ray was gratified to hear that a bit of exasperation had now crept into his voice, too. "If you are ever killed in the line of duty, I will not cry. I will not wither away. After a suitable period of mourning, perhaps a month--"

"A month?" Ray echoed in disbelief. "That's all yer gonna give me?"

"All right then, six weeks."

Ray snorted.

"I will then go out and find myself another lover," Ben said, with a hint of a sideways grin. "A brunette I think, who won't be so dictatorial, or ask nearly so much of me. I swear it."

Ray grinned at him. Fraser was being snarky, but he'd still sworn to it. That was enough. "So, ya'd go back to the dark-haired type if I died, huh? What, you wouldn't want another blond with experimental hair?"

Suddenly, the smile faded from Ben's face again. He shook his head, his eyes strangely bright. "No, Ray," he whispered, his voice thick.

Ray was touched. "Hey, Benny Ben... come 'mere," he whispered. He pulled his head down, put his mouth on Ben's beautiful lips and kissed him gently, sweetly, until he forgot about dark possibilities, and remembered what they were instead. The bright thing they had going in the here and now. Until he heard his breathing quicken, and knew the sadness he'd made him feel had dissipated, and started to turn to desire.

Then he let him go. He'd wanted to cheer him up, not turn him on. Not right now. He still had his trial by fire to go through, his secrets to reveal.

Ben laid his head back down on his shoulder, and kissed his chest. Ray kissed his hair and stroked his shoulders, enjoying the quiet moment. It was like a calm between storms, so he savored it before he leapt off the cliff of his own past, into his own nightmare. There was no question that he had to do it, he knew that. Ben wasn't the only one who had to change, or the only one who'd been letting fear and guilt turn him inside out. Now, it was his turn to step up to the plate. Stop being a coward, and let Ben see who he really was, too. All of it, all the dark, twisted crap he had inside of him. He tensed, felt a tightness in his chest. But he didn't let it stop him. Ben had done it. He could, too. He told himself that, but it didn't make it much easier. After all, he'd been freaked by what Ben had told him. Mad as hell. Hearing about that Metcalf chick had made him want to get her in the ring for about 20 rounds, with no gloves, and no holds barred. And finding out about his suicide plan had scared the crap out of him.

And I don't have the high moral standards Ben does. Not by a long shot. How the hell is he gonna react to this?

Oh, yeah. That was the question. To be a couple, or not to be, once Ben heard his lousy story.

He cleared his throat nervously. "While we're on the subject... Ya know, talkin' about mistakes we made an' all... I got somethin' to tell you, too." His voice was a bit husky. "I've been wantin' to for a long time, but--"

Ben raised his head again. His eyes were still a bit red, but he looked better. Like he'd gotten rid of some of his ghosts, at least. "But what?" he echoed, a tiny frown forming between his brows. "Why didn't you tell me?"

Ray shrugged, and looked away. "I dunno. Scared, I guess."

Ben blinked. "Of what?"

Ray couldn't tell him that. Didn't dare even put the idea into words. He had an almost superstitious fear that if he did, it might come true. That Ben might leave him, if he admitted he was scared of him doing just that. "Wait 'till ya hear it," he said instead. "It's bad. Real bad. For me, it's like -- well, how ya feel about Victoria. It's like dat. Worst thing that ever happened to me. And -- maybe it's my fault, I dunno," he confessed, his heart beating fast. He didn't know how Ben was going to take this. He just prayed that he was doing the right thing by telling him. That he wouldn't leave, once he knew the truth. Don't go, he begged in his head. Ya can say anything ya want. Tell me I was a dickhead, a complete idiot. But just... Don't leave me, once I say this. He managed not to breathe the words aloud, but only just.

Ben reached down and touched his cheek gently. "Tell me, Ray," he said gently, and there was no trace of judgment in his eyes.

All Ray could do was hope he'd still look like that when he was finished. "Okay. Here goes," he said gruffly. "'Member how I toldja Rylan was kinky?" he asked, looking away. "That he got rough sometimes?"

"Yes," Ben answered. It was an encouraging sort of yes. Noncommittal, making no assumptions. Not too angry, either.

Good. So far, anyway. Ray plunged ahead. "Yeah. Well... what I didn't tell ya was, the night before he got killed..." He swallowed hard, feeling the old, familiar sting of grief at those words. The sense of waste. He forced himself to ignore it, and go on. To form the words that had terrified him for so long. "He got real rough. He tried to rape me," he grated hoarsely at last.

He closed his eyes after that. Shut them tight. As if that could lock out the pain of it, or keep him from feeling how Ben stiffened in his arms at those words. Keep him from hearing how he didn't answer. For a long, long moment that seemed to stretch out into forever, Ray waited, in excruciating silence, for his reaction.

"The handcuff wounds on your wrists," Ben said at last, in a taut, horribly controlled voice. "He did that, didn't he? He cuffed you, to hold you down."

Trust Ben not to forget a detail like that. Even with his eyes closed, Ray winced at his tone. "Yeah. I mean, he cuffed me, but I really did the damage, fightin' to get out of 'em."

"I see."

Ben bit off the words like it was all he could do not to shout them. In a way, Ray was flattered; but scared, too. Mostly that. Because despite the way Ben had tried to speak calmly, Ray wasn't fooled. Ben had stiffened dangerously. He could feel his rage, feel it beating in his body like a large, pulsing heart. He even understood it. He'd felt the same way, when Ben told him about Victoria. Like if she'd been in the same room, he would've tried to kill her, for what she'd done to him. But right now, feeling that deep, dark rage from his gentle lover frightened him. He wasn't sure who Ben was furious with, Rylan or him. He wasn't even sure who Ben should be angry with; and that was worse.

"It was partly my fault," he heard himself say. "He used to come over after work, so he was always wearin' 'em. Plus, he had his gun... An' I knew he liked to play rough, and that he was jealous... But I kept lettin' him in. It was dumb. It was totally, fuckin' stupid."

"No, Ray." Ben shook his head vehemently, his reddened eyes dark with anger. "It was natural to trust him! He was your partner. Of course you let him in! He shouldn't have--"

He wriggled a little, uncomfortable with being let off the hook like this, with Ben putting all of the blame on Rylan. "Wait!" he interrupted. "Haven't toldja the worst of it yet. Don't make up yer mind, 'till ya hear the whole story."

He saw Ben swallow hard, saw a muscle jump in his cheek as he set his jaw against the fury he was still radiating. "All right," he said reluctantly. But his hand slipped down and curled around Ray's wrist. His big thumb stroked it, as if he were unconsciously checking to make sure that the damage Rylan had once done to him there had completely faded away now. And despite the gentleness of his touch, there was a hard look in his eyes, that Ray had never seen before.

Ray felt something strange. Something like a flicker of relief, if that was possible, that Rylan was dead. He supposed it was selfish, but he didn't like to think what Ben might've done if he hadn't been. Especially now that he knew that, given the right circumstances, or maybe the wrong ones, Ben was capable of behavior that was totally impulsive and wrong-headed. Now that he knew that love could make him just as crazy as the next guy, he was glad that Rylan's death prevented Ben from trying to avenge him. Because judging by the look in his eyes, if he hadn't been, his Mountie would've been on the warpath.

Ray couldn't blame him for that, though. Not when he felt the same about that Metcalf bitch. But she's not dead, he thought darkly. She's still out there somewhere. If she ever shows up again, ever comes within a mile o' him again, I'll--


Ben's voice brought him back to reality. Which wasn't a happy place, either, cuz he wasn't finished yet. He still had to tell him the rest. The really bad part. He looked away again. He couldn't look into Ben's righteously angry blue eyes and say it. He just couldn't. "See, the worst of it is... I'm not sure that--"

He choked up. An image filled his head: Rylan screaming his name. Rylan running for him, his dark hair streaming out behind him in the last instant. Running to save him -- or to get himself killed. Either, both... He still didn't know. It struck him, sharp as a knife for the thousandth time, that he might've killed him. Killed his own partner. A screwed-up kid who'd had some good qualities but not many breaks and who was, above all, far too young to die.

Ben stroked his cheek, a trace of worry mixing with the anger in his eyes. "That what, Ray?" he asked. His voice was gentle now. Not all stiff and furious anymore. He let go of his wrist, and cradled his face in his big hands instead.

Maybe it was that, Ben's unexpected softening, that brought tears to his eyes. "That I didn't kill him," he whispered at last.

Ben shook his head in automatic denial. "I know you felt responsible for him, but his death wasn't your fault."

He seemed so sure of that. It was one of the things Ray had always envied about him: his certainty. He wished he could be equally sure, but he wasn't. So he didn't answer. He just shook his head helplessly, blinking hard to try to keep the tears that filled his eyes from falling.

"Olson killed him, Ray," Ben persisted, stubborn in his loyalty. "You told me so yourself. And the ballistics proved it."

Oh, that was so like Fraser. To concentrate on the facts, and ignore the darker emotions behind them. He wanted everything neat and tidy. Orderly and sensible. But that wasn't the truth. Not the way he and Rylan had been together. A dark, tangled mess of lust, pain and unspoken needs would be more like it. Loneliness so extreme it had amounted to a death wish, and propelled them into danger, attempted rape and murder. Ray swallowed hard. He had to make Ben understand that, or he wouldn't understand at all. I'm gonna haveta spell it out, he thought, agonized.

"Didn't say I shot him," he ground out at last. "But it's all tied in together, and... I think maybe it's my fault he cuffed me. That he tried to rape me."

Ben stiffened again. Asked angrily, "How could it be?"

"No, just listen!" he pleaded hoarsely, desperate to get it all out. To tell the truth, at last. "See, he was in love with me. I felt that, I knew it, but I didn't wanna see it, cuz I still wanted you. And it made him nuts. He knew I wasn't really with him, not even when we had sex. He sensed I was thinkin' 'bout somebody else. That I was just usin' him to keep from feelin' so alone, and it hurt him bad. Then he even figured out that I was in love with you. That really tore him up. I shoulda known he'd try somethin' crazy. Shoulda broke it off, right then. I knew that, but I didn't. I was so wrapped up in missin' you that I couldn't see anything else. I didn't want to."

Ben stroked his hair, an agonized look of understanding on his face. "You were lonely, Ray," he whispered.

That almost choked him. He'd never expected that, not at all -- that Ben would understand and forgive what had driven him into Rylan's arms, because he'd felt that kind of desperate loneliness too. He swallowed hard, deeply moved. "Yeah. I was," he said huskily. Hell, lonely wasn't the word for it. He'd been so down, so depressed about losing Ben that he'd almost lost himself. Nearly gotten himself killed. He bit his lip.

"It's all right," Ben said, very softly.

For a minute, neither of them spoke. Ben just stroked his hair tenderly, his eyes soft and sad. It helped, it helped more than he'd thought possible, knowing that he'd been through that, too. Nearly gone crazy himself. Almost run off with a heartless criminal, then tried to end it all, cuz he couldn't take one more day of being alone. So Ray knew he didn't despise him for the stupid way he'd acted with Rylan. Wasn't judging him, even though Pat had tried to rape him. He's mad at Pat, not at me.

It helped, but it wasn't over yet. He was still scared, cuz he hadn't told Ben the worst of it yet. Hadn't really made him understand about the shooting... He forced himself to go on.

"Pat got shot the day after he tried to rape me. That morning, before it happened, I told him he had to get help. Made him make an appointment with a shrink. And I told him... said we could still be partners, but that I wouldn't be his lover anymore. Told him never to come near me lookin' for sex again. So he couldn't -- he had to be feelin' bad. Like total shit, when it happened." He paused, and took a deep breath. Tried to steady his voice, control his fear. "What I'm sayin' is -- I think he threw himself in front of Olson's gun on purpose. Either to save me, or to get himself killed. Maybe both. Cuz he felt so bad about what he did. About tryin' to rape me. "

For a moment, Ben went utterly still. "You think that he killed himself in an effort to atone for that?" he asked. "That his death was suicide, rather than murder?" He sounded shocked, as shocked as Ray had been when he'd heard that Ben had once wanted to kill himself.

Ray had to set his teeth against the pain of it. Of Ben knowing it. Of it being true. He shut his eyes again and nodded, too scared and miserable to speak. This was it, his moment of truth. When he'd find out how much Ben really loved him. If he could stand knowing what he was really like. How weak he'd been. How stupid. And how someone else, his own partner, had ended up paying the price...

"Oh, Ray," Ben said softly. Then, to his surprise, he laid his head down on his shoulder again. Gathered him up in his arms, and held him tightly, almost fiercely. So tightly that he could hardly breathe. "Don't do this to yourself," he said, with a sympathy Ray had never expected. "I did that after Victoria left. Laid there blaming myself for everything. But if you let guilt and regret take you over like that, they'll poison you. I know. Even if what you say is true, even if Rylan did take that bullet deliberately, that was his choice. His, not yours. You didn't ask him to do that. In fact, you told me that you tried to keep him from exacerbating the situation. If you'd known what he was going to do, you'd've tried to prevent it. I know you. So whatever his motives may have been for what he did, it's not your fault. It isn't. You told me that what happened to Victoria wasn't my fault, because I tried my best to prevent it. You have to grant yourself that same grace, Ray. You tried to save Rylan, too."

Ray froze. Went utterly still in his tight embrace. He felt dizzy. Like he was gonna faint. And not because of how Ben was squeezing him, but because he couldn't believe it. That Ben didn't blame him, didn't hate him. Not even for this. He didn't even want him to hate himself for it anymore. It didn't seem real, didn't seem possible. He told himself he must be dreaming, but he knew he wasn't. Cuz even in his dreams, he'd never imagined Ben would say anything like that. He'd always imagined him going all cold, once he found out. Turning Arctic Mountie, maybe even walking out the door. He'd never dared to hope that he'd understand, and love him anyway.

Oh God, oh God... It was such a huge relief, he had no words for it. It rolled over him like an enormous wave. Took his breath. Washed him clean, when he'd felt black inside for so long. He set his jaw again, tried to hold it in, but it was too late. His feelings were too strong, and they'd been bottled up inside him for too long. He'd never had Ben's awesome control, had never been able to hold stuff in like he did. He had to let go. A sound that was half sigh, half sob tore out of him. He felt tears spill from his eyes, and he couldn't stop them. He doesn't hate me. He's not gonna leave me. I didn't lose him... It almost seemed too good to be true. He couldn't say anything, so he just squeezed Ben back, as hard as he could. Dug his fingers into his broad back, and tried to wrap his whole body around him, to say thanks.

But then he thought of Rylan again, and grief cut through him, strangling his elation. He had Ben, but Rylan would never have anyone. His happiness faded. "He was so young, though," he whispered shakily against his shoulder. "An' he was my partner. I was s'posed to look out for him. Take care o' him--" He caught his breath, swallowed down a sob. "He just wasn't s'posed to die, cuz o' me."

Ben raised his head at that, and smoothed his tears away with gentle hands. He tried to smile, despite the sadness in his own eyes. "And Ray Vecchio wasn't supposed to shoot his best friend, or nearly go to prison, because of me," he said quietly. "But it happened, and it was partly my fault. And I have to live with it."

Ray nodded shakily. Sometimes that was all you could say, all that anyone could say. It wasn't supposed to be, it's not right, but it happened. And you have to find a way to accept it, and to go on living. Sometimes there were no easy answers, you just had to keep on going without them. Wasn't that what he'd just been telling Ben? What he'd made him swear to?

But Ben wasn't finished. "But I learned something from it, Ray. Something important."


Ben smiled sadly. "The value of forgiveness. The truly amazing thing, I think, is that Ray Vecchio forgave me. Not because I deserved it. I didn't. But because he loves me. So wherever Rylan is now, I'm sure he's forgiven you, too."

Ray swallowed hard. "How can you say that?" he asked, though he longed to believe it. "How can you know that for sure?"

Ben traced his lips gently. "For one thing, because he knew you tried to help him. Most people would've turned him in for what he'd done, but you didn't. Instead of punishing him for it, you made him get help, so that he could change. It was far more than most men would've done, and I'm sure he must've realized that. You told me that he was quite intelligent."

Ray looked away. He hadn't thought of it that way before. Never considered that angle at all. That Rylan might possibly have appreciated what he'd done, rather than feeling bad about it. "Ya really think so?"

Ben nodded. "Yes. Think about it, Ray. He died for you," he said quietly. "Whether he did so trying to save you, or trying to make up for having hurt you, it all adds up to the same thing: that he wasn't feeling resentment towards you when he died. He couldn't have been. To give your life for someone, you have to love them. If he'd hated you, been angry with you, he wouldn't have done that."

Ray frowned, thinking about it. It was hard to believe that could be true, even though he wanted to. Hard to face the fact that maybe the awful guilt he'd been dragging around for so long was unnecessary. That he'd been doing the same thing Ben tended to do, torturing himself for something that wasn't really his fault. "Maybe he was just hating himself," he pointed out. That seemed more likely.

Ben shook his head. "You told me that he'd fought free of Olson's grip, and was running towards you when he died, in an attempt to free you. If all he'd been feeling was guilt and self hatred, wouldn't he have stayed where he was, and just tried to provoke Olson into killing him?"

After a minute, Ray nodded reluctantly. He wanted to argue with that, but he couldn't. It made sense. If all Rylan had wanted to do was eat a bullet, he could've done it before that. Could've fought with Olson and gotten shot right where he stood, if that was what he'd really wanted. Instead, he'd held himself back, looked for an opening, tried to save him. He hadn't freaked out until he'd thought Ray's assailant was about to kill him. That was when he'd broken loose and run to him, in desperation. Screamed his name, screamed it with such emotion that Ray would never forget the sound of it. So maybe Ben was right. Maybe Rylan had really been trying to save him, not to kill himself, when he died. Or maybe, in his last seconds, he'd at least loved him more than he'd hated himself. If he could believe even that much, then maybe he could live with it. Live with himself.

"If Rylan loved you -- and it seems clear he must have -- I have to think that he also forgave you, Ray," Fraser went on quietly. "Because forgiveness is a part of love. I know that now."

Ray felt another tear run down his cheek. Ben bent his head and kissed it away, without a word. Ray took his head in his hands and kissed him back, then pressed his dark head back down onto his shoulder. Forgiveness. It was the one thing he'd never expected. Not from Rylan, and not from Ben, either.

But maybe, just maybe, he'd had it from both of them.

And Vecchio had taught Fraser that. And he'd learned the lesson so well that he'd forgiven Vecchio, when he'd needed it the most. Everything had come full circle.

It was weird, and sad, and wonderful.

For a long time, they just held each other in silence. Listening to their hearts beat, and dealing with it all.

Then Ray said, "It's over now. That's what yer sayin', isn't it. It's all over, if we let it be. But we gotta forgive ourselves."

"Yes, Ray," Ben answered quietly. "If we can do that, it's over."

"And I found you," Ray said, holding him tight.

"And I you, Ray."

The truth came to Ray then. A quiet sort of epiphany. He knew just what to do. "I'll forgive ya, Ben. If ya can't forgive yerself, I'll do it."

Ray heard Ben draw a shaky breath, that was almost a sob. He stroked his back. "I love you, Ray. I love you so much. And I forgive you, too," he whispered.

"Then it's all worth it. All of it," Ray said.


The morning of the wedding dawned bright and clear. It was set for 10:00 a.m., but Fraser had to get there at 9:30, because he was in the wedding party. And he wanted to get to the church even earlier than that. When Ray asked why, he just blinked and said, "Promptness is a virtue, Ray."

Ray rolled his eyes. "Walked right into that one, didn't I?"

"I'm afraid so," Fraser smirked, smoothing out nonexistent wrinkles in his sleeves.

Ray rolled his eyes again, but he gave in, as they both knew he would. He drove Ben to the church at 9:15, and left him talking to Vecchio in a little room up front. He didn't even really mind, because it gave him a chance to prowl around the grounds of St. Mary's. It was a big place, a cathedral really, with several outlying buildings where the wedding reception would later be held. He rambled around checking it all out, while Ben and Vecchio got ready for the big moment.

Down one of the side hallways of the adjoining buildings, not far from the reception hall, he found exactly what he was looking for. Great. This is perfect, he grinned to himself.

Some fifteen minutes later, Ray sat next to Mrs. Vecchio, trying not to fidget as the large church rapidly began to fill with wedding guests. St. Mary's was a gorgeous building, he had to admit, with a soaring, vaulted space overhead, and lots of stained glass windows that let in beautifully colored light. But he wasn't admiring his surroundings, so much as he was waiting impatiently for Fraser to make his appearance. He was scheduled to sing a song before the wedding party started making their way up the aisle, and Ray couldn't wait to hear it. Finally, after what seemed like forever, the church filled up with guests and the murmur of quiet anticipation. He saw Ben enter the front of the church through a side door, and pause by a wooden stand up by the altar.

A sudden silence fell, and Ray's heart swelled. It was corny, it was totally sentimental and sappy, but his first thought was that Ben was in exactly the right place, cuz he looked like an angel. Like all of Vecchio's groomsmen, he was dressed in a tailored black suit, with a white silk shirt and only a silver vest for ornament; but the elegant severity of the outfit suited him. Ben didn't need gaudy colors to stand out. He didn't need anything at all, but to be who he was. His dark hair shone, his blue eyes sparkled, and without even trying, he outclassed every other guy in the church. Ray could've sworn that every woman in the place sighed a little, when they saw him.

Strangely, he didn't care. He even felt an odd little twinge of pride, that he'd never felt before. He knew he wasn't responsible for Ben's good looks, but he wasn't worried about their effect on people anymore, either. For the first time, he kind of enjoyed it. The admiring glances the women gave him seemed more complimentary than threatening. I mean, how could they not look? He's friggin' gorgeous, he smiled to himself.

Just then, Ben's eyes swept the church with what looked like a casual glance, and settled on him. His lips curved in a little smile, and Ray smiled back as his heart gave a happy little lurch. The women could look all they wanted, cuz it didn't matter. Ben wasn't smiling at them. He didn't want them. Or Vecchio, or anyone else. Somehow, for whatever reason, that dark-bright angel up at the altar, clad in black and silver, had chosen to love him, Stanley Ray Kowalski, and no one else.

Faults and all. No matter what.

Ray trusted that now. He might not know why it had happened, but he still knew it was real.

So when Ma Vecchio reached out to pat his arm, and leaned over to whisper, "Benny looks so handsome, doesn't he?", he said softly, "Yes, ma'am. He sure does." Holding Fraser's gaze, he winked at him, and held up a thumb in a silent gesture of encouragement. Go, Ben!

Was it just his imagination, or did Ben stand a little taller at that? Glow a little brighter?

As a hush fell over the church, and the soft notes of guitar and piano music welled up all around them, Ben began to sing.

Perhaps love is like a resting place,
A shelter from the storm.
It exists to give you comfort,
It is there to keep you warm;
And in those times of trouble,
When you are most alone,
The memory of love will bring you home.

Ray caught his breath. The song sounded familiar, and the words were simple, but here and now, watching Ben sing them, they didn't seem so simple. They cast a spell over him, and everyone else there. The hush that had fallen was profound. It was like everyone in the room had stopped breathing, as if maybe the world itself had stopped its endless spinning, to make a quiet space for the magic of Ben's voice, singing about love.

Then, on the next verse, a woman's voice suddenly chimed in. Wrapped softly around and above Ben's, soaring high and clear, making the already lovely music into something beautiful enough to break hearts. Serena, Ray thought, stunned. She must've taped her part...

Perhaps love is like a window,
Perhaps an open door.
It invites you to come closer,
It wants to show you more.
And even if you lose yourself
And don't know what to do,
The memory of love will see you through.
Oh, love to some is like a cloud
To some as strong as steel
For some a way of living,
For some a way to feel.
And some say love is holding on,
And some say letting go;
And some say love is everything,
Some say they don't know.

Fraser had looked around the church while he sang his duet, but with those words, his eyes returned to Ray, and stayed there.

I know what love is, Ray thought, his heart too full for words. It's everything. Everything good in my life came outta love -- Stella and Ben both. And I've done my lettin' go. Now I'm holdin' on.

Ben was, too. That's what his eyes and his voice were saying. The forever thing. Ray knew it, and it filled his heart. Sent him soaring, just like the music.

Suddenly, Serena's voice faded away, and Ben sang on alone, the masculine sound of his tenor ringing through the church:

Perhaps love is like the ocean,
Full of conflict, full of pain.
Like a fire when it's cold outside,
Or thunder when it rains.
If I should live forever,
And all my dreams come true,
My memories of love will be of you.

When he sang the last three lines, Ben was looking right at him. He sang them a second time, his voice filled with feeling. But by then, Ray couldn't see him very well. For some reason, his vision had blurred. He dabbed at his eyes surreptitiously, and cleared his throat, which had somehow gotten all choked up. He saw other people all around him dabbing at their eyes, too. Mountie magic, Ray thought. Damn, but he can sing! He was so proud of Ben, and so moved, that he had the insane urge to take him in his arms and kiss him, right here, right now, in front of God and everybody.

Luckily, common sense kicked in. Yeah, right. Yer gonna kiss the Mountie, right in the middle of an Italian wedding. Wanna start a riot? his conscience groused.

So as Ben finished singing and the music faded, he tried to get himself under control, to come back to reality. He patted his pants pocket. Feeling the rounded shape of the little box inside it eased his disappointment at not being able to kiss Ben, to thank him for his beautiful song. One way or another, he's gonna get thanked, he told himself, with secret satisfaction.

Then Ben turned and walked out of the side door again, as another instrumental began playing. A few minutes later, Ray heard a murmur behind him and turned, like everyone else. Frannie was walking toward them up the center aisle, dressed in a gauzy, light blue dress, holding onto Ben's arm. He thought she looked almost as beautiful as Ben, and that was saying something. So when they passed him on their way up to the altar, he winked at them and wiggled an eyebrow, to tell her. She dimpled back at him.

She's in her glory, he thought. He found himself hoping that Frannie's wedding would be the next one he'd be invited to. Loopy as Frannie could be sometimes, he loved her like the sister he'd never had. She'd been so great about him and Fraser, he would never forget it. Despite the fact that she was in love with Ben herself, she'd helped them get back together. If it hadn't been for her, he'd never have found his way back to him. The fact that she'd never had much of a chance with Ben herself had hurt her, and he hoped she'd meet someone else. He wanted to see her happy.

Several other bridesmaids went by, all escorted by dark-haired, dark-eyed men Ray didn't recognize. He knew they must either be cop friends of Vecchio's or members of his family. As the wedding party took their places up by the altar, he looked around. He spotted Huey, Dewey, and Elaine Besbriss on the other side of the church. Glad she made it. Haven't seen her since she left the 27th. Wonder where Welsh is? He made a mental note to talk to them later, at the reception. It'd been awhile, and he'd missed them. Even Dewey, in a weird sort of way.

Then another, more familiar song began to play: the "Here Comes the Bride" processional. Serena appeared, looking beautiful in a long, white, lacey gown with a train. But what surprised Ray was that Lt. Welsh was escorting her. He wondered why her Dad wasn't with her, then he remembered. Dat's right. Ben told me once, her parents are dead. So Ray must've asked Welsh to give the bride away. Welsh looked really dignified in black, and as they moved slowly up the aisle, Ray decided that his role was oddly fitting. Welsh had always been kind of like a second father to his men, so it seemed natural he'd stand in for Serena's real father, for Vecchio's sake.

Ma Vecchio sighed happily beside him. Ray looked down to see tears in her eyes, and he leaned down to tease her gently. "Don't start cryin'," he whispered. "They aren't even married yet!"

She laughed at him, and squeezed his hand. "I know, but I'm just so happy!" she said, smiling through her tears. "Now, if I can only get Francesca to marry again, things will be perfect."

He grinned at her, kind of glad she'd forgotten to include him on her matchmaking list. At least for the moment. "There's lots o' single guys here, and she's lookin' gorgeous in that dress. Who knows?"

At that moment, Vecchio came in. He didn't look nervous, like most grooms do. He was relaxed and smiling, and he moved eagerly up the aisle, like he couldn't wait to put the ring on Serena's finger. As he passed Kowalski, he turned his head a fraction, and Ray's eyes widened.

Damn. Did he just wink at me? He wasn't sure. It was all over in a second, and then Vecchio was past him, moving towards the altar. But it had him scratching his neck. If he did, what did it mean? Has he gone off the deep end again, or did he just get carried away cuz it's his wedding day? Then again, maybe he was winkin' at his mom. Not at me. But as he watched him take his place beside Serena at the altar, he had the feeling that he had winked, and that for some reason, it had been directed at him.

Then the priest held up his hands, and began to speak. "Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today..."

Ray faced obediently forward, to watch Serena and Ray Vecchio get married.

The whole time Ray and Serena were saying their vows, Ray was lost in time. Back in the church where he'd married Stella, reliving his hopes and dreams, his feeling that he'd found his one, true love. He saw Stella lift her blue eyes to him, saw how happy she looked. Saw himself as he slipped the ring on her finger.

It made him feel sad, but not nearly as bad as it once would've.

He'd loved her, really loved her. He still did. Always would. And back then, she'd loved him, too. In her own way, she still did. They'd had some good times, too; and their wedding day had definitely been one of those. We danced our feet off, after, he remembered, smiling. I never wanted to stop.

He suddenly realized that it had been a long time since he'd danced with Stella.

For a moment, he felt sad. Then he shrugged. He'd lost her, but he hadn't stopped dancing. He'd just found a new dance partner. Now he loved someone else, and was lucky enough that Ben loved him back. That took the bite out of losing Stella. Big time. He'd found out that true love didn't have to be a once-in-a-lifetime type deal. He'd been hit by lightning twice, and this time, he had a feeling it would last.

He'd gone so far down Memory Lane that, almost before he knew it, Vecchio had kissed the bride. All the women in the church sighed happily, and the wedding party started back down the aisle again. Fraser went by with Frannie, the others followed, and then Ray and Serena swept past him down the aisle again.

The wedding was over.

Though Vecchio didn't look at him this time, Serena smiled as she passed. He nodded to her, glad that she looked so happy. Glad that it had all turned out okay, after all.

Then Fraser somehow, magically appeared at the end of Ray's pew. Ray was mildly surprised. He'd heard Vecchio say something to Ben about a photo session right after the ceremony, that the whole wedding party had to go to. But he wasn't about to complain.

"Excuse me, sir," Ben murmured politely, as he squeezed past the people at the end of the row, as they rose to leave. "Pardon me." Ignoring the adoring female eyes that followed him, as usual, he made his way to Ray's side, and smiled at him. At sight of his blue eyes, all thought of anything else but him went right out of Ray's head.

"Hello, Ray. Mrs. Vecchio," Ben said.

"Ah, Benton!" Mrs. Vecchio beamed at him. "Your singing, caro -- you were like an angel!"

Ben smiled. "Thank you kindly." Then he looked back at Ray. "I have to go to a photo session in a few minutes, but I wanted to see you first."

Aww. Sentimental Mountie. Ray felt a bit dizzy himself. So blinded with love for him that he couldn't think of anything to say. Ben looked so damn beautiful, and so happy, that he didn't want to talk anyway -- he wanted to kiss him again. Get some of that non-verbal communication going, that they were so good at. But he suppressed the urge. For the moment. He was already making plans about the quickest way to get him out of his black suit when they got home, though.

Forcing his mind back to the present, he realized he hadn't said anything about the song yet. He leaned close to him and murmured, "Ya sounded good up there, Ben."

Fraser's eyes shone happily. "Do you think so, Ray?" He looked like he'd been waiting to hear that. Like his opinion of his singing was the only one that mattered.

"Mmm, yeah. Ya were fantastic!" Ray smiled, meaning it.

To his surprise, Fraser leaned in really close to him, put his mouth up to his ear and whispered, "I owe you a kiss for that, later."

Ray grinned. So, he wasn't the only one feeling romantic here. Good to know. "Hold that thought," he whispered back.

"I have to go back now, Ray," Ben said regretfully. But he turned to wave at him again before he went off to rejoin the wedding party, and his eyes were sparkling.

He's holdin' the thought, Ray told himself. Smiling like a fool. For no reason.

Ben found posing for Ray's wedding photographs surprisingly pleasant. He had few family mementos of his own, photographic or otherwise. So it gave him a warm feeling, knowing that he would now be a part of Ray and Serena's family album.

But after a few moments had passed, he got a strange feeling that someone was watching him. He turned his head to find his father standing behind him, smiling (or at least he assumed that teeth-baring expression was intended to pass for that) at the camera. "Dad!" he hissed. "What are you doing?"

Bob Fraser just smiled even wider, as the flashbulb went off. "What does it look like I'm doing, son?"

He set his jaw. His Dad hadn't posed for pictures very often while he was alive, so wanting to do so after death just seemed -- perverse. In the extreme. Still, he'd half been expecting this. His father had a great fondness for turning up at the most awkward times possible, and this certainly qualified. But knowing his odd habits didn't make dealing with them any easier. "You can't pose for pictures, you're dead!"

Amazing, how often he had to say things like that to his father. He sometimes wondered if he'd been this obtuse in life, or if his strange existence afterwards had inhibited brain functions in some way.

"Nonsense," his father shot back. "I am posing. You really ought to have your eyes checked, son. Or your logic. Maybe both."

"You won't show up on film!" he snapped, losing patience.

When several of the groomsmen near him turned to give him curious looks, he realized that, once again, his Dad had provoked him into raising his voice. He gave them his blandest, most innocent look in response, until they shrugged and looked away again. Then he muttered, in a low voice that time, "Very well, then. Do what you like. But don't ask me for prints, afterwards!"

Ben Fraser just smiled. "Say cheese, son!"

A short time later, the photographer announced his intention of taking some shots of the bride and groom alone. Ben glanced around surreptitiously, looking for his father. To his immense relief, he'd disappeared again. He decided, since his presence wouldn't be required for the next ten minutes, to temporarily disappear himself. To hie himself off to the reception and find Ray, who looked absolutely stunning in the dark blue suit and black tie he was wearing.

But as he started for the door, Francesca hurried after him. "Hey, Frayzh! Where you off to?"

"I thought I'd just pay a visit to the reception for a moment," he answered.

"Mind if I come?"

He smiled. "Certainly not."

She took his arm, and they left together.

Ray sat at a table in the middle of the large room, talking to Huey and Elaine. Most of the wedding guests had finished eating now, and the band had started to play.

"What's Captain Harlan like?" Huey asked. "I heard he's a bit of a--"

Ray didn't catch the rest, because just then, Ben walked in the door, with Frannie on his arm. They were both smiling, and Ray remembered how Frannie had come over with a bottle of wine while he and Ben were broken up, and they'd both gotten sloshed and moaned about how they'd lost him. But because of her, because she'd cared enough to tell him the truth about Ben's feelings for him, he'd lucked out and gotten him back. But Frannie had been left out in the cold. It made him feel bad, for the second time that morning. He and Ben both owed her, for what she'd done. "Back in a second," he said, an idea stirring in his head.

In between songs, while Fraser chatted with Frannie and some of the other guests, Ray went up to talk to the band leader. Slipped him some money, and whispered in his ear for a minute. Then he strode back to Ben, and whispered in his ear, too.

"Okay, everyone," the band leader announced. "I've been asked to play a special song, for Francesca Vecchio. You probably know it. It's called, 'That's What Friends Are For.'"

While Ray watched grinning from the sidelines, Fraser took a stunned Frannie's arm and drew her out onto the dance floor. They made a handsome couple, and everyone clapped madly as he started to waltz her around to the music.

Francesca beamed up at him, her dark eyes shining. "This is a surprise," she said, but it was clearly one she was enjoying. Ben thought he'd never seen her look happier. He was immensely grateful to Ray for this inspired idea. Ever since she'd offered to contact Ray for him while they were separated, in an effort to get them back together, he'd wanted to do something special for her, to show his appreciation. Once he'd learned from Ray that she'd gone a step further and visited him, all on her own, to reassure him that he wasn't having an affair with her brother, that desire had intensified into something like a personal vow. He'd wanted to do something public, since he knew that would gratify her, but had confessed to Kowalski that he didn't know exactly what she'd like, in the way of a public thank you. Dancing with her to this song seemed the perfect answer. A public declaration of his affection for her, in front of their friends and her family. Clever, clever Ray...

Under cover of the music, he said quietly, "I want to thank you, for what you did for Ray and I. We both appreciate it very much."

"It's okay, Frayzh," she said. "Anytime."

Keep smiling, keep shining
Knowing you can always count on me
For sure
That's what friends are for...

As they swayed around the floor, he thought once again of what Francesca had done for them. Despite the fact that she was in love with him herself, she'd shown amazing generosity by intervening when they were separated. She'd been instrumental in getting them back together. If it weren't for her, he wouldn't be with Ray now. She had played a very special role in his life, indeed -- in his present happiness. She was more than a friend, more like the sister he'd never had. She was family to him, in the same way her brother was. As few people in his life had ever been. He owed her a debt he could never repay. Before he knew it, he found himself making a more private declaration to her. "I hope you know that's true," he told her. "What the song said, I mean. I will always be your friend, Francesca. No matter what. No matter where I go, or what I do in future, if you ever need me, let me know, and I will be here for you."

He meant it. No matter where life took him, even if he went home to Canada or wound up in the Arctic, if she ever sent word that she needed him, he would drop what he was doing and go to her. She looked up at him and blinked, with what looked like dismay. For a second, he thought he'd blundered and somehow hurt her, or been misunderstood. But then he realized that she was merely surprised. She wasn't used to hearing such things from him. Before he'd fallen in love with Ray, he hadn't felt free enough to say them.

She smiled at him. "I know, Benton," she said softly. Then she leaned in a little closer to him, and rested her head on his shoulder as they danced. "Thank you."

She was still smiling. It seemed he'd said just the right thing, after all. He looked out over her head as they moved, and saw Ray Kowalski watching them with a radiant, satisfied smile. It seemed he thought the same.

Fraser realized, with a tiny sense of shock, that he was truly and completely happy. For him, it was a new feeling. He'd never known it, except for a few brief minutes with Victoria, until Ray Kowalski had come into his life.

He held Francesca close, and smiled over her shoulder at his lover.

When the song ended, he dipped Frannie, and more applause erupted. When he lifted her upright again, she was laughing. "Okay! Enough, enough! Any more o' that, and Ray Kowalski's gonna come lookin' for me with a gun!" she whispered to him, laughing.

But he knew he'd made her very happy, just the same. It amazed him. It took so little, to make people happy. A few words, a smile, a dance. Why had he been so unable to give those things, that part of himself, for so long?

He didn't have long to consider it, because his Ray suddenly stood beside them. "Hey, pretty darin' moves there, Frayzh," he said, his blue eyes twinkling.

No one was paying much attention to them now that they'd walked off the dance floor, so Frannie hung onto his arm, teasing him. "See? I toldja," she said. "He's jealous."

Ray's eyes lit up wickedly. "Yeah? Wanna give me the next one, Frannie? I'll show ya how it's done."

Fraser had no doubt that he could. Ray's dancing, in his opinion, was unparalleled. But Frannie shook her head. "Not right now, bro," she teased loftily. "Fraser and I have to get back to the photo session."

"Well, la dee dah," Ray drawled, smirking. "Done mixin' with us mere mortals, are ya?"

"For the moment. But later -- you're on," Frannie smiled.

As Frannie pulled him to the door, Fraser exchanged a wordless glance with Ray. He wanted nothing more, in that moment, than to dance the next song with him. He saw the same faint regret in his lover's eyes.

When we get home, he told himself. Before they changed out of their wedding suits, he would have his dance with Ray.

"Come on, Frayzh," Frannie said, pulling him impatiently towards the door. "The camera's waiting."

More flashbulbs, then. More careful posing. Fraser drifted through it happily, his mind filled with thoughts of Ray. After another twenty minutes had gone by, Ray Vecchio whispered something to Serena, then moved to Fraser's side with a determined look on his face. "Got a minute, Benny?"

Ben smiled at him. There'd been a time, not so long ago, when he'd feared Ray would never call him that again. So every time he heard his old, affectionate nickname fall from his lips, even if it was only from old habit, he glowed a bit. Inwardly. Secretly. My Ray would probably say that I'm gloating, he thought to himself. But he didn't really care. He hadn't lost his friend, his brother, after all; and it felt good. "Certainly," he said.

"Come 'mere." Ray took his arm and pulled him away from the other members of the wedding party, out into the hall. Then he strode down it swiftly, with a determined look.

Ben followed automatically. "What is it, Ray?" he asked. He couldn't help wondering what was behind this. If something was wrong.

"Oh, it's nothin'," Vecchio muttered. "I just wanna talk to you in private for a minute."

"Okay. But I believe the photographer wasn't quite finished yet," Fraser protested mildly. "I don't want to take you away before he's through." He was being diplomatic, for in truth, Ray was the one who'd sought him out, not the reverse.

Ray waved an expressive hand. "I've been posin' for the last hour," he said, with typical exaggeration. "They won't miss me for a few minutes. And I told Serena where we're goin', so it's fine."

"Ahh," Fraser said politely. He still didn't understand what Ray had to tell him that could be so urgent that he'd absent himself from his wedding party during their photography session. But if Ray felt it was important, no doubt it was. So he let his friend lead him into a rather spacious, but currently empty, room down the hall. Empty, that is, except for tables and chairs. "This must be an unused banquet room," he observed, as Ray shut the door behind them.

"Yeah. Probably," Ray replied, as they stopped just inside the doorway.

Ben could tell from the distracted sound of his voice that Ray couldn't have cared less what the room's purpose was. He'd just wanted to find some place private, where they could talk. Whatever he had on his mind, it must be something that couldn't wait. So Fraser fell silent, waiting to hear it.

Ray patted him on the shoulder, then dropped his hand and rubbed both hands together a bit nervously. He took a deep breath, as if to prepare himself. "You know that Serena and me are goin' on a Caribbean cruise for our honeymoon, right?" Ray began.

"Yes. It should be a wonderful trip," Fraser replied, still curious as to what Ray was leading up to.

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm sure it will be. But see, the thing is... The thing I wanted to tell you is, we're stoppin' off in Springfield on our way home."

"Springfield?" Fraser echoed in mild surprise. For one thing, Springfield wasn't really on the couple's way home, and for another, he'd never heard Ray express any interest in the place. So he couldn't help but wonder why he'd chosen to visit it on his honeymoon, and why he'd felt it necessary to inform him of it, as well.

"Yeah. I got a realtor who's linin' up some places for us to look at there. Some apartments, just until we can get our new house sold."

"Sold?" Ben echoed in surprise. He knew he must sound idiotic, repeating everything Ray said, but he couldn't help it. All at once, he understood where this conversation was leading. At least, he thought he did. He felt stunned, as if someone had punched him. His heart started beating painfully fast. They'd been through so much lately: Vecchio's attack on Ray Kowalski, Maxwell's attempt to murder Ray and Serena... He'd lost Ray's friendship, and nearly lost his lover as well; and he knew Ray had been tormented by the discovery of his relationship with Kowalski, and by his own guilt at having reacted to it in the worst possible way. Forgiveness had been needed on both sides.

But he'd thought it had been given, and accepted. That things were mended now. That Ray had accepted him -- both of them -- back into his heart, and that after he got married, they would all go on more or less as before. For the past few days, for the first time in his entire life, he'd felt both happy and satisfied. A man with a lover and friends, like other men. A man who was no longer alone. But he now feared that had been a happy illusion. After all they'd been through, after the painful events of last week and their almost miraculous reconciliation, Ray was--

"Yeah, Benny. Sold," Ray repeated, with a hint of sadness in his own eyes. He turned away a little, brushing at something on his sleeve. But Ben knew there was nothing there to brush away. Ray just needed to look away from him for a moment. "That's what I wanted to tell you. We're moving. Moving to Springfield, after we get back from our honeymoon."

Leaving. He's leaving me, Ben thought, stunned.

Ray's voice was quiet, almost casual. If Ben hadn't seen the brief flicker of sadness in his eyes, he wouldn't have had a clue what he was feeling; and his reserve heightened his fears. What did it mean? What was Ray trying to hide? Fraser clasped his hands behind his back and straightened his shoulders, trying to steady himself. This was Ray's wedding day, after all. A very special occasion. He couldn't upset him by letting him see how this news had affected him. So he forced his hurt away, tried hard to school his face into a careful blankness that wouldn't betray him. "I see," he said quietly.

But of course, he didn't. This was totally unexpected, and very painful. He'd only just gotten Ray's friendship back, due to Ray Kowalski's courageous rescue, yet here he was, losing him again anyway. It seemed bitter, like he was the butt of some cosmic joke. He had to clamp his jaw shut against the urge to pepper Ray with questions. To demand explanations, for this bombshell he'd dropped on his unsuspecting head. He wanted to ask what it meant. If Ray had reconsidered taking him back as a friend. If he was moving because he'd decided that he couldn't bear to see him and Ray Kowalski together after all. But he didn't ask. He couldn't. Fear, as well as politeness, held him back. He wasn't sure he could bear hearing Ray express any ill will towards his lover, on what should've been a happy occasion. And courtesy required that he not force the issue at this particular moment, either. This is his day, he told himself sternly. His and Serena's. Don't spoil it.

But Ray wasn't fooled by his silence. He turned back to him again, and searched his eyes. His face gentled suddenly, and he smiled. A small, crooked smile that was so warm it stunned Fraser. "It's not because o' you, Benny," he said softly. "That's why I wanted to tell you this in private. To make sure you understand that. I'm okay with it now. With you and Kowalski. Capisce?" He reached out and put a hand on his shoulder again. Squeezed it, and held his eyes.

Fraser dropped his gaze, as relief rushed through him. "Capisce," he answered. He hadn't been able to read Ray, but his friend had known exactly what he was thinking. Guessed his doubts, and put them to rest kindly and directly, with both words and a touch as warm as an embrace. It was curiously painful and pleasant, at the same time, to be reminded in that moment of how deep the bond between them still was.

"Serena was the one who really wanted to go," Ray went on. "She couldn't--" He faltered for a second. His hand fell away from Fraser's shoulder, and a shadow passed across his face. "After what happened, she can't stand the thought of living in that house."

In that unguarded moment, Ben knew exactly what Ray was thinking, too. His feelings were written on his face: sadness, regret. Sorrow at leaving the new house that he and Serena had chosen together, and which he'd loved. He knew Ray had been counting on starting his new life there, and that he was far more used to violence than Serena was. Fraser surmised that if it weren't for her, he wouldn't be leaving it, or leaving him. Despite what Maxwell had done to him, Ray would've stayed here. But he loved his wife very much, and he wanted to please her. Especially since they were just starting their new life together. Ben saw all of that on his face.

"That's perfectly understandable, Ray," he said, meaning it.

Ray looked relieved. "Thanks, Benny."

But a part of him still didn't want to let go. "Surely there are other options, though. Couldn't you find another house somewhere in Chicago, for instance?" he asked, trying his best not to sound as pushy as he knew he was being.

Ray smiled, a rueful, teasing little smile. "Gee. Why didn't I think o' that, Benny?"

As reprimands went, it was a gentle one, even affectionate. But it embarrassed him anyway, enough so that he ran a nervous knuckle over his eyebrow. "I'm sorry, Ray. I'm sure that you did. Of course, you did."

When he risked another glance at Ray, he was looking at him with an odd intensity. For a second, Fraser saw affection, confusion, and something rather like guilt in his green eyes. Guilt that looked strangely personal. Connected to him. But once Ray caught him staring back, he blinked it away, so he wasn't even really sure what it was he'd seen. Then he said slowly, "Yeah. We could've done that. But with everything that's happened... Serena just thinks we'd do better starting over somewhere else. At least for awhile. And I think she's right."

He didn't say why, and Fraser somehow thought his vagueness was deliberate. He suddenly wondered if that decision, and the odd look he thought he'd glimpsed in Ray's eyes, had anything to do with the psychiatrist Welsh had told him he'd already seen. Perhaps there were, in fact, other factors than Serena's traumatic memories of their assault, which had induced them to leave.

If there were, Ray obviously wasn't going to reveal them, and Fraser had to respect his privacy. He'd made it clear that their departure had nothing to do with his relationship with Ray Kowalski, at least; and beyond that, it was really none of his business. He was left with only one thing to say. "Well, then. I wish you both luck, Ray."

"Thanks." Ray shrugged a little. A slight, almost unconscious lift of his slender shoulders, accompanied by a wry smile that Fraser had seen a thousand times before. "Yeah, well. Springfield ain't Chicago, but it ain't Podunk, Iowa, either," he said. "I'm sure there'll be enough criminals to keep me busy. I got a job lined up in Major Crimes, for starters. Should be interesting."

The look, the gesture, the humor were all so familiar, and so characteristic, that Ben felt a sliver of pain pierce his heart. Ray hadn't said anything about coming back to Chicago. Would he ever see him smile like that again? "That's great, Ray," he said, trying to conceal how sad he felt. How much he was going to miss him.

Vecchio grinned at him. "Don't look so down, Benny," he teased. "Springfield ain't exactly on the other side o' the planet, ya know. That's one reason we picked it. It's only a few hours away from Chicago, close enough so we can still come and visit my family on the weekends."

Fraser's head came up suddenly, and he sought Ray's eyes. "And me?"

Ray shrugged with seeming carelessness. "Well, I dunno. You'll probably be busy with Kowalski."

Fraser knew when he was being teased, but he also sensed a hint of a plea underlying his old friend's words. Suddenly, he knew beyond doubt that this departure was just as painful for Ray as it was for him; that Ray was going to miss him very much; and that he was still just a teeny, tiny bit jealous of Ray Kowalski, too. A bit fearful that once he left, Ben would forget him.

Ben couldn't bear to let him wonder about that any longer. "Perhaps," he teased back. "But I think we might find time to see you occasionally, Ray. Or even to visit you in Springfield, once you're settled in."

There. He'd gotten the words out, the ones he'd been dying to say. Any broader a hint, and he would've been begging.

Ray grinned, and stepped close enough to pull him into an unexpected embrace. "Any time, Benny," he breathed against his shoulder. "I'll call and let you know when we find a place, and you can come by any time. And bring the kid, too."

He held Fraser tightly, and Fraser returned the hug just as strongly. It was wonderfully reassuring to find that he was still loved like this, that his lover was no longer hated, and that they would both be welcome in Ray's new home, once he found it. He even found Ray's new nickname for his Ray rather endearing. He had no idea why he'd taken to calling Kowalski "the kid" when their ages were nearly identical, but it had a fond sound to it, rather than a derisive one. As if Ray was beginning to think of Kowalski as a sort of younger brother. If that was how Ray wanted to see him in order to accept him, Fraser had no objection. "Thank you, Ray."

The hug lasted for a long moment. Both men knew that they were still saying goodbye, in a way. Goodbye to seeing each other on a daily basis, and goodbye to their extraordinary partnership, as well. When they finally let go, each saw affection mingled with regret in the other's eyes.

"But I wouldn't call Ray that where he can hear you," Fraser added, suppressing a grin. "He can be rather... impulsive."

Ray just grinned. "Yeah? I hadn't noticed," he said, his eyes glinting brightly.

Fraser groaned privately. That look was pure mischief, mixed with the baldest of lies. Ray had noticed his lover's hot-headedness. Worse still, he planned to make use of it. Since Vecchio's method of showing affection was merciless teasing, if he truly took Kowalski into his heart -- and he was so irresistible, Fraser was sure that he eventually would -- then look out, Kowalski. He wondered if Vecchio had already discovered his Ray's aversion to being called "Stanley", and wondered if he should warn him about that as well.

But he decided not to. It suddenly occurred to him that if his best friend and his lover got to sparring, the resulting pyrotechnics might be a great deal of fun to watch. As long as they're both unarmed, of course.

Ray's thoughts still seemed to be focused on Kowalski as well, for just before he opened the door, he said quietly, "He makes ya happy, huh, Benny."

Fraser smiled at him, because it wasn't a question. It was a statement of something Ray had already seen for himself. And as such, he was glad. It meant that Ray would never try to hurt Kowalski again. That he might, given time, even come to like him. "Yes, Ray. Very happy."


As Ray opened the door, Ben added, "He's really quite--"

Ray shook his head. "No, no! No details," he said hastily, only half teasing now. "Lemme take this a step at a time, okay?"


Ray relaxed again, even threw an arm over his shoulders as they headed out into the hall together. "Anyway, I already told him the same thing I tell all your girlfriends, or boyfriends, as the case may be."

Fraser eyed him suspiciously. He was almost afraid to ask. "What's that, Ray?"

"Oh, nothin' much. Just the standard speech. 'You hurt him, and I'll kill you.'"

Fraser came to a dead stop. "What?"

Ray just grinned, and pulled him forward. "Come on, Benny. Let's get back to the wedding. Serena will send Dobermans after me if I'm gone much longer."

"You didn't," Fraser said weakly.

His only response was an evil chuckle.

"Did you really say that to him? Those exact words?" he groaned as Vecchio pulled him back up the hall, towards the room where the photo session was still going on.

"Sure. I meant it, too."

"But, Ray!"

"Don't worry, Benny," Vecchio said cheerfully. "The kid doesn't scare that easy."

"But -- oh, dear. Did you say that to Victoria, too?"

Ray laughed. "What is this, an inquisition?"

"I just want to know--"

"You're family, Benny. Part of an Italian family. And you know how we are: 'La famiglia,' it's everything."

Ben sniffed. "I think perhaps you spent too much time with the Iguanas."

Ray shrugged again. His grin got a little wider. "So I got a rep. It helps, when I'm threatenin' your boyfriends."


Ray Kowalski watched unseen, from his vantage point in a nearby corridor as Ray Vecchio and Ben walked off down the hall. Fraser was blushing and protesting, Vecchio was laughing and needling him. As usual, Ray thought, relieved. He knew that was how his lover and the Style Pig did friendship. So everything was okay. He felt a quiet little glow. The wedding seemed to be going okay after all. More than okay -- it was really good. The Vecchio family were having the time of their lives, Ma Vecchio and Frannie were in their glory, Serena was practically glowing, and he hadn't seen Ben look so happy in ages.

Except when we're in bed, anyway, he smiled to himself.

He'd worried a little when he'd seen Vecchio drag him off for a private little chat, though. Despite the wink he'd thought he'd glimpsed earlier, he still didn't entirely trust him. He hadn't been that friendly in the hallway at the 27th the other day. So he'd shadowed them. Even listened outside the door for a bit. Not trying to hear what they were saying, really. Just making sure that no yelling was going on. Sure, eavesdropping wasn't cool, but for Ben, he'd've done far worse. But their voices had been quiet. No arguing, no fighting. So once he'd realized that whatever Vecchio had to say, it wasn't nasty, he'd drifted off down the hall a bit, so they wouldn't see him when they came back out.

To his surprise, when they opened the door a few minutes later, Ben was actually smiling.

Good thing, too, Kowalski thought wryly. Been a shame if I'd had to smack Vecchio upside the head on his wedding day.

As Vecchio and Fraser strode away, heading back to their photo session, he suddenly realized that he'd better get back to the reception himself, cuz Ben would probably be done soon, and come looking for him. So he slipped out of the side corridor and followed them quietly. He fingered the little case in his pocket as he moved. He was glad Vecchio's little talk with Fraser hadn't taken very long. He wanted to take the Mountie aside for a private little chat of his own soon, while everyone else was still busy chowing down on cake and shakin' their groove thangs.

Now the steel bars between me and a promise
Suddenly bend with ease.
Because the closer I'm bound in love to you,
The closer I am to free.

-- Indigo Girls

Once the photo session was over, and Ben and the rest of the wedding party had returned to the reception, Ray gave Ben a few minutes to chat with their friends, then made his move. He drew Ben aside. "Need to talk to ya," he said, in a low voice so he'd know it was about something private.

"Certainly." When Ben nodded, Ray led him out of the reception hall, down the corridor to the door he'd discovered earlier. He used his credit card to unlock it, just like before. After discovering it, he'd locked it behind him again. Hadn't wanted to take the chance that someone else at the wedding might find this secret little spot, and decide to use it to take a cigarette break, or whatever, if he left the door open. He had far more important plans for it. Plans that didn't include company.

Ben saw him jimmying the door open, of course, and raised a curious eyebrow. Before he could say a word, Ray looked back down the hallway behind them. To his relief, it was empty. So no one would see them slip out, and he could have Ben all to himself, at least for awhile. Perfect. "Let's go out here for a minute," he said, trying to sound casual. "I need some air."

He waited for Ben to object. To point out, in his usual annoying way, that there was air inside the church already, and that he didn't need to jimmy a locked door open to find some. Or at the very least, to ask what was out here that was so special that he needed to drag him away from his best friend's wedding, to see it. But he didn't. He just said, "All right," and followed him out into the quiet little courtyard with its green garden, gray stone statues and spring flowers.

When Ray sat down on the edge of the stone rim underneath a statue of Mary, Ben sat down amiably beside him. Even then, he didn't say anything. He just looked around at the plants and statues with his usual alert, interested gaze. He even smiled a little. As if he liked it out here. As if maybe the crush of people inside had gotten to him a little too, and he was actually enjoying taking a breather.

Or maybe he just likes bein' with me. Doesn't matter where we are, Ray reflected. He liked to think it was true, though it was still hard for him to get used to that idea, and to how Ben had changed. He'd promised never to ask him to, and he hadn't. But the wonder of it was, Ben had changed anyway. On his own, with no prompting from Ray at all, and in some very important ways. For one thing, he didn't always need to be the leader anymore. Sometimes, if Ray asked him, he'd just do things. Whatever he asked, whatever he wanted. No "Why, Ray?" or "Maybe we should think this over first, Ray", or "Do you really think that's logical, Ray?" None of that. He'd just do it, no questions asked. Like he was now.

It was like he'd relaxed somehow, inside. Stopped needing to always be in control.

Stopped being scared.

Ray thought maybe that was it. Ben trusted him now, like he never had before. Maybe more than he'd ever trusted anyone. Ben had gotten enough love that he'd finally started to believe it was real. That they were going to make it. That Ray wasn't going to leave him, even though everyone else always had. That this time around, things were going to be different. With him. Because of him.

They are, he thought, smiling. He doesn't know the half of it yet.

But he wasn't the only one in for a surprise. "Ray Vecchio is leaving," Ben said quietly.

He stared at him, shocked. Vecchio, leaving. Ben, seemingly content. Still happy. Those two things couldn't be. Couldn't co-exist. Not in his universe, anyway. "What?"

"He's transferring to Springfield. The Major Crimes Division."

Ray just blinked at him. It still didn't make sense. Vecchio had just bought a house here, had just gotten married. Why would he be leaving? Ben was doling out information way too slowly to suit him. "Fraser, what're you talkin' about? When? Why?" he demanded impatiently, floored by the news.

"The when is after he and Serena get back from their honeymoon. And the why also has to do with her. Apparently, she's so upset by what happened that she doesn't want to go back to their new house. Ever. So they've decided to move to Springfield."

Ray was still confused. "What, they couldn't find another house in Chicago that didn't have bad memories in it?"

Ben just shrugged a little. "I asked Ray that myself. I think he has reasons of his own for wanting to make a fresh start elsewhere. But he wouldn't tell me what they are."

I'll just bet. Ray felt a flash of anger go through him. He had to be the reason. He knew it, and it made him feel tired. He was so fucking sick of this, of Vecchio's stubborn, persistent refusal to accept him, no matter what he did. Keepin' his ass outta jail wasn't enough, even saving his friggin' life wasn't enough! What the Hell ever would be? He wouldn't have cared if Ben wasn't involved. But he was. So for his sake, he swallowed his anger. Looked out into the garden, and made sure his voice was steady before he spoke. "Not cuz o' me, is it?" he asked. Like he didn't already know.

Ben put a gentle hand on his arm, waited until he looked back at him. "No, Ray," he said, his blue eyes calm and direct. "He told me it had nothing to do with you. With us."

So Vecchio had known. Known how it looked, and tried to tell Ben it wasn't like that. Okay, score one for the Italian. If he was tellin' the truth, he thought darkly. But who knew? Of course, Ben had believed him. He would, he always thought the best of people. But how was he supposed to buy it?

Whaddaya want, a kiss?

"I dunno," he said dubiously.

"He invited us to come and visit them. As soon as he and Serena get settled."

Ray's heart lurched oddly inside his chest. Oh, man. He didn't have to do that. He wouldn't have, if he still hated me. "Yeah?"

"Yes. Both of us. He specifically asked me to bring you along."

Ray looked down and smiled a crooked, wry smile. "Dead or alive?"


"Okay, okay. It's just hard to believe, ya know?"

Ben shook his head. "Not for me. He really is a good man, Ray, once you get to know him. And you are -- well..."

He squinted up at Fraser. "What?"

Ben smiled at him. "I think the appropriate term would be, 'irresistible'," he said softly.

He laughed, so he wouldn't blush. "Yeah, right." Still, he felt warmed. Happy to know Ben found him irresistible, and relieved that Vecchio had finally ended their feud. Actually invited him to his new place. He knew it was only because of Ben, but that didn't matter. He didn't care if the Italian ever really liked him much. That didn't matter, either. All they had to do was tolerate each other for Ben's sake, and his Mountie would be happy. Ray knew he could manage that much -- and Vecchio had better too, if he knew what was good for him in future.

And speaking of that... He felt a sudden surge of hope. "If Vecchio's transferrin' out, then yer gonna need a new partner."


"I could get a transfer--"

"Are you sure you'd want to do that, Ray?"

Ben looked so serious that it took him aback. "Whaddaya mean?"

"What I mean is, it might be more difficult to keep our relationship a secret, if we go back to working together. And it's against Police policy for lovers to work in the same unit--"

"That's straight lovers, Benny. There are no rules about that for--"

"It's even worse for same sex couples. You know that, Ray."

"Yeah, but those rules won't apply to us, cuz yer RCMP, not Chicago P.D.," he pointed out.

Fraser sighed. "You know what I'm saying, Ray. If we were found out, that wouldn't matter. You wouldn't merely be transferred to another division, you'd lose your job."

He shrugged. "Don't care. Somebody's gotta keep ya from gettin' outta line, and nobody else is as good at that as I am."

But Ben still looked worried. "While that is undoubtedly true, Ray, I still think--"

"Look," he interrupted impatiently. "Get this through yer head: keep my shield, lose my shield, it doesn't matter. What matters to me is bein' with you." Then he caught himself. "Unless -- you think it'll make it too hard on you," he said, a little more slowly. Trying to think of Ben's side of it, too. The RCMP meant everything to him, so he wouldn't see the issue as casually as he did. Not at all. "If ya do, if ya think it'd be too hard, that's okay--"

Ben suddenly gave in. Shook his head. "No. To tell you the truth, Ray, I feel the same. And I would welcome having you as my partner again."

He blinked. "Yer sayin' yes?"


"Good." Ray felt a dizzying jolt of happiness. Gonna be partnered up with Ben again! Cool.

"On one condition," Ben intoned.

Ray groaned.

"And that is, if we are found out and you lose your job, you will allow me to help you financially until you find a new one."

Ray shot a sideways glance at him. Scratched his head. "Dunno, Frayzh. Never took charity from anyone."

"Then think of it as a loan," Ben said. "But I insist."

"Okay. Done," he said. If he ever lost his job, he doubted it would take him very long to find another one, anyway. Plus, he had some money saved. So he didn't figure borrowing money from Fraser would ever be an issue, anyway. "But it goes both ways. If you lose yers, then I help you out."

Fraser cocked his head, thinking it over. As if that side of it had never even occurred to him. Then, to Ray's surprise, he just nodded, and said, "Done."

"Okay. Good." Ray was just glad he'd been able to talk him into taking him back as a partner without too much trouble. It'd been a lot easier than he'd expected. Since Ben knew cop policy was against it, he'd figured he'd have to argue with him a lot more, and maybe even threaten to pop him one, before he'd agree. The fact that he'd given in after what amounted to a mere token protest made him feel absurdly good. It meant that Ben wanted him at his side again, as much as he wanted to be there.

It was time to tell him what he'd come out here to say. To show him how he'd changed, too. What it meant to him, trusting someone this much. Loving him this much.

Ray took a deep breath, got up off the stone pedestal they were sitting on, and went down on one knee in front of Ben. He'd thought a lot about how to do this, and decided the old fashioned way would be best. It just seemed right somehow, cuz that was the kind of guy Ben was: honor; chivalry; Queen and country. That was what he was all about. So Ray figured he'd love this. He'd done it differently with Stella, asked her impulsively one day when they were in bed together. But that wouldn't do for Ben. He wanted it to be perfect this time. Partly because it would be Ben's first time, but mostly just because it was Ben he was doing it for.

But as he squinted up at him, something funny came over him. Something more than mere nerves. Ben suddenly looked blindingly beautiful. Almost radiant. Like he was glowing around the edges or something. Must be the angle o' the sun, he told himself. But he was still dazzled. Ben looked so handsome that all he could do was stare. All the words he'd meant to say, the clever way he'd meant to ease into this, totally deserted him. He just knelt there, with his heart in his throat, looking up at the beautiful, amazing, gentle man who'd somehow become his lover, and who was sweeter to him than even Stella had ever been. How the hell did I ever get so lucky?

Ben frowned down at him, a hint of concern on his face. "What's the matter, Ray? Did you hurt your back?"

That prosaic question brought him back to earth with a thud. He shook his head. "No." But his voice sounded odd, even to his own ears. Nervous, almost scared. I'm not scared, he told himself. Stupid to be scared. We're livin' together. Said he loves me. Why should I be scared? Still, he found himself patting his pants pocket for about the tenth time that day, to reassure himself that it was still there. And his hand felt kind of shaky.

Fraser raised a curious eyebrow. "Then what are you doing down there?"

Ray rolled his eyes. "Whaddaya think I'm doin'?" It came out a little gruffer than he'd meant, though. Ben's was being -- what was that word? Obtuse. Yeah, obtuse, and it was freaking him out.

"I have no idea," Ben answered, looking more than a bit confused.

Ray flushed. He hadn't expected this. He'd thought Ben would recognize the cues, that he'd be bowled over and excited or whatever. That he'd be happy. Instead, he was frowning down at him like he was some weird species of bug that no scientist had ever seen before.

It didn't make this any easier. How can such a smart guy be so clueless? There was, of course, an easy way to fix that. He could tell him what this was all about. Spell it out. But he didn't have the guts. He swallowed nervously. "Give ya a hint. I'm down on one knee here," he said, since Fraser seemed to be missing the significance of that. But now that he'd pointed it out, Sherlock Fraser, who could track criminals down from the slightest of clues, had to get what it meant. Right?

Wrong. Fraser just pulled at his ear, and shrugged helplessly. "I can see that, Ray. I'm just not sure what--"

He was starting to feel desperate. Like an idiot. Like his collar was sticking to his neck. "Come on. Everybody knows what that means, Fraser. What, I gotta draw ya a map here?" he teased. He tried to sound casual, like he was only joking, but his heart was pounding.

"I'm afraid so. I'm sorry, but I don't understand. At first I thought you were tying your shoe, but I see that your shoes have no laces, so..."

Ray groaned to himself. This ain't workin' out like I planned. Not at all! Thought I was bein' romantic, and he's babblin' about shoelaces. He suddenly felt like he'd made a big mistake. Huge. Here he was, down on his knees like some lovestruck idiot for Ben's sake, but Ben didn't even have a clue what he was doing!

Nearby, behind the trunk of a large tree, Bob Fraser stood watching. At that, he rolled his eyes. "Oh, for God sakes, son! I know I told you never to be afraid to ask a stupid question, but this is really taking it too far. The Yank's trying to make an honest wo-- er, I mean, man out of you. About time, too. But you keep babbling like that, and he may think twice about his offer!"

Ray looked up into Ben's confused face, and sighed to himself. Only one thing left to do. He was gonna have to say it. Just blurt it out, with no fancy words to soften him up, like he'd planned. Cuz he couldn't remember a single one of them, and Ben looked so confused that it was making him sweat. He'd better get it over with, before he melted into this greasy little puddle at his feet. He wondered if Ben could see how scared he was. If he looked gross. If his hair was up. If Ben would say yes. Please, please... "Uh -- I guess I'm -- proposing," Ray stammered at last.

Fraser's confusion increased. "Proposing what? That we--" Then it hit him. He sat bolt upright, stunned into wide-eyed silence. When he finally got his breath back, he said, "You mean -- proposing proposing?" he stuttered at last.

Ray grinned. Now, Ben was the one who sounded funny. Somehow, his amazement made him feel more confident. It shouldn't have, but it did. "Yeah. Yeah," he teased.

Ben just sat there, as if he'd been hit over the head. He didn't move, he didn't speak, he just stared at him.

His voice suddenly strong and clear in the green, sunlit silence, Ray said, "I'm askin' you to marry me."

Fraser had gone utterly still. Frozen like one of the statues, where he sat.

It's a miracle, Ray thought wryly. He'd finally stunned the Mountie into total speechlessness. This is one for the history books. But the irony was, he couldn't enjoy it. Because it looked like maybe his proposal had shocked Ben so badly that he'd forgotten how to breathe.

He waved a hand in front of Ben's blank face, snapped his fingers. "Hey, Ben! You in there?"

Ben blinked at that. His mouth worked soundlessly, as if he were trying to speak but couldn't quite get the words out.

Ray subsided, relieved. Okay. Good. Least I didn't kill him. But he wasn't feeling all that steady himself. He was still kneeling at Ben's feet, waiting, with sweat trickling down his back and his heart thumping in his chest, for an answer.

"Marry me?" Ben asked hoarsely at last. "You want to -- me. Marry," he stuttered. "You want, that is, to--" His blue eyes were still unfocused. Dazed. Spinning with shock.

Ray smiled a bit, in spite of himself. Wish I had a camera. "Yeah." He repeated slowly, "I. Want. To. Marry. You."

Ben didn't smile back. On the contrary. All of a sudden, his eyes filled with tears. "I just -- I never--" He stopped in mid-sentence again. Bit his lips and blinked, trying to get hold of himself.

Ray felt a surge of confusion, fear and frustration. What does that mean? Does he wanna? Is he sayin' yes or no? He wasn't sure, and the suspense was killing him.

Then he remembered. Ben wasn't the only one who'd gotten a bit dizzy here. Aw, jeez! I wanted to do this perfect, and I screwed up. Forgot the most important thing! He reached into his pants pocket, and pulled out the little box he'd put in it before they left. The box that had been burning a hole in it ever since. He opened it, and drew out a ring.

It was a 24 karat gold band, with a spiral design incised around the center of it, in brushed gold. Once he had the ring in his hand, somehow all his courage came back to him. He said softly, "I love ya, Ben. Wanna be with ya forever. Want ya to be mine forever, too. So I got ya this."

Ben's eyes widened as he held it out to him. They were still glistening with unshed tears, and his hand trembled a little as Ray put the ring into his big palm. Pointing to the spiral on it, Ray said softly, "This design, it stands for you 'n me. The two parts of the spiral, that's the two of us, together. It's got a message on the inside, too. Had 'em engrave somethin' there, where no one else will see it. Somethin' that says how I feel." He broke off, feeling nervous. Like he was talking way too much, to cover the fact that Ben wasn't saying anything. So he shut up, and waited to hear what Ben thought of his gift.

Ben lifted the ring with unsteady hands, and looked at the inscription. Then, to Ray's surprise, he read it out loud, in a shaky voice. "My love has my heart, and I have his."

"It's from a poem," Ray said, suddenly a bit embarrassed by his own sentimentality. He was hopeless at writing himself, so before he bought the ring, he'd bought a book of love poetry, trying to find just the right words to express his feelings for Ben. When he'd seen those, he'd thought, That's it. That's how I feel. It's perfect. But now he was afraid that Ben would think the words were corny, that he wouldn't like them.

Ben drew a deep breath. "Oh, Ray!" He got to his feet, and pulled Ray up with him. Pulled him into his arms, and held him tight. "That's -- it's beautiful," he whispered, and Ray could feel him shaking. "So beautiful!"

Ray could feel his heart beating hard. He was shaking, too. With relief, and something like the beginnings of happiness. "Izzat a yes?" he teased, making sure.

Ben stroked his hair. "Oh, yes. Yes! I'll marry you. Yes. I love you, Ray."

Joy filled him then. Happiness, and a deep sense of being grounded. It was weird... when he'd married Stella, he'd been happy, but scared, too. Scared witless of not living up to her expectations. And in the end, he hadn't. But he wasn't scared now. Loving Ben didn't frighten him, it steadied him. Made him feel complete. Like he'd found the other half of himself, at last.

And maybe Ben had, too. Because when he lifted his head from his shoulder, he looked happy. Happier than Ray had ever seen him. Happy Ben, he thought. I did it! Made him really happy. This is greatness. He kissed him gently, sweetly, more tenderly than he'd ever kissed him before.

From his vantage point behind the tree, Bob Fraser sighed to himself. Wiped at his eyes, then harrumphed. Must be getting sentimental in my old age. It's not like I'm ever going to have any grandchildren, at this rate. Still... Weddings are always stirring. New beginnings, and all that. And he's not so bad, for a Yank. Rather handsome, if you can get past the hair. You could've done worse, son.

Fraser lifted his head for a second, and looked around. "Dad?" he murmured. He could've sworn he'd heard his father say, "He's not so bad, for a Yank. Rather handsome, if you can get past the hair. You could've done worse, son."

He scanned the garden, half annoyed, half touched. It certainly sounded like something Bob Fraser would say. But his father was nowhere to be seen.

Ray lifted his head at that, too. Looked at him with a teasing little smile. "Sun gettin' to ya, Ben? Cuz I coulda sworn yer Dad was dead. That ya came to Chicago lookin' for his killers, and all that."

Ben smiled at him. "That's true, but somehow... I feel like he just gave us his blessing, Ray."

Kowalski blinked. "Oh. Dat's cool. I guess." He shot a quick look around himself, but didn't see any ghostly apparitions, to his relief. But then he forgot all about Ben's departed Dad, because he remembered the ring. They weren't quite finished yet. He smiled when he looked down and saw that Ben still had it clutched tightly in his right hand. He reached down and uncurled his fingers, and took it back again. "I'm s'posed to put this on ya," he said, feeling almost shy as he reached for Ben's finger. "Here. I had to guess at the size," he said. "I wasn't sure..." But when he slipped it onto Ben's left hand, it fit. He smiled happily, the last of his worries about all this laid to rest.

Ben held it up, then looked back at him with wonder in his eyes. "It's perfect, Ray."

And it was. It glittered on Ben's finger, winking in the sun like the god of love had blessed it, just for him.

Ray felt a twinge of awe: at the beauty of the day and his lover, at the sheer perfection of the moment. After he'd lost Stella, he'd stopped believing that anything this good, this wonderful, would ever happen to him again. So he let it sink into him, way down deep into his bones. The way the sun lit the ring and Ben's hair, and the look of radiant happiness in his blue eyes. He made it part of him, so that he'd never, ever forget it. So that years from now, on his deathbed, he'd still be able to see this moment in his head, and it would still warm him. Happy Ben, young and beautiful, with his ring on his finger. Now, there was an image to go out on.

"Looks good on ya," he said at last, when he could talk again. "But ya don't have to wear it, ya know. Not all the time, I mean. If ya don't want to." It was the closest he could come, at that moment, to addressing that issue: what people would think when they saw the ring on Ben's finger. What they might say.

He wants to marry me. Me. Ben couldn't believe it. Ray had gone down on one knee to ask him, in a gallant, old-fashioned gesture that was so unlike him that at first, he hadn't even realized what he was doing. But he did now. Ray had asked him to marry him. Given him an engagement ring.

More than that, Ray had planned this whole thing. Picked out a ring, chosen lovely poetry to have engraved inside of it, even somehow found this beautiful bit of garden, a green, private space outdoors, in the midst of Ray Vecchio's noisy wedding, in which to ask him. It was wonderful, it was romantic -- it was everything a proposal should be. It was everything hed've wanted, if he could've planned it himself; and Ray had known all that without having to ask him.

Ben's head was still spinning. He remembered telling Ray a story once, in which a man's inner bell had been rung, by a thousand angels. All at once, he knew what that felt like. He felt like a bell was ringing inside him. No, a whole chorus of bells, ringing high, clear, beautiful notes. Pealing out his love for Ray, for all the world to hear.

This is how happiness feels. This is what love is, he thought. He knew he was smiling, grinning like a fool, and he didn't care.

My love has my heart, and I have his. It was so beautiful, so simple. So profound. So Ray, and so much himself, too. Two hearts, two souls, but one life now. Together. It was just as it should be, better than he'd ever dreamed it would be. So why did Ray seem anxious about the ring? How could he possibly think, for one moment, that he wouldn't want to wear it? It fit perfectly, as if it had been made for him. Already, the gold had warmed to his hand, as if it had always been there. As if it always would be.

It will be, he promised himself. He looked away from the ring and back at Ray, his eyes shining. When he spoke, his voice was husky with feeling. "I want to," he said. "Wear it all the time, I mean."

To his surprise, Ray flushed a little too, as if he hadn't expected that. As if the idea somehow troubled him. He fumbled for words. Scratched the back of his ear. "Dat's nice, Ben. It's great that you want to. But if ya do--"

He let the sentence trail off, but Ben suddenly understood what he meant. He felt like he'd fallen from a great height, and crashed back to earth with a jarring thud. Fallen from the soaring height of his great happiness, back to reality. Ray wasn't worried that he didn't like his ring, he was worried about what other people would make of it. He was worried for him, about his career. Worried that if he began wearing a ring when he never had before, it might get noticed, arouse unwelcome comment, possibly even cost him his job.

For a second, he felt like a fool. He'd been so deliriously happy, he'd forgotten there was anyone else in the world. Forgotten that their love, their bond, wasn't recognized by society at large. But Ray hadn't. Ray, who had thought of everything, had thought of that, too; and tried to give him a graceful out, by suggesting that he didn't care if he didn't wear the ring in public.

But Ben did. He cared a great deal. Ray was the most important person in his life, and he wasn't about to slight his gift by only wearing his engagement ring in private. He took Ray's hand in his, and smiled at him. "It doesn't matter what people say. It's yours, and I'm yours, and I want to wear it," he said quietly. "All the time."

"Okay." Ray smiled, touched by his lover's stubborn insistence. He knew better than to argue with Ben, when he got like that. He suddenly had no doubt that, if questions ever arose, he'd handle them. Judging from the glint in his blue eyes, heaven help the bozo who said anything insulting about that ring.

Ben looked down for a second then, back at the ring again, as if he couldn't stop looking at it. That made Ray smile. Ben's voice gentled. "I never thought... I never imagined anyone would... ever do something like this. For me. I don't know how to thank you, Ray. I wish I had something to give you."

"Ya already said yes," he pointed out. "Dat's good enough." That was all the thanks he wanted, or needed. Just like Ben was everything he wanted and needed.

"But... would you come with me, Ray, if I wanted to take you shopping? To get you something too?" Ben asked, almost shyly.

Ray smiled. "Like what?"

Ben leaned over and murmured, "A ring, if you'd like. But I thought... perhaps an earring."

Ray blinked in surprise. "Liked my earring, didja?" It surprised him. Ben had never said -- but then, he wouldn't.

Ben blushed a little. "Yes. I thought it was -- rather sexy, Ray."

He grinned. "In dat case, ya can take me shoppin' anytime."

"Good. Thank you."

But he wondered if it was enough for the Mountie. He was such a stickler for protocol, for rules and regs... "But what about the rest of it? Gettin' married, I mean. Ya want a wedding?" he asked tentatively, searching his lover's blue eyes. "I mean, not like this. Obviously, we can't do this--" A little tug at his heart there, some resentment that they couldn't make their love public like Vecchio and Serena were. But this was the real world, and they were cops. That was impossible, and he knew it. "But ya wanna do a civil thing? Some kinda ceremony? We could do dat. Or we could go to Canada. Maybe have an Inuit type wedding, if ya want. How d'ya wanna do it?" He'd decided on the ring, but the decision about having a wedding was definitely not up to him. He'd already been married, but Ben hadn't. So that was his call.

To his amazement, Ben shook his head. No pause to think, no time for contemplation. No hesitation at all. "I don't need that, Ray," he said softly. "This ring..." He looked down at his hand, and closed his fingers around it tightly, as if he were afraid it would slip off. "Your love... It's more than I ever imagined I'd have." His voice was husky, his eyes bright. "I consider myself married. Here and now. To you. Forever. If you'll have me."

Silly, crazy Mountie. He pretended to think it over a bit, himself. "Well, yeah, but only under certain conditions," he said then, teasing Ben by paraphrasing his earlier statement about terms.

Ben knew he was teasing. His blue eyes twinkled, and he lifted an eyebrow, as if to ask what his conditions would be.

Ray smiled. He loved this. They were clicking on all cylinders here, totally in sync. Understanding each other, no words needed. He locked his hands behind Ben's waist, and pulled his lover against him. "First thing is, ya gotta love me. Even if I drive ya nuts, an' forget to pick up my clothes, and leave toothpaste in the sink. Stuff like that."

"I don't imagine that will be a problem," Ben said softly. "I love you with all my heart, Ray."

Jesus God. He said the words. Said 'em like they were easy. That was a revelation, it rocked him. How much Ben had changed. Him, too. In the last few months, they'd really come a long way, down a long, hard road. It hadn't been easy, some of it had been pure hell, but it had all been worth it. Every step. Because it had brought them here, to this moment. It put a lump in his throat. But he had to answer Ben, so when he got his breath back, he teased, "'Zat mean yer gonna stay around, and be a good husband?"

Ben smiled. "Oh yes, Ray." He followed the words up with a gentle kiss, lingering over it.

It felt so good that Ray almost lost his train of thought. It was hard to think of things to tease Ben about, when he wanted to kiss him so much. But it was fun, and he wanted to keep it going. "Gonna come home after work, and not hang out with sleazy guys or chicks in bars?" Like Ben ever did stuff like that anyway. Like he was worried he'd start now. Or ever.

Ben's smile got wider. "Yes, Ray."

"Look after me if I get sick?"

"Of course."

He was running out of things to make Ben swear to. "Gonna start cheerin' for the Hawks, instead o' the Leafs?"

Fraser pretended to consider that. "No, Ray," he said after a moment, with mock regret.

He shrugged. He'd just thrown that in for fun, anyway. Hadn't really thought he'd do it. "Guess love only goes so far, huh?"

"But I will do everything else in my power, to make you happy," Ben said. "For the rest of my life." He wasn't smiling, and that wasn't a joke. Or even a mere promise. It was a vow; and Ray knew it. He suddenly realized that's what they'd been doing: getting married, after all. Out here in the open, in the quiet under the trees. Saying their vows in their own way. To each other, and maybe to God, if there was one and He/She/Whatever was listening.

A sense of pure happiness, of total rightness, filled Ray from his heels to his head. It left him feeling a bit dizzy, so he tightened his hands on Ben a little. Hanging on for dear life. Dear. Life. Oh, yeah. That says it all. "Gonna make you happy, too," he said. "Always."

It was all he needed. As far as he was concerned, they were married now. It seemed like Ben felt the same way, because he bent his dark head and kissed him long and lovingly, in the middle of that peaceful garden. Ray kissed him back, sealing their promise.

Ray thought of all the sci fi movies he'd seen, with strange, exotic places that he'd wished he could visit. But at that moment, this quiet little church garden in downtown Chicago seemed more fabulous than any cinematic, futuristic Shangri-La on some other world ever could be. Because in it, he'd found his heart.

If he'd had ten thousand worlds to choose from, he would've chosen to be on this one, because Ben was here.

The End

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Read the final story in the "Alchemy" series:
Poem For A Winter's Night

© Caroline Alert 1998